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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
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1 letter plus envelope, paper
Iraq ยป Baghdad

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad March 28 Darling Mother. I came back to find your letters of Jan 14 and 23. I don't think I have ever told you - though it is constantly in my mind - how much I admire your fortitude and your splendid determination to suffer whatever must be suffered and not give way before the end is won. I think of you often as a model of patriotic devotion. You use no fine phrases and yet there's not one of us who has shown a finer spirit. Your letters scarcely give any hint of the weariness and the long strain which I can guess at. It's your courage which is so splendid and I can't tell you how much I admire and love it. You must all be in need of courage now, you in England. The great battle comes to us only in confused rumours, but you are living through it. I am left with a feeling that no one can be still alive in France, on either side but one can no more realize what it is like than one can visualize reckonings in millions. Yet it is surely the most awful ordeal through which mankind has passed. We have here a comfortable hope that the German attack will spend itself without decisive effect, but details we don't know.
A terrible cloud has fallen on our work here in the murder at Najaf [Najaf, An] of one of our young political officers - it seems absurd to talk of one death as a cloud, but we have felt it deeply. He was a brilliant creature; I personally was very fond of him and spent a delightful afternoon with him three weeks ago when I was at Kufah [Kufah, Al]. He had, I thought a great future, and I do most bitterly regret him. His murder has no kind of general political significance. There is a small band of infernal rogues in Najaf with whom we have always had difficulty. Public opinion is all against them, but they shelter behind the sanctity of their city and it is very difficult to exact punishment. They know this well and their boldness in evil doing is rooted in the conviction that they are safe from an attack which would imply outrage to the shrines of Najaf. It is almost an irony, though I have no doubt that it is a valuable coincidence, that just as reBellion has broken out among these villains we have driven the Turks far up the Euphrates and destroyed wholly the forces against us on that front. That will have a steadying effect on any discontented elements which may exist. But indeed there has been nothing but condemnation of the outrage. Capt. Marshall himself was much liked and I think he is genuinely regretted.

This tragedy cast a great gloom over the end of my journey, but I must tell you the remainder of my tale. I wrote to you from Samawah [Samawah, As] the day before I left. I came up the Hillah [Hillah, Al] branch of the Euphrates in a motor launch from Samawah to Diwaniyah [Diwaniyah, Ad], Capt. Goldsmith and a young survey officer came with me for the first couple of hours. We made a delicious start at dawn and in the clear radiant morning boiled our kettle in the launch and breakfasted sumptuously as we travelled up the river. How fortunate it is that our senses cover such a narrow field - it was just at that moment when we were rejoicing in the young day and the great river that Capt. Marshall was being assassinated in Najaf. The Hillah branch rejoins the western branch of Euphrates through several narrow channels, all blocked by native dams. We took the most navigable, but the first dam, which was a solid obstruction, gave us an exciting time. We had to force our way up a thread of a byepass with a swift current. Capt. Goldsmith steered and the rest of us walked and tugged at ropes, and so we got through. Here the two Englishmen left me and I went on alone with my servants and a couple of shaikhs. It was a very interesting journey through a rice growing country, thickly populated, the river flowing between low banks which it will presently overflow. I reached Rumaithah [Rumaythah, Ar], an attractive village standing among palms on the river's edge, about 1 and stayed the night there. We have a native mudir there and in his house two rooms set apart for Govt. officials on tour so that I was quite comfortable. The mudir, warned beforehand, had called in the local shaikhs and I spent a good part of the afternoon getting the tribal information of the district. Also I walked through the village with the mudir and all the notables - such as they were - and saw the sights which were not numerous. The river front is the best part of Rumaithah. We left next day at dawn, the mudir was my escort and I took back to their homes a couple of the shaikhs who had come in to see me the previous day. They lived an hour or two upstream. We all breakfasted in the launch. It was deliciously cold, a keen north wind, and on either side the country was green with crops. Later in the day we picked up another shaikh, a very good fellow and most useful to me because he could tell me exactly who and what the tribes were. In this way one gets a firm hold on tribal geography which is invaluable. After an hour or two the character of the river changed. The banks rose to some 20 ft and cultivation was restricted to narrow patches irrigated by laborious waterwheels. It was impossible to see anything of the surrounding country; every now and then I got out and looked over a landscape which never varied - a huge flat expanse, covered with greening camel thorn and green grass (for this is a wonderful spring, thanks to the rain) and strung out along the horizon ruins of native forts and villages which marked where the inland cultivation had been 20 or 30 years ago before this branch of the Euphrates diminished. About noon we reached the encampment of a nomad shaikh - the biggest man in that part of the world - black tents and flocks and everything complete, including the nomad welcome and the cup of bitter coffee. And he was doing a thing which nomads are very seldom known to do - he was digging a canal to water ancient cultivated lands far from the river. I won't say that the nomads did much of the digging, but at any rate they sat in their black tents and superintended other people, and I sat there too for a bit, making friends with Salan al Sha'lan and congratulating him on his praiseworthy, if vicarious, labours. We got to Diwaniyah about 4, running the whole way between high banks. It was somehow very attractive, the winding river with an occasional thicket of willows where the mud cliff stood back, or a grassy stretch sloping down to the water. But it was almost devoid of inhabitants. Diwaniyah is a little town standing in desert - all grass grown this spring. It almost went out of existence when the Euphrates chose to flow down the western channel and deserted the Hillah branch, but the building of the Hindiyah barrage has brought back some of the water and Diwaniyah will shortly revive. One sees signs of its former prosperity in isolated palm trees standing out in the wilderness where formerly there were gardens. We have a native agent there, hospitable, verbose and highly incomptetent - presently to be replaced by a British officer. He lodged me in his house, entertained me sumptuously and talked without ceasing. Lord! what periods of boredom I endured while he described to me the marvellous success which had attended his administration! But I listened with scrupulous politeness - may it be counted to me for good! I found on my arrival a letter from the P.O. Hillah telling me of Capt. Marshall's death; it was the first news which had reached Diwaniyah. I spent the following day there, hard at work on tribal stuff with the shaikhs who came in to see me. But in the middle of the day I rode out for an hour or two to see a neighbouring canal, new dug, and a shrine, newly repaired. My host accompanied me with a party of 19 mounted police, for honour, you understand, not for safety. I could have done with less, but in spite of them all the ride over the desert, green with aromatic plants was delicious. The smell of a desert in spring is like nothing in this world. Each night I held a levy of notables after dinner, a weary hour and a half during which we sat round and exchanged platitudes. The second night when I had listened to the praises of myself, my Government, and Salih Effendi (my host) until I could have wept with boredom, I was fortunately relieved (and brought to the verge of hysteria) by the entrance of an aged worthy whose appearance and conversation I must describe to you. His face was black with age, his beard scarlet with henna; the black and red were enfolded in a white turban of gigantic size. As he entered we all gave him salutations which were repeated when he had sat down. Talk then flagged until he took up his tale. "As I came in" said he "as I entered the very door, without a pen I composed a verse - without a pen." Ejaculations of surprise and admiration fell from the company and we begged to be acquainted with the production. He raised his ancient bony hand as though he would bid the world listen, and in a cracked voice recited 3 times running an egregious couplet to the effect that all had learned humanity and justice from the High Government and that the coming of the Khatun (me) had filled the universe with joy. After the third recital I felt it my duty to write it down - seeing that he had had no pen. Also I had to find some excercise [sic] which would help me to preserve an unmoved countenance. The rest of the hearers overflowed with praise and a general hope was expressed that please God - with His help the Haji would that night be able to complete the ode so felicitously begun. But whether he did or not, I don't know, for I fled from Diwaniyah in a motor very early before the notables were awake. The motor had been provided for me by the Political Officer, Hillah and I got in there in time for a late lunch. It was a roughish road, especially the last bit where we skirted a wide and beautiful bit of cultivated country near the river and crossed innumerable, boggy and hastily bridged canals. I finished up my tribal notes in the afternoon and motored in to Baghdad next day.

The I.G.C. has been up for a couple of days, cheerful and cheering as ever. Also whom do you think I have seen? Driver Woodcock, Mrs Taggart's grandson. He has come up to the base here and paid me a long call. He is very like Mrs T. to look at. I was really glad to see him and talk about Clarence. He has got something the matter with his heart and isn't fit for anything but work at the base. I gave him some cigarettes and a book of mine which he asked for, and today I've got him some razors and things from the Red X.

There I must tell you, I'm a person of great consequence, for Father's launch is beating all records. It is said to be tonight at 'Anah far away up Euphrates with the advance. I wish I were with it. I should like to see 'Anah again.

Father's letter of Jan 15 came also by last mail. I wish you wouldn't both of you write me such splendidly long letters. Though I love them I ache to think of you doing that on top of all other things. And Father's account of his week's work is really appalling - the billiard table groaning with his papers.

I also got your wire about the Geog. Soc.'s medal. It was an absurd thing to give me - they must have been very hard up for travellers this year. I haven't answered about coming home because I've written on the subject and sent the letter by Sir Percy. I'm slowly making up my mind to come, but I don't think I can go till he gets back and that won't be till June. I'm afraid it will be the Devil's own hot journey. But they will have to make reasonable arrangements for me. I can't face going round by the Cape; it's too long. I shall love to see you, but I wish it were not so far.

What will have happened by June? I suppose really nothing, as usual. We shall be as were[?], with a great many more casualties. Well, perhaps that's the best that can be hoped. Ever dearest parents your very affectionate daughter Gertrude.

For once I've written a respectably long letter too.

The enclosed has just reached me, from the sister of the Armenian Patriarch, with a present of cakes and preserved fruit. My own thankfulness feelings would be greater if the cakes were not so tough.

IIIF Manifest