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Gertrude Bell and IraqA life and legacy$

Paul Collins and Charles Tripp

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266076

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266076.001.0001

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(p.291) In Memoriam Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (14 July 1868–12 July 1926)

(p.291) In Memoriam Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (14 July 1868–12 July 1926)

Gertrude Bell and Iraq

Janet E. Courtney

British Academy

I think she was the most brilliant creature who ever came amongst us, the most alive at every point, with her tireless energy, her splendid vitality, her unlimited capacity for work, for talk, for play. She was always an odd mixture of maturity and childishness, grown-up in her judgments of men and affairs, child-like in her certainties, and most engaging in her entire belief in her father and the vivid intellectual world in which she had been brought up. She was only seventeen, half child, half woman, rather untidy, with vivid auburn hair, greenish eyes, a brilliant complexion, a curiously long pointed nose and a most confiding assurance of being welcome in our society. And from the first we took her to our hearts. She came up in the April term (1886), which was unusual; but she wanted a preliminary look round before she settled down to her history work. She had it all mapped out in her mind and I remember her chagrin when she found she must take some preliminary examination, especially when Bodley’s Librarian refused her a ticket for the Radcliffe on the grounds that she was not yet an Honours student. She never could pass him in the street without wanting to shake her fist at him! She had been so little used to meeting obstacles.

But indeed obstacles had a trick of fading away when she encountered them. There were so few that she could not take in her stride. She could swim, she could fence, she could row, she could play tennis and hockey, she could keep pace with modern literature and was full of talk about modern authors, most of whom were her childhood friends. Yet she could and did from the first put in seven hours a day of solid reading and in 1888, only two years and a term after coming up, she took as brilliant a First in Modern History as has ever been taken by any of our number. And she was still a month short of her twentieth birthday. Between her paper work and her viva she went through Commem. Her outfit for its gaieties had been one of our great interests of that term. Careless about her dress at first, she had developed a natural taste which remained with her all her life. She certainly had the dress-sense. I have seen her in London, straight back from the desert, yet as perfectly gowned as though she had never strayed far from Parisian ateliers. And then, on the eve of Commem, the Emperor Frederick died and the order came out for general mourning! Poor Gertrude with her green and silver ball frock, and her hat for the Encaenia lunch, wreathed all round with tea-roses. (‘I’ve got a hat, Janet, but a – hat! Come and see it’, she burst into my room when she came up that last April.) She was in despair; and only began to recover when she reflected that perhaps at a purely College festivity, such as the Trinity ball to which her cousin, Horace Marshall, was taking her, the green and silver might still appear.

(p.292) Mary Talbot was her greatest friend and her companion in the Schools; they went to the same tutors and did all their history work together. Maggie Benson, whom she had known in London, overlapped her by one term. To Edith Langridge, like herself a pupil of Miss Croudace, of Queen’s College, she used to go for help with clothes and practical things – though oddly unlike, they were excellent friends. And with me she was, and remained, intimate. I never lost touch with her through all the forty, or well nigh forty, years after we ‘parted in a first-class’, as she said the day I went round to Sloane Street to wish her joy, when the History list appeared.

Very soon after that began her foreign travels. Her aunt Lady Lascelles, wife of Sir Frank, invited her to Bucharest, where he was then Minister. Later she went to Teheran. There began her study of Persian and love of the East, and from that dates her first published work, some Persian Sketches. She had, one may say, every advantage. But she had what counted for much more, the zest of living and the grasp of opportunity which go far to constitute greatness, and when the War gave her her chance to do her country supreme service, she prepared to render it.

She had kept not only her mind but her body always ready. She had an iron constitution, and she knew no fear. Over and above all ordinary athletics, she was an intrepid mountain climber. Once she and two guides were lost on the Alps. They sat for two nights roped together on a ledge, whence one slip would have dashed them to death. ‘Were you afraid?’ I asked her. ‘No’, she said, ‘I was numb with cold, that was all’. And I am sure it was all. Gertrude was the soul of simplicity and sincerity. She never said things for effect.

Early in this century she undertook her first independent eastern journey. She went alone to the Druse country and gave us the result in The Desert and the Sown (1906). Twice she accompanied Sir William M. Ramsay to Lycaonia, and together they wrote The Thousand and One Churches (1909), Gertrude doing the bigger share of the book. In 1913 she undertook, in defiance of an alarmed and reluctant Foreign Office, a solitary and most daring journey across Northern Arabia, in the course of which she was detained for two weeks, an involuntary ‘guest’ in the palace of the Emir of Hayil. The fatigue and strain were great, even for so fearless a traveller, and for the first time in my experience of her she seemed worn out when she returned to London. But this journey, never yet narrated in detail, was to prove of the highest national value. Within a few months came the War, and with the War her great opportunity.

Not that at first she seemed to seize it, or indeed quite to realise where it lay. She had had serious personal losses of friends very dear to her. She found her only comfort in work, organizing work, done supremely well, but work which others could have done, the creation of a branch of the British Red Cross with the special aim of tracing the missing. I was working with her in Norfolk House through the autumn of 1915, when her call came to go East. My brother, D. G. Hogarth, had gone to Cairo to take direction of an Arab Intelligence Bureau. He had tried on taking leave of her before sailing, to enlist her help. She was absorbed in her work and would hardly listen. But a week or two later, she came across to me and seized my arm in her quick, (p.293) sudden way. ‘Janet, I’ve heard from David. He says other people can do this, but only I can map Northern Arabia. I’m going next week.’

From Cairo she was passed on to Basra. Hampered at first by military prejudice against feminine co-operation – she was told she must be chaperoned by a male officer if she went to a native house – she soon shook herself free. She went up with the Army to Bagdad, she took a leading part in the administrative reconstruction of Mesopotamia, she stood beside King Feisal when he ascended his throne, she remained his firm friend and confidential adviser. All this part of her life belongs now to history. The Gertrude whom we remember at Oxford, the brilliant girl, the historian, the archaeologist, had become the great administrator.

Yet, looking back, I can see that all her life had led up to it. It was all in one piece. Even at seventeen she had the concentration, the single aim, above all the ease in accomplishment which is the touchstone of greatness. It needed but the occasion to call the greatness forth. And the occasion came. She was, I think, the greatest woman of our time, the greatest Englishwoman since Florence Nightingale, with the same clearness of vision, swift choice of means, magnificent disregard of opposition, that achieve big results. And with it all she kept the quick sympathy, the social instinct, the conversational gifts which made her so perfect a friend and so successful a hostess. She never lost touch with her home circle, or her London world. She had a wide circle of friends, women as well as men. And towards the end she looked longingly home. Just a year before she died, on her last ‘leave’ to England (she was still a public servant acting under orders), we spent an evening together. She told me she felt her work in Iraq was nearly done, and that she should soon come home. ‘It’s lonely there’, she said. ‘I would like to come back. What shall I do in England, I wonder.’ There was a touch of weariness and wistfulness, unlike the old Gertrude. It made me uneasy and set me wondering and making plans for her future. I asked her whether she wouldn’t consider entering Parliament. In my mind’s eye I saw her ‘Member for the East’, as Mark Sykes had been before her, perhaps Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, perhaps even Foreign Secretary – who knows? But it didn’t appeal to her. ‘I haven’t the quickness of thought and speech which could fit the clash of Parliament,’ she wrote in her last letter to me (here, I think she did herself an injustice; I remember a very effective impromptu correction of Lord Curzon at a public meeting in her anti-suffrage days!). ‘My natural desire is to slip back into the comfortable arena of archaeology and history.’

But it was not to be. In defiance of her doctors here, she went back, and in disobedience to medical advice in Iraq, she remained, being keenly anxious to get her museum of antiquities into good trim before she left it. She had been ill during the winter and remained weak, but her indomitable spirit kept her going. On that last Sunday (11th July) she had been bathing, and had told Marie, her maid, to call her at 6 a.m. next day. Marie wasn’t easy about her. She went in once to her room that night and found her sleeping. When she went in again next morning Gertrude was lying dead; she had gone in her sleep some three hours before.

(p.294) They buried her there, with a great public funeral. The Arabs followed her in their thousands. Never, so the Civil Commissioner wrote, had there been such grief at the passing of an Englishwoman. Here, in the House of Commons, tribute was paid to a great public servant. Some people were puzzled. They had known so little about her. She never advertised herself, she appeared so seldom on platforms. But to the small circle who know the East and its problems, Gertrude Bell will always stand out as a great personality. She knew the Arabs as few have ever known them. With a man’s grasp of affairs she united a woman’s quick instinct. She had the personal touch. A word from her carried weight in the innermost councils. On the long roll of those whom Oxford has reared to serve their country ‘in Church or State,’ her name should stand as high as the highest, on a line with Cromer, Milner, Curzon, and the greatest of the proconsuls. And that L. M. H. helped to prepare her should be one of our proudest boasts.