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.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

An Oriental Assembly - Bimbashi (Major) Herbert Garland

‘In loving memory of Major Herbert Garland OBE MC FCS 1880-1921 lost but found in 2004’ 

Herbert Garland
Behind this simple and enigmatic gravestone inscription lies the compelling and fascinating story of Major Herbert Garland, R.E., O.B.E., Military Cross, F.C.S., a gifted chemist and metallurgist who trained the Sherifian Arab Army in the use of explosives and demolitions during the Arab Revolt.  He had been a captain in the British Army in Cairo, having seen service in Sudan, and before the war he worked in Cairo as superintendant of a government explosives laboratory. Fascinated by the metallurgy of ancient artefacts, he was elected a Fellow of the Chemical Society (now the Royal Society of Chemistry) on 15 May 1913 and was later awarded a £10 grant to research ancient Egyptian alloys. During the first year of the war he invented a grenade and 174,000 were sent for use in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns. Photos in the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London show ‘Garland and Natives experimenting on Garland grenades.’ These short-barreled floor-mounted howitzers were approximately three feet in length and set at an appropriate angle to fire the missile at the enemy. Experiments with this type of weapon were conducted by Garland and native handlers over the safety of the Nile, the resulting splash giving a fairly accurate estimate of distance.

At the beginning of his service in the Hejaz he was promoted from Sergeant to Major (known as ‘Bimbashi’ in the Egyptian Army) and worked alongside Stewart Newcombe and T.E. Lawrence until he retired from the field of operations through illness and exhaustion. His arrival in the Hejaz can be said to be when the active war against the Ottomans in the region truly started.

An Uninsurable Occupation 
It was as an explosives expert that Garland had been sent out to the unforgiving environment of the Hejaz to train irregular troops, preceding both Newcombe and Lawrence in attacking the Hejaz Railway, and it was in this role that Lawrence was to write that Garland's "knowledge of Arabic" enabled him "to teach the art of demolition to unlettered Bedouin in a quick and ready way. His pupils admired a man who was never at a loss", adding: "Incidentally, he taught me how to be familiar with high explosive.” In fact, Garland was to be the first allied rail-breaker to derail a moving troop-train in February 1917 near Toweira Station using a contact detonating device of his own design soon after he and Newcombe had commenced long-range attacks to the interior accompanied by Bedouin forces.

Garland developed what became known as the ‘Garland Mine’, an explosive device which soon became the preferred method for attacking the line as it was virtually impossible to detect when laid properly. Lawrence reported back that he observed eleven men searching for twenty minutes for one he had buried beneath the rails before they eventually gave up. He was equally impressed by the way Garland worked with high explosives and the tools of his trade: "Sappers handled it like a sacrament, but Garland would shove a handful of detonators into his pocket with a string of primers, fuse, and fusees and jump gaily on his camel for a week's ride to the Hejaz railway." This is also Lawrence’s description of working with a Garland mine: “Laying a Garland mine was shaky work, but scrabbling in pitch darkness up and down a hundred yards of railway, feeling for a hair-trigger buried in the ballast, seemed, at the time, an almost uninsurable occupation. The two charges connected with it were so powerful that they would have rooted out seventy yards of track; and I saw visions of suddenly blowing up, not only myself, but my whole force, every moment. To be sure, such a feat would have properly completed the bewilderment of the Turks!”

Diverse observations 
Garland’s observations on Bedu culture during his time in the region provide an interesting alternative to Lawrence’s narrative in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. His comments on slavery, medical matters, camels, Arab clothing, the conduct and behaviour of the Bedu, as well as his own frustrations regarding the conduct and progress of the campaign against the Ottoman Army, contain many light-hearted but perceptive observations designed to inform and entertain a post-war audience. He wrote up his observations and later lectured on the desert campaign and it is these lecture notes that now form the bulk of the Garland Papers held at the IMW, a gift of his last surviving daughter Mena who aged 92 lives in the USA. The notes are full of interest for those interested in the minutiae of the Arab campaign.

Garland, who as a young man had written a short romantic novel set in Guernsey entitled Diverse Affections, included in his lecture notes fascinating information often omitted from official reports, recording items of daily existence in the Hejaz with all its distractions and amusements. Here is Garland on an encounter with a hungry tribesman: “A certain Bedu told me that if I would pay for a sheep, he would eat the whole of it at one sitting. I did not think such a feat was possible until I watched him do it and had to pay one pound for the animal as I had promised. In addition to the sheep he devoured about three lbs of rice which he boiled inside it.” He was equally impressed by the agility of the Bedu and of their hunting prowess, especially in their simple but effective method of catching hares: “An Arab explained to me that a hare, when pursued, runs in circles, and that, after chasing the animal several times circumferentially, the huntsman catches it by darting across the diameter.” 

He also described life in camp at Wejh, the coastal town that had been occupied by Sherifian troops since January 1917. Wejh was strategically and psychologically significant to the future of the campaign, allowing the Arabs, with their British and French allies, to attack almost at will along the line and able to keep the Ottoman troops pinned down in their garrisons, “strung like beads on the long thread of the Hejaz Railway.”  While Emir Feisal was preoccupied with politics, labouring day and night in his counsel tent, the Bedu entertained themselves with boisterous parades and exhibitions of joy-shooting, often for no reason at all or to accompany victory parades. Inevitably there were accidents. One such incident occurred when a group, playful behind the tents occupied by Newcombe and Lawrence, became a little too inquisitive with a dud bomb from one of the seaplanes, a dangerous relic from when the town was first captured. The ensuing explosion sent limbs scattering among the tents whose canvas sides immediately became crimson stained. Those tents that could be washed were exchanged while the rest were destroyed as unfit habitation. Throughout the camp, spread out like a new town, guests were billeted according to status, rank and tribal association at varying distances away from Feisal’s hearth. One day a guest tent went up in flames and almost roasted its inhabitants alive. The crowd went wild and roared heartily with laughter until the fire extinguished itself and the injured could be attended to. 

Joy-shooting could also be extremely hazardous and a mare was seriously wounded by a falling bullet, along with many tents pierced during the hailstorm of metal. Garland was one officer who was appalled by the Arabs love for this sort of exhibition and noted that at the end of a successful raid on the railway the return journey always took less time than going out to the line. As the triumphant Bedouin raiders approached the Sherif’s tent they would set off an erratic feu de joie in which every member of the party would fire off into the air as many rounds of ammunition as he could spare, creating “a joyous and spectacular affair.” The resulting cascade of falling bullets went largely ignored except among many of the accompanying British officers who thought the display was wasteful and dangerous. Garland thought that he should have been provided with a shrapnel helmet while in the camps, “for a bullet fired vertically into the air descends with a very uncomfortable velocity, as I observed personally when one dropped beside me during a Bedouin demonstration.”  

Such were the amusements and diversions in the scattered camp now settled happily in the gulleys and sandy valleys which ran back from the land-locked harbour of Wejh. This low lying valley was edged by a steep coral shelf, below which Feisal had pitched his numerous tents, those for living and receiving visitors, and more for the accommodation of guests, staff and servants. Newcombe and Lawrence had been honoured with a spot on some heights looking down on the plain and where in the evening they benefitted from a refreshing sea breeze. Lawrence also thought he could detect a sea murmur that reminded him of the echo of traffic that can be heard drifting up from a London side-street. Below them were located the Ageyl tribesmen, colourful but fierce warriors who had entered the fight for Wejh half naked so as to not damage their precious clothes. On a more practical level they explained that it was to ensure a clean wound. 

Garland described his own desert attire as a frustrating encumbrance: “Except for a uniform jacket, (which I deemed wise to have with me in case of capture), I had discarded my uniform and was dressed in cotton pantaloons, a long white shirt with expansive, drooping, sleeves, a black mantle, and the Arab head-dress consisting of a shawl, with a head-rope, which fits on the head over the shawl. I wore European boots.” He later expands on his dislike of the Arab garments. “I have said that on this journey I wore a complete outfit of Arab clothing and I may as well add at once that it is impossible to conceive any form of raiment less suitable for the work I had before me. The outer cloak, which has two holes for the arms but no sleeves, is not fitted with fastenings of any kind and so has a most unpleasant way of slipping down one’s back especially when the camel is trotting. The ends of the headshawl, instead of lying in a seemly manner over the shoulders, answer to every little breeze, and have a playful habit of knocking the cigarette out of one’s mouth....” He ends his heartfelt complaint with the claim that: “Many a time during that journey I was reduced almost to sobs by the impeding behaviour of my Arab dress.”

His descriptions of Bedu medical practices and beliefs form a remarkable record of a lost world: “The Bedouin have their own forms of treatment for disease, the chief of which are bloodletting and branding. I saw a sheikh who had burnt huge patches on the soles of his feet as a cure for dysentery.” 

The mood changes 
Future operations against the line would not always be so full of that sense of optimism and confidence that had driven Lawrence to write, “The Arabs had passed from doubt to violent optimism, and were promising exemplary service.” An Intelligence Report written by Garland in mid May 1917 from Abu Markha highlighted the increasing frustration of some officers when working with Bedouin: “I am not sure that the taking of Bedouin parties is a white man’s job. They always leave you in the lurch. When laying my last mine, for instance, the instantaneous fuse accidentally went off in my hands and the whole party ran away and left me with Sherif Abdullah.”

Garland on camel
Over time, rail-raiding was to prove an arduous occupation. Garland was soon suffering from exhaustion and had become dangerously ill with dysentery. His commanding officer described him as ‘entirely broken down’, explaining he was unable to eat food and looked ‘a wreck.’ He was duly relieved of his duties and was pulled out of the theatre of operations for a period of rest in Cairo. Not yet fully recovered, he returned too soon to the field and immediately undertook a one hundred miles camel march in less than two days to deliver an important message. When he reached his destination he was once again in a very exhausted state. His description of camel riding is a delightfully amusing vignette, belying the true rigors of such a journey, as well as a warning to any newcomer to the harsh environment of the Arabian hinterland: ‘The camel’s gallop is not a thing for the novice to experiment with. A galloping camel with its immense stride gets over the ground very quickly, but to the rider it is a sort of cup-and-ball game in which he takes the part of the ball and spends most of the time in mid-air wondering whether he will land in the cup when he comes down.’

Before he retired from the field for good, Garland had successfully passed on sufficient knowledge to his Bedu pupils to give them the freedom to carry out demolitions on the line, and especially the line near Medina, without European assistance. For this outstanding work he was duly awarded the Order of the Nile, Egypt's highest honour. 

“Shortly afterwards he died.” 
Immediately after the armistice Garland was deemed fit enough to be sent to Medina, the last place to be surrendered by the Ottomans, with responsibility for overseeing the surrender of the town to the allies. The garrison’s commander, the redoubtable and stubborn Fakhri Pasha, refused to acknowledge that his advisor Captain Garland was an “Allied commander”, as stipulated in the negotiated terms of the Armistice signed at Mudros, and therefore ignored the order. Should Fakhri Pasha, the last knight of the last Sultan, a General of a Division and guardian of the Sacred Tomb of the Prophet, give his sword to a mere Captain, especially one that apparently held a political post? He held out too long for the sake of personal honour and was eventually lured to his capture by his own faltering subordinates who immediately contacted Garland to formalise the surrender.

Finally in 1919, Garland was appointed Director of the Arab Bureau in Cairo with the task of winding up its affairs long after its more illustrious members had departed. Palestine was now the centre of attention and with Ibn Saud’s Ikhwan warriors threatening the Hejaz from the east, Garland’s task soon became an onerous one. He still had plenty of bite and on 4 June 1919 he fired off a searing report, The Khurma Dispute between King Hussein and Ibn Saud', but you feel he was more at ease in his simultaneous post as Superintendent of the laboratories at the Cairo Citadel Museum.

Garland returned to England in March 1921 and died of an aneurism after only six days in the country, leaving scant records of the circumstances of his death or of his last resting place.

After his death, his wife May fought bureaucracy to have a war pension awarded to her to support her family but the British government invoked obfuscation and a bewildering entanglement of red tape to avoid an obvious and compassionate decision. Colleagues would be enlisted to give their testimonies on Garland’s involvement in the war. Major W.A. Davenport wrote in 1923 that Garland’s death “if not caused by service in the Hedjaz, was certainly precipitated by this.” He added, “Only those who served there can realise the filthy unsanitary conditions we had to live under, the filthy water that had to be drunk, and frequently the Arab food that had to be eaten.” The government merely reiterated that Garland did not die of injuries caused in Arabia. It would take two and a half years before a pension was forthcoming, a fitting result supporting the final endorsement of his colleague Davenport who wrote: “No man worked harder for the success of the operations than Major Garland, and it was only due to dogged pluck that he worked on as long as he did in the Hedjaz.”   

Garland in the Hejaz
There the story would have ended but for the determination of a few surviving relatives and friends scattered around the world, utilising the internet and good old-fashioned detective work to unearth the whereabouts of a long-forgotten hero of a long-forgotten desert war, yet one more remarkable personality eclipsed by Lawrence’s legend. For nearly ninety years Garland had languished in an unmarked grave located near to the eastern wall of the old part of the appropriately named Gravesend Cemetery, 22 miles east of the City of London on the south bank of the Thames estuary. He was 38 when he returned to England from Egypt, seriously ill and with an already weakened heart put under further stain by recurring bouts of dysentery picked up in the desert campaigns. A friend of his daughter Mena found his grave in 2004, a discovery that would eventually unite far-flung family members and friends, and finally bring to public attention this remarkable untold story.  

Stewart Newcombe rode on many rail-breaking operations with Garland and shared many of his frustrations and disappointments. Lawrence was quick to praise Garland’s efforts but saw the weakness that eventually forced his removal from the region: “His health was poor and the climate made him regularly ill. A weak heart troubled him after any strenuous effort or crisis; but he treated these troubles as if they were detonators and persisted until he had derailed the first train and broken the first culvert in Arabia. Shortly afterwards he died.”

My thanks go to Herbert Garland’s grandson, Chris Mitchell, who has actively pursued the remarkable story of his grandfather from his home in New Zealand and sent the results out to the world. He generously paid this tribute to Newcombe in reply to my enquiries: "Stewart Newcombe saw so much more service than Herbert and it is a tribute to his fortitude that he came through relatively intact." 

Lost but found
I am especially grateful to Mena Garland, Herbert’s daughter whose friend was instrumental in helping to discover a long-lost grave, for donating her father's papers to the Imperial War Museum and allowing researchers access to the thoughts and actions of a forgotten hero whose newly erected headstone conveys the poignant epitaph: “LOST BUT FOUND IN 2004”.

This is the first in a series of occasional portraits of personalities from the desert campaigns of the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918.

See also this update on Garland's remarkable story: A young man's near miss 

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