An Intriguing Possibility in Rome

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. He’s world famous. His real name is Thomas Edward Lawrence. He was a British military officer who had embedded himself in the Great Arab Revolt in 1916. He wrote a book about his experience, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The book inspired the Romantic name that stuck with him—Lawrence of Arabia.

That book propelled him into an international celebrity. His life 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 there was no Lawrence of Arabia?

I encountered that intriguing possibility one day in the Rome’s Protestant Cemetery .


“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 me.

“No, I didn’t know that,” I told him.

“It’s not a widely known story,” Mr. Stanley-Price said and led me to the gravestones of two British Royal Air Force pilots. Standing there, in the shades of tall trees, he told me a story of how T. E. Lawrence had come close to fading into the shadows of history.

Experimental Traveler Lawrence of Arabia
Mr. Stanley-Price at the gravestones of two British Royal Air Force pilots

Plane Crash That Nearly Killed Him


In May 1919, Second Lieutenants Fredrick Prince, 26, and Sidney Spratt, 19, piloted a twin-engine biplane, the Handley Page bomber, with T. E. Lawrence onboard. Lawrence had caught a ride to go to Cairo, Egypt. He was to go there to collect his papers for a book he was writing.

In those days, the cross-country flights took many days. They were broken into segments of several legs. The plane with Lawrence onboard took off from Paris. In the evening, in the growing dusk, the plane approached Rome. The pilots attempted a touchdown at the Rome’s aerodrome. On the grassy runway the bomber rolled too far. The pilots throttled the engines and attempted a go-around. But twenty feet off the ground, the right wing of the banking plane clipped a tree.

The plane spun. It crashed. The two pilots were killed.

“Lawrence escaped with a fractured shoulder blade and cracked ribs,” Mr. Stanley-Price said. “If he had been worse injured, or died, the world might never have had Lawrence’s wonderful book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Lawrence of Arabia
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom


If T. E. Lawrence had died in the plane crash that day in Rome, he would have never written the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. His Romantic name, Lawrence of Arabia, would have never been uttered through the lips of people. His film starring Peter O’Toole would never have been made. T. E. Lawrence would have never attained the international fame.

But there’s a strange twist to his story. T. E. Lawrence never hoped for fame. He hated it. He would have preferred to live his life in anonymity.

After having achieved international fame, T. E. Lawrence changed his last name. In his quest for anonymity, he demoted himself to a life of an enlisted private in the British military. He hid from the world that gave him fame. The irony of his life is, on 19 May 1935, he had a motorcycle accident. T. E. Lawrence died alone.

Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia

What Am I Doing Here?


I wrote in my previous blog that one of my favorite places to spend time in Rome, Italy, is the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome. I visit this quiet place whenever I’m in the Eternal City. There are so many stories here of those who had died so far away from his or her homeland. Some are well known, like the story of a young Romantic poet, John Keats, who is buried under a gravestone that bears not his name but the words “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” And there are many, many more unknown, untold stories waiting to be discovered. I like to walk through this quiet place, pondering on all those stories hidden from me.

I was fortunate to have been told this story of T. E. Lawrence’s close encounter with death. If he had died that day in May 1919, he would have been one of the many buried here at the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome. He would have died before his fame. And people would have walked past his tombstone never ever knowing the story of this young man.

The story of two British pilots who died that fateful day is not forgotten. Every May, the British Embassy in Rome visits their graves, holds a memorial service in their honor, and lay flowers on their graves.

Perhaps, one day, if I’m in Rome in May, I, too, will visit their memorial services.

Categories: Italy


Bonnie Rose · March 19, 2015 at 5:10 pm

James – great work and who knew? I love the look of your blog and the content of this piece. Talk to you soon, in the next class. – Bonnie

    J Almon Polk · March 19, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    Hi Bonnie – Thank you for your comment. I was surprised the Haiku site had closed. But perhaps that was on schedule. I’ll see you in the next class. Ciao, James

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