This story of a hero, told by a celebrated explorer and former soldier, makes for a great read

Review: Vivien Horler

Lawrence of Arabia, by Ranulph Fiennes (Michael Joseph)

Thomas Edward Lawrence was a history graduate with a first from Oxford when he first went to Arabia – in what is now southern Turkey – to supervise a British Museum archaeological dig in Carchemis, an ancient Hittite city.

It was1909 and he was 25. Within four years he was fluent in Arabic as well as a number of dialects, and had travelled far and wide, learning much about Arab customs and earning the respect of differing and often warring tribes.

He might have stayed there at the dig, had World War 1 not broken out in 1914, altering the course of history.

Little did Lawrence know, writes Ranulph Fiennes, that events in Syria would soon change the course of the war, “and the hopes and dreams of an Arab prince and much of the Middle East would rest on his shoulders”.

The book describes Lawrence’s experiences leading the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, a campaign encouraged and supported by Britain and France because it kept the Turks bogged down in the Middle East and not in Europe supporting Germany.

The Arabs wanted to claim the whole vast region for themselves, but unbeknown to Lawrence at that stage, the French and British already had an agreement to carve the region up after the war, with France getting Syria and Britain a mandate to govern Palestine and oil-rich Iraq.

On top of that, and after centuries of anti-semitism in Europe there was a fledgling Zionist movement in Britain, dating back to 1886, which had as its aim the creation of  a home for Jewish people in Palestine.

This idea had not gained much traction before the war, but it turned out there was a world shortage of acetone, a key ingredient in cordite which is used in ammunition. The leader of the World Zionist Organisation was a Russian-born chemist called Chaim Weizmann, then living in Britain, who had found a way to produce acetone from starch.

After Weizmann was awarded Britain’s Order of Merit for this discovery, Weizmann spoke to the prime minister David Lloyd George about the possibility of a Jewish settlement in Palestine.

For a variety of reasons, Lloyd George thought this was a good idea, and suspected the Americans, who had recently entered the war, would do so too. In November 1917 The Times published a letter from the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, a British MP and prominent Zionism supporter. This letter came to be known as the Balfour Declaration and was the first indication of support by a major world power for a home for the Jews in Palestine.

The rest is history. With the war in Gaza raging as I write, I found Fiennes’s recounting of the backdrop of the origin of the state of Israel in 1948 absolutely riveting.

And Lawrence’s support during the Arab Revolt for the Arab prince, Feisal bin Hussein, one of the four sons of Sherif Hussein Ibn Ali, the Emir of Mecca, was crucial.

Lawrence was a maverick, extremely clever, courageous beyond measure, resourceful and determined to play his part in the Arab Revolt. He was also tortured by his suspicions that Britand and France would shaft the Arabs after the war, which was more or less what happened.

In 1919 both Lawrence and Feisal attended the Versailles Peace Conference, where Feisal made the case for Arab control of Syria, in return for limited Jewish settlement in Palestine.

He told a Reuters correspondent at the time: “Arabs are not jealous of Zionist Jews, and intend to give them fair play, and the Zionist Jews have assured the Nationalist Arabs of their intention to see that they too have fair play in their respective areas.”

As we all know, it didn’t work out like that.

Lawrence remains a person of fascination, and Fiennes points out that more than 300 books have been written about him. “Lawrence continues to have a far-reaching influence to this day, both good and bad.”

His legacy includes a contribution to the founding of Israel, and the remaking of the borders of Iraq which led to the Kurdish revolt and the 1990 Gulf War.

Initially Jewish immigration to Palestine was a trickle – in 1927 more Jews reportedly left Palestine than entered it. But that changed after World War II. Fiennes says Israel is now thought to control as much as 85% of historic Palestine.

“In Lawrence’s defence, much of this was difficult to foresee when he and Feisal welcomed the Zionist project. To this day it remains a complex and violent situation that shows no sign of being solved.”

I suspect my interest in the current iteration of the war, which broke out after this book was published late last year, has influenced the shape of this review; there is a great deal more to the book including Lawrence’s heroism in various skirmishes during the Arab Revolt, and his insistence on guerilla-style warfare against the Turks.

And Fiennes, as he has done in other books, introduces his own experiences into the narrative. In 1967 as a British soldier he was sent to Oman to weld together an Arab force to defend the sultanate from Communist forces. Over 66% of the Western world’s oil requirements was derived from countries in the Persian Gulf, with tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman every 10 minutes of every day. Should the Persian Gulf fall to the Soviet Union, it would spell disaster for the West.

As a shout on the cover of this book says, “You don’t have to have led a desert army into battle to tell [Lawrence’s] story, but it helps.” It certainly does.

I found this an enlightening and fascinating read.

  • Lawrence of Arabia was one of the top books featured in Exclusive Books’s Christmas Catalogue.





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