A Letter from Lawrence of Arabia
The piece below comes not from Seven Pillars of Wisdom or from the David Lean movie or from Michael Korda’s wonderful new book, Hero. It’s from a letter written by T.E. Lawrence during the WWI revolt in the Arabian desert, when he led what the British called “Bedouin irregulars” against the Turks.
Alas, I can’t recall the date of the letter or the circumstances of its writing or even the person it was written to. I cut it out and saved it as an example of vivid, immediate, riveting prose.
I used to copy these two paragraphs over and over on my ancient Smith-Corona, trying to teach myself the rhythm and punch of the thing.
Given the carnage of the scene described, we might expect the writer to be appalled or moved to pity. Not Lawrence, or at least not Lawrence in this moment. He seems to be having the time of his life.
The last stunt was the hold up of a train. It had two locomotives, and we gutted one with an electric mine. This rather jumbled up the trucks, which were full of Turks, shooting at us. We had a Lewis, and flung bullets through the sides. So they hopped out and took cover behind an embankment, and shot at us between the wheels, at 50 yards. Then we tried a Stokes gun, and two beautiful shots dropped right in the middle of them. They couldn’t stand that (12 died on the spot) and bolted away to the East across a 100 yard belt of open sand into some scrub. Unfortunately for them, the Lewis covered the open stretch. The whole job took ten minutes, and they lost 70 killed, 30 wounded, 80 prisoners, and about 25 got away. Of my hundred Howeitat and two British NCO’s there was one (Arab) killed, and four (Arab) wounded.
The Turks then nearly cut us off as we looted the train, and I lost some baggage, and nearly myself. My loot is a superfine red Baluch prayer-rug. I hope this sounds the fun it is. The only pity is the sweat to work them up and the wild scramble while it lasts. It’s the most amateurish, Buffalo-Billy sort of performance, and the only people who do it well are the Bedouin. Only you will think it heaven, because there aren’t any returns, or orders, or superiors, or inferiors; no doctors, no accounts, no meals, and no drinks.