Category Archives: France

The mystery of the La Pérouse expedition survivors: wrecked in Torres Strait?



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Louis XVI giving final instructions to the Comte de La Perouse in 1785, before La Perouse embarked on his fateful expedition to the Southern Hemisphere.
State Library of NSW

Garrick Hitchcock, Australian National University

The final fate of the expedition led by Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, has been a mystery ever since the frigates L’Astrolabe and La Boussole sailed out of Botany Bay in March 1788, vanishing, it seemed, into the vastness of the Pacific.

The expedition left the French port of Brest in 1785. The two vessels, with a complement of 225 officers, crew and scientists, were crammed with supplies and trade goods for a four-year long Pacific voyage that sought to emulate the feats of discovery of Captain James Cook. King Louis XVI took a personal interest in the undertaking and helped draft the plans and itinerary.


Read more: When it comes to disappearing ocean history, HMAS Perth is the tip of the iceberg


La Pérouse also had orders to investigate the new British colony in Australia. He arrived off Botany Bay, New South Wales in January 1788 to see Arthur Philip’s First Fleet at anchor, and so witnessed the beginning of European settlement of the continent. For six weeks the French camped on the northern shores of the Bay: the area now home to the south-eastern Sydney suburb bearing his name.

Portrait of Comte de La Perouse, circa 1792.
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Before departing Australia to continue his voyage, La Pérouse left letters with the British for forwarding to the French Naval Ministry. In them he detailed how he planned to leave the Pacific Ocean via Torres Strait, the narrow waterway separating Australia and New Guinea, and be back in France by June 1789. Concern mounted when they did not arrive as expected. In 1791 the French National Assembly commissioned an expedition to search for the overdue navigator, without success. It is said that King Louis XVI, on his way to the guillotine in 1793, enquired of his captors “Is there news of La Pérouse?”

A dogged Irish captain finally solved the puzzle almost four decades later. In 1826 Peter Dillon saw European objects at Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, which locals told him came from a nearby island called Vanikoro. He suspected they were from La Pérouse’s ships. Eventually, he was given command of the survey vessel Research and arrived at Vanikoro in 1827, going on to learn the awful fate of L’Astrolabe and La Boussole: both frigates had smashed against the island’s fringing reef during a storm. Artefacts collected by Dillon were taken to Paris where they were identified as belonging to the expedition vessels.

The Vanikoro Islanders also related how survivors from Le Pérouse’s ships had spent several months constructing a small two-masted schooner, using timber salvaged from wreckage and hewn from the island’s dense forests. Once completed, they launched the vessel and sailed away.

What became of this vessel and its crew, desperate to return to France, has been an ongoing mystery. Subsequent books and articles about La Pérouse have asked the same questions: did the vessel even make it out of the Vanikoro lagoon, or was it attacked by locals in canoes? If it did get away, did it founder and sink beneath the waves? Or did the survivors die of thirst or starvation at sea? Or did they again suffer shipwreck elsewhere in the Pacific?


Read more: Transit of Venus: a tale of two expeditions


An Indian newspaper article from 1818 can perhaps shed light on the fate of the Vanikoro escape vessel. The December 1818 issue of The Madras Courier related how, in September that year, the ships Claudine and Mary, bound for Calcutta from Sydney, anchored off Murray Island in the Torres Strait Islands. There they rescued a castaway Indian seaman, Shaik Jumaul, who had survived the sinking of the merchant ship Morning Star four years earlier off the north Queensland coast.

On board the Mary, Shaik Jumaul was interviewed about his experiences on the island. He reported that he had seen swords and muskets on the islands, “differently made from English”, as well as a compass and a gold watch. When he asked the Islanders where they had obtained these things, an old man explained how thirty years earlier a ship was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, within sight of Murray Island. White men had come from her in boats, but in the fighting that followed all were killed except a boy, who was spared and brought up as one of their own.

Western part of Mer (Murray Island) and the neighbouring islands of Waier (L) and Dauar ®, 1 December 2016.
Garrick Hitchcock

The expedition crew list includes a ship’s boy, François Mordelle, from the port town of Tréguier in Brittany, northwestern France. Could this be last survivor of the La Pérouse expedition?

The article featuring the castaway’s account was reproduced in several other newspapers of the day, in Australia, Britain, France and other countries, and observers noted that this might refer to the La Pérouse expedition. Somehow, Shaik Jamaul’s story was largely forgotten in subsequent years.

The chronology fits nicely, for it was 30 years earlier, in late 1788 or early 1789, that the La Pérouse survivors departed Vanikoro in their small vessel. Furthermore, historians are not aware of any other European ship in the region at that time.

Torres Strait, which includes the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is studded with reefs, rocks and sandbars. It has been described as a “graveyard of ships”, as over 120 vessels are known to have come to grief in its treacherous waters. The vessel reported by Shaik Jumaul is the earliest known shipwreck in the Strait and indeed, eastern Australia.

Could it be that the final phase of the La Pérouse expedition ended in tragedy in northern Australia? Future recovery of artefacts from the wreck site on the Great Barrier Reef – yet to be discovered – or the islands, will hopefully provide final confirmation.

One La Pérouse mystery, however, will likely remain unsolved.

The Murray Islanders showed Shaik Jamaul the young castaway’s clothing, and cried as they recalled how he, together with two young girls, left the island one night in a canoe. His island friends searched for them, but they were never seen again. Was he seeking to return to France? Did he suffer an accident at sea? Or was he shipwrecked elsewhere a third and final time?

The ConversationA last crewman, a survivor, a castaway. Though his identity and fate are unknown, he is not lost to memory.

Garrick Hitchcock, Honorary Senior Lecturer, School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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What happened to the French army after Dunkirk



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French POWs being led away from the battlefield in May 1940.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Nina Wardleworth, University of Leeds

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in May 1940 from Dunkirk by a flotilla of small ships has entered British folklore. Dunkirk, a new action film by director Christopher Nolan, depicts the events from land, sea and air and has revived awe for the plucky courage of those involved.

But the story of the French army after Dunkirk is altogether less glorious, and perhaps because of that, less widely remembered. Of the 340,000 allied soldiers evacuated by boat from Dunkirk, 123,000 were French – but thousands more were not rescued and were taken prisoner by the Germans.

French media coverage of the premiere of Nolan’s film has presented the events as a British story in which French soldiers were involved, not a shared wartime narrative.

Operation Dynamo (the code name for the Dunkirk evacuation) took place between May 26 and June 4, 1940. The Germans entered Paris on June 14, but fighting continued in the east of France until June 24. General Charles De Gaulle made his now famous radio broadcast, calling on the French public not to accept defeat, on the BBC on June 18 from London, but very few of his compatriots are likely to have heard it on that date.

It is estimated that between 50,000 and 90,000 soldiers of the French army were killed in the fighting of May and June 1940. In addition to the casualties, 1.8m French soldiers, from metropolitan France and across the French empire, were captured during the Battle of France and made prisoners of war (POWs).

That early summer of 1940 in France was also marked by a mass exodus. At least six million civilians took to the roads to escape the advancing German troops, with frightening World War I stereotypes of German brutality at the forefront of their minds. They moved south and west through France, although most returned home following the June 22 armistice with Nazi Germany.

Such mass population movement both helped and hindered the French army. It made moving men and equipment much more difficult on crowded roads and railways. However, for the ordinary soldier who could procure civilian clothes, it allowed them to slip away from their units and rejoin their families.

Colonial troops massacred

The French army of 1940 included soldiers from across its empire in north, west and central Africa, the French West Indies and Indochina. These troops found it more difficult to disappear into the crowds. There were numerous massacres of west and central African troops in eastern France by the German army, who after separating them from their white officers, shot them.

There were 120,000 colonial prisoners of war captured during the Battle of France. They were housed in different camps from their white, metropolitan French counterparts, all on French soil and French run, because of Nazi racial fears of them mixing with German civilians.

Colonial POWs from the French empire under guard by German soldiers, June 1940.
RaBoe/Wikipedia

French POWs were sent to camps in Germany where they were quickly set to work on farms, in industry, mines and on the railways, to replace German men away fighting. The POWs lived and worked alongside the German population, leading to both tensions and friendships. The fate of these POWs became central to the propaganda of the French collaborationist government, based in Vichy.

Numerous government programmes tried to encourage young French men and women to sign up for work in Germany in exchange for the return of a POW to France. But, most prisoners – about one million – only returned to France following the end of the war in May 1945. They were often greeted by widespread indifference, even sometimes hostility because of their supposed links and sympathies to the Vichy regime. In reality, they were no more pro-Vichy than many other parts of French society.

A difficult history for France

The very swift German victory in May and June 1940 and the humiliating armistice that followed, meant that post-war French society and the state sought to minimise and forget the defeat, preferring to concentrate on more glorious stories of the Resistance and the Free French. There was an unsuccessful campaign in the French press in 2015 for a state commemorative event and memorial to honour the war dead from France and its then empire, who the campaign labelled as “the first Resistance fighters”. Former French president, François Hollande, increased the number of state commemorative events for key moments from France’s 20th century history, but still ignored the events of 1940.

Despite official silences, the fighting of the summer of 1940 has been the subject of French novels and films ever since. Robert Merle’s 1949 novel Weekend at Dunkirk was adapted into a successful feature film, with an audience of three million on its release in 1964. The protagonist, Julien, is a French soldier desperate to make it onto one of the boats of the British evacuation in a town shattered by bombing. Claude Simon’s 1960 novel, The Flanders Road, painted a picture of an outdated French army, ground down by months of a phoney war, fighting against a much better equipped, more modern German enemy.

The ConversationFor French POWs, Dunkirk and those battles of May and June 1940 marked the beginning of five years of humiliation and hardship, before many returned to a country that wanted to forget them and their fighting experiences.

Nina Wardleworth, Teaching Fellow in French, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Animated History of France



Jacques Cousteau



The Franks



The Sykes-Picot Agreement and the making of the modern Middle East


Aaron W. Hughes, University of Rochester

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, we’ve got a package with an explanatory article about the secret accord, an argument the accord still underlies the discontent in the Middle East (below) and the counter-view that its influence is overstated.


The Sykes-Picot Agreement created the modern Middle East. It represents one of the first instalments in a long line of modern European – and subsequent American – meddling in the region. And, in providing a set of unrealistic and impossible promises to the Arabs, it led directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Asia Minor Agreement, the official name of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, dates to 1916. It was the result of secret deliberations between the British civil servant Mark Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot.

It was made official by the Allied Powers of the first world war with the San Remo Conference in 1920.

The agreement provided a general understanding of British and French spheres of influence in the Middle East. The goal was to divide between them the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces (not including the Arabian Peninsula).

The line across a map of the Middle East it drew created colonial spheres of influence that cut directly and artificially across a region that had previously been divided along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines.

Area “A” was to be under French influence and control, while “B” was to be under British influence and control. The Sykes-Picot Agreement also proposed an “international administration” for Palestine.

In 1920, the latter region was transferred to British control as “Mandatory Palestine”. It was governed under British civil administration until 1948, during which the competing Arab and Zionist nationalist movements clashed with one another.

The cause of many of these clashes were unrealistic promises made to each side by the British; promises directly related to the artificial arrangement of the modern Middle East initiated by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

The agreement, then, helped frame the contours of modern nation states in a region where before there had been none. Since it’s essentially an accord between two colonialist powers external to the region, it would have devastating effects.

The mainstay of the plan was that France and Great Britain were prepared to recognise and protect an independent Arab state, or confederation of Arab states – in exchange for Arab help in overthrowing the Ottoman Empire.

Conflicting promises

To get a sense of the broken promises, it’s worthwhile comparing the Sykes-Picot Agreement to two other contemporary documents. These are the McMahon-Hussein letters and the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

Sir Henry McMahon was the British high commissioner in Egypt and Hussein bin Ali was the Sharif of Mecca. In letters they exchanged between 1915 to 1916, Britain clearly agreed to recognise Arab independence after the first world war, in exchange for Arab help in fighting the Ottomans.

The Arabs regarded McMahon’s promises as a formal agreement, which it may very well have been. The boundaries proposed by Hussein included Palestine. But this area was not explicitly mentioned in the McMahon–Hussein correspondence.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has called for the replacing of the Middle East’s crumbling nations with a transnational regional power.
Reuters

Confusing the issue was the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised British support for a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. Part of this very short text reads as follows:

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object…

These conflicting promises remained at the heart of the impasse between two distinct nationalist groups in Mandate Palestine: the Zionists and the Arabs, later to be renamed Israelis and Palestinians.

Repeated and conflicting promises to both sides during the Mandate period further stoked nationalist resentment. Each expected the land to remain in their hands, which seems to have been what the British promised them. And repeated attempts at dividing or partitioning the land suited neither.

Intractable problems

If the Sykes-Picot Agreement created the modern Middle East, it is also at the heart of many of the region’s intractable problems.

The most significant, at least historically, has been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More recently, it’s the breakdown of Arab nation states in the area and the rise of Islamic State (IS).

Read about how Islamic State uses Sykes-Picot in its propaganda

One of IS’s stated goals is to dismantle the agreement. The outfit’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has called for replacing the crumbling nations of the area into a transnational regional power, the so-called “caliphate”.

In a 2002 interview, then British foreign secretary Jack Straw quipped:

A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now, I have to deal with now, are a consequence of our colonial past … The Balfour Declaration and the contradictory assurances which were being given to Palestinians in private at the same time as they were being given to the Israelis — again, an interesting history for us but not an entirely honourable one.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement is instrumental to understanding the modern Middle East. It represents the framework of its colonial past and shows the potential for national fractures inherent to the region’s present and future.

When taken in the larger context of other agreements, declarations and promises to the players in the region over the years, we see how the agreement is at the root of so many contemporary problems.


This article is part of a package marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Read the counter-argument about the legacy of the document or the introductory article about the accord.

The Conversation

Aaron W. Hughes, Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Rochester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The Sykes-Picot Agreement at 100



Obsession with Sykes-Picot says more about what we think of Arabs than history


James L Gelvin, University of California, Los Angeles

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, we’ve got a package with an explanatory article about the secret accord, an argument that its influence is overstated (below), and the counter-view that it still underlies the discontent in the Middle East.


In 1915-16, Sir Mark Sykes, of the British War Office, and François Georges-Picot, French consul in Beirut, negotiated a secret agreement to divide the Asiatic provinces of the Ottoman Empire into zones of direct and indirect British and French control after the first world war.

The agreement also “internationalised” Jerusalem – a bone thrown to the Russian Empire, then a British and French ally. The Russians were worried that Orthodox Christians might be put at a disadvantage if the Catholic French had the final say about the future of the holy city.

Although Russia never officially signed the agreement, it acquiesced to it. In return, the allies pledged their commitment to Russian control over Istanbul and the Turkish Straits. They also agreed to direct Russian control over parts of eastern Anatolia (Asia Minor, or the modern-day Republic of Turkey) at the close of hostilities.

As straightforward as all this was, over the years the words Sykes-Picot have taken on two meanings – one significant, the other less so.

A dead letter

Let’s start with the less significant meaning, which alludes to the actual accord. Except for demarcating a line in the desert that anticipated the boundary between contemporary Syria and Iraq (drawn in 1922), the impact of the accord is zero.

It never went into effect. By the end of the first world war, it was already a dead letter. This was the case for a number of reasons.

In the first place, the British did not like the borders drawn between their zone and the French zone. In particular, the Sykes-Picot map placed northern Palestine and Mosul – two areas the British coveted – in the French zone.

Second, by the end of the war the British, not the French, occupied the inland Asiatic Arab territory that had belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Since they were playing a stronger hand than the French, they took it upon themselves to divide that territory into zones under the authority of the “Occupied Enemy Territory Administration”. And the boundaries of the various administrative zones conflicted with those established by the Sykes-Picot agreement.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks took power in Russia. Focused on consolidating power at home and not particularly concerned with access to holy places or inter-imperialist agreements, the new government renounced all secret agreements to which the tsarist government had been party.

Adding insult to injury, Russia published them, much to the embarrassment of former allies. Britain and France both viewed the changed circumstances as an opportunity to rethink their agreement.

Not really relevant

The irrelevance of the accord becomes apparent if one compares a map of the contemporary Middle East with the map proposed by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Is any area of the region under direct British, French or Russian administration?

Is Jerusalem – and the adjoining region – under international control? Do France and Russia directly control parts of Anatolia? And does Britain directly control parts of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula?

Whatever Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot agreed to, the current boundaries in the Levant (an area in the Eastern Mediterranean encompassing Syria, Palestine and Lebanon), Mesopotamia (the area around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq) and Anatolia actually resulted from two factors.

The first is the establishment of the mandates system by the precursor of the United Nations, the League of Nations. This system allotted Britain and France temporary control over territory in the region. The two powers took it upon themselves to combine or divide territories into proto-states in accordance with their imperial interests.

Britain created Iraq and Trans-Jordan after the war (Israel and Palestine would come later); France did the same for Lebanon and Syria.

Islamists, particularly those affiliated with al-Qaeda and IS, include references to the ‘Sykes-Picot boundaries’ in their propaganda.
Reuters/Stringer

Second, Anatolia remained undivided because Turkish nationalists fought a gruelling four-year war to drive foreigners out of the peninsula. The result was the contemporary Republic of Turkey.

Why, then, do commentators and others still focus on the Sykes-Picot Agreement 100 years after the fact? It wasn’t, after all, the first secret agreement that aspired to divide the Ottoman Empire among the allies; that would be the Constantinople Agreement of 1915.

A metaphor

The answer lies in the second meaning of the accord: its usefulness as a metaphor. During the last century, the expression Sykes-Picot has served three functions.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, Arab nationalists invoked the secret agreement as a symbol of Western treachery. The West, they claimed, thwarted the natural inclination of Arabs to unite in a single state. In addition, it supported the State of Israel — a “dagger stuck in the heart of the Arab world”, as then Egyptian president Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser once put it – to achieve that goal.

From the 1980s to the present, Islamists, particularly those affiliated with al-Qaeda and now Islamic State (IS), have included references to the “Sykes-Picot boundaries” in their propaganda to connote a conspiracy the West (or, in the case of al-Qaeda, “Crusader-Zionists”) entered into to keep the Islamic world weak and divided.

Read about how Islamic State uses Sykes-Picot in its propaganda

For al-Qaeda, this conspiracy justifies its defensive jihad. For IS, it justifies an offensive jihad to re-establish a caliphate that, they anticipate, will eventually unite the entirety of the Islamic world.

Commentators in the West and elsewhere use the agreement to explain the contemporary turmoil in the Arab world. For them, it represents “blowback” — unintended and adverse effects of imperialist meddling in the region.

The American arming of the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980s led directly to the rise of al-Qaeda and 9/11, for instance, and indirectly to the rise of IS. The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq unleashed a sectarian nightmare.

In a similar vein, commentators assert, imperialist meddling and the creation of “artificial” borders in the region at the end of the first world war prevented populations from consolidating nation-states based on their “natural” and “primordial” sectarian and ethnic identities (as, the argument would have it, had happened in the West).

All borders, not just those in the Middle East, are, of course, artificial. And if you choose to worry about the durability of states whose borders were drawn by far-off diplomats, worry not just about Syria and Iraq but about Belgium as well.

Most important, the fact that we tend to harp on “natural” and “primordial” ties of sect and ethnicity in this particular region feeds into the all-too-common tendency to view Arabs as primitives incapable of forming modern political identities. They most certainly are not.

For all the talk of artificial borders in this particular corner of the Arab world, it is easy to forget one essential fact: except for the decolonisation of the Gulf in 1971, and the unification of the two Yemens in 1990, the state system in the Arab world has been remarkably stable for almost three-quarters of a century. It has been more stable, in fact, than the European state system.


This article is part of a package marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Read the counter-argument about the legacy of the document, or the introductory article about the accord.

The Conversation

James L Gelvin, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Explainer: what is the 100-year-old Sykes-Picot Agreement?


Stephen Pascoe, La Trobe University

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, we’ve got a package with an explanatory article about the secret accord (below), an argument the accord still underlies the discontent in the Middle East and the counter-view that its influence is overstated.


The Sykes-Picot accord was conceived at a high point in Britain and France’s imperial power. Hammered out in the midst of the first world war in anticipation of an Entente victory (the Russian Empire, France and the United Kingdom) over the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria), it was concerned with distributing the territorial spoils of Ottoman defeat.

France and Britain, along with most other European powers, had been convinced of the inevitable demise of the Ottoman Empire for decades. The image of the Ottomans as the “sick man of Europe” was one of the defining images of 19th-century diplomacy.

The accord was also a product of France and Britain’s newfound friendship. In their respective bids for global supremacy during the 1881-1914 Scramble for Africa, the two powers had nearly come to war in the Sudan in 1898, in a military standoff that became known as the Fashoda Incident.

Calmer heads in London and Paris saw that accommodation was preferable to open conflict and sought alliance. The 1902 Entente Cordiale provided for precisely the kind of gentlemanly negotiation over respective “spheres of interest” as embodied in Sykes-Picot.

Dividing the spoils

Both powers had existing interests in the region that they wished to protect and expand.

On the French side, the arms of finance capital were heavily invested in Beirut and Mt Lebanon, alongside a battery of francophone religious and cultural institutions. French railway companies also had substantive interests in the Syrian cities of the interior, as well as in the Cilicia region of southern Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor and now the Republic of Turkey).

In an era when empires were still built on maritime power, the French foreign ministry coveted the coastal strip of the Eastern Mediterranean because of the area’s proximity to France’s North African possessions in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

Britain, for its part, was determined to have its own coastal access – both to the Mediterranean, through the port of Haifa in Palestine, as well as to the Gulf, through Basra in Iraq. The promise of recently explored oilfields also dictated British interest in Mesopotamia (roughly, modern-day Iraq).

France’s original territorial claim extended across to Mosul in northern Iraq, so as to take in some of these promised oilfields.

At the moment Mark Sykes of the British War Office and François Georges-Picot, French consul in Beirut, were negotiating, Commonwealth forces had occupied Basra and the surrounding Shatt Al-Arab region since November 1914. So, the extension of British control northward seemed logical.

Tsarist Russia, the oft-forgotten third signatory to Sykes-Picot, was promised control of Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and the territories of eastern Anatolia.

The signed Sykes-Picot Agreement map.
Royal Geographic Society via Wikimedia Commons

Other contenders

Sykes-Picot should be seen in the context of a series of secret discussions over the postwar political settlement of the Middle East.

On the Entente side, the game of territorial bartering had begun a year earlier, in March-April 1915, as the Gallipoli landing was being planned. The so-called Constantinople Agreement between the three parties rehearsed the divisions that would be formalised in Sykes-Picot.

The Entente powers were not alone in planning for victory. The Ottoman government had itself concluded a secret treaty with Germany upon entering the war in August 1914, dealing with the eventuality of a Central Powers victory.

Ottoman territorial ambitions were far more modest: Istanbul sought the return of three provinces relinquished to the Russians in 1878, along with the territories in the Balkans that had been lost to nationalist secession over the previous decades.

Local leaders were also secretly devising plans for the postwar period. Although the Arab provinces had remained mostly loyal to Istanbul throughout the nationalist turmoil that shook the empire during the 19th century, by the beginning of the 20th there were stirrings for greater autonomy or even secession among certain segments of the Arab military, civilian and religious elite.

Leaders of secret societies in Syria and Iraq, along with the influential Hashemite family of Mecca, which held the position of guardians of the holy cities, had begun in early 1915 to set out a vision of a post-Ottoman Arab state. The Damascus Protocol of May 1915 imagined all of Syria, Iraq and the Gulf – with the exception of the British enclave in Aden – forming an independent Arab state.

In November 1914, the British had began courting the Hashemites in an attempt to orchestrate an Arab revolt against the Ottoman state. In a series of letters exchanged the following year between Sharif Hussein and the high commissioner of Egypt, Henry McMahon, the British appear to give generous – if highly ambiguous – support to the establishment of an Arab state.

Another group with designs on postwar Middle East was the fledgling Zionist movement, which had begun to sponsor Jewish migration to Ottoman Palestine, but remained numerically small on the ground and had as yet no formal support from any major power.

Shifting sands

The notion that Sykes-Picot was a direct blueprint for the post-Ottoman outline of the political map of the Middle East has a seductive simplicity. But it’s not quite the full story.

The nation states of the Middle East we know today were decided on at the 1920 San Remo conference, and their borders were finalised in piecemeal fashion across the following decade.

The shifting territorial claims reflected a number of changing realities in the four years following Sykes-Picot, such as the success of Turkish nationalist troops in reclaiming most of Cilicia under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, the Ottoman general who led the beleaguered remainder of the empire’s forces to an honourable settlement. He would be dubbed Ataturk, or “father of the Turks”, upon assuming presidency of the new Turkish republic.

Another major shift in realpolitik between 1916 and 1920 was Britain’s position on the Palestine question.

Whereas Sykes-Picot had envisaged an international status given to Jerusalem (in expectation of problems between the nascent Zionist movement and the indigenous Palestinian population, as well as to head off inter-imperialist rivalry over access to the Christian Holy City), the 1917 Balfour Declaration effectively turned the tide of British support toward the Zionists.

When the Ottoman state finally lost control of its Middle Eastern territories – symbolised in the fall of Damascus to Australian troops on October 18, 1918 – control was transferred to Britain’s Hashemite allies, seemingly honouring the undertakings articulated in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence.

Sharif Hussein’s son Faisal seized the opportunity to fill the political vacuum, gathering around him former Ottoman functionaries sympathetic to the Arab nationalist cause. The brief period of Faisal’s Arab Kingdom in Damascus from late 1918 to early 1920 – despite being characterised by significant discord – contained the real hope that the Arabic-speaking populations of the Middle East might at last be masters of their own destiny.

France, unsurprisingly, protested at this turn of events and insisted that Britain honour the principles of Sykes-Picot. Britain acceded to France’s request, Faisal found himself outmanoeuvred and, at a final standoff outside Damascus in the Battle of Maysaloun, his experiment in Arab independence was quashed.

Sykes-Picot had delivered the spoils of war to Britain and France, and deferred the dreams of Arab nationalists.

The accord was arguably the last gasp of unrestrained Western imperialism, or at least of the classical imperialism of the 19th century. Twentieth-century imperialism would take less direct, more pernicious forms.


This article is part of a package marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Read the argument that the influence of the accord is overstated or the counter-view that it still underlies the discontent in the Middle East.

The Conversation

Stephen Pascoe, PhD Candidate in History, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Bones of Iron Age warriors may reveal link between Yorkshire’s ‘spear-people’ and the ancient Gauls


Peter Halkon, University of Hull

Around 150 skeletons buried in 75 graves have been discovered in an Iron Age cemetery near the town of Pocklington in East Riding, Yorkshire, in what is undoubtedly one of the most significant recent finds in Britain. They are the latest discoveries from archaeological sites in the area that reveal a culture whose burial traditions suggest links to the ancient Gaulish people of northern France.

At Pocklington, the most striking of the recent finds is the grave of a young man, probably a warrior, buried with an iron sword between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago. What is remarkable is the presence of five spearheads, whose position shows unequivocally that they had been thrown at the corpse itself. Most of the burials were without grave goods, though one female was buried with a fine brooch similar to examples found on the continent.

There are around 23 so-called “speared corpse” burials in eastern Yorkshire, with between one and 14 spear points found in the grave. Was this the equivalent of a rifle volley fired over a military burial as in modern times? Were the swords thrown into the grave as a mark of respect by fellow warriors? Or might it even represent a Dracula-style impaling after death to prevent the dead from rising?

This tradition of speared corpses, burial in square barrows – a small, square, ditched enclosure surrounding a central grave covered by a low mound – and chariot burials are traditions clustered in eastern Yorkshire with only a few outliers. The closest parallels to the square barrows found in East Yorkshire are in north-eastern France and Belgium. Although there are subtle differences in the form of burial and grave goods, some form of continental link seems undeniable.

The Pocklington speared corpse burial under excavation.
Peter Halkon

These traditions are associated with the ancient people known as the Arras culture, named after Arras Farm near Market Weighton in Yorkshire? where the first archaeological discoveries were made between 1815–17. These 19th-century digs unearthed remarkable finds including chariot burials complete with iron tyres and other metal fittings, and in one case the remains of the two horses used to pull the chariot. They were identified by the diggers as “Ancient British”, thought of as the chariot-fighting Britons described by Julius Caesar.

More chariot burials were found during the 19th century, including one excavated at Beverley nearby by the early archaeologist William Greenwell, and during the 20th century more were found among hundreds of Iron Age burials unearthed around the villages of Garton and Wetwang. These included burials complete with swords in decorated sheaths, and another of a woman buried with a decorated copper alloy canister, an iron mirror, and one of only two pieces of gold found in the region – used to embellish an iron brooch also decorated with coral, probably from the Mediterranean. Perhaps the best example of a chariot burial was excavated in Wetwang village in 2001, which revealed another high-status woman and featured in the BBC’s Meet the Ancestors TV series.

Radiocarbon dating has shown the burials around Wetwang to be clustered around the mid-3rd century BC, with an analysis of various isotopes present in the bones demonstrating that most had been brought up in the region.

The cemetery site at Polkington, showing characteristic square barrows.
MAP Archaeology/PA

Who were the Arras people?

The term Arras culture was coined in the 1940s by Vere Gordon Childe, Abercromby professor of archaeology at Edinburgh University and director of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. Based on the similarities in burial traditions, Childe believed the Arras people had invaded from the Marne area of northern France. Other scholars such as CFC Hawkes saw the Arras culture as one of the waves of invaders who crossed over from continental Europe in later prehistory.

Ian Stead, whose PhD was on these people, undertook many excavations in the 1980s, and his 1991 book Iron Age Cemeteries of East Yorkshire remains the major work on this topic. The similarities in these burials to those on the near continent prompted Stead to conduct excavations in the Champagne and Ardennes regions of France.

The distribution of square barrows, chariot and speared corpse burials suggests some form of regional identity within eastern Yorkshire, and it was this region that 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy wrote of as being inhabited by people known as the Parisi. According to some linguistic scholars, the Old Welsh word for spear is “par”, and so the name of the tribe can be read as “the spear people”. Delgovicia – a settlement mentioned in the Roman Antonine Itinerary as being somewhere east of York – is thought to derive from “delgo”, meaning a thorn or spear, and so could be interpreted as “town of the spear fighters”.

Archaeologists tend to be sceptical about the use of place names in such circumstances, but perhaps this idea should be considered – particularly in light of the spectacular hoard of 33 iron spearheads and five swords in decorated sheaths found at South Cave, 15 miles to the south-east of Pocklington in 2002.

Referred to by Caesar, the Parisii people of what is now northern France who gave their name to the French capital are well known, but links to the Parisi of East Yorkshire are more difficult to prove. Certainly the circumstantial evidence shows continental connections – and perhaps scientific analysis of the remarkably well-preserved Pocklington skeletons may shed light on these ancient connections.

The Conversation

Peter Halkon, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, University of Hull

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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