Gertrude Bell is someone who made a great difference to British interests in the near east and Middle East. While Gertrude Bell was making waves in British political circles, this is not the work that drove her; Bell simply had a love and desire for travel and adventure which drove her to all corners of the globe.
For her political work Bell was awarded a CBE, but the truth is that Bell led a magical life of adventure and the political gesturing was only a small side element of her work.
While many in the UK will know of T.E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia, with whom Gertrude Bell travelled, many will not know of this amazing woman and everything she achieved in life.
Early Years of Gertrude Bell
Bell was born in County Durham, England on the 14th July in the year 1868 to a wealthy family, a family with connections to parliament and beyond thanks to the lifetime works of her Grandfather Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell and Bell’s father Sir Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet who served as Mayor of Middlesbrough.
At the age of three Bell lost her mother who died during childbirth.
Bell gained a great education due to her supportive and wealthy family. This education included Queen’s College in London and a first class honours degree in modern history from the Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, all by the age of 19.
Travelling the World
After University Bell decided to visit Tehran in Persia, now Iran, because her Uncle was a British Minister to Persia at the time. This trip kick started her passion for travelling and she spent much of the next fifteen years or so trotting around the globe learning languages, culture and customs. These travels included Switzerland, Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Syria; in fact she even crossed Arabia 6 times in 12 years.
This time travelling meant Bell learnt Arabic, Persian, French, German, Italian and Turkish languages.
World War One
With the outbreak of World War One Bell saw a chance to travel back to the Middle East under work for the government but the government declined and she joined the Red Cross and went to France.
By 1915 the thoughts of the government had changed and Bell was summoned to Cairo where she was set about plotting where Arab tribes were found and eventually given a title of Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo. This title coincided with Bell being sent to Basra (present day Iraq) to support the British troops who had just taken the city. This work involved giving detailed information on maps and how the British could safely negotiate their way north to Baghdad.
After the British got to Iraq Bell was to then follow, upon her arrival she was then given the title of Oriental Secretary.
After World War One
Winston Churchill sent Bell, along with Chief Political Officer Percy Cox and T.E. Lawrence to a Conference in Cairo in 1921. This conference was to establish the boundaries of British governance and set up the two new countries of Iraq and Transjordan (present day Jordan), both of which would not have been created if it wasn’t for both T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell’s hard work.
After the meeting Gertrude went back to Baghdad with the new King of Iraq called King Faisal I of Iraq (son of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca). In Baghdad Bell helped Faisal settle in his new role without too much disturbance from tribal elders and also set about supporting him in ruling Iraq.
Bell also set about creating the National Museum of Iraq which was opened in 1926 and is still open today. Many of the first artefacts found in the museum were actually from Bell’s personal collection.
Gertrude Bell started falling ill in 1925 and made her way back to the UK, here she found her family fortunes dwindling since the economic issues of post World War One were greatly affecting Britain. After a short period in the UK Bell returned to Baghdad where she was found to have Pleurisy, Bell battled hard and beat the infection only to find her brother had just died of Typhoid.
On the 12th July 1926 Bell took some sleeping pills and told her maid to wake her later on, Bell never awoke and was pronounced dead on the 12th July. There is much debate over whether this was a suicide or simply an accidental overdose but many feel it was an accident as Bell had asked her maid to wake her later on.
Bell was made a CBE for her work during and after World War One in the creation of Transjordan and Iraq.