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, April 25, 2015

“Dig, dig, dig until you are safe.”

In November 1914, Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, proposed an audacious scheme to force the Dardanelles Straits, a strategic waterway that connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara - a narrow gateway to Constantinople, the Bosphorus, the Black Sea and Russia. The Straits had been closed to shipping by the Ottomans when they entered the war on the side of the Central Powers on 31 October. With the overland supply routes to Russia also closed it was thought that a naval assault on the Straits using obsolete battleships unfit for service against the German High Seas Fleet with support from a small occupying force could open the way to Russian ports, cut the Ottoman Empire in two and bring Greece and Bulgaria into the war on the side of the Allies. Critically, faulty intelligence on Turkish troop strength in the region set the scene for a military debacle that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded on both sides during the bitter and bloody eight month campaign and prolonged the war in the east for another three years.

By May 1915 a combined French and British land assault force with support from colonial troops gathered from all over the Empire was in full operational mode. However, military planning proved totally inadequate and the campaign became bogged down in a largely underground war against a determined and highly motivated enemy. But the legacy of its aftermath is a different story and one worth telling on this day - the centenary of the first landings.

General Sir Ian Hamilton, senior commanding officer for the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force during the Gallipoli Campaign, wrote the following perceptive comment in the introduction of his Gallipoli Diary: “There is nothing certain about war except that one side won't win.” Hamilton, when necessary, could also be moved to lyrical prose. After watching the landing of his troops at Anzac Cove from HMS Queen Elizabeth, he wrote:

“The landing was in full swing; shrapnel was bursting over the water; the patter of musketry; the machines guns spluttered. They are not charging up into this Sari Bair range for money or compulsion. They fight for love – all the way from the Southern Cross for love of the old country and of liberty.”

Then he retired to bed. A few hours later, the enormity of the task revealed itself to his officers and they woke him at midnight with the recommendation of immediate evacuation. His reply, based on recently received intelligence showing Australian submarine activity far north of the Dardenelles Straits, reflected the optimism of the moment: 'You have got through the difficult business, now you must dig, dig, dig until you are safe.' A 'Yes' from Hamilton and the legend of ANZAC would have been stillborn. 

Sacrifice - Anzac Memorial, Sydney
Such was the massive collective effort undertaken by the Anzac troops at Gallipoli that the phrase ‘the Anzac spirit’, as popularised by C.E.W. Bean, the official correspondent for the Australia Imperial Forces who was to later write the official history of the Australians in the war, came to encapsulate a concept that not only entered the annals of war but took root in the psyche of a young nation striving to find its own voice and “national character”. Future generations can decide if this spirit was responsible for ridding the twin countries of Australia and New Zealand of a sense of colonial inferiority that arose from their predicament as dominion dependencies. That this character should be found in the actions of men fighting on the battlefields of a foreign land, far from home and facing impending defeat while loyally serving the British Empire would not be lost on those ‘embedded’ Australian journalists who reported on the campaign.

The first to highlight this emerging spirit, however, was not an Australian but the British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, a fact that would give added potency to the unashamedly heroic words he used to describe the actions which were soon published throughout Australia:

“There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing in the dark and the storming of the heights,’ he wrote, ‘and, above all, holding on while the reinforcements were landing. These raw colonial troops, in these desperate hours, proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres and Neuve Chapelle.”

This is what the folks back home wanted to hear, a positive and, most importantly, an impartial indication that their men had done them proud. Ashmead-Bartlett provided further confirmation: "General Birdwood told the writer that he couldn't sufficiently praise the courage, endurance and the soldierly qualities of the Colonials...They were happy because they had been tried for the first time and not found wanting."

But very soon Ashmead-Bartlett’s reports would become highly critical of the way the campaign was being run and no-one could be in any doubt as to where his main criticism was directed: "Confusion reigned supreme,” he wrote. “No-one seemed to know where the headquarters of the different brigades and divisions were to be found. The troops were hunting for water, the staffs were hunting for their troops, and the Turkish snipers were hunting for their prey."

Reporting under the ‘general regulations issued by the British War Office for the guidance of press correspondents in the field’ became an increasing frustrating exercise for all correspondents and none more so than Ashmead-Bartlett whose reports were thereafter heavily censored. He was naturally outraged and wrote: “I thought there were limits to human stupidity but now I know there are none. The censorship has now passed beyond all reason.” The reports on the unfolding disaster became to resemble “chicken out of which a thick nutritious broth has been extracted.” In an extraordinary break from this restrictive protocol, he voiced his concerns in a private letter sent directly to Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister, after he had been requested by “officers of all ranks to go home and personally disclose the truth.”

Unable to leave, he instead set out in detail the true state of affairs as he saw them and enlisted the help of fellow journalist, the Australian Keith Murdoch, to carry the letter to London. He described the campaign to Asquith as: “the most ghastly and costly fiasco in our history since the Battle of Bannockburn.” He kept his main criticism for the Staff: “The muddles and mismanagement beat anything that has ever occurred in our Military History. The fundamental evil at the present moment is the absolute lack of confidence in all ranks in the Headquarters Staff.” Towards the end of his damning letter he declares solemnly: “You may think I am too pessimistic but my views are shared by the large majority of the army.”

Although the letter was confiscated by British authorities en route after Murdoch was arrested by Military Police in Marseilles, the full horror of the situation would soon be exposed, as later confirmed by Bean when he wrote that although Ashmead-Bartlett’s letter ‘put the state of things in rather a crude light,’ he had to agree it was ‘a brilliantly written letter – rather overstating the case as Bartlett always does, but a great deal of it was unanswerable and badly needs understanding.’ Ashmead-Bartlett was promptly expelled from the region for breaching the censorship regulations and so returned to London to give his opinion to the Sunday Times in the form of an interview, a necessary approach to circumvent censorship rules.

But it was Ashmead-Bartlett’s early reports on the prodigious efforts of the Anzac troops that had the most impact on establishing the legend of Anzac. Charles Bean later paid fulsome tribute to his British counter-part when he wrote: 'the tradition of the Anzac landing is probably more influenced by that first story than by all the other accounts that have since been written'. It was Bean’s batman and later assistant, Private Arthur W. Bazley, who observed: ‘Bartlett’s dispatch was a brilliant one, despite a number of inaccuracies, and its publication in Australia led, I believe, to an immediate increase in the number of volunteers offering for the A.I.F.’

In summing up the essence of the ‘Anzac spirit’, it was Bean, the so-called teller of truths, who encapsulated in words the spirit behind the legend in his publication Anzac to Amiens: ‘Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valor in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat.’

It was that word ‘comradeship’ that best summed up the feeling, and one that endures to this day in the vocabulary of a new generation, in the concept of mateship, something that is still hotly debated in Australia but is generally referred to as a “concept of everybody pulling together in common adversity." The term ‘Mate’ has also entered the Australian lexicon, along with ‘larrikin’, its more irreverent cousin who rightly mocks authority; but both names sum up the unique character of a nation that was still finding its feet in the white hot years of the early twentieth century, a blistering cauldron for any emerging state seeking its own cultural identity and coming to terms with its own history. Modern-day Australian critics would say that the ‘myth’ of Anzac too readily ignores its aboriginal population, brushes aside its convict inheritance as well as its post-war immigration policy, one that Newcombe was later to play a part in. New Zealand could rightly complain that the deaths of their young men, about a quarter of the 8500 who had landed on the peninsula, is often overshadowed in the wider discussion of the campaign and by the enormous contribution in men and materiel by its larger neighbour.

But the truth is the unshakeable legends created in that foreign land remain strong to this day and the memories of the men of Gallipoli are remembered at the annual Anzac Day remembrance commemorations held in both countries on 25 April, the anniversary of the day when the Anzacs first landed at what became known as Anzac Cove and established a tenuous foothold on the treacherous slopes above the narrow beach.

It would be a further five months before Stewart Newcombe arrived on the peninsula to take command of the 4th Field Company of the 2nd Australian Divisional Engineers, tasked with the digging and reinforcing of existing trenches and tunnels that became of paramount importance in a landscape that afforded little or no natural protection to the Anzacs. As well as the necessity of digging in for protection, supply and communication the tunnels were used to advance underground towards the Turkish lines where explosives could be detonated from a relatively safe distance when close contact was made with their Turkish counterparts, who invariably responded with the same tactics. As the campaign progressed, longer and deeper tunnels were built, the Anzac tunnel with a flat ceiling and the Ottoman with a curved one. Anyone with mining experience from their civilian days was a natural choice for this type of work. But it was not a job for the faint-hearted. To hear the muffled tap, tap, tapping of the enemy abruptly stop might mean that the tunnel was being prepared with explosives prior to detonation. Many miners were killed or buried in this way. For the frontline soldier, however, it was like sitting on a volcano; at any time the ground could heave up under you and swallow you into the bowels of a deep crater and oblivion.

But by December 1915 the situation on Gallipoli had become untenable and General Sir Charles Monro, who had taken over command of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, ordered its evacuation following discussions with Kitchener. Ironically, it proved to be the most successful operation of the whole campaign. General Hamilton, who had written
“There is nothing certain about war except that one side won't win,” was proved correct in that assessment. The Allies lost the campaign in the Dardanelles but went on to defeat the Ottomans in the Hejaz, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Hamilton's military career ended at Gallipoli and he never commanded again. Winston Churchill was demoted and eventually resigned from the Cabinet in November 1915 when he took himself off to fight on the Western Front in command of an infantry battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. 

In a recent history of Gallipoli, the author Les Carlyon describes how in those final silent moments during the December evacuation an Australian soldier looked towards the makeshift cemetery of fallen comrades and solemnly remarked: "I hope they won't hear us marching back to the beach." Anzac Day is when the grateful nations of Australia and New Zealand can be proud of its past and pay tribute to its wounded and fallen heroes, especially those left on the slopes of that far-off peninsula.

Today marks one hundred years since those first dawn landings took place. In Turkey, Australia and New Zealand, commemorations are underway each reflecting a shared sense of grief, loss, and gratitude for an endeavour out of which were formed three proud nations. They are united on this day by the words of the father of modern-day Turkey and himself the successful commander of Ottoman forces during the Dardanelles campaign:

“Whatever views we of the present or future generations of Turks may hold in regard to the rights or wrong of the world war, we shall never feel less respect for the men of Anzac and their deeds when battling against our armies … They were nearer to achieving the seemingly impossible than anyone on the other side yet realises.”

NOTE: You can visit the Anzac Memorial online by clicking this link.

PHOTO CAPTION: The photo above is of a sculpture entitled Sacrifice taken by Kerry Webber at the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney, Australia. It is the central motif of the memorial's design. Symbolising the spirit of courage, endurance and sacrifice, it depicts the body of a young soldier lying over a shield and sword. He is supported by three female figures and an infant, representing 'his best beloved' - mother, sister, wife and child. The child also represents future generations.

SEE ALSO: My article entitled: The ANZACS set sail