Thomas Edward Lawrence (August 16, 1888–May 19, 1935), also known
as Lawrence of Arabia, and (apparently, among his Arab allies) Aurens
or El Aurens, became famous for his role as a British liaison officer during
the Arab Revolt of 1916–1918. His fame as a soldier was largely promoted
by U.S. traveller and journalist
Lowell Thomas's reportage of the Revolt,
as well as by Lawrence's autobiographical account,
Seven Pillars of
Wisdom. Many Arabs consider him a folk hero for promoting their cause
for freedom from both Ottoman and European rule.
Lawrence was born in Tremadoc,
Caernarfonshire, North Wales, of mixed English
and Irish ancestry, and was educated at Jesus College, Oxford. His father
Thomas Chapman, from minor nobility, had escaped a tyrannical wife to live
with the maid with whom he had five sons very close to each other. Lawrence
graduated with First Class Honours largely as a consequence of the submission
of a highly-acclaimed thesis entitled
The influence of the Crusades
on European Military Architecture – to the end of the 12th century.
On leaving university he commenced a postgraduate degree in mediaeval
pottery, which he soon abandoned after he was offered the opportunity to
become a practicing archaeologist in the Middle East. In December 1910
he sailed for Beirut, and on arrival went to Jbail (Byblos) where he studied
Arabic. He then went to work on the excavations at Carchemish near to Jerablus
in the northern part of Syria, where he worked under D.G. Hogarth and R.
In the late summer of 1911 he returned to England for a brief sojourn
and, by November, he was back en route to Beirut. Prior to returning to
work at Carchemish he worked briefly with William Flinders Petrie at Kafr
Ammar in Egypt. At Carchemish he was to work with Leonard Woolley. He continued
making trips to the Middle East as a field archaeologist during this time
until the outbreak of World War I. His extensive travels through Arabia,
his excursions, often on foot, living with the Arabs, wearing their clothes,
learning their culture, language and local dialects, were to prove invaluable
during the conflict.
In January 1914 Woolley and Lawrence were co-opted by the British military
as an archaeological smokescreen for a British military survey of the Sinai
peninsula. At this time Lawrence visited Aqaba and Petra. From March to
May, Lawrence worked again at Carchemish. Following the outbreak of hostilities
in August 1914, on advice from S.F. Newcombe, Lawrence did not enlist immediately,
but held back until October.
The Arab Revolt
Once enlisted he was posted to Cairo where he worked for British Military
Intelligence. Lawrence's intimate knowledge of the Arab people made him
the ideal liaison between British and Arab forces and in October 1916 he
was sent into the desert to report on the Arab nationalist movements. During
the war, he fought with Arab
irregular troops under the command of Emir
Feisal, a son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in extended
against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence's major contribution to World War
I was convincing Arab leaders to coordinate their revolt to aid British
interests. He persuaded the Arabs not to drive the Ottomans out of Medina,
thus forcing the Turks to tie up troops in the city garrison. The Arabs
were then able to direct most of their attention to the railway supplying
the garrison. This tied up more Ottoman troops, who were forced to protect
the railroad and repair the constant damage. In 1917 Lawrence arranged
a joint action with the Arab irregulars and forces under
Auda Abu Tayi
(until then in the employ of the Ottomans) against the strategically-located
port city of
Aqaba. On July 6, after a daring overland attack, Aqaba fell
to Arab forces. Some 16 months later, Lawrence was involved in the capture
of Damascus in the final weeks of the war.
As he did before the war, during the time he spent with the Arab irregulars,
Lawrence adopted many local customs and traditions as his own, and soon
became a close friend of Prince Feisal. He especially became known for
wearing white Arabian garb (given to him by Prince Feisal, originally wedding
robes given to Feisal as a hint) and riding on a horse in the desert. During
the closing years of the war he sought to convince his superiors in the
British government that Arab independence was in their interests, with
Immediately after the war Lawrence worked for the British Foreign Office,
attending the Versailles Paris Peace Conference, 1919 between January and
May as a member of Feisal's delegation. Through most of 1921 he served
as an advisor to
Churchill at the Colonial Office.
Starting in 1922 he attempted to achieve anonymity, joining the Royal
Air Force under the name "Ross". His cover blown, he was forced out of
the RAF, changed his name to "Shaw" and in 1923 joined the Royal Tank Corps.
He was unhappy there and repeatedly petitioned to rejoin the RAF, which
petitions finally bore fruit in August of 1925. A fresh burst of publicity
resulted in his re-assignment to a remote base in what is now Pakistan
in mid-1927, where he remained until the beginning of 1929. He continued
serving in the RAF, specializing in high-speed boats and professing happiness,
leaving with considerable regret in early 1935. A few months later he died
at the age of 46 in a motorcycle accident in Dorset.
Lawrence the Author
Lawrence was a prolific writer throughout his life. A large proportion
of his writing was epistolary; he was an avid correspondent, often sending
multiple letters per day. There are several large collections of his letters
in print, some of which remain unfortunately expurgated by over-protective
editors. His correspondents included many notable figures of the time,
including George Bernard Shaw and Edward Elgar.
Certain passages in Lawrence's writing, supplemented by reportage from
a military colleague whom Lawrence hired to give him beatings, make it
clear that he had unconventional sexual tastes, notably masochism. While
his writings include one notably homoerotic passage, the details of his
sexual orientation and experience remain unknown.
He also translated Homer's Odyssey and
The Forest Giant, a work
of French fiction.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of his part in the Arab Revolt.
The Mint, an account of his service in the Royal Air Force. (ISBN
The Odyssey of Homer, translation from the Greek. (ISBN 0195068181)
The Forest Giant, by Adrien Le Corbeau, novel, translation from
the French, 1924.
Crusader Castles, his Oxford Thesis. (ISBN 019822964-X)
The Letters of T.E. Lawrence, selected and edited by Malcolm Brown.
The Letters of T.E. Lawrence, edited by David Garnett. (ISBN 0883558564)
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and
wrote my will across the sky in stars To earn you Freedom
— from the
dedication of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time...
We shall never see his like again. His name will live in history. It will
live in the annals of war... It will live in the legends of Arabia. —
Churchill speaking of Lawrence
All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in
the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity:
but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream
with open eyes, to make it possible.
— from Seven Pillars of Wisdom
The public women of the rare settlements we encountered in
our months of wandering would have been nothing to our numbers, even had
their raddled meat been palatable to a man of healthy parts. In horror
of such sordid commerce our youths began indifferently to slake one another's
few needs in their own clean bodies—a cold convenience that, by comparison,
seemed sexless and even pure. Later, some began to justify this sterile
process, and swore that friends quivering together in the yielding sand
with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace, found there hidden in the darkness
a sensual co-efficient of the mental passion which was welding our souls
and spirits in one flaming effort. Several, thirsting to punish appetites
they could not wholly prevent, took a savage pride in degrading the body,
and offered themself fiercely in any habit which promised physical pain
or filth.—from Seven Pillars of Wisdom
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