Updated June 2012
T. E. Lawrence to Elliott Springs
It is difficult to write real letters to legendary persons. I have been trying to feel that you lay with in postal range, ever since Frere-Reeves gave me your book and papers: but somehow it does not carry conviction. Surely the author of War Birds is dead. That book reads so strangely like reality: everything in it seems to have been and done and happened. It is improper, somehow, for you to continue still.
I used to fancy that you didn't: that War Birds was a transcript of a diary by Grider, or MacGrider: for people used to say that they were with him in France, and some called him one name and some the other. Let me hail you as, perhaps, in this instance, the best editor since Moses: Shorthouse in John Inglesant runs you close, but did not so wholly fuse his stuff into one tone and narrative.
Since I saw Frere-Reeves I have studied War Birds frequently, tried to see differences between this and that, trying to pick out those stories which you worked in everywhere to fatten it up. But the quest is as hopeless as a disentangling of the Iliad.
In putting together War Birds you have achieved what I think is the finest 'actual' book upon the war - dividing books into the photographic and the composed. Of all the actualities yours strikes me as the sharpest, reddest and liveliest. You give the actual feel of hangers and R.F.C. officers' messes and leaves. I am sorry that the rank-and-file do not appear. You lived too exclusively among the officers: but then you did so live, and that makes it all the more true. A book written by an 'other rank' would not mention the officers. Had you been in an American unit things would have been different, but that is the English way.
You know, I hope that the British Air Force of today is very grateful to you for War Birds, and proud of having carried off, through your writing, so many of the spoils of war. I am myself (after nine years of service in R.A.F.) very much of an airmen, and I know how excited a book makes the fellows when they read it. Of course the old women are shocked: but that is right. They would be, continually, if they lived in even a peace-time Mess.
I feel less comfortable in talking to you about your later books. I have read two of them and some stray stories: and I feel that you are in the strange position of having once given out more of your strength and reality than you can afford. So you are war-damaged, and that stains your peace-efforts. However, you would indeed be a greedy writer if you went on wanting to write masterpieces.
Do you not think that is rather up to you to annotate (not for publication, I mean, but for record purposes; for history's sake) one copy of War Birds, to show as far as possible how it grew in your mind or under your hand? The book is a permanent book and a real and immortal part of our war with Germany, besides being the history of the beginning of military flying. It ranks with great books, by some accident of your having put yourself into every line of it. Nobody but yourself knows how it was built: and it would be famous and fascinating to put on record its parts and origin.
I am deeply in your debt for telling me so much about it. As I say, I care for War Birds above any book of the war, as yet: with the possible exception of Manning's Her Privates We: and that is reflective, not photographic, so not a rival.
T. E. Shaw
|Last revised:||28 November 2008|
T. E. Lawrence chronology
1888 16 August: born at Tremadoc, Wales
1896-1907: City of Oxford High School for Boys
1907-9: Jesus College, Oxford, B.A., 1st Class Hons, 1909
1910-14: Magdalen College, Oxford (Senior Demy), while working at the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish
1915-16: Military Intelligence Dept, Cairo
1916-18: Liaison Officer with the Arab Revolt
1919: Attended the Paris Peace Conference
1919-22: wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1921-2: Adviser on Arab Affairs to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office
1922 August: Enlisted in the Ranks of the RAF
1923 January: discharged from the RAF
1923 March: enlisted in the Tank Corps
1923: translated a French novel, The Forest Giant
1924-6: prepared the subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1927-8: stationed at Karachi, then Miranshah
1927 March: Revolt in the Desert, an abridgement of Seven Pillars, published
1928: completed The Mint, began translating Homer's Odyssey
1929-33: stationed at Plymouth
1931: started working on RAF boats
1932: his translation of the Odyssey published
1933-5: attached to MAEE, Felixstowe
1935 February: retired from the RAF
1935 19 May: died from injuries received in a motor-cycle crash on 13 May
1935 21 May: buried at Moreton, Dorset