The legend of “Lawrence of Arabia” has lodged in the hearts and minds of three generations. He has been eulogised and debunked, and millions of words have been written about this most enigmatic of characters and his achievements. Legend and fact have been expertly untangled, and arcane minutiae have been dissected and pored over. But in essence the unknowable self lies deep within him, as for all of us.
Behind the Lawrence Legend takes a fresh approach to the Arab Revolt 1916-1918, by looking at it through the experiences of twelve British officers and intelligence operatives. The key man was Colonel Cyril Wilson, previously seen as having just a supporting role at Jeddah. The others are all unknown or little known, and their gripping stories are told through a mixture of archival research and astonishing collections of recently discovered letters, diaries, photographs and other documents. Philip Walker uncovered these primary sources through genealogical and other research, contacting the descendants of about twenty Arab Revolt officers in an attempt to find some “unknown unknowns” of the revolt.
Lieutenant Lionel Gray, a cipher officer at Jeddah, Aqaba and Aleppo, kept hundreds of stunning photographs, hundreds of letters from and to him, secret cable message notebooks, and a wealth of other military and intelligence documents. Gray’s lost story is interconnected with that of Cyril Wilson and the stories of the other forgotten officers and all are interwoven with the familiar narrative of T. E. Lawrence and the revolt, but with new insights on Lawrence’s deceptions and complex motivations.
The Colonel Blimp-like Cyril Wilson is surprisingly revealed as an indispensable figure whose Jeddah circle sustained and shaped the revolt. Lawrence played a vital role, but without Wilson and his men’s crucial interventions the revolt could not have had its hollow success and the world would not have heard of “Lawrence of Arabia”.
One of Lawrence’s completely forgotten comrades-in-arms, Lieutenant Leslie Bright, who filled a notebook with hard-won intelligence while living among Bedouin tribes, was praised by a colleague for “a great work quietly done”. This could have been an epitaph for Cyril Wilson and for others who have slipped below the radar of historians, and whose role in helping safeguard and shape the Arab Revolt deserves to be celebrated during its centenary year.
Philip Walker was born in 1949 and is a retired archaeologist and historian. He worked for English Heritage and its Government Department predecessor for thirty-six years, mainly as an Inspector of Ancient Monuments.
Liaising with Druids, witches and other committed pagans, who were passionately opposed on spiritual grounds to an English Heritage-sponsored archaeological excavation, was an unusual project. None became life members of English Heritage, but this was an intriguing as well as challenging time.
Philip Walker has travelled in re...
More about Philip Walker