T E Lawrence
(also known as T E Shaw) Dorchester
1888 -1935
More popularly known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, Thomas Edward Lawrence was a scholar, archaeologist, soldier and writer.
Although he chose a ‘safe’ career as a classical scholar and archaeologist, he craved excitement which explains his love of high speed activities and dangerous exploits.
Apparently born into a wealthy, upright Victorian family the ten year old Lawrence was shocked to find out he and his brothers were illegitimate. His mother and father could not marry because Sir Thomas Chapman’s wife would not give him a divorce.
His mother, Sarah Junner had been a governess in Sir Thomas’s Irish household when she fell pregnant to him. They moved to England and set up house together in north Oxford under the name of Lawrence. This accident of birth profoundly affected Thomas leaving him with a sense of guilt and inferiority throughout his life.
Attended Jesus College, Oxford
Academically brilliant, Thomas could read and write before going to school. He won a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford and read modern history. In 1909 he spent a summer walking alone through Syria, Palestine, and parts of Turkey. He covered 1,100 miles (1,770 km) making careful notes which were later used to gain him a first-class honours degree. By 1910 he was awarded a post-graduate scholarship by Magdalen College, and appointed by the British Museum to an important archaeological dig in Syria.
Lawrence loved the Arab culture and customs. He befriended a 14-year-old water boy, Dahoum and taught him to read and write. He later dedicated his autobiography The Seven Pillars of Wisdom to Dahoum. Archaeology was losing its appeal and he wanted a change. The chance came when the First World War broke out.
During his years in Syria, Egypt and Palestine Lawrence acquired knowledge of the language and customs of the Arab people. He was assigned to British Intelligence as an Arab expert.
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Lawrence of Arabia
The Arab tribes wanted to be independent with a homeland in Syria. The British believed they could use this desire to persuade the Arabs to undertake guerrilla warfare against Germany's Ottoman ally. In 1916 Lawrence joined the forces of the Arabian sheik, Feisal al Husayn to lead this guerrilla campaign. He was very impressed with Feisal and saw him as “the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory”.
Taking on Arab costume, Lawrence, worked with Feisal to launch a full-scale revolt of the tribes. In 1916 he was captured and subjected to beatings and homosexual rape by the Turkish governor of Deraa. Though he escaped, Lawrence was shattered by the experience. ''I gave away the only possession we are born into the world with – our bodily integrity,'' he later wrote.
He never recovered from this sexual assault and confessed to his brother that he hated the thought of sex. To quell any sexual longings he would indulge in ritual floggings. Between 1925 and 1934 a trusted friend would administer these.
Extraordinarily courageous, Lawrence soon became an influential figure in the Arab forces. He formed an alliance with Auda abu Tayi, leader of the Howeitat tribe, known for his courage and brutality. Lawrence fought in the desert landscape of Wadi Rum. His guerrillas blew up sections of the vital Hejaz Railway, which carried Muslim pilgrims from Syria to holy sites, and raided Turkish positions.
During the campaigns Lawrence was wounded several times, suffering shrapnel and bullet wounds. He took the port of Aqaba in July of 1917, without firing a shot, and led his Arab forces into the desert, distracting the Turks when the British army began its invasion of Palestine and Syria.
This period of Laurence’s life earned him the epithet ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and spawned David Lean’s film of the same name.
Despite his military victories he considered himself a failure because of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which promised Syria to the French and undermined the idea of an Arab homeland in Syria. At the Paris Peace Conference Lawrence accompanied the Arab delegation as Feisal's adjutant.
Lawrence refused a Knighthood & VC
Lawrence returned to Oxford as a research fellow and from 1921-22 served at the invitation of Winston Churchill as a political adviser to the Middle East Department in the Colonial Office. Still consumed by disappointment and guilt at the betrayal of the Arabs, he resigned his post. He also refused a knighthood and the Victoria Cross.
He just wanted to escape the public adoration and notoriety that being ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ had brought. He changed his name to John Hume Ross and joined the RAF but the Press tracked him down and spilt the story and he was dismissed. He changed his name again to T E Shaw and enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps in 1923.
Still unhappy he repeatedly petitioned to rejoin the RAF. Finally they gave in and in 1925 he was admitted and posted to a remote base in British India. In 1928 he returned to England specializing in high speed boats rescuing aircraft downed in the English Channel, based at Mount Batten, Plymouth Sound.
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Motorcycle Fatal Accident
He was sorry to leave the RAF in 1935 at the end of his enlistment. By now he had bought the cottage in Dorset at Clouds Hill.
He was riding his favourite Brough Superior motorcycle at breakneck speed when he swerved to avoid two boy cyclists and crashed in a ditch. He never regained consciousness and died 6 days later in Bovington Camp Hospital. He is buried at nearby Moreton in the new graveyard.