The British military (like most of its European counterparts) was horribly slow to learn the lessons of conflicts elsewhere. The American Civil War taught us nothing about the carnage caused by charging entrenched defenders armed with modern weapons (and they didn’t even have automatic rifles!). Britain was introduced to possibilities of mobile irregular forces by the Boers in its conflicts there. The very word “Commando” is a Boer one. The British Military handbook changed little. While Generals French and Haig were still hurling hordes of tommies to certain death in France and Belgium, therefore, Lawrence’s methods against Turkey’s Middle-Eastern Empire must have seemed unorthodox indeed. Most of us get our knowledge of his wartime career through David Lean’s film “Lawrence of Arabia”. The final scenes of his memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral hint at the Britain’s ambivalence towards its first exponent of modern guerilla warfare but do not cover his extraordinary post-war career.
Lawrence left the war a full Colonel. In about 1919 he wrote his book “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” about his exploits. It was published in 1926. By 1921 he had been part of King Faisal’s delegation to the Paris Peace Conference and acted as Middle Eastern advisor to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office. Then his career becomes distinctly strange!
In 1922 he joined The Royal Air Force as an Aircraftman (the very lowest rank) as John Hume Ross. He was interviewed by one Flying Officer W.E.Johns (later author of the “Biggles” books) who guessed that his recruit was using an assumed name. Johns was ordered to accept Lawrence under his assumed name. A/C Ross proceeded to write a book called “The Mint” (I own a copy) about his life in the RAF. It is sub-titled “A day-book of the RAF depot between August and December 1922 with later notes”. The “depot” was actually at Uxbridge. Lawrence insisted it should not published until 1950 because of “the horror the fellows with me in the force at my giving them away in their ‘off’ moments with both hands”. It was not, in fact, published until 1955 and it is liberally (and infuriatingly) interspersed with blanks where profanities have been removed. The earliest unexpurgated versions are worth a great deal more.
The introduction by his brother A.W.Lawrence (who also commissioned the memorial at Wareham) gives an insight into T.E.’s thinking. I pick out one passage: “The Air Force is not a man-crushing humiliating slavery all its days. There is sun & decent treatment, and a very real measure of happiness to those who do not look forward or back...” It seems that Colonel Lawrence was, therefore, enduring “man-crushing humiliating slavery” some of the time and all at his own behest! You might wonder how such a man could be one of those who didn’t “look back”.
Lawrence’s fame grew and his identity was “outed” in January 1923 and was forced to leave the RAF. He promptly enlisted in the Tanks Corps under the name “Shaw”. In 1926 he was allowed to rejoin the RAF, again as Shaw. He remained a serviceman until about 1934 when he was discharged. Part of that period was spent in India whence the RAF sent him when he received a fresh burst of publicity. It was only two months after his discharge that he was killed in a motor cycle accident near Cloud’s Hill. E.M.Forster and Winston and Clementine Churchill were amongst those at his funeral in Moreton.
I make no claims into any great insights into Lawrence’s life but by any measure he seems to have been a strange man and certainly not one likely to find favour with establishment or “society”. His love of the Arab culture would have raised eyebrows. The “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” is thought to have embellished his exploits considerably. He never married and there has been a lot of speculation about his own account of being raped by a Turkish officer and what can be inferred about his sexuality.
His story is almost literally incredible. To see his monument with in this little church at Wareham, clad in Arab dress and clutching Arab artefacts is to reflect that Lawrence was a real person totally out of kilter with the England he lived in. To coin a phrase: “You couldn’t make it up”.