One of the books Malcolm keeps promising to read is Keith Jeffrey’s biography of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. The biography is sub-titled A Political Soldier. A less charitable view called Wilson “the greatest intriguer who ever wore the King’s uniform”. Professor Brian Bond reviewed the book for The Times Literary Supplement back in May. Bond is Mister Big in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, and so approaches Wilson from that end.
When Malcolm saw the biography again, on the “Irish History” shelves of Hodges Figgis in Dawson Street, Dublin, he was moved to add it to his purchases. However, the book certainly is not in the bargain-basement, and Ryanair are ripping off all-and-sundry with excess baggage charges. Malcolm’s particular interest is to see how Jeffrey treats those matters of Irish history over which Bond lightly skates.
Wilson was Irish-born, in the County Longford. He was at school in England (Marlborough College) but entered the Army through the Longford Militia, after repeated failures to enter Woolwich or Sandhurst. The Militia got him into the Rifle Brigade, and service in Burma and South Africa. Then he was back to the War Office (when he wrote the manual on cavalry training) and, by now a Brigadier-General, to Camberley as Commandant of the Staff College. He reconnoitred the north-eastern corner of France, and became pals with Foch (then French’s equivalent at the French Staff College). By 1910 Wilson was an even bigger cheese: Director of Military Operations, and planning for the coming war with Germany (yes, indeed: he was laying out his wares to the Committee of Imperial Defence as early as August 1911).
And that brings us to the Curragh Mutiny. This is not the time for Malcolm to vent spleen over that sordid episode: suffice it to say that Bond’s seemed way off-line in representing Wilson as merely involved in behind-the scenes machinations over the Curragh Mutiny. Wilson was complicit from the earliest stage. His diary reports a conversation with French in November, 1913: I told him I could not fire on the North at the dictation of Redmond.
Meanwhile, Wilson was conniving with Bonar Law (as is reported in Lord Blake’s biography of Bonar Law), with the aim of making Redmond push too hard and so wreck the Liberal Government’s Home Rule Bill. The flavour of Wilson’s character comes across from his diary entry of this meeting: This, and much more of a confidential nature, made my morning very interesting.
Wilson had also been advising Edward Sclater, one of Carson’s commission of “Five” (as Wilson himself called them). This does need a bit of explanation. On 25 September 1911, the massed ranks of the Ulster Unionist Council, the Grand Oranges Lodges and the Unionist Clubs met in Belfast. Two resolutions were passed:
1. to take “any steps” to resist Irish Home Rule; and
2. to make arrangements for a provisional government in Ulster.
A committee of five was appointed: James Craig (later Prime Minister of Northern Ireland), Colonel Sharman Crawford MP, the Rt Hon Thomas Sinclair, Col. R.H. Wallace, and Edward Sclater, Secretary of the Unionist Clubs. This committee had two ends: to liaise with Sir Edward Carson, and to frame a constitution for the proposed provisional government. Any self-flagellator can follow the sad, sick story in any number of histories, many of which can be traced back to Ronald McNeill’s original 1922 apologia, Ulster’s Stand for Union.
Shades of Sir John Harrington:
Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
Bond has Wilson deploring the excesses of the “Black and Tans”. Hmm… in fact, Wilson was largely instrumental in setting up the Auxiliaries. Tim Pat Coogan [Michael Collins, 1991, p125] quotes Wilson (from his diary) urging the Cabinet with all my force the necessity for doubling the police and not employing the military.
Later, after the truce of July 1921, Wilson (as CIGS) continued to arm and finance Craig’s “Specials”.
Bond says that Wilson’s blindness to Irish political realities contributed, “though indirectly and bizarrely”, to his assassination. Let’s take that a bit slower. Wilson (February 1922) became M.P. for North Down in February 1922. He was appointed Military Advisor to Craig’s Government, with a budget of £2M (Craig eventually got £5M, and a vast armoury from London). On 20 March Wilson presented the Stormont Parliament with proposals to use the “Specials” as a basis for a new force. The following Friday came the “MacMahon massacre”, perpetrated by Specials, sponsored by the Brown Street RIC Barracks. Wilson’s further contribution was to visit Belfast (14-22 April), when he challenged Craig and his Cabinet: “Who is governing Ulster? You or Collins?” He followed this with an inflammatory speech at Bangor (19 April), claiming Republican forces were massing on the border, “while a supine British Government withdrew from Ulster”. The murder of Wilson was, indeed, one of the most indefensible, inefficient, and hopelessly heroic deeds of its kind of the entire period [Coogan; p373]. De Valera, typically, trumped the grammarians with a triple-negative: “I do not approve but I must not pretend to misunderstand”.
Malcolm, therefore, finds it hard to accept Bond’s line that Wilson was a naïf in Irish matters.