Unseen Eyewitness Account of Lawrence of Arabia’s Arab Revolt for Sale at Bonhams

An archive of previously unseen papers about the 1917 Arab Revolt written by Lawrence of Arabia’s superior officer and close friend, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe, is to be sold at Bonhams sale of Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Historical Photographs in London on 19 March. It is estimated at £20,000-30,000.

The archive consists of three Army Field Service Correspondence Books—issued to British Army Officers to record their activities, enemy positions and deployments, etc.—and a wealth of loose papers including letters to Lawrence and other fellow officers.

Head of Bonhams Book Department in the UK, Matthew Haley said, “The Newcombe diaries have never been seen before and are a major addition to our understanding both of Lawrence and of the relationship between the British and the local leaders of the Arab Revolt at this crucial period.”

They cover the guerrilla operations in 1917 to disable the strategically important Hejaz Railway and to tie up Turkish troops in its defence. The Ottoman Empire had entered the First World War in November 1914 on the German side in the hope of recapturing lost territories. The British, fearful of the impact on their oil fields in the Middle East, fought alongside Arab nationalists—most notably Prince Faisal—who wanted to drive the Turks from their land, specifically from the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

A letter dated 10 July 1917 provides an insight both into Newcombe’s style and the type of war he was waging: “I'm just back from a stunt with Joyce & Davenport: we had to go 32 miles to the railway without water & of course return at once. We broke 450 rails on 6th night 7th morning at kilo 1027, just N. of Seil Matran. Davenport has now gone to a well we dug in W. Jezzil, nearer the railway & should destroy 3 to 400 rails more or less nightly.”

Reflecting on those times in Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence wrote of his friend and colleague. “Newcombe had constant difficulties from his excess of zeal, and his habitual doing four time what any other Englishman would do, and ten times what the Arabs thought needful or wise….  Newcombe is like fire," they used to complain: "he burns friend and enemy." According to Lawrence, Newcombe wore out Prince Faisal’s best camels with his constant to-ing and fro-ing.

A letter written to Lawrence by Newcombe but never sent shows the closeness between the two men, "I've always regretted just having missed you when you first went to Abdulla's & again early in May: & it made a great difference to my shows not having you with Feisal to back me up & buck him up./ Anyway I very sincerely congratulate you on your tremendous results & no one else could have done it. We others can't disguise the fact that we are British & its no use trying to be unnaturally Arab when one can't: and I've not succeeded."

Stewart Newcombe and TE Lawrence first met in 1913 and remained friends until the latter’s death in 1935.  Lawrence was godfather to the Newcombes’ first child and Newcombe was one of the pall bearers at Lawrence’s funeral. The archive has remained with the family since Lt Col’s Newcombe’s death in 1956.

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