This Week in History: The 125th birthday of 'Lawrence of Arabia'

August 19, 2013 11:26

The British explorer, spy and soldier spent years in the Middle East, encouraging Arab independence.

3 minute read.

T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia

T.E. Lawrence 370. (photo credit: Lowell Thomas)

The myth surrounding Thomas Edward Lawrence, the British Army officer whose World War I exploits earned him fame as “Lawrence of Arabia” extends even as far as his date of birth; historians are in dispute as to the exact day, but do agree it was either the August 15 or 16, 1888.

Today, 125 years after his birth, Lawrence is best known for his role as a British liaison during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of World War I, and the near simultaneous Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turkish rule. Lawrence’s exploits were largely unheralded by the end of the war, so unknown was he that even the Turks couldn’t pick him out of a crowd. It was only when American war correspondent Lowell Thomas published photos and footage of “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1919, that the public became transfixed, and the British officer, archaeologist, orientalist and author was catapulted into the realm of the mythical.

Born in Wales, where he spent his childhood before moving to Oxford with his family, Lawrence became an academic success, graduating with a first class degree from Oxford University.

In 1909, he visited Syria and Palestine to complete his thesis, and in 1910 he set sail for Beirut. It was in this period that Lawrence developed fell in love with the culture, language and life of the Middle East, a development that the British viewed as an advantage. In January 1914, Lawrence was asked by the British to provide a military survey of the Negev Desert - a location of strategic importance that would have to be traversed in any Ottoman attack on Egypt.

After World War I broke out in August 1914, Lawrence was dispatched to the British Intelligence offices in Cairo. According to the BBC, he was part of an expedition to northern Sinai, carrying out reconnaissance using the cover of scientific research.

In October 1916, Lawrence was sent to work with the Hashemites in what would become Saudi Arabia. It was four months after the outbreak of the Arab Revolt, an uprising encouraged by the British as it weakened their Turkish enemy, and the Hashemites were key to the revolt.  

Lawrence became liaison officer and adviser to Feisal, son of the revolt's leader Sherif Hussein of Mecca. The BBC claims Lawrence's mission was to help the Arabs achieve a military success that would lead to post-war self-government.

In June 1917, the Arab forces won a major victory, seizing Aqaba in Jordan and making their way north. After the fall of Ottoman-controlled Damascus in October 1918, Lawrence left for London to lobby for Arab independence – something that failed in the wake of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

"All men dream: but not equally ... the dreamers of the day are dangerous men for they may act on their dreams, to make them possible. This I did,” Lawrence famously wrote.

“His guerrilla campaigns behind enemy lines and, in particular, his capture of Aqaba are the stuff of legend,” says BBC historian Phil Carradice. “But with peace came the inevitable betrayal of the Arab nations that Lawrence loved and, disenchanted by British Imperial designs, he left the Middle East to return home.”  

Lawrence returned to the UK to work with Winston Churchill as an adviser on Arab affairs, and spent much of his time negotiating with leaders in the Middle East. He left the post in 1922, and secretly enlisted in the Royal Air Force in an apparent bid for anonymity.

During the 1920s and 30s, he served both in the RAF and the British Army Tank Corps under different aliases, but the press continued to plague him. He left the RAF in February 1935.

On May 19, 1935, Lawrence crashed his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle not far from his cottage in Dorset. He died soon after, at the age of 46, far from the Middle East he loved.

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