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Jeremy Wilson

 

Page updated May 2012

T. E. Lawrence: a biographical summary

By Jeremy Wilson


Youth, 1888 - 1914

Thomas Edward Lawrence, known to his family as Ned, was born in Wales in 1888. He was the second of five illegitimate sons of Sir Thomas Chapman, an Anglo-Irish baronet, and Sarah Junner, who had previously been employed in the Chapman household as governess to Thomas's four legitimate daughters. Having eloped together, Thomas and Sarah adopted the name 'Lawrence.'

More on Lawrence's family >>

By 1896 the family had settled in Oxford, where the parents lived together as husband and wife. Their sons attended the City of Oxford High School for Boys. From there, Ned won a Meyricke Exhibition to study history at Jesus College, Oxford. In 1910 he gained First Class Honours in his final examinations, in part through a notable thesis on Crusader castles. Research for this had included a lengthy walking tour in Palestine and Syria.

He had been fascinated by archaeology since childhood. After graduation he worked from 1910 to 1914 as an assistant at the British Museum's excavation of the Hittite city of Carchemish, on the River Euphrates. There, his responsibilities included photography, pottery, and managing the locally recruited workforce. His success in the latter role was to prove valuable later. At Carchemish he learned how to motivate Arab villagers and, unlike Englishmen working in the British Empire, he did so with no help from military discipline or colonial authority.

War, 1914-16

After war broke out, Lawrence spent a brief period in the Geographical Section of the General Staff in London. He was then posted to the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo where he became, among other things, an expert on Arab nationalist movements in the Turkish provinces that now comprise Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and the Hedjaz region of Saudi Arabia.

In October 1916 he was sent on a fact-finding mission to the Hedjaz, where Sherif Hussein of Mecca had rebelled against Turkish imperial rule. The quality of his reporting and his empathy with Arab leaders led to a long-term role as a British liaison officer in the Arab Revolt, serving with the forces led by the Emir Feisal, one of Hussein's four sons.

The Hedjaz campaigns

In the early stages of the Revolt, British and French military advisers urged the Arabs to capture the Turkish stronghold at Medina and to cut definitively the Hedjaz Railway which was the Turkish supply-line running south from Damascus to the Hedjaz.

To this end, and with help from the Royal Navy, in the spring of 1917 Emir Feisal's main force moved northwards up the Red Sea coast from Yenbo to Wejh. Once there, it posed a serious threat to Turkish lines of communication.

Soon afterwards, Allied intelligence learned that the Turks were planning an imminent withdrawal from Medina. While this would delight Hussein, British headquarters in Cairo feared that these Turkish forces would be transferred to the Palestine front, where they would be an additional obstacle to a British advance. Cairo therefore urgently requested that the Arabs should prevent the Turks leaving Medina.

In response, Lawrence developed a new strategy. The Arabs would allow the Hedjaz railway to keep working, but only just. Frequent guerrilla raids would inflict unpredictable minor damage at remote points along the railway, halting traffic for a few days at a time. As a result, withdrawal from Medina would be virtually impossible, and large numbers of Turkish soldiers and repair workers would have to be deployed along the line to defend it and keep it running. This strategy was put into effect. From then on, the Turkish force in Medina was impotent. It survived only because it was able to feed itself from local produce.

The capture of Akaba

By March 1917 the situation in the Hedjaz was satisfactory, but Lawrence and Feisal wished to extend the revolt northwards to Damascus and beyond. To do that, Arab raiding parties would need freedom of movement, which would be impossible in the settled agricultural regions of Palestine and Lebanon. Any northern operations would have to be based further inland, in the deserts to the east.

This proposal faced a crucial problem: how could such forces be supplied? There was no practical supply-route to this region from the nearest territory in British hands. Yet, as Lawrence knew, there was an obvious route - if it could be secured. This was the track leading inland to Maan from Akaba at the northern end of the Red Sea. Akaba and its mountainous hinterland were in Turkish hands, but could the Akaba-Maan route be captured?

Lawrence had visited Akaba before the war, and knew from his intelligence work in Cairo that the Turks had built strong defences in the narrow gorge leading inland up the Wadi Itm. While Akaba itself could easily be captured from the sea, Wadi Itm was virtually impregnable. Yet without Wadi Itm, Akaba on its own would be worthless. Lawrence therefore devised a scheme, using local knowledge and tribesmen, to make a wide circuit inland through the desert. His small party would raise a force locally, and capture the Wadi Itm defences by approaching them from the rear.

This remarkable exploit was accomplished, and by 6 July 1917 the Arabs held the whole route from Akaba up to the Maan plateau. The British Headquarters in Egypt was astonished four days later when Lawrence, who had travelled by camel across the Sinai Peninsula, arrived in Cairo to request urgent supplies.

The Syrian campaigns

From that point on, Lawrence became the key link between General Allenby, the new Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, and Feisal's army. As the revolt extended, Lawrence's role became increasingly important.

Allenby planned to advance northwards, pushing the Turkish forces back. The principal Turkish supply-line was the Hedjaz railway and its branch into Palestine. The railway had been built so deep inside Turkish-held territory that it would have been a difficult objective for Allenby to attack. However, it would be vulnerable to mobile Arab forces operating in the interior. Lawrence promised that when Allenby advanced the Arab army would cut the line. Moreover, in the final stages the local people would revolt, hampering a Turkish retreat. After a series of delays and mishaps, mainly on the British side, this was in essence what took place in September 1918. When Allenby finally advanced, the Turks found that their communications had been cut. Their retreating forces were harassed by armed tribesmen. As a result, their forces were swept back in near-total disarray, with heavy losses in men and materiel.

Lawrence's account of the Arab revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom is borne out by British military documents now available. They show that his personal role and influence between July 1917 and September 1918 were, if anything, understated in the book.

Diplomacy, 1919 - 22

After the capture of Damascus, Lawrence hurried back to England, to promote the cause of Arab independence - in which he had come to believe passionately. He served in the British Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, working closely with Emir Feisal.

However, the idea of Arab independence was anathema to French imperialists, who were determined to rule Syria, while the British Government of India had similar ambitions in Iraq. Despite passionate lobbying, Woodrow Wilson, the ailing American President, turned his back on the affair. It was soon clear that Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) would be allocated to France and Britain as mandated territories - colonies in all but name.

Exhausted and bitterly disappointed, Lawrence returned to England. He lived partly at Oxford, where he had been awarded a research fellowship of All Souls College, and partly in attic rooms lent to him by a friend at 14 Barton Street, in London.

While the British Government had been well aware of Lawrence's achievements, at the end of the war he was almost unknown to the general public. That changed in the summer of 1919 when an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, arrived in London. Thomas, who had briefly visited Akaba during the Revolt, had been encouraged by Lawrence to write of the Arabs' fight for freedom. Now, he had assembled lavish a 'travelogue' which included lecture, slides, film, music, and dancing.

His romantic account of the Bible-land victories was a huge success, in a country numbed by the horrors of European trench warfare. Lawrence quickly became a popular hero, and found that this gave added weight to his political campaign. This was the only period in his life when he actively sought publicity, giving interviews and writing articles in order to advance the Arab case.

He had begun work on Seven Pillars of Wisdom during the Paris Peace Conference, but his draft and working notes were stolen in November 1919. During 1920 he hurriedly wrote out a new draft from memory, and then began correcting it against all the sources he could find.

By the end of 1920, attempts to impose a British colonial administration in Iraq had provoked open rebellion. As a result, the British Government was having to spend huge sums on repression. Winston Churchill was appointed to the Colonial Office to find a solution. He persuaded Lawrence, who had been campaigning against Government policy, to join him as adviser. Lawrence was instrumental in the accession of the Emir Feisal to the throne of Iraq, and in the foundation of the Kingdom of Trans-Jordan (later Jordan). Although still under British tutelage, both countries thereafter enjoyed a considerable degree of self-government. By the summer of 1922 Lawrence felt that, so far as it lay within Britain's power, Churchill had achieved an honourable settlement. He had also completed a new polished version of Seven Pillars - the so-called 'Oxford' text. He had a few copies printed on a proofing-press, to circulate among literary critics and wartime colleagues.

Service in the ranks, 1922 - 1935

By then, however, Lawrence had drifted into a perilous state of mind. The exertions and horrors of the wartime campaign had been followed by three wearisome years of politics, and then the strain of writing a thousand-page book which he hoped would rank with Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov. Fearing for his sanity, he resigned from the Colonial Office and sought refuge in the ranks of the RAF where he gave his name as 'John Hume Ross'. After four months he was discovered by the press and discharged. By then, however, he was convinced that a period in the ranks was his only course. With the help of a highly-placed friends he re-enlisted almost immediately in the Tank Corps as 'Thomas Edward Shaw'. He served until mid-1925 at Bovington Camp in Dorset, during which time he found and rented a nearby cottage called Clouds Hill.

After the end of 1923, his free time and much of his energy was taken up revising Seven Pillars of Wisdom for a subscription edition. He had long dreamed of setting up a private press and he now employed two printers, supervising every detail of the production. He spent so lavishly on colour portraits and other embellishments that by December 1926, when the book was finally completed, it had cost about 90 guineas a copy -  three times the subscription price. In order to repay his bank loan, he had to sanction general publication of an abridgement of Seven Pillars called Revolt in the Desert.

Half way through this work, Lawrence had succeeded in transferring back from the Tank Corps to the RAF. At the end of 1926 he accepted a posting to India, in order to be beyond the reach of journalists when Revolt in the Desert was published. Both Revolt in the Desert and Seven Pillars were widely acclaimed, and Lawrence's bank loan was quickly paid off. He might have become wealthy, had he not made over all surplus royalties from the abridgement to a charity.

Encouraged by this literary success, during 1927 and 1928 Lawrence wrote another book, The Mint, based on notes he had made during his first RAF enlistment. It is an unsparing yet brilliantly observed portrait of the initial training given to Air Force recruits. In it he distilled into a few words mundane events that he had witnessed again and again. Like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it belongs to the genre of books written by intellectuals who find themselves, for one reason or another, in prison.

The Mint passed harsh judgement upon the RAF, as it then was. Publication would have damaged the reputation of the service Lawrence had come to love. He therefore stipulated that it should not be appear before 1950.

After finishing The Mint, he accepted a commission to translate Homer's Odyssey. He did not complete it until 1932. Before then, at the end of 1928, the RAF had been forced to return him to England because of fictitious press stories that he was spying in Afghanistan.

RAF speed-boats

Early in 1929 Lawrence was posted to a flying-boat unit at Plymouth, where he was to become passionately committed to a new cause. At the beginning of 1931 he witnessed a flying-boat crash, which happened quite close to the shore. The old-fashioned rescue launch was so slow to reach the scene that lives were needlessly lost. As it happened, he had recently refurbished an American motor-launch built to a much faster planing-hull design. From then on he and his Commanding Officer (a long-standing personal friend) campaigned for the adoption by the RAF of planing-hull launches. Lawrence became deeply involved in the development of these craft, spending his last Air Force years working in boatyards in civilian clothes. As a direct consequence of these efforts, by the outbreak of World War II in 1939 the RAF was equipped with a fleet of high-speed launches. These were to save thousands of lives in air-sea rescue missions.

Retirement

Lawrence did not live to see that. In March 1935 his twelve-year term of enlistment came to an end. He retired to Clouds Hill, planning to start a private press and produce a small edition of The Mint. In May, while riding his motor-cycle on a local errand, he swerved to avoid two cyclists and was thrown from his machine. He suffered severe head injuries and died some days later, having never regained consciousness.



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