Lawrence of Arabia’s Secret dispatches in the Arab Revolt, 1915-1919

Fabrizio Bagatti has made a major contribution to Lawrence of Arabia studies with the publication of this volume. Until now, we have had only the edited selection of his military dispatches published by Malcolm Brown or the facsimile reprint of the wartime Arab Bulletin.

Lawrence was attached to the Arab Bureau, a specialist branch of British military intelligence based in Cairo during the First World War, and the Arab Bulletin was its regular report, designed of course for very restricted circulation at the time. Versions of Lawrence’s dispatches from Arabia appeared in the Arab Bulletin, and from these published versions Brown then made his selection.

But a host of questions arise. As Bagatti explains in his introduction: ‘Does the Arab Bulletin contain, in print, all of Lawrence’s original reports? Are we actually reading what Lawrence wrote in his dispatches? A subsequent thorough verification of the original archive materials relating to the war in Arabia ended up radically changing the scenario.’

Bagatti is Professor of Literary Translation at the University of International Studies in Rome. A prolific publisher of translations – of Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and Charles Dickens – he has had a long-standing interest in T E Lawrence. His archive research has revealed that the Lawrence dispatches published in the Arab Bulletin are edited and incomplete.

This matters. Most commentators have been dealing with an immensely controversial figure on the basis of a defective historical record. Some regard Lawrence as a military genius who had a major impact on the outcome of the First World War in the Middle East. Others charge him with having been a serial liar and self-promoting charlatan. Debate surges around the reliability of Seven Pillars of Wisdom as a military memoir, and therefore around the primary evidence of his dispatches, letters, and diary.

With this volume, arranged chronologically, we can for the first time check the original dispatches with the published versions. Consider this key question: how exactly did Lawrence regard Feisal, the commander of the Arab Northern Army, the Hashemite leader with whom he was chiefly associated? Did he regard him as a tool to be manipulated, as some have suggested, or as an intimate, a confidant, a comrade-in-arms, even, indeed, as a fellow conspirator with whom he worked to frustrate the machinations of Anglo-French imperialism?

When Lawrence first reported on Feisal to his superiors, he wrote that he was ‘full of dreams and the capacity to realise them, with keen personal insight, and very efficient’. But the Bulletin published an oddly different version: ‘full of dreams and the capacity to realise them, with keen personal insight, and a very efficient man of business’. Man of business? This strange editorial addition seems to conflict with the clear implication that Feisal was, potentially, a charismatic tribal leader.

But quite apart from the value of this volume to specialists, however, there is its value to general readers interested in Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Seven Pillars is a later literary work. The dispatches are the work of a man on the field – a man who combined the roles of a liaison officer in regular service with that of a guerrilla commander in a desert insurgency.

And because Lawrence was so gifted, both as a thinker and a writer, and because he empathised so strongly with the Bedouin, their culture, and their cause, Bagatti’s volume adds up to a personal narrative and commentary that carries us to the very heart of the Arab Revolt as it unfolded.

Review by Neil Faulkner
Lawrence of Arabia’s Secret dispatches in the Arab Revolt, 1915-1919, T E Lawrence, edited by Fabrizio Bagatti, Pen & Sword, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-1399010184.