T E Lawrence’s role as a British liaison officer during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 was immortalised in the 1962 film, “Lawrence of Arabia”, starring Peter O’Toole.
Thomas Edward Lawrence was the second of five illegitimate sons born to Sir Thomas Robert Tighe, an Anglo-Irish landowner, and Sarah Junner. She was employed as his four legitimate daughters’ governess.
They eloped when their affair was discovered after the birth of their first child, Montague Robert (Bob).
Lawrence was born on 16 August 1888 at Gorphwysfa in Tramadog, Caernarfon (now Gwynedd) in Wales.
His parents eventually settled in Oxford in 1896 where they led a comfortable existence as Mr and Mrs Lawrence, employed one or two servants and took expensive holidays.
Lawrence’s interest in the Middle East began when he attended the City of Oxford High School for Boys where he learnt the geography, history and ethnology of Arab lands. Daily Bible studies and Helps to the Study of the Bible provided topical maps, references to plants and animals. He dreamed freeing the Arabs from the Ottoman Empire’s tyranny to found their own nation.
He was interested in medieval priests and knights in medieval armour brass rubbings and archaeology, so he visited numerous castles in England and France.
Lawrence studied history at Jesus College, Oxford, in 1907 where he wrote a thesis on the influence of the Crusades on European military history, and graduated with First Class Honours. He also sketched and photographed over thirty castles in Syria and Palestine in 1909.
His first job involved working on the British Museums’ archaeological dig at Carchemish, Syria, for three years, as an archaeologist, photographer and managing the locally-recruited workforce.
After war broke out, Lawrence spent a brief period in the Geographical Section of the General Staff in London, before he was posted to the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo. Lawrence, now a Lieutenant Colonel, honed his expertise on Arab nationalist movements in what is now known as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Saudi Arabia’s Hedjaz region.
He was appointed a British liaison officer after producing high quality reports and empathy with Arab leaders during a fact-finding mission to the Hedjaz in October 1916.
The British and the French urged the Arabs to capture the Turkish stronghold, Medina, and cut the Hedjaz Railway, the supply-line running south from Damascus.
The Arabs allowed the Hedjaz railway to keep running but unpredictable frequent guerrilla raids inflicted minor damage along remote points. Traffic was halted for a few days to prevent the Turks’ withdrawal from Medina. Turkish soldiers and workers were deployed to defend and keep the line open.
The revolt was extended northwards to Damascus and beyond.
Lawrence played an important role in the Arab Revolts, including the capture of Akaba in July 1917, and he was promoted to Major.
The newly-appointed British Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby agreed to Lawrence’s strategy, as he realised the importance of using Arab forces to support the campaign.
The Arabs attacked Turkish communications, cut railway lines (vital supply routes) and telegraph lines. British intelligence intercepted the Turks’ wireless messages.
Jerusalem was captured in December 1917, with more raids and hard fighting occurred in 1918. Lawrence was promoted and received more military honours.
Allenby launched his final thrust through Palestine and defeated the Turks. Damascus fell on 1 October.
Lawrence continued his campaign in London for Arab self-government. The War Cabinet’s Eastern Committee listened sympathetically but the British and the French rejected these proposals.
Lawrence was instrumental when Emir Feisal became King of Iraq and his
brother Abdullah appointed ruler of Trans-Jordan. Both kingdoms enjoyed some degree of self-government under British tutelage while Syria came under French rule.
He began writing his war memoirs, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in 1919 and . They were initially published in 1926, but not available for general circulation until after his death.
An American journalist Lowell Thomas and his cameraman Harry Chase filmed footage of Lawrence in action during 1918, and launched him as a celebrity in 1919.
Initially Lawrence welcomed his new fame to publicise the Arab cause but he loathed the publicity.
Lawrence joined the Royal Air Force in August 1922 under the pseudonym, John Hume Ross. He later wrote The Mint describing the RAF Uxbridge recruits’ gruelling training.
The press discovered his whereabouts so he was ordered to leave in January 1923.
Lawrence enlisted in the Tank Corps as Thomas Edward Shaw but he hated army life and suffered periods of deep depression.
He was permitted to return to the RAF in 1925 and served in India until he was sent home after alleged espionage activities in 1929. He retired in 1935.
Lawrence enjoyed literary success with Seven Pillars and Revolt in the Desert (an abridged version).
Lawrence died on 19 May 1935, aged 46, from fatal head injuries in a motorcycle accident.
Asher, Michael, Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia, Viking (published by the Penguin group), London, 1998
Barr, James, Setting The Desert on Fire: T E Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia 1916-1918, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London, 2006
© 2009 Carolyn Cash
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 19 August 2009.