- Neil Faulkner
Firs published in hardback in 2016, Lawrence of Arabia's War is now available in paperback. Even in paperback this is a thick, heavy book; an intellectual blockbuster, intensely erudite, absorbingly interesting but not everyone's idea of holiday-reading. You cannot dip into it; you must sit down and read it thoroughly, which takes time and concentration. The title is misleading; it is not simply, or even mainly, about T E Lawrence. The small-print subtitle: “The Arabs, The British and the Remaking of the Middle East in WW1” corrects this. There is little about T E Lawrence's personal life or his career before and after the Great War (although those are well-covered by other authors). What we get here is Lawrence the inspired and inspirational guerrilla soldier.
Do not be put off by that caveat: this book is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the present mess of the Middle East, in whose production the Allies' cynical carve-up of the Turkish Arab provinces in 1918 played an important and baleful role. It would be an over-simplification to say “it was all about oil”, but access to oil, the new wonder-fuel that allowed the world's navies to stay at sea for far longer; which freed them of the necessity to use coal and from their dependence on coaling-stations, was an important factor. Oil still gives the Middle East a disproportionate importance in world affairs.
The Great War in the Middle East was a hybrid conflict in which the Allies defeated the Ottoman Empire west of the Jordan by a conventional mechanised army dependent on industrialised supplies and to the east of it by a tribal insurgency of camel-mounted guerrillas. Only the latter was, strictly speaking, “Lawrence's War”. It was followed by a botched peace settlement, which Lawrence deplored and which was a factor in his later breakdown. As the author remarks:
“[The Allies] called it a 'peace settlement' but it was not: for the imperial powers created a Middle East of petty states, petty rivalries and petty hates that has now been at war with itself for a century.... 'a peace to end all peace'.”
Lawrence is hardly mentioned in the early chapters; there the author provides a panoramic account of the diplomatic, political and military entanglements that led ineluctably to the First World War; especially the role of the decadent Ottoman Empire and why the Middle East was important to both sides. He probably had fun standing “received wisdom” about both the Great War and T E Lawrence on its head. He demonstrates convincingly that Great Britain did not simply bumble into the war. The German ruling caste, including the neurotic Kaiser, were maniacally determined that the 20th century should be the German Century, just as the 19th had been the British Century. For that to happen there had to be a confrontation with the British Empire, which Germany had to win. That conflict would have come sooner or later, even without the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Gavrilo Princip. Britain was to be deprived of Egypt and India by any means, which included stimulating an international jihad, whose results are still with us. (The modest German colonial empire contained very few Muslim subjects; the British and French ruled over millions.)
After Lawrence's death there arose a debunking school of biographers, notably the late Richard Aldington, who dismissed Lawrence as a self-publicising impostor whose antics and savvy use of the media had deflected attention from the true heroes of the Great War; the Tommies on the Western Front. They have now been put in their place,wherever that is. Neil Faulkner's research shows that Lawrence's account of his own feats, however improbable they may appear, is factual and accurate. His admirers and his surviving collateral descendants - the children and grandchildren of his youngest brother, A W Lawrence - should be grateful.
Four-and a half mushroom-heads
by Metellus Cimber II