Setting the Desert on Fire: T E Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia, 1916–1918 by James Barr - review by Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin

Rancour and Revolt

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


Bloomsbury 364pp £20 order from our bookshop

The Arab Revolt was a short-lived and peripheral sideshow in the First World War. In February 1916 Hussein, the Emir of Mecca, declared his independence from the Ottoman Empire and by October 1918 Damascus had been occupied by Arab, British and Australian forces, effectively ending the war in the Middle East. T E Lawrence’s part in that revolt was shorter yet, as he arrived in the Hejaz in October 1916 but then went straight back to Cairo to report on the (unsatisfactory) situation; it was only in December that he joined Hussein’s son, Feisal, and began to play an active part in the fighting in Arabia. Together, Lawrence and the splendidly piratical Auda Abu Tayi captured Aqaba in July 1917. Later Lawrence took a leading role in dynamiting sections of the Hejaz Railway that ran between Medina and Damascus, though the pioneers in this activity were other British officers, including Herbert Garland and Stewart Newcombe. The camel-rearing Bedouin collaborated enthusiastically in this destructive activity, since the railway, completed in 1908, had deprived them of their previous role transporting and protecting goods and people destined for Mecca and Medina. Besides, the dynamiting of trains offered good prospects for loot.

Loot apart, the Arab Revolt was fuelled by British gold, much of which was passed by Lawrence to the chiefs of various Bedouin tribes. On the British side, the struggle against the Turks in Arabia and later Syria seems to have been fuelled by individual obsessions, mutual rancour and racial

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