Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence walking with Emir Abdullah in the garden of Government House, Jerusalem, during the Cairo Conference of 1921
Winston Churchill dominated the modern age as Samuel Johnson had dominated the late eighteenth century, and their titanic characters had a great deal in common. Both had an immoderate appetite for rich food and quantities of brandy. They were spellbinding talkers, Tories in politics and with a confident belief in British superiority. Subject to depression, which Churchill called “ Black Dog”, they were unwilling to part from friends on congenial evenings and went late to bed. Gretchen Rubin, in her lively book on Churchill, describes “ his disdain for other people ’ s opinions, his massive productivity, his expectation that his needs be met, his demand for beauty and comfort,” all of which apply with equal force to Johnson.
Their mode of writing and exalted prose also had striking parallels. Always feverishly busy, they completed their work at the very last moment. Johnson dictated to a crowd of amanuenses when creating his massive Dictionary of the English Language and Churchill did the same when writing his history of The Second World War. They imitated classical models and Churchill, following Johnson ’ s practice, even used the antiquated salutation “ your obedient servant.” Both had a rare gift of expression, created many memorable lines and composed in the grand periodic style.
If Churchill was Johnsonian, T. E. Lawrence was Byronic. Like Byron with the Greeks a century earlier, Lawrence fought to free the Arabs from Turkish oppression, and also felt the tribes ’ worst enemy was their own discord. In Missolonghi Byron, imitated by Lawrence in Arabia, reconciled the Greek leaders, organised his private army of Albanian brigands, planned an assault on the fortress of Lepanto, and arranged for officers, arms and money to be sent from England. The international fame of Byron ’ s character and works drew serious attention to the plight of the Greeks struggling against the Turks.
Churchill was tremendously attracted to Lawrence ’ s Byronic union of thought and action, art and politics; his political idealism and fight for the concept of liberty; his realisation of egoistic fantasies, flamboyant costume and theatrical behaviour; his need to escape from boredom and seek danger, excitement and adventure; his passionate desire to change the world by his own idiosyncratic effort; his ambition to achieve military glory and fulfill the destiny of a nation.
Fame is always attracted to fame, power to power. Churchill and Lawrence were kindred spirits and secret sharers of similar military and diplomatic experience, and had an astonishing array of talents. Churchill was a soldier, politician, writer, diplomat and painter. Lawrence was an archeologist, spy, guerrilla warrior, author and translator as well as private soldier in the Tank Corps and Aircraftman in the Royal Air Force.
Frequently in combat, they loved risk, had no fear and were keen to kill the enemy. As a cavalryman in the Fourth Hussars, Churchill chased wars around the world. In the late 1890s he fought fifteen battles in Cuba, India, the Sudan and South Africa. He was under fire fifty times but, with astonishing luck, was never wounded. Lawrence was repeatedly injured and recalled, “ I was wounded in nine different scraps (sometimes two or three damages at once: I have about 50 scars tallied on me) and had two attacks of dysentery, besides a touch of typhoid, blackwater, and much malaria: not to mention five broken bones.”
Churchill was the grandson of a duke, Lawrence the illegitimate son of a baronet, but neither inherited the glittering prize. Capable of tremendous physical and intellectual efforts, they glorified and justified their own military campaigns. Both were, as Paul Johnson wrote of Churchill, “ brash, arrogant, presumptuous, disobedient, boastful”, as well as ambitious and eager for success. Churchill ’ s The World Crisis and Lawrence ’ s Seven Pillars of Wisdom were perceptive guides through the horrific battles of World War One.
Churchill was also attracted to Lawrence ’ s intellectual brilliance and knowledge of classical and modern languages. His personal courage reminded Churchill of his own military exploits, his triumph in the Arabian campaign compensated for Churchill ’ s role in the disastrous wartime failure at Gallipoli. He was greatly impressed by Lawrence ’ s effective diplomacy at the postwar Cairo Conference and by his masterpiece Seven Pillars . He was fascinated by Lawrence ’ s psychological complexity, and puzzled by his renunciation of fame and power.
In his book on Churchill as a writer, Paul Alkon notes that both Churchill and Lawrence “ were able to shape the political as well as military direction of events…It would be hard to find two people of the twentieth century whose lives better illustrate the possibilities and the risks of excelling in both thought and action.” As a politician, keen on self-advancement, Churchill was professionally interested in the way Lawrence had captured the public imagination without actively participating in Lowell Thomas ’ sensational publicity, which had made him world-famous.
Both men collected and wore theatrical costumes. Lawrence always looked awkward and ill-at-ease in civilian clothes but, like Byron in Albanian garb, made a powerful impression in his flowing Arab robes, golden headdress and curved Hejazi dagger in his belt. Churchill observed that Lawrence self-consciously burnished his exotic image and “ had the art of backing uneasily into the limelight. He was a very remarkable character, and very careful of that fact.” Churchill ’ s biographer Andrew Roberts reports that Lawrence “ was one of the few people to whom Churchill would listen intently and without (much) interruption.” Two of Lawrence ’ s brothers were killed in the war, and his father died in 1919. Though Churchill, fourteen years older, was not old enough to be Lawrence ’ s father, he became — along with the Arabian explorer Charles Doughty, the Middle East commander Edmund Allenby and the RAF marshal Hugh Trenchard — his ideal father.
Churchill first met Lawrence at the Paris Peace Conference in the spring of 1919, two decades before he became prime minister, when he invited Lawrence to luncheon. He recalled that Lawrence “ 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 [Lloyd George] about it.” When Churchill became Colonial Secretary, responsible for Middle Eastern affairs, he recruited Lawrence — an unconventional and potentially dominant aide — to be his principal political advisor, and he served from February 1921 to July 1922.
Writing about himself in the third person, Lawrence told his biographer Robert Graves, who toned down this passage in his book, “ Churchill came to Lawrence and begged him as the only man who could put things straight in the East. Lawrence consented on one condition, that the war-time pledges given to the Arabs should at last be honourably fulfilled.” In fact, as Lawrence well knew, his pledges directly contradicted the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, which carved up the old Ottoman Empire and defined spheres of influence between Britain and France in the postwar Middle East. Britain did not fight the Turks to give the Arabs freedom, but to defeat the Turkish ally of Germany and win the war in Europe.
Lawrence ’ s main aim at the Cairo Conference in March 1921 was to create the Arab kingdoms of Iraq and Transjordan while remaining faithful to the British Balfour declaration of 1917, which promised a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. Aaron Kleiman, in his authoritative book on the Cairo Conference, states that “ once Lawrence had spoken, Churchill was willing to abide by his recommendations… He relied heavily on the advice of Lawrence.” In 1921 Churchill sent Lawrence to deal with difficulties in Transjordan and was impressed by his effective use of absolute authority. Churchill wrote, “ 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.”
Lawrence ’ s “ pledges” were a vexed issue, first ignored and then accepted by Churchill. In a private ceremony in 1919 Lawrence had refused to accept military medals from King George V because (he said) “ Britain was about to dishonour the pledges which he had made in her name to the Arabs.” But Lawrence, who kept referring to these pledges as if they were official, had no right, authority or power to make them. Though his personal pledges did not express British policy, he wrongly believed they were binding. Though he did not hold high office, by political intrigue and great force of will he actually carried out his own policy.
Lawrence told his biographer Basil Liddell Hart that “ he accepted the post [as Churchill ’ s advisor] on the understanding that the wartime pledges he had made to the Arabs on Britain ’ s behalf would now be honoured.” In a letter of July 1929 he expanded “ pledges he made” to “ pledges we made,” and again claimed “ the Winston Churchill settlement of 1921-1922 (in which I shared) honourably fulfils the whole of the promises we made to the Arabs, in so far as the so-called British spheres are concerned.” Churchill ’ s memorial speech about Lawrence in October 1936 mistakenly agreed with and ratified Lawrence ’ s belief that his personal word and Britain ’ s official word were exactly the same. He maintained that Lawrence was distressed by “ what he deemed the ill-usage of his Arab friends and allies to whom he had pledged the word of Britain, and the word of Lawrence.”
Lawrence made Faisal, who ’ d been driven out of Syria by the French in 1920, king of Iraq and made his brother Abdullah king of Transjordan. But both kings needed the British army to keep them in power and, despite the façade of Arab rule, were effectively under British control. Lawrence did not consult the Iraqis and Jordanians about whether they wanted Hashemite monarchs from Arabia to rule their countries. In his dedicatory poem to Sheikh Ahmed in Seven Pillars , Lawrence wrote, “ I loved you, so I drew those tides of men into my hands . . . to earn you Freedom.” After supposedly winning the war for Ahmed, he now presumptuously won the peace for Faisal. On both occasions he egoistically reduced world-shaking events to his own personal preferences. The Cairo Conference compensated for Lawrence ’ s diplomatic failure in Paris in 1919, and he proudly declared, “ we were quit of the wartime Eastern adventure with clean hands… Only surrender to French over Syria could not be remedied.” He asked the reluctant Churchill to release him, then agreed to stay on a little longer until he resolved some present difficulties.
Churchill and Lawrence expertly exploited each other ’ s fame and power. Lawrence used Churchill to get what he wanted from and for the Arabs, Churchill used Lawrence to get credit for the success at Cairo. Reversing the traditional roles of leader and follower, Lawrence told Graves, who played down this honest but vainglorious claim in his biography of Lawrence: “ I take most of the credit of Mr. Churchill ’ s pacification of the Middle East upon myself. I had the knowledge and the plan. He had the imagination and the courage to adopt it and knowledge of the political procedure to put it into operation. ” Emphasising the importance of his work at Cairo and continuing to suggest the fluidity of their relations, Lawrence also told Graves: “ Churchill had been for me so considerate as sometimes to seem more like a senior partner than a master. The work I did constructively for him in 1921 and 1922 seems to me, in retrospect, the best I ever did.”
In a letter of 1922 Lawrence again paid tribute to Churchill ’ s rejection of political expediency and commitment to courage and idealism: “ [Winston is] a great man, & for whom I have not merely admiration, but a very great liking. If we get out of the Middle East Mandates with credit, it will be Winston ’ s bridge. The man ’ s as brave as six, as good-humoured, shrewd, self-confident, & considerate as a statesman can be: & several times I ’ ve seen him chuck the statesmanlike course and do the honest thing instead.”
Despite Lawrence ’ s brilliantly effective public propaganda in Cairo and in Seven Pillars, in private he had an extremely negative view of the Arabs. As I revealed in the Virginia Quarterly Review (Fall 2004), he considered them “ degenerate and spineless,” and condemned their treatment of women, their “ bribery and corruption, factionalism and internecine warfare, extremism and religious fanaticism, bloodlust and self-sacrifice, disregard for human life and massacre of innocent victims.” By fulfilling the dynastic ambitions of Faisal (who died in Switzerland in 1933) and Abdullah (who was assassinated in 1951) despite their obvious weaknesses, Lawrence helped to create a time bomb in the Middle East. His political legacy has been catastrophic. All the Arab leaders have been corrupt, violent and ruthless, and have achieved almost nothing of value during the last hundred years. Arab self-rule from 1921 to 2021 has been infinitely worse than British colonial rule.
Soon after Lawrence ’ s death in a motorcycle accident, Churchill wrote rapturously about him in his reviews of Seven Pillars in the News of the World (May 26, 1935) and the Daily Mail (July 29, 1935), at the unveiling of Lawrence ’ s plaque at Oxford High School in October 1936, in T. E. Lawrence By His Friends (1937) and, incorporating all these articles in the final text, in Great Contemporaries (1937).
I ’ ve read Churchill ’ s memoir several times during the last fifty years, but until now neither I nor anyone else has seen its confusion and contradictions. Following Lawrence, Churchill ignores Britain ’ s commitment to the Sykes-Picot Treaty and gives an inaccurate account of postwar Middle East history. He condemns the French for driving Faisal out of Syria and repressing the Arab “ revolts with the utmost sternness.” Yet on the very same page he justifies the British suppression of “ a most dangerous and bloody rebellion in Iraq.” Churchill feels it ’ s bad when the French suppress the Arabs but all right when the British do it. When Faisal was ejected from Syria, the British (who always had another country up their sleeve), simply shifted the movable monarch to Iraq. At the same time Churchill, unlike Lawrence, understands and actually agrees with the French demand for Syria: “ 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 [Clemenceau], and would never have been tolerated by his countrymen.”
The rest of Churchill ’ s memoir is devoted to ecstatic but heartfelt praise of his friend. Lawrence was, as Yeats wrote in his elegy of Major Robert Gregory, “ Our Sidney and our perfect man… / Soldier, scholar, horseman, he / And all he did done perfectly.” Churchill praises “ the gravity of his demeanour; the precision of his opinions; the range and quality of his conversation… the greatness of his character and versatility of his genius,” and asserts, “ he looked what he was, one of Nature ’ s greatest princes.” Churchill exclaims that Lawrence (like himself) had an impressive number of talents: “ 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.” (He repeats this passage twice in his compiled memoir.)
Churchill continues his eulogy by affirming that all the people who met Lawrence “ felt themselves in the presence of an extraordinary being. They felt that his latent reserves of force and willpower were beyond measurement.” Churchill writes that Lawrence had all “ the qualities of which world conquerors were made,” and speculates that if the war had continued, “ Lawrence might have realised 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… I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time.”
After Lawrence had settled the Middle East to his own satisfaction, he pried himself loose from Churchill ’ s grip at the Colonial Office. With the power to bestow many gifts including governorships and great commands, Churchill played Satan to Lawrence ’ s Christ and (echoing Matthew 4:8) tempted him with “ all the Kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.” He told Lawrence, “ the greatest employments are open to you if you care to pursue your new career in the Colonial Service.” But Lawrence refused, as he ’ d refused the King’s medals, and confidently asserted, “ the job is done, and it will last.” Unfortunately, the job was not done and did not last.
Churchill was astonished by Lawrence ’ s ascetic attitude, which was exactly the opposite of his own overweening ambition. He was impressed by Lawrence ’ s “ disdain for most of the prizes, the pleasures and comforts of life… [He was] indifferent to home, money, comfort, rank, or even power and fame… someone before whom allurements may be spread in vain.” But “ comfort,” repeated twice, was the last thing Lawrence wanted.
In his review of Seven Pillars Churchill praised the book as passionately as he had praised its author. He justly believed that “ it ranks with the greatest books ever written in the English language” and “ will take its place at once as an English classic. The richness and energy of the theme, the quality of the prose, the sense of the mystic, immeasurable personality lying behind it, raise the work at once and decisively above the level of contemporary productions. It ranks with Pilgrim ’ s Progress, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver ’ s Travels as a model of lucid, forcible, fascinating narrative… His book will be read as long as the English language is spoken.” Churchill could not see, when the book was first published, that Lawrence ’ s most important models were Tolstoy ’ s War and Peace, Nietzsche ’ s Thus Spake Zarathustra and Doughty ’ s Travels in Arabia Deserta.
A comparison of Churchill ’ s description of his cavalry charge at Omdurman in the Sudan with Lawrence ’ s account of his camel charge in Arabia illuminates their style and self-portrayal. Though Churchill is thrown from his horse and surrounded by the enemy, he is saved by his usual good luck and riding skill, and miraculously survives while comrades are killed all around him:
“The collision was now very near. I saw immediately before me, not ten yards away, the two [Sudanese] blue men who lay in my path. They were perhaps a couple of yards apart. I rode at the interval between them. They both fired. I passed through the smoke conscious that I was unhurt. The trooper immediately behind me was killed at this place and at this moment, whether by these shots or not I do not know. I checked my pony as the ground began to fall away beneath his feet. The clever animal dropped like a cat four or five feet down on the sandy bed of the water course, and in this sandy bed I found myself surrounded by what seemed to be dozens of men. They were not thickly packed enough at this point for me to experience any actual collision with them. Whereas Grenfell ’ s troop, next but one on my left, was brought to a complete standstill and suffered very heavy losses, we seemed to push our way through.”
Lawrence ’ s style is more complex, his attitude ironic and slightly comic. He takes a more cavalier approach to the disaster as he sails “ grandly” off his fallen camel, waits “ passively” for a mortal wound and finds that his disabled camel has saved him from death:
“Suddenly my camel tripped and went down emptily upon her face, as though pole-axed. I was torn completely from the saddle, sailed grandly through the air for a great distance, and landed with a crash which seemed to drive all the power and feeling out of me. I lay there, passively waiting for the Turks to kill me… My mind thought what a squashed thing I should look when all that cataract of men and camels had poured over…
“My camel ’ s body had laid behind me like a rock and divided the charge into two streams: and in the back of its skull was the heavy bullet of the fifth shot I fired.”
Both riders were thrown by their mounts and saved by them.
Lawrence retaliated by praising Churchill ’ s biography of his illustrious ancestor, the great general and duke who had built Blenheim Palace, where Churchill was born and would be buried: “ Marlborough has the big scene-painting, the informed pictures of men, the sober comment on political method, the humour, irony, understanding of your normal writing: but beyond that it shows more discipline and strength: and great dignity. It is history, solemn and decorative.”
More than anyone else, Churchill realised what Britain had lost when Lawrence renounced the great world and retired to a kind of monastic life, miserably in the Tank Corps, then (with Hugh Trenchard ’ s help) contentedly in the RAF. Puzzled by Lawrence ’ s obscure motives, Churchill again contradicts himself on the same page of his memoir by self-reflectively stating that “ the modern world had no means of exerting the slightest pull upon him” and also that “ the mechanism of aeroplane engines, the design of flying boats — he held on to these.”
Churchill also speculates with “ must have been” about his friend ’ s reasons for enlisting in the ranks and again accepts the meretricious explanation of Lawrence ’ s personal pledges: “ 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 renunciation of all power in great affairs.” But Churchill ’ s rationale is deeply flawed. The Arabs were not mistreated after the Cairo Conference, Lawrence ’ s personal word was not the word of Britain and settling the Middle East could not be reduced to satisfying Lawrence ’ s personal honor.
Andrew Roberts notes that Churchill “ expressed strong distaste” for Lawrence ’ s revelations of masochistic homosexuality in Seven Pillars, and he quite naturally did not mention them in his reviews and memoirs of Lawrence. Instead, Churchill referred to them obliquely and euphemistically by observing that “ solitary, austere, inexorable, he moved upon a plane apart from and above our common lot.” He was “ not in complete harmony with the normal” and his “ spirit was injured.”
Churchill gave his most persuasive account of Lawrence ’ s character in his review of Seven Pillars , which portrays Lawrence as a patriotic martyr wounded by war and by torture. He wrote that Lawrence ’ s book “ enables us to realise better than anything else the war injuries which he sustained, and from which he never completely recovered. We have to think of him in the twenty years that followed as a man seared in body and spirit by the sufferings he had undergone for his country ’ s cause.” Churchill perceptively concluded that Lawrence, like a unicorn, was “ a rare beast; will not breed in captivity.”
Everyone who knew or wrote about Lawrence has tried to explain his baffling renunciation. He himself observed, with tantalising obscurity, “ when Winston Churchill fulfilled all that was humanly attainable of those promises [not “ pledges”] I was free to quit events and return to the class & mode of life that I belong to & feel happy in.” Still scarred by his illegitimate birth, despite his glorious achievements, he seemed to suggest that he really belonged to the outcasts and felt happiest as a humble and degraded private.
After his supreme triumphs in war, diplomacy and literature, he may also have felt that he had nowhere to go except into machines. Churchill mentions Lawrence ’ s attraction to speed; and in the course of his life he moved from propulsion on foot, canoes, bicycles, cars in the desert, aeroplanes, speedboats and ultimately death on his super-fast motorcycle. (Among other writers, Nathanael West, Roy Campbell, Albert Camus and W. G. Sebald also died in crashes.) Lawrence told Liddell Hart, “ to explain the lure of speed you would have to explain human nature… All men in all ages have beggared themselves for fast horses or camels or ships or cars or bikes or aeroplanes: all men have strained themselves dry to run or walk or swim faster. Speed is the second oldest animal craving in our nature.” Though for Lawrence speed was a substitute for sex, serving in the ranks did not eliminate his overpowering sexual desires. How could it? In that exclusive masculine society he fell in love with an airman he fondly called Poppet, and paid for ritualistic floggings on the anniversaries of his rape by the Turks in Deraa.
But Lawrence ’ s lifelong quest for speed and quasi-monastic self-punishment do not explain his mysterious renunciation. The similar experience of other modern writers help reveal his motives. Ford Madox Ford ’ s lover Stella Bowen writes, “ he was the only intellectual I had met to whom army discipline provided a conscious release from the torments and indecisions of a super-sensitive brain. To obey orders was, for him, a positive holiday.” In The Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell explains that (like Lawrence), “ I could go among these people, see what their lives were like and feel myself temporarily part of their world. Once I had been among them and accepted by them, I should have touched bottom, and — this is what I felt: I was aware even then that it was irrational — part of my guilt would drop from me.”
Lawrence gave the briefest and most convincing explanation when he confessed “ self-degradation is my aim.” The complex reasons for his corrosive guilt and need for self-abasement were his illegitimate birth (agonising in the Victorian period but unimportant today), homosexuality (illegal in England during Lawrence ’ s lifetime), killing Turks and taking pleasure in slaughtering them, masochistic enjoyment (described in Seven Pillars ) in torture, flagellation and sodomy, and his annual ritualistic whippings after the war. All this, to maintain his idealistic image of Lawrence, Churchill was forced to ignore.
Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has published The Wounded Spirit: A Study of Seven Pillars of Wisdom , T. E. Lawrence: A Bibliography, T. E. Lawrence: Soldier, Writer, Legend and 30 articles on Lawrence.