Saturday, 24 October 2015

Lawrence of Arabia (by Alistair MacLean)

My rating: 10/10

Lawrence of Arabia is a unique history book. Alistair MacLean was a master of fictional, fast-paced and highly-entertaining novels, but this book is an exception. An exception only to “fictional” – the book is fast-paced and highly-entertaining, as usual.

The book is about Thomas Edward Lawrence, know as Lawrence of Arabia, and it focuses on his achievements during the Arab Revolt (1916-1918) that took place during World War I. The Great War (WWI) was so huge and was fought on so many fronts that it is impossible to learn everything about it. Obviously every nation focuses on its own part in this war and learns about other parts only when it is crucial to understand the main phases of the war. I myself had no idea that so much fighting took place in Middle East, not to mention the fact that WWI lead to the end of the Ottoman Empire that had spanned over huge territories before that.

What’s good:
1. The book points out only the crucial moments, without burying the reader with too much info. For example when I read about the Arab Revolt on the Wikipedia I get bored and overwhelmed by the amount of disjointed info only after a few paragraphs. On the other hand I have not get bored even once while reading Maclean’s book and it seemed more clear to me.
2. There is some interesting info about Lawrence’s early life that explain how he became such a unique person, considering especially that he was respected for his stamina and his ability to survive in the desert even by the Bedouins. The Wikipedia is severely lacking in this regard while describing Lawrence.
3. There is nothing about Lawrence’s parents nor about some controversial claims about Lawrence’s personal life. Again, the Wikipedia dwells on those topics as if they were the most important things in the world. MacLean was wise enough to skip all those irrelevant or mostly speculative “facts” altogether.
4. The book in a perfect way explains what are the methods and what is the point of guerrilla warfare. This is in fact the longest and the best part of the book.
5. There are 4 (FOUR !!!) different maps of the Middle East showing in different scales the places of action. I kept consulting with these maps throughout the book. Almost every town or village that is mentioned in the book is shown on one of these maps. Magnificent!
6. There are other unique people described in the book, not only Lawrence.
7. The book shows what great courage Lawrence and Arabs demonstrated during the Revolt. It also shows how lucky they have been at some times. Lawrence himself was wounded many times and he was at the mercy of the enemies twice, but they didn’t recognise him.
8. There are some surprising facts about the weather (sometimes snowy) in the Middle East and the part it took in some events of the Arab Revolt.
9. The book describes that Lawrence was ahead of his time as far as military strategy was concerned.
10. MacLean ends the book with a good political summary of what happened after the end of World War I (after 1918), explaining at the same time why Arabs were not happy. Lawrence himself was devastated at first, but there was some kind of happy end for him. Winston Churchill, who became the British Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1921, persuaded Lawrence to come back as an advisor and together they worked out a solution how to repair the injury done to the Arabs. Lawrence himself was one of the most influential delegates at the Cairo Conference in 1921 and resigned from the Colonial Office only on July 4, 1922, when he felt that his work was done.
11. The book can be read by teenagers. Obviously every war is terrible, but there is no graphic violence in this book.
12. Some scenes are written like a pure novel and Maclean’s masterful narration is at his best.

What’s bad:
1. The book is short. It’s 159 pages long, but the font is bigger than usual and the lines are more apart from each other than usual. But it’s not really an issue – a much longer book would be simply boring.
2. Sometimes I wondered if everything was really true, because it seems that Lawrence was personally involved in a huge number of dangerous missions and expeditions. But it makes the book so exciting.

Lawrence of Arabia is a page-turner, but a very unusual one. It’s a true story about heroism and about a cunning military campaign against a much more numerous and powerful enemy. The fact that the book is as much about Arabs as it is about Lawrence didn’t really bothered me. People from every nation and from every religion can be heroic and they deserve a proper praise. This book suited my taste perfectly.

Here are some quotes to give you idea what the narration is like in this book:

     These activities gave him a strength and a stamina far above the ordinary. And he made use of all his extended excursions to discipline himself to exist for long periods without food, drink or sleep. Why, we do not know. It was almost as if he already knew what his destiny was to be and was already training himself to meet it. In the years to come, in his far-flung travels in the Arabian desert, this endurance and rare ability to go for long periods without food, rest or sleep were to prove invaluable to Lawrence.

     But another two days later, after a long camel ride into the interior to the town of Hamra, Lawrence found his man at last – the Emir Feisal ibn Hussein, third son of the Sherif of Mecca.
     Lawrence has left an account of his first meeting with Feisal and the immediate impression Feisal made upon him. “I felt at first glance,” Lawrence says, “that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek – the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory. (…)”
     No question but that Feisal made an immediate and great impact on Lawrence. It would have been surprising had he not. Thirty-one years old, graceful and regal in appearance, quick and vigorous in all his actions, clever, hot-tempered, impatient, very proud, he was idolized by the fierce Bedouin tribesmen he led. For Lawrence he was the ideal and heavenly-sent choice for a commander-in-chief who would lead his people to freedom.

     It was a brilliant idea, completely at odds with the accepted military thinking of the time – which said, in effect, that any mass of the enemy should be destroyed wherever found. And the idea was to have all the splendid success it so richly deserved. All through the war, Turkish garrisons and repair gangs struggled desperately to keep the Hejaz railroad open. And in that way a mere handful of Bedouins succeeded in tying down over 30,000 Turkish troops, who were as good as lost to their commander in chief when it came to fighting the main campaign against the British.

     There were three further difficulties.
The first was that Feisal’s troops were reluctant to venture so far from home among possibly hostile tribes. Lawrence, however, knew he could rely on Feisal to bring his army north once the port was taken.
     The second difficulty was that, since tribes would have to be recruited for the attack in the north, there would have to be a base for operations. The only feasible base in this barren and waterless desert was the Wadi Sirhan, a 200-mile string of oases between Azrak on the Syrian border and Jauf. But before they could use the water holes as a base, permission would have to be obtained from the powerful Emir of Ruwalla.
     The third difficulty was that the permission could be obtained and the tribes recruited by one man and one man only. This was the far-famed Auda, the great warrior chief of the clan of the Howietat Bedouin.
     The first requirement, obviously, was to have Auda on the spot. He was asked to come and confer with Feisal and Lawrence, and come he did, without any loss of time. Once he heard that there was the prospect of a fight, it would doubtless have been impossible to stop him.
     Sheik Auda abu Tayi was a living legend. No longer a young man – ha was about fifty – Auda was huge, gaunt and swarthy. (…) He was beyond all doubt the greatest desert fighter of his time – and very possibly of all time. From Kurdistan to the Arabian Sea his fame was exceeded only by the universal fear in which he was held. Even kings walked softly when Auda abu Tayi passed by.

     In the middle of the day, when it was so intolerably hot that most of the Arabs could fire only very occasionally, Auda came to Lawrence. He pointed to his own still rapidly firing clansmen and asked proudly: “What think ye of the Howietat now?”
     “Indeed,” Lawrence replied, “they shoot a lot and hit a little.”
     Auda stared at him, then ripped off his headcloth in berserk rage and dashed it to the ground. Shouting at Lawrence, “Get your camel if you want to see the old man’s work,” he rushed away shouting hoarsely for his tribesmen to follow him. Before Lawrence could stop him Auda was leading fifty horsemen in a breakneck suicidal downhill charge against the enemy.
     There was nothing for the horrified Lawrence and Nasir to do but mount their camels, gather 400 tribesmen and charge after him. (…)
     When he recovered consciousness, the battle was over. The Arabs, mad for revenge, had killed 300 Turks and taken 150 more as prisoners – in return for the loss of exactly two of their own men. It was a miracle.
     The spectacle of the triumphant Sheik Auda, when he came to ask Lawrence what he thought of his Howietat tribesmen now, was even more incredible. One bullet had smashed his treasured field glasses, another had pierced his pistol holster, others had reduced his sword scabbard to mangled strips of leather. Six more had passed through his clothing, and his horse had been shot dead under him. But Auda himself was completely unharmed. Even for a man supposed to bear the charmed life Auda did, it was indeed a miracle. Auda himself gave the entire credit for his survival to a copy of the Koran, which he always carried with him.

     It is rather uncertain what impression Allenby and Lawrence, two utterly different men, made on each other. The one was big, burly, clad in the immaculate and much-decorated uniform of an army general. The other was small, deeply sunburned, wasted away from hardship and hunger, dressed in flowing Arab robes and bare on foot. Accounts of their meeting vary. But evidently both men immediately understood each other as soldiers. They found that their points of view on campaign strategy and tactics to be employed in campaigns were very similar indeed. Allenby, though fresh from the Western Front, was no Western Front general. Indeed, he had strongly expressed his distaste for the static mass killing of trench warfare and the immovably fixed and hidebound mentality of the generals who directed this warfare. And it may well have been because of this that he was sent out to Egypt, where he could no longer annoy his commander in chief.

     The conditions in the high hills to the southeast of the Dead Sea were more what one might have expected to find in Greenland or Siberia than in a semitropical country like Arabia. The cold was truly intense. Storms of sleet and hail swept over the bare, rugged countryside. These were followed by ice winds and howling blizzards that piled up great drifts of snow and made movement almost hopeless.
     (…) Maulud lost no less than half of the entire force with which he was besieging Maan. The men died not from Turkish bullets but simply because they froze to death. Maulud had begged the British in Cairo for thick winter clothing for his troops in place of the thin summer drill they wore. But the quartermaster in charge of stores there had refused on the grounds that the Arabs were fighting in a tropical country!

     The township of Tafas, the village over which Tallal had ruled so long, was no longer a village. It was a blackened, smoking grave, inhabited only by the dead. The dead lay everywhere – old men, women, children, even the smallest babies, all ruthlessly massacred by the Turks.
     Tallal, Lawrence relates, gave a moan like a hurt animal. Then he rode off to higher ground and remained there for some moments, shivering violently and staring after the retreating Turks. Lawrence moved to speak to him, but Auda caught his rein and stopped him. In one blow, in one moment, Tallal had lost every person in the world who mattered to him. And the older Auda, wiser in this matter than Lawrence, realized that Tallal now had nothing to live for.
     Slowly Tallal drew his headcloth about his face. Then he suddenly thrust his spurs into the sides of his horse and galloped headlong straight into the main body of the enemy.
     Both sides stopped shooting. Lawrence and his men remained motionless as stones while Tallal galloped madly toward the Turks. The drumming of his horse’s hoofbeats sounded unnaturally loud in the strange and sudden silence Then he stood high in the saddle and shouted out, “Tallal, Tallal,” twice in a great voice. “Instantly,” Lawrence recounts, “their rifles and machineguns crashed out, and he and his mare, riddled through and through with bullets, fell dead among the lance points.”
     “God give him mercy,” Auda said softly. “We will take his price.”
     And Auda, the greatest and most feared desert fighter of his time, was as good as his word. The outnumbered Arabs, driven into a madness of rage and hate by the grim horror of Tafas, fell upon the Turks like a pack of starving wolves. Brilliantly led by Auda who remained ice-cold in his terrible anger, they drove the Turkish column into wild country. There they split them up and began to destroy them piecemeal. (…)

(Tuesday, 1 July 2014)

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