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.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On this day - 31 August 1914


During the opening months of the war, Stewart Newcombe’s skills were needed not in Arabia but in France where the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) had landed in August 1914 in support of the French war plan. With no prior knowledge or involvement in the development of French strategic aims, the British forces soon became tied down in a faulty strategy that was beset with misunderstandings and doomed from the start.

With great credit, the French army had been largely reconstructed and reorganised following the disastrous Battle of Sedan in 1870, which had seen its army and its last emperor, Napoleon III, captured during the Franco-Prussian War. Remodelled on German lines of conscription, France adopted a decentralised approach to recruitment and training. At the start of the First World War, it had mobilised nearly 4 million men into 47 divisions under its Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre. By the end of the war it would call up over twice that number, including nearly half a million colonial troops. Its original battle scheme, Plan XVII, was pitted against Germany’s Schlieffen Plan and unfortunately it came largely undone in the opening moves which saw the German army invade France through Belgium, a move that the French was convinced would not happen due to the British treaty guaranteeing Belgium neutrality, the so-called “scrap of paper” as Germany insisted on belittling the agreement. France was outwitted and out of position having focussed too heavily on retaking Alsace Lorraine which had been in German hands since 1871. Thereafter, it was a matter of reorganisation and redeployment, reacting to the unique conditions of a modern war, with huge armies supported by new technology ultimately leading to stalemate and bloody attrition during four years of static trench warfare.

The British mobilise

Within days of mobilisation, Newcombe took command of the 8th R.E. Railway Company, one of two regular companies based at the Longmoor Military Camp in Hampshire which were responsible for maintaining and providing the British Army with its railway transportation requirements. His second-in-command was Captain E. Woodhouse who by the end of the war would become Assistant Director of Railways at the War Office. With 30 tons of technical stores to be transported across to Le Havre in France, the Railway companies were allocated just five days in which to mobilise in readiness for embarkation.

When their ship reached Le Havre 8th Company found they had very little to do as a prior agreement meant that the French were tasked with carrying out anything to do with railway transport in support of the original expeditionary force. Spending two or three days here and there, Newcombe’s company criss-crossed the country by train with very little substantive work to occupy them. Woodhouse later recalled that Newcombe was only with the company for a short time after they reached France, ‘but was a most valuable advance agent; without him I think it is doubtful whether we would have got any railway jobs to do.’

After settling his men to whatever useful projects he could find, Newcombe’s impatience led him to seek out work more suited to his own individual skills. Ahead of him, the ensuing difficulties encountered by the B.E.F. in the face of aggressive manoeuvres by the Germans were quickly leading to general disarray within the British forces. It was a fast-moving and volatile situation and one that Newcombe relished for the opportunity to get in at the thick of the action.  

The retreat of the B.E.F. from Mons to the Marne at the end of August 1914 called for the destruction of several key river crossings. Eager to be involved in any action after weeks of camp duties, Newcombe positioned himself in the vanguard of the retreat to assist in slowing up the advancing enemy. 

The Great Retreat 1914

A continuous crescendo of guns accompanied the weary retreat of the British Expeditionary Force as it stumbled down the roads of Northern France under a blazing summer sun. During the thirteen days of retreat it has been estimated that the infantry averaged about four hours sleep in twenty-four, and the cavalry only three. General Edmund Allenby was the Commander of the Cavalry Division, consisting of four Cavalry brigades, with two brigades of horse artillery and a field squadron of Royal Engineers and signallers. The cavalry’s role, traditional in any retreat, was to hold up the advancing enemy forces where mobility and endurance were best suited to a rearguard action. As events unfolded, Allenby became hard pressed to deal with the confused and ever-changing military situation as well as the difficulty of the terrain which included a dense impenetrable forest laying diagonally across his line of retreat. This had the effect of forcing the cavalry closer into the flanks of the German columns leaving little room for manoeuvre.

Inevitably, mistakes were made but Allenby remained resolute in his own abilities and in those of his men and horses who were continually in action, either occupying rearguard positions or under heavy shell fire. Unable to engage in close combat where their superiority would have told, the British cavalry withstood a steady barrage from long-range enemy guns and became somewhat scattered as a result. A constant stream of men, horses and guns made their way south along the rutted tracks and roads, their backs to the enemy and closing doors where possible behind them. 

The bridge at Compiegne

One line of retreat across the magnificent stone bridge at Compiegne was to be permanently closed by the Royal Engineers in a spectacular demolition that would prove to be a classic example of the art of bridge blowing. Following a request by the French the demolition was ordered to take place on the morning of August 31, allowing time for the Commander-in-Chief to evacuate his headquarters which were in the town. The imperial architecture of Compiegne confirmed its status as a royal town strategically located on the River Oise at the heart of the Picardy region and a vital crossing point for the retreating armies emerging from the cover of the surrounding forests. It was in these same forests that Jeanne d’Arc was captured in 1430 by the Burgundians while attempting to free the town before she was herself sold to the English. The Imperial Palace of Compiegne was where the royal entourage of Napoléon III and the Empress Eugenie held their summer court to the delight of their eclectic guest lists which included the great writers, artists and musicians of the day. The young Ned Lawrence - as T.E. Lawrence was known to his family - was also familiar with the town and would have crossed its bridge just six years before on one of his long bicycle tours of France in search of castles while studying medieval military architecture as part of his History degree at Oxford. On this late summer’s day, remnants of the British army streamed through the town as the statuettes at the top of the tower of the 16th Century L’Hôtel de Ville struck continually on the quarter-hour, marking a constant and rhythmic toll to accompany the weary footfall of the retreating army. 

Compiegne Bridge in happier times

Lieutenant B. K. Young of the 9th Field Company, accompanied by his section Sergeant and eight sappers on bicycles, arrived at 5p.m. on the 30th to prepare the bridge, calculating that it would require a charge of two and a half tons of gun-cotton for the haunches of each arch. As the bridge at Compiegne had three arches supported by two massive piers it would prove extremely fortunate when only one ton of explosive could be found supplemented by a ton of French melinite. While they made their preparations Young remained unaware that he had made a gross miscalculation.

Brigadier-General Fowke arrived on the scene soon after, accompanied by Captain Newcombe. Together with Young they inspected the site and Newcombe was left in charge of the preparations which would have to be carried out throughout the coming night. A French officer handed Newcombe a set of plans of the bridge which indicated where the demolition chambers had been placed, a feature of many bridges in the region. Newcombe set the sappers to work in removing the pavé setts to expose the chambers, of which there were three in each pier, each one 18 inches in diameter and 30 feet deep, going well below the water line. It was into these cramped chambers that the explosives had to be placed, a dangerous task that Newcombe elected to personally undertake. As he could not bend his body in the narrow shaft his team lowered him by rope into each of the six chambers in turn with 400lbs of gun-cotton tied up in sandbags and with three slabs prepared with primers and detonators in each bag. He then tamped these into position with his feet. About a hundred pounds of melinite was added as a sort of insurance for each charge, and finally a layer of three sandbags filled with gravel to complete the filling. The work was long and arduous and it was daybreak on the morning of the 31st August when the fuzes and leads, prepared by Young, were finally placed across the pavé, two sets of each, in grooves which were then filled with sand and gravel. 

A lucky escape!

Throughout this preparation the roadway had to be kept open for endless lines of traffic escaping the oncoming German army. All through the night a steady stream of over-laden vehicles of every kind crossed the bridge unaware that Newcombe and his men were working below in the darkness. But by dawn all was ready. Despite his exhaustion, Newcombe sent the Sergeant and the sappers back to find their company taking with them the surplus gun-cotton, while he remained behind with Young to blow the bridge. After all his hard work he was not prepared to miss the fruits of his labour. 

British Cavalry passing through Compiegne

The orders were that the demolition was to be made as soon as all the cavalry had crossed. Finally, at 11 a.m. a message was received from General Allenby saying that his division was clear. Newcombe brushed seniority to one side and gave the honour to Lieutenant Young who wasted no time in attaching the wooden handle to the exploder. Newcombe made one last check, running his eyes along the lines of fuzes which ran from the box and fanned out across the bridge before disappearing into the demolition chambers. At last, he nodded his satisfaction as Young prepared to press home the charge.

WW1 Exploder Box

Just at that moment, as Young pushed down on the ‘T’ shaped plunger, a car full of fleeing refugees raced onto the unguarded bridge, hurtling towards the two startled engineers and into imminent danger. As the plunger buried itself up to the hilt in the blasting box, a miracle occurred and the explosion failed, the fuzes not detonating. The car raced off the end of the bridge and disappeared into the town, the occupants unaware of how close they came to an almost certain death. The two men, baffled but immensely relieved by the mishap, ignored the usual rule of leaving a half an hour delay in returning to the scene and set to immediately. Within a few moments the alternative six foot fuze did its job – but all too suddenly, burning rapidly in only 30 seconds, the enclosed flame racing along its length without heed to the safety margins set by the two sappers. This time the effect was spectacular. Newcombe and Young watched in amazement as the whole structure simply vanished in almost complete silence, with the result that there was little debris showing above the water line and no damage to the windows or structure of two hotels, the Hôtel Du Pont-Neuf and the Hôtel de Flandre, which were situated a few metres from either end of the bridge. 

Newcombe's handiwork

It was later described with some pride in the History of the Corps of the Royal Engineers as one of the cleanest demolitions of the war. In its typically unflappable tone, belying the inherent dangers and the possibility of a calamitous outcome, the Journal was pleased to announce: ‘The happy escape of the refugee car, followed by the complete success of the demolition, was a sufficiently satisfying climax to a very hard night’s work.’

Turkey enters the war
Early on the morning of 29th October 1914 Turkey formally entered the war on the side of Germany when its fleet attacked the Russian Black Sea ports of Sebastopol, Theodosia, Novorossiysk and Odessa. It took two days for the rumours to be confirmed during which a twelve hour deadline expired offering a final olive branch to the Turkish Government requesting them to dismiss German naval and military missions and pull back from the brink of war. It was a futile hope and at 5.05p.m on 31 October, the order went out from the Admiralty to all ships, ‘Commence hostilities at once against Turkey.’ The Ottoman Empire would not live to see another day of peace.

With Turkey now in the war Newcombe’s role on the Western Front was over, for the time being. After settling matters with the 8th Railway Company he returned to London to complete his Sinai and Palestine maps and reports, sharing the same offices as T.E. Lawrence in the M.O.4 department at the War Office in Whitehall. Lawrence was now busy preparing the maps and the reports on the Wilderness of Zin and the Sinai Peninsula for printing. On 3 December 1914, Lawrence informed W.J. Crace, the Honorary Secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund that he and Newcombe had been ‘uncomfortably busy’ wrapping up their affairs before heading out to the East.

On 9 December, Newcombe and Lawrence set off across France by train to the port of Marseilles and the quayside at La Joliette from where the Messageries Maritime steamships departed for the East. Taking a 2nd Class passage to Port Said they reached Cairo on Tuesday 15 December where they were later joined by other specialists in Middle Eastern affairs who had been ordered to Egypt.

Just before he left, Lawrence wrote to a friend, Mrs Winifred Fontana, who had recently fled Syria following the Turkish declaration, asking her if there were any commissions he could do for her in Aleppo the following spring. It seems that Lawrence, in common with many of his contemporaries, did not think that the war would last for many more months.