3 December 1920 autograph letter signed by then-Secretary of State for War and Air Winston S. Churchill to Chief of the Imperial General Staff Field Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, Baronet, who would be assassinated by the IRA 18 months later
War Office, Whitehall, London, S.W.1. 1920. This is a 3 December 1920 autograph letter signed by then-Secretary of State for War and Air Winston S. Churchill to Irish-born Field Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, Baronet (1864-1922), who rose to prominence during the First World War and was assassinated 18 months after Churchill wrote this letter. The letter comes from the personal collection of Churchill’s bibliographer, Ronald I. Cohen, and is noteworthy for conveying a Churchillian moment of gracious empathy despite a frictional time and relationship.
Written in 15 lines on Churchill’s embossed “WAR OFFICE | WHITEHALL | S.W.1.” stationery, the letter reads: “My dear Wilson, | I do hope you are less anxious today | about yr wife. I have | been reproaching myself | for being disagreeable | yesterday when you | have this trouble | on yr. mind- & all | yr. other worries. | We have all had a | hard time. All good wishes | Your friend | Winston S. Churchill”. Condition is very good, the stationery complete, creased once horizontally, ostensibly for an envelope, and showing only incidental soiling. The letter is housed in a clear, removable, archival sleeve within a rigid, crimson cloth folder.
At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Wilson was substantially responsible for the successful mobilization and deployment of the BEF. Wilson was knighted in 1915, though it was in December 1916, when David Lloyd George became Prime Minister, that his fortunes precipitously rose. Lloyd George relied upon Wilson “as an alternative source of military advice” to his Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) – the post to which Wilson succeeded in February 1918. In July 1919 Wilson was promoted field Marshal, created a baronet, and received a £10,000 grant along with the thanks of Parliament.
Nonetheless, “Wilson’s status as an intimate prime ministerial adviser… did not very long survive the end of the peace conference in mid-1919.” As he became more marginalized, so too he seemed to become increasingly strident. “Wilson was especially exercised about the fate of Ireland” and “would contemplate no policy there other than the forcible crushing of Sinn Fein and the IRA”.
We cannot know the exact exchange that prompted Churchill’s letter to Wilson, but the general subject of their friction seems clear. During the second half of November, 1920, brutal murders of British officers, answered with brutal reprisals by Royal Irish Constabulary “Black and Tans” and British soldiers, heightened already-inflamed tensions in Ireland. On 26 November, six murdered British officers were buried in London with full military honours. David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were among those who walked up the aisle behind the coffins. But Wilson blamed the Government for both inaction and wrong action, noting in his diary “I wonder that they did not hide their heads in shame.” More murders and reprisals followed. Such was the level of concern that “approaches to Downing Street were boarded up, in order to forestall a possible attempt by Irish Republicans to kill Lloyd George.” Initially, Churchill and others had supported reprisals – about which Wilson expressed concerns, but not Martial Law. But by 1 December, when the Cabinet met, Martial Law was considered. Wilson wanted all Ireland to be covered. But Churchill favored selecting specific areas and concentrating forces. Wilson recorded in his diary on 1 December of Winston “…he said I was obstructive. I gave him the rough side of my tongue, pointing out the complete volte face of LG & himself…” It seems likely that this exchange, or one swiftly following, prompted Churchill’s letter.
A year later, in December 1921, Churchill helped negotiate the Irish Treaty, signed by Lloyd George, Michael Collins, and Arthur Griffith. Wilson retired in February 1922, becoming a Member of Parliament from Northern Ireland. It was a short career; Wilson was assassinated by the IRA on his London doorstep on 22 June 1922.
References: ODNB, Gilbert, Callwell. Item #006943