Henry Wilson, reviled and revisited.

As one does, this grey morning, I found myself scanning through the Irish Times. And hit upon Peter Murtagh:

Curragh Mutiny had disastrous effect on discipline in the British Army

Conference on the 1914 mutiny organised by the Centre for Contemporary History at Trinity College Dublin

This prompted me to reprise my dislike of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. What then astounded me was the apparent ignorance of the odd commenter on who Wilson was:

Henry Wilson, was he the guy who lost Singapore in 1942?

LettsI see on an adjacent shelf a copy of Quentin Letts’s squib, 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain. I must assume he stopped at fifty for reasons of space and time, not for shortage of candidates. Similarly, were I to undertake Any Number of People Who Buggered Up Ireland, Henry Wilson would earn his place in the first fifty.

So I had to repeat myself:

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: as we shall see, 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. I’ve never gone along with the view 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.

Prospering through treason

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. Know the guilty parties:

  1. James Craig (later Prime Minister of Northern Ireland),
  2. Colonel Sharman Crawford MP,
  3. the Rt Hon Thomas Sinclair,
  4. Col. R.H. Wallace, and
  5. 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.

Malcolmian aside

There was a tasty quip, complete with originals explanatory diagram, in Richard Cavendish‘s History Today anniversary reflection on Harington:

A witty and erudite figure at the court of Elizabeth I, John Harington is now remembered mainly for two things. One is his cynical epigram on treason: ‘Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.’ The other is his invention of the flush water closet.

Wilson: guilty or not guilty of the “Specials”?

Brian Bond, reviewing Keith Jeffrey’s biography for The Times Literary Supplement [May 2006], 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 (this 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” (stay with me on this one).

Bond, in that same review, said that Wilson’s blindness to Irish political realities contributed, “though indirectly and bizarrely”, to his assassination. I hesitate to say Wilson had it coming, but …


Let’s take it 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”.


22nd June, 1922, Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson left his London home to unveil yet another war memorial: this one at Liverpool Street rail station. Job done, at 2:30 pm he arrived home, at 36 Eaton Place, Knightsbridge.


Two 24-year-old men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan were waiting for him. Dunne’s own account:

Joe went in a straight line while I determined to intercept him from entreating the door. Joe deliberately levelled his weapon at four yards range and fired twice. Wilson made for the door as best he could and actually reached the doorway when I encountered him at a range of seven or eight feet. I fired three shots rapidly, the last one from the hip, as I took a step forward. Wilson was now uttering short cries and in a doubled up position staggered towards the edge of the pavement. At this point Joe fired once again and the last I saw of [Wilson], he had collapsed.

The two assassins then shot three more persons (two police, one passer-by) as they tried to escape. They were impeded, seriously, by Joe O’Sullivan having a wooden leg [!] Tried, convicted, they were hanged at Wandsworth Prison on 10th August 1922.

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”.

A wider embuggerance

As happens, when I’m just getting into my stride, a commenter felt regurgitating all this was not all pertinent to the thread Curragh Mutiny thread. So Barroso suggested a parallel topic on the run-up to WW1.

Fair enough. Even in that wider context Wilson’s contribution was poisonous. So first the context:


A key event was the second crisis over Morocco, a.k.a. the Agadir Crisis. During April/May 1911 the French pushed further into Morocco, entering Fez on 21st May. Germany warned this was contrary to the 1909 agreement. On 20-21 June, the French ambassador in Berlin, Jules Cambon, began negotiations with Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter to agree some form of compensation. What went wrong was:

  • the French wanted the Germans to make a demand, the Germans expected the French to open with an honourable offer;
  • there was a change in government in Paris (28 June), with Joseph Caillaux forming a new ministry.

Why Agadir, an insignificant port closed to foreign traders? Well, there were rumours of minerals in the mountains, and some explorations — including German firms — had centred there. On 1st July the German gun-boat Panther put into Agadir, “to protect German interests”. Chancellor Bethmann, equipped with a few requests for support from German firms (all submitted after the Panther had shown up), was mocked when he offered this to the Reichstag. Only one German was anywhere near Agadir, the local representative for Warburgs: he travelled seventy miles south to attract the Panther or Berlin, spent a day on the shore waving for attention, before he was finally “rescued”.


The light cruiser, Berlin, in that cartoon, had arrived a few days after the Panther. This escalation certainly put the frighteners on Justin de Selves, the French foreign minister, who responded with an appeal for French and British (under the Entente) warships to be despatched. Cooler heads in the Caillaux government and in Britain didn’t agree with de Selves.

This all went to harden the German position: they now demanded the whole of the French Congo (modern Congo-Brazzaville) as compensation for their “rights” in Morocco.

Back in Britain …

Enter, stage left, David Lloyd George, to thunder in a Mansion House speech (21 July) against any British interests in Morocco being sidelined. Since Lloyd George had, until then, been regarded in the peace party, this was significant. British Foreign Secretary Grey had the German ambassador promptly knocking his door down, and spitting feathers; but various negotiations continued to a bodged settlement.


Let’s make progress here …

Cutting a long story short (there was the Tripolitanian War about to kick off in September between Italy and Turkey), the whole episode provoked a meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence (23 August 1911) to review the entirety of British strategy — the only such reappraisal before 1914.

Present were:

  • Prime Minister Asquith,
  • Secretary of State for War Haldane,
  • ubiquitous Foreign Secretary Grey,
  • the two Liberal tyros in a double whiff of brimstone, Chancellor-of-the-Exchequer Lloyd George and Lord-of-the-Admiralty Churchill,
  • Henry Wilson as Director of Military Operations for the Army, and
  • First Sea Lord Admiral-of-the-Fleet Arthur Wilson.

Henry Wilson delivered a scintillating presentation, defining the position on the near Continent, and plans for an expeditionary force.

Arthur Wilson, by contrast, waffled (Asquith thought his briefing “puerile”). He objected to the Navy being reduced to mere transport functions, and proposed instead a blockade of Germany.

The result was Churchill had Arthur Wilson booted out, generated an Admiralty war room to support an expeditionary force, and — a significant first — meant the Navy and the Army were singing from the same hymn-sheet.

Bottom line

What I find significant in all this is how Henry Wilson consistently was the hard-liner. He took the view “we must join France” (his own emphasis in a paper to the general staff), that Russia was a broken reed, and all that could save Europe from German domination was the ability to mobilise and dispatch a credible British Expeditionary Force.



Filed under History, Ireland, Irish Times, Trinity College Dublin

3 responses to “Henry Wilson, reviled and revisited.

  1. Peter Townroe

    In the light of Sir Henry’s ‘consistent hard line’, do you agree with the Max Hastings line that soft pedals the British government role (along with the other leaders of the five key national players ) in kicking off WW1?

    • Malcolm Redfellow

      Gosh: need to think that one.

      Instant reaction: there were two factions in the makers of UK policy, and Wilson was loading the shots (if not actually firing them) for the war party.

  2. Malcolm Redfellow

    A quickie: see Hastings, page 38 (this is also 1911):

    Henry Wilson … was not impressed by ‘the grasp of the situation possessed by Grey and Haldane, Grey being the most ignorant & careless of the two, he not only had no idea of what war means but he struck me as not wanting to know … an ignorant, vain & weak man quite unfit to be the Foreign Minister of any country larger than Portugal’.

    So no arrogance there, then.

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