October Issue 2018
Book Review: Wavell
Lord Archibald Percival Wavell (1883 – 1950), Archie to his friends, Field Marshal, and the penultimate Viceroy to India, played a significant role in World War II, and in the events leading up to the independence of India in 1947.
Wavell, himself the son of a general, was virtually walked into the martial profession. He recounts with his characteristic dry humour, “My father, while professing to give me complete liberty of choice, was determined that I should be a soldier.” As the title of the book suggests, Wavell was both a soldier and a statesman. After reading the book, one is inclined to think of the man as a committed soldier but a reluctant statesman, who found the business of running a colony much more difficult and tiresome than soldiering.
His military career started In World War I. He was wounded in the battle of Ypres in 1915 and lost an eye. He went on to become the Commander in Chief of the Allied forces in the Middle East, and later in India during the Second World War in the period 1939 to 1943. The last assignment of his distinguished career was not a military one, but rather, something completely different: in October 1994 the then British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, appointed him Viceroy of India.
It was a position he held until March 1947. Throughout his life, he was an avid reader of not just military disciplines, but also politics, history and diplomacy. And he had a deep love for poetry, going on to publish an anthology of poems.
History books have not been very fair to Wavell, particularly regarding his actions during his short term as the Viceroy of India. Victoria Schofield has been successful in detailing the positive impact that Wavell had on the events leading up to the independence of India. While the name of the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten is very well known, it is not widely recognised that Wavell’s attempts at bringing India to a peaceful transition to independence were seminal. The first Simla Conference held in 1945 was called by Wavell and was recognised by both, the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress, as the first credible and serious action by the British towards the independence of India. Later, Wavell was part of (but not involved at every step) in the British Cabinet Mission of 1946 that came to India to discuss the transfer of power from the British government to the Indian leadership. Organised at the initiative of Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the mission had Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for India, Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, and A. V. Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty. However, the mission failed in convincing the Muslim League and Congress to agree to a power-sharing arrangement in an undivided, independent India.
Wavell was unceremoniously removed by the post-war Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, at the end of 1946. As Wavell was leaving India in March 1947, unsuccessful in his attempts to bring about a political solution for India, the leader of the Congress, Abul Kalam Azad, recognised his contribution in these words: “I cannot help a feeling of regret that Lord Wavell, who was the instigator of a new chapter in the history of relations between India and England, is retiring from the scene.” Wavell had suggested June 1948 as the deadline for the British to hand over India to the Indians. He thought that time was needed to settle some of the complex issues relating to the Hindu-Muslim spheres of influence in post- independence India. The situation in Kashmir in particular, was not clear at all. But that was not to be. Pushing back the date of independence to August 1947, left the issue of Kashmir hanging in the air and it has since then remained a major cause of strife between India and Pakistan. There is a possibility that the partition of India would not have been so chaotic and bloody if Wavell’s timeline was followed.
As a soldier, Wavell had mostly successes in the theatres of war, but there were also setbacks. He was a thinking soldier who did not take the reversals as traumatic and did not gloat about his victories. A quiet and somewhat taciturn man, he was known for his long silences. In contrast to his verbal limitations, his letters and journals indicate a very high degree of articulation and a wonderful sense of humour. Wavell himself attributed his discomfort with verbal communication to him being called by his parents to talk in front of their friends when he was a child.
The relationship between Churchill and Wavell was a complex one. Churchill was often unfair in his judgements of Wavell and overly hard on him for any real or perceived failure on the battlefield. On the other hand, he appointed Wavell as the Viceroy of India, a very prestigious position. But clearly, by then Churchill had lost interest in India. Wavell was bit of a lame-duck Viceroy as he was given no policy direction by Churchill. On the other hand, he was asked to get the approval of the British Cabinet, operating from Whitehall in London, for any decision he took regarding India. One particular instance of this lack of authority greatly irked Wavell. He had to constantly almost beg Whitehall and Churchill to make supplies of wheat available to the subcontinent to deal with the great famine of Bengal. Churchill’s indifference in this matter, and in general all matters related to India, comes across strongly in the book. Churchill had apparently decided that British time and effort should no longer be wasted on India during the war years. Wavell, on the other hand, supported the idea that it was useful to engage with the political issues related to India, even as the war raged in Europe. Churchill was an avowed imperialist who had little sympathy for the Indians and this caused conflict with Wavell, who had a sincere desire to work for the betterment of the Indian people. Even Churchill’s successor Attlee, did not much like Wavell. Attlee was particularly upset at the Breakdown Plan pushed strongly by Wavell. The plan was to start a planned withdrawal of British control of India to send a clear message to the Indian political leaders that the British were soon leaving India and so pressuring them to settle their political differences and agree on the formula for the self-rule of India. Both Churchill and Attlee strongly opposed this plan as they thought it sent the message that the defeated British were withdrawing in disgrace. The differences with Attlee eventually lead to Wavell’s dismissal as the Viceroy of India in March 1947, at very short notice. Wavell resented both Churchill and Attlee and he was frank in expressing his displeasure in his communiqués to the Prime Ministers. Yet, ever a loyal subject of the British Empire, he never expressed his dislike publicly. He recognised that Churchill did not care for him, and mentioned to his friends that Churchill had always disliked and distrusted him.
The book presents an excellent insight into the thinking of a complex person who defied popular categorisation such as ‘brave,’ ‘bold,’ ‘intellectual,’ ‘forthright,’ etc. Even Lady Wavell, better known as Queenie, his wife of 35 years, did not claim to know him fully and wrote when communicating with a Wavell biographer, “Whether my Archie had an equable temperament, I am not so sure. I think it was more his immense self control…..He had such contempt for any display of nerves…the appearance of equability arose from this….I am still wondering on many contradictions in a character so apparently simple but really very complicated.” It is this complexity of character that Victoria Schofield has brought out through thorough research, that makes the book a very compelling read.
The writer is an engineer by training and a social scientist by inclination.