- James Houser
May 19, 1935 - The Death of T.E. Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia"
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 19, 1935. A middle-aged man in an English hospital succumbs to his injuries from a motorcycle accident. So perishes Colonel T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” the legendary British officer who helped lead the Arab rebels to victory in World War I. A complex, tragic, and timeless figure, Lawrence’s achievements belied his sensitive, restless, and melancholy personality. One of the most iconic figures of the 20th Century is gone.
Thomas Edward Lawrence had humble beginnings. His father had, not to put too fine a point on it, knocked up his children’s babysitter and then ran off with her, leaving his family in Ireland. The cohabiting couple never married and adopted the surname Lawrence to stay off the grid. They had five sons, of which Thomas was the second, and lived quietly in southern England. It was well-known that the Lawrence children were bastards, and would always be relative outcasts looked down upon by society. There is evidence that Thomas’s mother was quite abusive to her young sons.
Young Thomas developed an interest in archaeology, cycling around England to take rubbings of monuments and church dedications, and somehow found his way to France to do the same. This teenage interest led him to a history degree at Oxford, and a lifetime of interest in the exotic and unusual. 1909 found him on a three-month walking tour of Crusader castles in Ottoman-ruled Syria, and by 1910 he was a practicing archaeologist in Lebanon and Syria, where he learned extensive Arabic and took part on multiple British Museum excavations.
Lawrence’s first involvement with British government service came in January 1914, when he was hired to search for Biblical ruins in the Negev Desert in Palestine. This was a cover for his real mission – to map the Negev and Sinai in preparation for a war with the Ottoman Empire, who still controlled the Middle East. He did not know it, but in three years Lawrence would cross the Negev again under very different circumstances.
When World War I broke out, Britain and the Ottoman Empire found themselves locked in a struggle over the Middle East, and Lawrence’s archaeological career therefore found itself in a bind. At the recommendation of his fellow researchers, Lawrence joined the British Army and was selected as part of the Arab Bureau, an intelligence team in Cairo. Lawrence’s expertise in Arabic, knowledge of the region, and enormous intelligence made him a valuable asset to British intelligence services confronted with the problem of war with the Ottomans.
Lawrence, 27 years old, was an unusual and divisive figure with his new coworkers. He was most unlike typical British officers. He had little sense of propriety and was often unkempt and ill-dressed. He was an amateur soldier with no military experience, but he held very strong opinions and was obviously brilliant. His fellow officers regarded him as arrogant and headstrong, yet also withdrawn and melancholy. As a rough-edged egghead adventurer and a half-Irish bastard to boot, he was simply not part of their “set.”
Already T.E. Lawrence was a complex and enigmatic figure. He never married, and strong evidence suggests he never had a romantic relationship with anyone, male or female. Though rumors persist of intimacy with men, his friends thought he was asexual. He had a towering intellect, amazing physical stamina and a gift for languages and customs. Most overpowering, though, was his restlessness. Lawrence could never be content; he could never sit still or be satisfied, even at his peak of fame and glory. He was always searching for something.
In 1915, the situation in the Ottoman Empire was growing complex. The rise of Arab nationalism within the Empire sought to break away and found an independent Arab kingdom, and many of these groups looked towards Sharif Hussein, the Emir of Mecca, as their natural leader. While Hussein acknowledged the Ottoman Sultan as his overlord in public, in secret he was negotiating with the British. The Allies had just failed in their attack on Gallipoli and were looking for a way to weaken the Ottoman Empire, and Hussein’s revolt seemed like just the thing.
The problem for the British was Hussein’s condition: a British guarantee of an independent Arab kingdom to include Iraq, Syria, and Mecca. While the British officials in Cairo agreed, this would get them into trouble – they had secretly promised their ally France that they could have Syria after the war. When push came to shove, there was no way they would back the Arab tribes over France.
The Arab Revolt began in 1916, but quickly ran into real resistance from the Ottoman Army. The Ottomans started to counterattack, and they were in danger of seizing Mecca itself. As the Arab Revolt faced defeat, British high command decided to send Lawrence as a temporary liaison to join Hussein and see what he could do to lend a hand. The British had unknowingly made one of the best human resources decisions in modern history: Lawrence would prove to be not just the best man for the job, but the absolute linchpin of the Arab Revolt.
When Lawrence arrived in Arabia to work with the Arabs, he realized that Sharif Hussein’s son Faisal was the best natural leader among the Arab dynasty. On Lawrence’s recommendation, the British backed Faisal, and after a few months Sharif Hussein had grown so attached to Lawrence he regarded him as one of his sons. Lawrence and Faisal soon began to strategize the Arab Revolt.
It was Lawrence who encouraged the Arabs to stop confronting the Ottomans directly and instead use their superior mobility across the desert to strike at the railways and supply lines. A large Ottoman force still occupied Medina; rather than directly attack it like the Arabs wanted, Lawrence convinced them to surround the enemy and destroy the railroads to starve them out. Even if the Ottomans didn’t surrender, they would be useless since they could go nowhere without supplies. Lawrence’s strategy worked; the Arabs pushed northwards, and all the Ottoman force at Medina could do was watch.
Soon Lawrence was personally leading the Bedouin in guerrilla raids across the Arabian desert. He had never received real training in tactics, strategy, or military theory, but relied on his knowledge of history and classics to develop his art of war. He became completely accustomed to Arab tradition and culture, dressing in full desert garb and leading the Bedouin on horseback in lightning raids across the desert to strike the railroads and overwhelm small forces.
In 1917, Lawrence and Faisal both learned about the secret British agreement to hand over Syria to the French. They decided that the only way to stop this from happening was to take Syria before the Allied ground forces did. Lawrence was acting against his own government’s interest, but he regarded the agreement as a betrayal and believed the Arabs deserved their independent existence. With this in mind, Lawrence and Faisal changed their strategy from guerrilla contest to outright war.
In May 1917, Lawrence led a two-month expedition over the sands of the Negev Desert to strike the port city of Aqaba on the Red Sea, which would link the Arabs to the British supplies they needed. The long and perilous journey across the desert was brought safe by Lawrence, as he had surveyed it three years before. His surprise attack on Aqaba caught the Turkish defenders by surprise and the city fell on the same day.
With the linkup between the Arab revolt and the British forces complete, their strategies worked in sync. British forces under General Allenby advanced up the Mediterranean coast of Palestine as the Arab forces under Faisal and Lawrence constantly slashed and raided across the open deserts at the Ottoman rear. Lawrence was a brilliant leader both in his plans and in person, and drew Ottoman forces into ambush after ambush. He struck railways, destroyed depots, and blew up bridges with his force of Arab irregulars, at one point blowing up a train personally. He personally rode 300 miles through the desert along the Syrian frontier, contacting Arab guerrilla forces and linking them into the broader strategy.
Lawrence was immensely valuable to the British, providing a permanent link between their strategy and the Arab movement. By summer 1918, the Ottomans offered a $2,000,000 reward for Lawrence’s capture, but no Arab ever tried to betray him due to the protection of Sharif Hussein. He was the most dangerous man in the Middle East.
In November 1917, his journeys finally caught up with him; Lawrence was temporarily captured by some Turkish officers near Dera’a. In this incident, he reported that he was tortured and sexually assaulted by the local military chief, with little detail but what actually happened can be imagined. Most of his biographers believe this incident had a lasting impact on his behavior after the war, which grew more erratic and eccentric as the years dragged on.
Near the end of the war, Lawrence led his Arab allies on the race to Damascus, trying to reach it ahead of the Allies so that the dream of an independent Arabia could be realized. Though they won the race, the dream was not to be. Lawrence helped Faisal establish an independent Arab government in Damascus, which had been the historical capital of the Caliphate in the 7th Century; by 1920, however, the French drove Faisal out and claimed Syria for their own. The treachery had borne fruit, despite all Lawrence’s efforts.
Lawrence continued to advocate for the Arabs, but the war was over. He emerged from Arabia a world hero; unbeknownst to him, photos, film footage and journalists’ accounts of his exploits had spread the legend far and wide. He was now “Lawrence of Arabia,” one of the great romantic heroes of a very unromantic World War I.
Lawrence’s career after the war, though, is almost as unusual as his exploits during. As a full Colonel after the war, he worked in the foreign office as an advisor for Winston Churchill, but hated office jobs and moved on. He travelled frequently back to the Middle East as an advisor for the British government, campaigning extensively for his old Arab allies to gain their independence from European imperialism. He made lots of enemies in France, as they scapegoated him for their continued problems with Faisal and Syria. Lawrence grew sick of the politics and quit the Foreign Office. He moved on.
In 1919, Lawrence was sponsored by Oxford to write a book about his experiences. The result, the epic “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” published in 1926, was both memoir and essay on Islam and Arab culture. Though some of Lawrence’s stories have been disproved by dedicated biographers, it still became a hallmark of adventure reading and Orientalist literature. Lawrence refused to take any money from the sale of the work, though, leaving him poorer than when he started it. Lawrence moved on.
In 1922, Lawrence took an assumed name and enlisted in the Royal Air Force as a pilot, only to be discovered in 1923 and discharged. Once again hiding behind the name “T.E. Shaw,” he joined the Royal Tank Corps, but soon quit this and joined the Air Force again. He became an unwilling publicity point for the RAF, and got himself stationed across India in the 1920s to get away from the fame. He refused any promotion, and seemed content to spend his free time off duty boating and riding his motorcycle. He claimed he was happy, but in March 1935 his enlistment ended and Lawrence once again moved on.
Restlessness plagued Lawrence of Arabia. He seemed like a man uncomfortable in his own skin at times. He corresponded with Churchill, Joseph Conrad, and George Bernard Shaw; the whole world knew his face, but he seemed always alone. He could never remain in one place, with one person, in one experience. An abused bastard child, he was of the world but could not be in it.
The restless wanderer came to the end of his journey on May 19, 1935. Riding his motorcycle through Dorset, he swerved to avoid hitting two young boys on their bicycles, was thrown over the handlebars, and suffered a fatal head injury. He died six days later at the hospital, and is buried today at St. Nicholas’ Church in Moreton.
Lawrence is perhaps best known today from the epic film (one of the greatest of all time on many critics’ list) “Lawrence of Arabia,” starring Peter O’Toole, 1962 Academy Award winner for Best Picture and Best Director. That being said, there’s no telling what he would have thought of it. That, and so much else, stays a mystery.