REVIEW – Lawrence of Arabia on War: the campaign in the desert, 1916-18

6 mins read
Rob Johnson
Osprey, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1472834911
Rob Johnson

Osprey, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1472834911

Rob Johnson’s achievement in this book is to take Colonel T E Lawrence seriously as a theoretician and practitioner of war, and to produce the most comprehensive assessment of his contribution ever published.

The great majority of the many books about Lawrence are essentially biographies – of hugely variable quality, of course, and with Jeremy Wilson’s Lawrence of Arabia (1989) the seminal work. The only substantial book I can think of that is directly comparable with Johnson’s is Basil Liddell Hart’s T E Lawrence: in Arabia and After (1934), and that was such a long while ago.

Here is a new study by a former army officer who is now Director of the Changing Character of War Research Centre at Oxford and a Senior Research Fellow at Pembroke College. Johnson has made a special study of the First World War in the Middle East, and, drawing upon more recent experience of British (and other Western) operations in the region, he is exceptionally well placed to deliver a critical assessment of Lawrence’s role in the Arab Revolt.

Brainwork for war

Lawrence is not only an endlessly controversial figure; his war record has been subject to colossal distortion and caricature (much of it of his own making). Johnson’s assessment is judicious.

Lawrence was not really an ‘amateur’. Though he was a wartime officer – not a pre-war regular – he had specialised in the study of war at Oxford, and he consistently applied his own dictum that to make war well one had to learn hard. ‘Do make it clear,’ he advised Liddell Hart when the latter was at work on his biography, ‘that generalship, at least in my case, came of understanding, of hard study and brainwork and concentration. Had it come easy to me, I should not have done it so well.’

But unlike officers moulded by British military tradition, the highly cerebral and maverick Lawrence was willing to reconceptualise warfare, not just once, as he adapted to the Bedouin way of war in Arabia, but repeatedly, as the subsequent demands of the evolving campaign required.

A good example is Lawrence’s embrace of new technology. One neat example is the IED (improvised explosive device). Lawrence believed that ‘mines were the best weapon yet discovered to make the regular working of their trains costly and uncertain for our … enemy.’ Johnson comments:

This was indeed a prescient observation, for the mine and improvised explosive device were thereafter a critical tool in every insurgent’s arsenal. The remote action of a device protected the assailants, allowing them to keep the initiative by choosing the location and timing, and maximised damage and cost on their enemy. Detection was time-consuming, often exhausting, and uncertain.

One the other hand, Johnson lays emphasis on areas downplayed by Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. His great post-war memoir was many things, among them political propaganda for an Arab cause that was being mangled by imperial diplomacy. So he could be less than forthright about the essential role of British logistics, about the later shift to what Johnson calls ‘hybrid warfare’ (involving British aviation, armoured cars, artillery, and weapons specialists), and about Arab motivation, reliability, and vulnerability.

We learn, for example, that German and Ottoman aircraft became a growing threat to camel-mounted Arab forces, reducing the security once provided by the vast spaces of the open desert. The deployment of British and Australian airpower – including, on one occasion, a massive Handley-Page bomber – was a vital counter-measure.

Often enough, I am sure, Lawrence deceived himself. He was a Romantic and an Orientalist who harboured an idealised view of the Bedouin. He was inclined to make virtue of their individuality and indiscipline even when military effectiveness was compromised.

A fake revolution

There was a deeper problem here. Lawrence was in denial about the wellsprings of the Arab Revolt. The Hashemite leaders were reactionary tribal potentates, not modern revolutionaries, and the great majority of the Bedouin rank and file were motivated by pay and loot, not the nationalism that animated middle-class Arabs in Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad.

I would put more emphasis on this than Johnson is inclined to. Quite rightly, he stresses the limitations of the guerrilla war in the desert, the way in which, in the perspective of grand strategy, it must be seen as auxiliary to the operations of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine. But this cannot be generalised to guerrilla warfare as a whole. It does not follow that the guerrilla always depends for success on a strong conventional ally.

This was not the case in Mexico, Ireland, China, Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam, or any of a dozen other places where the guerrillas triumphed during 20th-century wars. But these were both nationalist insurgencies and social revolutions. They mobilised the mass of the population in support of the guerrillas with a promise of land reform. The Arab Revolt, by contrast, in sociological terms, was little more than an inflated surge of tribal raiding.

T E Lawrence. Despite
his reputation as an amateur, he
acutely understood the ‘hard study
and brainwork and concentration’
that making war demanded.
T E Lawrence. Despite his reputation as an amateur, he acutely understood the ‘hard study and brainwork and concentration’ that making war demanded.

On the other hand, I would be equally emphatic that the imperial powers first shafted the Hashemites, then smashed genuine popular revolutions in Egypt (in 1919) and Iraq (in 1920), and finally imposed (in 1921) a shambolic carve-up, which David Fromkin was moved to call ‘a peace to end all peace’.

Lawrence was conflicted about all this. He internalised the contradictions of the conflict between Anglo-French imperialism and embryonic Arab nationalism, a conflict distorted in his mind by the Orientalist prism through which he viewed it. It was this that tore him apart: to my mind, down playing the perfidious role of imperialism makes his psychological collapse after the war inexplicable.

These are quibbles, since the book is first and foremost a military analysis. But in relation to the main focus, I have a serious complaint against the publisher (not the author), which is the appalling lack of detailed maps. In a work of military history, describing in detail dozens of separate military operations, to provide just three smallscale regional maps is hopeless. It is impossible to follow the action without recourse to maps sourced elsewhere.

Sharp insight

That said, the effort is well worth it. Johnson offers a host of sharp insights (including a number that have forced me to amend some of my own overenthusiastic judgements in Lawrence of Arabia’s War). Particularly valuable is the charting of the evolution of the war, analysing it not just as a succession of sequential phases as the fighting moved north, but a transformation in its whole fabric. What began as a simple weave – Bedouin raiders assisted by British demolition experts – became a complex weave in which Bedouin irregulars fought alongside growing numbers of Hashemite regulars, and they were assisted not by a mere handful of British ‘advisors’ but by a largescale deployment of aircraft, armoured cars, light cars, self-propelled artillery, Stokes mortars, Lewis guns, Imperial Camel Corps, and contingents of Indian infantry and mountain-gunners.

These insights feed into an interesting final discussion of the reception and reinterpretation of Lawrence’s ideas after the war. I had previously had only an inkling of this. I knew of his influence on Liddell Hart’s thinking about the ‘indirect approach’, but I knew nothing of Colin Gubbins, the man Churchill put in charge of his attempt to ‘set Europe ablaze’ during the Second World War by providing active support to the Resistance. The SOE (Special Operations Executive) was, it seems, part of the Lawrence legacy.

And he is with us still, in the age of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, a focus of serious study among Western officers deployed to the Middle East. Dave Kilcullen, a former Australian officer working in the US State Department, produced his own ‘28 Articles’ modelled on Lawrence’s ‘27 Articles’, which had been a set of guidance notes published in August 1917 in an internal intelligence briefing (the Arab Bulletin) for officers serving with the Arabs.

US counter-insurgency (or ‘COIN’) specialist John Nagl quoted Lawrence in the title of his military treatise, calling it Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Johnson is dubious about some of this. Every situation is different. Context is all. He quotes the cautionary words of Lawrence himself in introducing his ‘27 Articles’:

The following notes have been expressed in commandment form for greater clarity and to save words. They are, however, only my personal conclusions, arrived at gradually while I worked in the Hijaz and now put on paper as stalking horses for beginners in the Arab armies. They are meant to apply only to Bedu; townspeople or Syrians require totally different treatment. They are of course not suitable to any other person’s need, or applicable unchanged in any particular situation.

Indeed. Confirmed, perhaps, by the mayhem into which the region has descended since the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 – despite trying to learn and apply the lessons of Lawrence’s experience.

And perhaps the real lesson is that the Orientalist assumption implicit in Lawrence’s ‘27 Articles’ – that ‘They’ are people to be manipulated by ‘Us’ – is hardly an appropriate way to be thinking about the world in the first place.

This book can be strongly recommended to anyone interested in Lawrence, the First World War in the Middle East, and the theory and practice of guerrilla warfare. But grab a set of decent maps when you settle down to read it.

Review by Neil Faulkner

This article was published in the October/November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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