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 24, 2010

A Prelude to War - Mapping Palestine, Sinai and the Wilderness of Zin

Eretz Magazine
I recently wrote an article for Eretz, a bi-monthly magazine published in Israel, which has now appeared in English after first being published in Hebrew translation last November. The magazine focuses on "the heritage, geography history and culture of the Land of Israel and the Jewish People". The article looks at the surveys of the Negev and Sinai deserts carried out by and on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Society (P.E.F.) both for peaceful and military purposes and naturally features Stewart Newcombe, T.E. Lawrence and C.L. Woolley.

As Newcombe was firmly in the Arab camp and a strong advocate for a bi-nation state in Palestine, circa 1922-1948, I was not sure if his anti-Zionist stance would sit well with the readers of Eretz. He held strong views on what he considered were acceptable levels of Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine in the years between the World Wars, based on his long study of the region, its people, infrastructure and resources. He tried in his own way to come up with proposals that were fair to both sides, as they stood at that time, but as he tended to side with anti-Zionist European Jews his arguments are often seen as biased and at variance with the parallel Zionist movement as well as his own government. 

The article highlights the role played by the P.E.F. in charting the history and culture of a thriving Palestinian society within Ottoman Greater Syria. In mapping the historical geography of the Holy Land, and in meticulously chronicling the process, the P.E.F. sought to recover a landscape that was already familiar to the Christian imagination. By retrieving the original map of the Bible from place-names of a predominiantly Arab and Muslim country, the P.E.F. documented an urban and rural geography that would be largely transformed following the future development and colonisation by European Jews, a group which by then had not fully emerged as a likely candidate for the 'redemption' of the land after its neglect by an Ottoman government in decline. 

Wilderness of Zin
The article also discusses Newcombe's secret military surveys, largely in the Negev region, carried out on behalf of the War Office under the guise of a scientific survey for the P.E.F. prior to the First World War. His post-war joint surveys with the French for the Boundary Commission, delineating the borders of the British Mandate of Palestine and the French Mandate for Syria, are still relevant today in Israel's relations with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. This intimate involvement with the country would naturally contribute to his strongly-held views on its future, leading to his association with organisations like the Palestine Information Centre in London where he held the post of Honorary Secretary.

Most Israelis today - at least the "reading" public - accept that the Zionist narrative runs parallel to an Arab narrative and that both have equal merit. There is definitely a growing interest in the Palestine narrative and an attempt to get a more balanced picture of the Mandate and Pre-Mandate years - including an interesting re-evaluation of the merits of the Mandate itself and in subjects represented by figures like Newcombe, the British Empire and the P.E.F.     

Newcombe believed that the Arabs would not vanish like the mist before the sun of Zion and therefore thought that it was imperative that they had fair representation in the contest for the hearts and minds of those in lofty power who would ultimately bring about the fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration, with all its stipulations - important provisos which supported his firm belief that only by respecting native interests could you achieve a lasting consensus. He worked tirelessly towards that aim after consulting the opinions of his many Jewish and Moslem friends before reaching his proposals that he hoped would satisfy both Moslems and Jews as well as best serving the interests of the British Empire.

Entrance to Islamic Centre
Whatever his lasting impact on mapping the region or subsequently in his life-long interest and involvement in Islamic affairs, Newcombe refused to be satisfied and once exclaimed, 'I wish I could have done more'. A legacy to his prodigious efforts can be found in the maps, papers and records held in government files or in libraries alongside those of his friend T.E. Lawrence, with whom he will be forever connected. But perhaps it the invaluable assistance he gave in helping to establish the East London Mosque, the first purpose built mosque in London, that Newcombe's legacy to his Muslim friends is best illustrated.

Eretz can be found at

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Mosque for London

The recent discovery of Stewart Newcombe’s involvement in the creation and development of one of London’s first mosques certainly adds a further dimension to his life and I wish to thank the archivist at the mosque concerned for his invaluable help in supplying the supporting documentation that illustrates Newcombe’s considerable contribution to this commendable endeavour. A full and public recognition for the assistance of the archive department will be made in the appropriate manner once the section has been completed.

It could be argued that coming at a time of national emergency during the early years of the Second World War the benefits of keeping the empire’s millions of Muslims on board were obvious and a mosque in London was an absolute minimum requirement, one that was "worthy of the tradition of Islam and worthy of the capital of the British Empire".

As a non-Muslim, Newcombe was not alone in giving his time and expertise to the enterprise. Others sitting on the management committee included Sir Ernest Hotson, who as Acting Governor of Bombay in 1931 was shot twice in the chest at point blank range by V. Gogate, a young revolutionary student who spent the next 6 years in prison alongside Mahatma Ghandi. Hotson remarkably survived, going on to help secure his assailant’s release and later sending him a substantial sum of money to help towards completing his education in politics. The cheque was duly accepted and proved to be a worthy donation in Gogate’s future political career in an independent India. Hotson served with distinction alongside Newcombe as Joint Honorary Secretary until his death two years later, making way for Newcombe to take over the role single-handed.

One other non-Muslim sitting on the mosque’s management committee was Lord Winterton who was recently mentioned in the Daily Telegraph (24.08.2010) for setting the desert on fire in his own inimitable manner:

This article refers to an entry in the latest Lawrence book to be published in which Winterton is mentioned as burning the breakfast for a group of men belonging to X Flight, a squadron of the Royal Flying Corps which in this book has been dubbed ‘Lawrence of Arabia’s Secret Air Force’. Of course, this group was not a ‘secret’ and not exclusively ‘Lawrence’s’.

Based on the diary of Flight Sergeant George Hynes, this latest book on Lawrence adds an attractive dust cover to the bookshelves but little else in the way of new or startling information on the desert war, except perhaps that it confirmed that it was George, on behalf of his fellow X Flight colleagues, who initiated the idea of sending a piece of rush-grass originally brought back from Aqaba to Lawrence’s brother Arnie when Lawrence died in 1935 with a request that it be placed inside his coffin. But even this small detail was already accessible to those with a keen eye in the form of a note in Paul Marriott and Yvonne Argent's book The Last Days of T. E. Lawrence, A Leaf in the Wind.

Congratulations must go to Henry Wilson and his team at Pen and Sword Publishers who have yet again produced an evocative and attractive cover, albeit in keeping with the formulaic range of cover illustrations they produce across a wide range of military subjects. I wish Henry success with this one. He once said to me that the company never had much success in selling TEL associated books. I think I replied that if he couldn’t sell books with this name in the title he should sack his marketing team! This book would have benefitted from a more rigorous trawl of the original X Flight files in the national archives, of which there are tons of stuff, followed by tighter editing. However, by making accessible information that was only previously available in archives, Pen and Sword have produced a book that is worth reading not only by Lawrence aficionados but by aviation buffs, for whom this title is also intended.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The green, green grass of home...

Informed viewers of the Rory Stewart programmes on Lawrence will of course have noticed the error made in the first few minutes of the first programme. Stewart stated that Lawrence was born into a middle class family in Oxford where he later went to school and university. As any Lawrence follower will know, he was born in Wales. One other error, repeated twice, was that while Lawrence was working with the Arabs his two brothers were killed on the Western Front. Of course, these events took place while Lawrence was behind his desk at the Military Intelligence Department based in the Savoy Hotel in Cairo. His brother Frank died in May 1915 and Will in September of the same year. It was to be a full year later that Lawrence made his first visit to the desert in October 1916 and the famous meeting with Feisal. Nevertheless, it seems that the programme was generally well received and Stewart's enthusiasm for his subject was refreshing. These errors did not detract from the general message of the film, which was well expressed, despite perpetuating the myth that there was only one member of the British Military Mission to the Hejaz driving the revolt forward. It is interesting to note that Stewart Newcombe was also born in Wales, although like Lawrence this gave him no particular claim to be called Welsh. Interesting still when you consider that the other famous railraider, Captain Henry Hornby, was also from Wales. Now there's a coincidence! 

The photo above shows Newcombe standing on the left wearing a white robe and Hornby on the far right in British military uniform and Arab headdress.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia

Part Two of the Rory Stewart documentary, The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia, will be shown on BBC2 on 23 January 2010 at 7pm. This is a revised time from the one originally advertised.

Part One can still be seen via the BBC iplayer at The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia until the 23 January, although only in the UK. 

For those interested in early reviews - of Part One - look at the Daily Telegraph's  Lawrence of Arabia's legacy and the paradox of power and The Scotsman's The TV Review

Friday, January 8, 2010

Rory Stewart and the Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia

Rory Stewart presents the first part of his two-part documentary The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia on Saturday 18 January 2010 at 8.00pm on BBC2.
"And I believe if our generals and politicians could see what Lawrence saw, then we would not be in the mess we're in today."
Rory Stewart is the Executive Chairman of the British charity the Turquoise Mountain Foundation and Director of the Carr Center for Human rights Policy at Harvard University. Having walked across Afghanistan he published a book entitled The Places in Between about his experiences and his observations. It became a New York Times bestseller and was named one of the New York Times' 10 notable books in 2006 and was hailed by the Times as a 'flat-out masterpiece'.