Orr on Walker, 'Behind the Lawrence Legend: The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt'

Philip Walker. Behind the Lawrence Legend: The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. 330 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-880227-3.

Reviewed by Andrew Orr (Kansas State Unversity)
Published on H-War (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57536

Philip Walker’s Behind the Lawrence Legend: The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt adds an important new aspect to Britain’s role supporting the 1916-18 Arab Revolt. It contains substantial strengths coupled with some frustrating weaknesses. Overall, it provides a valuable window into covert and semi-covert British actions in support of the Arab Revolt from 1916 to 1918.

Walker argues that Colonel Cyril Wilson and his associate (principally the shipping clerk William Cochrane and Egyptian government civil servant John Young) played a critical and previously unacknowledged role in making the Arab Revolt a success. Without disregarding T. E. Lawrence’s role, Walker ably demonstrates the important work Wilson and others did in forging cooperation between Britain and the Hussein bin Ali’s government that kept weapons, ammunition, and funds flowing to the revolt while profitably shaping the revolt’s military strategy.

Walker draws on an impressive series of public and private papers to weave his story together. They include the diaries and letters of his central figures as well as British government and military papers. The diversity of his sources provides an effective counter to Lawrence’s minimization of other British officers and agents’ contributions to the Arab Revolt. Walker’s mastery of his sources allows him to weave them together in ways that reveal the multifaceted contributions of the Jeddah team. His tactic of using the revolt’s military history as a frame for his study makes his work easily accessible to nonspecialists.

The weight of evidence convincingly demonstrates that, far from being a one-man show, British support for the Arab Revolt required a diverse team of British personnel capable of dealing with military, financial, logistical, and cultural issues. They succeeded by balancing the needs and cultures of their British superiors and the leaders of the revolt. It was often difficult, and Wilson accomplished it through a paradoxical mix of transparent forthrightness when dealing with Hussein bin Ali and a willingness to game his own military and civilian superiors by reinterpreting their instructions to take account of his view of realities in Arabia.

The book is organized as a running narrative that gives free rein for its sources to shape the story. The advantage of Walker’s approach is that it provides a detailed, fascinating, and entertaining story which places Wilson and his cohort’s worldviews fully on display. More could have been done in analyzing the effects of how they understood Arabia, but there are virtues to the direct access Waler provides.

The invocation of Lawrence in the title is not accidental—although he is not the central focus of the book, T. E. Lawrence is a regular presence throughout the book. Walker succeeds in juxtaposing Lawrence’s inflated claims about his role in events with evidence from public and private archives showing that other British agents and officers played unheralded roles in successes Lawrence explicitly or implicitly claimed for himself.

Unfortunately, Walker’s book perpetuates some of the same compromised narratives that Lawrence himself and Walker’s subjects traded in. A charitable description of the book would be that the prose is sometimes archaic. A less charitable description would note that the descriptions of Middle Eastern locations, Arabs, and Turks lean on long-established Orientalist tropes that exoticize locations and rely on stereotypes to explain people’s behavior.

In a passage describing the British team’s entrance into Jeddah, he writes, “The air was foetid with decay and fed by a remorseless sun. Waves of an overpowering miasma enveloped the men, a malign stench of rotting meat and fish, fruit, and dung. The elusive aroma of tamarisk wood registered all too briefly. The men followed an alley through the food market and absorbed the languor and long-standing decay that seemed to permeate the town” (p. 3). The passage lacks citation, leaving readers to wonder if it is based on a textual source from one of the British men or if was the author’s rendering of what he assumed it was like. Regardless, the intentional or unintentional appropriation of his source’s language and explanations of events raises concerns about Walker’s conclusions.

Walker’s treatment of the Arab Revolt is both a strength and weakness. His work challenges the culturally pervasive Western assumption that Lawrence was the core of the Arab Revolt and responsible for its success but does so by shifting credit from Lawrence to other British officers and agents. His conclusion that Wilson’s team in Jeddah was the real “hub” of the revolt shifts credit within British ranks, but ultimately reinforces the underlying assumption behind the “Lawrence Legend,” that the British were responsible for the Arab Revolt’s success. Walker notes, but does not engage with, the substantial recent literature that has sought to recenter attention on the revolt’s Arab leaders and supporters including Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia (2014) and Ali Allawi’s Faisal I of Iraq (2014).

Behind the Lawrence Legend: The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt, is a book with substantial weaknesses, but important strengths. By opening a new window into how the British operated in Arabia and how British agents understood their roles and goals, Walker does worthwhile and constructive work. Despite its flaws, his book is a useful contribution to understanding the apparatus of imperial intervention and the process of imperial mythmaking.

Citation: Andrew Orr. Review of Walker, Philip, Behind the Lawrence Legend: The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57536

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.