The story of Lawrence of Arabia is one of the Great War’s most enduring legends. It’s Indiana Jones but for real – shy archaeologist excavating crusader castles in Arabia turns guerrilla leader (on behalf of the British Empire) inspiring Arab rebels to overthrow their evil Turkish masters.
And in doing so, of course, helping to knock Germany’s chief ally out of the war…
The Arab revolt (which began on June 5th 1916) was a long, bitter campaign fought under a variety of commands. Lawrence himself was just one of many British and French military personnel sent to assist the revolt.
His appeal seems to stem from his decision to ‘go native’. Often pictured not only wearing a keffiyeh (headdress) but also an ornate besht (gown) given to him by Prince Faisal, Lawrence – who spoke fluent Arabic – became convinced that he was genuinely advancing the cause of Arab freedom.
After the war he attended the Paris Peace Conference still clinging to the belief that what he’d done would lead to Arab self-rule. But it was not to be. The Sykes-Picot agreement had already divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire between the British and the French.
Lawrence ended the war holding the rank of Lt. Colonel. But, disillusioned with the outcome at Versailles, and in an effort to withdraw from public life he re-enlisted – twice – under an assumed name, serving as either a private soldier in the army or a humble aircraftsman in the recently-formed RAF. He retired to his cottage – Clouds Hill, in Dorset – in 1935 but was killed while riding his Brough Superior motorbike a few months later, on 19th May. He was just 46.
If your image of T.E.Lawrence is Peter O’Toole in dazzling white headdress, blue eyes burning, hands blood-soaked from another mass slaughter then the facts of Lawrence’s troubled post-war life and early death might be something of a disappointment. But when the legend becomes fact, print the legend as it says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And the Lawrence legend certainly lives on.