But the most startling and disconcerting trait in Lawrence's character is the propensity which seemed uncontrollable in him to put out highly embellished stories of himself and his doings which after circulating among his credulous friends -- and doubtless receiving additions thereby -- eventually found their way into print as part of the story of the great Lawrence of Arabia. The preceding pages show a few instances of this habit, which endured until the end of his life and coloured his recollections of childhood. It is seldom that these stories are wholly invented. There is generally a foundation of fact which when reported immediately in a letter to someone he was not particularly eager to impress is often credible though not especially remarkable -- but sooner or later this would be worked up by Lawrence into stories to his own glorification, stories which were untrue in precisely those parts which made them sound extraordinary and made him sound remarkable. The reader must be careful to distinguish between the invented newspaper stories which began to appear in print as soon as Lowell Thomas made him famous, and those he invented and circulated himself. His friend Vyvyan Richards who has published some of the latter (though with a growing suspicion of their authenticity), says: "Few men have gathered after them so great a train of stories as he, serious and comic, and the greater proportion could only have come from his own lips; yet none of these stories was ever told against himself -- his supremacy must never seem to suffier." 3 Exactly so, and they made his popular reputation.
Lawrence went further than this. Having put into circulation such embellished stories through the credulity of one or more friends and profited by the renown as an extraordinary person they brought him, he would repudiate them sometimes (many he stuck to) or complain that he was persecuted by publicity. His curious duplicity in this respect went so far that he persuaded Lowell Thomas and Graves to publish statements freeing him from responsibility for the statements and stories he had given them. As I shall show later, Lowell Thomas was repudiated by Lawrence (who pretended scarcely to have known him) and was sneered at by Lawrence's friends. On a separate page in Mr. Thomas's book appears the notice:
"The Publishers desire to state that Colonel Lawrence is not the
source from which the facts in this volume were obtained, nor is he in any way responsible for its contents." 4
Believing this -- as who would not? -- I wrote Lowell Thomas through an American friend saying (among other things) that I assumed Lawrence had " contributed nothing in the way of editorial suggestions to film or lecture." To this Lowell Thomas replied:
"Your guess is one hundred per cent wrong. He helped me in a lot of ways on the lecture that I gave a couple of thousand times. He also worked with me on my book. At that time he was exceedingly anxious that no one should know this." 5
When I come to discuss the Lowell Thomas lecture and book I shall put forward some internal evidence to show that Mr. Thomas must have been helped by quotations from documents Lawrence alone could supply, as well as by stories which must have been contributed by Lawrence and his friends or derived indirectly from them. It is not my business to explain why Mr. Thomas consented to have his publishers insert the untrue statement I have quoted. But this is not all. Robert Graves's book, Lawrenceand the Arabs, as already pointed out contains this statement from him: "Unfortunately, owing to pressure of time, my completed typescript could not be submitted to Shaw," (i.e., T. E. Lawrence), "before publication, and I apologise to him for any passages where my discretion has been at fault." 6 But in the two volumes published after Lawrence's death which contain notes by Graves and Captain Hart on their collaboration with Lawrence, and the help he gave in the writing of their respective biographies, Graves admits that this statement gives a wrong impression. I quote his words:
" Lawrence read and passed every word of the book, though he asked me to put a sentence in my introduction making it seem that he had not." 7
Certain passages of this book were written by Lawrence himself, 8 as also was the case with Hart's book. Captain Hart, as Graves later pointed out, 9 was more thorough in checking Lawrence's statements than either of his predecessors, and, as his notes show, under his questioning Lawrence denied, withdrew or side-stepped some of the
ridiculous stories he had himself invented or over-embellished. All three of these writers wrote in good faith, accepting what Lawrence told them. Lowell Thomas spoke and wrote as a war propagandist, charged by his government to find something to counteract German and-British propaganda in the U.S.A. -- his business was to find British war heroes. When even he blenched and asked Lawrence pointblank whether stories Thomas had been told about him were true, Lawrence laughed "with glee," and replied: "History isn't made up of truth anyway, so why worry?" 10 A tender literary conscience might have started at those words, the cynicism of which needs no comment. As I shall be able to show in more detail later on, Lawrence, having got what he wanted -- and more than he bargained for -- out of Thomas, proceeded by implication to disown him, to pretend he had scarcely known him, and to complain -- as, for instance, he did to Graves -- that "butter of the Lowell Thomas sort does not keep very well: and its quotation at tenth hand is painful." 11 But most of the butter came originally from Lawrence or the Lawrence Bureau. Probably Graves and Hart never knew that Lawrence had collaborated with Lowell Thomas, just as Graves complained that Lawrence never told him that he was collaborating in Hart's work. After that book came out Lawrence tried to soothe Graves by saying he would rather have Graves than Liddell Hart, though he had also said elsewhere "how much he appreciated Hart's biography and wished that none others had been published." 12 By the time the Hart book was ready the device of pretending that Lawrence had nothing to do with such works on himself had worn thin; and in any case he must have realised that Liddell Hart would not lend himself to such false disclaimers as Thomas and Graves had weakly permitted. Therefore, in that book Lawrence's "notes and comment" are acknowledged, but the author takes responsibility for his opinions. But in spite of his care, Hart's book contains many stories which should have aroused his suspicions.
The difficulties of a biographer trying to discover the facts are baffling, discouraging and at times insuperable. If Lawrence's statements were all false the task would be comparatively easy; but they are not. Some are true or seem true; some, in fact many of them, are at least partly true; others are or seem to be quite unfounded. But with the imperfections of the record, (many documents and letters are still
unavailable), there is need for much caution -- evidence might turn up to justify a story or a statement which a priori looks improbable. In any case, a distinction must be made between the newspaper talk about Lawrence, and the stories which can be definitely traced to him or to one of his personal friends. I am concerned only with the latter; the newspaper stuff is only important because of the annoyance it undoubtedly was to him in later fife -- a Frankenstein monster he himself had been the chief agent in creating.
The business of a biographer is to tell a life-story and thereby also to portray a character by gathering, arranging and interpreting the discoverable facts about his subject. Where the facts are uncertain or contaminated or embellished, as in this case, the biographer finds himself in the position of counsel who puts his client in the box only to discover a faulty witness; or, if that seems too lofty a comparison for so humble a labour, he may be likened to a bricklayer who finds some of the bricks given him true and straight, others faulty and Misshapen, and yet others crumbling to dust when handled. Whatever Lawrence's part in the 1914 war it can probably never be estimated exactly because so much of the evidence rests on his own testimony. Lawrence has recorded that Lord Allenby could not determine how much in him was "genuine performer" and how much "charlatan," 13 and Lord Wavell comments that Allenby never solved the problem; but "always suspected a strong streak of the charlatan in Lawrence." 14 Lloyd George more vaguely hints a similar opinion. 15
From this arose the necessity for careful checking of all the claims and picturesque anecdotes which were circulated directly by Lawrence or indirectly by him through his more or less credulous friends. But in so doing the biographer must keep in mind that no man is rigidly consistent and accurate, especially a man like Lawrence whose unstable temperament is illustrated by the constant variations in his scrawled handwriting; that everyone changes with the passage of time, so much so that a man of forty looks back with some astonishment and dismay at his half-forgotten self of twenty, unless indeed roseate idealisation of the past sets in early; that the universal miseries of life induce fibbings and subterfuges in us all, and that in our letters we all tend to vary our expression according to the person addressed. He must keep in mind the old fable of the shepherd who cried "Wolf" too often, and remember that Lawrence may sometimes be speaking the
truth. Above all, he must recollect that many of the embellished tales are not without some basis of fact, and avoid denying all Lawrence's accomplishments because they were outrageously exaggerated. He was, for instance, a very good revolver shot, though he did tell an absurd tale of intentionally shooting a man in the little finger, and the different and highly-coloured versions of the episode he circulated do not mean that no such encounter occurred. His bicycle was not designed by Lord Nuffield and himself, as he claimed, but he did have a light racing bicycle, and did cover long distances, though demonstrably in some instances (and probably in most) not as long as he asserted.
Now that Lawrence's habit of circulating these tales about himself has been demonstrated -- at any rate in the pre-war period and, as we shall see, it certainly did not disappear in 1914 -- and his method of getting them into print has been explained, it is inevitable to ask why he did this. The psycho -- analyst will have his confident explanations, among them that Lawrence was a peculiar example of the "God-man complex." Professional psychologists of other schools will have other explanations, and strictly orthodox psychiatrists possibly others. A careful study of Lawrence's psychology, taken with what has been recorded of his medical history, by some really competent specialist, would be of great interest and doubtless enable us to understand and to condone much which now seems merely impudent. Meanwhile from the standpoint of common sense and common knowledge we may point out that a certain amount of boasting, more or less, is usually inseparable from that stage of adolescence which Lawrence so queerly seemed in some respects never to outlive. In some recorded cases this boasting becomes pathological, as in the so-called "J-3 murder case" in France where a gifted lad was shot by a jealous friend because he boasted (quite untruly) of imaginary wealth and achievements. The significant thing is that the youth's companions believed all he said without any hesitation or critical enquiry, which was also the case with Lawrence. We can go further, and say that such boasting is a universal human failing or trait, from young Red Indian braves to elderly retired mariners and field officers. What is different in Lawrence's case is that the stories were told deliberately, and found their way into print while he persuaded two biographers to publish statements misleading their readers into thinking he had no responsibility for them. If it be asked why these stories were believed by his
biographers and by the numerous friends who have left their personal memories, the answer is perfectly simple. Not one of these stories was published until after Lowell Thomas's propaganda had worked up public hysteria to an almost unprecedented extent, and had made Lawrence the popular war hero, creating an atmosphere in which such stories were readily acceptable, on the strength of achievements which Lowell Thomas himself had not witnessed -- his lecture and his book are based on what he was told by Lawrence and Lawrence's friends. I shall have to recall later on how difficult all this makes any fair and honest account of Lawrence's actions in the war, especially if you remember that Seven Pillars is itself a propaganda book, full of rhetorical writing and fine sentiments but vague about dates, facts, effectives, and self-confessedly suppressing some facts and altering others.
Some of the Lawrence stories so far discussed (e.g., the Hypnos head story and the 50,000 books), are absurd and trivial, but they happen to be among those where Lawrence can be shown definitely to be romancing. It is necessary to establish his record in this respect because in other and more important cases there cannot be or is not at present such definite proof that he was romancing or inventing. After what has been and will be demonstrated, some -- perhaps many -readers may feel that the onus of proof lies elsewhere, that it is now up to the Lawrence Bureau to prove the truth of what he and they have advanced as facts. As an example of the self-glorifying story which cannot be definitely disproved but which sounds highly improbable, let us look into the much-publicised interview between Lawrence and Kitchener which is alleged to have occurred before the war. As it links up with a claim (supported also by no evidence beyond Lawrence's own assertions) that early in 1915 he was the real author of the strategic plan for a landing at or near Alexandretta, the enquiry is not without interest.
The first mention of this interview occurs in Lowell Thomas's book. According to this, Lawrence "with his intimate knowledge of history" thought that the proposal to run a branch line to Alexandretta from the main Berlin-Baghdad railway was "a bold Prussian threat against British power in Asia" and therefore instantly hurried to Cairo, demanded an audience with Lord Kitchener" and asked him why Germany had been permitted to get control of Alexandretta." 16
Unfortunately for posterity no film or photograph exists to show the expressions moving across Lord Kitchener's swivel-eyed features as he was thus bluntly challenged by an unknown non-military Oxonian of twenty-five. According to Thomas's version of Lawrence's tale there was no explosion but the mild reply: "I have warned London repeatedly, but the Foreign Office pays no attention. Within two years, there will be a World War. Unfortunately, young man, you and I can't stop it, so run along and sell your papers." 17 Why "sell your papers?" What papers? Can this refer to the well-known practice of Oxonians who help to pay their way through college by hawking copies of the Saturday Evening Post on Carfax? However that may be, the story itself was told to Mr. Thomas by "Major Young, of the Near Eastern Secret Corps," whatever that was. Probably Major Sir Hubert Young of the Indian Army is meant, but his book, The Independent Arab, is discreetly silent on this tale. It is, however, repeated by Graves (and hence with Lawrence's knowledge) in agreement with the assertion that Lawrence was "a student of world politics," of which there is not the slightest evidence in his pre-1914 letters and writings, and with the change of Kitchener's last words to: "So run along, young man, and dig before it rains." 18 Thus, through Graves, Lawrence gave his acquiescence to a story which Lowell Thomas had already picked up from someone in a slightly different form, thereby glorifying himself as one on familiar terms before the war with the ruler of Egypt, as a student of world politics and one intimately acquainted with history.
But did this interview ever take place? It is true Lawrence was in Egypt with Petrie in 1912, when Kitchener was Consul-General, but when Liddell Hart asked Lawrence at what date he met Kitchener, Lawrence replied that he "first met Kitchener in 1913 and again in 1914." 19 It is only negative, but there is no evidence that Lawrence was in Cairo at any time during 1913-14 until December, 1914, and Sir Ernest Dowson has certainly mis-dated Lawrence's first reporting for duty at the Surveyor General's office. Of course, it is possible that Lawrence did make a brief trip to Cairo between January, 1913 and June, 1914 (when Kitchener left for good), and that the journey went wholly unrecorded at the time. He may have had an interview, even, though it seems quite incredible that he could have refrained from boasting of having met so eminent a person to some of his friends;
yet not one of the pre-war letters or reminiscences mentions it. Lowell Thomas only heard the story in 1918, by which date Kitchener was dead. Not the least incredible part of the tale is that a man in Kitchener's responsible position would have been so utterly indiscreet as to prophesy a World War to a casual civilian caller aged 25.
And how unaware Lawrence was of the approaching catastrophe is proved by his 1913 letter, already quoted, in which he hopes for several more years at Carchemish and then another and another "nice place." If a man so important as Kitchener had really warned him that a war was coming, how could Lawrence have indulged in such false hopes?
In the 17th-18th century vogue of "the ruling passion" psychology Lawrence's would certainly have been set down as amour-propre, vanity. But, as La Rochefoucauld, one of its chief exponents, pointed out, vanity is a universal passion; and it is not necessarily to be condemned, since it may be and often is a strong motive to effort and action. What is curious in Lawrence's case is that he was so lacking in pride that he was quite content to let himself be celebrated in anecdotes which he knew to be untrue or exaggerated since he himself had originated them and connived at their circulation. Yet this preposterous vanity co-existed with a desire to be thought modest and retiring in the English Public School boy tradition; and indeed in some moods it became partly genuine when he discovered what a nuisance newspapers and public made of the notoriety he himself had so eagerly courted. But the familiar propaganda which represents him as the shrinking victim of a notoriety thrust upon him against his will is just one more myth -- of his own creation.
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THE OPENING of the first world war in August, 1914, found Lawrence in Oxford. Since, in December, 1913, he had written his friend, Richards, that Carchemish would last another four or five years 1 and his letter to Flecker from Oxford just before the war speaks of returning to the East in two or three weeks, 2 is it unreasonable to infer (as I have done in the last chapter) that he had not really been given any warning by Kitchener, and that the war was as much a surprise to him as it was to most people? Unless, of course, it is argued that these remarks were deliberately inserted in his letters to conceal from others his private inner knowledge of the course of events. It might also be argued that his return to England just before the murder of the Archduke Ferdinand points in the same direction -had not Kitchener also gone home on leave about the same time, being providentially caught and brought back to the War Office by a special message from the Prime Minister just as he stepped on the Channel boat to regain his post in Egypt? But how improbable an explanation in Lawrence's case!
There was, however, another if minor reason for Lawrence's presence in Oxford that summer. As already mentioned, his preface to The Wilderness of Zin confesses that when he and Woolley went to make the archological survey of Sinai he had never even heard the names of the learned travellers who had preceded them. 3 Obviously these works had to be run through before the report could be issued; there had been neither books nor time for the research during the Carchemish season; but Oxford and London possessed the requisite libraries. According to Lawrence, in a note written about 1933, Turkey though not, in August, 1914, in the war was not too pleased
about the Sinai survey and therefore Kitchener, who had throughout been behind the survey, insisted that the report on the archological results of the Expedition be produced by the Palestine Exploration Fund as soon as possible as "whitewash." 4 Kitchener certainly had been interested in the survey. It has already been recorded that he sent a telephone message to Captain Newcombe at Akaba to stop the survey when the local Turkish governor objected, and it was Kitchener who, as a subaltern in 1878, had begun the survey. Indeed, according to Lord Wavell (who ought to know) the Staff used Kitchener's maps on the Palestine front until 1916. 5 But if the camouflage of the two archologists and their obscurely published report was really Kitchener's device, it was hardly worthy of his reputation. Did he think such trifling espionage a casus belli? Moreover the "whitewash" was pretty slow in appearing, if the intention of publication was really the hopeful thought that "Turkey" would in consequence believe that the survey had not been military but purely archeological. The script was not even sent to press until December 3rd, 6 by Lawrence, who mentions that the maps for the report were being prepared at the War Office; although in another, unfortunately undated, letter, he says that if it were published it would probably be confiscated; "and I shall have to do the confiscating." 7 Lawrence does not say by what authority a temporary second lieutenant in the Map Department was given power to confiscate books. That he was merely showing off to his correspondent is clear from the fact that a few weeks later he wrote to Hogarth telling him to get the book out as fast as he could. 8
This alleged order from "K" to complete and publish the report is of some interest since it is one of the two reasons put forward to explain why Lawrence did not immediately join up as a fighting soldier. The other reason will be examined a little later. Nobody will accuse Lawrence of physical cowardice, of any conscientious objection, to wars in general or that war in particular. Writing on his thirtieth birthday, 15th August, 1918, he said "four years ago" (i.e., August 1914), "I had meant to be a general and knighted, when thirty." 9 In a letter written in September, 1914, he feared the Turks were not contemplating war. (As a matter of fact, "the Turks" had signed a secret treaty of alliance with the German Government on the 2nd August, which made their eventual entry into the war against England
certain). Omniscience and the air of being at the very centre of things with private knowledge of the secrets of high policy were among Lawrence's mannerisms at all times. So it is not surprising to find him writing importantly from his garden bungalow in Oxford any scraps of gossip he had picked up from. Hogarth and other dons to a friend (in America!) as his own inside knowledge of what "England" and "we" had decided to do about Turkey. "We" he says, intend "to let Turkey have fiscal and economic rights over, foreign property," while retaining from the Capitulations (which the Turkish Government had abolished), "the personal inviolability and sanctity of the foreign houses." Should the Turkish Government refuse these suggestions " England will not go to war," but " Greece and Roumania will look in, after having promised Bulgaria a slice for her benevolent aid;" presumably under pressure from the British Government, for "then of course," if " Turkey attacks us," well, "we would be justified in self-defence." 10 Since when had the Cabinet taken to confiding the secrets of its policy and future actions to obscure Oxonians? Ten days before hostilities began between Turkey and the Entente, Lawrence wrote: " Turkey seems at last to have made up its mind to lie down and be at peace with all the world. I'm sorry, because I wanted to root them out of Syria." 11