"All you will see of me is a small cloud of dust on the horizon."
T.E. Lawrence, to Winston Churchill before resigning
from the Colonial Office in 1922
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.