Lawrence of Arabia was the name given to a British Intelligence Officer, Thomas Edward Lawrence, who fought alongside Arab guerrilla forces in the Middle East during the First World War.
Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Tremadoc, Caernarvon in north Wales in 1888. Before the outbreak of the First World War he worked as an archaeologist and photographer in the Middle East. He became very familiar with the region and strongly identified with the Arab people.
Colonel T E Lawrence
T E Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, dressed in traditional Arab costume on the balcony of the Victoria Hotel in Damascus on 3 October 1918, half an hour after he had resigned his position in the Arab Army. Lawrence adopted Arab dress partly for practical reasons but also because of a dislike of formal uniform and a strong identification with the Arab people.
Lawrence joined the Army in 1914 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in October, working in the geographical section of the War Office until he was posted to Cairo, Egypt in December 1914 as a liaison and map officer. He stayed in Cairo for almost two years. Two of his younger brothers were killed while serving in France in 1915. Their deaths affected him deeply and he felt guilty for staying in such a relatively safe, office-based position. However, the start of the Arab Revolt in June 1916 led Lawrence to undertake dangerous missions inside enemy territory in Arabia.
Before the war, Britain had maintained a long-standing policy of support for the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. However, this ended with Turkey's support of Germany in November 1914. Looking to take advantage of the growing Arab nationalism in the area, certain British elements encouraged and supported leading Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman colonial rule. These complex negotiations were still underway when Grand Sherif Hussein, ruler of the Hejaz province (now part of Saudi Arabia), started an uprising with an expectation of British support. This uprising would become the Arab Revolt and it was led by and fought by Sherif Hussein's four sons, Ali, Abdullah, Feisal and Zeid.
Lawrence had been dispatched to Arabia to identify which of the sons would be the most successful leader, and so the most use to the British. He was very impressed by Sherif Feisal and was formally assigned to him as an advisor. Lawrence stayed with Feisal for two years and helped him to lead the Arabs north from the Hejaz to Syria. Feisal was advised and influenced by Lawrence and successfully seized the city of Akaba on 6 July 1917. From Akaba, Lawrence went to Cairo and met with the newly arrived General Sir Edmund Allenby, the leader of Britain's Egyptian Expeditionary Force. They agreed that Feisal's Arab forces would be very valuable in supporting Allenby's campaign in Palestine.
Feisal's Arab forces separate actions against the Turks did prove very useful to Allenby's forces. They attacked the Turkish lines of communication and sabotaged the railway that led to Palestine, a crucial Turkish supply route. They also cut telephone wires, forcing the Turks to send wireless messages which the British could intercept. By harassing and pinning down thousands of Turkish troops, they prevented them from concentrating against Allenby's advance. Lawrence was involved in many of these activities and at the forefront of many vital victories. He was with the Arab troops that entered Damascus along with Allenby's forces on 1 October 1918.
Colonel T.E. Lawrence with King Feisal
Colonel T.E. Lawrence (left) with King Feisal (centre), talking to the American journalist Lowell Thomas (with back to camera). Lawrence and Thomas met in Jerusalem in 1918, where Thomas had travelled looking for a story to build up enthusiasm for the war in America. His lantern slide show focused more and more on Lawrence who rapidly became a household name. Thomas took his show from New York to London and eventually around the world.
Lawrence claimed the fall of Damascus as a victory for Feisal and left the Middle East shortly afterwards. As soon as he returned to London he began to work for Arab independence. After the Armistice in November 1918, it was agreed that Feisal and Lawrence should represent the Arabs at the upcoming peace conferences in Paris. However, British and French leaders had already agreed privately on the future of Turkey's Arab territories in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. The Middle East was to be divided into British and French spheres, leaving no place for independent Arab states.
Although he had been unsuccessful in his mission to promote the Arab cause, Lawrence became the most sought-after man in London. The American journalist Lowell Thomas's touring production With Allenby in Palestine celebrated Lawrence's success in the Middle East and portrayed him as the attractive and charismatic leader of the romantic Arab guerrillas. It seems Lawrence originally welcomed the publicity, but over time he came to despise it and attempted to distance himself from his public persona. He worked as an advisor to Winston Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, in 1921 and joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) under a pseudonym in August 1922. He was soon identified and asked to leave. He then went on to join the Tank Corps, again under an assumed name, before re-joining the RAF in 1925. He also wrote a book about his experiences in the Middle East, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Presentation wreath from Saladin's tomb
A gilt bronze wreath, removed from the tomb of Saladin in Damascus at the end of the First World War. It had originally been placed there by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1898, during his state tour of the Middle East. It was apparently presented to Colonel T E Lawrence by Sherif Feisal, when they entered Damascus on 1 October 1918. Lawrence, in turn, presented the wreath to the Imperial War Museum on 11 November 1918.
Lawrence retired from the RAF in 1935. Soon afterwards he was involved in a motorcycle accident near his home, Clouds Hill in Dorset. He suffered severe head injuries and died in hospital on 19 May 1935, aged 46.
After his death his reputation continued to grow and, in 1962, a Hollywood blockbuster Lawrence of Arabia was made about his life, starring Peter O’Toole. But his reputation also came under attack, with questions being raised about the nature of his involvement in the Arab activity and how important he really was. However, the release of secret British archives in the 1960s and 1970s provided additional evidence of his wartime activity and seem to support many of his claims about his role in the war in the Middle East.