T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)
See also (Bridlington Connection)
Thomas Edward Lawrence CB DSO FAS (16th August 1888 – 19th May 1935) was a British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat. He was renowned for his liaison role during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt against the ruling Ottoman Empire. The breadth and variety of his activities and associations, and his ability to describe them vividly in writing, earned him international fame as Lawrence of Arabia—a title used for the 1962 film based on his First World War activities.
Lawrence was born out of wedlock in Tremadog, Wales in August 1888 to Thomas Chapman (who became, in 1914, Sir Thomas Chapman, 7th Baronet), an Anglo-Irish nobleman from County Westmeath, and Sarah Junner, a Scottish governess who was herself illegitimate. Chapman had left his wife and first family in Ireland to live with Junner, and they called themselves Mr and Mrs Lawrence. In the summer of 1896, the Lawrences moved to Oxford, where young Lawrence studied History at Jesus College in 1907–10 and graduated with first class honours. He became a practising archaeologist in the Middle East, working at various excavations with David George Hogarth and Leonard Woolley. In 1908, he joined the Oxford University Officers’ Training Corps and underwent a two-year training course. In January 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War, Lawrence undertook a survey of the Negev Desert while doing archaeological research.
Lawrence’s public image resulted in part from the sensationalised reporting of the Arab revolt by American journalist Lowell Thomas, as well as from Lawrence’s autobiographical account Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922). In 1935, Lawrence was fatally injured in a motorcycle accident in Dorset.
Lawrence’s birthplace, Gorphwysfa, now known as Snowdon Lodge.
Lawrence was born on 16 August 1888 in Tremadog, Caernarvonshire (now Gwynedd), Wales in a house named Gorphwysfa, now known as Snowdon Lodge. His Anglo-Irish father Thomas Chapman had left his wife Edith after he fell in love and had a son with Sarah Junner, a young Scotswoman who had been engaged as governess to his daughters. Sarah was the daughter of Elizabeth Junner and John Lawrence. Lawrence worked as a ship’s carpenter and was a son of the household in which Elizabeth had been a servant. She was dismissed four months before Sarah was born. (Elizabeth identified Sarah’s father as “John Junner – Shipwright journeyman”.)
Sarah and Thomas lived in Wales, Brittany, and England under the name ‘Lawrence.’ In 1914, Sir Thomas inherited the Chapman baronetcy based at Killua Castle, the ancestral family home in County Westmeath, Ireland; but he and Sarah continued to live in England.
Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner did not marry but were known as Mr and Mrs Lawrence. They had five sons; Thomas Edward was the second eldest. From Wales the family moved to Kirkcudbright, Galloway in southwestern Scotland, then Dinard in Brittany, then to Jersey. In 1894–96, the family lived at Langley Lodge (now demolished), set in private woods between the eastern borders of the New Forest and Southampton Water in Hampshire. Mr Lawrence sailed and took the boys to watch yacht racing in the Solent. By the time they left, the eight-year-old Ned (as Lawrence became known) had developed a taste for the countryside and outdoor activities.
In the summer of 1896, the Lawrences moved to 2 Polstead Road in Oxford, where they lived under the names of Mr and Mrs Lawrence until 1921. Lawrence attended the City of Oxford High School for Boys, where one of the four houses was later named “Lawrence” in his honour; the school closed in 1966. Lawrence and one of his brothers became commissioned officers in the Church Lads’ Brigade at St Aldate’s Church.
Lawrence claimed that he ran away from home circa 1905 and served for a few weeks as a boy soldier with the Royal Garrison Artillery at St Mawes Castle in Cornwall, from which he was bought out. No evidence of this appears in army records.
Middle East archaeology
At the age of 15, Lawrence and his schoolfriend Cyril Beeson cycled around Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Oxfordshire, visited almost every village’s parish church, studied their monuments and antiquities, and made rubbings of their monumental brasses. Lawrence and Beeson monitored building sites in Oxford and presented their finds to the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean’s Annual Report for 1906 said that the two teenage boys “by incessant watchfulness secured everything of antiquarian value which has been found.” In the summers of 1906 and 1907, Lawrence and Beeson toured France by bicycle, collecting photographs, drawings, and measurements of medieval castles.
From 1907 to 1910, Lawrence studied History at Jesus College, Oxford. In the summer of 1909, he set out alone on a three-month walking tour of crusader castles in Ottoman Syria, during which he travelled 1,000 mi (1,600 km) on foot. Lawrence graduated with First Class Honours after submitting a thesis entitled The influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture—to the end of the 12th century based on his field research with Beeson in France, notably in Châlus, and his solo research in the Middle East.
On completing his degree in 1910, Lawrence commenced postgraduate research in medieval pottery with a Senior Demy, a form of scholarship, at Magdalen College, Oxford, which he abandoned after he was offered the opportunity to become a practising archaeologist in the Middle East, at Carchemish, in the expedition that D. G. Hogarth was setting up on behalf of the British Museum. Lawrence was a polyglot whose published work demonstrates competence in Ancient Greek, Arabic, and French.
In December 1910, he sailed for Beirut and on his arrival went to Jbail (Byblos), where he studied Arabic. He then went to work on the excavations at Carchemish, near Jerablus in northern Syria, where he worked under Hogarth and R. Campbell Thompson of the British Museum. He later stated that everything which he had accomplished he owed to Hogarth. The site lay near an important crossing on the Baghdad Railway, and knowledge that he gathered there was subsequently of considerable importance to the military. While excavating at Carchemish, Lawrence met Gertrude Bell, who later worked with him on setting up the state of Iraq.
In late 1911, Lawrence returned to England for a brief sojourn. By November, he was en route to Beirut for a second season at Carchemish, where he was to work with Leonard Woolley. Before resuming work there, however, he briefly worked with Flinders Petrie at Kafr Ammar in Egypt. Between the spring of 1912 and the autumn of 1913, Lawrence stayed at Carchemish for four excavation seasons, residing in a spacious excavation house, newly built inside the site by Woolley and him on behalf of the British Museum.
In January 1914, Woolley and Lawrence were co-opted by the British military as an archaeological smokescreen for a British military survey of the Negev Desert. They were funded by the Palestine Exploration Fund to search for an area referred to in the Bible as the Wilderness of Zin. Along the way, they made an archaeological survey of the Negev Desert. The Negev was strategically important as, in the event of war, any Ottoman army attacking Egypt would have to cross it. Woolley and Lawrence subsequently published a report of the expedition’s archaeological findings, but a more important result was updated mapping of the area, with special attention to features of military relevance such as water sources. Lawrence also visited Aqaba and Petra.
From March to May 1914, Lawrence worked again at Carchemish. Following the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, Lawrence did not immediately enlist in the British Army; on the advice of S. F. Newcombe, he held back until October, when he was commissioned on the General List and posted to the intelligence staff in Cairo before the end of the year.
At the outbreak of the war, Lawrence was a university post-graduate researcher who had travelled extensively within the Ottoman Empire provinces of the Levant (Transjordan and Palestine) and Mesopotamia (Syria and Iraq) under his own name. As a result, he had become known to the Ottoman Interior Ministry authorities and their German technical advisers, travelling on the German-designed, -built, and -financed railways during the course of his research.
The Arab Bureau of Britain’s Foreign Office conceived a campaign of internal insurgency against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. The Arab Bureau had long felt that a campaign could pay great dividends by supporting the breakaway-minded tribes and regional challengers to the Turkish government’s centralised rule of their empire, instigated and financed by outside powers and thereby diverting Turkish resources. The Arab Bureau had recognised the strategic value of what is today called the “asymmetry” of such conflict. The Ottoman authorities would have to devote from a hundred to a thousand times the resources to contain the threat of such an internal rebellion compared to the Allies’ cost of sponsoring it.
Lawrence was posted to Cairo on the Intelligence Staff of the GOC Middle East on his formal enlistment in 1914 because of his first-hand knowledge of Syria, the Levant, and Mesopotamia (not to mention having already worked as a part-time civilian army intelligence officer). The British government in Egypt sent Lawrence to work with the Hashemite forces in the Arabian Hejaz in October 1916. There he met and worked with Herbert Garland.
During the war, Lawrence fought alongside Arab irregular troops under the command of Emir Faisal, a son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, in extended guerrilla operations against the armed forces of the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence obtained assistance from the Royal Navy to turn back an Ottoman attack on Yanbu in December 1916. Lawrence’s major contribution to the revolt was convincing the Arab leaders (Faisal and Abdullah) to co-ordinate their actions in support of British strategy. He persuaded the Arabs not to make a frontal assault on the Ottoman stronghold in Medina but to allow the Turkish army to tie up troops in the city garrison. The Arabs were then free to direct most of their attention to the Turks’ weak point, the Hejaz railway that supplied the garrison. This vastly expanded the battlefield and tied up even more Ottoman troops, who were then forced to protect the railway and repair the constant damage. Lawrence developed a close relationship with Faisal, whose Arab Northern Army became the main beneficiary of British aid.
On 3rd January 1917, Lawrence went off on his first desert raid with 35 armed tribesmen. Under cover of darkness, they rode their camels out of camp, dismounted, and scrambled up a steep hill overlooking a Turkish encampment, which they peppered with rifle fire until driven off. Returning, they came across two Turks relieving themselves, and took them back to camp for questioning. That minor triumph was later counterbalanced by a small tragedy when Lawrence had to personally execute a member of his own band to prevent a crippling blood feud from breaking out, a deed that haunted him for the rest of his life. At the end of March, Lawrence set off on his first raid against the railway, a Turkish station at Abu el-Naam. After carefully reconnoitring it, Lawrence crept down to the lines at nightfall and laid a Garland mine under the tracks, cutting the telegraph wires as he left. The next morning, the Bedouins overran the station with the aid of a mountain gun and a howitzer, setting several wagons of a nearby train on fire. As it steamed out of the station, Lawrence blew the mine under the front bogies, knocking it off the rails. The Turks got the train rolling again, but the operation was a success.
The attacks on the railway continued throughout 1917. During one, Lawrence blew up a locomotive with an electric mine. “We had a Lewis [machine gun]”, he wrote in a letter to a friend, “and flung bullets through the sides. So they hopped out and took cover behind the embankment, and shot at us between the wheels at 50 yards.” The Arabs brought up a Stokes mortar, and the Turks fled across open ground. “Unfortunately for them”, Lawrence continued, “the Lewis covered the open stretch. The whole job took ten minutes, and they lost 70 killed, 30 wounded and 80 prisoners”, for the loss of only one Arab irregular. While the Arabs looted the train, another Turkish force arrived, nearly cutting off the Bedouins. “I lost some baggage, and nearly myself”, Lawrence added nonchalantly. In another letter about that same “show”, Lawrence confided, “I’m not going to last out this game much longer: nerves going and temper wearing thin…. This killing and killing of Turks is horrible.”
Capture of Aqaba
In 1917, Lawrence arranged a joint action with the Arab irregulars and forces including Auda Abu Tayi (until then in the employ of the Ottomans) against the strategically located but lightly defended town of Aqaba on the Red Sea. Aqaba fell to Lawrence and the Arab forces on 6 July, after a surprise overland attack. After Aqaba, Lawrence was promoted to major, and General Sir Edmund Allenby, the new commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, agreed to his strategy for the revolt, stating after the war:
I gave him a free hand. His cooperation was marked by the utmost loyalty, and I never had anything but praise for his work, which, indeed, was invaluable throughout the campaign. He was the mainspring of the Arab movement and knew their language, their manners and their mentality.”
Lawrence now held a powerful position as an adviser to Faisal and a person who had Allenby’s confidence.
Battle of Tafileh
In January 1918, Lawrence fought in the battle of Tafileh, an important region southeast of the Dead Sea, together with Arab regulars under the command of Jafar Pasha al-Askari. The battle was a defensive engagement that turned into an offensive rout and was described in the official history of the war as a “brilliant feat of arms”. Lawrence was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his leadership at Tafileh and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. The battle took the lives of 400 Turks and captured more than 200 prisoners.
By the summer of 1918, the Turks were offering a substantial reward for Lawrence’s capture, with one officer writing in his notes: “Though a price of £15,000 has been put on his head by the Turks, no Arab has, as yet, attempted to betray him. The Sharif of Mecca has given him the status of one of his sons, and he is just the finely tempered steel that supports the whole structure of our influence in Arabia. He is a very inspiring gentleman adventurer.”
Fall of Damascus
Lawrence was involved in the build-up to the capture of Damascus in the final weeks of the war. He was not present at the city’s formal surrender, much to his disappointment and contrary to instructions which he had issued, having arrived several hours after the city had fallen. Lawrence entered Damascus around 9am on 1st October 1918 but was the third arrival of the day; the first was the 10th Australian Light Horse Brigade, led by Major A.C.N. ‘Harry’ Olden, who formally accepted the surrender of the city from acting Governor Emir Said. Lawrence was instrumental in establishing a provisional Arab government under Faisal in newly liberated Damascus—which he had envisioned as the capital of an Arab state. Faisal’s rule as king, however, came to an abrupt end in 1920, after the battle of Maysaloun, when the French Forces of General Gouraud entered Damascus under the command of General Mariano Goybet, destroying Lawrence’s dream of an independent Arabia.
During the closing years of the war, Lawrence sought to convince his superiors in the British government that Arab independence was in their interests—with mixed success. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain contradicted the promises of independence that he had made to the Arabs and frustrated his work.
In 1918, he cooperated with war correspondent Lowell Thomas for a short period. During this time, Thomas and his cameraman Harry Chase shot a great deal of film and many photographs, which Thomas used in a highly lucrative film that toured the world after the war.
[Lowell Thomas] went to Jerusalem where he met Lawrence, whose enigmatic figure in Arab uniform fired his imagination. With Allenby’s permission he linked up with Lawrence for a brief couple of weeks … Returning to America, Thomas, early in 1919, started his lectures, supported by moving pictures of veiled women, Arabs in their picturesque robes, camels and dashing Bedouin cavalry, which took the nation by storm, after running at Madison Square Garden in New York. On being asked to come to England, he made the condition he would do so if asked by the King and given Drury Lane or Covent Garden … He opened at Covent Garden on 14th August 1919 … And so followed a series of some hundreds of lectures—film shows, attended by the highest in the land …”
Lawrence returned to the United Kingdom a full colonel. Immediately after the war, he worked for the Foreign Office, attending the Paris Peace Conference between January and May as a member of Faisal’s delegation.
On 17th May 1919, the Handley Page Type O carrying Lawrence on a flight to Egypt crashed at the airport of Roma-Centocelle. The pilot and co-pilot were killed; Lawrence survived with a broken shoulder blade and two broken ribs. During his brief hospitalisation, he was visited by the King of Italy Victor Emmanuel III.
In August 1919, Lowell Thomas launched a colourful photo show in London entitled With Allenby in Palestine, which included a lecture, dancing, and music. Initially, Lawrence played only a supporting role in the show, but then Thomas realised that it was the photos of Lawrence dressed as a Bedouin that had captured the public’s imagination, so he photographed him again in London in Arab dress. With the new photos, Thomas re-launched his show as With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia in early 1920; it was extremely popular. Thomas’ shows made the previously obscure Lawrence into a household name.
He served for much of 1921 as an adviser to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office.
In August 1922, Lawrence enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an aircraftman under the name John Hume Ross. At the RAF recruiting centre in Covent Garden, London, he was interviewed by a recruiting officer—Flying Officer W. E. Johns, later known as the author of the Biggles series of novels. Johns rejected Lawrence’s application as he correctly believed that “Ross” was a false name. Lawrence admitted that this was so and that the documents were false which he had provided. He left, but he returned some time later with an RAF Messenger carrying a written order for Johns to accept Lawrence.
However, Lawrence was forced out of the RAF in February 1923 after his identity was exposed. He changed his name to T. E. Shaw and joined the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. He was unhappy there and repeatedly petitioned to rejoin the RAF, which finally readmitted him in August 1925. A fresh burst of publicity after the publication of Revolt in the Desert resulted in his assignment to a remote base in British India in late 1926, where he remained until the end of 1928. At that time, he was forced to return to Britain after rumours began to circulate that he was involved in espionage activities.
He purchased several small plots of land in Chingford; he built a hut and swimming pool there, and visited frequently. The hut was removed in 1930 when the Chingford Urban District Council acquired the land and passed it to the City of London Corporation, which re-erected the hut in the grounds of The Warren, Loughton, where it remains (neglected) today. Lawrence’s tenure of the Chingford land has now been commemorated by a plaque fixed on the sighting obelisk on Pole Hill.
He continued serving in the RAF based at Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire, 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.
Lawrence was a keen motorcyclist and owned eight Brough Superior motorcycles at different times. His last SS100 (Registration GW 2275) is privately owned but has been on loan to the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu and the Imperial War Museum in London. Among the books that Lawrence is known to have carried with him on his military campaigns is Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Accounts of the 1934 discovery of the Winchester Manuscript of the Morte include a report that Lawrence followed Eugene Vinaver—a Malory scholar—by motorcycle from Manchester to Winchester upon reading of the discovery in The Times.
At the age of 46, two months after leaving military service, Lawrence was fatally injured in an accident on his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle in Dorset, close to his cottage, Clouds Hill, near Wareham. A dip in the road obstructed his view of two boys on their bicycles; he swerved to avoid them, lost control, and was thrown over the handlebars. He died six days later on 19th May 1935. The spot is marked by a small memorial at the side of the road.
One of the doctors attending him was neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns, who consequently began a long study of the unnecessary loss of life by motorcycle dispatch riders through head injuries. His research led to the use of crash helmets by both military and civilian motorcyclists.
The Moreton estate, which borders Bovington Camp, was owned by Lawrence’s cousins, the Frampton family. Lawrence had rented and later bought Clouds Hill from the Framptons. He had been a frequent visitor to their home, Okers Wood House, and had for years corresponded with Louisa Frampton. With his body wrapped in the Union Flag, Lawrence’s mother arranged with the Framptons to have him buried in their family plot at St Nicholas, Moreton. His coffin was transported on the Frampton estate’s bier. Mourners included Winston and Clementine Churchill, E. M. Forster, and Lawrence’s youngest brother Arnold.
Lawrence was a prolific writer throughout his life. A large portion of his output was epistolary; he often sent several letters a day. Several collections of his letters have been published. He corresponded with many notable figures, including George Bernard Shaw, Edward Elgar, Winston Churchill, Robert Graves, Noël Coward, E. M. Forster, Siegfried Sassoon, John Buchan, Augustus John, and Henry Williamson. He met Joseph Conrad and commented perceptively on his works. The many letters that he sent to Shaw’s wife Charlotte are revealing as to his character.
Lawrence published three major texts in his lifetime. The most significant was his account of the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Two were translations: Homer’s Odyssey and The Forest Giant, the latter an otherwise forgotten work of French fiction. He received a flat fee for the second translation, and negotiated a generous fee plus royalties for the first.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Lawrence’s major work is Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of his war experiences. In 1919, he had been elected to a seven-year research fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, providing him with support while he worked on the book. In addition to being a memoir of his experiences during the war, certain parts also serve as essays on military strategy, Arabian culture and geography, and other topics. Lawrence re-wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom three times, once “blind” after he lost the manuscript while changing trains at Reading railway station.
The list of his alleged “embellishments” in Seven Pillars is long, though many such allegations have been disproved with time, most definitively in Jeremy Wilson’s authorised biography. However, Lawrence’s own notebooks refute his claim to have crossed the Sinai Peninsula from Aqaba to the Suez Canal in just 49 hours without any sleep. In reality, this famous camel ride lasted for more than 70 hours and was interrupted by two long breaks for sleeping, which Lawrence omitted when he wrote his book.
Lawrence acknowledged having been helped in the editing of the book by George Bernard Shaw. In the preface to Seven Pillars, Lawrence offered his “thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Shaw for countless suggestions of great value and diversity: and for all the present semicolons”.
The first public edition was published in 1926 as a high-priced private subscription edition, printed in London by Herbert John Hodgson and Roy Manning Pike, with illustrations by Eric Kennington, Augustus John, Paul Nash, Blair Hughes-Stanton, and his wife Gertrude Hermes. Lawrence was afraid that the public would think that he would make a substantial income from the book, and he stated that it was written as a result of his war service. He vowed not to take any money from it, and indeed he did not, as the sale price was one third of the production costs. This, along with his “saintlike” generosity, left Lawrence in substantial debt.
Revolt in the Desert
Revolt in the Desert was an abridged version of Seven Pillars that he began in 1926 and that was published in March 1927 in both limited and trade editions. He undertook a needed but reluctant publicity exercise, which resulted in a best-seller. Again he vowed not to take any fees from the publication, partly to appease the subscribers to Seven Pillars who had paid dearly for their editions. By the fourth reprint in 1927, the debt from Seven Pillars was paid off. As Lawrence left for military service in India at the end of 1926, he set up the “Seven Pillars Trust” with his friend D. G. Hogarth as a trustee, in which he made over the copyright and any surplus income of Revolt in the Desert. He later told Hogarth that he had “made the Trust final, to save myself the temptation of reviewing it, if Revolt turned out a best seller.”
The resultant trust paid off the debt, and Lawrence then invoked a clause in his publishing contract to halt publication of the abridgment in the United Kingdom. However, he allowed both American editions and translations, which resulted in a substantial flow of income. The trust paid income either into an educational fund for children of RAF officers who lost their lives or were invalided as a result of service, or more substantially into the RAF Benevolent Fund.
Lawrence left unpublished The Mint, a memoir of his experiences as an enlisted man in the Royal Air Force (RAF). For this, he worked from a notebook that he kept while enlisted, writing of the daily lives of enlisted men and his desire to be a part of something larger than himself: the Royal Air Force. The book is stylistically very different from Seven Pillars of Wisdom, using sparse prose as opposed to the complicated syntax found in Seven Pillars. It was published posthumously, edited by his brother, Professor A. W. Lawrence.
After Lawrence’s death, A. W. Lawrence inherited Lawrence’s estate and his copyrights as the sole beneficiary. To pay the inheritance tax, he sold the U.S. copyright of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (subscribers’ text) outright to Doubleday Doran in 1935. Doubleday still controls publication rights of this version of the text of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the USA, and will continue to do until the copyright expires at the end of 2022 (publication plus 95 years). In 1936 Prof. Lawrence split the remaining assets of the estate, giving Clouds Hill and many copies of less substantial or historical letters to the nation via the National Trust, and then set up two trusts to control interests in T. E. Lawrence’s residual copyrights. To the original Seven Pillars Trust, Prof. Lawrence assigned the copyright in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as a result of which it was given its first general publication. To the Letters and Symposium Trust, he assigned the copyright in The Mint and all Lawrence’s letters, which were subsequently edited and published in the book T. E. Lawrence by his Friends (edited by A. W. Lawrence, London, Jonathan Cape, 1937).
A substantial amount of income went directly to the RAF Benevolent Fund or for archaeological, environmental, or academic projects. The two trusts were amalgamated in 1986 and, on the death of Prof. A. W. Lawrence in 1991, the unified trust also acquired all the remaining rights to Lawrence’s works that it had not owned, plus rights to all of Prof. Lawrence’s works. The UK copyrights of Lawrence’s works published in his lifetime and within 20 years of his death had expired by the end of 2005. Works published more than 20 years after his death were protected for 50 years from publication.
Lawrence’s biographers have discussed his sexuality at considerable length, and this discussion has spilled into the popular press.
There is no reliable evidence for consensual sexual intimacy between Lawrence and any person. His friends have expressed the opinion that he was asexual, and Lawrence himself specifically denied, in multiple private letters, any personal experience of sex. There were suggestions that Lawrence had been intimate with Dahoum, who worked with him at a pre-war archaeological dig in Carchemish, and fellow-serviceman R.A.M. Guy, but his biographers and contemporaries have found them unconvincing.
The dedication to his book Seven Pillars is a poem titled “To S.A.” which opens:
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When we came.
Lawrence was never specific about the identity of “S.A.” Many theories argue in favour of individual men or women, and the Arab nation as a whole. The most popular theory is that S.A. represents (at least in part) his companion Selim Ahmed, “Dahoum”—who apparently died of typhus before 1918.
Lawrence lived in a period of strong official opposition to homosexuality, but his writing on the subject was tolerant. He refers to “the openness and honesty of perfect love” on one occasion in Seven Pillars, when discussing relationships between young male fighters in the war. On another occasion, he refers to “friends quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace”. In a letter to Charlotte Shaw, he wrote, “I’ve seen lots of man-and-man loves: very lovely and fortunate some of them were.”
In both Seven Pillars and a 1919 letter to a military colleague, Lawrence describes an episode on 20th November 1917 while reconnoitring Dera’a in disguise when he was captured by the Ottoman military, heavily beaten, and sexually abused by the local Bey and his guardsmen. The precise nature of the sexual contact is not specified. There have been allegations that the episode was an invention of Lawrence’s and (with some evidence) that he exaggerated the severity of the injuries he claimed to have suffered. There is no independent testimony, but the multiple consistent reports and the absence of evidence for outright invention in Lawrence’s works make the account believable to his biographers. At least three of Lawrence’s biographers (Malcolm Brown, John E. Mack, and Jeremy Wilson) have argued that this episode had strong psychological effects on Lawrence, which may explain some of his unconventional behaviour in later life.
There is considerable evidence that Lawrence was a masochist. In his description of the Dera’a beating, Lawrence wrote “a delicious warmth, probably sexual, was swelling through me,” and also included a detailed description of the guards’ whip in a style typical of masochists’ writing. In later life, Lawrence arranged to pay a military colleague to administer beatings to him, and to be subjected to severe formal tests of fitness and stamina. John Bruce first wrote on this topic, including some other claims that were not credible, but Lawrence’s biographers regard the beatings as established fact.
John E. Mack sees a possible connection between T. E.’s masochism and the childhood beatings that he had received from his mother for routine misbehaviours. His brother Arnold thought that the beatings had been given for the purpose of breaking T. E.’s will. Writing in 1997, Angus Calder noted that it is “astonishing” that earlier commentators discussing Lawrence’s apparent masochism and self-loathing failed to consider the impact on Lawrence of having lost his brothers Frank and Will on the Western Front, along with many other school friends.
Awards and commemorations
Lawrence was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath and awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the French Légion d’honneur—though in October 1918 he declined appointment as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. A bronze bust of Lawrence was placed in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral on 29th January 1936, alongside the tombs of Britain’s greatest military leaders. An English Heritage blue plaque marks Lawrence’s childhood home at 2 Polstead Road, Oxford, and another appears on his London home at 14 Barton Street, Westminster. In 2002, Lawrence was named 53rd in the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons following a UK-wide vote.
Thomas Edward Lawrence
Lawrence of Arabia, El Aurens
Born 16th August 1888
Tremadog, Caernarvonshire, Wales, United Kingdom
Died 19th May 1935 (aged 46)
Bovington Camp, Dorset, England, United Kingdom
Buried at St Nicholas, Moreton, Dorset
United Kingdom United Kingdom / British Empire
Arab Revolt Kingdom of Hejaz
Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Ensign of the Royal Air Force.svg Royal Air Force
Years of service
Colonel and Aircraftman
First World War
Siege of Medina
Battle of Fwelia
Battle of Aba el Lissan
Battle of Aqaba
Battle of Tafileh
Battle of Deraa
Capture of Damascus
Battle of Megiddo
Companion of the Order of the Bath
Distinguished Service Order
Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur
Croix de guerre (France)