Author, scholar, soldier, and adventurer Thomas Edward Lawrence, perhaps best known today as Lawrence of Arabia, was born in Wales in 1888 to Sir Thomas Chapman, a minor noble, and Sarah Junner, who made Chapman's rather intimate acquaintance through her employment as governess for his four daughters. Chapman and Junner fell in love; they ran off together, settled in Oxford, adopted the surname Lawrence, and had five sons, of whom Thomas Edward (hereafter Lawrence) was the second. Lawrence himself learned of his parents' deception early, and his illegitimacy haunted him all his life. He was born a double agent, some say, expert in living a secret identity from an early age.
Lawrence, called Ned by his family, was interested in archaeology even as a child. As a young man he studied at Jesus College, Oxford and in 1910 earned a First Class Honours degree; his thesis on Crusader Castles had been informed by meticulous research and a walking tour in Palestine and Syria. After graduation he assisted in the British Museum's excavation of the Hittite city of Carchemish on the Euphrates River. His duties included managing the locally recruited workforce, thus beginning his long and sympathetic association with Arabs.
In 1914 war broke out; Lawrence returned briefly to London, and then was posted to the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo. He became an expert on Arab nationalist movements and in 1916 was sent on a mission to the Hedjaz to find out about Sherif Hussein's rebellion against Turkish imperial rule. Here Lawrence really came into his own; his reports, and his empathy with the Arabs, led to a long-term role as British liaison officer in the Arab Revolt, serving with Feisal or Faisal, one of Hussein's sons. This is the Lawrence of David Lean's epic film.
Though you might have a different impression if you've seen the movie - where Lawrence is played with fey elegance by the tall gaunt Peter O'Toole - the real Lawrence was quite short - about 5 ft. 4 in. - and rather boyish. Though able to become passionate about causes, he seems to have been unable to sustain physically intimate relationships with others, male or female; he found the whole subject of sex distasteful. He was clearly an odd man.
In any case, as is the way of such things, British and French military advisers meddled in the Hedjaz revolt, and encouraged the Arab rebels to pursue goals that furthered European interests. At first, they urged the Arabs to capture Medina and cut the railway which ran from Damascus to the Hedjaz. The British Royal Navy supported Emir Feisal's forces in moving against the Turks, but then became alarmed on learning that the Turks were about to withdraw from Medina. They were worried that the Turkish forces would be moved to the Palestinian front, blocking a British advance, so they requested that Lawrence stop the Turks from leaving Medina. Lawrence had the Arabs stage guerrilla raids on the railway which would damage it but not take it out, thus making withdrawal impossible and ensuring that soldiers and repair workers would remain in the area. His strategy was a success.
Thereafter Lawrence worked closely with Feisal and local groups to spread the revolt northward, capturing the Turkish stronghold of Wadi Itm in 1917 and then travelling four days across the Sinai Pensinsula by camel to request supplies from British headquarters. Impressed by his dedication and ability to work with Arab forces, the British made Lawrence the key link between themselves and Feisal's army. Lawrence mobilized the Arab army to cut Turkish railway and communication lines at a crucial moment, allowing the British to accomplish a final rout of the Turkish forces in the area.
Damascus captured, Lawrence returned to England. In the Middle East he had made the acquaintance of Lowell Thomas, an American journalist in search of a hero. Back in England, Thomas seized on Lawrence's story, concocting an image of a romantic hero garbed in white; he took the story on tour, capturing the public's imagination with this dramatic and romantic account of Bible-land victories. Though some considered the story too dramatic to be true, recently released British military documents substantially back it up.
In the meantime, Lawrence worked to promote the cause of Arab independence, serving in the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, working with Emir Feisal. But Britain and France were rather less enamoured of Arab independence than Lawrence was. When Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia (Iraq) became British and French mandated territories, Lawrence was bitterly disappointed. He set to work writing what became Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his book about the Arab rebellion. Meanwhile, as is the way of such things, British attempts to impose a colonial administration on Iraq provoked resentment and rebellion. Winston Churchill was appointed to the Colonial Office to find a solution; he recruited Lawrence, who was instrumental in having Emir Feisal accede to the throne of Iraq and in founding the Kingdom of Jordan.
It is said that about this time Lawrence discovered his masochistic side, and began to attend flagellation parties. In any case, believing that the most honourable solution possible had been reached, and exhausted by his efforts in the desert and thereafter, Lawrence sought refuge in the Royal Air Force, enlisting under a false name; discovered after four months, he was discharged, but he re-enlisted in the tank corps, serving from 1922 to 1925 in Dorset. Apparently he was accompanied by a hired hand whose duty was to beat him; Lawrence carried a burden of guilt with him all his life, it seems, and being punished for imagined sins was one way he expiated it.
After 1925 he worked again on Seven Pillars, supervising the revision and printing for a subscription edition, but spending so lavishly on colour portraits and maps that the book cost much more than the subscription price. Deeply in debt, Lawrence was forced to abridge the book and publish it as Revolt in the Desert. In the meantime he transferred back to the RAF and accepted a posting to India to escape the inevitable flood of press that would accompany the publishing of his books.
The books were very popular and Lawrence's loans were quickly paid off. Encouraged, in 1928 he finished The Mint, a portrayal of the brutal and unsparing training given to Air Force recruits, though it was not published until 1950 because of the RAF was concerned about damage to their reputation. In 1928 Lawrence accepted a commission to translate Homer's Odyssey, completed in 1932; also in 1928 he returned to England and was posted to a flying boat unit at Plymouth, where he became involved in a campaign to have the RAF adopt faster launches to use as rescue boats for crashes.
In 1935 Lawrence's term of enlistment came to an end and he retired to Dorset, planning to start a private press. It was not to be. That same year he was riding his motorcycle and swerved to avoid two cyclists; thrown from the bike, he sustained head injuries so severe that he never regained consciousness, and died a few days later.
If you want to know more about Lawrence, do watch David Lean's gorgeous Academy Award-winning movie "Lawrence of Arabia", bearing in mind that it at times takes liberties with truth.
For good introductions to Lawrence's life, try
For a list of Lawrence's papers and correspondence, much of which has been published, see
For a discussion of some of the many works written about Lawrence by others, see
There's an interesting, if dismissive, article on Lawrence's psychology and importance at