A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Such a Band of Wild Men": the British Military Intelligence Section in Cairo, December 1914, Part I

The British military General Headquarters in Cairo War Diary for December 22, 1914 (100 years ago last week) reportedly notes "Organisation Military Intelligence Department proceeding under Captain Newcombe R.E. [Royal Engineers] with five other officers sent from home. Badly needed."

Though the text seems to imply six, most sources indicate that five men constituted the officers of the new Military Intelligence unit in Cairo in mid-December, though that number would grow. Most arrived in Egypt between about December 11 and 22. The five were not exactly never to be heard from again: they included then-Captain Stewart F. Newcombe, 36, a military engineer and veteran of the Boer War who would go on to play a prominent role in the Arab Revolt, at Gallipoli, and elsewhere in the war; Leonard Woolley, 34, Oxford archaeologist and excavator of Carchemish (better known for his postwar excavations at Ur); Aubrey Herbert, 34, Member of Parliament and younger son of the Earl of Carnarvon (and half-brother of the next Lord Carnarvon, who would fund the discoverer of Tutankhamun's tomb);  Herbert, who would twice be offered the throne of Albania, is said to be the model for Sandy Arbuthnot in John Buchan's novel Greenmantle; George A. Lloyd, 35, another Member of Parliament and heir to business wealth who would eventually, as Lord Lloyd, be the High Commissioner in Egypt in the mid-1920s and write the two-volume history Egypt Since Cromer; and finally, the only one of the group under 30, a diminutive recently commissioned second lieutenant and budding 26-year-old archaeologist named Thomas Edward Lawrence. Usually better known these days as Lawrence of Arabia. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence would refer to the group as "such a band of wild men as we were."

Several of these men would later form part of the well-known Arab Bureau, along with others such as D.G. Hogarth, Herbert Garland, and Gertrude Bell. But the Arab Bureau would not be formed until December of 1915, when Sir Mark Sykes set it up to increase the role of Cairo at the expense of the India Office in the Middle East.

Of the five new arrivals, only Newcombe was a professional military man, though all had some experience in intelligence work; Woolley and Lawrence and Newcombe had worked together before the war. I'll have more on these men in Part III.

Gilbert Clayton
Before Turkey came into the war, British intelligence in Cairo had been rather limited, with one man, then-Lt. Col. Gilbert Clayton, heading both Military and civilian. intelligence branches. Beginning with the December arrivals, the military intelligence side would expand throughout 1915 and beyond, especially after the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in the Hejaz.

The old Savoy Hotel
When the war began, Army Headquarters was located in the Savoy Hotel, which at the time stood on Midan Qasr al-Nil, later Midan Suleiman Pasha, today's Midan Tal‘at Harb;  Lawrence and most of the others were billeted in another hotel, the Grand Continental, facing Opera Square and the Ezbekiyya Gardens, while reporting to work at the Savoy. Confusing matters is the fact that the old Savoy Hotel was torn down a few years after the war, in 1924, while the Grand Continental in that year became the Continental Savoy. (It continued in use as a hotel into the 1980s at least, but has since closed, and is now reportedly in danger of collapse.) The offices were at the Savoy; the staff stayed at the Grand Continental.

The Grand Continetal in better days
Initially, the old Savoy sufficed as Military HQ, though over time the British military would spread out to other parts of Cairo.

Ah, but some of you are saying, that doesn't look anything like British Military HQ in David Lean's 1962 epic film, Lawrence of Arabia. (The only clip I could find on YouTube is actually dubbed in Spanish, which may give you a clue):

That's not Cairo. It's the Plaza de España complex in Seville, Spain. Grandiiose, majestic, and not what it looked like.

In Part II, I'll discuss the chain of command of the Intelligence section.
Location of the old Savoy Hotel

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