- Lawrence of Arabia’s War: The Arabs, the British and the Remaking of the Middle East in WWI by Neil Faulkner
Neil Faulkner’s Lawrence of Arabia’s War is the first fruit of Bristol University’s interdisciplinary Great War Project, which, from 2006 to 2014, surveyed, excavated, and documented the trace of the old Hijaz Railway in southern Jordan in order to learn more about the British-backed Arab Revolt against the German-backed Ottoman Empire in 1916–18. While Faulkner’s book fleshes out the military, tactical, and strategic aspects of the desert war, a forthcoming volume by his project colleague, Nick Saunders, will treat the conflict’s archaeological and anthropological dimensions. Together, the two volumes aim to provide a complete, holistic understanding both of the Arab Revolt and the campaigns related to it. The attention the project gives to demography, communications, and mentalités puts it in the camp of Annales School–style “total” history.
The Arab Revolt is, of course, well-trodden territory. Ever since American journalist Lowell Thomas made T. E. Lawrence a household name in the years following the First World War, dozens of [End Page 174] books have appeared that tell the story of Britain’s efforts to harness the energies of the Arabian tribes against its Ottoman opponent. Although Faulkner gives the Arab Revolt its full due — providing well-crafted treatments of Britain’s wartime pledge to the Hashemites to facilitate Arab independence after the war, and of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which effectively negated that promise — he resists the temptation to make the Arab Revolt’s camel-mounted guerillas his sole focus. Instead, he situates the Hijazi insurgency within the context of Britain’s mechanized advance out of Egypt under British generals Sir Archibald Murray and Edmund Allenby (later a knight, and then a viscount).
Faulkner deftly covers the “railway war” (one of Great War Project’s findings was that the Ottomans had more garrisons along the Hijaz railway than scholars had previously thought), but he also provides full and well-researched accounts of the British-Ottoman battles at Romani (Rummana, in the Sinai Peninsula), Beersheba, Jerusalem, and Megiddo. Moreover, he depicts these clashes as regional episodes in a mighty clash of multinational empires, one that pitted soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs), English Midlanders, Rajputs, Gurkhas, and Highland Scots against an equally diverse collection of Anatolian peasants, Arab conscripts, and Bedouin irregulars. Faulkner explains that the fighting forces in each side were shaped by unique social environments, to the extent that each had its particular talent and way of war. If the lightning mobility of the Australian Light Horsemen was forged on ranches in New South Wales and Queensland, the stoicism and resilience of “Mehmetçik” — literally, “little Mehmed,” the affectionate term applied to the Turkish infantryman — was the product of the harsh conditions of rural Anatolia.
Faulkner excels in describing the methods employed in the desert war. The arid, rocky landscape posed an impediment to the armies that was every bit as misery-inducing as the mud of Flanders. As a result, “industrialized logistics” were the key to any battlefield success. In their slow march across northern Sinai, the British laid 220 miles of tarmac road, 359 miles of railway, and 300 miles of pipeline to carry water to thirsting troops, much of the work carried out by the Egyptian Camel Transport Corps and the Egyptian Labour Corps whose members the British “press-ganged,” sometimes “at gunpoint” (p. 132). He writes of the dust storms, searing heat, cold winter rains, and biting insects that plagued both armies. In so doing, he provides fascinating detail, offering, for example, brief treatments of the life cycle of the fly (p. 126) and the origins of the North Arabian camel saddle (pp. 308–9).
Given Faulkner’s penchant for multidimensional history, it is curious that he weaves significant portions of his narrative around the person of T. E. Lawrence — the “great...