Setting the Desert on Fire by Mark Barnes

There are the Arabs themselves, enmeshed in a spaghetti of politics

 Setting the desert on fire – TE Lawrence and Britain’s secret war in Arabia, 1916-1918 by James Barr

The film Lawrence of Arabia has fixed a specific idea of what the Arab Revolt was like.

Despite the length of the film, it somehow fails to convey the scale of the campaign the

Arabs waged against the Turks. You might have gone one further and read Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I can remember getting my copy as a teen and finding it to be thoroughly unreadable. I tried again later and got a bit further. But of course, the problem was, and is; that Lawrence wasn’t writing a dramatic war yarn with exciting action stuff like modern authors. He was telling a story hisway. Author James Barr has described it as being something like a family bible. Pillars was never meant for widespread consumption. Lawrence wrote it for his family and friends and, having left one manuscript on a railway platform, he’d had to do it twice. But then he took that famous motorcycle journey into immortality and his work became available to all.

Ned Lawrence is now so famous and so, lets be honest, revered, that it is good to be able to read a book about the Arab Revolt that focus on other people, too. There are the

Arabs themselves, enmeshed in a spaghetti of politics, internecine strife, religious fervour and nationalism. There were the Brits; in London, Cairo, Delhi and a dozen other places squabbling and interfering, doing good things and being pains in the butt. There were the French, greedy for Syria and the Levant. There were the Ottoman Turks; devout, deluded and dangerous. They called for a jihad against Britain and lost everything. There were also some Germans; teutonically efficient and one hundred per cent typical.

This book has all the raids and bravado of the times. It has the people and the politics and latterly offers us fighting de luxe as Rolls-Royce armoured cars and aviation make an impact. It has the big picture. It has Feisal, who I think I like very much, and it has the perceived spectre or ibn Saud. There is Edmund Allenby, the man who took Jerusalem, the first Christian do so since the Twelfth century. Above all it has Lawrence, who, if he could have got air miles points for his travelling; would have been well set for several beanos in Hawaii. He had a dynamism we still find magical today. He was brave, sometimes recklessly so.

But aside from all this colour the book gradually reveals the genesis of the century long tragedy of the Arab people. Events in this book lead us to the inevitability of Israel and the often imperfect Arab states we know today. It leaves us with Saddam Hussein and with the modern nightmare of Osama bin Laden and all his bitterness against the west.

The British and French, by dint of a “plan” called the Sykes-Picot agreement had elected to carve up the Arab region of the post war Ottoman Empire in advance. France wanted Syria and Lebanon and Britain and wanted Palestine. Lawrence wanted none of it. He hoped for a Arab nation and a return to the Caliphate. He knew nothing about the underground lakes of oil or the riches the land ironically has in spades. He wanted the land for the Arabs. The legacy is presented to us. While many well meaning British soldiers and diplomats were telling Feisal and the Arabs one thing, others were planning something entirely different. We know how the story panned out. The seeds of the mistrust and bad faith sewn in those times lead, by one route or another to every British casualty suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan today. History matters.

Published by Bloomsbury.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.