Real Men of Genius talks to an extraordinary man, an iconic 20th century figure who, despite the fact that he was essentially an amateur soldier, had an enormous impact on the outcome of World War I.
In 1914 Lawrence volunteered for service and in 1916, when there was an Arab revolt, there was a dramatic shift of events that shot him into the public glare.
Although he had no military experience before the war, that may have been an advantage to him in the desert campaign because he had no preconceived ideas about how matters should be planned.
He did, however, have the advantage of knowing the tribes and the territory. He was enormously intelligent and able to devise his own ideas about guerrilla warfare. Hence he became known as Lawrence of Arabia.
You were born in Wales in 1888. What can you tell us of your early life?
My mother, Sarah Lawrence, was nanny and governess to Sir Thomas Chapman. They had an affair, set up home as Mr and Mrs Lawrence, and had five sons of whom I, Thomas Edward, was the second.
At some time we moved to Oxford and I went to the High School there. I went up to Jesus College, Oxford, in 1907.
You had an interest in castles?
Yes. I spent two summers studying them in France before going up to Jesus College. Whilst at Oxford, I continued my study of medieval castles and went back to France for two further summers.
In 1909 I extended this to a walking tour through Syria to look at some of the surviving crusader castles.
My thesis was called: The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture, and its premises was that eastern developments had influenced castle building in Europe rather than the converse.
And for that work you were awarded a first. What came next?
I went on an archaeological dig in Syria for the British Museum, and over the next few years worked in the Middle East which included parts of the Ottoman Empire.
The knowledge you gained there would be of use to you when Britain was at war with the Ottoman Empire?
I gained a strong knowledge of Arabic. In 1914 I was invited with my colleague, Leonard Woolley, to join a survey of the Sinai Peninsula.
Again, I was able to build some experience of military planning.
War broke out in 1914 and the Ottoman Empire entered on Germany’s side?
I was already working as a civilian in the War Office but I
was placed on the special list as a 2nd lieutenant.
For the next two years I worked in Cairo in the general intelligence section.
Because of the language skills I had obtained and
information I had picked up about the tribes, it became part of my task to
I was able to gather much information about the state of the Ottoman troops in that way.
Then came the Arab revolt?
Yes, and it was rumoured that Ottoman forces were getting ready to launch a major offensive to put down the revolt. Things weren’t looking so good for the Arabs.
I was sent to Arabia to assess the situation and helped them
coordinate their operations.
This led to attacks on the Hejaz railway and consumed the time of the Ottoman army who were forever carrying out repairs.
But a state of Arabia was not to be?
No, an agreement took place in 1916 to divide up the Ottoman Empire, and it became important to create an Arab state.
Aqaba, although lightly defended, was strategically placed. We took them by surprise with an overland approach, first overrunning outlying garrisons.
I crossed Sinai, reached Suez and then on to Cairo where I found that General Allenby was now in command. I received his backing and further equipment and weapons.
By 1917 there was some disharmony?
There was. The
Russians had disclosed details of the proposed division of the Ottoman
This was compounded by Balfour’s announcement of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
I tried my utmost to reassure the Arab leaders but they were understandably upset. A speech by Woodrow Wilson went some way to reassuring them.
We then experimented by using armoured cars to carry out raids on the Hejaz railway.
Tafila was an important wheat growing area near the Dead Sea, and an Arab force captured that in January 1918, as I understand it?
Difficulties arose when a Turkish brigade marched from Kerek to retake it. They had a force of around 1,000, mountain guns and machine guns. I and 600 tribesmen were there to face them.
At one stage, they seemed certain to retake the town but by use of flanking moves and a frontal attack, the Turks gave up and fled.
For that you were awarded the Distinguished Service order and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Then it was on to Damascus?
Before the main offensive, we carried out a number of attacks on the railway supported by armoured cars.
By the time of the final assault, I and my troops had cut the main railway line and Turkish troops were beginning to retreat. Ottoman power in what is now called Syria crumbled.
We were joined by others and Turkish troops began surrendering in their thousands.
By the time I reached Damascus, it had fallen and I was
physically and emotionally exhausted.
The streets were in disorder and essential services were almost non-existent.
Then there was the Sykes-Picot agreement?
That is what I would call the “carving-up” agreement. General Allenby informed Feisal that Syria would be governed by the French and he would not be allowed to become king.
That was gravely disappointing for Feisal and for me. I secured Allenby’s agreement to allow me to
leave Damascus the following day.
Although I had entered Cairo as a lieutenant and left as a full Colonel, the outcome was enormously disappointing for me.
I later wrote that I had seen my dreams puffed out like candles in the strong wind of success.
After the war, and after more than one attempt, you enlisted in the RAF. Why was that?
I had longed for a more private life and I enlisted under the name of Shaw. I worked on literary projects which included Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
I began work on The Mint, a memoir of my life in the RAF. I also completed a translation of Homer’s Odyssey.
You liked speed and flying, didn’t you?
During the 1920s and 1930s I owned a series of Brough motor cycles. Driving them was what I have described as “voluntary danger”. Although I made many aerial trips, I never learned to fly.
When did you retire from the RAF?
That was in 1935. I had earlier bought a cottage at Clouds Hill in Dorset. On 13 May of that year whilst travelling from Bovington Camp to Clouds Hill I was involved in a motor cycle accident and sustained fatal injuries.
I am touched to say that after my death my brother received a telegram from King George V which read: Your brother’s name will live in history and the king gratefully recognises his distinguished services to his country and feels that it is tragic that the end should have come in this manner to a life so full of promise.
I was 46 years old at the time of my death.
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