Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP

Lifeless life of a Technicolor titan

Ronan McGreevy plumbs new depths with his pitiful accounting of a great man’s death


This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If the murder of MPs isn’t, Jo Cox-style, simply straightforwardly wrong, then this is the book for you. If histories replete with Peaky Blinders plot details aren’t your thing, then it is not. Great Hatred, an account of the murder of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, winning wartime head of the Great War army and sometime confidant of Lloyd George, sits in curious succession to unfailingly-poor-to-markedly-bad accounts of the life and death of a man who became the youngest field marshal since Wellington. This, by some distance, is the worst of them. And their number includes The Lost Dictator, a deranged effort to claim we lost our very own Führer when Wilson was shot on the steps of his Belgravia home.

It is not possible for me to get over how bad this book is, but Ronan McGreevy — an Irish Times journalist and author of the “official State book” on the Easter Rising — can speak for himself.

It was midsummer and a soft rain was falling … “the house of the planter is known by the trees” … The Wilsons regarded home rule as an affront to the established order where everyone knew their place … Curiously, Wilson’s wife and brother had the same first names … the town of Bantry in West Cork is blessed by geography and cursed by history … the fire was roaring in the grate and there was much to discuss.

Here be Leprechauns. Bitter, self-pitying sprites, and, a century ago, as Henry Wilson MP found out trying to unlock his front door, murderous ones too. The country they built is the one that produces histories like this.

Wilson was a bigger man than his killers, and his biographers

Wilson, in every sense, was a bigger man than his killers and his biographers. Born to distinctly lesser gentry in the Irish Midlands, albeit from very northern stock, he grew up at Currygrane House (inevitably long since burnt out and razed to the ground). Great Hatred, although it gives remarkably little sense of Wilson’s personality — which dazzled the Edwardian empire — hangs on his murder in 1922. But it starts with a timeline that goes as follows: “1606-1630: King James I orders the plantation of Ulster.” You, like Henry Wilson, should know what you’re in for.

McGreevy allows that the Wilsons, as landlords, were not exceptionally bad sorts, as themmuns go, quoting local IRA men to make this character reference. But they had their limits (the Wilsons, not the IRA men). Bernard Ash — the Wilson-was-Britain’s-forestalled-Hitler biographer — is approvingly cited on Wilson and the locals:

When personally involved with them … he mingled with them quite unaffectedly, could even jest uproariously with them, but when confronted with them as a nation instead of as human individuals he regarded their national aspirations as a plain instinct for murder.

He was right enough there. But here is the Wilson we get throughout the book: an inexplicably flat character, whose murder was very much his own fault. Treating, as he did, people as human individuals, and not as a nation.

McGreevy is obsessed on this point — Wilson’s failure to respect Irish nationalist premises. Death seems a stark penalty for disagreement, but that Wilson had it coming is not left in any doubt. “Wilson inherited” — it was in the blood, you see — “a unionist sensibility that was impervious to rising nationalist expectations”. He “kept within the circle drawn from Protestant loyalists who shared his outlook on Ireland”. His “emotional attachment to Ireland’s place with the United Kingdom meant he was incapable of either rational or detached analysis of the problem”. Fatally, for him, “He never understood Ireland as a country in the way his fellow Irish people did.”

Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, Ronan McGreevy (Faber, £20)

It’s rare in something that purports to be a history book to encounter something that’s straightforwardly untrue but McGreevy manages it, asserting that “[Wilson] never identified with his birthplace or his neighbours”. Of course he did, repeatedly, proudly, explicitly. He simply disagreed with a lot, indeed most of them, on things they also felt deeply about. Yet identification is the thing here.

Not one thing Wilson is damned for didn’t apply, with evidently greater force, to the Republicans who murdered him. Their sensibilities were markedly impervious to his and his tribe’s expectations (or hopes just of remaining in place); the murderers’ circles were not salons of diversity; and possibly, just possibly, their emotions still more firmly transcended “rational analysis” than his did.

Who, what, was Wilson? As Great Hatred fails to capture, he was one of the pivotal men of the twentieth century. His pre-war role, as Director of Military Operations, in enabling the military commitment to France that surprised most cabinet members when war came in 1914, is monumentally significant. Few other British officers could have done what he did, rightly or wrongly, to make that happen.

Through the war his fortunes rose and fell, then rose again with Lloyd George. Between them, and with a handful of others such as Lord Milner, these were the men who won the war. As Chief of the Imperial General Staff from early 1918 to 1922, Wilson, not least at Versailles, contended with the peace victory brought. His maxim was simple: govern or quit. Or as he put it, and in sorry contrast to Lloyd George doing the exact opposite, we should “come out of those places that don’t belong to us & hang like hell to those places that do”.

Simply as a reader the most disappointing thing about this book is that, beyond rare flashes, nothing of Wilson’s personality, universally remarked upon in his lifetime, is present. His manner, too racy for interwar tastes, was ill-served posthumously by his friend Maj Gen Sir Charles Callwell’s honest, unabashed editing of his papers. But their publication also pricked many guilty consciences, not least Lloyd George’s, who vigorously denounced the man he had long relied upon, safe in the knowledge that there could, this time, be no caustic response.

“The ugliest man in the army” as Wilson — his face slashed by a dacoit’s blade in a Victorian Burmese skirmish — described himself, was simply fun. Of his famed portrait by Orpen (a childhood friend), Wilson said: “[the] picture is very clever, but it makes me look an awful blackguard. There are going to be two bidders — one is Scotland Yard; the other is Madame Tussaud’s.”

The book trails off into hoary Irish historiographical weeds

Who were his murderers? Dull dogs indeed. The County Longford-born British soldier-patriot was shot by the London-born Irish gunmen-patriots, Joseph O’Sullivan and Reggie Dunne. McGreevy, greatly enamoured of the piety of Dunne, claims that the intense, religious, only child — from his cell he wrote, “you may know, mother, that my lips have never kissed any woman in Love. You were always sufficient for me” — did not fit the picture of someone motivated to engage in political murder. It’s hard to think on a more textbook case than the romantic, second-generation immigrant primed exactly to kill for a country he dreamt about.

The book trails off into hoary Irish historiographical weeds — did Michael Collins order this murder, as he had done so many others? McGreevy, not unreasonably, assumes so. The rigid personality type of Dunne was unlikely to have acted on his own initiative. In doing so, Collins was breaking the Anglo-Irish Treaty that established his Free State, and almost certainly so that he could wage war on the Northern Ireland still in the Union, whose local government the retired Wilson had become “military advisor” to. Not that much of his advice, not least as regards employing Catholics as fully as possibly in the security forces, was taken by Stormont.

In a book full of finger-waving, McGreevy ticks off Lloyd George, who in the wake of Wilson’s murder, was under immense pressure to make the Collins regime adhere to the Treaty it had signed. Bonar Law, recently retired as Tory leader, had said he would never have voted for it, had he known Wilson’s murder would be the outcome. With anti-Treaty Republicans occupying the Four Courts in the heart of Dublin, and Collins-directed terrorism rampant in the North, the message from London came — act, or we will.

“The prospect,” McGreevy intones, “of Britain breaking an internationally recognised Treaty would sully the country’s reputation, already battered by the behaviour of its forces during the Irish conflict.” Which is one way of looking at who did what, when. And the only one you get in this pitiful accounting of a great man’s death.

“Identity is complex, Irish identity especially so,” wails McGreevy. It’s really not. It’s simply, in the hands of nationalists, as intolerant and solipsistic as all nationalists everywhere else make it. Making Henry Wilson lifeless was a more remarkable deed than murdering him. Somehow Ronan McGreevy accomplishes it.

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