Lawrence was not satisfied that the Hashemites had been fairly treated by the Allies. The Allied victory over the Turks, whose prospects had appeared so rosy in October 1918, indeed, had very quickly dissolved into chaos. Anti-British uprisings under Zaghlul Pasha and his Wafd party in Egypt had been suppressed with great violence in 1919, when British troops had opened fire on rioting crowds, RAF aircraft had bombed and strafed civilians, ring-leaders had been arrested and tortured. In Kurdistan, a nationalist movement had been nipped in the bud by a British column. In Mesopotamia, there was a savage rebellion against the British Mandate, only stamped out by 40,000 troops at a cost of Ј40 million – three times the total amount spent during the Arab Revolt. There were as many as 10,000 casualties, including 400 British soldiers. In Palestine there was growing tension between Arabs and Jews, and in Syria Feisal’s displaced tribesmen were eyeing their French conquerors malevolently from the wings. In short, as Winston Churchill put it: ‘the whole of the Middle East presented a most melancholy and alarming picture’. 23
In February 1921, Churchill took over as Colonial Secretary and decided that the situation must be redressed. He gathered around him a team of experts, including Lawrence, who agreed, less reluctantly than many had expected, to become his adviser on Arab Affairs. Though Churchill came from a far more privileged background, he and Lawrence were made of similar stuff. Both were intuitive, both romantic, both had suffered childhood traumas (Churchill had been emotionally neglected by his promiscuous mother), neither was physically impressive, but both had overcome physical limitations by tremendous willpower and courage, both were rhetoricians, master propagandists and master wordsmiths. Their admiration was mutual. It was Churchill’s intention to hold a conference in Cairo calling together all the parties concerned with policy in the Near East and hammer out a settlement once and for all. The conference met at the Mena House hotel in Cairo, under the shadow of the pyramids, in March 1921 and included almost every British soldier and administrator concerned in the Middle East question. The decision, which had been made previously in consultation with Feisal in London, was to revoke the British Mandate in Iraq and hand the administration over to an Arab government, with the recommendation that Feisal should be king subject to a general plebiscite. Britain would then enter an alliance with Feisal, and withdraw British troops in favour of Lord Trenchard’s RAF bombers. In April Lawrence and Churchill travelled to Jerusalem to confer with Sharif Abdallah, who the previous year had arrived at Ma’an with a force of tribesmen ready to attack the French in Syria. ‘Abdallah proposed that he should govern a single state consisting of Trans-Jordan and Palestine, but this plan was rejected due to Britain’s promises to the Jews. Instead, ‘Abdallah was confirmed as provisional governor of Trans-Jordan, and Lawrence remained in the country as British representative until December, when he returned to Britain, satisfied that he had done his best to fulfil his wartime pledges to the Hashemites: ‘[Churchill] made straight all the tangle,’ Lawrence wrote, ‘finding solutions fulfilling (I think) our promises in letter and spirit (where humanly possible) without sacrificing any interest of our Empire or any interest of the people concerned. So we were quit of our war-time Eastern adventure, with clean hands, but three years too late to earn the gratitude which peoples, if not states, can pay.’ 24
It was, said Arab historian George Antonius, a statement ‘so palpably untenable as to cast serious doubts on Lawrence’s understanding of the issues involved’. 25In fact, the Cairo Conference heralded a period of unrest in the Middle East which had scarcely been surpassed even under Ottoman rule. Iraq failed to enjoy a single year of peace until the end of the Second World War, and remains in dire straits today. The same can obviously be said for Palestine. In Syria, the French met with severe opposition until they finally accepted an Arab administration in 1936. Only in Trans-Jordan, a relatively poor country, mostly desert, was some semblance of balance maintained by the Arab Legion under the gifted administrator John Bagot Glubb. King Hussain, the fox who had conspired from his youth to create an independent Hejaz, was driven from his own country in 1924 by ‘Abdal Azziz ibn Sa’ud, the desert puritan who was the real victor of the Arab Revolt. The ‘war-time Eastern adventure’ is still with us, and we are not quit of it with clean hands yet.
Lawrence was never to return to Arabia, however. He had done what he could for the Arabs, had, rightly or wrongly, emerged as the greatest hero of history’s most devastating war, and was obliged to carry the fantastic ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ with him for the rest of his life. He might have named his job – it was even rumoured (by Lawrence himself) that Churchill had offered him the post of High Commissioner in Egypt, in the footsteps of Kitchener, McMahon and Allenby. But Lawrence had no taste for high office. The reward he chose for his wartime service was the most curious one imaginable: he chose to join the armed services as a private soldier, thus bringing to full circle the ambition he had nurtured when, at the age of seventeen, he had run away from home.
21. In Speed We Hurl Ourselves Beyond the Body
The RAF, RTC and death 1922 – 35
On 30 August 1922, a small, ragged-looking man named John Hume Ross hovered shakily outside the RAF recruiting-office in Henrietta Street, central London, wondering whether or not to enter. Finally, after rushing to a public lavatory to ease the ‘melting of his bowels’ from fright, he resolved to walk in. He was confronted by a stern-looking Warrant Officer, Sergeant-Major McGee, who thought him suspicious-looking, and called his officer, Captain W. E. Johns, an aspiring author who would later entertain the boys of the world with his ‘Biggies’ books. McGee made a signal to Johns, indicating that Ross might be a crook, for he had no identity-papers or references with him. Johns sent Ross away to get references and his birth certificate, and while he was gone contacted the registry of births at Somerset House, ascertaining that there was no John Hume Ross’ born on the date the man had given. When ‘Ross’ returned with references which were obviously forged, the Sergeant-Major showed him out.
To Johns’s astonishment, however, the little man was back within the hour, in the company of an official messenger from the Air Ministry who carried a message signed by the Chief of Air Staff, Lord Trenchard, that Ross was to be enlisted as an Aircraftman Second Class. However, there was still the medical examination to contend with, and the two RAF doctors found that Ross not only bore signs of voluntarily inflicted beating, 1but was also severely malnourished. The doctors rejected him as unfit. Johns took the case to his Commanding Officer, who telephoned the Air Ministry. When he had finished, he put the phone down and said: ‘Watch your step. This man is Lawrence of Arabia. Get him in, or you’ll get your bowler hat!’ 2Johns returned to the doctors with this sensational news, but they adamantly refused to sign. Johns was obliged to bring in a civilian doctor to get Lawrence of Arabia enlisted as a private in the RAF.
It is not given to every man to realize his life’s fantasy, but then the fantasies of many men revolve around dreams of grandeur, wealth and success. Lawrence’s curious psychology – the ‘reverse exhibitionism’ which was the social expression of his masochism – made sure that his fantasies always extended in the opposite direction – towards degradation, poverty, self-denial and enslavement. Short of being an actual slave or a prisoner in jail, the situation which best allowed Lawrence to experience such degradation was in the ranks of the armed forces. He later said that it had been his wartime experience with army and RAF personnel which had encouraged him to join the ranks: ‘These friendly outings with the armoured car and Air Force fellows were what persuaded me that my best future, if I survived the war, was to enlist,’ he wrote. 3In January 1922, though, while still working for the Colonial Office, he had written to Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff – whom he had met at the Cairo Conference in 1921 – that he would like to join the RAF ‘in the ranks, of course’. He told Trenchard that his reason for enlisting was to obtain material for a book about the Royal Air Force ‘from the ground’. When Trenchard – with Churchill’s agreement – finally issued the order that John Hume Ross’ should be admitted to the RAF as ‘AC 2’ (Aircraftman 2nd Class) No. 352087 on 16 August, he wrote, ‘He is taking this step to learn what is the life of an airman.’ 4He later wrote to an acquaintance that he had joined up because he had found himself destitute, and enlisting in the ranks was a quick and easy way of staying alive.
None of these explanations was the complete truth, as Lawrence himself admitted: ‘Honestly I couldn’t tell you exactly why I joined up,’ he wrote Robert Graves; ‘… it was a necessary step, forced on me by an inclination towards ground level: by a despairing hope that I’d find myself on common ground with men: by a little wish to become a little more human …’ 5If Lawrence’s enlistment in the ranks seems perverse, then it must be remembered that he had run away from home to do exactly that at seventeen, and had fantasized about serving in the ranks, or being a deserter from them, all his life. He inhabited a masochistic world of reverse values – for him pain was pleasure, servitude freedom, and self-denial orgiastic self-indulgence: as he was to tell Charlotte Shaw later, ‘ Il faut souffrir pour etre content.’6His service in the ranks of first the RAF, then the army, then the RAF again, which extended for most of the rest of his life, was for Lawrence not a penance but the ultimate reward for his struggles and achievements. The ‘official’ explanation – that Lawrence joined the forces for ‘security’ – will not wash: he would have had far more financial security as an officer or an official of the Colonial Office, without the constant hardships and threat of violence he experienced in his first years in the ranks. In one sense his enlistment allowed him to avoid the responsibility which international notoriety had given him. It removed from him the burden of playing the hero, and yet, in itself, made him far more remarkable than those ‘Ordinary’ war heroes who did the ‘vulgar things expected of them’ such as accepting knighthoods, awards and high office. There was also a more positive side to his enlistment, however: Lawrence had long ago sensed in himself a powerful competitive force, and during the occupation of Damascus, when he had been briefly de factoruler of the city, had seen clearly that if given opportunity the dragon within would emerge as a fully-fledged tyrant. Any high post would have provided such an opportunity, and in order to prevent the ‘beast’ from emerging Lawrence felt the need to be physically shackled and confined. Service in the ranks would allow him to exert moral power through his influential friends, without the inevitable corruption of spirit that material wealth and physical power would bring. If there had ever been any danger that ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ might be forgotten, his enlistment in the ranks made certain that he would not – paradoxically, it was the ultimate self-advertisement. On another level, though, his years of military service may be seen as a self-prescribed ‘cure’ for his paraphilia – an attempt to ‘balance’ whatever it was he felt was out of kilter in his psyche, and to make himself whole again: ‘partly,’ he wrote Robert Graves in 1923, ‘I came in here to eat dirt until it’s normal to me.’ 7‘It’s going to be a brain sleep, and I’ll come out of it less odd than I went in: or at least less odd in other men’s eyes.’ 8
Great secrecy and a conspiratorial air accompanied his enlistment, but it is clear that he took few pains to conceal his true identity. Before he had left the recruitment office that first day, Johns already knew who he was: ‘Lawrence knew that I knew,’ said Johns, ‘because I had a long talk with him while he was waiting for the train to take him to Uxbridge.’ 9Johns had also telephoned through to the Recruit Depot at Uxbridge to warn his opposite number there, Flight-Lieutenant Nelson, that Lawrence of Arabia was on the way incognito,so his ‘secret’ was well known from the moment he arrived at the Depot, to almost everyone except the ordinary Aircraftmen and NCOs with whom he shared his life. Lawrence spent two months at Uxbridge and found the life one of drudgery, alternating between kitchen fatigues, drill and PT. In an exhausted and malnourished state when he joined up, he was also deeply depressed and drained of energy after writing Seven Pillars,and hoped the RAF would help bring him out. He was older than most of the recruits and physically debilitated. He could not keep up with them during PT, fumbled his drill, and was victimized by the Adjutant, ‘Stiffy’ Breese, to whom he had unfortunately had the cheek to apply for a private room in which to pursue his writing – a clear indication that he had not yet wholeheartedly adopted his role of ordinary airman – almost, perhaps, a deliberate attempt to bait authority. Breese wrote later that ‘Ross’ had been constantly ‘up’ for dirtiness, insubordination, refusing to obey direct orders, and being late on parade. Breese recalled that in his defence ‘Ross’ had simply remarked with Oxford hauteur that ‘he had always felt a little tired in the early morning’. 10His fellow Aircraftmen thought him ‘a queer sort ofbloke’:’… the erks (Aircraftmen) found him useful,’ one of his room-mates recalled; ‘… he was always good for half-crowns, books, technical advice etc.’ 11Although, on one level, Lawrence sought acceptance by the ‘erks’, he also purposely retained his oddness, writing to Edward Garnett that in the barrack-room he was ‘apart’ and felt like a ‘dragon-fly among wasps’ or a ‘wasp among dragon-flies’. 12His old propensity for fitting into a community without belonging to it quickly reasserted itself.
If Lawrence had really desired anonymity, he could have found it. If he had really meant to leave ‘Colonel Lawrence’ behind and find the shape of the ‘worm inside the caddis shell’, as he put it, it would have been possible. As Bernard Shaw so acutely observed, though, Lawrence sought to hide always in full spotlight on mid-stage. Anonymity was not really his objective: his purpose in joining up was to abase himself and be seen to abase himself: to suffer and be seen to suffer. Just as his night expeditions to dive through the ice on the Cherwell in his college days had been made with the object of shocking ‘orthodox folk’, so his service as a ‘beast’ in the ranks had to be communicated to the exalted personages among whom Lawrence would otherwise have lived. They must be enjoined to share in his degradation. It had been his own choice to join the RAF as a ranker: indeed, most of his acquaintances including Winston Churchill and Lord Trenchard had tried to dissuade him from it. Yet once he had chosen his path, he proceeded to write sheaves of letters to the great and powerful of the land, wallowing in the self-abasement he had opted for voluntarily. Lawrence’s desire to exhibit the disgusting conditions of his life can be felt almost palpably in his letter to Bernard Shaw: ‘You ask for details of what I’m doing in the RAF,’ he wrote. ‘Today I scrubbed the kitchen out in the morning … Yesterday I washed up the dishes in the sergeants’ mess in the morning (messy feeders, sergeants: plates were all butter and tomato sauce, and the washing water was cold) … I’ve been dustman, and clerk, and pig-stye cleaner, and housemaid and scullion … but the life isn’t so bad …’ 13There is a curious parallel between Lawrence’s service life and his attitude to Seven Pillars,which he was revising during his first weeks in the RAF. Once again, it was a book no one had obliged him to write, revealing ‘secrets’ and ‘private matters’ no one had asked him to reveal: yet once it was completed and coyly passed around his inner circle, he continually bemoaned and bewailed its inadequacy: ‘if you say it’s rot,’ he wrote Shaw, who had received one of the original bound copies, ‘I’ll agree with you and cackle with pleasure at finding my judgement doubled.’ 14‘I wish the beastly book had never been written,’ he wrote Edward Garnett, almost as though he had had no hand in it. 15Lawrence’s attitude to the publication of Seven Pillarsis also a perfect showcase of his personality – the personality Liddell Hart described as that of ‘a woman wearing a veil while exposing the bosom’. The book was completed in 1922, and Lawrence might well have published it then and simply forgotten about it. Instead, he proceeded to waft it enticingly under the noses of the public for the rest of his life – first releasing eight copies to privileged friends, then, four years later, a limited edition for subscribers and an abridged version with most of the controversial material removed. He continued to rework the text for years, thus ensuring that interest in the book and consequently in himself, the author, was never allowed to subside. This is not the behaviour of someone who genuinely seeks anonymity.