Gertrude Bell’s experience of war work in the south of England and in France was brief, but formative. It began just a few months after the outbreak of the Great War in the summer of 1914. It’s an intriguing story, able to be told primarily because we have her surviving letters as a central part of the archive. Bored and frustrated at Clandon Park Hospital in the south of England - which has been, to date, a little-discussed episode in her life - with no role to speak of except taking round reading materials to wounded Belgian troops, she maneuvered her way over to France to fill a secretarial position. Bell, while there, awkwardly met with Lilian (‘Judith’) Doughty-Wylie, the experienced, respected field nurse who was the wife of the man she hoped to marry; had an epiphany about life being too short; set up a filing system to help distraught relatives better trace missing and wounded boys and young men; and came home just a few months later. Within a year Gertrude Bell was called to the Middle East to serve the British administration – where, in Baghdad, after a series of notable geo-political accomplishments, she died just a decade later by her own hand.
Before the Storm, 1914
Like most wars, World War 1 began with a declaration - the 4th August 1914 for the British - and moved swiftly on to repeated call-ups of young men and an appeal for voluntary service from the rest of the population. The fate of the Belgians in the early months of the Great War was employed to great effect in the recruitment drive that was to chew up a generation of young men - and it also helped to drive the civilian war effort. The posters and the newspaper reports of what was unfolding across the Channel in 1914 became an ingrained part of the visual landscape of Gertrude Bell’s world.
Ladies such as Gertrude Bell, her step-mother Florence, and her sisters Molly and Elsa were expected to assist Red Cross efforts, which they did with diligence from the start of the War, notably in the organisation of large quantities of mittens (knitted woollen gloves) for the troops. Gertrude Bell did not herself make mittens - a Mrs Jones did the knitting - but she made regular financial donations toward their provision. She was happy to contribute in this way; but she felt constrained.
Her younger brother Maurice, a Sandhurst-trained army officer in his younger years, was no longer a professional soldier; but like many men of his generation he was keen to serve again and get over to France. (His request was granted and Lt. Col Maurice Bell left for France in April 1915, where he would see action on the front line. He was wounded in January 1916 but survived, and eventually became the 3rd Bell family baronet.) Gertrude Bell’s father Hugh awaited instructions regarding his industrial businesses.
Gertrude Bell was not ‘called to war work in France’ at the outbreak of WW1, as some commentators have suggested. The fact of the matter is that prior to getting herself to France, she was stuck doing very little in a hospital that had been established in the grand house of Lord and Lady Onslow at Clandon Park, where she arrived on the 10th November 1914.
November 1914 - Clandon Park Hospital
Clandon Park was no amateur set-up: it was a formally recognised auxiliary military hospital, with a relatively large medical staff and an operating theatre. Lady Onslow was the hospital’s official Commandant, and wore full a Red Cross uniform when on duty, as was Bell expected to do. As ever, Bell was concerned with having the correct clothes for each occasion. Furthermore, Bell, having left her French lady’s maid Marie Delaere behind in London at the Bell family’s apartment at 95 Sloane Street, would need to organise her own daily dressing and laundry, and she decided she needed not just the right clothes but a lot more of them:
‘Dearest Mother … I am to be inducted into my jobs tomorrow morning, but I haven't got nearly enough Red X clothes, for I shall have to wear them all the time, and I am going to London tomorrow for an hour or two in the afternoon to get more.’ (Letters, 10th November 1914)
Despite being able to wear the Red Cross uniform, conflicts of ‘authority’ barred Gertrude Bell from any actual nursing, she lamented in a letter:
‘They won't let me go into the wards to do any nursing on the ground that I shall not be able to keep authority over people who during some hours of the day would be in authority over me. I'm sorry because I should have liked to have had some sort of experience of all kinds and also because I haven't yet enough to do to fill in my day.’ (Letters, 15th November 1914)
Nursing was now a professional role and even the junior rank, the ‘VADs’ (Voluntary Aid Detachment), were required to undergo training. Bell had the social rank to be ‘in charge’ of the big house in Lady Onslow’s absence; but in the context of a military-grade hospital, her nursing skills were insufficient and would place her on the bottom rung of the ladder.
Bell’s letters show that she was languishing and becoming frustrated:
‘I have been sorting and distributing French novels all the afternoon after hanging about and doing nothing most of the morning.’ (Letters, 12 November 1914)
‘I haven't yet enough to do to fill in my day. But perhaps if I wait patiently I may yet get my way’ (Letters, 15 November 1914)
‘Her way’ was to secure some sort of position in France. Yet, as independent as we know Bell to have been, she also appears to have been affected by the absence of her maid Marie, whom she had left behind at Sloane Street with the expectation that she would shortly travel back to the family seat in Yorkshire.
Indeed Bell appears to have struggled in her new environment to the point of irascibility. She had visited Sloane Street on the 20th November, and been displeased with what she found (or didn’t find) there. Bearing in mind her knowledge that the troops needed the basics like gloves, and wounded troops were arriving daily in England for medical treatment, and young men were dying, it is on the surface an extraordinary letter to have sent to her step-mother Florence:
‘Friday 95 Sloane Street. Dearest Mother. May I please give you some orders for Marie. The watch she sent here is not the right one. I want the gun metal watch in a green leather wristband. This is very important. I know it is at home. I want it sent to Dibdins to be cleaned, and returned by them here. I shall need it if I go abroad. Marie did not send the blue brocade gown here as I told her to do. Very stupid and careless of her. If I had not by good luck brought one up from Clandon I should have had nothing to wear. I will send her the silk shirt as a pattern as soon as it comes back from the wash. I shall want her to make the flannel shirt quickly. I'll write tomorrow to you. Your affectionate daughter Gertrude. [p.s.] She is to send here too my blue green silk day down from Osporat.’ (Letters, 20 November 1914)
It’s an unkind letter from Bell’s hand, but it was borne of exasperation. Fed up with her circumstances, she was pinning her hopes on a position in France. Once abroad, she would need her most resilient watch.
‘Well suited to my powers’
A favour had been granted by her well-connected friend Harold Russell (of the aristocratic Russell family - cousin of Bertrand Russell):
Darling Father. Read the enclosed from Harold Russell and send it on to Mother. It looks as if I were pretty sure of a job presently and what he suggests sounds well suited to my powers. It would be very interesting wouldn't it. (Letters, 17th November 1914)
At first glance, Bell’s reference to ‘her powers’ might seem just a tad arrogant, possibly even conceited, but she was simply stating a fact. Gertrude Bell could in fact be quite self-effacing when writing about herself to others, especially her step-mother, but this letter was to her father about something that really mattered to her. She knew that he would understand the reasons for her determination to go to France, just as he was being asked to understand Maurice’s. In mentioning her ‘powers’, she was reminding her father of her experiences and skills in other places in difficult circumstances. She was 46 years old and had been through exploits of her own.
This was the woman who had made extraordinary journeys in the Middle East and Arabia in the years prior to the Great War, commanding desert caravans and mapping the terrain with great precision. She had studied not just the geography of the region but also the politics of the ‘tribes’. She had observed and noted these peoples’ relationships with each other as well as their entanglements with the Arab elites and foreign overlords; and she well understood the competing interests of the western powers and the ruling Ottoman Empire. She had experience as a historian, archaeologist, Arab and European linguist, photographer, cartographer and analyst. She could ride horseback for days; and was an accomplished mountaineer. The uphill struggle she now faced was that, as a woman, her talents were considered by many in the Establishment to be of limited use in wartime.
In the circumstances of 1914, Bell knew she could and should be doing more; not least because it was clear that this War was going to have a significant front in the Middle East, an area she knew better, and at first-hand, than most politicians and many military strategists.
Bell’s personal war effort had seemed far more promising in terms of her potential contribution at the outset. She’d had early interest shown in her experience and knowledge in September, after a request from British Intelligence in Cairo about the situation in Syria had been passed to her via the Director of Military Operations. Her subsequent detailed, valuable report - her first such official report for the British Government - found its way to the desk of Sir Edward Grey.
But since then, it had been mittens for dispatch and reading materials for convalescent troops in an English hospital.
She understandably wanted and needed to do more. Much more. In the meantime, she would go to France. Indeed, she would be there even before her brother Maurice.
Preparations for France
Bell awaited firm confirmation and instructions about her post in Boulogne, France. It finally came on the 21st November:
‘Clandon Park Hospital, Guildford. Nov 21 1914. Dearest Mother. I have a telegram this morning from Boulogne asking whether they can count on me on Sunday or Monday. So I've said I'll go Monday. I am going to London this afternoon in time to go to the Red X and see Arthur Stanley if possible. I shall cross by the afternoon boat on Monday. It's rather exciting isn't it! My address till I tell you anything else will be Headquarters British Red X Boulogne. As soon as I know where I can lodge I will give you that address. I'll write from London. Gertrude’ (Letters, 21 November 2014)
The excitement of going to France seems to have restored some of Bell’s spirits and good humour. She wrote briefly to Florence while passing through Sloane Street on the way to Boulogne, and whilst the watch was once again mentioned, there was a small joke attached:
Marie has not sent my watch. It is a gunmetal one in a green leather wrist band. I should like it posted to Boulogne. Tell her is is not here with my curses (Letters, 21 November 1914)
As she packed for France in the London apartment, however, she became - if we regard the infamous watch as a barometer of her state of mind - increasingly anxious once more, and her irascibility returned; and by the following day she uncharacteristically sounds practically disorganised:
‘The watch is not here and Marie knows perfectly well that it is not. There is a small gold watch here which is a. not mine, and b. broken. I want a gunmetal watch in a green wrist band. I always wear it hunting. She is really abominably careless. It was on my dressing table the morning I left Rounton. When I asked her for it here she replied that she could not find it and took no further trouble … [Note on back of envelope] I have found my watch - at the bottom of the linen drawer!’ (Letters, 22 November 1914)
(I actually felt quite relieved for Marie reading the end-note of that letter.)
Bell had perhaps other reasons to feel called toward the front line. At that time she was involved in a consuming emotional affair with professional military officer Lt. Col. Charles ‘Dick’ Doughty-Wylie, whom she had met some years previously in Turkey. The development of their relationship was complicated. Dick’s wife Lilian (aka ‘Judith’) was an extremely accomplished nurse, working in France in a private hospital that she herself had established. Lilian had operated field hospitals previously in Turkey for victims of the first Armenian massacre, and was an invaluable asset near the war front. Might she see Dick there, Gertrude wondered. Might they get away to London for some short time together, she suggested to him in a letter.
I do wonder if Bell was also trying on some level to ‘prove her worth’ to Dick, to elevate herself in his eyes, in order that she might be able to write to him of their shared war experiences as a form of intimacy that would entwine them further. Her letters to Dick at this time were lyrical and intense. It’s as though in a time of utter turmoil she was craving some sort of inevitability.
She also wondered in a letter home if her path might cross her brother Maurice’s at some point, because she too would be in France. This would please her; and she knew it would please her father. She was frequently in search of parental approval, even into her forties, and indeed up to her death. It was how this brilliant woman was socialised, with all its pros and cons.
Bell the Secretary
Harold Russell had found her a post as a secretary. Having arrived on the 23rd November, by the 25th Bell was able to write that she had begun the work of improving the index system of registering dead, missing and wounded; and dealing with the relatives of the young men.
A new reality began to bite in many ways. Bell started to hear about some of the catastrophic injuries to young men, some of whom were just boys. She heard the shelling on the front line. She met the devastated parents of the dead, the missing and the wounded, and looked into their faces. It’s what she described to Dick as ‘the horror’; and, with her old nemesis loneliness wrapping itself around her mind during those long evenings and nights, she missed him with worn-out desperation and battled it with a fierce, poetic, quasi-biblical passion:
‘Tonight came your beloved letter of Dec 3 thanking me for my book & for my love. But yes, thank me for it, as you say, with love & trust & confidence. You fill my cup, this shallow cup that has grown so deep to hold your love & mine. Dearest when you tell me you love me & want me still, my heart sings - & then weeps for longing to be with you. I have filled all the hollow places of this world with my desire for you; it floods out, measureless to creep up the high mountains where you live.’ (Gertrude to Dick - Letters, 30 December 1914)
And then, just ten weeks later, Dick’s wife Lilian Doughty-Wylie left her nearby field hospital and made the journey to Gertrude Bell’s office. Bell was not expecting her arrival, and hastily invited her to lunch. Lilian wanted to talk, and there could be only one subject.
These experiences in France were to change Gertrude Bell’s outlook on life forever. I’ll look at these more in my next blog piece; and in a forthcoming new book - preview here, or click on picture below. And thank you for reading about the remarkable Gertrude Bell.
Acknowledgments: The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University; The National Trust, Clandon Park; H V F Winstone 1978 Gertrude Bell (Quartet), esp pp 150-151; posters published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, London; and records available via National Archives and Ancestry,com (£). The topmost photograph from the Gertrude Bell Archive at Newcastle University is Catalogue Number Pers B 5, photo taken between 1914 and 1926.