If he had really wished his identity to remain secret, he need not have befriended George Bernard Shaw – one of Britain’s most famous writers – nor any of the other powerful souls he corresponded with, including Churchill, Lord Trenchard, Leo Amery – First Lord of the Admiralty – and even the former Prime Minister, Lloyd George. The humble Aircraftman, fresh from his pig-swilling and scrubbing, would inform the hero of his youth, Charles Doughty – with just a soupзon of patronage – that of the current Ministry (of Defence), ‘three or four are Fellows of All Souls, and most of the others are friends of mine. The Duke of Devonshire, & Lord Salisbury, & Amery and Wood and three or four others.’ 16What Doughty thought of this is not recorded: he appreciated Lawrence’s attempts to help him re-issue his book Arabia Deserta, and to obtain a civil-list pension for him, but he returned Seven Pillarswithout comment: this, perhaps, was comment enough. Lawrence also pestered Air Vice-Marshal Sir Oliver Swann, the RAF Chief of Personnel and Training, whom Trenchard had ordered to arrange his enlistment, but who had strongly disapproved of the matter. Since Lawrence was now on the lowest rung of the RAF ladder, it must have given him exquisite delight to address the Air Vice-Marshal as ‘Swann’, knowing that, lowly as he was, he had the backing of the highest in the land. Although Lawrence claimed to have left ‘Colonel Lawrence’ behind, the contrast between his two identities ‘Lawrence of Arabia – national hero’ and ‘Aircraftman Class 2 Ross’ was an endless source of pleasure and amusement to him. It made a travesty of the social hierarchy – the class snobbery which had marred the lives of his parents – and became a hugely enjoyable game. Just as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ had been able to flit from ‘Prince of Mecca’ to ‘British Intelligence Officer’, so Ross could now navigate in the course of a day from ‘pig-stye keeper’ to international diplomat: ‘In case I’m wanted by the Colonial Office,’ AC 2 Ross wrote the glowering Air Vice-Marshal, casually, ‘I’ll send you a note as often as I change station.’ 17Swann was not amused, and sensed, perhaps, that he was a pawn in Lawrence’s private games: ‘One would think from the letters, that I was a close correspondent of [his],’ he wrote, ‘possibly even a friend of his’ … ‘But as a matter of fact … I disliked the whole business … I discouraged communication with him … his eventual discovery at Farnborough was solely due to carelessness at the Colonial Office and Lawrence’s unfortunate love of drawing a veil of mystery about himself.’ 18
The end began in November, when Lawrence was moved suddenly from Uxbridge to the RAF School of Photography at Farnborough. At first he was delighted, and wrote to Swann that he had ‘almost burned down the camp with joy’ when the news of his transfer had arrived. When he reached his new posting, however, his mood quickly changed, for he discovered that the current photography course was already under way and that he would have to wait until January for the next one. He complained to Swann, making it clear that unless he could begin training as a photographer at once, he wished to be posted elsewhere. He confessed that he was glad to get away from Uxbridge because the physical side of the training had been knocking him up, but though Farnborough was by comparison ‘a jolly rest cure’ it was not the kind of RAF he wanted to write about, and without the photographic training he would simply be bored. For ten days he filled in as orderly in the Adjutant’s office, until an order came down from the Air Chief Marshal that AC 2 Ross must be put on the current course at once. By this time many of the staff of the School of Photography were aware of Ross’s ‘secret identity’, and the presence of an international celebrity posing rather half-heartedly in their midst as a lowly private naturally disturbed the officers, who suspected that he had been planted as some kind of Air Ministry spy. Lawrence continued to exhibit his self-imposed suffering to the gallery of high society, writing to E. M. Forster, for instance, that he ‘hated’ the ‘dirty living’ of the barrack-room, and could not bear to think of the years of poverty which stretched endlessly before him. He confessed that he was physically afraid of his colleagues, hated their noise and ‘animal spirits’, but insisted – as if begging contradiction – that he was exactly like them, declaring that he would not leave the RAF for any other job. The effect was rather like that of a man locking himself in a filthy prison-cell and crying through the bars that the conditions were terrible, but that this was where he really belonged and that he would do anything rather than come out. It is clear, however, that Lawrence was not as committed to remaining in the ranks as he maintained. Indeed, at Farnborough he started to become openly provocative with his officers – once, when a young subaltern criticized his turn-out, replying to him in Arabic or ancient Greek, making him a laughing, stock in front of the men. While Lawrence later claimed to have been ‘sold out’ to the press by one of his officers, it is much more likely that he deliberately exposed himself. In fact, he had begun giving away his pseudonym and address quite freely, and had even, in a fit of unadulterated self-destructiveness, written to R. D. Blumenfeld, editor of the Daily Express,giving full details of his enlistment and beseeching him not to reveal it to the public. This was asking too much of a professional newspaperman, and Blumenfeld may have realized that Lawrence was flashing a subliminal green light. He probably gave a tip-off to one of his reporters, for on 27 December 1922 the Expressprinted on its front page a story entitled Uncrowned King as Private Soldier,revealing Lawrence’s ‘hiding place’ to the world and making it impossible for him to continue in the RAF. In January 1923 – much to his apparent chagrin – he was obliged to leave. By this time, however, his disappointment was genuine, for in the meantime he had become romantically attached to an attractive blond-haired young airman named R. A. M. Guy, whose radiant good looks were likened by one of his colleagues to those of a ‘Greek god’. Lawrence himself called Guy ‘angelic’ but noted snobbishly that his beauty was marred by his ‘vile’ Brummie accent – as if Greek gods had naturally spoken Oxford English. Just as Lawrence had seen his attachment to the Arab cause partly as an expression of his relationship with the ‘noble’ Dahoum, so his admiration for the air force as an organization began to grow through his idealization of Guy. He thought Guy embodied all that was best in its ranks, and was soon waxing enthusiastic about the infinite superiority of the young men in the RAF to those in the army. Though his relationship with Guy was probably as platonic as his association with Dahoum, they were becoming emotionally intimate when they were forced to split up: ‘You and me, we’re very un-matched,’ Lawrence wrote to Guy later, ‘and it took some process as slow and kindly and persistent as the barrack-room communism to weld us comfortably together. People aren’t friends till they have said all they can say, and are able to sit together, at work or rest, hour-long without speaking… We never got quite to that, but we were nearer it daily … and since S.A. died I haven’t experienced any risk of that happening.’ 19
Lawrence appealed for reinstatement to Trenchard and Minister of Air Sam Hoare, but his credit had expired. His status-games were fun for him, but detrimental to the good order of the RAF, and Trenchard would reconsider only if he agreed to take a commission, which for Lawrence would have spoiled the effect completely. By February, however, he had succeeded in pulling strings at the War Office, and with the help of Alan Dawnay, his wartime colleague from Hedgehog, and General Sir Philip Chetwode, who had commanded the Desert Column in Palestine, managed to enlist again, this time as a private in the Royal Tank Corps. In March, Lawrence signed on in the army for seven years at Bovington Camp, Dorset, under yet another pseudonym: T. E. Shaw. This time, however, he did not enter the ranks alone, for when he walked into the guard-room at Bovington he was escorted by a tall, tough-looking young Scotsman named John Bruce, who had joined the army with him to act as his personal minder.
Lawrence had met Bruce in London in 1922, while still working for the Colonial Office, at the Mayfair flat of a man called Edward Murray, who was considering the eighteen-year-old Scotsman for a job. On their second meeting, Lawrence told Bruce who he was, and informed him that he was looking for someone who was young, strong and alert, who could be trusted with highly confidential personal matters. Bruce thought him a crank, and protested that he was not qualified, but he was desperately in need of a job, and Lawrence offered him a generous salary of Ј3 a month as a retainer. On subsequent meetings Lawrence swore Bruce to the utmost confidence, and began to unfold a long and complicated fantasy, claiming to be in the power of a relative he referred to as the ‘Old Man’. The story went that he was in debt and, under pressure from his bank, had decided to write a book, hoping that it would make enough money to allow him to pay off his debt and retire to the country. He had applied to a merchant bank for the money to live on while the book was being written, and the bank had asked for the copyright of the book, and requested a guarantor. He said that when his father had died in 1919, the Old Man had inherited his money, and Lawrence had asked him to act as his guarantor. At first he had agreed, but when he discovered that Lawrence had quit his job with the Colonial Office, he had changed his mind, called Lawrence a ‘bastard’ and accused him of a plethora of sins, including insulting King George at Buckingham Palace, ruining the career of Lord Curzon, turning his back on God, and dragging the family name through the gutter. The Old Man, said Lawrence, had agreed to take over his financial affairs and handle his debts, but only on the understanding that all ‘disciplinary matters’ were to be placed in his hands: if he did not agree the Old Man would expose the circumstances of his birth. His life was to be strictly curtailed: he was to enlist in the army or the RAF as a private, and spend his time either writing or soldiering. The only friends he was to be allowed in the ‘upper bracket’ were people connected with his writing. Lawrence told Bruce that he had sworn on the Bible to respect the Old Man’s every wish, and mentioned that corporal punishment might be involved. 20Bruce was suspicious, not because he disbelieved the story, but because he and Lawrence were poles apart socially and he wondered why Lawrence had chosen him for this particular job. Lawrence explained that most of his ‘friends’ couldn’t be trusted, and the few who could were ‘too big’. They would be willing to help only for personal gain: ‘you don’t know what is to be gained,’ Lawrence told him, ‘and wouldn’t be disappointed if you gained nothing.’ 21He sent Bruce back to Aberdeen, telling him that he would be called for when needed.
While Lawrence was at Uxbridge and Farnborough, he corresponded with Bruce occasionally, telling him how much he loathed the RAF, but hinting that the Old Man thought the life too soft: he had no right to be there at all, he wrote, since the Old Man had arranged for him to join the army. In November Lawrence asked Bruce to come to Farnborough, and when they met informed him that ‘a birch had arrived’ and that the Old Man wanted him to ‘take a few over the buttocks’ as a penalty for having ‘cheated him’ in joining the RAF instead of the army. Before the ‘punishment’ could be carried out, however, Lawrence was exposed by the press in his guise of ‘Ross’ and obliged to leave. He told Bruce that the Old Man had paid an officer at Farnborough Ј30 to give the story to the Express.Bruce temporarily lost touch with him, but in January 1923 he moved to London and managed to get a job as a bouncer in a Paddington nightclub, leaving a message for Lawrence at his borrowed Barton Street flat. A few days later Lawrence came to see him, looking dirty, ragged, sick and exhausted, telling him he had been sleeping rough for several nights (in fact he had been sleeping in the sidecar of the motorcycle he had acquired while in the RAF). Lawrence told Bruce that the Old Man was now forcing him to join the Royal Tank Corps. According to Bruce, he then volunteered to join the army with Lawrence.
It seems likely that someone in the military authorities knew of the association between Lawrence and Bruce, for Bruce recounted that his recruitment in Aberdeen had been pre-arranged. Lawrence told him that his offer had pleased the Old Man, who would be writing to him directly once they had enlisted. At Bovington they were given consecutive serial numbers, and adjoining beds in the same hut. They were issued with ill-fitting uniforms, and assigned to a squad of twenty-two recruits, for the duration of their sixteen weeks’ training: ‘we had everyone in the hut sized up,’ Bruce wrote. ‘It was the bad ones I had to keep my eyes on, especially the drinkers, who were continually touching Lawrence for money … I came into the hut and heard a fellow giving Lawrence a mouthful of filth because he refused to give him a pound. I jumped him there and then and one hell of a fight took place … 22Shortly afterwards, Lawrence rented Clouds Hill, a cottage which stood close to the camp, as a refuge from the almost intolerable life of the barrack-room, and it was here, in 1923, that Bruce gave Lawrence a birching for the first time. The beating was arranged with the precision of a ritual. First, Lawrence told Bruce that the Old Man had decided he must be punished, and had sentenced him to twelve strokes of the birch. He then handed Bruce a typed letter, purporting to be from the Old Man, which informed him that he was to pick up a birch from the local railway-station and administer the punishment, afterwards reporting to him in writing that he had done so, and describing how Lawrence had conducted himself throughout the beating. At first, Bruce declared that he would have nothing to do with it, but Lawrence insisted that it had to be done. Since Lawrence seemed to be willing, Bruce finally agreed, and carried out the ‘sentence’ the same afternoon. However, since Lawrence kept his trousers on during the birching – which consisted of twelve strokes to the buttocks – the Old Man was not appeased, and the thrashing had to be repeated later, on Lawrence’s bare behind: ‘After I had given him the twelve, he said: “Give me another one for luck,”‘ Bruce remembered. ‘It is nasty. The prongs go into the skin and break the blood vessels and it bleeds. He just lay there and gritted his teeth. He never moved.’ 23Whether this was the first such birching Lawrence had ever received is open to question. Curiously, Bruce stated that he saw ‘no other scars’, though W. E. Johns claimed to have seen ‘a mass of recent scars’ on Lawrence’s back at the recruiting office less than a year earlier. Bruce also said that he was not the only man to have beaten Lawrence in this manner – indeed, some time later he discovered birch-marks on Lawrence’s legs while they were working out in a gymnasium in Bournemouth, and Lawrence told him they had been inflicted by ‘an employee of the Old Man’. 24Between 1923 and 1935, Bruce birched Lawrence on nine occasions, at Clouds Hill, at Barton Street, at his home in Aberdeen and at other places in Scotland, and on at least one occasion another witness was present. Moreover, Philip Knightley and Colin Simpson, the Sunday Timesreporters to whom Bruce told his story, revealed in their 1968 article that they knew of two other men who had been employed to thrash Lawrence, though whether before, after, or concurrently with Bruce is unknown. If Johns did see ‘recent’ scars on Lawrence’s back in 1922, then it may be that Lawrence’s flagellation disorder had begun before he met Bruce earlier that year. However, it is likely that Johns’s statement was spurious: Bruce’s beatings were always administered to the buttocks rather than the back, suggesting a sexual element which some biographers have tried to suppress, and which was confirmed by Bruce’s admission that Lawrence sometimes experienced orgasm as a result of the floggings. The attempt of some biographers to ‘sanctify’ Lawrence’s masochism by suggesting that he tried to emulate the practices of medieval saints also falls down on this point – for medieval flagellants were invariably whipped on the back rather than the buttocks.