Mark Sykes

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Sir Mark Sykes, Bt
Mark Sykes00.jpg
Photo 1918 approximately
Born Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes
(1879-03-16)16 March 1879
England
Died 16 February 1919(1919-02-16) (aged 39)
Hotel Lotti, Paris, France
Cause of death Cyanosis, Spanish Flu
Resting place St Mary's Church, Sledmere, East Riding of Yorkshire, England
Occupation soldier, diplomat, Middle Eastern adviser to War Cabinet
Known for Conservative Party politician, diplomatic adviser, and traveller
Spouse(s) Edith Gorst; 6 children

Colonel Sir Mark Sykes, 6th Baronet (born Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes; 16 March 1879 – 16 February 1919) was an English traveller, Conservative Party politician and diplomatic adviser, particularly with regard to the Middle East at the time of the First World War. He is associated with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, drawn up while the war was in progress, regarding the apportionment of postwar spheres of interest in the Ottoman Empire to Britain, France and Russia.

Early life[edit]

Mark Sykes was the only child of Sir Tatton Sykes, 5th Baronet, who, when a 48-year-old wealthy bachelor, married Christina Anne Jessica Cavendish-Bentinck, 30 years his junior. Several accounts suggest that his future mother-in-law essentially trapped Tatton Sykes into marrying Christina. They were reportedly an unhappy couple. After spending large amounts of money paying off his wife's debts, Tatton Sykes published a notice in the papers disavowing her future debts and legally separating from her.

Lady Sykes lived in London, and Mark divided his time between her home and his father's 34,000 acre (120 km²) East Riding of Yorkshire estates. Their seat was Sledmere House. Lady Sykes converted to Roman Catholicism and Mark was brought into that faith from the age of three.[1] Sledmere Hall "lay like a ducal demesne among the Wolds, approached by long straight roads and sheltered by belts of woodland, surrounded by large prosperous farms...ornamented with the heraldic triton of the Sykes family...the mighty four-square residence and the exquisite parish church."[2]The family farm also had a stud, where Sykes his prized Arabs.

Mark Sykes was left much to his own devices and developed an imagination, without the corresponding self-discipline to make him a good scholar. Most winters he travelled with his father to the Middle East, especially the Ottoman Empire. In 1897 he was commissioned into the 3rd (Militia) Battalion, the Green Howards.[3]

Sykes was educated at the Jesuit Beaumont College and St John's College, Cambridge. He did not finish a degree, which contrasted sharply with grammarian T E Lawrence.[4] By the age of twenty-five, Sykes had published at least four books; D'Ordel's Pantechnicon (1904), a parody of the magazines of the period (illustrated by Edmund Sandars); D'Ordel's Tactics and Military Training (1904), a parody of the Infantry Drill Book of 1896 (also with Sandars); and two travel books, Dar-Ul-Islam (The Home of Islam, 1904) and Through Five Turkish Provinces (1900). He also wrote The Caliphs' Last Heritage: A Short History of the Turkish Empire,[5] the first half of which is a brief overview of political geography of the Middle East up to the Ottoman Empire while the second half is an account of the author's travels in Asia Minor and the Middle East between 1906 and 1913.[6]

Not so many years later an old friend, Aubrey Herbert, diplomat and scholar, would remember Mark Sykes with affection. "An effervescent personality; he could turn a gathering into a party, a party into a festival. He bubbled with ideas, and he swept up his listeners with his enthusiasm. In addition he had a remarkable talent for sketching caricatures and for mimicry. "Mark Sykes had vitality beyond any man I have ever met. When one had been in his company one felt almost as if one had been given from the fountain of life". [7]Despite his charming exterior, many like Lawrence of Arabia did not like him. But Sykes studied policy and the middle east becoming a self-educated expert most valuable to the Foreign Office in the Edwardian era, and then during the Great War. Sykes came from a Tory family tradition immersed in the history of the Disraelian flirtation with Osmanli power, as he had wrestled with the Earl of Derby to modernise conservatism. Although shaped by his culture and time, Sykes knew more than most about the Turk and Arab, and was fluent in the languages. Historian Jonathan Schneer calculates him as an anti-semite, estimating that his racialism stipulated a Turkish prejudice akin to Armenian genocide. Having said that, Sykes was an effective ally of both the French and the Israelis. Attempts therefore to label him as a traditional English bigot are simplistic.

The Boer War, travels and Parliament[edit]

Heir to vast Yorkshire estates and a baronetcy, Sykes was not content to await his inheritance. He was gazetted to the 3rd (Militia) Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment. Sykes was sent abroad with 5th battalion Prince of Wales Own, Yorkshire Regiment during the Second Boer War for two years, where he was engaged mostly in guard duty, but saw action on several occasions. Following the war, he was promoted to captain on 28 February 1902,[8] and returned to the United Kingdom on 15 May the same year, when the appointment was confirmed.[9] He travelled extensively, especially in the Middle East.

From 1904 to 1905 he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Chief Secretary for Ireland, George Wyndham in the last year of Balfour's administration. He made a friend of the lugubrious Prime Minister, when was later a very significant Foreign Secretary, with whom Sykes worked closely. Transferred by Balfour, he served as honorary attaché to the British Embassy in Constantinople 1905-06, at which time he began a lifetime's interest in middle eastern affairs of state.

Sykes was very much a Yorkshire grandee, with his country seat at Sledmere House, breeding racehorses, sitting on the bench, raising and commanding a militia unit and fulfilling his social obligations. He married Edith Gorst, also a Roman Catholic, daughter of the Conservative party manager, Sir Eldon Gorst, bart. It was a happy union, and they had six children. Sykes succeeded to the baronetcy and the estates in 1913.

Sykes caricatured by WH for Vanity Fair, 1912

In the General Election of December 1910, Sykes standing as a Unionist for the Buckrose Division. He was finally elected Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Hull Central, after two close, but unsuccessful attempts. He became close to Lord Hugh Cecil, another MP and was a contemporary of the volatile F. E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, and Hilaire Belloc, a naturalised British citizen from France. As a JP in the East Riding, he was also elected a member of the County Council.

Sykes was also a friend of Aubrey Herbert, another Englishman influential in Middle Eastern affairs, and was acquainted with Gertrude Bell, the pro-Arab Foreign Office advisor and Middle Eastern traveller. Sykes was never as single-minded an advocate of the Arab cause as Bell, and her friends T. E. Lawrence and Sir Percy Cox. His sympathies and interests later extended to Armenians, Arabs and Jews, as well as Turks. This is reflected in the Turkish Room he had installed in Sledmere House, using the noted Armenian ceramic artist David Ohannessian as designer.

Protégé of Kitchener[edit]

When the First World War broke out, Lieutenant-Colonel Sykes was commanding officer of a reserve unit, the 5th Battalion of the Green Howards. However he did not lead them into battle, as his particular talents were needed in the War Office working for Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War. Kitchener placed him on Sir Maurice de Bunsen's Committee advising the Cabinet on Middle Eastern affairs. Although Sykes never got to know Kitchener well, they shared a similar outlook, and Sykes had his confidence. He was soon the dominant person on the Committee, and so gained great influence on British Middle Eastern policy, later becoming a foremost expert. For the Intelligence Unit he wrote pamphlets promoting Arab independence, and revolt against the slavery imposed by the tyrannical Sultans of Constantinople. He was introduced to Colonel Oswald Fitzgerald, assistant secretary of Lord Kitchener. London still hoped to persuade Turkey to abstain from, or join the Allies side in the war against the Central Powers. It was Sykes intelligence that informed the Foreign Office that Turkey would fight alongside Germany. All of which Fitzgerald carried by letter to Kitchener.[10] Sykes only saw Kitchener briefly once in his life at York House during which time Kitchener presented a list of points for discussion. Sykes advice was clear "Turkey must cease to be...should be done up to the nines and given money and food....Then premiums might be offered for camels...then a price for telegraphic insulators...then a price for interruption of Hejaz railway line and a good price for Turkish Mausers and a good price for deserters from the Turkish Army...if possible keep the whole of the Hejaz Railway in a ferment and destroy bridges[11]

Upon Sykes's instigation, but not completely according to his wishes, the Arab Bureau was created. It was Sykes and his fellows in this group who revived ancient Greek and Roman names for Middle Eastern regions. Such terms in common use today include "Syria", "Palestine", "Iraq" and "Mesopotamia". He also designed the Flag of the Arab Revolt, a combination of green, red, black and white. Variations on his design are today the flags of Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and the P.L.O which did not exist as nationalities before the First World War.[12]

Britain's strategic conundrum[edit]

Riflemen carrying the flag of the Arab Revolt

Sykes had long agreed with the traditional policy of British Conservatives in propping up the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) as a buffer against Russian expansion into the Mediterranean. Britain feared that Russia had designs on India, its most important colonial possession. A Russian fleet in the Mediterranean might cut British sea routes to India. British statesmen such as Palmerston, Disraeli and Salisbury had held this view. Liberal Party leader, William Ewart Gladstone, was much more critical of the Ottoman government, deploring its misgovernment and periodic slaughter of minorities, especially Christian ones. A Liberal successor, David Lloyd George, shared a progressively disdainful attitude towards the 'sick man' of Europe.

Compounding Britain's difficulties, France sought to secure a Greater Syria, where there were significant minorities, that included Palestine. Another ally, Italy, advanced claims to Aegean Islands offering protection to Christian minorities in Asia Minor. Then Russian claims had to be considered, particularly with respect to control of the Straits leading from the Black Sea to the Aegean and protection of the Christian population of Turkish Armenia and the Black Sea coast. Greece coveted historic Byzantine territories in Asia Minor and Thrace, claims that conflicted with those of Russia and Italy, as well as Turkey. The British Prime Minister (1916–1922), David Lloyd George, favoured the Greek cause. Complicating this was the desire of Zionists to have a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Sykes set off from London on a journey of six months duration overland across Europe to Bulgaria. He stopped at Sofia, and thence took ship to the British HQ in the Dardenelles. From Turkey, travelling to Cairo, Egypt, down the Suez Canal to Aden on the Yemen peninsula. From the Port of Aden he crossed the Indian Ocean to Simla, India, and then back to Egypt. Sykes was debriefed by the Army at Cairo HQ. Lloyd, Herbert, and other Egyptian army officers were there. Cheetham had been replaced by Sir Henry MacMahon as High Commissioner; with the secretariat of Clayton and Storrs still in support. Sykes amused the High Commissioner with mimicry of Turks and Syrians. But Sykes was also on a fact-finding mission reporting back to the Bunsen Committee.

In mid-July 1915 the Emir finally broke silence after 6 months to write back to Sir Ronald Storrs on the proposals put to the Grand Sharif. Sykes had left Cairo travelled through Syria. By December 8, 1915, he returned to England, having also met Lawrence, to gain support for an Arab Revolt. This was the "Forward Policy" that borrowed from Disraeli's first suggestion that Britain adopt the Expeditionary Force as an army model that launched the takeover in Egypt. They meant to attack Alex and roll up Syria, in order to reshape the Middle East on nationalist lines. On December 16th, he met the War Committee of the Cabinet at 11 am. Although others were present, only LG, Balfour, Asquith and Kitchener spoke.

It was Sykes special role to hammer out an agreement - the Triple Entente - with Britain's most important ally, France, which was shouldering a disproportionate part of the effort against Germany in the First World War. His French counterpart was François Georges-Picot and it is generally felt that Picot got a better deal than expected. Sykes came to feel this as well and it bothered him (see Sykes-Picot Agreement).

The Balfour Declaration[edit]

Late morning 16 December 1915, Sir Mark Sykes arrived at Downing street for a meeting to advise PM Asquith on the situation with the Ottoman Empire. Sykes made a "statement to the War Council".([13] Over the last four years Sykes had become the goto expert on Turkish affairs.[14] Elected as Conservative MP for Hull in 1911. His maiden speech was about the Turkish Empire. He maintained the policy begun 30 years before by Disraeli[15]But the policy was turned upside down when the Turks decided to support Germany in the Great War. Sykes brought a map and a 30 page document on his thoughts of the middle east policy.

In Caliph's Last Heritage Sykes was appalled by the filth and squalor of Aleppo and Damascus. Whilst he praised the french for inventing the set square for the illiterate Arab, he glossed over the German contribution to building railways that enabled Arabs to travel; Sykes stressed the negative aspects of social squalor, rather than its liberating values. Sykes underestimated the Turks. [16] But W Crooke's review thought that the facts he collected would be helpful to resolve the Eastern Question[17]Across Whitehall, Sykes became known as "the Mad Mullah", even so he was summoned to No. 10. LG hated the Ottomans and could not wait to seize imperial power form them. Balfour at the admiralty, was the only non-bellicose member. Sykes proposed that the issue of Syria be settled as quickly as possible with France.

Evidence suggests that Sykes had a hand in promoting the Balfour Declaration to the Cabinet issued on 2 November 1917.[18] It stated that: "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine..."

He would, however, later write to Faisal I of Iraq in which he expressed this view of the Jews: "... this race, despised and weak, is universal and all powerful and cannot be put down."[19]

Death[edit]

Sykes was in Paris in connection with peace negotiations in 1919. At the conference, a junior diplomat present, Harold Nicolson, described Sykes' effect: "It was due to his endless push and perservance, to his enthusiasm and faith, that Arab nationalism and Zionism became two of the most successful of our war causes."

He died in his room at the Hotel Lotti near the Tuileries Garden on 16 February 1919, aged 39, a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic. His remains were transported back to his family home at Sledmere House (in the East Riding of Yorkshire) for burial. Although he had been a Roman Catholic, he was buried in the churchyard of the local Anglican St. Mary's church in Sledmere. Nahum Sokolow, a Russian Zionist colleague of Chaim Weizmann in Paris at this time, wrote that he "... fell as a hero at our side."

He was succeeded by his son, Sir Richard Sykes, 7th Baronet (1905–1978). Another son, Christopher Sykes (1907–1986), was a distinguished author and official biographer of Evelyn Waugh. Sir Mark's great-grandchildren include the New York-based fashion writer and novelist Plum Sykes and her twin sister, Lucy Sykes (Mrs. Euan Rellie), and their brother, writer Thomas (Tom) Sykes.

Sledmere House is still in the possession of the family, with Sir Mark's eldest grandson Sir Tatton Sykes, 8th Baronet, being the current occupant. A brother is the photographer and writer Christopher Sykes; he or his son will eventually inherit the baronetcy.

Sykes was, among others like D. G. Hogarth and Henry McMahon, one of the inspirations for the character of Mr. Dryden (played by Claude Rains) in the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Exhumation for biological research[edit]

In 2007, 88 years after Sir Mark Sykes died, all the living descendants gave their permission to exhume his body for scientific investigation headed by virologist John Oxford. His remains were exhumed in mid-September 2008.[20] His remains were of interest because he had been buried in a lead-lined coffin, and this was thought likely to have preserved Spanish Flu viral particles intact. Any samples taken are to be used for research in the quest to develop defences against future influenza pandemics. The Spanish Flu virus itself became a human infection by a mutation of an avian virus called H1N1. There are only five other extant samples of the Spanish Flu virus. Professor Oxford's team was expecting to find a well-preserved cadaver.[21] However, the coffin was found to be split because of the weight of soil over it, and the cadaver was found to be badly decomposed. Nonetheless, samples of lung and brain tissue were taken through the split in the coffin, with the coffin remaining in situ in the grave during this process.[22] Soon afterwards, the open grave was sealed again by refilling it with earth.

Media representation[edit]

Sledmere Cross

Sykes is a major feature in Balfour to Blair, a documentary about the history of British involvement in the Middle East.[23]

The 'Sledmere Cross' takes the form of an Eleanor Cross and is a true 'folly' that Sir Mark Sykes 'converted' into a war memorial in 1919. He added a series of brass portraits in commemoration of his friends and the local men who fell in the war. He also added a brass portrait himself in crusader armour with the inscription "Laetare Jerusalem (Rejoice Jerusalem)".

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "Sir Mark Sykes bart." (Oxford 2002)
  2. ^ Leslie, Mark Sykes, p.6
  3. ^ ["The Yorkshire Regiment, WW1 Remembrance]". 
  4. ^ "Sykes, Sir Mark". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36394.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. ^ ["The Caliphs' Last Heritage complete online text]". 
  6. ^ ["The Caliphs' Last Heritage bibliographical information]". 
  7. ^ Aubrey Herbert, a tribute to Sykes at his memorial service, SRO, HP DD/HER/53
  8. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27422. p. 2282. 4 April 1902.
  9. ^ "The War - Troops returning home" The Times (London). Monday, 28 April 1902. (36753), p. 8.
  10. ^ Schneer, p.45
  11. ^ Sykes to Herbert, spring 1915, SRO, HP, DD/HER/34
  12. ^ Easterly, William (27 February 2007). The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Penguin (Non-Classics). p. 295. ISBN 0-14-303882-6. 
  13. ^ TNA, FO 882/2, Sykes to Clayton, 28 Dec 1915;
  14. ^ N N E Bray, Shifting Sands", (London 1934), p.66-7; Barr, Life in the Sands
  15. ^ House of Commons Debates, 27 Nov 1911, vol.32, c.102
  16. ^ Edwin Pears, review of 'The Caliphs Last Heritage', EHR, vol.31, no.122 (April 1916), p.300
  17. ^ Review in 'Man' magazine, vol.17, (jan 1917), p.24
  18. ^ Balfour Declaration. (2007). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 12 August 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  19. ^ It was a commonly held view of the time. Book review, Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., Politicalreviewnet.com/Middle East Policy Journal, quoting 'Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate', Tom Segev, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, New York, 2000
  20. ^ Body exhumed in fight against flu, BBC online, 16 September 2008.
  21. ^ Michael Hanlon Could digging up a general in a lead-lined coffin save the world? Daily Mail 11 April 2007.
  22. ^ BBC Four documentary. In Search of Spanish Flu
  23. ^ "Balfour to Blair". Aljazeera. Retrieved 5 August 2014. 

Bibliography[edit]

Manuscripts[edit]

  • Mark Sykes Papers - Hull University
  • Sir Mark Sykes Papers - Middle East Centre, St Anthony's College, Oxford.

Sources[edit]

  • Adelson, Roger D. (1975). Mark Sykes: Portrait of an Amateur. London: Jonathan Cape. 
  • Barr, James (2011). A Line in the Sand: Britain, France, and the Struggle that Shaped The Middle East. London: Simon & Schuster. 
  • Daly, M.W. (1997). The Sirdar: Sir Reginald Wingate and the British Empire in the Middle East. Philadelphia. 
  • Darwin, John (1981). Egypt and the Middle East Imperial Policy in the Aftermath of the War, 1918-22. New York. 
  • Fisher, John (2002). Gentleman Spies: Intelligence Agents in the British Empire and Beyond. Stroud. 
  • Fromkin, David (1990). A Peace To End All Peace. New York: Avon Books. 
  • Leslie, Shane (1923). Mark Sykes: His Life and Letters. New York. 
  • Morris, Benny (2001). Righteous Victims. New York: Vintage Books. 
  • Norton, W.W. (2008). Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East, Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. New York. 
  • Schneer, Jonathan (2010). The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. London: Bloomsbury. 
  • Sykes, Christopher Simon (2005). The Big House: The Story of a Country House and Its Family. London: Harper Perennial. 
  • Wallach, Janet (1999). Desert Queen. New York: Anchor Books. 

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Henry Seymour King
Member of Parliament for Hull Central
1911–1919
Succeeded by
Joseph Kenworthy
Baronetage of Great Britain
Preceded by
Tatton Sykes
Baronet
(of Sledmere)
1913–1919
Succeeded by
Mark Tatton Richard Tatton-Sykes