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He was a military genius who lead an Arab revolt against the Turks in WWI and even had a £1m bounty on his head. But back in Britain, the King of the Desert vanished into obscurity: From Lawrence of Arabia to Tom of Dorset

BOOK OF THE WEEK

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

by Sir Ranulph Fiennes (Michael Joseph £25, 320pp)

If, like me, you come to the name Lawrence of Arabia via images of sand dunes, the sweeping violins of an Oscar-winning score, and the startlingly blue eyes of Peter O’Toole in full keffiyeh headdress in David Lean’s 1962 movie, you are in for a treat.

This corking biography from explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes provides a new but no less epic view of the life and legend of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence.

And who better to look at the unique challenges that Lawrence faced than Fiennes?

As a young Army officer, Fiennes was himself seconded to the Gulf state of Oman in 1967. He commanded an Arab guerrilla unit to fight off brutal Marxist rebels determined to overthrow the Sultan.

The rip-roaring story of Lawrence’s life is broken up every so often with parallels from Fiennes’ own experiences. They don’t look too dissimilar, either — the same fine-boned features — but their height is wildly different: Fiennes is well over 6ft, Lawrence was slightly built at 5ft 5in. But they both share a taste for high adventure.

If, like me, you come to the name Lawrence of Arabia via images of sand dunes, the sweeping violins of an Oscar-winning score, and the startlingly blue eyes of Peter O'Toole in full keffiyeh headdress in David Lean's 1962 movie (pictured), you are in for a treat If, like me, you come to the name Lawrence of Arabia via images of sand dunes, the sweeping violins of an Oscar-winning score, and the startlingly blue eyes of Peter O'Toole in full keffiyeh headdress in David Lean's 1962 movie (pictured), you are in for a treat

If, like me, you come to the name Lawrence of Arabia via images of sand dunes, the sweeping violins of an Oscar-winning score, and the startlingly blue eyes of Peter O’Toole in full keffiyeh headdress in David Lean’s 1962 movie (pictured), you are in for a treat

British aircraftman T. E. Lawrence (1888 - 1935), aka 'Lawrence of Arabia', during his brief stint in the RAF, circa 1922 British aircraftman T. E. Lawrence (1888 - 1935), aka 'Lawrence of Arabia', during his brief stint in the RAF, circa 1922

British aircraftman T. E. Lawrence (1888 – 1935), aka ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, during his brief stint in the RAF, circa 1922

There is clearly something about Lawrence and the Fiennes family. Ralph (Fiennes’s third cousin) played Lawrence in the TV film A Dangerous Man in 1990, nearly 30 years after Lean’s epic. Ralph’s brother Joseph starred as Ross in Terence Rattigan’s drama of the same name in 2016, a play based on Lawrence’s life (he took the name ‘Ross’ after enlisting in the RAF as an aircraftman in 1922).

Lawrence first set foot on the burning sands of Arabia as a young archaeologist in 1909. By 1918 he was one of the most celebrated figures in all the Middle East and the Turks had put a price on his head of £15,000 (about £1.3million today).

During that time he led the Arab revolt against the Turks — a significant part of the Allies’ war strategy to occupy the Ottoman empire and keep the Germans busy. It is a complex story, made admirably clear in Fiennes’s crisply written account. Lawrence had to negotiate the fierce tribal rivalries of Arabia, the threat of betrayal to the Turks, as well as the extreme temperatures and strength-sapping conditions. 

We follow Lawrence’s band of camel-borne warriors as they gallop through 600 miles of blistering heat to capture Aqaba on the Red Sea, along the way blowing up railway lines and enemy troop trains. It was brutal, savage fighting with the Turks leaving villages burned, women raped and children murdered.

Nor does Fiennes skate over the controversial episode in Deraa, where Lawrence was captured by the Turks. He was tortured, beaten and almost certainly raped.

READ MORE: An epic nightmare: Hard drinking, drug-taking and gambling, extras who took potshots at the cast, and a jailed screenwriter… 60 years on, The hellraising truth behind the making of Lawrence of Arabia 

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He was haunted by his sexuality — he was probably homosexual — and in later years is thought to have paid to be whipped.

The book is full of extraordinary characters: here is the tribal leader Auda Abu Tayi, tall and muscular, who claimed to be married 28 times, no less, and wounded 13. No one would ever dare to betray him: he was just what Lawrence and the Arab Revolt needed. Or how about Ali, a Harith tribesman with his luxuriant black hair washed in camel urine. 

Ali was a celebrated warrior and leader who ‘could outstrip a trotting camel on his bare feet, keep his speed over half a mile, and then vault with one hand into the saddle, holding his rifle in the other’. Clearly another welcome addition to Lawrence’s army.

There were tribal feuds going back generations. Lawrence had to deal with an incident where ‘Hamed the Moor’ had shot and killed another tribesman. Lawrence knew blood for blood was the desert code, so he had to deliver justice himself, though he had never killed before.

He was so nervous his aim was poor. He shot the man in the chest, then the hand, before finally killing him with a shot to the neck. It was traumatic. Lawrence was unable to sleep.  He had looked a man in the eyes and shot him dead. One of his own men, at that. But he had no choice.

Fiennes recalls a similar episode in Oman. He had cornered one of the enemy: ‘Drop your weapon or I will kill you,’ he shouted in Arabic. The man ignored his warning, dropping to his knee and bringing up his Kalashnikov. Fiennes fired before he could get off a shot. The man’s face crumpled as he was slammed back as though hit by a sledgehammer.

‘A part of me that was still young and uncynical died with him, spreadeagled on a thorn bush, with his [Communist)] badge glinting in the hot sun,’ writes Fiennes.

Unlike Lawrence, who had worked and lived with Arab tribes for years before the war, Fiennes is new to the scene. The explorer tries to get to grips with their customs, observing and copying. ‘I noticed how they only ate with their right hands (as the left is used for unsanitary issues) and sat with their legs tucked underneath so that their soles could not point at another man — a big insult to a Muslim.’

Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, photographed by Lowell Thomas in 1919 Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, photographed by Lowell Thomas in 1919

Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, photographed by Lowell Thomas in 1919

T.E. Lawrence was a British Army officer renowned especially for his liaison role during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule of 1916 T.E. Lawrence was a British Army officer renowned especially for his liaison role during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule of 1916

T.E. Lawrence was a British Army officer renowned especially for his liaison role during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule of 1916

One day, a giant black spider lands on his head and crawls down his neck. It is 7in across with a curved beak and comes for Fiennes again. He hammers it to death. An Arab tells him this was not such a good idea: ‘It is no good thing to crush such an insect, for a chapter of the Holy Book is given to its honour.’ You live and learn, I guess.

In the end Lawrence felt betrayed: his dream of independence for the Arabs crushed by the Sykes-Picot Agreement which carved up the Middle East into French, British and Russian spheres of influence.

He returned to Britain seeking anonymity, despite being one of the best-known men in the world.

After he was uncovered by the press as Ross and discharged from the RAF, he rejoined the Royal Tank Corps as Thomas Edward Shaw. Having survived years of war and all that the Turks and the desert could throw at him, he died in a motorcycle accident in Dorset. He was just 46.

But what of his legacy, beyond the extraordinary glamour of the desert heroism? His leadership continues to inspire operations and guerrilla rebellions worldwide. Historians rate him alongside the greatest generals in history, as he created a new form of hybrid warfare, with modern weapons operating alongside irregular forces.

His strategies can be seen in the guerrilla operations Churchill employed in World War II. The Viet Cong used his tactics during the Vietnam War. They were also highly influential in 2001 when U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan using a combination of air strikes and Arab tribesmen on the ground. Lawrence’s journey is part of the fabric of British history. Fiennes’s immaculate retelling of this cracking story is a fitting tribute.

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