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.’

He entered the army in 1900, aged 17 and straight from school. Commissioned a year later, he was sent to South Africa, where the Boer War was near its end. He saw little action. Back in England, and after a spell in India, he passed top into the staff college and was clearly on a fast track. He had proved to be a good linguist and in 1910 was sent to Moscow, to spend a year learning Russian. (He was a quick and retentive learner, able to supply his chiefs with notes of Russian interventions at the Tehran conference with Stalin in 1942.) Returning to Russia in 1916, he travelled to the battle front against the Turks in the Caucasus, and noted the severe loss of morale in the Russian army. He came home in the summer of 1917, through a country in the throes of revolution.

July 1917 saw him at the British headquarters at Cairo. Here, the long-planned conquest of the Turkish Empire was in its final stages. Indian troops had already advanced from Basra to Baghdad, and the capture of Palestine was imminent. Sir Edmund Allenby, the commander-in-chief in Egypt, had been told to take Jerusalem by Christmas. Wavell’s task was to act as the liaison officer between Allenby and the War Office, and he was present when British troops advanced through Gaza and Beersheba, enabling the empire to acquire its last territories. He marched through the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem with Allenby and T.E. Lawrence, a fortnight before Christmas.

This early experience in the Middle East left a lasting impression. He learned important lessons about the need for the proper training of troops, which was to become his hallmark, and remained forever in thrall to the memory of Allenby, whose biography he was eventually to write. He also acquired an understated yet firmly hostile attitude towards Zionism, typical of the senior ranks of the British army. This was later to become a serious bone of contention with Churchill (although barely referred to by Schofield). Wavell shared the genteel anti-semitism of his age and class, and his friendship for the Arabs went further when he returned to Palestine in 1937 during the Arab Revolt. Churchill, on the other hand, was a romantic supporter of the Jews and of the Balfour Declaration. During a debate about Jewish immigration at a cabinet meeting in July 1943, Wavell broke his characteristic silence:

I knew Winston was a confirmed Zionist, but had never quite realised the lengths to which he was prepared to go, in speech at any rate, or the strength of the pro-Jewish feeling in the cabinet. No one seemed prepared to say anything at all on the Arab side. So at last I spoke up, and said that no one ever seemed to remember the second part of the Balfour Declaration or the other pledges given to the Arabs. I said everyone spoke of protecting the Jews, but that if Arabs and Jews were left to fight it out in Palestine without outside interference I had no doubt that the Jews would win, and that it was the Arabs who required protection. The PM had talked of all we had done for the Arabs. We had done a good deal for the Jews in introducing half a million into a country whose inhabitants did not want them.

In July 1939, Wavell went back to Cairo, as commander-in-chief of an imperial region with which (apart from Palestine) he was largely unfamiliar. Within his immediate sphere of operations were Egypt, the Suez Canal, the Sudan, Transjordan and Cyprus, and his responsibilities were soon extended to Kenya, British Somaliland, Aden, Iraq and the shores of the Persian Gulf. In the middle of 1940, when Italy declared war, and when France dropped out a week later, he was obliged to defend Egypt against attack from Italian Libya, to plan military operations against the Italian territories of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, and to prepare an advance on Vichy-held Damascus. He had few soldiers, and less equipment, and Schofield makes much of the fact that the aircraft he used to travel around in were wholly inadequate for the task, flying slowly, breaking down, losing engines, running out of fuel and sometimes crashing.

Wavell’s first quarrel with Churchill, in June 1940, occurred when he received a demand from London to send eight precious battalions from Palestine to help in the defence of Europe. He was reluctant to agree, and Churchill did not forget his unwillingness. It was not a propitious opening. The two men came face to face for the first time in London in August 1940, but there was no meeting of minds between the bullying prime minister and the silent general. Both held strong views and a belief in their own judgment. They agreed that reinforcements should be sent to the Middle East, as Wavell had requested, but Churchill disliked his emphasis on training and equipment, and thought him too cautious.

Their relationship never recovered. ‘I am favourably impressed with General Wavell in many ways,’ Churchill wrote to Anthony Eden, ‘but I do not feel in him that sense of mental vigour and resolve to overcome obstacles, which is indispensable to successful war.’ John Colville, Churchill’s secretary, recorded that ‘Churchill tried his hardest to elicit the general’s views and was met with the silence of shyness,’ while Wavell thought Churchill’s tactical ideas had got stuck somewhere around the time of the Boer War. Churchill looked everywhere for a replacement, but none could be found.

Planning for Wavell’s most celebrated achievement, the offensive against the Italians in the Western Desert, was in any case now well advanced, and Churchill had to change his tune when told the details in November 1940. He was delighted, but continued to pepper his commander with unwanted advice. The port of Tobruk was captured in January 1941, and Wavell’s forces in East Africa began encircling Ethiopia at the same time, advancing into Eritrea in the north and Italian Somaliland in the south. Wavell has ‘proved himself a master of war’, Churchill was now to declare magnanimously in a broadcast, ‘sage, painstaking, daring and tireless’.

But in April 1941, tripartite disaster struck: German troops poured into Greece; Rommel’s forces threatened Tobruk and even Egypt itself; and a coup took place in Baghdad. Wavell’s reputation was on the line. The diversion of his troops to Greece led to the loss of Cyrenaica, and at the end of April they had to be withdrawn from the mainland to try to hold the line in Crete, itself abandoned at the end of May. At the same time, the new Iraqi regime bombed the British base at Habbaniya. The capture of Ethiopia that month, and the return of its emperor, Haile Selassie, was of little consolation.

Wavell was now in Churchill’s sights. The last straw was his initial refusal to provide troops to recapture Iraq from Rashid Ali or to help the Free French take Syria. The debacle in Crete demanded a sacrificial victim and Churchill sacked Wavell in June, confecting a swap of jobs with Claude Auchinleck, the general commanding in India. Auchinleck was in Churchill’s good books for having volunteered to send troops from India to Basra, to assist in the defeat of Rashid Ali.

Demoted and discouraged, Wavell took up his new role in August, as commander-in-chief in India, touring its borders, visiting the Russians in Tiflis and the Chinese in Chungking, and sitting out a Japanese air-raid in a bunker in Rangoon. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, the British Empire in India now had an enemy on its doorstep as well as a new ally. Wavell was transferred to a post as supreme allied commander in the south-west Pacific, based in the Dutch East Indies. From there he was to command the combined forces of Britain, the United States, Holland and Australia, a pointer to the end of the European empires and the eventual emergence of the US-dominated alliance system of the postwar world.

The countries that Wavell had been charged to defend fell one by one to the advancing Japanese within six months. With the retreat from Malaya, Singapore, Burma and Java, he was soon back in his old job in India, his name once again associated with defeat. Churchill described the surrender of Singapore as ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’. Wavell could in no way be held responsible, but, as before, it had happened on his watch. ‘I feel I ought to have pulled it off,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘but the dice were loaded rather heavily, and the little yellow man threw them with considerable cunning.’

No one wanted Wavell to continue as a commander, yet a solution was found to the problem of his future. For the war cabinet in general and for Churchill in particular, the governance of India was a low priority. Lord Linlithgow, the viceroy, had described the ‘Quit India’ campaign as ‘by far the most serious rebellion since 1857’ but punitive legislation had kept the protests under control. The war itself, and the recruitment of a huge Indian army, was both popular and profitable. Yet everyone, notably Attlee, the deputy prime minister, recognised that India needed a new viceroy; Linlithgow was an old-fashioned imperialist who had been there for seven years. All the possible civilian candidates (Eden, Cripps, Lyttelton) were well placed in their existing jobs, and Wavell emerged as the inevitable choice.

He took over as viceroy in October 1943. His task was to persuade India’s leaders to co-operate with the imperial power in discussions about the country’s future. Yet he needed some kind of carrot, some clear proposal, to produce any movement. If he was to get the leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League together, to make them work in harness, and to try to avoid the almost inevitable emergence of a separatist Pakistan, firmly placed on the agenda by Jinnah and the Muslim League in 1940, he needed some support from London. His mistake, as he soon recognised, was to have secured no clear instructions from his political masters. His initial ideas were ignored by Churchill, and he was sent off to Delhi with a meaningless directive to improve the material lot of the people of India and to assuage communal strife. ‘You are wafted to India on a wave of hot air,’ he was told by Leo Amery, the secretary of state.

‘I accepted the viceroyalty in the spirit of a military appointment,’ Wavell explained in his diary at the end of the year. ‘One goes where one is told in time of war without making conditions or asking questions. I think I ought to have treated it in a political spirit and found out what the policy to India really was to be, and I think I could have made my own conditions.’

The war cabinet thought discussions about the future of India could wait until the end of the war, and that independence was still a long way off. British politicians were exhausted by earlier arguments surrounding the imprisonment of Gandhi and the Cripps mission of 1942, which had ended in failure. Wavell had been put in, as with so many of his other jobs, to hold the fort. No one wanted movement, and certainly nothing that might have resembled a solution. They assumed that the cautious Wavell would be their man.

Yet, against all the odds, Wavell was a competent and popular viceroy, if inevitably unsuccessful. In his first week he travelled to Bengal to examine famine conditions in person, something that Linlithgow had conspicuously failed to do. A million people were already dead, and the local administration needed stirring up. Wavell found the distress and suffering to be ‘not as gruesome as the Congress papers would make out, but grim enough to make official complacency surprising’. He was still complaining to London the following July about the failure to deliver the extra wheat he had asked for.

He eventually tried to break the political logjam by suggesting to London in September 1944 that a provisional government be formed, which would call for a small conference of Indian leaders. He thought that the time was right, but London continued to procrastinate – for more than eight months. ‘These very large problems,’ Churchill told Wavell, ‘require to be considered at leisure and best of all in victorious peace.’ India could wait, and Wavell did not get the go-ahead until after May 1945.

His conference finally took place in Simla in July, but collapsed almost at once, broken on the hard rock of Pakistan. Wavell now understood that Britain could no longer hold the ring. As violence mounted in the country, the empire was losing control. He came to two fateful conclusions: independence would have to be given a definitive date (within 18 months); and India would have to be partitioned.

The Simla Conference was his last initiative, and in what became his final year Wavell sat back and took orders from the Labour government in London. The new cabinet was still over-committed to Nehru and Congress, and took many months to wake up to the threat posed by Jinnah and the Muslim League. Wavell had become an embarrassment and Attlee sacked him in January 1947; a divided India moved swiftly to independence. Wavell’s successor, Earl Mountbatten, presided over the scuttle five months later that marked the end of Britain’s Indian Empire, partitioned amid scenes of anarchy in which hundreds of thousands were killed. In practice, Partition had become inevitable several years earlier, the legacy of the policies of earlier governments and viceroys, notably Linlithgow. Yet the massacres that accompanied the transfer of power in 1947 might perhaps have been averted had Wavell’s earlier efforts proved fruitful.

Wavell died in 1950, aged 67, following an operation for the removal of a gallstone. After a funeral service in Westminster Abbey, the first state funeral since the end of the war, he was buried in the cloisters of his old school. His son, Archie, had wanted his tombstone inscribed with a quotation from Walter Raleigh – ‘He was one for whom the world’s bright glory had not blinded the eyes of the mind’ – but eventually the one word WAVELL was considered sufficient. The taciturn soldier would doubtless have approved.