T. E. Lawrence

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"Lawrence of Arabia" redirects here. For the David Lean motion picture based on T. E. Lawrence's life, see Lawrence of Arabia (film).

Thomas Edward Lawrence (August 16, 1888May 19, 1935), also known as Lawrence of Arabia, and (apparently, among his Arab allies) Aurens or Al-Aurens, became famous for his role as a British liaison officer during the Arab Revolt of 19161918. His very public image was in some part the result of U.S. traveller and journalist Lowell Thomas's sensationalized reportage of the Revolt, as well as Lawrence's autobiographical account, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Many Arabs consider him a folk hero for promoting their cause for freedom from both Ottoman and European rule; likewise, many Britons count him among their country's greatest war heroes.

Col. T.E. Lawrence
Col. T.E. Lawrence

Early years

Lawrence was born in Tremadoc, Caernarfonshire, North Wales, of mixed English and Irish ancestry. His father, Thomas Chapman, was a minor member of the nobility who had escaped a tyrannical wife to live with a maid, with whom he had five sons in close succession. Lawrence was educated at Jesus College, Oxford, from where he graduated with First Class Honours largely on account of a highly-acclaimed thesis entitled The influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture – to the end of the 12th century.

On leaving university he commenced a postgraduate degree in mediaeval pottery, which he soon abandoned after he was offered the opportunity to become a practicing 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 to Jerablus in the northern part of Syria, where he worked under D.G. Hogarth and R. Campbell-Thompson.

In the late summer of 1911 he returned to England for a brief sojourn and, by November, he was back en route to Beirut. Prior to returning to work at Carchemish he worked briefly with William Flinders Petrie at Kafr Ammar in Egypt. At Carchemish he was to work with Leonard Woolley. He continued making trips to the Middle East as a field archaeologist until the outbreak of World War I. His extensive travels through Arabia, his excursions, often on foot, living with the Arabs, wearing their clothes, learning their culture, language and local dialects, were to prove invaluable during the conflict.

In January 1914 Woolley and Lawrence were co-opted by the British military as an archaeological smokescreen for a British military survey of the Sinai peninsula. At this time Lawrence visited Aqaba and Petra. From March to May, Lawrence worked again at Carchemish. Following the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, on advice from S.F. Newcombe, Lawrence did not enlist immediately, but held back until October.

The Arab Revolt

Missing image
Some of Faisal's irregulars in Palestine, 1918

Once enlisted he was posted to Cairo, where he worked for British Military Intelligence. Lawrence's intimate knowledge of the Arab people made him the ideal liaison between British and Arab forces and in October 1916 he was sent into the desert to report on the Arab nationalist movements. During the war, he fought with Arab irregular troops under the command of Emir Feisal, a son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in extended guerrilla operations against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence's major contribution to World War I was convincing Arab leaders to coordinate their revolt to aid British interests. He persuaded the Arabs not to drive the Ottomans out of Medina, thus forcing the Turks 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 railroad 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. On July 6, after a daring overland attack, Aqaba fell to Arab forces. In November he was recognised at Dara while reconnoitering the area in Arab dress and was apparently sexually assaulted by the (male) Turkish garrison before he was able to escape (Encyclopdia Britannica, 2003). Some 12 months later, Lawrence was involved in the capture of Damascus in the final weeks of the war.

As he did before the war, during the time he spent with the Arab irregulars, Lawrence adopted many local customs and traditions as his own, and soon became a close friend of Prince Feisal. He especially became known for wearing white Arabian garb (given to him by Prince Feisal, originally wedding robes given to Feisal as a hint) and riding on a horse in the desert. During the closing years of the war he sought to convince his superiors in the British government that Arab independence was in their interests, to mixed success.

Postwar years

Missing image
Feisal's party at Versailles. The three figures at the center, from left to right: Nuri as-Said, Prince Feisal, T.E. Lawrence.

Immediately after the war Lawrence worked for the British Foreign Office, attending the Versailles Paris Peace Conference, 1919 between January and May as a member of Feisal's delegation. Through most of 1921 he served as an advisor to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office.

Starting in 1922 he attempted to achieve anonymity, joining the Royal Air Force under the name "Ross". His cover was soon blown, however, and he was forced out of the RAF, changed his name to "Shaw", and in 1923 joined the Royal Tank Corps. He was unhappy there and repeatedly petitioned to rejoin the RAF, which petitions finally bore fruit in August 1925. A fresh burst of publicity resulted in his assignment to a remote base in what is now Pakistan in mid-1927, where he remained until the beginning of 1929. He continued serving in the RAF, specializing in high-speed boats and professing happiness, leaving with considerable regret in early 1935. A few months later he died at the age of 46 in a Brough Superior motorcycle accident in Dorset.

Lawrence the author

Lawrence was a prolific writer throughout his life. A large proportion of his writing was epistolary; he was an avid correspondent, often sending multiple letters per day. There are several large collections of his letters in print, some of which remain unfortunately expurgated by over-protective editors. His correspondents included many notable figures of the time, including George Bernard Shaw and Edward Elgar.

Lawrence translated Homer's Odyssey and The Forest Giant, an otherwise forgotten work of French fiction. He also authored The Mint, a memoir of his experiences as an enlisted man in the Royal Air Force. Working from a notebook kept while enlisted, Lawrence wrote of the daily lives of enlisted men and his desire to be a part of something larger than himself: the RAF. The book, with its sparse and sharp prose, is stylistically very different from Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It was published posthumously.

Claims of homosexuality

Certain passages in Lawrence's writing, supplemented by reports from a military colleague whom Lawrence hired to give him beatings, make it clear that he had unconventional sexual tastes, notably masochism. While his writings include one notably homoerotic passage (see "Quotations" below), the details of his sexual orientation and experience remain unknown.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is dedicated to "S.A.", with a poem which begins:

"I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came."
(Some editions of Seven Pillars give the last line of this stanza as "When we came"; the 1922 Oxford text, however, has "When I came".)

On the subject of the war, Lawrence said: "I liked a particular Arab, and thought that freedom for the race would be an acceptable present."

The identity of "S.A." remains unclear; it has been argued that these initials identify a man, a woman, a nation, or some combination of the above. One specific claim is that S.A. is "Sheikh Ahmed", also called Dahoum, a young Arab who worked with Lawrence at a pre-war archeological dig, with whom Lawrence is said to have had a close relationship, and who apparently died of typhus in 1918. However, others maintain that Dahoum was merely an extremely close friend of the mold common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which often involved (non-sexual) physical contact. Lawrence himself, perhaps dissembling, maintained that "S.A." was a composite character.


According to Lawrence's RAF enlistment medical file of March 12-15, 1923, he was 5 ft 5-1/2 in (1.6637 m) tall, weighted 130 lbs (58.96 kg), had "scars on his buttocks", "three superficial scars on lower part of his back" and "four superficial scars left side", and he was circumcised.



I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time... We shall never see his like again. His name will live in history. It will live in the annals of war... It will live in the legends of Arabia. Winston Churchill speaking of Lawrence
All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. — from Seven Pillars of Wisdom
The public women of the rare settlements we encountered in our months of wandering would have been nothing to our numbers, even had their raddled meat been palatable to a man of healthy parts. In horror of such sordid commerce our youths began indifferently to slake one another's few needs in their own clean bodies—a cold convenience that, by comparison, seemed sexless and even pure. Later, some began to justify this sterile process, and swore that friends quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace, found there hidden in the darkness a sensual co-efficient of the mental passion which was welding our souls and spirits in one flaming effort. Several, thirsting to punish appetites they could not wholly prevent, took a savage pride in degrading the body, and offered themself fiercely in any habit which promised physical pain or filth.—from Seven Pillars of Wisdom

See also

External links

cy:Lawrence o Arabia de:Thomas Edward Lawrence es:Thomas Edward Lawrence fr:Thomas Edward Lawrence it:Thomas Edward Lawrence he:לורנס איש ערב nl:T.E. Lawrence pt:T. E. Lawrence zh:托马斯爱德华劳伦斯


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