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Thomas Edward Lawrence: Legendary war hero and scholar

This British war hero played a key role in the Arab Revolt (1916-18). He inspired at least three films, including the classic Lawrence of Arabia (that won seven Oscars).

inspiring-lives Updated: May 25, 2020 19:00 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
As a teenager, Lawrence and schoolmate Cyril Beeson travelled on bicycles around Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire to observe monuments and old buildings and to collect data related to the structures. The duo also toured France on bicycles.
As a teenager, Lawrence and schoolmate Cyril Beeson travelled on bicycles around Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire to observe monuments and old buildings and to collect data related to the structures. The duo also toured France on bicycles.(Illustration: Unnikrishnan A V)

Born on August 16, 1888 to Sarah Junner and Thomas Chapman in Wales, United Kingdom, Thomas Edward Lawrence was 6-8 years old when his family shifted base many times before they settled down at Polstead Road, Oxford. He attended the City of Oxford High School for Boys till 1907 and the Jesus College of Oxford till 1910.

Love for history

As a teenager, Lawrence and schoolmate Cyril Beeson travelled on bicycles around Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire to observe monuments and old buildings and to collect data related to the structures. The duo also toured France on bicycles. In 1909, Lawrence went on a walking tour of crusader castles in Ottoman, Syria, during which he covered around 1,600 km. Lawrence wrote a college thesis titled The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture — to the end of the 12th Century’.

Archaeologist

In 1910, Lawrence seized the chance to work for the British Museum as an archaeologist in Carchemish, Syria. In 1910, he sailed to Beirut and went to Jbail where he learnt Arabic. He worked in Syria with renowned British archaeologists DG Hogarth and Charles Leonard Woolley till 1914.

Woolley and Lawrence were co-opted into the British army project for a survey of the Negev desert. They explored an area known in the Bible as the Wilderness of Zin and published a report that contained findings that focused on features relevant to military’s water sources.

Military service

Soon after the start of the World War-I, Lawrence was commissioned as the second lieutenant. In December that year, he was posted in Cairo, Egypt. The situation got intense in 1915, as there was a nationalist movement in the Arabic-speaking Ottoman territories.

In 1916, he was sent as a liaison officer to be part of the Great Arab Revolt. He interviewed Arab leader Sharif Hussein’s sons — Ali, Abdullah and Emir Faisal and figured out that Faisal was the best candidate to lead the revolution.

Faisal was keen to lead the attacks against the Ottomans but Lawrence persuaded him to drop the idea. They adopted guerrilla tactics to save Medina (Islam’s second holiest site) from capture by the Ottoman fighters. In 1917, Lawrence planned joint action and attacked the key port town of Aqaba. With the help of the Arabs, the fighters led by Lawrence and Faisal notched up victories over the Ottomans to capture Aqaba. Lawrence travelled towards Damascus and convinced the nationalists to delay their revolt till Faisal’s forces could reach them. In 1918, he was involved in the capture of Damascus and helped install Faisal as the king of the provisional Arab government.

RETURN TO BRITAIN

After the war, Lawrence returned to the UK as a colonel and was shifted to the Foreign Office. In 1922, he was enlisted in the Royal Air Force. In 1925, he joined the Royal Tank Corps and from 1926 to 1928 was posted in Karachi, then part of British India. In March 1935, he left official service and died on May 19, 1935 in a road mishap.

Interesting facts

Describing the greatness of TE Lawrence, Gen. E Allenby, British commander in the Middle East during World War I, said: “There is no other man I know who could have achieved what Lawrence did.”

While Lawrence played a prominent role as military strategist during the Arab War, the most remarkable part of that achievement was that it was done without any military training in that aspect.

Lawrence’s memoirs about the Arab Revolt, titled Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is still being sold over a century since its publication. Another of his books, The Mint, was about his service in the Royal Air Force.

In 1921, Lawrence was appointed as an advisor on Arab affairs by Winston Churchill, who then held the post of colonial secretary and later went on to become the British prime minister

Lawrence had a passion for motorcycles and owned as many as eight Brough Superior motorbikes. He died in a mishap he was driving his motorbike and had to suddenly swerved to save two boys on the road.

Sources: History.com, Wikipedia, BBC History

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