Gertude Bell - the Washington woman who changed world history

Gertrude Bell is one of the most influential people from the North East, and she hails from our own Washington Village.

While the names of certain entertainers and sportsmen from the area are currently better known, Bell’s name will endure. She will still be spoken of 100 years from now. Indeed, it’s almost a century now since she died.

Nevertheless, she ought to be more famous. Usually when we hear the cliche “altered the course of world history” it’s a gross exaggeration. In Gertrude’s case it happens to be true. “Miss Bell” is still referred to reverently in Baghdad today.

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Here is a (very) condensed biography of a diplomat, spy, writer, traveller, archaeologist, scholar, mountaineer and more.

Washington New Hall, now called Dame Margaret Hall, is where Gertrude Bell was born in 1868.

Washington beginnings

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on July 14, 1868 in what is now Dame Margaret Hall on The Avenue in Washington Village, the daughter of local bigwig Sir Hugh Bell and his wife Mary.

Extremely bright, she was initially educated at home but became the first woman at Oxford University to attain a first-class honours degree in modern history; something she subsequently became part of.

She taught herself Farsi, the Iranian language, and travelled to Iran in 1892, where her uncle was British ambassador. She later learned Arabic taught herself archaeology.

Washington legend Gertrude Bell at an archaeological dig in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) in 1909.

She was a tough egg too and perhaps the greatest female mountaineer of her day. Due to unexpectedly bad weather, she once had to endure 53 hours on a rope on the unconquered north-east face of the Finsteraarhorn in the Swiss Alps. The Washington winters had prepared her well.

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The First World War

At the outbreak of World War One in 1914, after volunteering with the Red Cross in France, she made a dangerous journey to Ha’il in the north of what is now Saudi Arabia. This was the headquarters of the nation’s founder, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, who was not an ally of Britain. Diplomatic relations were soon achieved.

Something of a female Indiana Jones, but real, Bell joined the Arab Bureau in 1916 - essentially a group of spies which also included TE Lawrence. She was sent to Cairo, scene of vicious fighting between the British and the Ottoman Empire.

Gertrude Bell at the Sphinx in 1921, between Winston Churchill, left and TE Lawrence. Note Gertrude is the only one capable of controlling a camel. Picture from the Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University.
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Later that year she was sent to a city which would become uncomfortably familiar to the British many years afterwards; Basra. She became adviser to the UK’s chief political officer there, Percy Cox, as she knew the area better than anyone.

She drew maps to help the British army reach Baghdad safely. This was crucial as it helped lead to the Fall of Baghdad in 1917, when British and Indian forces overcame the Ottomans.

She became Britain’s only female political officer and field controller to St John Philby. Gertrude taught him a great deal about espionage. A likely unintended consequence of this was discovered decades later when Philby’s son, the infamous Kim Philby, was rumbled as a Soviet double agent.

World War One effectively ended the Ottoman Empire, but the Middle East was put in a period of considerable turmoil, even for the Middle East, with what was then called Mesopotamia under British administration.

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This plaque is mounted in the grounds of Dame Margaret Hall, Gertrude Bell's childhood home in Washington.
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Gertrude Bell ‘creates’ Iraq - and the consequences

Many supporters of the Ottomans detested the British, culminating in the Iraqi Revolt of 1920. This was crushed, but at the cost of around 16,000 lives.

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Dressed up as an act of fair play, the British decided that a self-governing state would be the square thing to do. The reality was that Britain was skint. They couldn’t afford to stay there any longer and there was understandably little public appetite for more warfare.

So it fell to a Washington lass to sort it out.

Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for the Colonies, called the Cairo Conference to determine the region’s political and geographic construction.

The story is complex and seemingly endless (it still hasn’t ended), due in no small part to oil and religion. But in essence, Gertrude drew up the borders and effectively created the state of Iraq. While this wasn’t done arbitrarily, a map of Iraq shows virtually straight borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria.

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At the Cairo Conference, Bell and Lawrence highly recommended to Churchill that Faisal bin Hussein become the first King of Iraq. She later regretted this.

She also knew that Iraq would have future problems, whatever was decided in 1921. But she underestimated the Sunni-Shia divisions, resentment of the British and a Kurdish problem that was never properly dealt with.

Bell’s Iraq lasted 37 years until its monarchy was murdered in 1958. This led indirectly to Saddam Hussein taking over in 1979. The rest you are familiar with. But she had acted in good faith.

Last years and legacy

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After drawing up Iraq’s borders, Bell’s influence waned and she devoted more of her life to archaeology.

She died suddenly in Baghdad aged 57, found on Monday, July 12, 1926 following an overdose of sleeping pills. By then it was many years since she had seen her home town.

It is a matter of debate whether she took her own life. We can’t ultimately know how happy she was, but she was never lucky in love.

Despite all Gertrude’s glories, her fame is eclipsed by that of TE Lawrence. This is partly attributable to Hollywood.

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Two biopics have been made with Oscar winners playing Bell. In 2015 Queen of the Desert was released starring Nicole Kidman. It was a critical and box office flop. In 2016 came Letters from Baghdad with Tilda Swinton, which was a modest success.

Meanwhile the 1962 blockbuster Lawrence of Arabia won the best picture Oscar and was one of the biggest films of the 1960s.

But none of this detracts from the towering achievements and it’s pleasing to say that the character of one of the most important women of the 20th century was formed in Washington.

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