May 19,1935 : Lawrence of Arabia dies

May 19: General Interest
1935 : Lawrence of Arabia dies

Lawrence, known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia, dies as a retired Royal Air
Force mechanic living under an assumed name. The legendary war hero, author, and
archaeological scholar succumbed to injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident
six days before.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in Tremadoc, Wales, in
1888. In 1896, his family moved to Oxford. Lawrence studied architecture and
archaeology, for which he made a trip to Ottoman (Turkish)-controlled Syria and
Palestine in 1909. In 1911, he won a fellowship to join an expedition excavating
an ancient Hittite settlement on the Euphrates River. He worked there for three
years and in his free time traveled and learned Arabic. In 1914, he explored the
Sinai, near the frontier of Ottoman-controlled Arabia and British-controlled
Egypt. The maps Lawrence and his associates made had immediate strategic value
upon the outbreak of war between Britain and the Ottoman Empire in October 1914.

Lawrence enlisted in the war and because of his expertise in Arab
affairs was assigned to Cairo as an intelligence officer. He spent more than a
year in Egypt, processing intelligence information and in 1916 accompanied a
British diplomat to Arabia, where Hussein ibn Ali, the emir of Mecca, had
proclaimed a revolt against Turkish rule. Lawrence convinced his superiors to
aid Hussein’s rebellion, and he was sent to join the Arabian army of Hussein’s
son Faisal as a liaison officer.

Under Lawrence’s guidance, the Arabians
launched an effective guerrilla war against the Turkish lines. He proved a
gifted military strategist and was greatly admired by the Bedouin people of
Arabia. In July 1917, Arabian forces captured Aqaba near the Sinai and joined
the British march on Jerusalem. Lawrence was promoted to the rank of lieutenant
colonel. In November, he was captured by the Turks while reconnoitering behind
enemy lines in Arab dress and was tortured and sexually abused before escaping.
He rejoined his army, which slowly worked its way north to Damascus, which fell
in October 1918.

Arabia was liberated, but Lawrence’s hope that the
peninsula would be united as a single nation was dashed when Arabian
factionalism came to the fore after Damascus. Lawrence, exhausted and
disillusioned, left for England. Feeling that Britain had exacerbated the
rivalries between the Arabian groups, he appeared before King George V and
politely refused the medals offered to him.

After the war, he lobbied
hard for independence for Arab countries and appeared at the Paris peace
conference in Arab robes. He became something of a legendary figure in his own
lifetime, and in 1922 he gave up higher-paying appointments to enlist in the
Royal Air Force (RAF) under an assumed name, John Hume Ross. He had just
completed writing his monumental war memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and he
hoped to escape his fame and acquire material for a new book. Found out by the
press, he was discharged, but in 1923 he managed to enlist as a private in the
Royal Tanks Corps under another assumed name, T.E. Shaw, a reference to his
friend, Irish writer George Bernard Shaw. In 1925, Lawrence rejoined the RAF and
two years later legally changed his last name to Shaw.

In 1927, an
abridged version of his memoir was published and generated tremendous publicity,
but the press was unable to locate Lawrence (he was posted to a base in India).
In 1929, he returned to England and spent the next six years writing and working
as an RAF mechanic. In 1932, his English translation of Homer’s Odyssey was
published under the name of T.E. Shaw. The Mint, a fictionalized account of
Royal Air Force recruit training, was not published until 1955 because of its

In February 1935, Lawrence was discharged from the RAF and
returned to his simple cottage at Clouds Hill, Dorset. On May 13, he was
critically injured while driving his motorcycle through the Dorset countryside.
He had swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles. On May 19, he died at the hospital
of his former RAF camp. All of Britain mourned his passing.


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