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Honouring murdered MP Sir Henry Wilson

Sir Henry Wilson

4 min read

A new plaque is set to be unveiled to mark the 100-year anniversary of Sir Henry Wilson's assassination.

Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, 1st Baronet, GCB, DSO was one of the most senior British army staff officers of the First World War and was an Irish unionist politician and MP for the North Down constituency. He was the highest-ranking former military officer elected to Parliament in modern times. Before election, he was the professional head of the British army.

These facts alone make him worthy of historical record. But his life met a violent end. One hundred years ago this month, Sir Henry was the first MP to be assassinated since Spencer Perceval in 1812, and his murder profoundly shocked this nation.

It is right that an oversight of significant proportions is corrected, and I am delighted that, after a campaign, Mr Speaker has provided a plaque to be unveiled this week in the Chamber of the Commons.

In the years before the Great War, Wilson served as commandant of the army staff college, then as director of military operations at the War Office, in which post he played a vital role in drawing up plans to deploy an expeditionary force to France in the event of war.

During these years, Wilson acquired a reputation as a political intriguer for his role in agitating for the introduction of conscription, and in the Curragh incident of 1914 when he encouraged senior officers to resign rather than move against Ulster in its opposition to Home Rule – one of the most significant intrigues in British military and political history.

As sub chief of staff to the British Expeditionary Force, Wilson was Field Marshal Sir John French’s most important adviser during the 1914 campaign. He played a key role in Anglo-French military relations in 1915 and – after his only experience of field command as a corps commander in 1916 – as an ally of the controversial French general Robert Nivelle in early 1917.

Later in 1917, he was the informal military adviser to prime minister David Lloyd George, and then British permanent military representative at the Supreme War Council at Versailles.

By 1918, Wilson was Chief of the Imperial General Staff, a position he continued to hold after the war, a time when the army was being sharply reduced in size while attempting to contain industrial unrest in the United Kingdom, and nationalist unrest in Mesopotamia, Iraq and Egypt – some things never change! His assassination marked a significant turning point in the Irish war of independence and subsequent Irish civil war.

After retiring from the army, Wilson served all too briefly as an MP, and as security adviser to the Northern Ireland government. He was assassinated on his doorstep in London by two IRA gunmen in 1922 while returning home from unveiling a war memorial at Liverpool Street station.

His new plaque will be just behind the Speaker’s chair and directly opposite Members’ Entrance, where there are three other plaques to Members murdered by the IRA. Sir Henry is the fourth Member to be recorded as murdered by Irish republicans. Apart from those Members who fell in the two world wars, this quartet is the largest group of Members murdered by a single enemy – a stark reminder of just how high a price fanatical Irish republicanism has cost this nation.

His murder profoundly shocked Britain and Ireland. Reportage of his funeral procession making its way to St Paul’s captures a stunned capital coming to a halt as his cortège was taken through London; his multiple awards and honours carried in front of a gun carriage, and his horse led behind his casket.

Earlier this month, I saw the plaque being painted in the Chamber and spoke to the artist who has designed an appropriate coat of arms for Sir Henry. I have also spoken to Sir Henry’s descendant Robert Wilson-Wright, and he is very pleased that Parliament will have this permanent reminder. Appropriately, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will not sit that morning, as a mark of respect.

Ian Paisley Jr is the DUP MP for North Antrim.

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