From remembrance ceremony to murder, the final hours of Sir Henry Wilson

How two republicans gunned down a hero of the first World War on his own doorstep

The two killers and (centre) the door to Wilson’s Belgravia home, outside which he was gunned down.

The two killers and (centre) the door to Wilson’s Belgravia home, outside which he was gunned down.

 

Liverpool Street Station was once the biggest railway station in the biggest city in the world. In the 1920s its proximity to the City of London, to the engines of commerce and law in Shoreditch, Bank and Holborn, and to the heart of the British Empire, brought 220,000 commuters and 1,250 trains under its glass-covered roof every weekday.

First came the workmen in their hardwearing fustian, followed by the clerks in their homburgs and straw boaters, and finally the professionals in their bowler hats who arrived late and stayed late. After the morning rush hour came the shoppers, the ladies and gentlemen who lunched, and then the theatre-goers.

Le Petit Journal, a conservative Parisian newspaper, with an artist’s impression of the assassination.
Le Petit Journal, a conservative Parisian newspaper, with an artist’s impression of the assassination.

Departing from the station were the daily excursion trains, which had been suspended for the duration of the first World War but were restored in 1920 and which took working-class families from the East End of London to the seaside resorts of Clacton-on-Sea, Southend, Lowestoft and Yarmouth.

The station, like the city it served, was ceaseless.

On June 22nd, 1922, the bustle stopped for an allocated hour to remember the men from the Great Eastern Railway (GER) Company who had died in the Great War. At 12.50pm the doors of the station were locked to all but the invited guests gathered in the booking hall under the high arches of the station roof. Outside, the flags on the roof of the station were at half-mast. It was midsummer, but an unseasonably cool and showery day.

For those gathered inside, the focal point of their sorrow was a marble memorial, seven metres high and eight wide, with laurel-twisted, fluted columns bearing the names in black lettering on a white background of 1,220 men from the company who had died in the first World War.

At the centre of the memorial was the GER crest representing the areas of the east of England served by the company – Essex, Maldon, Ipswich, Norwich, Huntingdonshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire. The inscription in red lettering read: “To the Glory of God and in grateful memory of the Great Eastern Railway Company staff who, in response to the call of their King and Country, sacrificed their lives during the Great War.”

Less than four years had passed since the end of the war. From the United Kingdom, 886,000 men had died; from the entire British Empire, the dead numbered 1.1 million. Britain was one of the victors, but victory was relative. Every country had lost. No family, community or company was untouched. London, once considered inviolable, had been attacked from the air, and the station had been hit twice.

British newspaper The Sphere covers the funeral of Sir Henry Wilson.
British newspaper The Sphere covers the funeral of Sir Henry Wilson.

The memorial service began with the boys of St Stephen’s Choir from London, assisted by members of the station staff, singing the hymn Let Saints on Earth in Concert Sing. The Bishop of Norwich, Dr Bertram Pollock, stepped forward to offer prayers for the dead and for peace. He was followed by Lord Claud Hamilton, the successful railway entrepreneur and GER chairman, in his last public appearance in the role. The memorial was “beautiful and dignified”, he stated.

In perpetuity

It would stand in perpetuity in the middle of Liverpool Street Station in full view of commuters to honour the men who had left the safety of their railway employment to serve in the war. They had died that others might live. He then introduced his good friend and the principal guest, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, to unveil the memorial. Wilson was 58, an Ulster Unionist MP and a former career soldier. His four-year term as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), the British government’s most senior military adviser, had ended in February 1922. Within days he was elected unopposed as the Ulster Unionist MP for North Down in Northern Ireland.

Although no longer an active soldier, Wilson was received like one. He was greeted at the entrance to the station and a guard of honour was formed on Platform 9 by ex-servicemen now back in civilian life as railway employees. Wilson was in good spirits as he passed along the ranks, making small talk and commending those who had won medals for gallantry in the war.

His right eye would often water and he frequently gave the impression of crying. Given his propensity for emotional outbursts, it was never clear whether he was weeping

At 6ft 4in, he had lost the ungainliness that made him something of a figure of fun when he was a young subaltern cavalry officer, his knees jutting upwards from the stirrups as he rode horses too small for his extended gait. Wilson made the most of his physical presence. He was peculiar-looking, with a receding hairline, a greying moustache, a lined face and, most conspicuously, a scar on the right side of his eyeball socket which made his face droop.

His right eye would often water and he frequently gave the impression of crying. Given his propensity for occasional emotional outbursts, it was never clear whether he was weeping or not. He was described by one female contemporary, Mary Garstin, as “the tall ugly Irishman whose torturous spirit seemed reflected in his twisted face”.

Wilson’s personality filled every room he entered as much as his physical presence did. Friends spoke of his “wild Irish ways” and his sense of fun, accentuated by a loud laugh and a forthright manner. He could be admirably focused but also flippant in the gravest of circumstances, and this made people wary of him. He often called people by their nicknames, even august personages such as the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, whom everybody called “Tiger” behind his back, but Wilson did not hesitate to address him as such to his face.

Wilson was one of the four men who won the war, according to many of his contemporaries. He, along with the Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France, the British prime minister David Lloyd George and Clemenceau, were seen by many as the principal architects of the Allied victory.

Wilson’s decisive interventions bookended the conflict. His far-sighted planning had ensured that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) could deploy on the left flank of the French army in the first full month of the war in August 1914. Throughout the war he had advocated greater co-operation between the Allies.

He assumed the role of CIGS in February 1918 and was one of the instigators of the joint Allied command under his good friend Foch. The Allied all-arms strategy, exploiting advantages of materiel and manpower, along with the entry of the Americans, brought the war to a swifter end in November 1918 than most had anticipated.

Wilson vacated the role of CIGS in good standing with the public but not the coalition government of Lloyd George, from whom he had become increasingly estranged. Wilson could not abide the nationalist turn his native land, Ireland, had taken towards independence.

Two identities

He was not just a unionist, but a Southern unionist from the midlands county of Longford. Wilson was self-consciously an Irishman who considered himself also to be British and saw no contradiction between the two identities. He was Anglo-Irish, an imperialist, and his country was the British Empire.

Before he began to speak, a woman carrying a large wreath burst into tears and sobbed so abjectly that many thought she was going to faint

In December 1921 the British had negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the leaders of Sinn Féin, setting up the Irish Free State. Wilson saw the Treaty as a betrayal of the values of law and order and a surrender to the “murder gang”, as he was wont to call his fellow Irishmen in Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), with whom the British had negotiated.

Before he began to speak, a woman carrying a large wreath burst into tears and sobbed so abjectly that many thought she was going to faint. Wilson approached and steadied her. At Liverpool Street Station his remarks were, unusually for him, brief and emotional, and contained no reference to Ireland.

“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. We soldiers count as our gains our losses. These names that we love to honour are those who died in a great cause. On this table are placed the names of 1,200 or 1,400 of your comrades who, doing what they thought was right, paid the penalty.”

He finished with the ever-quotable Rudyard Kipling, who had lost his son John in the war, killed at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 while serving with the Irish Guards.

“The tumult and the shouting dies;

The Captains and the Kings depart;

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

A humble and a contrite heart;

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget – lest we forget!”

After the dedication by the Bishop of Norwich, all present sang Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past. The Last Post was sounded by the Grenadier Guards, followed by Reveille and God Save the King. The ceremony over, Wilson repaired to the office of Admiral Sir Reginald Hall, known as Blinker Hall, the director of naval intelligence.

“Well, old sailor,” said Wilson. “Well, old soldier,” came the response. Wilson told Hall he could not dally as he had an appointment in the House of Commons at 3.30pm and had to go home to change.

No.36 Eaton Place in Belgravia, central London. This was the home of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson and he was gunned down as he arrived at his front door.
No.36 Eaton Place in Belgravia, central London. This was the home of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson and he was gunned down as he arrived at his front door.

Wilson left the station and took a District Line underground train west in the company of Lieutenant Colonel Harold Charley, the officer commanding the Royal Ulster Rifles. Wilson said goodbye to Charley and hailed a cab to go home. He first stopped off at the Travellers Club in Pall Mall to read the news off the ticker-tape machine and pick up his mail. He then travelled on to his home at 36 Eaton Place.

The killers meet

At around 1pm, Joe O’Sullivan left his office in the Ministry of Labour in Whitehall, where he worked as a clerk, and walked to the clock at Vauxhall Bridge Road for 1.30pm. He told a colleague to sign him in if he did not come back in the afternoon. O’Sullivan was of average height, slightly built and with a diffident manner.

Joe O’Sullivan, war veteran and employee at the Ministry of Labour, fired the first shots at Wilson from close range.
Joe O’Sullivan, war veteran and employee at the Ministry of Labour, fired the first shots at Wilson from close range.

He wore standard office attire: a black jacket, trousers and a brown trilby hat. He had served with the 3rd (City of London) Battalion, London Regiment, in the war, losing a leg in August 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele, the muddy apocalypse that “tipped the survivors into the slough of despond”, as the military historian John Keegan described it.

O’Sullivan was needed to positively identify Wilson, who had often called into the offices of the Ministry of Labour on CIGS business, and O’Sullivan knew his address.

There were millions of men like them in Britain, visibly and physically broken by the war, scuttling about the streets attracting pity, but not much attention

Waiting for O’Sullivan was Reginald “Reggie” Dunne. Dunne was 6ft tall, well built running to stout, with brown hair. He walked with a slight limp as a result of an exploding shell that had damaged his kneecap in the first World War. He wore a fawn sports coat and a trilby hat, heavy clothing for the time of year. O’Sullivan was 25 and Dunne 24, but Dunne was the more forceful of the two, a leader of men and the officer commanding the IRA in London. Dunne and O’Sullivan had been engaged in acts of destruction, execution and gun smuggling in the name of Ireland, a country that neither man, unlike Wilson, had been born in.

Reginald “Reggie” Dunne, the officer commanding the IRA in London, was Wilson’s other assassin.
Reginald “Reggie” Dunne, the officer commanding the IRA in London, was Wilson’s other assassin.

Dunne served with the 1st Battalion of the Irish Guards. These two war veterans often wore the large sterling silver lapel badge, known as the “wound badge”, in public, but not today. Nobody noticed them. Why would they? There were millions of men like them in Britain, visibly and physically broken by the war, scuttling about the streets attracting pity, but not much attention.

O’Sullivan carried a long-barrelled Webley .450, a standard-issue British army service revolver, with six extra rounds; Dunne had the short version of the same weapon. Dunne waited anxiously for a third man, an able-bodied volunteer, to help in their dangerous enterprise. He had left a coded telephone message at this man’s place of work, but time was passing and he had not turned up.

A memorial to republican volunteers that includes the names of Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, Wilson’s killers.
Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan’s names are on a memorial at Deansgrange Cemetery in Dublin to IRA volunteers who died during the revolutionary period. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

Dunne looked at O’Sullivan and momentarily regretted his decision to call on him, given his obvious disability, but then he recalled how O’Sullivan had previously been involved in dangerous missions and had not lacked for courage or resolve. He knew O’Sullivan would not waver despite the risks to both of them.

They walked from Victoria Station to Wilson’s home, arriving soon after 2pm. Eaton Place in Belgravia is a stately terrace of stucco-fronted buildings with white porticoes built in the 1820s, a prime address and favoured by those who wanted to be physically close to the centre of government in London.

Frayed nerves

The road outside Wilson’s home was under repair and workmen busied about. A battery of horse-drawn artillery came down the road. O’Sullivan and Dunne’s already frayed nerves were set further on edge. Dunne gestured to O’Sullivan that they would have to call off the attack if the battery was Wilson’s escort. It departed, however, as quickly as it arrived.

The minutes passed slowly. Several pedestrians walked past, but none thought anything of the two men loitering around. Presently, Wilson’s cab drew up. Wilson paid the taxi driver and got out. He walked around the roadworks and towards the steps of his house, which lay at the corner of Eaton Place and Belgrave Place.

The front page of The Sphere with a photo of Sir Henry Wilson’s funeral.
The front page of The Sphere with a photo of Sir Henry Wilson’s funeral.

O’Sullivan brazenly crossed the road in a straight line and raised his weapon. At a distance of just three metres he fired twice, hitting him both times. Wilson staggered up the doorsteps. Dunne intercepted him and fired several more shots at close range from the hip. Wilson cried out in pain as bullets penetrated his lungs, his left armpit and shoulder joint.

A story would circulate later that Wilson, a warrior to the last, had drawn his sword from his scabbard and raised it in a final act of defiance, but he never got that far, according to a workman (known as witness No. 1) who saw the shooting: “He tried to recover himself before he fell and made a movement with his right hand to his left side. He was wearing a sword on his left side. After that he collapsed completely.”

As he reached for his sword, O’Sullivan finished him off with another shot. Wilson was almost at his own front door. Had it been open he might have stumbled inside and shut it behind him. A bullet lodged in the door, and the former field marshal’s blood on the steps was later covered up with sand. The sound of the shots on a still midsummer’s afternoon brought residents from their homes.

Wilson’s butler emerged almost immediately from the front door and called for help. Lady Wilson was in the drawing room when she heard the shots and, rushing to the window, saw her husband lying prostrate on the steps. She ran out with a cup of water, but he was already too far gone. She was heard to exclaim, “Well, they have done their cruel work at last, but you have died like a soldier. God will be merciful to you.”

Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP is published by Faber & Faber, priced €16.99. It is published on May 26th.

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