Gertrude Bell – queen of the desert

Gertrude Bell is the subject of a film, Queen of the Desert, scheduled for release later this year, so I’d better tell the story of this extraordinary woman before Hollywood distorts it. Gertrude was born in 1868 in county Durham, to a wealthy industrialist. She studied at Oxford where, despite a male tutor who insisted that women sat with their backs to him, she became the first woman to gain a first class degree in modern history. Because she was a woman, she was unable to graduate, and her Oxford education made her ‘unmarriageable’ so in in 1892 she jumped at the chance to travel with her aunt to Iran, where her uncle was the British Ambassador. She fell in love with the culture, visiting archaeological sites, and developing a great affection for the people. As a self-styled ‘queen of the desert’, she surrounded herself by an entourage of camels and male guides and travelled the Middle East, giving lavish gifts wherever she went. The locals were usually shocked to see a female traveller but Gertrude’s ability to speak their language (she spoke French, Persian, Arabic and Turkish) won her many friends; she was treated as an honorary male and not judged in the way she had been at home. In fact, many assumed she was a man until she opened her mouth.

Gertrude spent much of the next decade travelling the world and learning about archaeology, as well as developing a passion for mountaineering; she became the greatest women mountaineer of the time and was renowned for surviving 53 hours on a rope, clinging to a rock face while caught in a blizzard in an attempt to climb an unconquered mountain in the Alps.

In the First World War, her knowledge of the tribes, geography and politics of the area attracted the attention of British Intelligence, who recruited her for an intelligence operation in Cairo known as the Arab bureau, along with T.E. Lawrence. But history has largely forgotten her; she was not mentioned in T.E. Lawrence’s biography and has more recently been patronisingly referred to as the female Lawrence of Arabia. But while few Arabs remembered T.E. Lawrence, even now ‘Miss Bell’ is spoken of in Baghdad with affection.

Gertrude was an official of the British administration in Baghdad after the war, receiving a CBE and writing a white paper reviewing the civil administration in Mesopotamia and in 1921 attended a conference in Cairo, the only female delegate, where she drew the boundaries of the Arab state that became Iraq, as well as choosing its first leader, King Faisal. A lone woman among Arab men, she became a confidante of King Faisal and gained the nickname El Khatun, the lady of the court.

Gertrude never married but had an affair with a married man, Major Vahrles Doughty-Wylie between 1913 and 1915, with whom she exchanged passionate letters. She begged him to leave his wife, telling him, ‘it’s that or nothing. I can’t live without you.’ Unable to choose, Doughty-White chose to lead a dangerous mission in Gallipoli in 1915 and was killed by a Turkish bullet. Reports of his strange calmness that day – he made no attempt to avoid bullets – have led to speculation that he was suicidal.

Gertrude described herself as an antiquarian at heart and she devoted her later years to archaeology, establishing the Baghdad Archaeological Museum but died unexpectedly aged 58 of an overdose of sleeping pills. It was not known whether her death was accidental or deliberate. An obituary praised her ‘masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.’


Noor Inayat Khan – Indian princess, British spy

This week, a woman descended from Indian royalty who sacrificed her life for Britain. Noor Inayat Khan was described as gentle, shy, sensitive, musical, dreamy, poetic and otherworldly, but as a spy she was one of the bravest and most defiant women in the Second World War.

Noor was born in 1914 in the Kremlin in Moscow while her parents were the guests of the Russian royal family. Her mother was American, her father Indian and a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, a famous 18th century Muslim ruler. Her father, a Sufi teacher, instilled in her strong principles, including religious tolerance and non-violence. She was raised in London and Paris and became an accomplished young woman, educated at the Sorbonne in child psychology, as well as being skilled in music and writing children’s stories. But despite her Sufi ideals, she couldn’t sit back and watch as war approached. When World War II started, she trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross but fled to England before the surrender of France and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Because of her fluent French, she was recruited by the elite Special Operations Executive (SOE) as a radio operator. This gentle woman who loved to played the harp was taught to shoot and kill.

In June 1943 she became the first female to be sent into Nazi-occupied France by the SOE and became the radio operator for the Prosper resistance network in Paris, with the codename Madeleine, despite a report that described her as “unsuited to work in her field” because she was scared of guns and easily flustered. But Noor flourished in her hazardous role and was more concerned about worrying her mother than the constant threat to her own life. Her mission soon became the most dangerous undercover operation in France. Although most members of the network were arrested and rumours abounded that the network had been infiltrated by a Nazi spy, she refused to return to England and spent the entire summer moving around, sending messages to London while evading capture, frequently changing her appearance and alias. Hers became the last radio operating between Paris and London.

In October, she was betrayed by the sister of a friend and seized by the Gestapo, but put up such a fight that the arresting officer had to request assistance. Unfortunately they found her book recording her secret signals and used her radio to trick London into sending three new agents who were captured as soon as they arrived. In November 1943, she was sent to Pforzheim prison in Germany where she was kept in chains and in solitary confinement. Despite ten months of beatings, starvation and torture, she refused to reveal any information. In September 1944, Khan and three other female SOE agents were transferred to Dachau concentration camp. Despite being kicked and tortured all night by an SS officer, Noor refused to crack. On 13 September, she was shot. Her final word, spoken as the German firing squad raised their weapons, was Liberté. Noor made a strong impression on everyone who met her. Even the head of the Gestapo headquarters in Paris, Hans Josef Kieffer, wept when told of her death during his postwar interrogation.

Noor was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Cross, one of only three women from the SOE to receive the latter. A memorial was unveiled to her in London in 2012, the first statue to an Indian woman in Britain and the first to any Muslim.