How T. E. Lawrence found paradise in Dorset
PUBLISHED: 15:01 23 May 2016 | UPDATED: 15:01 23 May 2016
Folklore casts T. E. Lawrence as the dashing hero who sparked the Arab Revolt but, as Adam Lee-Potter reveals, in reality this shy academic found his paradise in Dorset
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Arab Revolt, the desert uprising sparked by T.E. Lawrence, the shy academic turned World War I guerilla who did much to shape the modern Middle East before escaping to Dorset.
The painful lessons learned by Lawrence in 1916 have never been more pertinent: Isis, al-Qaeda, Syria, et al.
As General Sir Graeme Lamb, a former commander of British Special Forces and one-time deputy commander in Iraq, points out: “Harnessing the anti-Isis forces will be a similar challenge to Lawrence’s 1916 Revolt.
“His 27 Articles on how to deal with Arab armies is insightful: ‘Hide your own mind and person. If you succeed, you will have hundreds of miles of country and thousands of men under your orders, and for this it is worth bartering the outward show. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them’.”
Lawrence folklore has long presented him as a hero who rallied the Arabs to rise up against the Ottoman Empire, guided them to great victories and lobbied for the Arab cause.
His complex and powerful personality impressed itself upon a range of luminaries, from Winston Churchill to George Bernard Shaw.
Living and fighting as an Arab, speaking their language and even their dialects, he did as much as anyone to bring about the Turkish collapse that signalled the beginning of the end for the Central Powers.
But he was no stereotypical glory-hunter. Stubborn, private and idiosyncratic, he turned his back on glamour and fame to take up obscurity and subordination as an aircraftsman - serving under an assumed name - then, briefly, as a private in the Army Corps before retiring to his Dorset cottage in 1935.
Clouds Hill, an isolated cottage near Wareham, was Lawrence’s refuge and haven. Soon after moving in, he wrote to his friend, Lady Nancy Astor: “Wild mares would not at present take me away. It is an early paradise and I am staying here.” Days later he was dead. He was just 46.
Lawrence’s “Revolt in the desert” was, at the time, heralded as a triumph and cemented his name. He quickly established a mercurial reputation after blowing up Turkish trains on the Damascus-Medina railway. Back home, he became known as Lawrence of Arabia. To his fellow Arab fighters, he was simply “lurens”.
“Send us a lurens,” wrote the Beni Atiyeh tribe to the Emir Faisal, one of the leaders of the Revolt, “and we will blow up trains with it.”
Lawrence’s military legend, however, has more to do with opportunity than design.
In 1910, aged 22, he was about to embark on an academic career at Oxford. Armed with a first in history from Jesus college, he was set to study for a second, research-based degree - on mediaeval lead-glazed pottery, no less - when, instead, he won a £100-a-year scholarship to carry out archaeological studies in Carchemish, an ancient Hittite site on the border of Syria and Turkey.
The rest, as they say, was history. “Without the scholarship,” says Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence’s biographer, “he might well have continued his research, remained in Europe and never have become Lawrence of Arabia.”
After war broke out in 1914, Lawrence became a junior officer, snapped up by the UK’s intelligence department in Cairo. When Prince Faisal - the future King of Iraq - asked that Lawrence become his British liaison officer, London agreed at once.
And so the die was cast: Lawrence soon made himself indispensible.
After brief success – the capture of Mecca, Jidda and Rabegh - the Revolt had stalled. Medina remained under Ottoman control and the city’s 10,000-strong garrison was receiving reinforcement. When the Turks went on the offensive, the Arabs fell back, and the tribal irregulars forming the army began to melt away. By late 1916, the Revolt hung by a thread.
Lawrence’s response was a radical rethink of the war. He turned conventional military policy on its head and created a new theory of modern guerrilla warfare. What if the Arabs ignored the Turks? What if they constituted themselves as a silent threat and waged a war of detachment?
And so, in June 1917, Lawrence pushed forwards into Aqaba, a strategic Ottoman port. But they did not go direct. Taking a 500-mile route through the desert, a small commando group raised the local tribes and rolled up the Ottoman positions all the way back to the coast.
The capture of the city helped open supply lines from Egypt to Arab and British forces further north in Transjordan and Greater Palestine, and - more importantly - alleviated a threat of a Turkish offensive against the pivotal Suez Canal.
Sadly, Lawrence’s dream of a peaceful, united Middle East were never - to this day - realised, through little fault of his own.
Disillusioned by the West’s opportunistic compromise in parcelling up the Middle East, Lawrence used his iconic status to launch a press campaign to compel Britain to honour its wartime pledges and vouchsafe the region.
“Our government in Iraq,” he wrote in a letter to the Sunday Times, “is worse than the old Turkish system.”
Still, the damage was done. The mental cost to Lawrence was huge, driving bouts of depression and masochism, to exorcise what he described as “some of the evil of my tale”.
But Lawrence’s legacy lives on. His 1922 memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is still seen as an essential military textbook.
Alan Payne, vice-chairman of the T.E. Lawrence Society, says: “The Arab Revolt must have saved countless lives by holding down thousands of Turks on that front.
“Lawrence is an incredibly important figure - one of the very few heroes to survive World War I. And he had total integrity, despite being torn in half, between his duty to the British and his loyalty to the Arabs. Ultimately, he was betrayed by the British and French governments who did a secret deal to carve up the Middle East. Lawrence hadn’t wanted that. And that is why he refused all honours.
“Lawrence was years ahead of his time. He set the example of how we should treat other countries: we shouldn’t interfere. He believed that all war is evil and worked very hard to avoid killing.”
And so, on his return to England in 1929, Lawrence was in a state of nervous exhaustion. The bloody desert campaigns had left him spent.
In Dorset, he sought out quiet, cerebral companionship. His friendship with Thomas Hardy, who lived nearby at Max Gate, was especially important to him, and vice-versa. Hardy’s widow Florence later described Lawrence as one of her husband’s “most valued friends”.
Andrew Munro has written a play about this unlikely relationship. Based on the duo’s correspondence, Lawrence of Wessex was performed at Dorset County Museum in May.
“Hardy was almost twice Lawrence’s age but they became firm friends,” he says. “They met after Lawrence wrote a fan letter to Hardy, via their mutual friend, Robert Graves.
“Lawrence became one of the few people that Hardy could be relaxed with. They could relate to each other as fellow authors and they were both uncomfortable in the public spotlight.”
Clouds Hill itself was Lawrence’s panacea to war and, after blacking one intrusive newspaperman’s eye, he was allowed, largely unobserved, to indulge his other abiding passion: motorcycles.
On the morning of May 13, 1935, returning home from Bovington Camp on his beloved Brough Superior, he came up suddenly behind two boys on bicycles. Braking sharply, he changed down into second gear and tried to swerve out of the way before clipping one and crashing. His skull was fractured and he died, six days later in an army hospital, without regaining consciousness. King George sent a personal telegram of condolence to his family.
Lawrence was buried in Moreton, beneath the shade of a silver cedar, a spot of quiet contemplation for the thousands who visit his grave every year. Many of them must wonder, as Winston Churchill did, what might have been, had Lawrence lived.
In the eye of World War II, Churchill wrote of his friend’s death: “I had hoped to see him quit his retirement and take a commanding part in facing the dangers which now threaten the country.”
Tragically, it was never to be.
• Bid to block proposed Dorset quarry that would encroach on Lawrence of Arabia’s final resting place - The T.E. Lawrence Society has launched an impassioned bid to block a proposed Dorset quarry that threatens their hero’s grave.