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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

Bell begins by providing an update on the ongoing situation relating to the creation of a Kurdish state, noting that King Faisal will not oppose an autonomous Kurdish government within the boundaries of Iraq provided the Kurdish provinces are not politically or economically separated from it. Bell predicts a Turkish attack from the north in the event of the breakdown of the Treaty of Lausanne, stating that Turkish troops and military stores have been concentrated here, and commenting on French relations with the Turks. She also provides an overview of her own activities, noting her attendance at a state dinner held by Sir Percy Cox for King Faisal and the Cabinet. and adding that she has been made Godmother to the son of Major Goldsmith.
Reference code
Bell, Sir Thomas Hugh Lowthian
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Dobbs, Henry
Cox, Percy
Cornwallis, Ken
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad Dec 31. Darling Father. Well, we had a delightful week. We left on the morning of the 21st, Mr Davidson, Mr Cornwallis, (down from Mosul [Mawsil, Al]) and I, and travelled regally in a large saloon specially provided for us by the kind Director of Rlys. Two servants and a cook we took with us and plenty of honey so to speak, indeed too much for we found such a lot provided wherever we went. One sad thing happened: at Hillah [Hillah, Al] we crossed the Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)] train and in it was Aurelia coming up to Baghdad for Xmas. We had just time to embrace fervently on the platform before her train left. She doesn't like Basrah at all - I wish she could come back here.
We got to Diwaniyah [Diwaniyah, Ad] after 6 and presently Major Jeffries, the Divisional Adviser, turned up with motors and carried us all off to his house for the night. Very comfortable it was but by the time we had transplanted all our luggage and servants, and washed and changed, and exchanged compliments with the Mutasarrif and the leading inhabitants, it was 9 o'clock, and hungry we were when dinner came. Next day in glorious weather we set off on our way. Major J. had made the most excellent scheme for us; we dropped about half our baggage in his house and the rest, with ourselves, was transported in relays to the edge of the Hor, about 1½ hours by motor to the west. Our party was increased by the Diwaniyah doctor, Capt McCleod, a charming boy, and a Baghdad doctor, Dr Woodman, whom we all considered rather a vulgar fellow. But he did us no harm.

You know the configuration of 'Iraq, how the rivers run along the ridges and the valleys lie between? Our destination was the Shamiyah [Shamiyah, Ash] channel of the Euphrates, which runs parallel to the Mishkhab channel you and I went down with the Fatlah shaikhs. The geography is roughly: [illustration] The motor road cut through to Umm al Ba'rur, so at the Hor we left our motors, Major Jeffries and I mounted ponies, while the rest walked and shot partridges, and the luggage and servants went by boat through the Hor ibn Najam [Ibn Najm, Hawr] to 'Abdul Sadah's village where we were to stay. At Umm al Ba'rur we found lunch waiting for us in the house of Ezra Effendi an amiable and respectable old Jew, the kindest and wisest man in all the country side. He was a great friend of Capt Mann. Boats were ready and when we had eaten heartily we stepped into them and polled up the river, stopping at any likely place on the banks to get out and shoot.

The Shamiyah] Channel is much more beautiful than the Mishkhab. Willows and Euphrates poplars fringe the river, their red gold and amber frothing round the stiff green palms. The little straw villages lie closely in these woods and the white sails glitter down the river. Over all was a glorious sun shining through fresh keen air and we plunging through the willows and the russet scrub, jumping over or into innumerable water courses felt again the vigourous enchantment of that delightful place the world. Black partridge were plentiful and by sunset there were heaps of birds in our boats. We still had a couple of hours or more to go, so we packed ourselves in warmly with all the furs we had with us and floated up the river to the mouth of 'Abdul Sadah's canal. There was a good hour or more down it, the most enchanting part of the way. The tall willows leant over the channel, the little quarter moon didn't interfere with the shining of the stars and our paddles rippling the water broke the reflection into a thousand twinkling lights.

'Abdul Sadah, like everyone else, lives in a large straw tunnel but he had placed at our disposal a little square straw house furnished with carpets, benches and cushions, brilliantly lighted with lamps and warmed by a big charcoal brazier. There was even a table for us to dine on and of course an enormous dinner prepared. But - the servants and luggage hadn't come and we were wet through as to the feet and extremely muddy as to the clothes. Nothing daunted we dried ourselves at the brazier - I had to abandon shoes and stockings, they were so wringing wet - and it then being 9 o'clock we sat down without more ado to 'Abdul Sadah's lordly meal. And when we had finished, just as we were making up our minds to go to sleep on the carpets, in came the luggage. My bed was up in a twinkling in the straw house, and the men slept in the tunnel, comfortably enough I gather. But not for long. At 4 a.m. we were up again and after a hasty cup of tea, jumped into our boats and paddled down to the Hor. It was wonderful in the still night. The only sound was the talking of the geese whom we were out to kill. But we didn't kill them - they were a great deal too many for us. Dawn was just beginning to break as we reached the Hor, the flocks of geese were rising, with immense chatter and disturbance, stringing out in long beautiful patterns across the pale sky, but ever so far above our heads. In the cold dawn we jumped out of our boats into a wide desolate island in the middle of the Hor. There we scattered and finding what cover we could lay and watched the geese flighting. They were never really within shot, but that didn't make any difference to the beauty of it and for my part I couldn't tire of seeing the kingfishers hunting their breakfast in their delightful fashion. We got in at 11 to an enormous breakfast of our own and immediately afterwards set off snipe shooting, not with very great success, but we managed to get extremely wet as usual. By this time 'Abdul Sadah had put me up a tent in which I had a hot bath after tea and I finished the day by strolling down with to a nice dry place over which the ducks came flighting after sunset and you shot them as they appeared against the red western sky. A nice day wasn't it.

And then when we woke next morning, Sunday 24, it was just beginning to rain and the whole world was leaden. We had very little hope of its clearing but we determined to wait a few hours and spent the morning playing Bridge. The rain didn't come through our straw house. But at noon it began to stop; by the time we had lunched it was gorgeously fine again and we got into our boats and went happily back to Umm al Ba'rur, shooting all the way along the banks.

'Abdul Sadah, I must tell you, is also one of the Fatlah. Three months ago we bombed him and his brother 'Ibadi, who lives on the next canal, because they obstinately persisted in cutting off the water from a gentleman on the other side of the Hor, thereby ruining his rice crop, as was indeed their object. 'Abdul Sadah's mud fort was destroyed and I think 'Ibadi's also, but neither of them evinced the slightest rancour and indeed I fancy they thought they had got no more than they deserved. They entertained us with princely hospitality and perfect manners and gave us many assurances that they had entirely mended their ways and intended in future to play a peaceful role in the Arab state. They are able men, both of them, and powers for good or evil in the land.

We spent the night with Ezra Eff - it was lucky to have a good solid house for the world was damp after the rain. Such hot baths he gave us too!

Xmas day was perhaps the best day we had, weather and sport and good spirits. We went by boat down the river, shooting all the way, till we got to the mouth of a loop canal, the Abu Tibu (Father of Straw) on which lives the paramount shaikh of the Khaza'il, Salman al Dhahir. The Khaza'il are very great tribal people, the greatest in the 'Iraq except the Sa'dun and Salman has been our staunchest friend ever since the taking of Baghdad, a charming old man, wise and dignified. He had put up an excellent tent for me; we got another for Mr Davidson and Mr Cornwallis, and the other men slept in the madhif (the straw tunnel) which was also our dining room. alas, had been obliged to go back from Umm al Ba'rur. Salman's straw village lies between the canal and the Hor which at this time of year is a couple of hundred yards away, but when the water rises it comes right up to his huts and the village stands on a tiny island. What we wanted to do was to shoot duck on the Hor, not to speak of geese, and we went out in tiny canoes an hour before sunset to prospect. It was a delicious Hor full of beautiful flowering reeds and alive with waterbirds - not much less alive after our visit, I'm sorry to say. We got to the other side after sunset. The geese and ducks were flighting in thousands, but all in the top of the sky. Nevertheless it was enchanting coming back under the moon and stars across the quiet Hor. The reeds brushed your boat softly, a sleepy goose raised his voice, a coot bustled over the water with noisy awkward flight and you lay in your boat and listened and wondered.

Next morning we were out again on a wild goose chase, at the same hour as before and with the same results. We returned however with a few couple of duck. We spent the afternoon snipe shooting with much greater success; there were hundreds of them, and we got inconceivably wet plunging after them through the reeds and canals. And after tea we went out for duck again, a very restful process. We got a few.

Next day, Wed 27, we turned back. There was a heavy mist over the river and got fewer birds than usual. It cleared about noon as we were shooting through some beautiful woods. We didn't go as far as Umm al Ba'rur, but turned off where the Chibsah Hor comes down to the river and went all up it and the Gharban till we came to our starting place on the Hor ibn Najam where we found the motors waiting.

So back to Diwaniyah where we washed and changed and dined with the Mutasarrif ('Abdullah Beg, he is the son of Ahmad Pasha with whom you dined at Basrah, and I think quite the best of our younger men - he speaks very good English too.) Our saloon was waiting for us so we went to bed in it and were hitched onto the train at 3 am, a most comfortable arrangement. And at midday on Thursday 28 we were back in Baghdad, disgracefully sun and wind burnt, cheerful, fat and healthy.

I went straight to the office and finding Sir Percy engaged had a pleasant talk with Sir Henry Dobbs who had arrived while I was away. He is staying at the Residency and I see him every day at lunch but I haven't yet had much time to discuss things with him. He is dining with me tonight to meet Mr Cornwallis and Mr Davidson and I hope we shall have a good talk. He is very friendly and nice, anyway, and gave me good accounts of you and Mother.

Jan. 5. [5 January 1923] Yes, we had a very pleasant dinner. I got hold of Mr Edmonds also, in from Kirkuk, and we had a long and profitable discussion of the Kurdish situation. The position now is that all along the eastern frontier the Kurds have become convinced that the Turks aren't going to be any use to them - indeed the Turks have definitely said that they won't contemplate Kurdish independence. The pro-British party has therefore come into the ascendant and have constrained Shaikh Mahmud to toe the line. (I had a telegram of congratulations from him at Xmas signed King of Kurdistan, Mahmud - pas dÇgoutÇ!) Faisal has told them that the 'Iraq Govt will favour the setting up of an autonomous Kurdish Govt within the boundaries of 'Iraq as long as this does not imply the political or economic separation of the Kurdish provinces - something of the nature of Austria-Hungary (absit omen!) is what they contemplate. So for the moment the Kurdish kaleidoscope in that quarter has assumed a more favourable pattern and the Turks are at a discount. This is as well, for if Lausanne breaks down, as seems very probable, we shall almost certainly have to meet an attack from the north, where the Turks are concentrating troops and military stores, and it will take us all our time to do so. Things look pretty black. It looks as though the French, may they be eternally damned, are going to patch up matters with the Turks in order to make a niche to us for not supporting their outrageous claims on Germany.
I had visitors all the morning on New Year's Day, and then a very successful luncheon party, the Joyces, Capt Clayton and Sir John Salmond. At the end of it tumbled in darling old Majid Shawi, formerly Mayor of Baghdad and now Mutasarrif of Dulaim. Capt Clayton and I were enchanted to see him and he stayed till it was time for me to go to tea with the King. A long talk before dinner with Mr Cornwallis ended the day - oh dear, I wish our future were a little more rosy!

On the 2nd Sir Percy gave a state dinner to the King and the Cabinet - the very first time he has invited the Cabinet. I had hinted they would like it and was very glad to find that he had adopted the suggestion. The Air Force, Mr Cornwallis and I were the only other guests. I think the Ministers enjoyed it - I feel sure the one who was sitting by me did. He was an old Shi'ah who had never to my knowledge dined in a European house before. He behaved with the utmost decorum and loved the plum pudding.

In the afternoon I stood godmother to the little son of Major Goldsmith - oh, please will you next time you're in London, buy me a little silver porridge bowl for him and have it inscribed "David Armstrong Goldsmith from his Godmother Gertrude Bell, Jan 2, 1923). I hope it won't be more than ú5.

Beyond that I've done little except put myself out for a silly and ignorant American girl whom the Van Esses sent to me with a warm letter of introduction. I took her to see the King on Wed. and had some of the Ministers to tea to meet her yesterday so I think I honoured Mr van Ess's draft but I hope he won't send me such another.

I'm so very sorry about Hanagan - I'm writing a word to Jack.

Darling Father, may there be many more happy years, less full of worries than the last. I look back to our fortnight together as the outstanding episode in it - what a perfect time we had. My love and good wishes to all my family and very special love and blessings to Mother. Ever your very devoted daughter Gertrude Bell

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