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, 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