T. E. Lawrence & His Friends: Part 2

Winston Churchill

One of the major contributors to T. E. Lawrence by His Frinds is Winston Churchill, who knew Lawrence well after World War I, becoming fascinated by the man, and determined to do all he could to ensure that Lawrence’s abilities were not lost to the nation. He was also determined that Seven Pillars of Wisdom must be published.

Churchill, who’d experienced something of a mixed war to say the least, was cheered when he heard of Lawrence’s exploits, and writes:

“ I did not meet Lawrence till after the War was over. It was the spring of 1919, when the peace-makers, or, at any rate, the Treaty-makers, were gathered in Paris, and all England was in the ferment of the aftermath. So great had been the pressure in the War, so vast its scale, so dominating the great battles in France, that I had only been dimly conscious of the part played in Allenby’s campaigns by the Arab revolt in the desert. But now someone said to me: ‘ You ought to meet this wonderful young man. His exploits are an epic.’ So Lawrence came to luncheon.”

Churchill in the 1920s. Image: advertise.ie

It probably occurred to Churchill pretty quickly that Lawrence was the man he should have had at his side in the Gallipoli planning stages, and not Fisher, who’d lost his edge and courage; but then few people knew of Lawrence in 1915, other than his existing intelligence masters, and the Cairo staff. But it would be Lawrence who changed how things ought to be done militarily in Arabia in 1917.

Churchill goes on to describe the luncheon:

“ Usually at this time in London or Paris he wore his Arab dress, in order to identify himself with the interests of the Emir Feisal, and with the Arabian claims then under harsh debate. On this occasion, however, he wore plain clothes, and looked at first sight like one of the many clean-cut young officers who had gained high rank and distinction in the struggle.

“ We were men only, and the conversation was general; but presently someone rather mischievously told the story of his [Lawrence’s] behaviour at the Investiture a few days before. Lawrence was to be decorated a Commander of the Bath. The long queue of recipients were filing past the King, and when Colonel Lawrence’s turn came and the King took the decoration from the velvet cushion and prepared to hang it on the hook… attached to their tunics, Lawrence stopped him and in a low voice stated with utmost respect that it was impossible for him to receive any honour from His Majesty while Britain was about to dishonour the pledges which he had made in her name to the Arabs who had fought so bravely.”

The King was rather taken by surprise, and not at all pleased. The medal was, as Churchill writes, “…put back on the velvet cushion, Lawrence bowed and moved on, and the ceremony continued.”

Churchill’s version of the medal rejection by Lawrence was dismissed by A. W. Lawrence — Lawrence’s brother and the editor of T.E. Lawrence By His Friends — but nevertheless decided to include it verbatim, at the same time making the point that the correct version of events was the one put forward a book by Lt. Col. Ralph H. Isham (a member of the General Staff in 1918) that Lawrence, in a private meeting with the King before the Investiture, asked to be excused from receiving decorations. Churchill stuck with his story, stating that Lawrence and he had discussed the incident on “…the basis that it had happened.”

For me, having Lawrence decline the award, in the way described by Churchill, does sound like something Lawrence might have done to make his point, but Churchill goes on to write:

“ I raised my eyebrows at this story; I had not heard of it before. I was Secretary of State for War, so I said at once that his conduct was most wrong and not fair to the King as a gentleman and grossly disrespectful to him as a Sovereign. Any man might refuse a title or a decoration, any man might in refusing state the reasons of principle which led to his action, but to choose the occasion when His Majesty in pursuance of his constitutional duty was…monstrous. As he was my guest I could not say more, but in my official position I could not say less.”

According to Churchill, Lawrence went on to defend his action, then both agreed to move onto other subjects, and as Michael Yardley, in his 1985 biography of Lawrence writes “…The hero of the Transvaal [Churchill]and the deliverer of Damascus got on well from the start [notwithstanding the raised eyebrows] and thus began a friendship which was to last until Lawrence’s death.”

Churchill and Lawrence (plus another) Cairo 1921. Image: The Library of Congress

But the luncheon certainly made Churchill more aware of what had happened in the desert war and the passions that were now seething in the hearts of Arabs, and Lawrence. His book therefore must be published.

After that lunch with Lawrence Churchill read all he could about the conflict in Arabia, and the Sykes-Picot agreement (which had been drawn up in 1916 between Britain, France and Russia concerning the share-out of the Ottoman Empire post-war, although by the end of the war it was just Britain and France), and when discussing it with the Prime Minister shortly after his lunch with Lawrence, Churchill had said that France meant to have Syria and rule it from Damascus, which was not really part of the original plan, and that only the Peace Conference in Paris later that year “…could decide conflicting claims and pledges.”

Churchill’s contribution to the book, T. E. Lawrence By His Friends, is a major retrospective of Lawrence and a typically well written piece that goes into great detail without obfuscation or bluff, which can also become wonderfully picturesque:

“ I did not see Lawrence again for some weeks. It was, if my memory serves me right, in Paris. He wore his Arab robes, and the full magnificence of his countenance revealed itself. The gravity of his demeanor, the precision of his opinions, the range and quality of his conversation all seemed enhanced to a remarkable degree by the splendid Arab head-dress and garb. From amid the flowing draperies his noble features, his perfectly chiselled lips, and flashing eyes loaded with fire and comprehension shone forth. He looked what he was, one of nature’s greatest princes.”

Lawrence by Augustus John. Image: The Spectator

Churchill and Lawrence got on very well indeed, with Churchill forming firm opinions about Lawrence’s character:

“ Dressed in the prosaic clothes of English daily life, or afterwards in the the uniform of an Air Force mechanic, I always saw him henceforward as he appears in Augustus John’s brilliant pencil sketch. I began to hear much more about him from friends who had fought under his command, and, indeed, there was endless talk about him in every circle — military, diplomatic and academic.”

The Peace Conference did not go particularly well for Prince Feisal and the Arabs, with Lawrence escorting Feisal everywhere, interpreting for him, supporting him without question, often standing toe to toe with the French Prime Minister George Clemenceau, arguing repeatedly for the Arab cause without any thought for his own future and reputation. For Lawrence, Feisal and the Arabs had won, in blood, the right to Syria. But, as Churchill writes:

“ Everyone knows what followed. After long and bitter controversies, both in Paris and in the East, the Peace Conference assigned the mandate for Syria to France. When the Arabs tried to defend the city, the French troops threw the Emir Feisal out of Damascus after a fight in which some of the bravest of the Arab chiefs were killed. They [the French] settled down in the occupation of this splendid province, repressed the subsequent revolts with the utmost sternness, and rule there to this day by the aid of a very large army.”

The anguish of Syria still continues of course.

A couple of years later, in the spring of 1921, Winston Churchill was put in charge of the Colonial Office, with a specific mandate for the Middle East, and to bring “…matters into some kind of order.”

Churchill, in the last third of his contribution, writes with a thriller like edge about his new responsibilities:

“ At that time we had recently suppressed a most dangerous and bloody rebellion in ‘Iraq’, and upward of 40,000 troops, at a cost of £30,000,000 (almost £20 billion at today’s values) a year, were required to preserve order. This could not go on. In Palestine the strife between the Arabs and the Jews threatened at any moment to take the form of actual violence. The Arab chieftains, driven out of Syria with many of their followers — all of them our late allies — with Egypt…in ferment. Thus the whole of the Middle East presented a most melancholy and alarming picture.”

As a consequence Churchill created a new department within the Colonial Office, using experienced people from the India Office, and those who had served in Palestine during WWI, to run this new department, with the addition of Lawrence if he could be persuaded to join. Churchill had picked people who knew Lawrence, with many having worked with him in Arabia, but their response was one of horror, knowing full well that Lawrence was not a man who could be harnessed to a public office. Nevertheless Churchill persisted and won them over. He then offered Lawrence an important post:

“…and to the surprise of most people, though not altogether to mine, he accepted at once.”

Lawrence effectively became Winston Churchill’s aide de camp, with Churchill immediately organising a conference in Cairo, where he would be accompanied by Lawrence and Hugh Trenchard, from the Air Ministry. They stayed for about a month thrashing out, with all the interested parties, how Britain saw the future of the Middle East, with Churchill putting the final plans to the Cabinet on their return:

“ First, we would repair the injury done to the Arabs and to the House of the Sherifs of Mecca by placing the Emir Feisal upon the throne of Iraq as King, and by entrusting the Emir Abdulla with the government of Trans-Jordan. Secondly, we would remove practically all the troops from Iraq, and entrust its defence to the Royal Air Force. Thirdly, we made an adjustment of the immediate difficulties between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine, which served as a foundation for the future…”

The French were very unhappy, but Churchill and Lawrence were able to leave the Middle East with Britain’s (Lawrence’s) promise to the Arab leaders upheld, however unstable it may become.

Churchill ends his contribution to T. E. Lawrence By His Friends, very generously:

“ I deem him one of the greatest alive in our time. I do not see his like elsewhere. I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again. King George V wrote to his brother, ‘His name will live in history’. That is true. It will live in English letters; it will live in the annals of war; it will live in the traditions of the Royal Air Force, and in the legends of Arabia.”

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Read Part 3

Bibliography:

Michael Yardley — Backing into the Limelight (Harrap, London, 1985); Richard Aldington — Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry ( Collins, London, 1955); Desmond Stewart — T.E. Lawrence ( Hamish Hamilton, London,1977); Anthony Sattin — Young Lawrence: A Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man (John Murray, London, 2014); Helen Smith — The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett (Jonathan Cape, London, 2017);Caroline G. Heilbrun — The Garnett Family (George Allan & Unwin, London, 1961); Robert Graves — Lawrence and the Arabs (Jonathan Cape, London, 1934); T.E. Lawrence by His Friends — Edited by A.W. Lawrence (Jonathan Cape, London, 1937); The Letters of T. E. Lawrence — Edited by David Garnett (Jonathan Cape, London, 1938); Neil Faulkner — Lawrence of Arabia’s War (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2016); T.E. Lawrence — Revolt in the Desert (Folio Edition, London, 1986); and of course, T.E. Lawrence — Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (Jonathan Cape, London, 1935)

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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