Mark Sykes

Mark Sykes
Sir Mark Sykes, Bt

Photo 1918 approximately
Born Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes
16 March 1879(1879-03-16)
Died 16 February 1919(1919-02-16) (aged 39)
Hotel Lotti, Paris, France
Cause of death Spanish Flu
Resting place St Mary's Church, Sledmere, East Riding of Yorkshire, England
Known for Conservative Party politician, diplomatic adviser, and traveller
Spouse 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 about matters respecting the Middle East at the time of World War I. 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

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 the East Riding of Yorkshire estates, 30,000 acres (120 km²), of his father. Their seat was Sledmere House. Lady Sykes converted to Roman Catholicism and Mark was brought into that faith at the age of three.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Sykes was educated at the Jesuit Beaumont College and Jesus College, Cambridge.[1] By the age of 25, 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 (date unknown), 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, which was more of a travelogue than a history.[citation needed]

The Boer War, travels and Parliament

Heir to vast Yorkshire estates and a baronetcy, Sykes was not content to await his inheritance. He served in the Second Boer War for two years, where he was engaged mostly in guard duty, but saw action on several occasions. He travelled extensively, especially in the Middle East.

From 1904 to 1905 he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Chief Secretary for Ireland, George Wyndham. Later he served as honorary attaché to the British Embassy in Constantinople.

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. It was a happy union, and they had six children. Sykes succeeded to the baronetcy and the estates in 1913.

In 1912, Sykes was elected as Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Hull Central, after two close, but unsuccessful, tries in another constituency. 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.

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 a noted Armenian artist as designer.

Protégé of Kitchener

When World War I 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 the de Bunsen 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. 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 and Palestine.[2]

Britain's strategic conundrum

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 of the Conservative Party, such as Palmerston, Disraeli and Salisbury had held this view. The 19th century 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 these views.

Since Britain was now at war with Turkey, a major rethinking of policy was needed. Sykes, through his connection with Kitchener, was at the centre of this. Two conflicting positions were soon apparent. Some favoured the Arab cause in postwar settlements at the expense of Turkey, seeing the value of friendly client states in the coastal areas along the sea route to India and in the Persian Gulf which was assuming a new importance now that the Royal Navy had converted its ships to oil from coal. Others saw the need to retain a strong Turkey lest Russia enter the vacuum and seize Constantinople and the Straits.

Compounding this was the desire of France to secure lands in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where there was a significant Christian minority. Another ally, Italy, advanced claims to Aegean Islands and protection of 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.

Another problem was the desire of Greece to acquire 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.

It was the special role of Sykes to hammer out an agreement with Britain's most important ally, France, which was shouldering a disproportionate part of the effort against Germany in the 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

Evidence suggests that Sykes had a hand in promoting the Balfour Declaration issued on 2 November 1917[3]. 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 antisemetic views of the Jewish people: "...this race, despised and weak, is universal and all powerful and cannot be put down."[4]

Premature death

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 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

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[5]. 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 nowadays 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.[6] 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.[7] Soon afterwards, the open grave was sealed again by refilling it with earth.

Media representation

Sykes is a major feature in Balfour to Blair, a documentary about the history of British involvement in the Middle East.[8]


  1. ^ Mark Sykes in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  2. ^ Easterly, William (2007-02-27). 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). pp. 295. ISBN 0143038826. 
  3. ^ Balfour Declaration. (2007). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 12, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  4. ^ Book review, Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., East Policy Journal, quoting 'Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate', Tom Segev, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, New York, 2000
  5. ^ Body exhumed in fight against flu, BBC online, 16 September 2008.
  6. ^ Michael Hanlon Could digging up a general in a lead-lined coffin save the world? Daily Mail 11 April 2007.
  7. ^ BBC Four documentary. In Search of Spanish Flu
  8. ^ Balfour to Blair


  • Desert Queen, Janet Wallach, Anchor Books, New York, 1999
  • Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East, Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, W.W. Norton, New York, 2008
  • A Peace To End All Peace, David Fromkin, Avon Books, New York, 1990
  • Righteous Victims, Benny Morris, Vintage Books, New York, 2001
  • Mark Sykes: Portrait of an Amateur, Roger D. Adelson, Jonathan Cape, London, 1975
  • The Big House: The Story of a Country House and Its Family, Christopher Simon Sykes, Harper Perennial, London, 2005

External links

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

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