Lawrence was born in Tremadoc, Caernarfonshire, North Wales, of mixed English and Irish ancestry, and was educated at Jesus College, Oxford. He worked in the Middle East as an archaeologist with William Flinders Petrie before World War I and joined army intelligence at the outbreak of hostilities. During the war, he led extended guerrilla operations against the Ottoman Empire, using Arab irregular troops under the command of Emir Feisal, a son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca. The guerrilla operations were adapted from Boer tactics used during the Boer War. Lawrence's major contribution to World War I was his tying up of Ottoman troops, forced to repair the damage – mostly to railway infrastructure – that he wrought with his guerrilla raids. On July 6, 1917, Lawrence and his men captured Aqaba and, some 16 months later, he was involved in the capture of Damascus in the last weeks of the war.
During the time he spent with the Arab irregulars, Lawrence adopted many local customs and traditions as his own, and soon became a close friend of Prince Faisal. He especially became known for wearing white Arabian garb and riding on a horse in the desert. During the closing years of the war he sought to convince his superiors in the British government that Arab independence was in their interests, to mixed success.
After the war, he attempted to achieve anonymity, joining the Royal Air Force in 1922 under the name "Ross". After a year, his cover blown, he joined the Royal Tank Corps, this time using the surname "Shaw".
Eventually he left the forces for an academic career, and wrote extensively about his experiences and about the history of the Middle East.
He was killed in a motorcycle accident in the county of Dorset, England in 1935.
He had written extensively about Middle Eastern archaeology and had translated Homer's Odyssey.
See also: Lawrence of Arabia, a film based on his life.