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, March 26, 2015

Theft of T.E. Lawrence's letters

The Times of London reported today that handwritten letters of T.E. Lawrence have been stolen from the offices of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) under the heading 'Thief snatches Lawrence of Arabia's historic letters'. In the letters, which are more than 100-years old, Lawrence of Arabia discusses his involvement in what the newspaper describes as a 'devious archaeological expedition'. Felicity Cobbing, the curator of the archive, said the letters were stolen by a “gloating thief”.

“They’re going to be very difficult to shift because they’re well known,” Ms Cobbing said. “They were probably taken by somebody who likes to look at things and gloat in their own privacy.”

Lawrence and C.L. Woolley had been invited by the PEF to provide archaeological cover for Royal Engineer surveyors under the command of Stewart Newcombe who were operating in the desert region south of the Gaza-Beersheba line in southern Palestine as part of a secret survey carried out on behalf of the British War Office.

PEF Quarterly Statement
It is thought the theft of the letters occurred between November 2013 and January last year and only came to light after it was revealed by Anthony Sattin, the author of Young Lawrence, who was the last person to see some of the stolen material whilst researching his book. Having left the file on a table to be put away by the archivist Sattin believes that an opportunist took the documents when he left the room.  

“The PEF had a very relaxed way of handling their archive,” he said. “They only found out when someone else requested the material and it wasn’t in the folder.”

Ms Cobbing said that the PEF had “toughened up” its security. “It was a horrible reality check because as an archive, the whole reason for us existing is to promote research and scholarship.”

The offices at the PEF are small and intimate and admittance is normally by appointment by people genuinely interested in researching the work of the organisation or the many personalities connected to it. Kitchener, Lawrence and Newcombe are well represented in the archives which date back to 1865 when the society was founded. The PEF's offices also house a unique collection of photographs, pictures, maps and antiquities. The organisation describes itself as the "oldest in the world created specifically for the study of the Levant, the southern portion of which was conventionally known as ‘Palestine’. The PEF is a major bridge and information resource for the public and academic community."

NOTE: Lawrence once wrote to Colonel Wavell admitting that when he first received Wavell's book The Palestine Campaigns his first vanity was to look himself up in the index. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Anthony Sattin for acknowledging my insignificant contribution to his research and mentioning me and my forthcoming biography of Newcombe in his own Acknowledgments for Young Lawrence. Although I have not yet had the time to read Mr. Sattin's book I was pleased to see it receive positive reviews:

“A compelling, pioneering biography - Sattin has written a compelling account of a young man learning to live according to his dreams” - The Observer

“Reading Anthony Sattin’s “The Young T.E. Lawrence” is particularly fascinating when the West’s empathy for the Arab world is at such a low, undermined by violence and mistrust” – Wall Street Journal

“A quirky but rigorous biographical study” – The Economist

“Anthony Sattin proves that the British know how to write a great adventure as well how to have one. This highly readable book never lacks for the big story but it also does not let that history lose the hero” – New York Journal of Books