Sir Gilbert Clayton was a distinguished soldier and diplomat, serving in North Africa and the Middle East. He excelled as the director of military intelligence in Cairo during the First World War, particularly in managing those military operations in the Hijāz which brought T. E. Lawrence to world attention. That he kept Lawrence’s high regard says a great deal: ‘Clayton made the perfect leader for such a band of wild men as we were. He was calm, detached, clear-sighted, of unconscious courage in assuming responsibility. He gave an open run to his subordinates. His own views were general, like his knowledge; and he worked by influence rather than by loud direction. It was not easy to descry his influence. He was like water, or permeating oil, creeping silently and insistently through everything. It was not possible to say where Clayton was and was not, and how much really belonged to him. He never visibly led; but his ideas were abreast of those who did: he impressed men by his sobriety, and by a certain quiet and stately moderation of hope. In practical matters he was loose, irregular, untidy, a man with whom independent men could bear’ (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1936, p. 57). After the war Clayton served as High Commissioner in Palestine and brokered a series of border agreements across the region, but his career was cut short when he died suddenly, having just taken up the post of High Commissioner in Iraq.
The cache of personal correspondence and papers that was recently purchased by Durham University with the aid of the Friends of the National Libraries chiefly relates to the beginning of his career in the Egyptian Army, aged 23, serving under Kitchener in Sudan during the last Mahdist campaign. These papers join a larger collection of Clayton material donated to the Sudan Archive by the family in 1963 and 1974. The Sudan campaign of 1898, capturing Khartoum and avenging Gordon, created a sensation in Britain and across Europe. Clayton’s letters are chiefly written home to his mother at Sandown, sometimes in the form of journals over the periods between posts. He describes in vivid detail, with detailed plans, the movement of Kitchener’s forces leading up to and during the battles of Atbara and Omdurman (Mar.-Sept. 1898), and concludes one letter written on the eve of battle, ‘[i]f anything should happen, after all it is better so, than in any other way’. The few remaining letters describe his army life up to 1910, including a two-month 1,000 mile patrol from Ad-Dāmer, up the Atbara river to Al Qadarif, Wad Medani and Khartoum.
An unexpected but welcome discovery was a small series of lively hand-drawn caricatures by Clayton relating to his work during the 1914-18 war, including one titled ‘“Uneven muscular development’”, illustrative of certain types of mentality met with in high places during the war’, and a ‘Portrait of a rather unsuitable officer posted to the Chief Political Officers Staff’.