Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson was a career soldier who ended his military career as chief of the imperial general staff (CIGS), the very apex of his profession.
The Wilson family claimed to have arrived in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, with William of Orange in 1690, but may well have lived in the area prior to that. Margaret Wilson, the younger of the two Wigtown martyrs executed by drowning for refusing to swear an oath declaring James VII and II as head of the church, was a member of the Wilson family.
In Ulster the Wilsons prospered in the Belfast shipping business in the late 18th and early 19th century and following the Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 became landowners in counties Dublin, Westmeath and Longford. Wilson’s father James, the youngest of four sons, inherited Currygrane in Ballinalee, Co Longford (1,200 acres, worth £835 in 1878), making him a middling landowner but insufficient to make him as a ‘Big House’ Ascendancy landlord.
James Wilson served as a high sheriff, a justice of the peace and deputy lieutenant for Longford. He and his eldest son James Mackay Wilson attended Trinity College, Dublin. There is no record of Land League activity on the estate. In the 1960s Sean MacEoin, the principal figure in the IRA leadership in Longford, remembered the Wilsons as having been both fair landlords and employers.
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Born at Currygrane, Henry Wilson was the second of James and Constance Wilson’s four sons (he also had three sisters). He was educated at Marlborough.
A soldier from the early 1880s, Henry rose to the command of the Staff College at Camberley, Surrey (1907-10). During this period he cultivated the friendship of his counterpart in the French war college, General (afterwards Marshal) Ferdinand Foch. This friendship may account for Wilson’s readiness to involve the UK in French strategy.
Henry’s family had a tradition of activism in Unionist politics. His father had stood for Parliament for South Longford in 1885 and his older brother James Mackay Wilson had contested North Longford in both 1885 and 1892. James Mackay Wilson was extremely active throughout his life in the Irish Unionist Alliance.
Henry was also an ardent unionist and played a contentious role in the Curragh incident (March 1914), encouraging officers to refuse to lead their troops in the coercion of Ulster.
On the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, the British government chose Wilson’s policy of fighting in France alongside the French rather than attacking the Germans in Belgium, the preferred strategy of the commander in chief, Field Marshal Earl Roberts.
Wilson agreed with Roberts, however, on the necessity of military conscription (not instituted until 1916 and not in Ireland). The smooth mobilisation of the standing army and its rapid movement to France in August 1914 may be credited largely to Wilson’s meticulous pre-war planning.
Wilson himself went to France as assistant CIGS.
In September 1917 he took over the Eastern Command, a position that enabled him to live in London and to become close to Lloyd George, the prime minister. As CIGS, the professional head of the army, from February 1918, he assisted Lloyd George in securing Foch’s appointment as supreme commander of the Allied armies on the Western Front.
Disagreeing with the government’s post-war Irish policy, Wilson, who had been promoted to field marshal (at 55 the youngest since the Duke of Wellington) and created a baronet (1919), was refused reappointment as CIGS by Lloyd George.
In February 1922 Wilson left the Army and entered the House of Commons as Unionist MP for North Down. In May he became an advisor to the Northern Ireland government on policing the border.
On the morning of June 22 1922, Wilson was returning to his home in Eaton Place, London, after unveiling the war memorial at Liverpool Street Railway Station, in London. He had just paid his taxi driver, and was searching for his keys, when two men came up behind him, pulled out revolvers and shot him. He tried to defend himself with his sword. His two murderers fired a total of nine bullets at Wilson before attempting to escape. They were eventually captured half a mile away from Eaton Square.
Wilson, aged 58, had been shot in the left forearm, twice in the right arm, twice in the left shoulder, in both armpits, and twice in the right leg. Both armpit wounds had fatally pieced Wilson’s lungs.
The killers were identified as Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan. Both were members of the IRA and aged 24. O’Sullivan had lost a leg at Ypres in the Great War and this had greatly impeded his escape. Instead of fleeing the scene on his own and possibly making his own escape, Dunne stayed to assist his colleague.
Both Dunne and O’Sullivan were jointly tried with the murder, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out in Wandsworth Prison on August 10 1922. On the same day the Wilson family home in Co Longford was burned to the ground.
Although Dunne and O’Sullivan claimed that they had acted alone (and this may have been so), Joe Sweeney, the pro-Treaty IRA commander in Co Donegal, met Collins shortly after the assassination. He told Ernie O’Malley: ‘Collins told me he had arranged the shooting of Wilson ... he looked very pleased’.
Frank Thornton, one of Collins’ Squad, recalled that the killing was carried out on the direct orders of GHQ.
The war memorial which Wilson unveiled at London’s Liverpool Street Rail Station can still be seen today.
A plaque was added after Wilson’s death, to commemorate his unveiling of this memorial on the morning of his murder. The inscription reads: ‘To the Memory of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson Bart, GCB, DSO, MP whose death occurred on Thursday 22 June 1922 within two hours of his unveiling the adjoining memorial.’
Wilson’s murder was the first assassination of an MP since that of Spencer Perceval in 1812 and Lord Frederick Cavendish in 1882 and the last until the assassination of Airey Neave in 1979.