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  • By Tim Campbell

The Real Lawrence of Arabia.


At the entrance to Wadi Rum national park in southern Jordan there is a railway station for only one train. The station is not for passengers and there are no facilities, bar an office for a few guards. The rails at the station lead nowhere and will never carry another engine or carriage. This is a station specifically built for a movie set and houses one of the most famous trains in the world. It's the train used in the movie "Lawrence of Arabia".

Made in 1962 this iconic film showcases the real life story of T.E.Lawrence who was born in Wales. He rose through the ranks of the British army helping his regiment defeat the Ottomans and capture Damascus, eventually becoming a diplomat. After returning to the UK, Lawrence was killed while out riding his motorcycle in the Dorset countryside in Southern England.

Lawrence wrote a book based on his memoirs called the "7 Pillars of Wisdom". This in turn was turned into the feature film of 1962 starring Peter O'Toole as T.E.Lawrence. The movie turned into several other variations over the decades and even a stage play with Alan Bennet called "Forty years on". His most famous collaborator on his novel was George Bernard Shaw who helped him write the 7 Pillars as well as staging his own play called "Too true to be good".

T.E.Lawrence was born in Wales in 1888 as the illegitimate son of a Baron and a Scottish governess. After University at Oxford he volunteered for the army at the outbreak of the First World War. He eventually joined an intelligence section in the Middle East and basically became a super spy. His exploits, however, were grossly exaggerated by an American reporter, and the legend was born.

Lawrence became an archaeologist before joining, up and learned Arabic. With both these talents he was sent to spy on the Ottomans as a cover working at an archaeological dig. After several years traveling around the Middle East in Syria, Egypt and Jordan, he helped plan the Arab revolt of 1916 by choosing its leader. Throughout the Arab revolt Lawrence participated in intelligence gathering but also in many live attacks. He became one of the primary leaders of the revolt against the Ottomans. Eventually the Turks put a bounty on his head of £20,000, or $2.1 million dollars today, which was never paid out.

Participating in the fall of Aqaba in Jordan and Damascus in Syria, Lawrence eventually met up with the American war correspondent Lowell Thomas in Jerusalem. Once the legend was exploited by the U.S. and British newspapers, Lawrence wrote a book called "The 7 Pillars" and went on the lecture circuit making money from his tours. It was the Arab Bedouin dress that he wore on the tours which turned him into Lawrence of Arabia and made him a household name throughout Britain and the USA.

On his return to the UK from Arabia in August 1922 Lawrence tried to retain some kind of anonymity by signing up as John Ross. However, he was found out by the commanding officer and asked to leave. He left but quickly returned with a letter from the Foreign office telling the C.O. to re-instate him.It was rumored to come from Churchill who he wrote to on a regular basis. Eventually, he left one year later and changed his name again to T.E.Shaw. He joined the Tank corps in India, returning to the UK in 1928, but only after allegations of spying were levied against him.

As a writer T.E.Lawrence wrote letters to many famous figures such as George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward and Winston Churchill about his exploits. In his most well known book "The 7 Pillars", Lawrence lived in London and wrote it while living there. In London he was closer to his audiences, and his income, eager to hear his numerous spy stories from the Middle East.

Lawrence's writing provided his income from both The 7 Pillars and subsequent literary pieces such as the epic "Revolt in the Desert". Rather than rest on his laurels and just enjoy the income, he set up a fund with the money. It provided sums to an RAF benevolent fund and more importantly an education fund for children of RAF officers who had died in service.

Lawrence bought land in Essex but continued serving in the RAF, near Southampton and in Yorkshire, until he finally retired from the services in 1935. Two months after his retirement, Lawrence was following his passion of riding motorcycles when he crashed in Dorset and died from the resulting head injuries. Coincidentally, the surgeon who treated Lawrence was instrumental in providing research which resulted in the crash helmet, an item that has saved millions of lives over the years in many countries around the world.

After his death, Lawrence's brother inherited his estate and trust and continued to provide income for the RAF benevolent fund.

This article is dedicated to my mother, maiden name Vera Winifred Lawrence, who died in November 2017. She was the first person who told me about T.E.Lawrence. Although he was no relation to her, she read his stories to me, which, in turn, gave me inspiration to become a writer myself. I visited the train and the carvings in Wadi Rum, Jordan in November 2016. I also live in Southampton where Lawrence was a frequent visitor, having served in the services nearby.


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