Getting to Know T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia” (1888-1935)

The book Selected Letters of T.E. Lawrence, discussed here, is more revealing of his character than is his most famous work, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

He also wrote and published The Mint during his subsequent service as an ordinary airman in the newly-formed British Air Force (1918). TEL preferred to be known upon entering the military service, first as “A/c (aircraftman) Ross,” then, finally, T.E. Shaw. (He had been in the diplomatic service, not the military,  during his Arabian days).

He lived like a monk in many respects. He abstained from sex, engaged in self-flagellation (he had at least one male friend flagellate him, during a limited period), deprived himself of all comforts except for recorded classical music and endless reading, drove himself in his work beyond the capabilities of most men, denied his own talents to others, engaged constantly in self-deprecation and tended toward depression, often contemplating death.

After his Arabian days, which lasted around two years, he continued government service as an aide to Winston Churchill. As Secretary of State for the Colonies (1921-1922) Churchill played a large role in determining the fate of the territories that had been detached from the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The photograph to the left shows him during the Cairo Conference (1921), walking with T. E. Lawrence. The conference was concerned with establishing the government, ethnic composition, and political boundaries of Iraq and other portions of the Middle East. ([Source].

Left to right: Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence in Egypt, after World War I. Bell and Lawrence helped to create the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan and define the outline of the modern state of Iraq.

Before entering any government service, TEL was an accomplished archaeologist, specializing in ancient crusader castles in the Middle East. He had a wide-ranging knowledge of artifacts and history, grounded originally in his education at Oxford University. He retained throughout his life the friendship and admiration of many of his classmates and fellow scholars, and inspired others to his friendship including many powerful and otherwise famous figures such as: George Bernard Shaw (no relation) and, especially, his wife Charlotte Shaw; Lady Astor, Ezra Pound, Noël Coward, Sir Edward Elgar, E. M. Forster, Robert Graves, Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Hardy (his correspondence was only with Florence Hardy), E.T. Leeds, Eric Kennington, King Hussein of the Hejaz, Sir Hugh Trenchard, Lord George Lloyd, and Gertrude Bell.

His origins were difficult. He was one of five boys born to his unmarried parents. His parents were lovers and his father left his wife to live with his new family. His parents never married and, through this and other circumstances, TEL’s family name was always uncertain—hence his changing his last name at least twice, and finally, legally, to Shaw.

Lawrence’s mother, Sarah Junner Lawrence seemed to TEL as controlling and unpleasant to be with, but he was conscientious, in his many letters to her, in buttressing her seemingly low self-confidence as she worked in China as a missionary for many years. The above link will show the origins and makeup of the Lawrence family.

After his Arabian and Foreign Office service he joined the Air Force as a common airman, wanting to be as anonymous as possible and wanting to be in touch with “real work.” He was bounced from the Air Force because of the unavoidable publicity forever following him, so he then joined the Army which he hated. He finally was reinstated in the Air Force where he designed and tested “flying boats,” creating a whole new tool of warfare.

Above is a portrait of “Colonel T.E. Lawrence,” 1919, by Augustus John. “Colonel” was a working rank granted to him while working as a diplomatic and intelligence officer, despite his not being in the military. And, it gave him status with the Arab leaders he was working with in the British effort to defeat the Ottoman Turks.

All through his military service he wrote and received many letters to and from notables of all kinds, and ordinary servicemen he had befriended over the years. He occasionally socialized with Lady Astor, the G.B. Shaws and other luminaries, always dressed as a common soldier or airman.

As his many years in the air force drew toward a close, and as he contemplated doing very little afterward, he felt more and more oppressed by the volume of letters he received, feeling a moral obligation to answer them—and answer them he did with great depth, humor and insight. But this conscientiousness took an enormous toll on him, about which he constantly complained. As he was leaving the military service he sent out postcards to all his correspondents that he would not be writing much any more.

After mustering out of the Air force in his mid-forties, feeling quite old and used up, “as a leaf fallen from a tree,” he retired to an unplumbed cottage he had purchased years before, and occasionally rode his motorcycle, when he could afford the petrol expense. He was an avid MC rider through his service days. Here he is with George Brough, the manufacturer of his bike.

He died following a crash on his motorcycle while avoiding hitting two bicyclists on the country road he was speeding down.