Rest in peace, George Sykes

Last week, an unusual ceremony took place at Haifa’s small Palestine Police graveyard, which dates from British Mandate times.

george sykes grave_521 (photo credit: Sybil Ehrlich)
george sykes grave_521
(photo credit: Sybil Ehrlich)
Hidden away behind the British military cemetery on Haifa’s Jaffa Road is the small Palestine Police graveyard, dating from British Mandate times.
The Christian cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Thirtythree of the 36 graves are of members of the Palestine Police or their families, two are of sailors from HMS Delhi, and one is of a Chinese sailor.
Last week, an unusual ceremony took place at the grave of George Robert Hughendon Sykes, who was killed by Arabs in 1929.
Sykes was born in England in 1897 and at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 he joined the East Kent Mounted Yeomanry. He left the army, completely unscathed, in 1919 and trained in locomotive engineering on the Great Eastern Railway in Stratford, east London. In 1926 he transferred to Palestine Railways.
While driving with his wife in 1929, he was stoned by an Arab mob – who mistook him for a Jew – and seriously wounded. He was taken to the hospital, but died later that evening. The rioting was so intense that the authorities buried Sykes hastily at dead of night by the light of hurricane lamps, in the Palestine Police cemetery. He may never have had a proper burial service.
During the riots, a Jewish boarding house in the city was set on fire. Around 40 people were trapped inside the burning building. A pregnant woman managed to escape and alerted British troops, who released the terrified occupants of the house.
The cemetery ceased to be used after the outbreak of World War II and fell into a state of neglect.
HAIFA RESIDENT Michael Gottschalk was looking there for other graves when he came across a fragment of a metal grave marker bearing the letters KES. The rest of it had presumably been stolen and sold as scrap metal. After a considerable amount of detective work, Gottschalk uncovered the story of Sykes and how he came to be buried in Haifa.
More than 80 years after his death, George Sykes finally received proper recognition and a new headstone, funded by the Palestine Police Old Comrades Association, in a ceremony conducted by Rev. Canon Hatem Shehadeh, the Anglican priest in Haifa. It was attended by some 40 people including Lt.-Col. (ret.) John Merritt of the British Army, who flew in from Cyprus especially for the occasion; Wing Commander Steve Brewer, naval and air attache at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, and Lord David Samuel, the grandson of Herbert Samuel, the first high commissioner.
Also present were the unborn baby – now an elderly man – whose mother escaped from the blazing house, and the daughter of the house’s owner.
The ceremony included laying a Union Flag on Sykes’s grave, the reading by Canon Shehadeh of texts from the New Testament, and the recitation of Psalm 23.
The cemetery is separated from the Haifa- Nahariya railway line by only a single wall. With trains passing frequently, this is indeed an appropriate last resting place for a man who spent so much of his time on railway business.