Arnold Wilson

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Arnold Wilson

Born(1884-07-18)18 July 1884
Died31 May 1940(1940-05-31) (aged 55)
Eringhem, France
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
 British Indian Army
 Royal Air Force
Years of service1903–1921 (Army)
1939–1940 (Air Force)
RankLieutenant Colonel (Army)
Pilot Officer (Air Force)
Unit32nd Sikh Pioneers
No. 37 Squadron RAF
Battles/warsWorld War I
World War II

Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson KCIE CSI CMG DSO (18 July 1884 – 31 May 1940) was the British civil commissioner in Baghdad in 1918–20. Wilson served under Percy Cox, the colonial administrator of Mesopotamia (Mandatory Iraq) during and after World War I, including the Iraqi revolt against the British in 1920. Wilson was the third Member of Parliament to die in action in World War II. He was killed while serving as an aircrew member at the advanced age of 55.

Early life and career[edit]

Wilson was born in 1884 and educated in England at Clifton College, where his father James Wilson was a headmaster. His elder half-sister was the leading civil servant Mona Wilson and his younger brother was the tenor Sir Steuart Wilson.[1]

Wilson (aka "A.T.") was tall and strong. He began his military career as an army officer 19 August 1903, having been awarded the King's Medal and sword of honour at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, being commissioned on the Unattached List for the Indian Army. After he spent a year attached to the 1st battalion the Wiltshire regiment in India, he was appointed to the British Indian Army and posted to the 32nd Sikh Pioneers, on 18 December 1904.[2]

Wilson famously saved money travelling back to Britain on leave by working as a stoker to Marseilles and then cycling the rest of the way.[3]

In 1904 he went to Iran as a Lieutenant to lead a group of Bengal Lancers to guard the British consulate in Ahvaz and to protect the work of the D’Arcy Oil Company, which had obtained a sixty-year oil concession in Iran and was pursuing oil exploration in partnership with the Burmah Oil Company.

In 1907 Wilson was transferred to the Indian Political Department and sent to the Persian Gulf, where he served as a political officer. Wilson oversaw the discovery of the first oil site in the Middle East, Masjid-i-Suleiman in 1908. Soldier and senior administrator as Consul-General of Muhammerah (1909–11): he was put in charge of the Turko-Persian Frontier Commission.[4] He looked like the traditional figure of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 in a top buttoned bright red tunic, the Indian Army uniform. "His flashing eyes, his beetling eyebrows, his close-cropped hair, his biblical quotations", recalled Gertrude Bell, the British "Oriental Secretary".[5] Wilson was a hard worker, a workaholic, who was tirelessly energetic, shifting mountains of paperwork. He inspired a younger colleague, Harry Philby, while Hubert Young, a favoured subordinate, found him domineering.

In January 1915, as the British were moving troops from India into Mesopotamia through the Persian Gulf and Basra, Wilson was designated as the assistant, and then deputy, to Sir Percy Cox, the British Political Officer for the region. Based in Baghdad, he then became the acting Civil Commissioner for Mesopotamia. The problem remained that there was no official "Arab Policy" it had not been defined in law nor by the Civil Service. India wanted Mesopotamia as a Province; but Arabists from Cox downwards wished for a semi-autonomous policy separate from the Arab Bureau in Cairo. Policy was made ad hoc; but Wilson disagreed.

During his tenure in Mesopotamia Wilson worked to improve the country's administration according to the principles he learned in India. In Wilson’s view the priority was to reconstruct and stabilize the country, by establishing an efficient government and administration as well as a fair treatment and political representation of the various ethnic and religious communities (i.e. in the case of Iraq: Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, of religions such as Islam Shiite and Sunni, Christianity and Judaism). In doing so, he was nicknamed "The Despot of Mess-Pot".

Capt Wilson told me the staggering news that he had been appointed to Tehran ...Capt Wilson and I are excellent colleagues and the best of friends and I know I can do a good deal by seeing people...I am going to compile an intelligence book on Persia.[6]

However after the First World War he found himself progressively opposed to other British officials who believed that Arab countries should be granted independence under British supervision.

In 1919, during the Paris Peace Conference, he was among the few who successfully recommended adopting the Arabic name Iraq, as it had been known for more than 1400 years by Muslim and Arab worlds, instead of the Greek name Mesopotamia which was only used by Westerners. This political entity covered the planned northern expansion of the newly created country under the British Mandate to include the oil rich Mosul region of Northern Iraq, in addition to the Mesopotamian provinces of Baghdad and Basra.

In April 1920, at the Conference of San Remo, the League of Nations agreed to the British mandate over Iraq. In the spring and summer of 1920 various riots erupted across central and southern Iraq. These riots were often violently repressed by Wilson's administration. The total number of Iraqi casualties of these riots was estimated at 10,000 people.[citation needed]

Having achieved the rank of Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel in August 1918, he retired from the Indian Army in August 1921.[7]

In the summer of 1920 Wilson proposed a compromise, suggesting that Feisal, the former King of Syria, be offered the Iraqi throne. This proposal was intended to obtain support from the Iraqis as well as British officials who favored semi-independence. It was eventually accepted by the British government, but Wilson was not there to participate in its implementation. The British government decided not to follow Wilson's views, and instead granted independence to Iraq. The British government removed Wilson from his position in Iraq and knighted him. Deeply disappointed by the turn of events, he left the public service and joined the Anglo-Persian Oil Company as manager of their Middle Eastern operations. He worked for the company until 1932.

Interwar decades[edit]

In 1933 Wilson was elected in a by-election as the Conservative MP for Hitchin. He described himself as a 'left-wing radical Tory'.[8]

Across the 1930s Wilson undertook a great number of extracurricular activities, such as chairman of the Parliamentary Scientific Committee (forerunner of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee), an active role in the British Science Guild, the British Eugenics Society, and many more.[9]

Wilson was responsible for the large exhibition of Persian art at Burlington House in London in 1931.[10]

Wilson published his travelling and political diaries as the Walks and Talks series with the Right Book Club.[11]

Like his half-sister Mona Wilson, Wilson published extensively on what he termed 'left wing' issues such as workmen's compensation, the costs of funerals, industrial assurance, and old age pensions. These researches arguably influenced related postwar policies.[12]

Before the Second World War his outspoken views on foreign policy evoked a lot of criticism. In 1938 Wilson expressed support for the Spanish Nationalists, saying "I hope to God Franco wins in Spain, and the sooner the better." [13] The New Statesman described him as "an admirer of Hitler and an unscrupulous propagandist for Mussolini and Hitler". George Orwell called him a Fascist, although he also praised his courage and patriotism.

World War II[edit]

However, in October 1939 after the outbreak of the war, he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, serving as a pilot officer (air gunner) in 37 Squadron of RAF Bomber Command. He stated that "I have no desire to shelter myself and live in safety behind the ramparts of the bodies of millions of our young men."[14] Still an MP, he was killed in northern France, near Dunkirk, on 31 May 1940 when his bomber aircraft, Wellington L7791[15] crashed. He is buried at Eringhem churchyard, half-way between Dunkirk and Saint-Omer.[16] [17]


Wilson was immortalised as Sir George Corbett in the 1942 Powell and Pressburger movie One of Our Aircraft is Missing.[18][19]

His book The Persian Gulf was published in 1928. S.W. Persia: Letters and Diary of a Young Political Officer 1907–1914 was published posthumously in 1941.

Arnold Wilson is commemorated in the scientific names of two species of reptiles: Afroablepharus wilsoni and Typhlops wilsoni.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Elaine Harrison, ‘Wilson, Mona (1872–1954)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 accessed 9 March 2017
  2. ^ April 1905 Indian Army List
  3. ^
  4. ^ Townshend, When God Made Hell, p.281
  5. ^ Townshend, p.281-2
  6. ^ Gertrude to Florence Bell, Baghdad, August 30th, 1918, Letters## (ed.), I, p.461
  7. ^ Supplement to the Indian Army List January 1939
  8. ^ Marlowe, John, Late Victorian: the life of Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson (1967)
  9. ^ Michael Weatherburn, 'Arnold T. Wilson, the New Victorians and the Forgotten Technocrats of Interwar Britain' (Imperial College MSc thesis, 2009).
  10. ^ Wilson, Arnold Talbot, Persian art: an illustrated souvenir of the exhibition of Persian art at Burlington House, London (1931)
  11. ^ Rodgers, Terence. 'The Right Book Club: text wars, modernity and cultural politics in the late thirties'. Literature & History 12.2 (2003): 1–15.
  12. ^ Farmer, Ann, By their fruits: eugenics, population control, and the abortion campaign c2008
  13. ^ Margaret George,The Hollow Men: An Examination of British Foreign Policy Between the Years 1933 and 1939. London, Frewin, 1967. (p. 149)
  14. ^ "Blue Blood in Flanders". Time Magazine. 17 June 1940. Retrieved 10 August 2008.
  15. ^ Record for L7791 on
  16. ^ CWGC entry
  17. ^ Falconer, Jonathon (1998). The Bomber Command Handbook 1939–1945. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited. ISBN 0-7509-1819-5.
  18. ^ David Edgerton, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation (1991)
  19. ^ "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942)". IMDb. Retrieved 7 January 2019.
  20. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Wilson, A.T.", p. 287).


  • Fromkin, David (1989). A Peace To End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Henry Holt & Co, New York.
  • Griffiths, Richard (1989). Fellow travellers of the Right: British enthusiasts for Nazi Germany, 1933-9.
  • Keay, John (2003). Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East. W.W. Norton & Co, New York.
  • MacMillan, Margaret (2003). Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. Random House, New York.
  • Marlowe, John (1967). Late Victorian: the life of Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson.
  • Meyer, Karl E.; Brysac, Shareen Blair (2008). Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East. New York, London: W.W. Norton.
  • Wilson, Arnold Talbot. A Periplus of the Persian Gulf.
  • Wilson, Arnold Talbot. S. W Persia: Letters and Diary of a Young Political Officer 1907–1914.

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Viscount Knebworth
Member of Parliament for Hitchin
Succeeded by
Seymour Berry