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Victoria Schofield

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Wavell – Transript of Winchester Speach

6th February 2007


Thank you – I am delighted to be here tonight to address the Friends of Winchester College on the subject of Wavell: Soldier and Statesman.

We all know that  Wavell lies buried in Chantry Cloister – You may also know that Wavell always regarded Winchester College as his spiritual home. His cousins, son and grandson were also Wykehamists. The family connection is therefore strong.

The last time Wavell came to Winchester was on 14 November 1948 to take part in a service of Rededication of War Cloister. And I want to read an excerpt from his tribute to the fallen Wykehamists.

They fought they endured they died, in advance or retreat, in victory or disaster; on the Atlantic, on the Pacific, in the Mediterranean; in the steaming jungles of Burma; on the beaches of Normandy; in the fighter aircraft in the Battle of Britain, in bombers over Berlin; in other places all over the world by sea and land and air.

He knew only too well their exploits – he had been Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East and Commander-in-Chief in India  –. To his contemporaries, the name of Wavell became a household one in the darkest hours of the war – when Britain stood alone – in late 1940 and early 1941 – before the United States entered the war. Hardpressed in Europe, Wavell secured a lightening victory against superior Italian forces in the Western Desert of North Africa which greatly raised morale back home.. But he did a lot more besides, including holding the position of Viceroy of India for three critical years before Britain’s eventual departure from South Asia in 1947….and I want tonight  to focus on the Indian side of Wavell’s career because apart from the periods when he was living in Britain, he spent more time in India than anywhere else abroad.

Not only did Wavell spend his early youth in southern India – where incidentally he learnt to ride – later describing India’s fine climate as giving his body  ‘a good start in life’ but he spent five years as a subaltern on the North-West Frontier of what is today Pakistan, then India. At the age of 20 – in 1903 – after fighting briefly in the Boer War in South Africa, Wavell was posted to the Punjab – heartland of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim -  with his regiment –The Black Watch. Not long afterwards The Black Watch was sent to the North-West Frontier… this was part of a policy of reappraisal by the then Commander in Chief in India, Lord Kitchener who had decided that the threat to Britain’s imperial power was no longer internal [as it had been with the 1857 Indian Mutiny] but external – against the expanding Russian empire. He therefore considered that it was more important to deploy more troops to the border areas: this is the famous  tribal territory between Pakistan and Afghanistan we read about in our newspapers today as possibly being the refuge of Osama bin laden and his supporters.
Wavell found himself posted to the cantonment town of Peshawar – pesh – awar – the ‘first town’  in the north-west Frontier – But, since at the turn of the century, the threat was more perceived than real, the sort of life which Wavell and his contemporaries experienced was of some soldiering but mostly sport.

And it was during this time that Wavell travelled to the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to hunt for leopard and the ‘bara’ singh – the great Kashmir stag. He also got himself attached to a transport column to relieve the battalion stationed in Chitral, remarking to a friend – fellow Wykehamist Stephen Phillimore – with whom he’d kept in touch, that he would like to go there – with its stupendous mountains - because it was not the sort of place one would have the opportunity of visiting again. ..and he never did. Once he got there he was annoyed because he had forgotten to bring film for his camera!

Wavell’s experiences were of course part of a bygone era, but the reason I believe this period in his life is important to mention is because it greatly influenced his feelings towards India in later years. In his recollections, he described the time he spent in India as ‘certainly some of the best years of my life.’ Unlike nowadays where we expect [hope] that everyone will speak English, it was obligatory to be able to converse in at least one local language and while in India Wavell passed his examinations in Urdu and Pashtu .. and he even started learning Persian.

His letters home also display an uncharacteristic sense of humour for someone who – especially in later life - enjoyed a reputation for awkward silences. ‘Bears,’he described to his sister, ‘as being some of the most inconsiderate animals’ because when there were shot, they tended to fall over a precipice – thus making their retrieval impossible! On another occasion, he wrote to his sister saying that he wished he could send her his cold so that she might for once avoid having to go to church on Sunday! He described ‘ripping’ hunts while he imagined her going to plenty of balls.

When Wavell left India in 1908 he did not return for thirty years, but the memory he had was enduring. As he later said, ‘In those years I came closest to knowledge of the common Indian people. I learnt enough of the language to speak with the villagers where I camped and shot, with my shikaris in the hills of Kashmir where I was several times alone with them for many weeks and with the soldiers of India with whom I served.’

When Wavell did return he was middle-aged, a married man with four children, who had experienced the tragedy of World War 1 – when he lost three first cousins – one of whom was his fellow Wykehamist cousin, Arthur,  service in Britain in the inter war years, and both victory and defeat in the Middle East in World War 2 – victory, as I have mentioned, against the Italians in the Western Desert and in Italian East Africa, defeat by the Germans in the Western Desert, Greece and Crete. In view of his inability to counter the German forces in the Western Desert, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had decided to exchange Wavell with the then C in C India,  General Sir Claude Auchinleck. Thus Wavell returned to India almost by default –  and there is a little anecdote which I would like to relate about his departure from the Middle East.

As I have mentioned, Wavell did have a reputation for taciturnity; even so he had numerous friends and admirers, young and old, men and women.. one of these was the daughter of the High Commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan, Araminta MacMichael. Wavell knew that she enjoyed collecting military buttons and from time to time used to send ones to her. When he left the Middle East, thinking that he was no longer going to be in a warzone . he gave her his General’s escaping button.

Now at this point I must pause because when Araminta, Lady Aldington as she now is  was relating this story to me, I had to interrupt her – ‘Escaping button’ I asked sheepishly – because when conducting interviews one does not want to display too much ignorance – ‘what is that?’ Lady Aldington was amazed – ‘you’ve never heard of an escaping button?’
‘No’ I replied ..whereupon we interrupted my more formal interview while she described to me the characteristics of an escaping button – a military button which opens like a pocket watch to reveal a mini-compass–  later she sent me a photograph and showed me the button – and it really is the most exceptional piece of craftsmanship, made by Aspreys.  

To continue. .. having relinquished his escaping button, Wavell arrived in India, a supposed backwater in terms of the European war where Churchill expected he would be able to sit under the pagoda tree. But it did not take very long for the nature of his command in India to alter dramatically with the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and Wavell found himself in a new conflict zone which was to become as challenging as the one in the Middle East he had just left. It also meant that ironically Churchill was credited in the press for having had ‘Olympian’ foresight in sending Wavell there to sort out the difficulties.

Unfortunately Wavell’s time as Commander in Chief India from the summer of 1941 until 1943 was not marked by any significant victory, rather the reverse. At the beginning of 1942 he was sent to the Dutch East Indies – Indonesia – as Supreme Commander of ABDA – the American British Dutch and Australian forces in the South West Pacific where, as the Japanese continued their onslaught, he presided over the fall of Singapore. Back in Delhi as C in C India in March 1942, he had to oversee the retreat from Burma and was responsible for bringing General Bill Slim to Burma from the Middle East to assist General Alexander with the retreat. Subsequent efforts to mount a counter offensive back into Burma failed under his command. He must however be praised for sanctioning the Chindits, led by Orde Wingate, whose attacks behind enemy lines in Burma greatly raised morale even though the damage they did to the Japanese was less significant.

Domestically, as Commander in Chief, Wavell was responsible for  safeguarding communications and installations from periodic attacks by Indian nationalists who, regardless of the war, were demanding that the British should ‘quit India’ forthwith. Wavell was also present in India when Sir Stafford Cripps was sent by Winston Churchill – under duress from the Americans - in what became known as the Cripps Mission in order to attempt to get the Indian people to support the war effort more wholeheartedly by offering some steps towards self-government. As we know, Cripps’ mission was a failure with Mahatma Gandhi telling him that if that was all he had to offer, he ought to take the next plane home!

One interesting diversion during Wavell’s time as Commander-in-Chief in India was when, in August 1942, he was called back to the Middle East in order to accompany Churchill to Moscow. For it was at this time that Churchill accompanied by all his ‘top brass’ was having to inform Stalin that the Allies were in no position to open a second front in Europe – as Stalin wanted -. During this visit Wavell, who had learnt Russian before World War 1, was of great use to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke,  because he was able to translate what the Russians were saying seconds faster than the Russian translators, which, as Alanbrooke acknowledges in his memoirs, gave him that little bit of extra time in which to frame his answers. Alanbrooke also relates how on the return journey, Wavell was sitting writing what he thought was an official report of their meeting but when Wavell handed over the piece of paper for Alanbrooke to read, it was one of his famous ‘doggerel’ poems which ended with this ‘Envoi’:

Prince of the Kremlin, Here’s a Fond Farewell I ’ve had to deal with many worse than you, You took it, though you hated it like hell, No Second Front in 1942.!

It not until Wavell became Viceroy of India in October 1943 that he began to immerse himself more fully in the political situation in India. And this is the phase of his life which – in the context of South Asia yesterday and today – is still of great interest. Appointed by Churchill, literally because he could not think whom else he could appoint in succession to Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy for the past seven years, Wavell’s political brief was virtually non existent. It was Leopold Amery, Secretary of State for India who wrote rather poetically that Wavell should regard the prime Minister’s instructions as little more than ‘a gentle breeze to waft him on his way.’ From Churchill’s point of view – as a died hard imperialist – his intention was for Wavell to maintain the situation as it was, rather than take any initiatives towards meeting the demands of the Indian nationalists for self-governance – at least not until the war was over.

However – and this is where interesting aspects of Wavell’s character emerge – he was evidently not prepared merely to be a figurehead Viceroy without at least taking some steps to determine how – when the time came – Britain could transfer power to representative Indian political leaders. In his quest, one of his first suggestions was to hold an informal meeting of Indians including releasing those who had been arrested as a result of the Quit India movement. Because of his experiences as Commander in Chief, he was already aware of the divergent aspirations of the Indian National Congress Party and the Muslim League;  led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah – in 1940 the Muslim League had passed the Pakistan resolution at Lahore demanding a separate sovereign homeland for the Muslims of South Asia.

But while the war was of paramount concern, Churchill refused to sanction a conference; and Wavell had to content himself with dealing with the other severe issues at hand – most notably famine. One of his first tours in India after becoming Viceory was to visit the famine stricken province of Bengal – which was well received by Indian public opinion. As one Indian writer later recollected, the visit of the Viceroy made such an impression that it was even reported in his schoolboy’s comic at the time.

The end of World War 2 brought two significant changes for Wavell in terms of his Viceroyalty. Firstly, Churchill did at last agree to permit the holding of a conference of political leaders – held at Simla in June July 1945. Secondly it brought a change of Prime Minister – and a new approach – under the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee.

In view of future events, the significance of the Simla conference has sometimes been overlooked, but it really was a landmark both in terms of the relationshp between Britain and Indians and amongst Indians themselves. Maulana Azad, President of the Indian National Congress Party, best summarises the significance: ‘The Simla Conference marks a breakwater in Indian political history. This was the first time when negotiations failed, not on the basic political issue between India and Britain, but on the communal issue dividing different Indian groups.’

In terms of Wavell’s own reputation, Azad praised him for adopting the attitude not of a political but of a  soldier:‘Lord Wavell made no attempt at embellishment’-  [today we all it spinning] – ‘and he certainly was not trying to make an impression.’ Unfortunately the conference was not successful and Wavell graciously assumed responsibility for another failure – as he had with his military defeats – but, as I have said, this conference did lift the curtain on the next round of negotiations. It also helped to identify the problems which lay ahead – how best to reach agreement between the Congress Party and the Muslim League in a united India. Those like Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel – who had been in jail since 1942 – were being now treated as future rulers of their country.

While efforts were being made to reach agreement, Wavell was also working on what came to be known as his breakdown plan. In other words, what the British should do if negotiations between the Indian politicians did indeed break down. –the name of the plan was rather unfortunate – but this was essentially its working title  which stuck.
 Looking back – with the wisdom of hindsight – and with the resolution of the issue clearly before us, it may perhaps be hard to imagine what a quandary the British were in.
They had pledged to leave the sub-continent but were reluctant to do so while their political successors were arguing. Tempers were running high on the street and there existed a genuine fear that the law and order situation would deteriorate to such an extent that the lives of the remaining British would be endangered.  So Wavell’s breakdown plan was for a phased withdrawal to the ports of Bombay – Mumbai – and Calcutta and an announcement of a definite date for Britain’s withdrawal.

At the same time, he was also asked to consider what the shape of Pakistan would be if the British were ‘compelled’ to agree to it – if there really was no hope of handing over the government to a coalition of the Congress Party and the Muslim League.  This very important delimitation – which Wavell had also been pressing for – not because this was his preferred outcome but because he hoped that  - and I quote – ‘If Pakistan cold be publicly shown to be a wholly impracticable proposition it would greatly reduce the vigour with which the Muslims would be prepared to go into action in support of it.’ This was in February 1946.

However, Clement Attlee also decided to assume greater initiative from London and in the Spring of 1946 he sent out a Cabinet Mission – headed by Sir Stafford Cripps. In India together with Wavell the Cabinet Mission worked on a complicated scheme for a federated India. Time does not permit me to go into an analysis of this plan but, as we know, it was eventually rejected both by the Congress Party and the Muslim League. Meanwhile Wavell was once more pushing for consideration of his breakdown plan which would at least set a timetable for Britain’s withdrawal in the Spring of 1948. However it was rejected and Wavell was dismissed.

Interestingly of the three dismissals which Wavell endured, his dismissal as Viceory seemed to hurt the most ‘I’ve been sacked,’  he said ‘as if I were a cook.’ Given the character of the man, I don’t believe that he much minded the loss of office, but he was dismayed not to be able to oversee the completion of the negotiations towards independence, which he had been instrumental in initiating.

The reason Wavell’s Viceroyalty is worth studying is because the fallout from his dismissal is still contemporary. As we know he was replaced by Lord Mountbatten who advanced Wavell’s proposed date for withdrawal to August 1947. In so doing various loose ends were left – the most significant of which -  in the present day – is the dispute which India and Pakistan have had – and the wars they have fought – over the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Obviously revisionist historical analysis is never very satisfactory, but I think it is true to say that had Wavell not been dismissed, or had Mountbatten even insisting on adopting Wavell’s proposed timetable, the longer timeframe would not have left this critical loose end – I won’t go so far as saying that it would have prevented the estimated 1 million dead, 10 million refugees, but it is possible that the suffering would not have been so great. 

Although we do not necessarily associate Wavell’s name with India, his legacy is as much there as in any other place he served. As a child of Empire, he realised that times were changing and that the way forward was to permit Indians to govern themselves. He also strove for even handedness [and when he felt that the position of the Congress Party was being favoured by the politicians from London, he sought to balance the equation by highlighting the interests of the Muslims.] As his eldest daughter, Lady Pamela Humphrys said to me before her death in March 2001 – ‘My father only wanted to be fair.’

And it is this integrity – this sense of fair play which men and women respected both then and now and which make him, even today, a figure to be admired. What is remarkable about Wavell and which truly does make him one of your greatest Wykehamists – was just how well he dealt with disaster. It is easy to be gracious in victory, much harder in defeat. ..and yet throughout his life, as one of his favourite poets encouraged, he did treat those two impostors just the same. Wavell only lived to the age of 67 – young by our standards of longevity today.

Eric Linklater, friend and private in The Black Watch gave him this eulogy which I think is most apt: Such was Wavell’s effect upon the mind, for knowing him, and something of his deeds, it was impossible not to believe in greatness. In that square figure was housed a spirit of antique grandeur, and with his massive heroism went gentleness and modesty, even humility. He had no need to proclaim his virtue, for history would be his spokesman
His face, grave deeply, as if by desert storms, could hold long silences, forbidding as the Sphinx; but when he spoke it might be, with gentle magnanimity, to take upon himself the faults and weaknesses of lesser men. Who else - one might ask -  would merit a gravestone inscribed with only his name?  


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