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The Political Soldier
by Adrian Davies
On Liverpool Street railway station stands a memorial to the men of the Great Eastern Railway who fell in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. Such mute tributes to the senseless bloodletting in which “there died a myriad, and of the best among them” are all too common throughout the United Kingdom, but there is a curious feature of this memorial. Beside it stands a plaque with the bronze image of a high-ranking officer. On this smaller memorial appears an enigmatic inscription:
“To the memory of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, Bart. G.C.B., D.S.O., M.P., whose death occurred on Thursday, 22nd June, 1922, within two hours of his unveiling the adjoining memorial.”
Not one in a thousand of the commuters who walk past this spot every day knows who Sir Henry Wilson was, or how and why he died. Worse still, few on the patriotic Right know either, though all too many can speak about foreign political and military leaders with expert knowledge. This essay will have served its purpose if a few of Sir Henry Wilson’s countrymen learn a little of the life and struggle of this outstanding patriot, whose memory is neglected even by those who should most revere it.
Sir Henry Wilson was a great British hero, for he had little, if any, English blood in his veins. His family was of lowland Scots and further back of Norse origin. One of his ancestors, John Wilson, went over to Ireland from Scotland in the train of King William III, Ulster’s King Billy. John Wilson fought in the Battle of the Boyne and received a grant of land near Rashee (Co. Antrim), not far from Belfast.
The Wilsons flourished in Ireland. Hugh Wilson, great grandson of John and great grandfather of Henry, made a fortune in the shipbuilding industry. Hugh’s son, James, laid out the family fortune in the purchase of an estate at Currygrane, in County Longford, not far from Dublin. Hugh’s grandson, rather confusingly also called James, inherited the Currygrane estate on his father’s death. It was at Currygrane that, on 5th May, 1864, the future Field Marshal was born, the second son of a large family that was eventually to run to four sons and three daughters.
Young Henry’s childhood was very happy. His parents were not the stern Victorians of legend and he remained devoted to his father all his life. He was no less devoted to his mother, who was destined to outlive him.
In his childhood Henry was educated at home with his brothers and sisters. Such an education was usual at the time, but there was one remarkable feature about it. James Wilson engaged a series of French governesses for his children. As a result, young Henry learned to speak French almost as a native speaker, a most unusual accomplishment, which was later to have surprisingly important consequences for the whole conduct of the First World War on the western front.
Henry’s father sent him to Marlborough, one of the great public schools. Young Henry was a popular boy but had little interest in his classes, except in French, where he had in any event little left to learn. He preferred the sports field, where he shone.
While James Wilson seemed outwardly untroubled at his son’s lack of educational achievements, young Henry’s indolence privately caused his father much worry. As a second son, Henry would have to make his own way in the world. In view of his apparent aversion to learning, he could scarcely hope for a career in one of the traditional professions such as medicine or the law. The Wilsons no longer had business interests. There was, however, one profession in which character might take a man further than academic qualifications, and which enjoyed great prestige in the eyes of the Anglo-Irish upper classes, namely the army. James Wilson engaged a crammer to prepare his second son for the Sandhurst entrance exam.
Almost unbelievably in the light of his subsequent career as a military intellectual, young Henry contrived to fail Sandhurst entrance. This was a truly remarkable feat, for the examination was unlikely to tax the intellect of a youth of even average intelligence. Not satisfied with pulling off this splendid feat once, Henry, by now a habitué of Dublin society, went to so many parties and did so astonishingly little work that he not only failed Sandhurst entrance several more times, but also failed the equally undemanding entrance examination for the school of artillery at Woolwich for good measure.
His poor father was now almost at his wits’ end, when he hit upon the happy idea of putting his son into the regular army by way of the militia, the territorials of the day. A militia officer who had served to his superiors’ satisfaction for a certain length of time might be commissioned into the regulars without passing through Sandhurst. By this roundabout route, Henry eventually obtained a commission in the rifle brigade and was posted to India in 1885.
That time was the high noon of Empire. A quarter of the globe was coloured red. While most of the imperial territories were at peace, frontier wars would flare up now and again, allowing young officers to make their mark. Just such a war was under way in Burma, which in the days of British rule was administered as part of India. Burma had only been imperfectly subjugated, and bands of dacoits (robbers) roamed throughout the remote areas of that vast and trackless land.
Wilson’s company had been sent out to arrest one such band of dacoits. Their orders were to take them alive if at all possible. Two dacoits offered to surrender. Wilson, dangerously ahead of his men, approached them, armed only with a bamboo cane. One of the dacoits suddenly produced a war axe and aimed a treacherous blow at Wilson’s skull. The young officer’s reflexes were evidently keen, for he parried the axe blow with his cane, taking some of the force out of it, and deflecting it from his skull to the ridge of his left eye. He was nevertheless very seriously injured. His damaged eye was to cause him occasional severe headaches for the rest of his life.
This dramatic event strangely foreshadowed the manner of Wilson’s death. More immediately, it left his superiors with the difficult decision whether to decorate him for courage, or to discipline him for recklessly endangering his own life! They solved this tricky problem by doing neither, instead sending him back to Calcutta for medical reports. Wilson had been reluctant to leave his unit but evidently his superiors were right, for the surgeon in Calcutta reported that the wound was much more serious than at first had appeared, and despatched Wilson home for an extended period of sick leave.
During his leave, Henry Wilson met Cecile Wray, a young woman from County Donegal of good family and decidedly unionist views. Within a short while, he had set his heart upon marrying her. His prospective father-in-law was not initially enthusiastic about the match. He liked Henry Wilson well enough personally and the two families had long been friendly and moved in the same circles. The difficulty was that Henry Wilson would not be able to support a wife and family on a subaltern’s pay and he had little prospect of promotion. Henry Wilson could only improve his prospects by getting into the staff college at Camberley, an apparently daunting task for one of his hitherto undistinguished academic attainments. Yet Wilson passed into Camberley with a high mark. Evidently, the need to win approval for the marriage provided Wilson with the motivation that he had lacked until then. Impressed by Wilson’s achievement, Mr Wray approved the marriage, the engagement was immediately announced and Henry Wilson and his fiancee were married on 3rd October, 1891.
Wilson made important friends at Camberley, gaining the patronage of one of the greatest and best loved soldiers of the time, Field Marshal the Earl Roberts of Kandahar V.C. (‘Bobs’), who saw and was greatly impressed by a paper that Wilson had prepared on issues in the defence of India. On completing his course, Wilson was posted initially to the Intelligence Department of the War Office. After the outbreak of the Boer War, he was sent to South Africa, where he served on Lord Roberts’s staff.
On his return to England, Wilson continued his rapid ascent. A successful spell in command of the Colchester garrison was followed by his appointment in 1907 to succeed his old friend General Rawlinson as Commandant of the Staff College at Camberley. He was promoted to the rank of full colonel and acting brigadier general, an amazing achievement in peacetime, as four years previously he had been an obscure captain. Wilson did much at Camberley to create an efficient general staff on the French model, which the British Army had previously lacked. On completing his term of office, he was appointed Director of Military Operations, a very senior staff position.
By this time, the Germans had rebuffed Joseph Chamberlain’s (q.v.) efforts to secure an understanding between our two countries, with tragic consequences for both peoples. French military intelligence had obtained a copy of the famous Schlieffen plan, a meticulously worked out timetable by the German general staff for a quick campaign in the west, to knock out France before Great Britain could offer her any effective help, and to release the German army for all-out war against Russia, so avoiding a war on two fronts, the German general staff’s abiding fear. As DMO, Wilson was heavily involved in strategic planning to counter this plan. His fluent command of French made him the obvious senior liaison officer with the French army. His organisational genius made it possible for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to deploy quickly and effectively in 1914, leading to the highly successful rearguard action by the BEF at Mons, which was of critical importance in denying the Germans outright victory on the western front.
Meanwhile, however, even as the war clouds began to gather over Europe, events at home were taking a sinister turn.
Ireland was at the time united with England, Scotland and Wales in a single political community comprising all the British Isles, arguably at least as logical a unity as the united Ireland preached to-day by Irish fanatics and British defeatists. A large section of the Irish were hostile to the Union. Whether they were then yet a majority of the Irish people is open to question. This tendency was represented in the House of Commons by John Redmond’s Irish Nationalists.
The history of the bitter struggle between Unionists and Home Rulers is set out in more detail in the companion piece on Bonar Law, and need not be repeated here. Wilson’s personal role does, however, require consideration.
Wilson, as a blood descendant of one of King Billy’s soldiers, was deeply hostile to Home Rule. He was, however, an officer under discipline and bound to obey the lawful orders of his superiors. They in turn were ultimately under the political control of the Secretary of State for War, Colonel Seely, one of Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith’s creatures. The difficulty in which Wilson and so many of his fellow officers found themselves was this: exactly what were the limits of the orders that they were lawfully bound to obey?
The problem posed itself most acutely in the case of Ulster. The Protestant people of that province refused to be driven out of their allegiance to the Crown and put under a Dublin parliament.
The government’s response to Ulster’s vow never to have Home Rule was to threaten to coerce Ulster by means of the Army. How far the government was prepared to go remains unclear even to-day. Colonel Seely did nothing to improve matters by telling officers that, on the one hand they were not bound to obey orders which were not reasonable under the circumstances, but that on the other they must not pick and choose! Lord Morley, a senior figure in the Liberal party, described soldiers as no more than the tools of the government and showed a cold-hearted willingness to shed the blood of Ulstermen that led one of his disgusted audience to compare him to Robespierre.
This situation would have tested the judgment of the most level headed officer in the army. Unfortunately, the troops in Ireland were under the command of a general as stupid as he was hot headed, Sir Arthur Paget. Paget assembled his subordinates at the Curragh, an army camp a little way from Dublin. He offered them a choice; either they must agree to obey whatever orders he chose to give them for the coercion of Ulster, which, he implied, was imminent, or they must resign their commissions. Brigadier Gough and the overwhelming majority of his officers then immediately tendered their resignations. The news of this extraordinary episode brought a summons to Brigadier Gough to go at once to the War Office. Seely hoped to persuade him to withdraw his resignation, relying on the good offices of Sir John French, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to smooth things over. Sir John was an honourable and respected officer, sympathetic to the unionist position, but disinclined to question superior orders.
Unfortunately for Seely, both Gough and French had a high regard for Henry Wilson. First, Gough sought Wilson’s advice. Wilson immediately warned Bonar Law what was afoot. As Bonar Law’s biographer Lord Blake notes:
“Wilson enabled Bonar Law to obtain secret information by which he was able again and again to expose Asquith’s prevarications. Every time Asquith misled the House of Commons, Bonar Law and his colleagues felt a mounting suspicion that there was some dark secret which the Government had been trying to conceal.”
Wilson then advised Gough what paragraphs needed to be added to the compromise formula proffered by Seely to persuade Gough and his officers to withdraw their resignations. Seely reluctantly put forward the following terms upon which Gough was invited to withdraw his resignation:
“His Majesty’s Government must retain their right to use all the forces of the Crown in Ireland or elsewhere to maintain law and order and to support the civil power in the ordinary execution of its duty. But they have no intention whatever of taking advantage of this right to crush political opposition to the policy or principles of the Home Rule Bill.”
Wilson was not satisfied even with this assurance. Fearing that the Liberals might argue that the Ulster movement was seditious, not political, he advised Gough to seek clarification whether Seely’s text “relieved him from a liability to order his brigade to assist in enforcing submission to a Home Rule Bill?” The Liberals now learnt why it is not a good idea to seek to manipulate honest men for evil purposes. Without consulting Seely, Sir John French promptly answered: “I should so read it.” Wilson had ensured that the Army would not be used against Ulster.
Within the limits of an introductory sketch, it is quite impossible to cover the vast subject of Wilson’s role in the First World War. Even his most bitter critics recognise that to Wilson alone belongs the credit for the BEF’s smooth deployment in France. His work in liaising between the French and British staffs was vital. He opposed the folly of the Gallipoli landings and also dared to oppose Haig’s disastrous Passchendaele offensive. His finest hour came when he rallied a frightened cabinet on the verge of losing its nerve in the face of Hindenburg’s last great offensive of March 1918 and succeeded in preventing a breakdown of communications between the French and British armies, despite Haig’s complete inability to work with the French. His achievements did not go unhonoured. He was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal, made a baronet and voted a sum of £10,000 by a grateful Parliament.
Wilson’s interest in politics once roused by the Curragh incident never abated. The incompetence of the Asquith government in the conduct of a struggle for national survival drove Wilson to contemplate desperate measures. There was talk of turning out the politicians and replacing them with a government of military men, who could finish the job. “Asquith hates me...and says that Wilson is the sort of man who would head a revolution...I’m not sure that he isn’t right,” he had mused in his diary for the terrible year 1915. In the event, Lloyd George threw Asquith out first and proved himself to be capable of leading the country to victory, but the thought was to occur to Wilson again, as the Irish question returned to the top of the agenda.
Ireland had not been free of troubles from 1914 to 1918, despite the truce proclaimed on the outbreak of war by Redmond (to his lasting credit) on behalf of the Home Rulers and by Carson on behalf of the unionists. The Easter rising of 1916, the work of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a most sinister organisation, was a stab in the back for all the loyal Irishmen of both faiths serving in the armed forces of the Crown. The government somehow managed to achieve the worst of all possible worlds in its treatment of Ireland. It feared to impose conscription, an omission bitterly resented by the loyal elements of the population who were pouring out their blood for the Crown, yet the repression after Easter 1916 inflamed passions amongst the disloyal to fever pitch.
Redmond died in 1918, a disappointed man. Home Rule was in any event largely irrelevant by that time. More extreme elements had come to the fore. After the general election which rapidly followed the Armistice, Sinn Fein had become the majority party in Ireland. Instead of taking their seats at Westminster, the Sinn Feiners embarked on a campaign of arson and murder.
Nor was Ireland the only problem facing the new government, which was a peculiar coalition, most of whose Parliamentary supporters were Tories, but which was led by the Liberal Lloyd George. The civil war in Russia was still raging, but the Communists held Moscow firmly and their agents had fanned out across Europe, fomenting class war and revolution. Wilson had much sympathy with one of Churchill’s better ideas, namely helping the white guards in their struggle against the Reds, but only on condition that they were reinforced heavily. This Lloyd George would not do, for he had embarked upon a course repeated all too often since then. Determined to curry favour with the ‘international community’ he was busy distributing the British Army in small units in various trouble spots throughout Europe and Asia.
As a result, there were not enough troops available to retrieve the situation in Ireland. Lloyd George’s response was to reinforce the Royal Irish Constabulary with demobilised soldiers drawn into the police service by way of high pay, in effect, of danger money. These men were dressed in a curious mixture of black R.I.C. uniforms and army surplus khaki, which got them the name of the ‘Black and Tans’. A separate élite force composed exclusively of former officers was also formed. These were called the Auxiliary Police or ‘Auxis’.
While the Auxis were well disciplined, the Black and Tans were not, and their activities brought British rule into disrepute. Wilson spoke his mind to Lloyd George on the matter. His diary for 29th September, 1920 records his view that:
“...reprisals by the ‘Black and Tans’...must lead to chaos and ruin...these reprisals were carried out without anyone being (held) responsible; men were murdered, houses burnt, villages wrecked. I said that this was due to want of discipline, and this must be stopped. It was the business of the Government to govern. If these men ought to be murdered, then the Government ought to murder them...I have protested for months against this method of out-terrorising the terrorists by irresponsible persons. We drift from bad to worse, and always under the guidance of Lloyd George.”
Lloyd George felt mightily pleased with himself over his Irish policy. “We have got murder by the throat,” he confidently declared on 9th November, 1920. Certainly the Sinn Feiners were losing the battle by the early summer of 1921. The government then all of a sudden totally lost its nerve and from a position of refusing to negotiate at the end of May 1921, it had moved to one of appeasement or outright surrender by the end of June.
This bizarre behaviour speaks volumes for the lack of principle (bordering in some cases on mental instability) of the triumvirate at the head of the coalition, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Lord Birkenhead. The latter’s behaviour was particularly reprehensible, for he had once been closely associated with Sir Edward Carson in opposing Home Rule. Perhaps alcohol had rotted his brain, for Birkenhead could outdrink even Churchill and disgraced the high office of Lord Chancellor to which Lloyd George had appointed him (much against H.M. King George V’s wishes) by being found after one particularly heavy session unconscious in a gutter in Covent Garden in full evening dress.
On this side of the water Lloyd George proceeded in similar fashion. He had at first supported the white guards against the Bolsheviks, but he progressively lost his nerve, seeking to negotiate with Lenin’s envoys to England, who were to Lloyd George’s certain knowledge seeking to incite a revolution here.
Wilson came to realise that patriots would have to act against Lloyd George’s shabby coalition if the Union and the Empire were to be saved. Many patriotic Conservatives in both Houses of Parliament and indeed throughout the land were uneasy about their party’s support for the government. They looked to Wilson for leadership. He was by no means reluctant to answer the call. So, after being invited in the course of a holiday with his wife in Madrid to lunch and a highly confidential meeting with the King of Spain, Wilson noted in his diary that the King “...credits me with more power than I have, perhaps not more than I may have.”
How was he to obtain such power? Wilson’s detractors speak of him as a would-be dictator, but in fact he sought to follow the road of democratic legality, for so long as his opponents did likewise. His departures from convention, as for example, in his behaviour over the Curragh incident, were a response to the flouting of constitutional conventions by the ruling Liberal party. Wilson preferred to seek power in the proper way, through the House of Commons. By 14th January, 1922, he was writing:
“I lunched at Londonderry House, only Lord and Lady Londonderry there, and we discussed the possibility, necessity and probability of forming a real Conservative Party. Lady Londonderry is working hard to this end with Salisbury, Northumberland, Carson, Ronald McNeill, and I am sure this is the right thing to aim for. And I believe if they could get a fine leader it is a real possibility.”
By 16th February, his thoughts were moving towards assuming the leadership himself. He met Leo Maxse, the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Esher and recorded in his diary that: “It is clear that they have no plan and no leader, and that they rather look to me.”
As a serving officer, he could not play an overtly political role, and so he determined to leave the War Office. Wilson accepted the nomination for the seat of North Down, where a by-election was pending. He was returned unopposed and took his seat in the House of Commons on 23rd February, 1922. His diary reads:
“It is a curious feeling, being an M.P. at 57, after 40 years of soldiering. I was much struck with my reception everywhere. Everyone seem to think that I am going to do something in the House of Commons. I wonder, am I?”
By this time Lloyd George and his cronies had signed the treaty that established the Irish Free State, an entity which enjoyed the substance of independence subject to the form of an oath of allegiance to the King of the most undemanding kind, a fig leaf to cover the nakedness of surrender. Lloyd George had, however, denied the Sinn Feiners Ulster. He dared not coerce Ulster into the Free State.
A second and even more vicious civil war now broke out in Ireland. The most militant and fanatical of the Sinn Feiners, led by Eamonn de Valera, repudiated the treaty, and waged war simultaneously on the Free State forces and the government of Northern Ireland now established at Stormont under Sir James Craig. Murderous attacks by anti-treaty forces had the inevitable consequence of provoking reprisals by the Free Staters in the south and the newly formed Ulster Special Constabulary in the north. Wilson plunged immediately into this maelstrom. He had, after all, been elected to do so.
Sir James Craig invited Wilson over to Belfast to advise on putting the specials on a proper footing. Wilson arranged that a trusted former subordinate of his, Major General A. Solly-Flood, should take command of the police. He was determined to create a disciplined force, not an out of control force like the discredited ‘Black and Tans’. Nor was Wilson sectarian in his approach. He was determined that the British government should do something to help the (largely Catholic) disbanded R.I.C., fearing that Roman Catholic policemen in particular were in danger of being murdered if they went home. He deplored the trend to a wholly Protestant police force in Ulster, writing in his diary for 26th May, 1922:
“The R.U.C. have now only about 1,300, instead of 3,000. The Specials are now all Protestants. The whole of this miserable affair will go straight not only into civil war, but into religious war. It is heart-breaking.”
Meanwhile, de Valera had held a provocative meeting at Dundalk, to which Wilson responded with a series of powerful and moving speeches, rallying the beleaguered loyalists of Ulster. If Wilson spoke well in public he spoke even more eloquently in the House of Commons. Sir Henry Craik recalled how:
“...what was most remarkable in Sir Henry Wilson’s short parliamentary career was the ease with which he entered upon it, the rapidity with which he learnt to dominate the House...It was due to the irresistible conviction forced upon us that we had listened...to one whose judgment was based upon an absolutely unselfish patriotism.”
The stage was set for the emergence of Sir Henry Wilson as the leader of the patriotic, unionist and imperialist element then so influential in the Conservative Party of that time, a very different body from the party of William Hague. Weakened as the country was by war, yet it was not then too late to weld the United Kingdom and the white dominions into one mighty imperial unity which could have held the greatest empire that the world has ever seen.
Wilson had the statesmanship to perceive that our natural friends and allies were not the United States, bitterly opposed for historical reasons to the colonial empires of the European states, but the other European powers. Wilson enjoyed the trust and respect of the French and the Spanish governments, both possessed of important colonial interests of their own and so inclined to form a united front in their defence with Great Britain. He favoured merciful treatment of the defeated Germans, grasping that if Germany would finally abandon its ambitions in the west, it could be a bulwark against the danger of Soviet incursions into Europe, so that it was necessary to conciliate the Germans, not to grind their faces into the ground.
Above all Wilson, as an Irish unionist and a British patriot, saw clearly that the United Kingdom was much more than England alone and that the British Isles form a natural unity. As leader of the Unionist party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he would surely not have acquiesced in de Valera’s illegal repudiation of the treaty that had established the Free State and the creation of an Irish Republic which was essentially inimical to British interests, asserting an irredentist claim to a part of the United Kingdom.
There were many with an interest in preventing a man with such an agenda coming to power. Wilson was an obstacle to their plans. They took steps to remove him.
On 22nd June, 1922, Wilson, at the invitation of Lord Claud Hamilton, chairman of the Great Eastern Railway, attended a ceremony at Liverpool Street station to unveil a monument to the company’s war dead. The relatives of the fallen and ex-servicemen in the company’s employ thronged the scene. Sir Henry spoke briefly. The tablet that he had unveiled commemorated, he said, men who had fallen doing their duty. In doing what they thought right, they had paid the penalty.
After pausing a little while to admire the impressive memorial and to speak to some of those present, the Field Marshal, dressed in full uniform and wearing a ceremonial sword, set off to his London home at 36 Eaton Place, calling in at the Travellers’ Club on the way.
London street numbers can be confusing, even to taxi drivers and 36 Eaton Place is a particularly difficult house to find, for its entrance is in Belgrave Place, and not in Eaton Place at all!
Sir Henry was too preoccupied with giving his driver instructions how to find the house to notice the two shabbily dressed men loitering at the street corner, disguised as crossing sweepers.
The men, members of the so-called London Brigade of the IRA, did not fail to notice him. He made an easy target as he got out of his cab, encumbered by his sword. Nevertheless the first shot that they fired missed. What followed is best described by the Field Marshal’s biographer, Basil Collier:
“At that point he made a brave man’s blunder. He could have run into the house and saved his life. He might even have scared the men away by shouting at the top of his voice...But he was still the Henry Wilson who had faced the bandits in Burma with a stick. He did not retreat into the house. He did not shout for help. He drew his sword and faced his enemies. They fired again quickly. Then seeing him fall, they ran away. He tried to speak as he was lifted up, but the words would not come. In a few minutes it was over. A man who understood him wrote his epitaph when he said that even in his death, he showed he was a soldier.”
His murderers were pursued from the scene of the crime by an angry crowd. After a hot pursuit, in the course of which the criminals shot down and seriously wounded two unarmed policemen, they were cornered by ordinary Londoners and severely beaten before the police arrived. They were tried at the Old Bailey and, in those sterner and juster times, they paid the price of murder on the gallows in Wandsworth Prison on 10th August, 1922.
The Field Marshal is buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral, between Lord Roberts and Lord Wolseley, two of our greatest soldiers. It is a fitting resting place.
A number of books have been written over the years about Sir Henry Wilson’s life and death. The first in time is his friend Major General Sir C.E. Callwell’s massive two- volume Life, which has its good points and its defects. The Field Marshal’s widow allowed General Callwell privileged access to the Wilson diaries and, writing as he did only a short while after the assassination, General Callwell had the great advantage of being able to interview many who had known Wilson well. On the other hand, General Callwell was not a good editor of his material and tended to reproduce the jottings of a busy man in his diary at the end of a long day, as if they were the Field Marshal’s considered reflections and final view on controversial topics.
Next is Basil Collier’s biography, entitled Brasshat. This work is beautifully written and very sympathetic to Wilson. It is probably the best of the three biographies. It does, however, deal with Wilson the soldier in far more detail than Wilson the politician, a drawback from the point of view of those more interested in political than in military history.
Bernard Ash’s The Lost Dictator was written in 1968 and it shows. Ash cannot restrain himself from parading his own 1960s liberal opinions and his detestation of everything that Wilson stood for, particularly Ulster Unionism. On the other hand, his analysis of Wilson’s political activity both in 1914 and more particularly in the period after 1919 is interesting and goes far further than either General Callwell or Basil Collier in demonstrating the importance of the Field Marshal as the lost, or rather murdered, leader of the patriotic Right.
Rex Taylor’s Assassination deals only with the murder itself and raises a number of interesting questions. Did the order to murder Wilson come from Michael Collins, himself to suffer a similar fate a short while after, or was the IRA’s ‘London Brigade’ out of control and pursuing its own agenda? Mr Taylor’s discussions with former IRA men in the 1950s suggest Collins’s personal involvement (which Bernard Ash denies). What was the role of Lloyd George in the affair? Many, principally in Ireland, suspected that the government had withdrawn Wilson’s Special Branch bodyguards in the hope that a dangerous political opponent might be eliminated. Lady Wilson certainly thought so. She greeted Austen Chamberlain, who had come to present the government’s condolences on the Field Marshal’s death, with the single word “Murderer”, before slamming the door in his face. Lady Wilson was certainly wrong about Austen Chamberlain, who was far too honourable to be a party to murder, but Lloyd George was not known for being over scrupulous. These are deep waters. The whole truth may never be known.
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