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, December 6, 2012

An interesting news item

On the 50th anniversary of the film, Lawrence of Arabia, the Royal Society of Chemists have offered £300 for a 'script' - the missing sequence - describing Major Herbert Garland's contribution to Lawrence's story.  

Garland's contribution to the Hejaz campaign (see: An Oriental Assembly - Bimbashi (Major) Herbert Garland and A young man's near miss!) was indeed highly significant; his invention and application of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) led directly to him using one of his own hair-trigger devices to derail the first train in the desert war on 12 February 1917 at Towaira. The effect of this one action alone must have sent ripples of alarm throughout the Turkish command and would have no doubt given immense confidence to the Arab leaders and their tribal forces at a critical stage of the campaign. 

Not Arabia, but Cabo de Gata, Spain
But Herbert Garland's influence on rail-raiding operations in the Hejaz and later in the northern sphere of operations - by which time he had left the area through ill-health - was not so much in what he invented, itself a considerable achievement in the early months of the campaign, but in the confidence he imparted to novices such as Lawrence and the untrained Bedouin in handling the material and the tools of his trade. Experienced military staff such as Newcombe and Hornby would not have needed much encouragement to pick up the ‘homemade’ devices and run with them. But Garland’s familiarity with high explosives was infectious. "Sappers handled it like a sacrament,” wrote Lawrence, “but Garland would shove a handful of detonators into his pocket with a string of primers, fuse, and fusees and jump gaily on his camel for a week's ride to the Hejaz railway."

This is also Lawrence’s description of working with a Garland mine: “Laying a Garland mine was shaky work, but scrabbling in pitch darkness up and down a hundred yards of railway, feeling for a hair-trigger buried in the ballast, seemed, at the time, an almost uninsurable occupation. The two charges connected with it were so powerful that they would have rooted out seventy yards of track; and I saw visions of suddenly blowing up, not only myself, but my whole force, every moment. To be sure, such a feat would have properly completed the bewilderment of the Turks!”  

Lawrence had come a long way from map-making and compiling reports on troop dispositions from the safety of his office in Cairo. Explosives held no mystery for him now and he was confident in handling something that was normally the domain of a select band of sappers like Newcombe, a confidence which he was to put to effective use when the campaign shifted to the north and where the use of electric plungers took over from Garland’s IEDs.  

Lawrence did not forget how useful and effective explosives could be. Nearly twenty years later, he enlisted Lord Carlow’s help in taking off the top of a tree that was threatening to hit the corner of Clouds Hill cottage if it ever came down. They obtained some gelignite from Portland and lashed it to the offending branch with an old puttee, setting a fuse which his neighbour Pat Knowles was allowed to light. Standing at a safe distance the tree came down exactly as planned except for the added inconvenience of the skylight blowing in with a pretty musical tinkle as glass showered in on the upstairs music room. Lawrence’s only comment was a wry ‘Blast!’ and Knowles was dispatched to get some replacement glass from Bill Bugg’s workshop at Bovington camp while Lord Carlow helped Lawrence saw up the branches into logs. A mixture of school-boy larks mixed with a healthy dose of Garland’s bravura with explosives.

Clouds Hill with skylight
Many years later, during a visit to Clouds Hill, I pointed out to the curator of the cottage that rain water was dripping from the same skylight onto the leather sofa which I helped shift a few inches away from the wall while she ran to get a bucket. Where was old Bill Bugg when you needed him?

It’s a thought-provoking idea to link the Royal Society of Chemists’ new found hero with a major cinematic event and make chemistry ‘sexy’ at the same time - but an interesting story all the same! I wonder what the winning script will have to say about Garland's contribution and how many more minutes will it add to a film that has historically been chopped about; apparently Imax has it down to 45 minutes!  

If you fancy yourself as a scriptwriter see:

But just remember how long it took Michael Wilson to get a credit! 

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