T. E. Lawrence of Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence, or more commonly referred to as T. E. Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia, as made famous later in the twentieth century by the 1962 film starring Peter O’ Toole. He was a man of many interests and experiences. This post will provide a biographical account of his life but with a particular focus on his involvement during the First World War, the Arab Revolt as part of the First World War specials. Lawrence was born out-of-wedlock in Tremadog, Wales to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner on 16th August 1888. The family lived under the name Lawrence and the young Lawrence went on to study History at Jesus College, Oxford. After graduating with a First Class Honours, Lawrence became an archaeologist and worked in the Middle East on various excavations and became acquainted with David George Hogarth and Leonard Woolley, leading archaeologists of the day.

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War in January 1914, Lawrence undertook a survey of the Negev desert, now modern-day southern Israel. Surveying the area of the desert was of high importance against the Ottoman army if they wanted to invade in the event of war looming but it was also done for archaeological research. However considering the circumstances at the time, it was useful intelligence to have as it would strengthen any onslaught against the Ottomans, who were allies of the German Empire.

As tensions rose the First World War was declared. However Lawrence did not straight away enlist in the British Army. So how did he become immortalised figure that we know as Lawrence of Arabia? Lawrence certainly had a great deal of knowledge about the Middle East and travelled extensively in the area including; Aqaba, the Levant, Mesopotamia and Petra. Intelligence staff were aware of this and upon his formal enlistment they placed him in Cairo. In 1916 the Arab Revolt began on the 5th June and formally declared on 8th June by Sherif Hussain bin Ali. The aim of the revolt was to cease the Ottoman influence in the Middle East and secure independence from them in order to create a single Arab unified state. However, Sherif Hussain bin Ali was rather to have said that it was to do more with the dissatisfaction of the Young Turks. The Young Turks was a political movement that wanted to replace the Ottoman Empire’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional government and by stating that they violated the sacred tenets of Islam. The group became synonymous with discord throughout the early twentieth century which include; the Balkan Wars and the Armenian Genocide. The British dispatched a number of officials to help with revolt along with the French.

Lawrence was sent to the Arabian Hejaz in October 1916 to work alongside the Hashemite forces. Later on during the war Lawrence fought under the command of Emir Faisal who was the son of the Hashemite leader and Emir of Mecca, Hussain ibn Ali al-Hashimi. Populist and sensationalist accounts often embellish Lawrence as the sole Allied presence from Britain and France. It was accounts from an American writer and traveller that certainly made the wider public aware of Lawrence and what he did in the Middle East to help secure Arab independence. However Lawrence himself also helped his own experiences in the Arab Revolt by writing an autobiographical account during 1916-1918.

Lawrence was considered to be a brilliant tactician and could liaise with the Arab troops really well. Guerrilla warfare was what Lawrence, Emir Faisal and the Arab troops conducted against the Ottomans and it was Lawrence who was said to have convinced Emir Faisal that attacking Aqaba was more likely to result in a win than trying to raid Medina. Lawrence seeing as their position was weak to attack Medina at that point, decided on Aqaba and had successfully required the support of his comrades. These irregular attacks against the Ottomans proved to be highly effective. When these skirmishes occurred it hit Ottoman communications and supply routes really hard. In 1917 Lawrence was involved in the Battle of Aqaba, a port on the southern coast of Jordan. The battle itself was not a great obstacle as such it was in actual fact obtained fairly easily in the sense that it was not a stronghold for the Ottomans. Aqaba at this time was a small coastal village and Lawrence demonstrated his strategic mentality through convincing the Ottomans that they were going to attack Damascus rather than Aqaba at this point. Lawrence went even so far to go solo by raiding The Arab troops who did lose their lives was mainly down to environmental factors, like scorpion bites than actual battle fatalities. The march to battle was on land from the Nefud desert. This was the first major victory that the Arabs had over the Ottomans as they withdrew from Aqaba. Considering beforehand that a previous raid on Medina was unsuccessful, the capture of Aqaba was vital as Aqaba now had access to the Red Sea to Egypt. After the capture of Aqaba this enabled the territory to be under the rule of Prince Faisal and be known as the Kingdom of Hejaz. The success of this battle was not without concern as Ottoman troops stationed nearby and made threats to recapture Aqaba and outside the city skirmishes ensued. Nevertheless nothing actually happened in Aqaba itself, considering that security was stepped up. Arab reinforcements and the British forces made their presence known to the Ottomans in Aqaba. As time went on the Arab revolt spread north and reached the areas of Damascus and Aleppo in Syria.

There have been reasons to suggest that he did receive help and that they have been linked to Gertrude Bell’s reports in the Middle East. Like Lawrence, Bell too travelled to the Middle East extensively after completing her University studies. It has been argued that from these accounts, Lawrence was able to successfully occupy the Hejaz over the Turkish defence. Although it may be an indirect influence, the claim was still made. However, it is important to recognise that Lawrence was an integral tool for the success of Aqaba and helping to provide a rallying force to the Arabs who wanted independence from the Ottoman Empire. After the events of Aqaba, Aleppo and Damascus, Lawrence still stood by with his comrades and sought for their independence at the London and Paris Peace Conferences. Self-rule was not granted and that these areas were granted under a French and a British protectorate. Syria (French) and Mesopotamia (British).

Aside from his endeavours in the Middle East, the question regarding Lawrence’s sexuality was and still is a major topic for discussion. Living and working in a time when homosexuality was excluded and frowned upon by society, it has been suggested that he was engaged in a relationship with Selim Ahmed. These suggestions had arisen mainly because of a dedication poem at the start of Lawrence’s personal account of his time in the Middle East, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, that is a far stretch and a bold statement, considering it is reliant on the information provided that the poem was dedicated to S. A. It is more probable to think S. A stands for a friend he met whilst there or Arab men and women as a whole. Other claims regarding Lawrence’s sexuality have not ended there. There are further suggestions to state that he was asexual or that he was a masochist. However there has been no solid evidence to confirm this, only the odd statement that he found the experience of being beaten pleasurable and that his friends reckoned he was asexual. It is likely that we will never know.


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