It’s been 100 years since the start of World War I. Sadly, the historical significance of the war is usually consigned to that large dustbin of knowledge we call “ancient history.” After all, what relevance does it have to what’s occurring in today’s world? Read “Lawrence in Arabia,” by Scott Anderson, and you’ll understand the answer is – “A lot!”
The “War to End all Wars,” which took place from 1914 to 1918, is a prime example of political ambitions gone awry; wherein, generals, kings, prime ministers and dictators allowed their citizens to be slaughtered wholesale. Then, before victory was even within reach, France and Britain blithely went about redrawing the borders of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. (See the “Sykes-Picot Agreement.”) In their arrogance, they didn’t consider the cultural, political or religious differences within the lands they intended to colonize. Therefore, the legacy of their victory is the chaos that exists in those regions today.
However, a few lone wolves predicted the consequences of their actions; foremost among them was T. E. Lawrence. Just the mention of “Lawrence of Arabia” conjures up Hollywood’s romantic image of a British soldier – gone native – as he gallops across the sand dunes on a camel with his band of Bedouin fighters. But, as Anderson’s historical account of “Lawrence in Arabia” proves, war is never romantic – all heroes have their flaws; and wartime promises are meaningless once victory is achieved.
A veteran war correspondent, Anderson is best known for his coverage of the war in Bosnia. In order to compile the facts for this book, Anderson was aided by a band of historians, who dug into “twenty different governmental archives … on three continents.” But it’s how the author handled all those facts that sets this book apart from a standard history lesson.
In his Introduction, Anderson captures our attention by describing a strange scene that took place in Buckingham Palace Oct. 30, 1918 – 12 days before the war ended. Col. Lawrence had just returned from the Middle East and quickly began trying to convince British statesmen to honor the wartime promises they made to the Arabs who fought for the Allied forces. Although Lawrence knew he was making little headway, when King George V summoned him to the palace that morning he thought this might be his last opportunity to influence the new “postwar borders.”
Instead, the King’s plan was to make Lawrence a “Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.” As the ceremony began, Lawrence quietly told the King he was “refusing the honor.” Then, to the horror of all present, the British hero turned and walked out of the palace. Britons never forgave him, but by the time you finish reading this book, you will.
Lawrence called the conflict in the Middle East “a sideshow of a sideshow.” Certainly, as the war raged on in Europe with the “Allied Forces” and “Central Powers” expending millions of lives to retake the same ground over and over, little thought was given to the Arab Revolt in the Middle East. Therefore, in the absence of military leadership, four young adventurers, with little or no military experience, took it upon themselves to fight for their countries’ interests. As Lawrence crisscrossed the Middle East, he encountered Curt Prüfer, Aaron Aaronsohn and William Yale, all of whom played key roles in the conflict.
Prüfer, a German scholar attached to the embassy in Cairo, was a dashing “ladies man.” Under the guidance of his mentor, Count Max von Oppenheim, Prüfer attempted to incite an Islamic jihad against the British in Egypt, in order to seize the Suez Canal. Like Lawrence, Prüfer dressed in “Bedouin garb” and spoke fluent Arabic. Cultivating friendships with Arab leaders, he was aided by the fact that Germany was the only Christian nation that never attempted to colonize an Islamic country. His biggest disadvantage was Germany’s alliance with the Ottoman Empire, which invoked hatred in the Arabs in spite of being Muslim. While his efforts to seize the canal were thwarted, Prüfer became the “eyes and ears” of Kaiser Wilhelm II for the remainder of the war.
Aaronsohn, an agronomist and “ardent Zionist,” immigrated to Palestine from Romania. He became famous for making the arid region of Palestine blossom. Using his agricultural knowledge as a guise, he freely traveled throughout the Middle East. On his journey, he established a successful spy ring, with one goal in mind – to make the British dependent on his network; thus, forcing them to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine after the war.
In 1917, Aaronsohn celebrated after reading a short letter from the British Secretary Balfour. It read: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour, the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.” The letter became known as the “Balfour Declaration;” but, as history shows, Aaronsohn’s goal would not be achieved until 1948.
Yale, a once rich American, came to the Middle East before the war to make his fortune by exploring for oil. At the time, the United States was immersed in isolationism and few people gave a second thought to what was happening in Europe or the Middle East. In fact, America didn’t even send intelligence agents to the region, but The Standard Oil Co. of New York did, and Yale was their man!
In 1914, under the instructions of his employer, Yale aligned himself with the Ottoman Empire, until the United States joined the Allied Forces in 1917. Yale then received a military commission, “but he remained on Standard Oil’s payroll throughout the war.”
Lawrence, an Oxford scholar and archeologist, first arrived in the Middle East to work on a dig in Carchemish, an ancient city located on the borders of Syria and Turkey. As world events heated up, Lawrence realized the well-armed Ottoman Empire could not be defeated via head-on combat. Enlisting the aid of Faisal ibn Hussein, the third son of King Hussein of the Hejaz (Mecca), they began a guerrilla war that would whittle-away the Turks’ supply lines.
On more than one occasion, Lawrence saw the political aspirations of France as the biggest threat to victory. “So far as Syria is concerned, it is France and not Turkey that is the enemy,” he wrote to his family in 1915. Lawrence could have been hung for writing those words. However, there are numerous examples to support his view, including the mindless bloodshed in the Dardanelles (Chapter 5), and France’s political attempts to stop “Lawrence’s Army” from capturing the Port of Aqaba (Chapter 13).
As WWI ended, Arabs and Zionists became united in their disgust over becoming colonies of Britain or France. In fact, their hatred of European rulers was so strong that both expressed an interest in having the United States control the Middle East. But President Woodrow Wilson wasn’t interested. However, “to the victors belongs the” OIL! And Standard Oil remained a player in the region for years to come.
Pay special attention to the epilogue, as Anderson outlines why WWI was the main cause of WWII. Photographs, interspersed throughout the book, allow us to keep track of the major players. However, I was stunned by the lack of decent maps that could have clearly illustrated the differences between prewar, postwar and current borders.
Nevertheless, if you want to understand why Islamic countries mistrust the Western world, read “Lawrence in Arabia.” It’s not Hollywood; it’s history!