The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Thomas Edward Lawrence

(Lawrence of Arabia)
1888 - 1935

The British soldier and author Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, coordinated the Arab Revolt against the Turks with British military operations. He became a legendary figure, and it is difficult to assess his life accurately.

It seems established that T. E. Lawrence was born on Aug. 15, 1888, at Remadoc, North Wales, one of five sons of Thomas Robert Chapman, a landowner of County Meath, Ireland, and Sarah Madden, for whom Chapman had forsaken his legal wife. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Lawrence, as they came to be known, wandered from Ireland to Scotland to Brittany and back to England. In 1896 the family settled in Oxford, where young Thomas and his brothers were sent to Oxford High School. In time they also attended meetings of the Oxford Archaeological Association, and Lawrence, much interested in early pottery, came to the notice of D. G. Hogarth, archeologist and keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. In the summers before entering Jesus College and during the vacations that followed, Lawrence, under Hogarth's direction, cycled through France and tramped through Syria studying medieval castles. These visits formed the basis for his thesis, "The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture," which won him first-class honors in history in 1910. The thesis was later (1936) published as Crusader Castles.

Intelligence Officer

With Hogarth's support, Lawrence received a senior demyship (a postgraduate award) and joined an archeological expedition on the site of the Hittite city of Carchemish in Asia Minor, then under the direction of the great Orientalist Leonard Woolley. Lawrence promptly made friends among the Arabs and began to learn their language, wear their garb, and eat their food. In January 1914 he and Woolley joined a British military intelligence expedition to the Sinai Desert.

With the outbreak of war and Turkish entrance (October 1914) on the side of the Central Powers, Lawrence and Woolley were formally assigned to the Military Intelligence Office in Cairo. Lawrence organized, very likely without authority, his own little network of agents among the natives. The Arab Revolt against Turkey began in June 1916, and in October Lawrence accompanied Sir Ronald Storrs, a British official in Egypt, to Jidda, the seaport of Mecca on the Red Sea, to coordinate this revolt with British operations. Lawrence became attached as liaison officer to Emir Faisal, son of the sherif of Mecca. By 1917 all of the Hejaz south of Agaba, save Medina, was under British-Arab control. In August 1917 Faisal and his forces along with Lawrence were transferred to the British Expeditionary Force under Gen. Edmund Allenby. Lawrence, now a major, was provided with 200,000 in gold with which to win Arab support. In September occurred the battle of Megiddo in Palestine, the decisive victory over the Turks, followed by the capture of Damascus.

Arab Independence

Faisal insisted that Damascus and all Syria remain under his administration preparatory to becoming an independent Arab state in accordance with vague assurances given earlier by the British. But he soon encountered the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which had assigned spheres of influence - Syria to France and Palestine to Britain. Lawrence at once proposed to the British War Cabinet that France be limited to Lebanon, with Faisal to rule Syria, and Abdullah ibn Husein, his brother, to rule Iraq. But the Paris Peace Conference established a British mandate in Iraq and a French mandate in Syria, a decision that Faisal refused to accept until driven out of Damascus by French forces in 1920. Soon after, Winston Churchill, a great admirer of Lawrence and now colonial secretary, persuaded Lawrence to become an adviser to the Middle East Department. The upshot of their efforts was that in 1921 Faisal was installed as king of Iraq, and Abdullah as king of Transjordan, thus softening Lawrence's sense of guilt in failing his Arab allies.

Later Years

In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his famous story of his career, Lawrence says he was now ready to leave the Middle East behind and disappear into obscurity. Apparently to conceal his identity, he changed his name first to J. H. Ross and then to T. E. Shaw. Steadfastly refusing commissions, he entered the Royal Air Force, then shifted to the Tank Corps, and then shifted back to the Royal Air Force, where his assignment was to test equipment. In 1926 he had been posted to India on the Soviet frontier but was recalled in 1928 when Soviet suspicions were aroused.

Lawrence became further and further estranged from society, save for association with a few individuals such as Lady Astor and the George Bernard Shaws. He forbade publication of Seven Pillars of Wisdom during his lifetime, though it did appear in 1926, privately printed, in an edition of 100 copies, at 30 guineas a copy. An abridgment, Revolt in the Desert (1927), made up the losses, and the profits went to charity. Lawrence also wrote a grim and harsh account of his life in the air force, The Mint, which again was not published until after his death.

Lawrence never married. In February 1935 at the age of 46, he retired from the services and settled in Clouds Hill, his cottage near Moreton in Dorset. There is a story that he rejected a proposal that he reorganize the home defense. Even the manner of his death is controversial. But the facts seem to be that on May 13, 1935, he was thrown from his motorcycle when trying to avoid two boys on bicycles. Unconscious for 6 days, he died on May 19.


Lawrence (‘of Arabia’), Thomas Edward (1888-1935), widely known, not least because of the writings of the American journalist Lowell Thomas, and Peter O'Toole's 1962 film portrayal, as simply Lawrence of Arabia. The illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish baronet who had eloped with the family governess, Lawrence was educated at Oxford where he took a first in history, thanks in part to a distinguished thesis on crusader castles. He had already visited the Middle East, and after graduation worked on the excavation of the Hittite city of Carchamish, learning useful lessons in how to motivate Arab villagers without formal authority.

Commissioned in 1914, he worked in the geographical section of the general staff in London before being posted to the intelligence branch in Cairo, where his responsibilities included collating information on Arab nationalist movements in areas under Turkish rule. He was sent on a fact-finding mission to the Hedjaz in October 1916, meeting Sherif Hussein of Mecca, who had rebelled against the Turks, and establishing a close rapport with his son Emir Feisal. Appointed liaison officer to the Arabs, he helped arrange support which enabled Feisal to advance up the Red Sea coast to Wej, where he threatened Turkish communications. He then developed a strategy for attacking the Hedjaz railway, the Turkish supply line. In mid-1917 he helped develop a plan for the capture of Akaba, thus enabling the Arabs to be supplied for operations striking up into Syria. He played an important role in 1918, operating against the Turkish rear while Allenby attacked northwards after his victory at Beersheba, and entered Damascus in October.

Lawrence served in the British delegation at the Paris peace conference, working hard to promote Arab unity and independence. By now a colonel, with a CB and DSO he never formally accepted, he was swept to fame by Lowell Thomas's ‘travelogue’, unusually courting the publicity in order to promote the Arab cause. However, he was embittered by the allocation of Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia to Britain and France as mandated territories, and retired to Oxford where he worked on The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the most important of his books. Briefly recalled to government service, he helped establish the kingdoms of Iraq and Trans-Jordan (later Jordan). However, under severe mental pressure he sought obscurity by joining the ranks of the RAF under the assumed name of Ross. Discovered by the press, he speedily re-enlisted, this time as Pte Shaw of the Tank Corps. He managed to return to the RAF, and ended his service helping with the development of air-sea rescue launches. In May 1935 he was fatally injured in a motorcycle accident near his home, Clouds Hill, near Bovingdon in Dorset.

Lawrence's reputation has ebbed and flowed. Not all his writings are wholly accurate, and his enigmatic personal behaviour and ambivalence about publicity has led some of his many biographers to accuse him of charlatanism. The verdict now seems more benevolent. While he was never the leader of the Arab revolt (a position he never claimed), he did much to ensure its victory over the Turks, and made an influential contribution to planning for attacks on the Hedjaz railway, the capture of Akaba, and operations against Turkish communications in Syria. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is not merely an important literary work in its own right, but embodies profound thoughts on the nature of guerrilla warfare, not least the importance of casualty-avoidance in a society where deaths sent ‘rings of sorrow’ through the community.











This web page was last updated on: 12 December, 2008