She was born Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell. Acquired fame as Gertrude Bell.
She was the daughter of one of Britain’s wealthiest families. Shunned the life of a debutante. Such had nothing to do with her appearance. She was the loveliest of women. Slim. Luxuriant hair. Sultry in appearance. Always the lady, however.
Gertrude was Victorian era upper class. She became an upper class adventurer.
She never married. Enjoyed several painful love affairs.
One of Oxford’s most brilliant graduates, she distinguished herself over the years as a great mountaineer, an archaeologist, traveler, political officer, administrator, spy and mapper.
Prior to World War I, Gertrude traveled throughout the Middle East. She especially enjoyed the Syrian and Arabian deserts. Personally knew and became friends with many chieftains and sheiks, as well as tribe members.
Her first known relationship was with a British diplomat. Her father did not like him. That was the end of the acquaintance. During her pre-World War I Middle Eastern travels, she had an affair with a British officer. He was married. The affair did not last. She formed passionate attachments with chieftains, sheiks and certain Bedouin leaders over the years.
She was always the lady. She kept all romantic involvements under rigid formal restraint. She never forgot she was a member of the British upper class.
By the time World War I started, Gertrude was working with the British government. She was close to the highest ranking British official in the area. A gentleman named Cox. He became her benefactor in a sense.
At the same time, T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, was working for the British government in the Middle East. The world is familiar with Lawrence of Arabia because of the books he wrote re his exploits and the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Gertrude wrote no such books and the one movie concerning her exploits did not garner the attention the Lawrence of Arabia movie did.
Few know Gertrude Bell. Her renown is substantially less than that of Lawrence.
Their aims were united. An independent Arab state dependant on no one. In this regard, both Gertrude and Lawrence were deceived by British intelligence. The Brits wanted the Middle East for Great Britain. These still were the days of Britain’s desire to colonize the world.
The Ottomans controlled the area up to World War I. The Ottomans sided with Germany in the war. It was Bell and Lawrence who worked to turn the Arab tribes into friends of Britain and to fight for Britain. The problem was the Arabs thought they were fighting for their independence. In reality, they were unknowingly fighting for a deceptive Britain.
Gertrude was able to move freely between British occupied and German occupied areas. Each side loved her. She had friends among the Arabs tribes fighting against each other, also. All contributed to her success as a British spy.
It is said Gertrude was the brains behind Lawrence. The intimation being that Lawrence did not have the ability to plan and arrange for the Arab activity and cooperation required.
While Lawrence was prancing about in white flowing Arab attire, Gertrude dressed neatly in billowing muslin’s and the pencil cloche hats of jazz age Baghdad. Both used camels as the primary mode of travel during these times.
The military did not like her. She was a woman. She was sitting with the leadership and making decisions that they believed only men could make. She was the only woman in the leadership.
In reality, Gertrude was a man cloaked as a woman. She was making her way in a man’s world.
Several years after World War I, she was settled in Baghdad. The Arab women did not like her because she refused to wear a veil. The Arab men did not like her because she was a woman.
Winston Churchill was impressed with Gertrude’s abilities. He was British Colonial Secretary at the time. He gave her the responsibility to create borders for a modern Iraq. A gigantic task. No different than it is today.
Gertrude drew the required lines in the sand.
The Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds hated each other. Had for thousands of years. During the most recent 300 years, the Sunni had been placed in the leadership role. The Shiites were considerably more in number. However, they were made subservient to the Sunni.
Gertrude made the mistake of following a similar plan in creating a new Iraq in 1920-21.
Iraqis did not get along then. They do not get along today in 2015. Iraq obviously not an easy society to successfully mold. There was an international consensus at the time that it was impossible to do. The same consensus exists today.
Never the less, Gertrude was praised and acclaimed for the modern Iraq she created. All kinds of awards were hers.
World War I was over. Her benefactor Cox was out of power in 1923. His loss of power meant that Gertrude was without power.
Gertrude took a new path in life. She opened a museum in Baghdad. The Baghdad Archaeological Museum. Also periodically made speeches in the Baghdad area.
She carried on a life in Baghdad consistent with that of her class. Did things she was unable to do while running around the desert on a camel for years. She played tennis, enjoyed afternoon teas and spent weekends in the country hunting partridge.
Over the years, she had received great acclaim. Besides awards, she was referred to as the Desert Queen, the uncrowned Queen of Iraq, a shaper of nations, and the female Lawrence of Arabia.
From 1923 to the time of her death on July 7, 1926, it was downhill for Gertrude. Illness and depression hit her hard. She died from an overdose of sleeping pills. Whether accidental or intentional has never been established.