20 Thursday Nov 2014
As World War I came to its bloody close in the fall of 1918 the British public had to be vertiginous with swirling emotions. On the one hand they had won. The Germans were defeated. Belgium was once again free and Paris could return to being Paris. On the other hand some one million dead Commonwealth soldiers meant there were mourners in the tens of millions. The enthusiasm and dreams of bright, shining heroism in the early months of the war had long been subdued if not completely buried. Despite morale boosting news reporting, the actual numbers of the dead and wounded, brought home by soldiers on leave, by poetry, memoirs and novels since late 1916, had made real the industrialized slaughter on the Western Front. Opponents of the war had raised sharp questions about what the war aims really were and why peace overtures had been rejected. Doubt, cynicism and anger were in the air. Added to that, as German defeat began to seem assured, worries grew about what would happen when the boys returned. How would battle traumatized men fit into civilian life? What about the women who had been part of the war-time workforce and were very likely to lose their jobs, and their independence?
Into this fog of uncertainty and resentments came a counter story, as out of the past, of a knight errant, glorious battles and Englishmen at their finest.
A journalist-showman by the name of Lowell Thomas, shortly after the commencement of the Peace conferences in January, 1919, began touring the United States with a multi-media show he called “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia.” By August of 1919 he was opening in London at Covent Garden, following (at his insistence) an invitation from the King.
Thomas Edward Lawrence, originally the trailing act of the show, which included stirring oratory, projected photographs and Arabs-on-Camels movie clips, quickly rose to be the cover boy. As the text of Thomas’ spiel had it:
“At this moment, somewhere in London, hiding from a host of feminine admirers, reporters, book publishers, autograph fiends and every species of hero-worshipper, is a young man whose name will go down in history beside those of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord Clive, Charles Gordon, and all the other famous heroes of Great Britain’s glorious past. His first line of defence against these would-be visitors is an Amazonian landlady who battles day and night to save her illustrious guest from his admirers . . . The young man is at present flying from one part of London to another, dressed in mufti, with a hat three sizes too large pulled down over his eyes, trying to escape from the fairer sex.
His name is Thomas E. Lawrence.”
England had its hero to salve the wounds of war.
Lawrence’s fame has continued of course. According to Scott Anderson, author of the 1913 Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, some 70-80 biographies have been written since, along with the crowd pleasing 1962 David Lean movie, Lawrence Of Arabia with Peter O’Toole as the blue-eyed boy in the desert. A war journalist, Anderson had covered many of the places Lawrence had been associated with 90 years before. Everyone he talked to told him that the present turmoil in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and beyond had it’s roots in World War I, the territorial divisions imposed by the British and French over the defeated Ottomans and the thwarted Arab aspirations to freedom from foreign rule, Turkish and European.
As a journalist, not a practicing historian, Anderson’s eye was drawn to the compelling story, to the interesting lives which could serve as entry and pathway through the labyrinthine events out of which today’s Middle East grew. He wondered if there were other characters like Lawrence, affiliated with one of the waring powers but acting often on their own, soldiers of individual fortune as it were. He found three, any of whom could anchor a barely believable international spy thriller. Against British Lawrence was a German multi-lingual Arabist turned spy named Curt Prüfer. William Yale, of the famous American family [his great great uncle, Elihu, had founded the university,] worked in greater Syria for SOCONY (Standard Oil Company of New York) scouting for oil and angling for concessionary agreements from Ottoman and Arab alike until the American conscription laws hurried him into the State Department as an area expert. And, as important as Lawrence to the shape of today’s Middle East, and perhaps more, was Aaron Aaronsohn, a gifted and energetic agronomist who shifted allegiance from the Ottoman ruler of Palestine, Djemal Pasha, to the British after a conversion to Zionism, setting up a Jewish spy ring in the process and becoming a major booster of a Jewish State among American Jews at a time when such an idea was looked on with suspicion by many. Interestingly, he took as his model for a productive Jewish homeland in the desert the development of California’s Central Valley.
It is a thickly layered story well told, with plenty of military strategy and its blundering opposite, diplomatic sleight of hand when not outright deception, soirées with adulterous overtones in wartime Jerusalem and a full playbill of supporting characters. Continue reading »