Letters

23 November 1916

From/To: Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

[23 November 1916] Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)] Nov 23 Dearest Father. As a fact I am not writing from Basrah but from somewhere on the Shatt al Arab Bellow Qurnah [Qurnah, Al] after what seems to me, looking back on it, to have been an immense journey - but I'll begin at the beginning. I left Basrah on a Saturday night - the IGC motored me down to what we call the terminus station in the middle of the big base camp and there I found the night train making itself ready, with a small guard's van hitched onto it for me. This I furnished with my camp bed, a chair and the station master's lantern and off we started at about 6 into the desert. - If ever years hence, I come back into this country and travel to Baghdad by the Basrah express, I shall remember, while I eat my luxurious meal in the dining car, how first I travelled along the line in a guard's van and dined on tinned tongue, tinned butter and tinned pears by the light of the station master's lantern. - What happened after that I don't know, for I went to bed and except for an occasional vague consciousness of halts in a wide desert dim with starlight, I didn't take note of anything in particular till the dawn crept in at my windowless windows and I woke to find my van standing outside railhead camp in the middle of Arabia, so to speak. By the time the sun was up I was ready for the tea and toast sent in to me by the telegraph superintendent - his name was Mr Cook but he was as black as your hat - and then to receive the call of the officer commanding the camp, whose name I don't know, but it didn't matter for he was an Englishman. So we strolled out together to see the little sand bag blockhouse he was building as permanent railway defences - not much is needed, for we guard the line mainly through friendly tribes of the desert who are subsidized for the purpose - and I walked round the camp and took a few photographs. All this country was Sa'dun headquarters, the desert home of the ruling family in southern Mesopotamia who came up from Mecca [Makkah] in the 14th century and are now, immensely multiplied, the great aristocracy of the 'Iraq. Here they came in spring with their camel herds, for they are not only powerful landowners along the rivers, but also real Bedu, nomads of the open wilderness - a wide, flat, sandy land, good desert from the point of view of the camel breeder, for it grows much thorny scrub and plentiful tufts of coarse grass, eaten down now almost to the root, an unbroken circle of horizon except where to the north it was interrupted by the palms of the river bank, ghostly through the mirage though they were only a few miles away - the eye doesn't travel far over a level waste.

At 8 o'clock there rolled in General Brooking's motor car and a motor lorry and we bumped over the grass tufts and over the sun-split mud of what had been flood water in the spring, to Khamisiyah, where we have had troops ever since Ibn Rashid came filibustering round last summer. For Khamisiyah is one of the markets of Central Arabia and he who holds these holds the tribes, as Ibn Rashid found to his cost and perhaps has related by now in Hail. A mud built, dirty little place is Khamisiyah, watered by a small and evil looking canal from the Euphrates which runs into the town up to the walled square where the caravans lodge when they come up from JeBell Shammar. I drove straight into our camp, picked up General Tidswell, who is in command, and made him take me round the town. And there we met the Shaikh of Khamisiyah who is a friend of mine and on his pressing invitation went to his house and drank a cup of tea. He had a guest, Shaikh Hamud of the Dhafir, one of our friendly Beduin, and we sat for a while listening to the latest desert news which I translated for the General. I hadn't met Hamud before though he was one of the shaikhs of whom I heard much talk when I was riding up from Hail. And so on, over the desert, some 25 miles to Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An], putting up gazelle and sand grouse as we went - I never thought to watch them from a motor. I got in at lunch time, was warmly welcomed by General Brooking and lodged at H.Q. It was amusing to be back in the nice clean little Euphrates town with its exquisitely appointed camp - even more exquisitely clean and well ordered since I was there last June. It's a model place. After lunch I went round to see my friend the I.O., Captain Eadie, with whom I had a pleasant gossip until the General came for me and took me out walking. Next morning we went out riding before breakfast and had a delicious gallop over what was lake last June and is now grass and scrub plentifully filled with Arab tents and flocks of sheep. I lunched with the A.P.O. Captain Young, who is also fast becoming an ally - I knew him in Basrah before he went to Nasiriyah, he's a very capable young man - and walked as usual with the General in the evening after a tea party with Arthur Broderick [the remaining half a line of this sentence has been removed by an official censor]. It had been baking hot, but on Tuesday morning I woke shivering in a keen strong north wind, and indeed shivered all the way to Ur of the Chaldees whither I motored with the A.Q.M.G. Col. Shakespeare, a very pleasant and intelligent man. Those huge mounds lie in the desert about 8 miles S. of the Tigris, we have a post near by whence we drew an escort - the General insisted on it, though all is tranquil in that direction. We waded thruogh drifted sand to the highest ruin heap, a truncated pyramid of which the niched brick casing still stands. From its summit you can see another immense mound of the familiar Babylonian temple sort, and then the desert and the desert and the desert. Loftus dug at Ur a long time ago but no doubt there is much yet to be explored. The brick wall I saw is if I remember Parthian, though the site goes back to the beginning of historic time. We had an enormous breakfast - and indeed I was glad of it - with Major Rice the O.C. of the little post near Ur, and motored back through a pitiless dust storm which made my evening walk with the General not so pleasant as it might have been. We stayed out late however to watch some of the troops practising night firing from the trenches which protect the camp. The A.P.O. of Suq [Suq ash Shuyukh] (A.P.O. is Assistant Political Officer you know) Captain Dickson whom I particularly like, was spending a night with Capt. Young and we all three dined together in the latter's delightful little Arab house. Being colleagues we talked our own shop with such eagerness that when I first looked at my watch it was long past 11 - too late for folk who get up before dawn, but it was a good and rather profitable talk. The scheme was that I should motor back to railhead next day and catch the night train to Basrah, but man (even if he's a General) proposes and motors don't fall in with his plan. Perversely all the motors were out of order and I being very anxious to get back to Basrah for reasons which I'll tell you afterwards, decided to take my chance on the river. They telegraphed to all and sundry and I set off on a launch with Captain Dickson. I couldn't get further than Hammar Lake [Hammar, Hawr al] that night and I lunched with him at Suq on the way - nice little Suq buried in its marvellously fertile gardens. Just after sunset I was down at 'Akaikah Post, not far from the lake, and there I spent the night in a reed hut, the guest of a cheerful and particularly intelligent O.C., Colonel Andrews. A bitter cold night and a bitter dawn (at least we thought it so, with the thermometre [sic] at 47¯) though the confounded north wind had dropped just when I wanted it. My launch could go no further, the water being too shallow, and I was off in a sailing boat before dawn with two Arab boatmen and two sepoy guards. The guards always strike me as rather absurd, having wandered over so many deserts unprotected, and I don't for a moment suppose that they are really needed, but Ö propos of them and wartime I must tell you here a little anecdote. The day before, the day I left Nasiriyah, I was out riding soon after dawn with my energetic General. We went some five miles from the town to see a new bund he was making, and also to see the western end of his battle field in some successful operations which he conducted last September. Presently he pointed to a tiny rise in the ground and observed that he was sorry we couldn't go out as far as that point as they always shot at him from there. I laughed, but nevertheless as we skirted past it - we were a good 3000 yards away, well out of range - we spied an enemy picket. They fired a few warning shots to tell the villages behind that some riders were out, and when we turned home along the bund they fired a few more to say that we had gone and all was well. The General was as pleased as Punch at this practical - and harmless - demonstration of the truth of his remark. Well, to return to my sailing boat. We drifted down for 4 hours, very slowly in the windless morning, till we got into the lake and there I met Mr Philby, the Revenue Commissioner who was busy getting his launch off a mud bank. That operation completed, I evicted him from his launch - with his full consent - transferred him to my boat and sent him punting on to 'Akaikah while I took the launch - a Turkish boat salvaged by us - across the lake. We reached the eastern end towards one o'clock and at the opening of the Euphrates channel I found the swift launch of the A.P.O. of Qurnah at Lake Post. I had telegraphed for it and was much relieved when I saw it. From Lake Post - whether called after the Hammar or after the late lamented Sir Percy I don't know - to Qurnah was another 4 hours. Last time I passed along this way, the whole land was flooded, and even at low water it is very little above river level. Each reed hut stands on its little mound of mud and rush, but the village streets, so to speak, are still navigable. It was near sunset when I reached Qurnah. The A.P.O. was on the quay with the good news that a ship was leaving for Basrah that instant and would take me down. Therefore I boarded the Curlew, a real B.I. steamer with cabins and a joyful bathroom - the very same ship on which Major Hamilton and I came down from Qurnah in the furnace heat of last June, and the same kind Captain to greet me as a friend. We can't go down in the dark but we've drawn out to about a mile Bellow Qurnah and we shall be off with the first morning light. I feel as if I had experimented today with almost every craft known to the modern and the ancient world. Upon which I think I'll go to bed.



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