Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, February 10, 2014

Who Was Gertrude Bell?

You may have seen her name in the news during the Iraq War. Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) was an English traveler, writer, archaeologist, and mountaineer who played an important role in the Middle East toward the end of the Great War. She went to Oxford to read history, and, at the age of twenty and after only two years study, she left with a first-class degree. In the years immediately following, she spent time on the social round in London and Yorkshire, travelled extensively in Europe, and visited Persia and visited friends in Jerusalem in 1899–1900. 

Fascinated by Arab peoples, she learned their language, investigated their archaeological sites, and travelled deep into the desert, accompanied only by male guides. Her knowledge of the area and its tribes therefore made her a prime target for recruitment by British Intelligence during the First World War. Later, as a political officer, and then as Oriental Secretary to the High Commissioner in Baghdad, she became a kingmaker, being largely responsible for the selection of Faisal I. Her first love, however, was always archaeology, and, as Honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq, she established in Baghdad the Iraq Museum. Never married, Bell became chronically ill and died from an overdose of sleeping pills at age 58.  She is remembered for one quote that seems pertinent today:

We people of the West can always conquer, but we can never hold Asia. 
That seemed to me to be the legend written across the landscape


  1. Thanks! Two good books about Gertrude Bell are "Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations" by Georgina Howell and "Desert Queen" by Janet Wallach. One of these days I will get organized enough to do a presentation on her for WW1HA.

  2. I read the second book on CD. It was excellent. I recommend reading the book. She worked with both Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia.