Irfan Husain — Published Jun 15, 2009 12:00am
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.
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.
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.
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 victo
rious 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.
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
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.
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
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
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