Cloak : Colonel T E Lawrence, British Army

Accession Number RELAWM17221
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Heraldry
Physical description Gold bullion braid, Gold bullion thread, Silk
Maker Unknown
Place made Ottoman Empire: Palestine
Date made c 1916-1918
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918

Satin weave silk cloak showing black on the outside and brown on the inside, known as an abayeh or aba, entirely sewn by hand. The cloak is constructed in two long horizontal pieces that fold around to form a rectangular cloak with a central horizontal seam but no side seams. The seam across the shoulders extends down the top of each upper arm and is edged with narrow gold braid, as are the small cut openings at the end of each 'arm' which serve as cuffs through which the hands are inserted. The cloak is constructed so that there is a 145mm wide opening all the way down the front allowing the robe underneath to be seen. This opening and the neck are edged in narrow gold braid. The back neck and front sides of the neck opening, extending 510mm down the front, are elaborately decorated by finely curled thin gold thread that is held into place by hand stitching.

History / Summary

This cloak is said to have been worn by Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia, during his service in Middle East in the First World War. Born in Wales in 1888, Lawrence completed his education at Oxford University in 1910, graduating with First Class Honours. He abandoned his post graduate research to take up an offer to become a practising archaeologist in Middle East at the end of 1910. For the next three years, apart from working in his chosen field, he travelled extensively in Arabia, often living with Arabs, learning their language, and a number of dialects, Arab culture and adopting Arab dress.

At the beginning of 1914, because of his knowledge, he was employed by the British military to survey the Sinai peninsula under the guise of an archaeological expedition. Lawrence enlisted for service in the British Army in the First World War in October 1914 and was posted to Cairo, where he worked in Intelligence. His knowledge of the Arabs made him an ideal liaison officer between the British and Arab forces, and in October 1916 he was sent to the desert to gather intelligence on Arab nationalist movements that might support the British cause.

For the rest of the war Lawrence fought with Arab irregular troops in guerilla operations against the forces of the Ottoman Empire. He was able to convince the Arabs to coordinate their revolt against Ottoman rule to aid British interests. Persuading the Arabs to leave the Turks in their by now isolated post in Medina, the Ottomans were forced to tie up large numbers of their troops to garrison the city and protect its only supply line, the Hejaz railway, which needed constant repair after sabotage by Lawrence and his Arabs.

In 1917 Lawrence coordinated the successful Arab attack on the strategic port city of Aqaba, and at the end of 1918 led the Arab Army into Damascus in conjunction with Allied forces. Towards the end of the war and at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 Lawrence tried to persuade the British government that Arab independence was in their interests, with limited success. A popular film show showing Lawrence's work with the Arabs, put together by the war correspondent Lowell Thomas, gave him much publicity as 'Lawrence of Arabia' or 'The White King of the Arabs'.

In an attempt to escape from it he enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1922 under an assumed name. In 1923 his identity was revealed and he was forced to leave, joining the ranks of the Royal Tank Corps under the name of Shaw. Still using this name he was permitted to transfer to the RAF in 1925, where he remained until his discharge in 1935. A few weeks later he was died in a motorcycle accident. During the war Lawrence had again adopted many Arab customs and traditions, and was especially known for wearing Arab robes and riding camels and horses in the desert.

Although renowned for wearing the white silk robes and headdress presented to him by Prince Feisal, photographic evidence also shows him wearing a black cloak and keffiyeh. This cloak and the associated agal (RELAWM17222) were acquired from the widow of Australian born artist Stuart Reid. Reid's family moved to New Zealand when he was a child and in 1909 he moved to London to study art. During the First World War he served in Gallipoli and Sinai with the Scottish Light Horse before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps in Palestine. He continued to sketch and paint and was a personal acquaintance of Colonel Lawrence, who apparently presented him with this cloak and headdress. Reid was commissioned to paint a number of works for the Imperial War Museum. In 1922 he returned to New Zealand. He later settled in Sydney.