Files reveal Great War secrets of British literary heroes

Authorities believed Sassoon was a lunatic and TE Lawrence was a charlatan
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Files released by the Public Records Office yesterday shed new light on the private lives of three of the most renowned British literary figures of this century. Kim Sengupta and John Crossland report.

Lawrence of Arabia invented tales of his valour and helped to create his own myth; Rudyard Kipling refused to believe his son was killed in action; and the authorities had a ready explanation for Sigfried Sassoon's impassioned protests about the slaughter on the Western Front - he was a lunatic, and not fit to be trusted with men's lives.

These accounts were among 216,795 files from the First World War released by the Public Record Office yesterday.

The papers contain the first version of Sassoon's pacifist manifesto "Act of Wilful Defiance of Military Authority", in which he declared he could no longer see any justification for the slaughter in the trenches.What was once described as a fight for liberty, he said, had become a war of aggression. "I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust".

The treatise could have put him before a firing squad. Instead, the War Office, perplexed as to how a decorated officer from the right background could be so disloyal, summoned him to a medical board and sent him to the Craig Lockhart Hospital for the treatment of psychiatric disorders in Scotland, the place where much of Pat Barker's novel Regeneration is set. After assessment a letter in his file stated: "Lieutenant Sassoon was undoubtedly the author, but when he wrote it he was a lunatic".

The manifesto was found stuffed into a luggage rack on a train between Birmingham and Preston, and handed to Lord Derby, the Minister for War, in January l9l8. It is believed Sassoon dumped it there several months earlier on the way to his medical board.

Grave doubts about Sassoon's mental state continued among the military hierachy. Brigadier George Cockerill, deputy director of military intelligence and one of the founders of MI5, wrote to The Nation magazine, which had printed a poem by Sassoon: "If Lt Sassoon is now writing such verse ... it would appear his mind is still in chaos and he is not fit to be trusted with men's lives".

Lawrence of Arabia, according to the papers, credited himself with military service which was almost certainly fictitous. He had told his official biographer, David Garnett, that he had run away from home to serve with the Royal Artillery in l906 or l907 before he started at Oxford University.

In l938, three years after Lawrence's death in a motorbike accident, an inquiry by the military historian Basil Liddell Hart led to a check by the War Office, and the discovery there was no sign of such service.

Accusations of embellishment also came in the Lawrence file over the nomination for a Victoria Cross and a secret reconnaissance mission he was supposed to have made to Deraa in Syria, the place a year later, he was allegedly flogged and raped by a Turkish officer.

Commenting on the declaration of his reconnaissance mission, a memo says: "Do you consider he is deserving of the latter honour [the VC]? I do not think so." The file later noted that no reference should be made to the Deraa reconnaissance.

The records also shows the War Office grudgingly allowed Lawrence to carry the rank of Lt Colonel when he re-enlisted as an ordinary aircraftman, contrary to military regulation, because it feared adverse publicity if it appeared his rank had been stripped off him.

Rudyard Kipling refused to believe that his son had died in the Battle of Loos in l915. According to Army records, John Kipling was killed in action at the battle on 27 September l915.

His father did not accept the official version for four years, and started an investigation of his own. In September l916 he wrote to the War Office that his research indicated his son had been left behind at a building on the battlefield.

The letter said: "All the information I have had is that he was wonded and and left behind at Puits 14, at the battle of Loos. I have interviewed a great many people and heard from many others and can find none who saw him killed. And his wound, being a leg wound, would be more disabling than fatal".

The War Office responded that in view of Kipling's feelings on the matter it would not officially accept his son's death. Kipling continued his search after the war until finally accepting his loss in l919. Writing through his solicitors, he said: "The search in Germany ... has not revealed any trace of him".