Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: a political soldier

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson a political soldier 1Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: a political soldier
Keith Jeffrey
(Oxford University Press, £40, €57)
ISBN 9780198203582Sir Henry Wilson has not been treated well by historians. As a soldier, he rose to the top of his profession and played a significant role in formulating Allied policy after 1917, which contributed to victory over the Central Powers the following year. His violent death in 1922 at the hands of two Irish Republicans on his own doorstep provoked widespread revulsion and gave the establishment an opportunity to eulogise and mourn the passing of Britain’s second-youngest appointed field marshal after Wellington. His reputation plummeted five years later with the publication of Charles Callwell’s biography, officially sanctioned by Wilson’s widow, containing extended and often indiscreet extracts from Sir Henry’s diaries. Instead of being cast as a grand strategist, he was now depicted as a ruthless careerist and schemer, passing into military folklore and historical footnote as the ‘political general’. A hagiography of sorts appeared in the early 1960s as an attempt to redress the balance, but seven years later Bernard Ash produced The lost dictator. This flawed effort cast Wilson as a prospective Cromwellian ‘dictator’, not unlike Ian McKellan’s sinister and militaristic interpretation of Richard III. Wilson’s historical standing has suffered as a consequence, so a proper interpretation has long been overdue.
Jeffery is strong on the military aspects of Wilson’s career. The early years are covered well, including his service in Burma and South Africa during the Boer War. The former is notable as Wilson received the prominent scar above his right eye after an encounter with a few disgruntled Burmese bandits. Jeffery reviews Wilson’s stint as commandant of the staff college at Camberley. He was clearly in his element as a lecturer and instructor, though according to Jeffery he began to ‘trespass on political matters’ through veiled criticism of government policy. In addition, he attempted to develop a school of thought that on the one hand involved establishing uniform practices throughout the army and on the other aligning Britain with France to the detriment of Germany. Not everyone was enthusiastic, one critic describing Wilson as the ‘von Moltke of the British army’ and that ‘the general staff was to be a sort of Jesuit community with Henry Wilson at the top and the rest nowhere’.
Wilson, in common with his military colleagues, such as Douglas Haig and Neville Macready, was not overly fond of politicians, who were simply dismissed as ‘frocks’. His political reputation, however, stems from his conduct during the 1914 Curragh incident, through his intrigues with the Unionist opposition and his attempts to weaken/depose the Liberal government. What sort of ‘politician’ was Wilson? Like Sir Edward Carson, he appears to have been drawn to politics by constitutional threats to the Union, rather than simply by a desire to appear in the ‘monkey-house at Westminster’. His early political sympathies appeared to rest with the Liberal Unionists, in particular Joseph Chamberlain. As Jeffery notes, ‘Wilson, the keen military moderniser, was no conservative for conservatism’s sake. Indeed, it might be hazarded that he was mainly a conservative for unionism’s sake.’
Aside from the Curragh incident, where his role in wringing concessions out of the government is described by the author as ‘a kind of pre-emptive mutiny’, party politics did not play too prominently with Wilson, although his desire to be rid of Henry Asquith should not be overlooked. He did consider entering the House of Commons in 1917 to lead a new parliamentary grouping, but the response from Carson regarding a seat in Ulster was lukewarm. Fortuitously for Wilson, his career prospects appeared to be in the ascendant when the new prime minister, David Lloyd George, spotted his unutilised talents, thereby shelving any parliamentary ambitions he may have had.
Despite his reputation, Wilson did not monopolise intrigue within the upper echelons of the armed forces and was, on occasion, its victim, for example when denied promotion within the British Expeditionary Force on account of William Robertson’s lobbying of the king. In essence, these ‘politics’ were not too dissimilar from those that one might find in any modern workplace. However, he was not entirely innocent. When Lloyd George appointed Wilson to the supreme war council at Versailles, he viewed the possibility of returning to London as chief of the imperial general staff with slight dismay, as he ‘would rather stay here provided always that I am given more & more power’.
On Ireland, Jeffery notes that Wilson displayed reactionary tendencies. His post-war political antenna was certainly out of touch with the deteriorating situation in his home country. He lamented the government’s apparent inability to suppress the rebels—‘a plague of agitators who at any time can be put in their proper place’—perceiving that all that was required was the enforcement of law and order. On the other hand, he was totally opposed to Lloyd George’s preferred tool, the Black and Tans (‘8,000 scallywags’), desiring, according to Jeffery, ‘a firm and robust military campaign’. Of course, this would have been impractical, although it does reveal the extent of Wilson’s lack of political nous, which eventually precipitated his split with that much more skilled practitioner Lloyd George.
On a personal level, Wilson was an outgoing and amusing character.  He took a wry view of his portrait by Sir William Orpen (which appears on the book’s front cover), noting that it was ‘going to fetch the biggest price any portrait ever fetched. There are going to be two bidders—one is Scotland Yard; the other is Madame Tussaud’s.’ His diaries provide an invaluable insider’s view of contemporary figures. Liberals do not fare well, in particular Asquith (‘Squiff’ owing to his penchant for a tipple), but Unionists were not immune from the sharp edge of Wilson’s tongue either. Sir James Craig was dismissed as ‘very second rate’, while Andrew Bonar Law was paid the backhanded compliment of being ‘a nice decent Christian, but lacking in character’.
Jeffery’s biography, whilst academic, is well researched and, though impartial, is not unsympathetic to its subject. Given the wide variety of sources consulted, a large number primary, it is clearly the fruit of many years spent delving through the archives. There is a strong emphasis on the military aspects of Wilson’s life, though less on the political. We learn little of Wilson’s relations with prominent Unionists such as Law and Carson, despite his regular dealings with them during the Home Rule crisis and after. Even Asquith’s disdain towards Wilson does not become apparent in the narrative until his promotion is blocked, whereas in reality it had already manifested itself after the Curragh incident. The discussions of Wilson’s role as a security advisor to the Northern Ireland government and his (short) stint in the House of Commons are much too brief. This is regrettable, as we do not get a broader sense of the political environment that Wilson was entering and how he hoped to effect (or halt) change.
On the whole, this is a long-overdue biography, which places the subject firmly within his era and is both measured and insightful. For some, Jeffery’s portrait will not rescue Wilson from history’s rogues’ gallery, but it fills a huge gap in our understanding of this most exuberant of personalities. I am certain that it will stand as the authoritative work for many years to come.                           Mark Coalter
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