Setting the Desert on Fire. Book Review

James Barr, Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E.Lawrence and Britain’s’  Secret  War in Arabia, (London: Bloomsbury 2006)

This book does not fit easily into any one category: it is dramatic, a thrilling account of the last struggles of the Ottoman Empire,  the conquest of Palestine by General Allenby and the extraordinary achievements of Lawrence in the destruction of the Hijaz railway with the cooperation of Arabs, tribes, and most of all the great leader Feisal, one of the sons of Sharif Husein ; it is scholarly, well-researched, with archival back-up for every statement through State papers, journals – from an impressive range of Libraries.

But for those with a special interest in the Balfour Declaration it is the implications and complexities of this that make this book unique. Even before the Declaration in 1917 Lawrence detested the Sykes- Picot agreement. He met Sykes for the first time in May 1917 and challenged him to reveal its full terms: the details which Sykes revealed to him had stunning implications which he would thrash out in the lonely weeks ahead (p.125).

He knew that the vagueness of what McMahon had agreed over the future of North Syria was at stake: “what he heard from Sykes directly not only horrified him but spurred him into action”(p.126). Sykes now had the task of  explaining to the Sharif of Mecca that Syria was promised to the French, sugaring the pill by promising to increase Husein’s monthly allowance. For Lawrence, this meant that  the Sharif and the Arab armies were “fighting for us on a lie”, being fully aware of the inconsistences between the commitment  made by McMahon  and the Sykes – Picot’s agreement’s  allocation of Syria to the French (p.134). Lawrence was very dejected. As he wrote to Gilbert Clayton- in charge of the Hijaz operations-  “We’re getting them to fight for us on a lie and I can’t stand it!”

The dislike of Sykes- Picot was widespread at a certain point, “wounded …severely by the ongoing collapse of the Russian war effort and pressure on both Britain and France by America to renounce their imperial aims.” (p.172). Even Lloyd George wanted an amendment  to cede Palestine to Britain. But France would yield to no pressure and Clayton did not want to offend Sykes. Yet Husein did not know, nor had he seen Sykes Picot agreement.

Events moved on with publication of the Balfour declaration – which Clayton, Sykes (and Barr) thought was to help Jews world-wide.  Sykes was carried away by the vision of Jews world-wide flocking “to Palestine to become its milkmaids and apiarists” (p.203).

The tension between French and Arab interests was never resolved. The raid on Dara was key- as it lay on the border of the French zone agreed by Sykes and Picot. The dénouement came at the triumphal entry into Damascus where Feisal was finally told the truth by Allenby that France was to be the Protecting Power over Syria: :Feisal would administer Syria- excluding Palestine and the Lebanon – with French guidance and financial backing. Feisal said he knew nothing about     France’s right to be involved in Syria, claimed that Lawrence had told him that the Arabs were to have all of Syria, and flatly rejected French assistance. (p.297)

Lawrence, exhausted and dejected, left for Cairo. The Arabs refused to give up their claims – and the contradictory promises Britain had made became all too evident. At the peace conference in Paris, (1919) where Feisal was initially unrecognised as a delegate, he made a very statesman- like speech. But, sadly, Britain decided it was more strategic to back France than the Arabs. The French would force Feisal into exile the following year (p.304). Britain then made him King of Iraq where he died in 1933..

The seeds  of bitterness sown between Britain and the Arabs were to have tragic consequences. Barr’s epilogue admits that the promises made by McMahon to Husein have never been made satisfactorily clear and were to have, as The Times obituary of  McMahon stated, to have a “disagreeable aftermath”. (p.323) This highly significant book concludes with the sentence:

To the Arabs today, the British role behind their uprising ninety years ago remains unforgotten and largely unforgiven” (p.314)

Mary Grey, February 2014




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