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.

Books Lawrence In ArabiaLawrence’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.  Mark Sykes, of the infamous Sykes-Picot treaty, becomes a familiar face, as does Faisal Hussein, the third son of Emir Hussein of Mecca and Medina  (the Hejaz) with whose troops Lawrence often rides.  Several British generals make their appearance, from the hapless  Fenton Aylmer who lost more men in trying to relieve the Turkish siege of Kut, Iraq, than were men there, to the victorious Allenby who pushed the Ottomans from Jerusalem and revealed to Faisal Hussein after the capture of Damascus, October, 1918, that actually, Syria was not going to the Arabs as promised.  Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud, Hussein’s most formidable rival for Arab tribal allegiance, backed by tough Wahhabist desert warriors, and founder of Saudi Arabia, emerges into a history still playing out.

Anderson is a master at mining journals, letters, biographies and memoirs to set up scenes between the various players, keeping the widely dispersed figures in a rough chronological order and using the four major characters as support for the widely flung story even though they had little interaction with each other.   There are times however, for this reader at least, when the question arises how Anderson knew that a meeting between military figures was “awkward,”or that,

“To the Arabs of Jerablus, most everything about Lawrence spoke of a toughness, a stamina and an austerity, that made him seem less like a European and more like themselves.”

Perhaps it is a plausible inference; perhaps something written or reported is a basis for the claim. Though often he tells us that a letter or news report is the source,  I did look up from the page more than once and wonder: how does he know this?

Some of the history he has excavated from hasty or deliberate burial decades ago.  Mina Weizmann, the sister of Israel’s founding figure and first President, Chaim Weizmann, spied for the Germans at the behest of her German lover, Curt Prüfer.  There is no mention of her in her brother’s memoirs.  Nor does the British attempt to ransom from the Ottoman army its ten thousand besieged soldiers at Kut find its way into popular history.

Lawrence gets the most attention by far, not only his movements but his contradictory and sometimes self-loathing mind, not only his strategic acumen but his prickly relation with British military.  [He, himself, was turned from an archaeologist into an officer in order to spare a General the embarrassment of dealing with a non-military expert in Arab affairs.]  He generally disdained the talent, intelligence and pretensions of those he came in contact with, particularly after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Assigned to British intelligence services in Cairo before his famous guerrilla exploits, he was appalled to find out that planners for the landing had arrived with only two, outdated maps of the area.  His own plan, never taken seriously at command levels, was for a landing of a few hundred men in the barely defended port of Alexandretta, further south near Syria which he knew well from his travels and archaeological work nearby.  After it had been sidelined a second time, a defecting Ottoman officer belonging to an secret Arab rebel group confirmed that such a landing would have triggered a mutiny by Arab troops, opening the lightly defended middle of the empire and likely changing the course of the war.

More than any other in the book his character, contradictions and all, is explored, with much material taken from his own Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  He was a genuine believer in Arab independence, not of the kind of ‘mandate’ of European control envisioned by the war cabinets and ruling parties of England and France. In an act some might have considered treasonous he revealed to Faisal Hussein the contents of the Sykes-Picot treaty in 1916.  By driving his Arab raiders into Damascus ahead of the British in 1918 he hoped to create ‘facts on the ground’ which would change the planned betrayal of the British promise to support Arab independence. He also participated in, and ordered, at least one massacre of un-armed soldiers, in retribution for horrific acts perpetrated by the Turks during their retreat.

Aaron Aaronsohn, with his own genius, gets a full measure of attention.  Both he and his sister threw themselves into the freelance spying business. Using his agronomist bonafides — he had been hired by Djemal Pasha to help control a plague of locusts in Palestine– he mapped water, fortification, roads and activities, and recruited others to help, no easy task since it was by no means agreed among Jewish settlers that working for the enemies of their current governor, was wise or necessary.  In fact, Curt Prüfer reasoned that with so many Jewish exiles from Russia’s ugly anti-Semitism coming to the area there might be material for a pro-German spy ring.  Russia was Great Britain’s ally and, to re-state the well known saying: the enemy of an enemy’s ally might be my friend.  He hoped to enlist Jews fleeing from Palestine to Cairo, where British headquarters were, especially “attractive and charming young women” to befriend British officers.  Prüfer had the support of his intelligence department heads for his scheme.  Aaronsohn had to convince the British that what he had was worth their notice.  Sara joined her brother and the small network after a traumatic train trip from Constantinople through the ravages of the Armenian massacres.  After more than a year of gathering information and sending it by carrier pigeon she was discovered by the Turks when one of them was captured, and the message decoded.  After four days of torture she got to a hidden pistol and shot herself, imperfectly.  It took several days for her to die.

With so many players and so much deception the narrative is doubly hard to follow at times.  A relationship-tree would be a welcome plate in the book though it may stick better if readers do it themselves: Emir Hussein of the Hejaz, his four sons, Ali the eldest, Abdullah, the second who became Emir and then King of Jordan, Faisal the third, briefly king of Syria and then of Iraq. Abdul Aziz ibn Saud kicked the Hussein’s out of the Hejaz and… you get the picture.


Although Lawrence in Arabia is built upon the four biographies a great deal of history gets told along the way, and it’s not pretty.  The Sykes-Picot treaty will never again be that useless hour spent in High School history class; the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence promising British support for an Arab revolt against the Ottomans and recognition of independence at the end of the war will be tagged among ‘infamous things’ in your brain. The Balfour Declaration, the British guarantee of a Jewish homeland gets it due.  We get a good sense of the competition and mistrust between the British and French over the potential “loot” of the crumbling Ottoman empire — this while they are locked together in a death struggle against the Germans in Europe. The differences between the Ottoman Turks and the subject Arabs is long standing and growing worse.  When German efforts to cover those differences by promoting a Muslim jihad – Arab and Turk together– was discovered by the British, they suddenly got serious about maintaining them: Hussein got guns and gold — though often unreliably delivered– and Lawrence, as the “liaison officer” rode into history.

We also get the sense that although oil was certainly part of the scramble it was not the only, and possibly not the major, piece.  The British fleet had begun to convert from coal to oil only in 1911 and the other powers were somewhat behind.  In fact territorial acquisition, agricultural promise, cheap labor and strategic considerations were all major considerations.   In Anderson’s words,

…all the slaughter was to be justified by a new golden age of empire, far richer, far grander than before…

Though referred to by some as ‘the great loot,’ it had a more formal name in the various memos between the allies: the ‘desiderata’.  When questions began to be raised about why peace feelers by the Germans, and President Wilson’s proposals in Dec of 1915 were turned down, the answers seemed to be precisely these “desiderata.”

It’s a fine, thorough and readable book.  I personally would have preferred a few more links to what was happening in Europe and on the Eastern Front to keep myself synchronized.  I constantly wondered if Mark Sykes was somehow operating on his own, and since he was probably not, who in the government was signing off on his deals. And finally, I wondered how much of the Lawrence story is agreed on by those he rode with.  He learned Arabic on the whole, with day laborers in northern Syria.  There have to be as many dialects of Arabic as there are of English, many of the quite marked as to origin, status, perhaps ally or enemy.  What did he sound like to the Bedouins whose raiders he was part of?  Why was he with them? Really, as he tells it and many believe, because they thought of him as a daring and innovative tactician, or because in order to get guns and gold from the British they had to have him along?  At least one account strongly disputes, for example, that Lawrence conceived the fame-making raid at Aqaba.

It wasn’t Anderson’s purpose to examine the Lawrence story, of course, but to give a new, accessible history of a formative time.  He does, however, spend some time dissecting the Lawrence claims in Seven Pillars of Wisdom about being tortured and raped, comparing the claim to letters he wrote privately and against logical inferences about human behavior and possibility.  It would have been worth a page or two, in my estimation, to acknowledge that if Lawrence might have made up one matter in his book, others were suspect as well, with at least a reference to some of the contrary opinion about his actions and authority.

I both read much of the text, and listened to the good Audible reading of it by Malcolm Hillgartner.  As I often do, I recommend “auditing” a book such as this.  It’s a perfect companion for two, who can stop and remind each other of dates and names, on a long trip — about 24 hours worth! [The “whispersync” feature is worth having, by the way.  The Kindle text and the Audible reading stay synchronized, and share notes between them.  So, if I make a verbal note while listening it will appear in the proper place in the Kindle text.  If I stop listening and pick up the text, it is positioned where I left off.  Pretty slick!] The audible version did have the unpleasant ‘tic’ of not giving an aural cue when changes of sub-chapters happen, not even by prolonged silent space.  Thus, when William Yale goes to see the British Ambassador in June of 1917 the last sentence of the section is “Wherever did you get your name?  My first wife was a Yale, one the last members of the family in Wales!”  Then, without a pause, the reader goes on: “It was less a battle than a massacre” as the succeeding section jumps back to Lawrence. How about a soft “bing, ” Audible folks, just to alert our ears, as white space in the text alerts our eyes: jump-cut here!