Field-Marshal, Sir Henry Wilson: imperial soldier, political failure

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Volume 13

On 22 June 1922 Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson fulfilled a long-standing invitation to unveil a memorial in the booking-hall at Liverpool Street Station, dedicated to employees of the Great Eastern Railway Company who had died in action during the First World War. The field-marshal had recently retired from the army as chief of the imperial general staff (CIGS) to embark on a career at Westminster as the Unionist member for North Down. Within this short period of time he had already made a suitably favourable impression on a large number of his parliamentary colleagues. Indeed, the celebrity afforded by his military credentials and parliamentary position ensured that invitations to address Unionist associations across the UK were never in short supply. Universities, both ancient and Victorian, showered him with honorary degrees, while requests to unveil provincial war memorials were regularly made. At the Liverpool Street ceremony he spoke of the fallen, ‘in doing what they thought right, they paid the penalty’—words given greater potency by subsequent events, for within hours of unveiling the memorial Wilson was assassinated on the steps of his home at Eaton Square by two Irish republicans.
The assassination provoked both revulsion and re-evaluation within British political circles. For backbench Unionist MPs, restive at their party’s coalition with Lloyd George, responsibility for Wilson’s premature and violent death rested with the government and its flawed Irish policy. Indeed, it did not take long for the unhappy coalition to disintegrate and the ‘Welsh wizard’ to be banished to the political sidelines. In the short term, Wilson’s posthumous reputation was secured by his military attributes and skills as a strategist. However, this rather gallant interpretation suffered a significant dent five years later when Major-General Charles Callwell, a close confidant, published a two-volume authorised biography.

The diaries

Callwell’s research focused on Wilson’s diaries, which had been religiously kept from 1893 until his death. So impressed was Callwell with the contents that, possibly at the instigation of Lady Wilson, he decided to reproduce large sections. On publication, the biography created a storm as Callwell had included a number of Wilson’s stinging rebukes of prominent politicians, as well as details of his intrigues and opposition to figures within the Liberal government. Callwell’s statement in the ‘author’s note’ that, owing to Sir Henry’s outspoken nature, ‘it has been found expedient to omit some passages, even though of undoubted interest, and that it has been thought desirable to exclude some of the forcible expressions concerning individuals which find a place in these records’, can only have exacerbated matters further.
The upshot of the biography’s publication was that Wilson’s standing plummeted. In the world of Edwardian high politics, it now transpired that he had been a key clandestine operator, to the extent that the historian George Dangerfield noted in The strange death of Liberal England (1935) that by his machinations the War Office ‘was slowly being honeycombed with Tory intrigue’. The man who had helped to win the war and had been lionised in death now seemed little more than a political agitator attempting to undermine Asquith’s administration by fair means or foul. Callwell’s well-meaning naïvety undoubtedly influenced the tone of subsequent works in the treatment of Wilson and it is not unreasonable to assume that when Asquith and Lloyd George came to write their autobiographies they were still smarting from the invective levelled against them from the pages of his diary. To Asquith, Wilson was ‘not a man whom I would trust’, while Lloyd George considered him ‘an intense and intriguing politician all the days of his life’. Score-settling this certainly was, and it would have given them satisfaction to know that this interpretation has remained largely unchallenged since.

Birth and empire

These opinions, however, tell only part of the story. Perhaps personal circumstances and events nurtured Wilson’s penchant for intrigue rather than mere contact with high politics. After all, Wilson was a man shaped by his times, birth and profession. The future CIGS was born into the middle rungs of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy in 1864. His family traced their origins in Ireland back to the landing of William III at Carrickfergus in 1690, when they settled at Rashee, Co. Antrim. The family fortune was made a century later, in trade, by his great-grandfather, Hugh Wilson, through a shipping business based in Belfast. On Hugh’s death the inheritance was used to purchase estates in the south of Ireland, one of which, at Currygrane, Co. Longford, was where Henry Wilson was born and raised.
As the second son, with no prospect of inheriting the estate, Wilson gravitated towards another traditional Anglo-Irish outlet, the army. Although unsuccessful in gaining admission to Sandhurst thrice and Woolwich twice, he finally entered the services in 1882 by way of the militia. Wilson’s military career began as Britain reached its late Victorian zenith, the era when it was said that the sun would never set on this vast empire, a spirit romantically captured by Disraeli, with his imperial ideal aspiring to ‘the durability of Rome and the adventure of Carthage’. Wilson’s background and conservative outlook made him favourably disposed not only towards imperial expansion but also towards the consolidation and longevity of empire.
Wilson saw action in the Boer War, significant for the fact that he strengthened his connections with a seasoned military practitioner of party politics and fellow Irishman, Field-Marshal Earl Roberts. Roberts was to act as an important patron for the advancement of Wilson’s career, and recommended him for the post of commandant of the staff college at Camberley in 1907. Roberts was also becoming actively involved in Unionist politics, from the campaign for conscription, through opposition to the Parliament Act (which abolished the Lords’ veto) and Home Rule. For Wilson this connection had obvious drawbacks—after all, the army did not explicitly mix business with politics. Roberts’s unquestionably diehard politics, coupled with Wilson’s deep reverence and affection for the ‘little chief’, no doubt strengthened and refined the outlook of the future CIGS. In view of Roberts’s rank and assiduous cultivation of Unionist politicians from the 1880s onwards, Wilson perhaps received an impression of what he, too, might be able to get away with in the future. A move to the War Office in 1910 presented him with an opportunity to find out.

Political apprenticeship

Henry Wilson’s new posting was in the highly sensitive role of director of military operations (DMO). His political appetite was whetted both by the selection of the Canadian-born son of the manse Andrew Bonar Law as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party and by the threat of Home Rule. Reputedly at the suggestion of his wife, Wilson decided to seek out Law and a meeting was arranged at the house of a mutual friend, where a two-hour conversation took place on foreign affairs. Wilson seemed impressed with the leader of the opposition, noting that ‘he gives me the impression of being thoroughly honest and upright, anxious and determined to do all in his power to save the country’. A long-standing relationship was initiated, and both men saw each other regularly in the pre-war period, giving Wilson the opportunity to air opinions on the Liberals and their Irish policy, while Law received invaluable inside information relating to the state of the nation’s defences and the attitude of the army to Home Rule. Lord Blake correctly observed that Wilson ‘seems to have regarded it as quite compatible with his official duties to pass confidential information . . . [to Law] . . . where such information might be of value in the struggle against Home Rule’.
With the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill on 11 April 1912, the Unionist campaign of opposition began. Law’s pledge at Blenheim, that he ‘could imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them’, showed the sort of mettle, at least in public, of which the leader of the opposition was made. Wilson certainly approved, and in 1913, when informed of the plans being formulated by the Unionists for taking de jure control of Ulster, recorded that they were, ‘as far as I could judge, all very sensible’.
Increasingly obvious to Wilson was that Unionist preparations to resist the passing and implementation of Home Rule would bring them into conflict with the government, and that the thankless task of enforcing such a measure would fall to the army. Discussing the situation with Sir John French (then CIGS) in 1913, he concluded: ‘I cannot bring myself to believe that Asquith will be so mad as to employ force. It will split the army and the colonies, as well as the country and the Empire.’ On a visit to Law, Wilson explained ‘that there was much talk in the army, and that if we were ordered to coerce Ulster there would be wholesale defections’. He cared little that such activities could be considered overtly political as the ends ultimately justified the means.
In public, he was beginning to stick his head above the parapet. A trip to Belfast in January 1914, ostensibly for the purpose of delivering a lecture on the Balkans, was followed by a visit to the Ulster Union office, where he observed that ‘there is no doubt of the discipline and spirit of men and officers. I must come over later and see the troops at work.’ So intoxicated was he with that fortifying Edwardian cocktail of diehard politics laced with Ulster patriotism that at a meeting with the secretary of war, Colonel Seely, he spoke candidly on the north of Ireland:

‘[that] the Government are done. That they have bumped up against 100,000 men who are in deadly earnest, and that, as neither the cabinet nor Englishmen are ever in earnest about anything, Ulster was certain to win.’

The Curragh incident, arising out of government attempts to reclaim the initiative from the Unionists, provided Henry Wilson with an opportunity to realise his imperial ideals and ensured that he was not destined to be a mere historical footnote.

The Curragh incident

It now seems unlikely that there was ever a serious intention to coerce Ulster into accepting Home Rule, but through poor communication, ineptitude and bad timing the government’s actions in 1914 appeared to suggest the opposite. With the rise of the volunteer movements on both sides of the Irish divide, the government viewed the securing of arms depots across Ireland as essential. The officers of the Third Cavalry Brigade under Brigadier-General Hubert Gough, based at the Curragh camp near Dublin, were ordered to protect those in key northern towns. The orders were refused, as the officers judged that their true intention was to coerce Ulster and they handed in their resignations.
Wilson was one of the first to hear the news in London, when Hubert’s brother, General John Gough, came to see him at the War Office. The next morning Wilson informed Law of this conversation, and then personally set about salvaging army unity whilst attempting to scupper the Liberal government. He intimated to his diary that ‘I am more than ever determined to resign, but I cannot think of a really good way of doing it’. As he was being courted on a regular basis by Bonar Law and the editor of The Times, and motivated by the distinct possibility that Asquith might be forced out, it probably seemed more beneficial to be shaping events on the inside rather than sniping from the fringes.
The government, anxious to quash the crisis, provided Hubert Gough with a written guarantee that they would only order troops to assist the civil power in keeping law and order. Wilson considered that this pledge would be ineffective in the event of Home Rule becoming law. After some negotiation, a slightly amended version—two additional paragraphs had been drafted by Seely—was provided to Wilson and Gough. This proved broadly acceptable, but clarification was required on one minor point: what was meant by troops not being used to suppress ‘political opposition’ to Home Rule? Accordingly, they solicited written clarification from Sir John French, who obliged by confirming their interpretation that troops would not be employed to force Ulster to accept the then Home Rule Bill.
Wilson sensed that as French had acted on his own initiative—a rare event—in providing this final confirmation his position was vulnerable. What aggravated matters further was that the final draft given to Wilson did not have cabinet approval, and therefore not only French but also eventually Seely, who had added the offending paragraphs, had to resign. With the crisis continuing unabated, the government realised that there was absolutely no prospect of the army being a willing participant in the enforcement of Home Rule. Wilson retained a hope that the government might reconsider French’s resignation, but this was small beer compared to the gratification he received from Lord Milner’s comment that ‘they talk a lot about Gough, but the man who saved the Empire is Henry Wilson’. In this new role of imperial guardian, Wilson urged Law to smash the government, as ‘it was now his business to drive the wedge deep into the cabinet’. Summing up, Wilson intimated to his diary that it had all been ‘a good day’s work’.
Of course, the government did not fall, nor did Asquith resign. The army remained united, though professionally scarred, and Home Rule would be placed on the statute book, albeit subject to amendment on the cessation of European hostilities. For those few animated days in March 1914 Henry Wilson’s diehard stock rocketed in this right-wing bull market. Unfortunately for him a downturn was just around the corner, as Asquith, who had assumed Seely’s portfolio, now discovered the extent of Wilson’s intrigues with the opposition. Writing much later, Asquith claimed that he considered disciplinary action against the DMO, but in a rare moment of magnanimity stated that instead he was ‘anxious to promote a temper of appeasement’. The mood, however, was too volatile to consider any form of censure against Wilson, as symbolically he would have become a Unionist martyr, and given the uncertain international picture Asquith realised that he would have to call on his military and organisational talents sooner rather than later. In the event, Wilson demonstrated his prowess by successfully mobilising and transporting the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1914. However, memories of March 1914 did not recede, and as the war progressed he became increasingly marginalised, even turned down for several promotions. It was not until Asquith’s resignation in 1916 that the new prime minister, Lloyd George, brought Wilson back to the centre of events and, in 1918, appointed him CIGS.

Rehabilitation and reaction

To Lloyd George, Sir Henry ‘was the greatest strategist we possess’, a remarkable tribute from a Liberal politician. Familiarity with his political masters and their decision-making processes disillusioned Wilson, and he accorded them the sobriquet ‘frocks’. On one occasion he noted in despair that ‘apparently one of the Frocks is leaking badly to The Times, and Lloyd George said it was really impossible to carry on secret conversations if they were always given away. They all protested the danger and their horror and all mistrusted each other. What a crowd.’ Of course, this reaction is understandable, although somewhat ironic, given Wilson’s past conduct.
The end of European hostilities ushered in a new and uncertain age for Britain, both domestically and abroad. Wilson found lots to object to, from the League of Nations—its domination by politicians and anti-imperial agenda greatly irritated him—to Ireland and the rise of Bolshevism. Ireland showed him at his most reactionary. Wilson considered that the increase in violence meant that the country should be subdued by military force; although he disapproved of the use of the Black and Tans—or ‘chaos and ruin’—Ash notes that ‘he was not opposed to them on humanitarian grounds’. He was frustrated that the cabinet appeared to be abdicating its responsibilities in Ireland and believed that it should be calmed by regular military measures, including the declaration of martial law. For Wilson there were larger issues at stake, including the effect that events in Ireland might have on the colonies. As he noted in 1921, ‘the surrender to the murder gang in Ireland is going to have a deplorable and very immediate effect on Palestine, Egypt, and India’. Lloyd George’s negotiations with Sinn Féin and the worsening Irish situation were perhaps the thin end of the wedge for Wilson and led to the disintegration of their increasingly fragile relations, which deteriorated to the extent that, in his last eight months as CIGS, the two men barely spoke.
With his term as CIGS nearing an end, Wilson turned his attention to an alternative career. When out of work for a few months in 1916, he speculated that if he did not receive employment soon he would certainly end up in ‘mischief’, meaning Westminster. As in 1916, in 1922 there was no shortage of safe seats on offer, and after a process of elimination Wilson was returned unopposed as the Unionist member for North Down.
Wilson, as a diehard, and in common with many of his new colleagues, was hostile to the Lloyd George coalition. Lord Carson and Wilson had even discussed ‘forming a real Conservative Party’ reflecting right-wing dissatisfaction with the then state of party politics. Sir Henry confided to his diary: ‘it is a curious feeling, being an MP at 57, after 40 years of soldiering. I was much struck with my reception everywhere. Everyone seems to think that I am going to do something in the House of Commons. I wonder, am I?’ His contributions, albeit few, were well received, even by opponents. Asquith noted that on his maiden speech Wilson ‘spoke very well, and shortly, which is a real merit’.
Time, however, was not on his side. A matter of months after being elected, Wilson was assassinated. Westminster, in a state of shock, automatically granted a state funeral with burial in St Paul’s Cathedral. The thoroughfares were thronged with mourners as the gun-carriage bearing Wilson’s body processed sombrely along the damp grey streets, and fittingly the anthem of the Ulster Covenanters, Oh God, our help in ages past, featured on the order of service. Appropriately, he rests in the crypt beside his patron, Earl Roberts, ‘the little chief’—two soldiers united in imperial dreams and political failure.
The principal issue that brought Sir Henry Wilson into the political arena was the land of his birth. Home Rule and the imperial consequences that stemmed from Irish self-government prompted him to intervene in the political game and, owing to his inability to compromise deeply held beliefs, led him ultimately to lose. In the space of four years, the faux splendour of the Edwardian age was replaced by the tragedy of the first world war, and the national agenda was shaped by the need to find practical solutions to deal with a much-altered political and social landscape. Accordingly, fundamental principles were now brushed aside in favour of pragmatism and, for many former diehard Unionists, high office. It is small wonder that Wilson was left frustrated and bewildered by the pace of change and apparent lack of direction after 1918. Enoch Powell spoke of all political careers ending in failure. Wilson was no exception—his parliamentary career may only have lasted a matter of months, but it was that other, clandestine political career that tarred his reputation and ensured that his name remained synonymous with intrigue and reaction.
Yet there was wit, good humour and kindness too. Sir Henry was far from the one-sided character that extant politicians with bruised egos and some historians would have us believe. Wilson’s diaries were peppered with amusing vignettes and observations, and perhaps it is appropriate to conclude on that note: on a visit to the Western Front in 1915, Asquith dined with the officers, and over dinner remarked to French: ‘it is a curious thing, Field-Marshal, that this war has produced no great generals’. Sir Henry, quick as a fox, retorted: ‘No, Prime Minister, nor has it produced a statesman’.

Mark Coulter is a writer and researcher based in London.

Further reading:

B. Ash, The lost dictator, a biography of Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson (London, 1968).

R. Blake, The unknown prime minister: the life and times of Andrew Bonar Law 1858–1923 (London, 1955).

C.E. Callwell, Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, his life and diaries, 2 vols (London, 1927).


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