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, September 21, 2017


THE INTER-ALLIED GAMES - 22 June to 6 July 1919

The recent announcement that Paris had been awarded the 2024 XXXIII Olympiad brought to mind an unusual event that took place in the shadow of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

While the details of peace were being discussed the victors devised what they considered a useful diversion for the millions of troops on the Eastern and Western fronts waiting for demobilisation and a return to a home and family that many had not seen for several months. For Dominion and Imperial forces, the long periods of separation had been much longer as ‘home’ leave was virtually impossible. Repatriation took time and indeed many troops would not see their homeland until 1922. To keep the troops occupied and to replace fighting as the stimulus for a united effort an Inter-Allied Games – otherwise known as the Military “Olympics” – were set up with the very best intentions. The Games were described by the Official History as “important in themselves because of their magnitude, unparalleled in the annals of sport by reason of the circumstances under which they were held.” It went on to say: “ These Games signalized to a vast number of soldiers of the various Armies of the Allies the end of the Great War and the beginning, in this unique love feast of divers races and nationalities, of a greater and more hopeful peace than the world had yet known.”

Feisal, Lawrence and Nuri Said
Many countries would participate for reasons of celebration or in continuation of friendly relations created under wartime conditions. In other cases countries such as Romania and Czechoslovakia, whose very existence was still in political doubt, saw the games as a further opportunity to raise their visibility on a world stage.

The idea of a ‘unique love feast’ of sport was first conceived by Elwood Brown less than two months after the end of hostilities. Brown was a leading advocate of a so-called ‘Muscular’ form of Christianity which he promoted throughout South-East Asia under the auspices of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). His approach was especially successful in the Philippines where as Director of Athletics he proposed and implemented the Far-Eastern Olympic Games from 1913 onwards. His concept of an Inter-Allied Games was quickly taken up by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) who convinced France and the International Olympic Committee to agree to the Games being placed under sole US control without interference. The Americans took their role very seriously and constructed a dedicated stadium east of Paris close to the Bois de Vincennes where the 1900 Olympics had taken place. It was named the Stade Pershing after the Commander of the AEF, General John J. Pershing who had been an acquaintance of Brown from the Philippines. The two men became the driving force behind the competition.

Feisal, fighting for the very existence of some form of Arab nationhood, must have been more than a little bemused to receive a letter of invitation from Pershing himself and may well have sought Lawrence’s advice on a matter he would not have anticipated but which might present wider political implications in the future. This was one more opportunity to reinforce an Arab presence on the world stage and the decision to attend was not taken lightly. His response was both cordial and humble. 

Paris, 20 March, 1919.

My dear General:
I am deeply sensible of the honour you paid the troops under my command in inviting us to take part in the Inter-Allied Athletic Meeting to be held shortly in Paris. It will give us the greatest pleasure to participate. I have sent General Nuri Pacha Said of my staff to Damascus to choose such team as we can supply, and will send you details of our entry as soon as possible.

I have the honour to be, sir
Yours very faithfully,

The only problem now for Feisal was who to pick to represent the budding nation of Arabs? With Nuri tasked with finding suitable representatives of the Hejaz contingent it quickly became apparent that with American and French supremacy in numbers perhaps a more symbolic involvement should be sought. Britain, for the same reasons, had declined full participation and contented itself to an advisory role and in sending a golf team and rowing crews.

Twenty-nine letters of invitation were sent and eighteen allied nations and territories accepted. The Games were well attended throughout commencing with the inauguration of the Pershing Stadium which attracted more than 90,000 spectators, although urgent business meant that President Wilson and M. Clemenceau were unable to attend. With 76 events across a dozen sports it was an ambitious programme not dissimilar to that of the 1916 Berlin Olympics which had been cancelled due to war.

Stade Pershing under construction
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, had initially locked horns over Brown’s plans to hold the Games which he perceived as an intrusion into Olympic affairs. Fortunately, they came to a mutual understanding based on a shared vision for stimulating sport and its ideals at a truly world level. Perhaps on no other occasion had there been a more poignant time for games and where the spirit of the Baron’s creed was felt more strongly: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

Nuri returned to France with fifteen contestants, although only three of them were pitted in open competition. Of the rest, eight took part in a performance of Arabian Sword dancing while four riders were chosen from among the best in the two camel-mounted regiments in the Hejaz Regular Army for a demonstration of camel-racing. These were meant to represent the type of competition most popular in Arabia and were well received. Horse riding is normally a particularly well represented event across most competing nations but many were prevented by the post-war difficulty of finding the necessary mounts and of transporting them to Paris. The Hejaz team was able to put up three riders but could only muster one horse, a little gray Arabian named Masoud. This mount, however, caused the greatest sensation during a long-distance race when its rider, Captain Fowzi, came from the back of the field and passed opponent after opponent finally finishing in seventh place. The next part of the competition consisted of jumps which the untrained Masoud was unable to complete and was therefore eliminated from the contest although it finished out the ride with much acclaim for its gallant efforts against a stronger field. 

A Tug-of-war
If the British contingent was largely absent the Official History of the Games was fulsome in its explanation, recording: ‘wherever the sport world foregathers, the Englishman is a welcome competitor and one whose chances of winning must be minutely calculated by his adversaries. Old England, however, if absent in the flesh, was present in the spirit, and indeed in the blood, for Australia, Canada and New Zealand played an important part in the competitions. The Dominions gave a good account of themselves, too?’

Among the more unusual events was hand-grenade throwing, which took place in the knowledge that most of the contestants had been practising for at least four years. However, first place with a new world record was surprisingly taken by an American army chaplain, Fred Thompson, with a toss of 245 feet, 11 inches, who although not a regular soldier was an accomplished collegiate athlete before the war. The irony of including a Tug-of-War competition in a town where so many new nations were fighting for recognition was perhaps lost on the organisers. As predicted, America and France swept the board with the most points gained from the largest pool of competitors. 

The Games were deemed a great success, not least in strengthening combatant morale and in bringing together men that had been bound “by strong ties of sympathy in the common ideals for which they were fighting”. Elwood Brown’s vision was to “lay the foundations for those enduring friendships which can come only from personal contact and which, in this case, were of such fundamental importance to the future welfare of the world.” It was a noble cause but the real work of forging a new world order had just concluded not on the playing fields but in the halls of Versailles and as Clemenceau complained: “It was much easier to make war than peace.” 

Feisal, Lawrence and the Arab delegation, having taken every opportunity to promote the need to break the Arab movement out of the confines of the Hejaz in the name of the King were under no illusion as to the difficulties that lay ahead.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Forthcoming lecture - 'Lawrence of Arabia and the Revolt in the Desert' - University of Southampton - Saturday 1 July 2017

The Lifelong Learning programme run by the University of Southampton will be holding a study day entitled: Lawrence of Arabia and the Revolt in the Desert on Saturday 1 July 2017.

I have been asked to present a paper entitled: 'A Yahoo Life' - T.E. Lawrence and the British Military Mission in the Hejaz.

The following description of the event is from the University's website where you can find details of the programme and an application form for places.

To mark the centenary of Sharif Hussein’s forces seizing the Ottoman port of Aqaba on 6 July 1917, this Great War study day focuses upon the Arab revolt against Turkish rule, and the role of archaeologist turned soldier, T.E. Lawrence. The ‘revolt in the desert’ is placed in the context of French and British intervention in the Middle East, notably the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration; the consequences of which still resonate throughout the region known then as the Levant.

Recreated in spectacular style by David Lean in the epic Lawrence of Arabia, the capture of Aqaba opened supply lines from Egypt to Allied forces operating further north in Transjordan and Greater Palestine. This effectively ended any lingering threat of a Turkish attack on the Suez Canal. By examining General Allenby’s successful offensive east of Suez in 1917-18, we can assess the military significance of Lawrence’s contribution – to what extent does the legend match reality?

Before convincing Prince Feisal and other tribal chieftains to rise up Lawrence’s involvement in the Middle East was primarily as a scholar, prompting consideration of how pre-war archaeology disguised great power interest in the crumbling Ottoman empire.

Examining Lawrence before and after the First World War offers an additional perspective on continuing conflict in the Middle East and his close connection with Southampton Water. In the 1920s and 1930s, a very public retreat from fame saw the writer of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom assume a fresh identity not once but twice, as a ranker in the Army and then the Royal Air Force. Extended service in the RAF led to a final posting in Hythe, where Lawrence worked on the British Powerboat Company’s latest rescue launches; weekends were spent at Cloud’s Hill, his Dorset cottage, or socialising in London with the likes of Churchill or Shaw. Since his death in 1935 popular interest in Lawrence and the revolt in the desert has never waned; fuelled by fresh revelations about his private life, and an urgent need to comprehend the creation myth upon which Saudi Arabia’s unbending monarchy claims its legitimacy.

This study day recognises our continuing fascination with ‘El Laurens’, and his place in the violent and crisis-ridden history of the Middle East over the past one hundred years.

Professor Adrian Smith, Emeritus Professor of Modern History, University of Southampton
- Welcome/introduction: the Solent, childhood home and workplace of T.E. Lawrence

Dr Christopher Prior, Lecturer in 20th Century History, University of Southampton
- "Immortality I cannot judge": Lawrence, the Middle East and the British Empire in the early twentieth century.

Professor Tim Champion, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology
- 'Archaeologists and great power rivalry in the Middle East prior to the First world War

Anthony Sattin, travel writer, broadcaster, and author of Young Lawrence: a Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man (2014)
- From Carchemish to Cairo: the making of Major Lawrence

Kerry Webber, writer, photographer and designer, currently writing the biography of Colonel Stewart Newcombe
- "A Yahoo Life": T.E. Lawrence and the British Military Mission to the Hejaz

Professor Adrian Smith
- The post war Lawrence: Aircraftman Shaw and the British Power Boat Company

Dr Mark Levene, Reader in History, Southampton University, and author of The Crises of Genocide Volumes I and II
- Conclusion: Thinking beyond Lawrence - the British, their role in Ottoman dissolution and the long-term consequences for the modern 'Middle East'

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

All things Lawrentian

On the track bed of the Hejaz Railway, Wadi Rumm, Jordan

Yesterday was a sad day for members of the Lawrence fellowship with an announcement for the T.E. Lawrence Society that Lawrence's authorised biographer, Jeremy Wilson, had passed away. 

I last saw Jeremy talking to Professor Ali Alawi at the Society’s symposium held at St. John's College, Oxford, last September and failed to find an opportunity to talk to him, so busy was he meeting old friends and colleagues. But I have happy memories of working with him on the committee of the Society many years ago under the chairmanship of Philip Kerrigan when Jeremy had been co-opted back onto the committee, this time as website coordinator, but of course he was much more than that. Minutes of our meetings are peppered with comments regarding assistance from Jeremy on items outside of his role: "Jeremy offered assistance with this, should Pat need it", "Jeremy advised that there was probably an example of her [Sarah Lawrence] handwriting in the Bodleian Library", "Jeremy stated...", "Jeremy circulated copies...", "Jeremy suggested...", and so on. 

Even Lawrence had to step back from the leadership of the Arab Revolt lest his presence hinder their development and soon the Society was left to find its feet and direction in a new millennium. And a good job they have made of it too, if the last well-attended symposium is anything to go by. The breadth of knowledge in the speakers and the enthusiasm for facts presented in a scholarly and professional way was an encouraging sign for the future of the Society and in Lawrence studies in general. 

Over sixty years ago Richard Aldington wrote a highly contentious biography of Lawrence whose subtitle was A Biographical Enquiry. Its publication was accompanied by marketing material that asked the question: ‘Is this the end of a legend?’

Jeremy and his wife Nicole have made an enormous contribution to furthering the knowledge and appreciation of the man behind the legend, a man who continues to fascinate and intrigue us and whose words and actions are just as relevant today as they were one hundred years ago when that legend was born. This is in no small part to Jeremy's guidance, wisdom and influence on all things Lawrentian. 

Vale, Jeremy.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy's website:

Monday, April 17, 2017

JEREMY WILSON (1944 - 2 April 2017)

It was with sadness that I read today of Jeremy's passing in a message sent out by the committee of the T.E. Lawrence Society following an announcement in the Daily Telegraph:

We very much regret to inform you that Jeremy Wilson, the Authorised Biographer of T. E. Lawrence, has died following a period of illness.

Jeremy was widely regarded and respected as the leading scholar and authority on Lawrence. Together with his wife Nicole, he established Castle Hill Press which has published fine-print editions of many of Lawrence's manuscripts and letters.

Jeremy was a former Chairman of the T. E. Lawrence Society and a major instigator and influence on the Society's activities, notably the Journal and the biennial Symposia.

The Society will be represented at his funeral in Oxford next week. We intend to publish a tribute to Jeremy in a commemorative edition of the Newsletter. We would welcome contributions which may be sent to us at

The T. E. Lawrence Society Committee