Book Review: Behind the Lawrence Legend: The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt


by Philip Walker

Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xxviii, 286. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 9780198802273

The Men Who Made Lawrence Possible

The chance finding at a garage sale of the diary of a long-dead British officer, Maj. Thomas Goodchild, led historian and archaeologist Walker to uncover a wholly overlooked network of a score of British officers, officials, and agents now largely forgotten by history whose work was essential to the success of the “Arab Revolt”, and thus also in making an international figure out of “Lawrence of Arabia”. Walker spent seven years searching in eight countries on three continents, to uncover hundreds of letters, official documents, private papers, and even photographs kept by the descendants of thirteen of these men. The result is this book, which throws considerable new light on that fabled campaign.

Working largely in obscurity, Col. Cyril Edward Wilson provided the intelligence, money, equipment, transportation, and all the other necessities that enabled Sherif Hussein, his son Feisal, Lawrence, and others to carry out the revolt, which Walker notes should properly be called the “Hashemite Revolt”. For example, Wilson, officially responsible for coordinating the pilgrimage of Moslem British subjects to the Holy Places, set up a headquarters in Jidda, to collect intelligence, distribute equipment and gold to the revolt’s leaders, coordinate sea movement of Arab troops with the Royal Navy, and more. Similarly, then Captain Goodchild played a critical role in procuring camels, a strategic resource in the theatre, which not only bolstered the British war effort, but denied their use to the Turks, and fostered closer ties with Sherif Hussein, a major camel dealer, while Lt. Leofric Gilman, practically the only member of Wilson’s group to see combat, commanded the Hejaz Armoured Car Battery, and so forth.

While giving the man credit for many of his achievements, Walker also takes T.E. Lawrence down a peg or two, particularly noting that his self-serving accounts of the revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Revolt in the Desert, almost totally ignore Wilson or any of the other “forgotten men”. Walker also takes a few swipes at the American journalist Lowell Thomas, who helped build the Lawrence legend. In addition, Walker touches briefly on the important role of the French in the desert war, a subject also much neglected, even by the French.

Behind the Lawrence Legend is a valuable read for anyone with an interest in the Arab Revolt, Lawrence, the origins of the modern Middle East, and in the craft of history.


Note: Behind the Lawrence Legend is also available in several e-editions.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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