The History of 18 Sussex Square

Lt. Col Gerald de Gaury, MC 1897-1984,

Gerald de Gaury
Gerald de Gaury

Arabist explorer, soldier-diplomat, historian and artist lived at 18 Sussex Square from 1964 until his death in 1984.

Gerald De Gaury fought at Gallipoli and then in Flanders during the First World War. Wounded four times, he was decorated for his bravery. His obituary tells us he was, ‘a man of striking good looks, tall, soldierly and of distinguished carriage and appearance, a man of talent, observant, cosmopolitan, with an inquiring mind and imperturbable manner’.

De Gaury had taught himself Arabic while convalescing from wounds. He found that he liked Arabs and was liked by them. Working for the British diplomatic service between the 1920’s and 1940’s, he became British political agent in Kuwait and formed personal relationships with the Regent of Iraq and the Saudi King, spending lengthy visits with King Ibn Saud and hunting with him in the desert. This at a time when non-Muslims were forbidden to enter the interior of the Arabian Peninsula without special permission from the King. He was to travel with an escort provided by the King, wear Arab dress and conceal his nationality and religion for fear of being killed by local tribesmen. It is thought that only a handful of Christians had ever visited Riyadh before de Gaury’s first visit in 1934.

De Gaury’s extensive knowledge gained from travelling around the region was put to use before the Second World War when he guided the future General Wavell on a reconnaissance mission to explore the feasibility of moving an armoured division across the terrain from Cairo to Iraq to deal with any military emergency that might arise there.. De Gaury’s knowledge of the desert enabled him to identify water resources en route that would be crucial to any military transit.

With the carve up of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War, Britain had gained control of Iraq, Kuwait, Palestine and Transjordan. The Arabian Peninsula became a British Protectorate and Palestine a British Mandate. These holdings added millions more Muslims to the British Empire’s population in Egypt, India, Malaya and beyond. Sunni Muslims who had previously looked to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople as their Caliph, now turned their focus to the Holy cities of Medina and Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula, now controlled by the Saud family, the ruling tribe of Wahabi Muslims. In order to keep the Empire’s Muslim subjects on board, and pursuing its policy of ruling through client states, the British courted the support of the Saudis in the Arabian Peninsula. This support became urgently important as the Second World War loomed into prospect and oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia. Saudi acquiescence in the British control of coaling stations along the Red Sea coast of the peninsula was also extremely important for British shipping using the Suez Canal, Britian’s strategic link to India and its imperial holdings beyond.

De Gaury was sent to keep things sweet with the Saudi King, which he did with his personal charm, a knowledge of Arab political and religious sensitivities and with generous subsidies sent to the Saudis from the government in London. Whilst there he managed British intelligence and counter intelligence in Arabia.

During the war he undertook a number of Arab liaison missions for the British regional command based at Cairo. He raised and commanded the Druze Cavalry which fought against the Vichy French in Syria who were allowing the Germans to use their air bases there. Wilfred Thesiger, another famous Arab expert, was his deputy in this campaign.

One might have thought such important service merited a knighthood in later life, but that did not happen.

De Gaury became an authority on the region and wrote a number of books about it in later life. Freya Stark, the British explorer and travel writer on the Middle East and Afghanistan was a close friend, as was Molly Izzard who later wrote a biography of Freya Stark casting doubt on the authenticity of her travels. De Gaury was a personal friend of Princess Eugenie of Greece and Denmark. She visited him towards the end of his life, staying at Sussex Square.

Despite a conventional upper class education, a career in the Army and the diplomatic service, de Gaury had an artistic sensibility, being himself a fine photographer and artist. His photographs and sketches form a valuable record of life in the Middle East at that period. He moved in the upper class circle of the eccentric Lord Berners, composer, painter and writer, who was famously photographed at an easel painting a white horse standing in his drawing room at Faringdon, Oxfordshire. It was here that Berners had entertained Nancy Mitford, John Betjeman, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky and Salvador Dalí.

Berners had a handsome younger lover, Robert Heber-Percy, known as ‘The Mad Boy’ who cared nothing for books or music preferring instead to shoot, to ride and to drink.

Dorothy Lygon, ‘Mad Boy’ Robert Heber-Percy, Penelope Betjeman and Lord Berners at Faringdon House
Dorothy Lygon, ‘Mad Boy’ Robert Heber-Percy, Penelope Betjeman and Lord Berners at Faringdon House

Gerald de Gaury, met the Mad Boy while staying at Faringdon as a weekend guest1. He took this volatile male beauty with him on a diplomatic trip to the Saudi Court in 1935. Again they were kitted out in Arab dress and accompanied by an escort. De Gaury was taking the new British Minister at Jeddah to the Saudi Court in Riyadh where he was to present his credentials and a knighthood, complete with the robes and insignia of the Order of the Bath, to the Saudi King from George V, The address from King George was read out to the court in Arabic by de Gaury.

1 The story of Berners, the Mad Boy and his desert adventure is described in the recently published ‘The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me’ by Sofka Zinovieff, Vintage Publishing

Why he would risk taking such a young man ‘with a violently reckless streak’ with him on a diplomatic mission is unclear except that he knew that the Mad Boy’s good looks, ‘good breeding, courage and manliness’ would be appreciated by the Arabs. Gerald himself was far from immune to the charms of male youth and beauty.

He never married. Despite his crusty social attitudes and military bearing, de Gaury was known in Brighton’s liberal post-war artistic circles. In 1967 he attended a fancy dress party given at Pulborough Manor by Count William de Belleroche of 5 Arundel Terrace.

Gerald de Gaury lived at 18 Sussex Square for 20 years until his death in 1984. He is remembered today by a few long-standing estate residents, including Andy Anderson who typed manuscripts of Gerald’s books on the Middle East.

Andrew Doig 2015