Barnaby Rogerson, The Independent
"James Barr has written a history of the rivalry between France and Britain for dominance in the Middle East as framed by the First and the Second World Wars. He plunges us straight into the mindset of two relatively junior officials, François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes, in the maelstrom of 1915. ... And there he keeps us for the next 30 years, not hovering with the historians in high Olympic judgement on the fates of nations, but with the journalists and spies at the very grubby coalface of foreign policy, made up of threat and counter-threat, hidden dreams, desire for revenge, inter-departmental rivalry and the jealousy of the bureaucratic chiefs in the capitals for their men on the ground. I found the entire book most horribly addictive, even if the ultimate picture it paints of the actions of the two Western powers is sordid, muddled and hypocritical."
Michael Binyon, The Times
"With superb research and telling quotations, Barr has skewered the whole shabby story: the shenanigans and posturing at the Versailles conference; T.E. Lawrence's intervention; the bitter Anglo-French rivalry; the huge cost of the mandates, with uprisings in Iraq and Syria that make modern wars look tame; the cynical anti-French origins of the Balfour Declaration. ...The convulsions of that fateful line in the sand are still being felt today - not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world."
Patrick Bishop, Daily Telegraph
"[a] brilliant account of Middle Eastern Anglo-French rivalries"
Fergal Keane on Twitter
"For those wanting to understand the roots of Iraq's tragedy,and so much else in the M[iddle] East, I recommend again 'A Line In The Sand' by James Barr (Simon and Schuster), a book of history that is agonizingly resonant."
Antony Sattin, The Spectator
"a tale of missed opportunities and wrong turns. It is one that has been often and well told before, but Barr brings a new slant, with each twist seen through the prism of Anglo-French rivalry. He has done some very thorough research and provided himself with some wonderfully rich material with which to work. One of the unexpected responses to this masterful study is amazement at the efforts the British and French each put into undermining the other."
Liam Halligan, Sunday Telegraph
"I've been reading A Line in the Sand, a riveting book by James Barr. It's about the incredible manner in which the British and the French re-made the map of the Middle East during and after the First World War.
Barr tells a sordid tale of hubris and eye-popping political skulduggery, as two colonial powers cooked up the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, dividing Le Moyen Orient along a line drawn from the Mediterranean to the Persian frontier.
This book is vital reading, not only for the author's gripping portrayal of high politics, intrigue and espionage, involving the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Churchill and De Gaulle. The story also has deep contemporary relevance. For the Middle East's colonial boundaries now look under severe threat, as the region is convulsed by a renewed outbreak of intra-Islamic conflict."
Max Hastings, Sunday Times
"Racy ... Barr describes the complexities of Anglo-French intrigues against each other and – in 1941 – outright war in Syria. ... The story Barr tells is familiar to students of the Middle East, but he is right to assert that few British readers grasp the ferocity of Anglo-French antagonism in the Levant."
Siobhan Murphy, The Metro
"James Barr's history of imperial machinations in the Middle East offers a revelatory slant on the continuing crisis in that area. ... Barr's lively account introduces plenty of larger-than-life characters jostling for position, capturing their paranoia and scheming. ... it's an outstanding piece of research and a damning take on what stoked current Middle Eastern woes."
Peter Hitchens, Daily Mail
"one of the most instructive books you are likely to find about the stupid mess we have made of the Middle East. ... one of the many things I never knew before reading Barr’s book is just how furious was the Anglo-French rivalry in the region ... Ever since the Entente Cordiale, there has been a sentimental assumption that our two countries are natural friends, and Germany our natural enemy. But ‘Line in the Sand’ makes it very clear that the enmity between Britain and France was much deeper, more profoundly felt (especially in France) and more recent than we care to admit."
Patrick Seale, The Financial Times
"Barr’s account of how the territorial carve-up was first agreed by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot – and how the “line in the sand” was finally drawn to satisfy rival French and British interests – is lively and entertaining. He has scoured the diplomatic archives of the two powers as well as the private papers of most of the leading officials of the time in search of the telling phrase, and has come up with a rich haul that brings his narrative to life. ... it makes for enjoyable reading."
David Blair, Daily Telegraph
"Thanks to the Sykes-Picot agreement, Syria is just as much our creation as Jordan or Iraq. ...I would recommend an excellent book, A Line in the Sand by James Barr, which describes how we played a big part in hustling the French out of Syria and helping the country achieve independence in 1946."
Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
"The post-Ottoman carve-up of the Levant between France and Britain, plotted in 1916 by Francois-Georges Picot and Sir Mark Sykes, continues to draw a line in blood as well as (the title of James Barr’s gripping study of their pact) “a line in the sand”. Pressed by Arthur Balfour about his plans, writes Barr, Sykes in a fateful gesture “sliced his finger across the map that lay before them on the table. ‘I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk’.”"
David Pryce-Jones, Literary Review
"Barr lays out in detail how between the wars the two countries sought to undermine one another in the Middle East. ...[He] is particularly good at identifying and portraying officials and agents engaged in these tit-for-tat reprisals that blurred the distinction between patriotism and crime. ...Barr devotes some final engrossing chapters to the way the French tried to get their own back on Arabs and British alike by conspiring with the Zionists in the post-1945 turmoil. ...The real moral of this story seems to be that the game of nations has no rules, no winners and no point."
Magdi Moussa, Al Quds
"[A Line In The Sand] researches in meticulous detail an important and definitive period in the history of the Middle East and Palestine, which aroused imperial feuding for the sake of dominion over the East, and which continues to be tangible. The author has expended considerable efforts in research and verification in tracing the threads of the feud between Britain and France... . [He] is peerless in his extensive treatment of the Zionist terrorist campaigns ... [which], at the end of the day, brought about the British debacle in Palestine and resulted in great human or material loss."
Geoffrey Paul, The Jewish Chronicle
"Amazon lists more than 50 books on the modern Middle East. Do we need another? For sure even those only moderately familiar with the history of the region will know of the machinations before and after the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Arab uprisings, British military victories and defeats (T E Lawrence, of course) plus imperial double-dealing on all sides, especially conflicting promises made to Arabs, Jews and allies.
It is all here. There seems scarce a relevant document, newspaper cutting, memoir or history book not filleted by author James Barr for some unknown or little-known detail to pack around the well-picked bones of the oft-told story. What makes this one different and provides its raison d'etre is that at its heart lies a tale of how perfidious Albion and duplicitous France sought to outwit each other while engaged in carving up the Ottoman Empire."
Michael Pye, The Scotsman
"Barr is the archive man, meticulously bringing out a single conflict, us against France, and telling it racily."
"In A Line in the Sand, [Barr] writes the story Franco-British rivalries over the remains of the Ottoman Empire. He chose to explore the period that runs from the First World War until the creation of the state of Israel, in 1948. He tries to show although they were technically allied powers, competition and suspicion always prevailed in their attitude towards the Middle Eastern questions. Caring very little about the Arabs, the Jews or the stability of the region ; they were actually battling insidiously to secure their own interests, thus planting the seeds for the sometimes-chaotic situations we face today ... A Line in the Sand is a very detailed and precise account of about half a century of diplomatic tensions and hypocrisy."
Lana Asfour, New Statesman
"Barr is admirably in control of his material. The complex historical events and political intrigues are made more accessible by his readable style and ability to sum up events and to describe the players using pithy characterisations. ... [He] confidently navigates through world events and the overlapping, often conflicting interests that motivated policy and intelligence decision-making at every level."
Starred review, Publishers Weekly
"Barr’s extensive archival research, evocative historical vignettes, and a superb sense of narrative pacing produce a first-rate work."
John Winterburn, Military Times
"The book resembles a gripping spy thriller, populated with well-known political and military figures and improbable characters engaged in 'venomous rivalry', political posturing, and state-sponsored terrorism. However this was not fiction but violent reality. ... This is an expertly researched and authoritative book that is easy to read. It presents new narratives about the formation of the Middle East and how Britain curtailed French ambitions in the Levant by supporting Zionist claims to Palestine."
Ben Fortna, BBC History Magazine
"engaging and well-researched ... James Barr's lively account provides some quite astounding sketches of bluster, bickering and bravado - and that is just on the British side. Not to be outdone, the French display a penchant for harbouring a deep-rooted mistrust and resentment towards 'perfidious Albion' and at times almost stereotypical Gallic pride. In this tale of strategic manoeuvring, imperial intrigue, one-upmanship and manipulation, few emerge with much credit."
Jay Freeman, Booklist
"engrossing, stunning, and occasionally shocking... The portrait of these Western powers is a nasty one, with examples of imperial hubris, betrayal, and double-dealing. Sadly, it was often the local people, including Jews, Arab nationalists, and even a few kings, who paid the price for their duplicity. This is an outstanding, revealing, and disturbing glimpse behind the closed doors of power politics."
Richard O'Brien, Dublin Review of Books
"James Barr’s fascinating account - at once sweeping and detailed - of Franco-British rivalry in the Middle East is not just a work of history, although it is history at its meticulously researched and addictive best. It is also a thoughtful and timely guide for those interested in the continuing search for the soul and destiny of that region in the contemporary world. ... This book will have a wide circle of friends and a great many admirers."
Josh Dzieza, The Daily Beast
"the nasty history of Franco-Anglo meddling in the Middle East"
"Many historians seeking to trace the etiology of the Middle East’s current troubles have examined the period immediately after World War I when Britain and France were divvying up of the former Ottoman colonies. In A Line in the Sand, Barr argues that Britain and France didn’t just botch the job, they cynically fanned the flames of local unrest as they jockeyed for advantage over their ostensible ally. Britain’s backing of a Jewish state in Palestine was cover for the seizure of the eastern side of the Suez Canal; France’s arming of Jewish insurgents, Barr argues, was revenge for Britain’s backing of independence movements in French-controlled Syria. What distinguishes Barr’s account is that it takes place mostly at ground level: among the diplomats, statesmen, and spies conniving against one another in a tangled mess of intrigue."
David Ignatius, The National Interest
"The value of this book is that it makes clear that the modern Middle East was born crazy and that each subsequent iteration of misunderstanding and manipulation has been laid on top of well-worn grooves. Barr’s account of the birth of Israel, in particular, is important—not because it invalidates the Zionist idea but because it shows how cynically it was used by France and Britain, who then left Arabs and Jews to clean up the mess. Fixing the ill will created by the imperialist plotters has proved almost impossible, as we are reminded nearly every day by newspaper headlines. ... Barr's book makes riveting and sometimes haunting reading."
David Holahan, Christian Science Monitor
"An unsettling history of British and French machinations in the Mideast"
"James Barr vividly portrays the convoluted and often deadly game played by these ostensible allies. [He] depicts the tenor of Anglo-French antipathy with telling research, engaging profiles of key players, and entertaining anecdotes. Of Sykes’ French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, he writes, “The British, in whom Georges-Picot’s ‘fluting voice’ and condescending manner triggered an allergic reaction, pointedly ... called him plain old ‘Monsieur Picot.’” Touché.
While Barr travels some well worn historical territory, his use of recently declassified government materials infuses new details into the depth of the geopolitical intrigue that helped to form – or deform – the modern Middle East."
Glenn C. Altschuler, Pittsburgh Post Gazette
"Mr. Barr is a gifted storyteller, who takes full advantage of a colorful cast of characters and intrigue among diplomats, soldiers, Arab nationalists and Zionists to help us understand the formation of the modern Middle East."
Martin Evans, History Today
"[an] excellent new book .... a complex story of intrigue and skulduggery, which Barr pieces together in a deft, well-written narrative. A journalist by profession, he manages to bring the whole subject alive through a series of well-chosen details and characters."
Youssef Aboul-Enein, Small Wars Journal
"a fine and nuanced read of some of the pivotal events that shaped the modern Middle East, it is a must for anyone wanting a real immersion in the region’s politics."
David Beechey, American Diplomacy
"I was gripped from the very first page. ... This book will absorb you. It might also annoy you, but you will be astonished."
Metro (paperback edition)
"makes excellent use of newly declassified documents to view Western meddling in the Middle East with intriguing new insight ... lively, pithy and addictively paced"
Keith Jeffery, Asian Affairs
"a useful single-volume study of Anglo-French politics in the region, with a valuable focus on the seamy under-side of both countries' actions."
Myriam Yakoubi, La Vie des Idées
"original and relevant ... [Barr's] book has the merit of mixing points of view both from within one camp and between the two parties concerned. The variety of sources, the wealth of personal anecdotes and the liveliness of the narrative - sometimes a bit polemical, but the author has been a journalist - make for a good read."
Keith Neilson, Mediterranean Quarterly
"an exciting and sordid tale ... This is a book that all of those interested in the contemporary Middle East should read. Barr is remarkably even-handed in looking at this contentious subject. He avoids placing too much blame on anyone for the unsatisfactory outcome of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps excusing more than should be the case the French effort to maintain their position despite lacking the power to do so. However, the British, the Arabs, and the Jews are all portrayed with warts and all, none seen as occupying the moral high ground. And perhaps that is as it must be when conflicting and irreconcilable interests collide."
Adam Guerin, H-France Review
"drawing on a range of official and private government sources as well as personal correspondence and memoirs, Barr maps a more gritty geography of espionage, secret treaties, assassinations and state-condoned terrorism through the lives of the agents who cleared the ground for indirect empire. While the book is written primarily for a non-specialist audience, Barr’s meticulous research contributes new perspectives for diplomatic and military historians, while his narrative verve and riveting prose make for a truly addicting read."
Alex Joffe, Jewish Review of Books
“Barr does a fine job with the details of a crucial but insufficiently known aspect of Middle Eastern conflict during the first half of the 20th century.”
Ryan Healey, The Daily
“a relentlessly desolate portrait of the colonialist hubris, hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement of Great Britain and France ... the book’s real emphasis falls on the intrigue between British and French ministers and plenipotentiaries in a meticulous, once-classified psychological web that reads like Wikileaks cables from 1914 to 1948. Thoroughly researched and often surprising, this history instructively reveals such dynamics as why anti-British Zionist terrorists would whistle the “Marseillaise” as a pass code and why the region looks the way it does today.”
Meir Zamir, Bustan: The Middle East Book Review
"Barr presents a comprehensive account of the complex rivalry between the two powers... . He depicts the struggle between these powers through a series of episodes and lively descriptions of the individuals involved. His extensive research in British and French archives and numerous private papers reveals hitherto unknown details of the clandestine Anglo-French war in the Middle East. For example ... the secret activities of Gilbert MacKereth, the British consul in Damascus before World War II, who succeeded in bribing and recruiting French officials and top Syrian leaders ... as part of Britain's efforts to end the flow of volunteers and arms to the Arab uprising in Palestine."
Irfan Husain, Dawn
"a gripping account of the rivalries and intrigues that marked Franco-British relations between the First and Second World Wars ... For anyone wishing to understand the Middle East, A Line In The Sand is essential reading."
Roger Adelson, The Historian
"This excellently researched and engaging narrative fills a gap in the many historical publications about the Middle East from World War I through World War II. ... the final part ... provides a truly stunning account of how Britain's departure from Palestine and Jordan was hastened by an astonishing array of Zionist pressures exerted less on Palestine and London than upon New York, Paris, the United Nations, and the Truman administration."
Rachel Simon, Jewish Book Council
"of special interest for those studying the history of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict, because of the author's use of newly declassified documents and his view that this rivalry 'aggravated today's conflict between the Arabs and the Jews.' ... very lively and an easy read."
William Armstrong, Hurriyet
"It’s a story full of imperial skullduggery and shameful details, which Barr interrogates with a journalist’s instinct to assume that all involved were acting out of the very worst motivations. He deftly negotiates the tangled web of diplomatic relations, exposing the chasm between both powers’ lofty rhetoric of enlightened civilization and their cynical maneuvering; I frequently caught myself open mouthed while reading about the breathtaking flagrancy of all involved."
John Bruton, Fair Observer
"Barr’s book shows how selfish and ill-informed European interventions of 1916-50 cast a dark shadow today."
Peter Oborne, on Twitter
© James Barr 2013