Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Death of Mark Sykes

British diplomat, Conservative "politician," scholarly Wunderkind, English "traveler," and diplomatic middleman Sir Mark Sykes died in Paris, of the Spanish Influenza, at the Hotel Lotti on the evening of February 16, 1919. He was 39.

Sykes's friend, diplomat and diarist Harold Nicolson, wrote: "Mark Sykes died last night at Hotel Lotti. I mind dreadfully. He is a real loss. It was due to his endless push and perseverance, to his enthusiasm and faith, that Arab nationalism and Zionism became two of the most successful of our war causes.... He made mistakes, of course, such as the Sykes-Picot Treaty, but he kept to his ideas with the fervour of genius."

Sykes (a militia colonel and a baronet) was born Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes. A child of a rich but somewhat dysfunctional family, he traveled over much of Europe and the Middle East as a child. He attended Cambridge and started publishing books on his travels and other works in his early twenties. (See the Wikipedia entry on Sykes for more details.)

He was, in his late twenties and thirties, parliamentary bureaucrat, traveler, friend of influential persons, and outside-the-box shaper of foreign policy and empire. With the outbreak of the war, Sykes was brought onto the most important of the committees advising the Cabinet on Middle Eastern issues. From this committee, he helped shape much thinking about the Middle East, even reintroducing the regular use of classical names such as Palestine and Syria, to overlay the Arabic and Turkish modern place names (hence rendering the whole region in effect, if not a tabula rasa, still a relatively blank canvas for British designs).

We will be looking a the Sykes-Picot Agreement later, as well as the Balfour Declaration, in which, as Nicolson indicated, Sykes played indispensable roles.
For the moment, his death reminds us of another, often obscured, backdrop to the Paris Peace: the Spanish Influenza.

This terrible pandemic, still being studied intensively, seems to have spread in its enormously mortal pattern as direct result of the war. It killed, in current thinking, somewhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. Some experts are saying that something over 2.5% of the human population died from this disease. It killed Sykes and many more influential, well-known individuals: Louis Botha (PM of South Africa); Randolph Bourne (American intellectual and critic of the war and Wilson); John Reed (American leftist); Egon Schiele (Austrian painter, whose pregnant wife had died three days before); Yakov Sverdlov (Bolshevik leader); Max Weber (towering intellectual of social sciences).

Some quite prominent people survived the disease (to be expected--one fifth of the world's population may have had it), including Woodrow Wilson, Prince Max of Baden, David Lloyd George, John J. Pershing, Wilhelm II of Germany, and Walt Disney (!).

Sykes, however, has played a special role. Because he was buried in a lead coffin, recent virus researchers hoped that his remains would be in state in which the virus would be intact. Hence, Sykes's descendants allowed an Oxford virologist and his team to exhume the body in September 2008. The lead coffin had split, however, and the samples were withdrawn through the cracks. It seems that the corpse was in an extreme stage of decomposition.

One more interesting personality at the Paris Peace. More to come.

There is much information online about the Spanish Flu. And excellent site is one from Stanford, "The Influenza Pandemic of 1918." Alfred Crosby's outstanding book Forgotten Pandemic is online with Google Books, or easily available for sale as well. The Wikipedia entry on "1918 Flu Pandemic" is especially good.


  1. Just wanted to add to the comments that I look forward to the new posts. Quite enjoyable and it encouraged me to go out and buy your book.

  2. Many thanks for this! But here's a question for you. DO you know what Mark Sykes' room number at the Hotel was? I would be very interested to know.

  3. I don't know what room Sykes was in. I don't think this was mentioned in the sources I looked at, but there must be some way to find out.


Creative Commons License
Design of a Violent Century by Hunt Tooley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.