Who was TE Lawrence?
The man who would become known as Lawrence of Arabia was born Thomas Edward Lawrence, in Tremadog, Wales, in August 1888. Raised in Oxford, Lawrence was an archaeologist and historian, before working in the Middle East as an intelligence officer and liaison to forces participating in the Arab Revolt (1916-1918). After the war, Lawrence was employed by Winston Churchill, who was then Colonial Secretary, helping to redraw the map of the modern Middle East.
Lawrence before Arabia
The illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish Lord, Thomas Chapman, Ned – as Lawrence was known by his family and friends – was always something of an outsider, as a boy and young man.
Fascinated by mediaeval history from an early age, Lawrence became a brilliant scholar and pursued his study of military architecture with a cycling tour of France, and a walking tour in Syria, which helped him earn a first class degree in Modern History from the University of Oxford.
After university, Lawrence worked on archaeological digs at Carchemish, near the modern border between Iraq and Turkey, and in Egypt.
Lawrence in Arabia
Shortly after the outbreak of WWI Lawrence joined the British Army, and was posted to Egypt to work in military intelligence. With Arabic language skills and first-hand knowledge of the region, Lawrence was an obvious choice for this role.
Keen to gain independence from their Ottoman Turkish overlords, Hussein bin Ai, the Sharif of Mecca, launched the Arab Revolt in June 1916, and Lawrence was sent from Cairo to Arabia to act as a liaison officer for this anti-Ottoman revolt.
Over two years, Lawrence worked with local Arabs, dynamiting railways and attacking Ottoman outposts. Lawrence and the Arab army eventually advanced and captured Damascus, in October 1918, alongside more conventional Allied troops, commanded by General Allenby.
Lawrence after Arabia
Colonel Lawrence returned to England after the war, and later changed his name to John Hume Ross to sign up as an aircraftsman in the RAF. Some years later he changed his name again, to T.E. Shaw, and became a private in the Tank Corps, and was posted to Bovington Camp, Dorset.
It is often said that Lawrence supported, and fought for, Arab independence, and was disappointed when the post-War treaties did not grant this to the Arabs. In fact, what Lawrence actually understood by independence was a federation of small, semi-independent Arabian states that would rely on Britain until such times when they might become fully independent.
A friend to many famous men and women, including Winston Churchill, E.M. Forster, George Bernard and Mrs Shaw, Robert Graves, and Edward Elgar, Lawrence was clearly a brilliant individual, with a complex personality he wasn’t always able to contain.
Lawrence the legend
A slide show by the American journalist and publicist Lowell Thomas, 'With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia' proved a runaway hit with London audiences. Initially released in 1919 (with Lawrence’s name added in 1920), within six months it had been seen by more than one million people.
Lawrence both enjoyed and hated his new-found fame, retreating from public life to write about his wartime experiences in 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom.' This book, and David Lean’s magnificent film 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962) secured his place as a legendary figure.
Lawrence died in 1935 after he crashed his motorcycle, swerving to avoid two boys on bicycles on a country lane near his home, Clouds Hill. He was 46 years old.