Who helped Lawrence of Arabia shape the Arab Revolt?

By Philip Walker the author of Behind the Lawrence Legend: the Forgotten Few who Shaped the Arab Revolt (Oxford University Press, 2018)

This article originally appeared on the OUP Blog and has been reposted at DailyHistory.org with their permission.

T. E. Lawrence, known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” has provoked controversy for a hundred years. His legend was promoted in the 1920s by the American Lowell Thomas’s travelogue; renewed in 1935 through his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom; and revived in 1962 by the epic film Lawrence of Arabia. The hype should not blind us to the fact that Lawrence’s contribution to the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 against the Turks was indispensable. His skills in organizing and coordinating, his daring and courage, his intuitive grasp of guerrilla warfare and how to harness it, his influence over Emir Feisal (the leader of Arab forces in the field), and his talent for manipulating his own leaders if necessary, were all crucial to the hollow success of the revolt.

Yet Lawrence was a team player. In particular, there was a nexus of influence over the revolt that has stayed below the radar. While Lawrence and other British, Arab, and French officers were blowing up the Hejaz Railway, a forgotten band of British officers at Jeddah, far from the desert campaign, carried out vitally important diplomatic and intelligence work that prevented the revolt from collapse. This untold story centres on Colonel Cyril Edward Wilson, the British representative at the Jeddah Consulate. Wilson was a dependable officer of the old school—the antithesis of the brilliant and mercurial Lawrence. But his strong relationship with Sherif Hussein of Mecca, the leader of the revolt, drew this suspicious and controlling man back from the brink of despair, suicide, and the abandonment of the revolt. Wilson’s undervalued influence over Hussein during critical phases of the revolt was at least as important as the well-known influence of Lawrence over Emir Feisal, Hussein’s son.

Lt. Col. T. E. Lawrence - 1919

Wilson’s core team included Captain Norman Bray, a highly-strung Indian Army intelligence officer who rooted out anti-British and anti-Hussein jihadists. These men were incensed that Hussein dared to rebel against the Turkish sultan, who was also the caliph (leader) of all Sunni Muslims. The stakes were high because the jihadists based at Jeddah and Mecca wanted to discredit both Hussein and the British by disrupting the Hajj—the Muslim pilgrimage—and encourage Indian pilgrims (passing through Jeddah on their way to Mecca) to rebel against British rule in their homeland. Bray helped keep the revolt on course by neutralising the jihadists, with the aid of a resourceful Persian spy named Hussein Ruhi, and had their leader deported to prison in Malta.

Ruhi is one of the most intriguing and influential players in the Arab Revolt. His cover was as Wilson’s Arabic interpreter, and he did invaluable intelligence work for the colonel in other respects too— even at times putting his life in danger.

Wilson’s two deputies, both with intelligence backgrounds, helped him with vital diplomatic work. In the colonel’s absence, the eccentric, half-deaf Major Hugh Pearson helped steady Hussein when he lost his nerve. Later, the genial and imperturbable Colonel John Bassett stood in for Wilson, while he spent five months recovering in Cairo from life-threatening dysentery. Bassett encouraged and cajoled Hussein when Hussein fell out with his son Feisal, resigned as King of the Hejaz, spoke of suicide, and threatened to withdraw all of Feisal’s Bedouin tribesmen from the planned advance into Syria. If those fighters had returned to the Hejaz (Hussein’s territory) the revolt would have dissolved.

Another member of Wilson’s small team at Jeddah was a junior intelligence officer, who at first sight had less influence than his comrades at Jeddah. Yet the amiable Lieutenant Lionel Gray, who knew almost all the key British players in Arabia, helped Wilson by gaining the trust of Sherif Hussein himself and was even invited by Hussein to photograph him in his palace. Gray is also important for another reason: his hundreds of remarkable photographs, intelligence documents, and letters home, including those to his fiancée from whom he was to be parted for nearly five years. This collection offers unparalleled insights into the twists and turns of the revolt.

Emir Abdullah (seated), Hussein Ruhi (far left), and Colonel Cyril Wilson (third from left) at Jeddah (used with permission from OUP)

The compelling story of Wilson and his close-knit band points to an inescapable conclusion: the Jeddah Consulate was a vitally important hub of the revolt whose influence has been considerably undervalued. The military campaign in the desert was important, but Jeddah—with its artery to Mecca and Sherif Hussein—was the beating heart of the revolt, whose irregular rhythm needed the vital interventions of Wilson and his team. Without their quiet diplomacy and intelligence work, the revolt would have collapsed and the world would never have heard of “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Cyril Wilson was the outstanding forgotten shaper and sustainer of the revolt. Near the end of Wilson’s life, General Reginald Wingate wrote to him praising his indispensable role and his “great work” in the Arab Revolt, without which, he said, it could never have succeeded. Wilson and his circle deserve to be commemorated, a century after their vital work fell through the cracks of history. It is not unreasonable to believe that Lawrence—complex and unfathomable as he was—would have acknowledged that this was so.