Lawrence, T. E. (1888–1935)

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LAWRENCE, T. E. (1888–1935)


British soldier, archaeologist, and writer.

Thomas Edward (T. E.) Lawrence, known to posterity as Lawrence of Arabia, was the leader of the Arab revolt of 1916–1918 against the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Born in 1888, he learned as a teenager that he was illegitimate, as indeed was his mother. Having "no name" in the Victorian sense of the term, he would feel free to shed one name and choose another later in his life. He followed a brilliant Oxford degree with work on a British Museum excavation in Iraq. In 1914 he joined the British army and was posted to the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo. In November 1917 Lawrence was the British liaison officer between British forces in Egypt and Palestine and Arab tribes in revolt against Turkey. He was arrested while in disguise, scouting out the defenses of the Syrian town of Deraa. He was then severely beaten and raped. He carried on after being released and helped shape a partisan war that contributed to the defeat of the Turkish army. Lawrence became a legend.

After the Armistice (11 November 1918), Lawrence was demobilized but continued to work with his Arab allies and friends. He accompanied King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to France to take part in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. From the beginning it was apparent that allies in war were now to be reordered as dominant and subordinate peoples. Lawrence had assured his Arab friends that Britain would live up to its word and give the Arabs their freedom. Nothing of the kind happened. He worked in 1921 and 1922 as advisor on Arab affairs to Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, and tried to make up for the promises broken, the faith not kept. In these years he helped shape the future of modern Iraq.

After this highly public career Lawrence spent the rest of his life escaping from his celebrity status and his memories. In 1922 he took a new name and built a new life in the Royal Air Force (RAF) as Airman First Class John Hume Ross. It did not take long for the press to find out who he was, and Lawrence was discharged. The search for anonymity was far from over. This time he enlisted in the Tank Corps as a private soldier, under the name T. E. Shaw, found at random in the Army List. He was an aficionado of danger and sought it out in many ways. One was on his motorbike. He confided to a friend:

When my mood gets too hot and I find myself wandering beyond control I pull out my motorbike and hurl it at top-speed through these unfit roads for hour after hour. My nerves are jaded and gone near dead, so that nothing less than hours of voluntary danger will prick them into life. (Wilson, p. 71)

This was written by the author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the classic account of the revolt in the desert during World War I. The book was written during 1920–1922, then revised and published in 1926. It became a bestseller in America and in Britain.

The greater the celebrity status, the greater the wish to evade it, to fade into the background. "I know the reverse of that medal," he wrote, "and hate its false face so utterly that I struggle like a trapped rabbit to be it no longer," or at least to "shun pleasures," a partial "alleviation of the necessary penalty of living on" (Wilson, p. 714). After the Tank Corps came literary work, followed by reentry into the Royal Air Force. This time he tested speedboats and found some modicum of quiet in the service. He even went so far as to change his name by deed poll to Shaw. After twelve years in the RAF in Britain and India, hounded by the press to the end, he tried to find solace in Devon, in a country house built to his specifications. But journalists still dogged his steps and stripped him of the tranquility he so desperately sought. On 11 May 1935 he got on his motorbike to send a telegram to another World War I veteran and writer, Henry Williamson. He never sent it: he swerved off the road to avoid hitting two cyclists on a country road. They were uninjured. He crashed, suffered brain damage, went into a coma, and died on 19 May 1935, at age forty-six.

Lawrence was a writer and linguist of genius, a man who embodied the British fascination with Arabia. As such, he came to represent those whose dedication and decency were betrayed by the logic of imperialism in the period of World War I.

See alsoPalestine; Turkey .


Aldington, Richard. Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry. London, 1957.

Graves, Richard Perceval. Lawrence of Arabia and His World. New York, 1976.

Liddell Hart, Basil H. Colonel Lawrence: The Man behind the Legend. New York, 1934.

Storrs, Ronald. Lawrence of Arabia: Zionism and Palestine. New York, 1940.

Wilson, Jeremy. Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T. E. Lawrence. London, 1989.

Jay Winter

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Lawrence, T. E. (1888–1935)

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