T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

Thomas Edward Lawrence, the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman (1846–1919), an Anglo-Irish baronet, was born in Tremadoc, Wales on 16th August, 1888. His mother, Sarah Junner (1861–1959), was Chapman's mistress and they assumed the name Lawrence after giving birth to their first child, Robert in 1885.

According to Lawrence James: "Thomas Chapman of South Hill, near Delvin, co. Westmeath, was already married when he began his liaison with Sarah Junner, who was governess to his four daughters. After making a financial settlement on his first family he and Sarah began a peripatetic existence, living successively at Tremadoc, Kirkcudbright, Dinard in Brittany, Langley in Hampshire, and Oxford, where they settled at 2 Polstead Road in 1896. In later years Lawrence liked to present himself as a child brought up in straitened circumstances and engaged in intermittent tussles with his mother. These rows reached such a pitch that he ran away and enlisted in 1905, or so he claimed. No record of his army service or of his father's buying him out has been discovered."

His mother later recalled: "He was a big, strong, active child; constantly on the move. He would pull himself up over the nursery gate some months before he could walk....He was never idle - brass-rubbing, wood-carving, putting old pottery together, etc... He was a most loving son and brother, kind and unselfish, always doing kind deeds in a quiet way; everything that was beautiful in nature or art appealed to him."

It has been claimed that Thomas (Ned to the family) was a "wilful child" who often clashed with his mother. At the age of about ten, he uncovered the truth of his parents' relationship and his own and his brothers' illegitimacy. The conflict with his parents was partly resolved by his father agreeing to build Thomas a well-provided bungalow at the bottom of the garden in 1908. Here he spent his time reading and eventually gained a Meyricke Exhibition to read modern history at Jesus College.

Lawrence was always a fairly small man, just over 5 feet 5 inches tall when he arrived at the University of Cambridge, and liked to boast, that rigorous exercise had turned him into a pocket Hercules. He was a good distance runner, but disliked team games. He became close to the writer, Leonard M. Green. He later recalled: "We decided that we would buy a windmill on a headland that was washed by sea. We would set up a printing press in the lowest storey and live over our shop."

Vyvyan Warren Richards, a fellow undergraduate, fell in love with Lawrence. in his book, Portrait of T.E. Lawrence (1936), Richards wrote: "He had neither flesh nor carnality of any kind; he just did not understand. He received my affection, my sacrifice, in fact, eventually my total subservience, as though it was his due. He never gave the slightest sign that he understood my motives or fathomed my desire... I realize now that he was sexless - at least that he was unaware of sex."

In the summers of 1907 and 1908 his father provided the money for him to undertake extended bicycle tours of France in search of castles. The following year he visited Lebanon and Syria. This research into castles provided the basis of a BA dissertation which substantially contributed to his first-class degree in July 1910. His biographer, Lawrence James, points out: "During all his excursions he wrote home regularly with vivid impressions of what he had seen. These letters are not only evidence of his powers of description, but of the warm affection which existed within his family. Past tensions had evaporated, not least because Lawrence had secured the freedom to live on his own terms and pursue his own interests."

On his return to England he began making plans to establish a publishing business with Vyvyan Warren Richards. His biographer, Desmond Stewart has argued: "Lawrence, for once, sees himself as a businessman. While Richards will have contributed energy, inspiration and design, Lawrence will have put up the capital." Lawrence wrote to his parents: We both feel (at present) that printing is the best thing we can do, if we do it the best we can. That means though (as it is an art), that it will be done only when we feel inclined. Very likely sometimes for long periods I will not touch a press at all. Richards, whose other interests are less militant, will probably do the bulk of the work."

In 1911 Lawrence was recruited by David G. Hogarth of Ashmolean Museum, to join an archaeological expedition led by Sir William Finders Petrie at Carchemish, on the Euphrates. Sir Frederic George Kenyon, the director of the British Museum, wrote that Lawrence was selected because he was "an Arabic scholar, acquainted with the country and an expert on the subject of pottery". As the dig was closed down during the summer months he used this time to explore the area. It also gave him the opportunity to learn to speak numerous Arab dialects.

Lawrence worked on the archaeological site until early 1914. His biographer, Lawrence James, argues: "As well as supervising the uncovering and cataloguing of Hittite artefacts Lawrence became immersed in the life of a turbulent region. According to his letters home he acted as a sort of consul, arbitrating disputes among Arabs and Kurds and threw himself into their intermittent squabbles with German engineers, then supervising the construction of the Berlin to Baghdad railway. As well as playing the Hentyesque Englishman, Lawrence cultivated an intimate friendship with an Arab youth, Dahoum, whose natural intelligence impressed him and qualified him for tutelage. Lawrence's enchantment with Dahoum helped convince him of the Arabs' capacity for regeneration, but on their own terms and without repudiating their traditions and culture. What he had seen in Lebanon made Lawrence hostile towards those Arabs who looked to the West for salvation and absorbed European, particularly French, values. Likewise, he despised the far-reaching modernizing projects of the Young Turks, who then controlled the Ottoman empire."

During this period he became infatuated with a 14 year old boy, Selim Ahmed (Dahoum). He decided to teach the boy to read and write: "He is beginning to use his reason as well as his instinct: He taught himself to read a little, so I had very exceptional material to work on but I cannot do much with a piece of stick and scrap of dusty ground as materials. I am going to ask Miss Fareedah for a few simple books, amusing, for him to begin on." Leonard Woolley, another member of the team of archaeologists, remembered Dahoum as "not particularly intelligent.... but beautifully built and remarkably handsome." One historian has pointed out: "Lawrence adopted the boy as a semi-permanent companion and trained him up as his archaeological assistant. They went on expeditions together, worked alongside each other, swapped clothes and were rarely apart.... in 1913 and Dahoum moved in with him."

In July 1913 Lawrence brought Dahoum back to Oxford where the two men stayed at the house in the back of the garden. They visited London where Lawrence showed Dahoum the underground railway before travelling back via the Netherlands, Austria and Alexandria. They were back in Aleppo by 24th August. Soon afterwards he carved a naked sculpture of Dahoum. Desmond Stewart has argued that the work of art proved the epicentre of a local scandal... reared in the Muslim suspicion of all representational art, the villagers took Lawrence's sculpture of a naked youth as proof of a guilty passion."

T. E. Lawrence
T. E. Lawrence

On the outbreak of the First World War Lawrence was forced to leave Dahoum as custodian to the Carchemish site. In December 1914 Lawrence was recruited by army intelligence in North Africa and worked as a junior officer in Egypt. In October 1916 he was sent to meet important Arab leaders such as Faisal ibn Ali and Nuri es-Said in Jiddah. After negotiations it was agreed to help Lawrence to lead an Arab revolt against the Turkish Army. From November 1916 onwards Lawrence was permanently attached to Feisal's forces as a liaison officer, advising on strategy and supervising among other things the procurement of arms and delivery of Treasury subsidies. Lawrence of Arabia, as he became known, carried out raids on the Damascus-Medina Railway. His men also captured the port of Aqaba in July 1917. Sympathetic to Arab nationalism he helped established local government in captured towns.

In November 1917 Lawrence led a raiding party in southern Syria to harry Turkish communications and to stir up local opposition to France. He was captured in Deraa and identified by a Turkish officer. According to Lawrence he was led to a guard-room, consoled by Turkish soldiers and told he will be released next day "if he fulfils the Bey's pleasures". Lawrence was then taken to the bedroom of Bey (the governor of Hajjim). He has him stripped and has him punished by a Circassian riding whip, described by Lawrence as "a thong of supple black hide, rounded, and tapering from the thickness of a thumb at the grip (which was wrapped in silver) down to a hard point finer than a pencil." Held down by four soldiers, he was then whipped: "At the instant of each stroke a hard white mark like a railway, darkening slowly into crimson, leaped over my skin, and a bead of blood swelled up wherever the ridges crossed... the blows hurt more horribly than I had dreamed of... a delicious warmth, probably sexual, was swelling through me." Lawrence then suffered homosexual rape. He later told Charlotte Shaw: "About that night. I shouldn't tell you, because decent men don't talk about such things. I wanted to put it plain in the book (his autobiography), and wrestled for days with my self-respect... which wouldn't, hasn't let me."

Lawrence claims that the "corporal... the youngest and best looking on the guard had to stay behind while the others carried me down the narrow stairs". The soldier then tells him "that the door into the next room was not locked". In the room hangs a "suit of shoddy clothes". Next morning Lawrence puts them on and escapes back to the British forces. Some biographers, have refused to believe this story. This included Richard Aldington, the author of Lawrence of Arabia: a Biographical Enquiry (1955). According to Lawrence James: "Aldington began his researches with an open mind, but as he trawled through the available sources he found abundant evidence of contradictions, inconsistencies, and fabrications.... Lawrence's defenders insisted that Aldington was not only traducing a national hero, but the values he and his generation had stood for."

By December, 1917 Edmund Allenby and his army had captured Beersheba, Gaza and Jerusalem. The following year the British Army defeated General Otto Liman von Sanders and the Turkish-German Army in Palestine. Lawrence now joined Allenby's forces and entered Damascus on 1st October, 1918.

Lawrence attended Paris Peace Conference with Prince Feisal. He had meetings with Felix Frankfurter. His assistant, Ella Winter, recalled in her autobiography, And Not to Yield (1963): "The young, beautiful Prince Feisal was always followed by his group of tall, imposing, silent Arabs in long white robes and head dress, and by his shadow, Colonel T. E. Lawrence, also in native dress. Lawrence was short and fragile-looking, with a delicate, poetic face, but he appeared as much at home with the desert Bedouins and the prince he seemed so attached to as with European diplomats. Felix was as much intrigued by Lawrence's role in all the Middle Eastern politics as with his romantic appearance."

Lawrence had been converted to the cause of the Arabs and felt they were betrayed by the treaties agreed at the Paris Peace Conference. He was particularly concerned about the decision to give France control over Syria. He later wrote: "We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew."

In 1921 Lawrence joined the Middle East Department of the Colonial Office. He also served as special adviser on Arab affairs to Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary (1921-22). Both men visited the Middle East in an attempt to deal with the growing conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.

After leaving the Colonial Office he changed his name to John Hume Ross and enlisted into the Royal Air Force. After four months reporters from the Daily Express discovered what he had done and he was discharged. In March 1923 he joined the Tank Corps as Private Thomas Shaw. Lawrence became sexually involved with John Bruce. He later told the authors of The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (1969) that Lawrence paid him a regular retainer of £3 a week to birch him on his bare buttocks.

Lawrence served until he was dismissed from the service in 1925. This was partly because he had developed a relationship with a young soldier, R.A.M. Guy, who was described as being "beautiful, like a Greek god." According to Desmond Stewart, the author of T. E. Lawrence (1979), Lawrence dismissed because he was about to be exposed as being involved in a sexual scandal: "Lawrence had unwisely attended flagellation parties in Chelsea conducted by an underworld figure known as Bluebeard, and Bluebeard's impending divorce case threatened to release lubricious details concerning Lawrence and one of his aristocratic friends which had already been hinted at in a German scandal-sheet.... Sacrificing caution, he wrote to the Home Secretary asking for the expulsion of Bluebeard and a ban on the German magazine."

Lawrence purchased Clouds Hill in 1924 and began work on his autobiography. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was published privately in 1926. It included illustrations by his friend, Eric Kennington. Later that year he rejoined the RAF and served for two years on the north-west frontier of India. He continued to write and other books by Lawrence include Revolt in the Desert, The Mint and a new translation of Homer's Odyssey.

On 26th February 1935 Lawrence left the RAF. Soon afterwards he was contacted by Henry Williamson, a member of the British Union of Fascists, suggesting a meeting that "might prevent another war". Williamson later recalled that he obtained "Lawrence of Arabia's name to gather a meeting of ex-Service men in the Albert Hall, with his presence and stimulation to cohere into unassailable logic the authentic mind of the war generation come to power of truth and amity, a whirlwind campaign which would end the old fearful thought of Europe (usuary-based) for-ever. So that the sun should shine on free men."

Lawrence held very nationalistic views. He had said of his experiences in the First World War: "I am proudest of my thirty fights in that I did not have any of our own blood shed. All our subject provinces to me were not worth one dead Englishman." E. M. Forster once said that Lawrence "hated war but liked soldiers". Lawrence also expressed racist views about black people in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom: "Their faces, being clearly different from our own, were tolerable; but it hurt that they should possess exact counterparts of all our bodies."

Lawrence loved riding his motor-bike. George Brough, who manufactured his bikes, described him as: "One of the finest riders I have ever met. In the several runs I took with him, I am able to state with conviction that T.E.L. was most considerate to every other road user. I never saw him take a single risk nor put any other rider or driver to the slightest inconvenience."

On 13th May, he went for a ride on his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle when he swerved to miss two 14 year-old, cyclists, Frank Fletcher and Albert Hargreaves. Corporal Ernest Catchpole of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, was the first to reach the site of the accident. He later claimed that he was passed by a black motor car just before the crash: "I saw the bike twisting and turning over and over along the road. I saw nothing of the driver (of the black car). I ran to the scene and found the motor-cyclist on the road. His face was covered with blood which I tried to wipe away with my handkerchief". Lawrence never regained consciousness and died on 19th May 1935.

Desmond Stewart has argued: "Bovington Camp reacted to this as something more than an ordinary traffic accident. All ranks were warned that they came under the Official Secrets Act. The boys' fathers were told to keep them silent. Catchpole was cautioned that, since he had not seen the accident, he should not confuse matters by mentioning the black car. Two plain clothes detectives were posted on Lawrence duty: one sat by his bed, while the other rested on a cot outside the door... His brother, Arnold Lawrence, returned from a holiday in Spain to hear reports that officials from the Air Ministry had removed secret papers from Clouds Hill." Arnold Lawrence later told the Dorset Daily Echo that a "special guard" had been sent to Clouds Hill to "protect my brother's valuable books".

Frank Fletcher told a reporter of a local newspaper: "We were riding in single file. I was leading.... I heard the noise of the motorcycle and then the crash.... The man who had gone over the handle bars had landed with his feet about 5 yards in front of the motor cycle which was about five yards ahead of where I fell." According to the newspaper: "The boy said there was no motor car or other vehicle on the road at the time.

After his death rumours circulated that Lawrence had been murdered by foreign agents. Desmond Stewart believes that Catchpole's evidence is of vital importance and that the black car was involved in the death of Lawrence. "If Catchpole was right and the black car existed, the failure of its driver to come forward (the news of the accident was in every newspaper and every news bulletin) suggests that he was involved, either accidentally or deliberately, in Lawrence's crash. Everyone who has ridden a motor cycle knows how easily a sudden swerve can be induced; harmless to the driver of a car, on a narrow road it could be fatal to a cyclist without a helmet."

Another story emerged that the secret service faked his death so as to allow him to undertake, incognito, important work in the Middle East. The supporters of this story believed he died in Tangiers, Morocco, in 1968.

Primary Sources

(1) Sarah Junner Lawrence, T. E. Lawrence by his Friends (1937)

He (T. E. Lawrence) was a big, strong, active child; constantly on the move. He would pull himself up over the nursery gate some months before he could walk....He was never idle - brass-rubbing, wood-carving, putting old pottery together, etc... He was a most loving son and brother, kind and unselfish, always doing kind deeds in a quiet way; everything that was beautiful in nature or art appealed to him.

(2) Vyvyan Warren Richards, Portrait of T.E. Lawrence (1936)

He had neither flesh nor carnality of any kind; he just did not understand. He received my affection, my sacrifice, in fact, eventually my total subservience, as though it was his due. He never gave the slightest sign that he understood my motives or fathomed my desire... I realize now that he was sexless - at least that he was unaware of sex.

(3) T. E. Lawrence, letter to Charlotte Shaw (26th March, 1924)

About that night. I shouldn't tell you, because decent men don't talk about such things. I wanted to put it plain in the book, and wrestled for days with my self-respect... which wouldn't, hasn't let me. For fear of being hurt, or rather, to earn five minutes' respite from a pain which drove me mad, I gave away the only possession we are born into the world with - our bodily integrity... You may call this morbid: but think of the offence, and the intensity of my brooding over it for these years. It will hang about me while I live, and afterwards if our personality survives.

© John Simkin, April 2013