5 facts about… Lawrence of Arabia

History Revealed magazine looks back at Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as 'Lawrence of Arabia', the British World War I soldier who was instrumental in the Arab Revolt...

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With war raging, Lawrence – who fell in love with the Middle East during his years of travel and archaeology – began working for the British Army. In 1916, the Arab Revolt against Turkey began and Lawrence took to the battlefield. With no battle training, he proved himself a master tactician and military leader and quickly became an influential, beloved figure in the region. His successes and writings led to fame as a war hero, and his nickname.

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His fame endures today, thanks in part to David Lean’s epic 1962 film. He died as he lived – going at full speed, fearless and reckless to the end – so as we mark his death, here are five facts about Lawrence of Arabia… 

1) He was a giant in the Middle East, but Lawrence was always self-conscious about his height. At five feet, five inches, he hardly had the looming physical presence to match his reputation.

2) While he worked as an Intelligence Officer in Cairo, two of Lawrence’s five brothers were killed on the Western Front. The deaths of Frank and Will hit Lawrence hard – a guilt consumed him as he worked in relative safety, while men were dying in Europe. Some historians have argued that this guilt may have been a crucial factor in his involvement in the Arab Revolt.

3) In 1918, Lawrence was sure that Arab independence was near so when he was invited to Buckingham Palace, he must have thought it was to discuss the region’s future. Instead, he was offered a knighthood. Lawrence, feeling he had failed to achieve self-rule for the Arab people, refused. 

4) Lawrence wished to stay in military service after the war but he was concerned his burgeoning fame would prevent him. He therefore enlisted with the Royal Air Force in 1922 under the pseudonym John Hume Ross. It did not last long, as his secret was exposed in February 1923 and Lawrence was discharged. Far from discouraged, he tried again – he joined the Royal Tank Corps under the sobriquet, T E Shaw, a name he kept until retiring in 1935.

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5) On 19 May 1935, Lawrence died aged 46 after crashing his motorcycle near his home in Dorset. One of his greatest pleasures was riding his motorcycles – at frightening speeds – around the small country roads, but his luck ran out on 13 May, when he crashed trying to avoid two boys on bicycles. He died six days later. One of his doctors, Hugh Cairns, was inspired by Lawrence’s senseless death to study the frequency of deaths due to motorcycle accidents – his findings led to the introduction of crash helmets for motorcyclists.