Timothy D. Hoyt
U.S. Naval War College | Views:

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Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson is generally acknowledged as one of the most significant and controversial military figures in early twentieth-century Britain. His work as a staff officer and planner, both before the First World War and as Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1918-1922, was widely acknowledged as brilliant, and earned him a promotion to Field Marshal at a very young age, despite a lacklustre operational career. He was often outspoken on political matters, and his increasing alignment with extreme Unionist positions on the Irish question delayed his promotion early in the First World War. His irascible criticism of post-war policy and strategy tarnished his reputation, which was further muddied by imprudent attacks on the government after his post-retirement election as the MP from North Down. His assassination on 22 June 1922, at the hands of two former British soldiers who were now members of the Irish Republican Army, shocked the British Cabinet and the world.

Ronan McGreevy’s new book, Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, MP, is a fascinating study of Wilson, the circumstances surrounding his assassination, and Ireland’s independence struggle.  This is an ambitious book – at almost 400 pages, it covers a great deal of ground – but McGreevy’s journalistic background stands him in good stead, and he creates a compelling, if sometimes confusing, narrative.

One of the key themes of the book is the examination of Wilson and his two killers (Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan). The story revolves around the irony that one of Britain’s most famous officers, born in Ireland, was killed by two decorated veterans of the British Army, in London (where they lived), on behalf of the Irish Republic. Dunne and O’Sullivan were former British soldiers who had joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and were connected with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The President of the latter, Michael Collins, a famous figure in the IRA, also became the leader of the new (southern) Provisional Government of Ireland, and his connection to the assassination is another theme of the book. As McGreevy demonstrates, there was utter confusion after the assassination. The captured killers used false names and there was no clear evidence trail linking them to outside groups or support. The trial was pro forma, and the executions hasty, but by that time conditions had changed in Ireland so dramatically that the fates of Dunne and O’Sullivan went almost unnoticed.

McGreevy’s examination of Dunne and O’Sullivan paints a fairly non-controversial picture: young men of Irish descent, living in London, serving in the British Army during the Great War (as hundreds of thousands of Irish did). Both seized on Irish nationalism as a social outlet and identity, and both freely joined the IRA in London despite suffering debilitating war wounds. Dunne, an IRA officer and IRB member, expressed some regrets about recruiting the one-legged O’Sullivan for a short-notice risky assassination attempt in broad daylight. Both thought it an appropriate soldierly action, justified by ongoing violence in Northern Ireland that they connected with Wilson and Britain. The question of whether Dunne and O’Sullivan were acting under orders or simply out of opportunity has never been fully resolved (see below).

The author’s portrayal of Wilson may be a bit more controversial. Wilson’s reputation has been fixed for a century: an arch-Imperialist, devout Unionist, possibly brilliant military strategist, and aggravatingly obnoxious political figure. McGreevy carefully examines some of the most inflammatory accusations – Wilson’s reported involvement with the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1914, his purported leadership role creating the sectarian “Special” police forces in Northern Ireland and the drafting of the Special Powers Act – and claims that he was a paid military advisor to the Northern Irish government. The author also points out important differences, particularly in 1922, between his harsh public support of Northern Ireland policy and his somewhat more prudent advice to Northern Irish leaders. In so doing, Wilson appears as slightly less of a proto-Fascist, an image that is easily conjured, and clearly a part of nationalist and Republican dogma beginning even before his death. Not all readers will be happy with this modest reinterpretation, but it does appear to be supported by the author’s research.

The chapter on Wilson’s early years condenses his war experience into a very short passage. Wilson made his reputation as a strategist, as a “political general,” and as a skillful planner of combined operations with coalition partners. A historical comparison might be Dwight Eisenhower, an officer known not for operational expertise but for his skillful handling of the Coalition war effort from 1943-1945. Eisenhower, too, went into politics after retirement, but is remembered as an admirable figure of restraint, compromise, and effectiveness. Such a comparison might highlight both the intellectual strengths and the temperamental flaws of Wilson. As a staff officer, Wilson was deemed brilliant by his contemporaries. As a leader, however, he was clearly flawed, opinionated, outspoken, choleric, and sometimes imprudent. In the words of his biographer Keith Jeffrey, “…Wilson’s judgment of a political situation [was often] skewed by a narrow military vision, reinforced, moreover, by an element of wishful thinking.”[1] In essence, he demonstrated some of the political-military strengths of Eisenhower and the flaws of Montgomery.

McGreevy’s study also raises an interesting question about loyalties and judgment.  Wilson’s diaries make clear his often-vitriolic disagreement with the Cabinet over strategy in Ireland, on issues including unofficial retaliation, use of British ex-soldiers in the police force, negotiations with the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership, and the Treaty itself and granting of Dominion status to the new Irish Free State. In each instance, Wilson argued for tougher action, using military forces rather than police or paramilitaries, backed by new laws or martial law to brutally crush the rebellion. In the case of Northern Ireland, however, he appears to have privately counselled Northern Irish leaders to moderate their policies, even while vocally supporting them and condemning the government as part of the Die-Hard faction. While Wilson was clearly a loud and imprudent politician (for a former military leader) in the months after his retirement, is this an indicator of a moderation in temperament as he left his military career behind? Or of a stronger loyalty, demanding greater prudence, for the new Unionist state than he held for the Empire?

The story of the assassination attempt and trial could be told in about 200 pages. McGreevy, to his credit, writes a much longer book, providing context and evidence for his eventual conclusions. These include a useful synopsis of IRA efforts in Great Britain from 1919-1922 (Chapter Seven), a careful examination of the national and international response to the killing (Chapter Eight), and a list of IRA escape attempts in both Ireland and Great Britain from 1916-1922 (Chapter Nine). He also discusses the efforts to rescue Dunne and O’Sullivan by both pro- and anti-Treaty IRA elements, and an abortive attempt to kidnap the Prince of Wales as a hostage. These are of great interest and contribute significantly to the value of the book for the general reader.

Another critical theme in the book is the idea that Wilson’s assassination was Ireland’s “Sarajevo moment” (the title of the concluding chapter). This important argument is somewhat muted by the length and detail of the supporting chapters, but richly deserves emphasis and examination, well beyond the obvious metaphor of an assassination leading to a bloody war.

Wilson’s assassination occurred at an extraordinarily sensitive time in Irish politics. A covert campaign by the IRA to destabilize Northern Ireland had failed dismally. Disaffected IRA factions, claiming to represent 60-80% of the IRA membership, had seized control of judicial buildings in Dublin. The new Constitution of the Irish Free State, revealed on the day of an election in mid-June, confirmed fears that a Republican constitutional option had been rejected by the British. That election demonstrated that opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 was much smaller than expected: only 22% of the electorate voted for the anti-Treaty candidates. On 18 June 1922, a vote by the anti-Treaty IRA faction resulted in a split in the movement, as more than 50% of the representatives rejected the proposal to resume war with Britain. A strengthened government, a weakened anti-Treaty IRA Executive, and the opportunity for anti-Treaty political leaders to take their place as a formal opposition party offered opportunities for Ireland to move forward while avoiding a civil war that most wanted desperately to avoid.

The assassination sent the British government into a frenzy, demanding an immediate attack by British forces in Dublin on the Four Courts, blaming Rory O’Connor (with no evidence) for the assassination. General Neville Macready wisely delayed an assault that might have reignited Anglo-Irish hostilities. The arrest of Leo Henderson, and the kidnapping of General J.J. “Ginger” O’Connell heightened the crisis. British leaders pushed the new Irish government to act against the Four Courts. Pressured by escalating tensions and based (perhaps) on a flawed estimate of the divisions between the Lynch and O’Connor anti-Treaty factions, the new government ordered an assault on the Four Courts, and initiated Ireland’s bloody Civil War.

Chapter Eleven discusses events in the Civil War, focused mostly on the early months. The inclusion of a section on the burning of Wilson’s family home (and other great houses) breaks the narrative flow in this chapter, and the final months of the conflict in 1923 are dealt with in a page and a half (328-329). There may be a missed opportunity here to compare the war Wilson wanted to fight in Ireland and the war that the Provisional (later Free State) government actually fought. For all the horrors of that conflict, and there were many, the diaries of Wilson, General Sir Neville Macready (commander of troops in Ireland) and Winston Churchill’s memoirs of the period suggest that the British were prepared to go much further.[2] Examining the use of artillery by the British army at Belleek during the truce period, and the more limited use by the Free State during the Civil War, might be one fruitful area of comparison.

McGreevy’s writing style is engaging. His story is often gripping, and mixes in popular culture (Michael Collins and Peaky Blinders), interesting historical connections (one of the killers went to school with Alfred Hitchcock and may have been a model for one of Hitchcock’s early protagonists), and historical comparisons (likening the impact of the assassination to the killing of Lord Mountbatten almost sixty years later). The story skips back and forth chronologically, which leads to some repetition and possible confusion, but generally the narrative maintains momentum and reader interest. There’s a certain level of irreverence (I don’t recall seeing the term “cack-handed” recently, but it emerges on p. 323 in reference to the Provisional Government’s handling of the death of Michael Collins), but that contributes to the overall readability.

In the conclusion, McGreevy lays out the four plausible explanations for the assassination: that Dunne and O’Sullivan acted alone, that the anti-Treaty leadership had something to do with it, that they acted on pre-Treaty orders still in place from 1921, or that Collins/GHQ (or IRB) tasked the London units to carry out the assassination in 1922. His conclusion is that the first two explanations fail, based on witness testimony and other evidence. He immediately (and probably prematurely) dismisses the third: his opening sentence begins with the words, “This canard has been repeated many times…” (373). Nevertheless, it is a prevailing explanation that does fit much of the available evidence.  If the assassination had been ordered by the IRB, as opposed to the IRA, it would not have been cancelled by the Truce (along with other IRA operations).

This puts the onus on the author to prove his fourth explanation. He makes a good case for it, but there is no “smoking gun,” in part because both the IRB and previous assassination efforts planned by the IRA did not generate a lot of (potentially dangerous) paperwork. McGreevy culls witness statements and personal testimonies, including those of Dunne and O’Sullivan, and makes a good if circumstantial case that Collins might, in the context of the ongoing violence in Belfast, have made a post-Treaty order for Wilson’s assassination. The pages discussing Collins’s rationale for ordering an assassination, which could (and did) put the Provisional Government under enormous British pressure, are studded with the phrase “might have.” The reader will have to make their own judgments.

Ultimately the question of whether the order was “leftover” from before the Truce, a deliberate post-Treaty plan originating in London or Dublin, or the result of an explosion of bad temper from Collins (P.S. O’Hegarty’s hypothesis) is unlikely to be resolved. The release of first-person testimonies at the Military Archive in Dublin and recent more even-handed studies of the mythic figure of Michael Collins contribute new evidence for a re-examination of these questions. McGreevy provides an enormous service to historians and scholars in putting the assassination in context, accessing new sources, and making the strongest case possible for a deliberate post-Treaty assassination order.

The “Sarajevo Moment” of Wilson’s assassination is inarguable. After the June 1922 election, the future was quite uncertain; both factions of the anti-Treaty IRA were unprepared for the result. Neither pro- nor anti-Treaty forces were prepared to fight one another. Leaders on both sides continued to try to find ways to compromise, and both attempted to work together on the issue of the border, partition, and the fate of nationalists in the North. Once the Four Courts were attacked, and the war escalated, both pro- and anti-Treaty forces stopped supporting nationalists in the North as they concentrated on one another. Ironically, after years of supporting the Union, it may have been Wilson’s death that indirectly ensured, for a century, the survival of partition.

[1] Keith Jeffery, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier (Oxford, 2006), 187.

[2] General Sir Neville Macready, Annals of an Active Life vol. 2, (London, 1924); Sir Charles Callwell, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: His Life and Diaries vol. 2, (London, 1927); Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis: Aftermath (London: 1929).

Works Cited

Callwell, Sir Charles (1927). Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: His Life and Diaries, vol. 2. London: Cassell.

Churchill, Winston S. (1929). The World Crisis: Aftermath. London: Thornton Butterworth.

Jeffery, Keith (2006). Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier. Oxford: Oxford

University Press.

Macready, General Sir Neville (1924). Annals of an Active Life, vol. 2. London: Hutchinson and Co.