But he is not listed among British heroes of the conflict. It was not an oversight. O’Sullivan was party to one of the most-high profile assassinations in British history.
The amputee and Reginald Dunne, both members of the Irish Republican Army, ambushed and gunned down Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson on his London doorstep on June 22, 1922.
The shooting inspired the 1947 movie Odd Man Out.
“Dunne and O’Sullivan subsequently shot three pursuers (two policemen and a civilian) in their attempt to escape, but fatally slowed by Joe’s wooden leg, they were caught shortly thereafter,” wrote Peter Hart in “Michael Collins and the Assassination of Henry Wilson,” an article published in Irish Historical Studies.
On Aug. 10, 1922, O’Sullivan and Dunne, also an ex-British soldier, were hanged simultaneously for killing Wilson.
“All I have done, my lord, I have done for Ireland, and for Ireland I am proud to die,” he reportedly told the judge that sentenced them to death. “You may kill my body, my lord, but my spirit you will never kill!”
Martyrs or murderers
While Dunne and O’Sullivan were martyrs to supporters of Irish independence, almost all of them Catholics, the British saw them as cold-blooded murderers.
“Their deed must rank among the foulest in the foul category of Irish political crimes,” The Times of London editorialized the day after the assassins ended Wilson’s life a hail of bullets. “….A crime like this raises the righteous wrath of a nation.”
O’Sullivan was born in the capital of the largely Protestant British nation. Like thousands of other Irish, his parents had migrated to London seeking work.
Photo Taken by en:User:lonpicman. Originally uploaded to EN Wikipedia as en:Image:Memorial To Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson.jpg by en:User:lonpicman 18 December 2005
World War I broke out in 1914. O’Sullivan joined the army in 1915 on his 18th birthday.
The teen wound up a lance corporal in the famous London Regiment on the bloody Western Front. German fire claimed his leg at the battle of Ypres, Belgium, in 1917.
Discharged from the army in 1918, O’Sullivan was fitted with an artificial leg and went to work as a civil servant. He also joined the clandestine London IRA and, despite his disability, became an activist.
Fighting for liberation
Irish Republicans believed the IRA was bravely fighting to liberate their homeland from centuries of oppressive rule by Protestant Britain. The British denounced members of the IRA as criminals and terrorists.
There is no doubt that Dunne and O’Sullivan killed Wilson.
“While the consequences of the assassination were and are clear, its origins remain shrouded in mystery,” Hart wrote.
Michael Collins, the legendary Irish revolutionary leader, was suspected of ordering Dunne and O’Sullivan to kill Wilson. Hart thinks they acted alone, shooting Wilson, a Protestant, “in the (grossly mistaken) belief” that he was responsible for the deaths of Catholics in Belfast (now the capital of Northern Ireland).
In any event, Dunne and O’Sullivan planned to shoot Wilson after he came home from dedicating a World War I memorial at the Liverpool Street railroad station.
At 2:30 p.m., Wilson climbed out of a taxi in front of his townhouse. The unsuspecting passenger paid the driver and turned toward his front door. Wilson was wearing his dress uniform and sporting a ceremonial sword.
Hart quoted Dunne’s account of the assassination:
“Joe went in a straight line while I determined to intercept him [Wilson] from entering the door. Joe deliberately levelled his weapon at four yards range and fired twice. Wilson made for the door as best he could and actually reached the doorway when I encountered him at a range of seven or eight feet. 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 toward the edge of the pavement. At this point Joe fired once again and the last I saw of him he [Wilson] had collapsed.”
Dunne might have escaped, but he paused to help O’Sullivan and both were caught.
A crowd of Irish men and women gathered outside the walls of Wandsworth prison on the day the two men went to the gallows to hang side by side. The crowd, which faced a line of police, included Dunne and O’Sullivan siblings. The mourners prayed, wept and sang hymns and songs including “the Sinn Fein (Irish Republican) dead march,” according to The New York Times. “A little lame girl held the gold, white and green colors of the Irish Republic,” the paper added.
Inside, the condemned men “faced death unflinchingly,” the Times reported. “Both men submitted quietly to being pinioned. They were escorted simultaneously from their cells to the scaffold, where they smiled encouragingly at each other.”