T. E. Lawrence-Lawrence of Arabia-needs no introduction. His renowned work about his experiences with King Feisal's Arab army as it fought its campaign to Damascus-The Seven Pillars of Wisdom-has become a classic of twentieth century English literature. Revolt in the Desert is not a work of literature, or even a history of the campaign. It is an account of the experiences of one remarkable British officer's war from his own perspective. His was a fluid irregular's war of lightning raids, of blown up railway tracks and trains, ambuscade and-towards the end-of open battle as the defeated Ottoman Turkish Army were harried as they retreated northwards. Here are the Imperial Camel Corps, armoured car squadrons, daring RAF pilots and their aircraft, Ghurkha and Indian infantry and a bevy of 'specialists' who are the forerunners of today's special forces like the SAS. It is, of course, unlike any other straightforward military memoir. Lawrence had an affection for the land, for nature and for the cause of the Arab people that went far beyond the mere liaison his task required. This permeates his writing which-though it provides a linear narrative of the campaign-is nevertheless a work of finely crafted penmanship which is a delight to read not only for military historians, but for everyone who appreciates great writing.
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Sections of Beni Ali tribesmen approached the Turkish command with an offer to surrender, if their villages were spared. Fakhri played with them, and in the ensuing lull of hostilities surrounded the Awali suburb with his troops: whom suddenly he ordered to carry it by assault and to massacre every living thing within its wails. Hundreds of the inhabitants were raped and butchered, the houses fired, and living and dead alike thrown back into the flames. Fakhri and his men had served together and had learned the arts of both the slow and the fast kill upon the Armenians in the North.
This bitter taste of the Turkish mode of war sent a shock across Arabia, for the first rule of Arab war was that women were inviolable: the second that the lives and honour of children too young to fight with men were to be spared: the third, that property impossible to carry off should be left undamaged. The Arabs with Feisal perceived that they were opposed to new customs, and fell back out of touch to gain time to readjust themselves. There could no longer be any question of submission: the sack of Awali had opened blood-feud upon blood-feud, and put on them the duty of fighting to the end of their force: but it was plain now that it would be a long affair, and that with muzzleloading guns for sole weapons, they could hardly expect to win.
So they fell back from the level plains about Medina into the hills where they rested, while Ali and Feisal sent messenger after messenger down to Rabegh, their sea-base, to learn when fresh stores and money and arms might be expected. The revolt had begun haphazard, on their father's explicit orders, and the old man, too independent to take hissons into his full confidence, had not worked out with them any arrangements for prolonging it. So the reply was only a little food. Later some Japanese rifles, most of them broken, were received. Such barrels as were still whole were so foul that the too-eager Arabs burst them on the first trial. No money was sent up at all: to take its place Feisal filled a decent chest with stones, had it locked and corded carefully, guarded on each daily march by his own slaves, and introduced meticulously into his tent each night. By such theatricals the brothers tried to hold a melting force.
The next two days I spent in Feisal's company, and so got a deeper experience of his method of command, at an interesting season when the morale of his men was suffering heavily from the scare reports brought in, and from the defection of the Northern Harb. Feisal, fighting to make up their lost spirits, did it most surely by lending of his own to every one within reach. He was accessible to all who stood outside his tent and waited for notice; and he never cut short petitions, even when men came in chorus with their grief in a song of many verses, and sang them around us in the dark. He listened always, and, if he did not settle the case himself, called Sharraf or Faiz to arrange it for him. This extreme patience was a further lesson to me of what native headship in Arabia meant.
His self-control seemed equally great. When Mirzuk el Tikheimi, his guest-master, came in from Zeid to explain the shameful story of their rout, Feisal just laughed at him in public and sent him aside to wait while he saw the sheikhs of the Harb and the Ageyl whose carelessness had been mainly responsible for the disaster. These he rallied gently, chaffing them for having done this or that, for having inflicted such losses, or lost so much. Then he called back Mirzuk and lowered the tent-flap: a sign that there was private business to be done. I thought of the meaning of Feisal's name (the sword flashing downward in the stroke) and feared a scene, but he made room for Mirzuk on his carpet, and said "Come! tell us more of your ?nights? and marvels of the battle: amuse us."
Feisal, in speaking, had a rich musical voice, and used it carefully upon his men. To them he talked in tribal dialect, but with a curious, hesitant manner, as though faltering painfully among phrases, looking inward for the just word. His thought, perhaps, moved only by a little in front of his speech, for the phrases at last chosen were usually the simplest, which gave an effect emotional and sincere. It seemed possible, so thin was the screen of words, to see the pure and very brave spirit shining out.
The routine of our life in camp was simple. Just before daybreak the army Imam used to utter an astounding call to prayer. His voice was harsh and very powerful, and we were effectually roused, whether we prayed or cursed. As soon as he ended, Feisal's Imam cried gently and musically from just outside the tent. In a minute, one of Feisal's five slaves came round with sweetened coffee. Sugar for the first cup in the chill of dawn was considered fit.
An hour or so later, the flap of Feisal's sleeping-tent would be thrown back: his invitation to callers from the household. There would be four or five present; and after the morning's news a tray of breakfast would be carried in. The staple of this was dates, but sometimes Hejris, the body slave, would give us odd biscuits and cereals of his own trying. After breakfast we would play with bitter coffee and sweet tea in alternation, while Feisal's correspondence was dealt with by dictation to his secretaries. One of these was Faiz the adventurous, another was the Imam, a sad-faced person made conspicuous in the army by the baggy umbrella hanging from his saddle-bow. Occasionally a man was given private audience at this hour, but seldom, as the sleeping-tent was strictly for the Sherif's own use. It was an ordinary bell-tent, furnished with cigarettes, a camp-bed, a fairly good Kurd rug, a poor Shirazi, and the delightful old Baluch prayer carpet on which he prayed.
At about eight o'clock in the morning Feisal would buckle on his ceremonial dagger and walk across to the reception tent. He would sit down at the end of the tent facing the open side, and we with our backs against the wall, in a semicircle out from him. The slaves brought up the rear, and clustered round the open wall of the tent to control the besetting suppliants who lay on the sand in the tent-mouth, or beyond, waiting their turn. If possible, business was got through by noon, when the Emir liked to rise.
We of the household, and any guests, then reassembled in the living-tent; and Hejris and Salem carried in the luncheon-tray, on which were as many dishes as circumstances permitted. Feisal was an inordinate smoker, but a very light eater, and he used to make-believe with his fingers or a spoon among the beans, lentils, spinach, rice, and sweet cakes, till he judged that we had had enough, when at a wave of his hand the tray would disappear, as other slaves walked forward to pour water for our fingers at the tent door. Fat men, like Mohammed Ibn Shefia, made a comic grievance of the Emir's quick and delicate meals, and would have food of their own prepared for them when they came away.
After lunch we would talk a little, while sucking up two cups of coffee, and savouring two glasses full of syrup-like green tea. Then till two in the afternoon the curtain of the living-tent was down, signifying that Feisal was sleeping, or reading, or doing private business. Afterwards he would sit again in the reception-tent till he had finished with all who wanted him. I never saw an Arab leave him dissatisfied or hurt?a tribute to his tact and to his memory; for he seemed never to halt for loss of a fact, nor to stumble over a relationship.
If there were time after second audience, he would walk with his friends. Between six and seven there was brought in the evening meal, to which all present in headquarters were called by the slaves. It resembled the lunch.
This meal ended our day, save for the stealthy offering by a bare-footed slave of a tray of tea-glasses at protracted intervals. Feisal did not sleep till very late, and never betrayed a wish to hasten our going. In the evening he relaxed as far as possible and avoided avoidable work. Very rarely he would play chess, with the unthinking directness of a fencer, and brilliantly. Sometimes, perhaps for my benefit, he told stories of what he had seen in Syria, and scraps of Turkish secret history, or family affairs. I learned much of the men and parties in the Hejaz from his lips.
Suddenly Feisal asked me if I would wear Arab clothes like his own while in the camp. I should find it better for my own part, since it was a comfortable dress in which to live Arab-fashion as we must do. Besides, the tribesmen would then understand how to take me. The only wearers of khaki in their experience had been Turkish officers, before whom they took up an instinctive defence. If I wore Meccan clothes, they would behave to me as though I were really one of the leaders; and I might slip in and out of Feisal's tent without making a sensation which he had to explain away each time to strangers. I agreed at once, very gladly. Hejris was pleased, too, and exercised his fancy in fitting me out in splendid white silk and gold-embroidered wedding garments which had been sent to Feisal lately (was it a hint?) by his great-aunt in Mecca. I took a stroll in the new looseness of them round the palm-gardens, to accustom myself to their feel.