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Setting the Desert on Fire: T. E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918 Paperback – July 6, 2009

3.9 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

British historian Barr re-examines World War I's  'Great Arab Revolt'  led by the legendary Lawrence of Arabia in this exhaustively researched and vividly narrated history. Thomas Edward Lawrence was a young British intelligence officer when he undertook to organize Arab resistance to the Ottoman Empire, a German ally. The Turkish (Ottoman) sultan was also the caliph—spiritual leader of Muslims worldwide—and the British feared that his call for jihad threatened their eastern empire. To secure Arab support against the Turks, the British offered them a hazy declaration of future independence. Led by Lawrence, an eccentric amateur who adopted the flowing robes of his desert allies, the Arabs began a guerrilla campaign against the Hijaz Railway, the Turks' supply line between Damascus and Medina. Lawrence's driving obsession was to capture Damascus and foil French ambitions in Syria. As the war in Europe was ending, the Arabs occupied Damascus and Lawrence installed an Arab government. Upon the war's conclusion, Middle Eastern matters were peripheral. Britain then yielded Syria to France, denying Arab independence and initiating a new legacy, of increasingly bitter relations. Barr expertly navigates an intriguing landscape of shifting alliances and labyrinthine politics peopled with eccentric characters to demystify a fascinating legend. illus. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Many laypersons are familiar with T. E. Lawrence and the Arab revolt only through David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia. A few may have gone further and read Lawrence’s largely self-promoting account, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1935). Barr has written a compact, scrupulously accurate chronicle of the revolt and Lawrence’s role in it, utilizing previously unavailable archival material and seamlessly interweaving the military narrative with the political maneuvers of the British and French governments as they pursued their own narrow interests. Barr provides finely drawn portraits of some of the key players in this drama, including General Allenby, Ronald Storrs, Prince Feisal, Auda abu Tayi, and, of course, Lawrence, who is viewed less as the romantic, tragic adventurer and more as a hardheaded, effective soldier. Although he was sympathetic to Arab national aspirations, he was primarily devoted to protecting British interests and seemed to have a particular hostility toward French designs upon Syria and Lebanon. An excellent general history of a widely misunderstood struggle that largely defined the shape of the modern Middle East. --Jay Freeman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (July 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393335275
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393335279
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,503,137 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Setting the desert on fire is a historical account of British Army missions in the Middle East during the First World War. However, its impact is a great deal more wide ranging than that sounds. Given the current delicate situation in this part of the world, this book takes the reader on a fascinating journey to the heart of the region, and certainly helped me to place some of our current follies in context.

At the heart of this book is T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and his extraordinarily daring, brave and probably short sighted actions. There seems to be tendency these days to dismiss the Legend of Lawrence (partly created by his own writings), but Mr. Barr's assessment of his involvements take an intelligently balanced point of view. His involvement in the story does provide a dynamic end engaging drive, but there are many other equally important characters in the narrative. The author gives particularly welcome insight into the significant parts that Sharif Husein and Sharif Feisel play in the encouragement of Arab revolt against the Turks.

As a whole this book takes us through the events in detail, carefully mapping out the positions of the Turks, British, French and Arabs along the way, whilst placing the whole vital but small-scale actions in the context of the mass slaughter going on in France at the time. However, what really brings this book alive, and completes its important accessibility are the contemporary insights of the author. A trip by Mr. Barr to the site of the Hijaz railway and the various towns in the area provides numerous connections to the present day. This creates a freshness and energy that helps the reader to visualize the place and time with clarity and texture.
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Format: Hardcover
There's a great old song from 70 years ago called "Perfidia", and the title and lyrics seem quite appropriate to this fine new historical work. The war in Arabia conjurs up all kind of heroic and romantic visions, almost all centering on T.E. Lawrence. WW I was, for the most part, a hell of trench warfare and attrition. The individual counted for little here, and the death toll was huge. There was a longing for heroic figures during the war, and between the wars, and there were basically only two kinds of such figures. Both kinds were men who could act on their own (as opposed to the slog of trench warfare) and who could achieve visibly important deeds. One kind was the fighter pilots (two-seater recon pilots didn't count, even though on the English side this was about 2/3 of the pilots), and the other kind was Lawrence. Lawrence became a legend during the war: very few other English officers in WW I could roam about pretty much at will. Oxford-educated, independent-minded, ambitious, fluent in Arabic and sympathetic to Arab causes, charismatic, and, most importantly, a fine soldier with a good strategic and tactical mind, Lawrence was a natural hero, a natural legend.

Lawrence's story--Seven Pillars of Wisdom (abridged as Revolt in the Desert) helped keep the legend alive after WW I. But being a legend, creating a legend, and narrating legendary deeds (in a sometimes self-serving way) isn't always as enjoyable as you might think. Lawrence had to become Private Shaw to achieve anonimity. For a long time, the legend was the history: Seven Pillars of Wisom was the historical reference. Then there were books from the Arab point of view, often belittling many of Lawrence's claims. And, of course, we have Peter O'Toole on camelback. What is needed is a sorting-out.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For anyone who doubts the adage "that those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them" then this is the book for them. Barr not only looks at Lawrence's role in the desert revolt of 1917 to 1918 but also the convoluted dealings of Britain and France in the Sykes-Picot accord and its consequences for the Middle East today.
The book is well researched with copious notes and references and extensive bibliography. There are also photographs of many of the people and places mentioned in the text. The book examines the reason for Britain's involvement in the region, the tensions between the India Office and its support for the ibn Saud family and the Egypt Office and its support for the ibn Husain family and the tensions between the Arab tribes themselves and the lack of a clear aim for the revolt. It also examines in some detail how the British government wanted to distance itself from the Sykes-Picot accord as the war progressed and the French insistence that it be honoured.
The only criticism I have is that the author has a tendency to interpose his own observations of the sites of events in the middle of the text about those events without the benefit of separate paragraph. Apart from this the book is an excellent read and well worth its purchase for anyone interested in the region, the desert revolt or T. E. Lawrence.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a very useful layman's history of the Arab Revolt. Contrary to most accounts, it does not see Lawrence as the central figure; rather, it details the motivations of, and the conflicts between, all the soldiers, politicians, and countries that were involved in the affair. This book puts Lawrence's role in context, making him a less important player in the entire scheme of things, but carefully demonstrating the critical contributions that resulted from his unique ability and personality.

The writing is, particularly in the beginning, slightly sloppy, cliche-ridden, and self-indulgent, but the narrative demonstrates careful and exhaustive research. However, the final page's attempt to make this story relevant to the current Middle East struggle, by claiming that Britain's failed pledges to the Arabs in 1918 are what created Osama bin Laden, is nonsense.
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