An Unpleasant Victory

Percy Cox arrived in Baghdad toward the end of June, and for a brief moment, at least, Gertrude could breathe more easily. He was a rock she could cling to in a sea of turmoil. She saw him almost at once, breakfasting with his wife in the mess, and “felt as if a a load of care had been lifted.” The following afternoon, Cox came to her house after tea. She quickly informed him of what had been going on: the inflammatory preachings in the mosques, the extremists among the nationalists, the anger seething within the tribes and the antics of General Haldane (who had been upbraided by a sharp telegram from the War Secretary, Winston Churchill). She gave him what she believed was “the correct view of the whole Arab situation,” she wrote her father: that they had been forced to wait too long for an Arab government and an Arab ruler, and that the matter had been badly handled “for the last eight months.” But one subject she left untouched. She did not tell Cox about the ugly scene with Wilson. She regarded it as “sheer lunacy.”

In a meeting with Wilson, however, Cox asked how he and Miss Bell were now getting on. Wilson complained bitterly that she was still writing private letters to Asquith and others. It seemed to be driving him to a state of paranoia, Gertrude had noted. Nevertheless, she and A.T. had now arrived at a modus vivendi: Wilson sent her the usual papers, they ate together in the mess and he bent over backward to be polite, while Gertrude did the same. Afraid of setting off another fit of rage, she avoided A.T.’s office and offered him the minimal courtesy when he came to see her. “As he wants a good many things he has to come pretty often,” she sniffed. “And I laugh in my inside, for it’s my trick, isn’t it. In fact, I think it’s my rubber.” She was living in misery, but she had won the game: Cox told her he was coming back in the autumn as High Commissioner.

During his two-day stay in Baghdad, Sir Percy approved a statement drafted by Wilson calling for a Constitutional Assembly. The announcement declared that Mesopotamia was to be made an independent state under the guarantee of the League of Nations and subject to the mandate of Great Britain; Sir Percy Cox was to return to establish a provisional Arab government.

Cox set off for England the following day, leaving his parrot in Gertrude’s care, but carrying home half her major report for Parliament on the length and breadth of the British civil administration in Mesopotamia. With the government in London so upset over the cost of staying in Iraq, it was important to publish something, she explained, to show them the enormous amount of work that had been done. “Please will you do as much propaganda as you can,” she wrote to her father, hoping he would lobby Parliament on her behalf. And then she begged, “Don’t forget to go on loving me.”

For several months Gertrude had been urging Wilson to allow Jafar Pasha Askari, one of Faisal’s inner circle, to come to Baghdad and discuss the situation in Syria. Wilson had flatly said no. But now even he knew that steps had to be taken to placate the Arabs. Receiving official permission from Whitehall to call for the Constitutional Assembly, he invited Jafar Pasha to Baghdad. Yet Wilson refused to discuss the matter with Gertrude.

“I am rather in the dark about all this because A.T. never tells me anything,” she wrote home. “I fancy his chief idea is that I should be kept in my place, though what this is exactly no one can say.” The best policy was to avoid any discussions until Cox returned. She refused to let Wilson interfere with her work; instead, she sent him a memo suggesting a joint committee of Sunnis and Shiites from Baghdad be sent to the holy cities to try to quash the rebellious tribes. A.T. ignored her; she suspected he threw her memo in the wastebasket.

With the convening of the Constitutional Assembly, Sayid Talib also arrived in town. At one time a supporter of the Turkish group that rebelled against the Sultanate, he later turned his back on them, raising suspicion among some Mesopotamians. Known for his underhanded tactics, he was, nonetheless, an able politician, regarded by some of the Iraqi nationalists exiled in Syria as their spokesman. Now, he told Gertrude when he called on her, his interests and those of the British were the same. He aimed to cobble together a moderate party, for which he wanted British support. But Gertrude, more wary than the locals, refused to back him, saying, somewhat disingenuously; “We cannot bind the Arab government, once we’ve established it, to select any particular person as its head.”

The gathering of nationalist leaders in Baghdad did little to quiet the rest of the country. Reports came in that the tribes along the middle Euphrates were on a rampage, destroying the farms of Sunni townsmen in their wake. The Political Officer at Kufah was being held prisoner, and near Hillah four hundred English soldiers were attacked on a march; almost half were taken prisoner. The story of the incident flew through the country, and rumors of British weakness encouraged thousands of others to rise up in arms. The rebellion had raced out of control.

Panic spread among the Baghdadis: their vast country estates were being ravaged by the tribes; moreover, the threat of an Islamic state stared them in the face. The old hatred between the Sunnis and the Shiites had intensified. The townsmen were now terrified of the uprising, which, as Gertrude pointed out, they themselves had started with the Shiites in May during Ramadan. Two distinguished Sunni notables from Baghdad visited the Khatun in her office, seeking advice. She welcomed the turbaned magnates, offered them coffee and asked how she could be of help.

“Everyone in Baghdad praises you. What they say is—‘if only their men were like their women!’ ” they began, their flattery tipping her that they wanted something. They had come, she discovered, to find out whether anything could be done to pacify the tribes.

Gertrude suggested they form a joint committee of Sunnis and Shiites and pay a call on the leaders in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. It was the same proposal she had made to Wilson ten days earlier, but she framed it in such a way that the Sunni notables thought it was theirs; despite their resentment at having to join forces with the local Shiites, they accepted her idea.

But when she talked to Wilson about it, he bristled. He would hear none of it from her. He would consider the proposal only if it was presented to him through the proper channels, by Captain Clayton (brother of her friend in Egypt), now a member of his (male) staff. Gertrude consented, but since Clayton had only recently arrived and was not yet acquainted with any of the local Arabs, she insisted on being allowed to sit in. Wilson bowed to her logic. When the session took place, she noticed, both Wilson and the notables took credit for the idea. But Gertrude knew better. As she had done so often, she silently swallowed her pride. “It’s my scheme from end to end,” she confided to her father.

In Syria, after nearly two years of Faisal’s pleas to the French, and of France’s refusal to recognize the Arab Government, events were coming to a head. On July 14, 1920, with an expanded French army advancing from Beirut to Damascus, General Henri Gouraud sent Faisal an ultimatum, demanding acceptance of the French mandate and French control over the Arab army, the economy and the railroads. Faisal ordered his troops to disband, and although some refused and fought a desperate battle, the end was in sight.

On July 20, 1920, the Emir Faisal and his brother Zaid quietly left Damascus. The Arab Government had lasted twenty-one months. Gertrude believed that Faisal, angry and feeling betrayed by the British, who had not kept their promises to the Sharifians, would soon gather his army and try to return. Whatever happened, the emotions would spread across the desert. If the French were forced out of Syria, the British might have to leave Iraq. “Well,” she informed her father, “if the British evacuate Mesopotamia I shall stay peacefully here and see what happens. It will be very nice … like old times!”

Like old times for Gertrude. But not for Hugh. The fortune that the Bell family had taken for granted was suddenly beginning to disappear. Within a decade the wealth from iron would turn to dust. The Bells’ business had suffered terribly from the strikes and the Depression that hit England after the war. Hugh and his partner were now trying to borrow money to refinance their company. A letter had arrived from him asking Gertrude for power of attorney to sign her name on bank loans.

“I’ll go a dash with you,” she responded cheerfully, echoing King Lear. “Then when we’re both in the workhouse we’ll write our life and times.” She understood that by signing the papers she would ultimately owe the bank seventy-two hundred pounds, which she hoped she would earn as the Dorman Long stock increased its dividends. Meantime, she would watch her expenses carefully, she promised. Her salary was not enough to live on, and entertaining at home was a necessary part of her job, but she could reduce her extra allowance from England to thirty pounds a month.

Whatever happened, she had no intention of leaving Baghdad. At the worst, she suggested, the British would withdraw from Mesopotamia, land values would drop and she would finally be able to buy her house. There was a silver lining after all, she told herself.

Yet she felt a pang of remorse for not being with Hugh at this troubling time. “Darling Father,” she continued, “I do hope you enjoy my letters as much as I enjoy writing them! If they seem to you rather mad, I can only offer as excuse that I’m living in a perfectly mad world. Added to which the heat makes one a little light-headed. One just accepts what happens, from day to day, without any amazement.”

In spite of such confidence, Gertrude was stunned when, on August 6, 1920, a telegram arrived from Edwin Montagu. It was not, as she might have hoped, a message of congratulations on her fifty-second birthday, but an official reprimand, a response to a complaint from Wilson. “Private and Personal,” Montagu wrote:

I hope you will understand from me that in the present critical state of affairs of Mesopotamia when the future of the country hangs in the balance we should all pull together. If you have views which you wish us to consider, I should be glad if you would either ask the Civil Commissioner to communicate them or apply for leave and come home and represent them. You may always be sure of consideration of your views but Political Officers should be very careful of their private correspondence with those not at present in control of affairs. Apart from all questions of usual practice and convention it may increase rather than diminish difficulties a result which I know you would deplore.

Gertrude immediately drafted a reply:

I am also wholly in agreement with policy which has been pursued since April. You are sufficiently aware of my general attitude towards the Arab question to know that I regret it was not embarked on earlier. To express this view in public would now however be valueless and even harmful. With regard to correspondence except for private letters to my Father I cannot recall letters on political subjects to unofficial persons which have not been previously submitted to Colonel Wilson. Your remarks are however a useful warning.

She sent her response, along with Montagu’s telegram, to A.T., asking if he had anything to add. In an interoffice note, he scrawled:

Miss Bell. When Sir Percy Cox passed through he asked—a propos of events earlier in the year—whether my relations with you were happier. I said that I could not say they were—that your divergence of opinion was marked and a matter of public knowledge and indeed of comment. (Sayid Talib mentioned this to me rather pointedly today.) I said the position would be untenable but for the fact that I was hoping before long to be relieved. You have always maintained your right as an individual to write what you like—to whom you like—you have, I gratefully admit, shown me letters e.g. to Asquith, but I do not like their being written and the fact that I am cognisant of them must not be held to include approval. Otherwise I have no comment to make.

The following day Wilson requested a meeting. She glowered at his rough demeanor, her reedlike figure in sharp contrast to his iron hulk. “It had been quite inevitable that people should have known that our opinions diverged because I had always said so—to you first and foremost,” she told him. “But in that respect I hadn’t differed in any degree from the declarations of H.M.G.” The particular instance he had mentioned from Sayid Talib, that scurrilous rogue, was “manifestly absurd,” she snapped. If she was being “made a peg on which to hang opposition,” it would be much better if he would send her on leave to India until Sir Percy returned. Indeed, a holiday in India might allow her some rest.

But Wilson refused to grant her leave. He himself was going home soon, he answered, and besides, he conceded, knowing that she was the key to good relations with the Arabs, he thought she might be of use to his successor. She listened and smiled to herself.

They discussed the matter of her correspondence with friends. His note had left her “in amazement,” she said. She reminded him that they had talked about the letter she wrote to Mr. Asquith last week; it was “scarcely fair” for Wilson to complain now. After all, he had said nothing, not even that he preferred it not be sent. But it wasn’t only the letter to Asquith that made Wilson anxious, she discovered. Had she written to Domnul Chirol and to the India Office? he now wanted to know.

Domnul was one of her closest friends, she reminded him; her letters to him were personal. And when she wrote to Sir Arthur Hirtzel, she had done so, “almost invariably,” with Wilson’s knowledge and sometimes with his hearty approval; she had even written once in Wilson’s defense, she made him recall, and he had been grateful to her for the letter. Furthermore, she injected, “Edwin’s warning specially mentioned non-official persons.”

Wilson answered that he “objected to any private communications with the India Office.”

That was “quite preposterous,” Gertrude growled; nevertheless, she would certainly comply with his wishes.

Thanking her for her “frankness,” Wilson shook her hand. They parted as amicably as two firebrands could: Gertrude, pleased that he soon would be leaving; Wilson, pleased that she soon would be out of his life.

It was true, she confessed to her father, that she was not entirely in the right. She admitted that Wilson’s “insolent rudeness” sometimes threw her into a rage. And that might have shown itself to the Arabs. But she did not intentionally want them to present a divided front; that could do the British nothing but harm. They needed a show of strength, especially since their troubles in Mesopotamia were hardly at an end.

The news that began the week of August 16 made her heart sink. Gertrude’s most trusted Agaili informer came to the office to tell her that Colonel Leachman, the Political Officer in Dulaim, had gotten into a bitter feud with Sheikh Dhari of the Shammar tribe. The Agaili had heard a few days ago that Leachman had viciously berated the sheikh for not maintaining peace along the road to Mosul. Afterward, he ordered some of the Shammar to repair a drain in the path. Sheikh Dhari, known to be vindictive, nevertheless ordered his men to cooperate. But as the Political Officer turned around to leave, he was ambushed; one of the tribesmen, the son of the sheikh, shot Leachman in the back. “He always used extremely unmeasured language to the Arabs and Shaikh Dhari had many grudges against him,” Gertrude explained in a letter home. “He was a wild soldier of fortune but a very gallant officer and his name was known all over Arabia.” Now, she moaned, “Lord knows what’s going to happen here.”

In Baghdad, where a curfew had been installed, an uneasy calm had descended. But in the rest of the country the three-month uprising was still raging. Thousands of tribesmen were out looting; the entire political staff at Shahraban had been savagely murdered. The flames roared around Gertrude, fueled not only by the infernal rebellion but by Wilson’s fiery rage. When another message arrived from Montagu, upbraiding her for her correspondence with London, she responded sharply: “To allay anxiety I now confine myself to writing to my Father and shopkeepers.”

Wilson’s temper, the nasty cables from home, the brutality of the tribes and the hot, miserable weather left her depressed. On August 23 she wrote despondently to Florence: “We have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anyone suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed. I suppose we have underestimated the fact that this country is really an inchoate mass of tribes which can’t as yet be reduced to any system. The Turks didn’t govern and we have tried to govern—and failed.”

She felt numb, “half dead,” from the turmoil. “I feel as if I were living from day to day without trying to make any plans for the future.” Yet a glimmer of hope remained. “At the bottom of my heart I think it possible that the situation may clear as unexpectedly as it has developed, though it’s equally possible that it mayn’t. Oh dear! I wish the world were a little more normal. Or do you think war and revolution may now be reckoned as normal?”

Through it all, she worked on the second half of her comprehensive report on the civil administration. Nearly completed now, it was, she told her father, the most difficult task she had ever undertaken. “One can’t write history while it’s all in the making and hasn’t arrived at any conclusion.” Nevertheless, she added, “to my stupefaction A.T. thinks it a masterpiece.”

Sayid Talib brought her a pleasant surprise. A skillful politican, he had helped the British immensely by quieting the insurrection in Baghdad. Now he was working hard to organize a moderate political party and sought British support. Lobbying anyone he could, he crudely told her friend Mr. Tod, a businessman: “What’s needed in this administration is experience. I’ve got it. A doctor before he learns his trade will kill at least two hundred people. I’ve killed my two hundred—no one knows it better than yourself.” Added Gertrude, in a note to her father, “And Mr. Tod couldn’t honestly say he hadn’t.”

On Sunday morning, August 30, Gertrude was eating her breakfast of eggs and fresh figs when Talib appeared at her house. After florid inquiries as to her health and her family, he sauntered into the conversation. He regarded her as a sister and not as a member of the government, he said. Will you give me some advice? he asked coyly. She listened intently. He explained that he did not know whether to take financial support for his political party from the British Government. What did the Khatun think he should do? She pointed out that like his father, her father was a wealthy man, and like Sayid Talib, she too was doing valuable work for the government and justifiably taking a salary. “Rather than being indebted to any Tom, Dick or Harry, who would have a claim on you later,” she told him, he would be better off taking money “for services rendered.”

“I must say I liked and respected him,” she wrote somewhat naïvely to Hugh, “for having come to consult me about it. We’re often wondering what his real game is; though he has so far played perfectly straight—I’m sure he must wonder the same thing about us, though we’ve been equally straight. As long as he comes to me and talks openly it’s much easier to keep the balance level, but I’m not at all sure he would do it to anyone else. And so I stay, just on the chance of being useful.”

Talib was also being useful. His presence in Baghdad had calmed the angry townsmen; whether out of fear or respect was momentarily unimportant. Nevertheless, Gertrude still viewed him warily. If he hadn’t received financing from the British, she noted wryly, “he would get what he wanted by a system of blackmail, an act at which he’s adept.” Nevertheless, she told Hugh, “he’s bound to play a big part in the future and till that time comes we’ve got to try and keep him out of mischief.” Later, her own mischief would keep him from playing what some believed was his well-earned part.

Except for some minor incidents, by late fall of 1920 the insurrection that began in May against the British had quieted down. It had cost Britain fifty million pounds and hundreds of British lives. More than ten thousand Arabs had been killed. Wilson’s tone had changed with the announcement of the mandate, but, as Gertrude noted, for the Arabs the change had come too late. They had already raised a storm of protest, and it was their own violent actions, the sheikhs believed, that had caused the turnaround. In fact, Gertrude acknowledged, “No one, not even H.M.G., would have thought of giving the Arabs such a free hand as we shall now give them—as a result of the rebellion!” A provisional government would soon be installed.

By the end of September Wilson was set to depart. The night before he left, he walked into her office to say goodbye. The two stood in her whitewashed room, he, tall and strapping, his dark hair slapped flat across his forehead; she, slim and almost delicate, her gray hair in a topknot and curls. She had won the game, Gertrude knew, but as teammates they had both been failures. She was “feeling more deeply discouraged than she could well say,” she told him. She “regretted acutely that they had not made a better job of their relations.”

He had come to apologize, Wilson said.

She held up her hand to stop him. It was as much her fault as his, Gertrude admitted. She hoped he wouldn’t carry away any “ill-feelings.”

He felt the same way, Wilson cordially replied. Then he left, still holding on to the dream of expanding the India Government’s power, believing, he later wrote, that “the eastward trend” of Britain’s responsibilities was “destined to increase.” Wilson went on to represent British oil interests as an official of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Later, he would become a Member of Parliament and a supporter of Adolf Hitler.

For the moment Gertrude felt only relief. “What he really thinks about it all Heaven alone knows,” she wrote to Hugh. “I have no reason to be satisfied with my part in the story and I suspect there’s nothing to choose between us, or if there is a choice I’m the more blame worthy because I need not have stayed when I found my views to be wholly divergent from his. Nor would I have stayed if I had known how deeply he resented my attitude.” But now that difficult part of her life had come to a close.

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