Birth and Heritage
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on 14 July 1868 at Washington New Hall in County Durham, the daughter of Sir Hugh Bell and Mary Shield, and the granddaughter of eminent industrialist, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell. Elected Lord Mayor of Newcastle in 1875, Sir Isaac owned several iron, steel and aluminium works and factories throughout the country, and was also the director of the North Eastern Railway and the Forth Bridge Company. His success meant that the Bells were, at the time of Gertrude’s birth, the sixth richest family in England. In 1870, Hugh, Mary and Gertrude left Washington Hall to set up their own home at Red Barns in Redcar. Gertrude’s younger brother Maurice was born here in 1871, but the family’s happiness was short-lived, as Gertrude’s mother Mary died shortly after his birth. In 1876, Sir Hugh married the Parisian Florence Oliffe, to whom Gertrude would gradually become very close.
For a young woman in the late nineteenth century, Gertrude’s education was extremely privileged. From the ages of fifteen to seventeen, she attended the exclusive Queen’s College School for girls in London’s Harley Street, established in 1848, and the first institution in Britain to offer the opportunity for girls to gain academic qualifications. In 1886, shortly before turning eighteen, Gertrude became one of the first women to be admitted to Oxford Universityand, just two years later in June 1888, she became the first woman to gain a first class honours in Modern History from Oxford.
Travel and Mountaineering
In May 1892, Gertrude embarked on her first major voyage to Persia (now Iran), beginning a lifetime of travel that encompassed two round-the-world trips (1897–8 and 1902–3), and numerous journeys to the Middle East, which continued until her death in Baghdad (1926). She was enchanted by the Persian surroundings and people, writing in a letter to her cousin Horace Marshall, ‘Isn’t it all charmingly like the Arabian Nights! but that is the charm of it all and it has none of it changed.’ In December 1897, Gertrude set off with her brother Maurice on the first of two round the world journeys, and from 1902–3 she undertook her second round the world trip with her half-brother Hugo. During this period (1899–1904), Gertrude also became a keen mountaineer, climbing regularly in the Alps, and summiting the Meije, Mont Blanc, and the Matterhorn. In 1901, Gertrude became the first person to summit seven of the nine peaks of the Engelhörner range in Switzerland, and in recognition of her achievement one of the peaks, Gertrudespitze, was named after her.
Archaeology, Photography and Cartography
Gertrude’s interest in archaeology was initially sparked on a holiday in Greece (1899), during which she first met David Hogarth – an established archaeologist, and a key figure in Gertrude’s later experiences during the First World War. Her fascination with archaeology grew during her journey to Jerusalem (1900), but was cemented with her journey through the Syrian desert to Asia Minor (1904-5), during which she explored the Binbirkilise, a region in the modern Karaman province in Turkey that is known for its multiple Byzantine church ruins.
Gertrude’s account of her travels from Syria through to Asia Minor was published as the popular travelogue The Desert and the Sown (1907) . She returned to the same region with archaeologist Sir William Ramsay (April 1907), to continue work on inscriptions in the ancient churches that she had first discovered towards the end of her previous visit. Gertrude and Sir William Ramsay published their findings in the co-authored book The Thousand and One Churches (1909). She returned to the East again in 1909 without Ramsay, to explore the Roman and Byzantine fortresses and churches along the banks of the Euphrates in Mesopotamia. Her primary objective of this trip was to reach and explore the large castle of Ukhaidir, which lay on the west bank of the river some 120 miles south-west of Baghdad at Ukhaidir, and of which there was no detailed historical or archaeological record in existence. Once she reached the palace, in March 1909, she spent the limited time she had (four days) sketching the huge structure.
During these journeys, Gertrude became a skilled photographer, documenting her travels and archaeological explorations through her images as well as through her writing. She became a member of the Royal Photographic Society, which enabled her to develop her films professionally. Gertrude carried two cameras with her at all times, and took panoramic shots of entire horizons by combining multiple photographs (see image on left).
The photographs she took during her excavations of various ancient sites, such as image shown the left left, are invaluable to archaeological knowledge and research, particularly because many of the sites have since been looted or vandalised.
Also significant and fascinating are her photographs of the local people she encountered on her travels, for example (see image on left).
As well as archaeological work and excavation, Bell was also interested in mapping the uncharted regions through which she travelled. To aid her in this, she undertook a course in survey methods and map projection at the Royal Geographical Society (1907), and returned to the East to travel a route that curved round the Druze mountains from Damascus to Hail, mapping and surveying the area as she went (1913). Bell’s journey of 1913 has since been highly praised, not least by David Hogarth, former President of the Royal Geographical Society, who, in April 1927, stated to the society that this particular journey of Bell’s ‘was a pioneer venture which not only put on the map a line of wells, before unplaced or unknown, but also cast much new light on the history of the Syrian desert frontiers under Roman, Palnyrene, and Ummayed domination.’
He also gives some hint of the importance of Bell’s work to wartime efforts and military strategies, arguing that:
‘Her information proved of great value during the war, when Hail had ranged itself with our enemy and was menacing our Euphratean flank. Miss Bell became, from 1915 onwards, the interpreter of all reports received from Central Arabia.’
During her 1907 archaeological trip to Turkey with Sir William Ramsay to revisit the Binbirkilise, Gertrude met Charles Doughty-Wylie, who would soon become the love of her life. Major Charles Doughty-Wylie of the Royal Welch Fusiliers– known as Dick to his friends – had served in the Boer War, the East Africa campaign of 1903, and in Tientsin during the Chinese rebellion. By the time he met Gertrude, he was the British military consul at Konya in Turkey (see image above), and had married his wife, Lilian, just three years beforehand. Gertrude was invited to stay with the Doughty-Wylie’s at their house in Konya on the final leg of her trip, from where she wrote to her mother, ‘it’s a great alleviation to be staying with the Wylies – they are dears, both of them. I’ve had a very pleasant restful two days. It’s pretty hot but one sits out in their big garden under the trees.’ (see image show below).
The Love Affair
After meeting in 1907, Gertrude and Dick kept in touch, having discovered in each other a mutual love of the culture and history of the Middle East. In the spring of 1912, the two met in London when Dick arrived, without his wife, to take up the position of director-in-chief of the Red Cross relief organisation. During this brief period, Gertrude welcomed Dick into her circle of friends, and regularly took him to the theatre, to music halls, and to dinner. After this, the correspondence between the two intensified both in frequency and in passion. When Gertrude went travelling, she sent Dick full diaries of her journeys, such as the one of her journey to Ha’il. The depth of emotion in Gertrude’s letters to Dick in comparison to those she sent to her family becomes most evident during the First World War. Where she sent her family relatively short, largely factual missives designed, apparently, not to worry them, to Dick she poured out her heart and her fears concerning the conflict. For example, in a letter to her father written on 30 December 1914, when Gertrude was working in the Red Cross Office for the Missing and Wounded in Boulogne, she wrote of ‘the immense sacrifice we had to make to retake the trenches the Indian troops had lost’ (see image below).
In contrast, the language she uses in her letter of the same day to Dick is full of emotion, signifying the closeness between them:
‘When our men have to relieve them, they must go into trenches which offer them no shelter, nor pay in lieu of their neglect. Its not worth it. Oh my dear, my dear, the horror of it all, & then the shining courage, this devotion – yes, I know the more I talk of it, the more you long to be brave’ (image below).
Gertrude was willing to let only Dick see the pain and sadness she so often felt, and the deep depression that the war triggered within her. Though their affair remained unconsummated, the strength of their love for each other is overwhelmingly evident in their letters, and their relationship is focal point of Werner Herzog’s recent biopic of Gertrude, Queen of the Desert (2015), starring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude, and Damian Lewis as Dick.
Doughty-Wylie’s Death at Gallipoli
On 26 April 1915, the second day of the Gallipoli campaign, Charles Doughty-Wylie was shot and killed instantly by a sniper during a successful attack organised and led by him and another officer, Captain Garth Walford (who was also killed)
Unaware of his fate, Gertrude continued to write to Dick, only learning of his death when she visited London (June 1915). The letters to her parents during this period are sparse, but their brevity signals her heartbreak, in particular the short note sent on 11 June 1915, days after she had learned of Dick’s death:
‘Dearest Mother. Thank you and Father for your letters. I haven’t anything to say that’s worth, or at any rate worthy of saying, and therefore I don’t write. Your affectionate daughter Gertrude’.
The image above is to show the envelope that was returned to Gertrude Bell containing her letters to Dick following his death. Dick was buried where he fell at Gallipoli, and towards the end of 1915, a mysterious, veiled female visitor was seen visiting his grave (image shown below), thought to have been the only woman who landed during the Gallipoli campaign. Who this woman was has never been confirmed – possibly it was Dick’s wife, but, equally possible, it was Gertrude.
Red Cross in London and Boulougne
Hospital Work at the Outbreak of the First World War
In November 1914, following the outbreak of the First World War, Gertrude began work in a hospital at the house of Lord Onslow in Clandon Park, Surrey, which was filled primarily with wounded Belgian troops. However, much to her dismay, Gertrude’s role was purely administrative, and involved none of the nursing she longed to do. In a letter to her mother on 15 November, she complained:
‘They won’t let me go into the wards to do any nursing on the ground that I shall not be able to keep authority over people who during some hours of the day would be in authority over me. I’m sorry because I should have liked to have had some sort of experience of all kinds and also because I haven’t yet enough to do to fill in my day. But perhaps if I wait patiently I may yet get my way’
However, a mere two days later, Gertrude was sent for by the Red Cross to work in their Boulogne office, helping to trace missing and wounded soldiers, and by 25 November, she was already hard at work in Boulogne.
The Boulogne Red Cross Office
Upon her arrival at the Red Cross Office for Missing and Wounded in Boulogne, Gertrude was faced with a chaotic and ineffectual system for recording the missing and wounded. She took it upon herself to reorganise the entire office, and to put in place new indexing systems, writing to her mother that (8th January 1915),
Gertrude felt strongly that the Red Cross should be as sensitive as possible when informing families of the loss of their sons, fathers and brothers, and explained this to her mother (12th January 1915):
‘I think the form in which news is conveyed is one of the most important points in our work – you can well understand that it should be when you think of the kind of news we mostly have to convey. And I know at least that when I do it I spare no pains to make it less bitter. There are some stories which I never tell; if I can help it they shall never be known. It’s enough that people should learn that the man is dead without hearing the terrible things that I know.’
London Red Cross Headquarters
In March 1915, Gertrude agreed to move to the headquarters of the London Red Cross in London, to continue her work recording missing and wounded soldiers, and informing their families. Determined to do the job well, Gertrude found herself once more frustrated with the lack of adequate facilities, and most of all with the lack of space, writing to her mother that (20th August 1915):
‘We are once more in difficulties for want of space, even with all the Duke’s first floor. We have taken on another piece of work, at the request (between ourselves) of the Foreign Office. It is the gathering in and tabulating of all information with regard to prison camps in Germany. It is of vital importance that we should have this knowledge properly arranged for it shows us how best to help our prisoners, and who stands in most need of help. But it means more files, more archives, more people working on them, and how to have them I don’t know’.
In October 1915, Gertrude wrote about the vital work of the Red Cross Inquiry Department for The Times (see Item G). By November 1915, however, after less than four months at the British Red Cross Headquarters in London, Gertrude was called to Cairo by the Foreign Office.
Cairo, Delhi & Basra
In November 1915, David Hogarth, who had known Gertrude since 1899, enlisted her to come and work at the newly established Arab Bureau in Cairo, a British intelligence organisation dealing with Middle Eastern affairs. T.E. Lawrence – better known today as Lawrence of Arabia – also worked for the Bureau alongside Gertrude, and the two became close friends (see image to the left). Gertrude was employed by the Bureau in Cairo to interpret reports from Central Arabia, as well as to document ‘Arab tribes, their numbers and lineage. It’s a vague and difficult subject which would take a lifetime to do properly’. On New Year’s Day (1916), Gertrude wrote to her mother from Cairo reflecting on the past year of war:
‘My dearest Mother. A second year of war – and I can only wish you, as I wished you last first of January that we may not see another. Never another year like the last, though I wonder if I could choose, whether I would not have it all again, for the wonder it held, and bear the sorrow again‘ (see image below).
In late January 1916, Gertrude went to Delhi to meet the Viceroy of India, Lord Charles Hardinge. She was to discuss with him the friction between the British Intelligence Departments of India and Egypt over the ‘Arab Question’, and to communicate the views of her department. Initially unsure of the success of this plan, she wrote to her father,‘whether much good will come of it I don’t know, but it’s worth trying and at any rate I shall learn a good deal for I hope they will let me dig into their Arab files and see what can be added from them to our knowledge’ (see image below). In fact, her visit to Delhi was extremely productive, and led to her being enlisted by the Viceroy to Basra in order not only to help with the Intelligence Department there, but also to improve communication between the different departments by acting as liaison between them.
When Gertrude arrived in Basra in March 1916, she stayed in the home of Sir Percy and Lady Cox until she could find a place of her own. Letters she wrote to her mother talk of her frustration at the impermanent, transient nature of her work. Nevertheless, Gertrude gave her full attention to the number of tasks at hand, which included classifying tribal material, a process in which her own prior knowledge from her travels. Gertrude also had strong views on the political situation in the Middle East, and was frustrated with what she perceived to be Britain’s mishandling of it:
‘we rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. We treated Mesop[otamia] as if it were an isolated unit, instead of which it is part of Arabia, its politics indissolubly connected with the great and far reaching
Arab question, which presents indeed, different facets as you regard it from different aspects, and is yet always and always one and the same indivisible block’ (see image below).
Gertrude was appointed to the paid position of Official Correspondent to Cairo (June 1916), and also head of the Iraq branch of the Arab Bureau as an officer of the Indian Expeditionary Force D. She became increasingly influential, providing the Intelligence Department with summaries of recent Arabian history, and writing memoranda about British-Arabian relations, such as, ‘The Nomad Tribes of Arabia’ (pages 16 and 17 are shown below).
In January 1917, Gertrude was appointed Oriental Secretary by Sir Percy Cox, and continued as head of the Arab Bureau (Iraq). Gertrude left Basra for Baghdad (April 1917), following the British occupation of Baghdad (11 March 1917).
Baghdad & the Aftermath of the First World War
Bell’s Role in Baghdad
Gertrude arrived in Baghdad on 20 April 1917. She was awarded a CBE for her war work in the Middle East (October 1917), though she displayed a characteristic lack of excitement to the news, writing to her father that such awards ‘mean so very little and I never can manage to remember who has got them and who hasn’t. One judges the man by the work one knows he has done and the special label which has been affixed doesn’t make the leats difference. Frequently it’s tosh.’ . Instead, she preferred to focus on her work, which included an appointment as editor of Al Arab, and anonymously authoring a well-received text, The Arab of Mesopotamia.
Later, Gertrude was much amused by reviews of the book that assumed it had been written by a group of ‘practical men’, writing to her mother, ‘Why yes of course I wrote all the Arab of Mesopotamia. I’ve loved the reviews which speak of the practical men who were the anonymous authors etc. It’s fun being practical men isn’t it’(see image below).
Bell’s Belief in Iraq
Gertrude was passionate about the future of Iraq, and wanted to ensure that the best was done for both the country and its people. On 30 October 1918, eleven days before the ceasefire of the First World War, the Turkish government signed the Armistice of Mudros with the Allied Forces. Gertrude’s work intensified in the months following the end of the war. She was heavily involved in decision making regarding Iraq, and while she felt strongly that the British administration needed to act in the best interests of the Iraqi population, she also had her own very clear ideas about what those best interests were. She was, for example, frustrated with calls for an Arab Amir to lead the country instead of Sir Percy Cox as British leader. For Gertrude, the only viable option was British rule in the Middle East:
‘The East is inclined to lose its head over the promise of settling for itself what is to become of it. It can’t settle for itself really – we out here know that very well – because it might hit on something that certainly wouldn’t imply stable government and that we can’t allow in the interests of universal peace. But it is not going to be an easy job to hold the balance straight when it is disturbed by the gusts of hot air emitted from home in the shape of international declarations. The vast majority here haven’t any views at all; most of the thinking people want our administration, guided by Sir Percy, but there’s a small if vociferous group which thinks they could get on quite well alone and certainly have much more fun individually without us. They would have immense fun for a bit, I don’t doubt it, but it would be a very short bit, abruptly ending in universal anarchy and bloodshed’ (see an image extract below).
The consequences of such views held by Gertrude and her colleagues, and the extent of British involvement in reshaping the Middle East following the First World War, continue to be powerfully felt today.
Bell’s Role in the Formation of Iraq
In the years following the end of the First World War, the British Government’s attentions turned to determining the lines along which the borders of the new Iraq would be drawn, and Gertrude was heavily involved in the decision making process.
She attended the Paris Peace Conference as the representative of the Arab Bureau (1919), and later attended the ten-day Cairo Conference (March 1921), which was organised by Winston Churchill with the objective to work towards an independent Arab Government. To that end, Bell was instrumental in the selection of Prince Faisal as the new King of Mesopotamia (crowned July 1921 – see image to the left). While she became a close friend to King Faisal, and worked closely with him for the rest of her life, she found the process of nominating and publicising a potential king strenuous, writing to her father shortly after Faisal’s coronation that ‘you may rely upon one thing – I’ll never engage in creating kings again, it is too great a strain’.
Perhaps most famously, however, Bell was central in drawing the borders of Iraq during this period. In a letter to her father (December 1921), she writes, ‘I had a well spent morning at the office making out the Southern desert frontier of the Iraq […] One way and another, I think I’ve been succeeded in compiling a frontier’. After the coronation of King Faisal, the drawing of these borders, and the establishment of the new Iraqi Government, Bell refocused her efforts back into archaeology and historical research, and was appointed the Honorary Director of Antiquities for Iraq (October 1922). Bell initiated the Iraq Museum (October 1923), the first room of which opened in June 1926, just one month short of Bell’s death from an overdose of sleeping pills (12 July 1926). Four years after her death, a commemorative bronze plaque was unveiled by King Faisal, and a bust of Bell was erected to identify the Gertrude Bell principle wing of the Iraq Museum.
Find out More
Transcripts of most of Gertrude Bell’s letters and all of her diaries, together with digital copies of her extensive photograph albums, are available to browse at the dedicated Gertrude Bell website.