Arnold Wilson

For the British politician and solicitor, see Arnold Muir Wilson.
Sir Arnold Wilson
Born (1884-07-18)18 July 1884
Died 31 May 1940(1940-05-31) (aged 55)
Eringhem, France
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
 British Indian Army
 Royal Air Force
Rank Lieutenant Colonel, Pilot Officer
Unit 32nd Sikh Pioneers, No. 37 Squadron RAF
Battles/wars World War I, World War II
Awards DSO

Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson KCIE CSI CMG DSO (18 July 1884 – 31 May 1940) was the British civil commissioner in Baghdad in 1918–1920. Wilson served under Percy Cox, the colonial administrator of Mesopotamia (Mandatory Iraq) during and after World War I, including the Iraqi revolt against the British in 1920. Wilson was the third Member of Parliament (MP) to be killed in World War II when serving as an aircrew member at the advanced age of 55.

Early life and career

Wilson was born in 1884 and educated in England at Clifton College, where his father James Maurice Wilson was a headmaster. His younger brother was the tenor Sir Steuart Wilson.

Wilson was tall and strong. He began his military career as an army officer 19 August 1903, having been awarded the King's Medal and sword of honour at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, being commissioned on the Unattached List for the Indian Army. After he spent a year attached to the 1st battalion the Wiltshire regiment in India, he was appointed to the British Indian Army and posted to the 32nd Sikh Pioneers, on 18 December 1904.[1]

In 1904, he went to Iran as a Lieutenant to lead a group of Bengal Lancers to guard the British consulate in Ahvaz and to protect the work of the D’Arcy Oil Company, which had obtained a sixty-year oil concession in Iran and was pursuing oil exploration in partnership with the Burma Oil Company.

In 1907, Wilson was transferred to the Indian Political Department and sent to the Persian Gulf, where he served as a political officer, Wilson oversaw the discovery of the first oil site in the Middle East, Masjid-i-Suleiman in 1908. Soldier and senior administrator as Consul-General of Muhammerah (1909–11): he was put in charge of the Turko-Persian Frontier Commission.[2] He looked like the traditional figure of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 in a top buttoned bright red tunic, the Indian Army uniform. "His flashing eyes, his beetling eyebrows, his close-cropped hair, his biblical quotations", recalled Gertrude Bell, The British "Oriental Secretary".[3] Wilson was a hard worker, a workaholic, who was tirelessly energetic, shifting mountains of paperwork. He inspired a younger colleague Harry Philby, while Hubert Young, a favoured subordinate found him domineering.

In January 1915 as the British were moving troops from India into Mesopotamia through the Persian Gulf and Basra, Wilson was designated as the assistant, and then deputy, to Sir Percy Cox, the British Political Officer for the region. Based in Baghdad, he then became the acting Civil Commissioner for Mesopotamia. The problem remained that there was no official "Arab Policy" it had not been defined in law nor by the Civil Service. India wanted Mesopotamia as a Province; but Arabists from Cox downwards wished for a semi-autonomous policy separate from the Arab Bureau in Cairo. Policy was made ad hoc; but Wilson disagreed.

During his tenure in Mesopotamia, Wilson worked to improve the country's administration according to the principles he learned in India. In Wilson’s views, the priority was to reconstruct and stabilize the country, by establishing an efficient government and administration as well as a fair treatment and political representation of the various ethnic and religious communities (i.e. in the case of Iraq: Arabs, Kurds, Persians, of religions such as Islam Shiite and Sunni, Christianity and Judaism). In doing so, he was nicknamed "The Despot of Mess-Pot".

Capt Wilson told me the staggering news that he had been appointed to Tehran ...Capt Wilson and I are excellent colleagues and the best of friends and I know I can do a good deal by seeing people...I am going to compile an intelligence book on Persia.[4]

However, after World War I he found himself progressively opposed to other British officials who believed that Arab countries should be granted independence under British supervision.

In 1919, during the Paris Peace Conference which followed World War I, he was among the few who successfully recommended adopting the Arabic name Iraq, as it had been known for more than 1400 years by Muslim and Arab worlds, instead of the Greek name Mesopotamia which was only used by Westerners. This political entity covered the planned northern expansion of the newly created country under the British Mandate to include the oil rich Mosul region of Kurdistan, in addition to the Mesopotamian provinces of Baghdad and Basra.

In April 1920, at the Conference of San Remo, the League of Nations agreed to the British mandate over Iraq. In the spring and summer of 1920, various riots erupted across central and southern Iraq. These riots were often violently repressed by Wilson's administration. The total number of Iraqi casualties of these riots was estimated at 10,000 people.

Having achieved the rank of Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel in August 1918, he retired from the Indian Army in August 1921.[5]

In the summer of 1920, Wilson proposed a compromise, suggesting that Feisal, the former King of Syria, be offered the Iraqi throne. This proposal was intended to obtain support from the Iraqis as well as British officials who favored semi-independence. It was eventually accepted by the British government, but Wilson was not there to participate in its implementation. The British government decided not to follow Wilson's views, and instead granted independence to Iraq. The British government removed Wilson from his position in Iraq and knighted him. Deeply disappointed by the turn of events, he left the public service and joined the Anglo-Persian Oil Company as manager of their Middle Eastern operations. He worked for the company until 1932.

World War II

In 1933, he was elected in a by-election as MP for Hitchin. Before World War II, his outspoken views evoked a lot of criticism. In 1938, Wilson expressed support for the Spanish Nationalists, saying "I hope to God Franco wins in Spain, and the sooner the better." [6] The New Statesman described him as "an admirer of Hitler and an unscrupulous propagandist for Mussolini and Hitler". George Orwell called him a Fascist, although he also praised his courage and patriotism.

However, in October 1939 after the outbreak of the war, he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, serving as a pilot officer (air gunner) in 37 Squadron of RAF Bomber Command. He stated that "I have no desire to shelter myself and live in safety behind the ramparts of the bodies of millions of our young men."[7] Still an MP, he was killed in northern France, near Dunkirk, on 31 May 1940 when his bomber aircraft, Wellington L7791[8] crashed. He is buried at Eringhem churchyard, half-way between Dunkirk and Saint-Omer.[9] [10]

His book, The Persian Gulf, was published in 1928. His book, S.W. Persia: Letters and Diary of a Young Political Officer 1907–1914, was published posthumously in 1941.

See also


  1. April 1905 Indian Army List
  2. Townshend, When God Made Hell, p.281
  3. Townshend, p.281-2
  4. Gertrude to Florence Bell, Baghdad, August 30th, 1918, Letters (ed.), I, p.461
  5. Supplement to the Indian Army List January 1939
  6. Margaret George,The Hollow Men: An Examination of British Foreign Policy Between the Years 1933 and 1939. London, Frewin, 1967. (p. 149)
  7. "Blue Blood in Flanders". Time Magazine. 17 June 1940. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
  8. Record for L7791 on
  9. CWGC entry
  10. Falconer, Jonathon (1998). The Bomber Command Handbook 1939–1945. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited. ISBN 0-7509-1819-5.


  • Meyer, Karl E.; Brysac, Shareen Blair (2008). Kingmakers: the Invention of the Modern Middle East. New York, London: W.W. Norton. 
  • Marlowe, John. Late Victorian: the life of Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson. 
  • Wilson, Arnold Talbot. A Periplus of the Persian Gulf. 
  • Wilson, Arnold Talbot. S. W Persia: Letters and Diary of a Young Political Officer 1907–1914. 
  • Frumkin, David (1989). A Peace To End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Henry Holt & Co, New York. 
  • Keay, John (2003). Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East. W.W. Norton & Co, New York. 
  • MacMillan, Margaret (2003). Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. Random House, New York. 

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Viscount Knebworth
Member of Parliament for Hitchin
Succeeded by
Seymour Berry
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