T.E. Lawrence — The Man Who Was Lawrence of Arabia

“ Who am I ?”

Image of Lawrence: BIO

Lawrence was born illegitimately in Tremadoc, North Wales, on the 16th of August 1888 (his birth certificate states the 15th, but his mother always claimed it was the 16th) in a small, grey stone, detached house that is today a hostel.

Lawrence’s father was Sir Thomas Chapman, an Anglo-Irish Baronet, and his mother, Sarah Junner (sometimes known as Maden) was the family housekeeper at the Chapman home at South Hill, in County Westmeath, Ireland.

Sarah was Sir Thomas Chapman’s mistress, and a young woman with an iron will (she was known as Miss Lawrence by the staff in the Chapman household, and someone to be obeyed), and was born (also illegitimately) of a Norwegian father, John Junner, and a Scottish mother, Elizabeth Junner, in Sunderland in 1861. The couple were cousins, and the sharing of a common surname helped prevent any local scandal. After the death of her alcoholic mother, Sarah, at the age of nine, was brought up by her strict Episcopalian grandparents in Perthshire, and at their death by an aunt who was married to a very dour Episcopalian minister. It was while the minister and his wife were based in Skye that Sarah, in 1879, began to work for the Chapman family.

Thomas Robert Chapman, Lawrence’s father, was born in 1846 and came from a family that had, through ‘trade’, become wealthy landowners in Tudor Leicestershire. With the Elizabethan colonisation of Ireland, the Chapman family — with a little help from Sir Walter Ralegh — were bequeathed a large estate to the west of Dublin. In 1873 Chapman married his cousin, Elizabeth Hamilton Boyd (the daughter of a neighbouring landowner) who, in nine years, bore Chapman four daughters, and between pregnancies went around the countryside preaching about the evils of sex and drink to anyone unlucky enough to encounter her. The local Catholic priest, who no doubt feared for his job, nicknamed her the ‘Holy Viper’.

When Sarah discovered she was pregnant Chapman took the opportunity to leave a wife whose manic religiosity was driving him to distraction, and the couple, now calling themselves Mr and Mrs Lawrence, fled to North Wales. A couple of weeks after Lawrence’s birth the family moved to Kirkcudbright in Scotland, then to Dinard on the Normandy coast, then back to England, and the New Forest before, finally, in 1896, settling in Oxford, at 2 Polstead Road.

Lawrence on the left, sitting. Source: visualizinghistory

Thomas Edward Lawrence was the eldest of five sons, and was, like his brothers, educated at Oxford High School. In 1907 he was awarded a Meyricke Exhibition — a Welsh scholarship worth £40 a year — to Jesus College, Oxford, to read Modern History. A year later the 20 year old ‘Ned’ Lawrence joined the OUOTC ( Oxford University Officer Training Corps) where he underwent a two year training course that is considered by many to have been equal to, if not better than, the rigorous standards of Sandhurst.

Soon after starting university Lawrence also began attending lectures by the renowned archaeologist, Flinders Petrie, studied Arabic avidly, and during the summer break of 1908 completed a 1,000 mile walking tour of Syria to gather material for his thesis on Crusader Castles, which earned him a First Class Honours Degree, and a first class reputation that quickly brought him to the attention of the secret intelligence community.

Lawrence, Hogarth, and Lt Col. Dawney, Cairo 1918. Source: Wikipedia.

By 1910 Lawrence had been recruited by one of the leading secret intelligence officers of the day, Dr D.G. Hogarth, who may also have been one of the first serving field officers of the newly formed SIB ( Secret Intelligence Bureau) which, during the 1920s and 1930s, metamorphosed into MI6. Hogarth was also an archaeologist and used a dig he had recently set-up at Carchemish, in Northern Syria, as cover for Lawrence, and another agent, Leonard Woolley (who had ‘befriended’ Lawrence at Oxford, and was an assistant keeper at the Ashmolean Museum), to spy on the Berlin to Baghdad railway that was currently under construction by the Germans.

The Berlin to Baghdad Railway under construction 1914. Source: Bill Milhomme

Lawrence and Woolley travelled to Syria with a clear brief to inform London of the progress of the railway through that part of the oil rich Ottoman Empire. The two men naturally went armed, with Lawrence’s preference a 7.63mm Mauser machine pistol. In one incident Woolley held his revolver against the head of a local civil servant while Lawrence, in flawless Arabic, assured the unfortunate official that his companion would blow his head off if he did not come up immediately with the required paperwork to enable their archaeological work to continue. Effective, but more reminiscent of Indiana Jones than the reserved demeanour of two respectable, and learned, British archaeologists.

When not threatening local officials they also produced a lengthy academic report on the results of the archaeological dig, and with the use of a new camera with a powerful telephoto lens, and by dressing as an Arab and mingling with the German military engineers and workers, Lawrence was able to send back reports to Oxford that were clear, detailed, accurate, and highly thought of by his spy masters. So much so in fact that by the outbreak of war in 1914 Lawrence was immediately transferred (still officially a civilian) into a branch of military intelligence (M04), and then, after being quickly commissioned, into the Arab Bureau in Cairo.

In those early years of the war Lawrence undertook many perilous undercover operations to discover land routes to such strategically important places as the Turkish controlled port of Aqaba where, in 1917, he, and a few hundred Arab irregulars, lead by Audu Abu Tayi, successfully attacked and took control of the port. It was not, as Lean’s film suggests, an intuitive action but a detailed military operation planned over several years.

Audu Abu Tayi, centre. Image: flickr

Lawrence’s military achievements in Arabia were exceptional, as was the man, as Lieutenant-Colonel W.F. Stirling has written:

“ It was my great good fortune to be appointed General Staff Officer to the Arab Forces in the early part of 1918. From then throughout the final phase of the Arab Revolt on till the capture of Damascus, I worked, travelled, and fought alongside Lawrence. Night after night we lay wrapped in our blankets under the cold stars of the desert.

“ At these times one learns much of a man. Lawrence took the limelight from those of us professional soldiers who were fortunate enough to serve with him, but never once have I heard a whisper of jealousy. We sensed that we were serving with a man immeasurably our superior.

“ As I see it, his outstanding characteristic was his clarity of vision and his power of shedding all un-essentials from his thoughts, added to his uncanny knowledge of what the other man was thinking and doing.

“ Think of it! A young second lieutenant of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force goes down the Arabian coast to where a sporadic revolt of the Western Arabs had broken out against their Turkish masters. Then, with the help of a few British officers, all senior to himself and professional soldiers, who willingly placed themselves under his general guidance, he galvanizes the Arab revolt into a coherent whole. By his daring courage, his strategy, his novel tactics, he welds the turbulent Arab tribes into a fighting machine of such value that he is able to immobilize two Turkish divisions and provide a flank force for Lord Allenby’s final advance through Palestine and Syria, the value of which that great general acknowledged again and again.”

Allenby by Kennington. Image: Encylopedia Britannica

As Stirling hints at there can be no doubt Lawrence enjoyed and courted the fame, as he was to do again at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 where — and often wearing Arab headdress — he helped to hammer out the multifarious agreements that shaped the Middle-East of the inter-war years. And by courting fame — and then very publicly shying away from it — Lawrence cleverly wove a web of ambiguity and mystery around his actions that only a truly gifted secret intelligence agent can do.

Prince Feisal — Paris 1919. Image: wikipedia

At the beginning of 1922, with his work at the Colonial Office finished, Lawrence suddenly decided to seek ‘obscurity’ within the ranks of the RAF (under the assumed name of John Hume Ross), which was easily achieved with the connivance of the Air Ministry — Lawrence knew all the ministers well of course — and a recruiting officer by the name W.E. Johns, the creator of ‘Biggles’, who was ordered to ask no questions of the applicant.

And Lawrence’s very necessary web of ambiguity and mystery was supported enormously in those early post war years by the American journalist and film maker, Lowell Thomas (who coined the term ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in 1918) whose book, With Lawrence in Arabia, became, in 1925, a huge best-seller. Lowell also toured the world with a lantern slide lecture tour, which Lawrence went to see secretly several times.

Lawrence with Lowell

The reason always given for Lawrence’s sudden decision to become a ranker in the RAF was that he was suffering from acute depression and needed the monk like seclusion of the ranks; which is the last place you’re going to find it of course.

In 1923 Lawrence left the RAF and joined the Tank Corp (under the assumed name of Thomas Edward Shaw) at Bovington Camp in Dorset.

The year 1927 also saw Cape publish Robert Graves’ biography of Lawrence, Lawrence and the Arabs, which became another best seller, and a book that immediately drew the interest of the British film industry.

Robert Graves

Early in 1929, and again in great secrecy, Lawrence was transferred to the flying boat station at Cattewater, Plymouth, Devon, where, having struck up a close friendship with his CO ( how many rankers can do that ?), Wing Commander Sydney Smith, he was put in charge of the development of the high speed rescue launches ( Lawrence had been riding and rebuilding high speed motorcycles for some years and loved speed) that not only proved invaluable in saving many RAF lives during WWII but may also have been instrumental in helping the Royal Navy develop further its secret MTB ( Motor Torpedo Boat) programme.

Lawrence, as Aircraftsman Shaw, enjoyed his time at Cattewater, as biographer Michael Yardley describes, Wing Commander Smith and his wife Clare:

“…provided Lawrence with the sort of non-commanding security he desperately needed, and the congenial atmosphere at Cattewater helped to heal some of [the mental and physical] wounds…” he’d suffered during his time in Arabia, not least that of being raped by a Turkish officer during a brief arrest, where his real identity went undiscovered. He was worn out, not only by his continuing intelligence work, but with the huge task of writing Seven Pillars of Wisdom.. The Smiths saved him from madness.

The development of the motor launches was a godsend, enabling Lawrence, on an ad hoc basis,to lose himself in the oily interiors of the high speed boats.

The other distraction was the Schneider Trophy Seaplane races, held at Calshot, by the Solent. Lawrence became very involved with the British team who, with their Supermarine S6 — designed by R.J.Mitchel and Henry Royce — won the race in 1931. The aircraft, of course, went on to become the famous Spitfire.

Supermarine S6. Image: BAE Systems

Lawrence made no attempt to keep a low profile during the races, and was seen talking with Nancy Astor, the Tory MP for Plymouth, and Italo Balbo, the Marshall of the Italian Air Force. The new Labour government became very suspicious of the these encounters, especially as Lawrence had no senior rank in the RAF. The Air Minister, Lord Thomson, restricted A/C Shaw from speaking with ‘great men’ (Lawrence was such a man), which, as Yardley suggests, “…must have amused Nancy Astor” no end, and Lawrence’s controllers at SIS.

Lord Thomson was killed when the R101 airship crashed in 1930, on its way to India. Thomson’s restrictions died with him, enabling Lawrence to become an official member of the power boat development team.

During a test run Lawrence, and Smith, had to divert to a real rescue when an Irish flying boat crashed into the sea. They managed to rescue six of the twelve crew. The incident brought home the problems still facing the power boat development programme. It was a wake up call.

At this time Lawrence was also accused by Russia of being involved in a plot to take over the Caucasian oil fields, and topple the communist government. Lawrence denied it, but only when an announcement in the Houses of Parliament (requested by Lawrence), stating that A/C Shaw was in fact Colonel Lawrence, and that he’d been on official business in India during the time the Russians alleged he was leading a coup. The accusations were dropped. Friends in high places.

When the 47 year old T. E. Lawrence died at Bovington Military Hospital on May 19th 1935 many secrets died with him, not least a convincing explanation of his motorcycle ‘accident’ six days earlier on the road between Bovington Army Camp and his cottage, ‘Clouds Hill’.

Corporal Ernest Catchpole, of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, based at Bovington, had been out walking his dog when he witnessed the crash and, when giving evidence at the inquest, stated that he had seen a black car travelling in the opposite direction to Lawrence moments before the crash.

“ The motorcycle passed the car all right. Then I saw the motorcycle swerve across the road to avoid two pedal cyclists coming from Bovington. It [the motorcycle] swerved immediately after it had passed the car. I ran to the scene and found the motorcyclist on the road. His face was covered with blood.”

Catchpole then flagged down an army lorry, helped to get the fatally injured Lawrence into the back, and then accompanied the driver back to Bovington Camp.

As soon as Lawrence was admitted to the military hospital Special Branch police officers (and where did they suddenly come from?) guarded the inconscious Lawrence. Catchpole, and every other soldier on the camp, was ordered not to talk about the incident, and although Lawrence was now technically a civilian ( he’d retired from the RAF in February 1935) the Air Ministry became involved within minutes of the incident, and stated to the press that “…there had been no witnesses to the crash.” The following day the Daily Mirror reported that Lawrence’s cottage was heavily guarded “…to safeguard vital Air Ministry documents which Mr Shaw had in his possession.”

The two boy cyclists, Frank Fletcher and Albert Hargreaves, had been interrogated by both the military and civilian police immediately after the crash and stated very firmly at the inquest ( too firmly according to one of Lawrence’s biographers) that they had never seen a black car at the vicinity of the crash. Hargreaves and Fletcher never once changed their story about not seeing the car. Corporal Catchpole — who sadly shot himself a few years later — never changed his story either.

It has been suggested that Lawrence was murdered. Fanciful? Well, maybe, but not that fanciful when we consider that Lawrence was a very experienced motorcyclist, and unless the black car, or its occupants, had made Lawrence suddenly swerve — and a bullet to the head would do just that — why should he crash trying to avoid two boys, who were, according to the inquest, cycling in single file on an open road? And as the inquest also discovered, Lawrence was only travelling at 38 miles an hour at the time of the crash.

Did Lawrence commit suicide in 1935? Unlikely, but an idea given some credence when, in 2001, a cache of letters came to light that suggested Lawrence was depressed at the time and that maybe the crash was suicide, but that would totally discount the contrary evidence given by Catchpole, and the two boys, and there can be no doubt that had Lawrence wanted to have committed suicide he would have chosen a much cleaner and solitary method.

By all contemporary accounts Lawrence was, on Monday the 13th May 1935, in high spirits and eager to get to Bovington Camp and telegraph his old friend, the novelist Henry Williamson — author of Tarka the Otter — to confirm a lunch appointment for the following day. Lawrence had also received an invitation from Lady Astor asking him to visit Cliveden to meet Stanley Baldwin who, she felt — and she knew most things — wanted Lawrence to help re-organise Britain’s defence systems. Lawrence refused the invitation saying he was busy and just wanted to stay at Clouds Hill where he now felt content. Whether he was again suffering from depression or not ( a common ailment with survivors of the First World War anyway) he was still in demand and leading a full life — including taking on increasing amounts of translation work, as well as getting his book The Mint ready for publication — and keen to see what his new SS100 Brough Superior motorcycle (a gift from GBS) could do on the deserted Dorset roads.

And why was Lawrence so keen, on that May Monday, to meet Henry Williamson for lunch the following day? Although a fine novelist Williamson had become disillusioned with politics by his own horrific experiences of the First World War and was now (much to Lawrence’s disgust) a leading member of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Fascist Party (BFP), and an open supporter of Hitler. Williamson wanted Lawrence to join the BFP and help Mosley gain power. Lawrence was no fascist, or Nazi, having shunned an advance in 1932 from Hitler’s foreign affairs representative, Kurt von Ludecke, to show open support for Hitler. Lawrence had put Williamson off several times in the recent past but here he was suddenly encouraging the novelist to come to lunch. It is therefore entirely conceivable that Lawrence had been instructed to infiltrate the BFP and that Williamson was his way in. As a consequence of this assumption (there is no proof, as yet) the mysterious black car which didn’t stop (and why should Catchpole make up the sighting?) could easily have belonged to Special Branch (which would certainly account for them getting to Lawrence’s bedside as quickly as they did), who may have been there as a result of a tip-off by the SIS — as extra cover for Lawrence — saying that the hero of Arabia was indeed intending to join the BFP, and become a threat to national security. Double bluff? It would also explain why Lawrence refused the invitation to meet Baldwin; he was distancing himself before taking on one of the biggest and most dangerous jobs of his secret intelligence career; it is therefore just conceivable that Special Branch killed Lawrence, or that some dreadful accident involving their car took place. It would also account for the two boys being threatened into silence for the rest of their lives. At this point in the 21st century we are more aware than ever of the dirty goings on of the intelligence services, was it so different in the 1930s?

Lawrence was a spy to the end.

Image: wikimedia

Read: T E. Lawrence & His Friends

Read: T. E. Lawrence — Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Bibliography: Michael Yardley — Backing into the Limelight (Harrap, London, 1985); Richard Aldington — Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry ( Collins, London, 1955); Desmond Stewart — T.E. Lawrence ( Hamish Hamilton, London,1977); Anthony Sattin — Young Lawrence: A Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man (John Murray, London, 2014); Helen Smith — The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett (Jonathan Cape, London, 2017);Caroline G. Heilbrun — The Garnett Family (George Allan & Unwin, London, 1961); Robert Graves — Lawrence and the Arabs (Jonathan Cape, London, 1934); T.E. Lawrence by His Friends — Edited by A.W. Lawrence (Jonathan Cape, London, 1937); The Letters of T. E. Lawrence — Edited by David Garnett (Jonathan Cape, London, 1938); Neil Faulkner — Lawrence of Arabia’s War (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2016); T.E. Lawrence — Revolt in the Desert (Folio Edition, London, 1986); and of course, T.E. Lawrence — Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (Jonathan Cape, London, 1935)

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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