Gertrude Bell Queen of the Desert

by Karla Thomson

Whilst studying for my undergraduate degree, I came across the incredible story of Gertrude Bell and immediately became a huge fan of this Queen of the Desert. Bell was a woman who died as she lived, entirely on her own terms. Bell was a writer, traveller, administrator, archaeologist and eventually political officer. Her explorations of Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Arabia helped to elevate her from writer to Queen. She travelled extensively throughout the Middle East beginning her journeys through this area controlled by the Ottoman Empire in 1892. As the Empire began to decline, Britain sought to control more of the region, and Bell’s expertise in the area suddenly became invaluable. However, the main turning point for Bell was the outbreak of the First World War when her skills and knowledge became invaluable to the British government. 

Gertrude Bell on her travels

In 1914 Germany successfully convinced the Turks of the Ottoman Empire to begin a Jihad against the British and attack the Russian supply lines. Whilst this was successful in diverting British forces from the Western Front to the Middle East, German manipulation and persuasion tactics were only successful to a limited extent. Germany simply did not anticipate the scale of the British Empire, nor did they consider how the Middle Eastern internal affairs could be manipulated by the likes of Bell for the benefit of the allies. Britain fought back with the aim to enflame discontent in the Turkish rule. With the Middle-East requiring more support and intervention new administrative centres were organised in the region. This task was assigned to employees of the British Army and Intelligence Office, who sought out the foremost experts in the field. Bell was quickly identified as the perfect candidate due to her intimate knowledge of Arabia, its customs, language and culture. Her years of dedication to travel and mapping in the region were to be put to use, Julie Wheelwright said of her that ’Bell’s acute powers of observation of the various tribes, factions, feuds and friendships during the pre-war period became a valuable source for the British Foreign Office to which she made regular reports’.[1]

Bell was joined at the Foreign Office by T.E Lawrence, known better as Lawrence of Arabia. They had first met three years before the outbreak of the first world war and had bonded over their mutual appreciation for archaeology and the Middle-East. In 1915 British army intelligence saw her potential and assigned her to the newly formed Arab Intelligence Bureau in Cairo. Using her knowledge they devised and implemented new tactic to break the Ottoman Empire from within using Arab nationalism to revolt against the Turkish rule. Bell used her expertise to document the tribes, people and languages of the regions, this information was passed to officers like Lawrence in the field.  The approach worked and by 1917 Bells intelligence aided the Arabs to wage highly successful guerrilla warfare against the Turks and aided the eventual fall of the Ottoman Empire.  Lawrence took the credit for the successes of the campaign, and at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference his celebrity had completely overshadowed Bell. 

Gertrude Bell with Winston Churchill and T.E Lawrence

Mapping became an essential part of Bell’s contributions to the post-war peace process. Bell’s role was essential to determining geographical lines, for both that of the British Empire and the new borders of Mesopotamia, she constructed the territory of modern-day Iraq. Despite Lawrence of Arabia taking credit for the successes in the middle east, historians say ‘it was she, rather than the dashing Lawrence, who made kings and drew lines in the sand, who played a major part in the creation of the modern Gulf states’.[2]  

The post-war Paris Peace Conference presented its own challenges to Bell.  Her love for Arabia and her British patriotism were at differing sides of the table. She believed Arabia should have self-determination, whilst the British and French governments wanted to expand their empires. This dispute put Bell in conflict with Mark Sykes who was negotiating an agreement with the French (the Sykes-Picot agreement). Sykes made his feelings towards Bell known and after not finding any opportunity to criticise Bell’s work or professionalism, he resorted to misogynistic name calling. In a letter to his wife about Bell he said, ’confound the silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rumpwagging, blethering ass.’[3]  

The culmination of Bell’s career was her 1920 ‘Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia’. This book length review was requested by the India Office, and she spent months of her spare time compiling it. Bell’s aim in Mesopotamia was to guide the British administration to a successful future with the Arabs for the advantage of both nations. Through political uncertainty this tenacious woman battled not only threat of dismissal, but also Churchill’s threat to pull the British forces from the area altogether. After experiencing such a high with the release of ‘Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia’ in 1920, Bell would soon see her role within the newly formed nation of Iraq become less and less significant.

Bell’s personal life was as interesting and varied as her professional one. She had a genuine passion for Arabic people and culture. She placed herself within the community and lived alongside them, unlike other travellers who distanced themselves observing the people without ever really involving themselves in their lives. Lawrence, who was one of Bell’s greatest advocates spoke of her intellectual skills and superiority over all other women. Even famous feminist Virginia Woolf also once said of Bell “she makes one feel a little inefficient”.[4] Bell fell in love aged 24 with Henry Cadogan, but her parents refused to give their permission to marry.  She also corresponded with Major Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married man with whom she exchanged love letters frequently, but Gertrude Bell never married. Bell struggled with poor health. She had bouts of pleurisy, malaria and bronchitis and, as was the fashion at the time, a smoker. Her death on the 12th of July 1926 was due to a tragic overdose of sleeping pills, though it is disputed whether this was intentional or accidental. 

Her fame and successes in the Middle East, whilst not entirely unique for men, was truly exceptional for a woman. Bell’s tenacious personality and her superior intelligence served her well, allowing her to aid the empire that she was so loyal to and remain devoted to the country she loved. She was instrumental in mapping out the new Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and she lived her life entirely on her own terms. She truly deserves the title of Queen of the Desert.

Gertrude Bell’s final resting place in Baghdad

Further Reading 

Wheelwright, J., ‘Writer, Explorer, Spinster, Spy’, The Middle East 253:253 (1996) pp. 35

Bell, G., A Woman in Arabia, the Writings of the Queen of the Desert ed. by Georgina Howell (New York: Penguin, 2015)

Howell, G., Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, (London: Pan Macmillan, 2015)

Naiden, F. S., ‘One Iraq or Three?’, Wilson Quarterly 31:1 (2007) pp. 52-63

About the Author

I graduated from the University of Derby in 2021 with a Masters in History. During my time at the university I developed my passion for all history, but particularly the First World War. My dissertation was on The Wipers Times where I researched at depth the notions of Edwardian masculinity, myths of the Tommy and morale and how that was reflected in the trench journal. I am currently training to be a history teacher in secondary schools, where I hope to pass on my passion for our subject. 

[1] Wheelwright, J., ‘Writer, Explorer, Spinster, Spy’, The Middle East 253:253 (1996) pp. 35

[2] Bell, G., A Woman in Arabia, the Writings of the Queen of the Desert ed. by Georgina Howell (New York: Penguin, 2015) p166 and Wheelwright, J., ‘Writer, Explorer, Spinster, Spy’, The Middle East 253:253 (1996) pp. 35

[3] Howell, G., Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, (London: Pan Macmillan, 2015) pp. 259

[4] Naiden, F. S., ‘One Iraq or Three?’, Wilson Quarterly 31:1 (2007) pp. 60

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