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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

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Bell, Dame Florence Eveleen Eleanore
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Dobbs, Henry
Cox, Percy
Creation Date
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1 letter plus envelope, paper

30.5257657, 47.773797

Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)]. March 9 Dearest Mother. I wish I ever knew how long I were going to stay in any place or what I were likely to do next. But that is just the kind of thing which one never can know when one is engaged in the indefinite sort of job which I am doing. There is however a great deal of work to be done here. I have already begun to classify the very valuable tribal material which I find in the files at the Intel. Dept. and I think there are pretty wide possibilities of adding to what has been collected already. It is extraordinarily interesting; my own previous knowledge, though there was little enough of it, comes in very handy in many ways - as a check upon, and a frame to the new stuff I am handling. And I can't tell you how wonderful it is to be in at the birth, so to speak, of a new administration, to watch the tidying up of old rubbish heaps and to be able to see at last what exactly they were composed of. As yet I can only guess at these things, but I shall learn more about them I hope in time. Everyone is being amazingly kind. I have found myself, or rather I have been given a lodging, next door to Headquarters in the big house on the river which belongs to Gray Mackenzie and Co. That is most convenient, for I have only to step across the bridge over a little creek to get to my work. Today I lunched with all the Generals - Sir Percy Lake, General Cawfer, General Offley Shaw and General Money, and as an immediate result they moved me and my maps and books onto a splendid great verandah with a cool room behind it where I may sit and work all day long. My companion here is Captain CampBell Thompson, ex-archaeologist - I knew him in his former incarnation - very pleasant and obliging and delighted to benefit with me by the change of workshop, for we were lodged by day in Col. Beach's bedroom (he is the head of the I.D.) a plan which was not very convenient either for us or for him. The whole of Basrah is packed full, as you may understand when it has had suddenly to expand into the base of a large army. Finally I have got an Arab boy as a servant; his name is Mikhail, he comes from Mosul [Mawsil, Al] and promises to be very satisfactory, so that I am now fully and completely established. Sir Percy Cox  came back last night - he has been away at Bashire [Bushehr (Bushire)] - and he also is going to help me to get all the information I want by sending on to me any Arabs whom he thinks will interest me. Therefore if I don't make something of it, it will be entirely my own fault.
Today came a mail with Father's letters of Jan 27 and Feb 2 which were a great joy. I'm thankful to think that M. [Maurice] won't be back in France at any rate till the end of April and I devoutly hope that it may be longer, bless him. The relief it is to know that he is not fighting - ! It's a dreadful story about George White's poor little boy, I do trust he is all right. And dear Henry James! it's happier that he should have died, but I'm so sorry. We are a dreadfully great distance apart, but when your letters come straight to me here I shall get them a little quicker. I don't know how much mine are censored and find the doubt a great impediment to my style. We are living in rather an electric atmosphere. A rumour that Enver has been wounded, or more, has reached us, as well as further suggestions that the Turks may be going to give in. For the moment this possibility obscures for us even the horrible tales of the Verdun actions; the situation might develop very rapidly here and there is a feeling of changing tide which is exciting and disturbing. My days are however very uneventful. I work at G.H.Q from 8.30 to 12.30, come in to lunch, and go back there from 2 till near 6. Then, it being sunset, wonderfully cool and delicious, I walk for 3/4 of an hour or so through palm gardens - it's more like a steeple chase than a walk for the paths are continuously interrupted by irrigation channels, over some of which you jump while over the others you do tight rope dancing across a single palm trunk. I shall fall in some day, and though I shall not be drowned it will be disgustingly muddy. In about 2 months time we shall have blazing hot weather and it is quite possible that I may still be here therefore (I need not say!) I want you please to send me out some real hot weather clothes and I think I had better have the following, to be sent in small parcels by post - that's the secret way of getting them:

4 cotton voile gowns; these must be bought as I haven't got the sort of thing which is needed. They must be simply made so that they can wash easily, not too much trimming or elaborate fastenings. And they should be loose, no tight bands round the waist, for choice blue (not too light) or mauve, a plain colour or white with little stripes. If Moll is in London perhaps she would get them for me or Sylvia would certainly get them for me and she would be very clever about it. The Ladies Shirt Coy is where I generally go. They ought to cost about £4 a piece. Marie might slip them on - if they will fit her they will fit me. They must not be too long and I think she had better send me at the same time a couple of thinnish white petticoats just the length of the gowns and very simply made.

4 crepe de chine shirts, cream or pale pink, also quite simple, opening at the neck - Marie knows the kind of thing I like.

4 pairs of thin black thread stockings and 4 pairs of white ditto.

And if possible I should very much like a cream coloured lace gown to wear in the evening - not a low clingy[?] dress, but a sort of half and half thing that I can wear for dinner when it's very hot. It must be long, touching the ground all round. One can get absolutely nothing here of course. I can get from India the white gowns I've asked you to send for me to Mrs Shaw but it would be much better to have clothes that are loose at the waist - the heat in May is outrageous - and I think the present fashions admit of it, don't they? I mean they can be found. Hats don't matter as one can wear nothing but a sun helmet till it's too dark to signify what one wears.

2 yards of narrow black velvet ribbon such as I wear round my neck.

Some lace shirts Marie made me last summer - I think two of them are good enough to wear here in the evening. Would she make and send me a pair of tussore nickerbockers [sic]. And she might go to my staymaker and ask her to send me two pairs of very thin washing stays for hot weather - Mareyle is her name and she lives in Bond St.

Finally would you ask Callaghan to send me a pair of eyeglasses and a pair of spectacles slightly stronger than those I'm using. He had a prescription for two varieties, one a little stronger than the other of which I use now only the stronger - could he not make me some a little stronger still? I am forever doing fine map work which is very tiring to the eyes.

This sounds a terrible amount to ask for but suppose I want to stay on here it would be a great bore to add to the discomforts of heat by not having washing clothes and I should need them in Egypt if I did not need them here.

March 11. [11 March 1916] I dined last night with some American missionaries called Van Ess. She is a particularly nice and interesting woman; he is not quite so attractive, but he knows all the Arabs here and is going to put me on to people from whom I can get information, for which I shall be very grateful. I also saw Mr Dobbs - do you remember him? he is a cousin of Sir A. Lyall's, now a political officer here. We went for a long walk in the evening through the palm gardens and he told me about the new administration and what it was all like. He is the head of the Revenue office and so has been brought into very close knowledge of all the Turkish system. He says it was wonderfully lenient on the whole, and sensible, showing a very fair understanding of the people with whom they had to deal. In many ways we are taking hints from it. The difficulty here will be, I imagine, to create a native civil service, that work having been mainly in the hand of Turks. We had the same problem in Egypt, but not so acute since there we had not actually ousted the Turks - the administration remained nominally under the Ott. Govt. It rained today and walking in Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)] became a real feat of athletics, the roads being composed wholly of the constituents of pure mud. There is no getting about in the wet except by water, a fact which I have laid to heart after walking back from G.H.Q. this afternoon in imminent peril of a mud bath at every step. I had a long talk with my chief at the Intell. Dept. today and concocted some plans with him. It will be curious to see the results. Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

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