After residing briefly in a hospital in England but debarred from any actual nursing due to a lack of training combined with her social position, Gertrude Bell arrived in France on the 23rd November 1914 nearly four months after the outbreak of the Great War. Her new Red Cross posting in the Missing and Wounded Enquiry Department was, she felt, more suited to her ‘powers’. And in France, as she had been in England, she was her usual combination of furious activity and dutiful determination to organise and re-organise everything and all around her. She spotted a need and arranged within days for a car to be sent over the channel and paid for as necessary at either her father’s or her own expense, whilst at the same time pursuing great frugality in respect of her living arrangements. She passed judgement on other volunteers, politicians, and the military tactics of the generals in her letters home to her father, Hugh and her step-mother, Florence. She also continued to write to the married army officer with whom she had fallen in love.
Bell’s letters reveal that ‘home’ always exerted a strong pull. While confident in her own abilities to improve the filing system in France in order to locate the missing and the wounded - and, tragically, the dead - she was keen to return home to England ‘if needed’. (And indeed she did return home after just a few months, and was never posted to war work of any kind in Europe again.) Her devotion to duty was clear - yet she was conflicted about which duty she should prioritise.
‘Boulogne Saturday 28th. Dearest Mother. I hear from Phyllis today that you have your convalescents, and even 20 of them (where have you put them all?) Now would you not like me to come back? I am quite quite ready to come. I don't approve of doing other things when you are wanted in your own place and if you have 20 men to look after, it seems to me that you will be rather shorthanded. Will you please decide entirely according to your wishes. If you send me a telegram I will return at once and no more said. They can get someone else here. You understand I should not be happy here if I thought you needed me. I reckoned that you would be able to manage 11 without difficulty, but 20 is a different matter.
‘I've had a busy day and I'm just going out to dine with the Duncombes who leave tomorrow. Please telegraph and I'll come home at once. Your ever affectionate daughter Gertrude’ (Letters, 28th November 1914)
Other letters at that time however to and from Lt Col Charles ‘Dick’ Doughty-Wylie suggest that her driving force at that time was not necessarily doing her duty, but rather her love for him.
There is but the briefest mention of Christmas in Gertrude Bell’s letters home at this time. On Boxing Day she wrote to her father Hugh:
Diana and I took a half holiday yesterday and walked along the coast in frosty sun to where we met Major Armstrong, Domnul's friend. He took us to see the hospital of which he is P.M.O., Lady Hadfield's. She is an American, and Hadfield an English steel magnate. So we called on her; she was getting raisins and prunes for dinner, exquisitely dressed for the part in pure white down to her shoes and up to her nurse's veil. It's a charming hospital. Major A. and another doctor walked back with us, and it was very pleasant. Today it sleets and rains and I was at work til 8 P.M. We had a Xmas dinner with Mr Durell - one of our staff. He invited us all to dine at the Folkestone. It was amusing to go and dine somewhere else and see other people. We live such a shell fish life. I meant to write to Mother today but was drawn off by wishing to ask you about the banks. My love to her and I hope we shall never spend another Xmas like this one - but I don't feel sure. Your affectionate daughter Gertrude (Letters 26th December 1914)
Gertrude Bell corresponded copiously with Dick, on the other hand. In the middle of November, from Addis Ababa, he had written to her:
‘Tonight I should not want to talk. I should make love to you. Would you like it, welcome it, or would a hundred hedges rise and bristle and divide? - but we would tear them down. What is a hedge that it should divide us? You are in my arms, alight, afire. Tonight I do not want dreams and fancies. But it will never be … The first time should I not be nearly afraid to be your lover?
‘So much a thing of the mind is the insistent passion of the body. Women sometimes give themselves to men for the man’s pleasure. I’d hate a woman to be like that with me. I’d want her to feel to the last sigh the same surge and stir that carried me away. She should miss nothing that I could give her.’
‘Dearest, dearest, I give this year of mine to you, and all the years that shall come after it. Dearest, when you tell me you love me and want me still, my heart sings - and then weeps with longing to be with you.’
She had come a long way from Christmas in Bethlehem in 1899. The advent of War had seen her sever her ties with the academic life and travels in the Middle East. She was now 46 years old, emotionally committed to a married man.
Despite her evident immersion in consuming emotions, she took control of her life - as she always did. In the few months she was in France, Gertrude Bell became immersed in establishing a successful classification system whose clinical structure contrasted starkly with its humanitarian purpose - to more easily locate the casualties of a particularly brutal and senseless conflict pitting generations of young men against each other in trench warfare and gas attacks.
And then, one day, Dick’s wife Lilian (aka ‘Judith’) sent a letter and asked to meet with her. The women had first met and become acquainted in Turkey, and had corresponded politely since. Lilian was not unaware of the friendship and emotional attachment between her husband and Gertrude. She probably knew something of Gertrude’s thoughts around the possibility of her husband’s divorce - and Lilian wasn’t having any of it.
They were worlds apart. Lilian was running yet another field hospital and her husband – already a veteran of battle - was gearing up for combat; and Lilian for hands-on triage and treatment of soldiers, many of them just boys. Lilian would be awarded an OBE for her war service in December 1918, and die in Cyprus in 1961, remembered for her field nursing service in both world wars. Dick would die in April 1915 at Gallipoli – also honoured, with a posthumous VC.
And so it was that Gertrude Bell’s posting to the Middle East subsequent to Dick’s death - a position which used her skills as a skilled map-maker, Arabist, linguist and translator that the British needed in this complex theatre of war against the Ottoman Empire - which set the course for the rest of her life. She complied with her call-up with enthusiasm and determinism, reconnecting with her acquaintance T E Lawrence (‘of Arabia’) in order the negotiate an Arab independence from Turkish Ottoman rule whilst keeping French and Russian interests both in their sights and as controlled as possible.
We look back now at the legacy of Gertrude Bell and her contemporaries and their impact on our world today, especially in the Middle East; but they themselves were sitting on a miasmic, sometimes toxic, legacy stretching back to Mediaeval times – and keys players like Gertrude Bell, T E Lawrence and Winston Churchill, with their impeccable classical educations, were well of aware of the complex political history and the intersections of British interests with those of the Ottoman Turks, Russians, French, Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Jewish Zionists, Orthodox Christians, and a plethora of other peoples and ethnicities.
One might argue that Gertrude Bell and T E Lawrence did their best, whilst disagreeing over fundamental issues such as the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine. Bell foresaw endless struggle and war – and what she saw in France, the fear and the grief and the pain and the suffering, especially of the young, made her wearily cynical of her generation getting it right. She died in 1926; but, like many, by 1915 she’d already seen and felt enough. It was far from ‘all over by Christmas’ - it was never over.
Acknowledgements: The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University; H V F Winstone 1978 Gertrude Bell ;(Quartet); John Howell 2013 The Only Woman at Gallipoli; Lisa Cooper 2016 In Search of Kings and Conquerors: Gertrude Bell and the Archaeology of the Middle East.