Thomas Edward Lawrence

Tremadog 1888 - Wareham 1935

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in a Welsh town by Sir Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, Anglo-Irish gentleman, and Sarah Lawrence, a Scottish housekeeper. For her, Sir Thomas abandoned wife and four daughters, often changing their residence, until they moved to Oxford. From the couple, who could never marry and then adopted Sarah's surname, five children were born.     

From 1896 to 1907 Thomas Edward attended the City of Oxford High School. Smart student, he was attracted to archeology, history, publishing and adventurous travel. In 1907 he entered Oxford's Jesus College and devoted himself to the study of fortifications and medieval castles. The Middle East and the study of Arabia became his great passion. In 1910 he received an assignment concerning the archaeological excavations managed in Syria by the British Museum, becoming a profound knowledge of the customs and traditions of the place. In January 1914, for the first time, he entered in contact with military espionage.

When the war broke out, he returned to England. Here he began his work at the Military Staff's mapping service at the London War Department, first as a civilian, then as a lieutenant. In December 1914 he began collaborating with secret services, then leaving for Egypt. Over the next two years, Lawrence carried out various assignments, including questioning prisoners of war, drawing up profiles of Ottoman military and political leaders and relations about the territories of the Empire.

In 1916, he was sent to Hejaz, today Saudi Arabia, where the Arab Revolt broke out in June. Hussein Shaker of Mecca had in fact decided to rise against the Ottoman authorities, entrusting the command of Arab troops to his sons. The army was divided into contingents, led by the Alī, Abdullah, Feisal, and Zeid emirates, who told General Fakhri Pasha, Turkish commander in Medina, that the Arabs wanted to break away from the Ottoman Empire. After winning the port city of Gidda, allied forces could land in aid of the rebels.

Lawrence's only desire was to get into the field. On 15 October 1916, he finally reached Gidda from Egypt to evaluate the Arab military condition. On  23 October, he met Feisal for the first time, eager for the presence of the Turkish forces of Fakhri Pasha in Medina, who were trying to retake lost port cities. Lawrence, returned to Cairo, urged reinforcements for Feisal, then returning to Arabia as liaison officer. He decided to set up an advanced aviation field for the Royal Flying Corps flights based on Yanbu: it was on this occasion that Feisal gave him Arabian clothes, then always worn by Lawrence in combat. On January 24, 1917, the Arab army conquered Wejh, the last port in the Hejaz region, which remained in the Ottoman hand. Now the Arabs were close to the railroad, the main Turkish supply line: attacking it meant preventing the arrival of supplies and men in Medina. In the following months, there were numerous raids conducted by Lawrence and his opponents of the railroad, aimed at creating the greatest possible damage to the Turks, but soon became the target of the Arab forces also the telegraph line, bridges, stations and piezometric towers.

In the summer of 1917, Lawrence led the glorious march to Aqaba, the last Red Sea port to be still in Ottoman rule. Raised forces by local tribes, began the action. A Turkish battalion, camped with Aba al-Lissan, prevented him from advancing towards the goal, but, surprisingly, it disbanded and lost many men. After having overcome other peripheral contingents and after various negotiation attempts, on July 6, the Turkish commander of Aqaba finally capitulated. Lawrence was promoted greater, but the revolt underwent a new period of stasis.

Between September and October, he led an unprecedented series of attacks on the railroad, causing considerable damage. In the night between 7 and 8 November, he attempted to blow up the westernmost bridge in Yarmuk Valley, but the initiative failed and he returned to Aqaba, then going to Jerusalem, which was conquered by British troops on 9 December 1917. On 16 January 1918, an Arab unit took Tafila, on the hills in the Northeast of the Dead Sea. The Turks immediately sought to regain it, but on 25 January Lawrence drove his men into a frontal attack, forcing the enemies to escape. The following months were characterized by a series of failures, until 19 September, after isolating Dera'a, he began an offensive that undermined the Turks' cohesion and led them to leave the city. By the end of October, Ottoman power in Syria went weakening.

Lawrence faced Turkish troops, who surrendered to thousands when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. It asked for peace after the fall of Megiddo, Damascus, Aleppo, and obtained the armistice on 31 October. War in the Middle East could be concluded.

In 1919, the territories of the Ottoman Empire were divided between Britain and France. Lawrence, using his war diaries, began writing his own memoirs, published under the title The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In June he began working as a researcher for All Souls College in Oxford and everywhere he spread his legend, thanks to the performances of Lowell Thomas. He preferred to retire to private life and in 1922 he enrolled voluntarily in the Royal Air Force under the name of J.H. Ross. Discovered by the press, he left the RAF. In 1923 he entered the Armoured Corps as T.E. Shaw, but in 1925 he returned to the RAF and remained there as an airman until his retirement in 1935. On May 13 of the same year, while returning from Bovington Camp to Clouds Hill, where he lived, he had a motorcycle accident, serious head injuries. He died on 19 May 1935.

 

Bibliography

Corni Gustavo, Fimiani Enzo, Dizionario della Grande Guerra, L’Aquila, Textus Edizioni, 2014

Murphy David, Lawrence d’Arabia, Gorizia, Libreria Editrice Goriziana, 2014