Philip Walker
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
In the introductory chapter of T E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a paragraph containing a list of names of others who worked to facilitate the “Arab Revolt”. Lawrence’s comment that they "also did their best" is a monumental understatement. Philip Walker’s extensively researched Behind the Lawrence Legend aims to tell their story.

This comprehensive and scholarly yet very readable book puts Lawrence’s role into perspective and balances the picture of events in the Middle East during a large part of the First World War. It is a “must read” for anyone interested in the Lawrence of Arabia legend. Lawrence's own drive for self-promotion and attention while ostensibly shunning publicity - "backing into the limelight" was already known to have unfairly effaced the reputations of other individuals who were critical to the success of the Hejaz campaign and related activities. Philip Walker provides the depth and colour for these people who had been driven into the shadows.

Most notable of those involved is Colonel Cyril Wilson, who, despite struggling with ill health throughout, played a key role in instigating what we would now call "hybrid warfare" against the Ottoman Empire. Many others played a significant part, whether in combat, diplomacy, code breaking or espionage. Significantly, far from all of them even appear in Lawrence’s list.

The book appears thoroughly researched, and referenced - about a fifth of the book is taken up with Notes, brief post Arab Revolt biographies, and a bibliography listing the copious and varied sources. The illustrations in particular are well selected. The 35 photographs include many that I have never seen before despite an interest in Lawrence and his campaigns going back decades, and as such are a refreshing change from the standard set chosen by most Lawrence biographies. Many of them were particularly useful for putting faces to the unfamiliar figures introduced in the book. On the other hand, noticeably (and surprisingly) absent were any maps - not a challenge if you are familiar with the course of the campaign and the geography, but this could be a substantial irritant for readers not armed with that prior knowledge.

The book did not contain very many other great surprises, other than the far more widespread knowledge of the Sykes-Picot agreement than I had previously imagined. Instead, the book's attraction is in its casting light on aspects of the campaign previously obscured by the Lawrence propaganda machine, and in its vignettes. If anybody can come up with a more secure system of disposal of discarded drafts from enciphering and deciphering than Lieutenant Gray, who threw the screwed-up paper to the floor to be immediately eaten by his pet gazelle, I would like to hear it.

Recommended for ARRSE readers; strongly recommended for Lawrence enthusiasts. Five mushroom heads.

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