British Military Incompetence In WWI

Duplicity and arrogance, along with a healthy dose of racism seeps out of the pages of Scott Anderson’s finely written book as it hones in on Britain’s military and diplomatic efforts in WWI. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East  is the type of book any reader of history will devour with pleasure.

At the center of it all was Lawrence himself. In early 1914 he was an archaeologist excavating ruins in Syria; by 1917 he was riding into legend at the head of an Arab army as he fought a rearguard action against his own government and its imperial ambitions. Based on four years of intensive primary document research, Lawrence in Arabia definitively overturns received wisdom on how the modern Middle East was formed.

As this passage underscores T.E Lawrence knew what ineptitude looked like from his own country’s actions and behavior.

William Yale And T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence Of Arabia)

(I could be writing about the shameful antics of Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson but am really deep into a slice of history from over 100 years ago. Besides Johnson will undoubtedly do something equally embarrassing tomorrow.)

The topic of the Middle East, Ottoman Empire, and WWI has caught my attention these past weeks. With the book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson comes the additional research I undertake, as with any topic that piques my interest.

There are four main characters that frame the book, with the most troubling being the ‘whisper-throated’ German diplomat Curt Prüfer. The intriguing American William Yale is one many can relate to other than how he treated his dad as the older man faced financial hardships. But his desire to see the world and explore it for Standard Oil allows for a carefree adventurous side that we all can identify with.

With books of this type, I have google search working as the pages turn. There are often so many spokes of the wheel to explore. That’s how I found this.

At this point in his privileged life his dad lost all his money in the Panic of 1907. With little prospects, young Bill Yale took whatever job he could get to pay for his tuition. In 1913, while working as an oil drilling roustabout in Oklahoma, he was accepted into Standard Oil’s Foreign Service School. After three months of training he was sent to the Middle East. There he was to pretend he was a wealthy playboy on a vacation through the deserts of Syria. In truth, he was secretly looking for unknown oil deposits. Soon he knew all the major players in the Middle East in his role as a bridge-playing womanizer in Jerusalem. In time, he succeeded in acquiring for Standard Oil the rights to drill for oil on a half-million acres of potentially rich sites.

Among the first people he met in Syria was T. E. Lawrence, the man who would later be remembered as Lawrence of Arabia. In time, they developed a close friendship based on the common bond of being the same age and living through the horrors of war. Soon, they both began to wear flowing Arab robes and sandals as their everyday garb. In 1914, Yale also met, and fell in love with socialite Edith Hanna, the niece of the American presidential kingmaker Sen. Mark Hanna, who was on a tour of the holy land. She had grown up in Cleveland, Ohio, but had moved to England in 1913. The start of the First World War in 1914 separated them for the next four years. She returned to London where she was a volunteer nurse caring for blinded soldiers. Their love letters had to be sneaked back and forth through neutral Switzerland.

During the war, Bill volunteered with the American Army but was instead was ordered by the State Department to report to General Sir Edmund Allenby’s headquarters, the British officer in charge of forces in Egypt. He would be America’s only special agent in the Middle East and his spying reports were eagerly read by the State Department and President Wilson. He, like Lawrence, had become very pro-Arab and anti-imperialistic.

After the war President Wilson appointed Yale to the Paris Peace Conference and King-Crane Commission set up to decide the division of the former Turkish Empire in the Middle East. Yale knew the Arab leaders trusted America and would eagerly accept temporary control by the U.S. until they could form their own stable governments.

Unfortunately, everything Yale and Lawrence proposed was ignored by the gray-headed diplomats from Britain and France. These imperialists reneged on the promises they had made during the war and took over Lebanon, Syria, the Palestine, and Egypt creating much hatred toward the West. If Yale and Lawrence had prevailed the world today might be significantly more peaceful.

“Lawrence In Arabia” Latest Attempt For Understanding Absurdity Of WWI

One of the most absurd chapters of world history is the events leading up to and during WWI. One can have the facts and chronological order of events, know the leaders and military playbooks, and still walk away without understanding how the picayune and narrow-minded tiffs and slights emerged so that in Europe bloody trench warfare will kill millions.

It is ridiculous, but true, to state that bureaucratic fumblings, spies of every kind, along with heroes and villains galore can be studied and examined, and still the loss of 40 million people, in a war that never needed to happen, can still not be fully understood. How the Middle East had a most tortured outcome due to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was crafted with betrayal along with a zeal to obfuscate at every comma, can be read about but the sheer gall of it is so stunning it seems hardly believable.

What happened between 1914-17, along with the events leading up to the bloodshed and mockery of common-sense is something I wade into from time to time. The senseless loss of so much life over the most illogical of reasons is a mystery that just demands an understanding. After decades of reading books in pursuit of wrapping my mind around the events, it comes down to the realization that perhaps there is no understanding to be had. It was just pure lunacy.

During the pandemic, I landed on some books about the war which intrigued me, three of them from the Middle East perspective, a region I love to learn more about from history. The author of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East stood out to me from his work in the New York Times. Scott Anderson is a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Sudan, Bosnia, El Salvador, and many other strife-torn countries. He brings the view of the region to life as we follow T. E. Lawrence the man and intellect as opposed to the legend. It needs noting the book is not a biography of Lawrence, but a story of the war as it encompasses the land of the Ottoman Empire.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a bullet point in my high school class but as with almost every point of history, the details of each story are where the intrigue and wonder lies. Sir Mark Syke surely spun about in his grave several times as Anderson wrote, re-wrote, and edited the chapter where his shameless actions are laid bare. Not for the first time, of course, does his actions rankle me as he is central to so much of the history that has followed. But the pointed and pithy way of Anderson’s writing about him in this book does make for clenched hands on the covers.

If there is an upside to staying home while adhering to medical advice as we work to stem the spread of the virus it is that attempts can be made again to learn something more about what seemingly cannot be answered.

Why did WWI happen? I will certainly not be bored with the reads and will gain new insight. But at the end of the books, the fact will remain the most base reasons led to the most outrageous loss of life. One of the most absurd chapters of world history….