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, July 24, 2013

Mena Garland 1919 - 2013

Mena Garland on her 90th birthday
I have received news that Major Herbert Garland's daughter Mena Garland (married surname O'Connor) passed away in Newport, Rhode Island, at 4am on Saturday morning aged 93. 

Mena was Herbert's sixth child and was born in Cairo on 17 November 1919 during his brief tenure as the Director of the Arab Bureau and editor of the final issues of the Arab Bulletin. See: Bimbashi (Major) Herbert Garland's story in An Oriental Assembly 

After long periods of ill-health brought on by the rigours of desert warfare Garland died from an aortic aneurism less than sixteen months after Mena was born, leaving scant record of the circumstances of his death. Remarkably, it took his daughter more than 80 years to discover her father's final resting place in an unmarked grave in the English town of Gravesend on the south bank of the Thames. Today that grave has the following inscription: “LOST BUT FOUND IN 2004”, a poignant reminder of the long journey taken by Mena to find the father she barely knew but who she wished to restore to his rightful place in the history of the desert campaigns of the First World War alongside Stewart Newcombe and T.E. Lawrence. It was a journey that ultimately helped reconnect the various strands of Herbert's family and renew worldwide interest in the career of the man recently called Lawrence's brother-in-arms. 

Bimbashi Herbert Garland
Regrettably, Mena was unable to read my entry on Herbert Garland for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography which is due to be published later this year, but she always showed a deep interest and appreciation of the entries in this blog that mentioned his exploits. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Code-name Operation Newcombe

There is evidence that the British contribution to the French military action in Mali has been named after Colonel S.F. Newcombe. Operation Newcombe has been running since January 2013 when the British Prime Minister David Cameron put all sections of the military on alert for an "emergency deployment" to Mali to support French forces who are battling al-Qaeda forces in the northern African nation in an operation the French have themselves code-named Serval. The Royal Airforce has since played a role by deploying two C-17 Globemaster III strategic transport planes of No. 99 Squadron from RAF Station Brize Norton to the French Écreux Air Base on 13 January. Later in the same month the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) deployed a Sentinel R1 Surveillance aircraft to support the French forces. A small party of 40 'advisors' was also sent to Mali but was said to not be involved in combat.

Operation Serval has successfully secured a number of towns and is currently scaling down its activities in the hope that the Malian government forces will be able to take the initiative forward supported by a reduced French presence and a contingent of UN forces. It is not known what prompted the MoD to name the British operation after the colonel other than perhaps in recognition of his past military contribution to his country.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dorset Treats

West Lulworth
The family gathered for Christmas 2012 in Dorset where we rented a delightful thatched cottage in the picturesque village of West Lulworth. Apart from a few research trips, it was our first time back to the UK for any significant period for over ten years. Happily my daughter had chosen a property that would evoke fond memories of bygone times. Christmas decorations that once adorned our own cottage in a small village three miles outside of Canterbury were shipped back over from Spain to decorate an inglenook fireplace that was eerily reminiscent of one I once owned. The oak bressummer beam, the brickwork, the log pile – it was all there, tricking me into thinking that time had stood still and it was the year 2000 again and the last English Christmas before we embarked on our big adventure. 

Lulworth Cove
A short walk from the cottage took us to the sheltered Lulworth Cove, once a flourishing smugglers’ haunt, and a starting point for some pleasant walks over the hills - in one direction to Durdle Door (on Christmas morning!) and in the other across Army Firing Range Walks to the Arish Mell cliffs which overlook the now inaccessible beach. It was here that T.E. Lawrence swam with his friend, Arthur Russell, the so-called ‘Patroclus’ of the small group of friends who regularly convened at Lawrence’s cottage, Clouds Hill. Russell was one of the pall bearers at Lawrence’s funeral, representing the Tank Corps period of his life alongside Stewart Newcombe as the representative of the Arabian years. 

Dorset and the West Country were mostly under water this winter so a walk to the local pub was more of an accomplishment than merely as a means of seeking entertainment or sustenance. But once reached there’s nothing quite like basking in the amazing breadth and scope of family conversations that comes from sitting for a couple of hours in a traditional pub supping pints of bitter beer while flood water flows through the kitchens!

Clouds Hill
Nearby, Lawrence’s Clouds Hill was looking forlorn and exposed, locked up for the winter and with its gardens shorn of the rhododendrons that once gave it the privacy that Lawrence craved. A sign on the gate read that the National Trust was managing a particularly virulent disease that affects the rhododendron ponticum and has caused extensive damage to trees, garden shrubs and heath plants throughout the west of the UK. Replanting with rhododendron hybrids and other native evergreens is planned to continue throughout the winter. At the moment, it looks as if a tank has veered off course and wrought havoc in the garden, creating an effective fire-guard against the heath fires that were a constant worry during Lawrence’s time. 

I had hoped to gain semi-private access to the cottage and was indeed given dates that unfortunately did not coincide with my time in the UK. The staff at the NT were very helpful in their suggestions but due to the festive holidays we were unable to make it happen. Colonel Newcombe had provided building materials and advice to Lawrence during the refurbishment of the cottage and I wanted to see if I could match his suggestions to the finished improvements. 

Newcombe had innovative ideas on heating homes and buildings. In an era when insulation in properties in the UK was not commonplace, he came up with practical suggestions that were ahead of his time. Where heat efficiency in the construction of buildings could not be improved, he developed a parallel idea that was explained in his paper of August 1954, Comfort and Cost of Heating Persons, Not Room Efficiency, which was sent out to relevant organisations and experts for their consideration and general discussion. Clouds Hill lacked any insulation and was served by two fireplaces and a ready supply of firewood. But to its owner it was ‘an earthly paradise,’ its simplicity reflecting his wishes. As he wrote to the artist and sculptor, Eric Kennington: ‘There cannot ever be a bed, a cooking vessel, or a drain in it - and I ask you... are not such things essential to life... necessities?’ A boiler and a bath was as good as it got for its owner who craved the luxury of hot water.

At Bovington Camp, the Tank Museum’s extensive collection was overwhelming. Its archive staff kindly brought out of storage the John Mansfield Crealock portrait of Newcombe - a real Christmas treat for both Newcombe and I, especially as he rarely sees the light of day.

Whether my family realised it or not, Christmas food shopping in Wareham was always going to be interrupted by a small detour to the local outfitters – A.F. Joy at 35 North Street - to pick up the key to the Saxon-era St. Martin’s Church where Kennington’s reclining effigy of Lawrence is undoubtedly the highlight, although the fragmented frescoes dating from the 12, 16 and 17th Centuries are certainly going to impress. 

Kennington's Effigy
There’s something about having the key to the church door and being responsible for locking up afterwards that reminded me of Derek Nimmo, an actor well-known for playing clerical roles (All Gas and Gaiters, Oh, Brother!, and its sequel Oh, Father! – I once interviewed him for a Dubai magazine as he was a regular visitor with his touring company, InterContinental Entertainment). The key was returned to the manager of the outfitters who is also the Church Warden, Merville Gover – the only man I have ever met that appears completely at ease with a measuring tape around his neck – and who readily gave me a copy of Lawrence’s birth and death certificates (for free) plus for a small fee a copy of Lawrence of Arabia, The Simple Facts by a former mayor of Wareham, Harry Broughton. 

Cheese, pickles and bread bought from the local farmers’ market down by the quay on the swollen River Frome would make a tasty lunch but before that I took the family for tea and crumpets at the Anglebury House Tea Rooms. Little did they know that this is where Lawrence supposedly took tea at a favourite window table. As we were the only people present we made ourselves comfortable and got into conversation with a friendly local who gave us directions to the best butcher in town. 

Reaching Dorchester via detours around flooded roads was necessary for those last minute purchases but with Christmas shopping done, the big day finally arrived. We walked over hills, we ate, we laughed, we slept, we ate again, we visited family, we drank, and then on Boxing Day I revealed a cunning plan – refreshments in the award-winning Moreton Tea Rooms. Nothing to do with Lawrence, honest!

It was raining and St.Nicholas’ Church, Moreton, was empty with a diffused light coming through the superb engraved windows created by Laurence Whistler, a post-Lawrence-era addition following partial destruction of the church by a fleeing German bomber in WW2. 

Constant companions
Lawrence’s grave is located a few metres away down a leafy country lane in an extension to the graveyard. It is approached by a brick path paid for by the T.E. Lawrence Society and can be found at the back of a well-maintained site. Someone had even placed a Welsh flag in a corner of his grave by his feet. The red dragon fluttered stiffly in the chill afternoon wind connecting Lawrence of Arabia, of Oxford, of Carchemish and finally of Dorset to Tremadog in Wales, his place of birth. To the left of the headstone was a bench donated by Arthur Russell over twenty years ago and engraved with the name Patroclus, the constant companion of Achilles in Greek mythology.

For Lawrence, Christmas in the ranks as a single man held little appeal. He once wrote to George Bernard Shaw's wife, Charlotte: 'Mankind punishes himself with such festivals.' Barracks became 'wet' and the men boisterous; Lawrence preferred to take his turn at guard duty to escape the excitement. 

In 1932, Lady Astor gifted him two heat lamps to warm the cottage and keep the damp off his books. The following Christmas he wrote to say how successful they had been. He then described how he had spent this year: ‘On Christmas day it was mild and grey,’ he wrote, ‘so we walked for fourteen miles and dinnered off a tinned chicken. The long walk made it taste good.’ 

Fourteen miles! Perhaps he walked across to the coast, maybe down to Lulworth which was generally off limits without a pass, past 'our' cottage with its smoking chimney to ‘smile at the sea.’ He once complained that it was too cold to bathe in the cove except in the rain. Then there were the gulls ‘questing through the spume’. He wrote: ‘They have the saddest, most cold, disembodied voices in the world.’

Our Christmas was nearly over. The weather had been Dorset weather. Lawrence accurately summed it up: 'wind and rain: rain and wind: wind: rain: and so on.' Corfe, with its castle, had a good pub. Still to be explored were Weymouth, Bournemouth, and Southampton, each with its Lawrence connections. It's easy to be sidetracked but it was time to go home to the sun. Happy days! 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Turkish Delights

During a recent trip to Turkey I was able to identify and visit four locations where Stewart Newcombe was imprisoned as a captive officer in 1917. These were the POW camps at Afyon-Karahisar, Bursa and two in the centre of Istanbul (Constantinople). 

See also: In the steps of Newcombe 

Beyazit Square
One of the prisons in Istanbul occupied what is today the Faculty of Political Sciences at the Istanbul University, the city’s oldest university founded in 1453. The Beyazit campus, with its imposing arched entrance facing Beyazit Square, is located in the heart of old Stamboul, close to all the major historical attractions such as the Hagia Sophia Basilica, the Blue Mosque and next to the Suleymaniye Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. In Newcombe’s time the faculty served as the guard quarters of the Daire-i Umur-ı Askeriye, the Ministry of War of the Ottoman Empire, in what is the main building of the University. The students attending the University today would have little idea of the conditions that prisoners were once kept in.

The second site, the Psamatia Prisoner-of-War Camp on the western outskirts of Stamboul, was formed around a requisitioned church and theological school, the Meryem Ana Ermeni Kilisesi - the Armenian Church of the Virgin Mary - in the Kumkapi district. This was the scene of an audacious escape attempt by Newcombe and fellow officer Francis Yeats-Brown that nearly ended in disaster.

Some 230 kms away, Bursa had been the first capital city of the Ottomans and had the nickname "Green Bursa" because of the surrounding greenery and forests. It was a well laid out city founded by Orhan Gazi in 1326 and still retains the first examples of typical Ottoman architectural style. 

Bursa Clock Tower
It was at the top of the famous Bursa Clock Tower in Tophane district that Newcombe and Elsie Chaki, his Franco-Turkish escape accomplice and bride-to-be, secretly met to plan his getaway. Bursa was famous then as it is now for its natural hot springs so it would have been entirely plausible for Elsie to visit the town to take the recuperative waters. The clock tower is conveniently situated on a high plateau overlooking the town from where Newcombe was able to see all the way to the coast through a wide valley between low lying hills to the north and the foothills of the Uludağ, "The Great Mountain", to the south of the historic centre of Bursa. It was a route he would come to know very well in the future. With the escape route agreed upon, their future together was sealed.

The highlight of my visit to the city arose from a misunderstanding with the owner of a restaurant on the edge of the gardens opposite the clock tower. My Turkish is minimal at best and my new-found friend’s English began and ended in mastering an equally minimal vocabulary necessary to his trade. Between the two of us we managed to contrive a calamitous misunderstanding that ultimately led to much hand-shaking and hugs all round from the proprietor and his many sons, to each of whom I was introduced with the term: “this is the Osmanli.” I was fortunate also in that 50% of the bill for my sumptuous feast was waived and I became the grateful recipient of gifts such as a fridge magnet, place mat and pens depicting the name and logo of the establishment. 

Entrance to Tower
It seems that in trying to explain my interest in the clock tower and gardens in my faltering Turkish it was somehow assumed that I was a relative of the colonel and the woman he later married, thus making me part Turkish. Not wishing to pass off as an imposter in a foreign country, especially of the man I’m writing a book about, but not having the necessary skills to pull back the ensuing disaster, I was grateful when they stopped taking photos of me standing by the tower and I was at last able to bid them a fond farewell, albeit with a promise to return, as one does. 

The owner and staff at the Haci Dayi Restaurant may not be able to read this, but if someone translates it for them, then I’m sorry - and I will return! You have a wonderful restaurant. As I look at the much-prized fridge magnet staring at me accusingly from where it is stuck on my angle-poise lamp, I ask myself: “Do I feel guilty?” But then I am reminded that Bursa was where Newcombe and Elsie hoodwinked their Turkish guards and where they planned his final and ultimately successful escape from captivity. As Elsie might have said: "Non, je ne regrette rien".