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Another Life: Lawrence After Arabia
By Andrew R. B. Simpson
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Andrew R.B. Simpson
All rights reserved.
Motivation: Colonial Office to AC2
Why did Lawrence return to the ranks? In Chapter 1 of Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his account of the part he played in the Arab Revolt of 1917, is a famous passage that begins 'All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind wake in the day to find that it was vanity.' What follows is an explanation of the dream he had to create a new nation and restore a 'lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites' the foundation of their national 'dream palace'. With typical self-deprecation Lawrence minimized his contribution to the aim, declaring that his was only a 'mock primacy'. He realised from early on that the British Cabinet had engineered a conspiracy, conspiring to persuade the Arabs to fight on 'definite promises of self-government'. Only Lawrence's word would assure them of the truth of this, as they had no use for written promises. This deception continued for two years, during which Lawrence was always aware of the dishonesty of his task: 'Instead of being proud of what we did together', he later wrote 'I was continually and bitterly ashamed'. His planned solution was to make the Arabs politically strong enough to convince the Allies to grant their wishes at the Peace Conference.
Lawrence explains that there were two deceptions he perpetrated in the war. Firstly 'a pugnacious wish to win the war' controlled him, but this was impossible without Arab help, so it was better for them to win on a dishonest premise than to lose. Secondly, since he was fighting under a false flag, a deception even his immediate superior was unaware of, he refused to accept any conventional rewards or recognition for his success: to prevent any 'unpleasantness arising' he began to falsify his reports, 'to conceal the true stories of things', the second deception.
In Arabia Lawrence of course encountered a completely different concept of life with entirely different values to those with which he had been brought up. He explained much of his thoughts on Semitic beliefs in the introduction he wrote to C.M. Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta in 1921:
The desert is a place of passing sensation, of cash-payment of opinion. Men do not hold their minds in suspense for days, to arrive at a just and balanced average of thought. They say good at once when it is good, and bad at once when it is bad.
The different perspective led Lawrence to re-evaluate his own values. After the War he abandoned the concept of the progress of mankind. His belief in God, certainly the Christian God, disappeared in Arabia and he gave up the idea of a conventional career. He tried in his life for an absolute value, a standard, but, in his own eyes, fell far short of it: Basil Liddell Hart concluded 'His peak was so high that few other men could even see it through the mist of life.' Churchill once said that Lawrence moved at a different speed and on a different level to the ordinary man. During the war other men began to move at his pace, but after it was over, he was left alone on his own plane once more.
In 1919 the Peace Conference in Paris ended in political decisions that gave the Arabs almost nothing, causing T.E. extreme depression and bitterness. All the promises he had made to his friends had not been met. He had entered the conference with a cry for Arab unity fresh on his lips but soon found that he was surrounded by parties witrh no interest in the Arab Question. The Conference, he found to his disgust, was more concerned with the settlement of the European War than with petty squabblings in Arabia.
Still, he had other dreams, an important one being the conquest of the air. He also had to write the story of the Arab Revolt, a task for which only he was qualified. He signed a contract with the new publisher Jonathan Cape, one condition of which was the writing of a second book of his choice.
Although profoundly changed by the War, that Lawrence's psychological problems afterwards were caused by his experiences in the War itself is a misconception. He was actually fairly well balanced at the Armistice. The economist J.M. Keynes, who met him in Paris, found a natural aloofness in him, but reckoned him a fit man and later concluded 'It was the subsequent events that twisted him.' Professor John Mack, a biographer of Lawrence, commented that he had turned inward, his mother describing how in the winter of 1919–1920 'He would sit for hours in a state of marked despondency without moving or changing his facial expression.' John Buchan met him at this time and observed that he was in a trough of depression caused by 'the failure of his work for the Arabs, which involved for him a breach of honour.' It was during this period that he at last learned the truth of his deceased father's adulterous background, his own illegitimacy (which he had suspected as a youth), and the fact that an inheritance of large estates in Ireland, which otherwise would have been his, had been forfeited. Simultaneously, Lowell Thomas was eulogizing him before thousands, and in a few years his picture shows would be seen by millions worldwide. The high profile was initially encouraged by T.E. in the hope that it would help the Arab cause; but after the Conference it was clear that it would have no effect. So against his will, he became transformed into a national hero, a society demagogue, and a matinee idol.
His psychological problems actually began to beset him whilst writing his account of the Revolt in an attic room of a terraced house at 14 Barton Street, London, in the winter of 1921–22. Here he worked day and night on the book, going without food and sleep for long periods in order to focus. His changing mental state is reflected in his letters. In December 1917 his correspondence is, if anything, jaunty, but in those written later in the 1920s there is a pronounced tone of self deprecation, a kind of masochistic desire for punishment. The consequence of his sense of failure with the Arabian affair was a desire not to have any form of responsibility over men or to make any decisions of consequence again. A step towards this, he felt, was to accept the lowest status possible, which in the ranks of the RAF was Aircraftman 2nd Class. Arthur Russell explained:
Because he'd been let down with the Arabs: he had to go down and promise them things. He knew most of it would never come off but he had to carry on and pretend, but he thought most of them wouldn't. It was due to the French government and the Indian government. And he told me then that – I don't know why the Indian government got involved – they didn't want the Indian government to have these concessions. He told me his life was forfeit if he went back to England.
There were other, more straightforward reasons for enlisting. He had to find something that would put food on the table: by 1922 he was so poor he had to wait outside his friends' clubs and ask them to buy him lunch. He had been awarded a research fellowship by All Souls College, Oxford, but this was not worth a great deal and also he had his Foreign and Colonial Office salary that ended in July 1922. So the ranks offered him some kind of living, if only a meagre one. He had enjoyed the fellowship he had shared with ordinary soldiers with the Handley Page and Armoured car crews in Arabia, and imagined the peacetime ranks would recreate this. Joining the RAF, he hoped, would provide him with material for a second book, which he had been contracted by Cape to produce; and the 'monastic' environment of the ranks also offered a chance to escape from the attention the Lowell Thomas lectures created.
The memories of the war his writing brought back to him upset him greatly, so much so that when he joined up in August 1922 he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He told Robert Graves he hoped that being 'ordinary in a mob of likes' would cure his mental exhaustion. The day before he joined he wrote to George Bernard Shaw:
You see the war was, for us who were in it, an overwrought time, in which we lost our normal footing. I wrote this thing in the war atmosphere, and believe that it is stinking with it. Also there is a good deal of cruelty and some excitement. All these things, in a beginner's hands, tend to force him over the edge.
The conclusion must be that his motivations for joining the ranks were disillusionment with the deceitfulness of the Arabian campaign and subsequent shunning of any form of responsibility; his desire for a life of discipline – a military straitjacket, perhaps – that would kerb the wanderings of his will until his body and mind returned to a more normal state; plus the more prosaic need for a regular income and the chance to write a 'Day Book' of the RAF.CHAPTER 2
The First RAF Period: The Mint
I am convinced that some quality departed from Lawrence before he became the RAF recruit. Lawrence of Arabia had died.
(Charles Findlay, Adjutant, RAF Farnborough, 1922)
Lawrence joined the Air Force as John Hume Ross on Monday 28 August 1922. There had been rain generally the night before. Around Westminster and the RAF's Henrietta Street Recruiting Office that morning it was suitably cloudy. His entry to the RAF was not as straightforward as he assumed it would be, his first application being refused because he had no documentation. When he returned with the forms they were judged to be forgeries. By this time the recruiting officer – W.E. Johns, the creator of 'Biggles'– had contacted Somerset House and discovered that no John Hume Ross had ever been born on the date specified. Lawrence returned to the Air Ministry to retrieve a minute, probably from Trenchard, the Chief of the Air Staff, to Air Vice-Marshal Swann (of the Air Council), that ordered his enlistment. Despite this he still had to get through the medical examination: his physical condition was so poor through malnutrition and stress that he was failed the first time, and the second. The whip lash scars on his body aroused suspicion and even after his identity had been revealed the doctors still refused to admit him. Only after an outside doctor was called in were the admittance forms signed.
Lawrence came from the educated middle classes, a more privileged background, of course, than his colleagues. It was unheard of for high ranking officers to enter the ranks. But the Air Force was a new body utilising new technology, and this affected the relationship between the officers and the men. Now the fitter could know a great deal more about his specialization than his officer. Consequently the social hierarchy in the RAF in the 1920s was something different and the technician had a much higher standing than his earlier military or naval counterparts; there was far more team work.
Lawrence started making notes for The Mint in August 1922, shortly after his arrival at Uxbridge. He was given the service number 352087 and was an Aircraftman 2nd Class. The book would not be released to the public until 1955, fulfilling a promise Lawrence had made to Trenchard, and ensuring that any of the staff mentioned in the text would be dead or retired when it came out. He did however lend segments of the notes to friends. This caused serious trouble in 1931when portions of it appeared in a service journal. Fortunately, the section came from a later part of the work, which was not as critical as the earlier text. There was an official publication in 1935 in the United States however, precipitated by a fear of a pirated edition. To ensure the American copyright, a limited edition had to be published. Lawrence had encountered a similar problem in 1920 when his introduction to an edition of Doughty's Arabia Deserta was pirated by an American firm.
The Mint was constructed in three parts, the first dealing with the basic training of the 'raw material' at Uxbridge in 1922. The second part, 'In the Mill', covered N.C.O.'s, school instruction, stock-taking and guard room duties etc. Part Three was different and much mellower in tone than the earlier chapters. The Uxbridge chapters depicted the harsh discipline and brutality of barrack-room life. At the Depot he had been miserable and the toughness of the basic training shocked him. When other recruits had no option but to stick it out, he could have left of his own accord and it required great will power on his part not to do so. The comradeship he had enjoyed during the war with the crews of Armoured Cars and Handley Page aircraft did not exist at Uxbridge and he rapidly became disillusioned:
Out hut is a fair microcosm of unemployed England: not of unemployable England, for the strict RAF standards refuse the last levels of the social structure. Yet a man's enlisting is his acknowledgement of a defeat by life. Amongst a hundred serving men you will not find one whole or happy. Each has a lesion, a hurt open or concealed, in his late history.
This was the first time he had bunked with enlisted men and, although the conditions were extreme, they paled in comparison to what he was later to suffer at Bovington. One veteran who was in the same hut at Uxbridge was Aircraftman A.G. Turner. Turner was also quiet and short – 5' 6" (about the same height as T.E.). He swore less than the other men. He and T.E. were placed together on parades. Turner recalled that Lawrence was 'a very quiet sort, did not smoke, drink, swear or express much about things going on in camp. He was a loner, did not make friends easily, always went out of camp after duty hours by himself, mostly to London.'
Turner was 70 years old when he recalled these memories in 1973. He conducted a lengthy correspondence, from August 1973 until March 1974, with Group Captain P.E. Raymond of Uxbridge and the Ministry of Defence, representing the Air Historical Branch. Turner wrote a series of letters elaborating on his experience of 'Ross'. He found the person he knew in 1922 did not match the man who wrote The Mint. 'Ross' was very thin, often fumbling with his weapon on parades. The Drill Sergeant would take it from him telling him 'he was like an old woman who'd never had it and shewed him how to handle the rifle'.
Lawrence was then in an extremely weak and neurotic condition, still suffering from the malnutrition and exhaustion that had nearly overwhelmed him at Barton Street. Nobody at the Depot believed such a small, emaciated figure could be the man who led the desert Arabs. This was not an uncommon assessment at the time. The American author Robert McAlmon met him in Paris in 1919, whilst McAlmon was being sculpted by a man named Dobson. Lawrence sat in and discussed excavation work he had done in the Middle East and brought a small statuette, which he gave to Mrs Dobson. Only after he left did McAlmon realise that it was the famous Colonel Lawrence of Arabia. McAlmon found great difficulty in conceiving of him as the 'bold leader of the desert Bedouins'. The impression he left was not a deep one.
After the six weeks initial drill at the Uxbridge Depot he became fitter and more settled. Turner found him reluctant to talk about himself. So did other soldiers upon first meeting him. In the Tank Corps his immediate superior in the Quartermaster's Stores at Bovington found he did not seem to care for anyone at first and was disliked for it initially. He told Turner after some time he had signed on for 7 and 5, stating when asked that he was a writer. He then changed the subject immediately to discuss the poor food at the Depot, where the menu was monotonous and unappetizing. But the recruits were so hungry they always ate it. The service pay was three shillings a day, and by Thursday most of the squad were out of money. Lawrence, despite representing himself otherwise, had more cash reserves than the average airman: 'The fact was, he was about the only airman not short of money on a Wednesday or Thursday; Friday was pay day.' It was simply Lawrence's character that made him adopt a spartan lifestyle.
Turner said of the other men at Uxbridge: 'We had some pretty tough characters in the squad, costermongers, Merchant Navy men, taxi drivers, farm workers and army officer types. Consequently the language at times was a bit strong, which Ross did not like.' A photograph was taken of his squad outside Hut IV, in 1922, by an Army photographer. Lawrence was reluctant to divulge his identity. He can be seen tucked away on the extreme left of the photo, hiding behind the window mullions. Turner could never understand how such a weak man as 'Ross' could be passed fit by the stiff RAF medicals. 'Did someone in the Air Ministry know that he was going to join and so stretch the regulations [?] Every time I see a picture of a thin man it reminds me of Ross at Uxbridge. Life there must have been hell for him.' Occasionally Lawrence invited Turner to the Y.M.C.A. for tea and cake: 'He used at first to go by himself in the evenings but he got pestered so much he started asking me to go with him, seeming to use me as a buffer against other men questioning him. I did not mind, he always paid.'
Excerpted from Another Life: Lawrence After Arabia by Andrew R. B. Simpson. Copyright © 2011 Andrew R.B. Simpson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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