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wavell, 1st earl

Archibald Wavell, 1st Earl Wavell

Field Marshal Archibald Percival Wavell, 1st Earl Wavell GCB, GCSI, GCIE, CMG, MC, PC (5 May 1883 – 24 May 1950) was a British field marshal and the commander of British Army forces in the Middle East during World War II. He led British forces to victory over the Italians, only to be defeated by the German army. He was the penultimate Viceroy of India from 1943-47.

Early life

Wavell was born in Colchester but spent much of his childhood in India. Wavell's father (Archibald Graham Wavell) was a major-general in the British Army and Wavell followed his father's career choice.

Wavell attended the preparatory boarding school Summer Fields, near Oxford, Winchester College, where he was a scholar, seventh on the roll, and Sandhurst.

Early career

After graduating from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst Wavell was commissioned in May 1901 into the Black Watch and fought in the second Boer War. In 1903, he was transferred to India and fought in the Bazar Valley campaign of 1908. He was promoted to lieutenant in August 1904 and in January 1909 Wavell was seconded from his regiment to be a student at the Staff College. In 1911, Wavell spent a year as a military observer with the Russian Army, where he learned to speak Russian returning to his regiment in December of that year. In April 1912 he became a staff officer (GSO3) in the War Office and in July was granted the temporary rank of captain and became GSO3 at the Directorate of Military Training. In March 1913 Wavell was promoted to captain.

World War I

Wavell was working as a staff officer when World War I began. As a captain, he was sent to France to a staff posting at GHQ (GSO2) but shortly afterwards was appointed brigade major of 9th Infantry Brigade in November 1914. He was wounded in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, losing an eye and was awarded the MC. Following his recovery, he was appointed in December 1915 to the General Staff as a staff officer (GSO2) in the rank of captain He was promoted to major in May 1916. In October 1916 Wavell was given a staff grading (GSO1) as an acting lieutenant-colonel and then assigned as a liaison-officer to the Russian Army in the caucasus. In June 1917 Wavell was promoted to Brevet lieutenant-colonel and continued to work as a staff officer (GSO1), this time as liaison to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force headquarters in Palestine. In January 1918 he received a further staff appointment as Assistant Adjutant & Quartermaster Geneneral (AA&QMG) working at the Supreme War Council in Versailles. In April 1918 Wavell was made a temporary brigadier-general and returned to Palestine where he served as the BGS (brigadier general staff} of XX Corps, part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force commanded by Sir Edmund Allenby of whom he was later to write a biography.

Between the Wars

Wavell was given a number of assignments between the wars. In May 1920 he is gazetted as relinquishing the temporary rank of brigadier-general, reverting to Brevet lieutenant-colonel. In December 1921, still a Brevet lieutenant-colonel, he became an Assistant Adjutant General (AAG) at the War Office and in July 1923 was once again working as a GSO1, having been promoted full colonel in July 1922, effective June 1921. Apart from a short period unemployed on half pay in 1926, Wavell continued to hold GSO1 appointments, latterly in 3rd Infantry Division, until in July 1930 when he was once again granted the rank of temporary brigadier and was given command of 6th Infantry Brigade. In March 1932, he was appointed ADC to the King, a position he held until October 1933 when he was promoted. In October 1933 Wavell was promoted to major-general. However, there appears to have been a shortage of jobs for major-generals at this time and in January 1934, on relinquishing command of his brigade, he found himself unemployed on half pay once again. However, by the end of the year, although still on half pay, he had been designated to command 2nd Infantry Division and was made CB. In March 1935, he took command of his division. In August 1937 he was transferred to Palestine, where there was growing unrest, to be GOC British Forces in Palestine & Trans-Jordan and was promoted to lieutenant-general in January 1938. In April 1938 he became GOC-in-C Southern Command in the UK. In August 1939, he was named as GOC-in-C of Middle East Command with the local rank of full general and was in that post when World War II began.

World War II military commands

Middle East Command

The Middle Eastern theatre was quiet for the first few months of the war until Italy's declaration of war in June 1940. The Italian forces in North and East Africa greatly outnumbered the British and Wavell's policy was therefore one of "flexible containment" to buy time to build up adequate forces to take the offensive. Having fallen back in front of Italian advances from Libya, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Wavell mounted successful offensives into Libya (Operation Compass) in December 1940 and Eritrea and Ethiopia in January 1941. By February 1941, his Western Desert Force under Richard O'Conner had defeated the Italian Tenth Army at Beda Fomm taking 130,000 prisoners and appeared to be on the verge of overrunning the last Italian forces in Libya, which would have ended all direct Axis control in North Africa. Furthermore, his troops in East Africa had the Italians under pressure and at the end of March his forces in Eritrea under William Platt won the decisive battle of the campaign at Keren which led to the occupation of the Italian colonies in Ethiopia and Somaliland.

However, in February Wavell had been ordered to halt his advance into Libya and send troops to Greece where the Germans and Italians were attacking. He disagreed with this decision but followed his orders. The result was a disaster. The Germans were given the opportunity to reinforce the Italians in North Africa with the Afrika Korps and by the end of April the weakened Western Desert Force had been pushed all the way back to the Egyptian border, leaving Tobruk under siege. In Greece General Wilson's Force W was unable to set up an adequate defense on the Greek mainland and were forced to withdraw to Crete, suffering 15,000 casualties and leaving behind all their heavy equipment and artillery. Crete was attacked by German airborn forces on 20 May and as in Greece, the British and Commonwealth troops were forced once more to evacuate.

Events in Greece provoked a pro-Axis faction to take over the government of Iraq. Wavell, hard pressed on his other fronts, was unwilling to divert precious resources to Iraq and so it fell to Claude Auchinleck's India Command to send troops to Basra. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, saw Iraq as vital to Britain's strategic interests and in early May, under heavy pressure from London, Wavell agreed to send a division-sized force across the desert from Palestine to relieve the besieged British air base at Habbaniya and to assume overall control of troops in Iraq. By the end of May Quinan's forces in Iraq had captured Baghdad and the Anglo-Iraqi War had ended with troops in Iraq once more reverting to the overall control of GHQ in Delhi. However, Churchill had been unimpressed by Wavell's reluctance to act.

In early June Wavell sent a force under General Wilson to invade Syria and Lebanon, responding to the help given by the Vichy France authorities there to the Iraq Government during the Anglo-Iraqi War. Initial hopes of a quick victory faded as the French put up a determined defence. Churchill determined to relieve Wavell and after the failure in mid June of Operation Battleaxe, intended to relieve Tobruk, he told Wavell on 20 June that he was to be replaced by Auchinleck, whose attitude during the Iraq crisis had impressed him. In spite of his lack of success against Rommel, Wavell was highly rated by him and he carried an annotated translation of his book Generals and Generalship in his pocket throughout the North Africa Campaign.

India Command

Wavell in effect swapped jobs with Auchinleck transferring to India where he became Commander-in-Chief and a member of the Governor General's Executive Council. Initially his command covered India and Iraq so that within a month of taking charge he launched Iraqforce to invade Persia in co-operation with the Russians in order to secure the oilfields and secure lines of communication to the Soviet Union.

Wavell once again had the misfortune of being placed in charge of an undermanned theatre which became a warzone when the Japanese declared war on the United Kingdom in December 1941. He was made Commander-in-Chief of ABDACOM (American-British-Dutch-Australian) Command covering Burma, Malaya, Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. Wavell, despite his abilities, did not have the resources to defend the territory he was responsible for and was unable to prevent the Japanese from capturing Singapore and Malaya. On 23 February 1942, with Malaya lost and the Allied position in Java and Sumatra precarious, ABDACOM was closed down and its headquarters in Java evacuated. Wavell returned to India to resume his position as C-in-C India where his responsibilities now included the defence of Burma.

On 23 February British forces in Burma had suffered a serious setback when Major-General Jackie Smyth's decision to destroy the bridge over the Sittang river to prevent the enemy crossing had resulted in most of his division being trapped on the wrong side of the river. The Viceroy Lord Linlithgow sent a signal to criticising the conduct of the field commanders to Churchill who forwarded it to Wavell together with an offer to send Harold Alexander, who had commanded the rearguard at Dunkirk. Alexander took command of Allied land forces in Burma in early March with William Slim arriving shortly afterwards from commanding a division in Iraq to take command of its principal formation Burma Corps. Nevertheless, the pressure from the Japanese Armies was unstoppable and a withdrawal to India was ordered which was completed by the end of May before the start of the monsoon season which brought Japanese progress to a halt.

In order to wrest some of the initiative from from the Japanese Wavell ordered the Eastern Army in India to mount an offensive in the Arakan which commenced in September. After some initial success the Japanese counter-attacked and by March 1943 the position was untenable and the remnants of the attacking force was withdrawn. Wavell relieved the Eastern Army commander, Noel Irwin, of his command and replaced him with George Giffard.

Viceroy of India

In January 1943 Wavell had been promoted to field marshal and when Linlinthgow retired as viceroy in the summer of 1943 he was surprisingly, given his poor relationship with Churchill, chosen to replace him. He himself was again replaced in his military post in June by Auchinleck, who by this point had also experienced setbacks in North Africa. In 1943, Wavell was created a viscount (taking the style Viscount Wavell of Cyrenaica and of Winchester in the county of Southampton) and in September was formally named Governor-General and Viceroy of India. He was also appointed as a Privy Counsellor.

One of his first actions in office was to address the Bengal famine of 1943 by feeding the starving rural Bengalis. He attempted with mixed success to increase the supplies of rice to reduce the prices and make it more affordable.

Although initially popular with Indian politicians, pressure mounted concerning the likely structure and timing of an independent India. Although Wavell attempted to move the debate along, he received little support from Churchill (who was against Indian independence) nor from Clement Attlee Churchill's successor as Prime Minister. He was also hampered by the differences between the various Indian political factions. At the end of the war rising Indian expectations continued unfulfilled and inter-communal violence became an increasing feature. Eventually, in 1947, Attlee lost confidence in Wavell and replaced him with Lord Mountbatten of Burma.

Later life

Wavell returned to England and was made High Steward of Colchester in 1947. In the same year, he was created Earl Wavell and given the additional title of Viscount Keren of Eritrea and Winchester. His titles passed to his son Archibald upon his death in 1950. The younger Wavell, also educated at Winchester, did not long survive his father before being killed whilst serving with the Black Watch in Kenya.

Wavell was well-known to be a great lover of poetry. While viceroy he compiled and annotated an anthology of great poetry, Other Men's Flowers, which was published in 1944; the last poem in the anthology he wrote himself and described it as a "...little wayside dandelion of my own". He had a great memory for poetry and often quoted it at length. He is depicted in Evelyn Waugh's novel "Officers and Gentlemen", part of the Sword of Honour trilogy, reciting poetry in public. Like many Englishmen, he was a member of the Church of England.

Wavell is buried in the old mediaeval cloister at Winchester College, next to the Chantry Chapel. His tombstone simply bears the inscription "Wavell".

Wavell Heights, a suburb in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, was named after him in 1941, after a request by the Brisbane City Council to rename an area previously known as West Nundah. Wavell Avenue in Colchester, Essex is also named after him.

Quotes

  • "I think he (Benito Mussolini) must do something, if he cannot make a graceful dive he will at least have to jump in somehow; he can hardly put on his dressing-gown and walk down the stairs again."
  • "After the 'war to end war' they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a 'Peace to end Peace.'" (commenting on the treaties ending World War I; this quote was the basis for the title of Fromkin, David (1989), A Peace to End All Peace, New York: Henry Holt, ISBN 0-8050-6884-8)

Publications

  • Official Middle East Despatches December 1940 to February 1941 published in
  • Official Middle East Despatches February 1941 to July 1941published in
  • Official Iran, Iraq and Syria Despatches April 1941 to January 1942 published in
  • Official India Despatches March 1942 to December 1942 published in
  • (1977). Other men's flowers; an anthology of poetry. London: J. Cape.
  • (1973). Wavell: the viceroy's journal. London: Oxford University Press.
  • (1941). Generals and generalship; the Lees Knowles lectures delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1939. London: Times Publishing.
  • (1953). Soldiers and soldiering; or, Epithets of war. London: J. Cape.
  • (1948). The good soldier. London: MacMillan.
  • (1933). The Palestine campaigns. London: Constable.
  • (1940-43). Allenby, a study in greatness : the biography of Field-Marshall Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe, G.C.B., G.C.M.G.. London: Harrap.
  • (1974). Allenby, soldier and statesman. London: White Lion.
  • (1946). Speaking generally; broadcasts, orders and addresses in time of war (1939-43). London: MacMillan.

Footnotes

References

  • Mead, Richard (2007). Churchill's Lions: A biographical guide to the key British generals of World War II. Stroud (UK): Spellmount.

External links

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