This is the story of how Lawrence helped the Arabs revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1917-1918. Its greatest stength is its vivid description of the landscapes of Arabia, Syria and Palestine; I've never been to the desert, and apart from one long weekend in Jerusalem I don't know that part of the world at all, so I found this tremendously compelling. I was left a bit more ambivalent about the human side of the story: on the one hand, Lawrence is aiding a subject nation to throw off their oppressor; on the other, his heroism is undermined - according to his own account, it should be said - by the brutality of the campaign, by his awareness that his British masters will certainly break their word to their Arab allies, and by the casual racism he himself displays toward them.
It's a very manly book, for values of "manly" that overlap with "gay". In the very first chapter, we have Arab lads "quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace". It is a constant theme, and manly love merges intriguingly with Lawrence's affection for the landscape. There is I think precisely one woman character of note, an old lady who Lawrence rescues from a train wreck (he blew up the train). Apart from her, there are several other memorable female personalities, but they are all camels.
The book falls rather neatly into two parts, the first half being the desert campaign starting from Mecca going up the coast to eventually capture Akaba (=Aqaba), the second half covering operations more closely linked to Allenby and culminating in the taking of Damascus and consolidation of a new Arab regime. I found it very odd that although Lawrence says he was present at the capture of Jerusalem, he reports almost nothing about this key event apart from an argument between the French diplomat Picot (of Sykes-Picot fame - Sykes too makes an appearance) and the British. Of course, he was not impressed by Jerusalem:
...a squalid town, which every Semitic religion had made holy. Christians and Mohammedans came there on pilgrimage to the shrines of its past, and some Jews looked to it for the political future of their race. These united forces of the past and the future were so strong that the city almost failed to have a present.My grandfather, who was there about the same time for similar reasons, had a similar reaction; his father, who was there sixty years earlier (and lived to 1916), had been more impressed.
For all its faults (some mentioned above, but I'll add another: it is too long) I found the book also tremendously enlightening in understanding the roots of today's politics in the region. Lawrence himself is very aware of the contradiction between his responsibility to his country and his moral obligation to his Arab friends and allies, and his personal dilemma can be read also as a comment on the wider international situation. The ruling family of Mecca, who Lawrence helps put in charge of Syria, now rule Jordan (having also had a go at Iraq in the interim). The boundaries of states were mostly drawn at the convenience of the Great Powers, possibly even more arbitrarily than in Africa; it's not surprising that they are perceived as having shallow roots.
Anyway, a bit of a slog in places (rather like the campaign it describes), but I'm glad I read it in the end.