This book surprised me in a couple of ways. First, considering the number of books and articles written about T.E. Lawrence, I didn’t think there were any "secrets" left regarding his life and work. Also, the more I read, the more I was impressed by how he could write pages of clear and effective prose while laboring under circumstances far from the best. Although several of his dispatches were typewritten, a great many were written in his own hand: “General Clayton, please excuse the ink. I’m writing under difficulties.” (p. 223)
Most of these confidential dispatches were previously published for a very select group of intelligence officials in the Arab Bulletin, a publication initiated by Lawrence in 1916 to cover the war in the desert. Some 114 issues appeared over three years and included numerous reports sent in by Lawrence, who later used many of them to "flesh out" his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Thus, the content of several of these reports may already be familiar if you’ve read a lot about Lawrence of Arabia. Nevertheless, I found much that impressed me in this book.
Lawrence is never reluctant to give an opinion. He reports how he’s heard that “ninety per cent of Turks were good soldiers, and ninety percent of Arabs were bad” (p. 53). Sherif Sharaf is a “very sinister looking individual, for his left eye droops about a quarter of an inch…he is acting as chief of staff to Feisul – but appears to advise him very little.” (p. 111) Said Abdulla’s encampment is described thus:
The conditions in his camp were, I thought, unsatisfactory. He had a force of about 3,000 men, mostly Ateiba. They seem to me very inferior as fighting men to the Hard and Juheina. They are of course altogether Bedouin and their Sheikhs are ignorant, lacking in influence and character, and apparently without any interest in the war… Said Abdulla himself gave me rather the same impression. (p. 162)
Requests to Lawrence’s superiors are often interesting. Besides the usual need for money and arms, he reports that
Auda abu Tayi wants a set of false teeth. The ships doctors question their ability to cast his mouth in wax. Could a dental assistant be sent down from Egypt to do what is possible here? (p. 224).
It’s also noted that gold watches could be very useful. Given to the right tribal leader, they may procure more cooperation than a shipment of weapons. Maps sent to him were often incorrect, or as he put it, “filthy.” Countless details like this make the dispatches interesting reading.
I was pleased that the last Bulletin entry focuses on the character I feel is often neglected in the story of Lawrence of Arabia: the camel. (Have you ever ridden one?) These existed in amazingly large numbers; a single clan might own a few thousand. They were generally well treated since they were an essential means of transportation—and at times one would become a meal. Sometimes fights broke out “over the question of camels.” (p. 119) It wasn’t unusual for Lawrence to make some long and uncomfortable camel trips:
I had better preface [a preliminary report] by saying that I rode all Saturday night, had alarms and excursions all Sunday night, and rode again all last night, so my total of sleep is only three hours in the last three nights… (p. 103).
Matters are made worse in one instance when after a lengthy ride he complains that he had “developed boils which made camel riding uncomfortable, and on top of them first a short attack of dysentery and then somewhat heavy malaria…” (pp. 161-2). As he points out in this last memo, the endurance of a camel is usually greater than a rider’s: “With strong camels my experience has been that the man gives in sooner than the camel. My longest month was 1,400 miles, and I found it very difficult.” (p. 280)
The editor of this collection of Secret Dispatches, Fabrizio Bagatti, has done a masterful job. His 17-page introduction, “Historical Truth and Textual Truth: T. E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt” gives us a full military and political background to the wartime Arab world and the role Lawrence played there. Bagatti’s footnotes to the text are extensive, and his index to names and places is helpful. Three maps at the beginning of the book put us in the right geographical places, and some of Lawrence’s original maps are within the text, plus 11 black-and-white photos. This is a fine book for scholars and for anyone interested in the writing and exploits of Lawrence of Arabia.
David F. Beer