When Robert Graves finished writing his 1928 biography of his friend T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence was bitterly disappointed at the result. In a letter to Graves, Lawrence lamented, “I had hoped to find someone who would retell the story of the Arab Revolt from the available eye-witnesses, leaving the “I” of Revolt in the Desert out of it: whereas you only turned first to third person.” More than half a century later, Lawrence has at last found in Jeremy Wilson a biographer equal to the job. Wilson’s Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T. E. Lawrence does the finest job yet of re-creating the complexity of the situation in the Middle East as Lawrence encountered it and of relating the viewpoints and aspirations of the many men who formed and carried out British policy in that region. Thus Wilson presents within its historical context the complex part Lawrence played in the Arab campaign during World War I. So balanced and complete is Wilson’s account of this most crucial segment of Lawrence’s life that it might have been authorized not by Lawrence’s estate but by Lawrence himself. Wilson takes great pains to do what Lawrence reproached Graves for not doing: He uses eyewitness accounts by principal participants to document the Palestine expeditions. These accounts can no longer take the form of interviews, since all the principals are dead, but they exist vividly in letters, diaries, reports, dispatches, bulletins, newspaper articles, telegrams—and these Wilson has consulted exhaustively, and quotes extensively throughout the book.
The title of Wilson’s biography underscores the centrality of Arabia in Lawrence’s life. His role in the Arab campaign—despite his expressed desire to escape or move beyond that role—was the distinguishing feature of Lawrence’s career. Fittingly, Wilson’s biography details most fully the years of the campaign and of Lawrence’s involvement in the Allies’ postwar settlements with the Arabs. Drawing upon previously embargoed government papers, Wilson augments, corrects, and clarifies Lawrence’s account of his part in the Arab campaign as related in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1935). Most important, Wilson points out how Lawrence’s thinking and decisions were influenced and often determined by the thinking and decisions of Allied policymakers. For example, Wilson suggests that Lawrence’s anxieties in the Arab campaign were largely determined by his awareness of the terms of the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty, while his continuing hopes for Arab independence after the war were buttressed by like-minded commanding officers, such as Brigadier General Gilbert Clayton; and officials such as Ronald Storrs, the Oriental Secretary of the High Commissioner in Egypt. In this way, Wilson draws on a wide range of sources to reveal the genuine dilemma of Lawrence’s position during the war, whereas Lawrence’s guilt-ridden account of divided loyalties in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, when considered in isolation, seems quirky, grandiose, and disingenuous.
As Wilson points out, Lawrence, as adviser to Sherif Feisal, leader of the Arab Revolt, often had to make decisions that were morally and politically questionable in order to retain Feisal ’5 trust so as to keep him firmly on the British side. Among these was his decision to reveal the terms of the secret treaty between France and Britain to Feisal so as to warn him of French ambitions in Arabia and thus incite him to extend the Revolt: Feisal would thus conquer land for the Arabs while at the same time helping Britain to defeat the Turks. His need to make many such decisions throughout the war helps to explain Lawrence’s recurrent theme in Seven Pillars of Wisdom of “the mental tug of war between honesty and loyalty.”
The Peace Settlement after the war, which favored French over Arab interests in Syria and British over Arab interests in Mesopotamia, augmented Lawrence’s guilt and sense of having betrayed the Arab cause. For this reason, as Wilson suggests, Lawrence devoted himself to obtaining a just settlement for the Arabs. By accepting a job in the Middle Eastern Department of the Colonial Office, under Winston Churchill, and by devoting himself to a new settlement at the Cairo Conference in 1921, Lawrence accomplished what he had set out to do: He was instrumental in establishing the state of Iraq (formerly Mesopotamia), with Feisal on the throne; and installed Feisal ’5 brother Abdulla as Emir in Trans-Jordan. Initially Lawrence was exultant: He called the settlement “the big achievement of my life: of which the war was a preparation.” Later he had some misgivings about the first steps of the infant state:
Irak did a good deal of falling between 1916 and 1921: and since 1921, under Feisal’s guidance, has done much good trying and no falling. But I don’t think it yet walks very well. Nor can any hand save it from making its mess.
Subsequent history has shown that the geographical and political emendations which Lawrence effected in the Middle East were to have far-reaching consequences beyond any he could have foreseen.
While Wilson’s biography pays fullest attention to Lawrence during the war years, it does...
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