Letters

10 January 1921

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

[10 January 1921] Jan 10 Dearest Father. The enclosed is so very confidential that I would rather you showed it to no one at all but Mother. I've written it as a record - such facts as are revealed to the public will be known to you before you get it.

We have had a week of terrific rain. I've seen Baghdad as muddy, but never muddier. It has been rather a bad beginning for residence in the office over the water where I go of a morning through rain or bitter wind - one morning through a thick blanket of fog. I spent two days having an abcess in a tooth, the first in the office very miserably, while on the second I went and had the tooth out and remained a terrible body in my house for the rest of the day. However the cure was immediate, or rather it supervened the following day.

The social event of the week has been a luncheon party given by 'Abdul Qadir Pasha Khudhairi, attended by the Coxes, the C in C, me, Cabinet ministers and advisors up to the number of about 30. The lunch lasted well onto 2 hours. I sat next to the Pasha and as Lady Cox was on his other side (and talks not a word of Arabic) I made conversation to him gallantly the whole time. For one's host should take a share in his own party.

An old friend of mine has just arrived, Dr Wigram, once head of the Abp's Mission to the Nestorians - I met him in Mosul [Mawsil, Al] in 1909. He has come out as Nestorian expert. I had him to dinner, with Capt Clayton and Major Eadie to meet him - a very amusing evening. He told many delightful tales, of which the following about Surma Khanum, sister of the late Patriarch, a lady of masculine clarity of wits. She was in England last summer and on one occasion was interrogated by a very pious lady: "I supposes" said the v.p.l. "that your people when they return to their country will do their utmost to spread the Gospel among the Kurds?" "Oh no," replied Surma Khanum briskly, "we want to be friends."

I dined one pouring wet night with the British Levy officers - a cheerful evening - and lunched yesterday with the Philbys. It was as much as I could do to get there - they live next door to where the Howells were, ie 5 minutes' walk. Clothed in a tunic reaching only to the knees and india rubber boots up to them, I staggered through the mud. Today it's rather worse, because the mud is a little dryer and therefore impedes you more; tomorrow it will be worse still.

I've had letters this week from you and Mother dated Dec 1 and 2. No don't send me the Byz. Research Fund volume thank you. I'll read it at home when I come. I'm much interested by Mother's letter to Arthur Stanley, and entirely agree.

What an irony of fate, isn't it, that the new administrative arrangements with regard to the Near East, for which we all wished, should put us under Winston Churchill. Pas de chance! Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

Baghdad Jan. 10 EXTREMELY CONFIDENTIAL We have reached, I fear, the end of the chapter. Shortly after I got to the office this morning, Sir Percy sent me a note asking me to come and speak to him in his house, which is next door. I found him sitting in the dining room, the only room except the Coxes' bedrooms, which is as yet furnished and habitable, for they moved in just 4 days ago. Sir Percy handed me a telegram from Winston Churchill saying that HMG had placed the decision as to their policy in Mesopotamia in the hands of the Secretary of State for War and he therefore informed the High Commissioner and the Commander in Chief that he could not burden the British public with the expenditure necessary to carry out the programme suggested - i.e. Sir Percy's recent proposal that we should bring about the selection of Faisal as Amir of the Iraq, that being, in his view, the one hope of establishing speedily a stable Arab Govt and reducing the British army of occupation to one division and one brigade, or possibly less, in a years' time when the Arabs would have had time to make their own arrangements for defence and the preservation of internal order. Winston propounds an alternative scheme by which we withdraw our troops from the Mosul [Mawsil, Al] vilayet as soon as we have got Ironside and his men safely out of Persia (ie in June 1921) but retain the mandate by means of a strong police force and certain Indian units which shall volunteer for this service. Otherwise we must withdraw immediately to Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)]. Sir Percy and I agreed that this scheme had no sense or meaning. It just doesn't mean anything. The moment we withdraw our troops from Mosul the Turks, who have gathered a certain amount of troops on the frontier, automatically take over. There's nothing to stop them. To talk of continuing to excercise [sic] the mandate is therefore empty nonsense. Sir Percy then said that he had come out here after prolonged and serious debate, at the end of which HMG had decided to remain here for the time needed for the establishment of an Arab Govt, 2 to 3 years. On these conditions Sir Percy had undertaken the charge. The conditions being now wholly changed he did not think he was called upon to remain, as he had no Bellief that the programme outlined by Winston could be worked. I agreed that under the conditions proposed he was under no obligations to HMG to remain but I added that he was under deep obligations to the people of the country whom unwittingly he and all of us had mislead [sic], trusting to the assurance given him by H.M.G., and that it therefore behoved us to consider carefully whether it was conceivably possible to excercise the mandate in the manner laid down by Winston, for if we thought we could do so we were bound to try, in order to save the country from anarchy and bloodshed. We examined the matter in all its aspects and came to the conclusion that the scheme was not a real scheme at all, but merely a prolongation of deception; that it was therefore necessary that he should repudiate it and that he could only do so by resignation. We agreed further that his resignation would probably be accepted and that it would be followed by wholesale resignation on the part of British officers in this country who would refuse to attempt compliance with orders which are inherently impossible. I said that that would be the course I myself should take for I could not serve a Govt in whose policy I did not Bellieve.

With that we ended, very sorrowfully, but I left him with a profound impression of the contrast between his shining integrity and the unscrupulous roguery of the orders we had been discussing.

I went back to my office where I presently had a long visit from 'Abdul Majid Shawi who dropped in, as is his periodical custom, to talk over passing affairs and ask my opinion. The subject of our talk was chiefly a number of administrative appointments which had been made by the Council the day before yesterday, some good, some bad, but all, in the light of Winston's telegram, not worth the breath they were made with. We have had in this country no more loyal and steadfast colleague than 'Abdul Majid; it was almost more that I could bear to be discussing future arrangements with him as if we were prepared to give them the help and support we have promised.

When he left, I decided to take counsel with Capt Clayton, whose judgement I have always found to be extremely well-balanced. He had not yet come to the office but I telephoned to him to come at once. In talking to him I was betraying Sir Percy's confidence but for Sir Percy's good. He doesn't know the value of Capt Clayton but I was determined that he should get it, unconsciously, through me. We spent the rest of the morning in discussion and came to the conclusion that, as I had already judged Sir Percy's decision, up to the point it went, was perfectly right. We cannot excercise the mandate in the manner proposed and Sir Percy should decline to be responsible for the policy. We both agreed that if we left the country the only way to avoid anarchy was to invite the Turks to return and Capt Clayton suggested that Sir Percy should himself propose to H.M.G. that this being the honest alternative to the giving of substantial support to the Arab Govt we have been engaged in establishing, he would himself stay to carry it out. It was now lunch time - I lunch, you know, with the Coxes. Col. Cunliffe Owen was there, having come down to discuss the future policy with regard to the Assyrians. I don't know if he had been told anything - certainly not everything for Sir Percy had told me he did not intend to discuss it with any of his officers - but incidentally if we withdraw our troops from Mosul we must either send the Assyrian refugees to Basrah ahead of us or be prepared for their following headlong on our heels, of their own initiative. However we talked gaily of musical glasses. When lunch was over I asked Sir Percy to send for me as soon as he was free, and this he presently did. I then laid before him the project Capt Clayton and I had concocted namely that he should propose a fundamental revision of the treaty of Sävres, including the acceptance by Turkey of the mandate for Mesopotamia, and the appointment of a Turkish prince as ruler. He was at first very much taken aback but he let me go on. I told him that I had long been convinced that the Turks were the sole possible alternative to ourselves, for it is inconceivable that the Arabs could set up a native government without support. This indeed was part of my argument when I wrote to Mr Asquith last summer. Our own honour we cannot hope to save; with a man like Winston in command there is no further talk of honour. But Sir Percy and I are wholly concerned, now as we had always been, with the welfare of the people of this country and the suggestion I was making was the best way of assuring it. The Turks have an administrative cadre and they have an army; the Arabs have neither, nor can they be created before next summer. The Turks would be acceptable to many, and most of those to whom they were not acceptable, would, when they were convinced that we intended to throw in our hand, contrive to make terms. Moreover we know that when we left the Turks must come down; it was therefore far better to bring them in by amicable agreement, in the process of which we could manage to secure for our own friends an easier bed.

I think I convinced him. I tried to convince him also of the impossiblity of our remaining at Basrah with an autonomous Moslem state behind us clamouring for their one port. It seems to me self-evident, but I don't think I persuaded him. I am sorry, because I think it would be better that the British public should be made to realize the naked facts connected with eating and retaining cakes. Let them withdraw if they wish; we can't prevent it. But let them know that they can't both withdraw and reap advantages which they would have had by remaining.

That is the point which must be made clear; if we retain the mandate we must spend the money on it which it demands. There's no 9d for 4d - or 9d for nothing at all. Sir Percy will make it clear to HMG but will rogues like Winston and Lloyd George use that honesty to the public which he has used to them? I'm afraid there can be no doubt of the answer. They will go on with their hanky panky until it leads to terrible disaster to this country - as to which they se fichent pas mal - and possibly to very great inconvenience, if not worse, to ourselves - for I doubt our capacity to withdraw scatheless through anarchy. I shall not, however, mind what happens to us. We shall have deserved everything we get.

Father, think - if we had begun establishing native institutions two years ago! by now we should have got Arab govt and an Arab army going; we should have had no tribal revolt; all the money and lives wasted this year would have been saved. Damn AT Wilson.

But what makes me also pretty rabid is that we are cheerfully paying for two Divisions in Palestine. That tiny country, with its comparatively high stage of civilization, could be held by a few thousand gendarmes under British officers. We keep two Divisons there in order to carry out our iniquitous policy of making it a home for the Jews. If they withdrew the two Divisions from Palestine we could keep them here for a couple of years where they're so urgently needed. But no; there's the Jewish interest to reckon with. The Jews can buy silence on the subject of expenditure.

I need not tell you that I'm writing with death at my heart.

Previous page