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.

Friday, December 7, 2012

In memoriam A.J.D


A clan elder passed away today (Thursday 6 December 2012) and although he would not have wanted to take up space on pages devoted to Stewart Newcombe's life he is remembered here because he had a keen interest and wide knowledge in all things connected to Newcombe and T.E. Lawrence. 

A.J.D worked in the Middle East for much of his life and had travelled over much of the same ground as Lawrence. He knew Arabia, the Arabs and a lot about most things and passed on his wisdom and experience to his girls, all of whom he was intensely proud. He was deeply supportive of this project, always insightful in his comments and liked nothing better than to probe the depths of my ignorance which only spurred me on to find the answers to impress him. 

He lived a life that can be best described by relating it to something that Lawrence had once said about the weather. During a break in their archaeological work at Carchemish, a Hittite city located on what is today the border between Turkey and Syria, Lawrence and C.L. Woolley were invited to join Newcombe’s surveying teams to explore the Wilderness of Zin region in today’s Southern Israel. This is how Lawrence described the differences he found in the temperature: “The Dead Sea is hot, the Red Sea is hot: this oasis is cool, and Carchemish is snowbound. Don’t you envy us our alternate frizzle and freeze?” 

The maverick spirit that was A.J.D also lived a life of "frizzle and freeze" - in more ways than one. From the deserts of Arabia to his final resting place in the home he built himself out of wood in the wilds of Alaska, he lived life to the extreme. He was equally at home in the boardrooms of major petroleum companies or at the helm of his own fishing trawlers off the west coast of Scotland as he was in hunting and fishing in the place he called the last paradise on earth.

This poem by Robert Louis Stevenson could have been written for him: 

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he long'd to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the Hunter home from the hill.

The night he died the temperature had been as low as -22 C with a slight flurry of snow drifting through the Matanuska-Susitna Valley to settle on the peaks of the Talkeetna Mountains overlooking Hatchers Pass. At the end, inside the place he could finally call home - with its Persian carpets, Arabic coffee pots and mementos from his Middle Eastern journeys - he was surrounded by the warmth and love from his family and a few friends – rather more ‘frizzle’ than ‘freeze’ you could say.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

An interesting news item

On the 50th anniversary of the film, Lawrence of Arabia, the Royal Society of Chemists have offered £300 for a 'script' - the missing sequence - describing Major Herbert Garland's contribution to Lawrence's story.  

Garland's contribution to the Hejaz campaign (see: An Oriental Assembly - Bimbashi (Major) Herbert Garland and A young man's near miss!) was indeed highly significant; his invention and application of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) led directly to him using one of his own hair-trigger devices to derail the first train in the desert war on 12 February 1917 at Towaira. The effect of this one action alone must have sent ripples of alarm throughout the Turkish command and would have no doubt given immense confidence to the Arab leaders and their tribal forces at a critical stage of the campaign. 

Not Arabia, but Cabo de Gata, Spain
But Herbert Garland's influence on rail-raiding operations in the Hejaz and later in the northern sphere of operations - by which time he had left the area through ill-health - was not so much in what he invented, itself a considerable achievement in the early months of the campaign, but in the confidence he imparted to novices such as Lawrence and the untrained Bedouin in handling the material and the tools of his trade. Experienced military staff such as Newcombe and Hornby would not have needed much encouragement to pick up the ‘homemade’ devices and run with them. But Garland’s familiarity with high explosives was infectious. "Sappers handled it like a sacrament,” wrote Lawrence, “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!”  

Lawrence had come a long way from map-making and compiling reports on troop dispositions from the safety of his office in Cairo. Explosives held no mystery for him now and he was confident in handling something that was normally the domain of a select band of sappers like Newcombe, a confidence which he was to put to effective use when the campaign shifted to the north and where the use of electric plungers took over from Garland’s IEDs.  

Lawrence did not forget how useful and effective explosives could be. Nearly twenty years later, he enlisted Lord Carlow’s help in taking off the top of a tree that was threatening to hit the corner of Clouds Hill cottage if it ever came down. They obtained some gelignite from Portland and lashed it to the offending branch with an old puttee, setting a fuse which his neighbour Pat Knowles was allowed to light. Standing at a safe distance the tree came down exactly as planned except for the added inconvenience of the skylight blowing in with a pretty musical tinkle as glass showered in on the upstairs music room. Lawrence’s only comment was a wry ‘Blast!’ and Knowles was dispatched to get some replacement glass from Bill Bugg’s workshop at Bovington camp while Lord Carlow helped Lawrence saw up the branches into logs. A mixture of school-boy larks mixed with a healthy dose of Garland’s bravura with explosives.

Clouds Hill with skylight
Many years later, during a visit to Clouds Hill, I pointed out to the curator of the cottage that rain water was dripping from the same skylight onto the leather sofa which I helped shift a few inches away from the wall while she ran to get a bucket. Where was old Bill Bugg when you needed him?

It’s a thought-provoking idea to link the Royal Society of Chemists’ new found hero with a major cinematic event and make chemistry ‘sexy’ at the same time - but an interesting story all the same! I wonder what the winning script will have to say about Garland's contribution and how many more minutes will it add to a film that has historically been chopped about; apparently Imax has it down to 45 minutes!  

If you fancy yourself as a scriptwriter see:

But just remember how long it took Michael Wilson to get a credit! 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

In the Steps of Newcombe

Plans are now complete for an ‘in the steps of Newcombe’ tour of Turkey commencing next week which will give me the opportunity to capture the landscape, atmosphere and spirit of place before publication of In the Shadow of the Crescent next year. This trip will all too briefly cover Stewart Newcombe’s onward journey from Carchemish in 1914 after he had visited T.E. Lawrence and Leonard Woolley at the end of the survey season that had included the Wilderness of Zin and Sinai intelligence-gathering missions. From the archaeologist’s house Newcombe and fellow Royal Engineer officer Lieutenant J.P.S. Greig travelled on horse-back to observe the progress of the Berlin to Baghdad railway through the Taurus Mountain passes, although as Newcombe complained, ‘horse is rather a misnomer for the animals obtained’.

Tunnel through the Tuarus Mountains
Although the archaeologists’ hospitality would have been a welcome diversion after the rigours of the surveys, Newcombe and Greig were eager to be off to investigate the progress of the construction of the railway to the west. After they set off they soon picked up the railhead at Dorak and followed the line through the Taurus Mountains until Karapunar (mod. Karapinar) from where I’ll be able to pick up their journey. Identifying about 18 kilometres of tunnels, they made their way through the stunning but slightly terrifying gorges of the Taurus range, with its hair-raising zigzag paths and a cleverly graded carriage-road cut alongside the route of the line. At the village of Bedernadik (today’s Belemedik) they encountered a stone-built camp for engineers supported by a guard of Ottoman soldiers who stopped them and asked for papers. Newcombe was able to bluff his way out of a difficult situation. As he explained: ‘A few chosen words in French to an Austrian, who could only understand Italian, and the acceptance of a cigar, were sufficient to get us through.’ They continued in the direction of Bozanti (mod. Pozanti), and although it was getting dark the effect of the fading light on the rock-cut road was inspiring and moved Newcombe to describe it as a ‘narrow gorge of the most impressive and romantic description, seen as it was after dusk with a crescent moon, on either side the cliffs rising sheer to the snowline.’ It was an uncharacteristically lyrical description from a man more familiar with technical and factual details. 

Always the engineer, Newcombe was equally impressed by the extremely difficult work of surveying and construction, especially at the tunnel mouths, which continued through the night by the glow of electric arc lights – 12 tunnels were eventually built although the original idea was to pierce the Taurus mountain range by one long tunnel. Accordingly, he paid his respects to his fellow engineers, hoping also to elicit intelligence. But as he pointed out, ‘It was difficult, however, to get any other information than what could be seen on a hurried journey.’  

One of the highlights of my journey north will be a visit to Bursa, the ancient capital of the Ottoman State from 1326 to 1365. It was here that Newcombe was imprisoned and from where he and his brave accomplice and future wife, Elizabeth (Elsie) Chaki, hatched a daring plan for his escape back to Constantinople (Istanbul) and where he would later make contact with the escape organisation of an equally courageous woman who went under the nom de guerre of The White Lady.

‘A nice man whom I once met in Constantinople.’
Galata Bridge, Constantinople
Newcombe knew Constantinople well from before the war. Gertrude Bell, the ‘Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations’, as one recent biography describes this most extraordinary woman, was already a celebrated mountaineer, intrepid traveller, writer, political officer and spy when she crossed paths with Newcombe in the city. She first wrote of him to her mother in 1916 as “…a nice man whom I once met in Constantinople.” Years later she would bemoan the fact that he had been ensnared by marriage: ‘...Col. Newcomb [sic] is the kind of man who never ought to have married at all. He is an adventurer and really good at the job.’

Before Elsie and The White Lady came to his rescue, Istanbul was the scene of many failed escape attempts by Newcombe and his accomplices – some calamitous, some amusing but all with potentially serious consequences. A boat trip on the Bosphorus from the Galata Bridge which spans the Golden Horn will be essential in recreating one particular adventure that nearly ended in disaster and necessitated the need for the would-be escapees to return to their military prison undetected. My return journey will be to a suitably located restaurant to dine on locally caught fish and to watch the sun setting across the Sea of Marmara in the knowledge that within weeks of the war’s end, Newcombe and Elsie were reunited in London and married in a small church nestling in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, situated at the spiritual and political epicentre of the Empire he served as a loyal and dedicated agent. Elsie may not have met with Gertrude’s approval but their marriage flourished within the parameters of his military career which, given his rank, status and experience, gave them ample opportunities to share and enjoy fresh adventures together.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

T. E. Lawrence Blog

I wish to thank the blogger Groggy Dundee for linking this site to his own blog which gives "Reviews, commentaries and analysis of biographies of T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) by an amateur Lawrence enthusiast." The reviews are surprisingly lucid and coherent given the image conjured up by his nom de blog! (Sorry Groggy, couldn't resist that). I particularly enjoyed his interview with Professor Stephen E. Tabachnick, who has written, co-written or edited several books on Lawrence: The T.E. Lawrence Puzzle (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1984), T.E. Lawrence (New York: Twayne, 1997) and Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004). He co-authored (with Christopher Matheson) Images of Lawrence (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998), whose overview of Lawrence biographies largely inspired Groggy's own blog. 

Despite planning a break from further postings due to other priorities, Groggy's blogsite is well worth visiting at