As we continue the process of remembering and reviewing the events of a century ago, there is no shortage of significant events or significant deaths. But the murder of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson by two Irish Republicans outside his London home in June 1922, and the subsequent execution of his killers, certainly stands out.
This was partly due to the incongruity of two English-born Irish republicans killing an Irish-born British imperialist.
Part of it was the rarity of the assassination of a sitting MP – the last had been Lord Frederick Cavendish in 1882, the next would be Airey Neave in 1979.
It was partly the detail of the murder itself – the stricken marshal dying on his doorstep, trying to draw his parade sword so he could defend himself; his two assassins, both wounded war veterans – one limping, the other with a false leg – pursued by a crowd of civilians and unarmed police, fail spectacularly to escape.
But the assassination of Henry Wilson is mostly remembered because it was the immediate cause of the Irish Civil War – and because of lingering questions about who ordered the murder.
In his meticulously researched and well-written book Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, irish time Journalist and historian Ronan McGreevy tells the story of Wilson, his killers, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, and the times that shaped them and brought them to their fateful encounter at the door of 36 Eaton Place.
Wilson was – and remains – a hate figure for nationalists, due to his intemperate public statements and visceral hatred of Irish independence.
Despite his later association with Ulster Unionism, he himself was from Longford and his family were among the Southern Unionists who opposed partition, as they did not want to be left in an even steeper minority in a southern Ireland cut off from the northeast. .
A committed British imperialist, Wilson became a soldier (he eventually failed the Sandhurst entrance exam three times and Woolwich twice) and served in various campaigns. A Burmese sword left a prominent scar on his face; Wilson liked to tell how a letter addressed only to “the ugliest man in the army” came to him.
He supported the formation of the UVF, but declined an invitation to become its chief of staff, offering instead to work behind the scenes in support of Ulster’s cause. He did so during the so-called “Curragh Mutiny”, scheming in favor of British officers who said they would refuse orders to march against Ulster Unionists.
This involvement increased politicians’ distrust of Wilson. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith considered him a “venomous but clever rogue”, Lloyd George said there was “a series of mischief – not to say malice – in his nature which often caused trouble and sought to create problems”.
This dislike – more than reciprocated on the part of Wilson, who hated most politicians – did not prevent his eventual rise to the highest post in the British Army, Chief of the Imperial General Staff and youngest field marshal. from Wellington.
He rose to prominence not as a field commander, but as a planner (he prepared the British Expeditionary Force for deployment in 1914) and as an organizer (he launched the Joint Allied Command in 1918 , under the direction of his close friend Ferdinand Foch of France, who paved the way for the final victory).
As a CIGS, Wilson was skeptical of plans to recruit demobilized soldiers into the RIC – the Black and Tans. He complains that “there would be no hope of training and disciplining this crowd of unknown men. It is truly a desperate and hopeless expedient doomed to failure”. In this he was certainly prescient, though his alternative was unlikely to endear him to his fellow Irishmen: to flood the country with regular military forces in order to crush the IRA.
After his retirement, the Ulster Unionists found him a safe seat at North Down, and he was dismissed unopposed. The bile towards the government previously confined to its newspaper is now unleashed in public.
He also became a military adviser to Sir James Craig’s government. Privately, he insisted that Catholics be encouraged to join the B Specials; in public he appeared as a partisan of sectarianism.
And it was part of a pattern – he was wrongfully held responsible for numerous outrages against nationalists. It had nothing to do with the UVF’s pre-war firing on Larne; he did not push for the execution of Kevin Barry; he was not responsible for the border skirmish between British and Irish forces at Pettigo in mid-1922.
But, as the author points out, “no one was more to blame for Wilson’s perception in nationalist Ireland than Wilson himself”. His public statements, including calls for a British reinvasion of the Free State, branded him a bitter and implacable enemy, which made him a tempting target.
Ironically, his assassins had far less direct ties to Ireland than Wilson.
But Dunne and O’Sullivan, despite being born in England, identified as Irish, with Dunne describing the birthplace of himself and his parents as “enemy country”. While O’Sullivan came from a family steeped in Fenianism, Dunne’s Irish connections were more tenuous (his mother’s father was from Longford). He converted to nationalism by taking an interest in Irish music and becoming involved in the Gaelic League.
Both had served in the British Army, with O’Sullivan losing a leg and Dunne suffering serious leg injuries, but neither thought their later activities in the IRA were incongruous. As Dunne said after their arrest: “The same principle for which we shed our blood on the battlefield of Europe led us to do the act of which we are charged.”
Despite their dislike of Wilson, the British government was outraged by his murder. It was immediately blamed on the Anti-Treaty IRA, which then occupied all four courts in Dublin, and pressure was put on Collins and his colleagues to act. It was made clear that if they did not intervene, the British forces remaining in Dublin would.
This was one of the main (but not the only) reasons why the Provisional Government opened fire on the Four Courts garrison a few days later, marking the start of the Civil War.
The problem is that the Four Courts IRA seems to have nothing to do with it. There are, as the author points out, four possibilities to the key question of who ordered the assassination.
He rejects the idea that Dunne and O’Sullivan acted on their own; excludes the suggestion that the anti-Treaty party ordered it; and deems the (widely solicited) suggestion that Collins ordered the assassination before the truce and forgot to call it off unlikely.
Which leaves the possibility that Collins commissioned it after the break.
This may seem like a surprising conclusion, but may make sense given Collins’ covert attempts to undermine Northern Ireland and the general belief that Wilson was responsible for sectarian violence in Belfast.
Collins would also have expected the assassins to escape – no one could have predicted that a one-legged man would have been among the group – making the operation undeniable.
Also consider that after their arrest, Collins sent two of his best men, Liam Tobin and Tom Cullen, to London to try to save Dunne and O’Sullivan. The following year, the same two men spontaneously gave Dunne’s parents title deeds to a house in Bray.
There is no clear evidence one way or the other, but the author makes a compelling argument based on the available evidence.
This is an excellent book, going far beyond the history of Henry Wilson, Reginal Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, giving rich background detail on Southern Unionism, the Revolutionary War, the establishment of Northern Ireland and the sectarian violence in Belfast that followed, as well as the Civil War. It deserves a wide readership.
Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP is published by Faber & Faber