Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence CB, DSO (16 August 1888 – 19 May 1935), known professionally as T. E. Lawrence, was a British soldier renowned especially for his liaison role during the Arab Revolt of 1916–18. His vivid writings, along with the extraordinary breadth and variety of his activities and associations, have made him the object of fascination throughout the world as "Lawrence of Arabia".
Thomas Chapman and Sarah Lawrence had five illegitimate sons, of whom Thomas Edward was the second eldest. The family lived at 2 Polstead Road (now marked with a blue plaque) in Oxford, under the names of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence. Thomas Edward (known in the family as "Ned") attended the City of Oxford High School for Boys, where one of the four houses was later named "Lawrence" in his honour; the school closed in 1966. As a schoolboy, one of his favourite pastimes was to cycle to country churches and make brass rubbings. Lawrence and one of his brothers became commissioned officers in the Church Lads' Brigade at St Aldate's Church.
Lawrence claimed that in about 1905, he ran away from home and served for a few weeks as a boy soldier with the Royal Garrison Artillery at St Mawes Castle in Cornwall; he was bought out. No evidence of this can be found in army records.
From 1907 Lawrence was educated at Jesus College, Oxford. During the summers of 1907 and 1908, he toured France by bicycle, collecting photographs, drawings and measurements of castles dating from the mediaeval period. In the summer of 1909, he set out alone on a three-month walking tour of crusader castles in Syria, during which he travelled 1,000 miles on foot. Lawrence graduated with First Class Honours after submitting a thesis entitled The influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture – to the end of the 12th century based on his own field research in France and the Middle East.
On completing his degree in 1910, Lawrence commenced postgraduate research in mediaeval pottery with a Senior Demy at Magdalen College, Oxford, which he abandoned after he was offered the opportunity to become a practising archaeologist in the Middle East. In December 1910 he sailed for Beirut, and on arrival went to Jbail (Byblos), where he studied Arabic. He then went to work on the excavations at Carchemish, near Jerablus in northern Syria, where he worked under D. G. Hogarth and R. Campbell-Thompson of the British Museum. He would later state that everything that he had accomplished, he owed to Hogarth. As the site lay close to the Turkish border, near an important crossing on the Baghdad Railway, knowledge gathered there was of considerable importance for military intelligence. While excavating ancient Mesopotamian sites, Lawrence met Gertrude Bell, who was to influence him during his time in the Middle East.
In late summer 1911, Lawrence returned to England for a brief sojourn. By November he was en route to Beirut for a second season at Carchemish, where he was to work with Leonard Woolley. Prior to resuming work there, however, he briefly worked with William Flinders Petrie at Kafr Ammar in Egypt.
Lawrence continued making trips to the Middle East as a field archaeologist until the outbreak of World War I. In January 1914, Woolley and Lawrence were 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. Woolley and Lawrence subsequently published a report of the expedition's archaeological findings, but 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.
From March to May 1914, Lawrence worked again at Carchemish. Following the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, on the advice of S. F. Newcombe, Lawrence did not immediately enlist in the British Army; He held back until October, when he was commissioned on the General List.
Even if Lawrence had not volunteered, the British would probably have recruited him for his first-hand knowledge of Syria, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. He was eventually posted to Cairo on the Intelligence Staff of the GOC Middle East.
Contrary to later myth, it was not Lawrence or the Army that conceptualised a campaign of internal insurgency against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East: it was the Arab Bureau of Britain's Foreign Office. The Arab Bureau had long felt it likely that a campaign instigated and financed by outside powers, supporting the breakaway-minded tribes and regional challengers to the Turkish government's centralised rule of their empire, would pay great dividends in the diversion of effort that would be needed to meet such a challenge. The Arab Bureau was the first to recognise what is today called the "asymmetry" of such conflict. The Ottoman authorities would have to devote a hundred or a thousand times the resources to contain the threat of such an internal rebellion, as would be the Allies' cost of sponsoring it.
At that point in the Foreign Office’s thinking they were not considering the region as 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.
During the war, 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. Lawrence's major contribution to World War I was convincing Arab leaders to co-ordinate their revolt to aid British interests. He persuaded the Arabs not to drive the Ottomans out of Medina, thus forcing the Turkish army to tie up troops in the city garrison. The Arabs were then able to direct most of their attention to the Hejaz railway that supplied the garrison. This tied up more Ottoman troops, who were forced to protect the railway and repair the constant damage.
In 1917, Lawrence arranged a joint action with the Arab irregulars and forces under Auda Abu Tayi (until then in the employ of the Ottomans) against the strategically located port city of Aqaba. He was promoted to major in the same year. On 6 July, after an overland attack, Aqaba fell to Arab forces. The following year, Lawrence was involved in the capture of Damascus in the final weeks of the war and was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in 1918. In newly liberated Damascus – which he had envisioned as the capital of an Arab state – Lawrence was instrumental in establishing a provisional Arab government under Faisal. Faisal's rule as king, however, came to an abrupt end in 1920, after the battle of Maysaloun, when the French Forces of General Gouraud under the command of General Mariano Goybet, entered Damascus, breaking Lawrence's dream of an independent Arabia.
As was his habit when travelling before the war, Lawrence adopted many local customs and traditions (many photographs show him in the desert wearing white Arab garb and riding camels), and he soon became a confidant of Prince Faisal.
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.
In 1918 he co-operated with war correspondent Lowell Thomas for a short period. During this time Thomas and his cameraman Harry Chase shot much film and many photographs, which Thomas used in a highly lucrative film that toured the world after the war.
Lawrence was made a Companion in the Order of the Bath and awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the French Légion d'Honneur, though in October 1918 he refused to be made a Knight Commander of the British Empire.
Lowell Thomas's film was seen by four million people in the post-war years, giving Lawrence great publicity. Until then, Lawrence had little influence, but soon newspapers began to report his opinions. Consequently he served for much of 1921 as an advisor to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office.
Lawrence was ambivalent about Thomas's publicity, calling him a "vulgar man," though he saw Thomas's show several times. In August 1922, Lawrence enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an aircraftman under the name John Hume Ross. He was soon exposed and, in February 1923, was forced out of the RAF. He changed his name to T. E. Shaw and joined the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. He was unhappy there and repeatedly petitioned to rejoin the RAF, which finally admitted him in August 1925. A fresh burst of publicity after the publication of Revolt in the Desert (see below) resulted in his assignment to a remote base in British India in late 1926, where he remained until the end of 1928. At that time he was forced to return to the UK after rumours began to circulate that he was involved in espionage activities.
He purchased several small plots of land in Chingford, built a hut and swimming pool there, and visited frequently. This was removed in 1930 when the Chingford UDC acquired the land and passed it to the City of London Corporation , but re-erected in the grounds of the Warren, Loughton, where it remains, neglected, today. Lawrence's tenure of the Chingford land has now been commemorated by a plaque fixed on the sighting obelisk on Pole Hill.
He continued serving in the RAF, specialising in high-speed boats and professing happiness, and it was with considerable regret that he left the service at the end of his enlistment in March 1935.
Lawrence was a keen motorcyclist, and, at different times, had owned seven Brough Superior motorcycles. His seventh motorcycle is on display at the Imperial War Museum. Among the books Lawrence is known to have carried with him on his military campaigns is Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur; accounts of the 1934 discovery of the Winchester Manuscript of the Morte include a report that Lawrence followed Eugene Vinaver - a Malory scholar - by motorcycle from Manchester to Winchester upon reading of the discovery in The Times.
At age 46, a few weeks after leaving the service, Lawrence was fatally injured in a motorcycle accident while piloting a Brough Superior SS100 in Dorset, close to his cottage, Clouds Hill, near Wareham. The accident occurred because of a dip in the road that obstructed his view of two boys on their bicycles; he swerved to avoid them, lost control and was thrown over the handlebars of his motorcycle. He died six days later. The spot is marked by a small memorial at the side of the road but the road now is much improved on what it would have been like 70 years ago. The circumstances of Lawrence's death would have far reaching consequences, however. One of the doctors attending him was the neurosurgeon, Hugh Cairns. He was profoundly affected by the incident and consequently began a long study of what he saw as the unnecessary loss of life by motorcycle dispatch riders through head injuries and his research led to the use of crash helmets by both military and civilian motorcyclists. As a consequence of treating Lawrence, Sir Hugh Cairns ultimately saved the lives of many motorcyclists since.
Some sources mistakenly claim that Lawrence was buried in St Paul's Cathedral; in reality, only a bust of him was placed in the crypt. His final resting place is the Dorset village of Moreton. Moreton Estate, which borders Bovington Camp, was owned by family cousins, the Frampton family. Lawrence had rented and subsequently purchased Clouds Hill from the Framptons. He had been a frequent visitor to their home, Okers Wood House, and had for many years corresponded with Louisa Frampton.
On Lawrence's death, his mother wrote to the Framptons asking whether there was space for him in their family plot at Moreton Church. At his funeral there T. E. Lawrence's coffin was transported on the Frampton estate's bier; attendees included Winston and Clementine Churchill and Lawrence's youngest brother, Arnold. The famous stone effigy of Lawrence can be seen at the Saxon church in Wareham.
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. He received a flat fee for the second translation, and negotiated a generous fee plus royalties for the first.
Lawrence's major work is Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of his war experiences. In 1919 he had been elected to a seven-year research fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, providing him with support while he worked on the book. 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. Lawrence re-wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom three times; once "blind" after he lost the manuscript while changing trains in Reading.
The accusation that Lawrence repeatedly exaggerated his feats has been a persistent theme among commentators. The list of his alleged "embellishments" in Seven Pillars is long, though many such allegations have been disproved with time, most definitively in Jeremy Wilson's authorised biography. However Lawrence's own notebooks confirm that his claim to have crossed The Sinai Peninsula from Aqaba to the Suez Canal in just 49 hours without any sleep was not true. In reality this famous camel ride lasted for more than 70 hours and was interrupted by two long breaks for sleeping which Lawrence omitted when he wrote his book. Lawrence acknowledged having been helped in the editing of the book by George Bernard Shaw. In the preface to Seven Pillars, Lawrence offered his "thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Shaw for countless suggestions of great value and diversity: and for all the present semicolons."
The first public edition was published in 1926 as a high-priced private subscription edition. Lawrence was afraid that the public would think that he would make a substantial income from the book, and he stated that it was written as a result of his war service. He vowed not to take any money from it, and indeed he did not, as the sale price was one third of the production costs. This left Lawrence in substantial debt.
The resultant trust paid off the debt, and Lawrence then invoked a clause in his publishing contract to halt publication of the abridgment in the UK. However, he allowed both American editions and translations, which resulted in a substantial flow of income. The trust paid income either into an educational fund for children of RAF officers who lost their lives or were invalided as a result of service, or more substantially into the RAF Benevolent Fund set up by Air-Marshal Trenchard, founder of the RAF, in 1919.
After Lawrence's death, his brother inherited all Lawrence's estate and his copyrights as the sole beneficiary. To pay the inheritance tax, he sold the U.S. copyright of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (subscribers' text) outright to Doubleday Doran in 1935. Doubleday still controls publication rights of this version of the text of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the USA. In 1936 he split the remaining assets of the estate, giving "Clouds Hill" and many copies of less substantial or historical letters to the nation via the National Trust, and then set up two trusts to control interests in Lawrence's residual copyrights. To the original Seven Pillars Trust he assigned the copyright in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as a result of which it was given its first general publication. To the Letters and Symposium Trust, he assigned the copyright in The Mint and all Lawrence's letters, which were subsequently edited and published in the book T. E. Lawrence by his Friends (edited by A. W. Lawrence, London, Jonathan Cape, 1937).
A substantial amount of income went directly to the RAF Benevolent Fund or for archaeological, environmental, or academic projects. The two trusts were amalgamated in 1986, and, on the death of Prof. A. W. Lawrence, also acquired all the remaining rights to Lawrence's works that it had not owned, plus rights to all of Prof. Lawrence's works.
Lawrence did not discuss his sexual orientation or practices. There is one clearly homoerotic passage in the Introduction, Chapter 2, of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: "quivering together in the yielding sand, with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace."
The book is dedicated to "S.A." with a poem that begins:
Lawrence himself maintained that "S.A." was a composite character. He once said: "I liked a particular Arab, and thought that freedom for the race would be an acceptable present. If "S.A." does refer to a particular person, a likely possibility is Selim Ahmed, nicknamed "Dahoum" ("Dark One"), a 14-year-old Arab with whom Lawrence is known to have been close. The two met while working at a pre-war archaeological dig at Carchemish; Lawrence had the boy move in with him, carved a nude sculpture of him which he placed on the roof of the house in Greco-Roman style, and brought Ahmed on holiday to England. The two parted in 1914, never to see each other again, as Dahoum died of typhus in 1918. Boston University Professor Matthew Parfitt maintains that "in Seven Pillars, and more explicitly in his correspondence, Lawrence suggests that his distaste for the entire exploit (i.e., the Arab Campaign) in its last triumphant days was largely owing to news of his friend's death."
In Seven Pillars, Lawrence claims that, while reconnoitering Deraa in Arab disguise, he was captured, beaten, and raped. Modern biographers have questioned whether the incident ever occurred: in part, because there are problems with the chronology of Lawrence's account, in part because his subsequent sex life revolved around male flagellation, and also, because the Ottoman commander whom he accuses of whipping and sodomising him went on to lead a blameless post-war life. Lawrence's own statements and actions concerning the incident have contributed to the confusion: he removed the page from his war diary which would have covered the November 1917 week in question.
Lawrence hired people to whip him, indicating that he had a taste for masochism. Also, years after the Deraa incident, Lawrence embarked on a rigid programme of physical rehabilitation, including diet, exercise, and swimming in the North Sea. During this time he recruited men from the service and told them a story about a fictitious uncle who, because Lawrence had stolen money from him, demanded that he enlist in the service and that he be beaten. Lawrence wrote letters purporting to be from the uncle ("R." or "The Old Man") instructing the men in how he was to be beaten, yet also asking them to persuade him to stop this. This treatment continued until his death.
Discussion about Lawrence's sexuality began with Richard Aldington's critical Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Inquiry (1955). Richard Meinertzhagen wrote in his Middle East Diary that upon meeting Lawrence, he asked himself, "Boy or girl?" – though historians widely consider this to have been added after the fact. The play Ross (1960) by Terence Rattigan, as well as the famous David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia, helped introduce the idea into popular culture.
In a letter to a homosexual man, Lawrence wrote that he did not find homosexuality morally wrong, yet he did find it distasteful. In the book T. E. Lawrence by His Friends, many of Lawrence's friends are adamant that he was not homosexual but simply had little interest in the topic of sex. Not one of them suspected him of homosexual inclinations. E.H.R. Altounyan, a close friend of Lawrence, wrote the following in T. E. Lawrence by His Friends:
"Women were to him persons, and as such to be appraised on their own merits. Preoccupation with sex is (except in the defective) due either to a sense of personal insufficiency and its resultant groping for fulfilment, or to a real sympathy with its biological purpose. Neither could hold much weight with him. He was justifiably self sufficient, and up to the time of his death no woman had convinced him of the necessity to secure his own succession. He was never married because he never happened to meet the right person; and nothing short of that would do[...]."
The map provides an alternative to present-day borders in the region, apparently partly designed with the intention to marginalize the post-war role of France in the region by limiting its direct colonial control to today's Lebanon. It includes a separate state for the Armenians and groups the people of present-day Syria, Jordan and parts of Saudi Arabia in another state, based on tribal patterns and commercial routes.
He was portrayed by Judson Scott in the 1982 TV series Voyagers!, and by Joseph A. Bennett and Douglas Henshall in the 1992 TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. In Young Indiana Jones, Lawrence is portrayed as being a life-long friend of the title character.