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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
Cox, Percy
Willcox, Henry
Maude, Frederick Stanley
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1 letter plus envelope, paper
Iraq ยป Samarra

34.1660043, 43.9055155

Samarra Nov. Dearest Mother. I wrote to you last week the day before I was to come up here with the I.G.C. We all dined that evening with Col. Dixon, the Director of Local Resources; the C. in C. was to have been there also but sent a message at the last moment to say he wasn't well. At the beginning of dinner Col. Wilcox [i.e. Willcox] was called away - an urgent case of illness, it didn't occur to anyone to ask who it was. Next morning before breakfast the I.G.C. came to my house and said that our departure must be postponed, the C. in C. was dangerously ill of cholera and was not expected to live. I flew round to Sir Percy - it was still very early - and found that he had not yet been informed. It was almost incredible to us all. There had been a little cholera in the town for some weeks past, nothing very serious but very widely distributed. There were a few cases among the troops and one officer had died last week. We had all been innoculated and thought no more about it. Certainly the last person likely to fall a victim was the C. in C. who saw no Arabs and scarcely even went into the town. He had been at the entertainment at the Jewish school the night before, but we all went there, drank coffee and eat cakes, and no one else was any the worse. So there it was - where he got the infection it is impossible to say. He rallied in the afternoon and was distinctly better next morning, well enough to receive a telegram from his wife and dictate an answer. Then his heart failed, he became unconscious and died in the evening. The I.G.C. came in after dinner and told me. It has had for him a tragic ending, the conquest of Baghdad, and yet how fortunate it is when the man dies before the name. There is a splendid sentence in Ammianus Marcellinus's history of that other conqueror who was mortally wounded N.E. of Ctesiphon, the Emperor Julian, and "praised the almighty God that he should die in the midst of glory fairly earned." General Maude was, I should think, a greater Commander, but the epitaph might be his. He was essentially a soldier; he had no knowledge of statecraft and regarded it as wholly unnecessary. He was self confident, and with good reason for he was so careful of details that he left no margin for failure. He depended on himself alone, no one had his confidence, and at this moment not one of his staff knows what were his future plans. If we had been in the midst of an active offensive, or still more if we had been hard pressed by the Turks, it might have gone very hard with us. As it is the Syrian victories have removed any immediate danger on this front. He was determined beyond the .... of obstinacy, a narrow intelligence confined to one channel and the more forcible for its concentration. I have heard many soldiers say that the advance on Baghdad was an extremely fine and bold piece of generalship. I knew him very little; he was always very polite and agreeable but not interesting. If he had lived there would have been a desperate tug of war when administrative problems began to become more important than military, and that moment was not, I think, very far off. At any rate the time was near when questions which he had insisted on regarding as purely administrative and therefore of no immediate concern from the military point of view, could no longer be neglected or treated on purely military lines. Circumstances must have forced his hand, but the process would have been painful and I am glad that the crisis was delayed. We all went to his funeral. He is buried in the new military cemetary outside the town, a bleak place not yet walled round. The burial service, always inadequate, sounded more than usually thin and unconvincing in that wide desert, and I found my mind wandering till the bugles sounded the roll call at the end - that indescribably stirring conclusion of a military funeral. Both the Corps Commanders had come up to Baghdad. In the evening Sir A. Cobbe telephoned to me and suggested that I should go back with him that night. I hadn't unpacked much so that in half an hour I was ready and after dinner I went across the river in the launch to General Lubbock who sent me to the station, in his motor. There I found the Corps Commander's carriage into which I put my camp bed and was asleep long before we started. When I woke we were half an hour from Samarra. It's the German railway you know; the first completed section of the line out of Baghdad. General Cobbe has built himself a little house, the architect being Kermit Roosefelt. There's a mess room, a kitchen, and one other little room in which I'm lodged, most comfortable with an open fireplace, a thing I haven't seen since Delhi. It has been grey and cold since I arrived, and I hear the first winter rain pattering on my corrugated iron roof at this moment. We had a cheerful breakfast with Richard, after which I had a bath and spent the rest of the morning looking at maps. We motored out to tea with General Hoskins who commands a Div., a delightful man, but the weather was disgusting, a furious duststorm. This morning I went to Samarra town, about 3 miles away, called on the notables and saw the sights. It is one of the Shi'ah holy places and contains the grave of the 11th Imam and the cave into which the 12th is said to have disappeared - to reappear in the fulness of time. When I was here in 1909, planning the ruins I didn't go much into the town which was full of a fanatical Persian population, but most of these have left for the duration of the war, and times are changed. It's a wonderfully picturesque little walled town with the huge golden dome of the shrine closing the vista, incongruously enough, in the narrow tumble down streets. I shall go back and photograph some morning when there is sun. We went out to the ruined mosque beyond the town - I planned it laboriously in 1909 - and got home to lunch after a very enjoyable morning. I shall stay here about a week - I rather hope Sir Percy will come up on a tour of inspection before I go. It's most pleasant and I feel sure that I shall be immensely better for the change. Richard is not very well - don't say this to Una. He looks all right, but he complains of nervious fatigue and it's clear that he dreads the possibility of a breakdown such as he had in France. He says he feels better today and I've no doubt it does him good to see someone from outside, but I don't feel happy about him; nerves are the devil in war time. Col. Wilcox talks of coming up shortly for a day or two and I shall ask him to keep an eye on Richard. I do hope he will be all right; he has got such a congenial job, and Sir A.C. is a charming chief. We don't yet know what is to happen to us, whether one of the Corps Commanders will take over, or whether they will send out a new man. The decision can't be long delayed - it will be deeply interesting to watch new conditions.
Oh there is such a good smell of rain - the first rain, this dry year since February. If only we have a good plash of it, it will mean a good harvest next spring. An early rain is the most important thing in this country; it gets all the desert growing and starts cultivation - the people can't begin to plough till it comes.

I've had a letter from you dated Oct 3 but I forgot to bring it - I don't think there was anything to answer. I thought you might feel rather anxious when you heard that the C. in C. had died of cholera and I asked Sir Percy to cable to you through the I.O. Rain will put an end to all the cholera there is. The Italian news is bad, Venice [Venezia] will be under the Austrians again and I wonder whether Italy will hold out. Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

I've just been vaccinated too, but it doesn't seem as if it were going to take.

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