Who Was T.E. Lawrence, A.K.A. Lawrence Of Arabia?

Thomas Edward Lawrence, 1927. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born on August 16, 1888 in North Wales as the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman. At a young age, Lawrence showed an interest in history, culture, and travel as he took himself across the English countryside on bike in order to study the various castles and churches. He attended the Jesus College at Oxford to study history, but more important than his studies was his experience during his summer vacation in 1908, when he biked from France all the way to Syria (then a part of the Ottoman Empire). He got his first true taste of cultures other than his and set his sights on a life of adventure and exploration.

After he graduated in 1910, Lawrence spent a short time working as an archeologist in northern Syria, but soon, the British government had other plans for him. As the Great War loomed over Europe, they sent him to the tactically important Negev desert to survey the land, having correctly foreseen a future when France and England would carve up the region during and after the war. When the war did erupt in 1914, it rocked the Lawrence family, as two of his brothers were killed in action just months apart from each other.

British Army File photo of T.E. Lawrence. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The following year, Lawrence took a position at the Arab Bureau intelligence agency, which put him in the same place at the same time as the Arab Revolt in June 1916. Britain recognized and hoped for a unified Arab state, especially since it would weaken their enemy, the Ottoman Empire, so they sent Lawrence to meet with King Hussein and his sons. Lawrence was most impressed with Faisal I bin Al-Hussein bin Ali Al-Hashemi, and together, they made plans to attack Aqaba in modern-day Jordan. Taking Aqaba was thought to be impossible because of its geography and well-defended Red Sea shoreline, but Faisal had the great and notorious fighter Auda Abu Tayeh and his men on his side, so they took the risk.

Lawrence and the troops traveled for two months by camel and arrived through the less-guarded mountains before killing over 300 Aqaba soldiers while only suffering two casualties themselves. Despite what the later film epic Lawrence Of Arabia might suggest, however, Lawrence himself was not much of a fighter. Standing at only five-feet-five-inches and with no military training, he wasn't exactly a threat compared to skilled swordsmen like Tayeh. In fact, in the battle of Aqaba, Lawrence accidentally shot and killed his own camel just as his army advanced into battle and fell to the ground with a thud. Not exactly the stuff movies are made of, but the battle was a great success and Lawrence's reputation received a major boost both at home and abroad.

Emir Faisal's party at Versailles, during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919; left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri al-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), Lawrence, Faisal's servant (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri. (Unknown author/Wikim

Things took a dark turn, however, on November 20, 1917, when Lawrence was captured by Turkish operatives. According to his book Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, he was tortured and sexually assaulted by the guards, which left him psychologically wounded for years to come. Despite this, he continued to diligently work for the Arab cause after his release, as he hoped to help them gain some political independence and retain their culture rather than be subjugated or used as a pawn by European powers. He even tried to help Faisal take Damascus, but the Australians captured the city before they got the chance. Eventually, Lawrence's fears of occupation came true when France took Syria, sparking the Franco-Syrian War, by which point Lawrence was a colonel back in his homeland of England. Lawrence spent the rest of his life writing books and serving in various military occupations until 1935, when he died in a motorcycle crash at 46 years old.