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.
Lawrence shows a wonderful rhythm and beat. What’s more interesting though, is that in mastering your craft, you sitting before that ancient Smith-Corona and pounding away at these two paragraphs.
Now, that’s doing the work.
My name is Amin. I’m from Iran. I have a written about legend of bagger vance movie. I send it to you if you like. I have watched this movie more than 25 times. And I like it the story very much .
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Hi Steve, the T.E. Lawrence lines appear to be from a letter to one of his fellow officers, W.F. Stirling; at least it’s quoted in this book, found via a Google Books search: A prince of our disorder: the life of T. E. Lawrence by John E. Mack (pages 154-155).
I couldn’t find the date of the letter as the footnotes aren’t included in the Google books preview, but it’s possibly from 1917. Would that make sense? This book, somewhat unkindly, says the letter is written in a “schoolboy tone”.
Supreme writing from a supreme human being. His passion for what he is doing is exceeded only by his obvious skill in doing it. Sort of an Ernie Pyle action figure. Good catch. I love anything related to this man (meaning Lawrence but Pyle too)
I especially like the final two sentences; first, for referring to his train raid as an American wild west show (how iconic Americans are), and second, for acknowledging the type of person who values fighting and shared hardship over luxuries.
In my copy of The Letters of TE Lawrence edited by Malcolm Brown, the letter is dated 25th September 1917 and is to Major W F Stirling.
In the footnotes it says: Stirling was about to join the Sherifian forces in the desert, his principal task, to quote his autobiography Safety Last, being that of building “a proper Arab Army …”. Stirling was to be Chief Staff Officer. He remained in the Arabian war-theatre for the rest of the war and entered Damascus with Lawrence in October 1918.
still my favorite movie…and favorite real world warrior….thnx…..S/F………sr
It looks that you’ve put a excellent deal of time into your article and I want a lot more of these on the web these days. Well, anyways… it certainly was very informative for me.
I can sense Lawrence’s Classical education coming through as he describes the scene. Surely his study of Homer and other Greek writers (after all he did publish a translation of the Odyssey) would have helped him develop his own literary style. How would Lawrence’s letters been affected by e-mail?
Great story, thanks for sharing