Saul David reviews Behind the Lawrence Legend by Philip Walker

TE Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”, has been given most of the credit for the British intelligence operation that helped the Arabs throw off the yoke of Turkish rule in the Arabian Peninsula during the revolt of 1916-18. He certainly played his part, notes Philip Walker, thanks to considerable “powers of persuasion”, “flair for guerrilla warfare” and “political nous”. Yet he was also a shameless self-publicist who, to buff his own reputation, had a tendency to downplay the contributions made by others. This book, underpinned by hitherto unseen material, is an attempt to set the record straight.

The officer with perhaps the most vital job was Colonel Cyril Wilson, the liaison officer to Emir Ibn Ali Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca and leader of the revolt. While Wilson’s important role has long been acknowledged by historians, this somewhat “stiff and correct” figure has always played second fiddle to the “brilliant and mercurial” Lawrence.

Walker adds much new detail about what Wilson actually achieved in extremely difficult circumstances – not least his ability to keep Hussein committed to the revolt when he seemed, on multiple occasions, to be wavering – and makes a powerful case for him to receive the lion’s share of the credit. “To the ability, tact and energy of this self-effacing but able officer,” wrote the commander of the Royal Navy’s Red Sea Patrol, “the ultimate success of the Arab rising was largely due.”