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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

Letter in which Bell provides an update on the continuing ill health of Sylvia, noting that it has been recommended that she travel for treatment immediately and that she has sent a telegram to the Secretary of State regarding air travel. She also provides an overview of her recent activities, including a meeting with Captain Brodie, a new officer of the Iraq Army, and tea with diplomat and author, George Antonius. She describes a dinner held at the palace for Sir Gilbert Clayton, who is involved in ongoing treaty negotiations, and notes that she sat with President of the Assembly, Rashid 'Ali Beg, and the Kurdish Minister of Public Works, Amin Zaki Beg. Bell adds a brief update, in which she states that air travel has been approved, and provides an overview of Sylvia's travel plans.
Reference code
Bell, Sir Thomas Hugh Lowthian
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Cornwallis, Ken
Wilson, J.M.
Cooke, R.S.
Philby, Harry St John
Bowman, Humphrey
Bourdillon, Bernard Henry
Cox, Percy
Cox, Louisa Belle
Joyce, P.C.
Clayton, Iltyd
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Dec. 2. 9 a.m. Baghdad Darling. I am anxiously awaiting the replies to my telegram to you and to the Sec. of State. I am afraid they must have given you a shock but in cabling to him I could not mince matters. Sylvia's doctor has come to the conclusion that there is an infiltration of poison deeply lodged in the eye. He cannot treat it here because it wants the most careful and expert nursing and he therefore urged that she should leave at once. Since I cabled two days ago she has remained exactly stationary. We know she cannot do any good under these conditions and we terribly fear that she might ecome so bad that the eye would have to be removed. That is precisely how it stands and I could not do other than I did, could I? She, I must tell you, shows an almost incredible fortitude. With this danger facing her, she never flinches or breaks down. The worse it is, the braver she becomes. And in spite of almost continuous pain and quite continuous discomfort, she never fails to be pleased with the smallest amusement we can offer her, laughs and talks and plays bridge with half an eye as if she were as well as any of us. When she goes I shall miss her more than I can say, but for her sake I can only pray that she may go as quickly as possible. What we shall do if the Sec. of State refuses to take her by air, I don't know. She cannot dream of going by car. We can never be certain that there will not be rain or mud or something which would keep her out for a day or two, an unthinkable experience for her. And the doctors say that she must not go by sea, for it would mean four days to Bombay with no doctor but an Indian dispenser. So you see that every other road is blocked. The air route will cost a pretty penny, £200 to be accurate. But I feel that nothing matters when her eye is at stake and you and her family will help her, won't you.
Now, as usual, I will tell you of our doings. We had a very agitating day on Thursday after I posted my last letter. Dr Woodman, the physician who had been attending Sylvia, declared in the morning that her case was beyond him and that she must go back to the eye specialist, Dr Spencer, whom she had left 5 weeks ago because of his dirty methods. I do not remember whether I told you all this story. He never washed his hands before he touched her eye and finally we were so greatly outraged that I wrote to Dr Dunlop, the head doctor of the hospital. Sylvia then went to see Dr Dunlop and he advised her to leave Spencer and call in Woodman. He also thanked me for the very strong letter I had written to him and said it had done a great deal of good. Bref, there was the largest storm in a tea cup you ever heard of. Dr Spencer threatened to bring an action against me for liBell, but wisely refrained, for it would have ruined him. All the other doctors except Sinbad (but he silently, of course) took his side; I believe that even Dr Dunlop has gone back on me, but it is not a thing I shall ever ask about for I prefer to remain with him on our former very friendly terms, and anyhow I don't care a bloody tall[?] (ask Sylvia for the interpretation of this phrase.) Bernard who is hand in glove with the doctors, was politely furious with me, but Ken and Mr Cooke stood firmly by me.

However, when Woodman threw up the case (he is not an oculist you see) we were in a cocked hat. Sylvia went to the hospital in the afternoon and saw Dunlop who advised her to go back to Spencer, the only good oculist here, dirty or not. He promised to see Spencer himself and telephone to us. Meanwhile, it was essential to keep her going so I had Major Eadie and Mr Kisbani after dinner - they could not dine - and we played bridge. In the middle came the message from Dr Dunlop and when the two left Sylvia told me that Spencer had agreed to take over the case if she or I would write him an apology. We decided that as it was I with whom he was angry, the least satisfactory apology would be from her and therewith wrote Spencer a letter which was the thinnest apology that could be called an apology. Indeed we half feared that it would not meet the case. But it did. Next morning the good Cookes took S. to the hospital in their car; she found Spencer abounding in affability and kindness but he was not encouraging as to her eye. In the afternoon Elsie Sinbad took S. out for a little drive in the dusk while I walked and we had a dinner party in the evening - the Sinbads, Mr Edmonds and a new air friend, Squadron Leader Payne. Elsie and Mr Edmonds played bezique after which we four played bridge. S/L. Payne is the best bridge player we have met here.

On Saturday Violet came at 3.30 to take S. out for a bit, and brought Mr Monson (down from Tehran [(Teheran)] where he has been Councillor) whom I took out to see sights. We went back to tea at the Residency where the Bourdillons are now living. I spent exactly two hours with Mr Monson and during that time he made exactly six (if I'm right) observations. He is going to a post in S. America - the proper place for him. But if not chatty he is really very kind and nice and that evening when he dined with us he almost (for him) opened out to Sylvia. The other guest was charming Mr Greenhouse who has not yet appeared in this history though I used to know him during the war when he was a consul in Persia. He is perfectly delightful and he helped to keep the rather heavy ball on the move, for as Mr Monson can't play bridge - just like him - we had to talk all the evening.

On Sunday we had a pleasant day - Sylvia's eye always discounted. She went to the hospital at 11 and I went with her and was dropped near the Museum where I had an assignation with Lionel, my new archaeological colleague. And such an enchanting and helpful colleague he is. Since J.M. [Wilson] was to be reft from me I couldn't have had anyone I liked so much as Lionel. (I am writing in the office and have come to the end of my own writing paper, and by the way, if you want a continuous supply of long letters from me, you must send me some more paper like the first two sheets, if you can afford it, for I can't use any other and I have nearly finished what you sent me 2 years ago.) Lionel came to lunch Mith Mr Clarke (banker). When the sun got lowish Sylvia went out with Mr Clarke and I walked with Lionel to his house in Alwiyah where I cut and arranged the flowers for a dinner party he was giving. He had said at lunch, in a worried and most Lionelish manner that he must go home and arrange the flowers and that it took him so dreadfully long as he never could make up his mind which bunch to pick, bless his darling mind. So I made it up for him, to his great contentment and then, as he was going to tea with Mr Cooke, he walked all the way back with me. The Cookes came in later having sent Lionel away I suppose, and a man called Captain Brodie who is one of the new officers for the 'Iraq Army, the 40 thieves they are popularly called. But they are not nearly so thievish as we feared they might be and General Daly now that he has actually come (he is very nice) has declared to all the existing British officers that he cannot do without them and that he will keep them on their own terms and put them in over the head of the new ones, no matter what their respective ranks may be. So we're all beaming. Major Eadie is going to stay on, Iltyd to be put in charge of all the 'Iraq artillery and we all declare General Daly to be not only a heart of gold, but a very wise man too. He has prevented the complete disintegration of the 'Iraq Army which would otherwise have come to pass. (NB this is not for the ears of Secs of State.)

Captain Brodie has been in the Foreign Legion in Morocco and has also done a good many more things of interest but I haven't yet had time to discover whether he is a windbag or a hero. I rather incline to the windbag theory.

The Sinbads came to dine with Sylvia and Ken took me to the Residency (he had come back that evening from tour) to meet Bertie Clayton who we fondly thought had arrived at 5; but he hadn't; he had stayed the night at Ramadi [Ar Ramadi]. Nevertheless it was a very pleasant and intimate evening. Iltyd was there and the Joyces - just Bertie's friends and relations - and after dinner Iltyd, Ken, Violet and I played bridge and the others played rummy.

It was that morning that Spencer advised Sylvia to go by air. When she came back from the hospital she told me and I telephoned at once to Sir John Higgins. Iltyd came in as I was speaking and heard all about it. Sir John, who was as kind as he could possibly be - he is very fond of Sylvia - read me the regulations which absolutely barred him from sending any non-official person by air without a special permit from the Air Minister, and to him Sir John advised me to telegraph. We then telephoned to Bernard, whose consent and recommendations were needed, and then, we talked it over and decided not to telegraph till Monday after S. had seen Spencer again. We arranged that as soon as he had left Marie should telephone to me at the office and that I should come over. This happened according to plan and my cables resulted.

On my way back to the office, I found Bertie and Captain Holt sitting in their car at the bridge, waiting for it to open. Bertie had just flown in. So I jumped into their car and had a delightful talk with Bertie the Peacemaker. He really is, you know; he has made two marvellous treaties and is now off to make another.

I went home to lunch, as I always do. S. stayed in bed till tea time; we read aloud and talked. Someone or other came to tea - someone always does but I mostly forget whom - after which we had our normal games of bezique before dinner.

The Clayton dinner that night was to have been at Ken's house, but since S. couldn't go out we transferred it to mine. Bertie and Iltyd, the Joyces and Ken. Bertie was quite enchanting - he is one of the nicest people I have ever met, upon my soul. And he also put us on a new and I hope a wise tack. He told us that there is in Jerusalem [(El Quds esh Sherif, Yerushalayim)] an extremely famous oculist, namens Strathearn, that he and his wife were the kindest people and if necessary would assuredly take S. into their hospital and give her every comfort. In any case we know that she ought not to be away from a doctor for 48 hours and we might with luck get her through to Jerusalem in 12, going from 'Amman by car. At the worst she would spend the night at 'Amman with Group Captain McEwan who is a friend of mine (and of Herbert's) and go on to Jerusalem next morning. So I am going to telegraph to the Plumers - this is what S. would prefer as she just knows them and they knew Anthony - asking them in veiled terms to put her up. We hope that Dr Strathearn will keep her for a day or two and, at the best, fix her up for the journey, so that, some escort being provided by Humphrey Bowman, to whom I shall write, or the Plumers, she can go straight on to Port Said and get onto her ship. Bertie says that there is now[?] no very first rate oculist in Cairo and that the Residency there is not the place for her as it is bursting with people all day long and all night, which is no doubt true. Also that Lister told him that Strathearn was as good as any of the most famous oculists in London. We hope we are doing right but I feel terribly anxious and responsible. If it were not prohibitively expensive I should go with her to Port Said, though I feel sure that Humphrey will see to it that she doesn't travel alone. She can't, for in strong day light she cannot open the good eye and the other is always bandaged.

After dinner our plan had been that Bertie, Sylvia Ken and Col. Joyce should play bridge, while I talked to Colin Joyce, who can't play, and Iltyd who is so tractable. But this scheme was defeated by Bertie's declaring that he would prefer to talk "to you." I think he meant a collective you but it did not turn out so, for the four others went away to the corner of the room and played bridge, leaving me to tackle Colin and Bertie. Colin, who had never met Bertie before, is perhaps the stupidest woman born, whereas Bertie is one of the cleverest of men. It was therefore impossible to find a topic suited to both, so Bertie and I talked about Syria and Colin sat silent and listened. She said she had been thrilled with interest, but I thought I espied her going to sleep. Anyhow, there was no alternative and at least I was thrilled. What Bertie said I know, but like Herodotus I prefer not to repeat. Perhaps I will some day when it has come true.

The evening was too long, however. Even the most thrilling talk can't be dragged on forever whereas bridge can, and at 11 Bertie left. The others finisted their immense rubber shortly after and left too.

On Tuesday I had crowds of people to see me in the office and a very busy morning in consequence. Perhaps that is why I have time to write to you at such length today. No papers have come in, but I must turn immediately to the Arab newspapers which I read daily and translate when necessary. There are 3 of them every day. S. stayed in bed till 4 when she got up and we went for a little drive in the desert in an arabana. She has to be in bed as much as she can but not entirely as she would not be able to travel.

Mr Antonius came to tea. Do you remember Mr Antonius? He is Humphrey's second in command and you met him at Jerusalem. He is a young Syrian nationalist, a Christian of the Lebanon, and talks wonderfully good English. He talked it about Syria. He is now with Bertie who says he was invaluable in the negotiations with Ibn Sa'ud, and he has been lent to Bertie for his other treaty. He said calmly: "My Druze friends in Jerusalem tell me (he had just passed through Jerusalem with Bertie) that even if Gamelin gets the 50,000 reinforcements for which he is asking they will be able to hold out for 6 months." I feel no doubt this is true. Winter and mountains are good allies for guerilla bands.

There was a great dinner at the palace for Bertie to which Bernard thought I should go. Capt. Holt, whom S. likes very much, came to dine with her and spend the evening. Ken took me. It was, I must say, most amusing. Tahsin Beg, the ADC, was away and consequently there was no one who knew how to steer the party. The King told me to introduce all the Arabs (Ministers etc) to Bertie, which I did, including the Apostolic Delegate, Monseigneur BerrÇ. Bertie played up like a man. There was equally no one to tell us who was to take whom in. This I could not do because I did not know. The King ran off wrongly with Lady Higgins - but of course she is accustomed to it, you might almost say it's her habit. He should have taken Violet, who is acting High Commissioness; Bernard, seeing her lonely, took her in. Bertie looked wildly round for someone to take, saw me and carried me off, saying firmly, "You can't sit by me you know. I feel certain you can't sit by me." Nor could I. He was wedged between Zaid and Mrs Daly and I had to wander about and find my own place. It was between the President of the Assembly, Rashid 'Ali Beg (a friend of Elsa's) and the new Kurdish Minister of Public Works, Amin Zaki Beg. I like them both very much and had a most agreeable dinner. General Daly was opposite talking courageous, if not daring French to the Apostolic Delegate.

We did not stay late and I was home by 20 minutes to 11 to find Sylvia and Capt. Holt talking over the fire in a darkened room.

Now for the Arab papers.

11.30 a.m. The Sec. of State's consent has come. I'm deeply thankful. I've telephoned the message to Sylvia who is said to be a little better today. We are going to discuss the date of her departure when I come in to lunch. The A.V.M. says we can have a plane any day we like.

Before tea. That is all settled; she goes tomorrow afternoon to Ramadi by air, sleeps with Mr Wilson, the A.I. (whose wife was fortunately a nurse) goes on to Amman next day and sleeps there with the Coxes (Philby's successor) to whom Bertie is telegraphing and on Saturday to the Plumers, Dr Spencer won't let her go faster, even if she could - yes, she might have cut out the night at Ramadi, but he thinks it would be too tiring. Will you send this to Aunt Maisie, for I've no time to write more than a line to her. Your very loving daughter Gertrude

IIIF Manifest