National Civil War Centre
National Civil War Trail - includes app store logos

Lawrence of Arabia – a war hero re-emerges from the desert sands

26 October 2016

 

He has been called a charlatan and fantasist – but a new exhibition lends credence to the account Lawrence of Arabia gave of his own extraordinary exploits in the desert.

What emerges according to one expert is the re-rehabilitation of a war hero.

He has been called a charlatan and fantasist – but a new exhibition lends credence to the account Lawrence of Arabia gave of his own extraordinary exploits in the desert.

What emerges according to one expert is the re-rehabilitation of a war hero.

TE Lawrence was a low-ranking British military intelligence officer who played a key role in the Great Arab Revolt (1916-18) against the Turkish Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

Memorably photographed in Arab dress, he was accidentally 'discovered' by an American reporter and became an iconic figure of the 20th century, feted by royalty and immortalised in David Lean's classic 1962 film.

But since then separating the man from the myth has proved impossible, especially after a critical biography was published in the 1950s.

Now his reputation and impact are being reassessed in a UK first exhibition - now open - being hosted by the National Civil War Centre in Newark, Nottinghamshire.  

It is based on 10 years' research by archaeologists following in Lawrence's footsteps in the Jordanian desert, armed with Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his own often criticised account of the revolt, fully published in 1935.

“We found field evidence to support Lawrence's claims wherever we looked,” said Neil Faulkner, who together with Nick Saunders, both from Bristol University, headed the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP), drawing on volunteers from across the UK. 

“For three years we searched to locate one of the desert camps he used before launching attacks on the Hijaz railway line.  There we found spent cartridges and rum bottles discarded by British troops. We also excavated the site of the deadly attack on a Turkish supply train, featured in David Lean's film.  The  investigation confirmed Lawrence's account in every detail.

Spent bullets and blown up railway line are some of the artefacts being displayed for the first time, together with the chest used by Lawrence to carry gold to pay Arab chiefs and the robes he wore in a 1919 publicity shot that helped propel him to worldwide fame. Neil Faulkner continued:

“Many in the Arab world view Lawrence as a third rate agent of imperialism. He was a very unlikely war hero - an orientalist and archaeologist, as well as a misfit and maverick. But he was a brilliant military commander.  Without his help it's unlikely the Arab army would have achieved the success they did in defeating the Ottoman Empire.”

The exhibition also focuses on Lawrence the man, his legacy and the aftermath of the Great Arab Revolt.  A copy of a map he drew up with polymath Gertrude Bell on how the region should be reshaped for consideration by the British Cabinet, is also on display.

“He was a pro-Arab nationalist and wanted to see a very different future to that carved out by the British and French, which took little note of tribal boundaries and sentiment.  The results of that can still be seen today.”

Michael Constantine, Manager of the National Civil War Centre, added: 

“We're thrilled to work with the GARP team to host this fascinating show. Although we are primarily tell the story of the 17th century clash between King and Parliament, we also step outside our time-period to stage world class exhibitions. Previously we have hosted Magnum Agency photographs of civil wars in the twentieth century in places like Yemen, Somalia and Syria, which links to the aftermath of the Great Arab Revolt.  Of course the story of Lawrence is truly spell-binding.” 

The show runs until 31 March 2017 and is open daily 10am to 4pm.  Entry is free with normal admission to the National Civil War Centre: £8 adults, £7 concessions and £3.50 children.  A season ticket is just £16 and English Heritage members go half price.