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.

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".