Across The Sky In Stars: The Wisdom Of T. E. Lawrence

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Tremadog, North Wales on 16th August 1888. The second of five sons, Lawrence’s father was Sir Thomas Chapman, Baronet of Kilkea Castle, near County Kildare in Ireland and his mother was a young governess named Sarah Junner, for whom Chapman had left his wife. Despite the fact they never married, the couple both adopted the surname Lawrence. In his later years, his early familial situation would be a source of awkwardness for Lawrence regarding his own identity, and he would change his name several times throughout his life.

The world Lawrence entered was an ordered and stable Victorian one, where Pax Britannica saw the longest ever period of peace in Europe and in which the British Empire covered vast swathes of the globe. However, the devastation wrought by the Great War and the carving up of once great empires brought about Lawrence’s elevation from an astute and skilled soldier into the mythical ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’

In 1907, Lawrence went up to Jesus College, Oxford to read history and left in 1909 with a first class degree, the same year he visited Palestine and Syria whilst working on a dissertation that would later be published as Crusader Castles in 1936. His journeys ignited in Lawrence a powerful fascination with the Middle East and a deep affection for the people who lived there. After joining an archaeological expedition to excavate the site of Carchemish in Syria in 1911, Lawrence decided to extended his stay, and began learning Arabic, immersing himself in the local culture. He became particularly close to Selim Ahmed, also known as Dahoum, a young water boy in Carchemish who helped Lawrence with his Arabic.

Following the outbreak of war, Lawrence was recruited by British army intelligence, and in December 1914 he was sent to Cairo. In 1915, Lawrence learned that two of his brothers, Will and Frank had been killed in action in France and the tragic news only hardened his resolve to fight. When the Arab Revolt erupted against Turkey in June 1916, Lawrence was offered the role of adviser to Prince Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, Grand Sharif of Mecca. Recalling his first meeting with the Prince, Lawrence remembered, ‘I felt at first glance that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek – the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory.’ 

An expert in guerrilla tactics, Lawrence utilised his skills to help the Arabs attack Turkish forces; in July 1917 they took the Red Sea port of Aqaba after a two-month campaign. It was to be the first significant victory of several, and persuaded Lawrence to steer the Arab revolt in tandem with Sir Edmund Allenby’s advance on Jerusalem which provided a distraction whilst British troops advanced on Palestine and Syria. The success of his campaign led to Lawrence’s rise to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In spite of his natural aptitude for battle, Lawrence was wounded on several occasions and in November 1917, he was captured by the Turks at Deraa and severely beaten. In an attempt to humiliate their captive, several soldiers as well as the governor of Deraa sodomised Lawrence, an ordeal that left and indelible mark upon him.

After extensively researching Lawrence’s life, the psychiatrist John E. Mack has claimed that his treatment ‘led to the permanent welding for Lawrence of sexual pleasure and pain.’ Describing the experience, Lawrence himself admitted that ‘At the instant of each stroke a hard white mark like a railway, darkening slowly into crimson, leaped over my skin, and a bead of blood swelled up wherever the ridges crossed… the blows hurt more horribly than I had dreamed of… a delicious warmth, probably sexual, was swelling through me,’ and aroused in him a ‘morbid…lascivious…striving.’ Allegedly, Lawrence would arrange to be regularly flogged for the rest of his life.

Somewhat controversially however, in his 2006 book, Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia, 1916-18, James Barr has claimed that Lawrence in fact fabricated his story about the events of Deraa. Furthermore, using a letter Lawrence sent to his mother whilst he was apparently in Deraa, Barr suggests that Lawrence was never even there. The theory leads to speculation over Lawrence’s motives for such a deceit, but it remains unsubstantiated. It is difficult to see why Lawrence would have invented an assault that he confessed to his confidante, Charlotte Shaw, ‘About that night. I shouldn’t tell you, because decent men don’t talk about such things. I wanted to put it plain in the book, and wrestled for days with my self-respect… which wouldn’t, hasn’t let me.’ He also revealed to Shaw that the memories of Deraa would hang about me while I live, and afterwards if our personality survives.’

Regardless of what happened to him during his capture, Lawrence’s sexuality has been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate, and as he himself confessed to E.M. Forster in 1927, ‘I’m so funnily made up, sexually.’ There appears to be no solid evidence that Lawrence had a significant romantic attachment or sexual relationship with anyone, but his own writings about sexuality indicate that his orientation was most likely homosexual. After reading The Mint, Lawrence’s 1930 biographical account of his service in the Royal Air Force, Noël Coward remarked that Lawrence evidently  ‘despised his own body, and…loved the better bodies of other younger men.’

In many respects, Lawrence appeared curiously asexual with Vyvyan Richards, an Oxford contemporary who had been in love with him stating, He had neither flesh nor carnality of any kind; he just did not understand. He received my affection, my sacrifice, in fact, eventually my total subservience, as though it was his due. He never gave the slightest sign that he understood my motives or fathomed my desire… I realize now that he was sexless – at least that he was unaware of sex.’ In spite of his unrequited passion, Richards also noted that Lawrence nevertheless gave him, ‘the purest affection, love and respect that I have ever received from anyone.’

Numerous biographers have argued that Lawrence’s relationship with Dahoum, the young boy he met at Carchemish, was the closest he came to having romantic feelings for anyone. Although there is no sign that his love for Dahoum was based upon anything more than platonic friendship, he was deeply distressed by the boy’s death from typhoid in 1916. The dedication in Lawrence’s most well-known work, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom takes the form of a poem, and is dedicated to S.A, which has often been assumed to mean Dahoum, though he never revealed the recipient’s identity. The first stanza reads:

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
                    and wrote my will across the sky in stars
 To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
                    that your eyes might be shining for me
                              When we came.

Lawrence returned to London after the Capture of Damascus on 1st October 1918. After the war, he accompanied Prince Faisal to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, with the intention of promoting Arab independence, but was deeply frustrated by the outcome, especially the decision to allow Syria to fall under French control. He later wrote of his dismay at the negotiations, ‘We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew.’ Though Faisal was briefly crowned King of Syria from March to July 1920, the situation in the Middle East remained a precarious one and continued to perturb Lawrence, with him writing in a letter to the Sunday Times in August 1920:

‘The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, and incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.’

Lawrence was already an eminent figure in Europe thanks to the American Journalist Lowell Thomas, who presented a series of lectures in London entitled, ‘With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia.’ In a public show of his displeasure with the British involvement in the Middle East, Lawrence rejected the award of a Distinguished Service Order from a shocked King George V. Deciding to settle in England, Lawrence began writing his memoir as part of his Fellowship to All Souls College, Oxford, soon afterwards, with the finished text later becoming The Seven Pillars of Wisdom which would be published in an abridged form in 1926. 

Prince Faisal became King Faisal I of Iraq in August 1921 with British support, and at the same time, Winston Churchill appointed Lawrence Adviser of Arab Affairs to the Colonial Office. The following year Lawrence decided to join the Royal Air Force after struggling to adapt to civilian life. Upon joining the RAF, to signify a new beginning Lawrence took a new name calling himself John Hume Ross. His time in the RAF was to be short-lived when the press discovered that Lawrence was at Farnborough in December 1922, and he was discharged in January 1923. By March 1923 he had become a private in the Royal Tank Corps this time calling himself T.E. Shaw, perhaps influenced by his close friendship with George Bernard Shaw, whom he first met in 1922. Lawrence purchased Clouds Hill in Moreton, Dorset in 1924, and it was to be his home in England for the remainder of his life.

In 1925, Lawrence was dismissed from the Tank Corps. Desmond Stewart’s 1979 book, T. E. Lawrence made the unproven claim that the dismissal stemmed from the fact that Lawrence had been to ‘flagellation parties in Chelsea conducted by an underworld figure known as Bluebeard, and Bluebeard’s impending divorce case threatened to release lubricious details.’ Re-joining the RAF, Lawrence was stationed in Miranshah in India in 1927, but was forced to leave due to spurious rumours, this time that he was working as a spy, and he returned to England for good in 1929.

From 1929 to 1933, Lawrence was stationed in Plymouth where he worked with RAF seaplanes. In February 1935, Lawrence left the RAF and decided to go into retirement from the armed forces. He returned to Clouds Hill, writing to Lady Astor on 8th May 1935, ‘wild mares would not at present take me away from Clouds Hill. It is an earthy paradise and I am staying here till I feel qualified for it. Also there is something broken in the works, as I told you: my will, I think.’

Five days later, on 13th May 1935, Lawrence went out for a ride on his Brough Superior SS100. He was an extremely competent rider, having previously owned at least seven of the machines. Swerving to avoid hitting two young boys on bicycles, Lawrence lost control and was thrown from his motorcycle, hitting the ground with such force that it caused devastating injuries on impact. One of the first to arrive at the scene of the accident was Corporal Ernest Catchpole of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, who remembered that ‘His face was covered with blood which I tried to wipe away with my handkerchief.’ Six days later, Lawrence died in hospital having never regained consciousness.

The unabridged version of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was finally published a year after his death, and Lawrence’s insights into human nature and war appeared hauntingly apposite, for he recognised that ‘All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ attained legendary status as a man who dreamt of a world where justice and autonomy triumphed, and as the threat of impending war resurfaced, such dreams were more imperative than ever.

Selected Sources:

Seven Pillars of Wisdom – T. E. Lawrence (1922)

Portrait of T. E. Lawrence – Vyvyan Richards (1964)

T. E. Lawrence – Desmond Stewart (1979)

The Letters of T. E. Lawrence – Edited by Malcolm Brown (1991)

A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence – John E. Mack (1998)

T. E. Lawrence: Biography of a Broken Hero – Harold Orlans (2002)

Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia, 1916-18 – James Barr (2006)