Book review: The Man Who Created the Middle East

2016 was a year of commemorations, writes Josephine Fenton, but one was overlooked, at least in Ireland, if not in the Middle East: the hundredth anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement signed on May 16, 1916.

Book review: The Man Who Created the Middle East

A Story of Empire, Conflict and the Sykes-Picot Agreement

Christopher Simon Sykes

William Collins, €34.95

THE ill thought-out and ill-fated Sykes-Picot agreement was a British and French colonialist line-drawing-in-the-sand division of the failing Ottoman Empire.

There was a war on, of course, but even in the aftermath, during negotiations at Versailles and St Remo, there was little understanding of how the region could best evolve along ethnic divisions.

What began to seem more important to the imperialists was a share of Iraqi oil.

Currently ISIS (so-called) and, from an oppositional position, Kurd nationalists, are skirmishing around, or bulldozing, Sykes-Picot border divisions.

North of the Sykes-Picot line, France would control or influence Syria, the Lebanon and parts of Turkey whilst further south Great Britain would have a similar dominion over Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait.

The agreement ignored promises of self-rule made, to regional Arab leaders, by among others, TE Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, in exchange for loyalty and warriors to fight the Kaiser.

In The Man Who Created the Middle East, Mark Sykes’s grandson, Christopher Simon Sykes, attempts to show that his ancestor was not a crass, ignorant, chinless wonder but, instead, a man of intelligence with a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of the region.

Whilst Mark was a student at Cambridge, his don, Dr Foakes Jackson, described him as “a man of exceptional powers … who really understood the traveller’s art … showing an extraordinary grasp of all that was really important in the countries he visited”.

Academics were lenient allowing him periods of absence to travel, and to prepare and write his book, Through Five Turkish Provinces.

As a child, Mark, had spent many lonely weeks alone at his father’s house in Sledmere, Yorkshire. His parents, Sir Tatton and Lady Jessie Sykes often travelled for six months or more.

His stand-in ‘father’ was an aged stud groom and his mentor was his tutor, Doolis, who later wrote to him to say that “you must fight and strive against circumstances” or “you will grow up a worthless, cruel, hard-hearted, frivolous man”.

Mark’s education was severely interrupted: he was moved from school to school, tutors were employed and dismissed, and both parents frequently took him abroad for months at a time.

In some ways, as Foakes Jackson stated, his “education had been neglected” but his Cambridge tutor, the Rev EG Swain, opined that Mark’s “experiences of travel, acute observation, retentive memory” made him an outstanding young man.

So, in spite of his father’s miserliness — extreme — almost to the point of insanity, and his mother’s incipient, and then equally extreme, drinking and gambling, Mark benefited in some ways from his eccentric upbringing.

During his years at Cambridge, before his stint fighting in the Boer War, he met a young woman, Edith Gorst, and became attached to her “because you are honest and unselfish, because you are the only truly straightforward person I have ever met”.

Now, with his future wife alongside him, Mark could address the homework set by Doolis.

Edith, or as he addressed her, “dearest co-relig” — they were both converts to Catholicism — became Mark’s chief correspondent, and it is on his letters to her, that much of The Man who Created the Middle East relies.

Mark wrote to Edith almost 150 times whilst he was ‘fighting’ in South Africa.

It was, he wrote, “a hideous nightmare” as he was sidelined on guard duty for much of the two years as well as suffering from malaria and food poisoning.

Of the senior officers, it seems that he revered only Lord Kitchener, stating that he “is (thank God) a brute & that is what you want in a War when geniuses do not happen to exist”.

Although he and Edith were by this time engaged Mark did not feel worthy of marriage because he had not yet achieved a position for himself. He set off on a grand tour through the Ottoman Empire, resulting from which he hoped, he could write a book and make his name.

But by January 1904 Edith had found a flat for the newly married couple, close to the Irish Office in London. This was handy as Mark had been appointed as Private Secretary to George Wyndham,

the land-reforming Chief Secretary to Ireland, and was now based in Dublin.

The marriage seems to have been happy and before long their first child, Freya, was born.

The couple moved to Constantinople before the arrival of a second child, Richard, since Mark was now honorary attaché to the British Ambassador in Turkey. He was back where he liked best to be, in the Middle East, feeling that his work there was “more ‘real’ than the Irish Office”.

And, of course, the couple had produced an heir for Sledmere.

In 1906 Mark was ready to be adopted Conservative candidate for Buckrose, his home constituency, and he and the family moved up to Yorkshire.

Soon, the twins, Christopher and Everilda, arrived and, according to Edith, Mark was “a delightful father”, playing games, organising expeditions and treating the children as rational beings.

Mark lost in two elections in Buckrose, travelled in Tunisia and Spain, and saw his father’s house, Sledmere, gutted by fire, before finally winning Central Hull in a 1911 by-election.

The following year, whilst engaged in rebuilding his family home, Mark and Edith welcomed a fifth and penultimate child, Angela, to their family (a third son would be born in 1916).

Soon after they returned to London to be near the House of Commons in which Mark, now succeeded to the family title and thus Sir Mark, was enthusiastically forwarding his political career. He was a “spell-binding speaker” and admired for his grasp of foreign affairs.

Mark’s finest hour, by all accounts, was a speech on the Irish question. On April 1, 1914, he said that the “blame must lie upon us all. We have drifted on passions, and both sides have gone from one wild cry to another until we have divided class from class, creed from creed…”.

Mark thought the only way forward was to temporarily exclude Ulster from Home Rule.

He asked members of the House, especially all Irish members, to help “lift politics out of the quagmire of personalities, ill-feeling, hate — and pettiness …”.

But Mark’s enduring interest was the Middle East and he spoke in the Commons the same year about his anxiety over the decline of the Ottoman Empire which he feared would lead to Britain having borders with both Germany in Mesopotamia and Russia in Persia.

He thought Great Britain would “be like a stranded whale on a mud bank, with a river hippopotamus on one side and a rhinoceros charging down from the hills straight in front”.

Given the outcome of negotiations and the final placing of the Sykes-Picot line, it is strange to read that Mark spoke in 1914 of “the seeds of native states which exist in the provinces of the Ottoman Empire … which could be made into independent states. If the worst came to the worst, there are Armenians, Arabs and Kurds who only wish to be left in peace to develop the country”.

The Paris Peace Conference in Versailles (1919-1920) had many issues to resolve and the Arab question was fudged. Mark Sykes, whose entire life had prepared him for the negotiations, was not there, nor was he at the St Remo conference (1920), which did focus on the future of the defunct Ottoman Empire.

His life had been cruelly ended, in February 1919, at the age of 39, by the Spanish ’flu. He was one of its fifty million victims.

Christopher Simon Sykes presents a sympathetic and engaging account of his grandfather’s life.

This contrasts with the way that history has generally portrayed him but provides sufficient evidence for thinking that, had he lived, Mark Sykes might have proved, as he strove for peace, his tutors right, and become an “exceptional” and “extraordinary” man.

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