France’s forgotten rival to Lawrence of Arabia
His name is little known in histories of the First World War but Colonel Edouard Brémond has a claim, as Michael Delahaye says, to be France’s Lawrence of Arabia
For the French, no less than for the rest of the world, T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence d’Arabie, as they call him – is a figure of endless fascination: Was he a latter-day knight crusader or a shameless self-promoter whose fame owes more to a mythologising biopic made long after his death than to anything he ever achieved in his life?
There is, though, an equally intriguing sub-plot to the Legend of Lawrence, featuring French army officer Colonel Edouard Brémond who would have been hailed ‘best supporting actor’, had he not been written out at an early stage.
To explain his role, we need first to look at Lawrence’s own relationship with France…
Lawrence was just three when his parents took him and his two brothers to Dinard in Brittany. The family stayed there for two and a half years during which young ‘Ned’ learned French at the local school. And it stuck.
Throughout his life he read, and re-read, French classics. Though he would often be accused of Francophobia, he had an early, enduring affinity with the language and culture.
Then, in 1908, as a 19-year old archaeology student at Oxford he undertook a personal ‘Tour de France’: an epic 4,000km solo cycle ride across the country to research his thesis on crusader castles.
Reaching the Mediterranean, he experienced an epiphany while bathing in the warm, still waters off the fortified town of Aigues-Mortes. As he tells it, he fell into a trance-like state and saw his future lay in ‘the glorious East’.
The following year he is in Syria, working as an archaeologist, living with Arabs and learning their language.
After the outbreak of the First World War, that ‘local knowledge’ gets him posted to Cairo as an intelligence officer with the British Army, tasked with helping the Arabs to rise up against their imperial masters, the Turks.
In 1916, in the Hedjaz region of the Arabian Peninsula, he once again encounters the French. As allies of the British, the French had their own military mission in Hedjaz comprised of North African, mostly Muslim, troops. Its head – Lawrence’s opposite number – was Col. Edouard Brémond.
Never heard of him? Nor have most French people.
When his name does crop up, it is often as the ‘anti-Lawrence d’Arabie’ – meaning an ‘alternative Lawrence’ while, in almost every respect, being his counterpart’s polar opposite. It was to be a prickly relationship.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for Brémond – a well regarded career soldier, veteran of colonial campaigns in Africa, recently wounded in Europe, and an open and decent man.
Here he now was, having to work alongside a cocksure, insubordinate maverick with, as yet, no active military experience but who liked dressing up in Arab clothing.
More galling still, the young pup was 20 years his junior.
Yet what irked Brémond about Lawrence is precisely what ever since has intrigued historians, British and French alike: his unshakable sense of personal destiny which, the French are quick to appreciate, he shared with another historic figure, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Francis Laroulandie is ‘passionné de Lawrence’ and is president of the historical society of Châlus in Haute-Vienne where, on that 1908 tour, Lawrence chose to mark his 20th birthday because that was where 700 years earlier his hero, Richard the Lionheart, had been mortally wounded by a crossbow bolt.
A sense of destiny shared?
Mr Laroulandie believes it is the multifaceted complexity of Lawrence, his sexual ambiguity included, that attracts his compatriots: “How, in a single life, could one person have been a writer, scholar, archaeologist, adventurer, artist, diplomat, soldier, spy… and even a sort of secular monk?”
He adds: “How was it that this short (5ft5in – two inches shorter than Napoleon), slight, clean-shaven, fair-haired, blue-eyed Briton – a mere 27-years old! – was able to mobilise a band of battle-hardened Bedouin?”
Back in the Arabian desert in 1916, Colonel Brémond was having similar thoughts. Lawrence, suspecting the French of putting territorial interests above Arab national aspirations, outmanoeuvred Brémond at every turn, exploiting his direct line to the British top brass and deploying all the tactical skills he would display in the field.
Brémond’s knowledge of the Arabs and their culture was no less than Lawrence’s, but, unlike the buccaneering Lawrence, he did his duty without fanfare or self-aggrandisement – or, indeed, much support from his superiors in Paris who regarded the Arabian campaign as a sideshow to the war in Europe.
Military historian Lt Col Rémy Porte, who is working on a biography of Brémond, describes Lawrence’s military role in Arabia was ‘modest’, and that railway sabotage to disrupt Turkish supply lines “owed more to Brémond’s sappers than to Lawrence’s Bedouin”.
As for Lawrence’s set-piece ‘spectacular’ – taking the Red Sea port of Aqaba from the landward side – Lt Col Porte says Aqaba was easy-pickings as it was “poorly armed and defended by a meagre garrison that hadn’t been re-supplied for several months”.
But the post-war spoils went to Lawrence.
Back home, he was fêted by the public and lionised by the great and the good.
The king even offered him a knighthood. He refused it as His Majesty’s government had betrayed the Arabs by denying them their promised independence. (The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 had carved up the Middle East between Britain and France.)
Brémond, meanwhile, continued his military career, eventually rising to the rank of general.
For more than a decade, he kept his own counsel… until Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert, an abridged version of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, appeared in a French translation.
Reading it, Brémond could contain himself no longer.
Now retired, he wrote his own version of events, plus précise et moins romancée.
Le Hedjaz dans la Guerre Mondiale came out in 1931 and he excoriates Lawrence; mocking him for wearing white when everyone else wore black or dark colours; claiming he knew nothing of the art of command and, the cruellest cut, that he disliked the Arabs while romanticising their independence campaign and taking credit for ‘pulling the strings’.
Lawrence emerges as an incompetent poseur at best, a mendacious hypocrite at worst, but by this time the Legend of Lawrence was so entrenched that, even to the French, the book must have smacked of sour grapes.
Seven Pillars has remained the go-to text – not because it is more accurate but because, like the man, it conveys the thrill of adventure.
Edouard Brémond died in 1948, aged 80 – 13 years after Lawrence’s death at 46 in a motorcycle accident.
At least he was spared the sight of 6ft3in Peter O’Toole ratcheting up the Lawrence myth in David Lean’s 1962 screen epic, Lawrence of Arabia. To add treachery to travesty, the stirring sound-track was composed by a Frenchman… Maurice Jarre.
FOOTNOTE: Col. Brémond features in an historic French Army newsreel at tinyurl.com/yaukxb6m – He appears at the start and, later, at 03.35