Wilson's War

Author: John Spencer

Publisher: Helion & Company (2021), 224 pages, 16 b/w photographs

Price: £25.00 (Hardback)

ISBN: 9781912866274

Publishers blurb … Today, just as he was a century ago, Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson is an archetypal ‘love him or hate him’ character. An agile mind, a sharp, witty and sometimes wicked tongue, and the author of diaries full of the kind of coruscating remarks that a modern tabloid newspaper editor only dreams of. Wilson enjoyed hobnobbing with politicians as much as with his fellow soldiers, often to the chagrin of both ‘frocks’ and ‘brasshats’. The former, so the accepted narrative goes, found him pliable, naïve and ready to do their bidding. The latter, we are told, found him untrustworthy, mendacious and shallow. Yet in his lifetime Henry Wilson’s many genuine admirers included leading figures in both the political and military establishments.

Unlike many of his peers, Wilson was unable to present evidence in his own defence in the Battle of the Memoirs which followed the Great War. Soon after his death at the hands of Irish republican assassins his reputation was ruined by the publication of a biography based on his outspoken diaries. Wilson’s enemies had their suspicions confirmed, his friends too often found themselves criticised in his late-night scribblings. More recent scholarship has examined Wilson’s interventions in the cause of Irish Unionism and revealed a ‘political soldier’ willing and able to fight for this in the corridors of power. This study concentrates instead on Wilson’s impact on the development and execution of British military policy during the Great War. Wilson’s contribution to the British Army’s preparations for war is familiar to military historians, his role in shaping policy in the final 18 months of the conflict deserve greater attention.

In 1917 Wilson disagreed with the costly attritional strategy of both Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British forces in France, and Sir William Robertson, the government’s principle military adviser at the War Office. It was a scepticism shared by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George who found Wilson’s views refreshingly different. As a result, Wilson effectively put paid to a new British offensive in early 1918 and was instrumental in setting up the Supreme War Council, designed to better co-ordinate Allied military strategy. He then dominated the work of this body, setting its strategic priorities and putting in place structures which eased the adoption of unity of command on the Western Front. As this study shows, Wilson was neither the dupe of politicians, nor the hapless hand-maiden to greater military minds than his. Instead, his diplomatic skills helped preserve the brittle Anglo-French alliance, both in the early stages of the war and towards its end. His period as Chief of the Imperial General Staff from February 1918 saw him successfully walk the tightrope between politicians and military leaders and maintain fragile civil-military relations. In the aftermath of the conflict, Wilson helped shape Britain’s imperial future, for better and for worse.


Most of those with an interest in the First World War would probably have come across the name Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, but I for one knew little of the man himself. From Director of Military Operations in 1914, to deputy Chief of Staff to Field Marshal Sir John French and then Chief of the Imperial General Staff at the wars end. Prime Minister Lloyd George found Wilson’s well-argued strategic views refreshing, which helped him establish the Supreme War Council, designed to improve co-ordination of Allied military strategy. History has not always been kind to Wilson who remains one of the most controversial British Army generals of the Great War. Wilson, an Irishman, and passionate unionist, career ended abruptly in June 1922 when he was assassinated on his doorstep by Irish republicans.

John Spencer, who used his PhD Thesis as the basis for Wilson’s War, examines the influence of Sir Henry Wilson on British Military Policy during, and after, the Great War in an engaging and very readable way. Spencer, who had a career as a journalist ending up as the managing editor of the Press Association, has produced a clear and readable work that starts by looking at Wilson and his 'politics', before going into pre-war planning and the first eighteen months of the war. Wilson clearly paid an important part in the way the allies waged war from the very start. From securing the pre-war Anglo-French alliance and the planning which saw the British Expeditionary Force so successfully sent to France following the outbreak of the Great War, to the creation of the Supreme War Council towards the wars end.

Wilson clearly attracted a sizeable number of critics as well as admirers along the way. Labelled by some as more a politician rather than a soldier, and seen as being a Francophile, he was not always popular amongst his peers. That said, Wilson always appeared to had Britain’s interests at heart. Wilson’s diplomatic skills and the success he achieved in navigating both military and political circles, is clear, but most criticism, or at least that post Wilson’s death, probably stems from his private diaries which Spencer does a good job in dissecting. What Wilson wrote in the heat of the moment is interesting to read, and is skillfully put into perspective by Spencer.

Wilson’s War then covers the brief time he was IV Corps commander and the following period in 1917 when Wilson is the go-to man for Lloyd George whenever he wants to find out how military leadership, namely Haig, was fighting the war. Spencer then describes how the Supreme War Council, the unity of Allied command, was created, all thanks to Wilson. Wilson’s part he played in British strategic development is also examined by Spencer, and the key position he often had in mediating between Foch and Haig. Wilson’s War leaves me thinking that Wilson was far from the cunning, scheming, and the unscrupulous man his post-war critics, such as Callwell, often painted him. I have ended up being an admirer of Wilson, although I was never a critic.

Wilson’s War compliments the previous Keith Jeffery study and for me Spencer has somewhat restored Wilsons’ reputation, or at the very least given readers the opportunity to understand the man better. An important book about a soldier-diplomat who played a key role in the direction of the Great War, and the crisis of Empire that followed. A must-read for any First World War scholar. Recommended.

Helion & Co Link: https://www.helion.co.uk/military-history-books/wilsons-war-sir-henry-wilsons-influence-on-british-military-policy-in-the-great-war-and-its-aftermath.php