Lawrence of Arabia - His life in British India

Most of you would have seen the movie with the name (Note: This is not a movie review or a biography!), many of you may have read a bit here and there about him, that Lt Col TE Lawrence, working with the Arabs in the deserts North of today’s Saudi Arabia led the 1916-18 revolt against the Turks, and helped establish Arab lands you see today. As a person who studied pottery and went to the Middle East to be an archeologist, he soon found his way into international politics and armed uprising, of the illiterate Bedouin. He was quickly accepted as a quasi leader and a fellow by the rugged but rival factions of various tribes and Lawrence adopted many local customs and traditions (many photographs show him in the desert wearing Arab garb and riding camels). His final victory in the desert was establishing the liberated Damascus as the capital of the Arab council, with King Faisal as the head, but it was not to continue. During the closing years of the war he sought, with mixed success, to convince his superiors in the British government that Arab independence was in their interests. Disappointed and depressed, he moved back to Britain and was lost to the world, though figuring occasionally in UK news. His friend and American journalist Thomas Lowell had by then propelled him into the world media as a hero, which Lawrence as it appears, was never ready to accept. Anyway, Lawrence had his weaknesses and faults, but was always an eminently interesting adventurer.

TEL as he was known, worked later for W Churchill, but during his life in UK as a civilian, found the public glare on himself too hard to endure. Changing his name to John Hume Ross, he joined the tank corps in England but left soon after. In 1925, he joined the RAF and asked for a posting to India. He spent three years in relative obscurity in British India, and went back to Britain, to die in 1935, in a motorcycle accident (Some enthusiast’s say he did not and that he went back to the Middle East as a spy (Like Subhash Chandra Bose, he figures in many such hypotheses)). But even his death had a silver lining. Today’s use of helmets are a result of doctors studying the mortally ‘head injured’ TEL unsuccessfully fighting for his life.

OK, so much is commonplace, but what did he do in India? Actually he worked for the RAF in today’s Pakistan, starting in Karachi. Some of it was routine clerical work, some of it, still filled with intrigue. Let us take a look into those missing pages of his public life, of which not much is written about. Probably it was too sedate a period in his otherwise turbulent life, probably it was something else entirely, but for me, it was an interesting journey, trying to uncover the story, for I have great admiration for this man. I yearn always to be like that, in strange lands, doing things nobody else did. But we will all have our dreams, while others enact it in their lifetime (See TEL’s quote at the end).

Many questions till remain unanswered - Was he recovering from nervous strain or writing books in addition to routine work in the RAF or was he an anti Soviet British spy in the NWFP? Did the person who considered female contact not quite right, one who desired ultimate chastity, and later arranged for people to whip him, get married while in India? Interesting, eh?

By Dec 1926, Lawrence had completed a draft of his biography, the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ which was yet to be published. His great friend GB Shaw the writer and Shaw’s wife Charlotte were soon to help him edit it. His next work, ‘Revolt in the desert’ was ready for release and TEL used all his connections to secure a 5 year posting at the RAF station in Northern India. On Dec 8th, he set sail to India, in a troopship. But there was another twist. Thomas Edward Lawrence, who had become John Hume Ross to escape public scrutiny, now changed his name to Thomas Edward Shaw. Lawrence the persona as we know him today, was journalist Lowell Thomas’s making, the one exalted identity which he wanted to escape from, and thus it was that he ran away to India. Destination, Karachi, NW British India.

At Karachi, TE Shaw took a train to the nearby Drig airbase. As he chugged on, he saw that the terrain was somewhat similar to Arabia; TEL liked it and soon settled down to the humdrum routine of military life in an outpost. He did his own chores, hating the way the others treated the Indian, though he did nothing much about it other than mumbling a bit. His job was a clerk was mostly confined to barracks. Imagine the ex Lt Col, now working in the RAF as a lowly clerk and messenger boy, keeping records on engines, repair logs and the such. It was boring and TEL started to add to his book collection, soon reaching 250 within the year. Listening to the gramophone was also a pastime, and he lived frugally, lending money to others and working without a break. Very few knew his real identity, which anyway was legally changed by June 1927 to TE Shaw.

Winston Churchill writes to Airman Lawrence on May 16, 1927: “In fact, when I put down the Seven Pillars, I felt mortified at the contrast between my dictated journalism and your grand and permanent contribution to English literature... The impression it produced was overpowering. I marched with you those endless journeys by camel, with never a cool drink, a hot bath, or a square meal except under revolting conditions. What a tale!”

1927 did not do well to TEL’s health, he had dysentery, problems with his hearing & eyesight and his wrist which was broken earlier continued to trouble him. He felt cold and caught colds in the otherwise hot Karachi. But he worked the evenings writing loads of stuff. Some of that was actually well over 100 letters exchanged with GB Shaw’s wife Charlotte over two years!! Just imagine, he was 38 and she was 70, in the year 1927. She was the mother figure pouring out her heart to the young Lawrence, matters that even her longtime husband GBS had no clues about. She sent him food parcels and edited all his work from then on. Unfortunately he burnt a lot of her replies though she did not. During this period he wrote yet another book, this one on the RAF called ‘Mint’. All in all, things were going well though he was depressed, but the mind weary 39 year old TEL, who felt like a ‘wing crippled duck, and a squeezed out orange’, wanted to try for another extension in India, until 1935. Lawrence describes conditions at the RAF base in Karachi: “Our beds are narrow and close together, our cooks awful; our life harried by orders” (letter to Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, April 4, 1927, Karachi)

At this point, things would take another turn. The commander, deeply distrustful of special correspondence between TEL and his big bosses in Britain, wanted him out. Soon Lawrence (Shaw) was about to be shunted somewhere, when another big gun, a friend of his, interfered and removed the station commander. The new chief was no better for Lawrence, and soon TEL was posted to Miranshah in the NWFP, 10 miles from Afghanistan, where a 400 square yard fort had been appropriated by the British, complete with an airstrip.

Now I wonder, why put this man there of all places? (Do you recall that Champaka Raman Pillai was to come to the NWFP and that it was to become the location for the launch of the Azad India movement? Operation Tiger was being put into place by the Nazi’s as well – but let me not complicate all this too much, that was much later, towards 1942-44). This fort near Waziristan had 5 British officers, 20 airmen, 700 Indian troops and segregated living. Lawrence remained an airman and would not take any exams for fear that he would be promoted. So here, he became a store keeper and clerk typist. Can you again imagine, a personal friend of Thomas Hardy, GB Shaw, EM Forster, Churchill, winner of medals & honors, a one time Lt Col, now working as a typist? And it was here that he took to translating French books and the Odyssey from Greek. It was June 1928 by now.

By September, it was all to change with a London Evening news headline that read ‘Lawrence of Arabia’s secret mission’. He was supposedly spying on Bolsheviks in Amritsar, wearing a turban and robes according to the report. The news created uproar in India and the social circles of London and TEL had to be removed quickly. By November, a tribal revolt was brewing in Afghanistan. Given a choice of Singapore, Aden or Somalia, TEL flew back to Lahore and then to a P & O steamer - SS Rajputana from Bombay back to the ‘blighty’ on Jan 12th, 1929. He finally left, in his own words ‘almost the quietest place I have struck’. He said, ‘I am being hunted and I do not like it. I have a terrible fear of getting the sack from the RAF and can’t rest or sit still’. Soon, he had become arch imperialist spy in the press. They would not allow him to disembark in Cairo on is way back and huge groups of reporters waited for the ship to dock at Plymouth to interview the man who wanted to vanish.

Lawrence finally settled down in horribly cold & freezing England, where Charlotte Shaw and other friends anonymously purchased for him an expensive motorbike, gifting him a hobby that would lead to his eventual death a few years later and poignantly shown in the opening scene of the movie. His head hit the handle bars and massive cerebral hemorrhage speeded his death. Today the helmet we wear, reminds us of that TE Lawrence…

The Miranshah ‘spy’ controversy
Much of this is of course not proven and based on rumors at that time, my mentioning them is just to complete TEL’s stay and related events. While TEL was in Miranshah a public uprising occurred in Afghanistan and the king Amanullah was deposed. Lawrence was accused of working as a British Spy. One of the garbs he supposedly used was that of a Muslim cleric, Pir Karam Shah. I doubt this for it was not easily possible for a Westerner to blend with Afghans & Indians, especially with Lawrence’s blue eyes, pale skin and his knowing only Arabic and not Pashtun, Urdu or Hindi. During one event, a Karam Shah was indeed accosted by an angry mob and was seriously injured (some other reports say that he was accosted by TEL’s wife’s father’s wrestlers when they found out that Shah was Lawrence), the mob was fully convinced that he was 'Lawrence of Arabia' in disguise, But it was ‘later’ reported by the Imperial Civil & Military Gazette that the person was indeed the real Karam Shah. A strong denial that he is Colonel Lawrence, or that he is in any way connected with any State or Government, was then issued by this Syed Pir Karam Shah. Nevertheless the story would not go away.

Tariq Ali, the Pakistani novelist had written, “Surely he [Lawrence] didn’t go all the way to the Afghan frontier just to translate the Odyssey. His skills in fomenting tribal conflict were highly regarded and the British were desperate to topple (Soviet sympathizer & radical) King Amanullah. They needed Lawrence, with his knowledge of Islam and facility in Arabic to exhort the tribesmen against their radical, modernizing ruler.” He told Observer the following - 'Lawrence was deployed in a secret role in Afghanistan to destabilize the regime of the then king. It was a highly secret operation and very sensitive. Lawrence was highly regarded in Afghanistan because he spoke Arabic which tribesmen see as the divine language,' Ali told The Observer last week.

Extract from Lawrence of Arabia - The Man and the Motive - Anthony Nutting )

He had not been there (Miranshah) more than a month when, in spite of strenuous precautions, his presence in this embattled area of Britain's imperial domains became known to the American press, who had for long been looking for an exciting story to fasten onto his return to the East. The Soviet newspapers started an immediate outcry that Colonel Lawrence was spying in Afghanistan and the British Minister at Kabul requested that he be sent back to England. Relations between the Indian government and Afghanistan were then at a most sensitive point and Lawrence's continued presence on the Afghan border would have risked a serious incident. He returned early in 1929 to a barrage of comment and speculation in Britain. Unfortunately for him, just before he was withdrawn from Miranshah, a rebellion broke out in Afghanistan which led to the deposition of the King. Labour politicians and the left-wing press in Britain became convinced that Lawrence, whom they had long suspected as being in reality a leading British intelligence agent masquerading as an ordinary airman, had engineered the Afghan conspiracy at the instigation of the government of India. Questions were asked in Parliament and, at a demonstration staged on Tower Hill by a group of Communists, Lawrence was burned in effigy!

Lawrence’s marriage in Karachi
Tariq Ali also reported that Akbar Jahan, Sheikh Abudulla’s wife was first married to T E Lawrence in 1928, while he visited Kashmir. He states that the information is from Akbar’s brother Nedou. Apparently Lawrence before leaving had to divorce her. This again is difficult to believe for Lawrence was well known for his distaste for physical relationships and women and had a major issue like undergoing self flagellation with a whip (which curiously he never did while in India!). But then, who knows?

Quoting a Guardian report – Tariq Ali was told of the marriage by a former senior civil servant from the Himalayan mountain state of Kashmir which was part of the British Raj until independence in 1947. The civil servant said he was told by Benji Nedous, the brother of the bride. 'It was kept fairly secret,' Ali said last week. 'While Lawrence was stationed in India he used to go to the city of Lahore like many other officers, to relax. It was known as the Paris of the East and the Nedous family had a hotel there that was popular with soldiers wanting to rest and drink and so on, and that is where he met her.'

Ali said that he was told that the woman, called Akbar Jehan, was from a good family and was a Shia Muslim. 'It was the Shia practice to have short-term marriages that are very quick to arrange and dissolve. The exact details are a mystery and very few people knew about it, but I am completely convinced that Lawrence married the girl.'
A related Hindu report summarizes the same facts

Personally – I think the Lawrence in Afghanistan as a spy is a tall yarn, so also the Akbar Jahan Wife story that followed.

Lawrence in Jandola
He also visited the army mess in Jandola and gifted them a copy of his ‘revolt in the desert’. This act would not have occurred had he been undercover.Reports state thus - He visited the area in 1928 in the guise of an Aircraftsman Shaw; benighted there by a broken down truck and accommodated in Officer’s Mess. He kept them enthralled by tales (some, perhaps, almost true) of far Arabia and left them a volume which is still treasured by the South Waziristan Scouts officers. “This book, he inscribed on the flyleaf, was written by me, but its sordid type and squalid blocks are the responsibility of the publisher. It is, however, the last copy in print of ‘Revolt in the Desert’, and I have much pleasure in presenting it to the officers of the South Waziristan Scouts in memory of a very interesting day and night with them”. This book is apparently lying in the South Waziristan Scouts Officer’s Mess, Wana.

Some detail on the Dirg base – Today called PAF base Faisal
Soon after the India Command of the Royal Air Force was formed in 1918, with a projected deployment of 8 squadrons on the subcontinent, an aircraft repair depot was established at Lahore with a detachment at Karachi and a port depot at Bombay. In 1922 the main unit was shifted from Lahore to Drigh Road. This was to remain the station's chief function until RAF Drigh Road was handed over to the Royal Pakistan Air Force in 1947. T.E. Lawrence wrote to Charlotte Shaw 28 January 1927, "The Depot is dreary, to a degree, and its background makes me shiver. It is a desert, very like Arabia: and all sorts of haunting likenesses (pack-donkeys, the colour and cut of men's clothes, an oleander bush in flower in the valley, camel-saddles, tamarisk) try to remind me of what I've been for eight years desperately fighting out of my mind. Even I began to doubt if the coming out here was wise. However there wasn't much chance and it must be made to do. It will do, as a matter of fact, easily."Air India’s JRD Tata took off from Drigh Road Airport, Karachi, carrying a mail of Imperial Airways, in a tiny, light single-engined de Havilland Puss Moth on his maiden flight to Mumbai via Ahmedabad. On 26 December 1977 Drigh Road Air Base re-named 'Faisal Air Base' in honour of King Faisal II of Saudi Arabia

T.E. Lawrence: biography of a broken hero - Harold Orlans
Lawrence of Arabia - The Man and the Motive - Anthony Nutting
TE Lawrence Studies
Impressions of TE Shaw

Karachi Photo – TE Lawrence Studies

Others from www - thanks

"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity,but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."

—T. E. Lawrence from "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom"


Kamini said…
I thoroughly enjoyed this very detailed post. Hats off to you for all the effort you have put into this.
A very detailed study of Lawrence of Arabia under disguises. I had little knowledge about this guy. A small Thank You may not be adequate for the efforts put in.
rocksea said…
Have seen the movie and read a bit about him. Great to read about the Indian side of the affair.
Vijay said…
Great post Maddy.
Interesting question- why was TEL depressed, and what was he running away from? He was the victim of an imperial double cross.

He was sent by the British command in Cairo in WW I to Mecca to work with the ruler of the Hejaz, Sharif Hussein, and to form an Arab irregular army to disrupt the Ottoman Turk rear areas. The quid quo pro for this was that Hussein was promised that he would be made king of a kingdom that encompassed the Arabian peninsula. Now, Hussein was an arch enemy of Ibn Saud, ruler of Riyadh.

TEL and Hussein succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The Arab Revolt and British regular forces dispaced the Turks from Palestine.

Meanwhile the British Imperial government in Delhi was cultivating Ibn Saud. Oil had been found in the north, and a tussle developed between Delhi and Cairo as to who would be made king of Arabia. Delhi won and Ibn Saud was installed king (ergo Saudi Arabia) and Hussein was double crossed. By way of consolation Hussein's sons Feisal and Abdullah were made kings of two newly created kingdoms- Iraq and Jordan.

TEL tried desperately to have his promise to Hussein kept. He tried valiantly at the League of Nations. He wrote to all he knew. The Empire stood fast by its double dealing. TEL was broken by this and spent the rest of his life trying to get away.

I agree with Maddy that his being an agent in Mirranshah is unlikely. He was merely trying to forget his past, and the betrayal of his word and honor by his own masters.
Maddy, thanks for a very informative post.
Great post Maddy.
First heard of this gentleman through "Charitrathil Inn" which used to come in Mathrubhumi in late 80s.Then watched the movie.Would have checked the wikipedia entry once.
Awesome compilation of information.
JK said…
There is another movie "A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia" which is like the sequel to the more famous one. But still it does not depict the events your wrote about and so there is scope for another movie.
Anonymous said…
The story about TEL marrying Begum Akbar Jahan is pure fiction! She was born in 1916 and would have been all of 12 years when she fell for the handsome British spy! Her earlier marriage was no secret but one hears for the first time that it was to TEL.To imagine that Harry Nedou would have approved of the alliance and would have equally promptly agreed to the divorce just three months later is rather difficult to believe for anyone who is familiar with the Kashmir milieu. And to believe an anonymous civil servant!! Begum Sahiba was not a shia but a devout sunni.The Begum was married to the Sheikh in 1933 at the age of 17. As a civil servant myself who has worked closely with both the Sheikh and Begum, I find the story a bit difficult to believe.
Maddy said…
Thanks Kamini, PNS & Rocksea

Vijay - thanks indeed for your very detailed anaylysis. for without it, the story of TEL never becomes complete. I am not so sure if we can disregard the Miransha times of TEL as a period where he simply recuperated. He could have gone to Singapore as they offered. The very fact that it is not detailed in books too much makes me somewhat wary.. but then who knows?

Thanks Nikhil, BPSK..

Thanks JK - It has all the makings of a good story, but I am not so sure there is more data still available in public for someone to work that out in greater detail. Maybe the MI6 archives..
Maddy said…
Dear Mr Anonymous - As i said before - think the Lawrence in Afghanistan as a spy story is a tall yarn, so also the Akbar Jahan Wife story that followed- Also as i mentioned, my mentioning them is just to complete TEL’s stay and related events.

It was also stated in Ali's book that AJ was 17 years old in 1928, but that does not seem correct as you point out, since she died at the age of 83 in July 2000.

In addition, many other newspapers have mentioned the story of TEL and Akbar jehan, based on which I made a mention of the same.

However as I reiterated, i have just quoted the stories for completeness by mentioning the 'controversies', and have stated that I myself find it difficult to belive..
Happy Kitten said…
yet to watch the complete movie.. they often show it in the mini screen in the Gulf region..

so much in history that we do not know....

guess ur love for history is going to unearth more such interesting facts.. looking forward to it...
E Pradeep said…
Maddy,a pretty interesting account about TEL including the helmet angle and the other stories that came through. I have lately being reading quite a bit on Islam and Jihad conflicts and one important character that I'd like to know about is TEL. Any book that you'd suggest to give an authentic picture about the man??
Maddy said…
Thanks HK..
you will enjoy the movie..

Thanks Pradeep..
I would suggest the two books listed under references. But there are many more. But I am not sure that TEL used religion in any of his activities for they were fighting Turkish Muslims.
Jawed Ahmed said…
I have just seen teh movie...googling for more info I came across your blog. Appreciate the additional details.
sadhanag said…

My father had met Lawrence passing as an exiled “Afghan Prince,” Pir Karam Shah. In early 1930s, Lawrence (accompanied by my grandfather’s first cousin, Chacha Majeed) had come to consult my grandfather, Mirajuddin Ahmad, at his home, then in Gaukadal, for advice on getting a good divorce lawyer. He was married to Akbar Jehan, who post-divorce married Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s first Prime Minister after 1947. The cheque Lawrence gave the lawyer, Maulvi Abdullah, bounced, and the latter never forgave my Abba Jaan, my grandfather, for sending this worthless client his way. Such are the financial habits of empires and their spies!
sadhanag said…
Another reference

Maddy said…
Thanks Sadhana for the comments
he did spend a mysterious period out there!!
colin jackson said…
I can only read and feel nothing but admiration for the effort which you have put into this information. I too only read and dream of being just like Tel, though in my own way (or mind) I believe I have made great steps in my chosen/defaulted career path. Well done.
colin jackson said…
Maddy, I believe that the small detail of the type of bike he was bought is missing. It was a Brough Superior. Permitting a small detour from your excellent piece; please read on.

Brough are the only product ever permitted to be sold as the "Rolls-Royce" of anything. Any time a company tried(s) to advertise as "The Rolls-Royce of combs... the Rolls-Royce of undergarments... The Rolls-Royce of pre-processed tuna... whatever" the solicitors come down like a ton of bricks. However in the early 1930's, after advertising as "The Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles", the company received a cease/desist letter from Rolls-Royce. Brough wrote Henry Royce at his West Wittering design studio and asked if he would come to the factory and see how they made motorcycles. Henry Royce agreed and after touring the plant, meeting the Brough's (father and son), he returned to Rolls-Royce and gave the edict that "this company may use our name and can call themselves the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles." The only company before or since that earned that privilege. I cannot take the credit for this information. Thank you to my long distance English cousin in the USA, Rick.
Maddy said…
Thank you colin,
for the comments and the additional information.
kyri said…
hi,i bought a copy of the the secven pillars of wisdom about 12 years ago,a 1935 edition,in a probate auction .inside i found a letter by a B.V.JONES who served with Lawrence at miran shah.he says Lawrence,"had found a corner in which he was content".it is a very interesting letter.
Maddy said…
Thanks Kyri..
any chance i could take a peek at that letter?
you could mail a scan to