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, 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.