The Britain of summer 1922 was, in some ways, similar to the island in The Tempest:
“the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears..”
The sounds and sweet airs might have been provided by Haydn Woods’ A Brown Bird Singing or, if you were more disposed towards the art of Edith Sitwell, William Walton’s setting of her poetry – Façade. The discordant sounds of the thousand twangling instruments could have come from several sources; possibly the thousands of impoverished ex-servicemen sold short by the country they had fought for; perhaps, however, the isle which was most full of noises was that of Ireland, and in particular the newly formed Irish Republic.
Sir Henry Wilson was a former General in the British Army, and his contribution to events in The Great War divides opinion. Some have him firmly in the ‘Butchers and Bunglers’ camp, a stereotypical Brass Hat who send brave men off into battle to meet red hot shards of flying steel with their own mortal flesh. Others will say that he was part of the combined military effort which defeated Germany in the field, and led to the surrender in the railway carriage at Compiègne in 1918. Whatever the truth, Wilson was never a field commander. He was much more at home well behind the front line, hobnobbing with politicians and strategists.
When the war ended, he was promoted to Field Marshall, and made a baronet. With Ireland beset by all manner of plots and factional fighting, he resigned his army post and was elected as MP for the Ulster constituency of North Down. He had made it very clear that he despised the Irish Republican movement, and had written in June 1919 that “Ireland goes from bad to worse” and that “a little bloodletting” was needed. His view of the British government’s attempts to deal peaceably with the Irish Problem is summed up by his belief that such peace moves were a “shameful & cowardly surrender to the pistol” by a “Cabinet of Cowards”. Ironically, his own demise was brought about by the pistols of two IRA killers.
In the early 1920s, there was one common activity which retired army generals shared, and it was to travel far and wide across the country, sanctifying by their presence the hundreds of war memorials bearing the names of the 704,803 men who had perished while under their command in the recent conflict. Thus, on the morning of Thursday 22nd June, 1922, Wilson had traveled by cab to Liverpool Street Station, where he had been invited to unveil the memorial to the men of The Great Eastern Railway who had died in the war. Having done his duty, and addressed the crowd of relatives and well-wishers, he returned to his house in Eaton Place in London’s Belgravia.
As the taxi pulled away, Sir Henry was attacked by two men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan. He was shot nine times, and the killers made their escape, only to be arrested shortly after. Newspapers made much of the possibility that Sir Henry had drawn his ceremonial sword in his own defence, and had cried, “You cowardly swine!” as he was attacked, but only he and his assailants could verify that, and they are long gone from us.
Wilson’s murder outraged popular opinion in England, and polarised views on the situation in Ireland. It was a widely held belief that the murder had been carried out on the orders of the Republican firebrand Michael Collins. Collins himself, incidentally, had only a few more weeks to live, as in the August of 1922, he was murdered, probably by rival Irish factions. Wilson’s funeral was a public affair attended by Lloyd George and the cabinet. French Generals Foch, Nivelle and Weygand came to pay their last respects, as well as many of his former British army colleagues including French, Macready, Haig and Robertson. The Field Marshal was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.
And Sir Henry’s killers? They were duly tried and convicted of his death and hanged at Wandsworth prison on 10th August 1922, and buried in the prison grounds. As befits the adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, the remains of both Dunne and O’Sullivan were repatriated to the Irish Republic and given a heroes’ burial in 1967. A final irony in a case that is positively dripping with it, is that both men had fought for King and Country, with great gallantry in the war that had made Sir Henry Wilson such a prominent public figure.