Review of “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East” by Scott Anderson

Thousands of books have been written about World War I, and I have read about 40 of them. Thus, I find it interesting to come across an analysis or way of interpreting established facts that is unfamiliar to me. [There is no way I can judge whether such an analysis or interpretation is in fact new to the massive existing literature.] Lawrence in Arabia contains several new (to me) ways of looking at well known facts. Indeed, it is a well told story even without the novel interpretations.

The first interesting insight is in the great detail about the role the Arab Revolt played in foiling German and Ottoman efforts to foment a jihad among the world’s Muslims against the Christian Entente Powers [Britain, France, and Russia.] Each of Germany’s principal enemies in World War I controlled significant Muslim populations, either through their colonies [Britain: India; France: Algeria] or internally [Russia]. German strategists attempted to use the status of their ally the Ottoman Sultan as Caliph to ignite a jihad against the “Crusader enemy.” However, the Ottoman ruling class was Turkish, while many of their subjects were Arabs who resented Turkish hegemony. Hussein, King of the Hejaz (Western Arabia), was not a very loyal subject of the Sultan. With a little encouragement from the British in Egypt, Hussein was willing to throw off the Ottoman yolk and establish an Arab kingdom that he hoped would encompass modern Arabia, Syria, and Iraq. And as ruler of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities of Islam, he was able to act as a counter weight to the Sultan’s call for jihad against the infidels.

Sharif Hussein in December 1916

Sharif Hussein in December 1916

A second insight is how little the Middle East meant to the European Powers at the beginning of the war. The Arab Revolt of 1915-18 in Arabia, Palestine, and Syria may have only been (in the words of T. E. Lawrence) a “sideshow of a sideshow” to World War I, but its monumental (and malign) effects linger on today. Back in the early 1900’s however, its scope seemed miniscule compared to the slaughter on the Western Front, and diplomats of the time were much more concerned with the future status of Belgium than with the impoverished and distant regions of the Middle East. How things change!

A third insight is that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which caused Russia to abandon the war, may have helped France and Britain achieve ultimate victory. The reason is that President Wilson loathed the czarist regime of Russia so much that he refused to bring the United States into the war until the Bolsheviks took Russia out of it.

Lenin during the Russian Revolution, 1917

Lenin during the Russian Revolution, 1917

Anderson also argues that Britain missed a golden opportunity to defeat the Ottomans in 1915 by invading in the wrong place. The catastrophe at Gallipoli is well known. The Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-16, also known as the Battle of Gallipoli or the Dardanelles Campaign, was of course an unsuccessful attempt by the Allied Powers to wrest control from the Turks of the sea route from Europe to Russia. Anderson writes wryly that throughout history, there have been occasions when a vastly superior military force has managed, against all odds, to snatch defeat from all but certain victory. Such was the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, where a combination of arrogance, political interference, and tunnel vision led to disaster.

The biggest mistake of the campaign, in Anderson’s view, was that it missed an opportunity to invade at Alexandretta (the easternmost point at which Turkey touches the Mediterranean), which was lightly defended and situated among such bad roads that the Turks could not have reinforced it easily. Lawrence himself argued assiduously (and ultimately in vain) for the choice of Alexandretta. But Alexandretta was out of bounds for the British because the French had their eyes on nearby Syria, so they did not want the British in the area, just in case the British got ideas about taking Syria themselves. (Shockingly, Anderson observes, the French actually committed that “squalid argument” to paper. Not only were the French criminally responsible for all the resulting deaths, according to British historian Basil Liddell Hart, but the British General Staff, who acquiesced, were “accessories to the crime.”)

The Dardanelles Strait and Gallipoli Peninsula is at the far upper left of this map, west of the Sea of Marmara.  Alexandretta, today called Iskenderun, is at the bottom middle.

The Dardanelles Strait and Gallipoli Peninsula is at the far upper left of this map, west of the Sea of Marmara. Alexandretta, today called Iskenderun, is at the bottom middle.

Close-up of the Dardanelles Strait and Gallipoli

Close-up of the Dardanelles Strait and Gallipoli

Anderson points out that prior to the war, Zionism was more controversial among Jews than it is today. Many thought it was a bad idea because, among other reasons, they could never trust the Arabs. Moreover, the future Israel was not the only area of the world under consideration as a Jewish homeland. Nevertheless, Chaim Weizmann, one of the fathers of Zionism, made an agreement of convenience with King Faisal that they would cooperate with one another in carving up the Ottoman Empire: the Jews were to get Palestine; Arabs to get Greater Syria. A major problem was “nowhere did it specify what Palestine actually consisted of.” Moreover, Faisal “quite flagrantly turned his back on the doctrine of self-determination for Palestine, placing him in a weakened—some say hypocritical—position in invoking that same doctrine for the rest of Syria.”

(The author notes that there was a veritable maze of secret deals between nations and parties before, during, and after World War I, many of which directly contradicted the others.)

A final insight concerns the character of the Arabs eventually led by Lawrence. In large part, Lawrence played the role of an intermediary:

“On the battle field, the rebels’ enemies were not just Turks but fellow Arabs, warriors from tribes that had missed out on the British gold or taken that of the Turks, clans with whom they had blood feuds or who were freelancers out scouting for loot themselves.”

In addition to the stimulating macro-observations about the geography and politics of the region such as those discussed above, Anderson tells a rip-roaring adventure tale of the obscure British classics scholar (T. E. Lawrence), born in 1888, who stood only about 5 feet 4 inches tall and had no military training, but who – almost by default – became Britain’s principal liaison to the Arab rebellion and indeed became one of the rebellion’s most successful warriors.

T. E. Lawrence in 1919

T. E. Lawrence in 1919

By 1915 the war on the Western Front had reached a virtual stalemate, with both sides massively entrenched and neither side able to gain an advantage. Lawrence had been stationed in Cairo, Egypt because of his pre-war experience traveling in the Middle East as an archeologist and his fluency in Arabic. His knowledge of the country made him a valuable asset in the map making and intelligence activities of the British army. To an extent hard to imagine today, the outcome of the war in the Middle Eastern theater was influenced by a handful of men who had not reached their 35th birthday. (Lawrence participated in his first desert raid in 1917 at age 28.) It was as if, Anderson says, “no one was paying much attention.”

In 1916, the British government in Egypt sent Lawrence to work with the Hashemite forces in the Arabian Hejaz. He fought alongside Arab irregular troops under the command Sheikh Faisal ibn Hussein, who later became King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria or Greater Syria in 1920, and King of Iraq from 1921 to 1933. Lawrence developed a close relationship with Faisal, whose Arab Northern Army became the main beneficiary of British aid. As time passed, Lawrence developed a great sense of guilt over the fact that, because of the various secret agreements, he was getting the Arabs to fight under false pretenses. Anderson attributes Lawrence’s increased risk-taking to a sense of betrayal and shame.

While Anderson writes primarily about Lawrence and his exploits, he also tells the story of two other very young men who influenced their countries’ involvement in the Middle East to a remarkable degree. Curt Prüfer helped shape German policy toward the Ottomans, and William Yale, through his work with the Standard Oil Company, significantly affected American policy at the Versailles Peace Conference.

Lawrence won the trust and respect of the Arabs through his bravery and wisdom. By the end of the war, he probably sympathized more with the Arabs than with the British. However, everything Lawrence had fought for turned to ashes in a single five-minute conversation between the prime ministers of Great Britain and France on December 1, 1918. Anderson writes, “…it was vital that Britain and France present a unified front against the American president, Woodrow Wilson, with his high-minded talk of a peace without victory; and the rights of oppressed peoples to self-determination.” And with that, Britain took Iraq and France took Syria from the defeated Ottoman Empire.

Faisal ibn Hussein's party at Versailles during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T.E. Lawrence, Faisal's servant (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri

Faisal ibn Hussein’s party at Versailles during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T.E. Lawrence, Faisal’s servant (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri

Anderson is aware of the impact that the film “Lawrence of Arabia,” starring Peter O’Toole, had on Americans’ understanding of the war in the Middle East. Several times in the book he points out where the movie was accurate and also where it took poetic license. In nearly all cases, the movie was either factually accurate or close enough given the time constraints of the medium.

Evaluation: This consistently interesting book is an excellent introduction to a fascinating period of history.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

Note: National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

Published in hardcover by Doubleday, a division of Random House, a Penguin Random House Company, 2013.

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