on 30 June 2012
A quite splendid biography of Lawrence - very readable, and not just a repeat of so much that has gone before. A lot of books on Lawrence reveal little, if anything, new about him but Korda approaches his subject from different perspectives, and gives a lot of very interesting background information relating to the war, and other world events from the period. I have many books about Lawrence (about eighteen, I think) but no other book is as well written, fascinating, and informative as this one (and I include the authorised biography in my comparisons).
Very highly recommended - even if you have other books about TEL, you will find this book very well worth reading - and extremely easy and enjoyable to read, not in the least dry and dreary.
on 13 September 2012
It's nearly 80yrs since T E Lawrence died from motorcycle crash injuries, so it's reasonable to wonder whether anything significant can be possibly added to the hundreds of books which have been published since 1935. In this case, there certainly is.
Michael Korda must have undertaken a massive amount of research to bring together material for `Hero'. He has done so triumphantly and has produced a riveting portrait of the troubled but quite brilliant Lawrence and, importantly, the era and events in which he found himself. Korda begins with circumstances leading up to and the capture of Aqaba in 1917. Readers new to TEL may wish to follow a stricter chronology and bypass the first two chapters, beginning at chapter 3, and then inserting these earlier pages (1 to 114) immediately before chapter 7.
Through Korda's modern and detailed examination - with just the right degree of occasional deviations from main themes, to amplify a context - one is presented with a thorough and exceptionally balanced biography. It's one of those rare biographies which enables the reader to conclude unequivocally whether or not he would like and be able to participate in a relaxed conversation for an afternoon with Lawrence, were this possible. (This reviewer says yes to both, though up against Lawrence's laser-sharp intellect, there might well be some heart-stopping moments).
What makes this book special is the way Korda examines motivations lying behind TEL's success and astonishing achievements. Out tumble numerous important matters, many at last ending earlier speculation of those that are key to explaining his personality: he wasn't a loner - he had a vast array of friends at both the highest and lower levels of society, but vigorously protected his solitude; he wasn't gay, but asexual (we learn that he proposed to the pretty Janet Laurie and though she turned him down, they stayed on good terms and he remained touchingly fond of her); he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and one or more mental breakdowns as a result of his dreadful war time experiences, and the guilt associated with the Arab Revolt and their subsequent treatment by the Allied Powers post war. In particular, this triggered in TEL a period of atonement/penance in later years, in which he endured physical abuse and entered the lowest ranks of the Army and then Royal Air Force, where his substantial work on coastal fast-rescue boats would help save the lives of downed pilots in WW2.
Adding to this, his illegitimacy continually shamed him, to which he reacted by self-imposing a lifetime of austere mental and physical hardships that are virtually impossible to comprehend. But it made him tough as nails. When the war came, these characteristics, a deep academic knowledge of the classics and pre-war field experience in the Middle East enabled him to fly at a wholly different altitude to that of his contempories and many superiors, and saw things they didn't. Hence his success; an example perhaps of how brains and hardship can sometimes produce excellence
So, in the end, from this extraordinary mix, came one of the most important men in modern British history, who had commanding ability in military strategy, leadership and a vision unrivalled at that time in the Middle East theatre. Had he lived, his wisdom, perspicacity and intelligence before and during WW2 would have saved thousands of lives and much of the destruction, which marks that war and thereafter.
The American English in which `Hero' is written has not been edited for UK readers. And some of the monetary conversions mix dollars and sterling, so that amounts restated for our current era will be affected by both inflation and exchange rates. But these are minor points; Michael Korda has produced an outstanding book: a history that is as informed as it is sweeping. Fantastic. [5-star; 0912]
on 20 March 2011
Michael Korda's "Hero" is a compellingly readable and insightful account of the life and the "life after death" (Korda notes parallels to the "Diana" phenomenon) of Lawrence of Arabia.
There was nothing conventional about T.E. "Ned" Lawrence's life from his upbringing - in a story worthy of Victorian bodice-rippers, his Anglo-Irish father abandoned his first family to set up a household out of wedlock with the Scottish governess, Lawrence's mother, in Oxford- to his death in a motorcycle accident at age 46 (the bike was a giant Brough).
In between, Lawrence packed a lot: brilliant scholar, unconventional military leader and commander of Arab armies, peace negotiator, advisor to Churchill in his capacity as Colonial Secretary ("I take most of the credit for Mr. Churchill's configuration of the Middle East upon myself, " he wrote to Robert Graves, " I had the knowledge and the plan. He had the imagination and courage to accept It."), author and finally in a turn of what he described as "mind suicide" as a lowly ranker in first the RAF, then the army and finally the RAF again under the new (but, he argued, equally authentic) name of "Aircraftman Shaw."
Korda attributes Lawrence's success as a commander in part to exceptional physical stamina and courage - he very much led by example. It was also partly due to a remarkable sense of physical geography - which established his value as an Intelligence Officer thus setting up his extraordinary career in Arabia, and also accounted for his strategic and tactical genius. Equally, Lawrence had a virtually supernatural ability to captivate the followership of older men whether top British brass or Arab tribal leaders. In expending this power, it was as if he destroyed part of himself contributing to breakdowns and withdrawals at key phases of his life.
Lawrence's strange, post-war burial of himself in the lowest ranks of the armed services was not out of character. At the peak of his career, he was tortured by guilt at his complicity in betraying his commitments to his Arab followers following the Sykes-Picot Agreement, refusing to accept a decoration "for succeeding in his fraud." He increasingly tried to flee from his earlier prominence. One of his superior officers observed that "some quality departed from Lawrence before he became an RAF recruit - Lawrence of Arabia had died."
Lawrence was also deeply sexually repressed. He had two intensely close relationships, one with Dahoum, an Arab boy, and the other with Clare Smith, the wife of his commanding officer. Neither was physical in nature: Clare noted that their friendship had the "closest ties of sympathy and understanding but ...(contained)... none of those elements normally associated with love. " In an aftershock, perhaps, of his infamous rape at Deraa, he paid Jock Bruce, a fellow ranker, to flagellate him in supposed punishment for various sins.
Yet, Lawrence was highly social. His ability to participate in the elaborate hospitality rituals of his Arab hosts - even though they at times frustrated him - was an essential ingredient of his success in the desert. Even as a lowly ranker he maintained friendships with cabinet ministers, Air Marshalls and such figures as George Bernard Shaw, Nancy Astor, Elgar, Coward and Graves. His fellow RAF men knew who he was and accorded him affectionate respect, referring to him as "Mr. Shaw," with rather the tone of deference with which we address surgeons as opposed to mere doctors.
Korda - who is the nephew of the Alexander Korda who once considered making a film about Lawrence - has produced a tour de force. He takes us through immense detail and atmosphere (supported by some excellent photographs) without once losing the sense of excitement and astonishment that Lawrence's story rightfully demands. He reveals - almost touchingly - in a footnote on Page 590 that he himself was inspired by Lawrence's life not only to buy a motorcycle at age 17 but to join the RAF. His sense of awe in the presence of his subject is infectious.
on 9 September 2011
Korda's book is well written and researched, 700 pages with good photos and maps, though better maps would be useful because Lawrence's knowledge of maps, photography, and topography was important.
Lawrence was a complex man, a polyglot with a wide range of abilities. His thesis at Oxford (The influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture) won a most brilliant First Class degree, his ideas about counter-insurgency greatly influence military thinkers (e.g., Orde Wingate and Petraeus), his book about the Arab war ("The Seven Pillars of Wisdom") is a classic, ... never mind he led the Arabs effectively in ways that led them to idolise him. He had courage, analytical power, perhaps most of all the wisdom, subtleness and force of personality (including working in Arabic amongst desert tribes) to persuade.
The dedication to "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" "to S.A." is thought to have been to Dahoum (Selim Ahmed), Lawrence's young friend from his archaeological days in Carchemish. Dahoum died, probably of typhus, in 1916. The first verse of the dedication accurately describes Lawrence's role as being pivotal:
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you Freedom, the seven pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When we came.
Lawrence said that his motives during the war were mainly personal rather than geo-political. There were rumours the relationship with Dahoum was sexual, but Lawrence's friends said Lawrence was asexual (albeit he proposed to Janet Laurie pre-war). He had an aversion to physical contact and sex ... that perhaps traces back to confusions about his parentage within a strictly religious Victorian childhood (- his parents were unmarried and he thought his father was not his real father). His flagellations by John Bruce post-war were more likely a scourging to combat sexual urges than a result of guilt about his role in the war.
on 14 April 2013
As suggested by the title, Korda's biography of TE Lawrence concentrates on how far he might be considered to be one. The description of his involvement in and leadership of events during the Arabian campaign of the First World War certainly do much to indicate that he was worthy of this description. This though is dealt with by only three of the twelve chapters, the others either present how he grew into such a role or show how he tried to hide away from it.
Lawrence's early life and education show he was certainly gifted and supremely self confident in the exercise of his many talents - linguist, mapmaker, archaeologist with a keen sense of the value of antiquities, but most of all the ability to impress and gain the confidence of those who, on paper at least, were his superiors. It was archaeology that drew him to the Middle East, to what is now Iraq and Syria. The contacts and empathy for the region he developed pre 1914 soon drew him to the attention of the military once Turkey entered the war as an ally of Germany. He appeared to be able not just to gain the trust and respect of the Arab tribes of the region but also to keep them onside and united in what for them was a war against Ottoman rule. He was able to adopt Arab ways as well as dress to integrate all the more successfully and fashion the irregular Arab Army that took Damascus. Korda shows though that whilst a supporter of the Arab nationalist cause and a believer in a single "Greater Syria" Arab Kingdom, Lawrence did not "go native". He remained a British officer who saw such a state as not only reinforcing Britain's position in the region but also one that would keep out not just the Turks but also the French, whose colonial system he detested as much as that of the Turks.
So far this is the story well known of Lawrence (and the basis of the famous 1962 David Lean film, although with a hero who was really 5'5" tall, not 6'2".....). However Korda uses this to look at Lawrence's military abilities in a wider context. His realisation that the loose Arab forces were not well suited to frontal attack led to the development of what are now known as guerrilla attacks: blowing up railway lines and bridges then vanishing into the desert. Korda argues he prepares the way for today's terrorist campaigns and road bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Contemporaries who might use these methods also saw the value of his work. Irelands Michael Collins was a friend. He pioneered long distance raids by specialised groups - copied by the British in North Africa in World War II. More significantly he was the first to see the value and to use combined operations involving ground troops supported by mobile armoured units and air strikes. Whilst serving in the ranks in the RAF in north west India he argued against the strategy of bombing the villages of rebels as this alienated the civilian population. Instead he argued blockhouses, supported from the air be built in rebel areas and used to launch motorised raids on rebel strongholds on the ground. The basis of strategy in Afghanistan today. Technology was always an interest. He rode powerful motorbikes, used armoured Rolls Royces in the desert, organised the 1929 Schneider trophy race that saw a forerunner of the Spitfire win, as well as do much to tweak the design the motor launches used to rescue RAF pilots shot down at sea during World War II.
it is clear his ability was acknowledged at the time. A post-war "travelogue" of his exploits in the desert broke box office records in New York and London then and toured Europe making a fortune for its backers (but not TEL - he refused to take any profit from his wartime work). Although of low officer rank (he shunned any attempt to raise his official status) and refusing most of the many honours that came his way he remained a close friend and valued adviser to many of the Good & Great of the time: Allenby (overall commander in the middle east), Trenchard (head of the RAF), writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy, and politicians such as Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. All did not just appreciate his ideas and invariably act upon them, but also felt close enough to support him in the 1920's and 1930's when he sought a life outside the limelight and when the pressures of writing and publishing "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" became overpowering.
His personal life seems to have been more of a mystery. He had very few close relationships despite making friends easily. He felt immense guilt at not delivering what he had promised the Arabs - independence and the immediate post-war years see him toiling with the support of the Imperial Secretary, Winston Churchill to create two kingdoms (Jordan and Iraq - both under British "protection") at least for the Arab tribal chiefs whose support he enlisted. Having experienced total leadership in the desert, received the undoubted adoration of his Arab troops and become a key adviser to Allenby he turned against such high position after the war. He enlisted in both the RAF under assumed names and at the lowest ranks to escape his reputation, but paradoxically seemed to enjoy the recognition when it could not be avoided. More darkly, Korda explores masochistic tendencies that clearly had their roots in his treatment when briefly captured by the Turks.
Korda's work is over 700 pages long and it has been criticised for its length - ironic given that much of it is devoted to showing how TEL struggled to edit "Seven Pillars"! I would have liked to see some of the post 1918 period edited and a little more said about the views of those Arab leaders he hoped to place on thrones - Feisal especially. Did TEL feel so strongly about supporting them for their broader social and political reasons and how they might better the lives of all Arabs or was it purely because he offered these elites his word? However it is not a difficult biography to read and its breadth allows TEL to be seen in a wider context - the desert war at its centre, but with many significant antecedents as well as providing an understanding of his unorthodox post-war career. It is worth persevering with to see who was in reality a 20th century version of a classical Greek hero - a unique range of talents and powers with the ability to enchant, but also one with real human flaws whose demons he had to contend with.
on 21 November 2012
An excellent read. A well balanced and thoughtful account. For those who want a different view they should read Lawrence the uncrowned King of Arabia by Michael Asher, which is a forensic approach to his life and times. Given the resources and support he had, to achieve what he did was remarkable. His refusal to accepted the honours he richly deserved say much about him. He was the right man at the right time, some will suggest that the Arabian desert was a side show to the Western Front.However, it still had to won and for a man with no military training it must rank along side other great campaigns. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is now a handbook for many armies. His life after the victory ,some will suggest could have been put to better use, but who are we to deny him his solitude. His treatment by the press shows how little the media have moved on.
Strongly recommended for those interested in the Lawrence or this period of history.
on 8 June 2011
This is a huge book that builds both your physical and intellectual muscles as you read it.
Those with an interest in Lawrence will be transfixed and "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" will be put firmly into context. But the book has a much wider appeal - to modern historians generally, particularly to those interested in UK & French post 1919 foreign/colonial policy and those interested in why the geographical & political structure of the Middle East is as it is today.
The author's contention that Lawrence is a true hero is well illustrated by his exploits in a very short period leading the Arab forces terrorising the Turks and conquering Damascus (count the bravery awards he refused to accept). But of equal interest are Lawrence's shuttle diplomacy efforts in the early 1920s; the discussion of his contribution to modern terrorism and guerrilla warfare; and his life after retiring into the RAF and "obscurity".
A brilliantly written and painstakingly researched book. Don't miss it.
on 19 April 2011
My review of the film 'Lawrence of Arabia' highlighted, among other things, its inspiration for this impressionable 16 year-old to be self-reliant emotionally. This birthday gift from my children came as I had to exercise such emotional self-reliance again, many years after the first 'need of inspiration'! The book did the same for me as the film, this time carrying me over a two-week period; the time it took to read the 700 pages.
The book is exciting on many levels: understanding Lawrence as a soldier, diplomat, a polymath of deep intellect and human frailty. He was certainly heroic. He was also, in so many guises, self-reliant and filled with an almost blinding determination. Like 'The Kindly Ones' (also reviewed by me), once I started, I couldn't stop reading. Apart from being well written and incredibly widely researched, it sheds as much light on his years of military daring as it does on his earlier time in Oxford and his later years, advocating first for the post Great War Arab cause (with sympathy for the Jewish question) and secondly, for practical measures to improve the lot of enlisted servicemen in the British armed forces. The darker side of his limited sexual behaviour (masochism) is placed in the wider picture of his many accomplishments: military, diplomatic and technical. His 'collapse' through the Deraa ordeal and his failure to nullify the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement may have been the mutual sparks for self-punishment. It is speculation but who cares? He treated people of all classes (in Britain at that time, class was important) and his allied races, with care. He was comfortable in all settings; whether with kings or private soldiers he befriended; the latter while serving in the ranks of both the army and the RAF. Love appears at different times in non sensual guises. I now want to read the letters he exchanged with Bernard and particularly Charlotte Shaw. For me, this really is riveting and emotionally resonant!
Author of The Early Years
on 15 May 2013
This is a substantial piece of scholarship biography; 700 pages. It covers the whole of TE Lawrence's life and attempts to demonstrate why his two year's of "heroism" in 1917 and 1918 have overshadowed the other 33 years of his life. In fact, you might even question whether "hero" is the right word for Lawrence, a curious personality.
The book is very readable despite its size but there are sections when it is discussing at length Lawrence's negotiations with various publishers where it could reasonably have been edited down without losing anything meaningful.
Not only is it a good read, it is also educational for those who want to understand what was going on in the Middle East during World War 1. It also demonstrates very clearly the origins of the current difficulties in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt and the whole Arabian peninsula. One is tempted to think that, had Lawrence had his way at the Paris Conference after WW1, and the old Ottoman Empire had been re-arranged to his plan there would be none of the current conflict affecting the Middle East.
on 31 March 2012
When the subject of the biography is a legend like Arabian Lawrence, I expect a lot of the book: effortlessly flowing prose as well as exacting research. Korda's work, in my opinion, fulfills both these criteria.
Before getting the book (Kindle version), I read some of the reviews complaining about the author's unwieldy sentence structure that made reading this book a labor. The very first sentence indeed seemed to confirm this complaint; I had to read it a couple of times in order to get its exact meaning. But I had no problems afterwards; indeed the book read like the best of novels.
I haven't done any significant reading of the subject (Arabian Lawrence & the Arab Revolt as well as the First World War in the Middle East) before, so I perhaps I'm not the right person to judge the book's worth as history. But where the book touched subjects I am familiar with, it fared well. There were a couple of instances where Korda's background descriptions of world politics were outdated; for example, the view of modern historiography of the outbreak of the First World War is far more nuanced than Korda's one-sentence description makes it out to be. But that's a very minor blemish in an ambitious work like this.
For those looking for a substantial one-volume biography this is the work. It doesn't succumb to hero worship or legend-bashing; neither does it give way to the temptation of over-analyzing Lawrence's personality. Korda leaves no doubt that Lawrence was not only a tremendously gifted, but also a tremendously complex character, but he also makes clear that Lawrence's complexes have been blown more out of proportion than his gifts.