By John Spencer
No study of the British Army’s senior command in the Great War is complete without a reference to Sir Henry Hughes Wilson. Like the villain in a Victorian melodrama he usually makes an early appearance, then skulks in the background only to reappear in the final act to stab his friends in the back. There is no doubt that Wilson was, and remains, a Marmite-character, but was he quite so black as his enemies painted him?
Wilson died before he could tell his own war story, and his reputation was shredded by a well-intentioned biography initiated by his widow and written by a friend and colleague, C.E. Callwell. That book was based in large part on Wilson’s detailed and highly entertaining diaries, in which every evening this most political of soldiers recorded his thoughts on his friends, his enemies, and war policy in general. Unfortunately for his reputation, Wilson’s often intemperate late-night scribblings found their way into the biography, much to the irritation of his contemporaries.
For those who disliked or distrusted Wilson (or both), here was proof-positive of his Janus-like character. For his friends and admirers (and there were many), it was disappointing to find themselves criticised behind their backs. Here, surely, was the ‘real’ Henry Wilson. The late Keith Jeffery’s excellent political biography (Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier, 2006) was a much more balanced account of this fascinating man. Notwithstanding Jeffery’s work, Wilson is still too many a one-dimensional character; untrustworthy, flippant, ambitious, admirer of politicians. The antithetical British army officer.
I encountered him first while studying Britain and the Great War for my master’s degree at Birmingham University. When I was considering a doctorate, he seemed like the ideal candidate. But what was there to say that was new? Viewing Wilson’s diaries at the Imperial War Museum it became clear that there was, in fact, quite a lot.
Although Wilson’s first biographer had squeezed the diaries for many a juicy reference, there were plenty more for the picking. Writing in the 1920’s, when many of the main characters were still alive, Callwell had understandably often anonymised his references, and skated over others. Pouring over his less than copperplate jottings, it soon became clear to me that there was far more to Wilson than the glib characterisation which had served as a shorthand for his character for almost a century.
Wilson wrote up his journal each evening after dinner. He usually used a W.H. Smith page-a-day hardback diary and, if what he had to say took more than the supplied page, he continued on any spare page elsewhere in the diary, or in a separate notebook. [A note here for researchers: Wilson’s diaries were microfiched in the dim and distant past and it is impossible to tie the daily diary with the additional notes’ pages in this format; remember to ask to examine the originals!] What became clear early on was that Wilson’s grumblings and criticisms were his way of ‘venting’ his feelings after a busy day – very much like modern fancy for late-night social media rants which, in the cold light of day are often regretted, and rarely acted upon. Wilson was writing for himself, not for public consumption; if he couldn’t grumble in his journal, where could he do it?
The diaries, his official papers, and those of his contemporaries together revealed a much more complex character than I had originally expected. Certainly, Wilson liked politicians (or some of them), and some of them liked him. But he was no fool, and no dupe. Henry Wilson was, unlike many officers of his rank and class, happy to mix with the ‘frocks’ and in so doing hoped to further both his career and his view of how the war might be won.
As if a cheeky ease with politicians wasn’t enough to place him in bad odour with his fellow officers, Wilson was also seen as a ‘Francophile’. This label was appended to Wilson because he spoke the language, and in the pre-War period had make it his business to study the French army and make friendships with French officers. These skills meant that for much of the war his main contribution to the British effort was not strategic command, but inter-allied liaison. Wilson was a friend, and sometimes adversary, of Ferdinand Foch. In the final 18 months of the war both men finally achieved great power and influence over their respective countries’ war policy.
This role as ‘soldier diplomat’ dominates Wilson’s War and will, I hope, add a new dimension to our understanding of a complex, yet fascinating soldier who had a far greater impact on British military policy both during and after the Great War, than many might originally believe.
My research has now returned to that other enigmatic and fascinating Great War general, Sir William Robertson. I have contributed chapters on ‘Wully’ to Spencer Jones’s three collections of writings on the Great War, all published by Helion. I am now working on the fourth, Robertson in 1917, the year in which the bluff Chief of the Imperial General Staff clashed directly with Henry Wilson; two more dissimilar characters can hardly be imagined.
You can now buy ‘Wilson’s War. Sir Henry Wilson’s Influence on British Military Policy in the Great War and its Aftermath’ here.