Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP 
by Ronan McGreevy.
Faber, 442 pp., £20, May, 978 0 571 37280 5
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On 22 June​ 1922, the doors of Liverpool Street Station were closed for an hour to all but invited guests. Flags on the roof were set at half-mast while a ceremony took place to commemorate the men from the Great Eastern Railway Company who had died in the First World War. The guest of honour was Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, who unveiled a memorial in the station’s booking hall. It was marble, seven metres high and eight metres wide, and recorded the names of the 1220 men who had sacrificed their lives ‘in response to the call of their King and Country’.

At six foot four, Wilson was an imposing figure. In 1886, on imperial service in Burma, he was attacked by local bandits, hostile to colonial rule, with a long, sharp knife used for cutting bamboo. The wound left a permanent scar over his right eye which caused his face to droop. His four-year term as chief of the imperial general staff, the most senior military adviser to the government, had just ended. He was received at the station by a guard of honour of ex-servicemen, now back at work on the railways. Wilson’s speech was brief but emotive: ‘It is always a proud duty for one soldier to speak of others. All over our country there are these memorials to those who carried out their duty in the Great War … These names that we love to honour are those who died in a great cause. On this table are placed the names of … your comrades who, doing what they thought was right, paid the penalty.’

At the end of the ceremony Wilson made his excuses. He had an appointment in the House of Commons at 3.30 p.m. and needed to go home to change. Wilson had been elected as Ulster Unionist MP for North Down in Northern Ireland days after leaving his position as chief of staff. As he approached his house at 36 Eaton Place, Belgravia, he was shot twice. He staggered up the steps, but several more shots followed. He almost made it to the front door before collapsing. By the time the local surgeon arrived, he was dead.

Born in Co. Longford in 1864, Wilson was a self-declared Irishman whose family had settled in the country during the conquests of the 17th century. He was a ‘political soldier’, in the words of the historian Keith Jeffery: an ardent advocate of Ulster Unionism who bitterly opposed any form of self-governance for Irish nationalists. His opposition continued even after dominion status had been granted to 26 counties of Ireland in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, earning him critics in the Liberal and Conservative circles that backed the agreement. Wilson believed that self-governance in Ireland would encourage other colonies to leave the British Empire – an argument popular in the 1880s but less powerful in the postwar period. He couldn’t forgive David Lloyd George, then prime minister, for negotiating with Irish republicans. ‘The surrender to the murder gang in Ireland is going to have a deplorable and very immediate effect on Palestine, Egypt and India,’ he warned in 1921.

Ronan McGreevy’s new book situates Wilson’s shooting in the context of Anglo-Irish relations at the time. The gunmen, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, were members of the IRA, which had emerged in 1919 to consolidate the Irish Republic declared by Patrick Pearse and others in the Easter Rising of 1916. The republican cause was strengthened by the victory of Sinn Féin in the December 1918 UK general election: they ran on an abstentionist platform and won 73 of the 105 seats in Ireland promising to use ‘any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise’. The Sinn Féin MPs set up Dáil Éireann and unilaterally declared an independent Irish state on 21 January 1919. For the following two years, the IRA targeted crown forces in what became known as the War of Independence.

In July 1921 negotiations began between British and Irish representatives. A treaty was on the table by December. The articles of agreement were taken to Dublin by the Irish who had negotiated in London on behalf of the Republic. The treaty was debated in the Dáil, now tacitly recognised by the formidable British team that backed the agreement, including Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, secretary of state for the colonies. The Irish parliament voted in its favour on 7 January 1922 by 64 votes to 57.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty marked the beginning of a republican split that would result in civil war. McGreevy reminds us of the importance of Irish diasporic networks in Britain during the conflict, highlighting the significant numbers of Irish people who had settled in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool during the 19th century. Dunne and O’Sullivan were part of London’s Irish community. A love of traditional Irish music and the effusive sociability that went with it inspired Dunne’s entry into radical circles. It is less clear what influenced O’Sullivan’s republican turn, but both men eventually joined the IRA in London, taking part in activities that assisted the republican campaign against crown forces. They were reluctant anti-Treatyites, more concerned with managing the split in local IRA ranks than with fervent ideological opposition to the agreement.

In many respects, Dunne and O’Sullivan lived typical ‘English’ lives. They were well-educated and spoke with English accents. Dunne had never been to Ireland; O’Sullivan had travelled to Cork during the War of Independence. They had joined the British army voluntarily to fight in the First World War and both returned with life-changing disabilities (Dunne had PTSD and a knee injury which left him with restricted mobility; O’Sullivan lost his lower right leg at Passchendaele). Dunne’s father was a soldier and he was born in an army barracks in Woolwich. O’Sullivan was one of eleven children. Five of the seven brothers joined the British armed forces; a sixth, having emigrated to Australia in 1912, returned to fight in Europe with the Australian Expeditionary Force. The messiness of this picture – two British-born men who ‘served’ the empire yet assassinated an Irish-born supporter of it – is typical of the complexity of British and Irish relations at the time.

Was Wilson’s assassination an instance of anti-colonialism energised by the First World War? Was it part of the decline of the Anglo-Irish gentry, whose political power in Ireland had been ebbing away since the 1870s? Was it the tragic finale in the battle over authentic Irishness underway since the Cultural Revival of the 1890s? (Dunne and O’Sullivan were treated as suspect by the IRA because of their English accents and lack of sufficiently ‘Irish’ credentials, despite being good Catholics.) Was Wilson targeted as punishment for his long-standing opposition to Irish nationalism and unbending support for Ulster Unionism? He was publicly accused of establishing the Ulster Special Constabulary, a quasi-paramilitary police force which had committed atrocities against Belfast-based Catholics earlier in 1922. In fact, the constabulary was Winston Churchill’s brainchild, but Wilson didn’t care enough about his public perception to challenge the claim. (He criticised the policy in his diary, calling Churchill ‘a perfect idiot as a statesman’.) Or did Wilson’s assassination have less to do with Irish affairs than with a general sense of dissatisfaction on the part of veterans who returned from the war to a home unfit for heroes? Men with disabilities felt this frustration even more keenly, since definitions of manliness were so bound up with one’s capacity to work. Many now found themselves un-manned by the very state for which they had fought.

McGreevy is trying to answer a different question. We kn0w who shot Wilson, but we don’t know who gave the order. The book is a ‘whodunnit’ as well as an elucidation of the way Wilson’s death influenced the Irish Civil War. Over thirteen chapters, we learn much about Wilson, his killers, the revolutionary events of 1919-22, and the way the assassination was perceived in Britain and Ireland. The Wilsons were well-liked in Longford. They were good employers and fair to their tenants. Even Seán MacEoin, leader of the IRA’s Longford brigade, only had good things to say about them. But while Wilson could mingle and laugh with tenants, his biographer Bernard Ash admitted that ‘when confronted with [the Irish] as a nation instead of as human individuals he regarded their national aspirations as a plain instinct for murder and classed them all as corner boys and layabouts.’ This is a story of class as much as anything else. Wilson belonged to an era in which it was not uncharacteristic for a member of the gentry to fail Sandhurst three times and Woolwich twice – as he did – and still find their way into the rifle brigades of the British army, eventually becoming its highest-ranking officer. Yet Wilson’s academic failures did not prevent him from becoming a canny strategist. His reconnaissance of the borders between Belgium and Germany in 1911 led him to conclude that in the event of a European war deploying the British Expeditionary Force on the left side of the French army would be beneficial – which turned out to be true. His good working relationship with the supreme allied commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, was crucial in 1918, when he proposed the creation of a unified chain of command between the Allies. He was the right man at the right moment, as Churchill put it years later.

Yet Wilson eventually slipped out of British public memory. This year, after a campaign by the Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley Jr, a plaque was erected in the House of Commons on the centenary of Wilson’s assassination. This decision was not without controversy. On the one hand, there are plaques to other sitting MPs who died violently, most recently Jo Cox and David Amess. On the other it seems problematic to honour one of the British empire’s greatest supporters in light of our modern understanding that imperial service often entailed brutal violence against local peoples. Wilson supported Reginald Dyer in the aftermath of the Amritsar massacre in April 1919, when Dyer ordered his British imperial troops to fire on a peaceful crowd, killing hundreds. He advocated that the British invade Ireland to crush what he viewed as criminal behaviour, stating in a posthumously published letter: ‘There is no Irish nation.’ And he believed that Britain’s colonies belonged to Britain, criticising Lloyd George in 1921 for ‘coming out of those places that do belong to us viz. Ireland, Egypt & India & he is hanging on to those places that do not belong to us viz. Silesia, Constantinople, Palestine and Mesopotamia.’

As for Dunne and O’Sullivan, McGreevy traces their capture, trial and subsequent execution in Wandsworth Prison in August 1922, as well as a litany of unsuccessful escape attempts organised by republicans in Britain. After a prolonged campaign by their families, on 6 July 1967 their remains were ‘repatriated’ to Ireland – the country that wasn’t their home but for which they were willing to pay the ultimate price. The treatment of their families in the intervening decades demonstrates mixed feelings on the part of the new Irish state. Dunne’s mother was refused a military pension despite her repeated efforts to get the state to recognise her son’s sacrifice. She died penniless and alone in a cottage in Howth in 1939. O’Sullivan’s brother Pat was also denied a pension, even though he had documented service in both the War of Independence and the Civil War: part of the ‘mean-spirited approach to pension applications that so many endured from the new Irish state, especially so for English-born IRA veterans such as Dunne and the O’Sullivan brothers’. McGreevy argues that ‘nobody benefited from Wilson’s shooting.’ It is difficult to disagree.

On the matter of who gave the order, McGreevy runs through several plausible theories. Did Dunne and O’Sullivan act on their own initiative? Did the order come from the anti-Treaty leadership? Or had it originated with Michael Collins, the IRA commander during the War of Independence turned leader of the pro-Treaty faction? McGreevy doesn’t give definitive answers, but leans towards Collins’s involvement. He presents a set of interlocking circumstances: the IRA leader’s identification of Wilson as a target during the War of Independence; Collins’s membership of the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood (affiliated to but separate from the IRA), which was implicated in the assassination; and Collins’s coming under pressure from the men under his command. The evidence is thin; McGreevy does what he can with it.

He is persuasive, however, that Wilson’s assassination was a Sarajevo-like moment in the spiral towards civil war in Ireland. It was this event that encouraged a much more direct approach by the British to force the hand of the pro-Treatyites. After months of procrastination, Collins had little choice but to stamp out rebellion. Six days after Wilson’s assassination, the siege on the Four Courts in Dublin began; the building went up in smoke along with the Public Records Office next door and millions of priceless historical documents were lost. The attack on the rebels was the beginning of a series of events that would descend into revenge and recrimination. The ‘hatred’ in McGreevy’s title is part of the story, but the complexities of political attitudes and their evolution across the span of the First World War cannot be reduced to a single phenomenon.

Indeed, this is the strong implication of McGreevy’s conclusion. Dunne and O’Sullivan were not uncontrollable rogues. They had never been in court before, and they ‘understood the importance of the chain of command and of military discipline’. There is no evidence that they were ever involved in maverick IRA operations. They followed orders just as they did in the Great War. And the command to assassinate Wilson came from a logic of political violence that was part of the republican campaign. Neither was Wilson’s worldview built on hatred. His imperialist view of Irish nationalists and other ‘colonials’ was a core strand of British politics at the time. Hatred had little to do with his shooting; politics, however, had everything to do with it.

A hundred years after Wilson’s death, it is politics that drives the DUP’s reclamation of his memory. So far as Ian Paisley is concerned, Wilson was ‘murdered by the enemies of Northern Ireland’. He was ‘a legend, a gallant soldier and a committed parliamentarian’: words that might incite different opinions depending on what one makes of Wilson’s imperial sentiments or his views of Irish nationalists. The current leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Doug Beattie, claims that Wilson ‘died for Ulster’s liberty. There can surely be no more fitting epitaph than that.’ In fact the question of what Wilson died for – or for that matter what Dunne and O’Sullivan died for – has no easy answer. But the assassination of Wilson did influence events in such a way as to shape the politics of Britain and Ireland, something we are still grappling with today.

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