Henry Wilson's Mischief: Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson's Rise to Power, 1917-1918

Article excerpt

Henry Wilson was the most politically adept member of the most politically aware generation of soldiers the British army has seen since the Commonwealth. He was, for this reason, disliked by most of his fellow soldiers, and distrusted by many politicians. The focus of Wilson's politics was the Irish Question - he was an Ulsterman - up until the time of his death at the hands of I.R.A. gunmen on the steps of his London home in 1922. Like all soldiers who become generals, Wilson was ambitious. Like most of the generals of his time, Wilson was quite prepared to use his politics either to advance his career or further the cause of whichever military policy he happened to be expounding at the moment. Like most humans, Wilson was perhaps never truly able to draw a line between what was best for himself, and what was objectively and generally best.

It is the purpose of this paper briefly to describe what it was about Wilson's political machinations - his self-confessed "mischief" - that brought him to the attention of a Lloyd George, not disposed to forgive his involvement in the prewar Ulster imbroglio, and saw Wilson rise from being a general without a job, and with no record of outstanding wartime service, in the summer of 1917, to become Chief of the Imperial General Staff (C.I.G.S.) in February 1918. Wilson, if we concede to his biographers that he was an able man, was also a political animal of considerable ability. The two pictures are not inconsistent; rather they are two sides of the same coin. Setting aside for a moment the fact that ambition and cunning are hardly unfavourable attributes in a man seeking leadership in time of war, had Wilson been merely able, it is highly unlikely that his talents would have had any chance for expression. In a leadership pond dominated by sharks like Lloyd George and Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, C.I.G.S. since 1915, Robertson, Wilson would have remained a footnote had he not been equally ruthless and devious. What follows is not to be read as an attempt to attack Wilson's character, but to fill a gap which endures; the while, perhaps, providing some little insight into the political context in which attempts to work a strategic revision proceeded.

Wilson owed his rise to two factors: firstly, his strategic views, by the summer of 1917, were much closer to those of Lloyd George than those of any other senior British general; and secondly - a factor largely forgotten - his political activities gained Wilson the prime minister's car and left Lloyd George little choice but to find Wilson useful employment. Had he not been useful, Lloyd George would never have used him; had Wilson not been dangerous, Lloyd George might never have become acquainted with how useful he might be. And yet, while there has been some discussion of Wilson's strategic views, his wartime political activities have received much less attention.

For the generation which had fought the war, when not entirely ignored, the nature and fact of Wilson's "mischief' seem to have been accepted as self-evident and therefore, as said without saying.(1) More recently, Wilson has become, in more general works, just another factor in the Lloyd George-Robertson duel.(2) For their part, his modem biographers (Basil Collier and Bernard Ash), while good on Wilson employed, are much less adequate on Wilson's activities while looking for a job. Both note Wilson's political manoeuvring in the summer-autumn 1917 and take his stated intention to enter politics if not found suitable employment seriously, but neither develops this theme.(3) This is an important omission. Wilson may have risen partly from merit, and partly because he was a useful counterbalance for the Haig(4)-Robertson(5) combine - which Lloyd George had come to hate, distrust and view as the principle barrier to a much desired redirection of the war away from the Western Front - but he rose, as well, because he made himself a political factor which could not be ignored. …