WikiMedia Commons, Public Domain. This image is in the public domain in the U.S. because it was 1) published before Jan. 1, 1923 or, 2) the copyright has expired.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-29782. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Auda Abu Tayi, chief of the Howeitat tribe, ca. 1921
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-15304-00031.
T.E. (Thomas Edward) Lawrence, often referred to as Lawrence of Arabia, was born in Wales on August 16, 1888 to Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman and Sarah Junner. He was the second of five illegitimate children born to Sarah and Thomas. Thomas was an Anglo-Irish landowner with an estate in Ireland, and Sarah (who was also illegitimate) was governess to his daughters by his first wife, Edith Chapman. Thomas left his first wife for Sarah, and they adopted the surname Lawrence after their oldest son, Robert, was born in 1885. The family moved around several times, living in places like Brittany and Wales, but finally settled in Oxford, England in 1896. Lawrence showed signs of remarkable intelligence at a young age, often testing his mental and physical limits to the extreme. For example, he went on several long cycling trips in France as a young man while studying medieval castles there. Lawrence often clashed with his mother while growing up and ran away from home in 1905, when he was about 17. After this episode, Lawrence’s parents began to allow him more freedom, and built him a cottage of his own on their property.
From 1907-1910, Lawrence attended Jesus College, Oxford. He left on his first visit to the Middle East on June 18, 1909 as part of a trip to study crusader castles for his dissertation (later published as Crusader Castles in 1935). He travelled in the modern countries of Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, and visited thirty-six castles. Due to his friendship with D.G. Hogarth, the famous archaeologist, he also participated in various archaeological digs in Carchemish, Syria, along with Charles Leonard Woolley, from 1911-1914. It was these first trips to the Middle East that solidified Lawrence’s interest in the people and culture of the area, and he soon began learning the language and wearing Arab style clothing. Lawrence is known as an adventurer and soldier, and for his books, specifically Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), which documents his career in the Middle East. But what he is most known for is his involvement in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) in 1916-1918. Prior to the revolt and during the start of WWI, he worked for the British Military Intelligence Office in Cairo. But at the onset of the war, Turkey allied with Germany and was losing hold of its empire. This paved the way for the Arab uprising to come.
In October 1916, Lawrence and Sir Ronald Storrs, the British Oriental Secretary in Egypt, travelled to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to organize the revolt. By working as a liaison officer and coordinating the Arab forces with Emir Feisal, Lawrence was able to help secure the Hejaz under British and Arab control by 1917. Lawrence is also known for his use of guerilla tactics during this time; he and his Arab fighters would frequently blow up strategic points of the Turkish railway. One of the most famous battles of the Revolt occurred at Aqaba in June 1917, where Lawrence and the Arab tribal forces attacked the city and forced a surrender. Lawrence and the Arab forces were then transferred to the British Expeditionary Force commanded by General Edmund H. H. Allenby. Lawrence was promoted to major and was charged with the task of enticing Arab support. Several other battles occurred, with Damascus falling in 1918.
The question now was what to do with the lands they had won; Feisal wanted control of Damascus and Syria en route to becoming an Arab independent state. However, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 gave “spheres of influence” of the areas in question to France (Syria) and Britain (Palestine). When General Allenby arrived in Damascus after the battle, he concluded that Feisal would have to deal with the agreement. Additionally, although Lawrence proposed and advocated for Arab independence, the Paris Peace Conference gave the British control of Iraq, while the French were given Syria. (Disappointed, Feisal remained defiant on this issue until 1920.) Lawrence felt a lasting sense of guilt at the outcome. After the campaign, Lawrence worked largely in a diplomatic capacity, and in 1919, was Feisal’s translator and advisor at the Versailles Conference. Lawrence then worked as an advisor to the Middle East department under Winston Churchill. At the Cairo Conference in 1921, their partnership ensured that Feisal became king of Iraq, and Abdullah, his brother, became king of Transjordan.
Between 1922-1935, Lawrence worked largely as a soldier and writer. After his time in the Middle East, Lawrence returned to England and joined the Royal Air Force under the name John Hume Ross. When his true identity was discovered, he re-enlisted in the tank corps in 1923 as T.E. Shaw, and after a time transferred back to the RAF. While he generally shunned the limelight during this period, he became friends with, or was admired by, such influential figures as Lady Astor and George Bernard Shaw and his wife, Charlotte. He also wrote additional books besides Pillars, including Revolt in the Desert (1927), The Mint (1927), and his translation of The Odyssey (1932). He retired from the RAF to his home in Clouds Hill near Moreton, Dorset, in February 1935. Lawrence did not marry. He died in May 1935 at the age of 46 after succumbing to injuries sustained in a serious motorcycle accident. He was buried in in St. Nicholas's churchyard in Moreton, Dorset. Lawrence was greatly mourned by the British public at the time, and remains a heroic figure for many people. There are many debates as to Lawrence’s authenticity when describing his own exploits. While most of his biographers like Lowell Thomas and Basil Liddell Hart hold a positive view, one of his main detractors was Richard Aldington, who wrote Lawrence of Arabia: a Biographical Enquiry (1955). Lawrence’s sexuality has also been scrutinized. Whatever the truth, Lawrence remains a unique and complex historical figure. His career was the source of inspiration for the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole.
1) Korda, Michael. Hero: the Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. New York: Harper, 2010. Print.
2) "Thomas Edward Lawrence." Encyclopedia of World Biography. December 12, 1998: n. pag. Biography in Context. Web. Sept. 4, 2013.
3) "Ronald Storrs." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East. 2004: n. pag. Biography in Context. Web. Sept. 4, 2013.
4) James, Lawrence. "Lawrence, Thomas Edward [Lawrence of Arabia] (1888–1935)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004; n. pag. Web. Sept. 4 2013, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34440 .
(Top photo). WikiMedia Commons, Public Domain. This image is in the public domain in the U.S. because it was 1) published before Jan. 1, 1923 or, 2) the copyright has expired.
(Middle photo). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-matpc-05805, G. Eric & Edith Matson Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).
(Bottom photo). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-65460, G. Eric & Edith Matson Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-19413.