Henry Wilson’s Murder

Henry Wilson was a career soldier from the early 1880s. Wilson rose to the command of the Staff College at Camberley, Surrey (1907-10). During this period he cultivated the friendship of his counterpart at the French war college, General (afterward Marshal) Ferdinand Foch; an association that may account for Wilson’s readiness to involve Great Britain in French strategy.

He played a dubious part in the Curragh incident (March 1914), surreptitiously encouraging some British army officers who refused to lead troops against Ulster opponents of Irish Home Rule.

On the outbreak of World War I, the British government chose Wilson’s policy of fighting in France alongside French armies in preference to attacking the German invaders in Belgium, the strategy of the commander in chief, Field Marshal Earl Roberts. Wilson agreed with Roberts, however, on the necessity of military conscription (not instituted until 1916). The smooth mobilization of the standing army and its rapid movement to France in August 1914 may be credited largely to Wilson’s prewar planning.

Wilson himself soon went to France as assistant chief of the general staff. His only field command in the war (December 1915-December 1916) was marked by the loss to the Germans of a sector of Vimy Ridge, near Arras, by his IV Corps. In September 1917 he took over the Eastern Command, a position that enabled him to live in London and ingratiate himself with Lloyd George. As chief of the imperial general staff (from Feb. 18, 1918), he aided the prime minister in securing Foch’s appointment as supreme commander of the Allied armies on the Western Front.

Disagreeing with the government’s postwar Irish policy, Wilson, who had been promoted to field marshal and created a baronet (1919), was refused reappointment as chief of staff by Lloyd George. Wilson then left the army and entered the House of Commons as a Conservative member for the Ulster constituency of North Down (all in February 1922). During May 1922, Wilson was working in Ulster, advising the Northern Irish Government on policing the new border. He was also an eloquent speaker on behalf of Anglo-Irish Unionism.

On the morning of 22 June 1922, Wilson was returning to his home in Easton Place (London). He had just unveiled the war memorial at Liverpool Rail Station, in London. He had paid his taxi driver, and was feeling for his keys, when two men came up behind him, pulled out revolvers and shot him down as with an arm wounded by the first two bullets he half drew his sword. His two murderers fired a total of nine bullets at Wilson before attempting to escape. They were eventually captured half a mile away from Eaton Square.

Wilson’s body had been laid on a couch in his study. Bernard (later Sir) Spilsbury, the famous pathologist, arrived at the scene and carried out his examination of Wilson’s body. Wilson, aged 58, had been shot in the left forearm, twice in the right arm, twice in the left shoulder, in both armpits, and twice in the right leg. Both armpit wounds had fatally pieced Wilson’s lungs.

The two suspects were identified as Reginald Dunn (also spelt Dunne) and Joseph O’Sullivan.


Richard William Dunn was born in 1898, at Woolwich, London, the child of Robert and Mary Ann Dunn.

The Census of Ireland 1901 shows Robert Dunn’s occupation as “Bandmaster 3rd Grenadier Guards”. The census also shows that all the family members are Roman Catholic.

The 1911 England and Wales Census show the family now living in a five room dwelling at 90 Lealand Road, London.

Robert DunnHead69Army PensionerHounslow
Mary Anne DunnWife38Woolwich
Reginald DunnSon12Woolwich
1911 England and Wales Census.

11479 Private Reginald Dunn enlisted in the Irish Guards on 6 September 1916. In 1918, he was badly wounded and became unfit for military service. He was discharged on 15 July 1918, entitled to the British War and Victory medals and the Silver War Badge (number 378994).

In 1919, Reginald Dunn moved to Castlewood Road, Stamford Hill, London N16 and began a teaching course at Hammersmith Training College, which ended in 1921.

From October 1919 until his execution on 10 August 1922, Reginald Dunn was the Irish Republican Army (IRA) Battalion Commandant for the London area.

His mother, Mrs May Ann Dunn, moved to Howth, Co. Dublin. She made three attempts to claim a pension, in respect of her son, but she was declined twice before petitioning Eamon de Valera, then President of the Executive Council. She was finally awarded a pension of £6 10 shillings per year, payable from 2 June 1937. However, Mrs May Ann Dunn died on 4 May 1939.


Joseph O’Sullivan was born on 25 January 1891.

He enlisted in the 3rd (City of London) Battalion, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) on 25 January 1915. O’Sullivan entered the France and Flanders operational theatre on 26 August 1915. Promoted to Lance-Corporal, O’Sullivan was badly wounded, losing his right leg below the knee, and found to be unfit for further military service.

O’Sullivan was discharged on 10 July 1918, entitled to the 1914-15 Star, British War and Victory medals and the Silver War Badge (number 427872).


Both Dunn and O’Sullivan were tried together with the murder of Sir Henry Wilson, before Mr. Justice Shearman, at the Old Bailey on 18 July 1922. The Prosecution was conducted by the Attornry General Mr. Travers Humphreys and Mr. Eustace Fulton. The defence was conducted by Mr. Artemus Jones, KC, and Mr. J. McVeagh.

When Dunn was asked how he pleaded, he replied “I admit shooting Sir Henry Wilson”. The clerk asked again how Dunn pleaded, Dunn replied “This is the only statement that I can make”. A plea of not guilty was entered on his behalf. As O’Sullivan made a similar reply, a plea of not guilty was also entered on his behalf.

In his evidence, Bernard Spilsbury precisely described where the shooters had been standing in relation to their victim and even the order in which some of the shots had been fired.

In his notes, Spilsbury wrote

Wilson was not shot after he had fallen. All nine wounds were inflicted when he was erect or slightly stooping, as he would be when tugging at his sword-hilt. The chest injuries were from shots fired at two different angles: one from the right to left and the other from left to right. Either would have proved fatal and produced death within ten minutes. The bullet through the right leg passed forwards and downwards, and therefore the shot came from directly behind. That in the top left shoulder had been fired from the left side and rather behind, and the downward direction proved that the arm was in a raised position as the bullet entered. The wounds in the forearms were inflicted from behind whilst the arms were still at the side of the body.

During cross-examination of Detective-Inspector Burton, he stated that he had made enquires into the character of the accused. He went on to state that

Dunn had joined the Army in 1916 when he was 18. He served in the Irish Guards and attained the rank of Corporal. He went out to France in January 1918 and was discharged seriously wounded later that year.

The Times newspaper, 19 July 1922.

With regard to O’Sullivan

He joined the Army in January 1915 and went to France in August of that year. He served in the Munster Fusiliers and the London Regiment, attaining the rank of Lance-Corporal, and was discharged in 1918 severely wounded, having lost his right leg below the knee.

The Times newspaper, 19 July 1922.

After the Prosecution concluded its case, Dunn requested that he be allowed to read a statement. After being given a copy of Dunn’s speech, the Judge Mr. Justice Sherman rules that he could not allow the speech to be read, stating

I cannot allow this to be read. It is not a defence to the jury at all. It is a political manifesto. I will allow these people to give evidence. They are entitled to make a statement from the dock, but I will not allow this to be read. As I understand it, it is a justification for the course they have pursued.

The Times newspaper, 19 July 1922.

Mr. Artemus Jones then asked for an adjournment, so the defence could consult with their clients. After a short delay, the court resumed. Mr. Artemus then informed the Judge that Dunn and O’Sullivan decided that they no longer wished to be legally represented.

The trial lasted 3 hours, with the 10 men and 2 women jury taking 2 minutes to find Dunn and O’Sullivan guilty.

When Dunn had been sentenced to death, and after the Judge added usual words “May the Lord have mercy upon your soul, Dunn stated that “He will my Lord. After O’Sullivan heard his death sentence, he stated “You may kill my body, my Lord, but my spirit you will never kill”.


On the day of the double execution, 10 August 1922, The Times newspaper reported the following scenes outside Wandsworth Prison.

An hour or so before the execution at 8am a layman robed in cassock and surplice took up a position in the centre of the road before the gates of the prison. Very soon fifty or more men, women and young girls were kneeling at his feet praying for the souls of the condemned men. The leader of the service was Mr. O’Leary, an Irishman living in London, and the conductor of the Catholic Singing Guild and leader of the Knights of the Blessed Sacrament.

Mr. O’Leary bore a lighted candle and one of the mourners carried the Sinn Fein colours, and after the tolling of the bell, which signified that the two murders had been hanged, the flag was handed to the leader of the service, who held it while other prayers were recited. The Irish funeral hymn “Wrap the old green flag around me” was sung by the mourners. With tears in his eyes Mr. O’Leary told how he had walked the streets of London all through the night in order that he might be present at the passing of “their two brothers”. “These men have fought for the faith” he declared. “Don’t think we are mixing politics with our Church, for these boys were daily and weekly Communicants”. When formal notice was posted on the prison door the mourners dropped on their knees and remained in an attitude of prayer for some minutes.

The Times newspaper, 11 August 1922.

At the Inquest, held later the same day, The Times reported that both the condemned men “met their fate in an unflinching manner. The prison governor, Major E. R. Reade, stated that “the execution was expeditiously carried out and there was no hitch”.

Mr. MacDonnell (representing the relatives) asked if the men had been under observation since they were brought to the prison. Dr. Pearson, the prison medical officer, said that O’Sullivan had lost his right leg below the knee, and Dunn had had an operation on the right knee too. Mentally there was nothing abnormal to be noticed.

The Times newspaper, 11 August 1922.

The remains of Dunn and O’Sullivan were then buried in the prison graveyard.

On 26 June 1922, after a service will full military honours, Sir Henry Wilson was buried in the crypt at St. Paul’s Cathedral. As Sir Henry Wilson had no children, the baronetcy became extinct upon his death.

The Memorial to Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson
The Memorial to Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson.

The war memorial unveiled at London’s Liverpool Street Rail Station can still be seen today. A plaque was added after Wilson’s death, to commemorate his unveiling of this memorial on the morning of his murder. The inscription on the tablet reads

To the Memory of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson Bart, GCB, DSO, MP Whose death occurred on Thursday 22 June 1922 within two hours of his unveiling the adjoining memorial

The following article appeared in The Times newspaper, 7 July 1967.

The remains of the two Irishmen executed at Wandsworth Prison for the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson in 1922 were flown from London to Dublin today for reburial in Deans Grange Cemetery on Saturday.

The exhumation of the bodies had been agreed to by the British Home Secretary after representations by relatives and the Irish National Graves Association.

On arrival in Dublin both bodies, those of Joseph O’Sullivan and Reginald Dunn, were taken to the pro-Cathedral, where they will remain until Sunday.

The Times newspaper, 7 July 1967.