Monday, 16 November 2009

T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) - a man to remember

With Remembrance Week just behind us my mind dwells on our soldiers and the great sacrifice they have made for our country. I’ve blogged about Europe and First World War soldier poets before but now I’m thinking of the Middle East and that reminds me of someone in particular.

Soldiers come in all shapes and sizes but one of the larger than life figures of the First World War in the Middle East must be that of TE Lawrence, more often than not referred to as 'Lawrence of Arabia'.

My grandfather’s favourite book was The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the book Lawrence wrote about his war experiences, and by co-incidence my Best Beloved also rates it as one of his favourites. The scope of it is vast – I must admit I’ve never got very far with it – but it is the man himself who fascinates me.

I won’t go into his army career – it is so well documented – but I must say his contradictory character is unusual. From the film Lawrence of Arabia one thinks of him as a tall man – Peter O’Toole played him so convincingly – but he was in fact only five foot five inches tall. But, even knowing this, he is still perceived as being a ‘big’ character.

Of course his intellect was large. He graduated from Oxford with First Class Honours: his thesis was entitled The influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture. He was interested in the Crusader castles of France and the archaeology of the Middle East.

Not only that but he spoke several languages: in addition to European and Classical tongues he also spoke Arabic. He knew the Middle East well from his research work. When he volunteered for the army in 1914 it was no wonder that he was recruited to serve with the Arab Bureau of the Foreign Office.

When we think of Lawrence we see him as a dashingly romantic figure wearing Arab robes and riding a camel. Because he adopted many Arab customs and traditions whilst in the Middle East it’s easy to forget that he was in fact a very English academic.

One of Lawrence’s favourite books was Morte D’Arthur and one can see how this story and his fascination with Crusader escapades may have fuelled his love of military glory, adventure and idealism. It was as if this capable, courageous and academic man was still a boy at heart. And a country boy at that.

When he joined the RAF after the war - fed up with his notoriety and under a pseudonym to protect his privacy – he landed up in Dorset. He had spent some happy years as a child in the nearby New Forest where his love for the simple outdoor country life was nurtured.

Lawrence bought a tiny, basic cottage, Clouds Hill, in the woods near Wareham. He preferred to live there than in more luxurious surroundings. Cramped and Spartan, it gives the impression of a weekend retreat for a boy scout.

His love of fast Brough motorcycles meant that he could get around the countryside and the speed of the machine probably fulfilled his need for an adrenalin rush. It was one rush too many when he crashed and died of his injuries aged 46. Lawrence left the cottage (and one of his bikes) to the National Trust. He was buried nearby in Moreton churchyard and dignitaries such as Winston Churchill attended his funeral.

If Lawrence was alive today he would probably agree with the saying that celebrity is not all it’s cracked up to be. Much has been written about his character flaws and even more about his possible sexuality. But, nevertheless, he was a dedicated soldier, an excellent writer and a remarkable man whose memory is still alive and well.


PS Visiting the cottage of Clouds Hill reminded me of another famous character who ended his days in a small cottage, quite at odds with his position or aura. Cecil Rhodes preferred to live (and die) in a modest cottage in St James, near Cape Town, than in the large mansion he had built.

Neither Rhodes not Lawrence started life with a silver spoon in their mouths, both suffered ill health as children which had a lasting effect and neither married. But both were adventurous and became influential. However, when their fame had waned they both seemed more comfortable returning to the simple lifestyle. Their names are still writ large, nevertheless.

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