Archibald Wavell was a man of many accomplishments, most of them after the age of fifty. Adrian Fort's new biography, 'Archibald Wavell, The Life and Times of an Imperial Servant', devotes the first eighty pages to the subject's first fifty years, and then the next 300-plus to his last seventeen. One of a generation of military men instructed in the ways of Empire only to be confronted with its 20th-century dissolution, Wavell brought a keen imagination into the mix. He sailed through the Winchester public school, which gave him a firm grounding in the Classics, and then the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, where the military culture he had absorbed through family life now occupied his studies as well. One is struck throughout the book at the way this brilliant but somewhat reticent man showed surprising flexibility when confronted with a host of challenges, ranging from unpredictable wartime conditions to the hiring of gay subordinates (he had no problem with it) to dealing with the exigencies of India's approaching independence. He saw action in the Boer War, was part of The Black Watch Regimental force in India (during which time he added Urdu and Hindustani to his store of languages), learned Russian in Moscow, and returned to England to write a handbook on the Russian Army in 1912. Concern over the viability of Empire had already begun to form; the Japanese victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War shocked the British. This 'victory of a non-white people over a white people' was much discussed in military colleges, as well as in the great civilian universities.
After seeing action in the Ypres Salient during World War I (and losing his left eye to shrapnel), Wavell was sent to be a liaison between the War Office and General Sir Edmund Allenby of the Mideast Headquarters. Allenby, known as 'The Bull,' was charged with expelling the Turkish Army from Jerusalem and establishing British hegemony in Palestine. Wavell became a great admirer of Allenby, eventually writing a two-volume biography of the General.
Military strategy was undergoing a change in light of the Great War's events. Fort treats on this throughout the book, citing Wavell's enthusiasm for new strategies for new wars, what we would now characterize as 'thinking outside the box'. Fort's careful account of Wavell's personality, intelligence, early influences, and experience gives the reader the ability to follow and understand his triumphs and disappointments as the Second World War approaches and unfolds. We see his progress against the Italians in North Africa. This is followed by Wavell's agreeing to the diversion of British forces to defend Greece, ultimately unsuccessfully, leading to the retaking by Rommel of much of the gained ground. Fort explains the strained relationship between Churchill and Wavell, the latter's realistic assessments of risks and benefits being interpreted as pessimism and reluctance by the PM.
Plucked from the Middle East and sent to the Pacific theatre, Wavell tried to get cooperation between the British, American, and Chinese military leaders with mixed success. Many readers may not realize that Singapore was considered the most important possession to defend. More surprising is the lack of air defence planning for the island. Wavell's loyalty to his subordinates was admirable, but it may have been misplaced when he did not replace a general who was perhaps too disorganized to defend Malaya. The situation was doubtless more complicated, but eventually Malaya and Singapore fell, and an exhausted Wavell sent back to England before he could counter these reverses.
The third phase of his career was as Viceroy of a fractious India. Here the realities of the end of Empire were plain. He was in favor of Indian independence, but did not like the idea of partition. The impossible work of getting the different ethnic groups (primarily the Hindus, who ran the Congress Party and the Muslims, who ran the Muslim League) to agree to anything so as to smooth the path to independence made Wavell long for the Middle East. We see Gandhi in a less-than-rosy light: manipulative, unwilling to negotiate with the head of the Muslim League, misrepresenting British suggestions to his followers. I was reminded of the Gandhi portrayed in Nicholson Baker's 'Human Smoke,' dismissing a letter from a Jewish journalist pointing out the horrors of Nazi rule by saying 'I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators'.
Wavell's work as Viceroy was made more difficult by the sudden change in England from Churchill's Conservative leadership to that of the Labour PM Attlee. Wavell, having tried everything, was eventually replaced by Lord Mountbatten. Fort lets us know that Wavell's attitude toward his long career was not that of having failed, but of having done the best he could in several bad situations, and serving at a rank he had never dreamed of attaining. As his contemporaries were straddling the fragmenting ice floes of Empire, his intelligence and flexibility enabled him to do so with more grace than most.
This book was very thoroughly researched, and Fort's style is straightforward without being simplistic. Our understanding of the Second World War is ever evolving; this book, looking at a man who was a general, military theorist, and writer, makes an important contribution.