“I do not approve, but I must not pretend to misunderstand” – Eamon de Valera
At around midday of 22 June 1922, Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson unveiled a war memorial at Liverpool Street Station. He made a speech, quoted some relevant Kipling poetry and soon after returned by taxi to his home at 36 Eaton Place in Knightsbridge. Two 24 year old men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, were surreptitiously waiting for his arrival. They watched while Wilson paid for his taxi before running up to him and killing him in cold blood on the footsteps leading up to his front door. In Dunne’s words:
“I fired three shots rapidly, the last one from the hip, as I took a step forward. Wilson was now uttering short cries and in a doubled up position staggered towards the edge of the pavement. At this point Joe fired once again and the last I saw of him he (Wilson) had collapsed”.
The Field Marshall had half withdrawn his sword in a futile effort to protect himself but after being shot seven times he fell face first on to the pavement with blood running profusely from his body and mouth. Dunne and O’Sullivan started to run but O’Sullivan had been seriously wounded at Ypres during WW1 (both men had fought for the British) and his wooden leg severely hindered their escape. Dunne and O’Sullivan both attempted to shoot their way out of trouble and shot and injured two policemen and a civilian in the process but were soon surrounded by an angry and hostile crowd and the two men were quickly arrested. They actually had to be protected by the police from a mob who wanted instant revenge for Wilson’s death.
Six months earlier at 2.20 am 6th December 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed between an Irish delegation, led by Michael Collins, and the British Government at 22 Hans Place. Incidentally, there is nothing on the outside of the building commemorating the historical event and today, in what is probably one of the most expensive property areas of London, seems to be unused and empty with security boards up in the windows.
The treaty envisaged an independent Ireland that would be known as the Irish Free State but the agreement was hugely controversial, especially back in Ireland. For a start, de Valera, the President of the Irish Republic and who had a difficult relationship with Collins at the best of times, was angry that the treaty was signed without his authorisation (although it was at his insistence that Collins went, with de Valera considering it wrong to be involved in the negotiations if Britain’s King George V wasn’t either). Also controversial was both the British insistence that they continued to control a number of ports, known as the Treaty Ports, for the Royal Navy and that Northern Ireland (which had been created in the Government of Ireland Act 1920) was able to leave the Irish Free State within one month, which of course it duly did.
In April 1922 a group of 200 anti-treaty IRA men had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin in defiance of their Government. Collins, wanting to avoid Civil War at all costs, decided to leave them alone. However after the Field Marshall’s assassination and the subsequent Fleet Street outrage this all changed. It was assumed by the British that Dunne and O’Sullivan were anti-treaty IRA men and after the shock of the Field Marshall’s murder Winston Churchill wrote to Collins threatening that unless he moved against the Four Courts anti-treaty garrison he (Churchill) would use British troops to do so for him. After a final attempt to persuade the men to leave the Courts, Collins borrowed two 18 pounder Artillery guns from the British and bombarded the Four Courts until it’s garrison surrendered. A surrender which almost immediately led to the Irish Civil War with fighting breaking out over Dublin and subsequently the rest of the country.
Meanwhile back in London at the Old Bailey, and before Mr Justice Shearman, Dunne and O’Sullivan were both tried together for the murder of Sir Henry Wilson on 2 July 1922. Dunne stood with his arms folded while the charge was being read while O’Sullivan stood stiffly at attention. When Dunne was asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?” he replied “I admit shooting Sir Henry Wilson.” “Are you guilty or not guilty of the murder?” the Clerk of Arraigns repeated. “That is the only statement I can make,” was the response. O’Sullivan made a similar reply and after some discussion the plea was treated as one of “Not guilty.”
Towards the end of the trial, which lasted just three hours, the defence Counsel handed the judge a double sheet of blue official paper given to him by Dunne. After perusing the contents Mr Justice Shearman said – “I cannot allow this to be read. It is not a defence to the jury at all. It is a political manifesto…I say clearly, openly, and manifestly it is a justification of the right to kill.”
Dunne and O’Sullivan were sentenced to death by hanging and sent to Wandsworth gaol where they were both hanged together by the executioner John Ellis on the 10th August 1922.
Less than two weeks later Michael Collins was ambushed and shot dead in his home county of Cork by anti-treaty IRA members.
It was never really established whether Dunne and O’Sullivan acted on their own (the assassination seemed pretty badly organised for an official assassination so this was likely) or with the approval and help of Michael Collins. Collins had been a friend of Dunne’s while Sir Henry Wilson was responsible for establishing the Cairo Gang (a group of experienced British Intelligence agents who met frequently at Dublin’s Cairo Cafe) twelve of whom were murdered by the IRA acting under Collins command in 1920. The Cairo Gang killings provoked the British Auxiliaries in Dublin to shoot trapped innocent civilians at Croke Park in not the bloodiest but perhaps the nastiest of the various historical Bloody Sundays.