“Rebellions can be made by 2 percent actively in the striking force and 98 percent passively sympathetic.”
Thomas Edward Lawrence was born on this day in Tremadoc, Caernarvonshire, Wales in 1888. Today is the 124th anniversary of his birth.
He was the son of Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, the Baronet of Westmeath, and Sarah Junner a governess for the Chapman children. A few years earlier T.E.’s father, having fallen in love with the young governess, had asked his wife, Edith, for a divorce, when she refused, he left her and set up house with Junner. They were known as Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence and had five sons together (T.E. was the second eldest). The family moved several times while T.E. (or Ned as he was known then) was growing up. Ned and his brothers loved to cycle and sail and explore the countryside. He was very smart, and could read books and newspapers at 4. He studied history at Jesus College, Oxford.
When he was 21 he went to Ottoman Syria and visited 36 crusader castles. He covered 1,100 miles on foot and wrote his thesis ‘The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture – to the End of the XIIth Century.”
He graduated from Jesus College and went on to post-graduate work in mediaeval pottery under a research fellowship for travel by Magdalen College. Lawrence went back to Syria, travelled to Egypt, Palestine and other spots in the Middle East working as a field archaeologist with his friend Leonard Wooley. Lawrence learned the customs and language of the people while he explored the history of the land.
At the outbreak of WWI Lawrence was co-opted into British military intelligence. He and Wooley surveyed the Negev Desert.
As the War progressed Lawrence began to dress in the long flowing robes of an Arab and fought along side Emir Feisal to launch a Arab revolt against Germany’s ally, the Ottoman Empire. Feisal and Lawrence lead a guerrilla war in the desert. It took the Turkish government far more resources to squash a rebellion of breakaway Arab tribes than it took the British to incite one. Instead of attacking the heavily fortified city of Medina Feisal and Lawrence organized raids on the Hejaz railway.
He was wounded several times by both bullets and shrapnel. He was captured in 1916 in Deraa where he was beaten and sexually assaulted. He escaped but the experience left him shattered.
In 1917 he and Feisal led an overland attack on the port city of Akuba. (The town was heavily fortified against a naval attack, but was surprised by an attack from the desert.) In 1918 he led Arab forces in the Battle of Tafileh (for which he won the Distinguished Service Order and was promoted.)
As the War wound down Lawrence returned to England and advocated for Arab independence. He travelled with Feisal to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. But the Western powers, having used their Arab pawns in a successful game of chess against Germany and Turkey, divided the Middle East between France and England in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
American journalist Lowell Thomas and cameraman Harry Chase had spent several weeks in the desert shooting dramatic footage of of Lawrence and (at Lawrence’s insistence) Arab leaders like Feisal. Thomas began to show his “Slide and Lantern” lecture to audiences in the US and England.
“The romantic and adventurous tales of this “mysterious blue eyed Arab in the garb of a prince wandering the streets” were an instant hit. Lowell Thomas’ screen show showed to packed audiences in New York and then London. ” [MPT Laurence of Arabia / Lowell Thomas]
Thomas’ London lecture/film tour ran for 6 months and included a Royal Command Performance. He went on to tour most of the English speaking countries in the world and made millions of dollars.
The legend of Lawrence of Arabia was born.
Lawrence, however was angry over the Paris Peace talks and, although he went to see Thomas’ show, he eschewed the added celebrity. He withdrew from public life to write his memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
He served, at Winston Churchill’s request, as a political adviser to the Colonial Office to help construct a pro-Arab settlement for the Middle East. He returned, under a pseudonym, to the armed forces, first in the Royal Air Force as John Hume Ross, then in the Army as Thomas Edward Shaw. But the press always found him out.
In May of 1935 Lawrence was riding his motorbike at 100 mph along a country road when he lost control and crashed. He died a few days later.