Sykes-Picot are often accused of having divided up the Arab world, but as we shall see Mark Sykes may have actually believed that his actions had the best interests of the Arabs at heart. He believed that, if properly encouraged, it would be possible to reawaken among the Arabs memories of a vanished greatness and bring them closer the community of nations.
While the carnage at Gallipoli mounted day by day, Sir Mark Sykes was dispatched by the War Office to visit British commanders, diplomats and imperial officials throughout the eastern theatre of war.
In India Lord Hardinge, opined that ‘Sykes did not seem to be able to grasp the fact that there are parts of Turkey unfit for representative institutions.’
During his long return sea journey from India Sykes turned his ever-wandering attention to Iraq, concerning which he composed a lengthy memorandum on the political and military situation. However, in the second part of that memorandum entitled ‘Indian Muslims and the War’, his thoughts returned to the subject which had long been the main preoccupation of both himself and his chief, Kitchener – the ever-present danger of jihad. It was fear of militant Islam which had underpinned his belief that Britain should cultivate those elements of the religion he construed as ‘moderate’ and susceptible of being won over to the Allied side; and now, having witnessed signs of anti-British nationalism among the Muslims of India during his recent visit, he merged his visceral dislike of ‘westernised orientals’ with a conceptualisation of the two main tendencies which he believed he had detected in contemporary Islam.
On the one hand there were the intellectual nationalists, devious, half-educated manipulators, who were seeking to mobilise the ignorant Muslim masses against Britain and her Allies; and on the other hand there were the traditionalist, ‘clerical’ and ‘conservative’ forces whose sincerely held religious concepts were not incompatible with, nor necessarily hostile to, the romantic Tory imperialism he himself espoused. These conservative Muslims were precisely the sort of men who might be trusted to lead the ‘friendly native states’ which he and Kitchener were advocating; and in the person of the Sharif of Mecca he believed they had found such a promising figure. As for those scheming intellectual Muslim nationalists, Sykes believed they were very much like the leaders of the Turkish CUP. Their objective was to engross all political power in the hands of a clique of journalists, pleaders, and functionaries, to oust the clerical element, but to retain its power to excite an ignorant mob to massacre or rebellion when necessary … An ‘intellectual’ with an imitation European training, with envy of the European surging in his heart … sees in Islam a political engine whereby immense masses of men can be moved to riot and disorder … The Muslim ‘intellectual’ uses the clothes of Europe and has lost his belief in his creed, but the hatred of Christendom and lust for the domination of Islam as a supreme political power remains
After leaving India, Sykes’s first stopover was Basra where he arrived on 19 September 1915. Sykes was informed that Captain Arnold Wilson, responsible for the Basra vilayet, would be pleased to meet him. The meeting was not a happy one. By now, the recently promoted Wilson had returned to full-time political duties and was living in a cramped office at Ashar, the old Turkish customs post on the banks of the Shatt al-‘Arab where the Ashar creek meets the Shatt and leads up to the old city of Basra. Although he was by now quite ill, suffering intermittently from malaria and a form of beriberi, his appetite for work remained undiminished. ‘AT’, as he was now commonly known, had recently acquired a great enthusiasm for paperwork, taking great pride in multiplying files, assembling card indexes and firing off telegrams at every opportunity. Sykes found him in full cry, dashing through an enormous pile of waiting for papers and disposing of them one after another like a threshing machine. Sykes could be tactless when he was expounding one of his many enthusiasms or prejudices and on this occasion, he made it abundantly clear to Wilson that in India he had acquired a dim view of that country’s administration and he took an equally dim view of the government of India’s predominance in Iraq. There was no understanding, Sykes insisted, that Iraq was an imperial concern, not just an Indian one, and therefore the views of London and Cairo must always be taken into account when deciding military and political policy in this particular theater. Moreover, Sykes couldn’t understand why so little effort was being made to win the Iraqi Arabs round to actively supporting Britain. Surely the Civil Administration could be more active in the propaganda line, leaflets in Arabic, that sort of thing? And couldn’t they make greater efforts to win over local sheiks, raise guerrilla bands to attack the Turkish flanks and so on? In spite of his position of authority in the Civil Administration, Wilson was still only a relatively junior officer and he must have felt constrained to suffer this tactless onslaught from his aristocratic and distinguished official visitor. But he was later to comment with concealed bitterness that Sykes was ‘too short a time in Mesopotamia to gather more than fragmentary impressions’, and that ‘he had come with his mind made up and he set himself to discover the facts in favour of his preconceived notions, rather than to survey the local situation with an impartial eye.’ In particular, Sykes seemed overly concerned to do ‘justice for Arab ambitions and satisfy France’. Arab ambitions and French satisfaction: the two concepts seemed hardly compatible; that was precisely what was beginning to trouble Sykes as he traveled back from India. Over the last few months, he had begun to appreciate that the French also had ‘desiderata’ in the Middle East. Indeed, according to intelligence, he was receiving it was clear that they had expectations of planting the tricolor at the eastern end of the Mediterranean to accompany their colonies in North Africa. But since Britain’s interests would be best served by a ‘devolved’ Ottoman Empire of ‘friendly native states’, these two national objectives were clearly contradictory. Perhaps there would, after all, have to be some kind of agreement on ‘zones of control’ with France.
On 17 November 1915 Sykes arrived in Cairo, the next leg of his journey home. Here he was shown some important correspondence between the British high commissioner of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and the Sharif of Mecca in which the former, on behalf of the British government, appeared to be offering some kind of independent Arab state to the latter if the Sharif and his four sons launched a revolt in the Hejaz against the Turkish government. In spite of continuing disagreements about the exact boundaries of this new Arab state – and Hussein was angling for a kingdom of vast proportions – all the signs pointed to an eventual revolt by the Sharif and his sons.
Thus the die had now been cast and Britain would have to try to patch up an agreement with the French which somehow or other satisfied both countries while at the same time leaving Hussein with something for which he and his Arab movement would still be willing to fight. There was no question about it: it was going to be very difficult. Then, out of the blue, the first hint of a solution emerged – if not a solution at least a step in the right direction. An Iraqi Arab deserter from the Ottoman army at Gallipoli, a certain Lieutenant Muhammad Sharif al- Faruqi, was brought in to see him.
The Arab question and the ‘shocking document’ that shaped the Middle East.
The first meeting of the British interdepartmental committee headed by Sir Arthur Nicolson with François Georges-Picot had taken place on 23 November 1915. The French representative was not convinced of the importance of inducing the Emir of Mecca and the al-Fatat Arab nationalists to side with the Entente. Austen Chamberlain reported to Lord Hardinge that Picot had ‘expressed complete incredulity as to the projected Arab kingdom, said that the Sheikh had no big Arab chiefs with him, that the Arabs were incapable of combining, and that the whole scheme was visionary.' The secretary of state for India was very pleased. It seemed that the French delegate ‘knows his Arab well. I expect he has sized up the Sheikh’s scheme pretty accurately. I doubt if it has any element of solidity or that any promise will have weight with the Arabs until they are absolutely convinced that we are winning.’¹
Moreover, French demands – which according to Picot the French were obliged to make as ‘no French government would stand for a day which made any surrender of French claims in Syria’ – were rather excessive. Picot informed the Nicolson committee that France claimed the:
Possession (nominally, a protectorate) of land starting from where the Taurus Mts approach the sea in Cilicia, following the Taurus Mountains and the mountains further East, so as to include Diabekr, Mosul and Kerbela, and then returning to Deir Zor on the Euphrates and from there southwards along the desert border, finishing eventually at the Egyptian frontier.
Picot, however, added that he was prepared ‘to propose to the French government to throw Mosul into the Arab pool, if we did so in the case of Bagdad’. In amplification, Nicolson minuted that Picot had:
Intimated his readiness to proceed to Paris to explain personally our view – and the Arab desiderata. M. Cambon told me that he had objected to this visit, on the ground that he would not be well received at the Quai d’Orsay were he to carry with him such unpalatable proposals as he had suggested. M. Picot would, therefore, communicate with Quai d’Orsay in writing. We must, therefore, await the reply.²
The French reply had not yet been received when a telegram from Sir Henry McMahon arrived on 30 November. In this telegram the high commissioner gave his considered opinion on Hussein’s letter of 5 November, and at the same time took the opportunity to defend himself against Chamberlain’s charges. He observed that the Emir’s letter was:
Satisfactory as showing a desire for mutual understanding on reasonable lines. It also affords an opportunity of meeting the wishes of the Government of India with regard to Mesopotamia by some change of formula, but I cannot personally think of any formula on that subject more favorable to Indian interests than the one employed in my former letter, without raising Arab suspicions.
With regard to nonentity of Shereef […] Everything would tend to prove that he is of sufficient commanding importance, by position descent and personality, to be the only possible central rallying point for Arab cause, and sufficiently anti- Turkish to be in great personal danger at Turkish hands.
McMahon did not fail to point out that his negotiations with Hussein were in a quandary thanks to the policy ‘of awaiting in Egypt the threatened Turco–German advance’. It jeopardized ‘any attempt to secure Arab cooperation’, and made it ‘appear unwise urging Arabs into premature activity which through want of our support and fear of Turkish retaliation might hasten their abandonment of our cause’. At the same time it rendered ‘alienation of Arab assistance from Turks a matter of great importance, and we must make every effort to enlist the sympathy and assistance, even though passive, of Arab people’. In view of this difficult situation, McMahon proposed to reply to Hussein along the following lines:
1. Acknowledge his exclusion of Adana and Mersina from Arab sphere. […]
2. Agree that with the exception of tract around Marash and Aintab, vilayets of Beirut Aleppo are inhabited by Arabs but in these vilayets as elsewhere in Syria our ally France has considerable interests, to safeguard with some special arrangements will be necessary and as this is a matter for the French government we cannot say more now than assure the Shereef of our earnest wish that satisfactory settlement may be arrived at.
3. With regard to the vilayets of Basra and Baghdad some such arrangement as he suggests would provide suitable solution, i.e. that these vilayets which have been taken by us from the Turks by force of arms should remain under British administration until such time as a satisfactory mutual arrangement can be made.
4. Assurance of the Shereef that Great Britain has no intention to conclude peace in terms of which freedom of Arabs from Turkish domination does not form essential condition. (On some assurance of this nature sole hope of successful understanding depends).
5. Appreciation of Shereef’s desire for caution and disclaim wish to urge him to hasty action jeopardising Arab projects but in the meantime he must spare no effort to attach Arab peoples to our cause and prevent them assisting the enemy, as it is of the success of these efforts and on active measures which the Arabs may hereafter take in our cause when the time comes that permanency of present arrangement must depend.
McMahon concluded by expressing the hope that the Foreign Office would be able to reply ‘without undue delay’, but, as George Clerk minuted, the Foreign Office could not answer until they had received ‘the views of the Government of India […] an Alexandretta expedition has been finally decided, one way or the other, [and] having prepared a reply […] get the concurrence of the French government’. It was ‘therefore of little use discussing Sir H. McMahon’s views now’.
The India Office reacted first. Sir Arthur Hirtzel observed that the India Office:
Agree with Sir H. McMahon that for the success of these negotiations some display of force is necessary to which the Arabs can rally.
Whether such is possible, and, if so, where and how, are questions for the British and French governments and their military advisers.
If it is not possible, we doubt whether there is any real use in pursuing these negotiations. But if it is considered expedient for the sake of appearances to do so, they should be as vague as possible regarding future commitments.
Apart from a few minor modifications, Hirtzel approved the proposed reply, even the suggestion to ‘disclaim wish to urge him to hasty action’. The India Office also qualified Chamberlain’s earlier proviso that McMahon’s promises only held good if the Arabs acted at once (see Chapter 3, section ‘Four Towns and Two Vilayets’). This no longer applied in case ‘there is to be no display of force. But, if there is, Arab assistance must be immediate and universal.’³
A French reply was not forthcoming. On 10 December, Nicolson decided to wait no longer. If the Foreign Office kept on waiting:
We shall lose much valuable time – and it is essential to send a reply to the Shereef as soon as possible. In regard to Syria, McMahon can say that as the interests of others are involved he must consider the point carefully. I think a further communication […] will be sent later – he can then proceed to reply on all the other points. Would you draw a telegram embodying I.O.’s views and the viceroy’s wishes – and we should get I.O. concurrence and Lord Crewe’s the sooner we can get of this telegram the better.
After it had been approved by Chamberlain and Crewe, a telegram was sent to Cairo the same day:
Importance of display of British or Allied force round which Arabs can rally is fully recognized here, but you will realize that present situation at Gallipoli and Salonica makes it out of the question for the moment to embark on any other expedition.
Attitude of French government in regard to Syria is also very difficult and we have little hope of obtaining from them any assurance that will really satisfy Arabs.
On the other hand, we must try to keep the negotiations with the Sherif in being, and you are authorized to reply to him as follows:
- Points 1 and 2, as you propose.
As regards point 3, you should say that as the interests of others are involved, the point requires careful consideration by His Majesty’s Government and a further communication in regard to it will be sent later.
Point 4. We should prefer to say that His Majesty’s Government are, as the Sherif knows, disposed to give a guarantee to assist and protect the proposed Arab Kingdom as far as may be within their power, but their interests demand, as the Sherif has recognised, a friendly administration in the Vilayet of Bagdad and the safeguarding of these interests call for much fuller and more detailed consideration of the future of Mesopotamia than the present situation and the urgency of the negotiations permit.
Point 5. The first […] assurance you propose. Point 6 […] As you suggest.⁴
In anticipation of the Foreign Office telegram, McMahon wrote a private letter to Hardinge on 4 December in which he tried to justify his actions with regard to the negotiations with Hussein. He claimed that the viceroy took ‘the idea of a future strong united independent Arab State […] too seriously’, as ‘the conditions of Arabia do not and will not for a very long time to come, lend themselves to such a thing’. Sir Henry moreover did ‘not for one moment go to the length of imagining that the present negotiations will go far to shape the future form of Arabia or to either establish our rights or to bind our hands in that country. The situation and its elements are much too nebulous for that.’ His only objective had been ‘to tempt the Arab people into the right path, detach them from the enemy and bring them on our side’. As far as Britain was concerned, this was ‘at present largely a matter of words and to succeed we must use persuasive terms and abstain from academic haggling over conditions – whether about Baghdad or elsewhere’.⁵
McMahon also sought the support of the sirdar. Wingate was honored with a letter for the first time. McMahon excused his negligence in answering Wingate’s letters by explaining that he was ‘a poor correspondent at the best of times’, and that a correspondence also was not really necessary as Clayton kept them both fully informed of each other’s ideas and views. After this apology, he proceeded to complain about ‘the curious and, to me, mistaken attitude which India is taking in the matter’, as well as ‘the unreasonable and uncompromising attitude of France in regard not only to Syria but an indefinitely large hinterland in which she will not recognize Arab interests’. Indian and French opposition, combined with Britain’s ‘failure to hold out a hand to the Arabs by putting a force into Cilicia’, made it likely that Britain would ‘lose all chance of Arab cooperation and sympathy and drive them into the enemies hands against us’.⁶
McMahon was familiar with the French position because Alfred Parker had forwarded a report on Picot’s meeting with the Nicolson committee to Clayton. The latter had circulated this report, with a covering note, to Maxwell, McMahon and Wingate. In this note, Clayton observed that the result of the meeting was ‘only what might have been expected with M. Picot as the representative of the French government’, considering that Picot was ‘well known as being extreme in his ideas, and completely saturated with the vision of a great French possession in the Eastern Mediterranean’. Clayton took the opportunity to emphasize why he was in favor of negotiations with the Arabs. These were important, not because they might result in the Arabs actively supporting the Entente in the war against the Ottoman Empire – which after the dismissal of the Alexandretta scheme was out of the question anyway – but because they might prevent the Arabs from joining the Turks and Germans. If the latter happened, then the call for the jihad would become effective. The great gain resulting from a successful conclusion of these negotiations was that Britain secured the passive support of the Arabs:
In considering the Arab movement, too much attention has been given to its possible offensive value, and it has to some extent been forgotten that the chief advantage to be gained is a defensive one, in that we should secure on their part a hostile attitude towards the Turks, even though it might be only passively hostile, and rob our enemies of the incalculable moral and material assistance which they would gain were they to succeed in uniting against the Allies the Arab races and, through them, Islam.⁷
McMahon incorporated Clayton’s note into a telegram on the Arab question that was sent to London three days later. He informed Grey that ‘selection of Picot as their representative on recent committee on this question is discouraging indication of French attitude’. The French delegate was ‘a notorious fanatic on Syrian question and quite incapable of assisting any mutual settlement on reasonable common sense grounds which present situation requires’. As far as the negotiations with the Arabs were concerned, ‘conditions of Arabia never justified expectation of active or organised assistance such as some people think is object of our proposed mutual understanding. What we want is material advantage of even passive Arab sympathy and assistance on our side instead of their active cooperation with enemy.’ Clerk quite agreed with McMahon’s opinion of Picot.
The latter had ‘been particularly chosen, for his very fanaticism’. All in all, things could no longer go on in this fashion:
The question is so serious that I think it must be treated between government and government, and no longer between M. Picot and this department. This is a matter for consideration by the War Committee and I would venture to urge that that body should hear the views of Sir Mark Sykes, who is not only highly qualified to speak from the point of view of our interests, but who understands the French position in Syria today – and in a sense sympathizes with it – better probably than anyone.
Nicolson and Crewe concurred in this suggestion. Two days later, Prime Minister Asquith informed the Foreign Office that ‘Sir M. Sykes might be invited the next meeting of the War Committee. The India Office shall also be represented.’⁸
Enter Sir Mark Sykes
Wingate and Clayton regarded Lieut.-Colonel Sir Mark Sykes, Bart., MP as their champion in the London battle for an active, pro-Arab policy. On 9 December, Wingate wrote to Sir John Maxwell that Sykes, ‘should be a powerful ally in regard to Arab policy’, while the next day, in a letter to Clayton, he expressed the hope that ‘Mark Sykes’s arrival in London on the 8th will mean that a definite Near Eastern Policy will be adopted without more hovering’. The Sudan agent for his part believed that now ‘Lord K. is at home again and also Sykes […] things may have gone better recently’.⁹
Sir Mark’s involvement with the Middle East dated from 1890, when he, at eleven years old, had accompanied his father on a journey through Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. This was the first of five prolonged travels in which he ranged the Fertile Crescent. Inspired by his travels, Sykes had written two books – Through Five Turkish Provinces and Dar-ul-Islam – which had established his reputation as an expert on the Middle East, even though his knowledge of Arabic was limited seeing that he could neither read nor write the language. At the end of 1904, Sykes had been appointed honorary attaché at the Constantinople embassy. He had occupied this post up to the end of 1906. Most of his stay had been taken up with another bout of traveling through the Middle East, but he had also developed intimate relations with Gerald Fitzmaurice, the chief dragoman, Aubrey Herbert, George Lloyd and Lancelot Oliphant.¹⁰
It had been Oliphant who had introduced Sykes to Oswald Fitzgerald, early in September 1914. On that occasion, Sir Mark had offered his services.¹¹ This offer had not been accepted straight away, and for the time being he had been forced to stay with his territorial battalion at Newcastle. In a letter to his wife Edith, Sykes had given voice to his disappointment ‘not to be where I could be most useful, i.e., in the Mediterranean. Is it not ridiculous the haphazard way we do things!’¹² However, Sykes had finally been ordered to come to London in March 1915, and was ‘appointed at the personal request of Lord Kitchener as a member of the Committee formed to ascertain British desiderata in Asiatic Turkey’.¹³
Besides Sykes, this committee consisted of representatives from the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Admiralty and the Board of Trade. It was chaired by Sir Maurice De Bunsen, until the outbreak of war, British ambassador at Vienna. During 13 meetings, from 12 April to 28 May 1915, the commission busied itself with deter- mining British desiderata with respect to the future of the Asiatic part of the Ottoman Empire. These deliberations resulted in a voluminous report, which was presented to the Cabinet on 30 June.
In its ‘preliminary considerations’ the committee stated that ‘our Empire is wide enough already, and our task is to consolidate the possessions we already have, to make firm and lasting the position we already hold, and to pass on to those who come after an inheritance that stands four-square to the world’. Against this background, the committee opted for a scheme in which, ‘subject to certain necessary territorial exceptions’ – Basra, Smyrna and the Asiatic part of Constantinople would have to be ceded, respectively, to Britain, Greece and Russia – the independence of the Ottoman Empire was maintained, ‘but the form of government to be modified by decentralisation on federal lines’, while Arab chiefs would be granted ‘complete administrative autonomy’ under Turkish sovereignty.¹⁴
Sykes was unable to append his signature to the report, because he left England at the beginning of June. The War Office had instructed him to discuss the committee’s findings with the British authorities in the Near and Middle East, and at the same time to study the situation on the spot. He successively visited Athens, Gallipoli, Sofia, Cairo, Aden and again Cairo. Sir Mark subsequently sailed for India. There he gained but a poor opinion of the capacities of the Indian authorities, and was angered by their attitude towards the Muslims. It seemed that the only thing they could think of was not upsetting ‘religious susceptibilities, a phrase which is beginning to get on my nerves’.¹⁵ Sykes’s visit nevertheless passed off rather smoothly. His subsequent visit to Mesopotamia was not without incidents. Nine months later, Lloyd explained to Clayton that Sykes seemed ‘to have been amazingly tactless, and not only to have rather blustered everyone but also to have decried openly everything Indian, in a manner which was bound to cause some resentment’.¹⁶ Arnold T. Wilson, at the time assistant political officer, Force ‘D’ , observed in his memoirs:
He was too short a time in Mesopotamia to gather more than fragmentary impressions. He had come with his mind made up, and he set himself to discover facts in favor of his preconceived notions, rather than to survey the local situation with an impartial eye. Whatever we were doing to change the Turkish regime, or to better the lot of the Armenian, Jew and Sabaean minorities, had his cordial approval – for the rest, we must do justice to Arab ambitions and satisfy France!¹⁷
Shortly after the receipt of Hussein’s third letter, Sykes was back in Cairo. During his third stay at the Egyptian capital within six months, Sykes dispatched a number of telegrams to General Callwell. To a large extent these telegrams echoed Cairo’s point of view with regard to the Arab question: the matter was urgent and a decision had to be taken as soon as possible; a sympathetic attitude by the Arabs towards the Entente was of the utmost importance, if only to prevent the dreaded jihad; a settlement of the conflicting French and Arab claims was feasible, as was a formula protecting Indian interests in Basra and Baghdad; and, finally, the Arabs would not act before a landing at Alexandretta had taken place.
Enter Sherif Al-Faruqi
Faruqi knew very well that only a tiny proportion of Ottoman army officers belonged to al-‘Ahd: his figure of 90 per cent was pure fabrication. He also knew that his claim that al-‘Ahd included a ‘part of the Kurdish officers’ was misleading, to say the least – there were perhaps no more than a handful of members who were of Kurdish origin. Faruqi certainly did not unite the al-Fatat and al- ‘Ahd movements: that was achieved by a senior Iraqi officer, Yasin al-Hashimi. Al-‘Ahd had never carried out propaganda among the Arab troops: on the contrary, its members had tried as much as possible to conceal their activities. There had been no approach to al-‘Ahd by the Turks or Germans offering an alliance, as Faruqi in- formed Shuqayr (the Germans had never even heard of al-‘Ahd). And Faruqi had not been authorized by al-‘Ahd, the Sharif or any other part of the ‘Arab movement’ to‘receive’ the British response to their demands.
Furthermore, as regards the ‘information’ which Sykes obtained from Faruqi during their interview, there was no ‘Arab Committee’ in Cairo. Neither the (non-existent) committee nor Faruqi himself was in communication with Sharif Husayn – in fact, it was to be a further month before Faruqi contacted Husayn and informed him of his existence. And with respect to French influence, although Hussein was later to offer some flexibility over French interests in the coastal region of Syria at Britain’s request, at this point in time both he and the majority of al-‘Ahd members were strongly opposed to any French involvement in a new Arab state, in spite of what Faruqi may have said to Sykes.
So, comforted by the apparent ‘reasonableness’ of the Arab movement, as relayed to him by Faruqi, as see underneath, Sykes returned to England where, almost immediately, he was thrust into negotiations with M. Charles François Georges-Picot, French counsellor in London and former French consul general in Beirut, to try to harmonize Anglo-French interests in ‘Turkey-in-Asia’. For nine months the French had been intermittently raising this question with Britain. So during the first week of January 1916, Sykes and Picot hammered out a draft agreement. Finally, as a result of an exchange of letters between Sir Edward Grey, the French foreign minister, Paul Cambon, and Serge Sazonov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, a secret agreement was reached among the three Great Powers defining their respective claims on Turkey’s Asian provinces. Its terms were embodied in a letter from Grey to Cambon dated 16 May 1916, and in due course, it was to become known as the ‘Sykes–Picot Agreement’.
On 20 November, after an interview with Faruqi, Sykes telegraphed to London, that he:
Anticipating French difficulty, discussed the situation with him with that in view. Following is best I could get, but seems to me to meet the situation both with regard to France and Great Britain. Arabs would agree to accept as approximate northern frontier Alexandretta-Aintab-Birijik- Urfa-Midiat-Zakho-Rowanduz. Arabs would agree to convention with France granting her monopoly of all concessionary enterprise in Syria and Palestine, Syria being defined as bounded by Euphrates as far south as Deir Zor, and from there to Deraa and along Hedjaz Railway to Maan.
Sykes also informed the DMO that Faruqi insisted that the whole scheme depended on ‘Entente landing troops at a point between Mersina and Alexandretta, and making good Amanus Pass or Cilician gates. He further stipulated that Shereef should not take action until this had been done.’ Sykes added that he agreed with Faruqi. It was ‘out of the question […] to call on Shereef or Arabs to take action until we had made above mentioned passes secure’.¹⁸ The day before, Sykes had sent off another tele- gram in which he had suggested possible solutions to the territorial aspects of the Arab question. A far as the vi- layets of Baghdad and Basra were concerned, these were ‘incapable of self-government and a new and weak state could not administer them owing to Shiah and Sunni dissension. We might agree with Arabs to administer these provinces on their behalf allocating certain revenues to their exchequer […] (this corresponding to their demand for subsidy).’ At the end of this telegram, Sykes had explained that he made his suggestions because he believed that:
The situation is critical. I feel that Arab nationalism as such presents no danger for India now or in future unless we confine ourselves to the canal defensive and let Turk and German masses assemble in Syria and northern Mesopotamia and reestablish their prestige and so work a real Jehad with Arab support.¹⁹
Small wonder Wingate and Clayton looked forward with confidence to Sir Mark’s return to London. Sykes did not let them down, witness the statement on the Arab question he made to the War Committee on 16 December. After an exposition in which he stressed that the Arab nationalists were averse to revolutionary ideologies, tolerant of other religions and favourably disposed towards Great Britain, he observed that, with respect to the Arab question:
If I may say so, the chief difficulty seems to me to be the French difficulty, and the root of that, I think, to speak frankly, lies in Franco-Levantine finance. Vitali represents the French group which used to be at Constantinople, who is in touch with M. Hugenin, who is a Swiss, and he is in touch with the Bagdad railway, and they have a great many relations with Javid. They have obtained the Syrian railways, and that very big loan of 1914, which gave them immense concessions all over Turkey. Now that party, I feel, is working through two agencies, and is checking the Entente policy in the Near East. One is the French cleric which is sentiment.
When Asquith interjected ‘What is that?’, Sykes added in clarification that he was referring to the French nationalist party:
Which is sentimental, bearing in mind the crusades. I think that that financial group works upon a perfectly honest sentiment. On the other side, they work on the fears of the French colonial party of an Arab Khalifate, which will have a common language with the Arabs in Tunis, Algeria, and Morocco […] I think at the back of all this, the influence that is moving them, is sinister.
Sykes considered the French financiers ‘a very evil force working two honest forces, which are unconscious of the real purport of it’. He proposed that Britain should pursue a policy consisting of three steps. First:
We ought to settle with France as soon as possible, and get a definite understanding about Syria. Secondly, to organise a powerful army in Egypt which is capable of taking the offensive; and, thirdly, to coordinate our Eastern operations. Get that as one machine, and one definite problem: link up Aden, Mesopotamia – the whole of that as one definite problem for the duration of the war. If we had that I think it is worth backing the Arabs, no matter what ground we may have lost to the north of Haifa.
Asked by Asquith how he would come to terms with the French, Sykes stated that: I think that we have those two assets. I think we can play on the French colonial if we work it well: get into the French colonial’s head what a Committee of Union and Progress Sherif means, and point out what they have done in India and what they might do elsewhere. I think the French clerical is quite capable of being influenced by reason of the danger to his one asset in Syria, and if you rob the occult French financial force of its two agencies, then, I think you are on the high road to a settlement.
In answer to a question by Lloyd George, Sykes repeated his opinion that the Arab question should first have to be settled with France before any military action could be contemplated. With respect to that, he observed that Egyptian military opinion ‘strongly [held] the idea of making a landing at Alexandretta’, which was confirmed by Kitchener.²⁰
In the course of the subsequent discussion, Asquith wondered what military value attached to the Arabs. Echoing Clayton, Sykes replied that their value was mainly negative. The Arabs were ‘bad if they are against us, because they add to the enemy’s forces, and if they are on our side there is so much less for the enemy and a little more for us, but I do not like to count upon them as a positive force to us’. To Balfour the situation was clear: ‘If we decide to do nothing, first of all we shall lose the Sherif, and after him we shall lose the Arabs, and lose them forever’. However, Lloyd George and Crewe – again deputising for Grey – first wanted to know whether or not a landing at Alexandretta was feasible, because, as Crewe argued: ‘it is no good starting on any proposals with France until we have made up our mind that a big military effort is possible’.
Before Sykes withdrew, he was given the opportunity to emphasize once again that:
The question is very urgent: it is important that a decision should be given quickly. Every day that we delay we lose more and more Arabs from our side, and every day that we put off brings us nearer to the day when there will be many Turks in Syria.
After he had left, the members of the War Committee further discussed the Arab question. Kitchener once again repeated that ‘the offensive-defensive’ – as Balfour put it – was indeed the best way to defend Egypt. Balfour proposed that the French send troops, although not to Alexandretta, but to Ayas Bay. Kitchener concurred, as ‘the Turks expect us at Alexandretta, which has been entrenched, but there are no entrenchments at Ayas’. Asquith believed that this was ‘an attractive programme’. At the suggestion of Crewe, it was decided first to consult Bertie before approaching the French government.²¹
Crewe dispatched a letter to Bertie the next day. He acquainted the ambassador with the views, Sykes had expressed before the War Committee. As far as the ‘offensive defensive’ was concerned, Crewe fully realized that ‘then we come up against French susceptibilities and claims, and any discussion becomes exceedingly delicate, because the French always seem to talk as though Syria and even Palestine were as completely theirs as Normandy’. The War Committee therefore, believed that ‘it might be advisable for Mark Sykes to go over to Paris, accompanied, perhaps, by someone like Fitzmaurice, in order to talk to some of the French Ministers. He could press his own views upon them without committing us to any particular movement.’ Bertie, however, opposed ‘the Sykes expedition to Paris’. He argued that:
However intelligent Sir Mark Sykes may be, and however good his arguments, I do not think that his coming to Paris to talk to some of the French Ministers would be in the least useful. However much he might press his views as his own views, they would be regarded as the views of the British government; for otherwise, why should he come?
The ambassador was prepared to sound Briand personally on ‘a possible joint expedition somewhat north of Egypt’, but warned that ‘contrary to Kitchener’s persistent contention, they hold that Salonica and the possibility of an expedition somewhere not defined will prevent the Germans starting any considerable Turkish or Turco– German force for a march to Egypt’.²²
On 28 December 1915, the War Committee indirectly decided to shelve the whole project. It accepted the recommendations on military policy for 1916 made by Lieut.-General Sir William Robertson, Murray’s successor as CIGS.²³ These were based on the decision taken at an inter-allied conference at Chantilly on 8 December that the war could only be won on the Russian, French and Italian fronts, and that the number of troops on the other fronts should be reduced to the barest minimum. Consequently, an ‘offensive-defensive’ policy for the defence of Egypt was out of the question, at least for 1916. In his memoirs, Hankey observed that:
Robertson must have come away from the meeting of December 28th well satisfied. He had obtained the adoption of his main principle that the western front was the main theatre of war and he had been authorised to prepare for a great offensive there. He had also secured the application of the principle of a defensive role to the Egyptian and Mesopotamian campaigns.²⁴
Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges- Picot Come to an Agreement
The second meeting between the Nicolson Committee and Georges-Picot took place on 21 December 1915. Picot informed the British delegation that ‘after great difficulties, he had obtained permission from his government to agree to the towns of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Damascus being included in the Arab dominions to be administered by the Arabs’.²⁵ The discussion then turned to the boundaries of the area that should come under direct French administration, as well as the question of which part of the future Arab state would fall within the French sphere of influence. With respect to the latter, it was agreed that the Arab state should be ‘divided between England and France into spheres of commercial and administrative interest, the actual line of demarcation to be reserved, but […] that it should pivot on Deir el Zor eastward and westward’. It was also decided that the Lebanon, which ‘should comprise Beirut and the anti- Lebanon’, and an enclave around Jerusalem should be excluded from the Arab territories.
Two points were reserved for further discussion: ‘the allocation of the Mosul Vilayet [and] the position of Haifa and Acre as an outlet for Great Britain on Mediterranean for Mesopotamia’.²⁶ This fresh delay made Nicolson complain to Hardinge that ‘our discussions with the French in regard to the Arab negotiations are proceeding exceedingly slowly, and I cannot say that I see much prospect of our coming to an agreement’.²⁷ Sykes on the other hand, was rather sanguine. On 28 December, he in- formed Clayton that he had ‘been given the Picot negotiations. I have prepared to concede Mosul and the land north of the lesser Zab if Haifa and Acre are conceded to us.’ Sykes expected that it would not take him ‘above 3 weeks’ to solve the last problems with the ‘Picot negotiations’.²⁸
Sykes’s optimism turned out to be justified. Within a week he came to an understanding with Georges-Picot. The terms of the proposed agreement were laid down in a memorandum that reached the Foreign Office on 5 January. Sykes and Picot claimed that three parties were involved in a settlement of the Arab question – France, the Arabs and Great Britain – and that each cherished territorial, economic and political ambitions that could not be satisfied without coming into conflict with those of the difficulties, he had obtained permission from his government to agree to the towns of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Damascus being included in the Arab dominions to be administered by the Arabs’.²⁵ The discussion then turned to the boundaries of the area that should come under direct French administration, as well as the question of which part of the future Arab state would fall within the French sphere of influence. With respect to the latter, it was agreed that the Arab state should be ‘divided be- tween England and France into spheres of commercial and administrative interest, the actual line of demarcation to be reserved, but […] that it should pivot on Deir el Zor eastward and westward’. It was also decided that the Lebanon, which ‘should comprise Beirut and the anti- Lebanon’, and an enclave around Jerusalem should be excluded from the Arab territories.
Two points were reserved for further discussion: ‘the allocation of the Mosul Vilayet [and] the position of Haifa and Acre as an outlet for Great Britain on Mediterranean for Mesopotamia’.²⁶ This fresh delay made Nicolson complain to Hardinge that ‘our discussions with the French in regard to the Arab negotiations are proceeding exceedingly slowly, and I cannot say that I see much prospect of our coming to an agreement’.²⁷ Sykes, on the other hand, was rather sanguine. On 28 December, he in- formed Clayton that he had ‘been given the Picot negotiations. I have prepared to concede Mosul and the land north of the lesser Zab if Haifa and Acre are conceded to us.’ Sykes expected that it would not take him ‘above 3 weeks’ to solve the last problems with the ‘Picot negotiations’.²⁸
Sykes’s optimism turned out to be justified. Within a week he came to an understanding with Georges-Picot. The terms of the proposed agreement were laid down in a memorandum that reached the Foreign Office on 5 January. Sykes and Picot claimed that three parties were involved in a settlement of the Arab question – France, the Arabs and Great Britain – and that each cherished territorial, economic and political ambitions that could not be satisfied without coming into conflict with those of the other two. From this it followed that ‘to arrive at a satisfactory settlement, the three principal parties must ob- serve a spirit of compromise’. This settlement would, moreover, have ‘to be worked in with an arrangement satisfactory to the conscientious desires of Christianity, Judaeism, and Mahommedanism in regard to the status of Jerusalem and the neighbouring shrines’. In the light of these considerations, they had arrived at the following proposal (see Sykes-Picot map of 1916):
1. Arabs. – That France and Great Britain should be prepared to recognise and protect a confederation of Arab States in the areas (a) and (b) under the suzerainty of an Arabian chief. That in area (a) France, and in area (b) Great Britain, should have priority of right of enterprise and local loans. That in area (a) France, and in area (b) Great Britain, should alone supply advisers or foreign functionaries at the request of the Arab confederation.
2. Great Britain, should be allowed to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire.
3. That in the brown area [which covered the greater part of Palestine; R.H.L] there should be established an international administration, the form of which is to be decided upon after consultation with Russia, and subsequently in consultation with Russia, Italy, and the representatives of Islam.
4. That Great Britain be accorded (1) the ports of Haifa and Acre, (2) guarantee of a given supply of water from area (a) for irrigation in area (b). (3) That an agreement be made between France and Great Britain regarding the commercial status of Alexandretta, and the construction of a railway connecting Bagdad with Alexandretta.
5. That Great Britain have the right to build, administer, and be sole owner of a railway connecting Haifa or Acre with area (b), and that Great Britain should have a perpetual right to transport troops 2. That in the blue area France, and in the red area along such a line at all times.
On the same day, Nicolson circulated copies of the memorandum to Holderness, Brigadier-General George Macdonogh, director of military intelligence (DMI), and Captain Hall, director of the intelligence division (DID) at the Admiralty. In his covering letter he stated that, although ‘of course the agreement merely represents the personal views of Sir Mark Sykes and M. Picot’, he believed that it presented ‘a fair solution of the problem’.²⁹ Only the India Office agreed with Nicolson’s conclusion. The loss of Mosul would clearly be ‘a serious sacrifice for us’, but, on the other hand, it would force the French ‘to be very accommodating elsewhere, e.g. Haifa’. The India Office should like to see some modifications in the proposed terms, but on the whole the memorandum, as Hirtzel noted, ‘represents a considerable abatement on M. Picot’s original claim, and we are under a great obligation to Sir Mark Sykes’.³⁰ Macdonogh and Hall were considerably more critical. They accepted that an early settlement of the Arab question was important to prevent a jihad, but questioned the assumption that an agreement with France had to be reached first, before the Arabs could be dealt with. Macdonogh argued that:
To me it appears that the one point of importance is to get the Arabs in on our side as early as possible. I would therefore, suggest that all that is necessary at the moment is that we should be in a position to inform the Sheikh what are the approximate limits of the country which we and the French propose to let him rule over. This may involve an agreement as to the respective British and French spheres of influence in that district, but I hope that its discussion will not be allowed to delay the settlement of the main question.³¹
Hall, for his part, doubted whether it was ‘necessary to have some agreement with the French about Syria and Mesopotamia, in order that such action may be taken as may avert a combination between the Turco–German forces and the Arabs, the result of which would produce something like a serious general Moslem jehad against us’. According to the DID, ‘action, which will convince the Arabs of our effective power, is very necessary’. In- deed, ‘force is the best Arab propaganda’, and it was therefore very desirable that a concerted naval or military action be undertaken that would ‘result in cutting off the Arabs from the Turks by an occupying force and so screening the former’, but precisely ‘no such action on the part of the French, or on our part with their good-will and furtherance is a term of the agreement’. The proposed agreement was moreover unsatisfactory considering the assurances Hussein had asked for:
(a) That the Arabs shall not be deserted by the Allies in any peace which may be made; and
(b) That all territories properly considered as inhabited by Arabs shall (with certain exceptions) be part of an independent Arab State, guaranteed by the Allies. He does not appear ever to have been willing to exclude Syria, and more especially the Arab centre of Beirout, from the Arab State.
Further, he and other Arab leaders in touch with the British have, on several occasions expressed themselves very emphatically against their being placed under any obligation to accept French advisers locally, whereas they stated that they were prepared to welcome British.
These considerations led Hall to the conclusion that ‘the only advantage’ of the proposed agreement that ‘would at present be gained seems to me the possibility of giving definiteness to the assurances which would in them- selves be unsatisfactory’.³² Finally, both Macdonogh and Hall could not help thinking that, as the former put it, ‘we are rather in the position of the hunters who divided up the skin of the bear before they had killed it’.³³ Pending Picot’s return from Paris, the observations by Hirtzel, Macdonogh and Hall drew no comments from Grey or his officials.
On 16 January 1916, Sykes informed the Foreign Office that he had spoken to Picot, and that the latter had informed him that ‘at Paris he had much difficulty, but that he believed that it would be possible to come to an agreement on the lines of the memorandum’.³⁴ Nicolson convened a further meeting of the interdepartmental committee on 21 January. During that meeting, ‘the criticisms of the various Departments on the Sykes-Picot Memorandum were considered and no insurmountable difficulty to the scheme was put forward in any of them’. Nicolson impressed upon the other delegates that it was ‘essential to take France in our confidence before we embarked on final negotiations with the Arabs’, and it was again laid down that ‘if the Arab scheme fails the whole scheme will also fail and the French and British governments would then be free to make any new claims’. Sykes was authorized to inform Picot of the results of the meeting, as well as that ‘H.M.G. would feel compelled to consult the Russian government after agreement with the French’ on the northern frontier of the blue area.
As a result of this meeting, the Foreign Office drew up a draft agreement. Its conditional character was emphasized by adding a preamble stating that ‘should the negotiations with the Grand Shereef of Mecca fail to secure the active cooperation of the Arabs on the side of the Allies the whole proposals in regard to all spheres whether of administration or of influence will lapse automatically’. The India Office and the DMI concurred with the draft agreement. Holderness commented that it was ‘in accordance with the conclusions reached by the Committee on Friday’, while Macdonogh ‘quite agree[d] with its contents’. Hall, however, protested anew against the absence of a ‘stipulation for French cooperation in, or consent to, any concerted plan of action against the Germans and Turks as a condition of the agreement’.³⁵
The Foreign Office completed the final draft on 2 February. It was circulated to the Cabinet that same evening, with a covering letter in which Nicolson explained the reasons for negotiating this agreement with France. It had been ‘found at the outset impossible to discuss the northern limits of the future Arab State or Arab Confederation, unless the French desiderata in Syria were also examined, as M. Picot was unable to separate the two questions’. Eventually, it had been agreed that ‘the four towns of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Damascus will be included in the Arab State or Confederation, though in the area where the French will have priority of enterprise, etc’. Nicolson did not fail to point out that the preamble was intended to lay down ‘with sufficient precision’ that ‘the proposals in regard to the Blue area, as well as the Red area are contingent on the fulfilment of certain essential conditions’, and that Russia should be given full opportunity to have a say in the final settlement of the question.³⁶
The War Committee considered the matter the following day. It was decided on the suggestion of Sir Ed- ward that ‘the whole Arab Question should be discussed at a meeting between Mr Bonar Law [the secretary of state for the colonies; R.H.L.], Mr Chamberlain, and Lord Kitchener, and that the French should be informed if we agreed to their proposals’.³⁷ This meeting took place the next day. Crewe and Nicolson were present, as well as Holderness and Hirtzel; ‘a representative of the Admiralty was also present, but was not in a position to give an opinion on the merits of the scheme’. Those who were decided that:
M. Picot may inform his government that the acceptance of the whole project would entail the abdication of considerable British interests, but provided that the cooperation of the Arabs is secured, and that the Arabs fulfil the conditions and obtain the towns of Homs, Hama, Damascus and Aleppo, the British government would not object to the arrangement. But, as the Blue Area extends so far eastwards, and affects Russian interests, it would be absolutely essential that, before anything was concluded, the consent of Russia was obtained.
On the evening of 4 February, Sir Arthur informed Georges-Picot of the British decision. He minuted afterwards that he had laid ‘emphatic stress on the absolute necessity of nothing whatever being considered settled until the Russian consent had been obtained – and […] that we should say nothing to the Arabs until that consent has been obtained’.³⁸ Five days later, Cambon told Nicolson that ‘the French government are in accord with the proposals concerning the Arab question’.³⁹ Sykes and Picot were entrusted with the task to inform the Russian authorities of the contents of the agreement.
The Arab Question Becomes a Regular Quicksand
Foreign Office officials had little time to savour the successful conclusion of the negotiations with the French on the Arab question. On 5 February, Oliphant and Nicolson occupied themselves with Hussein’s reply to McMahon’s letter of 14 December 1915 (see section ‘Georges-Picot’s Opening Bid and McMahon’s Third Letter’, above). This letter, dated 1 January 1916, had been received by the Foreign Office on 2 February. The high commissioner had declared in a telegram of 26 January that the letter was ‘of friendly and satisfactory nature’,⁴⁰ but after they had studied it both Oliphant and Nicolson disagreed. The former minuted that he could not ‘regard the Sherif’s letter as very satisfactory, though it is at least outspoken and frank’, while the latter observed that he did not:
Consider this letter at all satisfactory as regards the Sherif’s remarks respecting the French and I wish in his telegram […] Sir H. McMahon had given us some indication of this – He made no mention of the northern parts in his telegram – and we have had to believe that the Shereef had not taken serious notice of them while on the contrary he employs rather ominous language in regard to them.
About the Emir’s position on these ‘northern parts,' McMahon explained in his covering dispatch that:
Satisfactory as it may be to note his general acceptance for the time being of the proposed relations of France with Arabia, his reference to the future of those relations adumbrates a source of trouble which it will be wise not to ignore.
I have on more than one occasion brought to the notice of His Majesty’s Government the deep antipathy with which the Arabs regard the prospect of French Administration of any portion of Arab territory. In this lies considerable danger to our future relations with France, because difficult and even impossible though it may be to convince France of her mistake, if we do not endeavour to do so by warning her of the real state of Arab feeling, we may hereafter be accused of instigating or encouraging the opposition to the French, which the Arabs now threaten and will assuredly give.⁴¹
McMahon’s observations reflected Clayton’s anxieties, which the latter had voiced in two letters to Wingate. The Sudan agent considered ‘the Sherif’s answer […] on the whole satisfactory’, but taken together with the results of the second meeting with Picot on 21 December, he feared that the British could not go on ‘negotiating much longer, without laying ourselves open to a charge of breach of faith, unless we honestly tell the Arabs that we have made Syria over to the French’. A problem that was the more important since:
Some of our Syrian friends seem to have an inkling that we have handed Syria over to the French and I foresee some trouble. The time has nearly arrived when we shall have to tell them so straight out and hand them over to the French to settle with – other- wise we shall risk giving rise to the very friction with France that we have sacrificed so much to avoid.⁴²
Wingate was more optimistic. According to him the results of the meeting were: On the whole not quite so unsatisfactory as I had expected, and I think I see in the general trend of the discussion, the possibility of coming to an arrangement which may satisfy all parties – indeed I do not see that even if French demands are conceded in their entirety, that we can be accused of any serious breach of faith – it is true the Arabs will not get all they wanted, but they will achieve a great deal and in any circumstances, I should think that further discussions will result in a certain modification of the French demand.⁴³
However, Clayton, in a further letter, confessed that he did not ‘share these hopes’. He enclosed copies of McMahon’s covering dispatch with Hussein’s fourth letter, and the reply the latter intended to send ‘without waiting for formal approval’. Clayton explained that it had not been an easy assignment ‘having only a couple of hours to do it in, and [having] to steer clear of the various quicksands and yet to say something which would satisfy the Sherif’.⁴⁴ Clayton could have spared himself the trouble as far as Grey was concerned. To him, the Arab question already was ‘a regular quicksand’.⁴⁵
Cambon was rather more sanguine. In view of McMahon’s suggestion to warn the French ‘of the real state of Arab feeling’, the India Office had expressed the desire that the Foreign Office should do so. Of course, it was ‘not unlikely that they will not take the statement seriously. But Mr Chamberlain apprehends that His Majesty’s Government may hereafter be under some suspicion of bad faith if, with the information before them, they allow the negotiations to proceed without warning the other party.’ Grey had consequently instructed the department to mention the matter to Cambon.⁴⁶ As the India Office had predicted, the latter did not take the matter very seriously. He cheerfully remarked to Nicolson that ‘the Shereef would not be an Arab if he did not say something of that kind’.⁴⁷
Sykes, meanwhile, acted as advisor to the British ambassador at Petrograd, Sir George Buchanan, during the latter’s negotiations on the frontiers of the blue area with the Russian minister for foreign affairs, Sazonov, and the French ambassador, Paléologue, who was assisted by Georges-Picot. Grey had observed in his instructions that Britain had ‘no desire whatever to urge the Russian government to make concessions in the districts which are of direct interest to them if they have any objections to doing so’.⁴⁸ Sazonov indeed objected. At the first meeting of the three parties he showed ‘very plainly he did not like extension of the blue area so far eastward’.⁴⁹ However, a compromise was reached within two days, to the effect that the most eastern part of the blue area would become part of the area under direct Russian administration, while France would be compensated for the loss of this region ‘by enlarging her blue area to the north of Marash’.⁵⁰
On 17 March, Buchanan telegraphed that the Russian government had decided to accept the compromise.⁵¹ At a meeting of the War Committee six days later, it appeared that Balfour, Kitchener and Asquith objected to the proposed scheme, albeit on different grounds. Each time, Grey tried to neutralise their objections by emphasising that ‘the whole arrangement was provisional on the Arabs coming in. Unless they did, there would be no break up of Asia Minor,’ and that, accordingly, ‘he thought that nothing would come of all this, [and] Asia Minor would never be divided’.⁵² Eventually, it was decided that ‘His Majesty’s Government would raise no objections to the proposed arrangement between France and Russia’.⁵³
Despite this progress, negotiations again could not be brought to a conclusion. Fresh problems arose with respect to ‘all concessions for railway construction and other advantages such as religious missions granted to the French by the Turks in any territory that Russia may acquire’.⁵⁴ The result was that, on 3 April 1916, 171 days after Maxwell had telegraphed that ‘time is of the greatest importance, and that unless we make definite and agreeable proposal to the Shereef at once, we may have a united Islam against us’, and 110 days after Sykes had testified before the War Committee that ‘the question is very urgent: it is important that a decision should be given quickly. Every day that we delay we lose more and more Arabs from our side,’ Buchanan still had to impress on Sazonov the importance of a speedy conclusion of the negotiations in order that Britain would be ‘able to clinch matters with Arabs at once’.⁵⁵
Sir Mark had indicated some weeks before that two potential dangers threatened the Arab revolt:
‘1. Peninsula nomads moving before intellectual Syrians are prepared and scheme failing through want of organisation.
2. Of intellectual Syrians failing to combine with intellectual Mosul and Irak Arabs to join in movement owing to doubt as to our designs on Irak’. With respect to the latter, Sykes had suggested sending ‘Arab and Kurd officers now Turkish prisoners of war in India to Egypt and letting Colonel Clayton sound those committed to Arab cause and select best to work with Masri and Faruki’. Although Oliphant had minuted that he could not ‘conceal my scepticism as to the success of the scheme’, Sykes’s telegram had been repeated to Cairo. The next day, yet an- other telegram had been sent to McMahon, in which he had been informed that ‘no action whatever should be taken on it’ (i.e. Sykes’s telegram), but that the Foreign Office would ‘be glad of your observations on it’.⁵⁶ McMahon considered it wiser to send Aziz Ali and Faruqi to Mesopotamia and there to get in touch with ‘the Arab element in the Turkish Army’. There was, however, the problem that they:
Demand for themselves and Arab military element whom they would have to approach some definite assurance of British policy towards Arabia. They consider this essential to the success of any effort to win over Arab element in the Army.
They would be tolerably content with the assurances already given to the Shereef. Their tendency at present is to demand less from us with regard to Mesopotamia than would have been acceptable before.
Oliphant supported McMahon’s ‘suggestion that these two men should go’. Grey and Kitchener, too, were in favour of the proposal. Together they drafted – ‘at the Cabinet this morning’ – a telegram in which the high commissioner was authorised, provided Clayton did not object, to send Faruqi and Aziz Ali to Mesopotamia. They also gave Sir Henry permission ‘to give assurances, if necessary, but you should be very careful not to exceed in any way the limits of the assurances already given to the Shereef’.⁵⁷
Copies of both telegrams were forwarded to the India Office. Chamberlain was not amused. The India Office drew the Foreign Office’s attention to Husayn’s letter of July 1915, in which the Emir:
Purported to speak for the ‘Arab Kingdom of the Shereef’, while in that of 1st January he expressly stated that his procedure was not personal, but the result of the decisions and desires of his peoples of which he was only the transmitter and executant. There is no clear evidence as to how far this claim accords with facts, but it has not, so far as Mr Chamberlain is aware, been questioned by His Majesty’s Government. If the claim is well founded, it is a point for consideration whether independent assurances should be given to other, and ex hypothesi less responsible Arabs.
Oliphant minuted that the telegram to Sir Henry ‘was not a departmental draft,' and proceeded to draft a telegram in the sense of the India Office letter. Nicolson was clearly embarrassed by the letter, although he ‘understood that Sir E. Grey and Lord Kitchener consulted M. Chamberlain before the telegram was despatched’. He admitted that there was ‘a good deal of force in the concluding remarks of the I.O. letter’, but the text of Oliphant’s draft ‘rather clashes with the telegram sent in 54229 [the one drawn up by Grey and Kitchener; R.H.L.] – and would possibly confuse Sir H. McMahon’.⁵⁸
Two days later, the Foreign Office received another letter from the India Office, enclosing a telegram from General Sir Percy Lake, GOC-in-C, Force ‘D’. The latter was opposed to McMahon’s suggestion. It was:
Not considered possible that either of the above individuals could themselves pass over from occupied territory to the sphere of the Turkish troops op- posed to us on the Tigris or Euphrates, or could be of any practical use to us if they did. From the political standpoint it appears to us that their political views and schemes are much too advanced to be safe pabula for the communities of occupied territories and their presence in any of the towns of Irak would be in our opinion undesirable and inconvenient.⁵⁹
Lake’s telegram had been repeated to Cairo and McMahon promptly reacted. He explained that ‘it was not intended that Al Masri and others should pass over to Turkish lines’. All that had been envisaged was that ‘presence of one or two prominent and carefully selected members of the Arab party in our ranks would afford Arab elements in Turkish army much required guarantee of our unity of interest and good faith’. He moreover warned that the decision not to send Aziz Ali and Faruqi would:
Produce disappointment and rumours of danger being ascribed either to our mistrust in their loyalty, or to our unwillingness, if not inability, to carry out our assurances, and this may not be without effect on Shereef. An impression is gained that there is visible limit to the patience of those in whom we have raised feelings of expectation nor is it possible to guarantee that present favourable attitude of certain individuals can be counted on later.
McMahon, therefore, trusted that he might ‘continue to give all guarantees short of definite action and within the limits approved by you to those who have now committed their destinies to us.'
This telegram induced Chamberlain to compose a very biting memorandum:
I do not find this telegram very easy to understand.
The decision to which it refers is that El Faruki and El-Masri should proceed to Mesopotamia. As it now appears that Sir H. McMahon never contemplated that they should pass over to the Turkish lines (as was supposed here), it is not clear of what use he thought they could be. It is not believed that either of them have any influence in Irak. How is ‘practical use’ to be made of them?
‘An impression is gained’, Sir Henry telegraphs, ‘that there is visible limit to the patience of those in whom we have raised feelings of expectation’. This is the severest criticism I have seen of Sir H. McMahon’s policy. He raised the expectations. We have given assurances by his mouth much wider than we at home intended: We have given money and arms and promised more. The Sherif has done nothing, and we are now to be told by Sir H. McMahon that it is we who fail to fulfil the expectations we have raised! Will Sir Henry ever realise that there are two sides to a bargain and that the Shereef has his part to play and that it is now ‘up to’ him the Shereef to make the next move?
What does he mean by ‘continuing to give all guarantees short of definitive action?’ He has given guarantees as already stated in excess of our intentions. He safeguarded French freedom of action in Syria but not ours in Mesopotamia. But by his declarations we hold ourselves bound and there has been no suggestion that we should recede from them. If he only desires to repeat himself, he has authority to do so, but does he mean that he is to give further assurances, and if so what? I am very uneasy about the whole handling of the question by Egypt.
Grey’s reaction to Chamberlain’s complaint was very characteristic. He did not enter into a discussion on the merits of the latter’s arguments. He confined himself to a brief note to Nicolson:
You will see what Mr Chamberlain says. I am disposed simply to telegraph to Sir H. McMahon that I do not understand his difficulty about assurances that he can repeat assurances already given but must not go beyond them, that we are I believe giving arms and money and the sole question is whether and when the Arabs will do their part.
A telegram in this sense was dispatched to Cairo on 5 April 1916.⁶⁰
Sykes, the man whose suggestion had started this controversy, had in the meantime returned to London.
There he set himself to solving the problem that according to McMahon constituted the biggest threat to a satisfactory solution to the Arab question, ‘the deep antipathy with which the Arabs regard the prospect of French administration of any portion of Arab territory’. In a telegram sent from Petrograd on 16 March, Sykes had already declared that ‘with regard to Arabs our greatest danger lies in their falling out with the French’, but that ‘if I can get Picot and Faroki or Aziz Ali into a room together, I believe I can manage to patch up a bargain between them’. He had therefore advised:
Get El Masri or Faruki or both to London where I could enter into formal discussion with them and when ground was prepared bring them into contact with Picot. I suggest this as I fear French and Arab discussions in Cairo leading to intrigues and quarrels and Picot would like this arrangement. If Arabs reach London April 7th, I believe by May 8th ground would be clear of Arab French question.⁶¹
In spite of this hopeful prospect, the Foreign Office had not acted on Sykes’s suggestion. This did not prevent Sir Mark from submitting to the Foreign Office a telegram to Clayton in which he asked the latter’s opinion on this scheme. After consultations with Macdonogh, the telegram was finally sent off on 14 April. Sykes first informed Clayton on the situation with respect to the Anglo– French–Russian negotiations in Petrograd, as well as the compromise that had been reached as to the limits of the blue area, and continued:
The crux of the difficulty is that at present French theoretically concede no outlet to Arab State on Syrian littoral. They intend to negotiate this point with Arabs themselves. Negotiations on this point through any medium in Cairo will precipitate the Maronite versus Anglophil controversy. In my mind it is essential that French should have become practical before Picot goes to Egypt. I advise therefore following procedure which I have got Picots approval of, i.e. that you send here to London 2 Arab officers representative of intellectual Syrian Moslem Arab mind, that when I have got their point of view that I compare it with Picots, that when Picot has been got into right frame of mind I bring them together and they have informal talk, Picot then gets Paris to make concession of principle of Arab State outlet on Syrian littoral in the form of Aide-Memoire to H.M.G. […] Objection was taken to this procedure in London on ground that Arab officers would not be representative and that negotiations would be being conducted in two places at once. I wish to make it clear that suggestion is not to negotiate but to examine, and that official status of Arab officers is not important as long as they are mentally representative.⁶²
Unfortunately for Sykes, Clayton was opposed to the scheme. However much he agreed with Sir Mark that Pi- cot’s presence in Egypt would be undesirable at the present juncture, he did not see how ‘presence in London of any Arab officers with whom we are at present in touch would in any way assist you.' According to Clayton, it would moreover ‘be most impolitic to raise now with Arabs Syrian question which is quiescent for the momeant. To do so would, I am convinced, be contrary to interests both of ourselves and French, who have everything to gain by delay.’
There was the added problem that at the moment there seemed to take place a ‘certain rapprochement’ between the Arabs and the Turkish opposition (the ‘Turkish decentralisation parties’, as Clayton called them) – a development that McMahon would explain in a further telegram – and this meant that ‘an attractive offer by such Turkish parties would be in serious competition to any proposals Allies can put forward’. Against this back- ground, Clayton also did not think it very advisable to disclose the results of the Anglo–French–Russian negotiations on the future of the Ottoman Empire. Of course:
Any agreement on main principles between Allies is all to the good, but to divulge it at present and to insist on any particular programme would I am convinced be to raise considerable feeling, to strengthen Arab-Turkish rapprochement, and possibly to affect injuriously political and military situation of Allies in Turkey at a moment when true attitude of Arabs is not quite clear.⁶³
As Clayton’s telegram was addressed to Sykes, Foreign Office officials did not comment on it, but they did, and in very strong terms, comment on McMahon’s telegram when it arrived two days later. The high commissioner repeated Clayton’s objections to raising the Syrian question at the present moment. He also confessed that he was ‘unaware whether proposals outlined by Sir M. Sykes have received the approval of three governments concerned or whether they are merely suggestions as a result of his and Picot’s conversations in Petrograd’. McMahon hoped that the latter was the case, as there were indications that ‘Turkish parties in opposition to Committee of Union and Progress are already considering peace terms which, in certain circumstances, it might suit the Allies to consider’. The Petrograd compromise moreover appeared ‘to ignore existence of Turkey and necessity, under any circumstances of providing an adequate home for remnants of that nation if defeated’.
In their minutes, Oliphant and Nicolson gave vent to their feelings of frustration with the manner in which the Arab question developed. Oliphant’s minute could have been written by Hirtzel or Chamberlain: I venture to think that this telegram is by no means satisfactory. It shows that there is considerable confusion in Sir H. McMahon’s mind and that matters are merely drifting […]
1.To state that the future of the Turks is ignored is erroneous […] The Vilayets of Brusa, Smyrna, Angora, Konia, Kustammi and Eskisher – an area as large as France and the only districts inhabited by an Ottoman Turk majority are not touched by the agreement in question, which were from the outset drafted on the basis of ethnographic interests.
2. The arrangements were devised to fall in with Turkish liberal views if the Turkish liberals are strong enough to oust the C.U.P. Obviously the Turkish liberals if in power, would have to approach Russia in the final in- stance. As regards Turkish parties we know Sherif Pasha and Saba ed Din are in Paris and some may be in Egypt [Sherif Pasha and Prince Sabah-al-Din acted as spokesmen for the Turkish opposition; R.H.L.]. But Enver is in Constantinople and the Sherif in Mecca.
It seemed to Nicolson that there was no end to fresh complications. He minuted that he was ‘afraid that the whole subject is becoming entangled’, and that at the very moment that ‘we, Russia and France are now quite clear and in accord as to our interests and aspirations in the Ottoman Empire’. As far as the proposals of the Turkish opposition were concerned, these were ‘merely empty talk’. The permanent under-secretary concluded that the Foreign Office should ‘let Sir H. McMahon fully know the present position and our arrangements with Russia and France as regards Asiatic Turkey and also inform him of our attitude towards the irresponsible and unofficial overtures made to us by Prince Sabadeddin and others’. Crewe agreed, and a telegram in the sense of Oliphant’s and Nicolson’s minutes was sent to Cairo on 27 April.⁶⁴
In his reply of 4 May, McMahon voiced his disappointment with the Foreign Office attitude towards the Turkish ‘liberal and anti-committee parties’, especially as the ‘situation as far as we can gauge it here, does not yet appear one in which we can afford to disregard potential value of this disintegrating factor in Turkey’. He also observed that:
Although there is nothing in arrangement agreed on between France and Russia and ourselves as defined in your telegram that conflicts with any agreements made with or assurances given to Shereef and other Arab parties, I am of opinion it would be better if possible not to divulge details of that arrangement to Arab parties at present.
Moment has not yet arrived when we can safely do so without some risk of possible misinterpretation by Arabs.
Grey personally drafted a telegram to Cairo in which he agreed that ‘details of arrangement should not be divulged’.⁶⁵
In his minute on Sir Henry’s telegram of 22 April, Oliphant had also submitted that in order:
To avoid further confusion […] a meeting between Sir M. Sykes, M. Picot, and Col. Clayton would be helpful not in Egypt as M. Picot’s presence there is obviously inopportune. But perhaps at Rome or even Paris: at any rate somewhere within reach of London.
So that eventually decision can be derived at here, and the details worked out at Cairo.⁶⁶
On 3 May, Clerk reported that Sykes was in favor of a meeting between him, Picot and Clayton, perhaps at Paris. Nicolson saw no objection, but Kitchener doubted whether Clayton could be spared from Egypt.⁶⁷ This seemed to be the end of Oliphant’s suggestion, but in a memorandum on a conversation with Georges-Picot, who had returned from Russia, Sykes again raised the subject. He reported that the French and Russian governments had settled their part of the arrangement on the Middle East by means of a mutual exchange of letters be- tween Paléologue and Sazonov, and that the French government wished that Grey and Cambon should follow the same procedure. Sykes urged the importance of an early exchange of these letters, also because ‘exchange of notes is an essential prelude to a conference between M. Georges-Picot and Colonel Clayton on Franco–British Arab policy. Such a conference M. Georges-Picot earnestly desires.’⁶⁸
In spite of Sykes’s plea for a speedy settlement, an exchange of letters between Grey and Cambon did not take place immediately. Grey first wanted to make sure whether the French were fully aware of ‘the point of its being conditional upon action taken by the Arabs’. During an interview with Grey, Cambon assured him that ‘it was well understood that it was dependent upon an agreement with the Sherif of Mecca and that this provisional character was already in writing’.⁶⁹ There was also the point whether or not the French government, in those areas that would ‘become entirely French, or in which French interests are recognised as predominant’, would respect ‘any existing British concessions, rights of navigation or development, and the rights and privileges of any British religious, scholastic or medical institutions’. A letter to this effect was sent to the French ambassador on 15 May. In his reply, which reached the Foreign Office the following day, Cambon confirmed that France would maintain existing British rights, privileges, and concessions, whereupon Grey dispatched a letter to the French ambassador that same day that contained the terms of what would go down in history as the Sykes– Picot agreement.⁷⁰
Now that this obstacle was out of the way, Clerk once again pressed for a meeting between Picot, Sykes and Clayton ‘as soon as possible’.⁷¹ McMahon was not averse to the proposed conference, but found it ‘extremely inconvenient to General Clayton until the return of members of Arab Bureau and Storrs which should be in ten days time.' It was also ‘desirable that Clayton should be able to take home “first hand” information with regard to result of their mission’.⁷²
Ronald Storrs, accompanied by Captain Kinahan Cornwallis and Commander David Hogarth, had left Cairo for the Hijaz. The object of their mission was to meet Abdullah, at the latter’s request. However, Abdullah was unable to make it to the rendezvous. On 6 June 1916, the British delegation instead spoke with Zeid, the youngest of Husayn’s sons. In his report, Hogarth observed that the British delegates had feared that ‘the substitution of Zeid for Abdullah had rendered it unlikely that […] we should be in a position to appreciate the actual situation and future policy of the Sherif’,⁷³ but they were in for a surprise. Zeid informed the British delegation that the day before, Ali and Feysal, Husayn’s two other sons, had started hostilities against the Turkish garrison at Medina. The revolt of Sharif Husayn, Emir of Mecca, against his Turkish masters had begun.
Preliminaries to Sharif Hussein’s Revolt
It was not so much the fact that Hussein revolted that came as a surprise to the British authorities at Cairo and Khartoum, as the moment he chose to do so. On 16 February 1916, Hussein had sent a letter to McMahon in which he not only unfolded his plan of action but also asked for arms and money. Oliphant and Nicolson hesitated to grant these demands, because, as Oliphant argued, to do so might lead the Emir to think that Great Britain considered herself to be definitely committed to him. Sir Arthur agreed. He was:
Anxious lest the Shereef should consider by our sending him the additional £20,000 he may regard his agreement with us as definitely concluded, and that we are bound to meet all his desiderata. I consider that Sir H. McMahon should make it quite clear to the Shereef that we are providing him with the sums for which he has asked as an evidence of our friendly feelings towards him and that we let him know later when we consider that the opportune moment has arrived for his taking [undecipherable; R.H.L.] action as will lead to the revolt of the Arabs against Turkish rule – and which will result in the discomfiture of the Ottoman Empire in the regions where Arab interests are predominant and where it is desired to establish Arab independence – we should telegraph Sir H. McMahon in above sense.
Lord Kitchener might be shown this before it is dispatched – and I.O. concurrence obtained.
Neither Chamberlain nor Kitchener had a good word to say for the proposed telegram. The former scathingly minuted:
I have not thought it very probable that the Grand Sheriff would take any definite action, Sir H. McMahon seemed to me to have succeeded in giving him the impression than we were in much more need of him than he of us.
However, now the unexpected happens. The Sheriff declares that the time for action has come – and we propose to wet blanket his enthusiasm! Subject to military opinion […] I should pay the money and encourage him to go ahead.
We have warned France that she must obtain the acquiescence of Russia. We have warned the Sheriff that we cannot speak for our allies. What more has either of them a right to expect from us and why should we discourage a potential ally?
I am not sure of the Sheriff’s good faith, but at least we can now test it by taking him at his word.
Kitchener concurred. He had ‘no idea there would be any hesitation in paying the money and accepting the Sherif’s proposed help. I hope the proposed telegram may be modified and sent without delay.’ Nicolson rather timidly minuted that ‘in view of their opinion, I am afraid that we can only telegraph to Sir H. McMahon to send the money and accept the Sherif’s proposals’. A telegram in this sense was dispatched the same day.⁷⁴
Wingate regarded this telegram as a signal success, witness his letter to McMahon of 17 March in which he confirmed the receipt of the latter’s telegram:
Giving me the welcome news that the British government has finally approved of the Sherif’s demands and that everything is ‘en train’ […] I am full of hope that the Arab Policy which we initiated so long ago is really going to materialise. Of course there is naturally some risk that things may not go quite as we hope and expect they will, but in this, as in most operations of the sort, it is a case of ‘Nothing venture nothing have’ and in this matter especially I think the game is well worth the candle.⁷⁵
McMahon reported in a telegram of 21 March that a messenger from Hussein had arrived at Port Sudan, carrying yet another letter. Cyril Wilson had telegraphed a summary to Cairo. On the basis of this summary, Sir Henry drew the conclusion that the ‘Shereef appears to have made up his mind definitively to side actively with us and his last two letters make no further reference to political matters so that he would seem to be satisfied with assurances we have given him and to require nothing further in this respect’, and that Hussein had decided that ‘rising will begin at end of coming Arabic month or at beginning of month after’. At the Foreign Office, this news impressed no one. Oliphant minuted that McMahon’s telegram struck him as ‘very optimistic’, while other officials, as well as Grey, merely initialed it.⁷⁶
On 24 May, Sir Henry sent a telegram to the Foreign Office in which he reported that ‘Storrs is urgently required by Abdullah Shereef’s son to meet him on Arabian coast. Shereef is asking for £50,000 and Abdullah for £10,000.’ He strongly recommended complying with these requests without delay ‘as (?matter) appears to have reached point at which we must not fail to give it every encouragement’. Clerk’s reaction showed that the various quicksands and entanglements that seemed to inhere in the Arab question had also not failed to make an impression on him. He minuted that ‘this may be encouraging, but there is another interpretation, which is that fair words cost nothing and are well worth £60,000’. He suggested:
To send Mr Storrs across at once to hear what Abdulla has to say; meanwhile collect the money at Port Sudan, and if Mr Storrs’ report is favourable, hand it over. Mr Storrs can always explain that it takes a little time to get £60,000 together, and that he has come across in advance, so as to lose no time.
It took five days before a telegram in this sense was sent to Cairo.⁷⁷ On the evening of 28 May, without waiting any longer for Foreign Office authorisation, Storrs, and his companions left for the Hijaz. McMahon telegraphed that day that ‘they will proceed to Port Soudan, pick up Sherif’s messenger and go to Hedjaz coast to meet Abdullah. They take £10,000 for latter but sending of £50,000 for Sherif must await your sanction’. The Foreign Office acquiesced to the high commissioner’s decision to send the £10,000, while the ‘payment of £50,000 to Sherif is sanctioned if there is a real rising’.⁷⁸
A telegram from McMahon transmitting Storrs’s report of his meeting with Zeid arrived in London on 9 June. It stated that ‘rising began yesterday [5 June 1916; R.H.L.] at Medina but all communications in Hedjaz are cut no news. Other towns to rise on Saturday.’ It was left to Sykes to comment upon this event. Just like the Foreign Office officials, he was rather wary. True, if Husayn’s revolt was successful, it constituted a serious threat to the central powers but, if it was not, then the repercussions for Britain would be very serious indeed. It seemed to him that, now that Husayn had burned his boats, Britain had no other option but to support him and ‘failure to support the movement adequately will be disastrous to our prestige such as it is and react to our permanent detriment in India, Egypt, and the Persian Gulf’.⁷⁹ That the chances of Husayn failing were very real became clear from a further telegram from McMahon. He informed the Foreign Office of his fear that ‘both in organisation and armament of forces too much has been left to the last moment and to luck’. Although Clerk considered this telegram ‘not altogether reassuring’, he nevertheless spotted a ray of hope, ‘we may remember that the Turks have often found it a heavy task to quell the Arabs when circumstances were much easier for the Porte’.⁸⁰
Nobody in the Foreign Office commented on the fact that Hussein had started his revolt without awaiting the results of the negotiations between Great Britain, France, and Russia, on the basis of which, as Nicolson had written to Hardinge on 16 February 1916, ‘we shall really have to come to some decision as to further conversations with the Grand Shereef’.⁸¹ The Emir of Mecca as yet was unaware of the agreement that, according to Grey and his officials, had to be concluded before the Arabs could again be approached on the conditions under which they would be prepared to revolt against their Turkish overlords.
The Arab Bureau
In the course of his mission to the Middle East, Sykes became convinced that, if Britain did not want to lose the war, then it was of vital importance that the activities of the various agencies involved in the Middle East be coordinated. As he formulated it in a speech to the House of Commons after his return, ‘if we muddle, if we go on muddling, and if we are content to allow muddling, it will not be a question of a draw, but the War will be lost’.⁸² After his visit to Aden in July 1915, Sykes reported to Caldwell that he was greatly worried about ‘the want of co-ordination in our Arabian policy’. He was ‘well aware of the departmental difficulties which lie in the way, but at the present moment the necessity of co-ordination is of great importance especially in view of the fact that our enemy is working […] from one centre of political and military influence’.⁸³ He also voiced his worries in a private letter to Clerk:
We live in watertight compartments, if we are to do any good we should have a special committee with one F.O. and one Government of India Representative under a person of grasp, that is a committee of 3, established in Cairo charged with running anti- Jehad policy – working all the Anglophil influences and anti-C.U.P. and revolutionary influences and formulating a policy and working it, not merely reporting […] there must be organisation and coordination.⁸⁴
On his way back from Mesopotamia, Sykes wrote a long private letter on the subject to Lord Robert Cecil, the parliamentary undersecretary of state for foreign affairs. He explained that:
The thing which remains first and last in my mind, in fact is ever present, is the want of co-ordination which runs through the whole of our organisation between the Balkans and Basra – which is opposed to the German scheme of things which is highly coordinated, though evidently well decentralised. Thus in Afghanistan, Persia, Mesopotamia, Southern Arabia, the Balkans, and Egypt you find the [undecipherable; R.H.L.] committee machine working armies, agents, and policies with one definite purpose in accordance with a general plan, our opposition to this consists of different parties putting up a local offensive or defensive on almost independent lines, and quite oblivious of what the others are doing. This let me say is no fault of any individual but the result of our traditional way of letting various officers run their own shows, which was all right in the past when each sector dealt with varying problems which were not related, but is bad now that each sector is dealing in reality with a common enemy.
To counteract these centrifugal forces, Sir Mark suggested that:
It would be worth considering whether a new department under a secretary or under-secretary of state should not be started, this would be the department of the Near East and would be responsible for policy and administration of Egypt, Arabia, and Mesopotamia […] You will notice that the area I suggest is one in language and practically in race and its unification under one department would give the government of the day an engine to deal with the Arab situation both national, strategic, and economic, a personelle of side and intimate acquaintance with the problems, and consequently give English statesmen an opportunity of following a consistent line.⁸⁵
Sykes subsequently unfolded a much less ambitious scheme in a telegram to Callwell of 9 October. He reiterated that he was impressed by the necessity:
For the coordination of our policy in regard to the Ottoman Empire, Arabian people and the Mahometan opinion in the British Empire. A means of ameliorating the position which suggests itself to me would be to authorise me […] to complete my mission by establishing in Cairo a Bureau under your department which should receive copies of all telegrams giving available information regarding our enemies, Islamic propaganda and methods and effect thereof, as well as tendency of popular opinion, from intelligence and political officers in Mesopotamia, and Persian Gulf, Indian Criminal Investigation Department, Soudan Intelligence Department, Chief Intelligence Officer, Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, Intelligence Officer, Athens. I could then from time to time transmit to you for the use of the Cabinet a general appreciation. I suggest Egypt as the place for the Bureau owing to its central situation and the local touch with the Islamic world.
The Foreign Office received both Sykes’s private letter to Clerk and his telegram to Callwell on 12 October. Clerk considered Sir Mark’s scheme of a special committee under ‘a person of grasp’ a good suggestion, and Nicolson concurred – ‘the Bureau seems to me a good idea,' but they were of the opinion that this project could not usefully be discussed before Sykes returned to London.
For the moment, Clerk did no more than inform Hirtzel of Sykes’s idea.⁸⁶
Sykes also raised the subject of want of coordination in his statement before the War Committee on 16 December (see section ‘Enter Sir Mark Sykes’, above). Twelve days later, he informed Clayton on the way things were going with, as he now called it, the ‘Arab Bureau’. It seemed that:
We are confronted with a difficult problem. The W.O., F.O. and I.O. are slow and the Admiralty has barged in and seized me and the Bureau […] The Admiralty want to annex the Bureau as part of their immense network, and keep me in an office in London, they object to my organisation and say all that must be left to you, this is merely a cliché, but they refuse to transmit any suggestion of mine to you. The objection to the Admiralty is that it is discredited, with the more staid departments, and cannot carry the day where policy is involved. The merit of the Admiralty is that it alone achieves anything, has large funds and does things. Fitzgerald is of opinion that the Bureau should be nominally under the F.O. but in fact in close touch with the D.I.D. and able to use its codes, agents, and machinery. I have there- fore to try and pull this off but the difficulties are immense.⁸⁷
Sir Mark’s proposals on the constitution and functions of the Arab Bureau were discussed at an interdepartmental conference on 7 January 1916, with representatives of the Foreign Office, the War Office, the India Office and the Admiralty, as well as Sykes, being present. The participants agreed that the establishment of an Arab Bureau was desirable, and concurred with Sykes’s suggestions with respect to its functions:
The first function of the Bureau will be to harmonise British political activity in the Near East, and to keep the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Committee of Imperial Defence, the War Office, the Admiralty, and the Government of India simultaneously informed of the general tendency of Germano-Turkish policy.
The second function will be to coordinate propaganda in favour of Great Britain and the Entente among non-Indian Moslems without clashing with the susceptibilities of Indian Moslems and the Entente Powers.
The bureau, however, should not, as opposed to what Sykes had suggested, become a new, independent agency ‘nominally under the F.O.'. The DID had its way. It was decided that the Bureau ‘should be organized as a section of the existing Soudan Intelligence Department in Cairo, and that it should make its reports through the High Commissioner of Egypt to the Foreign Office’.⁸⁸ This implied that ‘Mark Sykes drops out’, as Hirtzel wrote to Grant of the Indian Foreign Department the same day.⁸⁹ This was quite a relief to Hardinge. He confessed to Nicolson that he had at first been opposed to the whole scheme, ‘because we considered that the composition was radically bad, for we have no faith in Mark Sykes […] Now that Colonel Clayton is to be head of the bureau, we accept the position gladly, and we intend to depute a really first class officer to represent Indian views.’⁹⁰
As far as the Government of India was concerned, matters were still not settled. They were anxious lest the first function of the Arab Bureau – to harmonize political activity in the Near East – gave the bureau too wide powers. The bureau’s functions should be confined to the collection and distribution of information for the benefit of the relevant departments, and a shared responsibility about propaganda. The viceroy, therefore, asked the India Office for assurance that ‘our political officers will not be called upon to act at dictation of bureau without consulting Government of India’. The India Office had no difficulty in giving it, and the Foreign Office concurred with the India Office’s suggested reply.⁹¹
The British Indian Expeditionary Force D
In the next three months, the Government of India succeeded in further and further reducing the Arab Bureau’s possible influence on developments in Mesopotamia. First, the India Office and the Foreign Office decided, at the suggestion of Sir Percy Lake, that with respect to ‘Arab propaganda in the East’, the Arab Bureau should do no more than to lay down principles, and that the GOC-in-C, Force ‘D’ ‘should be left to make his own arrangements as a matter of local detail’,⁹² while shortly afterwards, this time at the request of Sir Percy Cox, the Foreign Office and the India Office agreed that liaison officers sent to Mesopotamia by the Arab Bureau should not directly report to Cairo, but through Cox and Lake. As Hardinge explained to Chamberlain, it was only in this manner that co-ordination between the Arab Bureau and the political officers, Force ‘D,' could be secured.⁹³
By the end of May 1916, the Arab Bureau, instead of the ‘committee of 3, established in Cairo charged with formulating a policy and working it’ that Sykes had envisaged in September 1915, had pretty much turned into one of those ‘watertight compartments’ charged with ‘merely reporting’ that Sir Mark, by means of his proposals, had wanted to abolish.⁹⁴
1. Chamberlain to Hardings, private,25 November 1915, Hardinge Papers, Vol.121
2. Clerk’s minutes of meeting Nicholson committee with Georges-Picot, on 23 November 1915, and minute Nicholsen, 27 November 1915, FO 371/2486/181716.
3. Te.McMahon to Grey, no 736,30 November 1915, and minutes Clerk 1 December 1915, and Hirtzel, not dated, FO 371/2486/181834.
4. Nicholsen to Clerk, 10 December 1915, and te. Grey to McMahon, no.961, 10 December 1915, ibid, Without any explanation, Hirtzel’s modified proviso was not incorporated into the Foreign Office telegram. A copy of Sir Henry’s letter to Hussein arrived in London at the end of December. Chamberlain protested against the passage that was based on point 5 of McMahon’s telegram of 30 November. He wrote to Grey that:
Are we not getting into a great mess with these negotiations of McMahon? He has now informed the Grand Sheriff that ‘you may rest assured that Great Britain has no intention of concluding any peace in terms of which the freedom of the Arab peoples from Germany and ‘Turkish’ domination does not form an ‘essential condition’. Has he any authority for this pledge?
Chamberlain had apparently forgotten that Hirtzel had agreed to point 5, and that he himself had approved the text of Foreign Office telegram of 10 December 1915 (underlining in original), Grey Papers, FO 800/98.
5. McMahon to Hardinge, private, 4 December 1915, Hardinge Papers, vol. 94.
6. McMahon to Wingate, 8 December 1915, Wingate Papers, box 135/7.
7. Clayton, Note ‘C’, 8 December 1915, FO 882/2.
8. Tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 761, 11 December 1915, minutes Clerk, Nicolson and Crewe, 11 December 1915, and Asquith, 13 December 1915, FO 371/2486/189073.
9. Wingate to Maxwell, private, 9 December 1915, Wingate Papers, box 135/7, Wingate to Clayton, private, 10 December 1915, Clayton Papers, box 469/11, and Clayton to Wingate, private, 6 December 1915, Wingate Papers, box 135/7.
10. See Roger Adelson, Mark Sykes: Portrait of an Amateur (London, 1975: Jonathan Cape), pp. 36–9, 63–7, 95–6, 99–102, 108–16.
11. See Sykes to Arthur, private, 12 September 1916, Kitchener Papers, PRO 30/57/91.
12. Quoted in Adelson, Mark Sykes, p. 176.
13. Sykes to Arthur, private, 12 September 1916, Kitchener Papers, PRO 30/57/91.
14. Report of the Committee on Asiatic Turkey, pp. 2, 4 and 25, Cab 42/3/12.
15. M. Sykes to E. Sykes, 3 or 9 September 1915, quoted in Adelson, Mark Sykes, p. 190.
16. Lloyd to Clayton, private, 27 May 1916, FO 882/4, quoted in Briton Cooper Busch, Britain, India, and the Arabs, 1914–1921 (Berkeley, 1971: University of California Press), p. 70.
17. Arnold T. Wilson, Loyalties, Mesopotamia 1914– 1917 (London, 1930: Oxford University Press), p. 152.
18. Sykes to Callwell, no. 19, in tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 707, 20 November 1915, FO 371/2486/175418.
19. Sykes to Callwell, no. 18, in tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 706, 19 November 1915, FO 371/2486/ 174633.
20. Evidence of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Mark Sykes, Bart., M.P., on the Arab Question, Cab 42/6/10.
21. Secretary’s Notes of a Meeting of the War Committee, 16 December 1915, Cab 42/6/9.
22. Crewe to Bertie, private, 17 December 1915, and Bertie to Crewe, 21 December 1915 (italics in original), Cab 42/6/11.
23. See: Secretary Notes of a Meeting of the War Committee, 28 December 1915, Cab 42/6/14.
24. Lord Hankey, The Supreme Command, Vol. II (London, 1961: Allen and Unwin), p. 469.
25. Results of the third meeting of the Committee to discuss the Syrian question, 21 December 1915, FO 882/16.
26. Foreign Office Note, not dated, FO 371/2486/196223.
27. Nicolson to Hardinge, private, 30 December 1915, Nicolson Papers, FO 800/380.
28. Sykes to Clayton, 28 December 1915, FO 882/2.
29. Sykes and Georges-Picot, Memorandum, not dated, and Nicolson, covering letter, 5 January 1916, FO 371/2767/2522.
30. Hirtzel, Note, 10 January 1916, encl. in Holderness to Nicolson, 13 January 1916, FO 371/2767/8117.
31. Macdonogh to Nicolson, 6 January 1915, FO 371/2767/3851.
32. Hall, Memorandum on the Proposed Agreement with the French, not dated, encl. in Hall to Nicolson, 12 January 1916, FO 371/2767/8117.
33. Macdonogh to Nicolson, 6 January 1915, FO 371/ 2767/3851. In a letter to Hardinge, Nicolson also doubted whether the negotiations ‘will ever fructify into anything really definite’. He was personally convinced that Britain could not ‘possibly expect the Arabs to come over to our side unless we are in a position to furnish a considerable British force to give them some stiffening’. Without a British military intervention there was no ground for these negotiations, but such intervention was out of the question in view of the War Committee’s decision of 28 December. Why then continue these negotiations? Why this dividing of the bear’s skin before it had been killed? Indeed, why this dividing of the bear’s skin when proponents of the scheme were convinced that the killing would never take place? In the relevant papers I have not come across a clear-cut answer to these questions. Proponents of the scheme might have argued that in view of French susceptibilities it was necessary to reassure them as to British intentions, and that there was no harm in this exercise of dividing the bear’s skin, precisely because it was highly unlikely that the beast would ever be killed. This is also the explanation Curzon came up with during a meeting of the Eastern Committee at the beginning of December 1918: When the Sykes–Picot Agreement was drawn up it was, no doubt, intended by its authors […] as a sort of fancy sketch to suit a situation that had not then arisen, and which it was thought extremely unlikely would ever arise; and that, I suppose, must be the principal explanation of the gross ignorance with which the boundary lines in that Agreement were drawn. Nicolson to Hardinge, private, 16 February 1916, Nicolson Papers, FO 800/381, minutes Eastern Committee, 5 December 1918, Cab 27/24.
34. Sykes to Nicolson, 16 January 1916, FO 371/2767/11844.
35. Negotiations with the Arabs, 21 January 1916, and draft agreement, not dated, Holderness to Nicolson, 23 January 1916, Macdonogh to Nicolson, 24 January 1915 and Hall to Nicolson 23 January 1915, FO 371/2767/14106.
36. Nicolson to Grey, 2 February 1916, FO 371/2767/23579.
37. Secretary’s Notes of a Meeting of the War Committee, 3 February 1916, Cab 42/8/1.
38. Note, Arab question, 4 February 1916, and Nicolson to Grey, 4 February 1916, FO 371/2767/26444.
39. Nicolson to Grey, 9 February 1916, FO 371/2767/28234.
40. Tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 70, 26 January 1916, FO 371/2771/16451, quoted in Elie Kedourie, In the Anglo–Arab Labyrinth (Cambridge, 1976: Cambridge University Press), p. 119.
41. McMahon to Grey, no. 16, 24 January 1916, minutes Oliphant, 4 February 1916, and Nicolson, 5 February 1916, FO 371/2767/20954.
42. Clayton to Wingate, private, 14 January 1916, and Clayton to Wingate, private, 17 January 1916, Wingate Papers, box 136/1.
43. Wingate to Clayton, private, 20 January 1916, Clayton Papers, box 470/1
44. Clayton to Wingate, private, 28 January 1916, Wingate Papers, box 136/1.
45. Minute Grey, not dated, on McMahon to Grey, no. 16, 24 January 1916, FO 371/2767/20954.
46. I.O. to F.O., no. P. 621, 28 February 1916, minute Grey, not dated, FO 371/2767/39490.
47. Nicolson to Grey, 2 March 1916, FO 371/2767/40645.
48. Grey to Buchanan, no. 36, 23 February 1916, FO 371/2767/35529.
49.Tel. Buchanan to Grey, no. 345, 10 March 1916, FO 371/ 2767/47088.
50.Tel. Buchanan to Grey, no. 351, 12 March 1916, FO 371/2767/47950.
51. See tel. Buchanan to Grey, no. 382, 17 March 1916, FO 371/2767/51736.
52. Secretary’s Notes of a Meeting of the War Committee, 23 March 1916, Cab 42/11/9.
53. Draft Conclusions of a Meeting of the War Committee, 23 March 1916, FO 371/2768/57783.
54. Tel. Buchanan to Grey, no. 435, 27 March 1916, FO 371/2768/58401.
55. Tel. Buchanan to Grey, no. 471, 3 April 1916, FO 371/2768/63342.
56. Tel. Buchanan to Grey, no. 355, 13 March 1916, minute Oliphant, 14 March 1916, and tel. Grey to McMahon, 15 March 1916, FO 371/2767/48683.
57. Tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 204, 21 March 1916, minute Olpihant, 22 March 1916, minute Grey, not dated, and tel. Grey to McMahon, no. 215, 22 March 1916, FO 371/2767/54229.
58. I.O. to F.O., no. 1076b, 28 March 1916, minutes Oliphant and Nicolson, 29 March 1916, FO 371/ 2768/59268.
59. Tel. G.O.C.-in-C., Force ‘D’ to S.S.I., 1404 B., 30 March 1916, encl. in I.O. to F.O., no. P. 1181, 31 March 1916, FO 371/2768/61639.
60. Tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 232, 1 April 1916, memorandum Chamberlain, 3 April 1916 (underlining in original), Grey to Nicolson, not dated, and tel. Grey to McMahon, no. 263, 5 April 1916, FO 371/2768/62377.
61. Tel. Buchanan to Grey, no. 377, 16 March 1916, FO 371/2767/51288.
62. Tel. Grey to McMahon, no. 287, 14 April 1916, FO 371/2768/70889.
63. Tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 278, 20 April 1916, FO 371/2768/76013.
64. Tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 284, 22 April 1916, minutes Oliphant, 23 April 1916 (underlining in original), Nicolson and Crewe, 24 April 1916, and tel. Grey to McMahon, no. 339, 27 April 1917, FO 371/2768/76954.
65. Tels McMahon to Grey, no. 329, 4 May 1916, and Grey to McMahon, no. 371, 6 May 1916, FO 371/ 2768/84855.
66. Minute Oliphant, 23 April 1916 (underlining in 66 original), FO 371/2768/76954.
67. Minutes Clerk and Nicolson, 3 May 1916, and Kitchener, not dated, on McMahon to Grey, no. 83, 19 April 1916, FO 371/2768/80305.
68. Memorandum Sykes, 8 May 1916, FO 371/2768/87247.
69. Tel. Grey to Bertie, no. 350, 11 May 1916, FO 371/2768/92354.
70. Grey to Cambon and Cambon to Grey, 15 May 1916, and Grey to Cambon, 16 May 1916, E.L. Woodward and R. Butler (eds), Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919–1939 (DBFP), First Series, Vol. IV (London, 1952: H.M. Stationary Office), pp. 244–7.
71. Minute Clerk, 15 May 1916, on McMahon to Grey, no. 86, 25 April 1916, FO 371/2768/87999.
72. Tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 414, 30 May 1916, FO 371/2768/103983.
73. Report Hogarth, 10 June 1916, FO 141/461, file 1198.
74. Minutes Oliphant and Nicolson, 8 March 1916, Chamberlain to Crewe, 8 March 1916 (underlining in original), minutes Kitchener and Nicolson, 9 March 1916, and tel. Grey to McMahon, no. 173, 9 March 1916, FO 371/2773/44538.
75. Wingate to McMahon, private, 17 March 1916, Clayton Papers, box 470/1.
76. Tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 202, 21 March 1916, minute Olpihant, 22 March 1916, and initials O’Beirne, Nicolson and Grey, FO 371/2767/54177.
77. Tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 388, 24 May 1916, and minute Clerk, 24 May 1916 (underlining in original), and tel. Grey to MacMahon, no. 426, FO 371/2773/99316.
78. Tels McMahon to Grey, no. 402, 28 May 1916 and Grey to McMahon, no. 431, 30 May 1916, FO 371/2773/102192.
79. Tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 436, 8 June 1916, minute Sykes, 9 June 1916, FO 371/2773/111398.
80. Tel. McMahon to Grey, no. 443, 11 June 1916, and minute Clerk, 12 June 1916, FO 371/2773/ 112684.
81. Nicolson to Hardinge, private, 16 February 1916, Nicolson Papers, FO 800/381.
82. Quoted in Adelson, Mark Sykes, p. 203.
83. Sykes to DMO, 23 July 1915, FO 371/2486/114293.
84. Sykes to Clerk, private, 4 September 1915 (underlining in original), FO 371/2491/148549.
85. Sykes to Cecil, private, 4 October 1915, Sykes Papers, box 1.
86. Tel. Sykes to DMO, no. 12, 9 October 1915, and minutes Clerk, 12 October 1915 and Nicolson, 14 October 1915, FO 371/2491/148549.
87. Sykes to Clayton, 28 December 1915, FO 882/2.
88. Establishment of an Arab Bureau at Cairo, 7 January 1916, Cab 42/7/4.
89. Hirtzel to Grant, private, 7 January 1916, quoted in Busch, Britain, India, p. 101.
90. Hardinge to Nicolson, private, 18 February 1916, Nicolson Papers, FO 800/381.
91. Tel. viceroy to S.S.I., 15 February 1916, encl. in F.O. to I.O., no. P. 570, 24 February 1916, and F.O. to I.O., no. 36955/16, 28 February 1916, FO original), and tel. Grey to MacMahon, no. 426, FO 371/2773/99316.
92. I.O. to F.O., no. P. 1342, 12 April 1916, FO 371/ 2771/70419.
93. See tel. viceroy to S.S.I., 15 May 1916, encl. in I.O. to F.O., no. P. 1835, and F.O. to I.O., no. 94961, 26 May 1916, FO 371//2771/94961.
94. On 22 May 1916, Sykes was attached to the secretariat of the Committee of Imperial Defence ‘with instructions to make a special study of the coordination of Allied political policy in the Middle East’. This appointment was the result of informal conversations on the problem that there was ‘diffusion of control and that cooperation is hampered by the want of a coordinating machine which would bring those engaged in the problem into touch with one another’. C.I.D. to F.O., 22 May 1916, FO 371/2777/97824, and Hankey to Grey, C.I.D. 444, 5 May 1916, FO 371/2777/85174.