A new biography of TE Lawrence sticks to the myth he built around himself in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The trouble is, it doesn’t stand up.
The unknown self-publicist
Fittingly for a man who concealed the tracks of his life under a litter of false clues, the mortal remains of Thomas Edward Lawrence can't be found beneath the life-size effigy that adorns the tomb bearing his name. Carved by his friend, the soldier and war artist Eric Kennington, the effigy was installed in St Martin's, a small church in the English county of Dorset, five years after the man better known as Lawrence of Arabia was buried elsewhere, under a simple headstone in another churchyard near by. There, he is remembered not as a warrior, but as a scholar, "T.E. Lawrence, Fellow of All Souls College Oxford".
In death, as in life, the man remains an elusive ghost.
Today, the effigy has uncomfortable resonance. As Time magazine noted in 1940, Kennington's Lawrence was "a 20th-century Crusader" - albeit one in disguise and clutching a Bedouin dagger rather than a broadsword - "but his prototypes would roll on their tomb-tops if they could see him wearing the Arab garb of the race they warred against".
In reality, they probably would have slapped him on the back and enjoyed the joke. After all, Lawrence had only gone among the Arabs disguised as a friend, promising them post-war sovereignty in exchange for revolt against their Ottoman overlords. He knew full well that he was deceiving them and betraying their cause.
"Had I been an honest adviser of the Arabs I would have advised them to go home and not risk their lives fighting for such stuff," he wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his unreliable account of the revolt. His excuse was that he presumed he would "be able to defeat not merely the Turks on the battlefield, but my own country and its allies in the council chamber".
If so, this was delusional stuff, even for a man with an ego the size of Lawrence's, but it was a pose he maintained to his grave. In 1921 Lawrence had been one of Winston Churchill's "Forty Thieves" who gathered in Cairo to shape the British mandates in Iraq and Palestine. Their work laid the foundations for decades of turmoil, yet in a letter written in 1935, just months before his death in a motorcycle accident at the age of 46, Lawrence wrote of "straightening out that Eastern tangle with Winston ... I having been partly the cause of the tangle. How well the Middle East has done: it, more than any part of the world, has gained from that war."
After the eight decades of turmoil in the Middle East which Lawrence helped to set in train, now would seem to be a good time for a book that sets aside the tediously familiar myth, as framed by David Lean's 1962 Technicolor homage, and re-examines the legend of Lawrence of Arabia from the Arabian perspective. After all, one people's hero is usually another's villain.
As its title suggests, this is not such a book. Readers will look in vain for the Arabic perspective, for instance as expressed by Subhi al-Umary, one of the leaders of the revolt. For him, Seven Pillars was "a story about the Arab Revolt and not the story of the Arab Revolt". Al-Umary accused Lawrence of lying and diminishing the role of the Arab leaders to enhance his own.
By Michael Korda's own count there have been 56 previous biographies of his subject. Some have been hagiographies - wobbly structures built on the shifting sands of Seven Pillars - while others have made some attempt to unravel the fabric of truth and fiction woven by the "uncrowned king of Arabia". Most, however, have succeeded only in adding another layer to the obfuscatory process begun by Lawrence himself, beneath which only the fossilised myth can still be seen. And now Korda has added a 57th layer.
Hero is compromised by a number of personal associations that undermine its appearance of objectivity. Indeed, a family link to Lawrence seems to have affected Korda's very life choices. In one curious footnote he tells us that it was reading about Lawrence as a boy and hearing about his escapades from an uncle that made him "decide to buy a motorcycle and join the RAF".
The uncle was the film producer Alexander Korda, who bought the rights to the abridged version of Seven Pillars. Eventually Korda sold them to Sam Spiegel, who went on to produce the Lean film, starring Peter O'Toole. Korda the author treats us to a family conspiracy theory - the fanciful claim that in the 1930s his uncle was leant on to keep the project on ice, for fear of offending the Turks and the Arabs and losing their support in any subsequent war.
"It was discreetly suggested to Korda," writes his nephew, "that it might be better to put the film aside for the moment."
All of this perhaps explains Korda's treatment of Richard Aldington, who in 1955 earned widespread opprobrium when he became the first biographer to dissect the Lawrence legend. In Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, Aldington made a number of what were then shocking allegations, including that Lawrence was a bastard (true), a homosexual (probably not true, though he was almost certainly a celibate with a taste for being physically chastised by other men) and, most importantly, a liar who had twisted the facts for the purpose of self-promotion (true, to an extent).
Korda responds with name-calling. Aldington, a respected author and former soldier who had experienced some of the worst fighting on the Western Front, was "one of those people who take everything literally - even his admirers do not credit him with a sense of proportion (or a sense of humour)". He "had a chip on his shoulder" about Lawrence and his book was spoilt "by his own envy of his subject". Perhaps so. But then hero-worship can have the same effect.
Korda credits Lawrence with the invention of guerrilla warfare, which is simply annoying nonsense. The very word "guerrilla" - little war, in Spanish - is derived from the Guerrilleros who harassed Napoleon's army after his invasion of Spain in 1808. Korda strays into absurdity, however, when he says that Lawrence's campaign "had the unintended effect of introducing the Arabs to the use of high explosives ... today's improvised explosive device, the roadside bomb, and the suicide bomber are all a part of Lawrence's legacy".
The most intriguing feature of Lawrence's story is the way he managed to achieve immortality after only two years in a theatre of war that even he dismissed as "a side-show to a sideshow". Today, he is the one character from the First World War whose name lives on - the "known soldier", as it were.
Too short to join up, Lawrence was recruited into intelligence and given a temporary commission on account of his command of Arabic and archaeologist's experience of the lands over which the Allies would be fighting.
He doubtless worked wonders, especially for a man with no formal military training, but then a lot of people did remarkable things during the First World War - including two of Lawrence's brothers, who fought and died in France. Many other British soldiers and agents also played vital and dangerous roles in the Middle East, but lacked the wit to dress up and recreate their deeds for the cameras.
After the war, Lawrence posed as a reluctant hero. He dismissed as tiresome the attentions of the American journalist and entrepreneur Lowell Thomas, whose myth-mongering reports, photographs, book, films and Lawrence of Arabia roadshow had made their subject famous on both sides of the Atlantic by 1920.
In fact, Lawrence had given the showman full co-operation and almost a fortnight of his time in Aqaba in the spring of 1918. Lawrence, as Thomas would observe, "had a genius for backing into the limelight".
And, as Aldington established in 1955, a certain flair for fiction.
Some of Lawrence's most dramatic episodes cannot be challenged - or corroborated - because they lacked witnesses. For example, doubts have long been cast on Lawrence's account of a dangerous 400-mile solo reconnaissance he claimed to have made into the heart of Turkish territory in 1917; Arabs who were with Lawrence at this time later swore he never left camp, yet Korda presents the episode as fact.
He subscribes to the easy orthodoxy that Lawrence was a "complex" character, but perhaps he would be better described as a calculating chameleon. "This killing and killing of Turks is horrible," Lawrence wrote to an academic friend at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford after a murderous attack on a trainload of Turkish soldiers. But to a fellow army officer and adventurer he wrote: "I hope this sounds the fun it is".
And then there is the question of Lawrence's behaviour on the battlefield. Blowing up trains packed with troops - and, on occasion, civilians - is one thing. Telling his men to take no prisoners and then ordering the massacre of 200 Turkish prisoners in cold blood, as he did at the battle of Tafas in September 1918, is quite another.
Heroes on the winning side, of course, rarely face a court martial. But if Germany and the Ottoman Empire had prevailed, Lawrence might well have found himself characterised more as a war criminal than a hero.
Jonathan Gornall is a features writer at The National.