Gertrude Bell

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Churchill, Bell, Lawrence: 1921

Gertrude Margaret Lothian Bell (1868-1926) was an English author, "traveller" and political officer who influenced the formation of Iraq, when, in 1932, that state gained independence from the United Kingdom. At a memorial service for her in 1927, at the Royal Geographic Society, she was called the most powerful woman in the British Empire after the First World War, the "uncrowned queen of Iraq", and possibly the brains behind T. E. Lawrence and the definer of Mideast policy for Winston Churchill.[1] In her day, especially for a woman, "traveller" had some of the flavor of "astronaut" today.

Her intellect became obvious in childhood, and she constantly challenged herself. She prepared systematically for her travels, developing excellent language and cross-cultural skills. By 1905, she was providing information previously unknown in Europe.

She had met David Hogarth in 1899; he was to be both a friend and mentor, and guide of British policy. Hogarth was also a mentor to Lawrence, whom Bell met in 1911, saying "An interesting boy; he will make a traveller." She met him on an archaeological site where she had hoped to find Hogarth; Lawrence wrote of her to Hogarth, "Gerty has gone back to her tents to sleep. She has been a success and a brave one."[2]

Many key Middle East agreements involved her input, including the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence and Sykes-Picot Agreement. She clearly provided intelligence support to Lawrence's operations, and herself engaged in some negotiations.

A 1921 photograph shows some of her later influence, as well as personalities. Taken on 22 March, the

last day of the Cairo Conference and the final opportunity for the British to determine the postwar future of the Middle East. Like any tourist, the delegation makes the routine tour of the pyramids and have themselves photographed on camels in front of the Sphinx. Standing beneath its half-effaced head, two of the most famous Englishmen of the twentieth century confront the camel in some disarray: Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, who has just, to the amusement of all, fallen off his camel, and T. E. Lawrence, tightly constrained in the pin-striped suit and trilby of a senior civil servant. Between then, at her ease, rides Gertrude Bell, the sole delegate possessing knowledge indispensable to the Conference. Her face, in so far as it can be seen beneath the brim of her rose-decorated straw hat, is transfigured with happiness. Her dream of an independent Arab nation is about to come true, the choice of a king endorsed: her Iraq is about to become a country. Just before leaving the hotel that morning, Churchill has cabled to London the vital message "Sharif's son Faisal offers hope of best and cheapest solution.[3]

There are eerie parallels to today's situation in Iraq "...Faisal, the protege of Bell and T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), was imported from Mecca to become the "roof." In early 2004, David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post about the offer of Prince Hassan of Jordan, the great nephew of Faisal, to mediate among Iraqi religions factions to bring them together and become a "provisional head of state."[4]

Early life

Her mother died when Gertrude was three, after her brother Maurice's birth. This increased her bonds with her father, Hugh. She was a literate child; in the first known letter, written when she was five, she told her grandmother, "My dolls have given me great amusement. You wer very good to get them for me." Her governesses found her a "handful". Her father remarried when she was eight, and she formed an excellent relationship with her stepmother, Florence Oliff.

She led her brother Maurice into endless adventures, with Maurice often falling from walls while Gertrude landed gracefully, a foretaste of her later mountaineering. Unusually for a girl in the late 19th century, she went to Queen's College in Harley Street, first as a day scholar living with her maternal grandmother, and then as a boarder. She was emphatic about the studies she liked and disliked, and rejected music and Scripture. [5]


The Bell family had been growing in status during her girlhood, opening opportunities. [6]

She enrolled at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in 1886.[7]

While women still could not receive degrees at Oxford, she did earn a "First" at Oxford, in Modern History. No woman had previously won first-class honors in any field.

Surprisingly to modern eyes, Bell, and other influential women of the time, opposed womens' suffrage.

Educational travel

Within the culture of the time, however, she was an apparent failure, as no one had asked for her hand in marriage. [8]

Gertrude Bell, aged 26


To correct her perceived failings, family friends, the Lascelles family, invited her to spend the winter season of 1889 in Bucharest, Romania. Whatever this may have done for her social life, it was her introduction to the diplomatic world, and to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.


Travel was an acceptable second chance, in the times, to find a husband. Before traveling to Persia, however, she studied Farsi and gained conversational and reading knowledge. [9] In 1892, she journeyed to visit an uncle, who was then the British Ambassador to Persia, stationed in Tehran. She was impressed with a young diplomat, Henry Cadogan, with whom she had both an emotional and intellectual connection, with whom she could "talk vigorous politics." His income, however, was small.[10] When he asked her father for her hand in marriage, but was refused. Cadogan died of cholera in 1893. [11]

She continued her Farsi studies, using French with a native tutor. Upon her return in 1894, she published a small book, called Safar Nameh i.e., Persian Pictures." This was followed by a translation of the Divan of Hafiz in 1897. Lady Bell observes the breadth of her standards of comparison: "She draws a parallel between Hafiz and his contemporary Dante: she notes the similarity of a passage with Goethe: she compares Hafiz with Villon, on every side gathering fructifying examples which link together the inspiration of the West and of the East."


In April 1893, she spent time in Weimar, studying German, and then returned to Britain until 1896. Lady Bell reports no surviving letters until 1896, when she spent some time in Italy, again studying the language.

Jerusalem and environs

After an around-the-world trip, in November 1899 she journeyed to Jerusalem. Lady Bell said she intended to learn more Arabic, arranging studies "Dr. Fritz Rosen was then German Consul at Jerusalem. He had married Nina Roche, whom we had known since she was a child, the daughter of Mr. Roche of the Garden House, Cadogan Place. Charlotte Roche was Nina's sister. " She found Arabic difficult, but continued to study 4-6 hours per day. With the Rosens, she had her first contact with the Druze. [12]


While she loved the desert, mountains challenged her as well. She traveled to Switzerland in 1900 and 1902, doing increasingly difficult technical rock climbing. Mountain climbing was considered acceptable for women at the time, but she took on exceptionally hard climbs. Her professional guide, Ulrich Furher, said "had she not been full of courage and determination, we would all have perished. Of all amateur climbers, men and women, he had known, very few surpassed herein technical no one came to her standard in "coolness, bravery and judgment."[13]

Building cross-cultural experience

Traveling to India, and then the Pacific, she had an important first meeting with the British consul in Muscat, Percy Cox, learning of details of tribal struggle in the Arabian peninsula, and determining to explore it. As part of preparation, in 1905, she undertook private tutoring in archeology with Salomon Reinach, and discussed Arabia with her friend David Hogarth, whom she met socially in 1899 but who became a mentor. Hogarth advised her it was premature for her to journey there, and she returned to the Jordan Valley for more serious archeological study. She took guns and maps, prohibited by the Ottomans. She bonded with the often secretive Druze, who sought alliance with Britain, but also formed friendships with Turkish officials.

Her first book, The Desert and the Sown, was finished in 1906. While many Europeans simply dismissed the "natives", she understood some key concepts, explicitly saying that "Syria" was a European construct:

Islam is the bond that unites the western and central parts of the continent, as it is the electric current by which the transmission of sentiment is effected, and its potency is increased by the fact that there is little or no sense of territorial nationality tgo counterbalance it. A Turk or a Persian does not think or speak of "my country" [as does a Western European]...his patriotism is confined to the town in which he is a native, or at most the district in which that town lies."[14]

One of the drivers of British policy came with the technological revolution in the Royal Navy, as ship power plants changed from coal to oil. HMS Dreadnought (1905) already had been a leap forward in gunnery and speed; she had dual oil and coal propulsion. Newer vessels, however, were exclusively oil, and Britain needed to secure oil to maintain naval dominance.

As a result, Churchill, in 1912, committed to a major British share in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, based around Basra.

First journey to Mesopotamia (Iraq)

After spending most of 1907 and 1908 in England, she arrived in Beirut in February 1909, and followed the Euphrates River to the Shatt-al-Arab. This, in fact, was her first trip that went beyond archeology, but produced strategically accurate geographic information.[15] In later histories of the Arab Revolt, there are many references to her maps.

While women did not have authority in most of the tribal societies, a European woman was so unusual that she was more outside the rules in the Muslim groups than with her countrymen.

On this trip, she first met Percy Cox.[16]

First World War

Intelligence work in Cairo

Hogarth had urged Admiral Reginald "Blinker" Hall, head of British military intelligence, to let him recruit Bell as an information-gatherer and analyst for his group in Cairo, later renamed the Arab Bureau. It was headed by Gilbert Clayton, a military officer. She left Southampton for duty there in November 1915. When she arrived, she was met by Hogarth and Lawrence.

The Cairo unit also had political operations roles. Started a year earlier, it also included an Oxford archeologist, Leonard Woolley, who had responsibility for propaganda. Wyndham Deede and Philip Graves were experts on the Turks. George Lloyd, who had introduced Bell to her most loyal guide and servant, the Armenian, Fattuh, was the financial specialist. Mark Sykes had a general fact-finding mission for the War Office.

David Lockhart "Lock" Lorimer was Political Representative in Cairo. [17] He said of Bell, with respect to the Middle East, he had "never known anyone more in the confidence of nations" than Bell.[18] While Bell had autonomy, other women such as Emily Overend Lorimer, who had taught at Oxford, were influential through their husbands. [19]

Her first assignment was as an intelligence analyst. She wrote to her mother,

For the moment I am helping Mr Hogarth to fill in the intelligence files with information as to tribes and sheikhs. It's great fun and delightful to be working with him. Our chief is Col. Clayton whom I like very much but did not know before. There are several other people in the office who are old friends; this week Mark Sykes passed through and I have seen a good deal of him. I have just heard that Neil Malcolm has arrived from Gallipoli [Gelibolu] - I think he is chief staff officer here; anyhow I have written to him and asked him to dinner if he is not too great for such invitations....Mr Hogarth and Mr Lawrence (you don't know him, he is also of Carchemish, exceedingly intelligent) met me and brought me to this hotel where they are both staying. Mrs Hall had taken me a room. And whom do you thing was the first person I met here? Cis Lascelles! her brother with whom she was staying has gone to the wars and she is going away today, to Italy I think. Mr Hogarth, Mr Lawrence and I all dine and lunch together...It's extraordinarily interesting here but I can't write about it...There are several other people in the office who are old friends; this week Mark Sykes passed through and I have seen a good deal of him. [20]

Wallach said she soon had her own office and took over the tribal political analysis, while Lawrence focused on tactical matters.[21] In his words,

The work is very interesting: mostly writing notes on railways, and troop-movements, and the nature of the country everywhere, and the climate, and the number of horses or camels or sheep or fleas in it... and then drawing maps showing all these things.[22]

Cox described their meeting again, in the spring of 1916, as the start of a decade of devoted service to him and his successors as Chief Political Office.

My duties as Chief Political Officer to the G.O.C.-in-Chief at the period when she joined me were partly military and partly civil. In the first place I was the medium of communication between the Military Commander and the civil population, and his adviser in his political dealings with them. For this purpose I worked as a member of his G.H.Q. Intelligence and was always in close touch with that branch, assisting in the examination of prisoners and spies, the sifting of information, the provision of informers and interpreters and so on. On the purely civil side it devolved on me, under the G.O. C.'s supreme control, to implement as far as the fluctuating tide of war allowed, the assurances which we had given to the Arabs at the beginning of the campaign, both in the Persian Gulf and in lower Mesopotamia,--assurances which it may be well to emphasise here. [16]

Hussein-McMahon and Sykes-Picot

Sir Henry McMahon, who had replaced Lord Kitchener as British Resident in Cairo in 1915, began the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence with the Sharif of Mecca, Ali ibn Hussein, setting the groundwork for the Arab Revolt. Bell was privy to the correspondence, but questioned the dependence on Hussein, suggesting that Abdul Aziz ibn Saud also be made a British ally; he was also put on the British payroll, and was to overthrow Hussein in 1925.

While McMahon was negotiating with Hussein in Arabia, Mark Sykes, working for the Foreign Office, had been touring the region to assess Anglo-French relations. McMahon and Bell argued the French should get a minimal role in their perceived area of influence, the Syrian-Lebanon region. She and Sykes agreed that the Arabs needed European governance, but differed on the regional role of France.

She had received a review copy of the still-secret draft Sykes-Picot Agreement in June, and commented that it was a "bold and decided policy previously agreed upon by all concerned in regard to Arab national aspirations." Her main comment, somewhat contradictory of earlier writings, which was true of other Arab specialists, was

The policy implied in these aims is wholly in consonance with the fundamental principles to uphold which the Allies embarked upon war with the Central European powers; is one which commends itself to those who wish to see one of the great races of the world given scope to develop and use its special capacities in its own way, and to those that hold that civilisation is better served by the amicable cooperation of different racial units than by attempting to ignore or suppress essential divergence.[23]

While the Agreement of December 1915 put the Syrian area under French control, they agreed that Britain should maintain control in Mesopotamia/Iraq, where there was a much more direct confrontation with the Ottomans. Complicating the situation, however, was that the British authority for Mesopotamia was the colonial administration of India, not the Cairo office.

Mission to India

George Clayton, now heading the reorganized Arab Bureau along with Hogarth, needed the consent, therefore, of the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, to conduct an Arab revolt against the Turks. Hardinge opposed it, because he believed the non-Arab Indian Muslims would be angered both by the Arabs gaining greater independence, and by any disturbances near the Holy Places of Mecca and Medina.

Bell had known Hardinge since her first visit to Bucharest, and Clayton decided to send her to try to change his mind. She departed Cairo on 24 January 1916. She wrote to her father, "So I'm going. I feel a little nervous about being the person to carry it out...but the pull has in being so unofficial is that one doesn't succeed, no one is any the worse." She found Hardinge eager for better communications. Both India and Egypt agreed the strategic prize was Iraq, with grain supplies that could feed the British Army, oil to fuel the Royal Navy, and a key position on the land route to India. [24]


The situation in Iraq had been changing for the worse since September 1915, when an Anglo-Indian counterattack force, under Gen. Sir Charles V.F. Thompson, had fallen back and was besieged in Kut, on the Tigris River. With Indian conscript soldiers trapped in the siege, Hardinge was especially concerned with Indian Muslim attitudes. He was due to retire, and both he and his successor, Lord Chelmsford, trusted her. It was Hardinge's, not Bell's, initial proposal to become the Arab Bureau liaison in Basra. [25]

In February 1916, she left India for Iraq, with Hardinge's approval to act as intelligence liaison between Cairo and Delhi. The position was not officially defined, as was also the case for many of Lawrence's assignment, but he was on the military payroll and she was not. While Colonel Beach, head of military intelligence in Basra, and her old friend Campbell Thompson, his cryptanalytic assistant, welcomed her, the military establishment there tried to put strict controls on her. Beach and Thompson were friendly, as were the Political Officers, H. St. John Philby and A. T. Wilson. Cox, Chief Political Officer, returned in March, but, even though there was a strong recommendation from Hardinge, ("She is a remarkably clever woman with the brains of a man") was initially hesitant to use her, being suspicious of the Cairo officers. As he lost confidence in General Lake, the military commander, he promised to send her to talk to Arabs when the occasion came. Lake, however, also found he needed her knowledge. [26]

Cox was appalled when Lawrence, presumably under authority of the War Office, went on a mission, in early April, to bribe the Turkish besiegers of Kut. He wrote to Beach that he was a permanent British representative of the Government of India (i.e., in the Colonial Office) in the region, and his credibility, after war's end, might suffer as a result of dishonorable acts. The defenders surrendered on 29 April 1916.

While Hogarth said he needed her in Cairo, she was also needed in Basra, and really preferred the work there. No replacement was obvious. She was becoming alienated from him and more loyal to Cox, writing to Hogarth on June 15, that he had not made her appointment in Basra official, and paid neither salary nor expenses. He had not given her authority as his "correspondent". but only could ask favors. and she was actually there under the authority of Hardinge. Two weeks later, she was named a Liaison Officer and Cairo Correspondent on Cox's staff, the only female Political Officer in British service.

Managing the peace

Immediately after the November 1918 armistice, she was recovering from malaria, but was back to work at the end of the year. She told her father she was "second choice for High Commissioner here, so I'm told. what would all the Permanent Officials say if we suggested it?" [27] By 1918, Britain was searching for a king or other acceptable ruler of the area that was to become Iraq. Russian revolutionaries had stirred the situation by releasing the Sykes-Picot Agreement. She recognized that the dominant dynasties were to be the House of Saud (i.e., Wahabbis) of Ibn Saud and the Hashemites of Faisal.[28]

The two forces had different backers in the British government. Bell first met Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in November 1916, when he came to Basra by Percy Cox and the British Indian government. Cox and his faction had hoped he might start the revolt, but London and Cairo had backed the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca. Ibn Saud and Cox, however, had signed a treaty that was intended to prevent the Saudis from attacking the Hashemites. [29]

Ibn Saud and Bell were impressed with one another, although from totally different cultures. Wallach suggests he was "dismayed" by "this unveiled female was not only allowed in his sight but accorded priorities and permitted to engage in all the procedures, whether they were discussions on Arabian politics or social functions in his honor." She characterized him in a manner consistent with later Arab political leaders.

Politician, ruler and raider, Ibn Sa'ud illustrates a historic type. Such men as he are the exception in any community, but they are thrown up persistently by the Arab race in its own sphere, and in that sphere they meet its needs...The ultimate source of power, here as in the whole course of Arab history, is the personality of the commander. Through him, whether he be an Abbasid Khalif or an Amir of Nejd, the political entity holds, and with his disappearance it breaks.[30]

Cox and Bell, on the military side, were in strong opposition with A.T. Wilson, who opposed forming an Arab government. Wilson's motto was "Govern or get out." Wilson received a letter from the India Office, in August 1918, naming him Acting Civil Commissioner, but also surprising him with mention of a testimonial for him from Bell. He had not realized Bell, whom he considered an assistant, had direct contact with London. Nevertheless, they sent a memo, "Self-Determination in Mesopotamia", by Bell, with a cover note with some but not irreconcilable differences, from Wilson, in February 1919, to the India Office.[31]

She and Cox were given the job of drawing the boundaries of Iraq to suit British interests. [32] It was suggested she understood the Kurdish and Sunni populations better than she did the Shi'a. [33]

Final work and death

Following the politics of 1922, she returned to archeological work. She founded a museum and became Director of Antiquities of Iraq, making her home in Baghdad.

She was found dead on the morning of 12 July 1926, Bell was discovered dead of an overdose of sleeping pills. There is no hard evidence of suicide versus accident; she had asked her maid to awaken her, and had been involved in a number of activities.


She is still considered an authority on Iraq. "Gertrude Bell observed during the Iraqi insurrection against British control in 1920, while all groups were equally nationalist and espoused the idea of an Islamic government, the revolt meant different things to different people. Thus, Shi'ites anticipated a theocratic state under Shariah law; Sunnis, an independent Arab state under Amir Abdullah; and “to the tribes, it meant no government at all.”[34]

John E. Mack, author of a biography of Lawrence, saw her as pro-Arab rather than seeking balance in the Middle East.[35] that won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize in biography, spoke of Lawrence's view of the Middle East and how it applies to today's politics.[36] In response to Steven Tabachnick's observation that "Lawrence (unlike the pro-Arab Gertrude Bell or the pro-Zionist Richard Meinertzhagen) was one of the few and one of the last people in his own time and ours to achieve true sympathy for both national movements. His references to both movements in Seven Pillars are positive", Mack said "Neither Lawrence, nor Weizmann when he wrote of Lawrence, foresaw World War II or the European Holocaust and the overwhelming pressure of immigration and for creation of a Jewish state. Nor did either predict the subsequent seemingly irreconcilable clash of nationalities between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine...Lawrence did not anticipate the degree to which the region would be caught in the geo-political maelstrom of superpower rivalries, or the coming together of U. S. strategic interests, American Jewish support for Israel and the political power of the American Jewish community to tilt U. S. policy in the direction of Israel in the Arab Israeli conflict."


  1. Janet Wallach (1999), Desert Queen, Anchor Books, Random House, ISBN 1400096197, p. xxi
  2. Georgina Howell (2006), Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 978037416120, p. 125
  3. Howell, p. 3
  4. Barbara Furst (2005), "Deja vu all over again, Gertrude Bell and modern Iraq, the extraordinary Englishwoman who played a key role in the formation of modern Iraq confronted many of the same problems the U.S. and Iraq face today",
  5. Elizabeth Burgoyne (1958), Gertrude Bell: From her personal papers, 1889-1914, Ernest Benn, pp. 15-16
  6. H.V.F. Winstone (1978), Gertrude Bell, Quartet Books, ISBN 070422203x, pp. 10-12}}
  7. Winstone, p. 13
  8. Wallach, pp. 24-25
  9. Lady Bell, D.B.E., ed. (1927), The Letters of Gertrude Bell, vol. 1, Boni and LiverightLetter to Horace Marshall, Gulahek, June 18, 1892
  10. Burgoyne, pp. 28-29
  11. Wallach, pp. 33-37
  12. Wallach, pp. 51-54
  13. Winstone, p. 80
  14. Wallach, pp. 77-78
  15. Winstone, pp. 107-109
  16. 16.0 16.1 Percy Cox, Historical Summary by Major-General Sir Percy Cox, G.C.M.G ETC., in Lady Bell, The Letters of Gertrude Bell (Volume 2) (1927)
  17. Penelope Tuson (2003), Playing the game: the story of Western women in Arabia, I.B. Tauris, p. 2
  18. Wallach, p. 141
  19. Mélanie Torrent, "Book review: Playing the Game: Western Women in Arabia (by Penelope Tuson, I.B. Tauris, 2003)", Cercles
  20. Gertrude Bell (30 November 1915), Letters 30/11/1915, Gertrude Bell Archives, University of Newcastle
  21. Wallach, p. 149
  22. T. E. Lawrence (18 November 1916), "T.E. Lawrence to his family", T.E. Lawrence Studies
  23. Winstone, pp. 199-200
  24. Wallach, pp. 154-156
  25. Winstone, pp. 168-173
  26. Wallach, pp. 159-162
  27. Winstone, p. 205
  28. Christopher Hitchens (June 2007), "The Woman Who Made Iraq", The Atlantic
  29. Wallach, pp. 186-188
  30. Communique for the Foreign Office, cited by Wallach, p. 187
  31. Winstone, pp. 208-210
  32. William O. Beeman (May 2004), Strategic Insights, Naval Postgraduate School III (5)
  33. Civil Commissioner for Iraq, Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia, prepared by Arnold Talbot Wilson and Gertrude Lowthian Bell (London: H.M. Stationary Office, 1920), cited by Beeman
  34. Mark Jacobsen, “Only by the Sword: British Counter-insurgency in Iraq, 1920,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 2, 1991, pp. 323-363, quoted in [1], "Insurgency in Iraq: A Historical Perspective", Ian F. W. Beckett, Strategic Studies Institute, January 2005
  35. John E. Mack (1976), A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E Lawrence, Little, Brown
  36. John E. Mack (20 May 1988), T. E. Lawrence's Vision for the Middle East: How Does It Look Now?, T. E. Lawrence Symposium, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA