T. E. Lawrence

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T. E. Lawrence, as Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888–1935) is usually known, is perhaps most famous as Lawrence of Arabia, the British liaison officer with the Arab Revolt in the Arabian peninsula against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. He became famous as Colonel Lawrence (a rank he was awarded in 1918), mostly through the shows of Lowell Thomas, an American publicist and war correspondent.

The young Lawrence had developed a keen interest in antiquities and archaeology. He took a first class degree at Oxford in 1909 in History, submitting a thesis "The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture — to the End of the 12th Century", later published as Crusader Castles (1936), following a 3-month tour of Lebanon and Syria, having previously studied medieval castles in France as well as England. After graduation, Lawrence worked with D.G.Hogarth and Leonard Woolley in the excavation at Carchemish (northern Syria, near Aleppo). In 1914, war broke out, and Lawrence (and Hogarth, his mentor) were posted to the Arab Bureau in Military Intelligence in Cairo. They had previously, as civilian archaeologists, covertly mapped the Negev Desert on behalf of the British Army, as the Ottoman Empire might attack Egypt through the Negev. In 1916, he joined the Arab Revolt against the Turks as liaison officer. A convinced Arabophile, he endeavoured always to support self-determination in the post-war settlenent plans, and linked this to a distrust of Fench plans for Syria and Lebanon. (See the Sykes-Picot Agreement.) His great achievement originally was to capture the Red Sea port of Aqaba (1917) after an inland desert journey from the Empty Quarter, which took the Ottoman garrison completely by surprise. This won the confidence of General Allenby, C-in-C Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Lawrence tied down Ottoman forces by repeated Guerrilla raids on the Damascus-Mecca railway, and various outposts etc in Jordan, and eventually accompanied the Arab 'liberation' of Damascus (1916); the city had actually been occupied by Australian cavalry. This led to what Lawrence always felt was a profound betrayal of the Arab cause, the partition of the lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire between France and Britain under the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

The "largely self-induced conviction" (ODNB), combined with what would now be called PTSD resulting from two years of campaigning, his witnessing of Arab atrocities, vengeance on Turkish prisoners, and his own humiliation in a much-discussed (and disputed) event when captured by Turks in Dera'a ("In Dera'a that night the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost") resulted in an apparent breakdown. After attending the Versailles Peace Conference, as adviser and translator to Faisal, the leader of the Arab Revolt, Lawrence, now demobilized, worked under the Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to settle the Middle East; they appointed Faisal King of Iraq and his brother Abdullah King of Transjordan (the Hashemite kingdoms). In 1922 he resigned, and enlisted in the RAF as John Hume Ross. When his cover was unveiled in Decamber, he was discharged; he re-enlisted as T. E. Shaw in the Tank Corps in March 1923, transferring in 1925 to the RAF, where he served till 1935, working among other things on the development of high-speed air-sea rescue craft and sea-plane tenders, building on his modern interest in machinery, speed and flight.

In 1935, he was killed in a motor-cycle crash, trying to avoid two boys on bicycles.

Lawrence was always a keen and thoughtful writer. His many letters show a talent for description of individuals and atmosphere, as well as the purely physical, and he always strove for vividness as well as stylistic niceties. He left behind:

  • a remarkable account of the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a Triumph. This book, a personal and honest account of his experience - though details have often been questioned - was polished stylistically as well as Lawrence could do it. It was first published privately in 1926, and subsequently published as an 'unabridged Oxford text' in 1922, a 'Subscribers' Edition text' in 1926 and the current text, first published by Jonathan Cape (London and Toronto) in 1935, shortly after Lawrence's death. The unabridged Oxford Text of 1922 was not published until 1997, edited by Jeremy Wilson from the manuscript in the Bodleian Library. To satisfy public interest (and to make money).
    • an abridgement, Revolt in the Desert was published in 1927, and is currently (2019) available in a 2008 edition by Leonaur.
  • In 1924, he published, as J. H. Ross, The Forest Giant, a translation of Le Gigantesque, a French novel by Adrien le Corbeau, pseudonym of Rudolf Bernhardt (1886–1932).
  • In 1932, he published (as T. E. Shaw, in the UK) a translation of Homer's Odyssey, originally by W. Merton & B. Rogers and later by OUP, often reprinted, for example by Macmillan Collector's Library in 2016. .
  • He left a book, "The Mint", about his experiences as a trainee recruit, nominally by 352087 Aircraftman Ross (A./c. Ross was his 'cover-name' in the RAF). It records the forming of disciplined men out of raw recruits, as raw metal is formed into true coin by being minted; and conveys the differences between British experience. This was published by A. W. Lawrence (1900-1991), his brother and executor, in 1955, T. E. having sought delayed publication to prevent embarassmant to any of his fellow-recruits portrayed in the book.
    • Terence Rattigan's play Ross (1960) explores some of the controversies in Lawrence's life. It starts in a 1922 setting, where Lawrence is serving as Aircraftman Ross, and ends as his officers protect him from the press, one of his problems being publicity and discretion, its opposite.
  • David Lean's Oscar-winning film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), with Peter O'Toole as Lawrence, and Alec Guiness, Omar Sharif, Anthonys Quayle and Quinn etc. is the source of much of Lawrence's current fame - though, as with any three-hour narrative recounting the events of years, much has been telescoped and amalgamated: its accuracy is not that of professional historians.