Research and discussion
Page updated May 2012
Thomas Edward Lawrence, 1888-1935
T.E. Lawrence became famous after the First World War because of the remarkable role he had played while serving as a British liaison officer during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18. When the war ended, an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, toured Britain and the Empire giving an outstandingly successful slide-show about Lawrence's achievements. The romantic story of Lawrence's campaigns in Arabia and Allenby's in the Holy Land appealed strongly to a British public sated with horrific accounts of trench warfare on the Western Front. From this beginning grew the legend of 'Lawrence of Arabia'.
Thereafter, the facts of Lawrence's war-adventures were often obscured by myth. Even today, his reputation is a favourite target for popular controversialists. Nevertheless, when the secret British archives of the Middle East campaigns were finally released in the 1960s and '70s, they showed that Lawrence's service with the Arabs had been no less remarkable than the legend.
Lawrence himself had little wish to be remembered as a war hero: he could hardly bear to think about his wartime role. His enduring ambition was to be a writer. He once confessed his hope that, "in the distant future, if the distant future deigns to consider my insignificance, I shall be appraised rather as a man of letters than a man of action."*
His literary reputation rests on a body of writing which is almost entirely autobiographical. It includes at least 6,000 letters written between 1906 and his death in 1935, and two autobiographical books. The first, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is an account of his service with the Arab Revolt. The second, The Mint, is centred on his experiences as an anonymous recruit in the ranks of the RAF. It was there, to the astonishment and distress of many contemporaries, that he chose to spend his life after 1922.
Both in his books and letters, Lawrence was an acute observer of people, places, and events. Among the most memorable passages in Seven Pillars are the vivid descriptions of desert landscapes and of the Bedouin irregulars whose life he shared. The Mint, written in a very different style to Seven Pillars, is, like Solzenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a work of observation written by a highly intelligent man who found himself effectively imprisoned. Lawrence distilled its spare descriptions from events that he had witnessed over and over again. Both Seven Pillars and The Mint were for many years ranked among Penguin's Modern Classics.
Lawrence's letters are no less remarkable. His friendships ranged from fellow-servicemen in the ranks to leading figures in the worlds of literature, art, and politics. In many cases, letters were almost the only vehicle for these relationships, since the circumstances of his life meant that he could rarely meet his friends.
Should he be appraised as a writer or a man of action? At the start of the twenty-first century the verdict remains open. Other men of action marked history more deeply; other writers earned higher acclaim; yet few of his contemporaries combined both practical and intellectual achievements to the degree that Lawrence did. That intriguing combination has helped to sustain the public's fascination with his life, as has the deeply introspective personality revealed in his writings.
* T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett, 23 December 1927 (MB p. 361)
Source: Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia, a Pocket Biography (Stroud, Sutton Publishing, 1997)
T.E. Lawrence 1888-1935
1888 16 August: born at Tremadoc, Wales
1896-1907: City of Oxford High School for Boys
1907-9: Jesus College, Oxford, B.A., 1st Class Hons, 1909
1910-14: Magdalen College, Oxford (Senior Demy), while working at the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish
1915-16: Military Intelligence Dept, Cairo
1916-18: Liaison Officer with the Arab Revolt
1919: Attended the Paris Peace Conference
1919-22: wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1921-2: Adviser on Arab Affairs to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office
1922 August: Enlisted in the Ranks of the RAF
1923 January: discharged from the RAF
1923 March: enlisted in the Tank Corps
1923: translated a French novel, The Forest Giant
1924-6: prepared the subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1927-8: stationed at Karachi, then Miranshah
1927 March: Revolt in the Desert, an abridgement of Seven Pillars, published
1928: completed The Mint, began translating Homer's Odyssey
1929-33: stationed at Plymouth
1931: started working on RAF boats
1932: his translation of the Odyssey published
1933-5: attached to MAEE, Felixstowe
1935 February: retired from the RAF
1935 19 May: died from injuries received in a motor-cycle crash on 13 May
1935 21 May: buried at Moreton, Dorset