After an initial career as an archaeologist Thomas Edward Lawrence emerged from the carnage and horrors of the First World War as the famous youthful ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Following his role as intelligence officer and military adviser in the Middle East during the war, and peace-maker and diplomat afterwards, Lawrence went to extraordinary efforts to escape his fame and retreated into the obscurity of the military ‘ranks’ under various pseudonyms. A legend in his own lifetime, a complex and brilliant man with a ‘genius for friendship’ and a gifted writer, he remains to this day a person of particular fascination who attracts a variety of opinion.
Portrait image: Colonel Lawrence at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The second of five brothers, Lawrence was born 16 August 1888 in Caernarvonshire, Wales. His father, Thomas Chapman, was an Anglo-Irish gentleman landowner and his mother, Sarah Junner, was of Scottish origins. She became governess to the Chapman household in Ireland but after eloping with Chapman they adopted the family name of Sarah’s father, John Lawrence. After a peripatetic early period the family settled in Oxford where Lawrence attended the City of Oxford High School for Boys and Jesus College, University of Oxford. His B.A. dissertation research on Crusader castles led him to travel for the first time to the Middle East in 1909, especially within Ottoman Syria.
After university, with the help of his Oxford mentor, D.G. Hogarth (Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and member of the PEF Committee) Lawrence became an archaeologist and spent several seasons (1910-14) working with Leonard Woolley on the British Museum excavations at the Neo-Hittite site of Carchemish near Jerablus in North Syria (now on the Turkish/Syrian border).
In early 1914 Woolley and Lawrence, at the request of the British Museum, accompanied a survey party making maps in the Sinai Desert. While Lawrence undertook an archaeological survey (which he described as providing ‘archaeological colour to a political job’ as permission was required from the Turks who controlled this area) the topographical work was carried out by Captain Newcombe who later worked with Lawrence during the Arab Revolt. This survey, sponsored by the PEF, was tasked with extending southwards the previous PEF Survey of Western Palestine carried out in the 1870s. The 1914 survey (published by Woolley and Lawrence as The Wilderness of Zin, PEF Annual III, 1915) later greatly assisted Lawrence because of the surveying and map-making skills he learnt and also the first-hand knowledge he gained of the terrain, especially in the Aqaba area.
In August 1914 Lawrence joined the Geographical Section of the General Staff in London but following Turkey's entry into the war he was transferred (December 1914) to the Intelligence Department in Cairo where he joined the Arab Bureau (with D.G. Hogarth as its head). In seeking Arab support for the British war effort Lawrence and the Bureau became increasingly involved with Arab nationalist movements and politics but had to contend with French colonial rivalry and ambitions.
In June 1916 Sherif Hussein of Mecca started the Arab Revolt and in October Lawrence first visited the Hejaz. From 1916-1918 Lawrence greatly influenced the military and political strategy of the revolt and acted as principal liaison officer between the British (General Allenby) and Arab Forces (Prince Faisal). He famously led raids on the Hejaz railway, helped capture the vital seaport of Aqaba(July 1917), and conducted important military and political reconnaissance expeditions. Lawrence accompanied the Arabs in reaching Damascus (October 1918) and helped set up a provisional, but short-lived, Arab government.
In January 1919 Lawrence attended the Paris Peace Conference and argued vigorously, but unsuccessfully, for Arab freedom. During this period he began to write his monumental book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom – privately published in 1926. After the Conference Lawrence took up a Research Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. From February 1921 to March 1922 Lawrence worked for Churchill in the Colonial Office and attended the Cairo Conference in March 1921 and was British representative in Transjordan, October – December 1921.
In August 1922 Lawrence joined the Royal Air Force as an Aircraftsman under an assumed name, John Hume Ross. However press publicity caused him to be dismissed in January 1923 and two months later he joined the Royal Tank Corps at Bovington, Dorset as a private under the name of Thomas Edward Shaw (legally adopted by deed poll in 1927). In 1925 he succeeded in returning to the RAF and in January 1927 he took up a posting in India (Karachi) where he started to draft a book about his early period in the RAF (The Mint published 1955). Due to false press reports about spying he was hurriedly brought back to England in January 1929 and went to RAF Mount Batten, Plymouth.
From 1929 – 1935 Lawrence was engaged in the development of RAF high speed boats (RAF 200 Class), which played an important role in rescuing airmen from the English Channel during the Battle of Britain. In February 1935 he retired from the RAF and died on 19 May 1935 after a motorcycle accident near his cottage (Clouds Hill, now National Trust) near Wareham in Dorset. He is buried in St Nicholas' Church, Moreton, Dorset.
Brown, M. (ed.) 2005. Lawrence of Arabia –The Selected Letters. London: Little Books.
Lawrence, T.E. 1935. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. London: Jonathan Cape (many subsequent reprintings and editions).
Mack, J.E. 1998 (1976). A Prince of Our Disorder – The Life of T.E. Lawrence Harvard University Press.
Wilson, J. 1989 Lawrence of Arabia – The Authorised Biography of T.E. Lawrence. London: William Heinemann.
Woolley, C.L. and Lawrence, T.E. 2003. The Wilderness of Zin (PEF Annual III, revised 3rd edition). London: Stacey International.
Compiled by Pieter Shipster, 2010
The Palestine Exploration Fund, 2 Hinde Mews, Marylebone Lane, London, W1U 2AA
Tel: +44 (0)20 7935 5379 | Fax: +44 (0)20 7486 7438 | Email: ExecSec@PEF.org.uk
Registered company: 13606 | Registered charity: 212538