Immortalized in the film Lawrence of Arabia, the real T. E. Lawrence was a leader, a war strategist, and a scholar, and is here immortalized in an intimate biography written by his close friend, the award-winning British novelist, poet and classicist Robert Graves.
As a student at Oxford, T. E. Lawrence was fascinated with Middle Eastern history and culture, and underwent a four-month visit to Syria to study the fortifications built by the crusaders. Later, he returned to the region, this time as an archaeologist working with the British Army’s Intelligence unit in Egypt during World War I. From there, in 1916, he joined Arab rebels fighting against Turkish domination. His brilliance as a desert war tactician earned him the respect of the Turkish fighters and worldwide renown.
“Interesting and informative.” —New York Herald Tribune
“[Mr. Graves] has done his job admirably and without any too obvious excesses of hero worship.” —New Statesman
“[Readers] will consult Mr. Graves for information about this man.” —The New Republic
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About the Author
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I write of him as Lawrence since I first knew him by that name, though, with the rest of his friends, I now usually address him as 'T. E.': his initials at least seem fixed and certain. In 1923 when he enlisted as a private soldier in the Royal Tank Corps he took the name of 'T. E. Shaw': and has continued in that name in the Royal Air Force, confirming the alteration by Deed Poll. His enlistment in 1922 was in the name of 'Ross' and these two are not, he admits, his only efforts to 'label himself suitably.' He chose 'Shaw' and 'Ross' more or less at random from an Army List, though their shortness recommended them and probably also their late positions in the alphabet; troops sometimes get lined up in alphabetical order of names and Lawrence avoids the right of the line by instinct. He was tired of the name Lawrence, — and found it too long — particularly of the name 'Lawrence of Arabia' which had become a romantic catchword and a great nuisance to him. Hero worship seems not only to annoy Lawrence but, because of a genuine belief in his own fraudulence as its object, to make him feel physically unclean; and few who have heard or read of Lawrence of Arabia now mention the name without a superstitious wonder or fail to lose their heads if they happen to meet the man. A good enough excuse for discarding the name Lawrence was that it never had any proud family traditions for him. Mr. Lowell Thomas, who has written an inaccurate and sentimental account of Lawrence, links him up with the Northern Irish family of that name and with the famous Indian Mutiny hero 'who tried to do his duty': this is an invention and not a good one. 'Lawrence' began as a name of convenience like 'Ross' or 'Shaw,' and Lawrence was never of the tribe which does things because public duty is public duty. He acts in all things for his own best reasons, which though perhaps — I might say 'certainly'— honourable are never either public or obvious. The Arabs addressed him as 'Aurans' or 'Lurens,' but his nickname among them was Emir Dinamit, or Prince Dynamite, for his explosive energy. Old Auda, the fighting chief of the Howeitat, used to called him 'The World's Imp,' which is better still.
He was born at Tremadoc in North Wales in August 1888. This proved useful because later at Oxford University he could enter Jesus College, which financially favours Welsh students, as a Welshman. Actually he is of very mixed blood, none of it Welsh; if I remember rightly it is Irish, Hebridean, Spanish, and Norse. This again has always been useful; mixed blood has meant for Lawrence a natural gift for learning foreign languages, a respect for the manners and customs of strange people and, more than this, the power of entering a foreign community and being accepted after a time as a member of it. He has, also, no sense of the superiority of the English over foreigners. This he puts down merely to his general disrespect for humanity; but a strong natural bias towards the English may be suspected if only as towards the speakers of English, a language for which he cannot conceal his affection.
His father, now dead, came from County Meath in Ireland, of Leicestershire stock settled in the time of Sir Walter Raleigh. He was a great sportsman. The mixed blood is chiefly from this side. His mother who two years ago went off unconcernedly to end her days with a mission in Central China — but has recently been sent back home much against her will because of political troubles there — is a woman of decision and quiet power: with features like Lawrence's. She told me once: 'We could never be bothered with girls in our house': and, conveniently, she had five sons and no daughters. This home-atmosphere possibly accounts for Lawrence's world being so empty of women: he was brought up to do without female society and the habit has remained with him. That he has a fear or hatred of all women is untrue. He tries to talk to a woman as he would talk to another man, or to himself. If she does not return the compliment by talking to him as she would to another woman, he leaves her. He has no false sense of chivalry. He is not a courtier but neither is he a boor.
His childhood was spent in Scotland, the Isle of Man, Jersey, France and Hampshire. In France he attended a Jesuit school, though neither he nor his family were Catholics. From Hampshire the family came to Oxford where Lawrence went to the City of Oxford School. Of his boyhood at Oxford there are stories that show that he began being the person Lawrence early. He took an interest in archæology which elder people thought unwholesome in a boy, and when old buildings were pulled down or excavations made was always on the spot. He had a secret arrangement with the city workmen to give him any pieces of pottery or other finds that they made and was soon an actual expert on the pottery of the Middle Ages. He had a theory which he intended to prove in a book that the dating of ancient pottery in England is all wrong, much of what is called Roman pottery being really Saxon: but that book he has never found time to write. At the age of thirteen he began a series of bicycle tours round England by himself and in pursuit of a study of mediæval armour made a large collection of brass-rubbings from old monuments in country churches. He made a point at his home of never saying when or where he was going or when he would be back. He liked to return at night by an upper window and be found in bed the next morning. To avoid surveillance later he refused to sleep in the house at all, but used a summer-house in the garden (he built it himself) as his bedroom. He explored the many streams about Oxford in a canoe: (and in after years brought a canoe with him at great expense to Mesopotamia, where it was the first canoe ever seen on the River Euphrates). Not content with the streams above ground he began exploring the underground streams of Oxford City. Probably he made a map; maps were his speciality. He made eight tours of France in his school vacations, studying the cathedrals and castles, and living on practically nothing. When he was sixteen he broke a leg while he was wrestling with another boy at the Oxford City School. He said nothing until school ended for the day and then returned home, not able to walk, on a borrowed bicycle. (He has never grown since that date.)
He took no interest in school games because they were organized, because they had rules, because they had results. He will never compete in anything. He was interested in machinery — (he is still an expert on racing cars and such-like, and after the War occupied part of his leisure with the help of the makers of the Brough Superior motor-cycle in testing and reporting on their next year's models). He read widely, carefully and rapidly in several languages, his chief study being mediæval art, particularly sculpture. What is more remarkable is that while he was still at the High School he began thinking about that very revolt of the Arabs against the Turks which is the main story of this book.
At Jesus College in the University, where he won a scholarship, he read for the History School; or was supposed to do so. As a matter of fact the three years were spent chiefly in reading French Provençal poetry and mediæval Chansons de Geste. Mr. Vyvyan Richards, a fellow-undergraduate, has told me: 'There was a mystery in the College about a strange undergraduate who never appeared in the daytime but spent hours of the night walking round the quadrangle by himself; I was one of those appointed to investigate; that was how I first discovered Lawrence. I patronized him at first as a second-year man does a first-year man, but I soon stopped that. I remember once I was teasing him for his theories about pottery; we were walking on the New College mound which is supposed to have been thrown up in the Civil Wars. I kicked up a bit of pottery and said to him, "You'll tell me next that this proves something." "Thank you," he said, "as it happens it does. It goes to prove that this mound is considerably older than Cromwell's time." That silenced me. He never took any part in College life and never dined in Hall. Once in winter he arrived at my lodgings after midnight and asked me to come bathing. He wanted me to try the sport of diving through the ice: I thought it too dangerous, so he went off alone. He had a wonderful library, and was much interested in printing. It has been said that he printed books with me; but this is not true; there was much planning about it, but it never came off.'
Lawrence only lived one term in the College itself: the remainder of the time he was allowed to live at home. He read all night and slept in the mornings. He was not only a non-smoker and total abstainer but a vegetarian. In all his University life, as at school, he never took part in or watched a single organized game, though I believe he did a certain amount of roof-climbing, an unorganized night-sport which is entirely against University regulations. He is said to have invented the now classic climb from Balliol College to Keble College, a distance of perhaps a third of a mile, with only a single drop in between. This Lawrence neither confirms nor denies. He had a lively admiration for his tutor R. L. Poole and only once 'cut' a tutorial, then wrote to apologize. Poole replied: 'Don't worry yourself at having failed to come to me last Tuesday. Your absence gave me the opportunity to do an hour's useful work.' He apparently only attended three courses of lectures in the whole of his three years and found these unprofitable.
Mr. Cecil Jane writes of this period:
'I coached him in his last year at the Oxford City School and saw a great deal of him all through his time at Oxford. He would never read the obvious books. I found out in the first week or two that the thing was to suggest rather out-of-the-way books. He could be relied upon to get more out of a suggestive sentence in a book than any ordinary man would get from a volume. His work was always on his own lines, even to the hours when he came to me. Shortly after midnight to 4 a.m. was a favourite time (living at home he had not to bother about College regulations: it was enough for his mother to report that he was "home by twelve"). He had the most diverse interests historically, though they were mainly mediæval. For a long time I could not get him to take any interest in late European History — was very startled to find that he was absorbed by R. M. Johnston's French Revolution. While he was at school still I used to be surprised by his fondness for analysing character: it was a little habit of his to put questions to me in order to watch my expression: he would make no comment on my answer but I could see that he thought the more. In many ways he resembled his father, quite one of the most charming men I have known — very shy, very kind. Lawrence was not a bookworm though he read very fast and a great deal. I should not call him a scholar by temperament and the main characteristic of his work was always that it was unusual without the effort to be unusual. He liked anything in the nature of satire; that is why he appreciated Gibbon's notes so much. He was very diffident about his own work; he never published his really admirable (but small) degree thesis. He was very robust, a little difficult to know, and always unexpected.'
When the time came for his final examinations for his degree Lawrence was unprepared. He was advised to submit a special thesis to supplement his other papers. He chose as his subject 'The influence of the Crusades on the mediæval military architecture of Europe.' Even before he went to the University, he had specialized in mediæval fortifications and had visited every single twelfth-century castle in England and France; it now remained for him to go to Palestine and Syria and study the Crusaders' castles there. He decided to go out in the summer months of 1909, his last long vacation. He had learned a smattering of Arabic from a half-Irish Arab, then lecturing at Oxford, who advised him, if he went, to save expenses by living on the hospitality of the Syrian tribes. It was to be his first visit to the part of the world where he later became famous.
Before he left he visited Dr. D. G. Hogarth, the present Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, whom he met on this occasion for the first time but who has been his close friend ever since — 'the man to whom I am indebted for every good job I have ever had except my enlistment in the Royal Air Force.' He told Hogarth that he was going to visit Syria to study Crusaders' castles but wished to know where he would be likely to find remains of the ancient Hittite civilization. Hogarth told him what he wanted but said, 'This is the wrong season to visit Syria: it is too hot there now.' 'I'm going,' said Lawrence. 'Well, have you the money? You'll want a guide and servants to carry your tent and baggage.' 'I'm going to walk,' Lawrence said. 'Europeans don't walk in Syria,' said Hogarth, 'it isn't safe or pleasant.' 'Well, I do,' said Lawrence. He went and was away for four months, returning to Oxford late for the next term. He had been on foot, in European dress and brown boots, carrying only a camera, from Haifa on the north coast of Palestine to the Taurus mountains and across to Urfa by the Euphrates in Northern Mesopotamia. He brought back sketchplans and photographs of every mediæval fortress in Syria and also a collection of Hittite seals from the Aintab region for Hogarth. He had had two bouts of fever, Dr. Hogarth tells me, and had once been nearly murdered. The fever is perhaps hardly worth mentioning: Lawrence has had fever so often that he is quite used to it. He got malaria in France when he was sixteen and has had countless returns of it since. When he was eighteen he got Malta fever and since then has had dysentery, typhoid, blackwater fever, smallpox and other varieties.
The murder story has often been told, but incorrectly. What happened was that Lawrence on his way to Syria had bought a copper watch at Paris for ten francs. By constant use the case had been polished till it shone. In a Turkman village near the banks of the Euphrates where he was collecting Hittite antiquities he took out this watch one morning; the villagers murmured 'Gold.' A villager stalked Lawrence all day as he went on his journey and towards evening ran ahead and met him, as if accidentally. Lawrence asked the way to a certain village. The Turkman showed him a short cut across country; where he sprang upon Lawrence, knocked him down, snatched his Colt revolver, put it to his head and pulled the trigger. Though loaded it did not go off: the villager did not understand the mechanism of the safety catch, which was raised. He tried the trigger again and then in anger threw it away and battered Lawrence about the head with stones. The appearance of a shepherd fortunately frightened him off before he had succeeded in cracking Lawrence's skull. Lawrence got up, crossed the Euphrates to the nearest town (Birejik) where he could find Turkish policemen. There he presented the order that he had from the Turkish Ministry of the Interior requiring all local governors to afford him every help, and collected a hundred and ten men. With this force, whose ferry-fare he had to pay across the river, he re-entered the village. Contrary to the usual story of a desperate fight and the burning of the village, there was no violence. Lawrence, with fever heavy on him, went to sleep while the usual day-long argument went on between the police and the villagers. At night the village elders gave up the stolen property and the thief. The true version of the story is better if only because it has this more satisfactory ending that the thief afterwards worked in the diggings at Carchemish under Lawrence; not too well, but Lawrence was easy with him.
During this walk he lodged every night, when off the beaten track, in the nearest native village, taking advantage of the hospitality which poor Syrians always show towards other poor; and began his familiarity with Arab dialects. Lawrence is not an Arabic scholar. He has never sat down to study it, nor even learned its letters — in any case twenty years' study are needed before anyone can call himself an Arabic scholar and Lawrence has had a better use for his time. But he is fluent in conversational Arabic, and can tell pretty accurately by a man's accent and the expressions he uses from what tribe or district of Arabia, Syria, Mesopotamia or Palestine he comes. On his return to Oxford he was awarded a First Class Honours Degree in History on the strength of his thesis, and the examiners were so impressed that they celebrated the event by a special dinner at which Lawrence's tutor, Poole, was the host.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lawrence and the Arabs"
Copyright © 1955 Robert Graves.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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