Lawrence of Arabia, Rolls fans say they solved WWI mystery

STOWE, Vt. (AP) — Hidden in a non-descript barn on a Vermont backroad is an under-construction replica of the Rolls-Royce used during a critical moment in the birth of the modern Middle East by one of the most famous British Army officers of World War I: Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

And the men who are involved in the reconstruction of the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow say they have learned the car’s origins, solving a World War I mystery. It was built in 1909 and originally purchased by a British businessman who later died in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.

The history and car aficionados involved in the project say it’s a way to connect to the mystique of Lawrence.

They’ve traced the car, named Blue Mist, prior to its wartime service when Lawrence requisitioned it for use during the uprising he helped lead against the Ottoman Empire.

“The context matters because Lawrence was a pivotal figure to what is today’s Middle East,” said Pierce Reid, a military historian who runs a repair shop for classic luxury cars. He hopes to have the replica ready next year.

“The car matters because the worldwide antique car movement and the car culture is something that is imprinted in the American psyche,” he said.

During World War I, Lawrence was sent to what is now known as the Middle East to encourage Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany. After the war, with the help of the revolt, the empire collapsed and the borders of the present day Middle East were drawn.

University of Vermont political science professor Peter Henne, who has written about the region, said Lawrence’s legacy in the Middle East is mixed, but he understands the lingering fascination with what he did.

“He’s a complex figure, Henne said.

Military leaders still study Lawrence’s account of the Revolt, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” And after the war, Lawrence became a pop culture figure who was immortalized in the 1962 movie “Lawrence of Arabia.”

One of the most famous moments of that rebellion came when Lawrence, dressed in traditional Arab garb, rode into Damascus, Syria, in the front seat of the Blue Mist.

The search for the origin of the car began last summer when Reid, James Stejskal, a retired Army officer and military historian who is having the replica built by Reid, and other aficionados started speaking of the Blue Mist.

They learned that after the car’s original owner died, it was sold to a British nobleman who then sold it to Aileen Bellew, a young woman from a well-to-do British family shortly before her marriage to a British diplomat when they were posted to Cairo.

Family lore says Lawrence requisitioned the Blue Mist when he saw it parked outside a Cairo nightclub, said Bellew’s grandson, Richard Weston-Smith. He still has the original Blue Mist nameplate.

Weston-Smith said that it wasn’t until last fall when he was contacted by someone working with Stejskal that he was able to piece it all together.

“When you start to layer on the actual facts and dates and history and put together a complete picture, it’s just a wonderful and interesting family association, a piece of our family history,” he said.

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