Masters of Mayhem. Lawrence of Arabia and the British Military Mission to the Hejaz by James Stejskal

Casemate Publishers, 2018

£16-£20 HB 184pp 

b/w photos throughout 

ISBN 9781 61200 5744


Despite the title, the author James Stejskal says that Lawrence is not the ‘primary subject’ of the book, there being many such works on Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, but more an account of nascent combined special operations this example being one of, if not the first, of such military endeavours. 

Masters of Mayhem focuses on the origins of the British Military Mission (BMM), its raison d'être and development from inception to the Ottoman surrender on 30th October 1918.

The author’s introduction and prologue give a good resumé of the history and political aspirations of the peoples of the region describing the complex relations between the  European powers and the failing Ottoman Empire including Sherif Hussein’s contemplating revolt against his Ottoman masters since 1913 emulating Abdul Aziz ibn Saud’s successful eviction of the Turks from his tribal area in 1908. Stejskal outlines the colonialist aspirations of the French and British governments in the forms of the somewhat controversial Sykes-Picot agreement of February 1916 and the difficulties this presented for Lawrence and  the other liaison officers of the BMM, the Balfour Declaration having less of an immediate effect upon the actions of the officers of the Mission and neither arrangement deflecting them from blowing up everything Turkish. 

Masters of Mayhem concentrates on the developing effectiveness of the BMM and its Arab colleagues and the diminishing efforts over two years of the Ottoman response in the face of unremitting attacks upon the Hejaz railway and  the troops defending it and the towns and holy places of Arabia. That Lawrence was not alone is the thrust of the narrative but not to the detriment of the very important role he played in the success of the revolt, his doctrines about guerrilla warfare and special operations from August 1917 forming one of the appendices. Its relevance to later and current Special Ops: is noted by the author, a former practitioner of such arts.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the war in the desert and the not so well known characters who were paramount in the successful conducting of that campaign are treated to an exciting rendition, for exciting it was as well as dangerous, fatal on occasions and maiming of mind and body. The actions of such esoteric adventures as conducted by the Light Armoured Motor Battery, Imperial Camel Corps (ICCB) and Egyptian Camel Corps Red Sea Patrol (CTC) and the Hejaz Armoured Car Section/Battery (HAC) are well described with a section devoted to an appraisal of the Senussi Campaign of late 1915 and 1916 and the role played by the men of the LAMB’s led by the Duke of Westminster in his guise as Major Hugh Grosvenor. Many other interesting officers and their vital roles abound including the indispensable Lt Colonels Stewart Newcombe RE, Pierce Joyce, Gilbert Clayton, the Dawnay brothers Guy and Alan, Major’s Walter Sterling and Herbert ‘Bimbashi’ Garland, Captain Frederick Peake OC ECC (a fascinating regular officer fluent in many languages and expert desert traveller), Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss ( later 1st Sea Lord and Compiegne fame) and Lieutenants Gilman (HAC) Brodie (RFA 10 pounder Motor Section) and  many more. The Bedouin are represented by Auda Abu Tayi (prominent in Seven Pillars of Wisdom) Prince Faisal, his father and brothers, Ja’far al Askari Pasha and Colonel Aziz al Masri Bey, both former Ottoman officers Ja’far having been captured by the British while fighting with the Senussi and both, as Arabs, utterly disillusioned with the actions of the Turkish government and now committed to the Arab Revolt. 

Colonel Edouard Bremond and Captain S. aho, 2nd Algerian Spahis, of the French Military Mission appear embodying French determination to deny Syria to Feisal or any authority other than their governments. A couple of generals by the names of Allenby and Wingate get a mention, Allenby being famous, Reggie Wingate is perhaps best known for his close association with Lord Kitchener and Wingate’s pacification of the Sudan post Mahdiism and his governorship of the Egyptian province and suppression of the slave trade. He was enthusiastic for the Arab Revolt and much involved with the suggestion and selection of officers for the BMM, his early responsibility for the Hejaz from his base in Khartoum  prompted his becoming High Commissioner and overall chief of operations in the Hejaz. 

There is a frisson of romance (careful Effendi!) in the description of combined operations involving tearing about the Hejaz and Palestine in fast armoured cars, flying into improvised airstrips, steaming up the Red Sea coast bombarding Ottoman forces over the heads of Bedu tribesman and charging into Aqaba on horse and camel back let alone demolishing trains, tracks, trenches, bridges and desert forts at dawn. The harsher elements of real politic is also at the forefront of the narrative and the difficulties of diplomacy  experienced by Lawrence, Newcombe, Joyce and Colonel Cyril Wilson and the balance of loyalty to friends such as Feisal and Auda Abu Tayi with the requirements of empire can  be uncomfortable such as when Lawrence felt honour bound to inform Feisal of the terms of ‘Sykes-Picot’ whilst colleagues kept an uneasy silence. Frustrations stemming from  working with sometimes ill disciplined irregular forces were felt as Newcombe attested also vehicle breakdowns and issues with supplies and theft of HMG’s gold are revealed the   reader sympathising with all, the Turks included, in a difficult and sometimes deadly terrain without the added dangers of enemy action. That the Turks were commendably adept at discovering the mines and repairing the damaged caused to the railway sometimes caused dismay but never deterred Arab or Briton from constant acts of destruction.    

The photographs are superb and plentiful though a little small as are the maps of which there could be more, the appendices a bonus of information. This handsome amd impressive book is a great introduction to the desert/Palestine campaigns and very good value and very likely to prompt further study into a fascinating theatre of the First World War with much relevance to military operations occurring in the region as this is being written, November 2023.

Review by Dick Green