T. E. Lawrence – or Lawrence of Arabia as he is better known today – was a quiet and studious young man born in Wales and raised in Oxford. He probably would have been known as an unmarried eccentric with a fascination for old crusader buildings had the earth-shattering events of World War One not changed his life.
Instead, he has earned undying fame in the West as a glamorous and sympathetic – though greatly mythologised – explorer of the Middle East and a war hero who led charges of Arabs against the Ottoman Empire.
The beginnings of an eccentric academic
Born out of wedlock in 1888, Lawrence’s first obstacle in life was the social scorn that such a union produced in the late Victorian era. Like many lonely children before him, he spent a lot of his early life exploring as his outcast family moved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood before finally settling on Oxford in 1896.
Lawrence’s love of ancient buildings appeared early on. One of the first memorable trips of his life was a cycle ride with a friend through the picturesque countryside around Oxford; they studied every parish church they could and then showed their findings to the city’s famous Ashmolean Museum.
As his schooldays came to an end, Lawrence ventured further afield. He studied, photographed, measured and drew medieval castles in France for two consecutive summers before beginning his studies in history at the University of Oxford in 1907.
After his trips to France, Lawrence was fascinated by the impact of the east on Europe after the Crusades, especially the architecture. He subsequently visited Ottoman-controlled Syria in 1909.
In an age before widespread automobile transport, Lawrence’s tour of Syria’s Crusader castles entailed three months of walking under a punishing desert sun. During this time, he developed a fascination for the area and a good command of Arabic.
The thesis Lawrence later penned on Crusader architecture earned him a first class honours degree from Oxford, which cemented his status as a rising star of archaeology and Middle Eastern history.
Almost as soon as he left university, Lawrence was invited to join the British Museum-sponsored excavations of the ancient city of Carchemish, which lay on the border between Syria and Turkey. Ironically, the area was much safer on the eve of World War One than it is today.
En route, the young Lawrence was able to enjoy a pleasant stay in Beirut where he continued his Arabic education. During the excavations, he met the famous explorer Gertrude Bell, which might have had an influence on his later exploits.
In the years leading up to 1914, growing international tensions were exemplified by the Balkan wars in Eastern Europe and a series of violent coups and convulsions in the ageing Ottoman Empire.
Given the Ottoman connection with the powerful German Empire, which was at that time locked in an arms race with Britain, the latter decided that more knowledge of Ottoman lands was required in order to plan possible campaign strategies.
From Oxford academic to British military man
As a result, in January 1914 the British military co-opted Lawrence. It wanted to use his archaeological interests as a smoke-screen to extensively map and survey the Negev desert, which the Ottoman troops would have to cross in order to attack British-held Egypt.
In August, World War One finally broke out. The Ottoman alliance with Germany brought the Ottoman Empire directly at odds with the British Empire. The two empires’ many colonial possessions in the Middle East made this theatre of war almost as crucial as the western front, where Lawrence’s brothers were serving.
Lawrence’s knowledge of Arabic and Ottoman territory made him an obvious choice for the position of a staff officer. In December, he arrived in Cairo to serve as part of the Arab Bureau. After a mixed start to the war on the Ottoman front, the bureau believed that one option open to them was the exploitation of Arab nationalism.
The Arabs – custodians of the holy city of Mecca – had been chafing under Turkish Ottoman rule for a while.
Sharif Hussein, the Emir of Mecca, had made a deal with the British, promising to lead an uprising that would tie down thousands of Ottoman troops in return for Britain’s promise to recognise and guarantee the rights and privileges of an independent Arabia after the war.
There was heavy opposition to this deal from the French, who wanted Syria as a lucrative colonial possession after the war, as well as from the colonial government in India, who also wanted control of the Middle East. As a result, the Arab Bureau dithered until October 1915 when Hussein demanded an immediate commitment to his plan.
If he did not receive Britain’s support, Hussein said he would throw all the symbolic weight of Mecca behind the Ottoman cause and create a pan-Islamic jihad, with millions of Muslim subjects, that would be extremely dangerous to the British Empire. In the end, the deal was agreed and the Arab revolt began.
Lawrence, meanwhile, had been serving the Bureau faithfully, mapping Arabia, interrogating prisoners and producing a daily bulletin for the British generals in the area. He was a fervent advocate of an independent Arabia, like Gertrude Bell, and fully supported Hussein’s scheme.
By the autumn of 1916, however, the revolt had become bogged down, and there was suddenly a great risk that the Ottomans would capture Mecca. The go-to man of the Bureau, Captain Lawrence, was sent to try and shore up Hussein’s revolt.
He started by interviewing the emir’s three sons. He concluded that Faisal – the youngest – was the best qualified to become the military leader of the Arabs. It was initially meant to be a temporary appointment, but Lawrence and Faisal built up such a rapport that the Arab prince demanded the British officer remain with him.
Becoming Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence thus became directly involved with the fighting alongside the legendary Arab cavalry, and was quickly held in high esteem by Hussein and his government. One Arab officer described him as having been given the status of one of the emir’s sons. By 1918, he had a £15,000 price on his head, but noone handed him to the Ottomans.
One of Lawrence’s most successful moments came at Aqaba on 6 July 1917. This small – but strategically important – town on the Red Sea in modern-day Jordan was at that time in Ottoman hands but wanted by the Allies.
Aqaba’s coastal location meant that it was heavily defended on its seaward side against a British naval attack, however. And so, Lawrence and the Arabs agreed that it might be taken by a lightning cavalry assault from land.
In May, Lawrence set off across the desert without telling his superiors about the plan.With a small and irregular force at his disposal, Lawrence’s cunning as an exploring officer was needed. Departing alone on a supposed reconnaissance mission, he blew up a bridge and left a false trail in an effort to convince the Ottomans that Damascus was the target of the rumoured Arab advance.
Auda abu Tayeh, the Arab leader of the exhibition, then lead a cavalry charge against the misled Turkish infantry guarding the landward approach to Aqaba, managing to scatter them superbly. In revenge for the Turkish killing of Arab prisoners, more than 300 Turks were killed before Auda put a stop to the massacre.
As a group of British ships began to shell Aqaba, Lawrence (who nearly died when he was unhorsed in the charge) and his allies secured the surrender of the town, after its defences had been comprehensively outflanked. Delighted by this success, he galloped across the Sinai desert to alert his command in Cairo of the news.
With Abaqa taken, the Arab forces were able to link up with the British further north. This made possible the fall of Damascus in October 1918, which effectively ended the Ottoman Empire.
The revolt had succeeded and saved flagging British efforts in the region, but Hussein would not get his wish.
Though the Arab nationalists were initially granted an unstable independent kingdom in western Arabia, much of the rest of the Middle East was divided between France and Britain.
British support for Hussein’s unstable kingdom was withdrawn after the war, while the emir’s former territory fell to the imperialistic Saud family, who set up the new kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This kingdom was far more anti-western and in favour of Islamic conservatism than Hussein had been.
Lawrence, meanwhile, died in a motorcycle crash in 1937 – but given the repercussions that the region is still experiencing from British meddling during World War One, his story remains as interesting and relevant as ever.