Thomas Edward Lawrence

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Thomas Edward Lawrence

The British soldier and author Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), known as Lawrence of Arabia, coordinated the Arab Revolt against the Turks with British military operations. He became a legendary figure, and it is difficult to assess his life accurately.

It seems established that T. E. Lawrence was born on Aug. 15, 1888, at Remadoc, North Wales, one of five sons of Thomas Robert Chapman, a landowner of County Meath, Ireland, and Sarah Madden, for whom Chapman had forsaken his legal wife. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Lawrence, as they came to be known, wandered from Ireland to Scotland to Brittany and back to England. In 1896 the family settled in Oxford, where young Thomas and his brothers were sent to Oxford High School. In time they also attended meetings of the Oxford Archaeological Association, and Lawrence, much interested in early pottery, came to the notice of D. G. Hogarth, archeologist and keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. In the summers before entering Jesus College and during the vacations that followed, Lawrence, under Hogarth's direction, cycled through France and tramped through Syria studying medieval castles. These visits formed the basis for his thesis, "The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture," which won him first-class honors in history in 1910. The thesis was later (1936) published as Crusader Castles.

Intelligence Officer

With Hogarth's support, Lawrence received a senior demyship (a postgraduate award) and joined an archeological expedition on the site of the Hittite city of Carchemish in Asia Minor, then under the direction of the great Orientalist Leonard Woolley. Lawrence promptly made friends among the Arabs and began to learn their language, wear their garb, and eat their food. In January 1914 he and Woolley joined a British military intelligence expedition to the Sinai Desert.

With the outbreak of war and Turkish entrance (October 1914) on the side of the Central Powers, Lawrence and Woolley were formally assigned to the Military Intelligence Office in Cairo. Lawrence organized, very likely without authority, his own little network of agents among the natives. The Arab Revolt against Turkey began in June 1916, and in October Lawrence accompanied Sir Ronald Storrs, a British official in Egypt, to Jidda, the seaport of Mecca on the Red Sea, to coordinate this revolt with British operations. Lawrence became attached as liaison officer to Emir Faisal, son of the sherif of Mecca. By 1917 all of the Hejaz south of Agaba, save Medina, was under British-Arab control. In August 1917 Faisal and his forces along with Lawrence were transferred to the British Expeditionary Force under Gen. Edmund Allenby. Lawrence, now a major, was provided with £200,000 in gold with which to win Arab support. In September occurred the battle of Megiddo in Palestine, the decisive victory over the Turks, followed by the capture of Damascus.

Arab Independence

Faisal insisted that Damascus and all Syria remain under his administration preparatory to becoming an independent Arab state in accordance with vague assurances given earlier by the British. But he soon encountered the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which had assigned spheres of influence—Syria to France and Palestine to Britain. Lawrence at once proposed to the British War Cabinet that France be limited to Lebanon, with Faisal to rule Syria, and Abdullah ibn Husein, his brother, to rule Iraq. But the Paris Peace Conference established a British mandate in Iraq and a French mandate in Syria, a decision that Faisal refused to accept until driven out of Damascus by French forces in 1920. Soon after, Winston Churchill, a great admirer of Lawrence and now colonial secretary, persuaded Lawrence to become an adviser to the Middle East Department. The upshot of their efforts was that in 1921 Faisal was installed as king of Iraq, and Abdullah as king of Transjordan, thus softening Lawrence's sense of guilt in failing his Arab allies.

Later Years

In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his famous story of his career, Lawrence says he was now ready to leave the Middle East behind and disappear into obscurity. Apparently to conceal his identity, he changed his name first to J. H. Ross and then to T. E. Shaw. Steadfastly refusing commissions, he entered the Royal Air Force, then shifted to the Tank Corps, and then shifted back to the Royal Air Force, where his assignment was to test equipment. In 1926 he had been posted to India on the Soviet frontier but was recalled in 1928 when Soviet suspicions were aroused.

Lawrence became further and further estranged from society, save for association with a few individuals such as Lady Astor and the George Bernard Shaws. He forbade publication of Seven Pillars of Wisdom during his lifetime, though it did appear in 1926, privately printed, in an edition of 100 copies, at 30 guineas a copy. An abridgment, Revolt in the Desert (1927), made up the losses, and the profits went to charity. Lawrence also wrote a grim and harsh account of his life in the air force, The Mint, which again was not published until after his death.

Lawrence never married. In February 1935 at the age of 46, he retired from the services and settled in Clouds Hill, his cottage near Moreton in Dorset. There is a story that he rejected a proposal that he reorganize the home defense. Even the manner of his death is controversial. But the facts seem to be that on May 13, 1935, he was thrown from his motorcycle when trying to avoid two boys on bicycles. Unconscious for 6 days, he died on May 19.

Further Reading

Lawrence's own writings are indispensable for truth and legend. His career is sympathetically followed in David Garnett, ed., The Letters of T. E. Lawrence (1938). There are many biographical studies of Lawrence, some of which approach hagiography. These are critically examined in Richard Aldington, Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry (1955). The most reliable treatment is in Philip Knightley and Colin Simpson, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (1970). See also Robert Graves, Lawrence and the Arabian Adventure (1928), and B. H. Liddel-Hart, Colonel Lawrence: The Man behind the Legend (1934).

Additional Sources

Yardley, Michael, T.E. Lawrence: a biography, New York: Stein and Day, 1987, 1985.

Lawrence, T. E. (Thomas Edward), The essential T.E. Lawrence, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Wilson, Jeremy, Lawrence of Arabia: the authorized biography of T.E. Lawrence, New York: Collier Books; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992.

Mack, John E., A prince of our disorder: the life of T. E. Lawrence, Boston: Little, Brown, 1976. □

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