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The Death of T.E. Lawrence

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 19 May

19th May 1935  -  On the 13th May 1935 T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was riding home from his army base at Bovington, near Wareham, in Dorset on his Brough superior SS100 motorcycle. Lawrence had owned many of these machines and this version had cost him £170 in 1932. He named them after the King Georges of England and this one was the VII. It was the fastest and most powerful bike on the market and Lawrence was pushing it to the limit around the country lanes near his house at Clouds Hill. Police estimate that he was probably doing a speed of nearly 100mph. He came around the corner and swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles. He was pitched over the handlebars and struck his head on the ground. He never regained consciousness and died in the military hospital at Bovington 6 days later. His machine, which has since sold at auction for £315,000, can now be seen at the Imperial War Museum, London. Winston Churchill, a friend of Lawrence, said on his death, “In Colonel Lawrence we have lost one of the greatest beings of our time. I had the honour of his friendship.”


Born on 16th August 1888 in Tremadoc, North Wales he was one of 5 boys. All five were born in different countries, as his parents were great travellers. This may have accounted for his own passion for travel. He contracted mumps in childhood and it is possible that this stunted his growth - he was only 5 feet 5 inches as an adult when the average height at the time was 5ft 9inches. He was reading Latin by the age of 6 and developed a love of military history. He won a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford where he read History and gained a 1st class degree. During this time he studied crusader castles and went to Syria and Palestine for the first time in 1909. Whilst there he was mugged and so badly beaten that he nearly died. He walked 1100 miles in Syria over 3 months - over mountains and through deserts - then cycled 2400 miles across France to try to get an understanding of Bedouin life and to research his work on castles. He also tested his own stamina by depriving himself of food and water for long periods. Lawrence was a vegetarian; he never smoked or drank alcohol.


In 1910 he went back to Syria to take part in an archaeological dig excavating an ancient Hittite settlement on the Euphrates River and stayed there until 1914. He learned Arabic too. Later that year he took part in an expedition to look at North Sinai under cover of a scientific expedition. The maps made by this team had a great impact upon the outbreak of war between Britain and the Ottoman Empire. When the First World War started he became an intelligence officer stationed in Cairo processing information.


The Arabs revolted against their occupiers, Turkey, in 1916. Turkey was an ally of Germany and Lawrence argued that the British should support this revolt because it would take Turkish troops away from supporting the war effort and destabilise them. He travelled to Arabia and met Hussein ibn Ali, the emir of Mecca. He joined the army of Hussein’s son, Faisal, as a liaison officer and lived the life of an Arab, dressing as a Bedouin.


Lawrence was a superb tactician and had a great understanding of guerrilla warfare. Arabian forces were united and in June 1917 they captured Aqaba, a key Red Sea port. They also attacked many lines of communication of the Turkish forces, which prevented them from fighting against the Allied forces under General Edward Allenby. He joined the march on Jerusalem and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. However he was captured at De’ra in 1917 and tortured as well as sexually abused. These scars were to last a lifetime. Due to the great care to which the British government went to keep his identity a secret he was never recognised by his captors and managed to escape, re-joining the army for the push to Damascus, which fell in October 1918.


He returned to London after the war but had hoped that the actions during the war would lead to Arab self-rule. He appeared at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 dressed as an Arab and lobbied hard for Arab independence. However the British and French had already agreed on the future of Turkey’s Arab lands and it came to nothing. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Order of the Bath by George V but went to see him to explain that he could not accept either award.


It was during this period in his life that he wrote his book about his time during the war called the 7 Pillars of Wisdom, a name he was going to use for an earlier book about the 7 great Middle Eastern cities, taken from the Book of Proverbs. The first draft was 250,000 words long, called Text I. Unfortunately when changing trains at Reading he lost his briefcase and despite a public search using the national press the draft was never found. He set about re-writing the entire book, Text II, but had to rely on his memory as he had destroyed his notes. This took him 3 months and was 400,000 words long. The process nearly killed him. The book’s dedication, “To S.A.” has caused a lot of interest over the years. The dedication, a poem edited by his friend Robert Graves, might have been to a young Arab boy, Selim Ahmed, who died at the age of 19 from Typhus just before the defeat of Damascus.


Disillusioned after the failure of Arab self-rule he returned to England where the U.S. journalist Lowell Thomas made him famous. He became a well-known celebrity but was very uncomfortable with this status. Lawrence worked for a time with Churchill in the Colonial Office in 1921 but resigned a year later to take up a post with the R.A.F. and seek the anonymity he craved. He took the assumed name John Hume Ross. However the press found out so he then enlisted in the Royal Tank Regiment under the name T.E. Shaw. He re-joined the R.A.F. in 1929 and spent the next few years as a mechanic before being discharged and returning to his home in Dorset where he worked again at Bovington. His house there was a tiny two up, two down forester’s cottage now owned by the National Trust. One room upstairs, the bunkroom, was lined with tin foil to help with the damp proofing. It was back to this cottage that he was driving when he crashed on the country road.


In 1962 David Lean produced a film, Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole that won 7 Oscars, including that of Best Picture. Lord Allenby said of him that, “He was a shy and retiring scholar, archaeologist and philosopher swept by the tide of war into a position undreamt of. He had a genius for leadership. Above all he had no regard for ambition but did his duty as he saw it.” 

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