I must confess I had probably conformed to the wider orthodoxy on British military history when it came to Wavell – everything before Monty was hopeless, surely? This perceived wisdom is partly due to efforts of both Montgomery the self-publicist and Churchill, whose history of the Second World War set the tone for the historiography of the conflict. Victoria Schofield is an authority on the Indian sub-continent, and has also written an official history of Wavell’s Regiment, the Black Watch. Therefore, she is ideally placed to try and redress Wavell’s poor treatment through history.
But reading this book has made me think differently. Prior to El Alamein the British Army and its commanders were swimming against the tide – poorly equipped, poorly prepared, and with far too much being expected of them in the circumstances. Wavell was by no means the only British General whom Churchill castigated for not moving heaven and earth in the way that he demanded, and because he did not fit Churchill’s ridiculous stereotype of what a General should ‘be’. This gives us an insight into Churchill’s failings in terms of working with his commanders – men such as Auchinleck, Dill, and even Montgomery also suffered from Churchill’s outbursts.
As a young Black Watch officer Wavell was seriously wounded on the Western Front (in common with Montgomery), losing an eye in the process. After recovering he was drafted to the Middle East, serving under Allenby during his famous campaign against the Turks in Palestine, culminating in the capture of Jerusalem. Wavell learnt much during this period, and some years later went on to author a Biography of Allenby. During the inter-war years Wavell had a much more active service than many of his contemporaries, with a number of staff and regimental postings, as well as writing on military history and theory. Prior to the Second World War he also developed a correspondence with the military theorist Basil Liddell Hart.
There were in fact some extremely bright moments in the early years of the war in the Desert – not least Operation Compass, where led by Richard O’Connor the Western Desert Force completely routed the Italians on the Egyptian-Lybian border. If it hadn’t been for a London-based directive to intervene in Greece, Wavell and O’Connor might well have been able to rout the Italians from North Africa entirely. The Italians were also completely routed in East Africa too. Yet Churchill’s constant meddling and barracking – added to the wide expanse of Wavell’s command – made his task nigh on impossible.
After leaving the Middle East, Wavell was appointed the Commander-in-Chief in India, at an important time when the Japanese were threatening the Far East. After the outbreak of war with Japan Wavell was made supreme commander of the short-lived American, British Dutch and Australian Command, co-ordinating the war in South East Asia. This task proved a thankless one, with the woeful lack of preparation and resources, combined with the relentless onslaught of the Japanese, culminating in the fall of Singapore. It is hard to apportion any blame on Wavell for these early reverses in the east, given the impossible situation in which he was placed.
After returning to India from his Far East appointment, Wavell was then appointed as Viceroy – the King’s representative in India. Although having little experience of politics, Wavell’s calm, studious personality enabled him to perform reasonably well in dealing with the extreme demands of the post – seeing India through the final stages of the war, and not least handling the growing move towards Indian independence. Wavell’s approach in this respect seems to have been for negotiation between all of the parties, over any and every potential problem. This contrasts with events that transpired after Wavell’s replacement by Mountbatten in 1947 – a pell-mell descent into independence, followed by chaos and anarchy in which thousands died.
The impression I have of Field Marshal Wavell is of a very quiet, private but very intelligent man who did the best that could be expected of him at the time. It should be no reflection on him at all that the Prime Minister of the day found it difficult to trust his subordinates, and at times showed very poor judgement of character. A much-maligned figure in British military history, Wavell seems to have suffered not only from being in the wrong commands at the wrong time, but also from his modest nature, not unlike other commanders such as Alan Brooke and Bill Slim, who have been overshadowed by publicists such as Montgomery, or dashing warriors such as Alexander. How might Wavell and Auchinleck have fared later in the war when resources were behind the allies? By the same token, how might Montgomery have fared commanding earlier in the war when the cards were heavily stacked against Britain?
Hopefully Victoria Schofield’s masterly biography will go some way to redressing the harsh treatment that Wavell has been afforded by history. Schofield makes the case for Wavell very well, which is just as well given that all the evidence suggests that he was, unjustly, one of the most maligned figures of the Second World War. I’m by no means a fan of the official military biography, but this example is very well done indeed.