Wafted to India

Richard Gott

  • Wavell: Soldier and Statesman by Victoria Schofield
    Murray, 512 pp, £30.00, March 2006, ISBN 0 7195 6320 8

For a schoolboy at Winchester in the 1950s, it was difficult to avoid the dramatic tombstone in the college cloisters. The memorial carries the simple legend WAVELL, deeply etched into the surface of a stone buried horizontally in the grass, and it joins those of other Wykehamists who are remembered there: George Mallory, lost on Everest in 1924, and William Whiting, who wrote the hymn ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’. Archibald Wavell, one of the significant British military commanders of World War Two, as well as the penultimate viceroy of British India, was presented as a role model for the boys in those last days of empire, one of the few military figures looked favourably on by the intellectual middle class. What other senior general quoted so much poetry, and who else would have been asked to choose between the job of chief of the Imperial General Staff and the professorship of military history at Oxford?

Memories of Wavell ran through my own family. Walter Oakeshott, married to my mother’s sister and my headmaster at Winchester, was a close friend of Wavell. He had once taught Wavell’s only son, Archie, and wrote his obituary when he was killed in Kenya in 1953 during the Mau-Mau rebellion. William ‘Strafer’ Gott, my father’s cousin, was a general in the Western Desert under Wavell, appointed by Churchill to run the Eighth Army in 1942 and then immediately killed on his way to Cairo (and replaced by Bernard Montgomery). Penderel Moon, my mother’s brother, a rebellious member of the Indian Civil Service who resigned in 1943 in support of Indian nationalism, was invited back to India by Wavell in 1946 to take charge of economic planning. He wrote a notable book, Divide and Quit, that examined British responsibility for Partition and its terrible consequences in the Punjab in 1947, where he had once been the adviser to the (anti-Partition) premier, Sikander Hayat Khan (Tariq Ali’s grandfather). He was a great admirer of Wavell, a man, he wrote, who had shown himself ‘to be straightforward, just, energetic, firm and decisive’, and had worked tirelessly for the good of India.

So in my family Wavell was a much loved figure who could do little wrong, and those who had thwarted him in his career, or had rejected his strategic advice, were regarded as the enemy. Top of the list was Winston Churchill, who couldn’t help second-guessing his generals, and sought endlessly to persuade them to perform miracles with troops and equipment that they often did not possess. Second was Clement Attlee, who dismissed Wavell as viceroy in 1947 for prematurely advocating what was clearly imminent – an immediate British withdrawal. Wavell’s misfortune, as both soldier and statesman, was to be worsted in these internal British political conflicts.

Victoria Schofield’s new biography, the first for forty years, is as much concerned with Wavell’s social life as with the particular skills of his generalship. Although inevitably obliged to address the struggle with Churchill, an important part of her project is to re-establish the importance of the three and a half years as viceroy, from October 1943 to March 1947. She clearly shares the roseate view of Wavell with which I was brought up, yet from the evidence she puts forward he emerges as less of a genius than his supporters would have us believe. It is difficult not to have some sympathy with Churchill’s blunt putdown: he was ‘a good average colonel’ who would have made ‘a good chairman of a Tory association’. Maybe Wavell deserves better than that, for he was a popular commander, head and shoulders above his contemporaries in intellect and experience. Yet his innate caution in strategic affairs, his lack of ruthlessness when dealing with his political masters, and his frequent inability to communicate with them adequately – defects well brought out in this book – make it understandable that his undoubted talents were so regularly dispensed with.

Wavell’s significance today lies less in his dispiriting record as viceroy, and more in his role, however inadequate, as the last great military commander of the British Empire. ‘Wavell’s star rose high at an early stage of the war,’ his friend Basil Liddell Hart wrote. ‘The glow was the more brilliant because of the darkness of the sky.’

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