Setting the Desert on Fire: T. E. Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918

It’s one of those scenes that show what the movies do supremely well. T. E. Lawrence — in Lawrence of Arabia — rides a camel through the blindingly gorgeous landscape of the Hijaz (in present-day Saudi Arabia), discovering his deep love of the desert. As he passes through a deep gorge, he begins to sing, and the high cliffs echo back the lines and “rum-te-tums” of the “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” Lawrence’s desert reverie is suddenly broken by the sound of reverberating applause. Colonel Harry Brighton, the British military liaison to the Arabs revolting against Turkish rule, has come to meet him and find out why he is at Prince Feisal’s camp at Wadi Safra. Lawrence says he’s there to “appreciate the situation,” and Brighton orders him to “keep your mouth shut” when meeting Feisal. And so, in mid-1917, the events of the Arab Revolt are set in motion. In one fell swoop the filmmakers have shown the appeal of the desert, Lawrence’s adventurousness of spirit, and the hidebound nature of the hero’s superiors in the British Army.

The problem is that none of it happened. Colonel Brighton never existed. The area around Wadi Safra was deeply dangerous — the Turks were said to crucify captured British officers — and an experienced desert traveler like Lawrence would hardly have announced his presence to everyone within miles by bursting into song. It was, moreover, Lawrence’s own assessment and encouragement of Feisal in December 1916 that had led the British to support the revolt with weapons, food, and money. The movie is gorgeous, and Peter O’Toole’s performance as Lawrence is indelibly stamped on the popular consciousness. But it is all ahistorical — and needlessly so, for the real story is more fascinating than the movie’s invention, as James Barr’s well-told new book, Setting the Desert on Fire, makes clear.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was a remarkable man. A brilliant medievalist, he had walked through Palestine and Syria before the war, researching the Crusader castles. He’d also spent years as a field archaeologist in the region. When he enlisted in the military in 1914, his knowledge of Arabic took him into military intelligence. Posted to Cairo, he was bored by the desk work that military intelligence entails; two of his younger brothers were killed on the Western Front, which must have fueled his sense of futile inactivity.

Early in 1916, he became involved with the Arab Bureau, an organization only the British at the height of their imperial glory could have dreamed up. It was a loose gathering of Arabic-speaking academics, diplomats, archaeologists, colonial officers, and even a businessman or two. The Arab Bureau’s mission was to collect every possible bit of information about Turkish and German influence in the Middle East and act on it in the field. Under its aegis, for instance, Herbert Garland, a metallurgist in civilian life, devised a simple mine and used it on the Hijaz Railway in February 1917 (in what Barr a bit optimistically calls the “first ever act of sabotage committed by the British army behind enemy lines”). The Arab Bureau was a sort of boy’s own adventure for the intellectual set: daring exploits followed by competitive chess games and discussions of Hittite culture.

Lawrence fit in perfectly and soon found himself off to the Hijaz to assess the possibility of a revolt against Turkish rule by the Arab tribes around Mecca. While ultimately “just a sideshow in a sideshow,” the Arab Revolt is one of the few thrilling stories out of a war remembered best for Flanders mud and casualty rates beyond comprehension. Lawrence succeeded in organizing an uprising around Prince Feisal, the son of the sharif of Mecca, and he pushed it to advance north, eventually all the way to Damascus — trying to defeat French hopes of ruling postwar Syria. He was beset at every turn by the ever-changing loyalties of both his British and Arab friends and by the difficulties of warring in the desert with unreliable troops. Although Lawrence was eventually disappointed in his hopes of seeing Arabs determine their own fate under British altruism, his is by any measure a glorious story, something out of the novels of John Buchan as much as the annals of military history.

Over the last 80 years, Lawrence has attracted more biographers than any man, great or small, deserves. Yet Barr’s book is a success. He has ploughed through all of the Lawrence archives — that the warrior was also a great writer helps explain his appeal — and drawn judiciously from them. Barr is particularly good on the much-debated Dara episode, where Lawrence claimed to have been whipped and possibly sexually assaulted by the Turkish governor; much is made of the incident in the movie, but Barr shows, as conclusively as is ever likely to be possible, that Lawrence made it up. Setting the Desert on Fire is informed by some weeks that Barr spent visiting, in 2004 and 2005, the sites of the Arab Revolt in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Jordan. He uses the material culled from his travels lightly, as color, and doesn’t make too much of it, which is refreshing in itself, as new Lawrence studies too often deal in exotica and grand claims.

The book’s only serious flaw is its failure to be informed by Polly Mohs’s recent research into the Arab Bureau. Mohs, a professor at Cambridge, has shown how much the success of the Arab Revolt came down to superior intelligence provided by the Royal Air Force and the power of telegraph communication. Lawrence and his superiors almost always knew where their enemy was and what they were doing. Mohs work hasn’t yet reached a general audience, and Barr would do well to write it into his fine new book in the paperback edition.

Robert Messenger is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.