Gertrude Bell

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On 95 Sloane Street sits an English Heritage plaque dedicated to Gertrude Bell, on the plaque she is described as a traveller, archaeologist and diplomat but she would also help the British government in the First World War.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on July 14th, 1868 into the sixth richest family in England. Her parents were Hugh Bell and Mary Shield Bell and her grandfather was the prominent industrialist Isaac Lowthian Bell, who had earned the reputation as the world’s greatest ironmaster. Gertrude had a privileged and liberal upbringing in North Yorkshire but when Gertrude was just 3 years old, her mother died of pneumonia shortly after giving birth to her baby brother, Maurice.

Her father remained a widower until Gertrude was 8 when he was introduced to Florence Olliffe, a friend of his sister. After 2 years of courting, in 1876 their relationship became more serious and the couple were married on the 10th August of the same year. Although Florence had tried to make a connection with her step daughter at the beginning of the relationship, she soon lost patience with her “high spirited” ways. As soon as Florence began having her own children- Elsa, Molly and Hugo- Gertrude would be sent on long visits to her cousins or her grandparents and she was soon sent to boarding school where her talents for history and languages flourished and it would also be where the first hints of depression would be seen.

In 1884, her parents made an unusual decision and she was sent to school at Queen’s College, London. When Gertrude arrived in the halls of Oxford the halls still reverberated with the recent sermon of Dean John Burgon- 

“inferior to us God made you, and inferior to the end of time you will remain.”

At 18 Gertrude was already sure she was equal to any man and refused to be treated any other way. Mary Talbot, a niece of the Prime Minister William Gladstone, soon became Gertrude’s closest comrade and upon the end of her course, she discovered that she had become the first woman to earn a 1st class degree in Modern History.

Some people said that Gertrude was arrogant, imperious and ruthlessly ambitious. But others knew that flowers and children could melt her heart and that what she had desperately wanted more than anything was to have been a wife and mother. She had been engaged to be married once, but people wondered why she had never wed. As the daughter of Hugh Bell, Gertrude was expected to make a good match when it came to marriage. In 1889 she was sent to Bucharest to stay with her aunt to try and learn how to act within society before she would be presented into the “marriage market”. She spent 4 months in the winter of ‘89 dancing and flirting but she received no marriage proposals but Billy Lascelles had caught her eye. The two were becoming close and at the end of April they left for Romania to visit Constantinople. Billy met all the requirements for a good match, he was the son of a diplomat and the grandson of a famous physician. He had been educated at Sandhurst and was about to begin his military career. They courted but Billy it turned out wasn’t right for Gertrude. He was too limited in his outlook and blase about his approach to life. Her interest had waned.

When she turned 21 she was forced to enter society and spent three seasons being introduced as an eligible young woman in the marriage market. It was a difficult time for Gertrude, the men weren’t her match. They weren’t as widely read as her and they hadn’t travelled as far as she had and very few could match the standards set by her father and grandfather. After spending three seasons without making a match Gertrude felt that travel was her only solution and at the age of 23 Persia was the place she chose to go. She visited Persia (now Iran) in 1892, Persian was one of six languages she spoke, alongside Arabic, French, German, Italian and Turkish. And it was her understanding of the Arabic language and her first-hand knowledge of the tribal allegiances and geography of the Middle East which would later make her a powerful figure in the world of politics and diplomacy later in her life.

A week after she arrived in Tehran she wrote home to tell them of Henry Cadogan who she described as “the real treasure.” He had spent time with her, showing her the desert and sharing with her his love of the country too and eventually the two began to talk of marriage. Henry was the eldest son of the Honourable Frederick Cadogan and the grandson of the third Earl Cadogan but he hadn’t inherited any family fortune. His salary as a junior diplomat was insufficient to support Gertrude and he was also a gambler that had mounted a significant debt. Gertrude knew that it was unlikely that her father would give his consent but still she tried. When the refusal came, Gertrude was heartbroken but she vowed that she would wait as long as she had to for him to meet her father’s standards. But tragedy was heading her way. In August 1893 she was visiting Kerby Thore in Yorkshire when she received a Telegram from Tehran, Henry had been trout fishing when he slipped into the icy waters of the River Lar and he caught pneumonia and he died. That year she published a translation of the poems of Hafiz, poetry had been a love of the couple, and her interpretation is still considered one of the best.

Gertrude Bell in 1909, visiting archaeological excavations in Babylon. Image from Wikipedia

Following her heartbreak after the deaths of Henry, as well as those of  her favourite aunt (who had introduced Henry and Gertrude), and her closest friend from Oxford, Mary Talbot, Gertrude threw herself into her work and in the summers of 1899–1904 she undertook a series of climbs in the Alps, and in 1901 she climbed ten new routes or first ascents in the Engelhörner group in the Bernese Oberland, and one peak is named Gertrudspitze after her. Her ascent of the Matterhorn in August 1904 marked the end of her alpinism, and she turned her attention back to the Middle East.

Her explorations spawned a number of classic travelogues, notably The Desert and the Sown (1907). She also published several archaeological works on areas unfamiliar to Westerners, including the scholarly monograph The Palace and Mosque of Ukhaidir: a Study in Early Mohammadan Architecture (1914).  Some of her essays, collected together as The Arab of Mesopotamia, were given as an instruction manual to British officers newly arrived in Basra, and in 1917 she was appointed Chief Political Officer to the British Resident in Baghdad.

While she wasn’t afraid to travel the world, she reportedly travelled with a Wedgwood dinner service, silver candlesticks and hairbrushes, and two tents – one for her writing table and one for her bed and bath (in which she washed with lavender soap). She also carried fashionable evening wear in her luggage, but hid guns beneath her petticoats and carried cartridges in her boots.

With the outbreak of the First World War, and the entry of the Ottoman empire on the side of Germany that November, Bell was swept up with TE Lawrence, and other archaeologist-spies into an intelligence operation in Cairo, known as the Arab Bureau. David Hogarth had written to her from Cairo where he was in charge of gathering Military Intelligence and staffed by a handful of political officers, journalists and archaeologists who like Gertrude had previously supplied the Foreign Office with relevant details from their everyday work. With the momentum of the war increasing there was an increasing need for information and Gertrude was drafted as a spy. Gertrude was the only female political officer serving in British forces.

In Iraq, an expeditionary force from India had surrendered to the Turks at Kut al-Amara on the lower Tigris in 1916. Gertrude then travelled to Basra, where a new army was assembling. When Baghdad fell to the reinforcements in 1917, she moved up to the capital and was eventually appointed as Percy Cox’s oriental secretary, responsible for relations with the Arab population.

Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, she helped set Iraq’s boundaries and installed its first ruler, King Faisal, in 1922. She became a confidante of King Faisal, and he helped her found Baghdad’s renowned Archaeological Museum, but while she had his confidence, Persians, referred to Gertrude as “al-Khatun” (a Lady of the Court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State), and she was never liked, either in London or New Delhi, and when Percy Cox who worked for the British Intelligence Agency left Baghdad in 1923, she lost her bureaucratic protector.

After the loss of her protector, Gertrude devoted more of her time to her old love, archaeology, and established the Baghdad Archaeological Museum in 1923 and while this was going well, her letters home became more and more dominated by illness and depression. On Sunday July 11 1926, just 3 days before her 58th birthday she had lunch with Henry Dobbs and Lionel Smith then she returned home. That evening she asked her maid to wake her at 6 the next morning but instead she took an extra dose of sleeping pills and fell into a deep sleep from which she would never awake. The official story was that years of gruelling work in the 49 degree Celsius heat of the Baghdad summer had proved too much for “her slender stock of physical energy”.  King Faisal immediately ordered a military funeral, and she was buried that day in the British Civil Cemetery in central Baghdad. Hordes of Iraquis rushed to Baghdad to say goodbye to the woman who had touched their lives. Newspapers throughout the world carried her obituary and in England, King George sent a message to her family which said-

The Queen and I are grieved to hear of the death of your distinguished and gifted daughter whom we held in high regard. The nation will with us mourn the loss of one who by her intellectual powers, force of character and personal courage rendered important and what I trust will prove lasting benefit to the country and to those regions where she worked with such devotion and self-sacrifice. We truly sympathise with you in sorrow.

While Gertrude’s extraordinary life was tarnished by her ending her story is still an inspiration to women today. Unwilling to be secondary to men she was instrumental in the establishment of a country that still carries her memory to this day. While she was fortunate that her family was wealthy she is still an inspirational woman and to do her story justice, this post would need to be as long as a book.

Author: Emily Cason


Janet Wallace Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia.

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