The Tale of a Viceroy and Two Prime Ministers

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Field Marshall Archibald Percival Wavell was the Viceroy of India during the turbulent times of October 1943- February 1947, the time most important in the history of India and also for the history of her imperial master for 200 years.  Gandhi wouldn’t utter a phrase than, ‘Quit India’ while Jinnah relentlessly pushed forward for an independent state for the Muslims. Subhas Chandra Bose had joined hands with Japan and were pressing forward along India’s Eastern border. Each day was recorded in the annals of history and each day was making a history of its own.
Young Winston

The condition was far from satisfactory and it would need a great man to save the dwindling British Empire.  Winston Churchill still believed in the idea of preserving the Empire, his old notion about Indians hadn’t changed a bit. He still believed that if India were to given freedom she would go into chaos, and that the maker of India, Gandhi, was a humbug who gets a lot of attention for no good reason.  He was a man, who learnt India”s pre-British history and the conquests of the Clive through Macaulay”s brilliant essays, whose (Macaulay”s) dream was to create a class of natives- Indian in blood but English in taste. Throughout the winters of 1896, when he stayed in India, he sunk deep down in Darwin”s Origin of species and Reades Martyrdom of Man and it was here in India that he would discover himself.

Books are analogous to friends in way that one can ascertain the nature of a man by the books he studies, as one can equally predict the character of another by the choice of friends he keeps.  “Why to be apologetic about Anglo Saxon superiority”, he said during the Second World War, “we are superior”. “India is to be ruled by old ways,” he observed, not by the values of her ancient doctrines, but simply by carrot and stick. He belonged to that long line of Englishmen who believed that England was destined to rule India, and without her India would go to utter ruins. England was doing a sacred duty therefore by passing on the benefits of the great civilization of the West, from democracy to chivalry which apparently was bought at the cost of humble subordination in the grand bazaars of the West.

But even after reading volumes which shaped his mind and which assured him of ‘racial superiority’ he still needed to test the notion in coal and fire. The opportunity came in 1897 (when he was twenty three), when “northern savages impelled by fanaticism or allured by plunder”, created troubles in North West Frontier province of India. It becomes imperative then, “to invade Afridis & Orakzais and others who have dared to violate Pax Britannica.” After the “action” was over and on the way back to Bangalore, Churchill wrote to The Telegraph “we proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation. At any rate, at the end of a fortnight the valley was a desert and honour was satisfied.” His descriptions of the battles are like Macaulay’s Clive’s defence at Arcot, and conclusion straightforward- a contest between civilized and barbaric forces.   He saw what he intended to see, and learnt only two hindi words in the process “maaro” (to kill) and “chaloo” (to go), they rest of the vocabulary I presume was not important to him.

Much after that on 12th May 1919 (during Iraq’s revolt against British), Churchill is ,” strongly in favour of using poisoned gases against uncivilized tribes….to spread a lively terror” and on 8th July 1920 he speaks of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre as “ an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation” apparently Major Reginald Dyer who fired at the peaceful crowd at Jallianwala Bagh, also wanted to cause terror in the hearts and minds of the Indian people. What will you say, two faces of Churchill, but these facts are not new and has been reported time and time again.

The central thing behind all these is the idea which runs a man since that is the driving force. But whatever his ideas was it wasn’t even close to the fanaticism of Hitler or of Stalin, if it was he could have lined up the members of Indian Congress, and shot at their temples. Speaking on Jallianwalla Bagh, he made it loud and clear, “that our reign in India or anywhere else, has never stood on the basis of force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try base ourselves only upon it.” Gandhi however always maintained that, “British rule in India is an evil, and to fight evil is a duty.” Churchill understood the need of keeping India, in all respects, and never allowed anyone to interfere with it, not even Roosevelt. Although in his early years he had seen a number of “actions” but he was not a man of military anyway, but one who was, never indulged in the glorification of military conquests and achievements, who rather believed that the soldiers have to clear up the follies of the politicians.

Lord Wavell was born in a military family, his father Graham Wavell had fought in the Boer, his grandfather Goodall Wavell had been a soldier of fortune in Spain and Venezuela, and his great grandfather was a scientist who discovered the mineral- Wavellite. He never thought of becoming a soldier until his father told him to. On hearing young Wavell being admitted to school”s army class, the headmaster wrote back to his father,” This desperate step is not necessary, as I believe your son has sufficient ability to make his way in other walks of life.”  “A scholarly soldier,” says Rene Kraus, “who reads Browning and his pocket Shakespeare, occasionally also P G Woodhouse, while flying to inspect his troops at the front line, he quotes Voltaire”s appraisal of Marlborough”s “calm courage in the midst of tumult and serenity of soul in danger, which is the greatest gift of nature in command.”  Fighting in Libya during the Second World War, he mentions of Socrates, whom he considered to be the master strategist, and says “The General must know how to get his men their rations.”  His book on General and Generalship was Rommel”s favourite and the latter always kept a copy of that during his campaigns in North Africa. Rommel admired Wavell, but it turned out that the Admirer would win over the Admired in the heat of the battle.
The contested frontier area of Operation Battleaxe.

Wavell initially had considerable success, until February 1941 he had overran the whole of the Italian forces in Libya. At this time he was hailed as one of the finest general in Second World War, even the Germans praised him. Marshal Keitel supreme chief of the German army command said, “Wavell is the best general the British have and he is very good.”  So from then it would the best versus another best, Erwin Rommel was appointed the chief of the Afrika Korps, and from 24th March 1941 started his operations around Libya. After the advent of Rommel in North Africa, things didn’t go well for Wavell, and he just could not pull up.  He tried very hard to break the German hold on Tobruk, launched two great operations- Brevity and Battleaxe (15th -17th June, 1941), both of them failed, especially the last one, and he ultimately had to accept his defeat. Churchill got thoroughly disappointed over him and said-”Rommel has torn the new won laurels from Wavell”s brow and thrown them in the sand.”  He somehow came to believe that with all the help that he had given Wavell, in spite of all protests from war cabinet, Wavell could not turn things for him. Thus Wavell remained to him as “an average colonel” who was fit for “good chairman of a Tory association,” or probably the chairman of a golf club.
Wavell (right) meets Lt. General Quinan, commander of British and Indian Army forces in Iraq in April 1941.

So Wavell had seen everything in North Africa, success and defeats both, but Churchill didn”t have faith in him anymore, the prime minister opted for a “change” and picked up  Claude Auchinleck to replace Wavell. Auchinleck was then the C-in-C of India, Wavell had to swap job with him, and thus Wavell was to be the next C-in-C of India.  Auchinleck had initial success against Rommel and pushed him back, but Rommel pounced back in 21 January, 1942 with stronger reinforcement which caught the English by surprise, seized Tobruk again, and made his name immortal in the annals of world war two. Churchill replaced Auchinleck after the fall of Tobruk, and brought in Bernard Montgomery, from there the war would take a different course, which we armchair general often like to mention as “Battle of the Titans”, Rommel versus Monty!
Wavell as Viceroy of India (centre), with the C-in-C of the Indian Army Auchinleck (right) and Montgomery.

In his relieving letter to Wavell (dated 21st June, 1941), Churchill does mention his “so shining a record” and remarks that “a new eye and a new hand are required in this most seriously menaced theatre”.  But this is according to the official despatches that he sent Wavell, beyond which was his unchangeable view about Wavell. “I do not feel in him” Churchill wrote of Wavell (in 1940) to Eden, “that sense of mental vigour and resolve to overcome obstacles, which is indispensible to successful war.” When Wavell was once asked why the prime minister doesn’t like him, he said, ”Perhaps I don’t talk enough,” probably he was right, Churchill’s view about him was, “cool and reticent.” In a way they were completely different persons, in opinion, in tastes, in character and ideologies.

Why Churchill moved Wavell to India is an important question, perhaps his intention was to keep away Wavell from the hot bed of war and post elsewhere as the supreme commander in the Far East, or there where he can ignore him. But the official reason that Churchill gave-“Wavell, on the other hand, would find in the great Indian command time to regain his strength before the new but impending challenges and opportunities arrived.” It was not a new thing for Wavell to led a mixed army as C-in-C of India, in Africa he had commanded an army which in Auchinleck’s words spoke,’some 40 different languages.’  But situation in Far East wasn’t easy either; it appeared that wherever he went misfortune waited for him, in December 1941 Japan entered into war with United States, and a new drama unfolded in the Far East.  I shall not enter into the details of it, for two reasons, number one – I don’t haven’t much account of his activities in Far East, second I don’t want to make this article- the war records of A. P Wavell. Contrary to what immediately befalls in your mind regarding this explanation, the second reason is stronger than the first.

Let’s jump forward; when Lord Linlithgow retired as the Viceroy of India in the summer of 1943, Wavell was made the Viceroy of India. In the same year, in January 1943, he had been promoted a Field Marshal. I believe he was in England then, and had finished his well known work on Allenby (the famous British General known for his conquest on Palestine and Syria). Wavell had written two volumes on him- Allenby, A study in Greatness (1940) and Allenby in Egypt (1943). In the last book Wavell had said,’ Allenby had a better knowledge and instinctive understanding of the complex problems of the Middle East than any other members of the British Cabinet.” “Allenby had been summarily squeezed out of the High commission by the Churchill faction because in its view Allenby’s progressive attitudes threatened to destabilize the former Ottoman-now British Empire in the Middle East as an outwork to the defences of India.” When Churchill learnt about this, “he almost refused to attend Cabinet’s farewell dinner to Wavell on the eve of his departure to India.” It certainly didn’t help to improve the already bitter relation of Wavell with Churchill, perhaps even refuelled it.

From now on there would be a definite change in Churchill’s response to Wavell.  In the gravest situation Churchill had fulfilled all the requests made by him, and termed his assistance, “blood transfusion while we braced ourselves to meet a mortal danger.” With Wavell’s appointment as the Viceroy of India, Churchill have to face two things he strongly disliked- “the voice of India’s Independence” and Wavell’s “disgusting” involvement in making him “seeing the facts”.

 In one of his lecture to the Staff College Candidates, back in 1930’s, Wavell had said “ To learn that Napoleon in 1796 with 20,000 men beat combined forces of 30,000 by something called ‘economic of force’ or ‘operating on interior lines’ is a mere waste of time. If you can understand how a young, unknown man, inspired a half starved, rather, Bolshie crowd; how he filled their bellies; how he out marched, outwitted, out-bluffed, and defeated man who studied war all their lives and waged it according to the textbooks of time, you will have something worth knowing.” He was different wasn’t he, calm and reserved yet with great intuition. Like his predecessor Wellington and Allenby, who not only were great generals but one with great insight as well. He had the vision and farsightedness to label Treaty of Versailles (after First World War) as, “the peace to end all peace.”

Wavell clearly had different approach on looking at things, perhaps this gift of observation came from his great grandfather. In his new role, he would be tested of his ingenuity, there is something interesting about the outcome though, whatever he does whether- good or bad, all would be recorded in history in careful and delicate manner.
Wavell in India, photo courtesy- The Hindu Photo Library

 It was time for him to go to the land where he spent his childhood, and to play albeit a different role.  Much to everyone’s surprise the student of Socrates would turn out to be the best Viceroy India ever had. Later Maulana Azad would go on to say- “I am confident that India will never forget this service of Lord Wavell and when the time comes for the historian of independent India to appraise the relations of England and India, he will give Lord Wavell the credit for opening a new chapter in these relations.” This is the exactly the purpose of this article, but how he achieved that, we will see in the next installment.

Acknowledgements (not in the order of reference)


1.    Gandhi and Churchill, Arthur Herman.

2.    The Grand Alliance, Winston Churchill.

3.    The men around Churchill, Rene Kraus.

4.    Everything World War Two book, David White, Daniel P Murphy.

5.    Soldiers as Statesman, Peter Dennis, Adrian W. Preston.

6.    Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the path to El Alamein, Jonathan Fenell.

7.    The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Winstom Churchill.

Articles and Archives

1.    Churchill’s Empire, The World that made him and the World that he made, by Richard Toye, Review by Johann Hari, NYTimes Book Review.

2.    Wavell: The Life and Times of an Imperial Servant by Adrian Fort, The Sunday Times Review by Piers Brendon.

3.    Soldier who lacked the killer instinct by J. Murray, reviewed by Max Hastings.

4.    Man of Integrity, A. G Noorani, Frontline Volume 24, Issue 9: The Hindu publisher.

5.    War Office Departmental Minute (1919-05-12), Churchill Papers 16/16, Churchill Archive Centre, Cambridge.

6.    Churchill’s Speech in the House of Commons, July 8,1920.

Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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