Thomas Edward Lawrence

Thomas Edward Lawrence

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born on August 15, 1888, in North Wales. The marriage of his parents was not consecrated by the church, so a child was illegitimate. This “shameful” from the point of view of Victorian morality fact left an imprint throughout the life of Lawrence. Ironically, this boy born out of wedlock has become known all over the world and glorified not the aristocratic name of the father, but unremarkable mother’s surname. His father has the means, not exceeding the income of craftsman. In the first eight years of life, Lawrence lived wandering around Scotland and Britain. Wanderings casually brought his family to Oxford. Here Lawrence entered the school with the knowledge of the French language, which he acquired as a child, and with a large margin of information gleaned from books. He had good abilities, and at the age of six, he read newspapers and books. While still being a schoolboy, Lawrence spent vacations traveling through France, where diligently visited cathedrals and castles, traveling with light baggage and almost no money. For several years he toured through France, England, and Wales and pursued all the castles of the XII century. The study of military architecture awakened his interest in the study of siege operations, and then the military campaigns, which are part of those operations.

            At age of fifteen, Lawrence was interested in archeology, and together with friends shovels almost all the neighborhoods of Oxford in search of ancient copper seals. He read books about the excavation of Nineveh, the novels of the crusaders, and the lives of the saints – especially after a fight in the schoolyard when he broke his leg, and he spent a long time in bed. According to his mother, because of this leg fracture, he stopped growing, so he was never higher than 165 centimeters. To compensate for this deficiency, he is almost obsessed with developing his muscles and endurance, mainly through long passages on foot and by bicycle. [1]

            In 1907, Lawrence entered Jesus College, Oxford University, and devoted himself to the study of archeology. Constantly improving himself, reading books, listening to lectures, and regularly visiting the Museum of Art and Archeology Ashmolean in Oxford, Lawrence was particularly interested in medieval pottery. He likes this kind of life, he continues to experience his body strength (bathed in the hole, did not eat meat, trying to go without food and water, working for forty-five hours to test his stamina, wheels on a bicycle around the neighborhood). Reading Circle of Lawrence is mainly concerned with the Middle Ages, from the details of costumes to the poetry and novels of Richard the Lionheart, and especially – the strategy and military architecture. In the summer of 1908, he undertook a long cycling tour 2400 miles across France (he had traveled to France on a bicycle when expected results of the exam) to explore and photograph the medieval castles and fortifications. He visits the Chateau Gaillard, Pierrefonds, Kusi, Proven, Vezle, Tournon, Kryussol, Arles, Egmort, Nimes, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Cord, Cahors, Orleans, Chartreuse, and from each of these places sent home long descriptive letters – already knowing that they should form the basis of his diploma work, which will be called “The impact of the Crusades on European medieval military architecture before the end of the XII century.” However, to complete his diploma is not enough castles left by the Crusaders in the Holy Land, and somehow in a conversation with the scientific supervisor emerges the idea to visit the East, at least to find out someone who has borrowed ideas, the Crusaders or the Arabs. Lawrence comes with this proposal to the keeper of the Oxford Ashmolean Museum, David George Hogarth. He was skeptical about the idea: too hot, not the season, money is needed, and many other things. Dr. Hogarth did not advise the student to go on such a perilous journey, but the stubborn daredevil was unstoppable: Lawrence wanted to know what he can do, to try what it is – to be in extreme conditions, constantly putting your life in danger. [2]

            In June, Lawrence went on a journey, taking with him only a pistol, a camera, and the necessary clothing. At first, he landed in Beirut, the capital of modern Lebanon, and from there went to the south – in Sidon, Banias, and Safad. He then returned to Beirut to start the study of the northern part of the country. For four months in the Middle East Lawrence sent several letters to his mother. His first message was about a Syrian incredible heat, about wounds and diseases that he had at his journey, and even that someone stole his camel. Despite all the difficulties, Lawrence pretty easily adapted to the life of the Arabs, and thanks to the cordiality of the locals had no problems with either food or overnight. After about 1800 kilometers and after having examined during this time 36 castles and fortifications built during the Crusades at the territories of modern Lebanon and Syria, he was fascinated by the Arab world and decided to go back here again.

            July 28, 1910, Lawrence and nine other people at the end of learning were awarded a diploma with first-class honors; his thesis work met with approval. He received a grant for research on medieval utensils at the College of St. Mary Magdalene, but soon he had the opportunity to do other work. Hogarth went to Syria in place Carchemish (Dzherablyus) on the banks of the Euphrates River, which was on the border between the former empire of the Hittites and Assyrians. Lawrence was offered to him as an assistant. On December 10, 1910, Lawrence again went to Beirut and met with Hogarth, they got to Carchemish. Then they are joined by Campbell Thompson as the Deputy of Hogarth, he is older and more experienced, but not as an archaeologist, as an expert on cuneiform writing – because scientists secretly hoping to find in this border town the stones with inscriptions in both languages. At first, excavations do not inspire much hope, but then gradually come to light halls of the palace with bas-reliefs and statues, plus shallow ceramics, which is the responsibility of Lawrence (besides, he makes sketches, snapshots, photographs, maintains records and catalogs).  He likes the life of a field archaeologist, he describes with interest the residents and their studies: “The best part of the day is lunch hour … people are not tired, they talk, joke and sing well … Every or almost everyone gets more per week, according to the values of found objects. This is something like a game of chance, which is infinite, attracts them”.  In his free time, he is taking independent sally out of the camp, which is sometimes risky. One day, when he and a companion had wandered far from the camp, the Turks arrested them on suspicion of desertion, but after spending the night in custody, they were able to bribe the guards and escape. On the excavations, Lawrence met and befriended with Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, who became famous as the man who discovered the ancient city of Ur, in the Old Testament. In Carchemish Lawrence always wore Arab burnous with a colorful belt, like the locals. There he became friends with two Arabs: sheik Hamoudi, a local leader and mechanic Selim Ahmed, nicknamed “Dahum”. Archaeological searches of Hogarth are distinguished by one strange feature. For them, there were always good reasons for scientific order, but for some reason, they were only in areas that were of particular interest to England politically or militarily. However, this fact ceases to be strange if we take into account that the archaeological activity of Hogarth was funded by the Defense Ministry. [3]

            From the middle of the XIX century, the Ottoman Empire was called “Europe’s sick man.” While Germany, France, and Russia were eager to dominate instead of crumbling empire in the Middle East, the UK decided to protect its interests. Suez Canal, a vital route to India, was controlled by Britain after it captured Egypt in 1882. But it was also necessary to control and direct political activity on the eastern coast of the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea. In January 1914, the famous British archaeologist Leonard Woolley and Lawrence with geodesic detachment were sent by the Palestinian Research Foundation to explore the Sinai Peninsula. Not far from here on a small island in the 1/2 mile from the shore stood a dilapidated castle, which played a role in the history of the Crusades, passing alternately from Muslims to Christians. Lawrence was anxious to inspect these facilities. The interest in remote military fortifications aroused the suspicions of Turks and they have set the guard over the boat, which Lawrence wanted to use. Then Lawrence took water tanks, which were used in the transitions on camels, tied them together in form of a raft, and with one of his companions crossed the island. They reached the target undetected and found the castle interesting, but destroyed. Officially, the expedition was trying to find traces of 40-year-old walking of Jews in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. But the real purpose of the expedition – military intelligence, carried out on the instructions of Lord Kitchener, the British High Commissioner in Egypt. Participants of excavation looked for information about the Turkish troops stationed just 160 kilometers from the Suez Canal and made maps. This information, obtained on the eve of the First World War, proved to be very valuable for the British Army in Palestine. So Lawrence – consciously or not – for the first time was in the role of a spy. 

            In July 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, the First World War broke out, quickly enveloped the entire European continent. Lawrence, who was at that time in England, immediately tried to enroll as a volunteer in the army but was rejected because of his frail physique and short stature – the fact that due to the large influx of wanting to serve the motherland, the rate of growth has been increased. Therefore, Lawrence, on the recommendation of Dr. Hogarth, was enrolled in a geographic division of the General Staff, where he was assigned based on previously extracted information to map the location of Turkish troops in the Sinai Peninsula. Expedition with innocuous title “Survey of Sinai” led by Lord Herbert Kitchener, War Minister in Britain. In 1915, Lawrence prepared a report entitled “Desert of Sin,” which was to serve as a “cover” of military intelligence objectives of the project. Such risky activity was more exciting for the young adventurer. In December 1916, Lawrence, in recognition of his services, was transferred to Bureau for Arab Affairs in Cairo – it was a new unit within the British intelligence, headed by Hogarth. The tasks of the Bureau were to collect information and send them to headquarter. It should be noted that the work on the compiling of topographic maps has been an essential part of the planning of large-scale military operations and required great skill. Lawrence went to Cairo, where he engaged in the preparation of “Handbook of the Turkish army.” Also, as a man, perfectly knowing the Arabic language, he conducted questioning of Turkish prisoners of war. 

Bureau for Arab Affairs issued a secret ballot, the so-called “Arab report.” Lawrence as a member of the editorial board wrote an article in which actively supported the uprising of Sheriff Hussein of Mecca against the Ottoman Turks (the title of “Sheriff” – “noble” – is given only to people who are considered descendants of the Prophet Muhammad). Such actions of Lawrence, to put it mildly, did not arouse sympathy from his superiors. Soon, he was sent to negotiate with the Turkish army on the release of General Townsend, whose army was surrounded. However, Lawrence “failed” this task, as the Turks did not agree with the terms of the British. It even more aggravated attitude towards him in office, because he had other “sins”, such as the wearing of civilian clothes instead of uniforms and mockery of senior officers. Of course, one must admit that there were people who truly prized the talent of Lawrence. Chief of British intelligence in the Middle East Gilbert Clayton, Dr. Hogarth, oriental secretary of the British High Commissioner in Egypt Ronald Storrs, and many others strongly supported him. [4]

In October 1916 he was sent to Arabia, where he met with the local leader sheriff Hussein and his sons. Lawrence became a military adviser of Faisal, the third son of Hussein. The task of Lawrence was the preparation and support of the uprising of the Arab people against the Ottoman Empire. Britain has provided the Arabs with arms and ammunition and assured that is an ally in the struggle against Turkish rule. This British “support” was a cover for subsequent expansion. Nevertheless, Lawrence deeply sympathized with the Arabs and wanted to help them achieve independence. As a sign of respect and gratitude, Faisal gave British spy Galaba, traditional Arab dress, and Lawrence wore it with pleasure. But Lawrence never forgot that he was a British spy, and all planned activities and events reported to central command in Egypt. Although Lawrence had no military training, during the Arab Revolt he discovered a wise strategy. It is known that Lawrence was a very well-read and erudite man. He read many books on the strategy of warfare. Developed by him the original strategy of guerrilla warfare against the Turkish army has been successful. His direct participation was made a successful attack on the position of the Turkish garrisons in Arabia, as well as the cut in some places Hejaz Railway that linked Damascus to Medina. During this time, the Arabs blew up 79 bridges and knocked out telegraph communications. Thus, these military operations have seriously undermined the message between the parts of the Ottoman army. Arabs could capture the necessary weapons, supplies, and water. [5]

After a difficult crossing of the desert Nefud Arab militias led by Lawrence attacked an important seaport of Aqaba, lapped by the Red Sea, from the land and immediately took the city. It was the finest hour of Lawrence. After the capture of Aqaba, he became widely known. All these victories instilled a lot of confidence in the Arab compounds, before not as combat-capable. In December 1917, they captured Jerusalem, and in October 1918, Damascus. Lawrence, who quit by the time of his command of the Arabic army, advised his close friend Faisal to take Damascus to form his government. Despite numerous victories over the Ottoman Empire by the Arabs, the dream of their independent state could not come true. Britain and France have divided the Middle East into spheres of influence. Anyway, at the Paris Peace Conference, held in 1919 after the end of World War I, Lawrence actively defended the position of the Arabs and the claims of Faisal on the reclaimed territory. He unsuccessfully supported the Arab demands to grant them independence, at the same time sympathizing with the desire to create a Jewish national state. Negotiations have failed because of the refusal of the Arabs to accept the British mandate over Iraq and Palestine and the French mandate over Syria.[6]

After the completion of his mission in the Middle East Lawrence for some time worked in the Ministry for the Colonies, which at that time was headed by Winston Churchill. The duty of a scout was to develop a plan to resolve the situation in the Middle East. At the same time, Lawrence plunged into work on an autobiography “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, published in 1926. After retiring from the Ministry of the Colonies, Lawrence served in the Air Force. In February of 1935, he retired. In the last years of his life, Lawrence read a lot, traveled, found a new hobby in motorcycles. May 13, 1935, by dialing speed, Lawrence suddenly saw a group of guys in his way and tried to avoid them, but lost control and flew out of the saddle, hitting his head on the curb. 6 days he spent in a coma and then died in the hospital. Lawrence was not quite 47 years old. Certainly, Lawrence of Arabia made a great contribution to history. In honor of T.E. Lawrence was named award – Commemorative Medal of Lawrence of Arabia – which has been awarded since 1935 by the British Royal Society for Asian Affairs “in recognition of outstanding achievements in the field of exploration, research, and literature.” [7]


Harold Orlans. T.E. Lawrence: Biography of a Broken Hero. (2002)

Jacob Rosen. The Legacy of Lawrence and the New Arab Awakening. (2011)

Michael Korda. Hero: The Life & Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. (2011)

Michael Asher. Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia. (1998)

Basil Henry Liddell Hart. Lawrence of Arabia. (1934)

Lawrence James. The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. (2013)

James J. Schneider. T. E. Lawrence and the mind of an Insurgent. (2005) 

John E. Mack. A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence. (1998) 

[1] Michael Asher. Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia, part one 

[2] Basil Henry Liddell Hart. Lawrence of Arabia, p.5-9

[3] Lawrence James. The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, part1(IV) 

[4] John E. Mack. A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence, p. 142-148

[5] James J. Schneider. T. E. Lawrence and the mind of an Insurgent, p. 32 – 37

[6] Michael Korda. Hero: The Life & Legend of Lawrence of Arabia,chapters1 and 2

[7] Jacob Rosen. The Legacy of Lawrence and the New Arab Awakening, p. 125-129

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