Book review: “Lawrence in Arabia”

UnknownLawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the making of the Modern Middle East” (Scott Anderson)

Remarkably different than a previous book on T.E. Lawrence, “Hero:t he life and legend of Lawrence of Arabia” by Michael Korda, which is also excellent but focuses on it’s main character. “Lawrence in Arabia” broad strokes all the factors that formed the modern Middle East from the fracturing of the Ottoman Empire and brings the main character into it as a part of the whole that he played.

The book is absolutely fascinating and well written. Some interesting facts that emerge:

1. The enormity of WW I is not fully appreciated today if for no other reason than the participants who would remember it are mostly dead and the incredible stupidity of the whole affair (which was thought by Great Britain would be over in a few weeks) has been largely covered up. In the previous 40 years before 1914, Great Britain had been involved in 40 war skirmishes and lost less than 40,000 men. In the Somme Offensive in France, 1916, 58,000 Allied soldiers were dead in one day’s fighting, the bloodiest single day of warfare in the history of the English speaking world. In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, France suffered an estimated 270,000 battlefield casualties. France surpassed that number in the first three weeks of WW I. In a two year span, the life expectancy of a French male dropped to 27. Roughly ten million soldiers and 6 million civilians died in WW I, mostly as a result of incredibly stupid battle tactics designed to kill huge masses resulting in stalemate. All this for what amounted to an extended royal family feud acting out old grievances. The sheer incompetence of strategy and tactics was exceeded only by their callousness toward those dying for them. The two survivors, Britain and France would be so shattered as to never fully recover.

2. Between April 1915 and January 1916, the Battle of Gallipoli was pursued with the aim of eventually capturing Constantinople (Istanbul). Britain and France launched an amphibious naval attack on the peninsula, a sea route that was then property of the Russian Empire that would, if unimpeded lead to Constantinople. War strategists now say that landing at Gallipoli’s southern tip defied any semblance of effective military strategy or common sense. The landing would be vulnerable to attack from higher ground, and it would be necessary to build and maintain the same trench lines that paralyzed the Western front. Of the 3000 miles of coastline, Gallipoli is now said to be the worst possible choice.

But on April 25, 1915, a troop carrier, the SS River Clyde out of Liverpool steamed into a small beach code named V-Beach and launched six small unarmed and motorless wooden boats filled with soldiers. The Turks were waiting, having noticed the approach of the non-camouflaged ship earlier. When the boats were just yards from the shore, but still in deep water, Turk machine gunners opened up at close range. One after another of the boats were cut up, soldiers to die instantly of wounds, or capsized, dumping the heavily clad soldiers into the water to drown. Of the first 200 men in the first wave of boats, only 11 reached the shore to be effectively picked off. By mid-afternoon, there were so many dead men on the gangways that early casualties actually died of suffocation from the heaps of dead bodies on top of them. By the end of the first day, the advance landing forces at Gallipoli suffered four thousand casualties. The first day’s objective was to secure a small village four miles inland. Over the next seven months, the British would never reach the village and would suffer a quarter million casualties trying.

On the same day the British invaded Gallipoli, the Constantinople government started rounding up Armenian intellectuals and business leaders suspected of being spies; the beginning of a “cleansing operation” for the Ottoman Empire’s Christian minority, a genocide that would eventually result in the deaths of a million Middle Eastern Christians. Outside train windows were revealed a never ending horror show of starving (mostly) women and children being herded along to camps at bayonet point.

The corruption, incompetence and arrogance of ALL these players were not lost on Lawrence, who had emerged into a position of trust in British intelligence. The author inexorably paints these scenes as a backdrop to the nurturing and eventual emergence of T.E. Lawrence into a strategist and tactician facilitating the Arabs to secure and maintain most of the Arabic peninsula as a socio-political state. This was, of course, destined to fail pretty much as described in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1960). The British and French used Lawrence to help them fracture the Ottoman Empire, somewhat successfully, at least in a small scale. But unknown to Lawrence there emerged The Sykes–Picot Agreement, which even as Lawrence toiled furiously, divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian peninsula into areas of future British and French control or influence.

The book is extremely elucidative of this history that created what we now know as the modern Middle East, and in the case of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in particular. “It’s hard to think of any figure who, with no true malice intended and neither a nation nor an army at his disposal, was to wreak more havoc on the twentieth century than the brilliant and personable aristocrat from Yorkshire (Sykes), havoc that a small group of his countrymen, including T.E. Lawrence, would try very hard to set right.”.

“Lawrence in Arabia is a fascinating story of the birth of nations and the role of the small, quiet man that played a huge part in it.

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