Let me begin by making my prejudice perfectly clear.
In the late summer of 1963, shortly before I entered Staunton Military Academy (SMA) as a 7th grader 200 miles from my home, my mother took me from Boonville, North Carolina, into Winston-Salem to watch the recently released movie “Lawrence of Arabia.” My five younger siblings remained at home, and spending this time alone with Mom marks this event as a special moment from my childhood.
Director David Lean’s film blew me away and remains one of the touchstones of my childhood. Scenes from that movie, which starred Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, somehow implanted themselves into my brain and being. When I reached SMA, I checked out Lawrence’s “Revolt in the Desert” from the library and read it twice. I even wrote to Mom and asked her to send me a box of dates, such as Lawrence might have eaten. How she found this exotic fruit in rural North Carolina at that time I have no idea, but I received a package of dates in the mail.
Not only have I since seen that movie multiple times, but I’ve also read Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” “The Mint,” and his anthology of short poems, “Minorities,” the latter two published long after his death. I’ve devoured as well several biographies written about this man.
So be warned: I consider Lawrence one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century. Here’s why.
Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888–1935) was, like his four brothers, illegitimate. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, left his wife and family to live with Sarah Junner, a governess whom Chapman had gotten pregnant. Adopting the name Lawrence in an attempt to conceal this scandal, the family left Ireland for Oxford, England, where Lawrence later entered high school and eventually studied history at Jesus College. From 1910 to 1914, he worked as an archaeologist for the British Museum in the Middle East.
During adolescence and youth, Lawrence underwent self-imposed training and discipline which, unbeknownst to him, would later serve him well during World War I. He practiced a sort of asceticism, going long periods without food and toughening his body. He took extended bicycle trips, venturing into France and then into the Middle East. He studied military history—his thesis for Oxford University was on crusader castles in Syria. His archeology work at Carchemish (on the border between Syria and Turkey today) made him conversant in Arabic, and because he asked so many questions of the workmen on the site, he also gained a solid understanding of Arab culture and its tribal structures.
As a result, when World War I erupted, Lawrence had inadvertently created in himself a special set of skills that would prove invaluable to the British war effort and to the Arabs’ desire to shake off the Turkish yoke.
The War Years
Once war had erupted in Europe in 1914, Lawrence joined the army, was commissioned a lieutenant, and was posted in December of that year to Cairo. There he worked for two years, chiefly as a map officer. In 1915, two of Lawrence’s younger brothers died in the fighting in Europe. Feeling increasingly guilty for sitting out the war in an office, he jumped at the chance to travel to Arabia and appraise the newborn Arab revolt against the Turks, allies of the Germans. Eventually, Lawrence became a permanent adviser to Sherif Feisal, a leader of this uprising.
From this partnership came the military exploits that destroyed or pinned down thousands of Turkish troops and that gave Lawrence his fame from the postwar years right up to the present day. With no previous military experience in the field, he proved himself a master of tactics and guerrilla warfare, blowing up scores of bridges and railways, and striking hard and fast with small bands of men at Turkish encampments and outposts and then retreating again into the desert.
In one brilliant maneuver—he started with a handful of men and picked up others as he advanced—he marched on the port city of Akaba on the Red Sea, destroyed a Turkish command near that city, and captured Akaba. On Oct. 1, 1918, he and the Arabs under his command entered Damascus along with British Gen. Edmund Allenby.
Fame and Anonymity
After the war’s end, Lawrence fought to secure for the Arabs the freedom he had promised them during the revolt, promises he knew at the time might be impossible to keep. In the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, Britain and France had divvied up large parts of the Middle East, leaving no room for postwar Arab independence. After this diplomatic failure, Lawrence would go on to write “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” and then join the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Tank Corps using pseudonyms.
He chose to hide his identity, not very successfully, because of the tremendous fame and acclaim that descended on him after the war. American journalist and photographer Lowell Thomas had met Lawrence in Jerusalem in 1918, conducted interviews, taken many pictures, and promoted his reputation first in America and then in Britain with his lantern slide shows and speeches. Thus was born “Lawrence of Arabia.”
All his life, Lawrence had a love for speed and for machines that could deliver that speed. On May 19, 1935, soon after his retirement from the RAF, he died of head injuries incurred while riding one of his motorcycles, a Brough Superior SS100. Interestingly, his death helped inspire one of his attending physicians, Dr. Hugh Cairns, to research and develop helmets for motorcycle riders.
A 20th-Century Icon
Following his death, Lawrence remained a figure of fame and romance. As Scott Anderson of Smithsonian Magazine wrote: “Today, T.E. Lawrence remains one of the most iconic figures of the early 20th century. His life has been the subject of at least three movies—including one considered a masterpiece—over 70 biographies, several plays and innumerable articles, monographs and dissertations. His wartime memoir, ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom,’ translated into more than a dozen languages, remains in print nearly a full century after its first publication.”
Lawrence was an imperfect man. For the rest of his life, for example, he bore the physical and mental scars of the war, including a beating and possible rape by Turks who didn’t recognize their captive. Doubtless other ghosts, like his illegitimacy and his dissatisfaction with the treatment of the Arabs following the war, plagued him as well.
Yet as John E. Mack tells us in his book “A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence,” Lawrence was also a man of many talents. For example, he writes that Lawrence “enabled others to make use of abilities they had always possessed but, until their acquaintance with him, had failed to realize.” Mack later adds that “his fundamental importance for human history, and his lasting ability to influence the lives of others, derives as much from the example of what he was as from what he did.”
Perhaps these same qualities inspired Winston Churchill to offer this eulogy for his friend Lawrence: “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time. I do not see his like elsewhere. I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again.”