Cabinet calls on inovative Yorkshireman

Sledmere House - the family home of Sir Mark Sykes
Sledmere House - the family home of Sir Mark Sykes

On December 16, 1915, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s War Cabinet, which included David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, Lord Kitchener, War Minister, and Lord Balfour, First Lord of the Admiralty, met at 10 Downing Street. Later that morning they summoned a 36-year-old Yorkshireman to advise them on the future of the Asian Ottoman empire. His name was Sir Mark Sykes, sixth baronet, MP for Hull, and sole owner of a 34,000-acre estate in the East Riding.

Tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed and heavily moustached, Sir Mark was far from overawed in such elevated company: after all, he was a full Staff colonel who during the past six months had travelled widely in the Balkans, Near East and India gathering evidence and opinions and assessing the situation there. No one in London had a greater knowledge and personal experience of these places. And what he had to recommend to the War Cabinet was to re-shape the political map for at least the next century.

Mark was born with a rich inheritance, but he was not lucky with his parents. His father, the fifth baronet, Sir Tatton Sykes of Sledmere, was a notorious eccentric, a parsimonious, hypochondriac recluse. Obsessed with his own body temperature, when hot he cast off clothing, regardless of place or company. Village children followed him on his walks hoping to earn him a shilling for every piece of clothing he discarded en route. He lived mainly on milk puddings and forbade his tenants to plant flowers in their cottage gardens or gossip at their front doors.

Mark’s mother, who had the deepest influence on him, was formerly Christina Anne Jessica Cavendish-Bentnick, daughter of a Tory MP and granddaughter of the Duke of Portland. At 18 Jessica was 30 years younger than Sir Tatton when they married in Westminster Abbey in 1874. Her conception was regarded as something of a miracle. They were very ill-matched. She was spendthrift, alcoholic and promiscuous, but highly literate and charitable. From his mother young Mark became well-versed in literature, drama and history, deplored snobbery but imbibed anti-Semitism. From her he also acquired a life-long devotion to Roman Catholicism. It was Jessica who insisted on a second baptism at the London Oratory, attended by his godfather, the Duke of Norfolk.

But from both parents Mark inherited an insatiable appetite for long-distance travel to the most exotic lands, especially the Turkish Near East. By the age of 18 he had already been to India, Mexico and five times to the Ottoman empire. Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad and Constantinople were all familiar to him. His formal education was fragmentary and sporadic. After a few years boarding at Beaumont College, the Jesuit “Catholic Eton” at Windsor, he spent brief spells at an Italian school in Monaco and then at the Institute of St Louis in Brussels. By this time his mother’s credit had collapsed and his father had placed an advertisement in The Times declaring that he was no longer responsible for his wife’s outstanding gambling debts.

When Lady Tatton discovered that the senior tutor of Trinity College Cambridge thought that the Cesarewitch was a place she found one for her 18-year-old son at Jesus College instead. Yet even here Mark could not settle for long. Though clever and witty, he was too restless to study. He took out a whole term to visit his comfort zones, Palestine and Syria.

Mark’s military career, such as it was, began in the summer of 1897 when he accepted a commission with the militia of the Princess of Wales’ Own Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards). Two years later, when the Boer War began, he sailed out to South Africa. There he grew contemptuous of regular British soldiers 
with “their 
filthy tales, senseless stories” and “pig-headed folly” and proud of his amateur militia men. His innovative suggestions – painting guns to camouflage them, using barbed wire as perimeter fencing and digging trenches to guard railway lines – were all ignored by the professional military. His regiment was disbanded at Richmond in 1902 and Captain Sykes returned to Sledmere a military hero.

Mark’s fascination with the Near East was unlimited. During his honeymoon in 1903 he took his wife Edith to Jerusalem and Constantinople as well as Paris and Rome, and two years later, Richard, their eldest son, was born in the Turkish capital.

Though under pressure to do so, Mark was reluctant to enter politics. His view of Conservative MPs was lower than that of the military: “a mere herd of fatuous babblers, pompous bores, polished weaklings or self-advertising salesmen.” However, even as a self-styled “Tory democrat”, in the two elections of 1910 he failed to unseat the Liberal Nonconformist occupant of the local Buckrose rural constituency and had to settle for Central Hull as a Unionist the following year.

But he could never be a mere obedient, party hack. He attacked Lloyd George’s National Insurance scheme because it rewarded the degenerate, consumptive and syphilitic at the expense of the virtuous and healthy; yet he was horrified by the violent reaction of the Orangemen to Irish Home Rule.

In 1912 Mark’s mother died and in 1913, on his father’s death, he inherited his entire estate and baronetcy. After fire had damaged much of Sledmere house, Sir Mark supervised its re-building, extension and refurbishment. To the great hall he added a chapel and Turkish rooms modelled on what he had admired in the Sultan’s Constantinople apartments.

Meanwhile, he had become lieutenant-colonel in command of the Territorial battalion of the 5th Yorkshire regiment with the authority to practise his belief in the potential merits of amateur soldiers. He was a severe disciplinarian and taskmaster. Under him the battalion marched from Sledmere to Richmond, a distance of 65 miles in 31 hours, and on another occasion, from Doncaster to Scarborough, 76 miles in 44 hours. No Territorials in the whole country were fitter and more thoroughly trained. In 1912 he dressed some of them in Green Howard uniform of 1745 and had them firing volleys of Brown Bess muskets out of Sledmere’s armoury. Also in the same year he had signed up a thousand locals as the Wagoners’ Special Reserve and persuaded the War Office to pay each of them a pound. The British people were shocked and surprised when war came in August 1914, but Sir Mark Sykes was well prepared for it.

[To be continued.]