Patrician who helped shape boundaries of Middle East

Lt Col Sir Mark Sykes, WWI diplomat, politician and resident of Sledmere House, whose 20,000 collection of letters have been catalogued by volunteers during an eight year project at Hull History Centre.
Lt Col Sir Mark Sykes, WWI diplomat, politician and resident of Sledmere House, whose 20,000 collection of letters have been catalogued by volunteers during an eight year project at Hull History Centre.
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Sir Mark Sykes was a Yorkshire landowner, soldier, politician and diplomat who influenced the future of the Middle East, as Chris Bond reports.

ALTHOUGH Sir Mark Sykes is synonymous with the wagoners, he was far more than just another wealthy member of Yorkshire’s landed gentry.

He was a soldier and diplomat who went on to help shape the boundaries of the Middle East.

In fact there are people living in the Middle East today who are more aware of the name “Sir Mark Sykes” than many of those in his home county.

In Britain, he’s been a somewhat overlooked figure but with this year’s First World War centenary he has found himself back in the spotlight.

Dr Nick Evans, a lecturer in diaspora history at the University of Hull, says the acrimonious divorce of his parents in the late 19th century had a profound effect on him. “There was a big, high-profile court case and he ended up being called to give evidence and afterwards he wanted to get as far away as possible. In those days if you came from a wealthy family and you went on a grand tour it was normally to Europe, or the Americas, but he escaped to the Middle East.”

Sykes was just 19 when he travelled to the Middle East, but Evans says it shaped his future career path. “He encountered the Hajj to Mecca and he saw the mixture of Christians, Muslims and Jews living in the region, so he understood the cultural sensitivities of the Middle East.”

He then served with the Green Howards in the Boer War which equipped him with the military knowledge that was to prove so important during the First World War.

By the time war broke out he had already been the Conservative MP for Hull Central for three years.

He himself went to fight on the Western Front before being invalided out of the Army.

This could have been the end of his wartime story had it not been for Lord Kitchener’s intervention. In 1915 he was called to the War Office and sent to carry out diplomatic work abroad.

“Kitchener was aware they needed a new strategy following the collapse of the offensive at Gallipoli and he knew that Sykes had military experience and knowledge of the Middle East,” Evans explains.

He became involved in secret Parliamentary discussions and was sent to Paris for talks with the French leaders and to Russia where he met Tsar Nicholas II.

This led him to work with the French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot on a secret deal that would carve up the Arab states among Britain, France and Russia, in the event of the Ottoman Empire collapsing.

“The idea was to create a buffer between the Imperial powers. They would share the spoils of war with a bit for Britain, a bit for France and a bit for Russia.

“Although he was creating artificial lines in the sand he knew from his own experience that this was a part of the world where sand ruled and these were shifting lines.”

The so-called Sykes-Picot agreement, which planned to redraw the boundaries of countries including Iraq and Syria, was kept secret. However, its details were then revealed by the Bolsheviks in Russia following the overthrow of the Tsar.

But Sykes’s work wasn’t finished and in 1919 he was sent to Paris to work on the Treaty of Versailles. “He was one of the people who drew up the map of the Middle East and created the League of Nations,” says Evans.

However, it was while in the French capital that he was struck down by the Spanish flu pandemic sweeping through Europe and he died in his hotel room.

So what, then, is his legacy? “He is rightly remembered for setting up the wagoners and for designing the memorial to the lost wagoners. But he also helped create the artificial lines which were seen as the West putting its imprint on the East, and that’s something we still live with today.”