A March 2003 trip
to Dorset by Idler
Quote: March, 2003: On holiday in Dorset, I find I can’t ignore pressing world events as the U.S. and Britain prepare to invade Iraq. In military museums and at sites of historic conflicts, the past foreshadows the present, especially when I go looking for T.E. Lawrence.
I’d come to rural Dorset to retreat from the grim present into the restful past. I’d planned to spend my days roaming the villages of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and my nights sitting in some cozy pub, thumbing through my dog-eared copy of that loveliest of Hardy tales, Under the Greenwood Tree.
Instead, in the pubs in the evening, the talk was all of war. Locals clustered at the bar, talking earnestly over their pints. Upon hearing my American accent, I’d often be asked, "Where are you from? " "Washington, D.C.," I’d reply, then let that fact age a bit before ending the awkward interval by making some casual remark about the insanity of the current situation. My interlocutors would then relax, ever so subtly but noticeably, as they leaned toward me, including me in the conversational group.
Oh, the war was not to be dismissed or avoided; nightly the assembled company hashed things over, an endless round of impotent speculation. Everyone expressed unwavering support for the troops, but most, like me, felt the rush to war was pure folly.
In contrast to these nightly war conferences, by day I made dutiful efforts to push the impending conflict from mind. What better refuge from the present than the past? The past is written; the past is safe – or so I told myself.
On my second day in Dorchester, I visited the Dorset County Museum. Museums, after all, are such predictable, improving places. Indeed, the museum in Dorset is a fine one, but I found myself interested not in its displays of Hardy memorabilia or other curios from my pet era, Victorian England. Instead, I was drawn to dimly lit displays of Iron Age artifacts, particularly a case containing the skeletons of two Celtic warriors found at Maiden Castle, a nearby Iron Age hill fort.
I spent more time contemplating these macabre relics than seemed warranted, but something about them struck a sympathetic chord. They lay side by side, intertwined in an eloquent admixture of ossa. One skeleton had an iron weapon tip embedded in his spine, while the other’s skull had been pierced with a Roman pilum, a long lance-like weapon.
These ancient warriors had died defending Maiden Castle from Vespasian’s invading Roman legions during the first century AD. Had they died, comrades in arms, struck down at the same moment? Or had they merely been flung together in a common grave, the corpses of two strangers commingling in death? My fancy urged me to adopt the former scenario.
I’d not forgotten my basic Roman history. I hadn’t suffered through four years of high school Latin without at least retaining the general outline of Caesar’s campaigns, "All Gaul is divided in three parts," Hadrian’s wall, and all that. And yet – this is hard to explain – it all had been dead to me until I bent down, quite close, to examine where the ancient Celt’s skull had been pierced, leaving a rather neat hole. Very workman-like, that hole. Very Roman. It seemed more vivid to me than the bloodiest cinema scenes of Russell Crowe in full gladiator regalia, whacking lustily away at his opponents. I found it strangely moving.
I’ve always felt it best not to examine these emotional responses too closely, but, rather, to give way to them wholeheartedly. Thus, after spending another hour or so at the museum perusing the artifacts found at Maiden Castle, I consulted my excellent map of the surrounding countryside, located the site, and drove off to see it.
Some preliminary remarks are called for regarding Maiden Castle. First of all, it’s not a castle. There never has been a castle, confusingly enough, though it was, some two thousand years ago, a massive hill fort, the largest in Europe, in fact, covering forty-seven acres. Nor was there ever a "maiden," for the name derives from the Celtic term "mai dun," which simply means "great hill."
Approaching the site, which is just south of Dorchester, Maiden Castle appears to be a large, flat-topped hill. It is initially hard to grasp that it is a man-made fortification. No doubt the structure is more easily comprehended from above, and indeed aerial photos bear this out. Of course, such a huge structure cannot be partitioned off, and unlike such tourist meccas as Stonehenge, it seems to attract little in the way of tourist traffic. There are merely a few modest information boards set some distance from the hill near a wire fence and a sign requesting that visitors secure the gate after entering, as Maiden Castle is home to a flocks of fat sheep.
Few visitors were about on a weekday afternoon, only a sprinkling of retirees with their dogs on leads, taking an afternoon stroll. I entered the fort after trudging up a long slope, then navigating a somewhat confusing set of earthworks. My time at the museum had prepared me for this, as I’d learned that this design was a defensive ploy. Invaders who pierced the outer wall were trapped in the three concentric rings that form the inner defenses. The entrances to each successive ring are offset in such a manner that attackers would be confined to narrow sections, rendering them vulnerable to attack from defenders above on the ramparts. Even after several thousand years of erosion, the overall structure and cleverness of this plan is clear.
However, this massive structure proved inadequate in the face of the Roman Second Legion, with its catapults and disciplined ranks of well-armed soldiers. In 43 AD Vespasian, taking up where Julius Caesar had left off, subdued the warlike Celtic tribes of southern Britain. The conquest of Maiden Caste was, archaeologists believe, a very bloody affair, with the Roman invaders ultimately breaking through the eastern gate. It never fails to astonish me how archaeologists, undoubtedly after a great deal of painstaking work, can reconstruct such long-distant events.
No doubt Vespasian felt vindicated by crushing the troublesome Celtic tribes. The Romans held longstanding grudges, at least when it came to military defeats. In 390 BC, the Celtic leader Brennus and his marauding horde sacked imperial Rome, holding it ransom for a thousand pounds of gold. According to Livy, the weights the Celts used to measure the gold were heavier than normal. When the Roman commander dared protest, the insolent Brennus flung his sword onto the scale, declaring
"Vae victis" – "Woe to the conquered!"
While the Celts of Britain were not those who invaded Rome, they were culpably of the same racial stock. Of course, only the Roman accounts of these events remain, for the victorious invariably write history. The Celts were defeated and we hear little more about them. Nor did the Romans have much use for the hill forts once the Celts had been vanquished. At Maiden Castle, there are the remains of a small Roman temple, but it could never have been a very imposing structure, judging from its size. Perhaps the Romans simply couldn’t resist building something on the most prominent structure in that section of Dorset. Mostly, however, they busied themselves with a thoroughly Roman project nearby, building the new city of Durnovaria (Dorchester).
As for me, I could only marvel at the sheer size of Maiden Castle, while contemplating the unhappy evidence it presented of the relative brevity of human endeavors. A broad footpath runs along the top of the inner perimeter, and along it I walked the fort’s circumference. T.E. Lawrence walked the same path in 1935 while viewing the ongoing archaeological excavations. "[He] stood shyly watching us at work on the eve of his sudden death," recalled Sir Mortimer Wheeler.
From Maiden Castle, the Dorset countryside stretched invitingly before me, the gentle shapes of freshly plowed fields caressing the hills and skirting patches of dark forest. I love the feeling of being up high, facing a stiff breeze that strengthens as it rises. Birds took to wing from a nearby field as I thought of the two Celtic warriors. The threat of war - all wars, past and present - seemed distant yet immediate as I stood on that ancient spot, beneath the sheltering sky and above an open plain.
A soldier’s overarching loyalty is to his corps, a trait that’s particularly strong within the British Army. Each regiment functions as a family, its honor carefully guarded and its traditions faithfully maintained. Although it might be argued the need for this system has passed, life in the British Army still revolves around the regiment. Regimental esprit de corps may seem an insubstantial thing in this age of high-tech weaponry, yet it has been credited with snatching victory from the jaws of defeat on more than one occasion. As General George S. Patton, Jr. once said, "Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men."
Popular culture presents a simplified version of the military, alternately jingoistic (images of brave young soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice) or dismissively cartoonish (Beetle Bailey and Colonel Klink bumbling along with predictable ineptitude). In between lie the complex realities of military life, enigmatic to outsiders. My own perceptions of the military are filtered through a second-hand glass, darkly. My step-father was a lieutenant colonel in the Marines and my uncle a naval captain. The military was a "given" in my upbringing.
And so it was that when I passed by the Military Museum of Devon and Dorset while walking around Dorchester, my curiosity led me inside. The Keep, in which the museum is housed, is an impressive structure, built in the late 19th century as a prison and armory. Its massive towers and battlements achieve a pleasingly formidable effect.
I was surprised to find I was almost the sole visitor. In contrast to chaotic events unfolding in the world outside, within all seemed peaceful, with the stories of past conflicts presented in a reassuringly orderly fashion. Within The Keep, the long history of the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment unfolds in roughly chronological order, from its earliest days, when the Devonshire Regiment helped suppress the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, through all the varied campaigns of the British Empire conducted in far-flung places. Particular emphasis is placed on moments of regimental glory, such as the Charge of Agagia in Egypt (1916), when 160 cavalrymen charged more than a mile across the open desert, routing an opposing force of more than 600.
The present-day regiment was formed when the Devonshire and Dorset Regiments were combined in 1958. I couldn’t help but wonder how the two groups viewed this forced marriage. At The Keep the history of the Regiment was presented seamlessly, as a unified history of one, rather than two, entities. I found this interesting. It was as if two sovereign states had met and found greater glory reflected in a merger.
The regimental badge cleverly symbolizes this. It features the Castle of Exeter along with the motto, "Semper Fidelis" (Always Faithful) from the former Devonshire badge. But there is also the Sphinx, symbol of the Dorset Regiment’s service in Egypt during the Napoleonic Wars, as well as the mottos, "Marabout," referring to the capture of Fort Marabout in Egypt in 1801, and "Primus in Indus" (First in India), a reference to the Dorset’s victory at Plassey in 1757.
There are many ways to look at the British Empire, but the temptation is to regard it either with some nostalgia or with politically correct feelings of guilt. I resist both viewpoints, and it occurred to me that those who designed the displays at The Keep must have engaged in a similar struggle. The displays of medals and military paraphernalia speak for themselves. Hard won, those honors were. As I wandered through room after room of regimental relics, the years of unfaltering loyalty to regiment – to comrades – was self-evident.
Salamanca, the Pyrenees, Sebastopol, Afghanistan, Ladysmith, Mons, Ypres, Somme, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Normandy, Arnhem, Sicily, Mandalay, Burma… the names of military campaigns stretching back some two and a half centuries featured in one display after another.
I’ve always been fascinated by what historian Byron Farwell called "Queen Victoria’s Little Wars," the wars from 1837 to 1901, in Asia, China, Africa, and elsewhere undertaken to protect British interests, avenge insults, and suppress rebellions.
Thus, I spent some time at The Keep contemplating a medal commemorating the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58. It had a red and white striped ribbon which represented the European women and children killed by the Indian mutineers. It is odd how something so simple can conjure up such vivid images. I felt a sense of baffled frustration. Had that butchery been preventable? Had the British response been justified? How little I understood past events! What hope was there to understand the present?
At Maiden Castle I had felt the past and present converge, but here the present echoed the past in a display on Mesopotamia -- what we now call Iraq. Nothing set this particular display aside, only the knowledge of what had happened in the region during World War I and what is happening there today. Until recently, the events in Mesopotamia from 1914-1919 had been overshadowed by the horrors of trench warfare in Europe during that time. Now, however, they merit a closer examination.
Without going into great detail, the British, protecting their access to Gulf oil (the navy having recently converted from coal to oil) and the all-important Suez Canal, were unwisely drawn further into the region. They hoped to capture Baghdad and defeat the Turks. However, the British commanders underestimated both the terrain and the Turks; worse still, they were unwilling to commit the resources needed to do the job properly.
Encouraged by early victories at Amara and Nasiriyeh, the British pressed on to Kut, hoping to reach Baghdad. It was an appallingly bad decision, resulting in the tragedy of Kut. where over thirteen thousand British soldiers were surrounded by a much stronger Turkish force. Hundreds died during a prolonged siege, thousands during failed attempts relieve Kut, and an even greater number after the British finally surrendered.
Kut was one of the most humiliating defeats ever suffered by the British. The Turks, who treated their own soldiers cruelly, treated the captured men with astonishing brutality. Two-thirds of the POWs died on forced death-marches to Turkey or during captivity. Among the 12,000 taken prisoner were men of the Dorset Regiment.
Kipling, in a poem entitled "Mesopotamia," vented his fury at the "idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they [the troops at Kut] died." Ever the champion of the common soldier, he railed at the needless suffering resulting from bad decisions made in high places. In the case of Mesopotamia, thousands died as three vast British bureaucracies – one based in India, another in Cairo, and a third in London – "quibbled" over the course of action.
Later, the course of events in Mesopotamia turned more favorable. Baghdad was at last taken and the Turks driven from the region. The Keep’s rather stiff-upper-lip display noted that the Dorset Regiment, in particular, was distinguished during the fighting. Still, on the whole the Mesopotamian campaign is remembered for the unusual and arguably unnecessary hardships the British Army endured.
I later read in John Mack’s biography of T.E. Lawrence that before the British surrender at Kut, Lawrence had been sent on a secret mission to the Turkish pasha, hoping to secure the release of the men at Kut through a bribe. While this technique had worked in previous dealings with the Turks, in this instance it was an embarrassing failure.
All this took place before Lawrence became actively involved in the Arab Revolt. Speaking with hindsight in his account of the revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence editorializes that had the Arabs in the region been persuaded to join forces with the British earlier, the British would have been spared a painful defeat. The lesson of Kut, for Lawrence, was the foolhardiness of embarking on a military campaign on foreign soil without a full sense of the culture, character, and political aspirations of the local people. He later wrote:
"I went up the Tigris with one hundred Devon Territorials, young, clean, delightful fellows, full of the power of happiness.… And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia could be ours." (Seven Pillars of Wisdom)
However, as I stood contemplating The Keep’s Mesopotamian campaign relics, I was not thinking of Lawrence, but only of the approaching conflict. Perhaps he was on the periphery of my consciousness, but I cannot say this was so. I had no inkling that he would soon be standing front and center in my mind.
What is it about castles that so fascinates us? Ask your average American what he’d like to see in Britain, and chances are he’ll mention a castle. But it’s not just the castle-deprived Americans who are susceptible; our European cousins are equally smitten, it seems.
One notable admirer of castles was T.E. Lawrence, who began his career in the Middle East studying crusader castles. Having been fascinated with all things medieval since boyhood, Lawrence visited 36 crusader castles on his thousand-mile undergraduate trek in 1909 (he had originally hoped to visit 50), making careful notes he later used in writing his thesis, "Crusader Castles: The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture." For Lawrence, it was the defensive aspects of castles that most held his interest. It is somewhat ironic perhaps that the man who later became a master of the ever shifting, mobile art of guerilla warfare should have begun his career studying such massive fixed structures. But there you have it.
One of England’s most spectacular ruins, Corfe Castle, stands perched on a hilltop not many miles from Clouds Hill, Lawrence’s cottage near Bovington Camp. I am sure he knew of the castle’s colorful history; perhaps he stood among the ruins, as I did one fine March afternoon, looking out over the peaceful countryside and the Purbeck Hills. However, with his archeological training, Lawrence surely would have deduced from the ruins the castle’s original plan, whereas I merely stumbled about, pleased with the picturesque rubble. Anyone, however, can appreciate the story that rubble has to tell. To borrow a phrase from Paul MacKendrick, "The mute stones speak."
Constructed of fine local limestone, the castle commanded a strategically important position, a gap in the ridge of the Purbeck Hills. Although there is evidence that the Romans may have been the first to take advantage of this site, the original castle was built during William the Conqueror’s time, then underwent extensive rebuilding and enlargement in the thirteenth century under King John.
However, during John’s time the castle also served darker purposes. There he imprisoned his niece Eleanor, the sister of a rival to the throne, as well as twenty-five French knights who were loyal to her. These unfortunate knights managed to escape but were later recaptured, whereupon John had them sealed in the dungeon without so much as a cask of Amontillado to sustain them. They slowly starved to death, while Eleanor remained a prisoner most of her life.
By the late 1500s, the center of royal power had shifted to London. Queen Elizabeth then sold the castle to a court favorite, Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Chancellor of England. After Hatton’s death, the castle changed hands a number of times, finally purchased by Sir John Bankes in 1635. It is at this time that perhaps the most interesting chapter in the castle’s long history begins.
Sir John Bankes was a Royalist, and when the Civil War broke out he rallied to his king, Charles I, leaving his wife, Lady Mary Bankes, in charge of Corfe Castle. Parliamentarian forces laid siege to the castle, which was defended only by a handful of untrained local men, but despite their best efforts after six weeks the castle still stood fast. Worse yet, the Parliamentarian losses had been heavy -- over a hundred fatalities in comparison to only two men lost fighting for Lady Bankes. The Parliamentarian forces withdrew.
When London fell, Charles I fled to Oxford. Loyal Sir John Bankes went with him, but he died shortly afterward. Seizing the opportunity to attack what he viewed as a now-defenseless widow, the Governor of Poole laid siege once again to the castle, ceaselessly bombarding it for two months. The tenacious Lady Bankes refused to capitulate. Then the governor devised a cunning plan. Sending men disguised as Royalists to the castle, he infiltrated the garrison. At long last the drawbridge came down.
Even still Lady Bankes fought on, locking herself in her chamber and flinging hot coals down upon the invaders scaling a ladder to her window. Ultimately, she was forced to surrender, but the governor was so impressed by her unwavering courage that he allowed her to withdraw with her men, retaining the keys to the castle.
Much good it did her. Once the castle was in the hands of the Roundheads, they planted enormous caches of explosives in its walls. In what must have been a truly cataclysmic explosion, the castle walls came tumbling down.
But that was not the end of the castle, not entirely. If you visit the village of Corfe Castle today, it is quite apparent what became of the bits of masonry and stone that rained down that fateful day in March of 1646. There you’ll see street after street of fine stone houses, inns, and cottages, all constructed of the same lovely Purbeck stone. Those structures and the majestic ruins on the hill are all that remain of Corfe Castle.
I have, in one of several photo albums chronicling an idyllic year spent in England, photos of ourselves at Corfe Castle in 1987. I can remember how we climbed among the ruins, posing for photos on great slabs of toppled rubble and threading our way through the confusing maze of half-destroyed walls and chambers. Afterward, we sat in the sunshine at a table outside a pub in the town below, laughing and squinting up at the ruins behind us. I look at these photos now and think, "We didn’t have a care in the world, back then," which of course is utter nonsense.
It is always disconcerting to me to go back to places where I was once extremely happy, and in general I avoid doing so. It is such a disappointment if things have changed, or if the earlier experience is diminished in some way. And so although I had not originally intended it, when I set out one morning from Dorchester to go to Bovington Camp, I found myself making a detour to nearby Corfe Castle. I had last seen the castle in March of 1987. When I returned sixteen years later, it seemed virtually unchanged.
The past stands like a fortress, but our unreliable memories, like those Roundhead infiltrators, betray us. I have visited scores of romantic ruins in England – abbeys, castles, stone circles, barrows, towers, churches – yet I can clearly recall only a handful. But this is not the case with Corfe Castle, for I can still taste that pint of bitter at the pub, feel the warmth of the castle’s sun-drenched stones, and hear the distant bleat of sheep on the hillside. These memories have survived where a million and one have vanished, yet I cannot tell you why.
"Tanks, replied Ustinov, without hesitation.
"Why tanks?" asked the officer, seeming impressed with the young man’s apparent enthusiasm.
"Because I prefer to go into battle sitting down."
They assigned him to the infantry.
I grew up in a household stuffed to the gills with books on World War II, particularly on tank warfare. My step-father is a tank enthusiast. As a teenager I had no interest in that (seemingly) ancient conflict, but in recent years, much to my own amazement, I’ve developed a positive relish for WWII history. I’ve even started to amass my own little collection of books, especially on the Normandy campaign.
Until I visited Bovington Camp, however, I just didn’t get tanks. With no real understanding of the role they played in the wars of the last century, my view of tanks was about the same as my view of monster trucks: they were large, loud, tough machines for large, loud, tough men. End of story.
Still, when I realized that I’d be staying less than half a hour’s drive from the world’s largest tank museum, I felt it would be disloyal not to visit at least briefly. Besides, with the southern coast of England peppered with military bases, there was the palpable sense that something vital was happening as young men and women prepared to go to war. On a hike near Lulworth Cove, I heard the BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! of firing practice at the neaby Gunnery School. Suddenly, the Tank Museum seemed more relevant than other outings I’d planned.
And so I set out one bright morning for The Tank Museum at Bovington Camp, which is home to the Royal Armoured Corps. The museum is housed in six large display halls, utilitarian buildings which seem less like a museum than a storage facility. Perhaps this is fitting. There’s nothing glamorous about a tank, from the cramped interior to the drab, camouflage-colored exterior. An airman might rhapsodize over his plane; a sailor’s pulse might quicken at the sight of his ship, yet it seems inconceivable that men in a tank corps might feel a similar affection for tanks. And yet they no doubt do, for the very idea of a tank commands respect.
It’s always humiliating to confront one’s complete ignorance on a subject, and so my tour of the Tank Museum proved to be as much an exercise in humility as an education. From the earliest prototypes of tanks built in the early 1900’s up to tanks captured during the Gulf War, the Tank Museum has it all – around 300 tanks from 26 countries. Most importantly, Tank Museum clearly shows how the development of tanks changed the character of modern warfare.
Tanks evolved over a relatively short period, and those who realized their potential had an advantage at the start of World War II. Yet the first tank "champions" were not, as one might expect, Germans, or even Americans. They were British.
Picture the trenches of World War I, that no-man’s land of prolonged, brutal, immobile warfare. Hoping to break out of the trenches and find a way around this impasse, the British developed tanks. Early tanks were initially unwieldy and prone to mechanical failure. The first tanks were used in September, 1916, and the very sight of the lumbering metal behemoths terrified the Germans, who had never seen anything like them, even though the first tanks were on the whole ineffective.
This changed, however, the following year at the battle of Cambrai. On that historic day, some 400 tanks rolled over the trenches, breaking through the Hindenburg line. The day of trench warfare and reliance on cavalry was over. The age of mobile, mechanized warfare had begun.
Interestingly, the concept of Blitzkrieg, perfected by the Germans, was largely the brainchild of two far-sighted British strategists, Basil Liddell Hart and J.F.C. Fuller. Liddell Hart, who later wrote a biography of his friend and fellow military strategist T.E. Lawrence, expounded on the strategy of using large tank armies operating swiftly to break through enemy defenses and penetrate deep into their territory. The central idea was to throw the enemy off balance, never giving them a chance to regain that balance by striking repeatedly.
Unfortunately, Liddell Hart and Fuller’s ideas were largely ignored by the commanders of the British, American, and French armies. But in Germany, where the army was operating under significant constraints after the Versailles Treaty, the ideas came to attention of a man named Heinz Guderian.
Guderian became the first true practitioner of Blitzkrieg. In a book entitled Achtung! Panzer he set out his theories of tank warfare, theories which owed much to Liddell Hart and Fuller. Written largely as propaganda, the book came to Hitler’s attention, though there was still resistance from German commanders to its ideas. In fact, at one point Guderian threatened to resign during the Western Offensive. He repeatedly disobeyed his superiors’ orders, rushing forward to press ahead. Had Guderian been allowed, he would have harried the Allied forces all the way to the English Channel. Dunkirk would have been an entirely different sort of event.
The Tank Museum illustrates that most defining characteristic of modern warfare: the necessity to adapt, continuously, to new tactics and weaponry used by the enemy. The early successes of the German tanks soon were countered by the Allies. There was, of course, an incredibly rapid development of anti-tank weaponry. Soon the Russians were excelling at turning back German tank attacks on the Eastern Front, using anti-tank guns and their own massed tank armies.
Some of the most interesting exhibits at the Tank Museum featured creative adaptations, such as an amphibious DUKW tank which played an important role in the D-Day invasion, or the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost which was converted into an armored car. The Rolls was used from the 1920's up through WWII and still runs today.
In fact, what’s striking about the collection at Bovington Camp is that most of the tanks and armored vehicles on view are still operational. From July to September, the Royal Tanks Corps regularly brings them out and demonstrates them on public "Tank Days." There’s something rather wonderful about the fact that they do this, I think, and I wish I could have seen some of the tanks in action.
One exhibit at the Tank Museum which has nothing to do with tanks is the exhibit on T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence, disillusioned with the British betrayal of their Arab allies after the end of WWI, refused several military honors and resigned his commission. He craved obscurity and wanted to escape the fame that Lowell Thomas' documentary film on "Lawrence, the Uncrowned King of Arabia" had thrust upon him.
He initially found anonymity by enlisting under an alias in the RAF, but soon the press were onto him. His superiors, fearing negative publicity, asked him to leave. Having been denied the Air Force, he then sought sanctuary as a private in the Tank Corps under the name T.E. Shaw. On March 12, 1923, he was assigned to Bovington Camp. As he later wrote to a friend, "There has not been presented to me, since I have been here, a single choice...perhaps in determinism complete there lies the perfect peace I have so longed for."
The Tank Museum has an impressive collection of Lawrence memorabilia, most strikingly a Brough Superior motorcycle just like the one he was riding when he had his fatal accident in 1935. I have always been interested in Lawrence. Aside from the wonderful David Lean film, I’ve read several biographies of him as well as of other British "Orientalists," those passionate nomads such as Richard Burton (the explorer), Charles Doughty, Freya Stark, and Gertrude Bell. The history of British exploration of and involvement in the Middle East fascinates me.
Now, with a war once again looming in Iraq, I viewed Thomas' film segments in the Lawrence exhibit with a new eye. Those flickering images held a secret, or so I imagined. There was Lawrence, on a camel, on horseback, or with Feisal. It was all so long ago, and yet the landscape looked familiar, like CNN footage. Had anything really changed?
It seemed if anyone knew the answer, it might be the troubled figure who once sought "perfect peace" in the lower ranks of Bovington Camp.
And so I went looking for Lawrence.
In his biography of T.E. Lawrence, John Mack states that in each age, "the life and work of a figure like Lawrence will take on a new meaning." While Mack could not have foreseen current events in Iraq, it is indeed striking that Lawrence, a pivotal figure in his own time, is being called upon – exhumed, if you will – to help us understand events in that troubled region today.
After World War I, the Arabs who had participated in the revolt against the Turks felt betrayed when they discovered the British had no intention of honoring their promise of allowing Arab independence. Instead, they discovered the British had a secret agreement with the French to divide the territory between them and govern by mandate.
"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators, " promised Maj. Gen. Stanley Maude in March of 1917 as he marched into Baghdad. Then as now, a corrupt regime had been driven out and promises for a fresh start made.
When the news of the mandate reached Iraq in May of 1920, a group of Iraqi leaders met with Sir Arnold Wilson, Iraq's administrator, demanding independence. Wilson pooh-poohed the possibility of Arab self-rule, dismissing them as a "handful of ungrateful politicians."
Soon, however that handful of ungrateful politicians had organized a full-scale revolt. By July, Mosul was in rebellion; then like wildfire the insurrection moved southward. Divided under the Turks, Shi’ites and Sunnis for the first time came together - against the British. The entire country was convulsed in anarchy. The British had great difficulty restoring order and lost over 2,000 men during the revolt, which was quelled only after R.A.F. bombers had eradicated entire villages.
The Lessons of Empire
In August of that bloody summer, Lawrence wrote an article in the Sunday Times. It began:
The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information… Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows…We are to-day not far from a disaster.
This article has been quoted repeatedly over the past year, as long-past events in Iraq have been re-examined. Many feel the lessons of 1920 have been squandered. As Niall Ferguson recently wrote, "The lessons of empire are not the kind of lessons Americans like to learn."
Winston Churchill, Gertude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence near Cairo, 1921
Looking for Lawrence
On March 19, 2003 on the eve of the latest Iraqi war, I left the Tank Museum and drove the short distance to Lawrence’s cottage at Clouds Hill. I knew the cottage, now administered by the National Trust, wasn’t open to the public until later in the season, but still I hoped to catch a glimpse of it. However, the cottage stands sheltered behind an enormous thicket of rhododendron bushes and I could see little.
At Clouds Hill Lawrence sought refuge from the hordes of newspapermen who pursued "Lawrence of Arabia" when he retired from the Colonial Office in 1922. He had bought the cottage while stationed at Bovington Camp, but kept it as a retreat even after he was allowed to re-enlist in the R.A.F. He returned there after he left the service in 1935, shortly before his death.
Clouds Hill is a simple place, Spartan in its simplicity. There Lawrence kept his sole luxuries, books and records, and entertained a peculiar mix of friends, with famous visitors such as E.M. Forster and Thomas Hardy mingling with Lawrence’s undistinguished chums from the R.A.F. and Royal Tank Corps.
Lawrence loved the Dorset countryside, which he explored on bicycle and a series of beloved Brough Superior motorcycles which he dubbed George I-VII. It was on George VII that he met his untimely end, only a few hundred yards away from the entrance to his cottage.
The area surounding Clouds Hill has greatly changed since Lawrence’s day. The lush heath has been denuded by tank tracks, the wildlife beaten back by the encroachments of Bovington Camp. Disappointed at Clouds Hill, I drive on to the village of Moreton, racing against the advancing twilight, hoping to visit Lawrence’s grave in the village churchyard.
Moreton seems timeless in the quiet hour that precedes sunset. I park near a group of thatched cottages, but I cannot at first see the church. Instead, I make my way to the banks of the River Frome. Even though I know I’ve come the wrong direction, I linger there, crossing the broad, shallow river on a concrete footbridge. Thrushes sing sleepily in the twilight, signally day’s end, yet all the countryside around me holds the wakeful promise of spring as growing things don a fresh green mantle.
Recrossing the bridge, I find my bearings and enter the churchyard. St. Nicholas’ is a fine neo-Gothic structure, but Lawrence’s grave is actually in an annex some few hundred yards up the road. The sun is threatening to set, so I cut short my visit to the church, making my way to the small cemetery where Lawrence is buried.
A Leaf in the Wind
When Lawrence left the R.A.F. in February of 1935, he felt cast adrift. He had found in the ranks of the R.A.F. a freedom and companionship matched only, perhaps, by his experiences in Arabia. An ascetic by nature, he wrote approvingly in his account of the R.A.F, The Mint, "Airmen have no possessions, few ties, little daily care. For me, duty now orders only the brightness of these five buttons down my front."
He had held Clouds Hill in reserve, a bolt-hole where he could rest and decide what to do when his military career had ended. Yet he was denied the solitude he had so longed for. The press lay in ambush at Clouds Hill, making his life a misery. Perhaps he was only half joking when, before he left the RAF, he told a young pressman asking about his future plans, "I shall make a list of all the press representatives in London, and shall then assassinate them one by one. Your turn will come in about five years time."
By late April, however, the interest in his retirement had abated. Lawrence busied himself in a series of domestic improvements on the cottage. Still, he felt peculiarly listless. On May 6th he wrote a friend:
You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do puzzle me and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.
One week later, returning from Bovington Post Office on his motorcycle, Lawrence swerved to avoid hitting two boys on bicycles. He crashed, suffering a severe head trauma when he hit the road. Lawrence lay in a coma for five days in the military hostpital at Bovington Camp before dying on May 19th.
Lawrence, a complex man, had a simple funeral. In the funeral procession, great statesmen, well-known literary figures, and famous artists rubbed shoulders with the simple Dorset folk and common soldiers whom Lawrence had befriended. Among the mourners were Winston Churchill, who wept openly, and friends such as Siegfried Sassoon, General Wavell, Lady Astor, and Augustus John. Some grass that had been sent from Akaba was placed inside the coffin. As the first clods of earth fell into the grave, a small girl dashed forward to toss a small bouquet of violets onto the coffin.
Now I am standing before Lawrence, and despite the jonquils newly blooming on his grave, I feel an autumnal chill, a cold buffeting sensation as though I, too, have become a leaf in the wind. I am as powerless as that leaf, and as insignificant. Nothing I can do will alter what is going to happen.
"We are going to war again, Lawrence."
Lawrence says nothing. I hadn’t really expected him to, but still I had hoped that some clarity might come to me, some redeeming conviction. I hoped, above all, for a sense of greater moral purpose. So many looked to Lawrence for that and still continue to do so. We are all, in some way, looking for Lawrence.
I hope someday to find him.