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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

Letter in which Bell briefly discusses British politics before providing an account of her recent shooting trip. Bell ends by that she has been invited to an official dinner with King Feisal, his Cabinet and advisors
Reference code
Bell, Sir Thomas Hugh Lowthian
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Cornwallis, Ken
Dobbs, Henry
Cox, Percy
Eskell, Sassoon
Wilson, J.M.
Clayton, Iltyd
Bourdillon, Bernard Henry
Cooke, R.S.
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Eskell, Sassoon
Saud, Abdulaziz ibn
Askari, Ja'far al-
Sa'id, Nuri al-
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad. Dec. 31. Darling Father. I found your letters of Dec 5th and 12th when I came back from Babylon and Mother's of the 12th. I can't tell you whether air mail or overland got in first because I was away, but usually both get in on Saturday and on the whole the planes are more likely to be late than the motors. But then we have had a very fine winter. If it had been rainy the motors would have been more often delayed.
The tale of your electioneering activities left me breathless. I feel quite sure you were de fust and I feel very proud of you. It was much more useful and also better fun than standing for the City, wasn't it?

Things point to Labour's coming into office eventually and really I'm not sorry. They can't do anything harmful since they must call for Liberal support and they'll begin to learn that it's not, after all, so easy to carry on Govt as it looks from the Opposition benches. However what I intend to write about is our doings.

On Friday night - and we were leaving on Sunday - we suddenly learnt that Mr Pritchard couldn't get away and Capt Clayton had been kicked in the leg playing polo and couldn't come either, and to our horror we were left with 2 guns. However I had a happy thought - I suggested Zaid and an A.D.C. Zaid was enchanted and he proved the most delightful companion. I can't tell you what a dear he is. Such a little sportsman, never tired or bored, a very good average shot, and his manners perfection. Full of little jokes, just the kind of little jokes you need on a party of that kind. As for instance, the ADC, Rasim, a good fellow but a bit of a toper though in quite a decent way - too accustomed to it to be ever drunk - the great joke at dinner was to urge him to have "one big one" i.e. a whiskey and soda in which the whiskey was from a third to a half the component part. Rasim readily complied with effects nil.

We sent the servants and luggage by train and at 6 a.m. on Sunday, Ken called for me in a car - sharply cold it was in the early morning. We joined Nigel and Zaid at the Maude Bridge and motored to Mahmudiyah [Mahmudiyah, Al] half way to Hillah [Hillah, Al] where we shot Muhammad Dulaimi's marsh - I had been there once, perhaps you'll remember, with the King. But the canal had meantime overflowed and the marsh had turned into a wide shallow lake so that it was very difficult to get at the rushes where the snipe lived. After a couple of hours' walking we decided to have a duck drive, Shaikh Muhammad providing the boys to beat through the water. But a strong south wind was blowing up and the ducks wouldn't play - we only got 5 or 6. We walked down to the next drive, one of the Arabs carrying me when the water got deep. He made a little tuneless song about it: "I carry the Khatun, the Khatun. She's not heavy; the Khatun is very light. I carry the Khatun." Aren't they nice people.

By this time the wind had turned into a dust storm and we got nothing at all, so we went back to the cars and seeking shelter behind them, eat a gritty lunch. It was clearly best to go on, so I got into Zaid's car - he was very eager to be told all about the country - and in half an hour the dust storm ended and the world became all shining again. At the next village, Mahawil [Khan al Mahawil], we met the Mutasarrif, the Administrative Inspector (Capt Flaxman) and the Arab Inspector of Police, all come out to greet us and tell us where the black partridge were to be found. We shot two places, the second just under the northern mound of Babylon and got a few brace. There were plenty of birds but they were rather wild. By this time it was sunset and we motored on to Babylon where - would you believe it - we found that the Mutasarrif, Naji Beg Shaukat, had furnished the German house from top to toe - carpets, beds, wooden chairs and tables, all the glass, and crockery. And what's more he had provided our first dinner which he shared with us after we had had baths and changed. Each of us had a room to himself, and there was a sitting room and dining room besides. We had brought our own bedding and petroleum stoves - it was luxury. We told Naji Beg where we were going to shoot for the next 5 days and he undertook to warn the shaikhs, where necessary, so that they might provide beaters.

On Monday 24th we were off again soon after 6, I with Nigel this time for Ken's car broke down and Zaid had to give him a lift. Nigel is a good creature but dreadfully colourless - I find two hours' motoring with him is enough, and I had four that day! We went down to the bridge Bellow Kifl [Kifl, Al] - you remember we crossed it coming up from Najaf [Najaf, An]. 'Abbasiyah is its name. We collected beaters in the little village at bridgehead and walked down the right bank of the arm of the Euphrates called Abu Shorah for 3 hours. It was glorious. The sun grew hotter and hotter as we walked through the golden poplar thickets and the green tamarisk scrub and thorns where the partridge lie. We got 55 brace to 3 guns - Rasim is nothing of a shot and that day didn't hit a bird. At the last we reluctantly decided we must turn back, crossed the river and shot a gorgeous island, at the end of which the birds rose in great coveys. Unfortunately we had neglected to take any food with us, so having shot 3 hours down we shot 3 hours up and were rather hungry and thirsty before we got back to the cars. Not that it mattered; we had had such tremendous fun that nothing mattered. Also Mr Yapp deserves a testimonial, for he had made me such a fine pair of boots, lacing up to the knees, that though, as a rule, my skin comes off if you so much as look at it, after 6 hours' hard walking I wasn't even rubbed. My costume, I must tell you, was a most successful creation - brown boots up to the knees and a brown tweed tunic down to them. We got back to Babylon an hour after sunset, washed, dined and went to bed. The whole 6 days we were there we never saw Babylon by daylight. We were off an hour before sunrise - aided by a full moon - and home after nightfall.

On Tuesday we went to the gardens of Haji Shukri Beg, on the tail of a canal that takes off the Hillah branch of the Euphrates. It was Xmas Day and the Flaxmans made holiday and came with us. She's a terrific woman, Mrs Flaxman. She never stops talking and at the end of hours you can't recall a word she has said, for it was all about nothing. However, she didn't bother anyone but her husband with whom she walked, or rather behind whom she trailed, for she found our walking much too much for her and gave up after lunch. Zaid took me, Ken's car being still out of action. It was an extremely nice place. We shot the edges of the palm gardens and the desert scrub along the canal and we got over 100 birds, Ken, as usual, getting half the bag to his gun. It's beautiful to see him shoot. We had with us that day Shaikh 'Addai of the Albu Sultan who is one of the people I like best. He has been our friend since the first; he stood firm in 1920, one of the half dozen tribesmen on the Euphrates who remained with us. He is splendid to look at, spare and tall with a face like a hawk. He is far from being a good shot - his usual bag is 4 or 5 - but he is very keen and he came with us every day afterwards, greatly adding to our pleasure by his charming presence.

Taught by experience, we carried with us a canvas pailful of sandwiches and beer bottles, which gave us a most welcome snack at midday, for we didn't get back to lunch at Haji Shukri Beg's house till nearly 2. He had put up a tent for us, spread with carpets, and he gave us a delicious meal. He's a darling old thing. He was in our service during the whole period of the occupation and has done many a useful job since. He, too, was staunch in 1920 and his gardens were much damaged by the insurgent tribes. He received no compensation - we had no money for compensation - and he remains our devoted adherent.

We shot for another hour after lunch and then motored home. It was a good Xmas day spent with friends.

But the next was almost better. We went to Shaikh 'Umran al Zanbar on the tails of the Mahawil canal. 'Umran, Shaikh of the Albu 'Ali, was another of the half dozen; he was with us in Hillah during the siege of that town. He is a huge, heavy man, with a smile that illuminates the universe - oh, I must send you my photograph of the group after lunch; the names are written on the back, and also another of my masterpieces - Ken shooting. Isn't it fine?

You remember the desolate waste of the Hillah road, don't you Father? Well, you motor half an hour down the Mahawil canal - the Mutasarrif had busily repaired the road for our cars - and you come into a paradise. Peopled villages, golden poplars along the canal, gardens, cornfields, indescribable beauty and quantities of birds - we got about 50 brace. 'Umran put up the finest show for us; his beaters were unsurpassed and he toiled along beside us for 4 hours while we strode through the thorns. The sweat poured down his face and "I shall sleep for two days after this" he said. Lunch we had in the house of one of his tribesmen, 'Abdul Karim al Faris, out on the desert edge. He had put up a great tent for us to rest in, but the lunch was in the mud brick house, spread on the ground in true Arab fashion, and an excellent meal it was. The afternoon in the gardens was even better than the morning in the desert thorns. The cultivated ground under the palm trees was full of birds and we went rejoicing through it, scrambling over the high mud walls and jumping the canals, while 'Umran, safely mounted on a sober mare, rode down the paths beside us. We shot that day till sunset nearly.

I'm not sure that Thursday wasn't the best day of all. We went to Kifl and shot down towards 'Abbasiyah through the tribe of 'Umran al Haji Sa'dun, Shaikh of the northern Bani Hasan. I wonder if you've forgotten the day we motored from Hillah to Tuwairij [Hindiyah , Al (Tuwayrij)] where Major Tyler gave us a launch down to Kufah [Kufah, Al] when we went to Najaf? 'Umran came in to Tuwairij to see me and beg me not to let Major Tyler go on leave that year. "If he goes it will not be good" he said, over and over again. He went, and it wasn't good. 'Umran held out till after the disaster to the Manchester column in July; then he broke and the whole Hindiyah channel broke with him. He was one of the first to give himself up after Sir Percy arrived, even before, I think. I like him, though I know he's not to be trusted - he'll always back the winning horse. It doesn't matter now, since we're the winning horse and he knows it well. He walked with us all day and he gave us splendid sport. He and I marshalled the beaters through the thick poplar groves and there was a triangle when the Hindiyah parts into the Kufah and Abu Shorah branches, where we had the best of all our shoots. We beat the birds before us through deep tamarisk and at the end they rose from high banks and sailed across our line down the streams. The water was strewn with them and there were little boats Bellow to pick them up. We were so excited that we shot on for 5 hours, apologizing to 'Umran for the weariness we caused him. "There is no weariness in your service" he would reply gallantly.

It was 2 o'clock before we were ready to cross the river, back to his reed guest houses where we found his brother 'Alwan, Shaikh of the southern Bani Hasan, and also a superb lunch. The Mutasarrif and the local Mudir were waiting hungrily with Rasim who had not shot that day. We shot back to Kifl where we arrived a little before sunset and very sleepily packed ourselves into our cars. In the black darkness Ken and I were wakened by being bumped into a deep hole but the faithful 'Addai was behind us and his chauffeur, as far as I could make out, lifted the car on his back, while we, all pushing and straining, heaved it forward and got out.

Next day, Friday, we varied the proceedings by going up river in a government launch - very delicious it was after the jolting cars. We went up to the mouth of the Mahawil Canal where there is an excellent piece of ground, scrub and gardens, Bellonging to some Sunni saiyids who all hurried out to guide us to the best places; delightful people. "The Khatun hasn't honoured us before" they said in explanation. Nor had I . There were lots of pig; 'Addai was immensely excited and tried to shoot them with the cartridges he was using for black partridge and hares - I need not say without success. But one of them, irritated by these proceedings, nearly went for Zaid. It was a south wind, rather dusty day; not very nice and difficult shooting - we got only about 70. But it was very pleasant coming down stream again in the launch at sunset.

The Mutasarrif was at Babylon waiting to say goodbye. We bathed changed and dined, and then motored to Hillah station where most of our luggage had gone already and saloons were waiting for us. The express picked us up at 4 a.m. on Saturday and we got in to Baghdad at 6.30.

Altogether I think no more delightful expedition has ever been made in the 'Iraq.

I found Sir Henry rather disgruntled at having been kept in Baghdad by social duties, but humourously disgruntled. Nothing particular had happened, except this (it didn't lose in Sir Henry's telling): he had finally made up his mind that Shaikh Mahmud of Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As], who had been busily carrying on intrigues with the Turks, interspersed with offers to win over the Persian Kurds to the British Govt, must be bombed. Accordingly on Xmas Day, the Air Marshal himself sallied forth with the utmost secrecy; he flew over Sulaimani 150 ft from the ground, spotted Shaikh Mahmud's house, dropped countless bombs on it and flew back congratulating himself on having made an end of the rogue. Next day came a telegram from Shaikh Mahmud saying that he was in the best of health and couldn't understand why we had bombed Sulaimani. That's all we know at present.

On Sunday I had Mr Keeling to lunch (Turkish Petroleum Co) and an interesting talk; I went out walking with dear Lionel Smith, Capt Clayton came to tea and stayed two hours and a half, and Ken Cornwallis to dinner to talk over shoots and present politics.

I was in the office a few hours this morning to see Bernard, but everyone went away before noon, and Mr Keeling coming in I made him take me home. Sabih Beg, just back from the Kuwait [Al Kuwayt] Conference with Ibn Sa'ud's representatives, came to see me after lunch to tell me all about it - extremely interesting. I think the 'Iraq will get all she wants and Sabih Beg has certainly done very well.

Now everyone but me has gone to a fancy dress ball and I'm ending the year by writing to you.

I must tell you a curious problem that arose - I hope you'll think I decided rightly. Tomorrow Sir Henry gives an official dinner to the King, Cabinet and Advisers, a male dinner. He told me about it before I went to Babylon and I made no comment except approval. When I came back I found an invitation to myself so I went to him and asked him, as man to man, whether he wanted me to come. He said "Yes, of course, if you won't feel smothered." I said that I thought, as a high official in his office, I was sexless and that I ought to come and would. Nigel, Bernard and Ken all agree with me. Sir Percy, on these occasions (levies and so on) always treated me simply as an official and I don't think there's any other way. So I'm going, "uniform and orders"; no, not uniform. But then most of the ministers haven't got either.

And here's a mot of Marie's. "Il faut que je donne Ö Mademoiselle les plus Bellles chemises de nuit" she observed as she packed. "Mais pourquoi, Marie?" said I. "C'est une partie de chasse." "Nur al Din les verra" Marie replied firmly as she packed pink crepe de chine. Nur al Din is Ken's Sudanese servant - I hope he was duly impressed.

Jan. 3. [3 January 1924] Letters from you and Mother dated Dec 19 reached me yesterday - I expect holidays delayed mails. Your forecast of the political future was particularly interesting and your d........ on principles no less. I need not say I entirely agreed with it.
I spent New Year's day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. receiving visitors, with an interval for lunch to which came Mr Cooke. It was fatiguing but I felt rewarded when one of my guests observed with satisfaction "The habits of the Khatun are like ours - she sits at home on the 'Id to receive congratulations." The dinner party at the Residency was a very swell affair. I wore my best gown, our diamond tiara, Mother, and all my orders. The King in dark blue uniform with the Hijaz star and the collar of the Victorian Order (the very same collar that was returned by the German emperor!) Sir Henry with the pale blue ribbon of the Star of India, Sir John covered with decorations, Colonel Vincent ditto, Ken C.I.E., D.S.O. and Col. Slater with his new CMG. Of the Arab Ministers only Ja'far and Nuri have orders, yes, and 'Ali Jaudat with the Hijaz Nahdhah. Uniform, in the case of the two Shi'ahs, was a brown abba, but I like seeing them among us dressed in their own way. I sat between Ja'far and Haji Muhsin Shalash, Ja'far being on the left hand of H.E., and was well placed for they are both so nice to talk to. After dinner the King called me up and talked eagerly till he left about 11. He had been much entertained because the Minister of Education, a Shi'ah 'alim, had drunk the King Emperor's health in a bumper of champagne, thinking, perhaps not reluctantly, that it was obligatory.

I went to tea with H.M. next day - he was very delightful. First we had in 'Ajil al Yawar, the greatest of all the 'Iraq shaikhs and a man I love - he is just back with Sabih Beg from the Kuwait [Al Kuwayt] Conference, which, as we anticipated, hasn't come to much, King Husain, the old reprobate, sent no representative at all, 'Abdullah sent a madman who, said Sabih, couldn't be got to understand anything. Our delegation shone forth, put their case very reasonably and offered to refer all disputes to the High Commissioner and the Resident in the Persian Gulf - to the British Govt in short. Ibn Sa'ud's delegates would not take the responsibility of accepting and went back to consult him. I'm thankful that Sabih is back for we want him badly in the Cabinet and now I shall get my Antiquities Law passed at last. He says Ibn Sa'ud is in a very tight place - no money, two years' drought in Najd [(Nejd)] and can't keep his tribes together. He is also ill. He laid strict orders on his delegates not to do anything that would anger the British. Sabih thinks we can make him accept any terms which we think reasonable.

After 'Ajil left I had a heart to heart with the King on various matters - he was very outgoing. Then I went to see Sasun who has been in bed with a touch of bronchitis and had a very nice talk with him. I gave him a copy of the Sargent photograph with which he is delighted. And by the way, I think I must have two more - Sir Henry expresses great dissatisfaction at not having received one, and I might also give one to the King - or would you like to? I gave the 4 you sent me to Sasun, Bernard Bourdillon, J.M. Wilson and Capt Clayton, having them framed here.

Ja'far sends you his grateful and respectful thanks for your congratulations which I duly delivered - very special thanks and gratitude to you, very special, he said. He is not, I gather, an efficient President of Council, but he's so loyal and so eager to do his best, bless him.

I'm finishing this letter in the office and I've stupidly left at home the photographs of the shooting party. You shall have them next week together with one of my dear 'Ajil, a smiling giant. I'm glad you liked the beautiful picture of 'Audah.

One of my Shi'ah friends, Shaikh Kadhim Dajaili, has gone to London to teach in the School of Oriental Languages. I've given him a letter to you, will you show him a little kindness? He's not much to look at, but he's a good fellow and the most enlightened Shi'ah I know. Ever, dearest, your very affectionate daughter Gertrude.

But don't wish me back too much, life is being so interesting.

IIIF Manifest