Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, CB, DSO (August 16, 1888 – May 19, 1935), known professionally as T. E. Lawrence, was a British soldier renowned especially for his liaison role during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 during World War I, but whose vivid personality and 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." He is an example of a man who successfully crossed over into another culture, who in some respects was more at home in his adopted context than he was in his own.
Lawrence's public image was due in part to U.S. traveler and journalist Lowell Thomas' sensationalized reportage of the Revolt, as well as to Lawrence's autobiographical account, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. After his role in trying to secure an independent Arab state for his war time allies at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, Lawrence tried to live anonymously by enlisting in the Air Force under an assumed name. When his identity was disclosed by the press, he served for several years in India as a private soldier. In 1925, he was allowed to return to the Air Force and spent the rest of his military career designing and testing high speed boats. Shortly after his retirement in 1935, when he was planning to write again, he died in a motorbike accident. T. E Lawrence was a colorful figure whose life was full of adventure, intrigue, and controversy, not least of all about his sexuality but also about his exploits during the Arab Revolt.
Lawrence left his mark on the Middle East by playing a major role in the creation of the kingdoms of Iraq and of Jordan. Had his proposals for the Middle East attracted support, the region may well have enjoyed a more stable future. At the very least, his plan took account of the interests of the people who lived there, while the Peace Conference's deliberations were dominated by imperial European concerns.
Lawrence was born in 1888, in Tremadog, Caernarfonshire, North Wales. His Anglo-Irish father, Sir Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, seventh Baronet of Westmeath in Ireland, had abandoned his wife, Edith, for his daughters' governess, Sarah Junner. The couple did not marry. Sir Thomas and Sarah had five illegitimate sons, of whom Thomas Edward was the second-eldest. The family later 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 is now named "Lawrence" in his honor. In about 1905, Lawrence ran away from home and served for a few weeks as a boy soldier with the Royal Regiment of Artillery at St. Mawes Castle in Cornwall; he was bought out.
From 1907, Lawrence was educated at Jesus College, University of Oxford. During the summers of 1907 and 1908, he toured France by bicycle, collecting photographs, drawings and measurements of castles dating from the crusader period. Subsequently, in the summer of 1909, he set out alone on a three-month walking tour of crusader castles in Syria, during which he traveled 1,000 miles on foot. Lawrence graduated with First Class Honors after submitting a thesis on The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture—To the End of the Twelfth Century; the thesis was based on his own field research in France and the Middle East.
On completing his degree in 1910, he commenced postgraduate research in medieval pottery with a Senior Demy at Magdalen College, Oxford, which he 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 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. While excavating ancient Mesopotamian sites, Lawrence met Gertrude Bell, who was to influence him for much of his time in the Middle East.
In late summer 1911, Lawrence returned for a brief sojourn to England. 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 Turkish army attacking Egypt when war broke out. 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. 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 the advice of S.F. Newcombe, Lawrence did not immediately enlist in the British Army but held back until October.
After enlistment Lawrence was posted to Cairo, where he worked for British Military Intelligence. In October 1916, he was sent into the desert to report on the Arab nationalist movements.
During the war, he fought alongside 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 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 railway and repair the constant damage.
The degree to which Lawrence was or was not empowered by the British government to make territorial promises to the Sharif is widely debated. The Sharif appears to have been promised an Arab state consisting of certain Ottoman territories stretching from Syria in the North to what is now the Saudi Peninsula in the South in return for aiding the British. While no official treaty was ever signed, the British Government did pledge to recognize the "proclamation of an Arab Khlaifate of Islam" in letters from Sir Henry McMahon, High Commissioner in Egypt to the Sharif. Britain was to have exclusive trading rights, while certain areas where Britain and France already had commercial interests were to be excluded from the Arab state. This correspondence took place in 1915. However, in 1917, Britain published the Balfour Declaration in support of the idea of creating a Jewish homeland in the area known as Palestine, which, a year earlier had been allocated to Britain in an agreement drawn up by the French and the British that divided the Ottoman Empire up between the two powers. Known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, this left little room for a large Arab state, which the Sharif clearly expected.  The Sharif assumed that Palestine would be part of the promised Arab State, while Britain appears to have had other arrangements in mind.
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 July 6, after an overland attack, Aqaba fell to Arab forces. Some 12 months later, Lawrence was involved in the capture of Damascus in the final weeks of the war and was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1918. In December 1917, he accompanied General Allenby at the British conquest of Jerusalem.
As was his habit when traveling before the war, Lawrence adopted many local customs and traditions, and he soon became a confidant of Prince Faisal. He was often photographed wearing white Arab garb (actually wedding robes given to him by Faisal) and riding camels 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, with mixed success.
In 1918, he cooperated 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.
Lawrence worked for the Foreign Office immediately after the war, attending the Paris Peace Conference between January and May. Officially, he was attached to Faisal's delegation as an interpreter but he acted as if he were a full member of the Arab contingent. He continued to lobby for the Arab State stretching from Syria in the North to the Hejaz in the South, including Palestine. As the victors of World War I divided the defeated Ottoman Empire up among themselves as League of Nations mandates, hardly any of the people whose future governance was being decided had any say in this process. However, alongside the Arab delegation, the World Zionist Organization was also represented, petitioning for a homeland in Palestine, which had strong support in the Balfour Declaration.
The presence of the Arab delegation was unpopular with some of the allies. Lawrence worked very hard to persuade the Conference to support the Arab cause but annoyed many delegates because he paid scant attention to protocol. The Conference voted to support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which was mandated to Britain until suitable arrangements could be made that also protected the interests of other communities present in the territory. Lawrence was bitterly disappointed, believing until his own death that Britain had betrayed the Arab people. In 1924, when Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud conquered the Hejaz and forced the Sharif into exile, Britain did not offer any assistance. However, in 1922, Britain carved Iraq and Jordan from out of its League of Nations mandate and made Sharif Hussein's sons kings of these two new states. Lawrence played a role in encouraging Britain to reward the Sharif's sons and was reasonably satisfied that in the end honor was upheld. Feisal was briefly King of Syria as well, but France had laid claim to Syria in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and soon deposed him.
In August 1919, the American journalist Lowell Thomas launched a colorful photo show in London entitled With Allenby in Palestine which included a lecture, dancing, and music. Initially, Lawrence played only a supporting role in the show, but when Thomas realized that it was the photos of Lawrence dressed as a Bedouin that had captured the public's imagination, he shot some more photos in London of him in Arab dress. With the new photos, Thomas re-launched his show as With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia in early 1920; it was extremely popular. Lawrence was ambivalent towards Thomas's publicity, calling him a "vulgar man," though he saw his show several times.
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 adviser to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office.
Starting in 1922, Lawrence attempted to join the Royal Air Force as an airman under the name John Hume Ross. He was soon exposed and subsequently 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 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 rumors began to circulate that he was involved in espionage activities.
A map of the Middle East that belonged to Lawrence has been put on exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London. It was drafted by him and presented to Britain's War Cabinet in November 1918, as part of his lobbying on behalf of the Sharif and his sons.
The map provides an alternative to present-day borders in the region, based on the sensibilities of the local populations. 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. Some of the subsequent wars and conflicts in the region may have been avoided had Lawrence's proposals met with support. At the very least, his proposals reflected expert knowledge of the region with some concern for its peace and stability and for the welfare of its people, while the Sykes-Picot division was purely political and served the interests of the imperial powers.
Lawrence purchased several small plots of land in Chingford, built a hut and swimming pool there, and visited frequently. This was demolished in 1930, when the Corporation of London acquired the land and passed it to the City of London Corporation, but re-erected the hut 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, specializing 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. A few weeks after leaving the service, at age 46, Lawrence was fatally injured in a motorcycle accident in Dorset, close to his cottage, Clouds Hill, near Wareham (now run by the National Trust and open to the public). 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.
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 actual 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; due to time constraints, she asked whether there was space for him in their family plot at Moreton Church. At his subsequent funeral there, attendees included Winston and Clementine Churchill and Lawrence's youngest brother, Arnold (who demonstrated the Lawrencian dry humor in speaking with reporters), and T.E. Lawrence's coffin was transported on the Frampton estate bier.
Throughout his life, Lawrence was a prolific writer. A large proportion of his output was epistolary; he often sent several letters a day. Several collections of his letters have been published. He corresponded with many notable figures, including George Bernard Shaw, Edward Elgar, Winston Churchill, Robert Graves, and E.M. Forster. He met Joseph Conrad and commented perceptively on his works. The many letters that he sent to Shaw's wife, Charlotte, offer a revealing side of his character.
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, parts of the book 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.
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 authorized biography.
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 edition was to be 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 a substantial debt to Lawrence.
Revolt in the Desert was an abridged version of Seven Pillars, also published in 1926 . He undertook a needed but reluctant publicity exercise, which resulted in a best seller. Again, he vowed not to take any fees from the publication, partly to appease the subscribers to Seven Pillars who had paid dearly for their editions. By the fourth reprint in 1927, the debt from Seven Pillars was paid off. As Lawrence left for military service in India at the end of 1926, he set up the "Seven Pillars Trust" with his friend DG Hogarth as a trustee, in which he made over the copyright and any surplus income of Revolt in the Desert. He later told Hogarth that he had "made the Trust final, to save myself the temptation of reviewing it, if Revolt turned out a best seller."
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.
He also authored The Mint, a memoir of his experiences as an enlisted man in the Royal Air Force. Lawrence worked from a notebook that he kept while enlisted, writing of the daily lives of enlisted men and his desire to be a part of something larger than himself: The Royal Air Force. The book is stylistically very different from Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It was published posthumously, edited by his brother, Prof. A.W. Lawrence.
After Lawrence's death, his brother inherited all Lawrence's estate and his copyrights as the sole beneficiary. To pay the death 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 United States. In 1936, he then 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.
As was common for his class and generation, Lawrence did not discuss his sexual orientation or sexual practices and his actual orientation and experiences are debated. Writers working to elucidate the history of same-sex erotic relationships identify a strong homo erotic element in Lawrence's life, while scholars, including his official biographer, have been accused of "attempt[ing] to defend Lawrence against 'charges' of homosexuality."
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:
(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." This poem was heavily edited by Robert Graves.)
It is unclear whether "S.A." identifies a man, a woman, a nation, or some combination of the above. Lawrence himself maintained that "S.A." was a composite character. On the subject of the war, Lawrence 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 allowed the boy to move in with him, carved a nude sculpture of him which he placed on the roof of the house in Greco-Roman style (Lawrence being a scholar of classical literature), 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 (who never met Lawrence) maintains that "in Seven Pillars, and more explicitly in his correspondence, Lawrence suggests that his distaste for the entire exploit in its last triumphant days was owing largely to news of his friend's death." Dahoum may have been merely a close friend of the type common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which often involved non-sexual physical contact.
In Seven Pillars, Lawrence claims that, while reconnoitering Deraa in Arab disguise, he was captured, tortured, and possibly gang-raped. Due to misconceptions about male sexual assault, some critics have used this as evidence to suggest that Lawrence was homosexual. For supporting evidence there are letters and reports that Lawrence bore scars of whippings, but the actual facts of the event are lost. Lawrence's own statements and actions concerning the incident contributed to the confusion. He removed the page from his war diary which would have covered the November 1917 week in question. As a result, the veracity of the Deraa events is a subject of debate.
It is true that Lawrence hired a man to beat him, making it clear he had unconventional tastes, notably masochism. Also, years after the Deraa incident, Lawrence embarked on a rigid program 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. The authenticity of some of these claims and reports is disputed, but others are verified.
Those who attest that T.E. Lawrence was homosexual are primarily biographers and researchers writing after his death. In a letter to a homosexual, 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. Like many men of the time, T.E. Lawrence had little pressure to pursue women, and most of his time was devoted to other activities. 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 fulfillment, 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: A bald statement of fact which cannot hope to convince the perverse intricacy of the public mind.
In addition to the literary legacy that Lawrence left behind, his contribution to the re-shaping of the Middle East after World War II continues to impact world affairs. His legacy is also significant in terms of cross-cultural understanding. His genuine and informed concern for the future of the Arab nations testifies to the possibility of people gaining a deep knowledge and appreciation of a culture other than their own.
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