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Anthony McRoy

The life and legend of Lawrence of Arabia
Michael Korda
JR Books, 762pp

This very substantial, but readable book, does its subject proud. It is a warts-and-all picture of the remarkable and complex soldier-statesman. He was a Briton who led the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, and with the recent Arab Spring to the fore of our minds, his story is even more relevant. In some ways, his ideas for the Arab world may finally have come into their own.

Lawrence's vision in leading the revolt was not to trick the Eastern Arabs into exchanging Ottoman Imperial power for that of the French, Italian and British who dominated North Africa, but rather to see some form of a united Arab kingdom with its capital in Damascus which was essentially a self-governing Dominion within a British Empire that would be turned into a multi-racial federal Commonwealth. It wasn't his fault that this never came to pass - Lawrence could beat the Turks, but not the scheming of British and French imperialists.

Lawrence first came to attention in 1916, serving in British-occupied Egypt. This acting staff captain was viewed as eccentric - teetotaller, non-smoker, vegetarian, with an ill-fitting uniform, and despite his small stature, supremely self-confident. Yet he was hard-working and meticulous in his study of the enemy, and linguistically gifted. Since childhood, he had romantic notions of being a general and getting knighted, and perhaps it was this extraordinary combination of characteristics that made him the perfect 'Boys Own' hero of the Arab Revolt.

After Turkey entered the First World War, Britain had contacted Sharif Hussein of Mecca (ancestor of the present King of Jordan) to back an Arab revolt and install him as the Caliph of Islam (most interpretations of Islamic law would support having an Arab descendant of Muhammad's tribe in this position), rather than the Ottomans. Hussein's son Abdulla had been impressed with Lawrence's knowledge of the Turkish Army when they met in 1916, and this led to Lawrence meeting Abdulla's brother Feisal, with whom a relationship of mutual respect developed. From this relationship, British colonial ambition and Lawrence's romantic vision of himself was to arise perhaps the only inspiring event of the First World War.

The problem was that the Arab insurgents were a mixture of Ottoman army defectors, prisoners of war and ill-disciplined tribesmen. Leadership was needed to make them a proper insurgent force, and Lawrence was the man for the job. Korda shows how his methods have been studied by insurgents and counter-insurgents ever since: 'Lawrence believed the very qualities that made the tribesmen such poor material for conventional warfare could help them defeat the Turks: mobility, hit-and-run tactics, a gift for long-range sniping, and a tradition of mounted raids that took an enemy by surprise, after which the raiders vanished back into the desert with their plunder.' The problem was that the Arabs were fighting conventional battles which the better-equipped and organised Turkish troops would always win.

In early 1917, aided by British naval bombardment, Lawrence and the Arabs took Wejh from the Turks, which isolated the Turkish forces at Medina. The victory galvanised Arab opinion to the north and south. One recruit was the tribal leader Auda, a fierce, fearless fighter. His tribe harassed the Turks, taking positions, attacking the railway, and finally doing the impossible - capturing Aqaba. The last-mentioned brought Lawrence into the annals of history, and from then on, the credibility of the Arab Revolt was ensured.
The Arabs even took Damascus, but failed to hold it - not through any fault of Lawrence or because of the Turks, but because of a secret pact between Britain and France - the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, whereby they divided the Arab East between them. Korda should have made more of this than he does, because it still bedevils Arab politics and their attitude to the West. It is seen - with considerable justification - as a treacherous stab in the back to an ally whose fighters faced torture and death as traitors if caught. Lawrence was aware of the agreement, and disliked it. Korda shows how he resented French intrusion into an arena where they had not fought, and it was this which led him to encourage the Arabs to enter Damascus with the forlorn hope of pre-empting French control. One of the reasons that Lawrence later resigned and changed his identity was his guilt at causing so many Arabs to fight and die merely to pass from Turkish to European control.

Korda devotes much attention to Lawrence's psychology. The infamous incident when he was molested by a Turkish officer is held to be definitely authentic, and whilst being violated would be traumatic for any man, it must have been catastrophic to Lawrence who disliked to be touched in any way - even by handshake. Korda rejects ideas that Lawrence might have had homosexual tendencies - rather, he suggests he insulated himself from sexual feelings of any kind. Lawrence, though born in Wales, came from an Evangelical Irish Protestant family on his father's side - his (Scottish) mother and his eldest brother eventually became missionaries to China - yet his parents were actually only a common-law couple, his father having abandoned his first wife. Apparently, Lawrence found his mother terrifying. Again, perhaps this background played its role in producing the mercurial but conflicted character who could help defeat an Empire, in the service of another Empire.

What would Lawrence have made of the Arab Spring? As an ally of Arab revolution he would probably have welcomed it. The uprising in Syria would have gained his particular attention, and he would doubtless rejoice at the moves of Jordan's King Abdullah to move towards British-style constitutional monarchy. One effect of the Arab Spring is to introduce greater national independence, as in Egypt. Democracy is the greatest guarantee of that goal. If only the Western powers in 1918 had possessed the wisdom that Lawrence had to see that it was in the interest of the West to have a stable, united, independent Arab nation rather than to engage in a malicious carve-up. There is already talk of an eventual Arab democratic federation equivalent to the EU, so if the Arab Spring eventually liberates the Arab East states, Lawrence will have been vindicated. 

Anthony McRoy

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