ON NOVEMBER 5, 1914, when Turkey entered World War I on the side of Germany, she posed no immediate threat to Great Britain, although that country would have preferred her neutrality or active support. But grave dangers to Britain existed much closer to home. During August and September 1914 the German juggernaut rolled westward, smashing through Belgian and French defenses; it crushed the British Expeditionary Force sent to halt it, the boom of the big guns carrying like the rumble of distant thunder all the way to Dover and Folkestone. The Allies finally did stem the German tide, but they could not throw it back. Soon muddy trenches rimmed by barbed wire extended from the North Sea to the Swiss border, the two sides separated by a thin ribbon of cratered no-man’s-land, dotted with mines, unexploded shells, and rotting human and animal corpses, or pieces of them. Now commenced the war of attrition, where advances of even half a mile were rare and not worth the blood spilled and lives lost. The world had never experienced war on so vast a scale, and there would be no let-up for four years. The major powers lost millions of men.
Against this backdrop of carnage on the Western Front, the British strove mightily, sometimes stealthily, sometimes bloodily, for gain in the Middle East; and diplomats maneuvered silkily for their own country’s benefit, and contending lobbies and pressure groups vied determinedly for advantage in London, where the decisions were made and directions cabled to British agents around the world.
But if the Middle East was far from the main battlefield, nevertheless war of another kind had begun there. The Ottomans could not immediately bring military force to bear upon British troops, but as the seat of the caliphate, Turkey was revered by Muslims across the world. Already the Ottomans were calling upon believers to wage jihad, holy war, upon the enemies of Turkey. If Britain’s Muslim subjects on the Indian subcontinent and in Egypt and Sudan heeded this call, then her position would be more parlous than it was already. The steps taken by British imperialists in India to protect against a Muslim jihad do not concern us. In the Middle East, however, they are of the essence. The Suez Canal was Britain’s windpipe. Without that crucial line of trade and communication, she would suffocate.
Having taken charge of Egyptian finances in 1882, Britain now discarded the pretense that the Turks exercised ultimate authority over this Ottoman province and declared her own protectorate. She deposed the Egyptian khedive, Abbas Hilmi, who was inconveniently pro-Ottoman, but conveniently absent in Constantinople, and proclaimed his Anglophile uncle, Hussein Kamel, to be the country’s sultan, Hussein I (a new title for the leader of Egypt). Through him Britain decreed martial law. Through him she curtailed civil liberties and imposed censorship.
An imperial power typically fears the people subject to its rule and keeps tabs on individuals and groups who oppose it; an imperial power at war is even more vigilant. The new sultan’s puppet government went so far as to outlaw the singing of certain songs, like one that went:
The Turkish Army is in1 the Peninsula of Sinai.
It will come to us during this month …
Our khedive will come.
Tomorrow we’ll celebrate his return.
And slay Hussein I with a knife, by God we will.
British intelligence agents2 identified potential troublemakers in Egypt and collected seditious circulars, pamphlets, and wall posters. “Now the One Powerful God has come forth to take vengeance,” threatened a fatwa issued by a cleric in Constantinople and brought to the attention of Sir Ronald Storrs. “Behold the sun of the Glory of Islam and his grandeur rise up over you. Watch it arise out of the horizon which is dyed with crimson gore and lit up with blazing fires.” The unflappable oriental secretary placed this document, along with similar messages, in an in-tray on his desk between four telephones presided over by an ivory figure of the Buddha. A warning arrived, issued by the commandant of the Fourth Turkish Army, that the Turkish force would soon be ready to invade Egypt: “The Ottoman Army is3 coming to embrace you. Shortly by the will of God you will see its sharp swords and glittering bayonets thrust into the hearts of its enemies, tearing their entrails up.” Storrs slipped it into the tray.
Storrs was the Englishman to whom Abdullah had appealed for machine guns in April 1914, after the consul general, Lord Kitchener, turned him down. Portraits reveal a squarely built and fine-featured youngish man sporting a dandy’s mustache, perhaps to compensate for a receding hairline. He had studied Eastern literature and Arabic at Pembroke College, Cambridge, gaining a first-class degree. But he was not completely at ease with the language, a fact that would have significant repercussions later. Within a year of graduating in 1903, he had gone out to Cairo to work in the Egyptian civil service. He gained the appointment as oriental secretary in 1909. Storrs was urbane, knowledgeable, arrogant, and catty, “too clever by4 three-quarters,” according to one expert, but his boss, Lord Kitchener, regarded him highly.
Even before Turkey entered the war on the German side, Sir Ronald thought it might, and picked up the marker so fortuitously laid down by Abdullah during his visit to Cairo the previous spring. Perhaps Britain could supply machine guns to Abdullah’s father after all, and much else besides. Storrs could think of no better figure to undermine a Turkish call for jihad than a descendant of the Prophet himself who was also the grand sharif of Mecca. And no one in Britain could think of a better bridge to the Middle Eastern Muslim world either. The Imam Yahya was pro-Turk or at best neutral in the war and would not oppose the Turkish call for jihad; Ibn Saud had British backers, especially in the British government of India, but the leader of the Wahhabi sect could not speak for a broad Muslim movement. Hussein seemed the obvious choice then, but Storrs, a civilian, lacked authority to send him military aid; nor was he senior enough to set policy. A higher-ranking official, with military connections, must be enlisted.
Storrs consulted Sir Gilbert Clayton. Before the outbreak of war, Clayton had been director of intelligence and Sudan agent in Cairo; with the onset of war, he assumed the additional position of director of military intelligence. (Soon he would become unofficial father figure of a newly established agency, the fabled Arab Bureau, in which swashbucklers like T. E. Lawrence were to cut such a dashing figure.) Clayton sat at the nexus of Egyptian and Sudanese politics and military intelligence. He too had no doubt that Britain should pick up Abdullah’s marker. He directed Storrs to put the matter to Lord Kitchener in writing.
Kitchener, however, was no longer in Cairo. When war broke out, he had been in England intending to return to Egypt to resume his duties as consul general. While standing upon the deck of the ferry at Dover, he received the summons from Prime Minister Asquith to become Britain’s secretary of state for war.
He was a remarkable character, Kitchener: private, complex, contradictory, powerful. Alone among senior figures in the British establishment, he understood from the outset that victory over Germany would not be quick; it would take at least three years, he thought. Britain’s small professional force, he knew, would be insufficient to fight it. Britain would need a vast army. Since she did not (yet) practice conscription, the army must be raised from volunteers. Soon Kitchener’s fierce chiseled features, piercing blue eyes, and silvery-gold mustache adorned posters on walls throughout the land, over the following declaration in capital letters: “YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU!” Volunteers practically stampeded to join the colors, testimony to the awe in which so many held the newly appointed secretary of state for war.
A man of few words, he yet had a commanding presence. Many revered him as the victor of Omdurman and thus the avenger of General Gordon, slain by the forces of the Mahdi at Khartoum in 1885. He was known too as the general who had faced down the French at Fashoda thirteen years later, thereby maintaining British supremacy in the Sudan; also as conqueror of the Boer rebels in South Africa two years after that. He had been governor general of eastern Sudan, commander in chief of the armed forces in India, inspector general of the Egyptian police, sirdar (military commander) of Egypt, governor general of Sudan, and finally consul general in Egypt. His great ambition was to become viceroy of India. Had the war not intervened, perhaps he would have realized this dream. He was close to the Cecil family, a fountainhead of Conservative leaders including Prime Ministers Salisbury and Balfour. The former had advanced his career at critical junctures. Among some of his subordinates he inspired great devotion and admiration.
But he had critics too. They drew attention, sotto voce, to defects in the imperial hero’s character: an inability to delegate authority or to organize paperwork (they called him “Lord Kitchener of Chaos” behind his back); a predilection for brutality in his dealings with colonized peoples; and very strangely, a kind of kleptomania. When he saw something he wanted (he had a particular fondness for objets d’art, antiques, and silver), he took it—even from the homes of his hosts. One of the doubters, Margot Asquith, the prime minister’s wife, said of him: “He may not be5 a great man—but he is a great poster.”
Still, Kitchener knew the Middle East very well and grasped Britain’s strategic position and needs there. He was a close student of the fledgling Arab nationalist movement, such as it was, and of the intrigues at the Ottoman sultan’s court. Despising both Old and Young Turk methods of government, he had long hoped Britain would replace their rule with hers throughout the Middle East, not incidentally guaranteeing the British position at Suez and creating a new swath of imperial territory to complement India. The best way to win the war, he believed, was to concentrate on defeating Germany on the Western Front, but unlike other “westerners” in the British cabinet, he remained attuned to developments in the east. When Storrs’s letter reached him, he acted at once. The situation now, he recognized, was potentially more dangerous for the grand sharif than it had been six months earlier. If Hussein displeased the regime in Constantinople, it could call upon Germany to help deal with him. The first step, therefore, must be to ensure that Hussein was still interested in British assistance.
“Tell Storrs,”6 Kitchener directed Sir Milne Cheetham, who was acting in his place in Cairo until a longer-term replacement could be appointed, “to send secret and carefully chosen messenger from me to Sherif Abdullah to ascertain whether ‘should present armed German influence at Constantinople coerce Calif against his will and Sublime Porte to acts of aggression and war against Great Britain, he and his father and Arabs of Hejaz would be with us or against us.’”
This directive reached Storrs on September 24, 1914. He acted immediately, choosing as messenger to Abdullah X, “the father-in-law of my little Persian agent Ruhi.” Travel to Mecca with all speed, Storrs directed X. But it took X four days to reach his destination, traveling the last fifteen hours by donkey overnight. Then he waited five days more for the grand sharif and his family to return from the summer palace in Taif.
When X finally did enter the palace in Mecca, he dined sumptuously with the grand sharif and his sons. Afterward he gave Abdullah the message Storrs had composed according to Kitchener’s instructions. Presumably Abdullah gave it to his father, who quickly read it, for soon a servant appeared: Grand Sharif Hussein would receive X in another room. X climbed stairs to the top of the palace and entered a very fine, large chamber. There the emir, pacing back and forth, informed him that he no longer felt obliged to honor his duties to the Ottomans because they had “made war upon our rights.” Throwing back the sleeve of his garment in a dramatic gesture, he declared: “My heart is open to Storrs, even as this. Stretch forth to us a helping hand and we shall never at all help these oppressors. On the contrary we shall help those who do good.” As always with Hussein, religious conviction spurred activity: “This is the Commandment7 of God upon us: Do good to Islam and Moslems—Nor do we fear or respect any save God.”
The emir had taken a first step toward rebellion. He thereby risked his life and those of his sons, as Kitchener and the other Britons well knew. But we have no record of the meeting except for Storrs’s translation of X’s subsequent oral report. When it came to putting his sentiments down on paper, the grand sharif was exceedingly cautious. Since Kitchener had addressed himself to Abdullah, Hussein had his son write and sign the reply and place it in an unaddressed sealed envelope inside a larger one that was addressed to a third party; then he had Feisal convey it to the sharif’s agent at Jeddah. The latter finally gave it over to X, but only when he was safely aboard the Japanese freighter that would take him back to Suez.
The written message was carefully conceived, yet is vague in a crucial respect. The first part was plain enough: According to a résumé of the letter that Cheetham sent to Kitchener, Abdullah had replied (for his father of course) that the grand sharif looked forward to “closer union”8 with England but awaited “written promise that Great Britain will … guarantee Emir against Foreign and Ottoman aggression.” In short, Hussein would not risk putting his neck into a Turkish noose without receiving written pledges of protection from Britain. But this was not his only caveat: Hussein and his sons also refused to put themselves in jeopardy, only to discover that Britain had replaced Turkey as their foreign overlord. And here in retrospect two ambiguities are apparent.
First, even in this initial letter Hussein appears to have been looking beyond his own kingdom of Hejaz and claiming to speak for Arabs throughout the Middle East. Before he took any sort of action, he warned Kitchener and Storrs, he must receive Britain’s promise to “abstain from internal intervention in Arabia.” The indeterminate term was crucial: By “Arabia,” did he mean not merely the Hejaz but the entire Arabian Peninsula? Did he even perhaps mean Mesopotamia and Syria too, including Palestine? He did not specify.
Let us pursue this ambiguity. On the one hand, Hussein’s letter was just what the British had been hoping for. Only a great leader of “Arabia” could successfully countermand the caliph’s appeal for jihad against Turkey’s enemies. On the other hand, this first wartime exchange between the two parties sowed the seeds of future conflict and misunderstanding. Cheetham appears to have discerned the looming difficulty and tried to protect against it. As he cabled to the Foreign Office, Abdullah’s letter was very promising. “Reply is being prepared subject to your approval disclaiming all intention of internal intervention and guaranteeing against external aggression only independence of Sherifate” (emphasis added). In other words, the British wanted the grand sharif to speak for all Arabia, of undefined boundaries, but they would guarantee to protect his authority only in the territory he governed already.
“Does Kitchener agree?”9 Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary back in London, queried in his spiky handwriting at the bottom of Cheetham’s cable. “If so I will approve.” But Kitchener did not accept Cheetham’s qualification. Instead he directed that the sharif be informed: “If the Arab nation assist England in this war … England will guarantee that no internal intervention takes place in Arabia and will give the Arabs every assistance against external foreign aggression.” He had accepted the emir’s original broad formulation of “Arabia,” although whether this meant to him the Hejaz, or the peninsula, or the peninsula plus Syria and Mesopotamia, remains unclear. And since Grey signed off on it too, he presumably also accepted the broad but vague understanding of “Arabia.”
But did they truly accept it? Quite possibly Grey did. A lifelong Liberal, he soon would argue in a War Council meeting that “Arabia, Syria10 and Mesopotamia were the only possible territories for an Arab Empire,” and that in those countries Britain could “set up a new and independent Moslem State” over which Hussein would be ruler. But Kitchener, hardly a Liberal, rejected this argument at the War Council, suggesting instead that Britain should annex Mesopotamia at the least. It is likely, therefore, that he rejected the idea when Hussein first broached it as well. Probably he was prepared to fudge the matter of boundaries or was being consciously misleading in order to induce Hussein to take action.
Again, someone recognized the dissonances, and given the imprecision of future letters from Cairo to Mecca in which his influence was less important, the stickler may have been Cheetham. He, Clayton, and Storrs would have had input on the letter now to go to Abdullah, and perhaps under his guidance they took it upon themselves to limit Kitchener’s pledge. They adapted and narrowed the original language so that it now read: “If the Amir and Arabs in general assist Great Britain … Great Britain will promise not to intervene in any manner whatsoever whether in things religious or otherwise. Moreover recognizing and respecting the sacred and unique office of the Amir Hosayn Great Britain will guarantee the independence, rights and privileges of the Sherifate[emphasis added] against all external foreign aggression, in particular that of the Ottomans.”
This early wartime correspondence sowed seeds of future difficulties but also displays the reluctance of at least some British officers in situ to engage in ambiguities and sophistries. These were early days; once the French became involved, and the Russians, Italians, and Zionists, the opportunities for obfuscation and double-dealing would multiply. It would lead some British officers nearly to despair.
As for the second ambiguity, Hussein’s demand that Britain “abstain from internal intervention”: Did he mean that Britain must give him an absolutely free hand in determining the domestic policies of his kingdom? Did he mean that she must give him a free hand in external matters as well? In the letter Abdullah wrote on his behalf, he appears to say so. Abdullah wrote that Britain must promise to protect “clearly and in writing” the emirate’s “independence in all respects, without any exceptions or restrictions.” But why then, during the previous spring, had he held up to Storrs the relationship between Britain and Afghanistan as his model? There British advisers abstained from interference, even in internal matters, only when it pleased them. In any event, British diplomats had their own interpretation of what an “independent” emirate (whatever its boundaries) would mean: Hussein’s kingdom would become independent of Turkey only. On important matters, the grand sharif would refer to them; they would advise; and the grand sharif would consent to their advice. Few in Britain’s governing circles doubted the necessity of such an arrangement. They could not conceive of Arabs ruling themselves without Western assistance.
A third aspect of the British reply to Grand Sharif Hussein would prove an additional source of future troubles. Kitchener’s letter to Abdullah concluded:
Till now we have defended and befriended Islam in the person of the Turks; henceforward it shall be in that of the noble Arab. It may be that an Arab of true race will assume the Caliphate at Mecca or Medina, and so good may come by the help of God out of all the evil which is now occurring. It would be well if Your Highness could convey to your followers and devotees, who are found throughout the world in every country, the good tidings of the Freedom of the Arabs and the rising of the sun over Arabia.
This was Kitchener reaching deep into the British arsenal for any deadly weapon to hurl against Turkey. He would nourish, or if need be plant, the seed of religious ambition within the sharif’s breast, hoping thereby to cause maximum disruption within the Ottoman realm. But unlike the pope of the Catholics, the caliph of Islam was not solely a spiritual leader. He held both spiritual and temporal authority because he was also sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, Muslims believed that in the fullness of time the caliph would come to exercise temporal authority over all Muslims, wherever they lived. In dangling the inducement of the caliphate before the grand sharif, therefore, Kitchener was offering far more than Britain ever could deliver or even wish to deliver. Nor would it help the sharif of Mecca to become known as Christian Britain’s candidate for caliph. Nor would it help Britain to be seen as meddling this way in Muslim affairs. Even Britons would soon point this out. Kitchener had taken a false step. But then, the letter he had inspired was riddled with false steps.
Once again X made the wearying journey from Suez to Mecca, this time bearing promises and inducements. Once again the emir replied in writing through his son Abdullah: “We are doing that which is more important than the performance of that which is naturally imposed upon us, regardless of whether or not these negotiations take place and whether or not an agreement is arrived at.” This characteristically opaque pronouncement seems to mean “We are preparing to rebel against the Turks despite their natural hold over us and we will proceed with or without British support.” This was promising news from the British point of view.
X had another audience with the grand sharif in the splendid room at the top of the palace. This time he took shorthand notes. They are more direct than the letter was. “Our relations with the11 [Ottoman] Empire are waning, dying even as a flickering lamp whose oil had run out,” the emir told him. He heaped scorn upon the Young Turks of the CUP. They “declare openly that the cause of the degeneration of the Moslem Nations is Religion and they set themselves to efface it … therefore we are no longer bound to obey them.” They had betrayed the caliphate: “The Caliphate means this, that the rules of the Book of God should be enforced (and this they do not do).” And they had overthrown Sultan Abdul Hamid, to whom Hussein had sentimental ties: “I cannot forget the favors the Reigning House bestowed upon me. But the reins of power have passed from the hands of this Family.”
Nevertheless the grand sharif was not yet prepared to throw down the gauntlet to the Turks. He put it this way in his written response: “Religion which justifies it and which is the sole foundation of action prevents us from working at once.” And in that attic chamber he said more plainly to X: “I am of opinion that it will be better now to put off action.”
We do not know why “religion” prevented action at this point; perhaps Hussein did not wish to interfere with the annual hajj, which would soon take place. In any event, he was anxious that the British understand that he was merely postponing action, not ruling it out. “When the time shall come, and it is not far distant, we cannot but accomplish it,” the letter says, “even though the Ottoman Empire be not occupied and even though it should muster against us all its army.” And on the roof he told X, whom he addressed by name: “Ali, do your best to make Mr. Storrs understand that he should not consider my answer as a breaking up of relations. It simply came late, and if she [Britain] had granted our demand when we made it, things would have been better. The day will come when we shall demand more of her than she is now prepared for and perhaps soon.”
Certainly this news, faithfully reported by Ali to the authorities in Cairo after the long trek back, lifted their spirits. They would wait until the sharif deemed the moment ripe. In the meantime the focus of anti-Ottoman planning shifted temporarily from Egypt to London.
In the imperial metropolis the mood was robust. The war had stoked a nationalist fever. During its first weeks mobs coursed through the streets of the East End where many immigrants lived, smashing and looting homes and shops owned by people with German-sounding names. Young men crowded the recruiting offices, clamoring to join the armed services. They feared the Allies would win the war before they had a chance to see action and adventure. Soldiers in uniform were everywhere. Soon young women would be handing out white feathers to men still wearing civilian dress, to shame them into joining up too.
The Liberal government that brought Britain into the war was ambivalent about the passions it had unleashed. The prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, and the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, knew how to play political hardball, but jingoistic bumptiousness discomfited them and many of their allies and supporters. Moreover the war had unleashed the passions not only of their countrymen but of Britain’s foreign allies as well. The Russians, shortly after declaring war upon Turkey, let it be known that one of their war aims would be annexation of Constantinople and control of the Dardanelles. At last they would attain access to the Mediterranean Sea and a warm-water port. At first Britain and France maintained their traditional opposition; such gains by Russia would disrupt the European balance to their disadvantage. But they desperately needed Russia to keep German troops busy on the Eastern Front; they even feared Russia might sign a separate peace with Germany. So eventually they gave way. But if Russia was to gain from the war at Turkey’s expense, then so must they, or at least some members of the British and French governments thought so.
Here those letters circulating among London, Cairo, and Mecca became relevant. Grand Sharif Hussein had insisted upon British backing for an independent “Arabia” under his leadership. But to the extent Britain acceded to this demand, she must deny herself territory in the region. To Liberals who still believed in the nineteenth-century Gladstonian principles of retrenchment and reform, such a renunciation would be no sacrifice. “We have not the men12 or the money to make new countries out of barren and savage deserts,” wrote the Liberal secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defense, “and if we try, and as far as we try, we shall arrest progress at home and in the other countries for which we are now responsible, and we shall saddle the British taxpayer with huge liabilities for defense and construction on top of the appalling liabilities of this country.” But such sentiments went against the temper of the times.
When the Liberal-dominated War Council met on March 19, 1915, the traditional Liberals’ increasing isolation quickly became apparent. Speaking for the anti-annexationist outlook, Sir Edward Grey asked his colleagues to consider a fundamental question: “If we acquire fresh territory shall we make ourselves weaker or stronger?” Lord Haldane, the minister of war, argued that when the German and Ottoman Empires had been defeated, they should not be broken up: “All experience showed that a permanent peace could not be obtained except by general consent.” Likewise the home secretary, Reginald McKenna, urged that “we should put forward a suggestion that none of us take anything.”
More characteristic of the country’s mood, however, was the position taken by the sole Conservative Party representative on the War Council, Arthur Balfour. “In Europe,” Balfour explained to Haldane, “he understood there was a general consensus that divisions of territory should be by nationality. But in Asia we had to deal with countries which had been misgoverned by the Turks.” The often bellicose Winston Churchill, presently serving as secretary of the navy, seconded: “Surely we did not intend to leave this inefficient and out-of-date nation which had long misruled one of the most fertile countries in the world still in possession! Turkey had long shown herself to be inefficient as a governing Power and it was time for us to make a clean sweep.” At this stage neither Balfour (certainly) nor Churchill (probably) knew of the correspondence with Grand Sharif Hussein. In arguing for British annexation of portions of Turkey already promised to him, they were not being duplicitous, merely traditionally imperialist. But what of Lord Kitchener, who also weighed in on the side of British territorial aggrandizement? “India [by which he meant British India, which was sending troops to Mesopotamia] would expect some return for her effort and losses.” He favored annexation of the land that Indian troops occupied in Mesopotamia, the annexed land to be ruled by the British government in India. And what, finally, of Asquith, who saw which way the wind was blowing and who surely knew of the inducements Kitchener and Grey had held out to the grand sharif? Although “he had great sympathy13 with Sir Edward Grey’s first proposition that we have already as much territory as we are able to hold … the fact was we were not free agents … If for one reason or another, because we didn’t want more territory or because we didn’t feel equal to the responsibility, we were to leave the other nations to scramble for Turkey without taking anything ourselves, we should not be doing our duty.”
Asquith appointed a committee to study and make recommendations on British desiderata in the Middle East. Its chair was Sir Maurice de Bunsen, an assistant under secretary at the Foreign Office, formerly British ambassador to Vienna and previous to that secretary to the British embassy at Constantinople. The report that his committee wrote did not so much make foreign policy recommendations as explain Britain’s foreign policy options. Assuming as it did the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the war, it was the first British government committee to consider the future of Palestine (it anticipated that an international condominium would govern the place). The individual who dominated its sessions was ultimately as important as Balfour himself among non-Jews, during the events leading up to publication of the Balfour Declaration.
That individual was not the chairman, de Bunsen, but rather Sir Mark Sykes, sixth baronet of Sledmere. Sykes was a Yorkshire squire, the owner of an estate of 34,000 acres. The seat of his estate, Sledmere Hall, “lay like a ducal demesne14 among the Wolds,” writes one of his biographers. It was “approached by long straight roads and sheltered by belts of woodland, surrounded by large prosperous farms.” Gates and walls “ornamented with the heraldic triton of the Sykes family … [guarded] the mighty four-square residence and the exquisite parish church” adjoining it. The family’s famous stud farm lay behind. Sykes could have devoted himself to the pleasures of an extremely privileged life but was destined to cut a larger figure. We cannot say how much larger because he died in 1919 at age forty, of the influenza epidemic in Paris. He achieved much, but had he lived he probably would have achieved a good deal more.
His father, the ill-tempered Sir Tatton Sykes, took young Mark on frequent and extensive journeys, some through the Middle East and South Asia. Of formal schooling the boy had little, although a succession of tutors ensured an eclectic range of knowledge to complement what he gained by experience and travel. His mother, an unhappy, delicate woman, was chained by marriage to a choleric, intolerant, and uncomprehending husband and found refuge in drink and Catholicism. Over the years she resorted increasingly to both, and the second had lasting influence upon her son. Those who knew Mark Sykes believed that religious devotion constituted the bedrock of his soul.
But he wore his Catholicism lightly. He had an effervescent personality; he could turn a gathering into a party, a party into a festival. He bubbled with ideas, and he swept up his listeners with his enthusiasm. In addition he had a remarkable talent for sketching caricatures and for mimicry. “Mark Sykes had vitality15 beyond any man I have ever met,” wrote a close friend. “When one had been in his company one felt almost as if one had been given a draught from the fountain of life.” Despite the miserable marriage of his parents, he radiated happiness. He was, apparently, a sort of human champagne.
A few remained immune to his charm. T. E. Lawrence considered him a lightweight, but Sykes was actually a serious student of politics and war and imperial policy. He went to South Africa for the Boer War, although he did not see combat. For nearly a decade after the war’s conclusion, he traveled again. He knew the Ottoman Empire well and regarded it with Disraelian tolerance: In other words, he was prepared to overlook its defects in order to preserve it as a buttress of British interests, especially since it blocked Russian access to the Mediterranean. He shared the prejudices of his era and class: Although he looked down upon Turks by and large, he judged them to be racially superior to the peoples they governed. He was an anti-Semite—during his travels he sketched grotesque cartoons of fat Jews with big noses. But other peoples ranked lower still in his estimation. He wrote in one of his early books, “Even Jews have their16 good points, but Armenians have none.” Given that he would become Chaim Weizmann’s staunchest and most effective Gentile ally, and champion of the national aspirations of Armenians as well, we may say at the outset that he was capable of changing his mind and of adapting to circumstances.
During 1907 Sykes served as honorary attaché at the British embassy in Constantinople. There he met and befriended two other young Englishmen serving in the same capacity. They were George Lloyd, scion of a wealthy Birmingham industrial family, and Aubrey Herbert, son of the fourth earl of Carnarvon. Like Sykes, both men shared a fascination with the East; both were extremely able. All three returned to Britain, and by 1911 all three had secured seats as Conservatives in the House of Commons, where they formed the nucleus of a group of old-fashioned romantic Tories. They believed implicitly in the goodness of the British Empire and in its civilizing role. They distrusted Liberal anti-imperialists and reformers, hated trade unions and socialism, and believed in the virtues of a sturdy yeomanry and in the natural bonds connecting peasant with landowner. But they were hardly simple. Sykes, for example, could be both radical and reactionary at the same time: He favored home rule for Ireland (as did Aubrey Herbert), although the vast majority of Conservatives opposed it fanatically; simultaneously he unavailingly supported the hereditary power of the House of Lords to block the Liberal Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons, an anachronistic parliamentary prerogative that more moderate and up-to-date Conservatives eventually abandoned.
With the outbreak of war, Sykes returned to Sledmere Hall to raise a battalion of volunteers from the estate. He hoped to lead them to France. But the government, wishing to make use of his knowledge of the Middle East, attached him to the Intelligence Department. This was a disappointment that he may have inadvertently helped make happen by writing to Sir Edward Grey, urging a more aggressive attitude toward the Turks, even though they were not yet in the war. He expertly summarized recent British policy with regard to the Ottomans and explained what British passivity in the Middle East might lead to among “the Arabs of the Syrian desert17 and those south of the Dead Sea … [also those of] S. Mesopotamia … [and] the Kurds.” Then he laid out the probable repercussions in Afghanistan and India. Shortly thereafter, quite possibly as a response, the summons from Intelligence arrived. In London, Sykes was put to work writing pamphlets urging the people of Syria to rebel against the Ottomans.
He knew already the Foreign Office men with Middle East expertise. One of them18 introduced him to Lord Kitchener’s devoted secretary and assistant, Colonel Oswald Fitzgerald. Turkey had not yet entered the war, and in London much wishful thinking had her staying out or even joining the Allies. Sykes told Fitzgerald that Turkey would come in soon, however, and on the side of Germany. He backed up the prediction with an explanatory letter that Fitzgerald carried to Kitchener. The latter kept it. When the Turks intervened as Sykes had prophesied, Kitchener decided to make use of the prophet. But how? When Prime Minister Asquith formed the de Bunsen Committee to ascertain British desiderata in Asiatic Turkey, Kitchener requested that Sykes be placed upon it. He told Fitzgerald that he wished to be kept informed of its deliberations—this was Sykes’s job to begin with. “But,” Sykes recalled, “I never saw Lord Kitchener19 except once and then only for a moment. I used to report to Fitzgerald each night at York House on the various problems that had come up for discussion and received instructions as to the points that Lord Kitchener desired should be considered. This I did as best I could.” Sykes was too modest. Historians agree that he crucially influenced the committee’s report. Certainly his letters reveal a mind in full flow and a personality more than willing to dispense advice. What preoccupied him? “Turkey must cease20 to be,” he wrote to a friend. But he did not pine for its colonized subjects. “All black people21 want sound, strict, unbending government,” he declared in the same letter.
Once the de Bunsen Committee had concluded its deliberations and written its report, Fitzgerald informed Sykes that Kitchener wanted him to travel “right round the Middle East and report back to him on the various situations.” Before he left, Sykes saw Kitchener “for about fifteen minutes and he gave me nothing more than the same instructions Fitzgerald had mentioned to me.” It seems a strange way of running the largest empire in the world. “I could never understand22 what he thought and he could never understand what I thought,” Sykes was to remark of Kitchener a year later, but “Fitzgerald was a very good intermediary in that way with a man who was difficult to explain things to or understand what was meant.”
To go “right round the Middle East,” Kitchener had instructed Sykes, for the war had cast that region into the crucible, and he had to know how Britain might reshape it. The Cairo contingent already had definite plans, as Sykes would learn upon arrival. Clayton, Storrs, and others were pushing for Britain to throw the Turks out of Syria and to attack Alexandretta, a port at the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. This would relieve Turkish pressure, they held, both on Suez and on British soldiers facing difficult conditions in Gallipoli; once taken, Alexandretta might also prove an entryway for British forces into Turkey. Hence its possession might even tilt the balance of the war. At least it afforded Mesopotamia convenient access to the Mediterranean Sea, and they assumed that Britain would take Mesopotamia as a spoil of war. Thus Alexandretta was “the key of the whole23 place,” as T. E. Lawrence, recently arrived in Cairo, wrote to a friend. Even now Lawrence and his superiors in Cairo were thinking of Britain’s imperial position after the war and of potential future wars. Alexandretta was “going to be the head of the Baghdad [railway] line and therefore the natural outlet for Northern Syria and Northern Mesopotamia; it’s the only easy road from Cilicia and Asia Minor into Asia, etc. etc. Also it’s a wonderful harbor and … can be made impregnable.” No other country but Britain must possess it. “If Russia has Alexandretta it’s all up with us in the near East,” Lawrence warned. France must not control it either since “one cannot go on betting that France will always be our friend.”
Nor had Cairo forgotten the grand sharif of Mecca. Although the British would not hear from him again until July 14, 1915, they were already spinning elaborate schemes in which he figured prominently. Lawrence, for one, saw the emir as a crucial player in the British interest, both during the war and afterward. “I want to pull them24 all [the smaller Arab principalities and tribes] together and to roll up Syria by way of the Hejaz in the name of the Sharif … and biff the French out of all hope of Syria. It’s a big game and at last one worth playing.” In other words, he wanted Hussein ruling “Arabia”—still undefined but now including Syria, which would have encompassed Lebanon and Palestine—under the influence of Great Britain. Likewise Storrs looked forward to Hussein’s rise—under Britain’s indirect control. He would become caliph: “His allegiance to us25 inspired, as his revenues derived, from annual subventions and the proceeds of an annual pilgrimage—guaranteed against foreign and especially Turkish aggression … it is to this ideal that we should shape our course.”
Although the sharif had refrained from contacting the British, he had hardly been inactive, as Kitchener might have guessed. What he had done, and what it led to, is the subject of our next chapter. But it is fair to say that Kitchener expected Sykes, as he traveled the Middle East, to get a grip on the sharif too.
So the sixth baronet of Sledmere set off from England, on a journey that would take him, in six months, to Sofia, to British headquarters at the Dardanelles, to Egypt, to Aden, to Simla in India, and back to Egypt. While in Egypt, he held cheerful reunion with Aubrey Herbert and George Lloyd, both now Egyptian army intelligence officers; he met often with Clayton and Storrs and with Cheetham’s replacement as high commissioner, Sir Henry McMahon. From the last we may glean something of the atmosphere of their conferences. “He is a very pleasant26 change from the ordinary,” McMahon wrote to his old chief in India, the Viceroy Lord Hardinge. “Among other things he is an extraordinarily clever mimic and you should get him to give some of his impersonations such as the Old Turk, Young Turk, Syrian, Naval Division, &c.”
But Sykes had done much more than indulge his talent for mimicry. Wherever he went, he reported on the policy options enumerated by the de Bunsen Committee, and he also listened and learned and conferred. The Egyptian high commissioner brought him up-to-date on the promises made and inducements held out to the grand sharif. In mid-July the emir finally ended his seven-month silence and wrote again to Sir Ronald Storrs; Sykes was no longer in Cairo but soon knew of the letter’s contents, and of the correspondence that ensued among the parties planning the Arab Revolt. Sykes endorsed that cause immediately. A British-supported Arab uprising to free Arabia (including Syria) from the Turks fit his own outlook and temperament and appealed to his imagination. He returned to England on December 8, 1915, determined to obtain the government’s backing for the Arab Revolt and for what the Cairo contingent were calling the “forward policy”—which meant the larger effort to attack Alexandretta and “roll up Syria,” refashioning the Middle East to suit Britain’s imperial interests. On December 16 he had an audience with the War Council or War Committee, as it now was called. Aside from Sykes, only Asquith, Balfour, David Lloyd George, and Kitchener spoke at this meeting. All the opponents of expanding Britain’s reach were absent or silent. Sykes made his report, a masterly performance. “I should just like to conclude,”27 he wound up, “by putting before you the dangers that I think confront us if matters are allowed to slide. If we adopt a perfectly passive attitude … the Sharif, I think, will be killed.”
“Will be what?” asked Arthur Balfour.
“Will be killed,” Sykes repeated, “and a Committee of Union and Progress nominee will be put in his place. That gives the Turks and the Germans Mecca. The Christians in Syria will be exterminated … The anti-Committee [of Union and Progress] elements will be destroyed among the Arabs, the intellectual Arabs will be hanged and shot … The Arab machine will be captured … then we shall be confronted with the danger of a real Jehad.”
But Sykes was preaching to the converted.