On this day in 1935: The death of Lawrence of Arabia

Painting of Lawrence of Arabia, by Augustus John
Painting of Lawrence of Arabia, by Augustus John Credit: Augustus John/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Chapman was an Anglo-Irish landowner. He ran away with his mistress, and moved around Britain and France. The couple adopted the name Lawrence, and Thomas Edward ("Ned") was born in Tremadoc in 1888. The family eventually settled in Oxford.

Lawrence attended Oxford High School, then won an exhibition to Jesus College, Oxford. Fascinated by medieval epics like the Morte Darthur, he took a first class degree in history, with an honours dissertation on crusader architecture for which he had travelled around France, Syria, and Palestine, sketching medieval castles.

Enthused by the idea of being an archaeologist, he gained a financial award from Magdalen College, Oxford, and embarked on an archaeological dig at the Hittite site of Carchemish in Syria. He remained there from 1911–14, learning Arabic fluently, and exploring the surrounding region. From friendships he made, he developed a passion for traditional, simple Arab culture, and he firmly rejected the modernizers who looked to Europe.

TE Lawrence at Carchemish Credit: Unknown/Wikipedia

In 1915, he published The Wilderness of Zin, which mapped the area between Gaza and Aqaba. When war broke out he was taken on by the War Office’s Map Department, and tasked with mapping the Sinai. By the end of the year he had been transferred to military intelligence in Cairo, where he worked with agents and continued his mapping work, also producing a manual on the Turkish army.

After the death of two of his brothers fighting in France, he threw himself into finding ways to defeat Ottoman Turkey. At the same time, he was also engaged in trying to roll back French influence in the region, seeing it as destructive to the traditional Arab way of life.

While on a trip to Arabia in 1916, he made contact with the Emir of Makkah, who was in open revolt against the Ottomans. The emir introduced Lawrence to his son, Faisal, who was leading an army near Medina. Lawrence convinced Cairo that Britain should back the revolt, and Lawrence was duly attached to Faisal’s army as political liaison officer.

TE Lawrence in Arab dress

Inspired by a vision of an Arab nation built on a traditional identity, Lawrence became integral to the revolt. He assumed a commanding role, and threw himself into mounting guerrilla attacks on the Ottoman infrastructure in Arabia, destroying bridges and railways, and tying up large numbers of Ottoman forces. He became the brains and spearhead of the guerrilla attacks, earning the nickname “Emir Dynamite”. Despite being only five feet five inches tall, his imperviousness to the desert, indefatigable energy, asceticism, and all-consuming ambition to rout the Ottomans, served as an inspiration to the forces he led. Slowly but surely, the Arab tribes began to coalesce around the revolt.

After taking the strategic town of Aqaba in June 1917, Lawrence’s international reputation as a daring and gifted guerrilla commander was settled. 

In November, while disguised as a Circassian, he was captured by the Ottomans at Dera’a. It is unclear what happened, although it seems likely he was beaten and used for sex. He managed to escape, but the experience profoundly affected him.

He had played a significant role in defeating Ottoman Turkey, but he had failed in his dream for the Arabs. It was something he could not reconcile, and he left the Army on 31 July 1919

He was present for Allenby’s December 1917 victory parade in Jerusalem, which he later remarked was the highlight of the war. The continued success of Faisal’s army resulted in Lawrence's promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and the DSO. In October the following year he and the revolt finally reached Damascus, but the deep-rooted factionalism of the Arab tribes destroyed his hopes that they would seize the opportunity to come together as a nation.

Exhausted and disillusioned, suffering from battle fatigue and a sense of guilt at having failed to deliver an Arab homeland, he returned to Britain, where he refused the Order of the Bath and the DSO, leaving the king holding the boxes. He had played a significant role in defeating Ottoman Turkey, but he had failed in his dream for the Arabs. It was something he could not reconcile, and he left the Army on 31 July 1919.

Lawrence turned to writing his war memoirs, and secured a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. He continued to work politically for Arab independence, and argued strongly against the French mandate for Lebanon and Syria. That same year, his wartime activities became more widely known thanks to a six-month lecture, film, and slide show at the Royal Opera House. It was put on by the American journalist Lowell Thomas, and entitled “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia”. It presented Lawrence as the “uncrowned king of Arabia”.

In 1921, Churchill appointed Lawrence as an advisor on Arab affairs. In that capacity he attended the Cairo Conference in which he saw some of his dreams realised in the new map of the Middle East. But the follow-up diplomacy bored him, and in July 1922 he enlisted in the RAF as a lowly Aircraftman under the assumed name John Hume Ross. He had become fascinated by aeroplanes and the potential of the RAF, and wanted the challenge of starting at the bottom of the service. Unfortunately, the media soon found him, and the RAF let him go. In March the following year he enlisted as Private T E Shaw in the Royal Tank Corps, but he was not happy, and after two years, and the threat of suicide, he was eventually allowed to transfer back to the RAF, where he wanted to be.

Emir Faisal with Lawrence at Versailles Credit: Wikipedia

By this stage he was fascinated with machinery, and had developed a love affair with Brough Superior motorcycles. When not riding his growing collection, he spent his days testing and improving seaplane tenders and rescue craft.

He was eventually discharged from the RAF in 1935, and retired to read and write at Cloud’s Hill, a cottage he had purchased in Dorset some years earlier.

On 13 May the same year he came off his motorbike after swerving to avoid two boys cycling side by side in the road. He was taken to Bovington Camp hospital, but never regained consciousness. He died of his injuries on 19 May 1935, aged 46.

Lawrence wrote throughout his life. His most famous book was the hefty The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Disastrously, he left the completed handwritten manuscript on a train at Reading station in 1919, and had to begin again. The first subscription edition was published in 1926, finely printed with artwork he commissioned from artists including Augustus John and Paul Nash. The style of his storytelling was unique: a curious and learned blend of autobiography, epic, novel, and art — in some ways a medieval epic with himself as the hero. The publication nearly bankrupted him, and to shore up his battered finances he brought out an abridged edition for the general public entitled Revolt in the Desert. It came out in 1927, and was both successful and influential.

Among his other notable works are a translation of Homer’s Odyssey, which came out in 1932, and The Mint, which detailed life as an RAF recruit, but so scandalized the government it was not published until 1956.

From as early as 1919, Lawrence’s exploits had captured the public’s imagination. He was brave, photogenic, an amateur and maverick, dogged, and fighting a cause which many saw as romantic. 

Lawrence shied away from public recognition, but at the same time craved something of the status and impact of the heroes of medieval romances. His successes, courage, endurance, arrogance, shyness, self-doubts and fragility made him a magnetic hero for a steady stream of books and articles. In the 1960s he was still sufficiently big news to feature as the subject in David Lean’s epic 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia. He was a figure of the Old School, of horses, camels, and swords, out of date even for the mechanized warfare of World War One. And yet he has remained a figure of enduring appeal, long after his contemporaries have been forgotten. 

Please review our commenting policy