The exploits of TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – enthralled the newspaper-reading public at the time when there was little good news from the Western Front.
Almost 80 years after his death in Dorset, Lawrence remains an inspirational, mysterious and controversial figure.
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He was born in North Wales in 1888, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat and a governess. Regularly beaten by his mother, he would put himself through days without food and sleep during his adolescence, as well as taking arduous hikes and cycle rides.
He visited Arabia on archaeological expeditions as a young man and grew to despise the Turkish occupation of Arab lands.
When war broke out, he was posted to the Arab Bureau in Cairo as an intelligence agent, tasked with promoting rebellion against the Ottoman Empire.
Forging a close relationship with Emir Faisal, he helped the Arabs carry out repeated attacks on the Hejaz railway, which was the Turks’ only way of supplying Medina. In 1917, he arranged a successful operation to capture port of Aqaba.
Lawrence was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for leading Arab regulars at the battle of Tafileh and he was involved in the capture of Damascus in the last weeks of the war.
But when peace came, he was to feel betrayed and demoralised. Although he had promised the Arabs independence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement saw Britain and France partitioning the Arab lands. Lawrence wrote a best-selling memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but shunned high rank. He joined the RAF as John Hume Ross in 1922, but his identity was uncovered that year by the Daily Express.
He took another new name, TE Shaw, and joined the Tank Corps at Bovington. He lived in simple surroundings in a cottage at Clouds Hill, near Wareham, but would still head to London for elite dinner parties before returning to camp. Among his friends in Dorset was the elderly Thomas Hardy, whose wife Florence called him “the most marvellous human being I have ever met”.
Captain Kirby, Shaw’s superior officer in the Tank Corps, wrote: “He received no favours and asked none. He was very amenable to discipline, much more so than the ordinary soldier, and the fact that he had once been a Colonel was never displayed in his behaviour. In fact, he was a perfect Tommy Atkins.”
In his free time, Lawrence would ride at speed through the county on a succession of valuable Brough motorcycles. He died in 1935, after coming off the road near Clouds Hill in 1935 when he failed to spot two boys on bicycles.
A succession of biographies, the epic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, debate about his sexuality and conspiracy theories about his death have all fuelled the Lawrence legend ever since – and helped the National Trust-owned cottage at Clouds Hill remain a popular Dorset attraction.