Lead book review

T.E. Lawrence: from young romantic to shame-shattered veteran

Lawrence’s vision was betrayed in a shabby colonial carve-up — and the Middle East has been paying the price ever since, according to Neil Faulkner’s biography

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

Lawrence of Arabia’s War: The Arabs, the British and the Remaking of the Middle East in WWI Neil Faulkner

Yale, pp.552, £25, ISBN: 9780300196832

Is there anything new to be said about T.E. Lawrence? I mean, really. In the century since his stirring exploits in the Arabian desert we have had all manner of biographies, from simpering hagiography to heartless hatchet job. We have had Lawrence the colonial hero and faithful imperial servant; Lawrence the linguist, explorer and spy, pioneer of guerrilla warfare; Lawrence the Machiavellian betrayer of the Arabs; Lawrence the preening, self-mythologising sado-masochist. Each generation projects its own prejudices and visions, fears and fantasies upon this unusual man.

Even now, 80 years after his death, the torrent of biographies shows little sign of abating. In recent years we have had studies by Lawrence James (2008), John Hulsman (2009), Michael Korda (2010), Scott Anderson (2013), Anthony Sattin (2014), Andrew Norman (2014) and Bruce Leigh (2014). We now know so much about his life that its many waypoints have become well-churned quagmires of debate.

Was he buggered at Deraa by Turkish forces, for example, as he famously claimed? Lawrence put the rape charge more delicately, writing that he had irrevocably lost the ‘citadel of my integrity’. It may never have happened. Possibly it was a later invention to discredit the Arab militants who had shopped him to the Turks. Maybe it was suggested to explain the scars accrued from sado-masochistic beatings. Perhaps we shall never know, and do we really care?


Neil Faulkner is an archaeologist and historian who has been part of the anti-war and anti-imperialist movement of recent years (I don’t know what that means either). One might expect the left-leaning author of a Marxist history of the world to be less taken by Lawrence than other scholars. In fact this is not the case. One of the most interesting findings of his archaeological Great Arab Revolt Project of 2006–2014, mostly carried out in southern Jordan, was that the Turks had military posts covering every single yard of the Hijaz railway, implying that Lawrence and the train-wrecking Arab guerrilla fighters were rather more of a military menace than has often been supposed and that ‘detractors who have portrayed him as a liar, a charlatan and a self-promoter are wrong’. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is reaffirmed as ‘one of history’s great war memoirs’, a conclusion from which few Spectator readers might demur. As for that old canard about the Middle East being a ‘sideshow’ of the Great War — some sideshow! One in ten of the region’s population lost their lives from the fighting and millions more were terribly wounded.

Faulkner’s admirable empathy with the common soldier, be he British, Arab or Turk, runs through these pages in what is a rich and highly readable interdisciplinary study that draws together the Great Arab Revolt and the Palestine campaigns into a larger whole. One senses the affinity for Lawrence’s evolving view of war less as Boys’ Own jolly jape than nerve-shredding nightmare. Likewise one feels the bond between biographer and his subject at its closest in his analysis of the transformation from Lawrence as youthful romantic, burning with visions of ‘freedom for the [Arab] race’ to Lawrence, the shame-shattered war veteran mugged by the shabby realpolitik of the statesmen.

Faulkner’s Lawrence is ‘the metaphor for the imperialism, violence and betrayals’ in the Middle East during the first world war, an approach at once psychologically compelling but inherently dangerous. On the one hand it offers a fascinating insight into Lawrence’s ‘psychic implosion’ during the course of the conflict and its aftermath. Its obvious shortcoming is in transforming Lawrence into a defenceless donkey onto which the biographer can pin his ideological tail.

For Faulkner, one of the tragedies of the Great War in the Middle East is that the Arabs failed to emulate the heroic achievements of Russia’s ‘Reds’, who were at that time socking it to the foreign-backed, counter-revolutionary ‘Whites’. They were doomed by the ‘conservative timidity’ and ‘pusillanimity’ of their Hashemite leaders. Possibly, but then we might suggest they were never imbued with the Marxist ideals of the Russian worker and peasant. And if the Turks went one better with their own revolution, kicking out the ancien regime ‘reactionaries’, not to mention the Greeks and the British, and establishing a ‘modernising, reforming republic’ after the war, it is not clear a century later that the secular state is capable of withstanding the concerted assault of contemporary Islamism.

It is difficult to dispute Faulkner’s observation that ‘the region has been, and remains today, riven by sectarianism, violence, intractable conflict and untold human suffering’. It is another thing to attribute this entirely to the colonially imposed carve-up of 1916–1921, however attractive that thesis might be to those who subscribe to a Marxist understanding of history. Why is it that much of Africa, Asia and Latin America has moved on so convincingly from the colonial era while the Arab world has slid backwards? Western powers undoubtedly bear a heavy responsibility for today’s tragic mess, but so too do generations of Arab leaders who have proven woefully unable or unwilling to provide decent governance for their people. We should not let them off the hook so easily.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • The Marxist Co-Option Of History And The Use Of The Scissors Strategy To Manipulate History Towards The Goal Of Marxist Liberation

    The refusal of the World War I Allied nations of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, France, Canada and the United States to overthrow the Bolshevik regime immediately after the 7 November 1917 coup in Petrograd1 shun a bright spotlight on not only the Marxist co-option of the Allies’ political establishments,2 but Marxist co-option of the Central Powers’ political establishments as well, since after the war those nations that constituted the Central Powers during the war failed after the war to alert the attention of the world to the Allies’ Marxist co-option, where the Allies protected the Bolshevik regime in Petrograd, even though Lenin’s war policy would remove Russia from the war, thereby strengthening the Central Powers against the Allies.

    The World War I Allies failure to mount a naval expeditionary force to overthrow the weak Bolsheviks in Petrograd and bring Russia back into the war, the Allies’ war strategy for victory dependent on Russia’s continued presence in the war, casts a glaring spotlight on the Marxist co-option of the West’s political establishments. In fact, there was a 60,000 man anti-Bolshevik force already in Russia (located outside Kiev) that on its own could have destroyed the Bolsheviks in Petrograd – the Czechoslovak Legion – but instead of sending the formidable legion 700 miles north to Petrograd, the Allies instead sent it on a 6,000 mile odyssey across Russia to Vladivostok for evacuation back to Europe!

    That being said, what does the Russian Army leadership (which is still headed by supposedly Russian Orthodox officers) do when it’s ordered to demobilize on November 23? The leadership obeys the Bolshevik order! In fact, between November 7 – 22, the Russian Army leadership did nothing to overturn the Bolshevik coup, even though Kerensky ordered them to!

    World War I is an obvious contrived war, where both sides for five years make monumental basic military errors. The race to the North Sea coast is one of the hilarious and obviously staged spectacles of World War I, where we see both sides intentionally prolonging the war. For the Allies, the obvious solution at the beginning of the war for a quick victory is to not follow the German lines, but to outflank and destroy the Germans, and since it was the Germans who had to move men and arms into France, the Germans were always at a strategic disadvantage being so far away from their source of combatants, armaments and other supplies.

    We are left to ponder the following questions:

    (1) How did the Bolshevik Central Committee know that the Allies wouldn’t send a naval expeditionary force to overthrow the Bolsheviks in Petrograd, thereby returning Russia to the war?

    (2) How did the Bolshevik Central Committee know that the Allies would send the Czechoslovak Legion 6,000 miles across Russia to Vladivostok instead of sending the legion 700 miles north to Petrograd to topple the Bolshevik coup?

    (3) How did the Bolshevik Central Committee know that the leadership of the Russian Army – which was still entirely made up of aristocratic, Russian Orthodox, officers – would obey Bolshevik orders and (1) not topple the Bolshevik coup; and (2) obey the order to demobilize the Russian Army?

    The Bolshevik coup in Petrograd would never have taken place unless the Bolshevik Central Committee was assured those three questions were taken care of.

    World War I was a Marxist operation creating false oppositions for the purpose of causing chaos, where out of the ashes of chaos the Marxist global position would be stronger. The official term Marxists give to this false opposition tactic is the Scissors Strategy,3 in which the blades represent the two falsely opposed sides that converge on the confused victims, simultaneously neutralizing true opposition while advancing the Marxist agenda.

    As soon as the World War I operation had ended, Marxists began planing for the World War II operation with the creation of that war’s two false opposition fronts, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and the National Fascist Party in Italy. Benito Mussolini was a well known and influential Marxist before the Comintern ordered that he take up a new identity as leader of the National Fascist Party. As for Adolf Hitler’s Marxist pedigree, one-third of Hitler’s SA, and later Gestapo personnel, were ‘former’ Marxists.4

    Continue reading…

    https://sites.google.com/site/deanjackson60/the-marxist-co-option-of-history-and-the-use-of-the-scissors-strategy-to-manipulate-history-towards-the-goal-of-marxist-liberation

    • boiledcabbage

      maybe a 27-part TV mini-series? get Olivier to do the voice-over?

    • CRSM

      You do make valid points in this interminable mini-essay. WW1 was a war that could have been avoided easily, and your suggestion that it was “contrived” is worth analysis, but I suggest that other powers were in play to ensure that it became the dreadful carnage that it turned into. Powers that I dare not mention lest I get called all sorts of hateful names.

      • Lawrence James.

        There were no hidden hands: just a purblind faith in war-plans that, in 1914, seem to offer swift and decisive victories. What the ministers and generals failed to understand was the nature of industrial war, although the American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese war gave some strong indications.

        • “There were no hidden hands: just a purblind faith in war-plans that, in 1914”

          The fact that the Western Allies refused to mount a naval expeditionary force to trounce Lenin & Company in Petrodrad is one proof that World War I was a Marxist operation.* Another proof is the Allies refusal to send the 60,000 strong Czechoslovak Legion 700 miles north to Petrograd and take out Lenin & Company. Instead the Czechoslovak Legion is sent 6,000 miles across Russia for Vladivostok and evacuation.** A third proof is the Russian Army’s aristocratic leadership’s refusal to overthrow Lenin & Company, and then to obediently obey Trotsky’s order to demobilize. A fourth proof is the Allies refusal at the start of the war to outflank German forces and roll the Germans up. Instead we witness a ludicrous three-month long race to the sea, and when the Germans reach the North Sea outflanking maneuvers on land are naturally non-existent, but naval outflanking maneuvers are possible but not executed.

          It’s time we start thinking, and cease relying on obvious Marxist fairy tale stories that pose for ‘history’.
          ———————————–
          * Russia’s involvement in the war was a critical Allied stratagem for victory, yet the Western Allies could care less about bringing Russia back into the war.

          ** The Czechoslovak Legion all by itself would have easily trounced Lenin & Company in Petrograd, since the only protection Lenin had was the Latvian rifleman 6th Tukums regiment, which was sent to defend the Bolshevik headquarters in Smolny institute…

          https://latvianhistory.com/2013/04/03/the-latvian-red-rifleman-in-the-russian-civil-war-1917-1922/

      • Only one ‘power’ was in control, Marxists, and today throughout Russia Marxists remain in control (while the Marxist co-opted West enables the fake ‘collapse’ of the USSR), as the following illustrates…

        (1) The State Emblem of the Soviet Union atop the Russian State Duma building…

        http://footage.framepool.com/shotimg/qf/544004264-duma-kremlin-palace-russian-flag-red-square.jpg

        Notice that the State Emblem of the Soviet Union is illuminated at night for clear viewing by Muscovites…

        http://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-3345878-stock-footage-street-traffic-on-okhotny-ryad-and-state-duma-at-evening-in-moscow.html

        (2) High atop the facade of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, the State Emblem of the Soviet Union is Illuminated with pinpoint precision at night…

        http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4149/5168126126_02c5505a79_m.jpg

        (3) The State Emblem of the Soviet Union atop the Russian Ministry of Defense building, including other Soviet era iconography…

        http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/51802114.jpg

        (4) Soviet Red Stars atop Kremlin towers remain where Stalin placed them in 1935…

        http://rt.com/files/news/37/3d/30/00/russia-ukraine-dialogue-peskov.si.jpg

        And still there even after the recent Kremlin renovations…

        https://www.rt.com/politics/224767-kremlin-russia-star-eagles/

        (5) Moscow’s Central Post Office employees are still in the dark as to the ‘collapse’ of the USSR in late 1991…

        http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/dangerroom/2012/10/Central_telegraph_Moscow.jpg

        Why, you ask? Click the following link for the answer…

        https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSWwliNXIZONPNidfnkRh6BxX75JS3mQB5Qp0PCgGiYzNI61EF2

        (6) Headquarters of the Russian Federal Security Service, and the Soviet Union’s security service, the KGB…

        https://worldsgreatesttravelblog.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/russia-1021.jpg

        Note the State Emblem of the Soviet Union still over the main door (click picture to enlarge), and hammer and sickle logo still above the clock. And here’s the Lubyanka at nightime…

        http://vindenes.nu/gallery/wp-content/gallery/m419.jpg

        Note illumination of hammer & sickle, and enhanced illumination of area above the main door, where the office of the KGB chief was located (third floor).

        As you can see, no Stars of David are to be seen! That being said, observant Jews (are there any other kind?) would NEVER have placed the religion hating Lenin into power on November 7, 1917, thereby re-enslaving Jews throughout Russia; Jews enjoyed a six-month stretch of liberty and freedom in Kerensky’s Russia, a flowering of Jewish life not imagined in 1916.

        That being said, there was not one Jewish aristocrat within the Russian Army leadership when Lenin & Company initiated the coup in Petrograd. Such leadership officers were still [supposedly] Russian Orthodox, yet they refused to easily overthrow Lenin on November 8 (returning Kerensky to power), and on the 23rd obediently obeyed Trotsky’s order to demobilize the Russian Army.

        Marxists use false oppositions to confuse their enemies, thereby allowing Marxists to gain strength. Jew baiting is one such false opposition tactic Marxists use to mask the true identity of the threat facing the world. The tactic is more commonly referred to by Marxists as the ‘Scissors Strategy’, in which the blades represent the two falsely opposed sides that converge on the confused victims, neutralizing true opposition to socialism, thereby allowing the advancement of socialism to the bewilderment of the true opposition.

        http://www.attacreport.com/ar_archives/art_na_china.htm

  • Frank

    It is very hard to believe that there are any Marxist historians left, and even more strange that anyone should employ them, or take them seriously!
    Mildly funny that you should refer to the arab world slipping backwards. Has it ever been in forward motion?

    • CRSM

      Probably not for several hundred years at least!

      Though had Lawrence’s advice regarding the rule of the Arab world been taken, and not been steam-rollered by the powerful bureaucrats in the India office, then we wouldn’t have the evil dynasty in place in KSA that we have have now, and the world might have been a much better place.

      • Ashley Stephens

        You’re right, Lawrence had great insight into the Middle East and our relationship today with the region would be very different.

        Also, if he lived to see the Second World War, he would have been a vital asset in North Africa.

      • Goinlike Billio

        Yes we would have had the peaceful and benign rule of the caliphate. In succession to the 600 years of wonderful rule by Islamic imperialists.
        And then the whole thing collapses because of the 10 years of European imperialist intervention . A tragedy indeed.

    • plainsdrifter

      Agreed. Since oil, the Arabs have contributed nothing to the world in art, science, and humanity in general. Innately mendacious, torture is routine where they live.

  • Conway

    Why is it that much of Africa, Asia and Latin America has moved on so convincingly from the colonial era while the Arab world has slid backwards?” The answer is a five letter ideology, but as we all know, the Left believes whatever the catastrophe, it is NTDWI.

    • Richard Baranov

      In a an educational league table of 76 countries published this year (B.B.C) Arabic countries only start appearing at Number 57 Bahrain, 61 is Jordan, 64. Tunisia, 66. Saudi Arabia, 68 Qatar, 72 Oman, 73 Morocco, at rock bottom is Ghana. I once asked a friend from a wealth Arab state why education was so poor. His answer: “We have enough money for other people to do our work for us.” An unconscious admission of parasitism! This disdain for education is pervasive and, I think the problem is Islam and the doctrine that began in the 10th. Century. It was declared that everything that needed to be known for the practice of Islam was complete and that no more learning was necessary. An attitude that guaranteed the stagnation of Islamic thought which will continue to degenerate and decline. This situation is called: “The Closing of the Door of Ijtihad”, ‘Ijtihad’ means ‘independent reasoning’, and to indulge in it is to be suspect because it suggests that Islam is not perfect or the literal word of Allah. An article I just found on the subject: http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/3114/muslims-ijtihad
      ‘Can Muslims Reopen the Gate of Ijtihad?

      • Sean L

        Epitomised by “Boko Haram”: books are bad.

  • thomas_paine2

    A great man dismissed with disdain and contempt by the Establishment, except notably by, among others, Winston Churchill.

    • congreve

      Lawrence was the epitome of his class and epoch and was the darling of the Establishment, particularly after the American flim-flam PR man put on his wild bedsheet riders show for the war-weary British public after the war.

      The Lawrence myth was excoriated and ground into dust by the Aldington 1957 biography and then resurrected into sainthood two years later by that other flim-flam man, Lean, whose movie gave O’Toole and Sharif a lift out of obscurity that they certainly did not merit.

      Unfortunately, Lawrence was JFK’d before he could stir up further trouble in the Near East and we were denied the fine spectacle of him riding his camel toward the guns of Rommel and the Afrika Corps.

      • thomas_paine2

        I read Richard Aldington’s biography many years ago. But Lawrence still broke down the wall between the West and the Arab world by learning to understand them, that could and should have been built upon. The detested and dying Ottoman rule was a useful tool.

    • dukw

      Isn’t it strange how, nearly 100 years later, armchair adventurers, armchair warriors and pc group think, colours what were the Great British heros? Not for them the experience of putting one’s life on the line; not for them the experience of hardship; not for them the decisions made in the moment.
      Last year I visited Colonel Lawrence’s grave in Dorset. I left thinking that Britain had screwed up big time in the region that both Lawrence and I knew of. As the British Empire waned, we handed over our prejudices to the American Empire and we now have the total mess that is that region and its fall out.

      • thomas_paine2

        Did you visit his house – ‘Clouds Hill’? It is National Trust and I believe only open on Sundays 12 – 4? My guessing.

        • dukw

          Sadly no, it was an early morning visit for me. I also must have whizzed past the plaque marking the accident spot. Are the flowers from an anonymous donor still put on the grave every year?

          • thomas_paine2

            I’ve only seen the house from outside ; the flowers on the grave are put there on the anniversary of his death (19th May, although the motor cycle accident was on the 13th May). I think it’s one flower less each year until the centenary of his death which happened in 1937.

          • thomas_paine2

            Clouds Hill is open only on Bank Holiday Mondays, 11 a:m until dusk.

  • Lizzy

    I travelled the entire length of the Hejaz railway from the Jordanian/Saudi border to the outskirts of Medina in 2014. Yes, there were military posts along the railway, and some large barracks but to say the entire length was covered is wildly overstating the actuality. Plus, these were built when the railway was, not as a reaction to raids by the Arab raiders, as may be implied by this article.

    • congreve

      If the Turks had mounted machine-gun posts front and rear of their trains there would have been no fellaheen derring-do in the desert.

      • Lizzy

        Well lead Arabs have a reckless bravery that is shocking in its audacity. It goes beyond reason and possibly understanding, and front and rear machine guns would not have stifled it.

      • JabbaTheCat

        The attack was always after the train had been derailed with an explosive charge laid under the track, long before the event, so your suggestion doesn’t make much sense…

  • Mary Ann Arlotta

    The tribes, the way I understand It, disagree about details of Islam that have held on to reasons to war along with their political reasons have kept them at war close to forever. IT NEVER ENDS, and I think they like it that way. They think their fighting for their religion and it gives them some reason of righteousness.

  • craigbhill

    So long as braindead old fart outdated pack-o-lies Marxism is the critic’s ultimate alternative to capitalist piggery, the latter will NEVER fall out of power. Considering Marxism’s track record of woeful and futile failure to dislodge capitalism’s complete control of world economics, the case should be made more strongly that Marxism is the pathetic ghost opposition formulated and even funded in the bowels of capitalism itself to keep at bay every other sane alternative to both capitalism and its ubiquitous ideological frenemy Marxism. Goddamn Karl Marx, without your dumber than a box of rocks prescriptions to stop capitalism, we’d have moved beyond capitalism long ago with a fair and just alternative to it THAT WORKS.

    • Perseus Slade

      Clever, interesting…

  • Pete

    “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy.

    The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.

    A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.

    Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it.

    No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith.

    It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”

    Sir Winston Churchill (The River War, first edition, Vol. II, pages 248-50, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1899).

  • Goinlike Billio

    Lawrence’s advice was that they should be left to their ‘bloody and murderous devices ‘.
    He wanted others to keep out but he did not think that the result would have been a peaceful caliphate with the arabs living at peace with one another.

    .

  • Popeye Sailer

    The Arab won’t live in peace as long as the Sunni-Shia divide exists.

    • Sue Smith

      “A little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous and cruel”.

      Robert Bolt was right on the money.

  • thomas_paine2

    A great man, whatever ; he tried to unite the Arabs against the Turks. Another great Briton, tried to do the same with the Greeks a century earlier but was also unsuccessful.

  • Jack Cade

    Sorry but I see no reason to doubt Lawrence’s claim that he was sexually assaulted. Fairly standard event in local warfare in the Middle East. And he would certainly have expected a fate of that kind, both from what he heard from his Arab comrades and from late Victorian turcophobe literature warning that this is what Turkish officers did to captives.

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