Sir Henry Wilson, 1st Baronet
|Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, Bt|
Field Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, 1st Baronet
5 May 1864|
County Longford, Ireland
|Died||22 June 1922
|Years of service||1882–1922|
|Commands held||Staff College, Camberley
|Battles/wars||Third Anglo-Burmese War
Second Boer War
First World War
|Awards||GCB; DSO; Grand Cross of the Légion d'honneur; Grand Officier of the Order of Leopold; Belgian Croix de guerre; Chinese Order of Chia-Ha, 1st Class "Ta-Shou Pao-Kuang"; American Distinguished Service Medal; Siamese Order of the White Elephant, first class; Grand Cordon with flowers of the Paulownia of the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun; Grand Cross of the Greek Order of the Redeemer|
He was one of the most senior British Army staff officers of World War I and played an important role in Anglo-French military relations both before and during the war. His only experience of field command was as a corps commander in 1916. Later in the war he was military advisor to the British prime minister, serving as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (professional head of the Army) in the last year of the war. Wilson had been involved in the Curragh Incident in 1914 and after the formation of Northern Ireland, he became security advisor to the Northern Ireland government.
- 1 Early career
- 2 War Office
- 3 War Plans
- 4 Curragh Incident
- 5 First World War
- 5.1 1914-16
- 5.2 1917
- 5.3 CIGS:1918
- 6 PostWar CIGS
- 7 Member of Parliament & Ulster Adviser
- 8 Death
- 9 Assessments
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Bibliography
- 13 External links
Wilson was born in Currygrane, Ballinalee, County Longford, Ireland and was the second son of James and Constance Wilson, of Currygrane. He was educated at Marlborough College, and made two unsuccessful attempts to get into the British Army colleges Royal Military Academy and three to get into Sandhurst between 1880 and 1882. These exams relied heavily on cramming and rote learning.
In 1882, he succeeded in being commissioned as a lieutenant in the Longford Militia (which was a militia battalion of the Rifle Brigade) and then transferred to a regular battalion. He briefly transferred to the Royal Irish Rifles in 1884, but quickly returned to the Rifle Brigade.
Wilson was posted to India in 1885 and in 1886 went to Burma to serve in the Third Burmese War. He received several serious wounds, including an eye wound (which earned him the nicknames “Ugly Wilson” and “the ugliest man in the British Army” ) and one which forced him to use a walking stick for the rest of his life. His injuries refused to heal in India and he returned to Ireland until 1888 when he was passed fit for regimental duty. Wilson in the meantime had been studying for the Staff College at Camberley. He passed the entrance exam, proving that he did not lack brains, and graduated in December 1893. He was promoted captain in 1893. From November 1894 he worked in the Intelligence Department of the War Office.
A protégé of Lord Roberts, he was seconded to the staff in 1895, and in 1897, he became Brigade Major of the 3rd Brigade at Aldershot, and from 1899 to 1901 he saw active service during the Second Boer War with the 4th (Light) Brigade (as a Brigade Major) before becoming Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General and assistant military secretary to Lord Roberts and was Mentioned in Despatches, awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and was recommended for brevet promotion to lieutenant-colonel on attaining a substantive majority.
Henry Wilson was called upon to accept the parole of Lieutenant-Colonel Repington that he would not continue his affair with Lady Garstin. Repington was later tried and found guilty of breaking it – he thought his behaviour justified and that Wilson’s was not - but had to resign his commission and was an important war correspondent during the Great War.
Wilson returned to England in 1901, and gained both the substantive promotion to major and the promised brevet in December, and became Commanding Officer of the 9th Provisional Battalion, Rifle Brigade at Colchester in 1902. In 1903 he became an Assistant Adjutant-General. Promotion came in 1907 when he became a substantive colonel at the beginning of the year, and later a temporary brigadier-general commanding the Staff College, Camberley, Surrey. Lancelot Kiggell wrote that he was a “spell-binding” lecturer as Commandant at Camberley.
Whilst Commandant at Staff College Wilson forged close links with French generals, especially with his French counterpart Ferdinand Foch, then head of the Ecole Superieur de Guerre. After a visit to Paris in December 1909 he recorded that he and Foch agreed that the main German thrust would come east of the Meuse, between Namur and Verdun (in fact the Germans would also attack further west into Belgium that that).
Secret Anglo-French Staff talks had begun in 1906, but now gathered impetus. Wilson advocated the landing of a British Expeditionary Force in France in case of German attack, and in July 1911 held secret talks with General Dubail (French Chief of Staff) and Adolphe Messimy (French War Minister). The French called the Expeditionary Force “l’Armee Wilson” although they seem to have been left with an inflated idea of the size of commitment which Britain would send. On a visit to the battlefield of Mars-La-Tour in 1911 he claimed to have placed, as a tribute at the foot of the statue of France, a small map showing the planned concentration areas for the BEF.
At the CID meeting after the Agadir Crisis Sir Arthur Wilson (First Sea Lord) gave a poor account of the Royal Navy's plans to land troops on the Baltic Coast, or possibly at Antwerp, believing that the Germans would be halfway to Paris by the time an Expeditionary Force was ready, and that the four to six divisions Britain was expected to be able to muster would have little effect in a war with 70-80+ divisions on each side. Henry Wilson set out his own plans, apparently the first time the CID had heard them, arguing that the high quality of the British soldiers and their use to strengthen the French left against the strong right wing of the German Schlieffen Plan would have an effect out of proportion to the numbers involved, as well as an incalculable effect on French morale. Hankey recorded that Wilson’s lucid presentation carried the day even though Hankey himself did not entirely agree with it. Prime Minister H.H. Asquith ordered the Navy to fall in with the Army’s plans to deploy an Expeditionary Force to France. Hankey also recorded that even by 1914 French and Haig were not fully aware of what had been decided, Morley and Burns resigned from the Cabinet as they were unable to accept the decision, and Churchill and Lloyd George never fully accepted the implications of committing a large military force to France. After the meeting Hankey began to draw up the War Book detailing mobilisation plans, and yet the exact deployment of the BEF was still undecided as late as 4 August 1914.
Wilson realized the organisational difficulties involved, though, and spent much time planning the deployment of the proposed British Expeditionary Force to France in the event of war. He even spent many of his leaves from duty cycling around Belgium and Northern France. In 1912 he was appointed Honorary Colonel of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles.
Wilson was promoted major-general in November 1913. After a 17 November 1913 meeting of BEF senior officers (French, Haig, Wilson, Paget, Grierson), Wilson privately recorded his concerns at French’s lack of intellect and hoped there would not be a war just yet. Brian Bond argued that Wilson’s greatest achievement as DMO was the provision of horses and transport and other measures which allowed mobilisation to proceed smoothly.
At a meeting at the War Office (4 November 1913) Wilson told French that he for one would not fire on Ulstermen “at the dictates of Irish nationalists” and urged French to tell the King that he could not depend on the loyalty of the whole of the army. French was unaware that Wilson was leaking the contents of these meetings to the Conservative leader Bonar Law. Wilson was delighted by the Ulster Volunteers (now 100,000 strong) when he watched them drill. Wilson was also leaking information to the Ulster Volunteers.
After Paget had been told to prepare to move against Ulster, Wilson attempted in vain to persuade French that any such move would have serious repercussions not only in Glasgow but also in Egypt and India. Wilson helped the elderly Lord Roberts (morning of 20 March) draft a letter to the Prime Minister, urging him not to cause a split in the army. It was then Wilson (who had heard from Johnnie Gough) who telephoned French with the news of Hubert Gough’s resignation (see Curragh Incident). French “talked windy platitudes till (Wilson) was nearly sick”.
Wilson, fresh from a visit to Bonar Law (21 March), suggested prodding Asquith to take “instant action” to prevent general staff resignations. At the request of Seely (Secretary of State for War) Wilson wrote a summary of “what the army would agree to”, namely a promise that the army would not be used to coerce Ulster, but this was not acceptable to the government. Wilson, with Robertson’s warm support, was unable to persuade French to warn the government that the Army would not move against Ulster.
Hubert Gough breakfasted with Wilson on 23 March, before his meeting with French and Ewart at the War Office, where he demanded a written guarantee that the Army would not be used against Ulster. Wilson was also present at the 4pm meeting at which Gough, on his advice, insisted on amending a Cabinet document to clarify that the Army would not be used to enforce Home Rule on Ulster, to which French also agreed in writing. Wilson then left, telling people in the War Office that the Army had done what the Opposition had failed to do (i.e. prevent the coercion of Ulster). Wilson told French that he suspected he (French) would be sacked by the Government, in which case “the Army would go solid with him”.
Asquith publicly repudiated the amendments to the Cabinet document (the "peccant paragraphs") (25 March), but at first refused to accept the resignations of French and Ewart, although Wilson advised French (mid-afternoon on 26 March) that he must resign “unless they were in a position to justify their remaining on in the eyes of officers”. French eventually resigned after Wilson tested the climate at a Staff College point-to-point.
First World War
Sub Chief of Staff, BEF: Deployment
With British commitment to a continental war briefly wavering in early August, Wilson called on de la Panouse (French Military Attache) and Paul Cambon (French Ambassador) to pledge that Britain would honour Asquith’s decision (May 1914) to send 5 divisions to France. This was indeed decided by the War Council (5 August) but the commitment was scaled back to 4 divisions by Kitchener the following day. The War Council debated whether to deploy the BEF to Maubeuge, Amiens or Antwerp, which Wilson likened to “our discussing strategy like idiots”.
Wilson was initially offered the job of “Brigadier-General of Operations” but as he was already a major-general he negotiated an upgrade in his title to “Sub Chief of Staff”. Edmonds, Kirke (in his memoir of Macdonogh) and Murray all claimed after the war that French had wanted Wilson as Chief of Staff, but this had been vetoed because of his role in the Curragh Mutiny, but there is no contemporary evidence, even in Wilson’s diary, to confirm this.
Wilson met with Victor Huguet (7 August), a French liaison officer summoned to London at Kitchener’s request, and sent him back to France to obtain more information from Joffre, having told him of British plans to start movement of troops on 9 August. Kitchener, angry that Wilson had acted without consulting him, summoned him to his office for a rebuke. Wilson was angry that Kitchener was confusing the mobilisation plans by deploying troops from Aldershot to Grimsby in case of German invasion, and recorded in his diary that “I answered back as I have no intention of being bullied by him especially when he talks such nonsense … the man is a fool … He is a d---- fool”. On Huguet's return (12 August) he met with French, Murray and Wilson. They agreed to deploy the BEF to Maubeuge, but Kitchener, in a three-hour meeting which was, according to Wilson, “memorable in showing K’s colossal ignorance and conceit”, tried to insist on a deployment to Amiens where the BEF would be in less danger of being overrun by the Germans coming north of the Meuse. Wilson wrote not just of the difficulties and delays which Kitchener was making but also of “the cowardice of it”, but there is little doubt that Kitchener was correct. The clash of personalities between Wilson and Kitchener worsened relations between Kitchener and Sir John French, who often took Wilson's advice.
Wilson, French and Murray crossed to France on 14 August. Wilson was sceptical of the German invasion of Belgium, feeling that it would be diverted to meet the French thrusts into Lorraine and the Ardennes. Reconnoitring the area with Harper in August 1913, Wilson had wanted to deploy the BEF just east of Namur. Although Wilson's prediction of the German advance was less prescient than Kitchener's, had this been done, it is possible that Anglo-French forces could have attacked north, threatening to cut off the German Armies moving westwards north of the Meuse.
Like other British commanders Wilson at first underestimated the size of German forces opposite the BEF, although Terraine and Holmes are very critical of the advice which Wilson was giving Sir John on 22 August, encouraging further BEF advances and “calculating” that the BEF was faced only by one German corps and a cavalry division, although Macdonogh was providing more realistic estimates. Wilson even issued a rebuke to the Cavalry Division for reporting that strong German forces were heading on Mons from Brussels, claiming that they were mistaken and only German cavalry and Jaegers were in front of them.
On 23 August, the day of the Battle of Mons, Wilson initially drafted orders for II Corps and the cavalry division to attack the following day, which Sir John cancelled (after a message was received from Joffre at 8pm warning of at least 2 ½ German corps opposite - there were in fact three German corps opposite the BEF with a fourth moving around the British left flank, and then a retreat was ordered at 11pm when news came that Lanrezac’s Fifth Army on the right was falling back). On 24 August, the day after the battle, he bemoaned that no retreat would have been necessary had the BEF had 6 infantry divisions as originally planned. Terraine describes Wilson's diary account of these events as “a ridiculous summary … by a man in a responsible position”, and argues that although Kitchener’s fears of a German invasion of Britain had been exaggerated, his consequent decision to hold back two divisions saved the BEF from a greater disaster which might have been brought on by Wilson's overconfidence.
Sub Chief of Staff, BEF: Retreat
The BEF staff, who had not rehearsed their roles, performed poorly over the next few days. Various eyewitnesses reported that Wilson was one of the calmer members of GHQ, but he was concerned at Murray's medical unfitness and French’s apparent inability to grasp the situation. Wilson opposed Smith-Dorrien’s decision to stand and fight at Le Cateau (26 August). However, when told by Smith-Dorrien on the telephone that it would not be possible to break off and fall back until nightfall, he wished him luck and congratulated him for his cheerful tone.
Baker-Carr recalled Wilson standing in dressing gown and slippers uttering “sardonic little jests to all and sundry within earshot” as GHQ packed up to evacuate, behaviour which historian Dan Todman comments was probably “reassuring for some but profoundly irritating for others”. Macready recorded Wilson (27 August) “walking slowly up and down” the room at Noyon which had been commandeered as headquarters with a “comical, whimsical expression”, clapping his hands and chanting “We shall never get there, we shall never get there … to the sea, to the sea, to the sea”, although he also recorded that this was probably intended to keep up the spirits of more junior officers. His infamous “sauve qui peut” order to Snow, GOC 4th Division, (27 August) ordering unnecessary ammunition and officers’ kits to be dumped so that tired and wounded soldiers could be carried, was, according to Swinton, probably intended out of concern for the soldiers rather than out of panic. Smith-Dorrien was later rebuked by French for countermanding it. Lord Loch thought the order showed “GHQ had lost their heads” whilst General Haldane thought it “a mad order” (both in their diaries for 28 August). Major-General Pope-Hennessey later alleged (in the 1930s) that Wilson had ordered the destruction of orders issued during the retreat to hide the degree of panic.
After the war (at a dinner party in March 1920) Wilson claimed that the Germans ought to have won in 1914 but for bad luck. Bartholomew, who had been a staff captain at the time, later told Liddell Hart that Wilson had been “the man who saved the British Army” for ordering Smith-Dorrien to retreat southwards after Le Cateau, thus breaking contact with the Germans who had expected him to retreat southwest. Wilson played an important role liaising with the French, and also appears to have dissuaded Joffre against further attacks by Lanrezac, with which the British would not have been able to assist (29 August), and later in persuading Sir John French to cancel his orders to retreat further south (4 September) and join in the Battle of the Marne (6 September).
Like many Allied leaders, Wilson believed after the victory at the Marne that the war was as good as won. He told Joffre’s staff officer General Berthelot (13 September) that the Allies would be in Elsenborn on the German-Belgian frontier in four weeks (Berthelot thought three). Wilson also helped to persuade Joffre (late September) to allow the BEF to redeploy further to the left of the Allied line. When French, Murray and Wilson arrived to confer with Foch (then commanding the French Armies in that sector) in early October 1914, Foch greeted Sir John with a handshake but threw his arms around Wilson’s neck and kissed him on both cheeks.
Succession to Murray
Wilson acted as CGS when Murray visited the War Office in October. Like many senior Allied officers, Wilson believed that the war would be won by the following spring, especially if the Russians won the Battle of Lodz then in progress, and felt that Kitchener was jeopardising the chances of victory by withholding trained officers and NCOs in Britain to build up what Wilson called his ”shadow armies” which would not be ready for another two years. Wilson at this stage did not envisage British troops fighting under French command and (4 November 1914) opposed Foch’s request that Allenby and 2 battalions take part in a French attack. Murray (4–5 November) complained and threatened to resign when Wilson amended one of his orders without telling him.
Wilson was present at the deathbed of his old patron Lord Roberts, who died after catching a chill visiting his beloved Indian troops. Returning home for the funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral, he had a chance to catch up (17–20 November 1914) with Kitchener (“who talked some sense & much nonsense”) and senior Conservatives Chamberlain, Bonar Law, Milner and Long.
At the end of November and again in mid-December French told Wilson he was thinking of moving Murray to a corps command and insisting on Wilson replacing him, but Asquith, as he put it in a letter to Venetia Stanley (20 December), summoned French to London for “a little talk” and forbade him to promote “that poisonous tho’ clever ruffian Wilson who behaved … so badly … about Ulster”. Wilson claimed to have heard Joffre, on a visit to GHQ (27 December), complain that it was “a pity” that Murray had not been removed, but when he heard of this Asquith put it down to “the constant intriguing of that serpent Wilson” whom he and Kitchener were determined to block. Asquith felt he was too Francophile and too fond of "mischief" (political intrigue), but despite Wilson advising French that the reasons for their objections were largely personal, he was not able to dissuade them from blocking the appointment. On a visit to London in early January Wilson heard from Wigram that it was Asquith rather than Kitchener who was blocking the promotion, which Carson and Law were eager for him to have.
Jeffrey argues that there is little specific evidence that Wilson intrigued to replace Murray, simply that he was widely suspected of having done so, and that his pro-French stance was regarded with deep suspicion by other British officers (Haig’s staff officer Charteris likened Wilson's alleged request to the French, to lobby on his behalf for him to replace Murray, to “mental adultery”). When Murray was at last removed as chief of staff BEF in January 1915, his job went to the BEF Quartermaster-General "Wully" Robertson. Robertson refused to have Wilson as his deputy, so Wilson was instead appointed Principal Liaison Officer with the French, and promoted to temporary lieutenant-general. French technically had no authority to make this promotion, but told Wilson he would resign if the Cabinet or War Office objected. The French had been lobbying so hard for Wilson’s appointment that even Sir John thought they should mind their own business. Asquith (letter to Venetia 26 Jan) and Haig (diary 5 Feb) both remarked that this was putting Wilson out of mischief.
Principal Liaison Officer
Wilson was “rather upset by the changes made in his absence” (Sidney Clive Diary 28 January 1915) whilst he was touring the French front – Robertson removed Wilson’s ally Brigadier-General Harper “in a very untactful way” (Rawlinson diary 29 Jan & 8 Feb 1915). Wilson’s diary makes several references throughout February, March and May of Robertson being “suspicious and hostile” towards him. French invited Wilson (April 1915) to carry on eating with him in the mess and Wilson was suspected of intriguing for Robertson’s removal (General Haldane diary 30 June 1915).
Wilson saw Foch every 2–3 days and sometimes smoothed tense meetings by creative (mis)translation. e.g. by not translating a threat (12 May 1915) by Joffre to appeal to the British government and not translating literally a demand (15 July) that the British attack with 10 divisions.
As a "Westerner" Wilson opposed the Gallipoli Campaign, as it would simply give Constantinople to Russia, and (18 March) hoped it would be “a fiasco” to “help get rid of Winston”. He also recorded his anger that, after shells had had to be sent to Gallipoli, the BEF, then numbering 12 divisions, barely had enough High Explosive shell for the Battle of Festubert, which he thought (13 May) could be “one of the decisive actions of the war” and complained (17 May) of Kitchener holding back the New Armies with decisive victory, in Wilson's view, imminent. In May he told Lord Derby that the 100,000 troops at Gallipoli could have made Neuve Chapelle into a decisive victory, and on 10 June he wrote “how they will laugh in Berlin" at news that another 4 divisions were to be sent. He deplored the botched Landing at Suvla Bay in August, writing that “Winston first & others after” should be tried for murder.
Wilson was knighted as a Knight Commander of the Bath in the June 1915 King's Birthday Honours, having been passed over for the honour in February. In the summer of 1915 Wilson believed that the French government might fall, or France herself seek peace, unless the British committed to the mooted Loos offensive. He declined French’s offer of a corps command (20 August) claiming it would be unfair to divisional commanders who deserved promotion. His efforts to be the main go-between between French and Joffre ended in September 1915, when it was decided that these contacts should go through Sidney Clive, the British liaison officer at GQG.
However, the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign, and the Shell Shortage to which it contributed, led to Conservative ministers joining the new Coalition Government, which boosted Wilson’s prospects. Wilson’s personal relations with Asquith and Kitchener also appear to have become more cordial around this time. Leo Maxse, H.A.Gwynne and the radical Josiah Wedgwood MP, impressed by Wilson’s support for conscription and the abandonment of Gallipoli, tipped him as a potential CIGS in place of James Wolfe-Murray, but Archibald Murray was appointed instead (September 1915).
Appointment as Corps Commander
After the Battle of Loos Sir John French's days as Commander-in-Chief were numbered. Robertson told the King (27 October) that Wilson should be removed for not being “loyal” – Robertson had earlier criticised Wilson to Kitchener’s secretary for his closeness to the French. Wilson was seen as “an unofficial adviser” of “similar rank” but “totally different temperament” to Robertson (Clive diary 30 October 1915). Sir John French, Milner, Lloyd George and Arthur Lee (4–5 November, during a 10-day visit by Wilson to London) all raised the possibility of Wilson becoming CIGS in place of Murray. Hankey thought he might have become CIGS were it not for lingering mistrust over the Curragh Incident, but there is no explicit evidence in Wilson’s diary that he coveted the job. Joffre suggested that Wilson should replace Kitchener as Secretary of State for War.
Wilson thought Kitchener’s New Armies “ridiculous and preposterous” and “the laughing stock of every soldier in Europe” and (so wrote Game to his wife, 21 November 1915) “a roughish lot with hardly a gentleman among the officers”.
Wilson was also given the honorary appointment of Colonel of the Royal Irish Rifles on 11 November 1915, and was made a Commander and later Grand Officier of the Légion d'honneur for his services. Wilson attended the Anglo-French Chantilly Conference (6–8 December 1915) along with Murray (CIGS), French and Robertson, as well as Joffre, Maurice Pellé and Victor Huguet for France, Zhilinski and Ignatieff for Russia, Cadorna for Italy and a Serb and Belgian representative. Wilson disapproved of large meetings - a view he shared with Joffre – and thought the British and French War Ministers, C-in-Cs and foreign ministers (6 men in total) should meet regularly which might discourage ventures like Antwerp, Gallipoli and Salonika. During the conference Wilson passed a note to a colleague describing it as “a mass meeting between two vomits”.
With French’s “resignation” imminent, Wilson, who appears to have remained loyal to him, attempted to resign and go on half pay (10 December) as he felt he could not serve under Haig or Robertson; Bonar Law and Charles Callwell attempted to dissuade him. Haig thought this unacceptable for such an able officer in wartime, and Robertson advised him that Wilson would “do less harm” in France than in England. Haig thought (12 December) Wilson should command a division before he commanded a corps, despite his belief that Wilson had criticised himself and other British generals, and had instigated an article in The Observer suggesting that the BEF be placed under General Foch (commander, French Northern Army Group) (Charteris wrote to his wife (12 December) apropos the articles that “neither DH nor Robertson wants Wilson anywhere near them”).
Rawlinson, rumoured to be in line for promotion to succeed Haig as GOC First Army, offered Wilson the chance to succeed him as GOC IV Corps, but Wilson preferred not to serve under Rawlinson, preferring instead the new XIV Corps, part of Allenby’s Third Army and including the 36th (Ulster) Division. Asquith summoned Wilson to London and personally offered him a corps, and Kitchener told him the corps command was to be “only temporary pending something better”, although Wilson thought impractical his suggestion that he simultaneously continue to perform Anglo-French liaison duties. Jeffery suggests Kitchener may have seen Wilson as a potential ally against Robertson.
Like many Conservatives Wilson was dissatisfied at Asquith’s lack of firm leadership and at the delay in bringing in conscription, and from December 1915 he urged Bonar Law to bring down the government (Law refused, pointing out that the resulting General Election would be divisive and the support of Radical and Irish MPs would be lost).
Corps Commander: Spring 1916
Wilson was given command of IV Corps, which he noted was almost the same size (four divisions, totalling nearly 70,000 men) as the original BEF of August 1914. Given the difference in quality between his divisions, he took a keen interest in training and gave many lectures to officers. Wilson’s two ADCs, Godfrey Locker-Lampson and Viscount Duncannon (son of the Earl of Bessborough, a major landowner in Kilkenny) were both Conservative MPs in uniform, and on visits to London he kept up his links with politicians like Carson, Law, Austen Chamberlain and Milner.
Like many, Wilson initially thought the Easter Rising (26 April 1916) was German-inspired. Bonar Law tentatively suggested him as a possible commander to put down the Rising, but his Ulster record made this unwise. Wilson hoped the events would lead to Asquith’s fall and wanted Augustine Birrell “arrested and tried for his life”. Wilson thought that the crushing of troublemakers would prevent them infecting the supposed silent Unionist majority, and regretted the removal of Maxwell later in the year “to placate that giant fraud Redmond”.
Wilson, in temporary command of First Army in Monro's absence from 9 May-22 May, had to take over some more trench from Byng’s XVII Corps (part of Allenby’s Third Army) opposite Vimy Ridge. Two divisional commanders, William Walker (2nd, sick) and Barter (47th, on leave) were away until 22 May, further disrupting the chain of command as various officers were required to act in their seniors’ place. A surprise German attack on the evening of Sunday 21 May moved forward 800 yards, capturing 1,000 yards of the British front line. Wilson appears to have done all he could, arranging the assembly of artillery from First Army and neighbouring Third Army, but the planned counterattack was postponed until 23 May by Monro, who had just returned from leave. At a major meeting at Wilson’s HQ (23 May) Monro and Allenby insisted the IV Corps counterattack must proceed, over the objection of John Headlam (artillery) and Tavish Davidson (Director of Military Operations) from GHQ, who passed on Haig’s wishes that the counterattack be postponed by a fortnight.
The counterattack failed, as two battalions in the centre found the German shelling too heavy for them to attack, and Monro eventually ordered a halt. Wilson wanted to court martial the two acting battalion commanders for “funk”, after hearing the view of one of the actual COs (who had been acting in command of the brigade) that the attack had been feasible. Major Armytage, a staff officer from GHQ, visited the sector on 25 May and reported back that Brigadier-General Kellett (99th Brigade, but acting GOC of 2nd Division) was incompetent and “in complete ignorance of the situation”. Haig wrote to Monro (27 May) that Wilson should be asked to explain and that IV Corps, formerly “the most efficient in the army” “had much decreased in military value” and Wilson “had failed as a commander in the field”. Charteris also visited IV Corps HQ on 27 May, and reported back that officers there were “downhearted” and thought the Germans and French better fighters than the British – Wilson later claimed that the officers had been “pulling Charteris’ leg” as he talked of “sweeping victories” within two months. Wilson was almost “degummed” (sacked) but was saved by a strong report in his favour by Monro. The two acting battalion commanders were not court-martialled, but Kellett was never promoted to command a division. Jeffery argues that Wilson was, like many “unsuccessful” corps commanders, largely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that Haig’s animosity for Wilson was a factor.
Corps Commander: Summer and Autumn 1916
With the major offensive on the Somme imminent, Foch told Wilson in May that until the Allies had far more guns and ammunition such an attack was “suicidal”, worries which were shared by Clemenceau, who apparently came to Rouen especially to see Wilson. Like many British generals, Wilson himself was overly impressed by the amount of artillery now available and wrote (22 June 1916) “we run a serious chance of doing something considerable here (on the Somme).” IV Corps did not directly participate in the Somme under Wilson's command.
In August Haking, Wilson's junior and a favourite of Haig, was made acting Army Commander when Monro left to become Commander-in-Chief, India. Wilson claimed in his diary that Monro had recommended him to command First Army but this was vetoed by Haig. Despite the hopes of his many political friends Wilson was blocked from further promotion.
By August Wilson had two elite divisions under his command, 63rd (Royal Naval) Division and 9th (Scottish) Division, but resisted pressure from Haig to conduct another attack until after 1 September. Wilson was aware that the greater success of French attacks on the Somme was largely owed to more concentrated artillery fire, and that British attacks at High Wood and Guillemont (late July) were less successful. It was decided to use a short hurricane bombardment rather than a gas attack, and Wilson’s men experimented (in vain) with a flamethrower (in May he had been impressed by an explosive device, a sort of prototype Bangalore torpedo, to clear wire). Wilson was displeased at the poor state of air support but impressed by the early artillery sound-ranging device which he was shown. With Haig convinced he was going to “smash the Bosh on the Somme” in September, GHQ now postponed Wilson’s attack until October, and now wanted the whole of Vimy Ridge taken, which would mean a joint attack with XVII Corps. Some of Wilson’s artillery was moved down to the Somme. Wilson continued to work on air-artillery coordination and mining, but rejected a proposal to dig jumping-off trenches into No Mans Land, as this would give away the attack.
In September 1916 Lloyd George, now Secretary of State for War, visited the Western Front and asked Wilson (he had already put the same questions to Foch) why the British had performed so much more poorly than the French on the Somme. In reply Wilson stressed the inexperience of the British Army. On his visit Lloyd George had been told (falsely) that Wilson had not wanted to counterattack in May.
Wilson then had the 63rd and 9th Divisions taken away, then (10 October) heard his whole Corps was to be transferred to Gough’s Reserve Army, a prospect which did not please him. In October Gough “hauled him over the coals over the state of IV Corps”. By 18 October IV Corps had no divisions at all, and Wilson had to take 2 weeks leave in the UK in early November. Edmonds later wrote that Wilson’s preparations had laid the foundations for the successful capture of Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
Wilson thought that “to slog on at one spot” on the Somme was “dreadfully lacking in imagination” and would have preferred a joint offensive by Russia, Italy and Romania in Spring 1917 to draw off 15 or 20 German divisions, allowing the BEF to “completely smash the Boch line”. Summoned to see Lloyd George (13 November 1916) and asked if Britain could still hope to defeat Germany, Wilson advised him that she could, provided Haig were given enough men to fight “two Sommes at once”, but that in reality Haig should be firmly told how many men he was to receive and told to plan accordingly. He thought at the end of 1916 that both sides were claiming victory from that year’s fighting, but victory “inclined to us”, and that Germany might be driven to sue for peace in 1917.
Mission to Russia
Lloyd George’s accession to the Premiership (December 1916) restarted Wilson’s career. In January 1917 Wilson accompanied Lloyd George to a conference at Rome (Lloyd George had rejected Robertson’s suggestion that he take Haig). Despite the growing alliance between Wilson and the Prime Minister, Wilson was a “Westerner” and agreed with Robertson that British heavy guns should not be sent to Italy or Salonika.
Lloyd George wanted Russia persuaded to make the maximum possible effort, a necessity again stressed at the second Chantilly Conference in December 1916. Wilson was sent as Senior Military Representative (Robertson had refused to go) on a British mission to Russia in January 1917 (delayed from November 1916), the object of which was to keep the Russians holding down at least the forces now opposite them, to boost Russian morale and see what equipment they needed with a view to coordinating attacks. The party of 50 included British (led by Milner and including a banker and two munitions experts), French (led by de Castelnau) and Italian delegations. The War Office briefing advised that Russia was close to revolution. Wilson met the Tsar but thought him “as devoid of character & purpose as our own poor miserable King”. Even senior Russian officials were talking openly of assassinating the Tsar or perhaps just the Tsarina. Wilson was impressed by Generals Ruzski and Danilov, although he may have been influenced too much by the views of Knox, who had been British military attaché since 1911. He toured Petrograd, Moscow (where he was concerned at the food shortages) and Riga, which he predicted the “Boches” would never capture (they would do so in late 1917), and thought that even if Tsar and Tsarina were assassinated - the Tsar was toppled a few weeks after he left - Russia would not make a separate peace. His official report (3 March) said that Russia would remain in the war and that they would solve their “administrative chaos”. However, many other observers at the time, e.g. the young Archibald Wavell in the Caucasus, felt that the advent of democracy in Russia would reinvigorate her war effort, so Wilson’s views were not entirely unusual.
Chief of British Mission, French Army
During the Calais Affair (whilst Wilson was away in Russia) Lloyd George had attempted to sideline Haig, whilst Nivelle, the French Commander-in-Chief, would exercise operational command of the British Forces, through a British staff officer – Wilson was probably earmarked for this job. This plan fell through after Haig and Robertson threatened resignation. Wilson confessed to Derby that he did not get on with Haig or Robertson and told Robertson he wanted to return to commanding a corps. Hankey brokered an agreement whereby Haig would be subordinate to Nivelle only for the duration of the coming offensive and Wilson would do the liaison job but reporting to Haig. Haig asked him to accept “as a favour”, but Robertson was “staggered” by Wilson demanding and getting a formal invitation from Haig, Nivelle and the War Cabinet, and a clear statement of his own and Haig’s status. Nivelle came to Wilson’s London house to beg him to accept. Wilson was appointed Chief of British Mission to the French Army on 17 March, with a promotion to permanent lieutenant-general which Robertson had blocked in November 1916. Gough wrote to Stamfordham (i.e. for the King to see) complaining of how Wilson had made little impact either as a staff officer in 1914 or as a corps commander, but had a great reputation throughout the army for intrigue and for "talk". However, the appointment was welcomed by Curzon, and the King and Esher also urged Haig and Robertson to accept the deal.
The new French War Minister Painlevé had a low opinion of Nivelle’s plan to achieve a decisive “rupture”, and after it failed he clearly wanted to sack Nivelle (contrary to Wilson's advice on 26 April) and replace him with Petain, who favoured abstaining from major offensives until the Americans were present in strength. Wilson did not agree with this, although the alternatives were whirlwind attacks like those Nivelle had launched at Verdun in late 1916 or – Wilson’s preference – a major attritional offensive like the Somme but “with intelligence”. He compared “the school of the Great Offensive, of large numbers on long fronts, for unlimited objectives” with the alternative of small and sudden offensives, and opined that “both schools were wrong, and have been proved wrong over and over again”. He urged “a middle course of big operations on long fronts for limited objectives” which would cause “maximum of damage to the enemy with a minimum of loss to ourselves” and keep the Germans “in a state of constant tension and anxiety”. (30 April 1917). Wilson was pleased with the promotion of his friend Foch to be French Chief of Staff but not the promotion of Petain as French Commander-in-Chief (10 May) – Wilson was seen as pro-Nivelle and Petain soon began to deal directly with Haig, leaving little justification for Wilson’s job.
Robertson suggested once again that Wilson should return to commanding a corps, but Foch thought this a poor use of his talents. Haig’s diary states that Painleve had told Lloyd George Wilson was no longer persona grata with the French government. Wilson returned to London to sound out opinion about resigning and nobody tried to dissuade him. Whilst he was in London Lloyd George asked him to brief the War Cabinet individually then collectively with his advice that Britain try for some military or diplomatic success to drive Turkey or Bulgaria out of the war. On return to France Wilson declined Haig’s offer to command XIII Corps. Wilson then took a tour of the French line all the way down to the Swiss frontier, and was concerned that revolution seemed a possibility in France. He attempted to get a final interview with Painleve but left after being kept waiting in a lobby with "a pronounced whore". He had a meeting with Haig, who was encouraged by the recent success at Messines, and agreed with Haig’s plan for a major offensive in Flanders, although he cautioned that it should only continue up until the time of the mud.
Possible entry into politics
Wilson contemplated standing for Parliament. In 1916 the Conservative Party chairman Arthur Steel-Maitland had offered to get him a seat. Esher and Duncannon proposed forming a new “National” party of 20-30 MPs, which would include David Davies who had been on the mission to Russia. The new party’s policies would include more vigorous prosecution of the war – Wilson urged Irish conscription – and the detachment of Turkey and Bulgaria. Wilson was worried that it would be the end of his army career (he was also short of money - he had a private income of £300 a year, and half pay of £600 (£450 after tax) – but his house at Eaton Square was costing him £1,500 a year). His brother Jemmy proposed getting him an Ulster seat, and thought that the prospect of Wilson as an MP would annoy Robertson (who told Wilson that there was no army job for him in Britain), but the Irish Unionist leader Carson thought an English seat more sensible. Bonar Law was dismissive of Wilson’s hopes that, like J.C.Smuts, he might be invited to join the War Policy Committee, and also poured cold water on the idea of Wilson becoming an MP. Wilson did not agree with Milner’s suggestion that he succeed Sarrail as Commander-in-Chief at Salonika. Éamon de Valera of Sinn Fein had recently won the East Clare by-election (caused by the death of Willie Redmond) and on a visit to Currygrane (his first in eight years) everyone Wilson spoke to – judges, landowners, police officers, a Redmondite local politician and “some natives” agreed on the need for conscription. Brock Millman argued that the threat to stand for Parliament was blackmail to get a military job out of Lloyd George, but Keith Jeffery rejects this, arguing that Wilson would have been no threat as a new MP but as a military adviser was a useful rival to Robertson, whom by July 1917 French was telling Wilson Lloyd George wanted to remove.
With the Third Battle of Ypres, to which the War Cabinet had reluctantly agreed on condition that it did not degenerate into a long-drawn out fight like the Somme, already bogged down in unseasonably early wet weather, French (14 August 1917) told Riddell (managing director of the News of the World, and likely to pass on French's views to Lloyd George) that Henry Wilson’s talents were being wasted, and that the government was not ascertaining “the views of our leading soldiers”. Wilson thought “ridiculous and unworkable” a suggestion by Lloyd George that all Robertson’s plans be submitted to a committee of French, Wilson and one other, and over lunch with French and Lloyd George on 23 August suggested an inter-Allied body of three Prime Ministers and three soldiers be set up over all the national Staffs. Lloyd George agreed, telling Wilson that he should be the British military member, and told him to sell the plan to the rest of the War Cabinet. Wilson also suggested that the autumn and winter mud in Flanders would be an ideal time to build on recent successes in Palestine and Mesopotamia without interfering with Western Front Offensives in 1918.
The War Cabinet (11 October 1917) invited Wilson and French to submit formal written advice, a blatant undermining of Robertson’s position. Dining with Wilson and French the night before, Lloyd George criticised Robertson and called Haig’s recent paper (8 October), which predicted that “decisive success is expected next year” provided Russia continued to pin down as many German divisions as currently, “preposterous”. Wilson consulted Macdonogh (Director of Military Intelligence at the War Office) who held out little prospect of breaking the German Army but thought “the heart of the German people” might break in a year, and Macready (Adjutant-General) who warned that the British Army was facing a shortfall of 300,000 men by that time. Over lunch on 17 October Lloyd George wanted Wilson’s paper rewritten to remove “all semblance of dictation” by the new inter-Allied body. Wilson thought Haig’s assumption about Russia “a large one” and once again urged winter offensives against Turkey and Bulgaria. He affirmed that he was in principle a “Westerner” but wrote that it was “no use throwing “decisive numbers at the decisive time at the decisive place” if “the decisive numbers do not exist, the decisive hour has not yet struck and if the decisive place is ill-chosen””. Winston Churchill later wrote "In Sir Henry Wilson the War Cabinet found for the first time an expert advisor of superior intellect, who could explain lucidly and forcefully the whole situation and give reasons for the adoption or rejection of any course".
Wilson delivered copies of the two papers to Hankey on 20 October; on 24 October Wilson breakfasted with Derby, who warned him that he had not yet submitted the papers as French’s was “too personal” and Wilson’s “too unanswerable”. At the Prime Minister's request Wilson helped tone down French's criticisms of Robertson. On 26 October papers were at last sent to the CIGS, having been overtaken by disaster on the Italian front. The Battle of Caporetto began on 24 October, which Wilson was worried might lead to revolution in Italy.
Supreme War Council
Lloyd George told Wilson that he was to be the British Military Representative on the Supreme War Council, and that although he disliked his politics he admired him “as a man & a soldier” and that the future of the war rested in his shoulders – Milner told him much the same, adding that it was “the eleventh hour”. Hankey also wrote to Lloyd George that Wilson was uniquely qualified for the job, owing in part to his close relations with the French Army and personal friendship with Foch. Wilson accompanied Lloyd George, Smuts and Hankey to the Rapallo Conference which set up the SWC (7 November). When he arrived on 5 November he met Robertson who had gone on ahead to supervise the transfer of British reinforcements to Italy – under questioning from Wilson Robertson said that he would not have done anything differently over the last two years – which Wilson thought “curious”, noting that “since he has been CIGS we have lost Roumania, Russia & Italy & have gained Bullecourt, Messines & Paschendal (sic)”.
Wilson, sent to inspect the Italian Front, was worried that Venice might fall and on behalf of the SWC ordered the new Italian commander Diaz to construct new defensive positions on the River Brenta, which in the event were not needed as the line of the River Piave held.
Lloyd George persuaded the War Cabinet that although Wilson was subject to the authority of the Army Council he should nonetheless have “unfettered” discretion as to the advice he gave. Wilson insisted to Robertson that there was no "duality of advice" as he spoke only on behalf of the SWC. Lloyd George also asked Wilson to send his reports directly to him, not through Robertson. On the train to the initial SWC meeting at the Hotel Trianon at Versailles Lloyd George, Milner and Wilson had “long talks” about Derby and Robertson’s obstruction. Wilson correctly guessed that Foch would eventually become Allied generalissimo. Clemenceau was in the chair (1 December 1917), and his speech, drafted by Hankey, tasked the military representatives with studying the prospects for the 1918 campaign, and in particular whether German defeat would be best brought about by attacks on her allies.
At the time, Allenby’s successes, culminating in the Fall of Jerusalem (9 December 1917), demonstrated the potential of attacks in the Middle East, compared to Haig’s offensives at Ypres and at Cambrai in November (initial success followed by retaking of gains). Russia had finally collapsed (Brest Litovsk Armistice 16 December) yet only a handful of American divisions were available so far in the west. But with hindsight, it is unclear that stronger commitment to the Palestine front in the winter of 1917-18 would have led to great results, as that winter saw some of the heaviest rain in living memory. Conversely, the success of the German 1918 Spring Offensives demonstrated that the Western Front was not as secure as Wilson believed.
The military representatives, egged on by Wilson, beginning 13 December 1917, recommended coordinated defence and reserves from north sea to Adriatic, as well as reorganisation of the Belgian Army and preparing studies of the Italian and Salonika Fronts. Wilson worked even on Christmas Day. He set up three main sections “Allied” and “Enemy” operations, and “Material and Manpower” – the latter under Frederick Sykes covered both sides and included air power. There was also a “Political” Branch under Leo Amery, although he reported to Hankey back in London. However, Rawlinson was unimpressed by the calibre of Wilson’s staff and the young Archibald Wavell thought the atmosphere overly pessimistic. That month Wilson defended Haig to Clemenceau and Foch, both of whom wanted him removed (Clemenceau preferred Allenby as Haig’s replacement, Foch preferred Plumer), telling Clemenceau that Haig was the right man for the “bad times” which were coming, although he was critical of Robertson.
Wilson had his staff play a “war game”, in which some of them had reversed their hats pretending to be German, which he demonstrated to important visitors and the contents of which became Joint Note 12. Wilson advised that the British line should be extended between the River Ailette and the Soissons-Laon Road. Haig was bored when shown it (11 Jan 1918) and read a memorandum in his hand, although a large part of the reason for setting up the SWC had been the poor intelligence and advice which Haig had been receiving from Charteris. Many of Wilson's predictions for the timing and location of the German offensive proved to be wrong. Although Lloyd George would later (9 April) praise Wilson in the House of Commons for forecasting the date and time of the German offensive, he had in fact explicitly rejected the Somme as a sector and had predicted that 1 May or later would be the likely date of the attack.
SWC Joint Note 12 declared that, leaving aside improbables such as Central Powers internal collapse or Russian revival, neither side could win a decisive victory on the Western Front in 1918, although decisive results could be had against Turkey (although, at French insistence, no further troops were to be sent), possibly leading to diversion of German troops and encouragement of pro-Allied elements in Romania and southern Russia. Haig thought “Wilson is playing the tune called by Lloyd George” and Robertson, who opposed efforts against Turkey thought it “d-----d rot in general”. Joint Note 12 and Note 14 proposing the formation of a General Reserve were discussed at the second full session of the SWC (30 January – 2 February). In accordance with Lloyd George’s wishes an Executive Board was set up to control the General Reserve, under Foch (with Wilson as his deputy). Robertson asked to be on the Board but was overruled. Wilson for the first time (2 February 1918) wrote explicitly in his diary of “the long duel between (himself) and Robertson" and speculated that Robertson might resign after his "complete defeat”.
Wilson seems from his diary not to have particularly welcomed the suggestion that he become CIGS. When told by Milner of rumours that he was to be given Robertson’s job he said that he preferred to be given ever more power at Versailles where he was building up a prestigious post for himself, with Robertson reduced “from the position of a Master to that of a servant”. Milner told Wilson (10 February) that Lloyd George wanted to move Robertson to Versailles. Ironically, if he became CIGS he wanted Robertson (whom he thought would refuse) or whoever else replaced him at Versailles to report to himself. There was talk of the government falling, Rawlinson writing to H.A.Gwynne (14 February 1918) that the best solution was to give Robertson a powerful role at Versailles and have Wilson as a weak CIGS in London “where he will not be able to do much mischief - especially if Squiff replaced LG as PM”.
CIGS: German March Offensive
On 19 February 1918 Wilson was appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff ('CIGS'), after the removal of Robertson  and was the principal military adviser to Lloyd George in the last year of the First World War. As CIGS, he was a member of the Army Council. One of his first acts was to nearly triple the size of the Tank Corps from 18,000 to 46,000 men He argued for “turning out some of our senior generals & starting a flow of promotion”. A purge of corps commanders, including the corps commanders from Cambrai, was carried out in the early months of 1918. (Wilson diary 7 Feb and 7 March 1918) 
Foch was pleased at Wilson’s appointment, although Haig noted in his diary (25 February) that Wilson was no longer so keen on a strong staff under Rawlinson, his successor at Versailles. Rawlinson for his part supported Haig’s unwillingness to release any divisions to the General Reserve. Petain only agreed to release 8 French divisions and made a bilateral agreement with Haig to assist one another. Wilson protested to Lloyd George, who commented that Haig’s attitude was “very stupid & short sighted but agreed we could not force Haig at this moment“. Wilson defended Haig’s position to the War Cabinet (6 March) and blamed Clemenceau and Petain (both of whom disliked Foch) and wrote in his diary that the British government had little choice but to back Haig “wrong as I believe him to be”. At a SWC Meeting in London (14–15 March) Foch agreed under protest to shelve the Allied Reserve.
In the House of Commons in early April Lloyd George would later claim, amidst press demands for Robertson’s restoration to office, that Wilson had predicted exactly when and where the German offensive would come. In fact on 21 March the day the German Michael Offensive began, Wilson advised that the attack “might only develop into a big raid or demonstration” and focussed the War Cabinet on the German threat to Asia. Although it was not yet clear in London, on that one day the Germans captured as much territory as the British had captured in 140 days at the Somme in 1916.
On 23 March Kirke, Deputy Director of Operations at GHQ, flew to London to report that the Germans had gained 12 miles and captured 600 guns. Wilson wrote that 23 March was “an anxious day”: the War Cabinet discussed falling back on the Channel Ports and agreed to send out 50,000 “boys” of 18 ½ - 19 together with another 82,000 men from Britain, along with 88,000 returning from leave. A British division was recalled from Italy, Allenby was instructed to hold one ready, and Lord Reading (Ambassador in Washington) was asked to urge President Wilson to send US reinforcements quicker.
Wilson’s diary records that on 24 March he (5pm) telephoned Lloyd George to ask him to come to London, received a telephone call from Foch (“asking what I thought of situation & we are of one mind that someone must catch a hold or we shall be beaten. I said I would come over and see him”), then had a meeting with Lloyd George at Downing Street where they discussed “the entirely inadequate measures taken by Haig and Petain” before receiving an evening message from Haig asking him to come over. There is no evidence to confirm Haig's later claim that, on returning from a midnight meeting with Petain at 3am on 25 March, he telegraphed to Wilson and Milner to come over to France and ensure the appointment of “Foch or some other determined general who would fight” as Allied Generalissimo. Wilson reached GHQ at Montreuil at 11.30am on 25 March, having left London by special train at 6.50am then crossed to France on a destroyer. He chided Haig for having, together with Petain, blocked the plan for an Allied reserve, although in fact Petain sent a dozen divisions and it is unclear that a committee would actually have acted any faster. Travers argued that the true reason for Wilson’s visit to France was to discuss a retreat on the Channel Ports, but this view is not accepted by other scholars.
Wilson was present at the Doullens conference at which Foch was appointed Allied generalissimo. He reported (27 March) that Gough’s Fifth Army could “no longer be regarded as a fighting unit”. He was also at the Beauvais (3 April) conference which increased Foch's powers.
CIGS: Spring Battles
Wilson thought that Irish conscription would gain an extra 150,000 men, as well as helping to round up political malcontents. As recently as January Lloyd George had been opposed, worried that it would cause trouble in Ireland and weaken the position of John Redmond’s party (worries shared by the administration in Dublin) and about the effect on Irish American and Irish Australian opinion. During the German "Michael" Offensive Lloyd George changed his mind and with Milner’s support, but over the reservations of the head of the RIC, announced at the War Cabinet (25 March) that conscription was to be extended to Ireland, partly to placate British trade unions at the extension of conscription to British War Industries. When he announced the measure in the House of Commons (9 April), he announced that Home Rule was also to be introduced in Ireland, although Wilson was convinced that the southern nationalists would never accept it if Ulster was given the “safeguards” promised by Lloyd George. Irish conscription was never implemented but the threat galvanised Irish politics and led to Sinn Fein’s victory in December 1918.
Early in April the War Cabinet met to discuss, in Hankey's words, “the desirability of getting rid of Haig”, who had recently offered to resign. Hankey recorded that sentiment was “unanimously agst Haig” but Wilson’s opinion was that there was no obvious successor. However, in his own diary Wilson later claimed (11 May) he had urged that Haig be sacked, and told Haig so (20 May). Haig and Wilson gradually established a warily respectful relationship, and Lloyd George was soon complaining that one was Scotch and one Irish, but both were whiskies.
Wilson met Clemenceau in Paris on the morning of 10 April to warn that the there was a danger of the BEF losing the Channel Ports, and wrote to Foch urging him to send French reinforcements or to flood the coastal areas around Dunkirk.  On 10 April Wilson impressed on Foch the need to keep contact with the British right flank if the BEF felt compelled to retreat on the Channel Ports. By late April, reassured by the British Admiralty that if necessary Calais and Boulogne could be abandoned, Wilson finally agreed (2 May 1918) that the British could retreat south-west if attacked again, but this decision never had to be implemented.
Like many British leaders Wilson soon became disillusioned with Foch. In May 1918 he complained that the French wanted to get control of the British Army, bases, food, merchant marine, Italy and Salonika.
CIGS: Allied Victory
Wilson, along with Milner and Hankey (Leo Amery sometimes covering for him), was on the X Committee, an inner circle which met to brief Lloyd George prior to War Cabinet meetings. Two thirds of the meetings were in the crisis period between May and the halting of the German offensives in July 1918. In early June, after the Third Battle of the Aisne, even Wilson feared the French might be “done”. Wilson travelled to France four times, seeing Foch and Haig each time and Clemenceau on three of them.
Wilson (along with Haig, Milner, Lloyd George and du Cane) attended the sixth meeting of the Supreme War Council in Paris, 1-3 June, at which there was much French anger at the low level of British recruitment and Haig’s reluctance to send reinforcements to the French sector. 
Wilson was promoted to substantive general on 3 June 1918. Along with Hankey and Milner, Wilson attended an emergency meeting at 10, Downing Street on 5 June, at which abandonment of the Channel Ports or even evacuation was discussed. Wilson also attended the Paris conference of 7 June, along with Foch, Milner, Haig, Weygand and Clemenceau, at which Foch again berated Haig for his reluctance to send reinforcements. Wilson helped to defuse the situation by obtaining a promise from Foch that the British and French Armies would not be separated as Petain had assured him that Paris was no longer in danger.  At the end of June Lloyd George asked Milner if Britain could continue the war without France. Wilson visited Italy again at the end of June 1918.
Wilson submitted a long paper to the War Cabinet in July, recommending that the Allies hold the line, with only limited offensives, for the second half of 1918, and that their future offensives should have ever greater emphasis on artillery, tanks, aircraft and machine guns. He was convinced that the war would ultimately be won in the west, causing Lloyd George to complain (30 July 1918) that it was “Wully Redivivus”. In his War Memoirs (pp1857–66) Lloyd George later poured scorn on Wilson for seeking the advice of Haig and Petain in this paper and for not having foreseen the Allied victories of autumn 1918, but neither Lloyd George nor many other people did at the time. Wilson also dismissed as unlikely the internal collapse which overcame the Central Powers in late 1918. Wilson also wanted to reinforce the Near East - although not enough to satisfy Amery - lest Germany and Turkey were left free by the collapse of Russia to expand there, which would improve their position in any future war a decade hence. Haig wrote on his copy “words, words, words” and “theoretical rubbish”.
For some time the Supreme War Council had been drawing up contingency plans to supply the BEF via Dieppe and Le Havre if Calais and Boulogne fell, or even (6 July) emergency evacuation plans. On 12 July Wilson lobbied Foch, whom he addressed as “my dear friend”, to allow US divisions to be deployed in Flanders, although in the event this was not necessary.
When Haig's forces began to advance towards the Hindenburg Line Wilson sent him a supposedly "personal" telegram (31 August), warning that he was not to take unnecessary losses in storming these fortifications (i.e. hinting that he might be sacked if he failed), later claiming that the government wanted to retain troops in the UK because of the police strike.
Haig believed that the aim should be to win the war that year, and by spring 1919 at the latest, not July 1919 as the politicians had in mind, and urged that all available able-bodied men and transportation in the UK be sent, as well as men earmarked for the Royal Navy and for munitions production, even at the cost of reducing future munitions output. Milner warned Haig that manpower would not be available for 1919 if squandered now. Although Wilson agreed with Haig that “there was ample evidence of the deterioration of the Boch” (Wilson diary 9 September)  Milner told Wilson that Haig was being “ridiculously optimistic”, might “embark on another Paschendal (sic)” and that he “had grave doubts whether he had got inside of DH’s head” (Wilson diary 23 September); Wilson thought the War Cabinet would have to “watch this tendency & stupidity of DH”.
Demobilisation and Defence Cuts
In January 1919 there were riots as 10,000 soldiers at Folkestone and 2,000 at Dover refused to return abroad, as well as disturbances in army camps abroad. This was of grave concern as revolution in Russia and Germany had been spearheaded by mutinous soldiers. Wilson, aware that peace had not yet been signed, blamed Lloyd George for promising quick demobilisation during the 1918 General Election campaign, and estimating that 350,000-500,000 men would be needed for peacekeeping duties, pressed for the continuation of conscription, despite press pressure, e.g. from the Daily Herald, that it should end. Churchill (now War Secretary) replaced the existing plans for demobilisation of men with jobs to go to with a new system of "first in, first out", and extended service for the most recent conscripts until April 1920 so that current soldiers could be demobilised.
The Army dropped in size from 3.8 million men (November 1918) to 2 million at the start of 1919, then 890,000 (November 1919) then 430,000 (November 1920). Lloyd George, wanting to spend more money on domestic programmes and concerned at persuading an electorate recently tripled in size that high defence spending was needed, launched a defence review in summer 1919 after peace was signed. He wanted to know why, with no major enemies on the horizon, so many more men were needed than in 1914 when the Army had numbered 255,000. Defence spending was £766m in 1919-20, this was to be reduced to £135m of which £75m was to be on the army and air force. Wilson supported the Ten Year Rule which was also formulated at this time.
Wilson, at this stage still enjoying cordial relations with Lloyd George, spent the equivalent of four months at Versailles as Britain's chief military adviser at the Paris Peace Conference. His staff included Richard Meinertzhagen, James Marshall-Cornwall working in intelligence, the historian Major Charles Webster as secretary, the Duke of Devonshire’s son Lord Hartington (like his father, a Conservative politician) and the Prime Minister’s son Major Gwilym Lloyd George.
Wilson advised that the German Reichswehr be a voluntary rather than a conscript force (the French preference), and that the French Occupation of the Rhineland be temporary rather than permanent. Hankey was impressed by advice from Wilson that harsh financial terms might drive Germany to Bolshevism and thence to alliance with Russia and Japan, and had Wilson repeat his presentation to the Prime Minister at a special “away weekend” at Fontainebleau (March 1919), where he was sceptical of the League of Nations and urged a strong Anglo-French Alliance, perhaps even accompanied by the building of a Channel Tunnel. These proposals were written up as the “Fontainebleau Memorandum” outlining Lloyd George’s preferred peace terms.
Wilson advised that Foch’s force of 39 divisions was sufficient to occupy Germany if she refused to sign the peace treaty, although he advised against a prolonged occupation, and continued to be concerned at the sporadic warfare between the small newly independent countries of Eastern Europe. Clemenceau eventually agreed to sign the Treaty of Versailles (June 1919) on condition Britain guaranteed to defend France against unprovoked German aggression (President Woodrow Wilson did the same but the USA did not ratify the agreement).
Promotion and Honours
In June 1919 Wilson accepted promotion (official 31 July) to field marshal (Churchill had offered him a choice of promotion or a peerage). At a dinner for 200 MPs in his honour Lloyd George stated that he had earned the promotion for his role in war preparation, for his work in smoothing Anglo-French relations, and for his work in setting up a unified Allied command late in the war. At 55 he was the youngest non-royal Field Marshal since Wellington (Harold Alexander in 1944 has since been younger).
He was also made a baronet. He was made a Grand Officier of the Belgian Order of Leopold and awarded the Belgian Croix de guerre, and was given the Chinese Order of Chia-Ho (Golden Grain), 1st Class "Ta-Shou Pao-Kuang", the American Distinguished Service Medal, the Siamese Order of the White Elephant, first class, the Grand Cordon of the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun (later "with flowers of the Paulownia"), the Grand Cross of the Greek Order of the Redeemer, and promoted to Grand Cross of the Légion d'honneur.
He received a grant of £10,000 (his Field Marshal’s pay was £3,600 per annum). Money was still tight – in the summer of 1920 he briefly let out his house at Eaton Square. His estate at his death was £10,678 which included his yacht worth nearly £2,000. Over the next few years he received honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin and Queens University Belfast.
When he took his GCB he had as supporters on his coat of arms a private of the Rifle Brigade and a female figure representing Ulster.
A wave of labour unrest had begun with the London police strike of August 1918. Wilson had approved the deployment of troops as strike breakers in September 1918 but regretted the concessions granted to striking railwaymen in December 1918.
During another railway strike in September 1919, Wilson was concerned he would be left in future with only 40,000 infantry of whom 12,000 were conscripts, and of which even the “regular” NCOs were young and inexperienced – a police report at the time warned that for the first time in British history the rioters (many of them ex-soldiers) would be better trained than the authorities. Wilson, along with Churchill and Walter Long (First Lord of the Admiralty), wanted military action. Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Hankey did not. Early in 1920 Wilson drew up plans for 18 battalions (10 of them Guards) to protect London, concentrating troops near the sea so they could be moved by the Royal Navy rather than by rail. By September 1920 a national coal strike seemed imminent, along with possible involvement by railwaymen and transport workers (the “Triple Alliance”) and unrest amongst unemployed ex-servicemen, coinciding with rebellion in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Tanks were deployed to Worcester, York, Aldershot and Scotland.
Wilson was particularly cross, early in 1921, that with only 10 Guards and 18 Line (8 of them Irish) battalions in the UK to meet another threatened Triple Alliance strike, 4 battalions were being sent from the Rhine to supervise the Upper Silesia plebiscite: he asked Lloyd George if he wanted to be “Prime Minister of England or Silesia”. The Cabinet eventually agreed to let Wilson recall battalions from Silesia, Malta and Egypt, mobilise sailors and an 80,000 strong paramilitary “Defence Force”. In the event the miners struck without the support of other unions (“Black Friday”), and the sharp slump took the sting out of labour unrest.
Wilson wanted to concentrate troops in Britain, Ireland, India and Egypt – rather than what he saw as excessive commitments to the Rhine and in Mesopotamia, Persia and Palestine, later writing (11 August 1921) that interfering in other countries followed by having to make “peace” was “like buggery: once you take to it, you cannot stop”. However, Keith Jeffery argues that he failed to realise that the granting of self-government to Ireland and Egypt was also necessary, such concession keeping Egypt (like Iraq to a certain extent) pro-British for another generation.
Wilson favoured limited involvement in the Russian Civil War – temporary deployment of troops to Murmansk and Archangel. He agreed with Lloyd George that Churchill’s desire to wage active war on Bolshevik Russia was unwise and impractical. Wilson told Churchill that he was “tired of constantly nursing children (the White forces) who resolutely refuse to grow up”. Rawlinson was sent out in August 1919 to supervise British withdrawal.
An entire British division had occupied Batum on the Black Sea supervising German and Turkish withdrawal. Wilson thought the Caucasus “a hornet’s (sic) nest” and wrote a paper which Churchill circulated to the Cabinet (3 May 1919) urging retreat from non-vital parts of the world. At the end of August 1919 the British withdrew from Baku on the Caspian. In February 1920 Wilson persuaded the Cabinet to withdraw the remaining 3 battalions from Batum, but the Foreign Secretary Curzon had the decision reversed on his return from holiday, although to Curzon’s fury (he thought it “abuse of authority”) Wilson gave the local commander permission to withdraw if necessary. After a British garrison at Enzeli (on the Persian Caspian coast) was taken prisoner by Bolshevik forces on 19 May 1920, Lloyd George finally insisted on abandonment of Batum early in June 1920. Churchill and Wilson opposed Curzon's aspirations for a permanent British presence in Persia, and financial retrenchment forced a British withdrawal in the spring of 1921.
By February 1920 Wilson's Staff wanted to reduce commitment to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), despite inevitable loss of prestige, as occupation of the whole country was not necessary to safeguard the southern Persian oilfields. In May 1920 Wilson submitted a joint paper with Churchill and Trenchard (Chief of Air Staff) complaining about the cost of keeping 10,000 British and 50,000 Indian troops there. When revolt broke out in Mesopotamia, Wilson asked (15 July 1920) to pull out of Persia to send reinforcements (he also needed troops for Ireland and the UK), but Lloyd George said that Curzon “would not stand it”. By October 1920 the local British commander Sir Aylmer Haldane managed to restore order but on 10 December Wilson minuted his agreement to an appraisal by the Director of Military Operations that “we ran things too fine and that a great disaster was only narrowly avoided”. Wilson was privately scathing about what he called “Hot Air, Aeroplanes & Arabs” - Trenchard's plan for Air Defence backed by Arab levies, announced by Churchill at the Cairo Conference in July 1921 - although glad at the reduction in military commitment, and wrote to Rawlinson that when trouble came Churchill would “hop into an aeroplane and fly away, waving Ta-Ta to any poor bloody native who is stupid enough to back us”.
Wilson and his staff did not agree with Lloyd George's insistence on retaining an occupation force in Turkey and his support for Greek territorial ambitions in Asia Minor (Treaty of Sèvres, 1920). Wilson argued that Anglo-Turkish conflict was antagonising “the whole Mussulman world” and that Britain should instead “make love to” Turkey. In June 1921 Wilson told a cabinet committee that Turkey and Ireland were essentially similar, Britain had either to “knock (them) on the head or come out”. Turkish power revived under Kemal, and after Wilson’s death the Chanak Crisis triggered Lloyd George’s fall. Peace was not signed with Turkey until Lausanne in 1923.
Wilson was pro-Zionist after a meeting with Chaim Weizmann in May 1919, believing that Jews could police the area for Britain. He wanted to withdraw from the British Mandate of Palestine (which at that time included TransJordan), as Britain did not have the troops to keep both Jews and Arabs under its thumb.
Wilson wanted to retain Egypt as part of the British Empire. After a nationalist rising in the spring of 1919 Milner was appointed to head an inquiry, and in summer 1920 he proposed that Egypt be granted autonomy. Wilson agreed with Churchill, who thought that granting Egypt sovereign independence (even if still as a British puppet state) would set a bad example for India and Ireland. In the end, despite the reservations of Allenby, High Commissioner in Cairo, who also thought (September 1920) that it would make “another Ireland” out of Egypt, the Allenby Declaration of February 1922 was based on the Milner proposals whilst reserving Britain’s “special interest” in the country. Wilson was concerned about the British garrison being restricted to the Suez Canal area and wrote that “the white flag is once more up over 10 Downing Street”.
Ireland - Escalating Crisis
Wilson wrote to Robertson (13 June 1919) that “Ireland goes from bad to worse and" that "a little bloodletting” was needed, but in 1919 the fighting was sporadic and highly localised, seemingly no worse than in the land agitation of the early 1880s. 15 police (out of 9,000 RIC) were killed in 1919, and Ireland was at first very low down the UK political agenda.
In October 1919 Wilson warned Churchill that the planned introduction of Irish Home Rule that autumn would lead to trouble and, given concerns that Robertson lacked the subtlety for the Irish Command which Churchill had offered him, asked him to consult the Prime Minister, perhaps in the knowledge that Lloyd George disliked Robertson. Lloyd George preferred Macready, as he had experience of peacekeeping duties in South Wales and Belfast as well as having served as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London, and he was appointed early in 1920.
The Cabinet agreed (11 May 1920) to Macready's request for vehicles and extra technical personnel, but on Wilson’s advice agreed only to hold the 8 requested extra battalions “in readiness”. Churchill proposed a force of 8,000 old soldiers be raised to reinforce the RIC, but Wilson thought this force of “scallywags” (the Auxiliary Division as it became, whose numbers peaked at 1,500 in July 1921) would be ill-trained, poorly led and split up into small groups across Ireland, fears which proved wholly justified. Wilson would have preferred a special force of 8 “Garrison Battalions” under full military discipline, and a robust military campaign in Ireland, which he regarded as a proxy war for anti-British movements in “New York & Cairo & Calcutta & Moscow”, but this was politically unacceptable.
Wilson became increasingly concerned that Tudor, with the connivance of Lloyd George, who loved to drop hints to that effect, was operating an unofficial policy of killing IRA men in reprisal for the deaths of pro-Crown forces. Wilson wrote to Macready (June 1920) that “the discipline and good name of the Army is worth half a dozen Irelands” - although sympathetic, he had been deeply concerned to hear of troops smashing up Fermoy in reprisal for the kidnapping of General Cuthbert. However Macready also told Wilson that the Army was arranging “accidents” for suspected IRA men, but not telling the politicians as he did not want them “talked and joked about after dinner by Cabinet Ministers”. Lloyd George refused to formally declare martial law, not least because in July 1920 the Amritsar Massacre (of April 1919) was being debated by Parliament.
Ireland - Martial Law
With the army stretched very thin by the deployment of 2 extra divisions to Iraq, and the threatened coal strike in September 1920, Wilson wanted to withdraw 10 battalions from Ireland, but Macready warned this would make peacekeeping of Ireland impossible unless the Army was given a free hand to conduct purely military operations. Amidst concerns that police and army discipline would not stay firm indefinitely, Wilson therefore recommended martial law that month, although he also stressed that it needed to have full and open political support. Wilson wanted lists of known Sinn Feiners published on church doors and wanted to “shoot (five IRA men for each policeman killed) by roster seeing that we cannot get evidence”.
After the Bloody Sunday assassination of a dozen British officers (21 November 1920) Wilson urged martial law on Churchill “for the hundredth time”. After the killing of 17 Auxiliaries in an ambush at Kilmichael, near Macroom, County Cork, martial law was declared (10 December 1920 - Wilson called Churchill and Hamar Greenwood “amazing liars” in his diary for saying they had always been in favour of it) in the four Munster Counties of Cork, Tipperary, Kerry and Limerick – Wilson would have preferred all of Ireland apart from Ulster. On 23 December Irish Home Rule became law. Wilson attended a special conference (29 December) along with Macready, Tudor and John Anderson (Head of the Civil Service in Dublin) at which they all advised that no truce should be allowed for elections to the planned Dublin Parliament, and that at least four months (Wilson thought six) months of martial law would be required to restore order – the date for the elections was therefore set for May 1921. In accordance with Wilson and Macready’s wishes martial law was extended over the rest of Munster (Counties Waterford and Clare) and part of Leinster (Counties Kilkenny and Wexford).
In February 1921 a new Secretary of State for War, Laming Worthington-Evans, was more willing to listen to Wilson’s advice. The Irish War of Independence reached a climax in the first half of 1921, with deaths of pro-Crown forces running at approximately double the rate of those in the second half of 1920. Wilson still urged unity of military and police command, which Macready did not want.
In April 1921 the Cabinet decided, against Wilson’ advice, to withdraw 4 of Macready’s 51 battalions, to meet the possible Triple Alliance strike. Wilson drew up plans to send an extra 30 battalions to suppress Ireland once the strike and the Irish elections were out of the way, not least as troops would otherwise need to be replaced after the strain of guerrilla war. In the event 17 battalions were sent (bringing British strength up to 60,000) in June and July, but the politicians drew back from the brink and began secret talks with James Craig and Eamon de Valera.
Ireland - Truce
Wilson thought the Truce of 11 July 1921 “rank, filthy cowardice” and hoped it would break down, so that an extra 30,000 troops could be sent to crush Sinn Fein, and thought Lloyd George’s plan to withdraw from the interior and control major cities and ports (“withdrawal and blockade”) “as ridiculous as it was impossible”.
In June 1921 Lloyd George complained that he could “never get a sane discussion” with Wilson. When Wilson told him (5 July) that he “did not speak to murderers” and would hand de Valera over to the police on his forthcoming visit to London the Prime Minister replied “Oh nonsense. In public life we must do these things”. This appears to have been the final break between Wilson and Lloyd George – despite the urgings of Worthington-Evans Wilson did not meet the Prime Minister again until 10 February 1922, Wilson sending deputies to Cabinet when asked for his advice. In October 1921 Lloyd George complained that Wilson was “very difficult” and he was not sad that his term of office was almost up. Lord Derby thought Wilson had allowed his personal feelings to get the better of his duties as a soldier. Wilson thought the Irish Treaty (6 December 1921) a “shameful & cowardly surrender to the pistol” by a “Cabinet of Cowards” and, correctly predicting civil war in Ireland, was keen to get out before “one set of murderers” (the Irish government) asked for British military aid against “another set of murderers”.
On 3 August 1921 Wilson, who had been elected a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes the previous year, almost drowned in a yachting accident.
Wilson’s farewell address at Staff College (December 1921) was entitled “The Passing of the Empire”. His last act as CIGS (January 1922) was to argue against Geddes’ recommendation of further army cuts of 50,000 men (from 210,000) and £20m off the £75m  estimates, leaving only 4 battalions in Ulster. The proposed cuts were scaled back after a review by Churchill, former War Secretary.
Member of Parliament & Ulster Adviser
Wilson was offered a seat in the devolved Northern Ireland parliament and a probable ministerial post at Stormont. There was also talk of an English seat, but he agreed to stand (for Westminster) for North Down, provided it was only for one parliament, that he was unopposed and that it only cost him £100-£200. He was also advised that a parliamentary seat would make it easier to pick up company directorships.
He resigned from the army, being replaced as CIGS by The Earl of Cavan on 19 February 1922, and was elected on 21 February 1922 . Although the Conservatives were still officially supporting the Lloyd George Coalition, Wilson wrote that all his energies would be devoted to overthrowing the present government. He spoke seven times as an MP, twice on the army estimates and five times on Ireland.
Sir James Craig invited Wilson to advise the Northern Ireland government on security. At a conference on St Patrick’s Day 1922 Wilson advised an increase in the Special Constabulary, but urged that loyal Catholics be encouraged to join, rather than keeping it a purely Protestant body (Craig did not pass on this recommendation to the Stormont Cabinet). He also advised that an able army officer be appointed to take command of the Constabulary, to avoid a poorly run force alienating public opinion as the Black and Tans had done. Wilson was unimpressed by Craig (whom he thought “very second rate … self-satisfied, lazy & bad judge of men & events”) and other members of the Northern Ireland administration. However, in the first half of 1922 an undeclared war was under way in Northern Ireland and in Nationalist eyes Wilson was blamed for the Constabulary’s stance in the sectarian violence, Michael Collins calling him “a violent Orange partisan”.
Anthony Heathcote writes that Wilson proposed a re-organisation of the police and military forces in Northern Ireland into an army to reconquer the south.
On 22 June 1922, two London-based volunteers of the Irish Republican Army, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O'Sullivan, assassinated Wilson outside his house at 36 Eaton Square at approximately 2.20pm. He was in full uniform as he was returning from unveiling the Great Eastern Railway war memorial at Liverpool Street station at 1pm. He had six wounds, two of them fatal wounds to the chest.
Stories later circulated that the first shot missed but, rather than taking shelter in the house, he drew his sword and advanced on his attackers, who were able to shoot and kill him. These stories often stressed that he had died a martyr. His housemaid testified that she found his drawn sword lying by his side. However, these details do not feature in the three eyewitness accounts quoted by Keith Jeffery (Reginald Dunne, a road mender, and the taxi driver who had just dropped Wilson off). One of the workmen’s accounts, as published in the “Daily Mail”, mentions Wilson turning on his attackers with the words “you cowardly swine!” but Jeffery suggests this was an embellishment by the newspaper.
Two police officers and a chauffeur were also shot as the men attempted to avoid capture. They were then surrounded by a crowd and arrested by other policemen after a struggle. Dunne and O'Sullivan were convicted of murder and hanged on 10 August 1922.
Wilson had regarded himself as “Irish”, and to the end of his life Currygrane, County Longford was the first address in his “Who’s Who” entry. In early July 1919 Wilson, in uniform and in an open car, had still been able to drive his mother there, the last time he ever visited the place. During the War of Independence the IRA had confiscated the family guns and the house had been taken over by Auxiliaries. By 1921 he and his brothers had all had to leave, unable to access papers and valuables, his brother Jemmy living in impecunious circumstances at Rye in Sussex (Wilson had to pay for the schooling of Jemmy’s daughter), and it was unsafe for Wilson even to book a ferry crossing to Dublin under his own name. On the day Wilson's killers were hanged Currygrane was burned to the ground, possibly as a reprisal although possibly as an unrelated part of the unrest in that county.
Possible Michael Collins Involvement
T. Ryle Dwyer suggests that the shooting of Wilson was ordered by Irish Free State General and Commander-in-Chief Michael Collins in retaliation for the continuing troubles in Northern Ireland. Tim Pat Coogan places Collins associate Liam Tobin at Euston Station in London just before the shooting, collecting a document that had been independently sent from Dublin. He returned to Dublin before the incident and jubilantly announced the news to the appalled defence minister, Richard Mulcahy. By 1923 Scotland Yard investigations centred around the involvement of Sam Maguire, Collins's chief intelligence officer in London. Maguire was tipped off and fled to Dublin.
However, this claim has been challenged several times. Any order to assassinate Wilson would have had to have been relayed to them by Rory O'Connor (then in charge of British IRA operations) and the last assassination attempt contrived against Wilson had been set to be executed in 1921, not 1922. Coogan has suggested that Reginald Dunne, who had the confidence of both Michael Collins and Rory O'Connor, undertook the shooting as a last-ditch effort to provoke the British Government into retaliating, thereby uniting both sides of the Nationalists. Hart believes the assassins “acted alone in the (grossly mistaken) belief that Wilson was responsible for Catholic deaths in Belfast”. The killers had only decided to attack the previous evening, and even on the day Sullivan had been at work until 1pm; the killers had no getaway plan.
The guns used by the assassins were sent to David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street; "There was no Henry Wilson. The Prime Minister and I faced each other, and on the table between us lay the pistols which an hour before had taken this loyal man's life". The House of Commons was immediately adjourned as a mark of respect and King George V sent his equerry, Colonel Arthur Erskine, to Eaton Place to convey the royal sympathy to Lady Wilson. A dinner to celebrate the Prince of Wales's birthday arranged at Buckingham Palace for the evening, was also cancelled.
Cabinet Ministers held a conference at 10 Downing Street on 5pm on the day of the assassination. They suspected Anti-Treaty forces (who had recently seized the Four Courts in Dublin) might be responsible - this was in fact not the case - and thought the Irish Provisional Government “should be pressed to deal with the matter”. Macready was summoned to London, where he found the Cabinet worried about their personal safety but also keen for a dramatic gesture of retaliation, and was asked whether it was possible for British troops to seize the Four Courts – he said that it was but cautioned against precipitate action which might reunite the two Irish factions, and on his return to Dublin deliberately delayed taking such action. Nonetheless, suspicion of Anti-Treaty complicity in Wilson’s murder, and perceived British pressure to do something about it, was one of several triggers of the Irish Civil War.
The assassination was greeted with horror in the UK, and compared to the Phoenix Park murders of 1882, which had – it was said – set back the cause of Irish Home Rule by a generation. It was the first assassination of an MP since Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in 1812 and the last until Airey Neave’s assassination by the INLA in 1979.
Wilson’s widow blamed the government for his death – when Conservative leader Austen Chamberlain called on the evening of his death to offer his condolences, he was by one account greeted by her with the word “murderer” and by another simply asked to leave by Wilson’s niece – and she was only persuaded to allow government representation at the funeral on the grounds that not to do so would be disrespectful to the King. Wilson’s mother wrote to Bonar Law (former Conservative leader and increasingly seen as an alternative if the Coalition ended) complaining that, in a noisy Commons debate, Lloyd George had claimed to have been a personal friend of Wilson’s.
Wilson's funeral was a public affair attended by Lloyd George and the cabinet, Foch, Nivelle and Weygand from France as well as many of his former army colleagues including French, Macready, Haig and Robertson. The field marshal was buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral.
Wilson was a man of great charm. Contemporaries described him as a “delightful whirlwind” and wrote that “there was something spectacular and theatrical about him”. Politicians enjoyed his levity, e.g referring to Haig as “Sir Haig” – Kiggell said he was the only general who could talk to the “Frocks” on level terms - as did the French, who called him “General Dooble-Vay”. Some senior British officers genuinely believed that his sympathy for the French amounted almost to treason.
Wilson's popularity was not universal. Sir Sam Fay, a railway official who worked at the War Office 1917-19, enjoyed cordial face-to-face relations with Wilson but wrote that he could argue with total conviction that a horse chestnut was the same thing as a chestnut horse, and that an unnamed senior general said he suffered a “sexual disturbance” whenever he came within a mile of a politician (Fay recorded that the general had in fact used “vulgar and obscene” language - Walter Reid simply writes that exposure to politicians gave Wilson an erection). Edward Spears - also a senior Anglo-French liaison officer, but junior to Wilson - loathed him and compared him to Quint, the sinister and evil valet in Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”.
For much of the war Wilson had a poor relationship with Haig, although relations eased somewhat when Wilson became CIGS. Esher said that he was always loyal to the man he was serving, and Walter Reid believes Wilson did not actively plot against Haig. When French asked Wilson, late in 1915, if he had heard of Haig, Rawlinson and Gough intriguing against him, Wilson replied, perhaps somewhat naiively, that “Haig was too good a fellow” for that kind of thing. Wilson wrote of Haig (21 December 1915, when appointing him to a corps command) “He was quite nice but he is always foreign to me”. After the disaster of 1 July 1916 Wilson wrote (5 July) that Haig was “a good stout hearted defensive soldier with no imagination & very little brains & very little sympathy”. That same day Foch, who had declined an invitation from Haig to lunch with Wilson, thought Haig “was stupid & lacked stomach for the fight” which Wilson thought “not quite fair”.
Haig's private views of Wilson were less cordial: after a meeting on 23 June 1916, after the failed counterattack at Vimy Ridge, Haig wrote that Wilson “seems to acquire a more evil look each time I see him”. He thought Wilson a "humbug" and (August 1914) “a politician, and not a soldier”.
Jeffery comments that for all Wilson’s reputation for intrigue he was mainly an inveterate gossip (a feature which endeared him to some politicians), whose closeness to the French alienated Robertson, and whose behaviour was no worse than the intrigues of Robertson, Haig, Rawlinson and Gough to remove Sir John French.
“The Times” praised Wilson as “a warrior Irishman” being laid to rest “between two gallant Irishmen, Lord Roberts and Lord Wolseley” . The “Morning Post”, a paper which strongly supported the abandoned southern Unionists, pointed out that “a great Irishman” had been murdered on the anniversary of King George V’s Belfast speech which had marked, as they saw it, the British “surrender”. However the Liberal “Daily News” argued that Wilson must bear some responsibility for stirring up bloodshed in Belfast of which his death was part and the “New Statesman” claimed that in his “fanatical Orangeism” and devotion to “force and force alone” he was the British counterpart to Cathal Brugha. Lord Milner, Irish nationalist MP T.P. O’Connor and the military correspondent Repington wrote obituaries which were generous about his warm personality, and in Repington’s case about his role in war preparations.
Callwell’s 2 volume “Life and Diaries” in 1927 damaged Wilson’s reputation – the “New Statesman” thought they showed him to be “the typically stupid militarist…fundamentally a fool” Sir Charles Deedes, who had studied under him at Staff College and later served on his staff, commented that Wilson came across in the diaries as “an ambitious, volatile and even fatuous character, an intriguer concerned mainly with his own career” and that this was “far from the truth” – Deedes commented that Wilson’s ability to see both sides of a question and inability to make a decision and stick to it made him a poor corps commander but a “patient, lucid and fair” adviser. Lloyd George’s view in his own “War Memoirs” was essentially similar, although he wrote that Wilson was reluctant to take responsibility for decisions.
Both Archibald Wavell in the 1930s and Sir John Dill as CIGS in 1941 (who commented that he no longer condemned Wilson ”so heartily as one used to”) commented that Wilson had illustrated that a general must be able to work effectively with politicians, and his modern biographer Keith Jeffery comments that this, rather than Robertson’s acrimonious insistence on military autonomy, has been the model since Wilson’s time.
Modern Biographies and Popular Culture
“The Lost Dictator” by Bernard Ash (1968) argued that had he lived Wilson might have become leader of the Tory Diehards and become a dictatorial ruler. This is implausible, as the Diehards were never more than about 50 in number and Wilson lacked the political skills or even the understated personality needed by Conservative leaders of that era.
Wilson (Michael Redgrave) features – incorrectly shown as a full general - in the satirical film “Oh! What a Lovely War” (1969), travelling in a car in August 1914 with a cretinous Sir John French (Laurence Olivier) who rejects his offer to arrange an interpreter as it might breach the need for “absolute secrecy”, but later being passed over in favour of Robertson for a staff promotion.
For many years a portrait of Wilson by Sir Oswald Birley hung in the “Prime Minister’s room” at Stormont, along with a framed set of his medal ribbons left by his widow to Sir James Craig. A number of Orange lodges were named after him, although he had never joined the Orange Order.
- Heathcote, p. 306
- Heathcote, p. 304
- Reid 2006, pp163-7
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- Terraine 1960, p17
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- de Groot, Gerard pg 156
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- these figures come from Wilson's diary, quoted verbatim by Terraine; Holmes (p217) gives them as 7pm and three corps, his account being cited to French's diary
- Terraine 1960, p39, 96-7
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- Jeffery 2006, pp145-6. These dates refer to Joffre's demand that Sir John continue to attack at Aubers Ridge and Sir John's reluctance to launch the major offensive which became Loos
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- The London Gazette: . 18 January 1921. Retrieved 2008-01-28.
- The London Gazette: . 29 March 1922. Retrieved 2008-01-28.
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- approximately £690m and £2.6bn at 2010 prices
- Jeffery 2006, p277-8
- approximately £4,000-£8,000 at 2010 prices: at that time an MP was often expected to fund his own election expenses
- Jeffery 2006, p278-9
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- "Sectarian violence and murder spreads across the North". Irish Examiner. 2 July 2012. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
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- "Murdered by Sinn Fein". Belfast Telegraph. 23 June 1922. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
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