Letters

30 December 1914

From/To: Gertrude Bell to Charles Doughty-Wylie

Archival Reference: GB/DW/1/2

[30 December 1914] Boulogne Dec 30. My dear. It’s late & yet I don’t feel as if I could sleep. I’ll talk to you & sleep tomorrow night. There are such thoughts, such inexorable ghosts, to chase one away from sleep. All day they occupy me & at night they haunt me. Listen to this tale which I heard today: there was an officer of a gúrkha regiment, badly wounded, lying outside our trenches. A gurkha crept along a communication trench & out of it, stumbling in the deep sticky clay; the Germans watched, let him get hold of his officer & carry him as best he could until he stumbled & fell in the deep mud. Seeing this, a second gurkha crept out & together they lifted the officer & carried him forward. Then the Germans fired & killed all three. As though one watched wearied insect crawling painfully to shelter, & then killed it, like Calyban [sic], out of sheer wilfulness – no pity any more in this world. The tales come to one so badly & are more poignant for that – a company returning dazed & bewildered from a fruitless charge, decimated too. And when they got back into shelter all they could say was “the Captain’s gone, the Captain’s gone” over & over again. We can find no trace of him. And then the other side: an artillery officer wounded & led away to the dressing station, & as he went, half carried by the orderlies, murmuring ceaselessly to himself “my poor company, oh my poor company!” I don’t know why I tell you of them, except that their figures people my thoughts – their voices are forever in my ears - & all my thoughts flow over to you. The Indians – my own view is that the sooner they take them away the better. They are too sorely tried here; the climate, from which they suffer terribly – frost bite & amputated feet – the unfamiliar food, the strange land, & worst of all the strange men was that so large a proportion of their own officers, whom they knew & trusted are gone. They are no good now and they are best away. They broke the other day, ran – there are not two words for it – after an awful ordeal, I learned, but still they broke under it. And we suffered our heaviest casualties in regaining the trenches they had lost. How to save their face is the question. I would boldly send them to Egypyt, Mohammadians & all. I don’t believe they could ever be called upon to face Mohammadian troops: I bear too profound a confidence in the inefficiency of the Turk. Anyhow I would wish it, & bring the Australians here. The Indians can’t or won’t dig trenches that are any protection, the eternal reluctance of this [??] to take trouble today against tomorrow’s danger. When our men have to relieve them, they must go into trenches which offer them no shelter, nor pay in lieu of their neglect. Its not worth it. Oh my dear, my dear, the horror of it all, & then the shining courage, this devotion – yes, I know the more I talk of it, the more you long to be brave. Yet I must talk – but not of that tonight. My Father writes that General Plumer has at last got his job – the command of two divisions. He is our general of the Northern Commans & we love & trust him. I’m so glad he gets out at last; he has been aching for it.

Jan. 2. Dearest, I have been so overwhelmingly busy that I have not had a moment to write to you. Now I snatch our [?] this night, not being able to do without you any longer. This is my tale: On the 31st arrived Mr Cazalet with a tangled sheaf of lists & papers to be sorted & pulled straight & a prayer that I would enforce[?] a big alphabetical ledger of originals with all the enquiries arranged in order therein. Ge gave me, very apologetically, 24 hours wherein to do it. Fortunately I had got all the work prepared from my end, in expectation of his coming. Still when he left us face to face with this immense heap of paper, dating from the beginning of the war, I felt rather like someone in a fairy story who has to sort out all the wheat & the beans, & regretted that I had not struck up an alliance with ants, mice & other little friendly animals who help the fairy story people in their predicaments. But it had to be done, ants or not. I set Diana to the making of the ledger – we couldn’t even get an indexed book of sufficient size – and attached the [?] myself. We had two hours off, from 7 to 9, during which we dined with a man who had been out looking for his son and was reasonably cheerful under the circumstances, for I fear the boy is killed. By 9.30 the materials were ready & I began to fill in the ledger, Diana keeping me supplied. At midnight we broke off for 10 minutes, wished each other a happier New Year and ate some chocolates. At one, a young man of our acquaintance, seeing our lights, ran up to ask if he could help. I sent the [?] out & we packed him off with many thanks. At 2 I saw that another couple of hours would finish the task & we went to bed. I was back at 8.15, prepared the day’s work before the others came in, got it through speedily, and returned to my ledger. It was finished at 12.30 and handed over to Mr Cazalet with just an hour to spare. And so you see I had no time to think of all that the old year had taken away, nor yet of what the new year might have in store, & that was best. My dear, my dear, its best not to think of sorrow, and where can happiness lie for me? – That done we took a half holiday. We commandeered the office motor and drove to Le Touquet, some 20 miles away. It was streaming, but we loved getting out into the country, seeing the bare red brown willows by the water side, and the damp pine trees on the sand dunes. We took out some parcels to the Duchess of Westminster’s hospital & on the strength of this service were shown all over by the doctors, & a very beautiful place it is. Coming here Diana suggested that we should go round be Hardelot. We turned off into a narrow road and presently found ourselves confronted by an immense army transport traction engine, steaming along in the rain. We could not pass and it could not leave the road, so we took a plunge into the mud, it passed & stopped & hawled [sic] us out with ropes & chains! This happened twice & I began to see the difficulties of military commissariat service in this weather & on such tracks. It was dark when we reached Hardelot; we stopped to ask our way & found that the house at which we had stopped was one of the Indian hospitals, the Secunderabad. Our chauffeur, who considered that his mission in life that afternoon was to keep us amused, entered into talk with the English doctor who appeared in the doorway, and returned to us saying that he had proposed that we should go in to tea. The proposal, as I understand was the chauffeur’s. Nonetheless we accepted the invitation & were received with open arms by all the [?[ staff, English & Indian. One by one they dropped in to share the tea party and the talk, and when we excused ourselves for our boldness – they hadn’t the least idea who we were – they said pathetically that we didn’t know how much they liked it, nobody came to see them out there. Finally the P. M. O., Col. Zemmett Brown, & all his staff took us over the hospital – it was strictly illegal for we had no permit to see it from the Boulogne people – & Dick, oh my Dick, my heart went out to it all. There were the Sikhs & the Gurkhas, the Afridis & the Yats sitting cross legged on their beds & playing cards, & the cooks cooking separate Hindu & Mohammedan dishes over separate fires, and the good smell of ghee & [?] aromatic East pervading the whole. Every man had the King’s Xmas card fixed upon his bed and Princess Mary’s box of spices on the table beneath it. And the English men – all rather lonely, depayses Indian Englishmen, who wanted to talk about the gulf, & whether the 101st was in E. Africa & what had happened to them – of Peshawar & the Central Provinces, of the things I knew by knowledge or by instinct and Con by both. You realise what it was like to step into the East again. We parted the closest of friends with warm invitations to them to come to tea with us in Boulogne and eager assurances that they would. But they shall, for I shall go & see them again. The result of this dissipation was that today’s work was doubly heavy – but it was worth it – especially as there came an immense pile of lists from Paris. I did not get through them and ought to have gone back after dinner, but I resolved to trust to the luck of tomorrow afternoon, for I wanted to possess my soul for a little and talk to you. Dearest dearest I give this year of mine to you & all the years that shall come after it. Will you take it, this meagre gift – the year & me & all my thoughts & love.

Jan 2. 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. And when you walk in your garden I think it touches your feet. No, don’t thank me. Take your own, hold it & keep it – fold me into your heart. Dick, one thing troubles me – has troubled me since I wrote – a hateful impatient letter I wrote to you from me. You who love & know me, you will understand, won’t you, that sometimes this black flood is more than I can bear. And being so un[?]ly, & strained to breaking point, one, only once, a thread snapped & flicked back sharply against the hand I love. Forgive me my dear – but I can’t forgive myself. Today the sober pages of your letter have given me so much pleasure too. Why of course I like to hear of your days, hour by hour – what else in the world concerns me heart of my heart? Its fictitious living with you since I mayn’t have it in the other. And its to please myself, not you, that I write to you of all I do, to give myself the sense of sharing the hours & minutes with you, as I would share them day & night. Since I loved you I have never known the solitude I used to love, for you are with me without pause. For you & for you only, I am different from the creation I used to know as myself, that tired in turn of every human companionship & came back to itself, rejoicing to be alone. – If you could find it in your heart to love a quartermaster, can you love a clerk? For that’s what I have become. This week the work seems endless. I’m always racing to keep pace with it, yet it remains two fields ahead & I can’t catch it up, however straight I ride. Well I would rather have too little leisure than too much heaven knows, as long as I have time to write to you & be with you - & that I will always find. But I’m rather pining now for a spare hour now to write a political disquisition on Palestine for Herbert Samuel, the President of the Board of Trade. He wrote to ask me whether at the Dissolution of the Turkish Empire it would be possible to create a Jew state under our protection & satisfy the ardent wish of the Jewish race to repossess their own land. Its tempting, from my point of view, to try to create a buffer neutrality between our Egyptian frontier & the French Syria that will be. But yet – Jews, & a wholly Moslem peasantry; it’s difficult, I wish I could talk of it to you. But now I must go to bed. Goodnight, love me.

Jan. 4. I have had rather racing day. Diana went back to England & Flora took her place. The day they change places I usually have to do all the work, or rather I have to do over again everything that has been done by the new comer, lest she should have forgotten something. I often think I would rather do it all myself than wonder whether someone else has done it! However I have got all this main job into my own hands & there it shall remain. If you knew what it was like when I first came! & now we have in all but name the head office & the source of information. I hate things to be badly done – they are better not done at all. It’s a very little thing & yet it means so much work & close attention. Sometimes in that dead hour of mid-afternoon when one’s spirit fails most, I feel as if I must escape for a moment – out somewhere into the air, even into the rain. And then I remember what they are doing up there, our men, & take pleasure in the long monotony of my task, wishing only that it were longer & wearier for their sake. I am always so much afraid of the slowness of posts & of missing a mail to you, but I think I can risk another day before I send this letter. My mind feels as if it were rolled out flat tonight with the day’s work & I haven’t even quite got through my jobs for the day. I have given up the early morning walks by the sea – if I’m not in the office soon after 8 I Can’t prepare the work for them properly & then I feel rushed all day. And often I’m there till 8 at night – I was this evening. Dearest love me, even if it is a very dull me you have to love.

Jan. 5. I walked for an hour by the sea today after lunch, with Mr Howell – a soft fresh day with some wonderful breath of renewal in it – a wide heaven & an olive grey sea & the world turning in its sleep and dreaming of spring that is to come. He told me of a letter he had read this morning, one Yat to another at leave in India, a really remarkable account of a fight in which he had been engaged. But two [?] came back, said he, & they wounded – which may or may not have been true - & our wounded lying on the neutral ground between the trenches & crying aloud all day for water till they died – true enough probably. He bade his brother Yat pray for him & for peace for without peace not he or any would return alive. Yet there could be no peace, he said, for the nations have nailed up their ancient scores – that was his phrase, can you better it? But if such a letter as that reached India there would be trouble – when they hear of the slaughter that it is. And they will hear of it, for such letters must be written in every hospital, & the wounded are being sent home to tell the tale. It is time the Indian army returned & I think there will be trouble on the frontier presently which will be more than excuse for sending them back. Its near midnight. I have just come in from a peaceful & solitary two hours’ work at the office. The moon shone through shifting clouds onto the wet street – do you love me still? I am yours

Gertrude

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