Hero: the Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia

Hero: the Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia
Michael Korda
JR Books, 784pp, £25

If, for most people, the name Lawrence of Arabia brings to mind the grandeur and drama of David Lean's 1962 film starring Peter O'Toole, they may have gained a misleading impression of the 1916 Arab Revolt, judging by this account of events, but a not entirely inaccurate picture of Lawrence the legend.

He was a useful hero, one of the few who could be elevated from the mud and guts of that miserable conflict. The skirmishes he led on behalf of the sharif of Mecca against the Ottoman imperial forces were, as he put it, only “a sideshow of a sideshow". Yet, as Europe suffered the First World War, the sight of the young British officer dressed in Bedouin robes at the head of his scimitar-wielding tribes satisfied a sore need for romance. They charged across the desert on their camels, blowing up Turkish trains and eventually "liberating" Damascus so that there could be a king - the sharif's son Faisal - in Arabia once more.

The American film-maker Lowell Thomas captured (manipulated, more like) sufficient images to put on a movie-and-lecture spectacular after the war: "With Lawrence in Arabia and Allenby in Palestine" was seen by more than two million people, including Lloyd George and Queen Mary (who both went twice) and the king of Spain. Lawrence was, Michael Korda claims, the Lady Diana of his day. No one was more famous, and no one had a more complicated relationship with the limelight. He knew everyone, from Winston Churchill, Lady Astor and George Bernard Shaw to George V and most of the military top brass.

He seemed always to be running across the well-connected. When he attempted to put aside "Colonel Lawrence" and sought anony­mity in the ranks of the RAF under an assumed name, "Aircraftman Second Class Ross" found himself interviewed by Captain W E Johns, later known for his Biggles stories. Lawrence was then sent to train under a Bonham Carter.

Those two years in the desert defined the rest of his life, and if he found that renown a burden he did not try as hard as he could have done to escape it, spending an age writing his voluminous Seven Pillars of Wisdom and confessing the "secret" of his new life in the air force to the editor of the Daily Express.

So much for the legend, which Korda recounts well, if lengthily and repetitiously, in his new biography. What of the man and
his achievements?

From the start, he appears to have been not only irritatingly precocious - he could read the newspaper upside down aged five, and was capable, we are told, of consuming 126 green plums in a day - but frequently unbearably aware of it, too. Sent to Cairo as a temporary second lieutenant on the intelligence staff in 1914, he was soon rubbing his superiors up the wrong way with his pedantry (he delighted in correcting split infinitives) and refusal to respect rank. "Who is this extraor­dinary pipsqueak?" asked one officer. And the British representative in Jeddah wrote after meeting him in 1916: "Lawrence wants kicking and kicking hard at that."

Nevertheless, he managed to earn the respect of the fractious tribes and unite them, with the help of enormous quantities of British gold, as possibly no one else could have done. When I was a child in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s you could still come across the remnants of the Hejaz Railway, locomotives and bits of track that "Emir Dynamite" had blown up, thus constantly cutting off the Ottoman supply lines down to Medina.

He was undoubtedly brave: his surveillance deep behind enemy lines in Syria won him a recommendation for a VC and he justly earned a string of decorations, including the CB and the DSO. (When he turned down the Order of Merit, King George sighed: "Well, there's one vacant. I suppose it will have to go to Foch.")

Still more important were his political efforts for the Arabs, during the war and after. He was to be tormented by the failure of the British to keep their promises, but, had it not been for Lawrence, the independent Arab states of Jordan and Iraq might not have existed at all (he helped place the sharif's sons Abdullah and Faisal on these two thrones).

What's more, if his plans, developed in 1918 and pressed on Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office in 1921, had been implemented, the history of the Middle East could have been very different: we might have seen a Greater Syria, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, which would have satisfied long-held Arab aspirations and spread the oil wealth; an independent Kurdistan and an Armenian state; a small Lebanon and a carefully separated Palestine.

A former colleague had it right when he said that Lawrence's page in history was "brilliant as a miniature". His achievements add up to less than his reputation would suggest, yet he was still a visionary and a Boy's Own hero. None­theless, one suspects that this "name-dropper" and "bumptious ass" was better admired from afar than encountered in person. l

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?