Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe was already a legend in the deserts of Arabia before he was joined in Cairo during the early months of the First World War by a group of extraordinary specialists in Middle Eastern affairs. One member of this group was T.E. Lawrence who went on to achieve worldwide fame. Colonel Newcombe's story, like those of other unsung figures in the Anglo-Arabian panoply, has been eclipsed by the legend of ´Lawrence of Arabia´, and has languished in the dusty recesses of regimental records, government files or in the elliptical words of Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, S.F. Newcombe´s untold story is there to be told. IN THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT is a story of extraordinary exploits and courage, coupled with Newcombe's own legendary and inexhaustible supply of energy and of remarkable adventures under the very noses of the Ottoman authorities – full of danger, intrigue and perhaps more surprisingly, of romance during Newcombe's captivity in Turkey.

Thursday, September 21, 2017


THE INTER-ALLIED GAMES - 22 June to 6 July 1919

The recent announcement that Paris had been awarded the 2024 XXXIII Olympiad brought to mind an unusual event that took place in the shadow of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

While the details of peace were being discussed the victors devised what they considered a useful diversion for the millions of troops on the Eastern and Western fronts waiting for demobilisation and a return to a home and family that many had not seen for several months. For Dominion and Imperial forces, the long periods of separation had been much longer as ‘home’ leave was virtually impossible. Repatriation took time and indeed many troops would not see their homeland until 1922. To keep the troops occupied and to replace fighting as the stimulus for a united effort an Inter-Allied Games – otherwise known as the Military “Olympics” – were set up with the very best intentions. The Games were described by the Official History as “important in themselves because of their magnitude, unparalleled in the annals of sport by reason of the circumstances under which they were held.” It went on to say: “ These Games signalized to a vast number of soldiers of the various Armies of the Allies the end of the Great War and the beginning, in this unique love feast of divers races and nationalities, of a greater and more hopeful peace than the world had yet known.”

Feisal, Lawrence and Nuri Said
Many countries would participate for reasons of celebration or in continuation of friendly relations created under wartime conditions. In other cases countries such as Romania and Czechoslovakia, whose very existence was still in political doubt, saw the games as a further opportunity to raise their visibility on a world stage.

The idea of a ‘unique love feast’ of sport was first conceived by Elwood Brown less than two months after the end of hostilities. Brown was a leading advocate of a so-called ‘Muscular’ form of Christianity which he promoted throughout South-East Asia under the auspices of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). His approach was especially successful in the Philippines where as Director of Athletics he proposed and implemented the Far-Eastern Olympic Games from 1913 onwards. His concept of an Inter-Allied Games was quickly taken up by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) who convinced France and the International Olympic Committee to agree to the Games being placed under sole US control without interference. The Americans took their role very seriously and constructed a dedicated stadium east of Paris close to the Bois de Vincennes where the 1900 Olympics had taken place. It was named the Stade Pershing after the Commander of the AEF, General John J. Pershing who had been an acquaintance of Brown from the Philippines. The two men became the driving force behind the competition.

Feisal, fighting for the very existence of some form of Arab nationhood, must have been more than a little bemused to receive a letter of invitation from Pershing himself and may well have sought Lawrence’s advice on a matter he would not have anticipated but which might present wider political implications in the future. This was one more opportunity to reinforce an Arab presence on the world stage and the decision to attend was not taken lightly. His response was both cordial and humble. 

Paris, 20 March, 1919.

My dear General:
I am deeply sensible of the honour you paid the troops under my command in inviting us to take part in the Inter-Allied Athletic Meeting to be held shortly in Paris. It will give us the greatest pleasure to participate. I have sent General Nuri Pacha Said of my staff to Damascus to choose such team as we can supply, and will send you details of our entry as soon as possible.

I have the honour to be, sir
Yours very faithfully,

The only problem now for Feisal was who to pick to represent the budding nation of Arabs? With Nuri tasked with finding suitable representatives of the Hejaz contingent it quickly became apparent that with American and French supremacy in numbers perhaps a more symbolic involvement should be sought. Britain, for the same reasons, had declined full participation and contented itself to an advisory role and in sending a golf team and rowing crews.

Twenty-nine letters of invitation were sent and eighteen allied nations and territories accepted. The Games were well attended throughout commencing with the inauguration of the Pershing Stadium which attracted more than 90,000 spectators, although urgent business meant that President Wilson and M. Clemenceau were unable to attend. With 76 events across a dozen sports it was an ambitious programme not dissimilar to that of the 1916 Berlin Olympics which had been cancelled due to war.

Stade Pershing under construction
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, had initially locked horns over Brown’s plans to hold the Games which he perceived as an intrusion into Olympic affairs. Fortunately, they came to a mutual understanding based on a shared vision for stimulating sport and its ideals at a truly world level. Perhaps on no other occasion had there been a more poignant time for games and where the spirit of the Baron’s creed was felt more strongly: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

Nuri returned to France with fifteen contestants, although only three of them were pitted in open competition. Of the rest, eight took part in a performance of Arabian Sword dancing while four riders were chosen from among the best in the two camel-mounted regiments in the Hejaz Regular Army for a demonstration of camel-racing. These were meant to represent the type of competition most popular in Arabia and were well received. Horse riding is normally a particularly well represented event across most competing nations but many were prevented by the post-war difficulty of finding the necessary mounts and of transporting them to Paris. The Hejaz team was able to put up three riders but could only muster one horse, a little gray Arabian named Masoud. This mount, however, caused the greatest sensation during a long-distance race when its rider, Captain Fowzi, came from the back of the field and passed opponent after opponent finally finishing in seventh place. The next part of the competition consisted of jumps which the untrained Masoud was unable to complete and was therefore eliminated from the contest although it finished out the ride with much acclaim for its gallant efforts against a stronger field. 

A Tug-of-war
If the British contingent was largely absent the Official History of the Games was fulsome in its explanation, recording: ‘wherever the sport world foregathers, the Englishman is a welcome competitor and one whose chances of winning must be minutely calculated by his adversaries. Old England, however, if absent in the flesh, was present in the spirit, and indeed in the blood, for Australia, Canada and New Zealand played an important part in the competitions. The Dominions gave a good account of themselves, too?’

Among the more unusual events was hand-grenade throwing, which took place in the knowledge that most of the contestants had been practising for at least four years. However, first place with a new world record was surprisingly taken by an American army chaplain, Fred Thompson, with a toss of 245 feet, 11 inches, who although not a regular soldier was an accomplished collegiate athlete before the war. The irony of including a Tug-of-War competition in a town where so many new nations were fighting for recognition was perhaps lost on the organisers. As predicted, America and France swept the board with the most points gained from the largest pool of competitors. 

The Games were deemed a great success, not least in strengthening combatant morale and in bringing together men that had been bound “by strong ties of sympathy in the common ideals for which they were fighting”. Elwood Brown’s vision was to “lay the foundations for those enduring friendships which can come only from personal contact and which, in this case, were of such fundamental importance to the future welfare of the world.” It was a noble cause but the real work of forging a new world order had just concluded not on the playing fields but in the halls of Versailles and as Clemenceau complained: “It was much easier to make war than peace.” 

Feisal, Lawrence and the Arab delegation, having taken every opportunity to promote the need to break the Arab movement out of the confines of the Hejaz in the name of the King were under no illusion as to the difficulties that lay ahead.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Forthcoming lecture - 'Lawrence of Arabia and the Revolt in the Desert' - University of Southampton - Saturday 1 July 2017

The Lifelong Learning programme run by the University of Southampton will be holding a study day entitled: Lawrence of Arabia and the Revolt in the Desert on Saturday 1 July 2017.

I have been asked to present a paper entitled: 'A Yahoo Life' - T.E. Lawrence and the British Military Mission in the Hejaz.

The following description of the event is from the University's website where you can find details of the programme and an application form for places.

To mark the centenary of Sharif Hussein’s forces seizing the Ottoman port of Aqaba on 6 July 1917, this Great War study day focuses upon the Arab revolt against Turkish rule, and the role of archaeologist turned soldier, T.E. Lawrence. The ‘revolt in the desert’ is placed in the context of French and British intervention in the Middle East, notably the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration; the consequences of which still resonate throughout the region known then as the Levant.

Recreated in spectacular style by David Lean in the epic Lawrence of Arabia, the capture of Aqaba opened supply lines from Egypt to Allied forces operating further north in Transjordan and Greater Palestine. This effectively ended any lingering threat of a Turkish attack on the Suez Canal. By examining General Allenby’s successful offensive east of Suez in 1917-18, we can assess the military significance of Lawrence’s contribution – to what extent does the legend match reality?

Before convincing Prince Feisal and other tribal chieftains to rise up Lawrence’s involvement in the Middle East was primarily as a scholar, prompting consideration of how pre-war archaeology disguised great power interest in the crumbling Ottoman empire.

Examining Lawrence before and after the First World War offers an additional perspective on continuing conflict in the Middle East and his close connection with Southampton Water. In the 1920s and 1930s, a very public retreat from fame saw the writer of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom assume a fresh identity not once but twice, as a ranker in the Army and then the Royal Air Force. Extended service in the RAF led to a final posting in Hythe, where Lawrence worked on the British Powerboat Company’s latest rescue launches; weekends were spent at Cloud’s Hill, his Dorset cottage, or socialising in London with the likes of Churchill or Shaw. Since his death in 1935 popular interest in Lawrence and the revolt in the desert has never waned; fuelled by fresh revelations about his private life, and an urgent need to comprehend the creation myth upon which Saudi Arabia’s unbending monarchy claims its legitimacy.

This study day recognises our continuing fascination with ‘El Laurens’, and his place in the violent and crisis-ridden history of the Middle East over the past one hundred years.

Professor Adrian Smith, Emeritus Professor of Modern History, University of Southampton
- Welcome/introduction: the Solent, childhood home and workplace of T.E. Lawrence

Dr Christopher Prior, Lecturer in 20th Century History, University of Southampton
- "Immortality I cannot judge": Lawrence, the Middle East and the British Empire in the early twentieth century.

Professor Tim Champion, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology
- 'Archaeologists and great power rivalry in the Middle East prior to the First world War

Anthony Sattin, travel writer, broadcaster, and author of Young Lawrence: a Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man (2014)
- From Carchemish to Cairo: the making of Major Lawrence

Kerry Webber, writer, photographer and designer, currently writing the biography of Colonel Stewart Newcombe
- "A Yahoo Life": T.E. Lawrence and the British Military Mission to the Hejaz

Professor Adrian Smith
- The post war Lawrence: Aircraftman Shaw and the British Power Boat Company

Dr Mark Levene, Reader in History, Southampton University, and author of The Crises of Genocide Volumes I and II
- Conclusion: Thinking beyond Lawrence - the British, their role in Ottoman dissolution and the long-term consequences for the modern 'Middle East'

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

All things Lawrentian

On the track bed of the Hejaz Railway, Wadi Rumm, Jordan

Yesterday was a sad day for members of the Lawrence fellowship with an announcement for the T.E. Lawrence Society that Lawrence's authorised biographer, Jeremy Wilson, had passed away. 

I last saw Jeremy talking to Professor Ali Alawi at the Society’s symposium held at St. John's College, Oxford, last September and failed to find an opportunity to talk to him, so busy was he meeting old friends and colleagues. But I have happy memories of working with him on the committee of the Society many years ago under the chairmanship of Philip Kerrigan when Jeremy had been co-opted back onto the committee, this time as website coordinator, but of course he was much more than that. Minutes of our meetings are peppered with comments regarding assistance from Jeremy on items outside of his role: "Jeremy offered assistance with this, should Pat need it", "Jeremy advised that there was probably an example of her [Sarah Lawrence] handwriting in the Bodleian Library", "Jeremy stated...", "Jeremy circulated copies...", "Jeremy suggested...", and so on. 

Even Lawrence had to step back from the leadership of the Arab Revolt lest his presence hinder their development and soon the Society was left to find its feet and direction in a new millennium. And a good job they have made of it too, if the last well-attended symposium is anything to go by. The breadth of knowledge in the speakers and the enthusiasm for facts presented in a scholarly and professional way was an encouraging sign for the future of the Society and in Lawrence studies in general. 

Over sixty years ago Richard Aldington wrote a highly contentious biography of Lawrence whose subtitle was A Biographical Enquiry. Its publication was accompanied by marketing material that asked the question: ‘Is this the end of a legend?’

Jeremy and his wife Nicole have made an enormous contribution to furthering the knowledge and appreciation of the man behind the legend, a man who continues to fascinate and intrigue us and whose words and actions are just as relevant today as they were one hundred years ago when that legend was born. This is in no small part to Jeremy's guidance, wisdom and influence on all things Lawrentian. 

Vale, Jeremy.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy's website:

Monday, April 17, 2017

JEREMY WILSON (1944 - 2 April 2017)

It was with sadness that I read today of Jeremy's passing in a message sent out by the committee of the T.E. Lawrence Society following an announcement in the Daily Telegraph:

We very much regret to inform you that Jeremy Wilson, the Authorised Biographer of T. E. Lawrence, has died following a period of illness.

Jeremy was widely regarded and respected as the leading scholar and authority on Lawrence. Together with his wife Nicole, he established Castle Hill Press which has published fine-print editions of many of Lawrence's manuscripts and letters.

Jeremy was a former Chairman of the T. E. Lawrence Society and a major instigator and influence on the Society's activities, notably the Journal and the biennial Symposia.

The Society will be represented at his funeral in Oxford next week. We intend to publish a tribute to Jeremy in a commemorative edition of the Newsletter. We would welcome contributions which may be sent to us at

The T. E. Lawrence Society Committee

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"The important thing is GROPPI's"

Garden Groppi

Not so long ago Groppi's Café was once 'the place' to go in Cairo for tea, pastries and chocolate. When Cairo was the place to be seen, Groppi's was the café to be seen in. Such was its place in the social merry-go-round that everyone from Kings and Queens to politicians and members of the social elite passed through its doors to sample its legendary delights. Today, the café still occupies two sites in downtown Cairo. The first opened for business on 23 December 1909 on Sharia al-Maghrabi (today: Adly Street) and was generally known as Garden Groppi's. 
Mosaics by the Venetian, Antonio Castaman
The second followed on its success and opened in March 1925 on a corner of Midan Soliman Pasha (today: Talaat Harb Square) opposite the Savoy Hotel, long after the British Military had vacated its war-time headquarters in the requisitioned hotel. This branch has become a downtown landmark with its art deco tiled exterior and neon signage, with distinctive multi-coloured mosaics in the entrance executed by the Venetian artist, Antonio Castaman, and an eclectic interior by leading designers of the day.

Groppi in WW1
The Adly Street premises became a favourite haunt of T.E. Lawrence long before he was sent out to the Hejaz as an advisor to the Emir Feisal. Every day for nine months, he and Stewart Newcombe would have passed the café on their way by bicycle to-and-from their lodgings at the Grand Continental Hotel to the Military Intelligence offices based in the Savoy, a short journey of some five minutes. With breakfast taken in the sumptuous dining room of the Continental, the two men would undoubtedly have frequented the café during the day, the cool enclosed garden offering a peaceful sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the Savoy offices. Conveniently, the café provided two exits, one through the shop and one through a door set in the wall of the garden. For operatives with secrets to divulge and enemies to evade, this was an added advantage.

At some time in late 1925 - the letter is undated - Lawrence wrote to his biographer, Robert Graves who was en route to Egypt, explaining that he had spent three magnificent years in Cairo and only ever went twice into a club. But what stood out for him most was Groppi's: "The important thing is GROPPI's, the Tea-garden shop," he wrote, emphasising its significance by the use of capital letters, "and the drink is iced coffee. Straws the process. 2 piastres the means. The children will love Groppi's. Chocolate all right, too: but not in summer." 

Based on Lawrence's recommendation Graves' children would probably have enjoyed Groppi's but Egypt did not appeal to Graves and he left his posting as Professor of English Literature at the Egyptian University at Cairo at the end of the first academic year. In March 1925, Groppi opened its second branch opposite the Savoy Hotel. One suspects that Lawrence's abhorrence of 'clubs' held no sympathy for Newcombe who would have felt most at home in either the Gezira Sporting Club or the Turf Club - those two great institutions beloved by staff officers wearing suede desert boots and brandishing fly whisks and swagger sticks.  

Soliman Pasha branch signage
Further evidence of Lawrence’s fondness for Groppi’s is shown in the introduction to Clare Sydney Smith’s story of her friendship with him, entitled The Golden Reign. 

“Early in 1920,” she wrote, “I went out to Egypt where my husband was in command of the Royal Air Force Station at Heliopolis. The Cairo Conference was held in spring of 1921 and there was, of course, much coming and going of important people. The Conference had been summoned by Mr. Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, for the purpose of attempting to settle the Arab question...

During the Conference we did our share of entertaining in our Cairo flat and I was used to my husband bringing people in with him at odd times of the day. So there seemed nothing out of the ordinary when one hot March afternoon he came in as usual at tea-time accompanied by a small and, I thought, not particularly distinguished-looking man in a blue suit, carrying a white topee...

I remember he was quiet and withdrawn and had a shock of untidy-looking hair, but beyond that he made no impression on me at all.

After tea Sydney drove him home, and when he came back he said: "Do you realize who that was?"
"It was Lawrence of Arabia!"
"Good gracious!"
"And what's more, he's asked us to go to tea with him to-morrow."
That was our first meeting.”

The next day the Sydney Smiths made their way to Groppi's where they had arranged to meet. “Now that I knew who he was,” Clare recalled, “I was looking forward to getting to know our visitor better, but it was not until long afterwards that I realised what an unusual event - almost unknown, in fact - it was for him to invite anyone to tea. Usually he shunned all social occasions, even the simplest, and never took the initiative in arranging them.”

The couple arrived first and sat at a table in the garden facing the restaurant he would have to come through to join them. Looking back through the years, Clare remembered the moment Lawrence first walked into the gardens:

“There was a stir of interest when he appeared as everybody knew him by sight, but he took no notice as he walked straight across to us in the peculiarly springy walk he had. A quiet dignity surrounded his small, modest figure, dressed as yesterday in a dark blue suit and holding his white topee with both hands in front of him - a dignity which put the bare-faced curiosity of the public to shame.”

The event may have been unusual but the choice of venue was perhaps not so surprising. Clare does not tell us if Lawrence did in fact drink tea that day or whether her infatuation with him began over a glass of iced coffee drunk through straws. But one thing is obvious; for Lawrence, Groppi’s was infinitely preferable to the usual haunts like the great pavement-side terraces of Shepheards and the Continental which served as both stage and auditorium and were therefore anathema to his unique predicament of having a “craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known.”   

Groppi chocolate wrapper
During the Second World War, Groppi’s retained its reputation as one of the few smart places open to everyone regardless of rank, although its exorbitant prices tended to mostly attract the officer class. It was said the garden was a favourite of General Montgomerie who came to enjoy the regular jazz evenings. Stage shows were a regular feature throughout the Forties. When the musicians stopped playing well into the evening and the dancers had returned to their tables, the floor would then be hydraulically raised two feet to become a stage for the floor show which often featured some very accomplished performers. An officer in the Special Boat Service, Colonel David Sutherland, famously entertained two German prisoners to ice-cream sodas in Groppi's before handing them over for interrogation. It was said his act of hospitality was unappreciated in certain quarters but in his defence he pointed out to an exasperated brigadier that as it was so rare for the SBS to take prisoners alive during missions in enemy territory he saw no harm, especially as one of the men had been captured with the Wehrmacht's new self-loading rifle, a weapon years ahead of its time and of particular interest to the boffins in Cairo.

No matter how full, the flowering creepers that had by now been trained up the garden walls created an illusion of intimacy and a haven of peace in the midst of the bustling city. Such an atmosphere gave rise to more than just the promise of welcome refreshment. The writer, Artemis Cooper, who taught English at the University of Alexandria, recalls how pashas came to sip freshly roasted coffee and eat cream cakes with their Levantine mistresses who draped their furs over the chairs while discreet waiters shuffled silently on the sandy floor wearing long white galabiehs topped with red tarbushes. “Officers on leave,” she revealed, “looked out for female companionship, and envied the man at the opposite table who suddenly rose to his feet with a smile, and pulled out a chair for the woman who had just joined him.” Then, as dusk fell, strings of coloured light-bulbs illuminated the garden adding to the possibility of intrigue and romance for the clientele who at that time in Egypt was mostly under the age of thirty.

The key to Rebecca
While the 1920s witnessed the ultimately unsuccessful hunt for the lost oasis of Zerzura in the Western Desert - a mythical city that had long excited the imagination with tales of verdant palms, a ruined city and lost treasure - it at least alerted one of the region’s most famous explorers, Count Laszlo Almásy, to a way of smuggling two German spies into Cairo. Almásy may have known the ways of the desert but he clearly underestimated the British spy-master, Major A.W. Sansom, of the British Security Services in Cairo. Sansom’s interest was first aroused when a copy of Daphne de Maurier’s novel Rebecca was found among the belongings of two German wireless operators in a remote desert W/T station which had been captured in May 1942, the significance being that the men could not read English. A rubbed out price mark of ’50 escudos’ indicated the book had been bought in Portugal and Sansom’s network of agents soon discovered that six copies of the book had been bought on the same day in a Lisbon bookshop by the wife of a staff member from the German Embassy. The book was clearly being used to encode and decode wireless messages. 

Hekmat Fahmy
Almásy’s two hapless spies, Hans Eppler and Gerd Sandstede, were finally undone when their Egyptian money ran out and they began to off-load forged five pound notes onto the black market in the belief that their value would plummet the closer Rommel approached Cairo. Their dissolute and desultory lifestyle was funded by over 3,600 pounds worth of dud fivers lavishly spent not just in the usual fleshpots like the Kit Kat Club, the legendary cabaret venue, but in more sedate establishments like Groppi’s where suspicions were raised and brought to Sansom’s attention. Their friendship with the sultry Hekmat Fahmy, known as the belly dancer spy, further sealed their fate and the three were surrounded in a dawn raid on their luxurious houseboats on the Nile. Eppler contrived a getaway by rolling up his socks and throwing them like hand grenades to slow down Sansom's men. But the game was up and they were apprehended.   

During the infamous Cairo riots that took place on 26 January 1952, both the Gezira Sporting Club and the Turf Club – the latter situated almost opposite Groppi's garden entrance on al-Maghrabi Street – were firebombed and totally destroyed. On what has been called Black Saturday, a series of anti-British and anti-Western riots spread throughout the city targeting banks, shops, theatres and hotels. Even the iconic Shepheard’s Hotel was not spared, along with the destruction of 12 other hotels, almost 300 shops and department stores, 40 cinemas and even the Cairo Opera House. Within a few hours thousands of local workers were displaced while the perceived symbols of seventy-years of British rule were razed to the ground as the incendiary fervour of revolution swept throughout the capital.

Shepheard's Hotel Terrace
Shepheard's in ruins 1952

Despite President Nasser’s attempts to nationalise foreign owned businesses the restaurant remained Swiss-owned and enjoyed something of a revival during the next two decades, becoming the caterer of choice for presidents and kings and thereby escaping the rigid hand of privatisation. The window displays at the Talaat Harb branch were famed for their creativity during Christmas and Easter festivities, earning praise for the restaurant as Cairo's answer to London's Fortnum and Mason's.

In 1971, the café provided the catering at the inauguration of the Aswan High Dam, an enormously ambitious project at the heart of Nasser’s economic vision. Five-hundred guests attended an extravagant party that included heads of state from other Arab countries as well as soviet leaders, since the Soviet Union had funded the project.

Talaat Harb Square branch
But already the trends in catering had shifted and competition came from an unexpected direction. With the opening of the first Wimpey’s in Cairo in the mid-70s, the burger restaurant quickly became the place of choice for young modern Cairenes and was where you took your girlfriend if you wanted to treat her. The old world charm of Groppi’s, with its ice-cream smothered in Chantilly créme, marrons glacés and chocolate covered dates, gave way to the brash plastic and bright lights of the first of the fast food giants to hit the town. Egypt had changed and Groppi’s was just one of its anachronistic casualties.

Groppi's fortunes have been mixed during the past one hundred years of trading and having survived social upheavals, riots, bomb blasts and financial downturns it survives today by reputation only. The current owners are fighting back and are using social media sites to promote its history and products to a younger generation while older clients remain steadfastly loyal, sometimes against all the odds. But if you are strolling in Cairo and want to soak up some of the atmosphere of a bygone era, Egypt's Belle Époque, then take a table at Garden Groppi’s and let your imagination wander. You’ll have plenty of time. Your waiter, no longer wearing the galabieh and tarbush, will not rush to serve you. Having seen off revolutions and fast food establishments, life moves at a different pace at Groppi’s and you would be wise to sit back, relax, and wonder who might next come through those famous doors.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Lawrence Symposium, Oxford 2016

Kerry presenting his paper 'Beyond Arabia' to the symposium

The 14th T.E. Lawrence Symposium at St. John's College, Oxford University, which ended on Sunday 25 September 2016, was a great success with interesting and entertaining papers presented by a diverse range of speakers from around the world. Attendance was, I understand, the highest ever for such an event - about 150 per session - and thanks must go to the hard working group of volunteers that form the committee of the society.

St. John's College, Oxford University

Once again, thanks to the chairman of the society, Philip Neale, and his committee for inviting me. It is always a pleasure meeting old friends and making new contacts in such convivial surroundings. I would also like to especially thank Joe Berton and Philip Walker to allow me to use previously unseen photos of Newcombe in my presentation.   

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Kennington's Lawrence effigy at Wareham

Lawrence effigy in repose
"The shock of T.E.'s death. Yes, when we were getting over it I had a letter from Buxton asking me to attend a committee which would plan a National Memorial."

The artist and sculptor Eric Kennington was among a select group of people brought together to discuss a fitting memorial following the death of T.E. Lawrence in 1935. "As far as I can remember," Kennington recalled many years later, "the other members were Buxton 'in the chair', Lady Astor, who soon elbowed him out of it and was in it herself, Newcombe, Storrs, Bernard Shaw, Lionel Curtis, Sir Herbert Baker."

Robin Buxton was Lawrence's banker and former colleague in the desert war. Lionel Curtis was an old friend and advocate of Imperial Federalism, which after its rejection in 1937 gave way to the idea of a Commonwealth of Nations. Sir Herbert Baker was an influential architect who with Edwin Lutyens had created New Delhi which became the capital of the British Raj in India. Baker had given Lawrence sanctuary in an upstairs attic room above his studios in Barton Street, Westminster, allowing Lawrence to work undisturbed on his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The committee was slow to come up with suitable ideas. "Then Baker said he had asked T.E. once what his idea was for a monument to himself," Kennington recalled, "and his reply - "The largest mountain in Arabia carved into a likeness of himself!" This amused Sir Ronald Storrs who interjected, "What a fine target for the Arabs - they'd get his nose first shot." Storrs, formerly assistant to the High Commissioner in Egypt followed by spells as Governor of Jerusalem and Cyprus, was an old friend of Lawrence and was instrumental in inviting him to assess the situation in the Hejaz at the start of the Arab Revolt. He knew that no grand ideas were ever formed by committees, but a lot of foolish ideas died there. Then Baker said, "What about an effigy? We have a distinguished sculptor here." Kennington had been lying low throughout the proceedings but quickly produced some sketches which were generally accepted. Then the matter went very quiet for several months. Kennington turned to the one man he could trust to give him a straight answer. He wrote to Stewart Newcombe who replied, "Nothing doing - it's all off. They aren't going on with a National Memorial." This was a blow especially as leaflets had gone out requesting donations and had been signed by the committee members which now included Churchill, Allenby and Augustus John. The idea was quietly dropped.

Hand on Arabian khanjar dagger
Two years passed when a chance encounter at Oxford railway station between Kennington and Curtis reinvigorated the idea of an effigy. Curtis remembered their previous association and said it was a pity that the scheme for an effigy had fallen through, adding, "I wonder what it would have looked like?" "You'd better come and see it," Kennington replied. "It's almost finished."

Legs crossed at the ankles
Lawrence's brother, Arnold, came to see it and immediately offered to buy it from Kennington. "What's this worth to you?" he asked bluntly. Kennington gave a price of two thousand pounds and a cheque was drawn up there and then. But where to place it? It is not clear who first suggested the tiny parish church of St. Martin's-on-the-walls, Wareham in Dorset, but when seen today Kennington's effigy rests in the most wonderful example of a 1000 years old Anglo-Saxon church, accessible to all and in perfect harmony with its surroundings.

St. Martin's-on-the-walls, Wareham
Kennington sculpted the effigy in the style of a recumbent figure with one hand resting on the hilt of a curved Arabian khanjar dagger and one resting loosely at his side and with legs crossed at the ankles in the style of a thirteenth-century knight. Cross-legs and sword handling were features of effigies during this period, created to depict an image of repose and peace which complemented further characteristics which represented military vigour and alertness. This style persisted until the middle of the fourteenth-century when it fell out of favour to be replaced by the praying, straight-legged effigy. The meaning of the cross-legged feature was generally thought to have originated from Knights Templars or Crusaders who had died in the Holy Land, had died during the journey home, or had simply travelled east as a pilgrim or soldier. The romance of the pilgrim soldier persisted and was especially strong in the sixteenth-century, long after the period of the Crusades, reinforcing the theory. However, this crossed-legged Crusader connection has since been refuted by historians. Kennington, in reproducing the image of a 13th-century knight, was tapping into the popular beliefs held at the time.
Lawrence's crossed feet rest upon a piece of Hittite sculpture

Kennington was aided in his work by photos of the progress of the sculpture made by Wing Commander Reginald Simms, an amateur photographer and a former colleague of Lawrence at Bridlington during his RAF service. These undoubtedly helped Kennington during the development of the effigy, highlighting any errors. This ultimately resulted in a fine piece of work with an exquisite likeness of Lawrence in repose but also with an alertness and readiness for further action as depicted by his resting hand ready to un-sheath the curved blade. This feature was particularly pertinent when the effigy was finally placed in St. Martin's in September 1939.

Two years earlier, Churchill had contributed a piece to T.E. Lawrence By His Friends, a collection of reminiscences or impressions of Lawrence by those who knew him or had worked with him - a 'gallery of partial portraits', as Arnold Lawrence, the editor, put it. Churchill submitted a revision of an earlier obituary article published on 26 May 1935 in the News of the World newspaper, only seven days after Lawrence's death. He wrote, 'I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again'. Churchill used much of this article at the unveiling of a memorial plaque by Kennington at the Oxford High School for Boys on 3 October 1936, an event at which Colonel and Mrs Newcombe attended and where Elsie Newcombe confessed to a bemused E.M. Forster that "Mrs Lawrence [T.E.'s mother] lovs me so much that I may kiss her here here with my rouged lips and leave spots on her face and still she doesn't mind."

Churchill included the Oxford text with further amendments in his 1937 opus Great Contemporaries where he made significant changes in both words and tone at a time when he was languishing in a political wilderness. With ominous world events pointing to another world war - in March 1936 Germany had reoccupied the Rhineland and four months later saw the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War - he used the occasion to highlight a pressing need for political effect. "All feel the poorer that he has gone from us. In these days dangers and difficulties gather upon Britain and her Empire, and we are also conscious of a lack of outstanding figures with which to overcome them."  This was not just about Lawrence. If Churchill had been side-lined at least he was able to remind his audience he was still available.

Even Lawrence's role in the RAF was utilised for Churchill's own political aims. In Friends, Churchill wrote simply that Lawrence experienced twelve years of "honourable service" in the RAF as an air-mechanic, concerned with the "mechanism of aeroplane engines, the design of flying boats." Two years later this employment was set aside in favour of a more far-reaching role that was used to bolster Churchill's own arguments for the strengthening of the aerial defence of Britain in line with the growth of the Luftwaffe.  "Those who knew him best miss him most; but our country misses him most of all. For this is a time when the great problems upon which his thought and work had so long centred, problems of aerial defence, problems of our relations with the Arab peoples, fill an even larger space in our affairs." 

With the spectre of war with Germany looming on the horizon, the tone of Churchill's revised portrait of Lawrence in Great Contemporaries became elegiac and inspirational to stir the emotions of the British public about to face their finest hour and in need of an Arthurian figure who was merely waiting for the call to arms once again. Kennington's effigy fitted the bill exactly. It would also not be long before Churchill was recalled from exile. 

Photographs of Eric Kennington's effigy of T.E. Lawrence by Kerry Webber (December 2015), courtesy of the Rector and Churchwardens of St. Martin's-on-the-walls, Wareham.