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.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Every uniform tells a story

Stewart Newcombe's Dress Uniform
This photograph of Stewart Newcombe’s Royal Engineers dress uniform represents one of those memorable moments in research when you come that little bit closer to your subject. Often it's through coming into contact for the first time with something they have written in their own hand, perhaps a letter, a report or a diary. There’s something about the condition of the paper, the stains, the creases and of course the style of the handwriting itself; small clues which might give you some idea of the circumstances in which it was written or of the writer's frame of mind. Without being an expert it's possible to sense all kinds of emotions within the controlled and measured field reports, such as urgency, frustration and anger, as increasingly became the case with Newcombe. But when he once wrote: 'I am told I'm not so popular as I was,' his words were clear and unambiguous, realising he had crossed the line in his dealing with the Bedouin tribesmen he had overworked in prosecuting the attacks on the Hejaz railway. ‘Nekoom’, as he was called by the Bedu, was not alone in his frustrations which were shared by other British military staff attached to the Sherif of Mecca's forces, officers such as Captain Henry Hornby and Bimbashi (Major) Herbert Garland. 

Newcombe’s desert campaign had started off well. After racing across a broad flat scrubland on a fast horse from the small coastal port of Um Lejj, where he had just landed, he caught up with Sherif Feisal's troops during their march north to take the town of Wejh. Lawrence offered him his spare camel and introduced him to Feisal who greeted him like an old school chum. As Lawrence later wrote, ‘at once they plunged into the midst of things, suggesting, debating, planning at lightning speed. Newcombe's initial velocity was enormous, and the freshness of the day and the life and happiness of the Army gave inspiration to the march and brought the future bubbling out of us without pain.'  But very soon Newcombe's war became a record of missed opportunities and disappointments. The frustrations he shared with other British officers led almost inevitably to Lawrence composing the Twenty-Seven Articles, handed down like commandments and giving instructions on how to work alongside the Sharifs and Bedu of the Hejaz. Lawrence's respect and friendship for Newcombe prevented him from openly criticising the senior officer but the inference is clear throughout the 27 points and in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Newcombe was ‘family’; when Lawrence wanted to criticise ‘outsiders’ he did so, but family affairs were kept within the family.

Col. Newcombe with medals
Newcombe’s dress jacket could tell its own story with its creases, stains and signs of age, from the missing regimental button to the frayed cotton bands that once secured the bar holding his medals, including his Gallipoli Distinguished Service Order, South African medals, the Mons Star, British War and Victory medals, the French Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur, and Italian and Turkish awards. Below these there is a small reinforced thread that held in place the much larger Order of Nahda of the Kingdom of the Hejaz, second class, when worn without the neck ribbons. The jacket was smaller in size than I had imagined, considering that Newcombe has been described as rangy and even lanky, but perhaps for his time these were valid observations. His chest size was possibly no more than 38 inches (96.5 centimetres).   

Newcombe’s uniform and dress sword, laid out for me on the table of the library while I researched his involvement in the Second Boer War, added tangible evidence, if any was needed, of a life well spent in the service of his country – a life that has been overshadowed by an even more remarkable legend. It also reminded me of an extraordinary footnote to Newcombe's life.

On the death of Newcombe’s daughter, Baroness Elles, her obituary was carried by most of the leading newspapers. This resulted in a letter being sent in to The Times on 9 November 2009 by a member of staff from the London auction house that had handled the sale of Colonel Newcombe’s campaign medals in 1992, the very set that had been reported stolen during a burglary at the family home in 1955. Publicity for the auction had included a glossy house catalogue where the medals were described as ‘an important Gallipoli group’ and mentioning the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ connection, along with a full and largely accurate biography of Newcombe comprising several pieces previously written by Liddell Hart. The writer of the letter stated that soon after the sale of the medals he received a phone call from Baroness Elles from her holiday home in Lucca, Italy, where the high-profile publicity of the Lawrence connection had alerted the family to an account of the sale carried by The Times. ‘I see from this morning’s Times you have just sold Daddy’s medals,’ she said to the startled auctioneer. When she disclosed details of the burglary, backed up by police reports, the deal had to be unravelled and the medals were finally returned to the Newcombe family thirty-seven years after they had disappeared. It was subsequently found that the widow of the police constable who originally came to investigate the robbery had put the medals up for auction, leading to the inevitable assumption that it was in fact the policeman who had taken them himself some time during his enquiries. 

As the auctioneer poignantly observed in reply to my enquiries, ‘It was a pity Col. Newcombe lived to see his medals stolen, but not recovered.’