Thomas Edward Lawrence, the British Army officer whose World War I exploits earned him fame as “Lawrence of Arabia,” was such an enigmatic figure that sources even conflict about his precise birth date, which is reported as either August 15 or August 16, 1888. On the 125th anniversary of his birth, learn 10 surprising facts about T.E. Lawrence.
1. Born out of wedlock, Lawrence only learned his true identity after his father’s death.
In 1879, 18-year-old Sarah Lawrence arrived at the opulent Irish estate of Sir Thomas Chapman to begin work as a governess for his four daughters. The Victorian aristocrat and his domestic servant began an affair, and she secretly gave birth to their illegitimate son in 1885. When the scandal was discovered, Chapman left his wife and moved to Britain with his new love. Although the couple never wed, they adopted the last name Lawrence and pretended to be man and wife. T.E., who was the second of the couple’s five children, only learned the true identities of his parents after his father’s 1919 death.
2. The real “Lawrence of Arabia” was a man of short stature.
While six-foot, three-inch Peter O’Toole cut a towering figure as the lead in the 1962 epic biopic “Lawrence of Arabia,” the real Lawrence was only five feet, five inches tall. Lawrence remained self-conscious about his height, which may have been caused by a childhood case of the mumps.
3. He first traveled to the Middle East as an Oxford archaeology student.
Lawrence spent the summer of 1909 traveling solo through Syria and Palestine to survey the castles of the Crusaders for his thesis. He walked nearly 1,000 miles and was shot at, robbed and badly beaten. In spite of the arduous journey, the new graduate returned to Syria the following year as part of an archaeological expedition sponsored by the British Museum. His years in the region deepened his knowledge of Arabic and affinity for the Arabs.
4. He never had a single day of battlefield training.
In 1914, the British military employed Lawrence on an archaeological expedition of the Sinai Peninsula and Negev Desert, a research trip that was actually a cover for a secret military survey of territory possessed by the Ottoman Turks. Once World War I began, Lawrence joined the British military as an intelligence officer in Cairo. He worked a desk job for nearly two years before being sent to Arabia in 1916 where, in spite of his nonexistent military training, he helped to lead battlefield expeditions and dangerous missions behind enemy lines during the two-year Arab Revolt against the Turks.
5. Lawrence lost two brothers who also served in World War I.
Within months of each other in 1915, two of Lawrence’s younger brothers, Frank and Will, were killed fighting on the Western Front. The guilt Lawrence felt about his safe desk job in Cairo as millions died on the front lines spurred him to the field at the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in 1916.
6. Lawrence’s fame did not come until after the war.
Overshadowed by the millions of lives lost on the Western Front, Lawrence’s exploits were largely unheralded by the end of World War I in 1918. He was such an unknown figure that even the Turks, who had a bounty on his head, did not know what he looked like. However, when the American war correspondent Lowell Thomas launched a 1919 lecture tour recounting his assignment in the Middle East, his photographs and films of “Lawrence of Arabia” transfixed the public and transformed the British colonel into both a war hero and an international celebrity.
7. He refused a knighthood.
King George V summoned Lawrence to Buckingham Palace on October 30, 1918. Lawrence hoped that the private audience was to discuss borders for an independent Arabia, but instead the king wished to bestow a knighthood on his 30-year-old subject. Believing that the British government had betrayed the Arabs by reneging on a promise of independence, Lawrence quietly told the befuddled monarch that he was refusing the honor before turning and walking out of the palace.
8. Lawrence worked for Winston Churchill.
In 1921, the future prime minister became Colonial Secretary and employed Lawrence as an advisor on Arab affairs. The two men grew to admire each other and became lifelong friends.
9. After World War I, he re-enlisted under assumed names.
After completing his diplomatic service under Churchill, Lawrence returned to the military in 1922 by enlisting in the Royal Air Force. But in an attempt to avoid the glare of celebrity, he did so under a pseudonym: John Hume Ross. Months later, the press revealed his secret, and he was discharged. Lawrence subsequently enlisted as a private in the Royal Tank Corps, but under the assumed name Thomas Edward Shaw, a nod to his friend, the famed Irish writer George Bernard Shaw. Lawrence subsequently published an English translation of Homer’s Odyssey under the pen name of T.E. Shaw and maintained the assumed name until his death.
10. Lawrence died in a motorcycle crash.
Lawrence was an avid motorcyclist; he owned seven different Brough Superiors, dubbed the “Rolls-Royces of Motorcycles.” On the morning of May 13, 1935, Lawrence sped through the English countryside on his Brough Superior SS100 motorbike. He suddenly saw two boys on bicycles on the narrow country road and swerved to avoid them. However, he clipped one of the bikes and was thrown forward over the handlebars. Lawrence never recovered from his massive brain injuries and died at the age of 46 on May 19.