The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Book Review: Lawrence Warrior and Scholar

Review of a book about Lawrence of Arabia

Published on 13 NOV 2014 10:16am by Paul Robinson
  1. background / research material, buyer's guide, english

T E Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, is perhaps one of the most well-known military figures of the first part of the twentieth century, if not the whole of that century.  Who hasn’t seen the film?  I was fortunate enough to catch the Director’s Cut version some years ago on the big screen – Omar Sharif’s character riding out of the desert is a very impressive piece of cinematography.   I have also been lucky to be able to see an exhibition of Lawrence’s life at the Imperial War Museum in London.  Therefore I was quite interested to get this book by Bruce Leigh to review. Somewhat surprisingly, on reflection, I have never actually read a book on Lawrence’s life or even military exploits (other than as mentioned in accounts of Allenby’s Palestine Campaigns against the Ottoman Turks during World War One).

To begin with I was somewhat disappointed that this book was not a traditional biography of the great man but more of a psychological investigation into what made him the often controversial figure he was.  As Mr Leigh says:

“In my view Lawrence is nothing if he is not a Mind.  Accordingly I go in search of this Mind, trying to understand and to begin to delineate it via his formation and experience.”

The book is laid out in a semi chronological manner; detailing those earlier formative experiences first.  And overall it is basically a sequence of analyses of these influences with the only narrative link being the hero of the piece - Lawrence.  Therefore to the general military reader the book is very hit and miss in terms of interest levels. 

The Chapters range from an investigation of Lawrence’s collection of books at his last home Clouds Hill (and as Appendix Two at the end of the book sets out these range from Georgian poetry through the complete works of Xenophon to Zinner’s study of typhus – Rats, Lice and History!) through to the influence of Sex and Pain (Chapter Fifteen) on Lawrence’s behaviour and attitudes.  So the reader has to at one point to tackle Chapters looking at the writings of the Classical authors Xenophon, Appolonius of Tyana and Lucian through to the meaning of what the Author refers to as the personal chapter in Lawrence’s classic book the Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  With the influences of medieval Chivalry and of the Cynics and the Stoics along the way I have to say that I found it pretty tough going.  The Chapter on Military Philosophers being something of a welcome relief!

However for those interested in what goes into making the character of a unique military figure (I avoid using the term “great” as that has been one of the controversies of Lawrence’s life, his actual impact on the outcome of the Palestine Campaign and whether he really deserves to be one of the military “Greats” – there are any number of books that deal with that subject!) then there are any number of interesting “nuggets” from those that knew him well or just encountered him briefly.  Robert Graves remembered:

“Lawrence (when his own master) avoids regular hours of sleep.  He has found that his brain works better if he sleeps as irregularly as he eats.”

Also we get a flavour throughout the book of how odd Lawrence must have been to his contemporaries as well as to our modern consumer society.  Leigh tells us:

“It is of course a very characteristic Lawrencian touch to list ‘coffee, fresh water, women’ as ‘little vices and luxuries’, and in that order”

As a general reader there is very little to criticise about the book of itself; doubtless those with a deep interest in TE Lawrence may well find issues within it they may disagree with.  However I think it is really this latter category of reader who will get the most out of the book.  If you simply wish to read about Lawrence’s life story there are, like any other high profile military figure, a number of other books to choose from.  My tastes in military history are pretty diverse ranging from the Late Roman period though the Napoleonic period and a range of Modern conflicts but I didn’t really find this book that interesting. It is clearly a labour of love by the Author who read his first book about Lawrence when he was 14 (The Essential Lawrence) but for those not really deeply interested in Lawrence as a person then this will be a hard read. 

“Lawrence” available in paperback from Casemate Publishing, normal price $16.95/£12.99 (ISBN 9780954311575). 

http://www.casematepublishing.co.uk/title.php?isbn=9780954311575