You’d expect the alumni of the Examination Fellowship to shy away from the more routine jobs on offer, and you’d be right. There are philosophers and poets, there is a Viceroy of India and, as you might expect, an Archbishop of Canterbury. None though, stoke the coals quite like the Fellow who was born in the town of Tremadog in North West Wales. A man who, as an undergraduate of Jesus College – remember All Souls didn’t bother with acne prone undergraduates – spent one summer walking a thousand odd miles visiting the crusader castles in Ottoman Syria. A man who in 1914 was recruited by the British Army and sent behind an archeological smokescreen to survey and map the Negev Desert. Military historians will reach for the sherry knowing, as they do, that the Negev desert would have been strategically important in the event of war. Which it was. The mapping was done in January, war broke out in August. The fellow, the man in question is Thomas Edward Lawrence, the author, military officer, and diplomat.
Thomas Edward Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia.
Now Lawrence had a sticky childhood. He was born out of wedlock which, in 1888, was news. Bad news specifically for Lawrence, he being then, a bastard. Bastards had a tough time integrating themselves given the conservative and religious mood of the age. Playdates were hard to come by. Lawrence’s father was one Sir Thomas Chapman an Anglo-Irish nobleman and the last of the Chapman baronets of Killua Castle. Chapman was married with four daughters. Four daughters, he decided, needed a Governess, so they hired a Scotswoman called Sarah Junner. By all accounts Chapman’s then wife, Edith, got all wet lipped with religious zeal and subjected her household to frequent prayer meetings. Chapman hit the booze. As you might suspect, one night he hid behind the curtain of the Governess’ bedroom. The rest is history. Chapman and Junner, later moved to England and went on to have five sons, one of whom was Thomas Edward Lawrence.
With the outbreak of war in 1915 Lawrence, given his extensive knowledge of Arabic culture, was packed out to Cairo. He arrived to a bit of a diplomatic dog’s dinner. Within the Arabic-speaking Ottoman territories, there was simmering unrest, revolution beckoned. Sharif Hussein, the Emir of Mecca, was in touch with the British suggesting that he lead the uprising against the Ottomans. In exchange, he wanted the British guarantee of an independent Arab state. For the British, this made a lot of sense as it would take the heat out the threat against the Suez Canal. Trust me on the geography. As ever, the problem was French. The French wanted Syria to be French, not an Arab state. India, also had reservations. India was technically part of Britain back then, but it acted independently. An Arab state wasn’t part of their playbook either.
It wasn’t long before it got properly sweaty. Frustrated by the diplomatic torpor, Hussain threatened to go rogue and throw his chips in with the Ottomans. For the British, this was not good news. Not at all. So they did what the British do best. They wrote Hussain a letter, a letter that was broadly supportive of his plans but sufficiently vague enough that it didn’t explicitly guarantee anything. Later, unbeknown to those on the front line in Cairo, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was being thrashed out in London. The agreement was basically a slippery pact based on the premise that the Ottomans would be defeated, and once they were, there would be no Arab state. There would be French bits, and British bits.
And so began the Arab Revolt for which Lawrence is best known.
In 1916 Lawrence was sent to Hejaz on a fact-finding tour and to interview Hussein’s three sons, to see who had the cojones to lead the revolt. Lawrence reported back that Faisal was the man. It was decided then, that Faisal needed a permanent British liaison to keep him on the fairway and so Lt. Col Stewart Newcombe packed his bags. The problem was Newcombe was in London. To hold the fort, Lawrence was sent in his place, and the two of them, Faisal and Lawrence started to make things difficult for the Ottomans. When Newcombe arrived Faisal insisted Lawrence stay. Without Faisal’s intervention Lawrence of Arabia could well have been, just plain Lawrence.
He remained attached to Faisal until the fall of Damascus in 1918.
Immediately after the war Lawrence worked for the foreign office. In 1919 the war correspondent, Lowell Thomas – who had spent some time with Lawrence in the desert – took all his photographs and film on a bit of a tour. It was wildly popular. Starved of excitement, the photos of Lawrence dressed in full Bedouin garb, captured the public’s imagination. Thomas’ show catapulted Lawrence to fame and he became a household name.
Whilst he hated the stifling nature of bureaucratic work thrust on him in the post-war years, he was a prolific writer. In addition to writing a lot of letters, corresponding with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill and Noel Coward, he also wrote three books the most famous one being the Seven Pillars of Wisdom a wartime memoir. He re-wrote the Seven Pillars of Wisdom three times, once because he left the manuscript on the train when he changed at Reading – easily done – and the other, presumably, to give it a bit of spit and polish. George Bernard Shaw even did some editing. Not a bad man to be telling you where to put a semi colon.
Lawrence sadly died aged just forty-six. He was fatally injured after flying off his motorbike as he swerved to miss two boys on an undulating stretch of road near his home in Dorset.
The bike is currently on loan at the Imperial War Museum.
And that, given the space available, is Lawrence of Arabia, voted in a BBC poll as the fifty third Greatest Briton.
A knighthood, you splutter? Surely there was a knighthood? Even Lynton Crosby got a knighthood. No, there was no knighthood.
Lawrence of Arabia turned it down.