Sir Wilfred Thesiger was a British explorer, writer and military officer. The Old Etonian is best known for his travel books such as Arabian Sands (1959), which tells the story of his foot and camel crossing of the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula, and The Marsh Arabs (1964), about his time living in the marshes of Iraq. He served in the Special Operations Executive and the SAS during the Second World War. On his death in London, aged 93, he donated his collection of 38,000 travel photographs to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.
When did you first hear about Wilfred Thesiger?
My mother, who had met him in the 1950s, bumped into Thesiger on a London bus in 1977, when I was 16, and said I had to meet this inspirational figure. So we went along to see him at his flat in Chelsea and there he was waiting for us at the top of the stairs in a three-piece suit with a Victorian look about him and a watch on a chain. He invited us in for tea and I was absolutely mesmerised by his black and white photographs of Arabia, curved daggers and old camel saddles.
What made Thesiger a hero?
The extraordinary nature of his travels, not just in the Empty Quarter of Arabia, but in the Danakil Depression in what is today Ethiopia, which he visited on a daring mission at the age of just 23. He journeyed deep into territory where enemies were ambushed and had their testicles cut off – he braved that to discover the source of the Awash river. He later joined the SAS in the Western Desert [north Africa]. But first and foremost, it was the combination of his travels and also being able to bring alive, for a global English-speaking audience, the life and times of those civilisations and places that don’t really exist anymore through his beautiful prose in books like Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs. I’m lucky to possess signed copies of both books.
What was Thesiger’s finest hour?
He was awarded a DSO [Distinguished Service Order] in 1941, following the outbreak of the Second World War, in what was then Abyssinia, for his part in the capture of the fortress of Agibar and its garrison of 2,500 Italian soldiers. After joining the SAS he later took part in desert raids behind enemy lines, and fought the Vichy French in Syria and Palestine. He also felt an enormous affinity with the desert people of southern Arabia, and spoke pretty good Arabic, having spent seven years living among the Marsh Arabs. They gave him the nickname ‘Mubarak bin London’, which means ‘Blessed One – son of London’.
Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?
I argued with him a few times and my two big criticisms of him are that he wasn’t interested in anybody’s stories but his own (he wasn’t a great listener); and his opposition to anything modern (he absolutely loathed technology, and his one abiding hatred was what he called the internal combustion engine).
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
I share his love of adventure in wild places, and I too immersed myself in Bedouin life for a few months in my 20s – although I would never put myself on the same pedestal as him in terms of stamina and endurance. He’d eat anything, was able to cope without sleep and I don’t think he knew pain.
Do you think we’ll see his like again?
His mantra was very much ‘I saw a world that you could never see because it’s gone’. But there is always going to be something worth exploring, just in a different way. Unlike many modern explorers, the difference about Thesiger was that he didn’t have a team setting stuff up for him; he did it himself.
Frank Gardner was talking to York Membery. Gardner is the BBC’s security correspondent. His latest novel, Ultimatum, is out in paperback in May. His memoir, Blood and Sand, is also available. Twitter: @FrankRGardner
Listen Again: In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qxsb
This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine