While no longer the household name it was a generation ago, Wavell continues to resonate with students of military history in the UK, and with students of the freedom movement in the subcontinent. But few now remember him for his delightful poems.
After the First World War he emerged as a visionary military planner who was at the cutting edge of the emerging concept of mobile warfare, with tanks, troops and aircraft co-ordinated into a fast-flowing offensive. This, in fact, was the basis of the German Blitzkrieg tactic that saw Panzer divisions cutting through enemy defences like a knife through butter.
Adrian Fort’s recent biography of the British soldier and statesman brings to life a man who served his country with great distinction through the two world wars of the last century. A brilliant student, Wavell won scholarships to Winchester and then to Oxford. Highly gifted, he could have succeeded in any profession he chose, but his father decreed that his son should follow him into the army. Thus began a career that spanned over four decades and sent Wavell to fight on three continents.
From the very beginning Wavell’s career prospered: he entered the trenches of France in the First World War as a captain, and after being severely wounded, was sent to Palestine where he made his mark as a first-rate staff officer. When the war ended Wavell was a brigadier general, and faced the possibility of redundancy in an army that was swiftly trimmed to peacetime requirements.
But as a result of his intellectual interests and his recent wartime experiences, he began writing about the concepts of a mechanised army. He thus came to the notice of Basil Liddell Hart, the foremost military thinker of his generation. This association was to serve Wavell well when the next gigantic conflict in Europe broke out in 1939.
As commander of the British forces in the Middle East and East Africa, Wavell faced a formidable Italian challenge based in Libya and Ethiopia. On paper, Mussolini’s armies outnumbered the British by a wide margin. But as Wavell began his initially tentative advance he discovered that the Italians were demolarised and reluctant to fight. Soon, large numbers of enemy soldiers were surrendering and Wavell’s forces were victorious across large swathes of North Africa. This came as a ray of hope to anti-Axis forces and Churchill was able to finally give his beleaguered countrymen some good news.
However, the victorious campaign also exposed Wavell’s innate caution. Where a bolder commander might have sent his forces to take Libya before German forces landed there, Wavell, fearing being over-extended, faltered.
Once the Afrika Korps under Rommel was entrenched the British Empire faced a different calibre of enemy. In a series of brilliant moves Rommel soon had Wavell’s troops retreating to Egypt.
By now Churchill was getting impatient with the stream of bad news from the Middle East. A taciturn man, Wavell had never been able to establish a good rapport with the prime minister. Churchill preferred articulate, inspirational generals, while Wavell would often sit silently in meetings, expecting his written reports to speak for him. Time and again Churchill expressed his annoyance to others.
When Wavell was moved to take over the Indian and Far East command, the Japanese launched their attacks on Singapore, Malaya and Burma, sweeping all before them. Once again Wavell was forced to retreat, with Churchill — and this time also the Americans — breathing down his neck. Although Wavell had strengthened the empire’s defences, he was seen as too lacklustre to continue, and a decision was taken in London to appoint him Viceroy of India to succeed Linlithgow.
This was to be Wavell’s last and most taxing assignment. Caught up in the no-win situation caused by the ‘Quit India’ movement, the new Viceroy had to recommend from among the least harmful options. The British were faced with the dilemma of keeping order in their colony on the one hand, while they needed to continue talking to their opponents in the Congress Party and the Muslim League.
India had supplied nearly two million officers and troops to the war effort, and could not be held down at the point of a bayonet. And yet, under Churchill, there was great reluctance to walk out.
The problem was compounded by the demand for Pakistan and rights for the princely states. While Wavell negotiated the complex cross-currents of the approaching end of empire, the struggle against the Japanese raged on. And yet Wavell remained unflustered and continued talking and listening. Despite his lack of political experience, he had the patience required to deal with the strong-willed and wily politicians who opposed him at every turn.
Had he been allowed to stay on till the end, the history of the subcontinent might well have been different. But Mountbatten’s arrival in 1946 quickened the tempo, and his indifference to detail was part of the reason for the bloodbath that attended Partition.
Fort has researched his subject with great diligence, and has placed Wavell’s life in the context of his times. His own army background has helped him analyse Wavell’s campaigns; but more importantly, he has described the interplay of political compulsions and military issues with a great feel for history. Above all, Fort is gifted with a fluent style that makes this long biography a pleasure to read.