Much of what is known today of T.E. Lawrence’s World War I exploits has come to the broader public from David Lean’s Academy Award-winning film, Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
The Welsh-born Lawrence developed an interest in the Middle East early in life, when he traveled throughout Syria while an Oxford student. He later worked with an archaeological expedition in present-day Iraq and where he perfected his command of Arabic. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Lawrence was assigned to the British Military Intelligence Service in Egypt.
In 1916, Lawrence was sent to aid the cause of Faisal al Husayn, an Arab shaykh intent on overthrowing Ottoman control in Arabia and Palestine. Lawrence served very successfully as both a military advisor and an inspirational figure. His contributions were twofold:
- The Arab insurrection created a diversion behind enemy lines, which drew away Turkish soldiers from the main war effort. Lawrence and Faisal became masters of guerilla-style warfare, conducting lighting attacks against enemy positions, then withdrawing into the desert expanses. Turkish lines of transportation and communication were kept in a constant state of turmoil.
- Lawrence played a pivotal role in overcoming the traditional suspicions and independence of many Arab leaders; this temporary unity was instrumental in their success against the Turks
In late 1917, Lawrence was captured by the Turks, tortured and apparently homosexually raped. He managed to escape, but was never able to overcome the impact of his brutal captivity. He accompanied his force when it entered Damascus in October 1918, his last military act. Later that same month, he shocked a public gathering by politely refusing honors to be bestowed by George V.
Lawrence served as a passionate advocate of an independent Arab state at the Paris Peace conference in 1919, but his views were not incorporated into the final treaties. He became obsessed with avoiding publicity and died in a motorcycle accident at age 47.
Lawrence’s account of his exploits during the war is contained in Seven Pillars of Wisdom
, published privately in 1926 and publicly in 1935 after his death. The work is described by some to contain great literary merit, but by others as an overwritten glorification of the author’s contribution to history. In sum, Lawrence played a small, but important, role in disrupting Turkish operations during World War I.
See World War I Time Table