Lawrence of Arabia Tries to Hide ‘Out of Sight’

All this week, the Volokh Conspiracy is kindly allowing me to run excerpts from my newly released book, Invisible Armies: an Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Modern Day. Today’s section concerns T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia:

After the war Lawrence attended the Paris Peace Conference as an adviser to both the Arab and the British delegations. He caused a sensation by wearing an Arab headdress along with a colonel’s uniform. One American attendee described him as “the most interesting Briton alive . . . a Shelley-like person, and yet too virile to be a poet.”

Lawrence came away deeply disillusioned after the French took Syria and Lebanon while the British helped themselves to Palestine, Iraq, and Transjordan. He went on, however, to play an important role as an adviser to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office in 1921 in remaking the map of the Middle East. …

Once his work at the Colonial Office was done, Lawrence sought to hide “out-of-sight,” but he found this increasingly hard to accomplish because of an enterprising showman named Lowell Thomas. A former Chicago newspaperman, Thomas had spent a few days with Lawrence in Aqaba in 1918. Out of this thin material he created a popular book and lecture, accompanied by a slideshow, on “Lawrence of Arabia.”

His subject found Thomas’s presentation to be “silly and inaccurate,” but it played to packed houses from New York to London, month after month. Four million people were said to have viewed the show around the world, lured by a romantic tale of derring-do that offered a welcome respite from the aftermath of the mass slaughter of the trenches.

To escape the public klieg light, “the Uncrowned King of Arabia,” as he was dubbed by Thomas, enlisted under an alias as a lowly airman in the Royal Air Force to serve, in his own words, as a “cog of the machine.” Later he legally changed his name to T. E. Shaw. “Damn the Press,” he fulminated, decrying intrusions into his privacy.

In truth T.E.’s attitude to fame was ambivalent. While professing a passion for anonymity, he struck up high-profile friendships with literary giants such as George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy, published a memoir, and sat for numerous portraits by leading artists.

When his charade was discovered by the press in 1925, he had to leave the RAF temporarily and join the Royal Tank Corps, but, thanks to his friendship with the RAF chief of staff, he was allowed to rejoin the air force—“the nearest modern equivalent to going into a monastery in the Middle Ages,” he explained to a friend, the poet Robert Graves. Here he felt a sense of comradeship in the ranks with his fellow mechanist-“monks.”

He had only just left the RAF and settled in a small cottage in Dorset when he died in a motorcycle accident in 1935 while hurtling at top speed down a country lane as he loved to do. Winston Churchill called his death at age forty-seven the greatest blow the British Empire had suffered in years. He told reporters, “In Lawrence we have lost one of the greatest beings of our time.”

Not until much later did one of the more sordid details of his last years emerge. Between 1923 and 1935 he had found some perverse satisfaction in occasionally hiring a younger soldier to whip him—apparently as penance for his ordeal at Daraa. This is what psychiatrists call a “flagellation disorder.” Lawrence’s friends and family had no idea about this private behavior; the beatings became public only when the soldier who administered them sold his story to a newspaper in 1968.

Contrary to the widespread assumption, however, there is no evidence that Lawrence was a practicing homosexual; he consistently professed his own “sexlessness” and in all likelihood never entered into a sexual relationship with anyone, man or woman.

Opinion about this “strange character,” who admitted that “madness was very near” for him, has been sharply divided over the years. Some have derided him, with scant evidence, as an “unfortunate charlatan” who “lied compulsively,” while boosters have compared him, rather preposterously, to Napoleon, Marlborough, and other “great captains” of history.

Lawrence never claimed such importance for his own work in a “side show of a side show.” “My role was a minor one,” he wrote with excessive modesty.