Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, CB, DSO (1888 – 1935)

As the last writer in this series, I chose T E Lawrence, who was born in the 19th century and died well before the Second World War. Yet his legacy is perhaps more significant today in practical terms than that of any of the others I wrote about. Like many of them, he was involved in intelligence work during war, but this was in the First War, when there was more scope for individual initiatives. In his case these initiatives led to active involvement in the Arab revolt against the Turks, which resulted in a complete redrawing of the map of the Middle East.

He is thus famous more for what he did than what he wrote, and indeed two others in this series wrote about him, Robert Graves a biography and Terence Rattigan a screenplay that was sadly never turned into film.

It also seemed desirable to include something in the nature of historical writing, and The Seven Pillars of Wisdom , Lawrence’s account of his contribution to the Arab revolt, is a fascinating account of the region and its peoples, and how they transformed themselves into a nation after centuries of quiescence. Sadly the final result was a number of nations, of which only one was independent, and the story of a historical awakening is also the story of political sidelining. Though Lawrence himself did not analyse the political implications of what occurred, his disappointment with the outcome was clear. The story of his life afterwards is one of increasing disillusionment, and his efforts to lose himself suggest a soul at odds with the Establishment he served so well in his youth.


In one sense Lawrence was an outsider from the start, the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who had abandoned his wife for the governess of his daughters. She herself was the illegitimate daughter of a man named Lawrence, which is how he got his name.


While getting his degree at Oxford, Lawrence visited Syria, then under the Ottoman Empire, to explore its fantastic Crusader castles, and then abandoned postgraduate work to become an archaeologist in the further reaches of the Middle East as well as in Egypt. He was thus ideally placed to join the army, and contribute to strategy in the First War, when he transformed the British idea of encouraging Arab guerilla attacks on the Turks into a skilful strategy of harrying the railway line. This tied the Turks up in defence that proved impossible to sustain over an extensive region. His accounts of efforts to blow up bits of the railway make exciting reading, and we share in the ecstasy of the little band when they succeed.


The book also has vivid accounts of the leadership Lawrence was trying to develop, in particular that of his friend Feisal, the second son of the Sherif of Mecca. The strategy of putting forward a religious dignitary to rally the Arabs proved successful against the Turks, as it did several decades later in Afghanistan against the Russians, but in this case Lawrence was able to share also in the conceptualization of plans for the future, when the Arabs were free. Thus when he describes the fall of Damascus, at the end of the war, there is a sense of a great future looming, in which the Arabs would once more take their place in World Councils.


All this fell apart almost immediately. The British together with the French carved up the Middle East with complete disdain for its inhabitants. They did allow one independent Kingdom, placing the Sherif of Mecca on the throne of Arabia, but they cut away all strategic points, ringing it with Sultanates they dominated, ranging from Oman and Kuwait to little ones in all promontories.


Then, on the West, they set up three protectorates, Syria and Iraq and Jordan. Feisal had become King of the first, with Damascus as its capital, but the French wanted Syria, so Feisal was transferred to Iraq. And, if this assertion of control was not enough, there were two mandates, Lebanon and Palestine for direct rule by French and British respectively. The latter was a recipe for disaster because, while the Arabists amongst the British thought the area was held in trust for the Palestinians, the more ruthlessly self-interested in London, led by Arthur Balfour, who had understood the value of Jewish support during the First World War, insidiously ensured the takeover of the land there by immigrants determined to establish a Jewish state.


They were helped in the years that followed by the horrors of European persecution of Jews, the guilt of which was assuaged at the expense of the Palestinians. Meanwhile Arabia fell under the control of the Saud family, far more extreme in their understanding of Islam than the family of the Sherif of Mecca. And so the Middle East now continues a source of turbulence for the world at large, the refusal to abide by the commitments through which Lawrence had encouraged the Arabs to revolt having contributed to the despair that leads to violent reactions.


The British Establishment that dismissed Lawrence’s pleas on behalf of the Arabs managed in time to suggest that his commitment was based not on idealism but sexuality. There seems to be no certainty about whether Lawrence actually had affairs with the Arab boys who served him so faithfully, but he is generally seen now as emotionally immature, perhaps even a masochist. His account of homosexuality amongst his troops in the East, written at a time when the subject was generally swept under the carpet, is an astonishing example of strange reasoning and fervent romance – friends quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace, found there hidden in the darkness a sensual co-efficient of the mental passion which was wielding our souls and spirits in one flaming effort’.


Having abandoned the Colonial Office and enlisted as an ordinary airman, Lawrence was posted to India, where his reputation continued to plague him. Suspected of being a spy, he had to leave after a couple of years. He continued in the air force however for another seven years, dying just a couple of months after he left.


In concluding this series then with Lawrence, I am reminded of something Winston Churchill is supposed to have said. Lawrence worked with Churchill in the Colonial Office, and one wonders whether he was responsible for the Churchill strategy of bombing the Shias into submission, to ensure that Sunni rule would continue in Iraq – Feisal, transferred from Syria, was Sunni, and Lawrence perhaps accepted the theory that many Anglo-Saxons have propagated until the Taleban put paid to it, that Shias were the extremists and Sunnis were practically Christians at heart.


Churchill, in acknowledging the role of the navy in resisting Hitler, referred to its great traditions  – and is then reported to have remarked that these traditions meant rum, sodomy and the lash.


Of the fifty writers I have discussed, twenty were homosexual or widely considered to be such. Fifteen went to Oxford, four to Cambridge. Fifteen worked or had familes that had worked in India, or wrote about that country. Seventeen served in propaganda and diplomacy as well as intelligence during war. Lawrence fits into all these categories. He was also one of only four to die before they were fifty, the only one who one feels died prematurely, and had much more to offer had he lived.