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.

Stewart Francis Newcombe - A short biography

Newcombe, Stewart Francis (1878 – 1956), army officer and surveyor, was born in Mount Street, Brecon, in the County of Brecknock, Mid Wales, on 9 July 1878, the third of four sons of Edward Newcombe (1842 – 1886), a civil engineer, and his wife Maria Louisa, née Prangley (1844 – 1901).

He grew up in a family with strong ties to the early development of railways; his father helped build the first railways in Japan under the accelerated industrialisation of the period known as the Meiji Restoration before returning with his wife and two sons to Britain in 1878, his grandfather, William Lister Newcombe, had been Acting General Manager of the Midlands Railway Company in the 1850s. The family settled in the market town of Brecon where Edward was employed by the Midlands Railway as resident engineer to help build the railway extensions necessary to serve the growing industrial areas of South Wales, transporting coal and iron from the valleys down to Newport docks for shipment abroad and around the UK.

Education and military training, 1886 – 1899

Following the premature death of his father in 1886, Newcombe was sent to board at Christ’s Hospital, Newgate Street, London, a charitable ‘bluecoat’ school, before completing his general education at Felsted School, Essex. In 1896 he entered the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich as a Gentleman Cadet after achieving the rare distinction of 100 per cent in mathematics during his entrance examinations.

He proved to be an extremely able student. A combination of the strength of mind, tenacity and diligence that would be the hallmark of his later career culminated in a fitting acknowledgment of his achievements both in the field and in the classroom when he received the highest award the Academy could bestow, the coveted Sword of Honour, awarded to the British Army Officer Cadet considered to be, over all disciplines, the best of the course. Newcombe was commissioned into the Royal Engineers (R.E.) on 23 June 1898 and attended the School of Military Engineering (S.M.E.) at Brompton Barracks in Chatham, Kent.

South Africa, 1899 - 1900

It was within a spirit of empire-building and on the eve of a new century that Newcombe was posted to the 29th Fortress Company based at Cape Town, South Africa, in time to participate in operations during the Second Boer War in the Orange Free State, seeing action at Dreifontein and Karee Siding, and during the Relief of Kimberley. He was awarded the Queen’s medal with four clasps.

Egyptian Army, 1901 – 1911

Newcombe transferred to the Egyptian Army on 2 April 1901 and was posted to the Sudan Government Railways where he soon built up a reputation as an able surveyor. Following recommendations from an Arab guide, Abdulla Amran Gaharid, he and a fellow railway officer Lieutenant W.E. Longfield began to reconnoitre a possible rail route between the River Nile and the Red Sea, commencing at Atbara and terminating at Suakin, a distance of some 240 miles (386 km). The men showed great determination in seeing the job through under extremely harsh conditions and after months of arduous surveying on camel-back they finally proved that an easily graded railway could be built without any serious engineering difficulty other than a deep cutting in hard rock at Kamob Sanha. In September 1901, Newcombe, now aged 23, carried out a final trace of his railway survey from Berber, finally reaching Suakin on 15 October. Despite the success of this work it was ultimately decided that Suakin, although an obvious rail-head terminus, was a mediocre choice due to its tendency to silt and months of surveying and its results were therefore discarded in favour of a more northerly approach to the town of Sheikh Barghut. The decision to shift the survey proved correct and Port Sudan, as Sheik Barghut was renamed, became an important Red Sea gateway and continues to serve Africa, Arabia and the rest of the world.

By December, Newcombe had switched his attentions to a proposed railway west of the Nile from Omdurman to El Obaid.

At the end of 1903, he delineated the provisionally agreed frontier between Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and the Sudan, finally signing off the maps on 19 January 1904. Further surveys were carried out in the following years most notably in the lake district of the Congo, and at the end of his African service Newcombe accompanied a commission charged with solving the problem of the Lado Enclave. When on ‘leave’ he used his time during his return journeys to Britain to explore Greater Syria, sending back intelligence reports on the Berlin to Baghdad railway and the Damascus to Medina line through the Hejaz Desert.

Military service, 1911 – 1913

Newcombe finally left the Egyptian Army after 10 years of field duty and departed from Sudan in May 1911. He returned to the British Army but soon found that he was “bored with sitting still” and made plans to return to active overseas service. It was during 1912, while kicking his heels at Longmoor Military Training Camp in Hampshire, that Newcombe sought assistance in returning to service in Africa or Egypt from an influential acquaintance he had first met some twelve years previously during the South African War. A chance encounter with the distinguished writer Rudyard Kipling had taken place during the Battle of Karee Siding, a minor skirmish in the long campaign against the Boers in the country east of Umbati Ridge, where Kipling was attached to troops in the field reporting on the slow progress of the war against a mobile and determined enemy. Newcombe had informed Kipling that some scrub in front of him was “all clear” when it was anything but, forcing Kipling to lie flat on his stomach for hours ‘in great mental and bodily distress’ until relieved. Having very nearly got Kipling shot, years later Newcombe recalled the encounter and chanced his arm by seeking the author’s assistance in helping to secure a more suitable posting. Kipling duly wrote to the Under Secretary of State for War, Colonel E.D. Ward. Kipling was well connected within military circles and in a cleverly crafted and humorous letter, this master of the short story put forward a request for assistance in securing for Newcombe a return to overseas service. ‘Isn’t there any way by which you could set him on his return to Africa?’ he wrote to Ward. ‘If he dies there I shall be revenged for his attempt on my life at Karree Siding. If he lives I fancy the service will be richer by his work.’ The letter had the desired effect and within a few weeks Newcombe was making preparations to leave for an expedition to the desert region south of the Gaza-Beersheba line in southern Palestine in order to measure and map a strategic triangle of southern Palestine - today’s Negev Desert – as part of a secret survey carried out on behalf of the British War Office in continuation of an original survey carried out by Lieutenants Kitchener and Conder for the Egyptian Survey Department. The survey team, working under Newcombe’s direction, divided the assignment and worked meticulously throughout the cooler months of 1912. Newcombe was at last happy to be doing something of real value and the work suited his organisational skills and planning, as well as his longing to be out in the field.

Wilderness of Zin, 1913 – 1914

After the Survey Party pushed this task through to near completion there remained only one uncharted triangle of land south of Beersheba, the Negev Desert down to the Gulf of Akaba, known since Biblical times as the Wilderness of Zin, an area considered to be of military importance in the run up to any future conflict with Turkey. The military surveyors were accompanied by two civilian experts, C.L. Woolley and T.E. Lawrence (later known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’), who were to provide a suitable archaeological element into the survey to support the subterfuge and later to disguise the military intent of the survey with a published account of their findings describing the passage of the Exodus led by Moses during its thirty-eight-years sojourn at Kadesh Barnea. To complete the deception Newcombe’s surveys were carried out under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund, an academic organisation whose mission was to promote research into ‘the archaeology and history, manners and customs and culture, topography, geology and natural sciences’ of the Levant, the southern portion of which was conventionally named 'Palestine'.

Woolley and Lawrence departed after six weeks while Newcombe and his teams completed that season’s surveys by mapping the Sinai Desert across to the Suez Canal.

Nevertheless, this initial encounter with Lawrence set up a life-long friendship between the professional soldier and the young scholar-archaeologist.

First World War, 1914 - 1917

During the opening moves of the First World War, Newcombe was sent to Northern France where the Royal Engineers supported the Allied retreat at Mons. Then on 9 December, after working with Lawrence on completing the reports and maps of the surveys of Southern Palestine and the Sinai Peninsula at the War Office in London, the two men were ordered to Egypt to be joined by Woolley and other specialists in Middle Eastern affairs. Newcombe was tasked with organising a new Military Intelligence Branch based in Cairo under Gilbert Clayton who was director of both the Military and Political Intelligence Services there.

After nine months of intelligence duties Newcombe was sent to Gallipoli to command an Australian division of Royal Engineers attached to the Imperial Army - the Anzacs. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for a rescue attempt in a tunnel where his men were overwhelmed by an ammonal gas explosion. It soon became necessary to adopt a fixed set of place-names and it fell to experienced mapmakers including Newcombe to supervise the creation of a definitive and annotated map of the peninsula to include an ever-enlarging trench system.

Further service followed with the Anzacs at the Battle for Pozières Ridge in France on the Somme before Newcombe was ordered to the Hejaz to rejoin Lawrence who was acting as liaison officer to the Emir Feisal, son of Grand Sherif Hussein ibn Ali (1853-1931) of Mecca, whom Lawrence had identified as the most likely candidate to take the nascent Arab Revolt forward in support of the British war aims in that region. Newcombe was put in command of the Hejaz Military Mission and took part alongside Lawrence and Arab tribal forces in mine-laying operations on the Hejaz Railway, a vital lifeline to Turkish troops in the south. Newcombe’s extraordinary exploits and courage, coupled with an inexhaustible supply of energy made him a legend in the desert, causing the Arabs to complain that 'Newcombe is like fire, he burns friend and enemy’. In November 1917, he contributed a daring scheme to the military preparations for the Third Battle of Gaza. It was during this raid behind enemy lines north of Beersheba, while commanding a heavily-armed camel-mounted group, that his mission to cut communication lines and the enemy’s retreat became itself encircled and outnumbered by superior forces. With casualties increasing, Newcombe had no alternative but to surrender.

Captivity and Escape, 1917 – 1918

While captivity for an officer of Newcombe’s rank afforded some degree of comfort, his men fared less well and were forced to march to prison camps in Anatolia. Many died en-route. For Newcombe, the following months were full of danger, intrigue and perhaps more surprisingly, of romance. He was not a passive prisoner and made several attempts to escape, finally succeeding with the help of a brave young woman named Elsie (otherwise Elsa or Elizabeth) Chaki (1897-1973), whom he had befriended in Constantinople. Incredibly, the pair fell in love while Newcombe was recovering in hospital from smallpox. After his escape from the prison camp at Bursa, he remained undercover in Constantinople where he liaised on possible Allied peace terms with various members of the emerging political powers which rose and fell during the turbulent weeks leading to the armistice. Newcombe finally got away from the Turkish port of Smyrna but was too late to be able to witness the signing of the Armistice that took place on H.M.S Liverpool and so returned to Cairo. Within a few months of the war’s end, Newcombe and Elsie were reunited and they married on 16 April 1919 in St. Margaret’s, a small church nestling in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, London. If Newcombe wanted to impress his young bride he could not have picked a more magnificent location, situated at the spiritual and political epicentre of the Empire he served as a loyal and dedicated agent.

However, not everyone was pleased to hear he had married. Gertrude Bell, the ‘Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations’, as one recent biography describes this most extraordinary woman, was already a celebrated mountaineer, intrepid traveller, writer, political officer and spy when she crossed paths with Newcombe in Turkey before the war. She first wrote of him to her mother in 1916 as “…a nice man whom I once met in Constantinople.” Years later she would be bemoaning the fact that he had been ensnared by marriage: ‘...Col. Newcomb [sic] is the kind of man who never ought to have married at all. He is an adventurer and really good at the job.’ Elsie may not have met with Gertrude’s approval but their marriage flourished within the parameters of his military career which, given his rank, status and experience, gave them ample opportunities to share and enjoy fresh adventures together.

They had one son (1920-2004), christened Stewart Lawrence in recognition of his father’s friendship with T.E. Lawrence (who became the boy’s godfather), and one daughter, Diana Louie Maud (1921-2009), who later became Baroness Elles in recognition of her work on behalf of the conservative Party.

Post War work, 1919 – 1932

After his moment of war, Newcombe was assigned the task of delineating the boundaries between the British Mandate of Palestine and the French Mandate of Syria, still relevant today in Israel’s relations with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

His work with the Anzacs during the war led him to believe that Australia could provide a future for the thousands of men from the Cornish and Devon mining community who were struggling to find work in post-war Britain, and he proposed and had accepted the idea of assisted emigration along the lines of pioneer battalions, an idea that closely fitted the Government’s Group Settlement Schemes of the 1920’s.

He completed further service in Egypt until 1929 when he became Chief Engineer on the Mediterranean fortress island of Malta, finally retiring from military service in 1932. It was a role that would lead directly to private research into heating and insulation systems in domestic housing, a life-long interest with recommendations many of which have long-since become the accepted norm.

1932 – 1940

In 1935, he was one of six pall bearers at Lawrence’s funeral, each man signifying a different period of Lawrence’s life, with Newcombe representing the Arabian years.

After Lawrence’s death, Newcombe endeavoured to seek a solution to the uneasy state of affairs in Palestine, an enormous effort that would require determination, dedication and above all, a clear and public statement of intent. As an Arabist, Newcombe’s feet were most firmly planted in the Muslim camp. His subsequent actions, motives and pronouncements relating to this discordant and contentious subject were in defence of and in unequivocal support of his Muslim friends and the newly created Islamic countries that were struggling to move beyond the tutelage and protection of their British and French administrators or to free themselves from the League of Nations mandatory system and towards a new era of self-government. Although he maintained contact with his many Jewish friends, his viewpoint became increasingly anti-Zionist. In 1937 he became the Honorary Secretary of the Palestine Information Centre in London.

In 1938, he revisited the idea of Australia as a possible haven, this time for refugees fleeing Czechoslovakia following Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland.

As a representative of the Anglo-Turkish Relief Committee, he successfully raised funds and lobbied for UK government support following a devastating earthquake on 27 December 1939 that destroyed the Turkish town of Erzincan with the loss of over 30,000 lives.

Clubs and Societies

Throughout his life Newcombe remained loyal to the Palestine Exploration Fund, was a member of the Royal Geographical Society, and was an active participant of the Royal Central Asian Society, of which he was Vice President (1938-42) and thereafter Joint Honorary Secretary (1942). Since 1932, the year of his retirement from the military, he had been Chairman and Honorary Secretary of the Society’s Dinner Club, where he was adept at ‘mixed grills’, inviting guest speakers that included many of his old enemies. When in London he would call into the Naval & Military Club, which came to be known as the ‘In & Out’ on account of the famous signs on the entrance and exit gates, located at Cambridge House on Piccadilly, overlooking Green Park. He might have preferred the United Service Club in Pall Mall, considered the most prestigious military club in London and reserved for senior officers above the rank of Major, and therefore known as “The Senior” by its members. It was here that he spent his last night as a bachelor. Keeping one eye on adventure, Newcombe was also a member of the Zerzura Club, a select gathering of desert explorers who had dared to venture into the interior of the largely unexplored Libyan Desert (now Egypt’s Western Desert) in search of the legendary “lost oasis” of Zerzura - a name that had long excited the imagination with tales of verdant palms, a ruined city and lost treasure.

Final years, 1940 – 1956

At the beginning of the Second World War, Newcombe, then aged 62, carried out an intelligence-gathering mission to Iraq via the dangerous Mediterranean convoy route, an assignment that was indirectly sponsored by the British Government. In 1943, a second trip brought forth this memory from a fellow passenger:

“It was a time when “the Med” was not exactly a pleasant place and there were many excitements and anxieties; but in a ship filled with civilian passengers of many nationalities, Stewart Newcombe stood forth supreme, and there was each day no more popular and stimulating event than “the Colonel’s 11 a.m. discussion group”.

When we arrived in Egypt fame had sped before him and in Cairo and afterwards in Baghdad nearly everybody who was somebody came to see him: for great reputations remain for ever green in desert lands.’

Newcombe also found time to help create the first permanent mosque in London, the East London Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre, which opened its doors in 1941 with Newcombe as its non-Muslim Honorary Secretary at the time of its inauguration.

He lived latterly at 300 Woodstock Road, Oxford. In 1956 Newcombe celebrated his seventy-eighth birthday. Just nine days later he succumbed to the prostate cancer and a kidney infection that had affected him for many months. On the morning of Wednesday 18 July, he died at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, surrounded by his family. He was survived by his wife Elsie and their two children.


During the final years of the nineteenth century Newcombe’s steadfast and resolute character was forged in the halls and classrooms and on the fields and training grounds of Woolwich and Chatham. His capabilities as a soldier and as an officer were developed in two of the best military institutions in the world and built on a strong foundation of general education in two well-respected schools. Newcombe was well-equipped to be a leader of men, but a leader that would not shrink from waiving his seniority and giving the better man his chance. He would never rise to the literary heights of some of his fellow officers; indeed his arguments, however strongly felt, were rarely expounded in anything other than in a simple, straightforward and often direct manner. But his convictions, once reached, never wavered.

Newcombe was first and foremost a loyal agent of Empire; he was also an unashamed Arabist in his stance on Middle Eastern matters. He held strong views on what he considered were acceptable levels of Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine in the years between the World Wars, based on his long study of the region, its people, infrastructure and resources. Believing that the Arabs of Palestine would not ‘vanish like the mist before the sun of Zion’ he therefore thought it imperative that they had fair representation in the contest for the hearts and minds of those in power who would ultimately bring about the fulfilment of the Balfour Declaration, with all its stipulations – important provisos which supported his firm belief that only by respecting native interests could you achieve a lasting consensus. He worked tirelessly towards that aim after consulting the opinions of his many Jewish and Moslem friends before reaching proposals for what might be termed a bi-nation state solution - proposals that would also best serve the interests of the British Empire.

Whatever his lasting impact on the region of the Middle East or his interest and involvement in Islamic affairs, it is as a loyal friend to T.E. Lawrence – a loyalty that remained steadfast to the end – that Stewart Newcombe is best remembered. In a letter written in 1955 during the furore that was unfolding over the forthcoming publication of a defamatory biography of Lawrence by the author Richard Aldington, Newcombe explained his unique relationship with T.E. Lawrence. Using a sporting analogy, it was a succinct and accurate appraisal which illustrated Newcombe’s understanding and admiration of his fellow desert raider: ‘My own view of Lawrence has always been that of an elder brother to a younger one who was far quicker than I, a cricketer top of the list 1st class averager, who sometimes drops catches; compared to a slow 5th class. We both understood each other’s humour.’ It was a typical Newcombian observation, a perceptive and honest appreciation of their individual qualities. Above all else, it illustrated a good humoured acceptance of their weaknesses and an acute awareness that in life some things cannot always be taken too seriously.

1 comment :

Paul McNicholls said...

I look forward to the book's publication. Best wishes, Paul McNicholls.