By Dom Brown
The 19th May 2015 marked the 80th anniversary of the death of a man whose legend preceded him. Lawrence of Arabia and his sensational story has captivated historians and hero-worshippers alike; he has gone down in history as one of the figureheads of tactical warfare, as well as a crusader for freedom. It is the second trait which gained him so many lifelong admirers, but also enemies, as he ultimately failed in his grand vision for the Arab nations. He was a writer, an archaeologist, a leader of men and somewhat surprisingly in death a catalyst for the progression of British road safety. But why is he now more remembered in the domains of academia rather than the public? Despite the public awareness and sympathy for the suffering of troops on the Western Front in the First World War, Lawrence is delegated to a single film to define his legacy, one that betrays the reality and dramatises a man who still arouses debate amongst historians, both positively and negatively.
To begin with, much has been made of the problems in Lawrence’s early life, many arguing that his childhood insecurities and individualistic behaviour shaped him into a natural born leader. Nevertheless it is for this reason too that Lawrence developed an ingrained feeling of self-righteousness which would carry him through the intense pain that the war would cause him, both physically and mentally. Arguably his “independent resolve” was strengthened profoundly by the discovery of his illegitimacy, which horrified him and separated him irrevocably from his family.  It would be fair to assume that the puritan strictness of his mother, combined with this unholy revelation, marked a shift in the trust that Lawrence was willing to place in others, particularly those in power. He was not afraid to go on his own path, and his introverted behaviour is reflected in the desire he had to establish himself at the forefront of the Arab crisis.
Moreover, Lawrence’s love of literary discovery led to an extraordinary adventure for his final history dissertation research, going on a solitary trip to Syria at 20 years old in 1909. This was entirely against the recommendation of friends, family and tutors, but his perseverance was not to be contained. During his trip, he was beaten and robbed by a Kurdish gang and left for dead. Even so, he managed to collect enough resources for a first class degree when he returned. Not a bad effort for a history dissertation, but this reflects a far more interesting point about the character that became Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence’s actions early on in his life are echoed by the individualistic attitude he had whilst fighting in the Middle East as a youth.
The stories, which immortalised Lawrence, began with his actions in the Arab Revolt from the summer of 1917 onwards, when the Arab forces broke through against the Turks. The capture of Akaba was a seismic change in the fortunes of the Arabs against the larger Turkish forces. Lawrence’s importance to the campaign cannot be understated. A strong willed maverick and idealist, he was in his natural element. It was apparent early on that he had an inherent ability to command, despite his rather secluded tendencies. Excelling under serious pressure, it was clear that he was willing to commit any act to succeed against the Turks, murdering his own wounded troops to stop the Turks making them suffer further. Many of the Turks and Arabs were surprised to see a British officer act so recklessly, bypassing many of his superior officer’s orders and taking charge of missions when he had no authority to do so. Harold Orlans describes his conduct during this period as ‘brilliant, clear, impressive, maddening’ which perfectly sums up Lawrence’s enigmatic force. It was always difficult to predict what he was going to do next.
However, his sometimes illogical but meticulous approach proved to be extremely successful. He was key in the storming of Akaba on 6 July 1917, which was a mission completed independently of the British authorities. This cemented his position of influence over British involvement in the Middle East, giving him great scope to put pressure on the Army to support his overall plan for defeating the Turks. Lawrence worked in tangent with General Allenby, and whilst the relationship was fractured at times, it can be seen that it reaped fruitful bounty by the end. Damascus was captured and Lawrence and his exploits were regarded as heroic. Despite that his attempts to achieve the collective Arab state he had so wanted and promised failed; by the time negotiations had begun in 1920 “the poetic ideal had splintered”, with political factions rendering unity impossible.  This can be regarded as a turning point for Lawrence, as his determination was severely affected and he could never shake off the regret that this particular failure provoked. What’s more, these events intensified his anti-establishment views further – markedly he refused his nomination for the Order of the Bath on the grounds that it would compromise his political position with the Arab sheiks.
When conducting an examination of Lawrence one cannot overlook the controversy that marred his lifetime, and continue to this day. Some critique his memory as ‘the progeny of journalists’ rather than historians or fellow participants in the Arab revolt; thus making the accuracy of his stories impossible to be certain on. Whilst he is now a relatively unknown figure in modern history publicly, in academic and military circles he is still widely discussed and renowned for his tactical awareness and his sheer depth in character. Arguably it is the second which makes him such an attractive prospect for biographers and story makers alike. Ultimately Lawrence was a man who had an idealistic plan for a country he adored and was willing to do anything to make it possible but fell agonisingly short. Indeed, Lawrence’s glamour was more prominent due to the all-consuming destruction and national pessimism that the Great War caused. He was a romantic figure in a time of war that was entirely catastrophic, undertaking daring feats across large expanses of land and eventually defeating an enemy that had been expected to win.
So why is he such an understated and often misunderstood figure? Fundamental to the issue of the Lawrence myth is that “people in the twenty-first century more readily recall T. E. Lawrence” through the mirage of David Lean’s epic film, rather than any biography or Lawrence’s own work. The Lawrence “myth” as some call it is a complex debate that features a noble crusader, fighting for Arab freedom, yet is a reclusive introvert who rejects all form of recognition. What is questionable however is the intended dramatics that Lawrence inputted into both his actions and writings. He wrote his semi-autobiography Seven Pillars as “his attempt at a modern epic” which sensationalises the Arab Revolt with as much literary intensity as possible. Furthermore, Lawrence has continually been criticised for his accuracy on certain events, most interestingly on the Derra Incident which divides historians most palpably. Some believe this event, in which Lawrence claims that he was beaten, raped and tortured by Turkish troops to have been a major cause of his later depression and constant rewriting of his accounts of the revolt. Graves describes the whole story as ‘little more than a fabrication’ which was intended to shock the reader. Lawrence was allegedly in Akaba at the time he claimed the attack happened, many miles away from Derra. The main issue that Graves has is that Lawrence possibly wanted sympathy in the aftermath of the war when all of his actions, some of them morally contentious, were coming into the public eye. A story of pure hardship, and Lawrence truly had suffered a great deal over the course of the war, would endear him more to the public readership and his friendship circle. The Derra incident is still disputed to this day, and it is clear there will never be a completely emphatic answer to its validity.
Lawrence’s story ends with tragedy, when he died on Sunday 19 May 1935, days after crashing his motorcycle trying to avoid two young cyclists. He was 46 years old. Even so, Lawrence proved that even posthumously he could provide another indelible contribution to the world, albeit one that would surprise most contemporaries who knew him. Marek Pruszewicz writes in his article commemorating the eightieth anniversary of T. E. Lawrence’s death that the accident which killed him would “eventually help to save thousands”. The “pioneering” work by Hugh Cairns on crash helmets came as a direct result of Lawrence’s fatal accident. Thus the death of Lawrence of Arabia led to the laws on mandatory crash helmets and subsequently seatbelts, a now ubiquitous aspect of road safety. It seems that whatever Lawrence did, intentionally or unintentionally, he could not help but add to his enduring myth and intrigue that entices academics to this day and, surely, for many more to come.
 Harold Orlans; T. E. Lawrence: Biography of a Broken Hero p.13.
 S. Weintraub and R. Weintraub; Lawrence of Arabia: The Literary Impulse p.1.
 Harold Orlans; T. E. Lawrence: Biography of a Broken Hero p.5.
 S. Weintraub and R. Weintraub; The Literary Impulse p.7.
 Harold Orlans; Biography of a Broken Hero p. 27.
 Brian Holden Reid; T.E. Lawrence and his biographers p.228.
 Adrian Greaves; Lawrence of Arabia: Mirage of a desert war p.2.
 S. Weintraub and R. Weintraub; The Literary Impulse p.30.
 Adrian Greaves; Mirage of a desert war p.145.