Victoria Schofield’s book is a riveting account of the life of one of the greatest 20th century British Generals. Born into an aristocratic lineage in 1883 with a history of military service, Wavell was perhaps destined for military service. Notwithstanding his lineage the days of automatic entry and distinction had passed by the time Wavell was ready for military service. Wavell had to strain every nerve to earn his spurs. From modest beginnings Wavell’s career would reach great heights leading up to the Second World War when he held several important command posts though he would suffer the ignominy of being dismissed from each of these posts. His career would climax with his appointment as the Viceroy of India in 1943, a year which saw him also designated as a Field Marshal. Wavell had graduated to the role of a statesman. The appointment was seemingly proof of his towering reputation, a stature which had transcended his vocation as a man of arms. The Establishment avowedly viewed him as one of the pillars around which it wove its imperial policy.
Yet Wavell was almost inevitably dismissed as the Viceroy of India. The question therefore is whether Wavell for all his grandeur was in reality a failure as a Commander and leader of people. Did he lack the dash, pluck, courage and imagination required to lead? Schofield does address these questions albeit not directly. She avers that Wavell on each occasion that he held a command did a magnificent job under the circumstances. It was just that the odds were stacked against him each time. To cite an instance, Wavell never had a chance against the Germans in the Middle East during the Second World War, a command he assumed in 1939, once a sizeable chunk of his troops and material was diverted to the Allied cause in Greece and Crete. Schofield implies that if Wavell were to be faulted it was that he could not dissuade his political masters from committing too many troops in Greece and Crete. The tragedy was that the campaign in the Middle East had begun with some resounding victories, the first real victories the Allies tasted in the Second World War only to end in unmitigated disaster.
While he had a very keen mind with a distinguished academic record, his felicity with words lay in his letters and other written correspondence. Wavell, Schofield suggests, was inarticulate when it came to verbal communication. Possibly his reserve and directness came in his way. The result was that Wavell proved to be utterly incapable of dealing with the whims and fancies of his political masters especially when he was up against a formidable and towering Prime Minister such as Winston Churchill. One of the attributes of a good military commander is also his or her ability to resist the unjustified demands of the civilian leadership, to tread the fine line between being firm in resisting unreasonable demands without being accused of insubordination.
This lacuna in Wavell’s character probably came in his way in each of his major assignments as Military Commander. Schofield gives considerable space to his stint as the Commander of the Allied Troops in the South-West Pacific which he assumed in 1942. She implies that Wavell was really presented with a hopeless situation. Faced with disaster against the Japanese the Allied High Command thought it best to appoint the Commander-In-Chief of British Forces in India as the Commander-In-Chief of the Allied Forces in the Far East. Wavell was really inheriting a moth-eaten structure of command. The Dutch had capitulated. And as Schofield shows Wavell had assumed command of the Allied troops shell-shocked by the ferocity and tactical innovativeness of the Japanese attacks.
Faced with the enormity of the challenge Schofield suggests that Wavell could have done little. One will differ slightly. Wavell for all his talents did not possess the flamboyance and charisma required to rouse a demoralized body of men. What Wavell possessed in abundance was the organizational skills required to revamp and rebuild a new organizational structure which would provide the wherewithal required to take on the Japanese. Sadly the High Command was not prepared to give him the time required to put in place a new organizational structure, new training schedules, the evolution of new tactics, strategies geared towards effective combat in the treacherous terrain of the Far East. The honour of turning around the fortunes of the Allies in the Far East would go to others who in turn would become legends in their own right.
Schofield argues that Wavell saw his stint as Commander of the Allied troops in the Far East in a different light. He did not consider his tenure to be an unmitigated failure. The fact that he was able to safeguard the frontiers of India from a serious Japanese invasion was seen by him as vindication of the enormous efforts he had put in against overwhelming odds. That brings us to his tenure in India as firstly the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, a charge he assumed in 1941. Schofield is inclined to label his tenure as the Commander-in-Chief as a success. And indeed Wavell brought about significant organizational changes, built up infrastructure, fine-tuned training programmes, etc. However, the added appendage of the Commander-In-Chief of the Allied Forces and its disastrous outcome would detract from the good work he put in as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army.
Wavell was even more unfortunate as the Viceroy of India during very tumultuous times. Schofield argues that Wavell guided the British Empire through some very choppy waters caused by the Quit India Movement, the INA crisis, the Naval Mutiny and the possibility of a Partition of the subcontinent. Nevertheless Schofield depicts Wavell as a gallant warrior striving manfully against all odds. Wavell actually gets the Interim Government to formally start proceedings and manages to inject a formal cordiality into the dealings between the representatives of the Congress and the Muslim League. Wavell soon acquires a reputation for impartiality. The realist that Wavell was, he recognized the inevitability of the end of British rule and prepared for a phased withdrawal by June 1948.
Unfortunately Wavell was to again run afoul of the civilian leadership. Wavell would fail to develop a rapport with the new Prime Minister Clement Attlee in a manner akin to his testy relationship with Winston Churchill. While Schofield is sympathetic towards Wavell and opines that the subcontinent would have been spared much of the horrors it witnessed had the British Cabinet followed Wavell’s plan of a gradual phased withdrawal some of the blame must be laid at Wavell’s door too. Possibly Schofield might have sought clues to the inability in Wavell to develop cordial relations with the civilian leadership in her very own portrayal of the character of Wavell.
To conclude Schofield writes a fine biography of Wavell where she brings out the complexities in Wavell’s character very well.
Sabyasachi Dasgupta is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Visva-Bharati University, Bolpur.
“While Wavell had a very keen mind with a distinguished academic record, his felicity with words lay in his letters and other written correspondence. Wavell, Schofield suggests, was inarticulate when it came to verbal communication. Possibly his reserve and directness came in his way.”
The Indian Empire at War: From Jihad to Victory, the Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War by George Morton-Jack is a brilliantly original history of the First World War, re-tracing the footsteps of the Indian Army’s 1.5 million men who in 1914-18 served around the globe from Europe to Africa, Asia and the Indian Ocean. After years of neglect, the book raises the curtain on the Indian soldiers’ personal experiences fighting for the Allies against the Central Powers, and returning home to play their part in the Indian Independence movement.
Little, Brown Book Group, 2018, pp. 582, R699.00