By Winston S. Churchill
He was indeed a dweller upon the mountain tops where the air is cold, crisp and rarefied, and where the view on clear days commands all the Kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.
I did not meet Lawrence till after the First World War was over. It was in 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.
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 behavior at an Investiture some weeks before.
The impression I received was that he had refused to accept the decorations which the King was about to confer on him at an official ceremony. I was Secretary of State for War, so I said at once that his conduct was most wrong, 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 actually about to perform the gracious act of personally investing him, as the occasion for making a political demonstration, was monstrous. As he was my guest I could not say more, but in my official position I could not say less.
It is only recently that I have learned the true facts. The refusal did in fact take place, but not at the public ceremonial. The King received Lawrence in order to have a talk with him. At the same time His Majesty thought it would be convenient to give him the Commandership of the Bath and the Distinguished Service Order to which he had already been gazetted. When the King was about to bestow the Insignia, Lawrence begged that he might be allowed to refuse them. The King and Lawrence were alone at the time.
Whether or not Lawrence saw I had misunderstood the incident, he made no effort to minimize it or to excuse himself. He accepted the rebuke with good humour. This was the only way in his power, he said, of rousing the highest authorities in the State to a realization of the fact that the honour of Great Britain was at stake in the faithful treatment of the Arabs and that their betrayal to the Syrian demands of France would be an indelible blot on our history. The King himself should be made aware of what was being done in his name, and he knew no other way. I said that this was no defence at all for the method adopted, and then turned the conversation into other and more agreeable channels.
But I must admit that this episode made me anxious to learn more about what had actually happened in the desert war, and opened my eyes to the passions which were seething in Arab bosoms. I called for reports and pondered them. I talked to the Prime Minister about it. He said that the French meant to have Syria and rule it from Damascus, and that nothing would turn them from it. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, which we had made during the War, had greatly confused the issue of principle, and only the Peace Conference could decide conflicting claims and pledges. This was unanswerable.
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-chiseled lips and flashing eyes loaded with fire and comprehension shone forth. He looked what he was, one of Nature’s greatest princes. We got on much better this time, and I began to form that impression of his strength and quality which since has never left me. Whether he wore the prosaic clothes of English daily life or afterwards in the uniform of an Air Force mechanic, I always saw him henceforward as he appears in Augustus John’s brilliant pencil sketch [p.32].
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. It appeared that he was a savant as well as a soldier: an archaeologist as well as a man of action: a brilliant scholar as well as an Arab partisan.
It soon became evident that his cause was not going well in Paris. He accompanied Feisal everywhere as friend and interpreter. Well did he interpret him. He scorned his English connections and all question of his own career compared to what he regarded as his duty to the Arabs. He clashed with the French. He faced Clemenceau in long and repeated controversies. Here was a foeman worthy of his steel. The old Tiger had a face as fierce as Lawrence’s, an eye as unfailing and a will-power well matched. Clemenceau had a deep feeling for the East; he loved a paladin, admired Lawrence’s exploits and recognized his genius. But the French sentiment about Syria was a hundred years old. The idea that France, bled white in the trenches of Flanders, should emerge from the Great War without her share of conquered territories was insupportable to him, and would never have been tolerated by his countrymen.
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 resisted this by force, 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 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. [Written in 1935.]
I did not see Lawrence while all this was going on, and indeed when so many things were crashing in the postwar world the treatment of the Arabs did not seem exceptional. But when from time to time my mind turned to the subject I realized how intense his emotions must be. He simply did not know what to do. He turned this way and that in desperation, and in disgust of life. In his published writings he has declared that all personal ambition had died within him before he entered Damascus in triumph in the closing phase of the War. But I am sure that the ordeal of watching the helplessness of his Arab friends to whom he had pledged his word, and as he conceived it the word of Britain, maltreated in this manner, must have been the main cause which decided his eventual renunciation of all power in great affairs. His highlywrought nature had been subjected to the most extraordinary strains during the War, but then his spirit had sustained it. Now it was the spirit that was injured.
In the spring of 1921 I was sent to the Colonial Office to take over our business in the Middle East and bring matters into some kind of order. At that time we had recently suppressed a most dangerous and bloody rebellion in Iraq, and upwards of forty thousand troops at a cost of thirty million pounds 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—lurked furious in the deserts beyond the Jordan. Egypt was in ferment. Thus the whole of the Middle East presented a most melancholy and alarming picture. I formed a new department of the Colonial Office to discharge these new responsibilities.
Half a dozen very able men from the India Office and from those who had served in Iraq and Palestine during the war formed the nucleus. I resolved to add Lawrence to their number, if he could be persuaded. They all knew him well, and several had served with or under him in the field. When I broached this project to them, they were frankly aghast—”What! wilt thou bridle the wild ass of the desert?” Such was the attitude, dictated by no small jealousy or undervaluing of Lawrence’s qualities, but from a sincere conviction that in his mood and with his temperament he could never work at the routine of a public office.
However, I persisted. An important post was offered to Lawrence, and to the surprise of most people, though not altogether to mine, he accepted at once. This is not the place to enter upon the details of the tangled and thorny problems we had to settle. The barest outline will suffice. It was necessary to handle the matter on the spot. I therefore convened a conference at Cairo to which practically all the experts and authorities of the Middle East were summoned. Accompanied by Lawrence, Hubert Young, and Trenchard from the Air Ministry, I set out for Cairo. We stayed there and in Palestine for about a month. We submitted the following main proposals to the Cabinet: 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 Abdullah with the government of Trans-Jordania. Secondly, we would remove practically all the troops from Iraq and entrust its defense to the Royal Air Force. Thirdly, we suggested an adjustment of the immediate difficulties between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine which would serve as a foundation for the future.
Tremendous opposition was aroused against the first two proposals. The French Government deeply resented the favour shown to the Emir Feisal, whom they regarded as a defeated rebel. The British War Office was shocked at the removal of the troops, and predicted carnage and ruin. I had, however, already noticed that when Trenchard undertook to do anything particular, he usually carried it through. Our proposals were accepted, but it required a year of most difficult and anxious administration to give effect to what had been so speedily decided.
Lawrence’s term as a Civil Servant was a unique phase in his life. Everyone was astonished by his calm and tactful demeanor. His patience and readiness to work with others amazed those who knew him best. Tremendous confabulations must have taken place among these experts, and tension at times must have been extreme. But so far as I was concerned, I received always united advice from two or three of the very best men it has ever been my fortune to work with. It would not be just to assign the whole credit for the great success which the new policy secured to Lawrence alone. The wonder was that he was able to sink his personality, to bend his imperious will and pool his knowledge in the common stock. Here is one of the proofs of the greatness of his character and the versatility of his genius. He saw the hope of redeeming in a large measure the promises he had made to the Arab chiefs and of re-establishing a tolerable measure of peace in those wide regions. In that cause he was capable of becoming—I hazard the word—a humdrum official. The effort was not in vain. His purposes prevailed.
Towards the end of the year things began to go better. All our measures were implemented one by one. The Army left Iraq, the Air Force was installed in a loop of the Euphrates, Baghdad acclaimed Feisal as King, Abdullah settled down loyally and comfortably in Trans-Jordania. One day I said to Lawrence: “What would you like to do when all this is smoothed out? The greatest employments are open to you if you care to pursue your new career in the Colonial Service.” He smiled his bland, beaming, cryptic smile, and said: “In a very few months my work here will be finished. The job is done, and it will last.”—”But what about you?”—”All you will see of me is a small cloud of dust on the horizon.”
He kept his word. At that time he was, I believe, almost without resources. His salary was £1,200 a year, and governorships and great commands were then at my disposal. Nothing availed. As a last resort I sent him out to Trans-Jordania where sudden difficulties had arisen. He had plenary powers. He wielded them with his old vigour. He removed officers. He used force. He restored complete tranquillity. Everyone was delighted with the success of his mission, but nothing would persuade him to continue. It was with sadness that I saw “the small cloud of dust” vanishing on the horizon. It was several years before we met again. I dwell upon this part of his activities because in a letter recently published he assigns to it an importance greater than his deeds in war. But this is not true judgment.
The next episode was the writing, the printing, the binding and the publication of his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This is perhaps the point at which to deal with this treasure of English literature. As a narrative of war and adventure, as a portrayal of all that the Arabs mean to the world, it is unsurpassed. It ranks with the greatest books ever written in the English language. If Lawrence had never done anything except write this book as a mere work of the imagination his fame would last—to quote Macaulay’s hackneyed phrase—”as long as the English language is spoken in any quarter of the globe.” The Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels are dear to British homes. Here is a tale originally their equal in interest and charm. But it is fact, not fiction. The author was also the commander. Caesar’s Commentaries deal with larger numbers, but in Lawrence’s story nothing that has ever happened in the sphere of war and empire is lacking. When most of the vast literature of the Great War has been sifted and superseded by the epitomes, commentaries and histories of future generations, when the complicated and infinitely costly operations of its ponderous armies are the concern only of the military student, when our struggles are viewed in a fading perspective and a truer proportion, Lawrence’s tale of the revolt in the desert will gleam with immortal fire.
We heard that he was engaged upon this work and that a certain number of those whom he regarded as worthy of the honor were invited to subscribe £30 for a copy. I gladly did so. In the copy which eventually reached me he wrote at an interval of eleven years two inscriptions which I greatly value, though much has changed since then, and they went far beyond the truth at the time. He refused to allow me to pay for the book. I had deserved it he said.
In principle the structure of the story is simple. The Turkish armies operating against Egypt depended upon the desert railway. This slender steel track ran through hundreds of miles of blistering desert. If it were permanently cut the Turkish armies must perish: the ruin of Turkey must follow, and with it the downfall of the mighty Teutonic power which hurled its hate from ten thousand cannons on the plains of Flanders. Here was the Achilles heel, and it was upon this that this man in his twenties directed his audacious, desperate, romantic assaults. We read of them in numerous succession. Grim camel-rides through sun-scorched, blasted lands, where the extreme desolation of nature appalls the traveler. With a motor-car or airplane we may now inspect these forbidding solitudes, their endless sands, the hot savage wind-whipped rocks, the mountain gorges of a red-hot moon. Through these with infinite privation men on camels with shattering toil carried dynamite to destroy railway bridges and win the war, and, as we then hoped, free the world.
Here we see Lawrence the soldier. Not only the soldier but the statesman: rousing the fierce peoples of the desert, penetrating the mysteries of their thought, leading them to the selected points of action and as often as not firing the mine himself. Detailed accounts are given of ferocious battles with thousands of men and little quarter fought under his command on these lava landscapes of hell. There are no mass-effects. All is intense, individual, sentient—and yet cast in conditions which seemed to forbid human existence. Through all, one mind, one soul, one will-power. An epic, a prodigy, a tale of torment, and in the heart of it—a Man.
The impression of the personality of Lawrence remains living and vivid upon the minds of his friends, and the sense of his loss is in no way dimmed among his countrymen. All feel the poorer that he has gone from us. In these days dangers and difficulties gather upon Britain and her Empire, and we are also conscious of a lack of outstanding figures with which to overcome them. Here was a man in whom there existed not only an immense capacity for service, but that touch of genius which everyone recognizes and no one can define. Alike in his great period of adventure and command or in these later years of self-suppression and self-imposed eclipse, he always reigned over those with whom he came in contact. They felt themselves in the presence of an extraordinary being. They felt that his latent reserves of force and will-power were beyond measurement. If he roused himself to action, who should say what crisis he could not surmount or quell? If things were going very badly, how glad one would be to see him come round the corner.
Part of the secret of this stimulating ascendancy lay of course in his disdain for most of the prizes, the pleasures and comforts of life. The world naturally looks with some awe upon a man who appears unconcernedly indifferent to home, money, comfort, rank, or even power and fame. The world feels, not without a certain apprehension, that here is someone outside its jurisdiction; someone before whom its allurements may be spread in vain; someone strangely enfranchised, untamed, untrammeled by convention, moving independently of the ordinary currents of human action; a being readily capable of violent revolt or supreme sacrifice, a man, solitary, austere, to whom existence is no more than a duty, yet a duty to be faithfully discharged. He was indeed a dweller upon the mountain tops where the air is cold, crisp and rarefied, and where the view on clear days commands all the Kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.
Lawrence was one of those beings whose pace of life was faster and more intense than the ordinary. Just as an airplane only flies by its speed and pressure against the air, so he flew best and easiest in the hurricane. He was not in complete harmony with the normal. The fury of the Great War raised the pitch of life to the Lawrence standard. The multitudes were swept forward till their pace was the same as his. In this heroic period he found himself in perfect relation both to men and events.
I have often wondered what would have happened to Lawrence if the Great War had continued for several more years. His fame was spreading fast and with the momentum of the fabulous throughout Asia. The earth trembled with the wrath of the warring nations. All the metals were molten. Everything was in motion. No one could say what was impossible. Lawrence might have realized Napoleon’s young dream of conquering the East; he might have arrived at Constantinople in 1919 or 1920 with many of the tribes and races of Asia Minor and Arabia at his back. But the storm wind ceased as suddenly as it had arisen. The skies became clear; the bells of Armistice rang out. Mankind returned with indescribable relief to its long-interrupted, fondly-cherished ordinary life, and Lawrence was left once more moving alone on a different plane and at a different speed.
When his literary masterpiece was written, lost and written again; when every illustration had been profoundly considered and every incident of typography and paragraphing settled with meticulous care; when Lawrence on his bicycle had carried the precious volumes to the few—the very few he deemed worthy to read them—happily he found another task to his hands which cheered and comforted his soul. He saw as clearly as anyone the vision of air power and all that it would mean in traffic and war.
He found in the life of an aircraftsman that balm of peace and equipoise which no great station or command could have bestowed upon him. He felt that in living the life of a private in the Royal Air Force he would dignify that honorable calling and help to attract all that is keenest in our youthful manhood to the sphere where it is most urgently needed. For this service and example, to which he devoted the last twelve years of his life, we owe him a separate debt. It was in itself a princely gift.
Lawrence had a full measure of the versatility of genius. He held one of those master keys which unlock the doors of many kinds of treasure-houses. He was a savant as well as a soldier. He was an archaeologist as well as a man of action. He was an accomplished scholar as well as an Arab partisan. He was a mechanic as well as a philosopher. His background of sombre experience and reflection only seemed to set forth more brightly the charm and gaiety of his companionship, and the generous majesty of his nature.
Those who knew him best miss him most; but our country misses him most of all; and misses him most of all now. For this is a time when the great problems upon which his thought and work had so long centred, problems of aerial defence, problems of our relations with the Arab peoples, fill an ever larger space in our affairs. For all his reiterated renunciations I always felt that he was a man who held himself ready for a new call. While Lawrence lived, one always felt—I certainly felt it strongly—that some overpowering need would draw him from the modest path he chose to tread and set him once again in full action at the center of memorable events.
It was not to be. The summons which reached him, and for which he was equally prepared, was of a different order. It came as he would have wished it, swift and sudden on the wings of Speed. He had reached the last leap in his gallant course through life.
All is over! Fleet career,
Dash of greyhound slipping thongs,
Flight of falcon, bound of deer,
Mad hoof-thunder in our rear,
Cold air rushing up our lungs,
Din of many tongues.
King George the Fifth wrote to Lawrence’s brother, “His name will live in history.” That is true. It will live in English letters; it will live in the traditions of the Royal Air Force; it will live in the annals of war and in the legends of Arabia.
Republished by kind permission of the Churchill Literary Estate and Winston S. Churchill. In this chapter for his Great Contemporaries, the author wrote: “Most of this essay has already been published in T. E. Lawrence by His Friends, 1937, and is also drawn from my address at the unveiling of his memorial at his Oxford school. It is reprinted here for the sake of completeness.”
Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.