On June 22, 1922, Sir Henry Wilson, an army marshal turned MP, unveiled a plaque to railway workers who died in World War I before returning to his stately home in Belgravia, central London.
He was a distinctive figure – tall, in uniform, with a facial scar that had earned him the nickname “the ugliest man in the British Army”.
As Wilson approached his door, a member of the Irish Republican Army crossed the street, raised a revolver and shot him twice. A second IRA man appeared and fired more shots at the dying Wilson. The armed men fled, leaving behind shocked witnesses and cries of “murder!
On Wednesday, precisely a century later, Wilson will receive his own plaque in a ceremony in the House of Commons, adding it to the memorials of other MPs who died violently, including Jo Cox.
Recognition has been a long time coming. Wilson’s murder rocked Britain and he was given a lavish state funeral, but one of the most notorious assassinations in British political history quickly faded from memory, leaving Wilson and the historical impact of the murder, almost forgotten.
The ceremony at Westminster and a new book, Great Hatred: the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, by Ronan McGreevy, are expected to change that by shedding light on Wilson’s controversial career and the mystery of who ordered the assassination.
“Now he must at last be duly honoured,” Lord Lexden, a peer and Tory historian, wrote in The House, Parliament’s in-house magazine.
Born into the Anglo-Irish nobility of County Longford, Wilson believed that Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom. After serving as a senior staff officer in World War I, he lobbied the British government to suppress Irish rebels fighting guerrilla warfare for Irish independence from 1919 to 1921.
Elected Ulster Unionist MP for North Down in February 1922, he denounced in parliament the treaty which granted independence to 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties, calling it a sellout to the “murderous gang” of the IRA. He advocates the reconquest of Ireland.
The assassins were Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, born in England to parents of Irish descent, and both veterans of the British Army who had been wounded on the Western Front, O’Sullivan having lost a leg. His disability hampered their getaway – a mob led by police chased and grabbed the couple. They were tried and hanged.
The British government accused the anti-Treaty IRA diehards in Dublin of orchestrating the assassination and pressured the Provisional Irish Government, led by Michael Collins, to crush them. This precipitated a bitter civil war in Ireland, won by pro-treaty forces.
“There is a direct link between Wilson’s assassination and the start of the civil war. It was Irish Sarajevo,” said McGreevy, an Irish Times reporter, citing the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that sparked World War I.
Historians have long debated whether Collins ordered Wilson’s murder. Relying on letters, testimonies and other written documents, McGreevy maintains that it was indeed Collins, acting without the knowledge of the Provisional Irish Government. “He hoped to eliminate what he saw as a dangerous enemy of Irish nationalism and someone he blamed for the behavior of the security forces in the north.”
If so, it cost him his life. Two months after Wilson’s murder, as the Civil War broke out, an anti-Treaty IRA gunman killed Collins. “If Wilson hadn’t been shot, Collins wouldn’t have been shot,” McGreevy said.
While Ireland’s martyr ruler has become revered, Wilson, according to Lexden, has so far been the victim of “undeserved neglect”.