In this substantial book Timothy J Paris has written the first biography of General Sir Gilbert Clayton, who was a British soldier, intelligence officer and diplomat in the Middle East for 33 years, until his death in service as High Commissioner in Iraq in 1929. In the 1914–18 war Clayton was head of British intelligence in the region, and among his team was T. E. Lawrence who described him as ‘the perfect leader’, a man who ‘worked by influence rather than by loud direction. … He was like water, or permeating oil, creeping silently and insistently through everything. It was not possible to say where Clayton was and was not, and how much really belonged to him’. Clayton was a child of empire, born on the Isle of Wight in 1875 and educated there and at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, joining the Royal Artillery as a second lieutenant in 1895. His first posting was to Alexandria in January the following year, just as the Egyptian army under the command of General Kitchener began its move south, authorized by cabinet ‘to plant the Egyptian foot further up the Nile’. This led to the Sudan campaign of 1898. Clayton joined Kitchener’s army in the Sudan and fought in the Battle of Omdurman, with his battery loosing off 36,000 rounds of ammunition in the first phase of the battle alone. But he was not present at the most famous action in the battle—the charge of the 21st Lancers, so vividly described by its celebrated participant Winston Churchill in My Early Life and elsewhere. A great charm of this book is the vivid detail of the descriptions of the life of a young denizen of empire in Africa at the turn of the nineteenth century, largely sourced from Clayton’s diaries and correspondence, in particular his letters to his mother. In 1902 Clayton accepted a post in the civilian government in the southern Sudan, at Wau on the Bahr-el-Ghazal. He journeyed south, up the Nile by steamer, facing many and unusual hazards along the way: ‘the sudd is a great [floating] tangle of vegetation which forms on the river in the upper reaches … and gets so thick, if allowed to remain, that it completely blocks the channel and becomes like the land’. We learn of a gigantic block of sudd more than 22 miles in length that took four expeditions and several years to clear. Sudd was the greatest and perhaps the strangest obstacle to external power, as late as 1915 forty people starved to death when their steamer became trapped in sudd in a remote area of the southern Sudan. As one of three British officers at Wau, and still only 27 years old, Clayton was inter alia responsible for the local budget, for food supplies for officials and military in the province, for supervision of the rubber and ivory trades, for maintenance of roads and bridges, and administering the law and the ‘city’. Plainly at this time Clayton was learning a great deal more than soldiering, and the future diplomat and intelligence officer was taking shape. The following year he joined the headquarters staff of the Egyptian Army, first in Cairo and then in Khartoum, leading eventually to his appointment as Private Secretary to Sir Francis Wingate, Governor General of the Sudan and Sirdar of the Egyptian Army. By this time the diversity of his talents was evident—he even presided over a local examination board for intermediate Arabic, though he had had no formal instruction himself—and in his work for Wingate he was offered a much bigger challenge, for Wingate was away for months at a time leaving Clayton hard at work and to a considerable extent in charge (of a territory roughly the size of western Europe). Their personal ties included family contacts, for when they were both on leave in the UK, Clayton would even attend on Wingate in Scotland. In 1913 Wingate promoted Clayton to Sudan Agent and Director of Intelligence based in Cairo, and, following the outbreak of war, he was appointed Director of Intelligence for British forces in Egypt. For the next 15 years, until his death in 1929, Clayton was a significant player in British policy in the wider Middle East. Within weeks of the outbreak of war he was engaged with the Ottoman threat to the Suez Canal, and in November the War Office in London sent him six intelligence officers to establish a military intelligence branch, amongst them Lawrence. A good half of this book is devoted to the period 1914–1919, reaching beyond the bounds of biography to provide a fairly comprehensive history of the First World War in the Middle East. This is the period when Clayton evoked Lawrence’s description of him permeating like oil, with which we began. Whether in the nuanced diplomacy that led to the Anglo–Arab alliance, wherein he was undoubtedly prescient (‘… .a mighty Mohammedan Empire at the heart of the British Empire is a questionable advantage’), or in his drafting of the McMahon–Hussein correspondence and the commitments that did or did not flow from it, or in his counter-intelligence operations, Clayton was indeed everywhere. After the war Clayton worked first as adviser to the Egyptian government, then as chief administrator in Palestine, where he was the first of many to try and reconcile the irreconcilable. Whether in Egypt, or in his last post as High Commissioner in Iraq, his consistent policy was to support and encourage the autonomy and independence of these countries, subject only to British imperial interests. That, granted, is quite a qualification. But we should pay tribute to Clayton the man—among his many qualities, he had an appetite for making friends and acquaintances everywhere, often surprising his distinguished visitors by breaking a journey to ask after his local friends among the street people. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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