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.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011



2 November 1917
On this day, Colonel Newcombe and a small detachment of camel-mounted raiders were captured during a daring operation behind enemy lines just two days after a successful cavalry charge by 800 men of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade had overrun the unwired Turkish trenches of Beersheba in what was the opening move of the 3rd Battle of Gaza.

Newcombe's plan was simple: to take seventy heavily armed camel-mounted men through the desert in a wide sweeping arc behind enemy lines and to take and hold the Beersheba to Hebron road, cutting communication lines and holding up the retreating army until relieved. If possible, it was also hoped that an accompanying Arab Sheikh would be able to convince friendly Arabs in the hills to join the band of desert warriors. As in all operations, flexibility would be the key. This audacious plan, bearing many of the hallmarks that would later be adopted by the Long Range Desert Group and the SAS during the Second World War, was
eventually approved towards the end of October 1917 by General Allenby. The operation immediately swung into action with final preparations being coordinated under the strictest secrecy. At the El Arish Machine Gunnery School, sixteen men of a mixed British and Commonwealth background were called to parade before the Officer Commanding who said that GHQ had requested sixteen men of stout heart to be chosen for a hush-hush mission. He continued, ‘If any man has no wish to go he could step forward and be replaced’. As one soldier attending an N.C.O course at El Arish later wrote: ‘None of us was that stout hearted, so we all kept our places.’ 

After successfully securing the strategically located garrison town of Beersheba, severe water shortages proved to be a major concern to the British as they attempted to consolidate their gains in and around the town. The Official History of the War explains that, ’a Khamsin which began to blow on the second added greatly to the demands for water and to the suffering when they could not be met.’ Even washing and shaving had to be forbidden. Work to reorganise the water transport was a priority, and although engineers were soon improving the wells in Beersheba, ‘the whole machine was strained to the uttermost to keep the troops at a distance from the town supplied.’

On the evening of the 31 October, unaware of the ensuing problems faced by the bulk of the mounted units who should at that moment be harassing the retreating Turkish forces towards his position, Newcombe led his group north up gentle slopes beyond the village of Ad-Dhahiriya which sat on its high plateau some 1200 feet above Beersheba. The road to Hebron which cut through the hills to the north of the village was protected by a strong Turkish garrison and patrolled by reconnaissance flights from a nearby airfield. After a long and hazardous march Newcombe and his men reached the Beersheba to Hebron road, now deep behind enemy lines, and set up camp in the nearby hills while a small party went off to cut communication wires. News reached him via local Bedouin of the capture of Beersheba and he determined at all costs to hold the Hebron road, so as to cut off the enemy's retreat to the north, while also hoping for a speedy advance by the British cavalry to secure his relief. Newcombe and his men slept till dawn on 1 November before moving off to new positions that straddled the road. Soon after setting up their guns they captured several prisoners, officers who had jauntily cantered down the road from Beersheba until fired upon and ordered to surrender. ‘Their unbelieving astonishment at the sight of British troops as they halted and obeyed was trance-like.’ When the chill of evening began to descend, Newcombe’s men spotted a column of Ottoman infantry marching down the road towards them. One member of the group remembered: ‘We opened fire. This was no battle. They had no chance, no time to think.’ But with the approaching darkness a few Turkish survivors had managed to slip away. ‘We had stirred up such a hornet’s nest,’ he recalled, ‘that it was time to vacate our known position.’ 

With the enemy now actively searching for the group, Newcombe’s difficulties continued to mount throughout the next day and it was obvious that the hoped for relief was neither near nor likely to come. A fierce fire-fight ensued after an enemy plane located their position. Within minutes the hills were spitting fire from two hastily assembled Turkish companies commanded by a German officer. With ten of his men dead, twenty wounded and most of his machine guns disabled, Newcombe had no alternative but to surrender. As T.E. Lawrence later wrote: ‘He was brave for six hours too long.’

The full story of Newcombe’s adventures in the hills northeast of Beersheba which had spread such alarm and confusion to an army in retreat will be recorded in the forthcoming In the Shadow of the Crescent.

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