Behind the Lawrence Legend: the Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt
Philip Walker

Behind the Lawrence Legend: the Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt

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.

Book Details:

  • Author: Philip Walker
  • Published Year: 2018
  • Rights Sold
    • UK: OUP
    • USA: OUP
Philip  Walker

Philip Walker

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...
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Book Reviews

  • "A refreshing account of the Arab Revolt which reveals the untold and exciting stories of Lawrence's fellow officers, secret servicemen and Arab spies and their accomplishments.A long overdue appraisal and a balance to Lawrence's own writings."
    Lawrence James, author of The Golden Warior
  • "A gripping account of the Arab Revolt as seen through the eyes of the men on the ground in Jidda. Walker has uncovered remarkable new documentation and photographs that shed valuable new light on the Great War in Arabia. An outstanding book for the centenary of the Revolt."
    Eugene Rogan
  • "This book gives a new focus to our picture of the Arab Revolt.  We see for the first time the stories of the men who provided the commissariat, infrastructure and back-up for the Sharifian army. Walker gives honourable mention to men who have been overlooked so far.  The real scale of the achievement of Lawrence and of those who gave him indispensable support, emerges - an organic and extraordinary effort.  "
    Sir Mark Allen
  • "An excellent and fascinating complement to Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It reveals the hidden stories of his brothers-in-arms and what they achieved during the Arab Revolt."
    Lawrence James
  • "After another round of books on T. E. Lawrence 'of Arabia' published on the war's centennial, it seems scarcely credible that anything new can be said on the subject. But Philip Walker has discovered an astonishing wealth of new material in private collections. The 'Forgotten Few' peers beneath the Lawrence legend to reveal the seamy underbelly of the Arab Revolt.    "
    Sean McMeekin
  • "  There’s no doubt that in setting out to rescue Lawrence’s colleagues from obscurity, Philip Walker has performed a valuable service. Like Lawrence they were brave, unorthodox and more than a little cracked. But there were two critical differences — they lacked Lawrence’s charisma, as well as his sense of destiny. All this puts Walker in the awkward position of valiantly trying to push the supporting cast towards the middle of the stage while the main character is hogging the spotlight. It says a good deal for the strength of his conviction and his powers of persuasion that, by the end, you want to give them all a clap."
    Daily Mail
  • " extremely welcome addition to the existing literature on the Arab Revolt in 1916-18. Exhaustively researched and colourfully written, it provides a nuanced and detailed sketch of the way the British assisted the Arab rebels, and brings to life a number of key actors whose roles have either been forgotten or obscured by the Lawrence legend."
    Saul David, Daily Telegraph
  • "a remarkable and fresh perspective on Lawrence and the Arab Revolt…puts Lawrence’s efforts into context, helping to set the record straight for one of the most beguiling and iconic characters of the twentieth century."
    Eyespy Magazine
  • "a convincing and valuable corrective to the great-man histories we are used to. Peppered with previously unseen photographs, and written in readable prose that anchors us into rhythms of these men’s daily, it is a must for anyone interested in the war Britain waged in the Middle East from 1916–18 … Walker should be commended for an engaging and thoroughly researched account of the British men who underpinned Lawrence’s romantic forays into the desert."
    BBC History Magazine
  • "The meticulous research of the author, a retired English archeologist, is evident on virtually every page. Walker has left almost no stone unturned, including an especially important source in Arabic—the diary of Hussein Ruhi, the very colourful interpreter-cum-spymaster at the British office in Jeddah, which had yet to be cited in other works. "
    Israeli Journal of Foreign Affairs
  • "superb and genuinely original addition to the literature on Lawrence and the Arab Revolt … a compelling and exceptionally well-written narrative, the book is strongly recommended."
    Military History Monthly
  • "complex narrative does do is provide a more richly detailed and nuanced background than we have had till now to the unfolding of one of the most colorful theaters of World War I. "
    Wall Street Journal
  • "Philip Walker dives deeper into this campaign, using previously untapped primary sources and archival records to bring to life overlooked characters that provided the vital yet unappreciated logistical and diplomatic support that powered the locomotive of Lawrence’s glory train. …The author does a magnificent job of proving that history is never complete, and even tales considered long trod can have surprisingly new twists. Legends often require more backstory to full understand them, and the backstory of Lawrence of Arabia is now more complete thanks to this book. "
    New York Journal of Books
  • "Painstakingly researched and full of interesting background to the Arab Revolt … the story is well told and details detail to the legend."
    Soldier Magazine
  • "...a worthy and thorough addition to the history of the Arab Revolt."
    Literary Review
  • "What Philip Walker has done, following his several years of meticulous and learned research, is to [produce] a highly readable and entertaining book, which finally reveals much of what went on behind the Lawrence legend ... The historical record is now richer and more complete ... a worthy addition to the Lawrence and Arab Revolt canon with much new insight ... At last, those who contributed and achieved so much behind the scenes ... have been recognised and remembered ... a rich and interesting read, based on some excellent research and the discovery of many unknown sources."
    TE Lawrence Newsletter
  • "T E Lawrence continues to fascinate historians, journalists and those who have travelled across the Middle East.  Apart from his own writings there are numerous biographies of Lawrence of Arabia.  In Behind the Lawrence Legend The Forgotten Few who Shaped the Arab Revolt (OUP) Philip Walker explores the role of Colonel Cyril Wilson and dozens of junior officers who carried out intelligence and diplomatic work and helped sustain Lawrence and his operations in Arabia.  A fascinating and excellent read."
    Keith Simpson MP Summer Reading LIst
  • "Philip Walker’s seminal study of it does the subject full justice…. a fascinating and well-written study, which has at last paid full tribute to a band of dedicated workhorses who toiled in the shadows. It does not detract from Lawrence’s achievements, but places them in an appropriately wider context."
    Asian Affairs Journal
  • "Walker’s exceptional research—using archival material, memoirs, and diaries—offers intricate detail on the political and social infrastructure that created and supported the 1916–1918 Great Arab Revolt... excellent, authoritative source material that is as useful for intelligence and Special Operations practitioners as it is for historians of the Great Arab Revolt.. add significant depth and breadth to the complex story of the Great Arab Revolt, which has often been told through a narrower, usually Lawrence-centric lens. "
    Centre for the Study of Intelligence