One day, when I was a young teenager in the 1950s, my parents and I were introduced to a man who had met Lawrence of Arabia in Damascus in 1917. Lawrence had been wearing Arab dress, but his blue eyes had revealed his identity.
T E Lawrence became one of the most famous men of the 20th century. Many people today know of him mainly through the superb 1962 film “Lawrence of Arabia”, directed by David Lean, with Peter o’Toole in the starring role. But that was still several years in the future for us.
After we had heard the story of this personal meeting, the subject of Lawrence was much discussed in our household. It was my father’s birthday soon afterwards, and my mother bought him a copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s amazing autobiographical book about the Arab Revolt. We all read it and I have it beside me now as I write this post.
Winston Churchill, himself a gifted writer, said of the book: “It ranks with the greatest books ever written in the English language. As a narrative of war and adventure … it is unsurpassable.”
Lawrence was a complex and enigmatic person. He was born illegitimate in Wales in 1888 to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, a governess who was herself illegitimate. Chapman left his wife and first family to live with Sarah, and they called themselves Mr and Mrs Lawrence. The Lawrences moved to Oxford where young TE studied history at Jesus College and graduated with First Class Honours. He became an archaeologist and worked at various excavations in the Middle East.
While at Oxford he joined the university officers’ training corps; in 1914, before the outbreak of World War I, Lawrence was coopted by the British Army to undertake a military survey of the Negev Desert. After the outbreak of war he was commissioned and posted to the army intelligence staff in Cairo. He became involved in an internal Arab insurgency against the Ottoman Empire, allies of Germany. Lawrence’s major contribution was persuading the Arab leaders to coordinate their actions in support of British strategy. He fought beside them till the end of the war, rising in rank eventually to full colonel, and subsequently told the story in Seven Pillars.
His commanding general gave him a free hand, saying later: “He was the mainspring of the Arab movement and knew their language, their manners and their mentality.”
In 1919 and 1920 a photo exhibition in London and New York entitled “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia” turned the previously-obscure Lawrence into a major celebrity.
But fame did not sit comfortably on his shoulders. He resigned his commission and joined the RAF as an enlisted man until his discharge in 1935. Seven Pillars of Wisdom was published in 1926, but the present full, unexpurgated edition did not appear until after his death in a motorcycle accident two months after he left the RAF, at the age of 46.