Masters of Mayhem: Lawrence of Arabia and the British military mission to the Hejaz

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Masters of Mayhem: Lawrence of Arabia and the British military mission to the Hejaz
James Stejskal
Casemate, £19.99 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1612005748

The perhaps somewhat sensationalised title should not put one off. With great accuracy, detail, enthusiasm, and insight, Masters of Mayhem recounts the evolution of Allied combined operations against the Ottoman (Turkish) forces in the Hejaz, particularly during the latter stages of WWI.

For those new to this theatre of WWI, the background and context of it in relation to the war on the Western Front and elsewhere is covered in the introductory part of the book.

Drawing on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, the detail throughout the main text, and in the appendices, is excellent.

The story of the Arab Revolt, often with a spotlight on T E Lawrence and his role in the developing Arab struggle to achieve an independent Arab state, has been well covered in other books. Masters of Mayhem, however, takes a new perspective on that story. Focusing on the evolution of the methods of combining the fledgling technologies of the time with both the prevailing military strategy and tactics, Stejskal produces a new and effective distillation of ideas into action.

Central to this was the creation of a new staff within the then Arab Bureau, specifically to manage the ensuing operations. In late 1917, the Hejaz Operations Staff was brought together, to become known internally as ‘Hedgehog’, embracing the control of tactical fighting units together with the command and supply chain, planning, and communication.

Hedgehog built on the early, more disparate randomness of the previous guerrilla actions in the early Revolt, and brought some structure and, certainly, more strategy to the operations.

The activities and role of the Hejaz Armoured Car Section/ Battery, with its Rolls-Royce cars and accompanying tenders, are expertly detailed, as is the use of the aircraft from X-Flight of the RFC/RAF.

Many specific actions are described with the aforementioned enthusiasm and detail. The accounts of the train derailment at Hallat Ammar, and the attacks on Mudawarra, for example, are first-class, with good accompanying maps and images, which is true throughout the book, and the photographs will be especially interesting to scholars of the period.

For those interested in Lawrence in particular, he features strongly, as one would expect. However, his contextual importance is covered well here, especially in relation to his maverick style and how that sat between the constraints laid down by his British military masters and the rawness of the Arab leaders and tribesmen he liaised with and fought alongside.

Overall, this book rounds out an operation that used the full package of active participation by the variety of forces available – military intelligence, hardware, strategy, tactics, and personnel – during the latter stages of the Revolt.

It expertly explains the crucial role of Hedgehog in the development of what is properly described as ‘combined forces operations’ throughout the period, and how this acts as a blueprint for ongoing military practice.

As Lawrence put it in his book 27 Articles, ‘The Hejaz confounds ordinary tactics.’ Masters of Mayhem provides an excellent basis for an understanding of why this was, and is, the case, and how the Allied forces at the time set about developing a new style of warfare to cope with it.

Roger Ward

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