Rome, Italy – Have you heard of Lawrence of Arabia?
You probably have. He’s world famous. T. E. Lawrence, a British military officer, had embedded himself in the Great Arab Revolt in 1916. He wrote a book about his experience, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which inspired the name Lawrence of Arabia, and propelled him into an international celebrity. His life had even inspired a movie, Lawrence of Arabia, now a classic, starring Peter O’Toole. That film won seven Academy Awards, including the Oscar for “Best Picture.”
But what if all that fame never happened? What if no one would ever hear of Lawrence of Arabia?
I encountered that intriguing possibility.
Lawrence of Arabia Almost Died in Rome
“Do you know about a plane crash in Rome with Lawrence on it?” Mr. Stanley-Price, a volunteer at the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome, asked. “It’s not a widely known story.” He led me to the gravestones of two British Royal Air Force pilots, where he told me the story of how T. E. Lawrence had come close to fading into the shadows of history.
In May 1919, Second Lieutenants Fredrick Prince, 26, and Sidney Spratt, 19, piloted a twin-engine biplane, the Handley Page bomber. T. E. Lawrence had caught a ride to go to Cairo, Egypt, to collect his papers for a book he was writing.
In those days, the flight took many days, broken down into several legs. The plane took off from Paris. In the evening, in the growing dusk, the pilots attempted a touchdown at the Rome’s aerodrome. On the grassy runway the bomber rolled too far. The pilots throttled the engines. They attempted a go-around. But twenty feet off the ground, the right wing clipped a tree. The plane spun. Crashed. The two pilots were killed.
“Lawrence escaped with a fractured shoulder blade and cracked ribs,” Stanley-Price said. “If he had been worse injured, the world might never have had Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”
Without having written that book, Lawrence would have not attained the international fame. His film would not have been made. You would have never heard that name, Lawrence of Arabia. But maybe, Lawrence would have preferred it that way.
After having achieved international fame, Lawrence changed his last name in his quest for anonymity, demoted himself to a life of an enlisted private in the British military, hiding from the world that gave him fame. He died alone on 19 May 1935 in a motorcycle accident
Most people today visiting the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome today do not know the story of the two British pilots who had died. But they are not forgotten. Every May, the British Embassy in Rome visits their graves, holds a memorial service in their honor, laying flowers on their graves.