Spies: Lawrence and Bell

The exploits of T.E. Lawrence are legendary. Thanks to the famous film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, millions around the world know about his time spying and fighting in the Middle East during the First World War. Or at least they think they do.

In this episode, we use the records in our collection to debunk the mythology around Lawrence. We also share the lesser-known story of Gertrude Bell, another intelligence officer working for the British in Arabia.

Some people call Bell the female Lawrence, but after listening to this episode, you’ll probably agree with us when we say that, actually, Lawrence is the male Gertrude Bell.

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Visit our blog to find out more about episode two, Lawrence and Bell.


Episode 2: Lawrence and Bell

Matt Norman (Scripted): The year is 1914. The mighty Ottoman Empire that once spread across most of the Middle East and beyond is in decline, but the Sultan’s lands still stretch from northern border of modern day Turkey all the way down to the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, including what is today Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.

Persia is mostly divided between Russia and Britain. The rest of the Middle East is referred to as Arabia, a largely autonomous region that today is made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.

The year is 1914, the year that the world goes to war, sending 70 million to battlefields and causing 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

In late October, three months into the First World War, ships from the Ottoman navy, manned by Germans, raid Russian ports in the Black Sea. Within a few days, Russia responds by declaring war. Russian allies Britain and France join the fight a few days later, officially declaring war on the Ottoman Empire. One week later Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V declares war on Russia, France, and Britain, throwing the region into turmoil as inhabitants of the far flung empire split along mostly ethnic lines in support of the major powers.

Arabs living under the the Ottoman Empire wanted self-governance, and momentum for action had been building since the 1800s. Hoping to weaken the Ottoman empire, the British decide to support an Arab Revolt by sending a number of officers to help Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca and his followers to organize and attack Ottoman strongholds.

One of these officers was a passionate, educated young man name T.E.Lawrence. Following the war, the legend of Lawrence of Arabia would come to overshadow everyone and everything else that took place in the Middle Eastern theater of the First World War, capturing the imagination of millions around the world for nearly a century.

But two years before Lawrence was assigned to aid the Arab Revolt, another British intelligence officer was already in the region, forming alliances with local leaders and gathering vital information that Lawrence would need in order to complete his missions.

Lawrence has gone down in history as a swashbuckling hero, despite a lot of evidence that complicates this portrayal. This other officer was, by all accounts, far more effective and influential to the outcome of the Revolt, but her role has largely been forgotten in the telling of this history.

You’re listening to On the Record, a podcast by The National Archives that takes a closer look at the stories you think you know. I’m Matt Norman. Here at the The National Archives, we are the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history. These original documents have some incredible stories to tell about spies in our midst…if you know where to look.

In this three-part series, you and I, with the help of historians and record experts at The National Archives, are going to use personnel files, secret government reports, and declassified correspondence to uncover the true stories of famous spies from King Alfred the Great to the Cambridge Five.

This is episode 2: Lawrence and Bell

No one at the National Archives knows more about T.E. Lawrence, or has stronger feelings about his semi-legendary history, than Dr. Juliette Desplat. When I asked her to tell me the real story behind the persona of Lawrence of Arabia, Juliette told me to meet her in the staff reading room where we were able to leaf through the original documents relating to Lawrence in our collection.

Dr. Juliette Desplat: I think the popular perception of Lauren’s today is Peter O’Toole. You know, piercing blue eyes and white weathering, billowing robes, and a camel. So he’s clearly portrayed as a mysterious romantic hero, and that’s what people know about him. And because the film only covered the great Arab Revolt, that’s also what people remember of Lawrence.

He is certainly portrayed as that young dashing British officer leading the Arabs towards victory, but that’s also a myth rather than historical reality.

I’m Dr. Juliette Desplat. I’m head of Modern Overseas, Intelligence, and Security records here at The National Archives. So my team copies anything diplomatic, colonial, related to secret services, anything military or naval from 1702 to present day, quite a big chunk of history. I am also a diplomatic historian and a Middle East specialist.

I’ve done a lot of work on archeology and the history of archaeology looking at the different ways in which politics and archeology interact in the region.

Matt Norman (Scripted): Before Juliette sorts us out fact from fiction, perhaps I should talk a bit more about who T.E.Lawrence was. Like most people, the name Lawrence of Arabia was instantly recognizable to me when he first came up in the planning stages of this podcast, but I realized that I knew very little about him and his work other than the romantic character Peter O’Toole plays in the famous 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in 1888 in Wales to a nobleman from Ireland, Thomas Chapman, and a Scottish governess. They moved to Wales and assumed the last name Lawrence after Chapman left his wife and family to be with his mistress. When their son was a young boy, they moved to Oxford, where Lawrence got a good education and went on to study history at university.

Having long been interested in antiquities and the medieval ages, Lawrence became fascinated by the crusades. In the summer before his final year at university, he traveled to the Middle East and walked 1,600 kilometers across the region of the Ottoman empire that today is Syria, visiting the ruins of crusader castles. Returning to England, he graduated with First Class Honors. His thesis was titled: “The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture—to the End of the 12th Century.” Thanks to this experience in Syria and the Arabic he learned during his travels, Lawrence was able to secure a position on an archeological dig at Karkemish- on the border of modern day Syria and Turkey- organized by the British Museum. This is where Lawrence’s career in intelligence begins, and why we think of him as a spy today.

Dr. Juliette Desplat: He was working on the British Museum’s dig at Karkemish. Then Lawrence and Woolley…

Matt Norman (Scripted): That’s Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, the renowned archaeologist who led the dig at Karkemish.

Dr. Juliette Desplat:….then Lawrence and Woolley also worked on a survey of Palestine known as the Wilderness of Zin. That is interesting because it’s his first incursion into the world of intelligence. So in 1913, the Palestine Exploration Fund, the PEF, was approached by Colonel Hedley, the head of the Topographical Branch, the director of the Ordnance Survey, with a view of drawing new maps of Palestine. And the agreement was that the PEF would provide two archeologists and that the royal engineers would provide officers. And they approached one of their members, Sir Frederic Kenyon of the British Museum, and Kenyon had two archeologists working at Karkamesh, so quite nearby, Thomas Edward Lawrence and Leonard Willy. So they started working with the Royal Engineers on those big surveys. And there were two surveys, one archeological and the other one military, but it was quite clear that one couldn’t have happened with the others without the other. And that Lawrence and Woolley were red herrings meant to give an archeological coloring to what was clearly a military endeavor.

Matt Norman (Scripted): So essentially, Lawrence and his superior Woolley’s archeological survey of the Negev Desert in what is today southern Israel- was a convenient excuse for the British military to scope out a strategically significant region in the months leading up to war with the Ottoman empire….without it appearing to be an overt act of aggression.

Matt Norman: And I can see here that this is a letter to the foreign office written by Woolley. Is that right?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: Yeah. So that letter in that big bound Foreign Office volume is a letter that was written by Leonard Woolley to the Foreign Office in August 1914, and he was offering his services and those of his assistant in Syria, T.E. Lawrence. Though I’m not entirely sure how Lawrence would have liked being described as a mere assistant. Woolley pointed out that really pointed out that he knew the the language, the people, and the country and that he may perhaps be of assistance to the government. And the Foreign Office reacted very positively to this and wrote to the Army Council on the following day saying that these two gentlemen should, um, uh, should be of use and that the Army Council should look favorably upon the request and both Willie and Lawrence were then given the job and Lawrence was very relieved because he’d been too short to enlist when he tried.

Matt Norman (Scripted): His height seems not to have posed a problem later that year.

After war broke out in the summer of 1914, Lawrence made himself useful at the GSGS in London. That’s the Geographical Section, General Staff, also known as MI4. Soon, he was sent to Cairo, Egypt, to work for the British intelligence department there.

Though the Arab Revolt wouldn’t begin until 1916, the complicated negotiations of alliances in the region had already began. The man who would lead the Arab Revolt, Sharif Hussein, steward of the Muslim holy city of Mecca, was offering the British a choice. On one hand, in return for the British and European guarantee of an independent Arab State, he would launch an Arab Revolt against the Ottoman empire.This would be a huge advantage for the British, increasing their chances of defeating the Ottoman empire by dividing its military resources and crippling its transportation infrastructure. On the other hand, if the British would not guarantee statehood for Arabia, Sharif Hussein would join the Ottomans, who would then have the unified support of all Islamic factions and thus a stronger ideological rallying cry.

By all accounts, Lawrence’s travel and work in Arab lands had given him a deep appreciation for the Arab people, and he was vocal in his support of their struggle for independence.

The British officials in Cairo, where Lawrence was stationed, managed to convince Sharif Hussein that they were committed to Arab independence, and the Arab Revolt began in June 1916.

Lawrence was sent to the Arabian Peninsula to gather intelligence for the British Arab Bureau, who needed to know how to strategically aid the revolt in order to do maximum damage to the Ottoman empire. Lawrence became the official liaison to Faisal, Sharif Hussein’s son and the leader of the Revolt, whose forces he would accompany for the next two years.

At first, his mission was mostly to gather intelligence, keep lines of communication open between the British and Faisal’s Arab troops, and assist in military strategy, the last role despite no previous experience in warfare. But in 1917, Lawrence joined the fighting in at least a dozen skirmishes, raids, and battles. Slowly moving north into Syria, Faisal’s men attacked railways, bridges, and other important infrastructure that the Ottoman Turks used to move supplies across their empire. Though the targets were practical, the fighting was often intensified by the ethnic division of Turks fighting for the Ottomans and the Arab fighters. In one instance, Turkish prisoners were massacred by troops commanded by Faisal and Lawrence.

Lawrence probably saw himself as an ally of the Arab cause, even though the sentiment likely wasn’t reciproated….. but in fact, he was an agent of the British government, working to promote British interests in the region, interests that would turn out to be quite unfriendly to the cause of independence to which Lawrence was so committed.

Prior to the start of the Arab Revolt, while the Arab Bureau in Cairo was negotiating with Sharif Hussein, British and French envoys were meeting in secret to divide up the Middle East between themselves, in anticipation of victory over the Ottoman Empire.

We don’t know when Lawrence found out about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, as this secret deal was called, but it’s probable that he knew about it either before or shortly after the Arab Revolt began…either way much earlier than he claimed to have discovered the truth in his autobiography.

And this leads us to an important question: was T. E. Lawrence a freedom fighter bravely risking his life for the Arab cause he believed in…or was he a British agent with a secret agenda who betrayed the Arabs? Could the truth be somewhere in the middle?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: What you must remember that the Peter O’Toole film was made in 1962 and there was a film made before that, and the legend of Lawrence of Arabia was actually created in 1919 by an American journalist, Lowell Thomas. Thomas followed Lawrence in Arabia and took a lot of footage, a lot of photographs, and then came back to the US and presented to the world his blockbuster show called With Alan Beale in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia. And that film was seen by about 4 million people around the world. And it is this film that made Lawrence a household name in 1919.

Matt Norman: Do you think that history would have remembered T.E. Lawrence if it hadn’t been for Lowell Thomas?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: Well, it’s very difficult to say. Um, T.E. Lawrence himself wrote a book called Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which is still quite popular today, so I think because of that and because of Lowell Thomas and then the 1962 film with Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, then people know about Lawrence.

Well, Seven Pillars of Wisdom is of dubious accuracy. I mean, some things are clearly wrong. I’m not saying that he lied, but you know, memories are very complimentary. The Lowell Thomas film is also of dubious accuracy. I mean, there are scenes all very heavily romanticized, um, for example, in that night in 1919 film, during the battle that led to the capture of Aqaba in 1917, Laurence is showed on a camel and the camel is shot out from under him. But in reality what happened is that lawrence accidentally shot the camel through the head.

Matt Norman (Scripted): Our records here at The National Archives complicate the romantic legend of Lawrence of Arabia. Because we hold government records, our Lawrence-related documents can appear on the surface to be very boring or mundane. But if you know how to read between the lines like Juliette does, the records reveal fascinating details about the real T.E. Lawrence.

Matt Norman: So am I right in thinking that some of what we know about Lawrence and presumably a significant amount of what you know about him, we can ascertain from things like this letter and other items of correspondence that we’ve got here at The National Archives?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: Yes. We have a number of things, so nothing of a very, very personal nature as I’m sure you understand, but things like this letter from Woolley or some reports that he sent, some comments that he made on different policy items, some sketches that he drew, some maps that he drew as well and of course we have his war record.

Matt Norman: But does his character come through at all in any of these letters, these dispatches?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: Yeah, certainly. Sometimes it does. Even if the subject is quite dry, your character will always transpire. His impatience is what comes through most of the time.

After the war, after the war, Lawrence was sent on a mission to the Hejaz, trying to sweet talk King Hussein of Hejaz into accepting the conclusions of the peace conferences and the king really didn’t want to sign anything and Lawrence grew very, very impatient and he writes to the Foreign Office saying, well, I’ve done my best, but the old man is conceited. There’s nothing I can do. I gave him a candid appreciation of his character, and then apparently the king burst into tears so you can see his impatience and sometimes also his arrogance coming through.

He was, I think, very unpopular with his contemporaries. He was described by Colonel Wilson, who was the the main person in Jeddah, so in Arabia, as a bumptious young ass. He made himself extremely unpopular with both the British and the French delegations at the peace conference because he was constantly playing pranks. He threw toilet papers done the stairs at the prime minister, which obviously wasn’t going to go down very well. Yeah, so not a very popular guy.

Matt Norman: Looking at this service record, and as with many of the service records that are held at The National Archives of various different kinds, these are available to the public to view whenever they want. I see that there’s a sticker with a rather interesting inscription on the front. Could you read that out for us?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: “This file must not be destroyed. It refers to a person of international fame.” And you’re right, it is very interesting because the sticker was stuck on the front, on the sort of jacket of the file in 1983 by a departmental records officer at the Ministry of Defense. So these are the people who decide whether files should be selected for preservation or not. And I think it really sums up what we know about Lawrence. I mean his military career is not particularly interesting, but the file refers to a person of international fame.

Matt Norman: That is interesting. So he, he wasn’t a renowned soldier of any kind, but he became famous and his service record, as with everything else about him, is interesting purely for that reason to some extent.

Let’s have a look then. We’ve got, we’ve got the great big map here. It’s a big sort of one meter by one meter map, and I see that the map itself published by the Royal Geographical Society in 1910, that’s just the map itself. And it’s been colored in, so I’m looking at states, I suppose, in the Middle East. I see Iraq, “Armenians” it says there, it says French Palestine Sinai, and those are all colored in. What are we looking at here and what is the significance as far as Lawrence goes?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: We are looking at what is generally known as Lawrence’s peace map. He presented this map at a meeting of the Eastern Committee of the cabinet in November 1918, and this, if you want, is his response to the infamous Sykes-Picot map of 1916, which had been designed by the French and the British to carve out the Ottoman empire. You can see that he envisaged different governments in different regions. You can see that there is a state called Palestine which is quite interesting and you can see that the Arab regions are all led by the sons of King Hussein of Hejaz, Faisel, Ali, and Abdullah. These borders and this map was not very well received by the Eastern Committee. The Mesopotamian government in particular was opposed to it. So was the Interior Office. And in the end these ideas never really materialized and the borders that we know were very different from those who can see on the map.

Matt Norman: And you mentioned Palestine there. Was it Lawrence that, um, just how influential was he in conceiving of the idea of Palestine?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: Not very influential at all. It wasn’t his idea.

Matt Norman: Summing up, how should we remember Lawrence, do you think? How effective was he at what he did? And how should he be remembered?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: Well, maybe in the words of Colonel Wilson, he should be remembered as a bumptious young ass. I think what we should remember is that there was more to Lawrence’s war then the Arab Revolt. He worked with the Intelligence Department in Cairo. He worked with the Arab Bureau. He was sent on a rather intriguing mission to Mesopotamia to try to buy a Turkish commander to relieve the siege of Kut. He played a role, maybe not as important a role as he would wanted, but still a role at the peace conference and then at the Cairo conference, then was sent on a mission to the King of Hejaz, so there are more episodes than just the Arab Revolt and to be honest, the Arab revolt wasn’t that much of a success either. It’s very debatable. But the revolt wasn’t probably that great military success that we remember through the film.

Matt Norman (Scripted): Have you made up your mind about Lawrence yet? Was he a good spy or a bad spy?

I’ll admit I still don’t know what to think about him. Like every historical figure, he’s complicated. The history of the First World War is certainly not cut and dry either.

Unfortunately, we never get to hear Lawrence’s side of things beyond his autobiography and the notebooks he left behind. He was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935, at the age of 46…which only further increased the mythology of his life. The iconic Lawrence of Arabia film opens with this accident, beginning the tale of his epic adventures in Arabia with the heart-tug of a tragic early death

His post-war years are, in some ways, as baffling as his war record. On one hand, he seems to have missed his days of anonymous military service…in the early 1920s he tried to re-enlist under a fake name. On the other hand, he published his autobiography and later published a condensed version, both of which propelled him back into the public eye.

There’s much more I could say about Lawrence, more questions to ask and more documents to explore, but I’ve promised to tell you about two adventurers turned intelligence agents who helped shape the Middle East in the First World War, so it’s time to turn our attention to Gertrude Bell.

Dr. Juliette Desplat: Gertrude Bell is widely viewed as the female Lawrence of Arabia, but I always held the view that maybe Lawrence should be seen as the male Gertrude Bell.

Matt Norman (Scripted): It’s true, as Dr. Juliette Desplat puts it, that while T.E. Lawrence has gone down in history as a hero and iconic figure, Gertrude Bell did much of the same work…. and by all accounts was more effective….yet her story remains relatively unknown to everyone except historians and specialists.

Matt Norman: Before I started working at The National Archives. I confess I’ve never heard of her. Do you think there is a popular perception of Gertrude Bell? And if so, what is it?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: I think to be honest, a lot of people are a bit like you and had never heard of her. And then with the centenary of the war a terrible film was made with Nicole Kidman. So that sort of popularized her image a bit. And then a very good documentary was made called Letters from Baghdad, which sort of restored the balance of history.

Matt Norman (Scripted): But among those who do have a significant understanding of the Middle East in the First World War, Bell is remembered as a formidable person.

Dr. Juliette Desplat: She’s probably remembered as a king maker. She was absolutely instrumental in the making of Iraq as we know it.

I know about Gertrude Bell because of the documents that we have here at The National Archives and other documents in other archives. I started looking into her when I was doing a piece of work on intelligence and archeologists in the Middle East during the First World War.

We have a significant amount of material relating to go to Gertrude Bell because she worked, at least partly, for the government. So we have correspondence with various other government members, we have her policy papers, things like that. That maybe wouldn’t have been much, but very lucky for us Gertrude Bell was also a very prolific letter writer and diary writer. So all her letters and diaries are kept at Newcastle. A lot of them have been digitized and that’s a great help to compliment what we know from official papers.

Matt Norman (Scripted): Born in 1868, she would have been in her 40s when war broke out.

Dr. Juliette Desplat: Gertrude Bell is from the North. She was from a relatively wealthy family. She was, I think, the first woman to graduate from Oxford with a First. So obviously, wery educated, very well connected. And that helped a lot in her various endeavors. She traveled quite extensively throughout the Middle East. She was an archeologist and ethnologist, an anthropologist. She was also a mountaineer and an adventurer, or adventuress if there is such a word. She has a mountain that was named after her in Switzerland, Gertrudspitze. So yeah, really, really a formidable women.

Gertrude Bell had traveled very extensively through uncharted regions of the Middle East. And that placed her in a great position to do the work that the Arab Bureau and then the administration of Mesopotamia were doing at the time because she knew the region, she knew all the chiefs and all the sheiks. She knew how to behave in the region. She knew a great deal of desert politics and that’s why she was given a job, but she wasn’t given that job immediately. When the war erupted, she asked for a Middle East posting and that was declined. I’m not entirely sure why, maybe because she was a woman. So she first volunteered with the British Red Cross in France. And then the call came in the winter of 1915 and she was sent to Cairo and then she was very quickly dispatched to Basra in Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq, to act as a sort of liaison officer between the administration in Mesopotamia and the Arab Bureau because there were a lot of frictions at the time between those two big political rivals that were Egypt and India. Mesopotamia reported to the India Office. And so Gertrude Bell did a lot of work in Mesopotamia, a lot of intelligence work, compiling reports, talking to a lot of local people to compile reports that were then sent back to central administration in London.

Matt Norman: Do we have any material here that reflects her work and the perception of how well she worked?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: We have a lot of material relating to her work because obviously we have her reports, we have her policy papers, we have a lot of letters that she wrote. I don’t think what we have here reflects a lot. I think some thought that she was really annoying. Some thought that maybe she was a bit arrogant, but I think all recognized that she was doing a great job. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have been given a position. I mean her position was a bit strange anyway because at the beginning it wasn’t official and that is what we see in that letter that we have here in that volume of correspondence from the Arab Bureau. When she realized that her personal correspondence was, which is the way in which she was disseminating intelligence, when she found out that her personal correspondence was used in the Arab Bulletin, which was the magazine, the official magazine of the Arab Bureau, she wrote an absolutely enraged letter to Hogarth saying that she was not his correspondent, that she didn’t have any kind of official position with regard to Cairo, that she hadn’t even be sent to Basra by him, that she had been sent by the Viceroy of India to lend a hand with political intelligence. So yes, a bizarre position.

I think she was a very strong character. She would have to be a very strong character to survive in the Middle East, in the middle of a war, in what was mostly a male world. She became in 1916, she became assistant political officer in Basra, so she was attached to Percy Cox, who was the Chief Political Officer in Mesopotamia. And, and then after the war she, she became a political officer in, in Iraq. She was, she was a formidable person.

Matt Norman (Scripted): We know from T.E. Lawrence’s peace map, the one Juliette showed me earlier in this episode, as well as from from other sources, that Lawrence’s personal opinion was that the Arabs should have their independent state after the war. Gertrude Bell seems to have supported independence for the Arab regions, but did not take as much of a hard stand on it as Lawrence. Perhaps that’s why she got a more influential seat at the table than Lawrence during the post-war partition of the Ottoman Empire.

Dr. Juliette Desplat: I think she was very much in favor of some form of Arab independence. And as I said, she was instrumental in they did the birth of Iraq as we know it today. Iraq didn’t exist during the First World War. It was roughly Mesopotamia, but Mesopotamia also covered bits of Syria, and Iraq was basically three regions, the three viliyats of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. And then thanks to the efforts of Gertrude Bell and others, this became a nation after the war, the nation of Iraq.

She, she seemed to have changed her mind quite a lot about quite a lot of things. So sometimes it’s a bit difficult to determine what she really wants or what she really thinks, but that also makes her quite interesting, and maybe maybe it can be put down to flexibility rather than to erratic behavior.

Matt Norman: When she’s working out in the Middle East, what do we know about how she worked? Was she working undercover in any sense that we understand intelligence work in that very sort of romanticized way, or did it not really work like that?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: Well, I didn’t really work like that because obviously she was a woman so she couldn’t go undercover in the Arab world. She couldn’t speak to sheiks undercover. But I didn’t really matter because she was extremely well connected and she used these personal connections and her facilities, her abilities in making good or building good relations with local sheiks or local tribes to gather intelligence that then was reported in reports, in policy papers, but also in personal letters. And that’s how Gertrude Bell worked. She basically told what she wanted to whom she wanted, when she wanted.

I think she was very persuasive, and she was probably a little scary as well and very determined to have things her way.

Matt Norman: And so do we think back on her as a feminist icon?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: I would like people to be able to separate gender from achievements, and also she was a very staunch anti-feminist. She was at the head of the anti-suffrage league in her region. She didn’t like women particularly. She always had very witty but very disparaging comments to make about the wives. She once complained that it was a real shame that all these brilliant young officers in Mesopotamia had to be saddled with such silly wives. I remember a letter that she wrote where she said that the Arabs didn’t quite know what to do with her and that they always ended up treating her like a man and I think that’s how she was happy to be seen: doing the same job as a man in the same capacity and, you know, in very similar positions. She was only the woman who was a political officer.

Matt Norman: And how should history remember her? Should we think back on her career as a success?

Dr. Juliette Desplat: I think we do. Obviously that thought kind of career had a terrible impact on her personal life. Clearly, from letters, she was very fond of her family. She never saw them. She never married. She never had children. So I guess it depends on how you measure success, really. I think she was a success. Other people would think that she had sacrificed her personal life on the altar of maybe political influence. Um, but yeah, all in all, I think she was a success.

Matt Norman (Scripted): In 1917, when the British took the city of Baghdad in the region of Mesopotamia, Bell traveled the city, which today is the capital of Iraq. Because of her unique insights into the region and personal connections with its rulers, she was given the position of Oriental Secretary and spent ten months writing Self Determination in Mesopotamia, a detailed report on how she thought the region should be governed after the war. At this time, the British and French were essentially carving up the region to best suit their interests, and many British officials felt oil-rich Iraq would be more useful as a colony than an independent state.

After the war, Bell was often called on to mediate between the Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and the Kurds, three large groups in the region who still to this day have differing opinions on who should govern. At the The Cairo Conference of 1921, Bell and her colleague Lawrence both recommended Faisal as a candidate to be King of Iraq. Lawrence, if you remember, was the one who recommended years earlier that Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein, should be the leader of the Arab Revolt.

Gertrude Bell remained in Iraq for the next few years, assisting the new king in policy and strategy, founding the Baghdad Archeological Museum, and serving as the president of the committee to establish what would become the National Library of Iraq.

Her legacy in the Middle East is a complicated one, deeply intertwined with the colonial attitudes of the time and the dramatic reshaping of the east and the west after the First World War. We don’t know how her views on governance and self-governance in the Middle East may have changed or evolved in the inter-war period, because like T.E. Lawrence, she died only a few years after the war.

In the early 1920s, Gertrude Bell’s health began to decline. She persisted in her work through bouts of bronchitis, malaria, and the ill effects of the desert heat, but even after a return to England in 1925, she continued to grow weaker and in the summer of 1926, she was found dead in her room from an overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 57. Bell was buried in Baghdad, her funeral attended by the King she had selected to rule.

A small detail stood out to me in Bell’s history. In 1915, she was assigned to work with a man named St. John Philby, with whom she shared some of her tactics for gathering intelligence and making connections. Philby went on to have a successful career that’s not very relevant to our story, but I bring it up because St. John had a son named Harold Adrian Russell Philby. Harold would go by the nickname Kim for most of his life. And Kim Philby just happens to become the leader of one of the most notorious Soviet spy rings in Britain in the Cold War. In the next episode of On the Record, we’re going to investigate how the Cambridge Five got away with so much and why two other double agents were caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Thanks for listening to On the Record, a production of The National Archives at Kew.
If you like this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review. To find out more about the show and The National Archives, follow the link from the episode description in your podcast listening app or visit nationalarchives.gov.uk

Thank you to all the experts who contributed to the episode and to Hannah Hethmon of H. Hethmon Consulting for for executive producing the show.


  1. Marion Patterson says:

    Really enjoyed this. Very interesting. Thank you.

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