Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: An Irish Soldier

Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: An Irish Soldier

Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: An Irish Soldier

Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: An Irish Soldier


Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, an Irishman who in June 1922 was assassinated on his doorstep in London by Irish republicans, was one of the most controversial British soldiers of the modern age. Before 1914 he did much to secure the Anglo-French alliance and was responsible for the planningwhich saw the British Expeditionary Force successfully despatched to France after the outbreak of war with Germany. A passionate Irish unionist, he gained a reputation as an intensely 'political' soldier, especially during the 'Curragh crisis' of 1914 when some officers resigned their commisssionsrather than coerce Ulster unionists into a Home Rule Ireland. During the war he played a major role in Anglo-French liaison, and ended up as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, professional head of the army, a post he held until February 1922. After Wilson retired from the army, he became an MP and was chief security adviser to the new Northern Ireland government. As such, he became a target for nationalist Irish militants, being identified with the security policies of the Belfast regime, though wrongly with Protestant sectarian attackson Catholics. He is remembered today in unionist Northern Ireland as a kind of founding martyr for the state. Wilson's reputation was ruined in 1927 with the publication of an official biography, which quoted extensively and injudiciously from his entertaining, indiscreet, and wildly opinionated diaries, giving the impression that he was some sort of Machiavellian monster. In this first modern biography,using a wide variety of official and private sources for the first time, Keith Jeffery reassesses Wilson's life and career and places him clearly in his social, national, and political context.


Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson (1864–1922) was one of the most controversial British soldiers of the modern age. Today, however, he is perhaps remembered more for the circumstances of his death than for the achievements of his career. On 22 June 1922, five months after he had retired as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Wilson was assassinated by two Irish republicans on his doorstep in Eaton Place, London. By some accounts he drew his sword, and might therefore be described as the only British field marshal ever to have ‘died in action’. a lifelong unionist from southern Ireland (though with Ulster forebears), by 1922 he had become a symbol of ‘repression’ in Ireland and, as chief security adviser to the new Northern Ireland government, he was identified with the uncompromisingly unionist administration in Belfast. Wilson was accorded a state funeral and is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. He was celebrated as one of the greatest of British soldiers, and a man who had played a crucial role in the Allied victory in the Great War. Five years later his reputation was ruined by the publication of an official biography, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, His Life and Diaries, by Sir Charles Callwell.

Callwell’s biographical method was to quote very extensively from Wilson’s voluminous diaries. the impression given by these all-too-quotable passages is that of an over-ambitious, self-serving monster, with such violent passions and prejudices as to appear at times actually unbalanced. Yet Wilson was admired and respected by many of his colleagues; and he served with distinction in a series of very senior and important positions in the British military hierarchy before, during, and after the First World War.

Wilson is frequently identified as a significant ‘player’ in the politico-military affairs of the time, though he rarely gets any extended treatment. A. J. P. Taylor describes him as ‘an articulate military adviser’ who ‘knew how to cajole civilians in high places’. Hew Strachan calls him ‘the most effective and decisive voice in British strategic counsels before 1914’. Niall Ferguson mentions ‘the kind of huge armies dreamt of by men like Erich Ludendorff and Henry Wilson’, without in any way explaining who Wilson was, let alone why he might be spoken of in the same breath as Ludendorff. David Fitzpatrick categorises Wilson as ‘Ulster’s most ingenious and influential military ally’, while for Brian Bond he was ‘one of Britain’s most exuberant, flamboyant, exotic, outspoken and even perhaps preposterous generals’.

Taylor, English History, 1914–45, 140–1. Strachan, The First World War, i, To Arms, 202.

Ferguson, The Pity of War, 105. Fitzpatrick, The Two Irelands, 46. Bond, British Military Policy between the Two World Wars, 28.

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