'Behind the Lawrence Legend' Review: Picking Sides in the Middle East

On June 10, 1916, a 62-year-old Arab by the name of

Hussein bin Ali

leaned out of a window in his palace at Mecca and fired a round from his rifle. With Turkish forces occupying what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and the whole of the Arabian peninsula, shooting into the air might have seemed futile. But Hussein was the head of the Hashemite clan, keeper of Islam’s holy places and a man with good claim to the title of caliph, leader of Muslims. His shot launched the Arab Revolt against Turkish occupation, as well as a debate among historians and observers of the Arab world that continues to this day.

The revolt—the uprising of tribes on the Arabian peninsula against Ottoman occupation—would lead, with outside help and a hoard of British gold, to the reshaping of the Middle East. It would also redefine relations between Arabs and the British and French, in part because, unknown to the Arabs who thought they were fighting for their independence, the latter two had reached a secret agreement for the postwar division of the Turkish provinces.

The centenary of the outbreak, in 2016, was marked by the publication of a number of books with an image of

T.E. Lawrence

on the cover, usually in native robes, often riding a camel. The reason is obvious: Of all the characters who took part in the revolt, only “Lawrence of Arabia” now has any name recognition outside of specialist circles, although in the Arab world Hussein’s son Faisal, later king of Iraq, is still revered.

But we live in an age of revision in which many assumptions behind the history that we were taught and told from school onward are being challenged or overturned. Lawrence has not escaped this trend. Among recent books,

Scott Anderson’s

“Lawrence in Arabia” puts Lawrence’s story into the context of other agents—German, American and Zionist—who were active at the same time in the Hejaz. In “Faisal I of Iraq,”

Ali Allawi

uses Arab and Turkish sources to tell the king’s story from the “other” (i.e., Arab) side and the result is indeed a “reassessment”: In Mr. Allawi’s telling, neither Lawrence nor his European colleagues had much influence over the man or the revolt.

Philip Walker’s

first book, “Behind the Lawrence Legend,” promises a “fresh interpretation” on the Arab Revolt, one that will “set the record straight.” If your understanding of the uprising goes no further than David Lean’s classic movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” you might think there was very little British, French or American involvement in the campaign beyond Lawrence going native. But this was obviously not the case. Lawrence’s own published account, the extraordinarily passionate and evocative “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” (1926), names hundreds of colleagues who fought alongside the Arabs or provided logistical support. They ranged from the eccentric diplomat

Ronald Storrs,

“the most brilliant Englishman in the Near East,” and the traditionalist Col.

Cyril Wilson,

a leader “of the honest, downright Englishmen,” to 40 others who “could each tell a like tale.” Lawrence’s version of the tale also lists those who served with the Hejaz Armoured Car Company and the 10-pounder Talbot Battery.

Mr. Walker has taken for his subject the exploits and opinions of some of the less known British servicemen involved in launching and sustaining the Arab Revolt. They include

Capt. Thomas Goodchild,

an “amiable” veterinary officer tasked with acquiring herds of camels, which he procured, Mr. Walker writes, with “£14,000 in gold and silver coins.” This purchase was necessary in part to provide transport for the Imperial Camel Corps, who used them to advance on Jerusalem but also to keep them away from the Turks. Four of Mr. Walker’s subjects were based in the Red Sea port of Jeddah (Jidda), in the western region of the Arabian peninsula known as the Hejaz.

Col. John Bassett,


Hugh Pearson

and Lt. Lionel Gray all served with Wilson and fulfilled crucial duties.

These and most of the other characters here have appeared in histories and biographies of the period, including

Jeremy Wilson’s

1989 authorized biography of Lawrence. But Mr. Walker, a British retired archaeologist, is right in claiming that most have fallen through the cracks and he does a good job at bringing them back toward the light, providing focus and detail, the latter being the result of extensive research in libraries on several continents and over many years. He has also tracked down the families of some of his subjects, most notably of Lt. Gray, a cipher officer. Gray’s daughter gave the author access to a cache of documents, as well as to Arab robes and a Turkish pistol given to her father by Lawrence. She also supplied a quantity of photographs from the revolt, many reproduced here for the first time and providing rare glimpses from the sidelines.

It is unfortunate that the author devotes time and words trying to reduce Lawrence’s stature. Lawrence stands out for several reasons. He was unlike most British, American or French officers active in Arabia at that time for he had already spent four years working as an archaeologist on what is now the Turkish-Syrian border, had traveled widely on foot through the Levant and had acquired a deep understanding and affection for the people of the region and their way of life.

While Col. Wilson in Jeddah objected to the idea of wearing an Arab headdress, Lawrence wore his full robes with some pride, even during the postwar conference. Lawrence spoke Arabic (although, it seems, not brilliantly), understood tribal mentality and felt more of a kinship with Arabs than he did with many Westerners. On occasions Mr. Walker questions the accuracy of “Seven Pillars,” as if he did not know that it was created mostly from memory and written at great speed by a man who was suffering from a severe case of what we know as post traumatic stress disorder. Lawrence was a “master of half-truths, denigration by inference and omission,” he stresses, and the book “has sometimes given rise to confusion and red herrings—Lawrence’s favourite fish.” In “Seven Pillars,” Lawrence claims the credit for identifying Emir Faisal as the future leader of the revolt, but Mr. Walker rightly finds this doubtful. Instead he suggests that

Capt. Norman Bray

identified Faisal as a likely leader in October 1916, but he fails to mention that Bray’s superior, Col. Wilson, had expressed this opinion in August of that year.

In the end, “Behind the Lawrence Legend” doesn’t quite set the record straight about the Arab Revolt. What its fine and complex narrative does do is provide a more richly detailed and nuanced background than we have had till now to the unfolding of one of the most colorful theaters of World War I.

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