Welcome to 'Lost in the Myths of History'

It often seems that many prominent people of the past are wronged by often-repeated descriptions, which in time are taken as truth. The same is also true of events, which are frequently presented in a particular way when there might be many alternative viewpoints. This blog is intended to present a different perspective on those who have often been lost in the myths of history.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

T.E. Lawrence: More Than Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born illegitimately in Wales in 1888 to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, who had previously worked at the Chapman home. As the two started living together, they took on the name Lawrence. Thomas Edward was the 2nd of 5 sons and was known affectionately by his nickname: Ned.

The family settled in Oxford by 1896 and the boys attended school there. Ned went on to study history at Jesus College, Oxford. At this time, he produced his thesis on the Crusader Castles, which included a long walking tour of both Syria and Palestine. After his graduation, he worked as an assistant at the British Museum’s excavation site at Carchemish. From 1910-1914 he helped with photography and pottery from the archaeological site. He was also in charge of directing and motivating the local workers – most of them Arab villagers. He clearly understood the life, the culture, the traditions and the language of the Arab people. These skills would prove extremely valuable for his later experiences in the war.

When war broke out in 1914, he was posted at the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo. It was during this time that he gained facts on the Arab nationalist movements against Turkish imperial rule. Both the British and Arabs were impressed with his reports and rapport, that he was given a role as a British liaison officer in the Arab Revolt. He served alongside Emir Feisal, one of Sherif Hussein’s son’s and leader of the Arab forces. During the revolt Lawrence helped devise strategies, plan guerrilla warfare, and sabotage parts of the Hedjaz Railway to stop supplies to the Turkish forces at Medina. By July 1916, with Lawrence’s help, the Arabs managed to overtake a major stronghold at Akaba. After that point, Lawrence’s role became increasingly important and the whole campaign eventually stopped when they captured Damascus and defeated the Turkish armies.

After the war, Lawrence returned home and became involved in the cause for Arab independence. He was at the Paris Peace Conference and continued to work alongside Emir Feisal. Despite his genuine and passionate efforts, the French imperialists and the British Government of India eventually won out. Iraq, Syria, and Palestine were all in essence, given up to France and Britain. Lawrence left disenfranchised, unhappy and returned to England. Many people became aware of his activities through the journalist, Lowell Thomas. He created travelogues which featured Lawrence and many people considered him a hero. He used this fame to further the cause of Arab independence. During this time, he also began work on his book which told of his involvement in the war and entitled it: “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. It stands today as a classic, and (checked against other sources) still continues to be a very accurate picture of his involvement in the Arab cause.

After his war-time experiences, involvement in politics and book writing, he teetered on the edge of a breakdown. He then enlisted under an assumed name in the RAF. After a few months he was discovered by the press and discharged. He felt the only way he could continue to live was to be a private person serving in the ranks. Almost immediately, he found himself (with the help of friends) in the Tank Corps as “Thomas Edward Shaw”. Eventually he was able to transfer back to the RAF and in, 1926 took a position in India to be away from the press. At this time his book, "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom", and an abridgement, "Revolt in the Desert", were published and well received. Shortly after this, he wrote another book, “The Mint” which spoke of his experiences in the RAF and was published after his death, due to the harsh and true judgment accorded to the RAF in the book. He also completed a notable translation of Homer’s "The Odyssey". During this time he also kept up massive correspondence with many people including, George Bernard and Charlotte Shaw, Robert Graves, Winston Churchill, E.M. Forester, Siegfried Sassoon, John Buchan, Augustus John and many others. Among other things, he truly was a “man of letters”. There are whole books devoted to just his correspondence.

In 1928, he was sent back to England by the RAF where he was stationed in Plymouth to a flying-boat unit. He became very interested and committed to his new station in life and actively planned for the development and advancement of these crafts. Year later, when WWII came to pass, the RAF maintained a huge fleet of high speed launches, which saved many lives in rescue missions. In 1935 his enlistment ended and he planned to retire to his home in Dorset, called Clouds Hill. He had thoughts of starting a private press to produce his book: "The Mint". Unfortunately, none of this came to pass. Lawrence, a keen motorcyclist, was running an errand and swerved to miss two bicyclists and was thrown from his motorcycle. He was struck with severe head injuries and died days later in the hospital.

Lawrence was a man of many talents and accomplished many things in his short period of life. Even when he experienced depression and self-doubt, he was always very generous with his friends, helped them in their endeavors and was keen to ask their advice. He believed in the importance of being genuine, showing humility and striving for excellence in whatever field he found himself working in. A quiet hero, who seemed to want nothing more than to finally retire and live out a quiet life in his small English cottage……a hero that never really got his final wish.


Christina said...

Fascinating, Val! Thank you! I saw the film 'Lawrence of Arabia' when I was a small child and didn't understand any of it so never bothered to find out anymore about him. Thank you for showing that he was far more interesting than the film was!! :-)

Matterhorn said...

Christina's comment made me smile, because I had the exact same experience:) Thank you for the lovely article, Val!

Val said...

Thank you, both! While I became interested in him through the film...I found out that his real life experiences were much more interesting. Sometimes truth really is stranger (or more fascinating!) than fiction :-)