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, December 21, 2011

A young man's near miss!

Herbert Garland's "providential escape” 
Workers arriving at the Woolwich Arsenal
The grandson of Major Herbert Garland, Chris Mitchell of New Zealand, sent in this interesting footnote to the life of Stewart Newcombe's colleague in the Hejaz (see my blog on Garland's fascinating life story dated Saturday, September 17, 2011). It seems that Garland very nearly didn't make it to the desert as many years earlier, under very different circumstances, he found himself less than half an hour away from almost certain death. On Thursday 19 June 1903, when aged 20 years old and a student of munitions, he was due to attend a class to learn how to handle lyddite explosive as part of his army training at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal ammunitions factory in South London. Since 1888, Britain had been manufacturing picric acid as a chemical compound for use in Army and Navy shells under the name lyddite, a highly unstable compound when allowed to over-dry. The shell packers at Woolwich had started work that morning at 7am checking the shells in the “danger buildings”, known as the “islands”, situated on Plumstead marshes about 1.5 miles from the main gate of the arsenal and far removed from the main town. These shells had been filled two days previously with liquid lyddite and left to gradually solidify. The men wore special clothing and felt-soled shoes against contaminating the compound which became highly volatile if salt picrates formed near exposed shell casings. At 8:11am Garland’s classroom hut and outlying buildings were completely destroyed by an enormous explosion that killed sixteen men and injured twice as many more. Windows were shattered up to a mile away and the noise could be heard three miles distant. Garland had been due to arrive at 8:30am to witness the manufacturing process and storage requirements. For him it was a very lucky escape.

A contemporary newspaper reported the gruesome details of the disaster and was quick to highlight the dangerous conditions experienced by the Arsenal workers on a daily basis: “The British Government pays from £1 to £1 10/ a week to work in the shell-filling sheds at Woolwich Arsenal. The pay is less than that of London County Council road-sweepers, and to earn it men must face death every minute of their working day.” To further illustrate the point, the newspaper stated, “The real cause of the latest disaster at the arsenal will probably always remain a mystery, for not one of the men implicated lives to tell the tale.” 

The following day a Sheffield newspaper reported that a local man, Herbert Garland, had “a providential escape” and a telegram had been received containing assurances of his safety. 

Lyddite Memorial
The incident was discussed in parliament and reported as far afield as the New York Times. Months later, a pink granite obelisk was erected over the mass grave of the victims in nearby Plumstead Cemetery.

But for those twenty minutes, Garland's future contribution to the war in the east would certainly have been sorely missed. The assault of Gallipoli, the defence of the Suez Canal and his contribution to the British Military Mission to the Hejaz in support of the Arab Revolt would each have been denied Garland's unique talents, as well as the undeniable bravery of a man who knew only too well the devastating effects of the tools of his trade. A further consequence of those missing minutes was pointed out by Garland's grandson who wrote, “If he had been a few minutes early on this particular day our Garland family branch would have ended there!”

My thanks once again go to Chris Mitchell for drawing the news item to my attention.