My dear Mr Churchill: Remarkable letters from the front

HE was an unsung diplomat who left his mark on the political landscape of the Middle East.

But now a fresh appreciation of the life and times of Sir Mark Sykes is being offered by a remarkable archive project in Hull.

Sir Mark, who was the 6th Baronet of the Sykes of Sledmere, seemed destined for a career of power and influence when he attended peace talks at the end of the First World War that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles.

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But he contracted Spanish flu while in Paris and died on February 16, 1919, months before the talks were completed, at the age of 39.

His name lives on in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a controversial pact between Britain and France in 1916 which still bears influence on the Middle East today, but the man behind it has faded from view.

That could be about to change, however, with the unearthing of a vast body of correspondence that reveals Sir Mark as one of the most prolific letter writers of any age.

Some 20,000 letters, written between 1907 and 1919, have been individually catalogued by 15 volunteers over the past eight years, and the full index is expected to be published online by Hull History Centre at the end of this month.

The letters, which were among the Sykes family papers given to Hull University in the early 1970s, were thought to number about 4,000, but their full extent emerged when volunteers from the Hull and East Riding Antiques and Fine Arts Society began working on them in 2003.

They cover nearly every aspect of Sir Mark’s life, from the mundane – detailing repairs to his car, for example – to matters of state.

On January 27, 1915, he wrote to Winston Churchill arguing for a bolder British strategy in the First World War; a letter which also reveals a degree of trust and intimacy between Sykes and the future Prime Minister.

“I’m sure that to end this war we must sooner or later take risks,” he wrote. “I would not say this to anyone but you because you are the only man I know who will take risks.”

It was a world away from the light-hearted tone of their pre-war correspondence, when Churchill had written from the Admiralty Yacht on November 16, 1912.

He wrote: “My dear Sykes, Many thanks for your most kind letter. I did not in fact see you laugh, and if I had I should not have drawn a wrong conclusion. Your courtesy in writing therefore leaves me with a very pleasant impression.”

Sir Mark, who had been fascinated by war and military tactics since childhood, saw action in the Second Boer War and travelled widely before holding a number of key political and diplomatic roles.

He was Parliamentary Secretary to the Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1904 to 1905 and later served as honorary attache to the British Embassy in Constantinople. He decided to throw himself into politics and was elected Tory MP for Central Hull in 1911, a seat he held until his death.

Sir Mark spent the early part of the First World War developing the Wagoner’s Special Reserve, a unit he formed for the men of the Yorkshire Wolds.

But his experience and talents were spotted by Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, 
and he was called into the War Office.

Sir Mark began to significantly influence British policy on the Middle East and belonged to a committee who revived ancient Greek and Roman names for Middle Eastern regions, including many still in use today, such as Syria, Palestine and Iraq.

He also designed the Flag of the Arab Revolt, a combination of green, red, black and white which continues to feature in the flags of Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and others in the region.

Simon Wilson, senior archivist at the history centre, said: “I 
don’t think he’s had the full recognition he might have had and his untimely death denied him great political achievements – he would have been a leading member of the Conservative government.”

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