Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, CB, DSO (August 16, 1888 – May 19, 1935), known professionally as T. E. Lawrence, was a British Army officer renowned especially for his liaison role during the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule of 1916–18.
The extraordinary breadth and variety of his activities and associations, and his ability to describe them vividly in writing, earned him international fame as Lawrence of Arabia, a title which was used for the 1962 film based on his World War I activities.
Lawrence was born illegitimate in Tremadog, Wales, Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, a governess who was herself illegitimate. Chapman had left his wife and first family in Ireland to live with Sarah, and they called themselves Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence.
In the summer of 1896 the Lawrences moved to Oxford, where in 1907–10 young Lawrence studied history at Jesus College, graduating with First Class Honours. He became a practising archaeologist in the Middle East. In 1908 he joined the OUOTC (Oxford University Officer Training Corps), undergoing a two-year training course.
In January 1914, before the outbreak of World War I, Lawrence was co-opted by the British Army to undertake a military survey of the Negev Desert while doing archaeological research.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Lawrence’s public image was due in part to the sensationalized reportage of the revolt by an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, as well as to Lawrence’s autobiographical account, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922).
From 1907 to 1910 Lawrence studied history at Jesus College, Oxford. In the summer of 1909 Lawrence set out alone on a three-month walking tour of crusader castles in Ottoman Syria, in which he traveled 1,000 mi (1,600 km) on foot. Lawrence graduated with First Class Honors.
On completing his degree in 1910, Lawrence commenced postgraduate research in medieval pottery with a Senior Demy, a form of scholarship, at Magdalen College, Oxford. He abandoned this after he was offered the opportunity to become a practicing archaeologist in the Middle East.
Lawrence was a linguist whose published work demonstrates competence in French, Ancient Greek, and Arabic.
In January 1914, Lawrence was co-opted by the British military as an archaeological smokescreen for a British military survey of the Negev Desert. They were funded by the Palestine Exploration Fund to search for an area referred to in the Bible as the “Wilderness of Zin”; along the way, they undertook an archaeological survey of the Negev Desert.
The Negev was of strategic importance, as it would have to be crossed by any Ottoman army attacking Egypt in the event of war. Lawrence, and companion and employer Woolley, subsequently published a report of the expedition’s archaeological findings.
A more important result was an updated mapping of the area, with special attention to features of military relevance such as water sources. Lawrence also visited Aqaba and Petra.
With his first-hand knowledge of Syria, the Levant, and Mesopotamia, Lawrence was in 1914 posted to Cairo on the Intelligence Staff of the GOC Middle East.
The region was not considered candidate territories for incorporation in the British Empire but only as an extension of the range of British Imperial influence and the weakening and destruction of a German ally, the Ottoman Empire.
Lawrence fought with Arab irregular troops under the command of Emir Faisal, a son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in extended guerrilla operations against the armed forces of the Ottoman Empire.
He persuaded the Arabs not to make a frontal assault on the Ottoman stronghold in Medina but allowed the Turkish army to tie up troops in the city garrison. The Arabs were then free to direct most of their attention to the Turks’ weak point, the Hejaz railway that supplied the garrison. This vastly expanded the battlefield and tied up Ottoman troops, who were then forced to protect the railway and repair the constant damage.
In 1917, Lawrence arranged a joint action with the Arab irregulars against the strategically located but lightly defended town of Aqaba. On July 6, after a surprise overland attack, Aqaba fell to Lawrence and the Arab forces.
After Aqaba, Lawrence was promoted to major. Fortunately for Lawrence, the new commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, General Sir Edmund Allenby, agreed to his strategy for the revolt, stating after the war:
“I gave him a free hand. His cooperation was marked by the utmost loyalty, and I never had anything but praise for his work, which, indeed, was invaluable throughout the campaign.”
Lawrence now held a powerful position, as an adviser to Faisal and a person who had Allenby’s confidence.
The following year, Lawrence was involved in the build up to the capture of Damascus in the final weeks of the war. Much to his disappointment, and contrary to instructions he had issued, he was not present at the city’s formal surrender, arriving several hours after the city had fallen. Lawrence entered Damascus around 9am on October 1, 1918, but was only the third arrival of the day, the first being the 10th Australian Light Horse Brigade.
Despite his absence for the formal surrender, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in late 1918 for the role he had played in the capture of Damascus. Lawrence was reportedly embittered by having been beaten into the city by the Australians, and resented them for it later in his life. In his own recollections of the capture of Damascus he completely omitted the key role played by the Australians, and this error was widely believed and later repeated by many historians.
As was his habit when traveling before the war, Lawrence adopted many local customs and traditions (many photographs show him in the desert wearing white Arab dishdasha and riding camels).
During the closing years of the war he sought, with mixed success, to convince his superiors in the British government that Arab independence was in their interests. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain contradicted the promises of independence he had made to the Arabs and frustrated his work.
In 1918 he cooperated with war correspondent Lowell Thomas for a short period. During this time Thomas and his cameraman Harry Chase shot a great deal of film and many photographs, which Thomas used in a highly lucrative film that toured the world after the war.
Accident and Death
At the age of 46, two months after leaving the service, Lawrence was fatally injured in an accident on his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle in Dorset, close to his cottage, Clouds Hill, near Wareham. A dip in the road obstructed his view of two boys on their bicycles; he swerved to avoid them, lost control and was thrown over the handlebars. He died six days later. The spot is marked by a small memorial at the side of the road.
Throughout his life, Lawrence was a prolific writer. Several collections of his letters have been published. He corresponded with many notable figures, including George Bernard Shaw, Edward Elgar, Winston Churchill, Robert Graves, Noël Coward, E. M. Forster, Siegfried Sassoon, John Buchan, Augustus John and Henry Williamson. He met Joseph Conrad and commented perceptively on his works.
In his lifetime, Lawrence published four major texts. Two were translations: Homer’s Odyssey, and The Forest Giant – the latter an otherwise forgotten work of French fiction.
Lawrence’s major work is Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of his war experiences. In addition to being a memoir of his experiences during the war, certain parts also serve as essays on military strategy, Arabian culture and geography, and other topics.
Who Can Doubt
I, for one, cannot doubt that Lawrence of Arabia changed he world. The Middle East still, today, in my opinion, bears the marks he placed upon it, for good or ill. He may never have intended for things to turn out the way they have, though he apparently had his dreams of a united Arabia.
Certainly, the world would be different if he had not lived and “played his part.”
What’s your “part”?
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