The T.E. Lawrence Myth

Over the course of this project, I’ve gotten to know an awful lot about T.E. Lawrence – and this is almost incidental, since my project is more properly about the course of military thinking in the ’20s and ’30s, and not about Lawrence the man. But Lawrence is legendary, and anything tangentially related to him is apt to lead to the myth surrounding the man himself.

When I was first contemplating this project, I was pretty ambivalent about Lawrence. I knew a fair amount about him and his life, but I didn’t have strong opinions about the various controversies that have surrounded him ever since he became a public figure. My opinion was mainly that there seemed to be an awful lot written about him (over thirty biographies since his death), and that he didn’t deserve the degree of attention that he had received.

His life was short and eventful. After graduating from Oxford, he worked as an archaeologist in Syria for a few years. When the First World War broke out, he enlisted and was commissioned as an intelligence officer. Because of his knowledge of the Middle East, he served in the intelligence department in Egypt and kept track of Turkish army units. If no Arab Revolt had broken out, it’s likely that Lawrence would have continued this sort of work until the end of the war, and that he would have resumed his academic career before sinking into complete obscurity. As it happened, the Arab Revolt that broke out in 1916 created an even greater demand for British officers with a working knowledge of Arabic. Lawrence ultimately ended up in the Hedjaz as a Liaison officer to the Arab army. He was involved in and even lead a number of dramatic raids, and ended the war a Lieutenant Colonel. After the war, he attempted to gain a good settlement for the Arabs in the Versailles Peace conference and thereafter served as a political adviser to Winston Churchill in his capacity as Secretary of State for the Colonies for about a year. He wrote one long book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was published privately, and an abridgment titled The Revolt in the Desert, which sold extremely well. He spent the rest of his life in the lowest enlisted ranks of the Tank Corps and the RAF. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1935 at the age of 46.

The facts of his life alone don’t seem to make him out as an especially noteworthy individual, especially compared with other officers who had served in the First World War. There is even reason to believe that he felt this way as well. But the popular press turned him into a hero because fighting in the desert with sabers on camel-back is more romantic than trench warfare, and the public was starved for real heroes. And he probably was one. Despite some very critical biographies that have been published about Lawrence since his death, his exploits basically stand up as real and substantive. He effectively lead the Arab Revolt. He helped make Allenby’s Palestine campaign a decisive victory (in Allenby’s own estimation). He wrote probably the greatest piece of war literature to emerge from the First World War. He helped to achieve an equitable settlement for the Arabs in the Middle East. Does all this justify his near-mythic status? Much of what has been written about Lawrence is exaggerated – either positively or negatively. From what I now know about him, he probably was one of the most significant members of his generation – and even if for his literary achievements alone, deserves his status as a great man.

Comments

  1. Your post raises interesting questions about why some figures in history are elevated to mythic status. Usually we do not think about why we revere certain figures and forget the rest. I’m glad you brought up this question. I think the most basic reason for why this happens is an innate craving to see heroes amongst us and to look up to people as paragons of one virtue or another. Another interesting line of thinking to go down is why are these people chosen. You explore this very well in relation to Lawrence and it would be interesting to look back and see if at the time others were touted as the mythic heroes of World War I and how that has changed since.