Dec 312012

Thomas Edward Lawrence (August 16, 1888-May 19, 1935) became famous for his role in the Arab Revolt during WWI. Having worked as an archeologist in Syria, his fluency in Arabic and familiarity with the Middle East ensured that he was assigned to the Intelligence Staff of the British Army in Egypt after the Ottoman Empire entered the war. Serving as a liaison between the British government and Arab tribes fighting a guerrilla war against the Ottoman Empire, he gained the trust of Prince Feisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Unable to face the Ottoman army in open battle, the Arab guerrillas focused on derailing trains on the main railway line. A devoted believer in the cause of Arab independence, Lawrence served as interpreter for Prince Feisal during the Versailles Peace Conference where the Arab delegation failed to win full independence. However, Lawrence became famous when the book Lawrence of Arabia by American journalist Lowell Thomas became a best-seller.  Furthermore, military historian Basil Liddell Hart greatly admired Lawrence and wrote that he had revolutionized guerrilla tactics. Uncomfortable with fame, Lawrence enlisted in the R. A. F. under an assumed name, and then transferred to the Tank Corps when he was discovered. Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident in 1935.

Early Life

Thomas Edward Lawrence’s father was a wealthy landowner with a distant connection to the nobility. Tiring of a loveless marriage, he eventually left his ill-tempered wife and started a relationship with Sarah, the children’s nanny. Since his wife’s religious convictions ruled out divorce, the couple moved to Wales, where they could pretend to be married, exchanging the name Chapman for Lawrence. The couple’s different social backgrounds made them stand out in England’s hierarchal society, therefore they moved around for years in order to avoid being discovered and ostracized.

The couple had five sons, including T. E. Lawrence, who was born on August 16, 1888 in North Wales. Although his parents never told Lawrence that he was illegitimate, he had figured it out by the time he was an adolescent. Rather than placing the blame on a judgmental society, Lawrence grew up resenting his mother for forcing his father to bear the financial burden of supporting two households, thus dragging the family down to the middle class, below the level of a true gentleman. The view that bloodline determined a person’s moral virtue was widespread at the time, and he believed fervently in the idea that noble birth equaled noble character. Since his father could not afford the tuition for a public school, Lawrence attended Oxford High School and only began to interact with what were considered gentlemen when he entered Oxford University. For the rest of his life, he would strive to fit in among those who had been born to the upper class. The nature of his birth was kept secret by Lawrence, although he told a few close friends as be became older.

An extremely devout woman, the internal conflict of living outside the sanctity of marriage was a constant torment to Lawrence’s mother, and she instilled a powerful religious drive to serve others among her sons. Believing that her children were at moral risk since they had been conceived in sin, she kept them away from any form of temptation and diverted their youthful energy into their studies. Her other four sons learned to submit to her thinking but Lawrence stubbornly insisted on following his own path.

While at university, he became a passionate antiquarian, spending his free time visiting churches and castles in England and France to obtain brass-rubbings and deepen his knowledge of medieval life. As an adult, Lawrence avoided alcohol and cigarettes, devoting himself to the life of a scholar. A fit, hard-working student, he had no interest in team sports, despite their widespread popularity. Rarely mingling with his classmates, his only regular social activity was membership in the cyclist detachment of the university’s Officers’ Training Corps, where he learned how to shoot. Although one member of his small circle of friends was homosexual, there is little evidence that Lawrence thought about sex with either men or women. He appears to have subscribed to the ideal of platonic, manly friendship, but it is unknown whether it was genuine or a cover for homosexual desires, which were illegal.

Without a doubt, his all-consuming interest was the medieval period, especially the stories of knightly chivalry. The summer of 1909 was spent researching castles in Lebanon and Syria, which motivated his original decision to learn Arabic. Armed with a camera, a Mauser automatic pistol, and documents from the British embassy in Constantinople requesting the assistance of all local officials, Lawrence made his way from castle to castle. He covered 1,100 miles on foot in eighty-three days until exhaustion, malaria and lack of funds forced an early end to the journey. A private man, he had little difficulty adapting to spending days without seeing another European.

After graduating from Oxford, Lawrence received a four-year scholarship, intended to enable him to travel and study without having to worry about supporting himself. Most of that time was spent at the excavations at Kakamis, where he developed his love of archeology, and embraced a life outside of England’s strict social conventions. Despite his youth, he was placed in charge of the laborers. Having grown up on a steady diet of chivalric tales, he embraced the role of local lord. Although happy to play the ugly Englishman character and threaten local Turkish officials with the promise to call in a British gunboat if they refused to comply with his demands, Lawrence noticed the growing nationalism that was spreading through Syria. Dealing with family feuds among the laborers made him aware of the complexities of relationships among the Arabs. Four years of contact with Syrian laborers and Turkish bureaucrats made him a proponent of Syrian nationalism with a strong dislike of the Turkish Empire.


Following the outbreak of WWI, Lawrence’s mentor arranged for him to be assigned to the Geographical Section of the War Office, where he helped produce the army’s new map of the Sinai. When the Ottoman Empire declared war on the Allies, he was sent to the intelligence section at Cairo. Fortunately, his superiors, Colonel Gilbert Clayton and Major Stewart Newcombe, appreciated his intelligence and did not force him to conform to a narrow image of a military officer. Although he was at the center of a large web of field agents recruited from among Arabs, Greeks, Armenians and Jews, Lawrence primarily produced maps, coded and decoded telegrams, and sometimes interviewed prisoners. A diligent worker, his sharp mind enabled him to see trends by piercing together many different bits of information, so he earned the trust of his superiors. Surrounded by intelligent men, who shared the same interests, Lawrence made a number of friends, and his officer’s salary ensured that he was no longer constantly hovering on the edge of poverty as he had been in Syria.

While Britain’s immediate goal was the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, many of the intelligence officers, Lawrence included, began planning for the new order that would emerge following the destruction of the empire, and they naturally viewed the success of the war in terms of the Middle East, not the Western Front. The Turkish Empire had kept order in the Middle East, but its defeat was expected to produce chaos, therefore the intelligence officers debated what should take the empire’s place, with the emphasis on preserving the interests of the British Empire, especially against traditional rivals France and Russia.

The Sultan of Turkey’s call for Jihad against the Allies had sparked a few spontaneous revolts and spread fear among the British administrators of India, home to a large, restive Muslim population. Actually, neither side had a clear plan. The Germans and Turks lacked the resources to ensure that small revolts grew into serious threats, while the British did not know how to deal with the situation, other than transfer white units to colonial garrisons instead of the Western Front.

Lawrence was a strong proponent of British support for an Arab rebellion, since it would divide Muslims, instead of having them unite against the British. Encouragement of an Arab revolt against the Turks was not considered a viable option by the British generals in the region since it could spiral out of control. In fact, when Lawrence was sent to Iraq in April to help stir up Arab nationalism within the Turkish army in the hope of relieving pressure on the garrison trapped at Kut, the mission was extremely unpopular among the British generals in Iraq. Aside from considering the local Arabs to be completely untrustworthy and a threat to both the Turks and the British, they were traditional officers, who believed strongly that gentlemen do not encourage mutiny, even among the enemy. Discovering that most men deserted simply to return to their families, Lawrence quickly concluded that rumors of widespread Arab nationalism among the enemy were just rumors.

The Arab Revolt

Although he had been negotiating with the British since the beginning of the war, Sharif Hussein of Mecca only revolted on June 5, 1916 when he realized that the Young Turks in charge of the Turkish government intended to depose him. Although 30,000 tribesmen flocked to his banner, swords and martial spirit were no match for Turkish machine guns, and the revolt was soon on the verge of utter defeat. Hussein’s British military advisor requested a brigade of British troops but General Sir Archibald Murray, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), refused because he felt that the revolt had little chance of success and his troops were needed in Sinai. Most important, Christian troops would not be welcome near Mecca. The pro and anti-revolt decision-makers in Cairo agreed on only one thing, they did not really know what was happening, so Lawrence was sent in October 1916 to gather information and analyze the revolt’s chances. Among Hussein’s four sons, only Feisal, the third eldest, met Lawrence’s criteria for a leader. Disregarding conventional military thinking, Lawrence concluded that the Arabs’ refusal to fight in orderly units was a strength, not a weakness. Given proper weapons, primarily machine guns, they could win.

Returning to Cairo, his report persuaded Murray to send supplies, artillery and engineering officers who spoke Arabic. Given his lack of technical skills, Lawrence had not expected to be sent back but his superiors decided that they needed a steady flow of information. Suppressing his usual independent and opinionated nature, he soon won Feisal’s trust.

Although Lawrence later presented himself as a zealous believer in Arab independence, he knew that he served the British government. Arab and British short-term interests were on the same path, but Britain had already divided Arabia with France. Despite his self-declared devotion to the Arab cause, he was only interested in the tribal leaders, claiming that they possessed the necessary spirit for revolution, but more likely because he only had to persuade a few leaders and they would then order their followers to cooperate. The city-dwelling middle class that had adopted western ideas about democracy and believed in debate were despised by Lawrence for their softness, although their refusal to blindly follow him was likely the real reason. Moreover, since he had grown up on tales of knights riding off to battle, being surrounded by tough, mounted warriors who followed princes and chieftains must have been a dream come true.

Unlike previous British liaison officers, Lawrence did not try to mold the Arabs into darker-skinned versions of himself, but simply accepted all of their customs. Many of his fellow officers did not share his admiration of the Arabs, hating their allies for what they considered to be frequent bouts of cowardice, which endangered their Western allies, while Turkish prisoners were praised for their orderliness.

Despite Lawrence’s efforts to blend in, the primary factor behind his influence was his access to unlimited funds, which enabled Feisal to purchase the loyalty of his troops. Their discipline was not for sale, so they continued to plunder. Lawrence always preferred to say that the Arab soldiers had been inspired by their leaders and a vision of independence, not hired to fight. Actually, it was the happy time for the tribal sheiks since the Turks, Germans and British were all competing to buy their loyalty. While the tribes were fighting the Turks together, it was not the early stage of nation building. Hussein re-established Sharia Law in places he controlled and tried to stamp out the spread of democracy. The Turks were enemies as much as because they were overlords as due to their emphasis on meritocracy, which was an affront to the Bedouins’ emphasis on unchanging tradition. The Bedouins’ hatred of modernity, aside from machine guns, meant that they did not cooperate well with the Arab soldiers who had deserted from the Turks and were building a Western-style army.

Realizing that the tribal warriors were not suited for large-scale battles against Turkish units, they were employed in hit-and-run raids against the Hejaz railway, which was used to transport Turkish troops to threaten the British in Syria. Since a large quantity of track had been stored in Medina for a planned extension to Mecca, the Turks were able to quickly repair damaged parts of the track, so the raids were more of a nuisance. Although tearing up track did little damage, the British engineering officers became skilled at derailing trains, and the Turks did not have an endless supply of locomotives, while the Arabs embraced the opportunity to loot.

Believing that Lawrence was well-suited to co-ordinate the raids with the British officers actually carrying out the demolition in the field, he was assigned to serve as Feisal’s political officer. Lawrence’s role was to hand out gold and serve as proof of British involvement. In particular, he proved able to discern which course of action would be accepted by whichever group of Arab leaders he was working with at the moment. The successful capture of Aqaba in July 1917 proved Lawrence’s theories about the Arabs’ potential and made him famous in Cairo. Since General Sir Edmund Allenby, the new EEF commander, was planning an aggressive campaign, he was naturally interested in a plan to distract the Turks from blocking the path towards Jerusalem, especially since only British gold and weapons, not soldiers, were required. It soon became clear that some British troops were needed, specifically an air squadron, a squadron of armored cars, artillery and support staff.


A key incident in Lawrence’s life took place on the night of November 21-22, 1917. Lawrence has claimed that a spy in Feisal’s camp betrayed him to the Turks when he was gathering intelligence in Dera. The governor was a homosexual, and found Lawrence attractive. After a night of beatings and possibly rape, a sympathetic guard allowed him to escape. His own accounts of the situation vary, therefore historians debate whether the incident ever happened. It is true that the decision to form a bodyguard afterwards shows that he began to take his safety more seriously. However, there is no firm evidence of Lawrence’s location during the time he said he was captured. There is no record among the Turks that a European intelligence officer was captured at Dera at that time, nor was there any evidence that the commander of Dera was a homosexual. Furthermore, if Lawrence had been tortured and raped, it seems very hard to believe that he managed to reach Aqaba after three days of non-stop camel riding, and that all of his injuries had healed in a region where infection was a constant danger, despite having received no medical treatment at all.

Given Lawrence’s habit of exaggeration and contempt for the educated Arabs and Turkish officers, he may have taken an event that had happened before and transferred it to a fictional incident that he revealed years later or it may have reflected an internal struggle with his own sexuality. The latter seems especially likely given his praise for the Bedouins’ habit of resorting to homosexual sex to satisfy their needs when they were alone in the desert. After the war, Lawrence became a masochist who frequently paid to have himself whipped, possibly to punish himself for homosexual desires, which were taboo at the time. While he never expressed any interest in women, he also did not express any homosexual tendencies. There were rumors that he had had sex with men but they were few and seemed to be hearsay, although several of his friends thought that he was a homosexual.

British Victory in Palestine

By the end of November, Arab leaders had learned of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Middle East between the British and the French, destroying Arab hopes for an independent nation. Lawrence was in a difficult position since as a British officer and Feisal’s confidant he had to balance contradictory demands. Although he pretended to Feisal that he had not known about the Sykes-Picot agreement, it seems doubtful that the Arab leaders had placed their trust in the pledges of a junior officer, since their post-war claims were based on the pledges and letters of more senior officers. It seems more likely that they believed that their reward would depend on their performance during the war and the amount of territory that they held.

Although angered by the British betrayal, the Arabs’ bargaining position was weak, since the Arab Revolt could not survive on its own. Aside from a dependence on British weapons and money, the number of British, French, Egyptian and Indian engineers, signalers and supply officers serving with Feisal’s army had passed a thousand, while the firepower provided by the Algerian artillery, Gurkha machine gunners, and British armored cars and air support had proved vital.

While Lawrence’s faith in the Bedouin’s skill as guerrillas remained unshaken, more experienced officers had become disillusioned. When the Arab army was assigned to move on Maan in order to protect Allenby’s flank, the British officers assigned to coordinate the offensive soon realized that keeping the irregulars around after they had gained plunder would be difficult, if not impossible. In the end, the hard work of clearing out fortified positions fell to the Arab regular forces, supported by Western artillery and machine guns units. To be fair, Faisal’s mix of regulars and irregulars had forced the Turks to keep roughly 10,000 men in Maan and in outposts stretching along the railway.

As the Turkish garrisons were forced to surrender, they would try to hold out long enough to place themselves under the protection of British and Australian units, otherwise they would be butchered and plundered by Arab irregulars. Lawrence defended the actions of his Bedouin allies as being payment for past Turkish massacres and cruelties, but senior British officers felt that the Arab irregulars were out of control. Admitting that the Arab irregulars were cold-blooded murderers would have damaged the Arab Revolt, but it also would have made him question his deep-rooted belief in the moral superiority of the Bedouin.

Assigned as political liaison officer to General Sir Harry Chauvel, commander of the Australian Mounted Division, on September 26, Lawrence was expected to ensure that the Arabs met British objectives. Although ordered to appoint French officers to administer Syria, Allenby had agreed to allow an Arab force to enter Damascus first, as a gesture of gratitude for their assistance. It is unclear whether Lawrence was the instigator behind Feisal’s failed attempt to seize control of Damascus to legitimize his claim to Syria or was simply unable to prevent it. Lawrence naïvely believed that if Feisal’s army linked up with nationalists in the city, they would be able to face off the French. Allenby was under the impression that Lawrence remembered that he was a British officer, and could be relied upon to dissuade Feisal from open opposition to the French. Once inside Damascus, Feisal’s army proved unwilling or unable to maintain order, so a march through the city on October 2 of the British, Indian, Australian and French forces showed the residents of Damascus who was in charge. After a meeting between Allenby and Feisal, an Arab nationalist was made governor of Damascus, officially under Feisal’s authority but advised by the French.

When Allenby learned that Lawrence had neglected to inform Feisal that he could rule Syria under the direction of France but Palestine and Lebanon would be run by the British and French respectively, Lawrence’s request for leave in England was immediately accepted.

Back in England, Lawrence launched a public campaign to help the Arabs win independence, bringing a flexibility with the facts as he tried to attract support for the Arabs by claiming that they had played a key role in the British victory. Actually, the Turks had been defeated primarily by a powerful army skillfully led by Allenby, while the Arabs’ role had been limited to forcing the Turks to devote more men to defend the Hejaz railway. It is true that the Arab revolt had ended the threat of a Muslim war against the Christian Allies, thus depriving the Turks of their legitimacy as defenders of the Muslim faith. However, the revolt had failed to inspire widespread desertion among Arab soldiers in the Turkish army or build the foundation of a united Arab nation. The reliance on a temporary alliance of Bedouin tribes who shared a common enemy, instead of nationalists who wanted to forge an independent, democratic nation, meant that tribal feuding tore apart the alliance once the war had ended. Many of the tribal sheiks happily returned to raiding anyone, including the British, once the Turks had been defeated.

Serving as the Arab expert for the cabinet’s Eastern Committee introduced Lawrence to politicians and newspaper editors, and he was asked to write three articles for the Times in late November 1918. The articles followed the basic facts, but the Arabs were presented as doing all the fighting, while their acute dependence on British technical ability and gold was ignored. His articles had excellent timing since the fighting on the western front was over and the war in the Middle East was largely unreported, aside from the capture of Jerusalem.


While Lawrence had become well-known among senior military officers and government officials, he probably would have returned to obscurity after the war. However, Lowell Thomas, an American reporter, realized that the emancipation of the Arab and Jewish communities, combined with a modern-day crusade to free Jerusalem, the home of the Christian faith, from the crushing heel of the Ottoman Empire, was a priceless story, especially since he had a cameraman to film it. Every story needs a hero and Lawrence fit the bill for Thomas, who gave a series of film-and-lecture shows after the war that presented Lawrence as a fearless adventurer devoted to freeing Arabs from Turkish despotic rule. The show was a huge success, first in the United States, and then in Britain. Thomas portrayed Lawrence and his fellow officers as modern-day knights who operated separately, riding around the desert rather than crawling in the mud on the Western Front.

Lawrence’s popularity was largely due to the public’s need to identify with an individual hero in a war mainly fought by masses of men, where every soldier was a miniscule cog in a gigantic war machine. Unlike previous wars, no general or senior officer had captured the public imagination, and many were attacked after the war for their callous disregard for human lives. As a junior officer who had managed to preserve his independence against the hidebound senior officers, Lawrence served as an ideal for the countless junior officers who had been thrown into deathtraps by generals apparently unwilling to consider new tactics.

When Thomas wrote With Lawrence in Arabia, it was a bestseller in both Britain and the United States. Despite his active cooperation with Thomas and enjoyment of posing for photos wearing robes, Lawrence had provided very little concrete information about his life, so Thomas had to gather information second-hand. Although Lawrence was aware of the numerous inaccuracies, he made no effort to change them or prevent publication.


Lawrence was Feisal’s interpreter and advisor during the Versailles Peace Conference, but he was also a technical advisor for the British delegation, which once again led to conflicting loyalties. Unfortunately, Lawrence failed to accept that Britain would not back the Arabs against the French. Most important, Lawrence and Feisal both lacked perspective, believing that the Arabs’ contribution to victory against the Turks was comparable to France’s sacrifice and huge loss of life during the war. The British delegation was willing to arrange a compromise to prevent Arab unrest but Feisal refused to accept France’s offer of ruling Syria under French direction. Recriminations flowed fast and furiously afterwards but Lawrence, as the interpreter, played a key role in the situation. While Feisal trusted him, Lawrence’s grasp of Arabic was quite likely unable to properly communicate the nuances of international diplomacy, especially since his personal Francophobia drove him to convince Feisal to seek American support rather than focus on a compromise with the French.

Even after he left the negotiations at Paris, he continued to lobby for Britain to stand behind Feisal against the French, but the British government was already straining to protect the empire and lacked the energy to cause trouble with an ally. Frustrated that the Turks had simply been replaced by the British and the French as overlords, rebellion was spreading through the Middle East. When Feisal rashly allied with Syrian nationalists and publicly rejected French claims to Syria, his army was quickly smashed and he was forced to flee to British-controlled Palestine. Lawrence wrote a number of articles supporting Feisal and criticizing British policy in Iraq, even though he knew little about the region and his criticisms were based on numerous errors and misunderstandings, most notably a deadly underestimation of the threat posed by Ibn Saud, who would drive Hussein out of Mecca in 1925, thus founding the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In early January 1921, Lawrence joined the staff of Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for the Colonies. The two men got along extremely well because they shared similar personalities. Churchill was expected to restore calm to Iraq, Palestine and Arabia, and return the area to its previous status as a buffer zone between India and Europe. The policy of ruling through loyal locals had proven successful in India, and had been advocated by numerous soldiers and politicians, including Lawrence. After Feisal renounced any claims to Palestine, he was allowed to rule Iraq and his brother Abdullah was given Jordan. When Lawrence was assigned to help Abdullah adjust to his role as ruler of Jordan, he found the mundane nature of bureaucracy unbearable, made worse by disappointment with Britain’s refusal to support the Arabs against the French. He eventually resigned on July 4, 1922.


In August 1922, Lawrence joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as an enlisted man, although the process experienced a few bumps, since the recruiting officer discovered that he was using a fake name and he was rejected by the first two doctors as unfit for military service. Pressure from Air Vice-Marshal Sir Oliver Swann ensured that he was accepted, while the head of the training camp was informed that the new recruit was actually Lawrence of Arabia, so he would complete training regardless of his performance. Given Lawrence’s love of speed and the public fascination with the new technology, it seems natural that he would want to be part of it. Frustration with the results of the Arab Revolt probably explains why he did not want to have responsibility for men’s lives. Even though many NCOs eventually became pilots, Lawrence never learned how to fly, satisfying his need for speed with motorcycles.

Lawrence’s anonymity only lasted a few months, and the papers had discovered his identity by the end of the year. Hoping to flee his celebrity, he joined the Royal Tank Corps under a different name, and although he did not fit in, his refusal to judge or condescend combined with his generosity with time and money meant that he was accepted by the soldiers. Lawrence had gotten along well with the troops during the Arab campaign since they appreciated his willingness to seek the opinion of specialists, regardless of rank. A habit of pressing the cause of enlisted men among his influential friends increased his popularity. Relentless lobbying won him a transfer back to the RAF as an officer candidate in 1924.

Relying on extensive notes, and an impressive memory after a preliminary manuscript was forgotten on a train, Lawrence had produced the book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, about the Arab Revolt, in 1922. His liberal attitude towards facts continued in Seven Pillars, which was initially viewed as an accurate presentation of the Arab Revolt. The desire to give the Arabs credit for capturing Damascus on their own was so strong that he essentially ignored the contribution of the British, Indian and ANZAC forces. Originally reluctant to publish the book, he permitted an expensive limited edition of 200 copies in 1926. The edition had cost more to produce than it earned, so he finally agreed to allow an abridged version, Revolt in the Desert, the following year, which became extremely popular. Lawrence had became friends with Robert Graves, George Bernard Shaw and E.M. Forster, but he rejected the fashion of the time and did not join any particular group of writers.

Although he appeared happier in the RAF and was genuinely proud of his contribution to the development of fast rescue boats, Lawrence occasionally paid people to whip him, claiming that he needed to be punished. He had been whipped frequently by his mother as a child and his fixation on medieval history would have made him familiar with the saints’ habit of flagellation or self-punishment to repress erotic desires. He remained as generous as before, using the profits from the sales of Revolt in the Desert to pay off his debts, and then gave most of what was left to airmen in need and the RAF Memorial Fund. Lawrence had been collecting notes about serving in the ranks and had put together a book called The Mint, but he resisted publishing it because Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard did not want the RAF’s failings made public, preferring to solve the problems on his own. Therefore, Lawrence only allowed it to be read by a few friends, and it would only be published after his death. Aside from working on The Mint, he translated The Odyssey while serving in India and England.

Lawrence’s fame had reached such levels that when he was posted to the North-West Frontier in India in 1928, the press happily reported rumors that he was battling Bolsheviks who were trying to incite rebellion. Hoping to capitalize on his reputation, leaders on the right and left tried to enlist his support to their causes. Although Lawrence had said repeatedly that he entered the RAF as an enlisted soldier, not an officer, in an attempt to avoid his celebrity, he often mentioned to friends that he had plans that would require his fame, while declining to elaborate. Clearly, he had a conflicting view of his fame, since he had legally changed his last name to Shaw in 1927.

Having made friends with poets, writers and politicians, Lawrence’s continued desire to serve in the ranks and refusal to describe himself as a writer was difficult to understand. His letters to friends often referred to a feeling of dissatisfaction with himself, as if he was not worthy of anything other than serving in the ranks.

In 1934, he cooperated with Basil Liddell Hart, when he wrote a biography of Lawrence. Liddell Hart portrayed Lawrence as a military genius, who had employed revolutionary guerrilla tactics, but Lawrence himself believed that the book was not sufficiently critical, and refused to fully endorse it. Despite lacking a seal of approval from his subject, Liddell Hart’s book further cemented the public view of Lawrence as a brilliant military leader, when his actual role in the Arab Revolt had been a minor one.

Although he had no idea of what he would do when he finally left the RAF in March 1935, he rebuffed the encouragement of several of his politically-connected friends to become involved in the reorganization of Britain’s defences.


Lawrence died on May 19, 1935 during a motorcycle crash caused by swerving to avoid two schoolboys on bicycles. Although his death was an accident, and Lawrence had always been fond of riding his motorcycle at reckless speeds, his friends had observed a pronounced sense of depression and lack of purpose in his life after mandatory retirement forced him to leave the RAF.

Afterwards, people struggled to find the real Lawrence. Close friends were aware of his perverse desire to spread confusion by telling contradictory stories about the same event to different listeners. Even Lawrence’s biographers have admitted that it was almost impossible to make him stick to one version of events, instead of adding a little more flavor each time. He must have been a fascinating dinner companion but a nightmare to interview. Unfortunately, once a few events are placed under suspicion, everything he said becomes suspect. Some of his anecdotes were quite outrageous, such as a claim that he had been a secret agent before the war and had gone so deep undercover that he had been Enver Pasha’s ADC. Lawrence became a national hero after his death, especially as heroes were sought to help raise morale during the beginning of WWII.

Related Movies:

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Directed by David Lean, starring Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness
A young British intelligence officer finds himself leading an Arab revolt against the Turkish Empire during WWI, while struggling to balance his duty and his loyalty to the Arabs.

Further Reading:

The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia-Lawrence James, London: Abacus, 1995.

It is an excellent book. James admits that it was a constant struggle to untangle the numerous half-truths, tall tales and exaggerations that Lawrence enjoyed. He succeeds in producing an impartial look at a complex individual who found himself in the center of events and embraced fame when it was thrust on him, although he likely regretted it. Resisting the easy temptation of making definitive statements based on limited evidence, James presents the available information and his own interpretation of that evidence, thus letting the reader judge whether that interpretation stands on its own. Lawrence the individual can not be separated from the Arab Revolt, which he came to symbolize, so the book spends a great deal of time unraveling his role in the revolt, showing that he was not a military genius as portrayed by Liddell Hart nor an innocent betrayed by cynical British imperialists. Instead, he appears to have been a man who never acknowledged that he served two masters, the Arabs and the British government. Blinded by his own romantic vision of the Bedouin chieftains and princes, he was unable to accept that they lacked the popular support required to survive without British backing. James not only examines Lawrence’s life after the war but discusses the rise and fall of Lawrence’s heroic image by showing that the self-interests of Lawrence’s initial biographers and friends motivated them to defend that image even after it clearly had no basis in reality.

A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence-John E. Mack, Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1976.

A trained psychiatrist, Mack possesses the necessary technical skill to study the inner motivations behind Lawrence’s actions. However, his grasp of the complexities of the Arab Revolt and the situation in the Middle East is less firm. Probably as much time is spent examining the debate over Lawrence’s role in the Arab Revolt as actually discussing the revolt itself. Despite repeating that Lawrence had taken command of the Arab Revolt, the author fails to mention that once it became clear that Feisal could deliver an army, the British army assigned several senior officers to the campaign, and Lawrence was delegated to serve as liaison to Feisal and handle recruitment of tribes into the army. Still, it is indispensable for any serious student of T.E. Lawrence.

A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East-David Fromkin, New York: Avon Books, 1989.

Fromkin has written a fascinating book with a wealth of information that explains why the situation in today’s Middle East is so complex. Although united by a shared desire to see the end of the Ottoman Empire, the British, French, traditional Arab leaders, growing Arab urban middle class, and the Zionist movement had conflicting goals which produced disastrous results. A superb look at a pivotal period in modern history, the author’s hero-worship of Churchill unfortunately affects his analysis of the information produced by his laborious research.