Tag Archives: the Peace Conference

Gertrude Bell – A Lady For All Seasons

The WAR GUILT CLAUSE is available at pre-publication prices and directly from the author – the official release date by Tate Publishing is in October – the publishers put a 115,000 word limit on the manuscript which meant that some large sections, important to the author, had to be eliminated; a piece about Gertrude Bell was one. It is reproduced below.


Special to the New York Times and to the Times of London

By Wickham Steed

February 1, 1919

Gertrude Bell is a lady of great accomplishment, a treasure of the British Empire. Educated at Queens’ College, London, then at OxfordUniversity where she graduated with first class honors in modern history, she is, by any measure, the country’s prime source of information, to say nothing of influence, in all things pertaining to the Arab world of the Middle East. She speaks eight languages – English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, and Persian. She has ridden camels with the Bedouins in the Arabian desert and dined on sheep’s eyes with tribal sheikhs; she has gained the respect and the trust of Arab leaders all over the desert, with the added advantage that, being a woman, she was allowed access to the women of the desert where she often learned what really drove the sheikhs. Move over “Lawrence of Arabia”, make way for “Bell of Arabia.”

When the Great War broke out in 1914, Gertrude Bell was widely recognized as one of Britain’s leading experts on the Middle East, and when Turkey came in on the side of the Central Powers, her expertise was quickly put to good use. In 1915, she became the first woman to work for British military intelligence, and the only woman to be part of the British mission in Mesopotamia. In 1916, she was part of the British delegation in Basrah, Iraq when Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the legendary representative of the House of Saud, was given a dazzling display of British military power and technology, not least the image of the bones of his hand under a Roentgen ray. The intent was to impress him and encourage him to continue his support and collaboration in confronting the Ottoman Turkish forces which have controlled the Middle East for four hundred years.

In 1917 Gertrude Bell published a thin volume called THE ARAB WAR where, among other things, she cautioned that the tribes of Iraq, with their complex social and political traditions, have advanced but little in seven hundred years, and anyone tasked with shaping their destinies should be prepared to be wearied by words signifying nothing.

I could not resist the opportunity to inquire of her views on Zionism. She admires the Jews, and is in agreement with Foreign Secretary Robert Cecil who said that a national home should be found for “the most gifted race that mankind has seen since the fifth century Greeks”, however not in Palestine; when pressed for her views by General Clayton, head of all British Intelligence in Cairo during the war, and one of her mentors, she opined that Arabs and Jews could not live together peaceably side by side. For Gertrude Bell, Palestine for the Jews is an impossible proposition.

In Paris, Miss Bell will meet with T.E. Lawrence and Prince Feisal to plot strategy for Feisal’s appearance before the Supreme Council on February 6. Lawrence has alerted her of Feisal’s intent: he would present his case for Arab independence but if the Arabs must live under a mandate, his preference is that it be American. Miss Bell at present supports Feisal’s hope for an independent Iraq, but in her own mind she is conflicted by the knowledge of the profound differences between the people of northern, central, and southern Iraq/Mesopotamia. Miss Bell cares deeply about these wild, untamed Arabs and freely confesses that there are times when she wonders to herself if she is more Arab than English.