Field Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson was one of the most senior British Army staff officers of the First World War and was briefly an Irish unionist politician. Wilson served as Commandant of the Staff College, Camberley, and then as Director of Military Operations at the War Office. He played a large part in drawing up plans to deploy the British Expeditionary Force to France at the advent of the First World War. During this time he also involved himself in political intrigue. His family hailed from Carrickfergus in County Antrim and claimed that they had arrives in Ireland with William of Orange in 1690. The family were staunch Unionists with Wilson’s father and brother both unsuccessfully standing for election.
Ulster Volunteer Force
Wilson supported the Ulster Unionist, opponents of the Third Irish Home Rule Bill, which was due to become law in 1914. Wilson had learned from his brother Jemmy about plans to raise 25,000 strong militia backed up by another 100,000 “constables“. There were also plans to form a Provisional Government in Ulster to take control of banks and railways, which Wilson thought “all very sensible“. It is unclear whether he actually envisaged armed insurrection or hoped that the Government would back off. It would appear that the situation was heading for a standoff between the Unionists Ulster Volunteer Force and the British Army forces who were stationed in County Kildare.
Wilson actively used his position within the General Staff to try and get serving officers in Ireland to resign their commissions while also persuading their men to not take up arms against the Unionists. This was a very rare occurrence which had not happened since the English Civil War, in which elements of the British military openly intervened in politics. It is widely thought of as a mutiny, though no orders actually given were disobeyed.
The whole affair nearly brought down the Government with several high ranking ministers and members of the general Staff resigning. Wilson was not even reprimanded for his part and this could have been related to the situation in Europe and the imminent hostilities with Germany where he played a vital role in planning.
Following the war and the subsequent partition of Ireland and Civil War in 1920, Wilson was instrumental in focussing operations against the Catholic Sinn Fein Irish Republican Army. He was also very vocal in his displeasure with how the politicians handled the affair and called the Truce of 11 July 1921 “rank, filthy cowardice” on the part of the British Government. Wilson took a seat in the devolved Northern Ireland parliament, and in Nationalist eyes was blamed for the Ulster Constabulary’s stance in the growing sectarian violence, Irish revolutionary, soldier and politician Michael Collins calling him “a violent Orange partisan“. It was while a serving member of Parliament that Wilson proposed the strategy of forming an army to retake Southern Ireland back under British control.
Wilson’s London residence was 36 Eaton Place in Belgravia and on the morning of the 22nd June 1922 he took a taxi to Liverpool Street Railway Station where he unveiled the war memorial to the employees of the Great Eastern Railway who had died during the war. After the ceremony still dressed in full military uniform he returned home and after paying the taxi driver started to walk up the steps to his house. Two members of Irish Republican Army, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan stepped forward and shot Wilson at close range hitting him in the arm. Reports say that Wilson drew his sword and charged the men who shot him a further seven times before fleeing. Wilson managed to crawl up the steps of his house where he died before medical help could be called.
Two police officers and a chauffeur were also shot as the men attempted to avoid capture. O’Sullivan who had a wooden leg having lost the limb in World War I while serving as a British soldier was captured by an angry crowd and nearly lynched. Dunne, also a combat veteran of the British Army had returned to try to help O’Sullivan, both were saved from the mob by Police reinforcements. Convicted of murder, both men were hanged on 10 August 1922. It is thought that the assassination was sanctioned by Michael Collins