A narrative chronicle of World War I's Arab Revolt explores the pivotal roles of a small group of adventurers and low-level officers who orchestrated a secret effort to control the Middle East, demonstrating how they instigated jihad against British forces, built an elaborate intelligence ring and forged ties to gain valuable oil concessions.
The book is much larger than just the story of Lawrence, because Anderson deliberately sets out to create an epic narrative. He introduces three other characters, whose lives and activities during the war years are recounted alongside those of Lawrence. They are William Yale, a young American oil man who almost serendipitously became the then rather amateurish US State Department’s expert on the Middle East; Curt Prufer, a German intelligence operative, and Aaron Aarohnson, the Jewish/Palestinian agronomist who formed the NILI spy ring in Palestine working on behalf of the British. Following extensive background on each of these three, the author uses the standard epic novel technique of interspersing contemporary narratives of the activities of each of them with those of Lawrence. Much of it is interesting; for example, the very detailed account of Aaron Aarohnson’s trials and tribulations in attempting to get the British to take his spy ring seriously, or his involvement in the Zionist movement. But overall, much of it is just filler; Lawrence was a “mover and shaker” who influenced events on a massive scale; the other three are essentially minor characters, observers who had little or no influence in shaping either the war efforts or strategic outcomes of their respective nations. The account of Lawrence in Arabia gains nothing – other than length – from this treatment.
This is clearly a book written by a journalist, rather than a historian – not because of any deficiency in the author’s research – but because it takes a very moralistic contemporary point of view of British and French imperialistic policies, how the war was mismanaged with a reckless disregard for life, and how the peace was so badly compromised. This is with the benefit of 90 years’ hindsight and the sensibilities of a contemporary liberal outlook , although a clearer understanding of past events is usually better seen from the perspective of their participants.
One gets the impression that the wartime Anglo-French jockeying for control of large parts of the soon to be ex-Ottoman empire is the whim of individual English and French players, rather than a strategic rivalry between these so-called allies. James Barr’s “A Line in the Sand” does a better job of this, because it follows the rivalry through the next 30 years after WW1. Anderson of course is concerned primarily with Lawrence, so his book ends with Lawrence’s exit from the scene, and subsequent events are only covered very briefly in the epilogue. “A Line in the Sand” is no less replete with interesting characters than “Lawrence in Arabia”; but the difference is that in the former, the characters subserve the narrative, rather than the other way around.
If you are interested in reading an in-depth analysis of T.E Lawrence, then this book will give you that – but you will also have to learn almost as much about Yale, Aarohnson and Prufer. If you are looking to understand, as the cover blurb says “… the making of the modern middle east”, there are more complete and less judgmental accounts to be read.
Book quotes I liked:
" ...it was clear many [colonels and generals] hadn't a clue what they were supposed to be doing. As with any institution, this sense of inadequacy was often masked by an aura of extreme self importance. p. 82
"Joined to a certain ruthless streak, it all enabled T.E. Lawrence to emerge as a kind of exemplar of the bureaucratic infighter, with a prowess that even the most devious palace intriguer or tenure-track college professor might enjoy." p. 210
" ...war can kill all things except bad ideas." p. 239
"[Standard Oil] ...one the most predatory corporations in human history," p. 387
Not to imply that T.E. Lawrence was all that ordinary. You encounter his type every now and again in history and politics - extremely introverted but also extremely idealistic, to the point that they will force themselves to intercede in affairs if they feel that they're the only ones capable of doing what needs to be done. In this case, Lawrence's unique skill set (one of the few Europeans actually to have explored the Middle East + able to speak the language + possessed of an understanding of native culture/customs/politics + placed in a wartime intelligence office that gave him access to the top decision-makers in the theater) uniquely enabled him to (1) understand at first-hand how European ignorance/arrogance was costing the allies in WWII the opportunity to dominate and close down the Middle Eastern front and (2) figure out how his intercession might prevent this from happening.
Lawrence's idealistic notion, of course, was offering the Arabs self-rule and a territory of their own in exchange for their help in fighting the Turks (German allies). Which deal Lawrence was instrumental in convincing the Arabs to accept, except that the Brits almost immediately reneged on their promise, kowtowing to a variety of external pressures which Anderson does a terrific job of exploring in depth and which include Turks desperate to preserve their crumbling region of influence; France, lobbying to maintain its colonial possession Syria; oil companies jockeying to lock in the rights to develop oil reserves in the region; and Zionists lobbying for a homeland.
Having introduced and explained these interests, the rest of the book recounts how interactions between these forces ends up creating military and political chaos - a chaos which, you don't need me telling you, continues to roil and destabilize the region to this day.
Almost no one in this appalling, non-fiction tale of incompetence, treachery, butchery, and self-aggrandizement comes out smelling of roses (thus the book's subtitle, "War, Deceit, Imperial Folly & the Making of the Modern Middle East"), but I definitely emerged with a new respect for Lawrence. Though he made some fateful errors - overestimating the military abilities of the Arabs being among the chief of these - Anderson makes a fairly convincing case that Lawrence acted out of motives of pure idealism: he genuinely believed that releasing the Arabs from the oppressive colonial oversight of the Brits was the just and honorable thing to do. In furtherance of that cause he was not above employing some less than honorable tactics - a favorite was pretending not to receive cables from superiors requiring him to desist - but these come off as small foibles compared to the huge acts of deception being practiced by his military and political superiors.
Kudos to Anderson for his deft handling of dozens of simultaneous narrative strands. In lesser hands this could have been a mess; instead, Anderson weaves them into a cohesive story. He accomplishes this by focusing on three other relatively ordinary men who also found themselves in propitious places at propitious times: a minor German nobleman who became an influential intelligence officer; a Jewish agriculturist/Zionist; and an enterprising Standard Oil representative. Between them, these four unlikely individuals ended up having a huge impact on the course of the war ...
... further proof that, at least in some instances, chance (fate?) seems to have a way of singling out ordinary people and granting them extraordinary influence over the outcome of major historical events. In T.E. Lawrence the Arabs found a flawed but essentially honorable leader; which makes it all the more tragic that the allied powers bungled this opportunity so badly that we are still dealing with the consequences of their ineptitude and duplicity today.
The first interesting insight is about the role the Arab Revolt played in foiling German and Ottoman efforts to foment a jihad among the world’s Muslims against the Christian Entente Powers [Britain, France, and Russia.] Each of Germany’s principal enemies in World War I controlled significant Muslim populations, either through their colonies [Britain: India; France: Algeria] or internally [Russia]. German strategists attempted to use the status of their ally the Ottoman Sultan as Caliph to ignite a jihad against the “Crusader enemy.” However, the Ottoman ruling class was Turkish, while many of their subjects were Arabs who resented Turkish hegemony. Hussein, King of the Hejaz (Western Arabia), was not a very loyal subject of the Sultan. With a little encouragement from the British in Egypt, Hussein was willing to throw off the Ottoman yolk and establish an Arab kingdom that he hoped would encompass modern Arabia, Syria, and Iraq. And as ruler of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities of Islam, he was able to act as a counter weight to the Sultan’s call for jihad against the infidels.
A second insight is how little the Middle East meant to the European Powers at the beginning of the war. The Arab Revolt of 1915-18 in Arabia, Palestine, and Syria may have only been (in the words of T. E. Lawrence) a “sideshow of a sideshow” to World War I, but its monumental (and malign) effects linger on today. Back in the early 1900’s however, its scope seemed miniscule compared to the slaughter on the Western Front, and diplomats of the time were much more concerned with the future status of Belgium than with the impoverished and distant regions of the Middle East. How things change!
A third insight is that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which caused Russia to abandon the war, may have helped France and Britain achieve ultimate victory. The reason is that President Wilson loathed the czarist regime of Russia so much that he refused to bring the United States into the war until the Bolsheviks took Russia out of it.
Anderson also argues that Britain missed a golden opportunity to defeat the Ottomans in 1915 by invading in the wrong place. The catastrophe at Gallipoli is well known. The Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-16, also known as the Battle of Gallipoli or the Dardanelles Campaign, was of course an unsuccessful attempt by the Allied Powers to wrest control from the Turks of the sea route from Europe to Russia. Anderson writes wryly that throughout history, there have been occasions when a vastly superior military force has managed, against all odds, to snatch defeat from all but certain victory. Such was the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, where a combination of arrogance, political interference, and tunnel vision led to disaster.
The biggest mistake of the campaign, in Anderson’s view, was that it missed an opportunity to invade at Alexandretta (the easternmost point at which Turkey touches the Mediterranean), which was lightly defended and situated among such bad roads that the Turks could not have reinforced it easily. But Alexandretta was out of bounds for the British because the French had their eyes on nearby Syria, so they did not want the British in the area, just in case the British got ideas about taking Syria themselves. (Shockingly, Anderson observes, the French actually committed that “squalid argument” to paper. Not only were the French criminally responsible for all the resulting deaths, according to British historian Basil Liddell Hart, but the British General Staff, who acquiesced, were “accessories to the crime.”)
Anderson points out that prior to the war, Zionism was more controversial among Jews than it is today. Many thought it was a bad idea because, among other reasons, they could never trust the Arabs. Moreover, the future Israel was not the only area of the world under consideration as a Jewish homeland. Nevertheless, Chaim Weizmann, one of the fathers of Zionism, made an agreement of convenience with King Faisal that they would cooperate with one another in carving up the Ottoman Empire: the Jews were to get Palestine; Arabs to get Greater Syria. A major problem was “nowhere did it specify what Palestine actually consisted of.” Moreover, Faisal “quite flagrantly turned his back on the doctrine of self-determination for Palestine, placing him in a weakened—some say hypocritical—position in invoking that same doctrine for the rest of Syria.”
(The author notes that there was a veritable maze of secret deals between nations and parties before, during, and after World War I, many of which directly contradicted the others.)
A final insight concerns the character of the Arabs eventually led by Lawrence. In large part, Lawrence played the role of an intermediary:
“On the battle field, the rebels’ enemies were not just Turks but fellow Arabs, warriors from tribes that had missed out on the British gold or taken that of the Turks, clans with whom they had blood feuds or who were freelancers out scouting for loot themselves.”
In addition to stimulating macro-observations about the geography and politics of the region such as those discussed above, Anderson tells a rip-roaring adventure tale of the obscure British classics scholar (T. E. Lawrence), born in 1888, who stood only about 5 feet 4 inches tall and had no military training, but who became Britain’s principal liaison to the Arab rebellion and indeed became one of the rebellion’s most successful warriors.
By 1915 the war on the Western Front had reached a virtual stalemate, with both sides massively entrenched and neither side able to gain an advantage. Lawrence had been stationed in Cairo, Egypt because of his pre-war experience traveling in the Middle East as an archeologist and his fluency in Arabic. His knowledge of the country made him a valuable asset in the map making and intelligence activities of the British army. To an extent hard to imagine today, the outcome of the war in the Middle Eastern theater was influenced by a handful of men who had not reached their 35th birthday. (Lawrence participated in his first desert raid in 1917 at age 28.) It was as if, Anderson says, “no one was paying much attention.”
In 1916, the British government in Egypt sent Lawrence to work with the Hashemite forces in the Arabian Hejaz. He fought alongside Arab irregular troops under the command Sheikh Faisal ibn Hussein, who later became King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria or Greater Syria in 1920, and King of Iraq from 1921 to 1933. Lawrence developed a close relationship with Faisal, whose Arab Northern Army became the main beneficiary of British aid. As time passed, Lawrence developed a great sense of guilt over the fact that, because of the various secret agreements, he was getting the Arabs to fight under false pretenses. Anderson attributes Lawrence’s increased risk-taking to a sense of betrayal and shame.
While Anderson writes primarily about Lawrence and his exploits, he also tells the story of two other very young men who influenced their countries’ involvement in the Middle East to a remarkable degree. Curt Prüfer helped shape German policy toward the Ottomans, and William Yale, through his work with the Standard Oil Company, significantly affected American policy at the Versailles Peace Conference.
Lawrence won the trust and respect of the Arabs through his bravery and wisdom. By the end of the war, he probably sympathized more with the Arabs than with the British. However, everything Lawrence had fought for turned to ashes in a single five-minute conversation between the prime ministers of Great Britain and France on December 1, 1918. Anderson writes, “…it was vital that Britain and France present a unified front against the American president, Woodrow Wilson, with his high-minded talk of a peace without victory; and the rights of oppressed peoples to self-determination.” And with that, Britain took Iraq and France took Syria from the defeated Ottoman Empire.
My favorite movie is "Lawrence of Arabia," starring Peter O’Toole. Anderson is aware of the impact that film had on Americans’ understanding of the war in the Middle East. Several times in the book he points out where the movie was accurate and also where it took poetic license. In nearly all cases, the movie was either factually accurate or close enough given the time constraints of the medium.
Evaluation: This consistently interesting book is an excellent introduction to a fascinating period of history.
Note: National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
Some authors clearly love the main character of their history. Here, I'm not sure Mr. Anderson really likes any of his characters. It is clear he despises the Western powers. There was plenty of foolish decisions and actions by the western powers during this time. But, it is clear they are judged according to modern sensibilities rather than striving to place their actions and philosophy in the context of their times. Mr. Anderson is anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, anti-corporation, and it seems finds nothing of value in the British culture of the day. There is certainly room to criticize all of these things. But if you believe this book there would have been no reason to be an Anglophile during this time period.
Nonetheless, the author seems to have some good analysis on Lawrence and places his actions in context of the bigger picture very effectively. I've only read a couple books on Lawrence and they were mainly focused on the brave and bold things his did rather than the bigger picture or on an in depth analysis on who Lawrence was. I feel like I have a much better understanding of Lawrence as a person and to his influence.
I ran across a "review" while looking to purchase this book that attempted to take the author to task for trying to hide the "fact" that Lawrence was a homosexual. After reading the book I don't understand the accusation as the possibility was raised by the author. It does not appear there is enough evidence to prove this was the case but the author acknowledges the possibility and cites the evidence for it which seems fair.
I also found interesting the analysis on Lawrence as to why some of his autobiography was probably less than true. When you remember that Lawrence was an intelligence officer who was well versed in spreading the "truth" that was convenient for the British Empire and who clearly tried to take the side of the Arabs rather than the British when he thought it was right, his lack of forthrightness is not shocking. The analysis of whether not Lawrence was raped when captured on one occasion was a bit difficult to read but seemed incisive (he probably was).
Overall recommendation, if you really just want a book on Lawrence of Arabia this is probably not the book for you. If you want to understand his life and the way the Middle East was changed by WWI in the context of the many players in the Middle East than this book is going to be helpful.
This book is clearly written , and well researched in the matters dealing with Arabia, though the vision of the rest of WWI is strictly conventional. The maps are a bit sketchy but adequate, and the footnoting system reasonable. Well worth your time.
Only 10 of the almost 1000 reviews on Amazon are one-star, and some of those appear to be erroneously awarded. The magic of this book is that Scott Anderson chronicles the tales of multiple characters whose paths occasionally cross, all of whom influenced the outcome of World War I, shaped the lasting imprint of the West on the Middle East, and were party to the establishment of an eventually independent Jewish state in Palestine. While much of the book focuses on T.E. Lawrence as seen through his own memoir, biographers, and contemporaries, Anderson also tells the lesser-known accounts of Aaron Aarohnson, William Yale, Curt Prüfer, Ahmed Djemal Pasha, King Faisal and Mark Sykes. The book is important in retelling the history of the Levant during World War I. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently referenced T.E. Lawrence and the current crisis in Syria as the result of the West's failed policies in the Middle East after WWI, so this book is quite relevant.
Aaron Aaronsohn was a Romanian Jew whose parents emigrated to Palestine to farm. The settlements were usually sponsored by rich Jewish benefactors who dictated how the colony was to be run. It's important to remember that "Zionists" were not a united group-- some just wanted to moderately repopulate Palestine with Jews, some wanted to live under Ottoman rule and not displace the Arab majority, others wanted to live under protection of England and the West, while others wanted an independent Jewish state. When war broke out, many of the Jews in Palestine remained loyal to the Ottomans and could not support the Entente powers which included Russia, from which many of the Jews had fled during decades of of pogroms. Agricultural output of the Jewish colonies was poor, and Aaronsohn was selected and sponsored by a Rothschild to study agronomy in Europe and later returned to Palestine and started revolutionary practices that greatly increased farming output. He became famous worldwide for discovering and re-discovering various species of plants. Operating on his own, Aaronsohn eventually embraced the Zionist cause and developed a network of spies called Nili. After World War I began, he was instrumental in spreading pro-Jewish propaganda through telegrams and travels to the West. When Djemal Pasha evacuated Palestine ahead of battle with the English, Aaronsohn spread exaggerated claims of pogroms and lynchings of Jews, even though history records no such evils occurred. The world was already aware of atrocities committed when the Ottomans deported its Armenian and foreign populations, and atrocities against Jews was seen as a step too far. These telegrams reached influential Americans such as Chief Justice Louis Brandeis and swayed public sentiment toward Palestine. When the spy network was uncovered, Aaronsohn's sister--a leader in the group with wide European connections-- was tortured and executed. The exposure of the network was partly the result of bungling by the British.
William Yale was an American employee of Standard Oil who traveled in the Middle East, under false pretenses, searching for oil and opportunity. Standard Oil was hoping to make money selling oil to both the Turks and the Allies after war broke out. After the U.S. entered the war, Yale's documentation of Middle Eastern geography and political affairs proved valuable to the U.S. State Department who enlisted him as an intelligence agent. Yale was the forerunner of American espionage through its private sector, particularly oil. Yale later published an account of his time in the Middle East that I'd like to read.
Curt Prüfer was a German diplomat stationed in Cairo who shared with many Germans a vision of a pan-Islamic revolt against the Allies supported by Germany. He was an advisor both to the German government and Djemal Pasha. Germany was crucial in building the railways and other infrastructure inside the Ottoman empire, as well as supplying academics to Turkish universities and doing much of the early archaeology on various ancient sites. Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted greater German Eurasian influence, a dream that seems silly in retrospect today. Prüfer developed his own spy ring, putting him in direct competition with Aaronsohn. Obviously, Prüfer was on the losing side so you see him managing both shrinking territory and the increasing disconnect of the German government from reality on the ground.
Djemal Pasha's full biographyis not given by Anderson but he served as the governor of the Syrian region, including over Palestine. He was one of three generals to wrest control of the Ottoman government before the war. After a locust swarm of biblical proportions wiped out crops in the region in 1915, Djemal enlisted the help of the agronomist Aaronsohn, allowing Aaronsohn to gain favor and intelligence as he worked. Anderson writes of conflicting histories regarding Pasha. On the one hand, he oversaw harsh crackdowns on Arabs during the Arab Revolt. He is blamed (and was later assassinated) for many atrocities against Armenians, but Anderson writes that Pasha was intially disgusted by their treatment and disgreed with the powers in Istanbul who initiated the forced deportations. The atrocities were committed after the failed British-led attack on Gallipoli and convinced many Ottoman Jews to flee for fear that they could be next. the pasha's legacy here is mixed; Djemal supposedly forbid harsh treatment or the killing of Armenians but later forbid even photgraphing them, presumably while atrocities were being committed.
Of course, the greatest amount of the book is devoted to T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (my review) is a prerequisite for Anderson's book along with the classic Lawrence of Arabia film, as Anderson quotes extensively from Lawrence's work while also critiquing it based on accounts by Lawrence's contemporaries, along with letters and journal entries by Lawrence. Lawrence's early endavors and fascination with Ottoman Syria gave him unique insights that served him well. Before fighting there with Arabs, he had hiked thousands of miles in Syria and done archaeological work. He is alleged to have fallen in love with Dahoum aka Salim Ahmed, a young waterboy he hired in Syria, whose well-being supposedly motivated him to push for Syrian Arab independence (Dahoum died of typhus in 1916, much to Lawrence's dismay). Lawrence's path crosses with that of the other characters, including Mark Sykes of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement that effectively betrayed the Arabs and surprised the British command in Cairo. Lawrence generally disagrees vehemently with the others and remains contemptuous. Interestingly, Lawrence betrays the secret of Sykes-Picot early on to Faisal Ali, who he fought alongside. This was an interesting act of treason by Lawrence that Anderson notes gets overlooked by biographers-- after only 4 months in Arabia, Lawrence was so invested in the Arab cause that he was willing to risk everything in disclosing this secret. Lawrence is particularly glad he did so after the 1917 Balfour Declaration by the British that made it official state policy to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. This monumental move was partly the result of fervor stirred by Aaronsohn and served to enrage many Arabs fighting alongside the West. Had Lawrence not already disclosed Sykes-Picot the dual revelations may have led to a bloody revolt. As a footnote to the history, the Wuhabbist Muslims led by al Saud were most incensed by the declaration and King Faisal's cooperation with the West in allowing it.
Lawrence advised the British commanders to bypass a bloody war for Palestine and invade Syria instead. His commanders ignore him, and 50,000 lives are lost "liberating" Palestine from the Arabs. Lawrence's academic expertise in medieval warfare gave him insights into how the war could be fought with Faisal's camel-mounted troops. The capture of Aqaba as well as the varying accounts of what happened to Lawrence when captured in Daraa are examined pretty thoroughly by the author. The West's promises and reneging to the Arabs, whose help they desperately needed, are also well chronicled by Anderson. Faisal was in position to receive overtures both from the British and the Ottomans, who began to promise more independence to the Arabs in an attempt to wrest them away from the British. The British, in turn made last-minute promises of greater independence upon hearing false rumors of an Arab-Ottoman deal.
Several of these characters attend the peace conference at Versailles, and all of them leave disgusted at the outcomes. How this later played out in world affairs is documented briefly by Anderson at the end. I recommend Paul Ehrlich's recent book Inside Syria (my review) for an abbreviated look at this time period in Syrian history as well. I give this book 5 stars out of 5. Fantastic, very informative, and very entertaining read if you are interested in Middle Eastern or World War I history. It's very relevant to today's battles in Syria and I suspect the book will remain relevant for decades to come.
In this book, Lawrence in Arabia, Scott Anderson helps us place not only Lawrence’s role in the creation of the modern Middle East, but other figures as well. Working from years of intensive primary document research, Anderson weaves together the complex story of Lawrence, German scholar-spy Curt Prufer, Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn, and William Yale of Standard Oil. These four men, waged wars, spied for their homelands, and attempted to do their best to steer the area to a different future...only to watch it fall apart at the hands of others (the British and French on one side, the German and Ottoman on the other). Anderson does not even need to make a commentary on the mistakes made that helped create the troubles in the Middle East today, instead he only needs to present history in a way that we’ve long ignored and stumbled around.
Even though this is an extremely complex story, and one that would be easy to get lost in as it covers history and politics and so many other areas, Anderson creates an extremely readable and gripping story. He deftly covers the War from multiple viewpoints of our four main “personas” and gives the reader a solid idea of how each action built to create a force that was beyond their control.
This is a great book for any fan of history or the Middle East. I give the book 4 out of 5 stars.
Review copy provided by the publisher
The book will also clear up the idealized story of T.E. Lawrence left over from "Lawrence of Arabia" and" Seven Pillars of Wisdom"
Anderson also clearly spells out the duplicity of the Allied powers in dealing with Syria and Palestine. He shows how the British in particular promised each faction in that troubled region exactly what it wanted, even when those desires were mutually exclusive. But Anderson is no wishful thinker, as he recognizes that nothing would have satisfied everyone.
As for T.E. Lawrence, the author builds a sympathetic portrait of the man forced to betray either his country or his Arab allies. Anderson takes seriously the slow meltdown of Lawrence’s personality, which he attributes to what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder.
An altogether thrilling read, carefully researched and plotted.
The book confronts its reader with irrefutable facts and proofs of the great harm wrought by European colonialism during this era. Instead of seizing on an excellent opportunity to do good and build positive and productive relations with the Arabs, the duplicitous British, among others Western powers (including the USA), lied to the Arabs repeatedly. This is only one story about that; I'm sure there are many others. It is an unflattering legacy, especially that of British duplicity. We continue to reap the bitter harvest of that legacy nearly 100 years hence - with no end in sight.