Lawrence of Arabia
Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888 – 1935) was the fifth illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman, a married baronet who left his family for his daughters’ governance, Lawrence’s mother. Assuming the mother’s surname, the couple lived together and raised a family as “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence”, without marrying. They eventually settled in Oxford, where Thomas Edward, who preferred going by his initials T.E., attended college.
Lawrence was a history buff from early on, with a particular fondness for Medieval and military architecture. He also loved traveling, so he combined his two interests by spending much of his youth exploring old churches and castles. He traveled to France to study Medieval fortifications, and to Syria and Palestine to study Crusader castles. He submitted a thesis on the subject that earned him a history degree with honors from Oxford, in 1910.
He then secured a traveling fellowship and joined an archaeological expedition that excavated Hittite settlements on the Euphrates, from 1911 to 1914. In his free time, he traveled around the Middle East, getting to know the region and its people. The lands in which he worked and traveled was part of the Ottoman Empire, of whose leanings in case of a general European war the British were unsure. So Lawrence, under the guise of scholarly pursuits, also undertook map-making reconnaissance missions in Ottoman territories, whose results proved extremely valuable in WWI.
When that conflict began in 1914, T.E. Lawrence joined the British War Office as a civilian employee, tasked with preparing militarily useful maps of the Middle East. Sent to Cairo, his knowledge of the region and fluency in Arabic proved valuable to the war effort. He interviewed Turkish POWs and agents operating behind enemy lines, and gained considerable knowledge of Turkish military positions and strengths.
In 1916, he was sent to Arabia, where Hussein ibn Ali, the ruler of Mecca and the surrounding region, had raised an Arab revolt against his Turkish overlords. Lawrence urged his superiors to back the Arabs, and make use of their aspirations for independence to further the British war effort. His advice was heeded, and Lawrence joined the Arab Revolt as a political and liaison officer. That was when his legend took off, and he was transformed from T.E. Lawrence to Lawrence of Arabia.
Lawrence helped organize the Arab tribesmen into an effective guerrilla force that operated behind Turkish lines in hit and run attacks that blew up vital rail lines, destroyed bridges, and raided enemy supplies. Lawrence, the historian, archaeologist, and scholar, discovered a knack for guerrilla warfare. Between setting an example with his own courage when the tribesmen’s spirits flagged, and bribing their cynical leaders with gold when they lost heart, he kept the rebellion going.
In November of 1917, he was captured by the Turks while spying out one of their positions in Arab garb. His captors flogged, tortured, and sodomized him before he managed to escape. The experience left physical scars, as well as psychic wounds that never healed. It did not stop him from returning to the revolt, however. With his assistance, the Arab forces discomfited the Turks, tied down a significant part of their military strength behind the lines in security operations, and helped bring about final Turkish defeat.
After the war, the Allies betrayed the Arabs, and reneged on their promises of independence, carving up most of the Middle East amongst themselves instead. Disillusioned, Lawrence returned to Britain, where he lobbied in vain for Arab independence. He also wrote his memoirs, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which flew off the bookshelves, becoming an international best seller and transforming Lawrence, already famous, into a bona fide legend. He sought to escape the public glare by enlisting under an assumed name as an ordinary airman in the RAF, and then as a private soldier in the British Army, from 1922 to 1935. He left the service in 1935, planning an early retirement to his dream home, only to die soon thereafter in a motorcycle accident.