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

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

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

The myth surrounding Thomas EdwardLawrence, the British Army officer whose World War I exploits earned him fameas “Lawrence of Arabia” extends even as far as his date of birth; historiansare in dispute as to the exact day, but do agree it was either the August 15 or16, 1888.

Today, 125 years after his birth, Lawrenceis best known for his role as a British liaison during the Sinai and PalestineCampaign of World War I, and the near simultaneous Arab revolt against the OttomanTurkish 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 wasonly when American war correspondent Lowell Thomas published photos and footageof “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1919, that the public became transfixed, and the Britishofficer, archaeologist, orientalist and author was catapulted into the realm ofthe mythical.

Born in Wales, where he spent his childhoodbefore 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 completehis thesis, and in 1910 he set sail for Beirut. It was in this period that Lawrencedeveloped 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, Lawrencewas asked by the British to provide a military survey of the Negev Desert - alocation of strategic importance that would have to be traversed in any Ottomanattack on Egypt.

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

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

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

In June 1917, the Arab forces won a majorvictory, seizing Aqaba in Jordan and making their way north. After the fall of Ottoman-controlledDamascus in October 1918, Lawrence left for London to lobby for Arabindependence – something that failed in the wake of the break-up of the OttomanEmpire.

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

“His guerrilla campaigns behind enemy linesand, in particular, his capture of Aqaba are the stuff of legend,” says BBChistorian Phil Carradice. “But with peace came the inevitable betrayal of theArab 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 withWinston Churchill as an adviser on Arab affairs, and spent much of his timenegotiating with leaders in the Middle East. He left the post in 1922, andsecretly enlisted in the Royal Air Force in an apparent bid for anonymity.

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

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

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