Saturday, 30 January 2016
'Setting the Desert on fire'
My best looking and most intelligent niece only ever made two mistakes, she married a Hun and bore his son. That said she appears to be quite happy about all this in spite of my opinions and the son has turned out to be the only member of the family with the ability to read books. Since he learnt the art of reading he has always had a book in his face although drink and women have lessened his reading abilities somewhat in recent years. However when Christmas arrives and the two are together long enough for a briefing re presents he has clearly advised her regarding a book for me. It is not possible she, wise though she be, would consider such a work as suitable. Indeed the last book she chose by herself was 'Grumpy Old Men,' a book with which I could not begin to comprehend the reason she sent to me and then could not see any 'grumpy men' within, indeed they appeared quite commonsensical for the most part.
This year once again she has returned to him for advice and clearly his advice has been good. "Setting the Desert on Fire" by James Barr is a wonderful fast moving narrative concerning the details of 'Lawrence of Arabia' and his Middle Eastern adventures during the Great War.
Having read so many Great War books I was going through one of those moods when any more offerings were not seen as urgent reads, naturally I have four more lined up after this one all demanding my attention! However once I opened the book I could not put it down. Everyone has heard of 'Lawrence of Arabia' British propaganda and tabloid newspapers half truths saw to that but few including myself know the real deal. This book, the result of four long years trawling through documents, diaries and letters scattered across the globe, enlightens us as to the reality of the popular myth. Creatures found in Hollywood movies usually bear no relation to the facts I find.
The political problems faced by London were simple enough. The Royal Navy was now powered by oil rather than coal so guarding the oil fields in southern Mesopotamia was urgent. The Turkish threat to the Suez Canal could lead to uprisings in Egypt which may lead to loss of the Canal and cut the lifeline to India, the so called 'Rose in the Crown.' France was desperate to control Syria and the Brits were desperate to avoid any interference from them in that area. Here also two forces fought for control of the region, London and India. The Indian end was afraid upsetting the balance in Arabia could lead to disturbances in India and their solutions cut across much of what London, or their people ion Cairo wished to see. Political games are of ten delicately balanced and strong forces often care little about the harm others may suffer.
The Arabs were of course not asked their opinion.
This is not quite correct as Arab opinion was important, that is getting Shaikh Hussein and Ibn Saud the two most powerful Arab leaders, to follow British wishes in removing the Turks. Politically this led to vague promises that in reality meant little in western diplomacy however in the Arab mind many steadfast promises were made. Often this was exaggerated by translation promises and lack of comprehension of the other sides views. This still causes resentment today.
Lawrence, or Captain Edward. T.E. Lawrence as we should call him was an intelligence officer in Egypt. Before the war he had travelled widely in the region working as an archaeologist and just happening to note Turkish positions in the region. During 1916 he got his way for more action by transferring to the Arab Bureau and entered the Hijaz region to assess the situation.
In Arabia hew as able to convince the Emir of Mecca Shaikh ibn Ali Husein to follow British will and provide men to help deal with the Turkish railway that ran to Medina the then capital and birthplace of the prophet Mohammad.
For the next two years Lawrence developed the various factions into an army of sorts and indulged in 'Boys Own' type adventures attempting to destroy the railway line. As time passed they progressed form cutting small sections soon repaired to blowing bridges and long lengths of line. Each occasion hindered Turkish movements of men and supplies destroying equipment and men. On occasion the Arab nomadic approach of looting and taking no prisoners caused some degree of disagreement as this cut across the normal British approach to prisoners.
Difficulties with tribes fighting with one another rather than Turks, of shaikhs demanding large sums of money which appeared to disappear, with Husein fear of ibn Saud taking his place from the rear, and above all problems between London, Cairo, and India and the personnel involved each working from his own position all added to Lawrence's struggles.
For political and personal reasons Lawrence's aim was to enable the Arabs to be seen as fighting the war, not a Briton leading them. This was to stop the French moving into Syria and to encourage the British to allow Arab rule over the land. Treaties were signed unknown to those in the field, and often hidden for months, promises from one, vague or not, flew between various peoples, all to often Lawrence would no little of these or in some cases be found responsible for them. It was that kind of situation.
The final victory brought more confusion as one promise or another was pushed aside to suit worldwide requirements. All to often consideration for the Arabs themselves were considered unimportant. The Arabs of course were not one nation, they remain today a variety of tribal and sectarian groupings forced together into political states invented by more powerful nations and their requirements. Political turmoil in itself is not the fault of the west, that would occur anyway but it is always good to have someone to blame, especially if you have oil and money.
For most of the war Lawrence's role, along with that of many other British officers and men who joined as time went by, remained a secret back home. It was the French, in an attempt to prove their position, that revealed his work. A great hero was created and common myth keeps this going for years afterwards.
Lawrence was not in my opinion a man you could get close to. He was certainly affected by the war but appears to have been a troubled soul before this time. he claimed in his 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' that he had entered the town of Dara then in Turkish occupation and been arrested as a deserter from the Turkish army and roundly whipped and abused by the commander of the town. Much of this appears from this book to have been an invention of his mind. The 'Seven Pillars' was not meant for popular publication and given only to friends and this may have allowed him the freedom to express his rather unusual desires more openly. He certainly indulged them after the war. The settlement saw Lawrence back in 'England' and later he went on to join the RAF as a lower ranked airman. Captain W.E. Johns famous for his 'Biggles' books was working at the RAF recruitment office when this strange character entered to sign on. Orders from above came through and it was only later did he realise what was going on, the purpose of his enlistment was never clear.
Lawrence died a hero by crashing his motorbike at high speed in 1935. His influence on the Middle East must have hung heavy with him as he saw the major powers mishandling the situation there. At least some of those he worked with were inspired by their actions there, one Francis Stirling was to join him and later became the leader of the 'Long Range Desert Force' in the North African campaign, this was the beginning of the SAS.
The book is well researched and a racy read. My knowledge of that aspect of the war was limited to General Allenby's push up through Palestine and the actions of the Arabs against the railway line did indeed go a long way to helping him by disrupting Turkish movements and greatly hindering the Turks in their operations. The suffering of Turkish prisoners is not something to consider however but the Turks had followed the usual Middle Easter approach and treated all peoples badly. The book does not gloss over the good and bad aspects of Arab and political behaviour, it shows the British in a poor light all too often and exposes the confused mix of Arab politics.
Well worth a read and a change from the Western Front!