LAWRENCE, NEWCOMBE and THE ARAB REVOLT Original field books and other papers kept by Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe during operations to destroy the Hejaz Railway in 1917, mostly July 1917
Lot 139
Original field books and other papers kept by Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe during operations to destroy the Hejaz Railway in 1917, mostly July 1917
Sold for £104,500 (US$ 173,935) inc. premium
Lot Details
Papers and Books of Colonel S.F. Newcombe, RE, DSO, sold on behalf of his descendants
There were six pall bearers at T.E. Lawrence's funeral in 1935, each of whom represented a different aspect of his life. Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe, RE, DSO (1878-1956) was one of these six, and was chosen to represent Lawrence's life in Arabia. An officer in the Royal Engineers and recipient of the Sword of Honour at Sandhurst, Newcombe had seen service in the Boer War, Egypt and the Sudan before taking charge of a British government survey of Southern Palestine in 1913. This was an area seen as being of particular strategic importance in the event of war with Turkey. Although military in its inception, Newcombe's survey was undertaken under the ostensibly civilian auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund. The survey was joined in January 1914 by two archaeologists, C.L. Woolley and T.E. Lawrence. It fell to Newcombe to give Lawrence his first taste of military life: 'It was his first experience of collaborating with a professional soldier engaged in a military mission, and, moreover, one conducted inside enemy lines. By observing Newcombe at work, planning itineraries, interpreting maps, assessing terrain, as he, Lawrence, would do in the future, he was effectively undergoing a personal training course' (Malcolm Brown, T.E. Lawrence, 2003, p. 45). Later in 1914, after Turkey had joined the war, Newcombe and Lawrence were transferred to Cairo to join the new Military Intelligence Department, of which Newcombe remained Director until September 1915. After seeing action at Gallipoli and the Somme, Newcombe was appointed head of a small British military mission on the outbreak of the Arab Revolt and in December 1916 was sent to the Hejaz: ʻHe arrived just in time to join Lawrence for the final stages of the march on Wejh. During the next few months he became famous among the Arabs for the wild daring of his attacks on the Hejaz Railway' (Jeremy Wilson, T.E. Lawrence, National Portrait Gallery Exhibition Catalogue, 1988, no. 83). Although Newcombe was the senior officer, he was well aware of his protégé's outstanding ability, remarking in later life that ʻmy own view of Lawrence has always been that of an elder brother to a younger one who was far quicker than I'; while Lawrence himself acknowledged in Seven Pillars of Wisdom that Newcombe's deeds achieved legendary status among the Arabs – ʻ"Newcombe is like fire," they used to complain; "he burns friend and enemy" (1935 edition, p. 239). Newcombe was to be captured that November when leading an expedition behind enemy lines during the opening stages of the third Battle of Gaza. He managed to escape with the aid of a French girl, Elsie Chaki, whom he had met before the war in Constantinople and was to marry in 1919. (It is doubtless Elsie who lies behind a fleeting reference in a letter to Hornby of 29 June 1917: "I hope you've opened any official letters for me or any from Joyce etc, but don't bother to open any written in French or addressed to my Christian name: they wouldn't interest you a bit"; see his Army Field Service Correspondence Books below). Newcombe and Elsie had two children, a son to whom Lawrence stood godfather (see Lawrence's letter to Newcombe, below), and a daughter Diane, afterwards Baroness Elles. After the war, he worked on settling the boundaries between the British mandate of Palestine and the French mandate of Syria. During the Second World War he was to come out of retirement to carry out further intelligence work in Iraq. (For a further account and discussion of Newcombe's career, see Kerry Webber's website, In the Shadow of the Crescent).
Original field books and other papers kept by Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe during operations to destroy the Hejaz Railway in 1917, comprising:

(i) Army Field Service Correspondence Book, kept in the field, comprising carbon under copies, often annotated in pencil, of letters or memoranda that were written on the upper sheets and then torn-off and despatched, opening with notes of a survey of terrain: "Road on easy light gravel enclosed by steep coral cliffs for 3 miles up W. Esbeil, then reach foot of granatic hills & wadi narrows from 100x to 20x in places hills on either side steep & 300' high. no road except in wadies & their branches. Kaalat Esbeil..."; further entries (listed in chronological order) comprising matter such as: intelligence reports gleaned from deserters and others ("...Ageyl escaped from Medina aged about 20: left Medina about Feb 6th says he was at Bir Hassana when it was bombed by our aeroplanes in Feb 16. He & 40 other Ageyl went by night deserted to Medina via Akaba & Wedji, taking 32 days. He says over 40 were killed by bombs at Hassana. He later joined the Ageyl at Medina, where they are now getting £8 a month... He says Fakir Pasha spent 2 million in buying camels, & bought 27,000 altogether but only 1000 now left remainder being killed by Bedouins or died. His numbers are a bit unreliable..."); pencil notes on intelligence requirements ("...Strength at all stations if there are posts between the stations..."); memoranda to Major Joyce ("...On arrival of explosives 5000lbs to go to Abdulla... Tools for work on railway 100 picks 10 sledge hammers 7lbs 100 shovels 20 crowbars... 2 tins paraffin for burning telegraph poles..."); letter opening "Dear Sherif Feisal" ("...I hope to see you at Jeida about the end of the month & that we shall have some real success..."), dated from Beda, 15 June 1917; two further letters to Joyce; a memorandum headed "Location of various Places Water, Roads etc", dated 21 June 1917; a further letter headed "Dear Sherif Feisal" dated from "Ausheifa", 21 June 1917 ("...I told Ali El Ula when food comes to go to El Derra where water is plentiful, to destroy rails with the dynamite he has got till all is used up..."); memorandum dated 24 June 1917 headed "There are as far as I can ascertain only 3 suitable districts for cutting the railway"; memorandum headed "Report June 15th to 23rd sent 24. 6. 17 to Jeida"; further letters including two to Joyce, dated 24 and 26 June 1917; letter to Hornby, headed "Jeida. 29. 6. 17" ("...I'm going Wedj today by car, getting there tomorrow & will bustle up whatever I can, but only 6000lbs dynamite not 12,000 sent from Egypt, hence 4000 for us & 2000 for Abdullah..."); a further letter to Hornby from Jeida dated 2 July 1917 ("...Destroy all you can now: as soon as you like i.e. 1500 or more rails... Sherif Feisal wants you stay where you are..."); two letters in Arabic signed by Newcombe; a sketch map; written in an ʻArmy Book 252/ Correspondence Book/ (Field Service)' on squared paper, some 60 pages, some of the carbons feint but all seemingly (with patience) more-or-less legible, upper leaves plus some others removed, cardboard covers somewhat creased and worn through use in the field, but overall in sound condition, small 4to (200 x 158mm.), Arabia, June to July 1917

(ii) Army Field Service Correspondence Book, kept in the field, incorporating his diary as well as letters, comprising carbon under copies, often annotated in pencil, of letters or memoranda that were written on the upper sheets and then intended to be torn-off and despatched but (from 18 July 1917 onwards) with these still in place or inserted loose into the volume and so clearly never despatched (this includes his diary and a letter to T.E. Lawrence), comprising in the first, despatched, section, carbon under-copies, opening with a letter to Hornby dated 10 July 1917 (partly the pencil top-copy with the carbon having been removed and despatched), beginning: "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"; letter to Davenport (again the retained top-copy), opening: "French & Beduin should leave 12th getting to you 13th. Then do what you can to keep the line destroyed & prevent it being repaired so that trains can run"; carbon letter to Bassett, ordering supplies ("...I got back yesterday from the first stunt on the railway: we smashed 450 rails..."), dated Jeida, 11 July 1917; nine-page "Report June 25th to July 11th" (top-copy, carbon removed and dispatched), describing operations destroying the railway and engagements with Turkish forces, dated 11 July; carbon under-copy headed "Diary 11th July to [blank]", with a detailed map in carbon with extensive pencil re-working showing the area of operations; and further letters to Barrett and Davenport; the section where both top-copies and carbon under-copies are present begins half-way through the volume with "Diary 18. 7. 17 to [blank]", this entry comprises thirteen pages (26 inclusive of carbons) and opens: "Hornby & self saw Sherif Feisal. Advantages of taking Medain Saleh are lost owing to being compelled to ʻcooperate' in one attack on railway with Sherif Abdulla. Have been unable to persuade Feisal that cutting 10 000 rails does not require one combined action but several small parties extended over some length of time: say a fortnight: then all stations will be easily taken, as they cannot repair large sections of broken line in a short time. However Feisal is determined to have one big rush at the line", recording Lawrence's visit to Jeida of 19 July ("...Lawrence arrived by plane with extraordinary account of his labours & future plans & left early 20th for Wedj. Feisal much pleased..."); followed by three carbons of pages from two separate letters, both possibly suppressed and both possibly to Lawrence, the first being the final page, subscribed "Your (fairly) obedient & rather humble servant", complaining that he is a "washed up old man, crocked up with no physical guts left", the second almost certainly to Lawrence ("...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..."); these fragments are followed by a letter indisputably to Lawrence, dated 29 July 1917, of which the first page is present in carbon and the first three in pencil top-copy, opening: "My dear Lawrence/ Wish we had more time to talk things over & get more details of your marvellous stunts: as rather wanted to find out why our show here has become unsuccessful. All the same, your criticisms, born of prejudice due to ignorance (the folly of youth devoting time to the pothouse instead of Books & Learning) were sometimes off the mark"; remaining letters comprise one to Davenport of 28 July 1917 (carbons with top-copy of second page), to "My dear Colonel" of 27 July (both top and carbons), and to Colonel Wilson at Jedda of 12 July 1917 (both top and carbons); written in an ʻArmy Book 252/ Correspondence Book/ (Field Service)' on squared paper, nearly 80 pages in all, some leaves removed, cardboard covers creased and slightly worn through use in the field, but overall in sound condition, small 4to (200 x 158mm.), Arabia, July 1917

(iii) Journal-cum-notebook, kept in the field, beginning with a skeleton journal starting on 28 December [1916], with fuller diary entries running from 28 January [1917], recording several meetings with Sherif Feisal ("...12. 2. 17. Saw Feisal in morning & said every train to Medina might prolong Turks being there a month: he said, yes but he could not risk Arab tribes shooting at each other, i.e. could not go into tribal country till they came in... In after noon instructed some Argyl in dynamite..."); interspersed with a memorandum marked of 31 January, marked "sent early 1/ 2/ 17" (opening: "Feisal heard from Abdulla yesterday from Marabba he has been afraid to cut line trains going empty Medina return with troops at stations along railway... Garland and self leave here with large parties on different routes Eastwards to cut railway but greatly hampered by communications..."); continuing with a mixture of diary entries and observations and draft memoranda through February and March ("...We started 7 p.m. got to the line about 8. I took a long time to lay the Electric bomb, which gave them ample time to lay their charges under the rails. After my bomb was ready, Ali fired his rifle & all charges were fired at once, & everyone ran to his camel. Ali certainly looked after me & saw that I was not left alone... There should have been about 120 charges done really: & telegraph line destroyed. However result was moderately good & shows that their funny way of doing things can come off though it wasn't very precise... Men very cheerful afterwards on way back & much more respectful to me... Very bad tummy ache..."), with a detailed journal being carried through until 29 July 1917 [when he wrote to Lawrence] ("...22. 3. 17. Started 6 a.m. from Abu Raza going for 1½ hours to S. Telhara [Khuman], good feeding place for camels. Messenger left for S. Feisal in morning. Left 20 Bisha & about 7 camels at Abu Raza, also Hassan & 3 deserters: Turbombashi came with us: started 2.30 p.m. passed some old tombs which Abu Shaama has opened: partly of cut stone. Suliman Abu Shaama gave me an old spearhead picked up East of Railway line. Very difficult to get into heads of Beduin & others that we must stop trains going & that is our principal job: taking prisoners from trolleys is quite unimportant. We have food for 8 days from Abu Raza, & probably not much more: & 4 boxes of dynamite, plus one at Amalgatta Bridge near Sauaa is too close to station to be possible hence only job is to cut line at various places, every 2 or 3 days: as trains take 2 days to come prepared to repair line. But telegraphs must be cut for N. & S. Bombs must be put in by day to be of any use, Point is to make certain that trains don't pass. 50 rails cut at a time is enough for one night, if done every other night at different places..."); there follow several pages of accounts and related jottings; after a blank section, the notebook resumes with entries on bombing headed with the date "11. 4. 17" ("...On 13th April or 10th Ross will bomb Moadtham Station about 7 to 7.30 a.m. or later in morning. But I must in any case send a line to Ross to reach Wedj 2 days before the operation is required confirming or otherwise cf. date may be altered conceivably to 12th but not earlier: & place can be anywhere south of Moadthan/ If place is taken, put out red H 15' long..."), opposite which are calculations of explosives required and overleaf a memorandum on blowing up railways headed "Top prevent trains running, it is necessary to keep the line permanently cut. This can be done..."; running in reversed order from the end of the volume is a memorandum of his service and thoughts for the future, running to at least seven pages and beginning: "On May 11th I arrived at Wedj returning from cutting the railway with Sherif Nasr. It was obvious from the news we then had, that the line lust be kept cut, & I was very anxious to hasten things. The Moahib Arabs had proved faithful & if Sherif Feisal would make a sort of contract with them at any price I was prepared to take a few chosen men live with the Moahib & keep the line cut every night therefore camels would have to be provided by the Moahib in the agreement..."; plus many other notes, jottings, calculations and memoranda; written in an alphabetically tagged folio ledger, nearly 130 pages, marbled card boards, much worn, with many pages loose, but nevertheless still in sound if authentic condition, folio, Arabia, December 1916 to July 1917

(iv) Loose letters and papers, including a retained copy of a letter by Newcombe addressed from the Arab Bureau, Cairo, to "My dear General" on 27 July 1917, about operations ("...The taking of Akaba was very important & the fellow who worked it all, Lawrence, is a wonder. Kathleen will tell you all about him: one of her loves! Ask her to show you his love letters to her! Anyhow he only had about 450 Beduin & a Sherif & took 720 Turkish prisoners (including 46 officers)..."); letters to Newcombe including two autograph letters signed by Captain Hornby (Newcombe's fellow railway-dynamiter), 2 and 10 July 1917, and one by Colonel Joyce (shortly to take command of the Akaba base), 19 June 1917, all three letters written on squared paper extracted from Army Correspondence books (as per i and ii above); another letter by Hornby, on a page torn from a loose-leaf notebook; four RFC bombing reports by Lieutenant Henderson, headed "Gayadah", in carbon on squared paper, 11 to 18 July 1917; memorandum in ink headed "Programme for destroying the Railway" with one in pencil starting "The primary object of the expedition is to destroy the Hejaz railway as permanently as possible"; carbon of a memo submitted to the High Commissioner on 29 May 1917 by Brigadier-General Clayton and marked on his behalf as approved ("So do we" added in pencil), beginning "Emir Feisal proposes to leave Wedj about May 31st and attack the railway in the neighbourhood of El Ula with a view to destroying it in conjunction with Emir Andulla who will operate from South"; a list of explosives despatched and held in store, dated 12 July 1917; memoranda circulated to Newcombe concerning supplies; typescript headed "Notes on disturbing traffic on enemy telegraph lines" by Major H.P.T. Lefroy; typed memo to Colonel Wilson on "location of various places" dated 21 June 1917; a group of shipping schedules and memoranda from the Naval Transport Office, Jedda, July 1917; Newcombe's "Account with Sheik Yusef", March 1917; a quantity of Expeditionary Force Canteens Mediterranean bills and receipts made out to Newcombe, plus IOUs, etc., loose, some incomplete, creased or torn but generally in good condition, various sizes, mostly July 1917


  • JOURNALS AND LETTER BOOKS OF COLONEL S.F. NEWCOMBE, KEPT IN JULY 1917 WHILE ON ACTIVE SERVICE IN ARABIA, DESTROYING THE HEJAZ TURKISH RAILWAY – a campaign which has since acquired near legendary status, helping shape public perception of both the Arab Revolt and the exploits of Lawrence.

    In Seven Pillars, Lawrence was to write of the operations covered by these letterbooks and diaries: '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. Hornby spoke little Arabic, and Newcombe not enough to persuade the Beduin... The persistent pair would cling for weeks to the railway edge, almost without helpers, often without food, till they had exhausted either their explosives or their camels, and had to return for more. The barrenness of the hills made their trips hungry for their camels, and they wore out Feisals's best animals in turn. In this Newcombe was chief sinner, for his journeys were done at the trot: also as a surveyor by trade he could not resist looking down from each high hill over the new country he crossed, to the exasperation of his escort... "Newcombe is like fire," they used to complain: "he burns friend and enemy", and they admired his amazing energy with a nervous shrinking lest they be his next friendly victims. The Arabs told me Newcombe would not sleep except with his head on the rails, and that Hornby would worry with the metals with his teeth when the guncotton failed. These were legends, but behind them lay a sense of their savagery, of their insatiable thirst to go on with the work of destruction till there was no more to destroy. Between the two of them, four Turkish labour battalions were kept busy, patching culverts, re-laying sleepers, jointing new rails: and guncotton had come in increasing bulk to Wejh to meet their appetite. They were wonderful: but their too great goodness discouraged our feeble teams, making them ashamed to exhibit their inferior talents: and so Newcombe and Hornby remained individualists, barren of the fruits of imitation' (1922 text, 2003, pp.254-5).

    The Army Field Service Correspondence Books are of the type issued to officers and which were used by Lawrence himself in the field. In Lawrence's case only one such volume survives, dating from the spring of 1917, the rest being lost with the first manuscript of Seven Pillars in 1919 (see NPG exhibition catalogue, no. 119, now in the British Library, Add. MS. 45914). Newcombe's journals and loose papers have not been made available to scholars. His letter to Lawrence of 29 July 1917 is of particularly note, even though it seems to have been never sent; equally remarkable is the contemporaneous letter to an unnamed addressee whom it is hard to believe can be anyone but Lawrence: "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". In the letter of 29 July already referred to, addressed, unequivocally, to "My dear Lawrence", Newcombe refers to Lawrence's "marvellous stunts"; and in the diary entry recording Lawrence's visit to Jeida of 19 July he states that "Lawrence arrived by plane with extraordinary account of his labours & future plans & left early 20th for Wedj. Feisal much pleased". Newcombe is clearly congratulating Lawrence on the capture of Akaba earlier that month; but it seems probable that he had also in mind Lawrence's celebrated secret journey to Damascus undertaken that June (in recent times sometimes been claimed to have been a fabrication). In all events, we have here an expression of unfeigned admiration made by Lawrence's superior officer and his first military mentor and an outstanding record of the Arab Revolt.
Auction information

This auction is now finished. If you are interested in consigning in future auctions, please contact the specialist department. If you have queries about lots purchased in this auction, please contact customer services.

Buyers' Obligations


If you have any complaints or questions about the Conditions of Sale, please contact your nearest customer services team.

Buyers' Premium and Charges

For all Sales categories excluding Wine, Coins & Medals and Motor Cars and Motorcycles:

Buyer's Premium Rates
25% on the first £50,000 of the Hammer Price
20% from £50,001 to £1,000,000 the Hammer Price
12% from £1,000,001 of the Hammer Price

VAT at the current rate of 20% will be added to the Buyer's Premium and charges excluding Artists Resale Right.

Payment Notices

Payment in advance: by cash, check with banker's card, credit card, bank draft or traveler's cheque.

Payment at collection: by credit or debit card.

Credit card charges: a surcharge of 2% is applicable when using Mastercard, Visa and overseas debit cards.

Shipping Notices

For information and estimates on domestic and international shipping as well as export licenses please contact Bonhams Shipping Department.

Lot symbols
Exempt from tax

Zero rated for VAT, no VAT will be added to the Hammer Price or the Buyer's Premium.

  1. Simon Roberts
    Specialist - Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Historical Photographs
    Montpelier Street
    London, United Kingdom SW7 1HH
    Work +44 20 7393 3828
    FaxFax: +44 20 7393 3879