Baghdad & the Aftermath of the First World War

Bell's Role in Baghdad

Gertrude arrived in Baghdad on 20 April 1917. She was awarded a CBE for her war work in the Middle East (October 1917), though she displayed a characteristic lack of excitement to the news, writing to her father that such awards mean so very little and I never can manage to remember who has got them and who hasn’t. One judges the man by the work one knows he has done and the special label which has been affixed doesn't make the leats difference. Frequently it's tosh.’ . Instead, she preferred to focus on her work, which included an appointment as editor of Al Arab, and anonymously authoring a well-received text, The Arab of Mesopotamia.

2nd November 1917 - Gertrude Bell to her father

Later, Gertrude was much amused by reviews of the book that assumed it had been written by a group of ‘practical men’, writing to her mother, ‘Why yes of course I wrote all the Arab of Mesopotamia. I’ve loved the reviews which speak of the practical men who were the anonymous authors etc. It’s fun being practical men isn’t it’(see image below).

5th September 1918 - Gertrude Bell to her mother

Bell’s Belief in Iraq

Gertrude was passionate about the future of Iraq, and wanted to ensure that the best was done for both the country and its people. On 30 October 1918, eleven days before the ceasefire of the First World War, the Turkish government signed the Armistice of Mudros with the Allied Forces. Gertrude’s work intensified in the months following the end of the war. She was heavily involved in decision making regarding Iraq, and while she felt strongly that the British administration needed to act in the best interests of the Iraqi population, she also had her own very clear ideas about what those best interests were. She was, for example, frustrated with calls for an Arab Amir to lead the country instead of Sir Percy Cox as British leader. For Gertrude, the only viable option was British rule in the Middle East:

The East is inclined to lose its head over the promise of settling for itself what is to become of it. It can’t settle for itself really – we out here know that very well – because it might hit on something that certainly wouldn’t imply stable government and that we can’t allow in the interests of universal peace. But it is not going to be an easy job to hold the balance straight when it is disturbed by the gusts of hot air emitted from home in the shape of international declarations. The vast majority here haven’t any views at all; most of the thinking people want our administration, guided by Sir Percy, but there’s a small if vociferous group which thinks they could get on quite well alone and certainly have much more fun individually without us. They would have immense fun for a bit, I don’t doubt it, but it would be a very short bit, abruptly ending in universal anarchy and bloodshed (see an image extract below).

10th January 1919 - Gertrude Bell to her father

The consequences of such views held by Gertrude and her colleagues, and the extent of British involvement in reshaping the Middle East following the First World War, continue to be powerfully felt today.

Bell's Role in the Formation of Iraq

In the years following the end of the First World War, the British Government’s attentions turned to determining the lines along which the borders of the new Iraq would be drawn, and Gertrude was heavily involved in the decision making process.

Crowd at coronation of Kind Faisal

She attended the Paris Peace Conference as the representative of the Arab Bureau (1919), and later attended the ten-day Cairo Conference (March 1921), which was organised by Winston Churchill with the objective to work towards an independent Arab Government. To that end, Bell was instrumental in the selection of Prince Faisal as the new King of Mesopotamia (crowned July 1921 - see image to the left). While she became a close friend to King Faisal, and worked closely with him for the rest of her life, she found the process of nominating and publicising a potential king strenuous, writing to her father shortly after Faisal’s coronation that you may rely upon one thing – I’ll never engage in creating kings again, it is too great a strain.

Perhaps most famously, however, Bell was central in drawing the borders of Iraq during this period. In a letter to her father (December 1921), she writes, ‘I had a well spent morning at the office making out the Southern desert frontier of the Iraq […] One way and another, I think I’ve been succeeded in compiling a frontier’. After the coronation of King Faisal, the drawing of these borders, and the establishment of the new Iraqi Government, Bell refocused her efforts back into archaeology and historical research, and was appointed the Honorary Director of Antiquities for Iraq (October 1922). Bell initiated the Iraq Museum (October 1923), the first room of which opened in June 1926, just one month short of Bell’s death from an overdose of sleeping pills (12 July 1926). Four years after her death, a commemorative bronze plaque was unveiled by King Faisal, and a bust of Bell was erected to identify the Gertrude Bell principle wing of the Iraq Museum.

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