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.