- T. E. Lawrence & Minor Figures in the Arab Revolt
Philip Walker. Behind the Lawrence Legend: The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. vii + 284 pp. Cloth $34.95
IN A PERCEPTIVE and passionate response to T. E. Lawrence's self-portrait in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Iris Murdoch wrote, in a wartime letter of 24 November 1942:
I feel a sort of reverence for that book—for that man—which it is hard to describe. To live such a swift life of action, and yet not simplify everything to the point of inhumanity—to let the agonising complexities of situations twist your heart instead of tying your hands—that is real human great-ness—it is that sort of person that I would leave anything to follow.
Philip Walker offers a new perspective on the intensely studied Arab Revolt of 1916–1918 by shifting the traditional focus from Lawrence himself to Colonel Cyril Wilson and his staff in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. Supported by impressive archival research, a thorough bibliography and thirty-five good amateur photographs, Walker argues that "Wilson had a core team of four officers at Jeddah, the true hub of the revolt, who helped him stabilize the revolt on several occasions when it was at imminent risk of collapse—both before and during Lawrence's involvement in Arabia."
Lawrence wrote that in Jeddah, a backwater of the Ottoman Empire, "the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless." The horrific town, a British officer wrote, was notorious for "fever, bad smells, heat, bad food, lack of drainage, mosquitoes, flies, humidity, lack of communication with the outside world and filthy people." When the British moved north to the captured port of Yenbo, thousands of [End Page 297] flies sucked the moisture around the men's mouths and eyes. But a tame gazelle helped enforce security by eating all the waste paper discarded during ciphering work.
In Jeddah Wilson organized the pilgrimage of Indian Moslems to Mecca, supplied herds of camels for the Arab army, and was the diplomatic and military liaison to the corrupt and treacherous Sherif Hussein, ruler of the Hejaz. Though the constant supply of British gold coins was supposed to pay the Arab warriors, Hussein kept eighty percent, an outright theft that Walker calls "parsimony." But these lavish chests of gold did keep Hussein from being out-bribed by the Turks. Walker is best on Wilson's work before Lawrence came from British headquarters in Cairo in October 1916 to decide which of Hussein's four sons would be the best leader to help the British win the war. Wilson's work became much less important when the guerrilla battles led by Lawrence shifted inland from the ports to the desert.
But Walker inflates the importance of his subject and overstates his case. He claims, on shaky ground, that
Wilson's undervalued influence over Hussein during critical phases of the revolt was at least as important as the well-known influence of Lawrence over Hussein's son, the Emir Feisal. Without the quiet diplomacy and intelligence work of the unlikely hero, Wilson, and his men, the revolt would have collapsed and the world would never have heard of 'Lawrence of Arabia.'… The ultimate success of the revolt was principally due to Wilson (italics mine).
Wilson was indeed an "unlikely hero." Walker admits that the colonel was stiff-necked and priggish, and spoke incomprehensible Arabic. According to Major-General Lynden-Bell, Wilson had no "military instincts of any sort or kind." The influential diplomat Sir Ronald Storrs found the colonel puzzled about his responsibilities, "uncertain whom he represented and from whom he was to take orders." Lawrence scorned the defensive Wilson as "irritable and aggressive, & totally unsuited for anything beyond Provincial Administration." Wilson feebly responded by calling the charismatic Lawrence "a bumptious young ass." Walker keeps repeating his own dubious assertions instead of offering more evidence, proof and argument. He also inaccurately claims that "there would have been no prospect of seizing Jerusalem and Damascus from the Turks without the vital work of camel buyers." The same was true, of...