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‘A historic meeting of men, totally ignorant of their subject’
Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

‘A historic meeting of men, totally ignorant of their subject’

The Irish General and the Outbreak of War: The diaries of Sir Henry Wilson


By Ed Mulhall

By 1914, Henry Wilson was one of the most important military leaders in the British Army. As Director of Military Operations he had made it a priority to have in place a mobilisation plan should a conflict arise between France and Germany. He had, throughout his military career, been a major supporter of close co-operation with the French and had worked with his friend General Foch and others in preparing the way for a co-ordinated approach. He spent many of his holidays in France cycling along possible battle lines and studying transportation routes. 

Wilson was also regarded as the most political of soldiers, who worked closely with Unionist and Conservative politicians and who wasn't afraid to use his political connections to support his strategic military objectives. Earlier in 1914 he had been a major player behind the scenes in the 'Curragh Incident', supporting those who were resisting any orders to move on the Ulster Volunteers, leaking information to Unionist and Conservative Politicians, as well as to the Press, and encouraging the resignation of Sir John French after the crisis. As well his strong support for co-ordination with the French, his pro-Union politics were a constant (and at times clouded his strategic views).

Born in Currygrane, County Longford he was the most identifiably Irish of the British military leaders. Lord Kitchener, though born in Kerry, seldom identified himself as Irish, while Sir John French, who did, had been born in England. According to his first biographer and army colleague Major-General C. E. Callwell  the first time Henry Wilson refers in his diary to the European crisis that had developed since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is on July 25th 1914.

That morning Wilson had his regular meeting with Sir Arthur Nicholson, the Permanent Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs and a former British Ambassador to Russia. Nicholson had shown Wilson a dispatch from St. Petersburg which indicated that Russia would react to an attack on Serbia by Austria-Hungary and that they and the French where asking what part would England play.

On July 26th Wilson wrote:

'Went to see Sir A. Nicolson and found a lot more dispatches, all warlike, Austria, Russia, and Serbia seem to be going to mobilise, but, so far, no news of Germany moving. Until she moves there is no certainty of war. The Serbians have agreed to almost all the Austrian terms, making it difficult to Austria and Germany to have a European war. My own opinion is that if Germany does not mobilise to-day there will be no war. Saw Sunny Jim and told him all the gossip.'

On the 27th:

'A lot of dispatches in all day, but no sign of Germany mobilising, so I think there will not be any war. Meanwhile, after some fuss about gun-running at Howth yesterday, 2 companies K.O.S.B.s  were mobbed in the streets of Dublin and fired on the mob, killing 3 and wounding 40. This is a further upset for the Government. Panouse  told me this afternoon that the Austrian Ambassador in Paris had told the French Foreign Minister that the Austrians would move tomorrow.'

On the 28th:

"Went to the Foreign Office and had a long talk with Arthur Nicholson, which was interrupted by Asquith  walking in. I presume now the Austrians will take Belgrade. There may be a pause but further advance will mean a mobilisation in Russia, and then impossible to say what will follow."

July 29th:

'The Russians have ordered the mobilisation of 16 Corps. The Austrians are mobilising 12 Corps. The German and French remain quiet. At 3 p.m. a note came to Douglas from Asquith ordering the "Precautionary Period". This we did. I don't know why we are doing it because there is nothing moving in Germany. We shall see. Anyhow it is more business that I expected of this Government.'

On the 30th:

'The news is all bad to-day and war seems inevitable. Sazonov and the German Ambassador fell out last night, and the German went to Sazonov's house at 2 a.m. this morning in tears and said all was over. The Germans asked us to guarantee neutrality. Grey answered: 'Wait and see.' Nicholson, who I saw several times, expects German mobilisation to-morrow. I confess it looks like it. Panouse to-night brought me a paper which Cambon  gave Grey this afternoon showing German preparations.'

On the 31st:

'No news when I called for my usual visit to Arthur Nicolson at 9 a.m. Later (11 a.m.) the Cabinet met. Later we began to suspect that the Cabinet were going to run away. Later, 5.p.m., Eyre Crowe came to see me and told me that Germany had given Russia 12 hours to demobilise. Russia's answer was an order for 'General Mobilisation'. Germany was going to order mobilisation tonight, followed by France; and we were doing nothing. Later Johnnie Baird came in. I told him of the state of affairs and got him to write to Bonar Law, who had gone to Wargrave, begging him to come up and see Asquith tonight. Later I saw Panouse and advised him to get Cambon to go to Grey to-night and say that, if we did not join, he would break off relations and go to Paris. An awful day. No C.I.D. has been held, no military opinion has been asked for by this Cabinet ,who are deciding on a question of war. Douglas was unable to get Asquith to agree to stop training of units which happen to be a long way from their mobilisation centres. Sclater  tells me this dispersion would delay us three days. Asquith said he would ask the Cabinet tomorrow."

The concern evident in his diary entry leads Wilson on the evening of July 31st to begin contacting representatives of Unionist opinion with the aim of putting pressure on the Government to act. One of those contacted, Leo Maxse, the editor of the National Review, said Wilson told him 'We are in the soup'.  On the morning of August 1st at 7 a.m. Nicolson sent for Wilson to show him a dispatch received overnight indicating that the Germans were to assume the offensive on both fronts. Nicolson and Wilson then sought to talk to Edward Grey at Lord Haldane's house but he was still in bed. Wilson returned for breakfast to his own home where Maxse, Lady Aileen Roberts, Lady Sybil Grey and Lord Rawlinson were gathered. These begin to contact other leaders including Amery, George Lloyd, Wickham Steed and Lord Lovat.

Wilson's diary for August 1st:

'At 11.30 a.m. Asquith wrote to C.I.G.S. saying training was not to be suspended, and 'putting on record' the fact that the Government had never promised the French an Expeditionary Force. Percy to lunch, he arranged to send George Lloyd and Charlie Beresford for Bonar Law to Wargrave. I went to the French Embassy, 3 p.m. to discuss with Panouse what it would mean if Germans were restricted to German-French frontiers. M. Cambon came in to see me. He was very bitter, though personally charming. Ollivant  in to see me, 4 p.m., and report that Winston wanted him to lecture Lloyd George on the European military situation. Saw Crowe 7 p.m. - very pessimistic, all countries mobilising except us.'

That evening at 11 p.m. Wilson went with George Lloyd to Lansdowne house where they met Bonar Law, Lord Landsdowne, Lord Talbot and the Duke of Devonshire. Following their discussions a meeting was arranged with Prime Minister Asquith on the following day. A letter from Bonar Law drafted in consultation with Austen Chamberlain and Lord Lansdowne was sent to Downing Street at noon on the 2nd. The Conservative leaders later claimed this had a significant impact on the Cabinet decision.

On August 2nd Wilson wrote:

'Leo Maxse and Amery to breakfast, and much telephoning to Bonar Law, Austen and others. Panouse in at 10 a.m. Office all day. Two Cabinet meetings with quite indecisive results I believe that a note has been sent to the French to say that, although we are not going to take part in the war, we would not allow the Germans to descend on the French coast. Was ever anything heard like this? What is the difference between the French coast and the French frontier? The German light troops were over the frontier today, some fighting took place. Crowds outside the Palace 10 p.m. cheering. We have got permission to send troops back to peace quarters.'

Monday August 3rd:

'Usual 9 a.m. visit to Nicolson, no decision yet to mobilise. Saw Sir John, who now thinks of going to Antwerp - but we can't cross the North Sea, mouth of Scheldt is Dutch, and no arrangements made for transportation, so quite hopeless. At 1.9 p.m. [sic] Moggridge came to my room to show me order for mobilisation. Great crowds in the streets and opposite Buckingham Palace. Saw M. Cambon in Arthur Nicolson's room. He held out both hands to me. So different from the day before yesterday.'

The decision having been made there was a delay in actually issuing the order for mobilisation. Wilson whose plan for mobilisation had assumed that it would occur simultaneously with the French was impatient with the delay. On the morning of August 4th he went to French embassy to discuss the necessary change of plan and followed up with strategic meeting with Sir John French and Sir Alf Murray on the revised plan for the expeditionary force. He also met a number of Conservative politicians including Lord Milner, Lord Amery and Leo Maxse to put pressure for quicker action. He wrote in his diary that evening 'Grey's delay and hesitation in giving orders is sinful'. At 11 p.m. that evening war was official.

On the morning of August 5th Wilson gathered with the other members of the Army Council in the room of Lord Haldane the outgoing Secretary of State for War about to be replaced by Lord Kitchener. It had been decided earlier that if war happened the Expeditionary Force would be commanded by Sir John French with Sir Alf Murray as Chief of the General Staff, Sir William Robertson as Quarter Master General, Sir Nevil Macready as Adjutant General and Henry Wilson as Sub-Chief of the General Staff. At this meeting Wilson urged quick deployment and informed them he had told the French that in the event of war they would send five divisions. He had a long discussion with French and General Douglas Haig the later suggesting they should delay crossing until they had massed the 'considerable resources of the Empire' in two or three months. Wilson urged speed saying that there were not the resources for a long war and stressing the expectations of the French.

He then proceeded to the first Great War Council called by Prime Minister Asquith in 10 Downing Street. Present were Sir Edward Grey, Winston Churchill, Lord Haldane, Lord Roberts, Lord Kitchener, Prince Louis of Battenberg, Sir John French, Sir Ian Hamilton, Sir J. Cowans, Sir S.V.Von Donop, Sir Douglas Haig, Sir James Grierson, Sir A. Murray, Colonel Hankey, Colonel St. G. Gorton, Prime Minister Asquith and Wilson.

His diary of August 5th:

'Asquith said he had summoned the great soldiers at the earliest possible moment. Then a lot of platitudes on the situation and strategy generally. Sir John stated what he had arranged to do; he said that probably Maubeuge was no longer available for concentration and then plumped for going at once and deciding later where to go to - but then he dragged in the ridiculous proposal of going to Antwerp. Churchill said the Dover Straits now completely sealed. Jimmy Grierson spoke up for decisive numbers at the decisive point. Sir John urged we should go over at once, and decide destinations later. I mentioned the flexibility of French railway system for switching. Haig asked questions and this led to our discussing strategy like idiots. Johnnie Hamilton plumped for going to Amiens as soon as possible. Then desultory strategy (some thinking that Liege was in Holland) and idiocy. Lord Kitchener plumped for Amiens, but wanted to get in closer touch with French; suggested that they should send over an officer. Sir John urged we should order the transports for all 6 divisions at once. Question then arose what strength the E.F. should be. Winston in favour of sending 6 divisions, as naval situation most favourable owing to our having had time to prepare. Lord Bobs agreed. Decision was taken that we should prepare at once for all 6 divisions. Lord Kitchener said one division should be ordered from India to Egypt. All agreed. Slight discussion on Colonial and Ulster contingents, but no decisions reached. An historic meeting of men, mostly entirely ignorant of their subject.'

Henry Wilson was to continue to play a significant role in leading the British Army throughout the war. He held a number of different posts: first as sub-chief of the general staff of the British Expeditionary Force, then as liaison officer with the French and for a time as a Corp commander. Following Lloyd George's appointment as Prime Minister in December 1916, his influence grew. Initially, it was as a source of alternative strategic advice to the Prime Minister and later a member of the Supreme War Council which he had recommended for closer co-ordination with the French.

In February 1918 Wilson became Chief of the Imperial General Staff and oversaw the unification of the allied military command under General Foch and played an important strategic role in the successful final months of the War. After the war he remained for a time as CIGS though Lloyd George's decision to negotiate with nationalist leaders on the future of Ireland lead to a rift between the two. Following his retirement from the Army in February 1922 he became a Unionist MP for the Northern Ireland constituency of North Down.  

Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson was assassinated on the steps of his house in London on 22 June 1922. The two London IRA men convicted and hanged for the murder had served as soldiers in the British Army in the  War. His drawn sword was found by his side.

Further Reading:

All extracts from Henry Wilson's diaries are taken from C.E. Callwell, Sir Henry Wilson...his life and diaries, London, 1927.
See also Keith Jeffery, Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, A Political Soldier, Oxford, 2005.
and Sean McMeekin, July 1914,Countdown to War, New York 2013, for the international context.


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