T. E. Lawrence

views updated

T. E. Lawrence

August 15, 1888
Tremadoc, North Wales
May 13, 1935
Bovington Camp, Dorset, England

Scholar, writer, soldier, and adventurer

Scholar, writer, soldier, and adventurer, Thomas Edward Lawrence became an unwilling figure of exotic romance and daring during World War I. A student and admirer of Arab culture, Lawrence devoted his young adulthood to trying to help the Arab people achieve independence. The failure to achieve this goal, however, left him broken and disappointed, and he spent the rest of his life trying to escape the fame and public adoration that he had never wanted. Though many people honored him as a glamorous hero, others thought he was a conceited fraud who did not deserve the place he was given in history, as Lawrence of Arabia.

A Young Knight Prepares for His Quest

All of his life T. E. Lawrence was an eccentric, a misfit who never did things in the ordinary way. Even in his early childhood, he stood out from other children as a serious boy, obsessed with history by the age of eight. He was particularly fond of studying the Middle Ages (a.d. 500–500), and he tried to imitate the behavior of the knights of that period, who lived by the code of honor and chivalry (the practices of knighthood).

As a boy, Lawrence was horrified to discover that he and his four brothers were illegitimate (born out of wedlock). His father, who went by the name of Robert Lawrence, was really an Anglo-Irish nobleman named Sir Robert Chapman. Years before young Thomas's birth, Chapman had abandoned his family and position to run away with his daughters' nanny, Sarah. Together they set up a new household in Wales, pretending to be married, and took the last name of Lawrence. Throughout his life, Lawrence would feel ashamed that his parents had not been married.

A small man (5 feet 5 inches at adulthood) who always wished he was bigger, Lawrence enjoyed testing his physical limits. As a child, he invented physical tests for himself, the way he imagined the knights of the Middle Ages might have. When he was a teenager, he took a long bicycling trip through France. In 1907, he got a scholarship to Jesus College at Oxford University and began his study of history in earnest. Still fascinated by the Middle Ages, he decided in the summer of 1909 to make a walking tour of Syria and study the castles left there by the crusaders. (The crusaders were Christian knights who traveled from Europe to the Middle East between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries to try to recapture the Holy Land from the Islamic people who had conquered the area.) During that hot summer, Lawrence walked more than a thousand miles. Although he was robbed and beaten along the way, he was accepted into Arab villages with warm hospitality. He visited many medieval castles and made notes and sketches, which he used in the paper he wrote when he returned to Oxford. He received praise and excellent marks on his paper, but his trip had given him much more: a love of Arab lands and a desire to learn more about them.

The Scholar Becomes a Soldier

In 1911, Lawrence returned to the Middle East, this time with a British Museum archeological team, to excavate an ancient site at Carchemish in Syria. He worked there until 1914, learning the Arabic language and exploring the region as far as the Sinai peninsula. When World War I broke out in 1914, Lawrence joined the British army and was sent to Cairo, Egypt, to work in intelligence (gaining information about the enemy). His knowledge of the region made him helpful in the

map department, and his fluency in Arabic and respect for the Arab people made him valuable as a messenger between the Arabs and the British.

In 1916, Lawrence was sent on a mission to ask for support from a local Arab leader. At that time, the entire Middle East was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which had joined Germany in its fight against the British and their allies in World War I. The British hoped to encourage the Arabs to rebel against the Ottoman Turks. If the Arabs could defeat the Ottoman Turks, the British promised, the Arab states would be rewarded with gold and weapons and independence when the war was over. Lawrence not only took this message to the Arab leader Husayn ibn 'Alî, but he stayed with Hussein to help the Arabs in their revolt against the Turks. Along with Hussein's son, Faisal, Lawrence led the ragged Arab troops against huge Turkish armies.

Though he had not been a soldier long and had never studied military strategy, Lawrence had experience supervising Arab workers on the archeological site, and he put that experience to good use. He was able to help unite the many Arab tribes into a single force, and together they struck at the Turks all over the Hejaz area, in what is now Saudi Arabia. Lawrence used daring guerrilla tactics with brave bluffs and many small, sudden attacks to stun the Turkish forces in battles like Wadi Run, in what is now Jordan. Lawrence's Arab armies cut off the Hejaz railroad and overran Damascus in Syria. By 1917, the British, under General Edmund Allenby, were able to invade and take the Arab countries from the Turks.

Betrayal and Disillusionment

It soon became apparent that British promises of Arab independence had been outright lies. At the same time the British had gained Arab support with promises of independence, they also had privately promised Palestinian Jews a homeland in Palestine, a country that most Arabs considered Arabic. But before the British had made promises to either the Arabs or the Palestinian Jews, they had secretly signed the SykesPicot Agreement with France. In this official document, France and England agreed to divide much of the Ottoman Empire between them, with France taking Syria and Lebanon, and Britain taking Palestine and Iraq.

When he found out about SykesPicot, Lawrence felt shocked, angry, and personally betrayed. Worse, he felt that he had betrayed the trust of Faisal and the other Arabs who had become his friends and comrades. However, he still believed that he could change the minds of those in power. When the war ended, he went to the Paris Peace Conference to plead for Arab independence. Dressed in the long robes he had worn when he lived among the Arabs, Lawrence was an impressive figure as he passionately demanded justice for the Arab people. However, he failed to convince those who had much more to gain from European dominance of the region.

Lawrence returned home to face an image of himself that the media had created while he was at war. Journalists who had seen Lawrence in action fighting with the Arab troops had sent back reports of an impossibly romantic figure, a dashing English officer in flowing Arab robes, thundering across the desert. One American reporter, Lowell Thomas, wrote a book and developed a stage show about the feats of the soldier he called "Lawrence of Arabia." Audiences in England and the United States were entranced by this romanticized picture of a bold and exotic war hero.

Far from being a hardened war hero, Lawrence was devastated by his wartime experiences and bitter that he could not keep his promise of freedom to the Arab people. War had not been an exotic adventure, but a series of extreme hardships. He had been sick with dysentery, malaria, and deep, festering saddle sores. He had been captured by Turks in the town of Deraa, tortured, and perhaps raped. He was so angry about the British involvement in SykesPicot that he refused the medals and honors he was offered for his military service.

Demonstrating what some would call his emotional instability and others would call extreme shyness, Lawrence abandoned his famous identity in 1922 and enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) under the name John Ross. Within a year, the press had discovered him, and he was forced to leave the air force. But he did not give up his efforts to disappear. Using the name T. E. Shaw, he enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps, remaining there for several years, then transferring to the RAF. He served in the air force as Thomas Shaw until he reached the military retirement age of forty-six. He retired reluctantly to a tiny cottage in Dorset, England, where he lived until his death in a motorcycle accident in 1935. The eccentric misfit who had wanted only to be left alone was now the property of the public: Since the biography by his friend Robert Graves, published in 1927, there have been more than fifty biographies of T. E. Lawrence as well as an epic film—Lawrence of Arabia—made by David Lean in 1962, all trying to capture the many sides of this complex man.

For More Information


Brown, Malcolm. A Touch of Genius: The Life of T. E. Lawrence. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

Knightley, Phillip. Lawrence of Arabia. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1977.


Belt, Don, and Annie Griffiths Belt. "Lawrence of Arabia: A Hero's Journey." National Geographic, January 1999, 38–41.

Reid, Holden Brian. "Lawrence and the Arab Revolt." History Today, May 1985, 41–45.

Waters, Irene. "The Lawrence Trail." Contemporary Review 272, no. 1587 (1998): 205–11.

Lawrence the Writer

A lifelong scholar, Lawrence was a productive writer, keeping detailed journals and writing long letters to friends and family throughout his life. In 1919, while still at the Paris Peace Conference, he began to compile the extensive notes he had written during the two years he had been on the march with the Arab armies. Working from these notes, his accounts to his British superiors in Cairo, and his memories, he started to write a long account of his years in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the manuscript was lost, and Lawrence had already destroyed the notes he used to write it, so he was forced, late in 1919, to begin the painful process of recreating his work.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was finally published privately in 1926 (which meant that Lawrence arranged to have a publisher to print a small number of books that were not sold in bookstores). Lawrence did not want the book to be commercially published and sold in bookstores, and it was not—until after his death in 1935. A shorter version of his story, called Revolt in the Desert, was published in 1927. It sold enough copies to pay off all of Lawrence's debts. The Mint, a much praised account of Lawrence's years in the air force and Royal Tank Corps, was written under the pen name John Ross. This work was tucked away with Lawrence's papers and not published until 1955.

In 1935, to earn money during his retirement, Lawrence published a translation of the Greek epic poem the Odyssey. Written around 700 b.c. by Homer, the Odyssey is the story of a soldier's long and difficult journey home, a story that Lawrence understood perhaps only too well.