Cairo, Delhi & Basra


Lawrence of Arabia and Gertrude BellIn November 1915, David Hogarth, who had known Gertrude since 1899, enlisted her to come and work at the newly established Arab Bureau in Cairo, a British intelligence organisation dealing with Middle Eastern affairs. T.E. Lawrence – better known today as Lawrence of Arabia – also worked for the Bureau alongside Gertrude, and the two became close friends (see image to the left). Gertrude was employed by the Bureau in Cairo to interpret reports from Central Arabia, as well as to document ‘Arab tribes, their numbers and lineage. It’s a vague and difficult subject which would take a lifetime to do properly. On New Year’s Day (1916), Gertrude wrote to her mother from Cairo reflecting on the past year of war:

My dearest Mother. A second year of war – and I can only wish you, as I wished you last first of January that we may not see another. Never another year like the last, though I wonder if I could choose, whether I would not have it all again, for the wonder it held, and bear the sorrow again' (see image below).

1st January 1916 - Gertrude Bell to her mother


In late January 1916, Gertrude went to Delhi to meet the Viceroy of India, Lord Charles Hardinge. She was to discuss with him the friction between the British Intelligence Departments of India and Egypt over the ‘Arab Question’, and to communicate the views of her department. Initially unsure of the success of this plan, she wrote to her father,whether much good will come of it I don’t know, but it’s worth trying and at any rate I shall learn a good deal for I hope they will let me dig into their Arab files and see what can be added from them to our knowledge (see image below). In fact, her visit to Delhi was extremely productive, and led to her being enlisted by the Viceroy to Basra in order not only to help with the Intelligence Department there, but also to improve communication between the different departments by acting as liaison between them.

24th January 1916 - Gertrude Bell to her father


When Gertrude arrived in Basra in March 1916, she stayed in the home of Sir Percy and Lady Cox until she could find a place of her own. Letters she wrote to her mother talk of her frustration at the impermanent, transient nature of her work. Nevertheless, Gertrude gave her full attention to the number of tasks at hand, which included classifying tribal material, a process in which her own prior knowledge from her travels. Gertrude also had strong views on the political situation in the Middle East, and was frustrated with what she perceived to be Britain’s mishandling of it:

we rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. We treated Mesop[otamia] as if it were an isolated unit, instead of which it is part of Arabia, its politics indissolubly connected with the great and far reaching
Arab question, which presents indeed, different facets as you regard it from different aspects, and is yet always and always one and the same indivisible block
(see image below).

Gertrude was appointed to the paid position of Official Correspondent to Cairo (June 1916), and also head of the Iraq branch of the Arab Bureau as an officer of the Indian Expeditionary Force D. She became increasingly influential, providing the Intelligence Department with summaries of recent Arabian history, and writing memoranda about British-Arabian relations, such as, ‘The Nomad Tribes of Arabia’ (pages 16 and 17 are shown below).

The Nomad Tribes of Arabia, Page 16 The Nomad Tribes of Arabia, Page 17

In January 1917, Gertrude was appointed Oriental Secretary by Sir Percy Cox, and continued as head of the Arab Bureau (Iraq). Gertrude left Basra for Baghdad (April 1917), following the British occupation of Baghdad (11 March 1917).

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