Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson

Ruaírí Ó Domhnaill reviews Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: a political soldier, by Keith Jeffery, Oxford University Press, ISBN ISBN10: 9780199239672, £19.99 pbk

WILSON WAS a controversial figure, a catalyst in a number of political and sectarian processes. Consequently, his biographers need particular tact. The author has risen to the challenge and produced a truly stimulating and commendable work.

Professor Jeffery describes Wilson's failings more charitably than Wilson's brother officers e.g. Haig, Robertson, Lyttleton and Gough. To Herbert Asquith, Wilson was "an indefatigable intriguer". These opinions have been indorsed more recently by Field Marshal Carver; the famous General Farrar-Hockley wrote that Wilson was "a man of intense ambition who appears to have enjoyed intrigue as much for its own sake as for the advancement of his own interests."

The author recounts how Wilson would "tease friends with quotations" from his diaries. Apart from his wife, it is difficult to find a contemporary who escaped Wilson's vitriol. His victims included his patron, Lord Roberts and -- unusually -- "our poor miserable king".

Paradoxically, Wilson was also a sycophant. In 1927, The Manchester Guardian published his letters to Lloyd George. In 1919, shortly after promotion to Field Marshal, receipt of a baronetcy and a gratuity of £10,000, he wrote to Lloyd George "… you almost alone won this war".

Wilson was born on the margins of polite society which formed the British "officer class". Hobsawm argues that acceptance into the English "upper classes" required "…education at a public school and/or at one of the two ancient universities….". By these criteria, Wilson barely qualified, being withdrawn from Marlborough after "less than three years", when his father heard of an increase in officer cadetships at Woolwich.

Despite the help of "crammers", Wilson never passed the examinations for Woolwich or Sandhurst, failing five times. He was forced to take a "backdoor commission" via the Longford Militia and 5th Royal Munster Fusiliers. During his brief experience of command during the Great War, he did not conceal his disdain for Irish militiamen.

Yet, without any marked military or academic success, he was promoted to Commandant of the Staff College, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal and the Cabinet's "first expert adviser of superior intellect". It is remarkable that this metamorphosis did not trigger an inquiry into officer selection methods.

His intelligence work on the French, German and Belgian borders before the Great War and his sometimes maverick determination to see a Franco-British alliance develop from the Entente Cordiale, were contributions to British policy.

Professor Jeffery asserts that the prime minister, David Lloyd George, "licensed" Wilson to be "political." Wilson had been engaged in party, class and sectarian politics for years. The number and range of his transgressions of the Official Secrets Acts, the Army Acts, the Treason Felony Act, King's Regulations (1912/1914) and the Manual of Military Law (1914), vastly exceeded in variety and number, those available to Irish republicans.

In 1914, Major-General Wilson was the senior mutineer at the time of the Curragh Mutiny. His diaries indicate that his role was recognised before news "broke" of the events in Ireland. Professor Jeffery uncompromisingly affirms that this "was not, in fact a mutiny…" but a few pages later, pronounces: "It was a kind of pre-emptive mutiny".

He acknowledges that Wilson championed "with a kind of atavistic fervour the cause of the most hidebound and reactionary elements in military and political life". Callwell (1927) recorded Wilson's pleasure when General Smuts acknowledged him as Britain's "Hindenburg and Ludendorff." Ludendorff's post-war escapades were not wholly dissimilar to those of Wilson and Associates.

Wilson condemned the excesses of the Black and Tans and marauding British soldiers; he believed that disciplined troops could more efficiently implement state terror in Ireland. Perhaps by way of balance, the author cites Seán MacEoin's defence of the Wilsons as landlords. However, this may be explained by his mother's fruitless appeal to Wilson, when MacEoin awaited execution.

The pertinence of a few references seems questionable, e.g. General Macready's description of Eamonn de Valera as a "Cuban Jew" and a Nazi's condemnation of Wilson's assassins, Reggie Dunne and Joe O'Sullivan. Readers may be tempted -- as the author may have wished -- to research some allusions e.g. the Fermoy arms raid. (The Manchester Guardian, September 1919, has several reports; the partisan Times, 9 September, has one.)

Based on a quixotic rumour that he drew his sword against his assassins, Wilson is described prominently on the dust jacket of the previously published hardback edition of the book as "the only British field marshal ever to die in action". The irony of mythologizing Wilson is that it confers on Reggie Dunne and Joe O'Sullivan the status -- not of "assassins" or "murderers" -- but of "enemy combatants".

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