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, March 17, 2011

A Cartographer's Tool Kit et al

Theodolite and Gunter's Chain
A Cartographer’s Tool Kit

On the eve of the First World War, a team of military cartographers and surveyors, under Stewart Newcombe’s command, was sent out to measure and map a strategic triangle of southern Palestine - today’s Negev Desert – as part of a secret survey carried out on behalf of the British War Office between January and May of 1914. The survey of the region known since Biblical times as the Wilderness of Zin would gather vital information about a previously uncharted area, considered to be of military importance in the run up to any future conflict with Turkey. It would provide the Director of Military Operations in London with the missing piece of a jigsaw that was started by Conder and Kitchener’s extensive Survey of Western Palestine in the 1880’s, carried out on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund - the P.E.F. 

The Wilderness of Zin survey proved to be the last opportunity before the First World War to systematically gather reliable intelligence on the ground. By the time the War Office got their maps of the Sinai and the Negev, a shift to visual air reconnaissance had been introduced, augmented in the latter half of 1916 by photo reconnaissance. Some years later, Newcombe himself would explore a method of land contouring by use of the Thompson Stereoplotter on aerial photographs. But in the great surveys of Palestine, Sinai and the Wilderness of Zin the surveying teams in the field used the simple tools of their trade – theodolite, compass and measuring chain - essential components of a cartographer’s tool kit. What were also needed were ingenuity, courage, diplomacy and tact when dealing with local tribes or Ottoman authority. Newcombe was highly praised by T.E. Lawrence for possessing these qualities in abundance and paving the way for future travellers in the desert.

Suez Canal showing Sinai to the east
A resourceful and tenacious character, Stewart Newcombe’s life epitomized those robust Victorian qualities that helped paint the globe pink but whose life encompassed the eventual shift in Britain’s relations with its subject peoples and saw the beginning of the fall of the last of the great world empires, a life that spanned Pax Britannica to decolonisation. He died in 1956, just days before Gamal Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal and three months before the débacle that became known as the Suez Crisis created shock waves across the region, when Israeli incursions into the Canal Zone "forced" Britain and France to attempt to regain control under a pre-arranged agreement known as the Sèvres Protocol. Politically it was a shoddy operation; militarily it was of benefit only to Israel which gained an outlet for international shipping through the Straits of Tiran, an 8 mile bottleneck between the Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia that the Egyptians had previously kept shut with strategically placed guns to close off access for Israeli ships entering the Red Sea for routes to and from Africa and Asia. The fiasco also helped bring about the abandonment of the British policy of slowly nurturing the colonised people of Africa to self-determination. The cry now was for Britain’s immediate departure. Suez had been fought over by Britain for the last time; the crisis would prove to be the death knell not just of the British Empire but to all the empires of Western Europe.

Stewart Newcombe was not to witness the inevitable conclusion to the dismantling of the British Empire, but he would not have been surprised at its outcome.

A wind of change blowing across the Arab world

Newcombe had once helped protect the canal by mapping its eastern approaches. Where maps then held the power, cheap transistor radios were the new weapons, distributed widely by Nasser to spread the word of nationalism and unity across Africa and the Arab world. Today, the internet is the weapon of choice where the rallying cry of a new generation can be heard across the Arab world on Facebook and Twitter - a wind of change that is felt more keenly when the cry is heard by those without access to the media. The use of force by regimes against its own people now changes the situation, as seen recently in Libya and Bahrain, while around the world the wheels of diplomacy turn slowly. Before a U.N. resolution was passed on 17 March 2011 the international community appeared reticent to reach an agreement on how to intervene – in most cases it was an oil-driven paralysis that had not affected their response to Egypt, in others it is the risk of setting a precedent when their own domestic condition may trip them up in the future.  

Today we exist with the consequences left over from the end of the age of empire, where an occasional aftershock pricks our collective conscience, yet one more seismic shift in the new world order – a constant reshuffling of the pack. Regimes come and go - our response to them is judged by history.

Japan and the Newcombes

In the 1870’S Newcombe’s father, Edward, helped build the first railways in Japan under the accelerated industrialisation of the period known as the Meiji Restoration. Two of Newcombe’s brothers were born in Osaka. It was therefore inevitable that Stewart Newcombe should have become interested in engineering, and especially in the engineering and construction of railways. During the scramble for Africa he helped push the railways through Sudan; by 1917 he was to prove equally adept at blowing up railway lines in the Hejaz. My thanks and thoughts go to the followers of this blog from Japan who, my stats tell me, have continued to visit during the last few days.