T. E. Lawrence: Man or Myth?

Biographer and historian, CAPTAIN B. H. LIDDELL HART succeeded Colonel Repington as the foremost military correspondent in Britain. He served as military critic on the Times of London from 1935 to 1939 and was also adviser on defense to the Times and the War Minister. The author of many pertinent studies of the German commanders in the First World War,Captain Liddell Hart was also the biographer and friend of T. E. Lawrence,whose integrity he defends in the article which follows.

by B. H. LIDDELL HART

1

THE book with which Richard Aldington made his mark as a novelist, twenty-five years ago, was Death of a Hero. He has recently turned, somewhat late in life, to the writing of history, and now aims to achieve the “death of a hero” in this realm.

In his introduction to Lawrence of Arabia (Rognery, $5.00) he describes his book as “a biographical enquiry,” in which he “tracked down the evidence with “the minute care of a literary detective,” and indeed it reads tediously like the report of a backstairs inquiry by a private detective who has been looking through keyholes. At the same time, his deductions from these minute views have the sweep of a novelist’s fancy, instead of the carefulness required in forming historical judgments.

Aldington’s prime detective performance is to have nosed out the details of a family secret — illegitimacy — with all the handicaps it carried and subterfuges it involved, particularly in the clerical atmosphere of Victorian Oxford, where T. E. Lawrence and his brothers grew up.

Aldington makes much play with this private matter. But it is no such new discovery as he seems to suppose. The fact was known to most of Lawrence’s circle of friends — he told me the details frankly and accurately. But his biographers did not contemplate such indecency as that of laying bare this essentially private matter and presenting it for public discussion while his mother and elder brother, a missionary, were still living. It becomes worse because of the way in which Aldington treats the subject and that fine personality, Mrs. Lawrence.

His treatment of Lawrence himself is a continuous series of smears and sneers — smears where he thinks he has found some point on which he can pin a charge of boastfulness and dishonesty upon Lawrence; sneers, disparaging Lawrence’s contribution and motives, where other openings cannot be found. The majority of the criticisms are superficial, and many are silly. At the start Aldington declares that Lawrence falsely claimed that he had been offered the post of High Commissioner for Egypt, and says: —

I thought it well to obtain the evidence of those most likely to know the truth, and therefore applied to a former Cabinet Minister, Mr. Amery [Secretary of State for the Colonies. 1924 —29], to the present Lord Lloyd (son of the man actually appointed by the Cabinet as High Commissioner when Lord Allenby [General Edmund Allenby, Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force] resigned) and to Lawrence’s friend, Sir Ronald Storrs, who was Governor of Jerusalem after the first war. They were unanimous in dismissing the claim as highly improbable, and though I may not quote I received indirect but equally emphatic disavowal from still higher quarters that Lawrence was ever offered the post.

At the end of the book Aldington goes back to the matter at greater length, saying that “it was this which first aroused my suspicions of Lawrence’s veracity.” He makes it his main “proof” that Lawrence’s stories were “faked” and “boastful” — “the megalomania of a self-important egotist.”Aldington quotes, here, the replies he obtained from Mr. Amery, the present Lord Lloyd, and Sir Ronald Storrs, while making it plain that the anonymous fourth was Sir Winston Churchill.

I have seen a copy of one of these letters of inquiry, and find that it was very misleadingly framed. It stated, falsely, that Aldington’s book was being written “with the assistance of the executors and of the family”! It put the principal question in this way: “Was the post ever officially offered to Colonel Lawrence?” The underlining of the word “officially” tended to divert attention from the supplementary question whether the possibility was ever suggested — which is the real issue. The letter of inquiry mentioned no year, thus conveying the impression that it referred to the time, 1925, when Allenby actually resigned — whereas Lawrence was speaking of 1922, when Allenby momentarily tendered his resignation, in January, but then agreed to continue. This is made very clear in a letter which Lawrence, who was then Adviser on Arab Affairs at the Colonial Office, wrote to his mother on February 15, 1922, saying: “There was a question of me for Egypt, if Allenby came away: but that of course I wouldn’t accept.” He told his mother and brother a little more about the proposal when he next saw them, and according to their recollection the proposal was made by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. That tallies with my recollection of what Lloyd George told me when I questioned him, ton years later, about this chapter of Lawrence’s career.

In 1922 Mr. Amery was not in the Cabinet, the present Lord Lloyd was ten years old and his father was in India, and Sir Ronald Storrs was in Jerusalem. So there is no reason why any of them should have known anything about the matter! They have all protested at the way their brief replies have been misleadingly exploited.

When Mr. Amery learned how his name was being used to support Aldington’s charge, he wrote a letter saying: “I was, of course, thinking of 1925 when I was in the Cabinet and in close touch with Allenby’s difficulties with the Foreign Office, etc.” He went on to say that the brief reply he had originally given to Aldington’s inquiry “is therefore entirely irrelevant to what I understand to be the issue, namely Lawrence’s truthfulness in anything he may have said about the question of succeeding Allenby in 1922.” Although this letter was sent to the publishers in March of last year, Mr. Amery has been retained in the book as first witness for the prosecution.

2

SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL’S testimony is treated no better. A year ago last summer, he wrote: —

I am sure the post of High Commissioner in Egypt was never offered officially to Colonel Lawrence, but I think it very likely I talked over the possibility of his being offered it and asked him how he felt about it. It is very likely also that his not welcoming the idea played its part in my not pressing it any further.

This letter was sent to the publishers. Yet at the start of the book he is still cited as providing “emphatic disavowal of Lawrence’s statement, and on page 385 as declaring it to be “certainly unfounded"— except that here a subtle change has been made by inserting the word “officially” before the reference to such an offer. At the bottom of the page a footnote is inserted: “Sir Winston Churchill has since affirmed that although he never offered the post of High Commissioner to Lawrence officially he may have talked over the possibility of his being offered it unofficially with Lawrence.” Aldington’s substitution of the dubious word “may” for Churchill’s words “very likely” is dishonest.

On page 385 he tries to reinforce his indictment of Lawrence as a liar, saying: —

This habit of attributing offers of imaginary grandeurs to himself rather grew on Lawrence as the time for his final discharge from the R.A.F. came nearer. It is true that he was offered by a hanker, and refused, a position in the City of London, where at one time he had also reserved for himself the position of night-watchman at the Bank of England. . . . But these things were mixed up with such fantasies as his telling his neighbour, ex-Sergeant Knowles, that “. . . he might again be asked to undertake the reorganisation of Home Defence. . . .” The distinguished persons who were asked about the Egypt myth also brushed aside the idea that Lawrence had ever been offered “Home Defence.”

But Mr. Amery and Lord Lloyd state that they were not asked about this matter — and would not know about it. Sir Winston Churchill’s reply was: “I certainly hoped that Colonel Lawrence would play such a part” — and Lord Winterton, in his memoirs (page 202), says that “just prior to Lawrence’s death, Mr. Churchill held the view that he should be appointed Minister of Defence.”

The actual defense post for which Lawrence was then being considered was not on such a high level, though of key importance, I was then military correspondent of the Times, and well acquainted with the whole background of the matter. There was at the time — early in 1935 — a strong urge in government circles to develop our defense planning organization, in view of the rearmament program, and in this connection it was proposed that Sir Maurice Hankey, who was both Secretary of the Cabinet and Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, should be provided with a deputy and eventual successor on the defense side. Lawrence was quite correct in saying that he had “received approaches” whether he would take the post if asked — that fact was confirmed by several people who were close to the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. When Aldington dismisses such proposals as “fantasies" on Lawrence’s part he merely reveals his own ignorance.

Far more remarkable was the offer which Lawrence had just previously received, and refused — to become Secretary of the Bank of England. That was an offer of which any man might have felt proud. Yet Lawrence merely said, to me and other friends, that he had been offered “a job in the City.”

I had no idea what the job was until last year, when I was told of it by Lord Rennell, who conveyed the offer to Lawrence. As this revelation shows, Lawrence was apt to be reticent rather than boastful about the big things in his career. They rarely came out unless there was some point that tickled his sense of humor. Aldington’s view of Lawrence as merely “an Irish braggart” is badly askew.

The only recognition of Lord Rennell’s evidence is that Aldington now casually says, “It is true that he was offered by a banker . . . a position in the City” — without any indication of what the position was.

3

IN RECENT articles explaining why he decided to “debunk” Lawrence, Aldington focuses his detective spotlight on four other points which he evidently regards as important examples of Lawrence’s “unfounded claims.” The first he sarcastically calls the “History of How Lawrence Arranged the Surrender of Erzerum.” What Lawrence himself said was merely that, by a message sent via the War Office and ihc military attaché in Russia, he had put the Russian commander “in touch with certain disaffected Arab officers in Erzerum.” Aldington dismisses the story on the ground that Sir Archibald Wavell “was then military attaché” on that front, and must therefore have passed on the message if there had been one. But, in fact, Wavell was serving in France at the time and did not go to Russia until much later, so naturally would not know anything about it.

His next point he calls the “History of How Lawrence Planned the Alexandretta Landing,”and dismisses this on the ground that “this plan was actually formulated by Kitchener and Maxwell before the war ever began” — citing a remark in Sir G. Arthur’s life of Maxwell that he and Kitchener “more than once discussed the project before the war.” It is startling to discover that Aldington does not understand the military difference between a mere “project” and a detailed plan.

His third point is that the Akaba operation in July, 1917 — “which first brought Lawrence out of the obscurity of the Arab bureau” — has been greatly overrated, since the place had already “twice been captured by small landing parties of French and British sailors.” But the key value of the 1917 operation was that it captured the mountain passes behind Akaba which were the strategic gateway to the interior. A landing at Akaba was useless by itself, for there were many defiles where “two or three machine-guns could have stopped an army corps.”Aldington actually quotes this comment of Sir Hubert Young’s, yet appears to misunderstand its significance.

Fourthly, Aldington tries to ridicule and discredit Lawrence’s account of the Tafileh battle, suggesting that the award of the D.S.O. to Lawrence for “splendid leadership and skill” was based on a false account. Aldington picks out what he calls “the absurd story of a machine-gun duel at 3,100 yards” and says that “the most extreme range” of 1914-18 machine guns was 2900 yards. But his quibbling point merely reveals his own combined ignorance and carelessness. For while the 1914-18 machine gun was only sighted up to 2900 yards, it could reach as far as 3500 yards. Moreover, most enemy machine guns were placed within 2900 yards.

Aldington then goes on: “Let us end this chapter by briefly disposing of another Lawrence story that has grown deep roots—that the enemy offered a reward ranging (according to the teller) from £5,000 to £50,000 for the capture of the great guerrilla leader, Lawrence. No evidence for this is forthcoming beyond Lawrence’s assertion. . . .” Evidence was provided, long ago, by Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe, who stated that he was told of this fact in November, 1917, by Ismet Bey, then A.D.C. to Jemal Pasha (Newcombe had been taken prisoner, and was at Damascus in transit).

Another charge is that the description of Lawrence as a “Sharif” — a “ Prince of Mecca ” — was bogus. Speaking of this title, Aldington says:

“. . . there seems a strong probability that Lawrence conferred it on himself and that it “was plainly ridiculous as a title or description for an Anglo-Irishman since it is restricted to descendants of the Prophet, but possibly most people didn’t know this.” Aldington is evidently ignorant of the fact that the honorary status and title were conferred on other foreigners besides Lawrence who rendered special service to the Hejaz kingdom. The suggestion that it was one of Lawrence’s false pretenses is the more absurd since it should be obvious to anyone that Lawrence could not have worn the insignia of a Sharif in Feisal’s presence unless this had been properly conferred on him.

As for Aldington’s insinuation that Lawrence was responsible for putting this supposedly false claim in Who’s Who, the publishers of Who’s Who have stated that “Lawrence at no time supplied the details which appeared under his name”; that “the entry was editorially compiled”; and that Lawrence several times asked them “to remove his entry altogether,” which “we steadfastly refused to do.” The publishers of Who’s Who also state that they informed Aldington’s publishers of these facts in 1953 — and emphatically remark that “the book perpetrates a flagrant misrepresentation, which is in no way absolved by the equally misleading reference to merely one of our letters.”

The errors, distortions, and false assumptions are so continuous and cumulative that to tackle Aldington’s book is like wrestling with an all-pervasive smog. For example, Lawrence remarked in a note that before the war he came to know “Syria like a book, much of North Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Egypt and Greece.” Aldington changes the wording to “like a book Syria, North Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Egypt and Greece.” Having thus represented Lawrence as pretending to claim that he knew not only Syria but all the other countries “like a book,” Aldington scornfully exclaims: “Wild exaggerations!”

Another early example is the way he exploits a passage about Lawrence’s youth in Robert Graves’s book, T. E. Lawrence to His Biographers, conveying that Lawrence claimed to have read every book” in the Oxford Union Library, “50,000 probably,” at the rate of “six volumes a day.” Aldington elaborately argues that this was an impossibility as “6 books a day for 6 years doesn’t make much more than 13,000.” He omits to mention that Lawrence’s own words, in his note to Graves, were: “I read every book which interested me in the Library”— a very different statement. Aldington then goes on to say that the “six books a day” claim is repeated in my book. But the actual wording here is: “He used to borrow six volumes at a time” — while merely adding that he “often changed them daily.” Aldington chooses to ignore Lawrence’s own explanatory remark: “I normally read one novel each afternoon and 2-3 other books during the day. Sat in the Union and read, skimming through those that were not worth taking home.”

A more serious piece of dishonesty comes in the pages where he alleges that the Lawrence “legend" was “eagerly backed up” by the British Government to serve its “purpose of excluding the French as far as possible from the Middle East and establishing British influence in that area.”To support this grave charge, Aldington quotes from a document written by Lord Milner that is included in Lloyd George’s book on the peace treaties. As Aldington gives it, the quotation reads thus: —

. . . although I am aware that I have almost every other Government authority, military and diplomatic, against me, I am totally opposed to the idea of trying to diddle the French out of Syria.

On looking up the original, however, one discovers that Aldington has falsified Lord Milner’s statement, by substituting a comma for a full stop — which, in the actual text, comes after the words “against me.” The omitted part of the first sentence, and the paragraphs preceding it, refer to Milner’s hopeful belief, contrary to other authorities, that it might be possible to persuade the French to make a friendly agreement with the Arabs over Syria, instead of trying to impose their rule by force. The next sentence — starting with the words “I am totally opposed” — merely expresses Milner’s personal endorsement of the British Government’s attitude, as set forth in his opening paragraph, where he said that “we had no desire to play the French out of Syria or to try to get Syria for ourselves.” Yet by linking up the two sentences with a comma, Aldington ingeniously contrives to convey that the British Government was “trying to diddle the French out of Syria.”

To disparage Lawrence’s performance, the effect of the Arab Revolt is disparaged. Aldington asserts that “militarily its aid was negligible” —an “insignificant contribution” to the defeat of the Turks by Allenby’s army —while accusing Lawrence of squandering British gold in subsidies to the Arabs. He suppresses any mention of the fact that both Allenby and the British Official History described the effect as “invaluable”; and that Wavell, in his history of the Palestine campaign, emphasized the “great value” of the Arab operations under “Lawrence’s leading,” saying that; they “drained much of Turkey’s strength.” When Allenby launched his decisive attack in 1918, nearly half of the Turkish troops in the operational zone were pinned down in the Arab sector east of the Jordan — close on 50,000 Turks being there engaged, and paralyzed, by an Arab force of barely 3000 men, while little more than 50,000 Turks were left to meet the assault by Allenby’s army of 250,000 troops. These figures, from the official records, form the most striking testimony to Lawrence’s strategy and its effect. Moreover, a further 150,000 Turkish troops — three fifths of the total — were spread over the rest of the region in a futile effort to stem the tide of the Arab Revolt.

Aldington frequently quotes criticisms of Lawrence by Sir Hubert Young, from a professional soldier’s point of view, but abstains from mentioning that Young, nevertheless, termed him “a military genius,” and significantly said: “Lawrence could certainly not have done what he did without the gold, but no one else could have done it with ten times the amount.”

In building up his case against Lawrence, Aldington makes use of a book which was published twenty years ago by a Major Norman Bray, and appropriately called Shifting Sands, which sought to show that Lawrence’s part had been much overrated and that he had stolen the credit from others. This earlier essay in debunking made little impression and has long since been forgotten, for Allenby himself took the lead in exposing its fallacies. It is, however, worth quoting two points from Allenby’s statement: “There is no other man I know who could have achieved what Lawrence did. . . . As for taking undue credit to himself, my own personal experience of Lawrence is that he was utterly unconcerned whether any kudos was awarded him or not.”

More significant even than the verdict of Allenby, from the High Command level, are the judgments formed by the many men who were with Lawrence in the field and saw him in action — particularly men such as Ncwcombe, Dawnay, Buxton, Young, Stirling, Winterton. The basic absurdity of Aldington’s book lies in its assumption that all these shrewd judges of character and military qualities, with experience of the Arabs and of desert warfare, were taken in by a “charlatan,” and failed to see — as Aldington sees — that Lawrence’s account of the campaign is “rather a work of quasi-fiction than of history.” It must be wonderful to have such a conceit of one’s own unique detective powers.