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T. E. Lawrence
Thomas Edward Lawrence, CB, DSO (August 16, 1888 May 19, 1935), professionally known as T.E. Lawrence and, later, T.E. Shaw, but most famously known as Lawrence of Arabia, gained international renown for his role as a British liaison officer during the Arab Revolt of 1916 to 1918. His very public image was in some part the result of U.S. traveller and journalist Lowell Thomas's sensationalised reportage of the Revolt, as well as Lawrence's autobiographical account, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Many Arabs consider him a folk hero for promoting their cause for freedom from both Ottoman and European rule; likewise, many Britons count him among their country's greatest war heroes.

Lawrence was born in Tremadoc, Caernarfonshire, North Wales, of mixed English and Irish ancestry. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, seventh Baronet of Westmeath in Ireland, had escaped a reported tyrannical wife to live with his daughters' governess, Sarah Junner, with whom he had five sons. The couple lived at 2 Polstead Road (now with a blue plaque) in Oxford, under the names of Mr and Mrs Lawrence. Their son Thomas Edward attended the City of Oxford High School for Boys. In about 1905 Lawrence ran away from home and served for a few weeks as a boy soldier with the Royal Garrison Artillery at St Mawes Castle in Cornwall; he was bought out.

From 1907, Lawrence was educated at Jesus College, Oxford, graduating with First Class Honours after submitting a highly-acclaimed thesis entitled The influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture to the end of the 12th century, for which he did archaeological field research in France and Damascus.

On completing his degree in 1910, he commenced postgraduate research in mediaeval pottery with a Senior Demy at Magdalen College, Oxford, which he abandoned after he was offered the opportunity to become a practising archaeologist in the Middle East. In December 1910 he sailed for Beirut, and on arrival went to Jbail (Byblos) where he studied Arabic. He then went to work on the excavations at Carchemish near to Jerablus in the northern part of Syria, where he worked under D.G. Hogarth and R. Campbell-Thompson of the British Museum. It was while he was excavating ancient Mesopotamian sites that he met Gertrude Bell, who had an influence on him for much of his time in the Middle East.

In the late summer of 1911 he returned to England for a brief sojourn and, by November, he was back en route to Beirut for a second season at Carchemish. Prior to returning to work he worked briefly with William Flinders Petrie at Kafr Ammar in Egypt. At Carchemish he was to work with Leonard Woolley. He continued making trips to the Middle East as a field archaeologist until the outbreak of World War I. His extensive travels through Arabia, his excursions, often on foot, living with the Arabs, wearing their clothes, learning their culture, language and local dialects, were to prove invaluable during the conflict.

In January 1914 Woolley and Lawrence were co-opted by the British military as an archaeological smokescreen for a British military survey of the Sinai peninsula. At this time Lawrence visited Aqaba and Petra. From March to May, Lawrence worked again at Carchemish. Following the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, on advice from S.F. Newcombe, Lawrence did not enlist immediately, but held back until October.

Once enlisted he was posted to Cairo, where he worked for British Military Intelligence. Lawrence's intimate knowledge of the Arab people made him the ideal liaison between British and Arab forces and in October 1916 he was sent into the desert to report on the Arab nationalist movements. During the war, he fought with Arab irregular troops under the command of Emir Faisal, a son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in extended guerrilla operations against the armed forces of the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence's major contribution to World War I was convincing Arab leaders to co-ordinate their revolt to aid British interests. He persuaded the Arabs not to drive the Ottomans out of Medina, thus forcing the Turks to tie up troops in the city garrison. The Arabs were then able to direct most of their attention to the Hejaz railway that supplied the garrison. This tied up more Ottoman troops, who were forced to protect the railway and repair the constant damage. In 1917 Lawrence arranged a joint action with the Arab irregulars and forces under Auda Abu Tayi (until then in the employ of the Ottomans) against the strategically-located port city of Aqaba. On July 6, after a daring overland attack, Aqaba fell to Arab forces. Some 12 months later, Lawrence was involved in the capture of Damascus in the final weeks of the war.

As he did before the war, during the time he spent with the Arab irregulars, Lawrence adopted many local customs and traditions as his own, and soon became a close friend of Prince Faisal. He especially became known for wearing white Arabian garb (given to him by Prince Faisal, originally wedding robes given to Faisal as a hint) and riding camels and horses in the desert. Lawrence gained extraordinary respect from the Arab populace.

During the closing years of the war he sought to convince his superiors in the British government that Arab independence was in their interests, to mixed success.

In 1918 he co-operated with war-correspondent Lowell Thomas for a short period. During this time Thomas and his cameraman Harry Chase shot much film and many photographs, which Thomas used in a highly lucrative show that toured the world after the war.

He was made a Commander in the Order of the Bath and awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the French Legion of Honour, though in October 1918 he refused to be made a Knight Commander. In the words of King George V, "He left me there with the box in my hand."

Immediately after the war Lawrence worked for the British Foreign Office, attending the Paris Peace Conference between January and May as a member of Faisal's delegation.

Lowell Thomas's show then gave Lawrence great publicity. (It was seen by 4 million people). Until then Lawrence had little influence but newspapers began to report his opinions. Consequently he served for much of 1921 as an advisor to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office.

Lawrence was ambivalent about Thomas's publicity (calling him a "vulgar man"), though he saw Thomas's show several times. Starting in 1922 Lawrence attempted to achieve anonymity, joining the Royal Air Force under the name "Ross". His cover was soon blown, however, and he was forced out of the RAF, changed his name to "Shaw", and in 1923 joined the Royal Tank Corps. He was unhappy there and repeatedly petitioned to rejoin the RAF, which finally admitted him in August 1925. A fresh burst of publicity resulted in his assignment to a remote base in British India in late 1926, where he remained until the end of 1928, forced to return to the UK after rumours began to circulate that he was involved in espionage activities.

He purchased several small plots of land in Chingford, built a hut and swimming pool there, and visited frequently. This was demolished in 1930 when the Corporation of London acquired the land.

He continued serving in the RAF, specialising in high-speed boats and professing happiness, and it was with considerable regret that he left the service at the end of his enlistment in March 1935. A few weeks later he was mortally injured in a Brough Superior motorcycle accident in Dorset, at the age of 46, close to his cottage, Clouds Hill near Wareham (now run by the National Trust and open to the public). He died six days later.

Although some sources mistakenly claim that Lawrence was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, only his bust was placed there, in the Crypt. His final resting place is the Dorset village of Moreton.
 


 

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