(1924) (Hutchinson & Co. – 317 pages)
Reviewer – Rob Wood
“With Lawrence in Arabia” by Lowell Thomas is one of the classic adventure biographies of all time. It covers the turbulent life of Lawrence of Arabia, with special consideration for his antics in the Middle Eastern campaigns of World War One. Thomas was commissioned to help “stimulate enthusiasm” for the Allied cause in the war and went about this by documenting the exploits of the now famous Englishman in the Holy Land. Indeed, it is largely thanks to this author that Lawrence of Arabia is today a household name with several movie portrayals.
Most of us will have seen the movie starring Peter O’Toole as Colonel T.E. Lawrence, the famous English soldier and adventurer. The author of this book is the same American reporter portrayed in that movie. His personal experience in the Middle East and his ability to impart that experience, as well as that of Lawrence, makes this a most enthralling read.
Thomas begins with his own first meeting with the Colonel in Jerusalem in 1917. His first impressions seem to have fostered the myths of Lawrence, with his 5’3″ stature, regal demeanour, striking Caucasian looks and Arab costume, as if he had stepped out of the “Arabian Nights”. Also clear is the reticence of Lawrence to reveal to the author the details of his earlier life. However, Thomas makes a valiant attempt to fill in some of the blanks of Lawrence’s earlier existence. His interests in Near Eastern archaeology, and ability to foster confidence amongst the people of the Holy Land prior to the war, are given expression with the devotion of an entire two chapters.
Funnily enough, Lawrence was rejected from the British Army for not measuring up to their strict physical standards, less than four years before he led a victorious Arab army through the gates of Damascus. Thomas tells of Lawrence’s early difficulties in enlisting with the armed forces, but then the speed with which he took the initiative in Arabia, encouraging the Arabs to evict the Turks and turning what was effectively a rabble into an efficient fighting force.
Thomas then goes on to describe in detail the progress of Lawrence and the Arab army up the Saudi Peninsular, leading eventually to the sacking of Akaba and then Damascus, all the while with Lawrence acting as the “adviser” of the various Arab commanders. Such was part of Lawrence’s ploy to win the confidence of his companions. The book gives details of most of the major battles in which Lawrence was involved, as well as the various missions he undertook against the infrastructure and military of the Turks (train-wrecking was a favourite of Lawrence). Also oft mentioned is Lawrence’s propensity for joining in the fray of battle. His love of history was never forgotten in this time and the English Colonel used his army to erase the inscribed graffiti from the walls of the ancient city of Petra.
Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are the description of Lawrence’s spy missions behind the Turkish line. His impeccable language skills allowed him to go on such assignments personally. His small stature also allowed him to disguise himself as a woman in order to avoid harassment by the Turkish soldiers.
Thomas has a gift for describing the true feeling and atmosphere of the Middle East. His rigid, yet descriptive style, give this work the feeling of a boy’s own adventure novel. His anecdotes are well selected and always amusing, as are his background history to the situation in which Lawrence found himself. This is one of the books by which later accounts of this famous figure will be judged. It is a fine read and deserves to be part of any history or adventure fan’s book collection.