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T.E. Lawrence: Biography And Visits

Clouds Hill

T.E. Lawrence, was a hero during his lifetime, his reputation becoming more complicated since then. Biographer Malcolm Brown has written: "One generation's heroes are frequently the next one's rejects." (Introduction: The Life Of T.E. Lawrence) History is not set. In a sense it remains a living place, battles still being fought out.

Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as Ned, was born in Tremadoc, Wales in August 1889. He was the second son of an outwardly conventional, middle class couple. Behind the family's ordinary facade, however, was a more unusual story. Thomas Tighe Chapman had left his severe and fanatically religious wife for the governess of their children, whose name is variously reported as Sarah Maden, or Jenner or Junner. The couple took the name Lawrence for reasons unknown, and then moved around Britain, before finally settling in Oxford. T.E. was one of five sons born to the couple.






Jesus College, Oxford

At school in Oxford Thomas developed a great interest in medieval history, and was an enthusiastic collector of brass rubbings. His schooling was interrupted by a mysterious period when he enlisted as an ordinary soldier in the army. His father bought him out, his schooling continued, and he eventually went to Jesus College, Oxford. Here he organised hugely ambitious cycling expeditions in England and France, and joined the University Officer Training Corps. In the Corps he was an excellent marksmen, and seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of energy on route marches. He wasn't a model soldier however, the sergeant major continually protesting about his scruffy uniform.

Young Thomas lived an almost monastic life at university, showing little or no interest in girls, or boys, despite interest being shown in him from both quarters. His attention was taken up by castles, and miles ticked off on his epic bike journeys. He prepared a thesis on the influence of the crusades on castle architecture, travelliing to Syria and Palestine during his summer holidays, making a long journey on foot to see crusader castles there. He saw beautiful castles, walked himself to exhaustion, and suffered bouts of malaria, which he had picked up on a bike journey through France. Getting back to Oxford after a summer spent in the Middle East, one of his tutors failed to recognise him, such was his state of dishevelment.




The British Museum

Five months after graduating in 1910 Lawrence was off to the East again, as an archeologist on the British Museum dig at Carchemish in Syria. He worked here until the First World War started, leading a frugal and happy life doing work he loved. These four years were remembered by Lawrence as the happiest of his life. You will be able to see objects which Lawrence helped recover at the British Museum today, in the department of the Ancient Near East. Look for the bronze furnishings of a Sumerian temple, which include life size lions and a panel in high relief featuring the lion headed eagle Imdugud.


Towards the end of 1913 war with Germany, and the Ottoman Empire of Turkey, looked increasingly inevitable. Lawrence was asked to join an archeological dig, which actually provided cover for a survey of the Sinai Peninsula in preparation for defence of the Suez Canal. Lawrence then went to work for British Intelligence in Cairo. This was a desk job, but Lawrence soon headed off on what was meant to be a short field trip to meet leaders of Arab resistance to Turkish rule in the Middle East. Leader of the Arab revolt was Grand Sherif Hussein. Lawrence saw that Hussein's son Emir Feisal was a suitable resistance leader, and a request was made for a professional officer to be sent to work with Feisal. None was available, so Lawrence, inexperienced as he was, decided he'd have to do the job himself. In the years that followed Lawrence cooperated closely with Feisal, organising and leading Arab operations against the Turks. Lawrence was to write about his war years in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, one of the most famous books to come out of the First World War. Referring to this book, commentators would later claim that Lawrence over estimated his achievements on desert journeys. In answering this criticism it is necessary first to say that it would also be wrong to see Lawrence as presenting himself as some kind of warrior hero in his book. Although Lawrence clearly feels he understands the realities of guerilla warfare more clearly than his enemy, or his commanders, he does not present himself as some kind of Steven Segal figure. In battle he often comes across as clumsy, accidentally shooing his own camel during a charge on a Turkish position near Akaba, for example (see P332). He also refers comically to writing his own report on a battle at Tafileh, which his commanders greatly admired: "We should have more bright breasts in the Army if each man was able without witness to write out his own despatch" (P492). Other disputes over authenticity have centred on money given to Arab tribes in exchange for loyalty. A.N. Wilson suggests in After the Victorians that any notion of romantic loyalty between desert warriors was actually based on money. Wilson talks disapprovingly of Lawrence handing over £329,000 to tribal leaders between August 1917 and January 1918. But reading Seven Pillars Of Wisdom it is equally clear that Lawrence did not shy away from the realities of bribery. In Chapter XLV for example he talks of handing over thousands of pounds to Nuri Shaalan "by whose sufferance we were in Sirha" (P270). Lawrence was unflinching in describing his men as a band of cut throats, who expected to be paid: "The British at Akaba called them cut-throats, but they were cut-throats to my order... They expected extravagant reward and extravagant punishment" (P474 - 475).

The real question of authenticity in Seven Pillars Of Wisdom really comes down to descriptions of suffering. Certainly the life of a commando in Arabia during the First World War must have been tough. But with that said, in Seven Pillars details of hardship are lovingly described, and sometimes seem overdone. Famously, there is the description of an alleged rape at the hands of Turkish troops in Deraa. This incident has been linked to the guilt Lawrence felt as a result of empty Allied promises of self government made to the Arabs in return for efforts against Turkey. In reality there was little desire to honour these assurances. Lawrence laboured under a sense of guilt about this, knowing he was lying to friends who trusted him. His guilt seems to have made him take unnecessary risks, feeling that injury or even death would be what he deserved. A message to Brigadier General Clayton, which he did not send, reads: "Clayton, I've decided to go off alone to Damascus, hoping to get killed on the way." (Quoted in The Life Of T.E. Lawrence)

The story then goes that Lawrence was captured, beaten and raped by Turkish troops in Deraa, and there is some suggestion from Malcolm Brown that he put himself in a position to be captured. Either Lawrence invited the attack, or the whole rape incident - described at length in Seven Pillars - was fiction, an imaginary punishment for what he saw as his own crimes against his men. Apart from the rape incident, there are other details of suffering which seem dubious. A winter journey, for example, to obtain money from senior commanders, has men being thrown off slipping camels "still frozen-brittle in the cross legged attitude" (P503). This does not ring true. Even in cold weather people falling off camels probably fall in a heap rather than being frozen in a cross-legged position. Lawrence does revel in suffering. Either he makes the journey harder than it need be, or is overblown in his description of it, or a bit of both. You find yourself wondering why he just doesn't go a bit slower. And then just as you are getting a little irritated Lawrence throws in an interesting reflection on the relative nature of privation and luxury, suggesting that in Arabia "luxuries might be as plain as running water or a shady tree, whose rareness and misuse turned them into lusts" (P500). The details might or might not be true: the point Lawrence makes in his story is true.

But exaggeration of suffering aside, according to Malcolm Brown the release of classified documents seems to confirm that Lawrence's version of events was largely factually accurate. Official documents testify to remarkable desert journeys, during which railways were destroyed and Turkish troops defeated. The High Commissioner of Egypt was moved to request a Victoria Cross for Lawrence: he was actually to receive the CB. It should also be said that beyond arguments over details, Lawrence undoubtedly provides an extremely accurate and thoughtful view of guerilla warfare. So revealing is Lawrence in this regard that Robert Fisk in 2003 reported that Seven Pillars Of Wisdom was almost obligatory reading for United States Army officers serving in Iraq. It's a shame they did not read him before they got there, since Lawrence would basically have said "don't do it". In Seven Pillars of Wisdom the difficulties faced by a conventional army fighting a determined insurgency are graphically described. During one of his expeditions with an Arab raiding party Lawrence sits ill in a tent and reflects on the futility of the Turkish position: "I began idly to calculate how many square miles: sixty: eighty: one hundred: perhaps one hundred and forty thousand square miles. And how would the Turks defend all that? No doubt by a trench line across the bottom, if we came like an army with banners: but suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like gas... It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only what he sat on, and subjugating only what, by order, he could poke his rifle at" (Seven Pillars Of Wisdom P197 - 198).

Whatever the reality of the role of Lawrence and his men, he clearly came to identify with the Arabs and their interests. When Arab forces finally entered the capital of Damascus in 1918, Lawrence raced his troops in to take the city before British forces arrived. He was attempting to strengthen the Arab position for bargaining which he knew would follow the war. Lawrence then returned to England, where he vigorously represented the Arab position to British government. After setbacks and frustrations, he worked with Winston Churchill to achieve some measure of success for the Arabs. Feisal became King of Iraq, while Abdulla, another son of Sherif Hussein, became King of Jordan, his grandson Hussein ruling in Jordan until 1999. In Syria, however, where the Arab capital of Damascus lay, the French took over. Certainly there was much depressing cynicism on both sides in these events. After his work with Churchill was complete Lawrence decided to withdraw from the world. His was a complicated personality, and he had been through a great deal. For whatever reason in 1922 he decided to change his name to John Hume Ross, join the RAF as an ordinary airman, and attempt to vanish. Perhaps after all the pressure of leadership, he wanted the kind of escape he had already asked General Clayton for during the war: he wanted "the security of custom, to be conveyed; to pillow myself on duty and obedience: irresponsibly" (P514). In the event his identity was discovered by the press, which had become fascinated by "Lawrence of Arabia". The furore that ensued caused the RAF to eject their reluctant celebrity in January 1923. Lawrence then changed his name to Shaw and joined the tank corp, moving to Bovington Camp in Dorset, once again subjecting himself to the tough life of a recruit. It was a kind of self humiliation. To escape camp life he would ride his motorbike at high speed along country roads. He also took on a derelict cottage at nearby Clouds Hill, slowly turning it into an artistic refuge. Clouds Hill still survives and is now owned by the National Trust. Through all of these years he was working on his account of his wartime years, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He would write at Clouds Hill, and receive guests such as E.M. Forster, Seigfried Sasoon and Robert Graves. Thomas Hardy and his wife were also good friends. All the while he carried on a campaign to return to the RAF. Finally after Lawrence started hinting at thoughts of suicide, prime minster Stanley Baldwin stepped in personally to ensure his return to the air force in 1925.



Plymouth Sound

By 1934 aircraftman Shaw seemed to have found relative happiness and stability working as an aircraft mechanic at an airbase on Plymouth Sound. Here he organised better rescue boats, and improved the sea planes in his care. Recovering from his overwhelming desire to hide, he began lobbying his MP, writing on a number of issues, such as the admission of Trotsky into Britain, and abolition of the death penalty for cowardice in war: "I have run too far and too fast... to throw a stone at the fearfullest creature."

January 1935 was the last month of Shaw's service with the RAF. He knew that leaving the service would mean the loss of companionship and support that had allowed him a measure of happiness in life again. After discharge he wandered for a while, trying to dodge the press, and then returned to Clouds Hill, where reporters still dogged him. At his Dorset cottage attempts were made to tempt him into jobs, as secretary of the Bank of England, or as a consultant in military reorganisation. On the morning of May 13th 1935 Lawrence was riding his motorbike near Clouds Hill and swerved to avoid two errand boys. He flew over the handlebars and suffered a head injury. He was taken to Bovington Camp hospital where he died six days later aged forty six.

Since his death Lawrence's reputation has risen and fallen, and perhaps the subject of these battles would have appreciated that. Lawrence had a keen sense of history, feeling the past as a living force. On one of his raids in the desert Lawrence and his group took shelter in the ruined castle at Azrack. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom he writes of nights spent at the castle, he and his friends telling stories of their battles and traditions:

"When these stories came to a period, our tight circle would shift over uneasily to the other knee or elbow; while coffee cups went clinking round, and a servant fanned the blue reek of the fire towards the loophole with his cloak, making the glowing ash swirl and sparkle with his draught. Till the voice of the storyteller took up once again, we would hear the rain-spots hissing briefly as they dripped from the stone-beamed roof into the fire's heart... Past and future flowed over us like an uneddying river. We dreamed ourselves into the spirit of the place; sieges and feasting, raids, murders, love-singing in the night" ( Seven Pillars of Wisdom P448).















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