When one thinks of Lawrence of Arabia the epic 1962 movie starring Peter O’Toole usually springs to mind. The movie characterizes Lawrence’s experience in Arabia during World War I, in particular his attacks on Aqaba and Damascus, as well as, his involvement in the Arab National Council.
Known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia, the enigmatic Thomas Edward Laurence (T.E. Lawrence) was a champion to many. He was a British Army misfit, a legendary war hero, author and archaeological scholar.
Much of what is known about Lawrence is gleaned from the movie script, which focuses on Lawrence’s emotional struggles with war time violence, his personal identity, and his divided allegiance between his native Britain and its army and his newfound comrades within the Arabian desert tribes.
Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Tremadog, Caernarfonshire, Wales, in 1888. In 1896, his family moved to Oxford, where he studied architecture and archaeology at England’s famous Oxford University, for which he made a trip to Syria and Palestine (controlled by the Ottoman Turks), in 1909.
Then, in 1911, he received a grant from Oxford to take part in an expedition excavating an ancient Hittite settlement on the Euphrates River. During the three years he spent there he travelled in his spare time and learned Arabic.
In 1914, he explored Sinai, near the border of Ottoman-controlled Arabia and British-controlled Egypt and at the outbreak of war between Britain and the Ottoman Empire the maps Lawrence and his associates made had immense strategic value.
Because of his expertise in Arab affairs Lawrence was assigned to Cairo at an intelligence officer and after spending more than a year in Egypt, he accompanied a British diplomat to Arabia where the emir of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali announced a revolt against Turks. Lawrence convinced his superiors to aid Hussein’s rebellion and was commissioned to join the Arabian army as a liaison officer.
In July 1917, Arabian forces captured Aqaba near the Sinai and then joined the British march on Jerusalem. After being promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, Lawrence was captured by the Turks while reconnoitering behind enemy lines in Arab dress. He was tortured and sexually abused before managed to escape and rejoined his troops, who gradually moved north to Damascus, which fell in October 1918.
Arabia was liberated, but Lawrence’s hopes were dashed when Arabian factionalism kicked in after Damascus. Lawrence was exhausted and disillusioned and left for England with the belief that Britain had exacerbated the rivalries between the Arabian groups. When he appeared before King George V he politely refused the medals offered to him.
After the war, he lobbied hard for independence for Arab countries and appeared at the Paris peace conference in Arab robes. He became that legendary figure we all know of and in 1922 gave up lucrative appointments to join the British Royal Air Force (RAF) under the assumed name John Hume Ross. When he had completed his monumental war memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he was found by the press and was discharged by the RAF.
In 1923, he managed to enlist as a private in the Royal Tanks Corps under another assumed name, T.E. Shaw. He changed his last name to Shaw in 1925 when he enlisted once again the RAF.
In February 1935, Lawrence was discharged from the RAF and returned to his home at Clouds Hill in Dorset, England. On May 13, he was critically injured while driving his motorcycle through the Dorset countryside, having swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles. On May 19, 1935, he died at the hospital of his former RAF camp. All of Britain mourned his passing.”
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