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Bullet Helps Revive Lawrence of Arabia’s Reputation

A bullet from a Colt pistol found at the site of one of T.E. Lawrence’s most famous battles helps verify the authenticity of his stories

( Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Before World War I, Thomas Edward Lawrence was a post-grad archaeologist who worked for several years in Jordan, Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Ottoman Empire. He knew the landscape well, and even more, he was familiar with the railway lines. So when war broke out between Britain and the German-aligned Ottomans, the Brits tapped Lawrence for a special mission. He began working with Arab tribes who wished to overthrow Turkish rule in a guerilla war that forced the Ottomans to divert their attention from the front lines.

Lawrence’s string of military victories and ambushes through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria was a stunning success, which led to his classic account of the insurgency in the book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was later adapted as the Oscar-winning picture Lawrence of Arabia. Over time, however, Lawrence has been accused of embellishing the truth and inflating his role in the Arab Revolt. But a recent find in Saudi Arabia shows that Lawrence definitely took part in a battle made famous in the movie, the 1917 ambush on a train in Hallat Ammar.

According to a press release, researchers from the Great Arab Revolt Project recovered a bullet from a Colt automatic pistol, a weapon that historians know Lawrence used and one Arab tribesmen were unlikely to own. “We're almost 100 percent certain he was the only person in that battle who would have been using that gun,” Neil Faulkner, leader of the nine-year Great Arab Revolt Project, tells the MailOnline. “A lot of people have doubted what was written in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom memoir, but what this shows is that he is not a serial liar—he has provided us with a very reliable historical account.”

The bullet was found in the area that Lawrence indicates he was standing during the battle, and additional artifacts confirm his description of the position of a line of Arab rebels during the ambush.

The find comes on top of the rediscovery of a nameplate from one of the locomotives that Lawrence and the rebels stopped during the ambush. Lawrence reportedly gave the battle souvenir to a family friend in 1933, but it was lost to history for more than 80 years. It all adds up to a vindication of sorts for Lawrence.

“It is extraordinary,” says Nicholas Saunders, one of the researchers from the University of Bristol, “that after 100 years new discoveries like this are still being made, casting new light on a guerrilla war which helped reshape the Middle East after 1918–the consequences of which we are still living with today.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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