Blog #1, June 2022: Sir Henry Hughes Wilson
On 22nd June 1922, Field-Marshall Sir Henry Hughes Wilson walked through the streets of Belgravia in full military uniform, having just unveiled the Great Eastern Railway War Memorial at Liverpool Street Station. When he reached 36 Eaton Place, he was fatally shot by two members of the Irish Republican Army. The death of Wilson, who had been one of the most senior British army officers of the First World War, and who at the time of his assassination was MP for North Down in Northern Ireland, caused widespread horror and dismay across the United Kingdom. A full state funeral was held at St Paul’s Cathedral on the 26th June. In Winchester, where Wilson’s regiment (the Rifle Brigade) had been based during the war, a memorial was erected in the Cathedral, where it remains today.
Born in County Longford, Ireland, in 1864, Wilson attended Marlborough College before pursuing his aspiration to join the British Army. He rose through the ranks, being given the command of the Staff College at Camberley, then, in 1910, the appointment of Director of Military Operations at the British War Office.
When war began in 1914, Wilson took responsibility for the dispatch of the British Expeditionary Force to France. During 1915, Wilson briefly saw active military service when he was given command of the 4th corps based around Bethune, but his reputation suffered when the enemy captured a substantial portion of his line. In 1916, Wilson was selected to be the British military representative on what turned out to be a futile Anglo-French mission to Russia. When Lloyd George became Prime Minister in 1916, Wilson’s star was again in the ascendant. Gaining the ear of the Prime Minister, Wilson found himself at the centre of British military and strategic policy making, attending cabinet meetings almost daily. Pressing Lloyd George to improve the co-ordination of policy making between the Allied powers saw Wilson’s appointment as the British Permanent Military Representative on the Supreme War Council at Versailles.
Wilson’s reputation throughout his military career was mixed, as some colleagues saw him as an underhand politician rather than a soldier. His repute among his colleagues in the British Army was, in particular, affected by his keen political interests in Ireland, driven by his passionate commitment to maintaining the union of the United Kingdom. Wilson was sympathetic to armed resistance towards those who threatened home rule in Ireland, and moreover, played a central role in the ‘Curragh incident’ of 20th March 1914. Despite the fact Parliament was then in the motion of passing Asquith’s Irish Home Rule Bill, Wilson privately encouraged a number of officers based at the Currah Camp (the British Army’s main base in Ireland) to resign or accept dismissal rather than follow orders to conduct military operations against the Ulster unionists. For historian, Keith Jeffrey, these activities earned Wilson a ‘reputation for intrigue which blackened him in the eyes of Liberal politicians and some army colleagues’.
The incident also made Wilson a target for the Irish Republican Party, as did the continuation of his efforts to maintain union throughout the war and afterwards. Wilson was disgusted with Lloyd George’s efforts to negotiate with the Irish nationalist leaders, and effectively conspired against the Prime Minister’s political stance towards Ireland during the Irish War of Independence between 1917-21. Wilson criticised the government’s deployment of paramilitary police, maintaining that ordinary troops should be sent over and martial law be declared, and he opposed the truce of 1921. With the partition of Ireland enacted on 3rd May 1921, Wilson became a military advisor to the new Northern Ireland government in 1922 and was elected as MP for North Down. He put forward policies including the formation of an Ulster army to overturn partition. Although Wilson disapproved of the killing of many Catholic non-combatants by the Ulster Special Constabulary, in the eyes of the Irish Republican Army he was complicit and responsible, which sealed his fate.
The murder of Wilson on 22nd June 1922 had a profound impact, inadvertently contributing to the outbreak of the Irish Civil War just six days later. The cabinet ministers who worriedly gathered at 10 Downing Street after news of his assassination broke suspected it was the Anti-Treaty forces (a subdivision of the original Irish Republican Army) who were responsible. Although this would prove not to be the case, their suspicion confirmed the growing opinion that firmer action needed to be taken.
Written by Clemmie Beresford (Volunteer)