Thomas Edward Lawrence (‘Ned’ to his family) was born on 16 August 1888. He was the second son of Sir Thomas Chapman, an Anglo-Irish baronet, and Sarah Junner. Lawrence’s parents never married as they had eloped together after falling in love whilst Junner was governess to Chapman’s four legitimate daughters. After their elopement the couple, unable to use their real names, chose the surname ‘Lawrence’ and lived together as man and wife. Junner herself was illegitimate and recent research suggests that ‘Lawrence’ was the surname of her estranged father.
Despite their unorthodox family arrangement they lived comfortably on the income from Chapman’s family estates in Ireland. The family settled in Oxford and Lawrence and his four brothers attended the City of Oxford High School, where Lawrence excelled at history. At the age of 15 he and a friend, Cyril Beeson, cycled through rural England exploring Norman churches, taking rubbings from the monumental brasses. Lawrence was fascinated by the tombs of Crusaders which abound in medieval churches.
In 1907 Lawrence won a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford University to study history. In the summer of 1909 he made his first trip to the Middle East, spending three months walking through the Levant researching the design of crusader castles. This arduous thousand-mile journey inspired in Lawrence a deep love of the Middle East and Arab culture. He learnt Arabic and visited sites few westerners had seen. In 1910 he completed his thesis - The influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture—to the end of the 12th century which was published after his death as Crusader Castles.
After graduating he returned to the Levant to assist in the British Museum’s excavations of the Hittite city of Carchemish in Syria living on the site from 1910 to 1914. Lawrence was in charge of managing and training the local population, and he developed a deep understanding of the Arab language and mentality. At Carchemish Lawrence met Salim Ahmed (nicknamed ‘Dahoum’ or little dark one) a local boy of 12 who would become Lawrence’s assistant and apprentice. Lawrence was deeply attached to Dahoum and, at the outbreak of war in 1914, left him in charge of the site. It is widely believed that the enigmatic dedication ‘For S. A.’ on Lawrence’s book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is actually for Dahoum.
Lawrence enlisted in the British Army and was despatched to Cairo as an intelligence officer. Now at war with the Ottoman Empire, the British Expeditionary Forces in Egypt needed to fight the Turks on every possible front. When Sherif Hussein of Hejaz in Arabia rebelled against the Ottomans, the British saw an opportunity. Lawrence was sent as a special advisor to Hussein to coordinate his revolt. His knowledge of Arab customs proved extremely efficient in winning Hussein round to the British side. Whilst living with the Arab army, Lawrence began to dress in Arab clothing, riding on camels instead of horses and speaking only in Arabic. His reputation for fearlessness and bravery during this period made him deeply admired by his fellow fighters – Sherif Hussein gave him the same status as one of his own sons, protection that would prove invaluable when the Ottomans offered a reward of £20,000 for Lawrence’s capture.
With the Ottomans in disarray in Hejaz, the Arabs moved north. However, supply lines were strained and could not reach the army across thousands of miles of desert. In one of the greatest military actions of the whole conflict Lawrence came up with a solution. The town of Aqaba at the very north of the Red Sea was extremely well defended and in Ottoman hands. It was thought to be impregnable from the land side and impossible to take from the sea without massive assistance from the Royal Navy. Raising troops from the local area, the majority led by local warlord Auda ibu Tayi, Lawrence led a force of 5,000 men through the Ottoman lines by secretly crossing a desert believed to be impossible to cross, capturing the town. During the whole action, Lawrence’s forces lost only two men. After the victory Lawrence crossed the Sinai peninsula (he claimed he did this in 48 hours without sleep, though in reality it took him four days) and reported his exploit directly to an astounded General Allenby, the British Commander.
Returning to the front Lawrence was captured whilst reconnoitering the city of Deraa, Syria. Brutally beaten and raped by the local commander, Lawrence kept his true identity secret and escaped the prison. The experience scarred him deeply. He suffered from depression and some historians have argued the event brought out a disturbing masochistic side to his character.
After returning to the Arab army, Lawrence's primary objective was now to lead the Arabs to an independent state with its capital in Damascus. This put Lawrence and the Arabs on a collision course with the British as a secret agreement existed between the French and British agreeing to divide Arabia between them - the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement. Damascus was captured by the Arabs on 30 September 1918 and an independent Arab state declared; however it was soon removed by the Anglo-French forces. This betrayal hugely disheartened Lawrence – he felt guilty, as if he himself had betrayed the Arab cause.
He attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and argued passionately for Arab independence. Despite initial support from US President Woodrow Wilson, the idea of a unified Arab state was abandoned in favour of British and French interests. The French invaded Syria, expelling the Arab nationalists, whilst the British occupied Iraq and Palestine. The after-effects of these occupations are the genesis of every conflict in the Middle East since 1918. Lawrence, defeated and exhausted, returned to Oxford.
Awarded a fellowship by All Souls College, Lawrence began writing and researching his account of the revolt. In 1919 an American journalist Lowell Thomas, who had followed the campaign in the desert, arrived in England with a ‘travelogue’ about Lawrence, including slides, music and film. With this travelogue he toured England, making Lawrence an overnight celebrity. The British public, after the pointless slaughter of the western front, were eager for a romantic war hero and Lawrence fitted the bill perfectly.
In 1922 he published Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his account of the Arab Revolt. He only produced six copies of the book which was over 300,000 words in length. It detailed not only the actions of the war but essays on Arab culture, geography and economics. In 1926 he produced an abridged edition, made available at enormous cost to a select group of subscribers. In 1926 an abridged edition under the new title Revolt in the Desert was published.
In an attempt to avoid the interest of the press, after Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence served in a number of military units under assumed names - first in the RAF as 'John Hume Ross' and later 'T.E. Shaw' in the Royal Tank Corps. Each time he was exposed and forced to leave the service. During this time he wrote The Mint, the story of a day in the life of a young RAF recruit as well as translating Homer’s The Odyssey.
In March 1935 he was riding his Brough Superior motorcycle near his home in Dorset. He swerved to avoid two cyclists and crashed, sustaining massive head injuries. He died six days later in hospital having never regained consciousness. Lawrence was buried in his family plot in Moreton, Dorset and a bust of Lawrence was placed in the crypt at St. Paul’s Cathedral. In a church in Wareham, near the site of the accident, a stone effigy was built showing him, not in military uniform but in the robes of an Arab sheik, his feet crossed like those of the medieval crusaders which he observed when he was a child.