Share This Article

Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier

by Keith Jeffery, Oxford University Press, New York, 2006, $65.

Keith Jeffery, professor of British history at Queen’s University in Belfast, uses Sir Henry Wilson’s diaries, official documentation and military memoirs to tell the story of one of Britain’s most distinguished and controversial military leaders. His biography opens with perceptive insights into the status of what the author calls “England’s garrison in Ireland.” These Anglo-Irish Protestant families, whose sons included Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, Alan F. Brooke, Viscount Alanbrooke, Earl Harold Alexander of Tunis and Viscount Bernard Law Montgomery of El Alamein, served as officers in the British army and were the equivalent of the Prussian Junker class in Germany.

Born in County Longford in the Irish Midlands in 1864, Henry Wilson was one of seven children in a landowning family. Despite attendance at the prestigious English public school Marlborough, he failed to qualify for Sandhurst or Woolwich, but obtained a commission in the Longford Militia. Jeffery covers Wilson’s career through his various postings in Burma, where he was wounded, Britain and South Africa. He served with distinction during the Anglo-Boer War, but he also learned much from observing the failures in coordination and staff planning during that drawn-out and poorly conducted campaign.

Back in England, Wilson served in various staff positions. He was fluent in French, spent much time traveling in France and the Low Countries and established good relations with many French officers, including Ferdinand Foch. During World War I, he was active in conducting liaison with the French command on the Western Front. He was on the Allied Supreme War Council and in February 1918 became chief of the Imperial General Staff. Jeffery argues that “no other high ranking soldier in the British army could have made such a significant contribution both at home and to the maintenance of Britain’s principal foreign alliance as did Henry Wilson.”

After retirement, Wilson was regaled with a knighthood and a parliamentary seat. Although he considered himself Irish and was accepted as such by his brother officers, Wilson’s diary and his actions revealed a low opinion of his Catholic and nationalist countrymen. During the Irish Home Rule crisis prior to the war, Wilson campaigned against the bill to set up a local parliament in Dublin. He supported the Curragh Mutiny of officers in the Irish Command, who threatened to resign rather than disarm the Ulster Volunteers and to resist Home Rule by force if necessary. The outbreak of war in Europe postponed the threat of civil war, but after the armistice Wilson found the situation in Ireland had changed. The Republicans had staged an unsuccessful uprising in Dublin in 1916, just three months before the Battle of the Somme. By 1920, the Irish Republican Army was conducting an underground campaign against the British. The British tried to crush the rising and also partitioned Ireland by setting up a local government in Northern Ireland, where there was ongoing sectarian violence.

Distressed by the turn of events in his homeland, Wilson was in favor of using the army to suppress the uprising but was opposed to the slash-and-burn tactics of the irregular police force known as the Black and Tans. He also served as an adviser on security to the Northern Irish government, but he had a low opinion of Unionist politicians. He advised them to set up a nonsectarian police force to preserve law and order, but the author notes that “Opinions such as this were quite enough to put Wilson’s own life at risk.”

On June 22, 1922, Sir Henry Wilson was shot dead at the door of his home on Eaton Place, London, by two IRA gunmen. He received a state funeral at St. Paul’s, and his killers, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, were hanged for murder. In a twist of Irish irony, Dunne had served in the Irish Guards during the war, and O’Sullivan was a wounded veteran of the Royal Munster Fusiliers.


Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.