The death of Lawrence of Arabia

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The date 19 May is not one that immediately springs to mind but on that day in 1935 the remarkable TE Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia as he is better known, died in a motorcycle accident in Dorset.

Most people know about Lawrence's remarkable life and career in the desert during the First World War. His death and the circumstances leading up to it are not so familiar.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born on 16 August 1888 in Tremadog, north Wales. His family was not Welsh but, having been born here, Lawrence qualifies as a Welshman and during his short life he did have an affinity with the country. He was the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman and spent his formative years in Wales – perhaps his love of wild places stemmed from this time.

Educated at Jesus College, Lawrence (the name was adopted by his father when he left his wife and family to live with Sarah Junner, Lawrence's mother) became a specialist in the Middle East and its archeology.

Conrary to popular belied, Lawrence was not a conscript in the war. He was co-opted into the British Army in early 1914 to undertake a survey of the Negev desert. The story of his wartime activities behind Turkish lines, activities that really did swing the war in Britain's favour, are too well known to recount here.

Suffice to say that after 1919, Lawrence was disillusioned and bitter about the way the Arabs had been treated – and with his own part in the betrayal. He was naturally a shy and retiring man, although supremely egotistical, and in August 1922 he attempted to enlist in the RAF under the name John Hume Ross. He seemed to want anonymity rather than the fame and adulation he was currently receiving.

Lawrence was interviewed by Flying Officer WE Johns, the man who later created the Biggles character, and was rejected because Johns was sure the name Ross was false. Lawrence seemed to accept the rejection but later re-appeared in front of Johns with written orders that stated he was to be accepted into the RAF. Lawrence had clearly pulled strings and Johns had no alternative to pass Aircraftsman Ross, as he now became, into the service.

Lawrence was forced to leave the RAF a year later when his ruse was exposed. Still craving peace and anonymity, Lawrence promptly enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps, this time under the name of TE Shaw. It was an unhappy time for Lawrence, always unsure of his sexuality and plagued by two twin desires - on the one hand a thirsting for fame and, on the other, a fervent wish to blend in with the crowd.

Again using his influence, Lawrence persuaded the RAF to take him back and in 1925 he was sent to serve on a remote post in northern India. He continued to serve with the RAF until his term of enlistment ended in March 1935.

Lawrence had always been a keen motorcyclist and at one time or another owned seven different motorbikes. Having left the RAF he was living in a cottage he had bought in Dorset, Clouds Hill. Here he wrote much of his amazing Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, his account of the desert war. The book was published in 1935.

On the evening of 13 May 1935 Lawrence left his cottage, probably to post letters to the writer Henry Williamson. He was riding a Brough Superior SS100 motorbike and had not gone far when he approached a dip in the road. His view was obscured and suddenly he found himself confronted by two boys on push bikes.

Lawrence swerved to avoid the boys and was thrown over the handlebars of his motorcycle. He was taken to Wool Military Hospital on Bovington Camp but never recovered consciousness. He died six days later on 19 May.

Lawrence had suffered irreparable brain damage and the view of the surgeons was that even if he had recovered he would have been left with only partial speech and sight. Lawrence would probably have preferred to be dead. He was 46 years old.

Lord Allenby, victor of the desert war and the man who had given Lawrence his head to work with the Arab tribes, commented that he had "lost a good friend and a valued comrade." The funeral took place on 21 May, a private ceremony with only those who had known him during the war in attendance. There were no flowers and no military escort for the coffin.

TE Lawrence was a complex and difficult man but what he achieved in 1917-18 can never be under played. His book Seven Pillars Of Wisdom remains a remarkable testament to a man who was undoubtedly "out of his time."

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