Behind the Lawrence Legend
The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt
Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2018, 284 pages
Book Review published on: August 10, 2018
Professional intelligence officers typically expect to labor in relative anonymity where their successes are likely to remain unheralded and their sacrifices unknown. This is no-doubt especially true when their work is overshadowed by a larger-than-life public figure such as T.E. Lawrence during the Arab Revolt of 1916–1918. Drawing upon newly uncovered sources, archeologist and historian Philip Walker attempts in Behind the Lawrence Legend: The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt to correct the historical record by describing the quiet professionals whose largely forgotten intelligence work was critical to Lawrence’s battlefield success. Without detracting from the Lawrence legacy, Walker tells the story of Col. Cyril Wilson and his subordinates at the Jeddah Consulate whose roles in the First World War, the author argues, have until recently been significantly underappreciated by historians. Walker notes that the “sabotage work still resonates today as iconic testament to the Arab Revolt, while many of the low-key but essential intelligence and diplomatic efforts, particularly those carried out in the fulcrum of Jeddah, remain little known or hidden.”1.
Walker’s description of the contributions of specific British intelligence officers underscores the importance of intelligence work to the Arab Revolt and the overall British campaign in the Middle East during the First World War. Unlike the high-profile exploits of Lawrence, the Jeddah Consulate practiced the more conventional arts of intelligence in a manner consistent with three main missions recognizable to any of today’s intelligence professionals: collecting intelligence by running networks of agents, producing actionable finished intelligence analysis, and coordinating covert-action operations. For example, twenty-three-year-old Lt. Leslie Bright’s routine behind-the-scenes intelligence work was critical to the British command. Bright’s work was “seen by the Arab Bureau as part of a jigsaw that would help to bring order and cohesion to a mass of agent reports, gossip, front-line reports, stolen or captured documents, newspaper stories, aerial photographs, prisoner of war interrogations, the all-important radio intercepts, and more.”2 His “penetrating analysis” for the Arab Bureau was “considered so valuable that they were printed intact in its highly secret Arab Bulletin.”3 Paperwork and thoughtful analysis, no matter how vital, obviously had no chance of making headlines like Lawrence and his Arabs blowing up trains and destroying rail networks.
Like Lawrence, to operate most effectively the Jeddah Consulate also appreciated the need for empathy with the locals, fluency in their language, and respect and appreciation for their culture. Walker points out that Bright’s success “reminds us that Lawrence was not the only officer to understand and live on equal terms with the Arabs.4 Bright “had Lawrence’s insight and empathy for the Arabs and their culture.”5 In another example, Walker’s account of the strategic significance of camel purchases by British agents made in support of the overall military campaign illuminates the importance of properly understanding the local operational environment and practicing sound intelligence tradecraft.
Some of the problems the Jeddah Consulate faced will also be familiar to today’s intelligence officers. For example, Walker explores some of the moral and ethical dimensions that can arise with intelligence work. Walker cites the internal psychological struggles that some British officers suffered while laboring under false pretenses (such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement) that were designed to deliberately mislead the Arab leadership they had grown to respect. Such struggles took a psychological toll on Wilson and his men. Being understaffed and overworked piled on additional mental burdens. These psychological stresses accumulated and contributed to the incapacitation of a number of men, to include Wilson himself. Wilson’s “unswerving moral compass made him hate the idea of spying and this tension within him was to play its part later in a near breakdown.”6 Despite their inherent professionalism, this was still the early days of intelligence. In addition to posing unfamiliar ethical dilemmas for which they were largely unprepared, Walker shows how bureaucratic rivalries and petty interagency squabbles rendered some of the intelligence work produced by the Jeddah Consulate much less effective than it could have been.
While much has been written about T.E. Lawrence, Walker has managed to produce a new book with a number of fresh insights. He has also managed to do so in a positive manner free of an attempt, as he puts it, “to debunk the overblown Lawrence legend.”7 Clearly, “there is no doubt that Lawrence’s contribution to the Arab Revolt was extraordinary and indispensable.”8 That his contributions were not the only ones of importance should come as no surprise, and in no way detracts from Lawrence’s achievements. Instead, the “compelling story of Wilson and his close-knit band points to an inescapable conclusion: the Jeddah Consulate was a vitally important hub of the revolt whose influence has been considerably undervalued.”9 These are records of intelligence work that could have been easily lost to history, and we can be grateful to Walker for helping preserve the lessons they contain.
- Philip Walker, Behind the Lawrence Legend: The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018), 83.
- Ibid., 146.
- Ibid., 149.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 213.
- Ibid., 214.
Book Review written by: Kevin Rousseau, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas