Sir Mark Sykes, the man who changed the face of the Middle East
An Irishman’s Diary on a diplomat’s long shadow
Sir Mark Sykes in 1913. Photograph: HultonArchive/Getty Images
Sir Mark Sykes, who entered into a secret agreement to carve up the old Ottoman empire during the first World War, served his diplomatic apprenticeship in Dublin.
The agreement, which was drawn up by Sykes and a French diplomat, François Georges-Picot, established the map of the Middle East which endures to this day.
Sykes came from a wealthy aristocratic family in Yorkshire and after serving in the Boer War he was appointed private secretary to George Wyndham, chief secretary of Ireland in 1903. He found the job boring and the work unchallenging. In a letter to his wife he described his existence in Dublin as the “life of a cat”. He wanted real work, he told her: “Give me a native regiment to organise, a rebellion to raise, a map to make”. Relief came with a posting as honorary attaché at the British embassy in Constantinople. He considered himself, not without reason, an expert on the region but he soon found the work in Turkey as frustrating as it had been in Ireland. Rather than being able to influence policy he was given mundane tasks like pasting press clippings into albums. He soon decided the job was not for him and with his wife set off for a 1,000-mile journey on horseback across Persia.
Back in England he embarked on a political career and in July 1911 he was elected Conservative MP for Central Hull, close to his home in the East Riding. When war came he raised a battalion but instead of accompanying it to fight in France, Col Sykes was seconded to the War Office by Lord Kitchener, the secretary of state for war, as an adviser on eastern affairs. He spent most of the war on secret missions to the Near East to observe the military and political developments. His detailed maps were used by the British throughout the war. Sykes’s knowledge was greatly valued by Kitchener and in 1916 he appointed him as his personal representative on a committee set up to consider the future of the collapsing 400-year-old Ottoman Empire. His work on the committee led to him being given the responsibility of entering into secret negotiations with the French who had their own interest to pursue in the region. France appointed François Georges-Picot, an aristocrat and experienced colonial administrator.
In spite of their knowledge, the two men took little account of the tribal, ethnic and sectarian divisions which had existed in the region for centuries. They had a tendency to draw straight lines and they divided the Ottoman lands roughly on the basis that Britain would control what is now Iraq, Jordan and Palestine and France would hold sway over Syria and Lebanon. The Sykes-Picot artificial boundaries largely remain and have been the cause of much tension and bloodshed over the years. The agreement, which negated an earlier British pledge to the Arabs that if they rebelled against Turkey they would get independence, was kept secret not only from the Arabs but from the US, which had not yet joined the Allied struggle against Germany. However, both sides felt it prudent to tell their Russian allies. Sykes was sent to Petrograd and had an audience with Tsar Nicholas on March 7th, 1916. Just a year later the Russian Revolution effectively exposed the Sykes-Picot secret pact when the Bolsheviks raided the imperial archives and published the details in the hope of discrediting the administrations in Paris and London.
Sykes was back in the Middle East on another mission when a general election was called in Britain towards the end of 1918. In his absence he was returned for Central Hull with a huge majority. While in Syria he was afflicted by a virus; he was unable to keep food down and lived for 30 days on tins of condensed milk. Despite his illness he travelled to Paris in the hope of presenting a report to the Peace Conference. He was struck down by the Spanish flu, the deadly strain of influenza which wiped out tens of millions of people across the world at the end of the war. He died in Paris on February 16th, a day short of his 40th birthday. His body was taken back to Sledmere, his ancestral home on the Yorkshire Wolds. The abbot and monks of Ampleforth Abbey led the procession to the graveyard on the family estate.
But Sir Mark was not allowed to rest in peace. In 2008 his body was exhumed, with the permission of his living relatives, to help in medical research. He had been buried in a lead-lined coffin to avoid risk of contamination, and British virologists believed that the lead may have preserved the genetic structure of the Spanish flu virus. However, it was found that the coffin had caved in and the body tissues were decomposed.