Monday, November 05, 2007

What would TE Lawrence had done in the Second World War, had he survived his motorbike crash?

Patrick - friend, fellow (and much more frequent) blogger and occasional thoughtful commenter to this effort - has come up with an interesting question. "What would have happened", he asks me, "had TEL not gone for a motorbike ride in Dorset? What role may he have played during the Second World War?"

Normally I try to avoid counterfactual history, because I have a prejudice that dwelling on the what-might-have-beens is the preserve of fiction (and I have a feeling that a novel based on just this premise has been written at some stage; I've never read it). But I'm going to make an exception. I'm going to invite you into the dark and faintly mildewy tent of Mystic Barr, relieve you of a fiver, gaze into my crystal ball and ponder the question: what if Lawrence had been alive in 1939?

It seems likely that Lawrence would by then, or would soon, have been asked to help. In his resignation letter from the civil service in 1922, he wrote: "I need hardly say that I'm always at his [Churchill's] disposal if ever there is a crisis, or any job, small or big, for which he can convince me that I am necessary." Churchill replied, gratefully: "I feel I can count upon you at any time when a need may arise."

Churchill himself wondered what Lawrence might have done. "I had hoped to see him quit his retirement" he told reporters on the day that Lawrence died, "and take a commanding part in facing the dangers which now threaten the country". He added: "In Lawrence we have lost one of the greatest beings of our time."

Three broad options might have been open to Lawrence. A role within the military, within the Foreign Office, or at home within, or working for, the British government, especially after Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940.

By 1940 Lawrence was fifty-one years old- a tough and active man, for sure, but well above the upper age for volunteering for active service. The compelling possibility that Lawrence might have played an active military role during the Second World War, though attractive, therefore seems unlikely. But who knows? Lawrence was adept at bending rules. And others served in frontline roles: Lawrence's sometime opponent, the MP and former proconsul in Iraq, Sir Arnold Wilson, died serving as a tail-gunner in an aircraft covering the Dunkirk evacuation. And he was fifty five.

Might therefore have Lawrence returned to serve in the Middle East - perhaps in North Africa? This is where the counterfactual throws up some interesting points. Part of the reason for Lawrence's fame by 1939 was precisely because he was already dead. His death four years earlier cleared the way for the general publication of his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, of which, up to then, he had only had about 200 copies printed. He did give one of them to Archibald Wavell, who would command British forces in the Middle East early in the war and who encouraged the development of the famous Long Range Desert Group. But Wavell remained a controversial figure (Churchill eventually replaced him) and I wonder whether he would have been able to stand behind the LRDG had the trade edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom not already become a huge bestseller. The book certainly enthused some of his men. As one of the leaders of the Long Range Desert Group wrote in his own memoir: "Lawrence had lit the flame which fans the passion of those who lead guerrilla warfare and I wanted more than anything to experience it." So there remains a question as to whether, had Lawrence lived and Seven Pillars of Wisdom remained unpublished, he would have had as great an influence as he did because he was dead.

There were other jobs on offer in the Middle East. To coordinate the military and political efforts in the region, Britain posted a minister of state to Cairo. However, this role involved liaison with the Free French after Syria and Lebanon were taken back from the Vichy regime in 1941. To them however, Lawrence was anathema and it is highly unlikely that he would have been an acceptable candidate, particularly because the Foreign Office was anxious throughout the war to reduce friction with the French as far as possible. There were other diplomatic jobs. In early 1941, when it became clear that the government in Iraq was being subverted by Axis propaganda, the British government sent Lawrence's wartime colleague Kinahan Cornwallis to Baghdad to serve as ambassador. While he was there, Cornwallis effectively coordinated the military operation which ousted Rashid Ali al Gailani, who seized power in a coup in April that year. Given Lawrence's own interest in Iraq, and his knowledge of the region, this is certainly a role that would have been open to him. But - the problem with imagining Lawrence in any governmental job is that he had upset many civil servants during his earlier service and these enmities would inevitably have worked against him had Churchill dropped him into any job. A comparable figure was Sir Louis Spears, an MP whom Churchill made his special envoy in the Levant from 1941. Spears found himself under attack from almost every direction. Again, it is highly unlikely Lawrence could have fulfilled this role because of his known dislike of the French. Perhaps he might simply have served as an adviser, in Whitehall, to Churchill. Churchill numbered Lawrence, after all, was one of "the two or three of the very best men it has ever been my fortune to work with."

At home other opportunities might have been open to him. In his final years in the Royal Air Force he had worked on developing rescue boats that were to play a vital role during the Battle of Britain picking up airmen who had ditched into the English Channel. It is possible that he might have played a greater role in this capacity during the battle for British airspace in 1940-41. But given Churchill's like of Lawrence - and his appreciation of Lawrence's fame - it is hard to believe that he would have left Lawrence working on such an important, but fundamentally unglamorous project. Could Lawrence have worked at home for the Special Operations Executive, taking on a Maurice Buckmaster-type role? I don't know enough about the Political Warfare Executive to do more than raise that question. But with that thought, one last possibility comes to mind. Might Churchill have theatrically appointed Lawrence the guerrilla leader to lead the preparations to fight the Germans on the beaches and the landing grounds had Hitler invaded in 1940? Perhaps it is here, among the Home Guard - many of them old soldiers of the First World War - that Lawrence would have found his niche. It is, of course, impossible to know for sure.


Patrick Kidd said...

Fascinating, and thanks for taking such time to construct this.

It strikes me that in many ways (save height, where there was a difference of about a foot) the Second World War equivalent of Lawrence would be David Stirling, founder of the SAS. Not least in their impudence to go over others' heads to achieve what they thought was right.

Stirling would have been far too young, I would have thought, to have met Lawrence (he was 21 when TEL died) but are you aware of any evidence that Stirling was directly influenced by him? I'm aware this is slightly outside your sphere of research so please don't go hunting anything that doesn't come immediately to mind.

I suppose one connection is Claude Auchinleck, the c-in-c in the Middle East in WW2 who served in Mesopotamia in WW1 and gave Stirling the permission to form the SAS.

James Barr said...

Unfortunately I know almost nothing about David Stirling. However it is clear that he, and other guerrilla leaders in the Second World War, notably Orde Wingate, can be said to have been Lawrence's "descendants". Both of them benefited from atmosphere encouraged by Auchinleck's predecessor, Archibald Wavell, who, with scant resources at his disposal, encouraged unorthodox approaches to warfare. Wavell certainly did appreciate Lawrence: he described himself, in a letter to Lawrence (8 January 1928) as "your most grateful admirer". His transfer, when Churchill became fed up with him, was described by a female member of his staff who knew the Stirling brothers well as "a real blow" because, she said, Wavell was "one of the very few senior soldiers who back young methods of war and enterprises like the Long Range Desert Group and Wingate’s operation in Abyssinia."