‘Try and remember him!’
As a boy, Michael Shepherd saw T E Lawrence on his motor-cycle. Years later, he oversaw the planting of a memorial tree at the spot where he was killed. Here he tells the story of a little-known footnote to Lawrence’s life story.
Published in May ’10
It was the early 1930s and I was growing up on my parents’ farm in north Hampshire. With milking over each morning, my father loaded up a churn into the sidecar of his motor-cycle, pulled goggles down from his forehead to protect his eyes along the dusty lanes, reversed his cap and tapped the petrol tank as a sign to Buster, the farm terrier, to jump up and sit between his arms as he set out on his milk round. This involved a lengthy journey, often to remote cottages where, on his arrival, the lady of the house would generally appear with a jug which he would fill with a ladle dipped into the churn.
I often squeezed into the sidecar alongside that churn as we set out along lanes where the only traffic was the occasional horse and cart – although we did once meet another motor-cyclist. To this day I can remember my father saying ‘Try and remember that man – he’s Lawrence of Arabia!’ He was doubtless on his way to visit an ex-army colleague living locally.
Many years later, when I was working as the Dorset CC Trees and Woodlands Officer, I received a letter from a lady living in Luton asking whether it would be possible for her elderly husband, Tom Beaumont, to plant a commemorative tree at the point where Lawrence had his fatal motor-cycle accident in May 1935. It seems that Tom had been Lawrence’s favoured machine-gunner in his campaign against the Turks.
With help from the police, I discovered the exact spot where this tragic accident had taken place. Not far south of his home, Clouds Hill, he had swerved to avoid two young cyclists; he died six days later from the injuries he received. He was laid to rest in the burial ground annexe to Moreton Church. The land adjacent to the accident site was now part of Bovington Camp’s tank training grounds, a place where Lawrence had once served during his career with both the Army and the Royal Air force. This looked likely to cause problems until I contacted the Adjutant at nearby Bovington Camp, who could not have been more helpful and, further research completed, arrangements were made for Tom Beaumont to come down to Dorset and plant an oak tree on the anniversary of Lawrence’s death.
A splendid full standard oak tree was purchased under the County Council’s annual amenity budget. Thankfully, on that special day, 13 May 1983, the weather was fine. On arrival at the site, I was more than a little surprised to find that not only was Bovington’s Adjutant present but that he had brought with him a bugler and a guard of honour.
We had placed the well-rooted tree in an appropriate hole, where it was supported by a sturdy stake. As Tom Beaumont began to shovel earth around the roots, the peace was shattered by a sudden order for the guard unit to present arms and the sounding of the ‘Last Post’ by the bugler. It was a touching moment that none of us who were present will ever forget.
But Tom Beaumont’s day was not over, for we were invited back for lunch in the Officers’ Mess at Bovington Camp, an occasion made especially memorable by their military band playing in the background.
Unfortunately, the first two commemorative plaques placed at the base of the tree were stolen; as an alternative, a more substantial permanent marker was placed by the tree, facing the small car park subsequently constructed by the Royal Armoured Corps, which enabled both their training tanks and the memorial to be seen at leisure. I am sure Tom Beaumont would have approved. As for my father, he need not have worried that I might forget Lawrence of Arabia on his motor-cycle.