Hidden historical heroines (#37: Gertrude Bell)

gertrude-bellGertrude Bell, CBE (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was many things throughout her relatively short life; she was predominantly a writer and archaeologist, but she was also involved in Middle Eastern politics and espionage, and was critical in the mapping and drawing up of the boundaries of modern Iraq. She has been described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”, and has become almost a legend to those of Persian origin.

The daughter of a steadfast baronet, Gertrude’s mother died in childbirth when Gertrude herself was only three years old. Described as having had “reddish hair and piercing blue-green eyes, with her mother’s bow shaped lips and rounded chin, her father’s oval face and pointed nose”, Gertrude was a reasonably indulged child, but clever and hard-working, eventually going on to achieve a first class degree in Modern History at Oxford University. After her graduation in 1892, Gertrude travelled to Tehran to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Laschelles, who was an ‘ambassador’ of sorts to Persia, kick-starting her life-long love affair with the Middle East.

Gertrude proved herself prodigious with languages, becoming fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German as well as being able to get along quite admirably in Italian and Turkish too. She began to write books charting her travels around the world, her frank and vivid descriptions making the Arabian deserts accessible to the women of the western world in a way they never had been before. In two round-the-globe trips Gertrude took up trekking and mountaineering with aplomb; there is even a Swiss mountain peak named after her – Gertrudspitze – after she and her guides were the first to traverse it. In 1907, Gertrude added the string of archaeology to her already-impressive bow, journeying the Ottoman Empire/Mesopotamia, mapping and recording ancient ruins.

At the outbreak of World War One, Gertrude immediately requested a formal posting in the Middle East. It seemed a no-brainer – she not only had amazing language skills, but she had pre-existing knowledge of and ties with local tribes. The Army however initially turned her down, and Gertrude had to volunteer with the Red Cross in France. However, the Army quickly realised they were squandering a serious asset and in 1915 Gertrude was assigned to Army Intelligence Headquarters in Cairo. She became the only female political officer in the British forces, lauded with the title “Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo” and utilised her charting skills to draw up maps that helped the British Army reach Baghdad quickly and safely. After the troops took the city on in March 1917 Gertrude was immediately summoned to be stationed there, and promoted to the title “Oriental Secretary”.


After the close of the war it was decided that the old Ottoman Empire was to be dismantled and new countries formed within its borders. Gertrude was instructed to continue in her role as Oriental Secretary in tandem with the forthcoming Arab governments, initially conducting an analysis of the situation in Mesopotamia, making suggestions and eventually helping the new political structure to take root – the Empire invited the recently deposed King of Syria to become the King of this new country – Iraq – and Gertrude involved herself heavily in the consolidation of his rule. The Persians referred to her as “al-Khatun” – meaning a Lady of the Court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State. For years Gertrude advised on matters involving tribal geography and local business, supervising the selection of appointees to the Cabinet and other government leadership positions.

It wasn’t too long however before King Faisal and the Great Lady began to rub one another the wrong way and Gertrude was forced to take a back seat. “You may rely upon one thing,” she is recorded to have said, with a sense of grim humour, “I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain.” Gertrude returned to her first love, archaeology, busying herself with ensuring that Mesopotamian relics were rescued, restored and retained in the country of their origins, and not shipped off to museums in London or Paris like so many other antiquities. She used her growing personal collection to found what became the Baghdad Archaeological Museum (now known as the Iraqi Museum).

OGertrude-Tentn 12 July 1926, Gertrude was discovered dead, of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills – although we may never know whether this was intentional or accidental. It is true Gertrude’s health and mental well-being had been failing, but she had asked her maid to wake her if she overslept, and those who knew her best insisted she would never have taken her own life. An obituary written by her peer D. G. Hogarth expressed the respect British officials held for her:

“No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.”

Her funeral was a behemoth of an event, the streets lined with people, British officials making the long journey to the Middle East to attend the Great Lady’s burial in a British cemetery in the heart of Baghdad. Faisal, the king with whom she had so often butted heads, watched the procession of her coffin alone from his private balcony.


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