Thomas Edward Lawrence

ProfessionSoldier & Arabist
Place of BirthTremadoc, Wales
Place of DeathDorset

"The dreamers of the day are dangerous men,
for they may act out their dream with open eyes,
to make it possible. This I did."

Born in Wales and brought up in Oxford, Lawrence became one of the unlikeliest heroes of the British Empire. He studied at Jesus College in Oxford after which he joined a British Museum archaeological team working on the Euphrates. The team was led by Sir Flinders Petrie and the work was concentrated at Carchemish from 1911 to 1914. This formative experience was the first to give Lawrence his passion, knowledge and understanding of the Desert and its dwellers. This experience would be put to considerable use in The Great War.

During the war he was first posted to North Africa as an intelligence officer and he quickly developed a reputation as being something of a maverick. His individual skills and traits were most famously put to the test from 1916 onwards, when he was assigned to work with the Emir Faisal. He masterminded a series of Guerilla strikes against the Ottomans and used the Arabs knowledge of the terrain and their bravery to devestating effect. He managed to coordinate the Arabs into supporting Allenby's drive through Palestine and managed to enter Damascus ahead of the advancing British units.

Immediately following the end of the war, Lawrence was assigned as a delegate to the peace conference in Versailles. However this, and a stint as Arab adviser at the Colonial office, was to prove a disconcerting experience to Lawrence as he was unable to fulfill the promises and pledges that he had made to the Arabs in return for their help during the war. Although, the degree to which he must have suspected Allied treachery and double dealing with the Arabs all along is not persuasively known one way or the other.

In what many people see as demonstrating his disillusionment with Public Office, Lawrence then joined the RAF as a lowly aircraftman under the assumed name John Hume Ross in 1922. His identity was discovered and so he switched to the Royal Tank Corps in 1923 as T. E. Shaw. Using this name, he later transferred back to the RAF in 1925. He remained in the RAF for the next 10 years before being discharged and returned home to England and settle in Dorset.

As with much of Lawrence's life, the extent to which he publicised his exploits remains an unknown quantity. His most famous publication Seven Pillars of Wisdom was published in 1926 and then only to private subscription. However, he had written an earlier manuscript almost immediately after the events and if it hadn't been left on a train it probably would have been published within just a few years of the end of the war. He took a considerable amount of time and effort in his writings - although many of his accounts subsequently seem to have been of highly dubious authenticity and accuracy. He definitely seems to have overstated his own role in the proceedings of the Arab revolt. Indeed, many people see his retiring to public life and private subscription publications as part of a much wilier self-publicising campaign - adding yet more mystique to his exploits.

Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident in Dorset in 1935. He left behind him many unanswered questions and a legacy of heroism and derring-do that appealed to the British and Imperial public. His fame would be boosted to even greater levels and to later generations with the David Lean film of 1961: Lawrence of Arabia. True or not, his legend and legacy is probably more enduring and just as important as his real life exploits.

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by Stephen Luscombe