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World War I: Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia

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World War I: Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia

T.E. Lawrence in 1917

Photograph Source: Public Domain

T.E. Lawrence - Early Life & Career:

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Tremadog, Wales on August 16, 1888. He was the second illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman who had deserted his wife for his children's governess, Sarah Junner. Never marrying, the couple ultimately had five children and styled themselves "Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence" in reference to Junner's father. Earning the nickname "Ned," Lawrence's family moved several times during his youth and he spent time in Scotland, Brittany, and England. Settling in Oxford in 1896, Lawrence attended the City of Oxford School for Boys.

Entering Jesus College, Oxford in 1907, Lawrence showed a deep passion for history. Over the next two summers, he traveled through France by bicycle to study castles and other medieval fortifications. In 1909, he journeyed to Ottoman Syria and traversed the region by foot examining Crusader castles. Returning home, he completed his degree in 1910 and was offered the opportunity to remain at school for postgraduate work. Though he accepted, he departed a short time later when the opportunity arose to become a practicing archaeologist in the Middle East.

Lawrence the Archaeologist:

Fluent in a variety of languages including Latin, Greek, Arabic, Turkish, and French, Lawrence departed for Beirut in December 1910. Arriving, he began work at Carchemish under the guidance of D.H. Hogarth from the British Museum. After a brief trip home in 1911, he returned to Carchemish after a short dig in Egypt. Resuming his work, he partnered with Leonard Woolley. Lawrence continued to work in the region over the next three years and became familiar with its geography, languages, and peoples.

World War I Begins:

In January 1914, he and Woolley were approached by the British Army who wished them to conduct a military survey of the Negev Desert in southern Palestine. Moving forward, they conducted an archaeological assessment of the region as cover. In the course of their efforts, they visited Aqaba and Petra. Resuming work at Carchemish in March, Lawrence remained through the spring. Returning to Britain, he was there when World War I began in August 1914. Though eager to enlist, Lawrence was convinced to wait by Woolley. This delay proved wise as Lawrence was able to obtain a lieutenant's commission in October.

Due to his experience and language skills, he was sent to Cairo where he worked interrogating Ottoman prisoners. In June 1916, the British government entered into an alliance with Arab nationalists who sought to free their lands from the Ottoman Empire. While the Royal Navy had cleared the Red Sea of Ottoman ships early in the war, the Arab leader, Sherif Hussein bin Ali, was able to raise 50,000 men but lacked arms. Attacking Jiddah later that month, they captured the city and soon secured additional ports. Despite these successes, a direct assault on Medina was repulsed by the Ottoman garrison.

Lawrence of Arabia:

To aid the Arabs in their cause, Lawrence was sent to Arabia as a liaison officer in October 1916. After aiding in the defense of Yenbo in December, Lawrence convinced Hussein's sons, Emir Faisal and Abdullah, to coordinate their actions with the larger British strategy in the region. As such, he discouraged them from directly attacking Medina as attacking the Hedjaz Railway, which supplied the city, would tie down more Ottoman troops. Riding with Emir Faisal, Lawrence and the Arabs launched multiple strikes against the railway and threatened Medina's lines of communication.

Achieving success, Lawrence began moving against Aqaba in mid-1917. The Ottoman's sole remaining port on the Red Sea, the town had the potential to serve as a supply base for an Arab advance north. Working with Auda Abu Tayi and Sherif Nasir, Lawrence's forces attacked on July 6 and overran the small Ottoman garrison. In the wake of the victory, Lawrence traveled across the Sinai Peninsula to inform the new British commander, General Sir Edmund Allenby of the success. Recognizing the importance of the Arab efforts, Allenby agreed to provide £200,000 a month as well as arms.

Later Campaigns:

Promoted to major for his actions at Aqaba, Lawrence returned to Faisal and the Arabs. Supported by other British officers and increased supplies, the Arab army joined in the general advance on Damascus the following year. Continuing attacks on the railway, Lawrence and the Arabs defeated the Ottomans in the Battle of Tafileh on January 25, 1918. Reinforced, the Arab forces advanced inland while the British pushed up the coast. In addition, they conducted numerous raids and provided Allenby with valuable intelligence.

During the victory at the Megiddo in late September, British and Arab forces shattered the Ottoman resistance and began a general advance. Reaching Damascus, Lawrence entered the city on October 1. This was soon followed by a promotion to lieutenant colonel. A strong advocate for Arab independence, Lawrence relentlessly pressured his superiors on this point despite knowledge of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France which stated the region was to be divided between the two nations after the war. During this period he worked with noted correspondent Lowell Thomas whose reports made him famous.

Postwar & Later Life:

With the conclusion of the war, Lawrence returned to Britain where he continued to lobby for Arab independence. In 1919, he attended the Paris Peace Conference as a member of Faisal's delegation and served as a translator. During the conference, he became irate as the Arab position was ignored. This anger culminated when it was announced that there would be no Arab state and that Britain and France would oversee the region. As Lawrence was becoming increasingly bitter about the peace settlement, his fame greatly increased as a result of a film by Thomas which detailed his exploits. His feeling on the peace settlement improved following the Cairo Conference of 1921 which saw Faisal and Abdullah installed as the kings of newly-created Iraq and Trans-Jordan.

Seeking to escape his fame, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force under the name John Hume Ross in August 1922. Soon discovered, he was discharged the following year. Trying again, he joined the Royal Tank Corps under the name Thomas Edward Shaw. Having completed his memoirs, entitled Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in 1922, he had it published four years later. Unhappy in the RTC, he successfully transferred back the RAF in 1925. Working as a mechanic, he also completed an abridged version of his memoirs entitled Revolt in the Desert. Published in 1927, Lawrence was forced to conduct a media tour in support of the work. This work provided ultimately provided a substantial line of income.

Leaving the military in 1935, Lawrence intended to retire to his cottage, Clouds Hill, in Dorset. An avid motorcycle rider, he was severely injured in a crash near his cottage on May 13, 1935, when he swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles. Thrown over the handlebars, he died from his injuries on May 19. Following a funeral, which was attended by notables such as Winston Churchill, Lawrence was buried at Moreton Church in Dorset. His exploits were later retold in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia which starred Peter O'Toole as Lawrence and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Selected Sources

  • BBC: T.E. Lawrence
  • PBS: Lawrence of Arabia
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