INTERVIEW: WAVELL AND HIS DISCONTENTS

Published February 18, 2018
Victoria Schofield at Lahore Literary Festival, 2013 | Tariq Mahmood/White Star
Victoria Schofield at Lahore Literary Festival, 2013 | Tariq Mahmood/White Star

Victoria Schofield is a military historian and broadcaster. Her extensive work includes several books on South Asia. The Pakistan edition of her pioneering biography, Wavell: Soldier and Statesman, has just been published by Oxford University Press and provides rare insights into that crucial era of 1943-1947 during which Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, 1st Earl Wavell, served as viceroy of India.

The book also spans Wavell’s distinguished military career across South Africa, the Middle East and India. After reading the book, trustees of The Black Watch regiment, in which Wavell had served, asked Schofield to write the regiment’s official history. She divided this into two volumes with an introduction by Charles, Prince of Wales, Colonel-in-Chief of the Black Watch — The Highland Furies: The Black Watch 1739-1899 and The Black Watch: Fighting in the Frontline 1899-2006.

In this email interview, Schofield discusses her interest in military history and, in particular, Wavell, who was dismissed as viceroy of India on Feb 20, 1947 and replaced by Louis Mountbatten.

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2018 Military History Monthly Book Awards for your latest publication The Black Watch: Fighting in the Frontline 1899-2006. Why is the Black Watch so unique?

The Black Watch is unique because it is the United Kingdom’s oldest Highland — as opposed to Lowland — regiment. I make the distinction between Highland and Lowland because, just like the tribes of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, your clan defined your identity. Those clans who supported the Hanoverian instead of the Stuart line of royal succession were granted the privilege of carrying arms and wearing their tartan kilts, and those who joined the Black Watch were among the first Highland clans to do so. Their legacy remains in the courage and loyalty they have consistently shown not just to their sovereign, but also to each other.

What was the impact of new technology on regiments of the colonial and postcolonial eras?

New technology had a huge impact. The second volume of my history of the Black Watch begins with the Boer War, which signifies the beginnings of industrialised warfare, made manifest during World War I. In the previous centuries, more soldiers died from illness and disease than in combat. With new weaponry, the statistics of death through enemy firepower rose immeasurably, if you think in terms of the estimated 20,000 fatalities on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In the previous two centuries [covered in Volume 1], these soldiers were fighting to establish empires; in the 20th century, they were initially fighting to retain control over their empires or re-align their borders, but they were also having to accommodate the rising phenomenon of nationalism which saw the dismantling of the old order. A point of interest is that the Black Watch was the last British regiment to leave Pakistan in February 1948 and was present when Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese in 1997.

What led you to write a biography of Wavell?

I had written so much on the dispute between India and Pakistan over the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, and my research kept bringing me back to what happened at independence and Partition. I soon realised that the answer did not lie in Mountbatten’s tenure as viceroy (March-August 1947), but in what had happened during the tenure of the previous viceroy — Wavell — who had held the position from October 1943 to February 1947, and whose biography had not previously been written. I had a service background myself because my father had served in the Royal Navy and so it wasn’t quite as daunting to write on military matters as you might think. But that didn’t mean that the challenge wasn’t tremendous, especially as I had to write about both world wars and then tackle the subject that had drawn me to Wavell, the events leading to independence and Partition.

In the Second World War, as commander-in-chief in the Middle East and later India, how did Wavell negotiate that difficult path between military exigencies and the political imperatives?

One of the challenges of any army officer is following the dictates of his political masters even if the course of action does not appear to be militarily sound. And, as is evident from the history of their relationship, Wavell and Winston Churchill did not always see eye to eye, mainly because Churchill was looking at the bigger picture, wanting to be told that everything he thought politically possible was also militarily feasible. What Wavell did was put a damper on those expectations, which annoyed Churchill. The only time Wavell deviated from this was when he continued with the mission to provide assistance to Greece in 1941, extolling the political value of sending troops even if the mission was ultimately doomed. But there were special reasons for this and hindsight often paints too generalised a picture. What is interesting about Wavell is the loyalty he inspired even when he was suffering military defeats — which mainly came about because he did not have anything like the men or firepower that ensured the success of later generals. He had great courage, but he also had great humility, which is uncommon especially in a senior general.

Wavell loved poetry, wrote biographies and learned Pashto, Urdu and Russian. How did this influence his worldview?

It is often said that Wavell was among the most intelligent and literate soldiers of his time. Again, this is where time and place are important. If there had been no Second World War, he might well have taken early retirement and ended up as a professor at Oxford University. But even his service in the army did not prevent him from enjoying poetry — a common interest for many of his generation because there were so few other distractions. He obviously was a good linguist since he had been selected to go to Russia to learn Russian. But we must recognise that in the army, if one was serving abroad, it was imperative to learn languages — an added incentive being an increase in pay. Being

posted to India, the soldiers had to learn Urdu, and then to take up a posting in the North-West Frontier [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa], knowledge of Pashto was essential. In terms of Wavell’s worldview, the number and variety of places in which he served gave him an international outlook, partly because he was so literate and widely read. Who today, for example, reads James Elroy Flecker’s Hassan?

How did Wavell try to break the deadlock between Congress and the Muslim League?

Wavell knew and understood India better than many of his contemporaries, having lived there both as a young boy and as an army officer. As viceroy, he travelled widely in India and realised that the transfer of power was inevitable and that the differing communities must be treated fairly. The impediment he faced — one that was also encountered by Mountbatten — was the lack of trust between the Muslim League and the Congress party. They could not agree over power-sharing and the Muslims felt threatened by the superior numbers of the Congress which was not anxious to relinquish control because, on the basis of ‘democracy’, they believed that the voice of the majority should prevail.

What were the implications on India of the Second World War coming to an end?

The end of the Second World War had huge implications because it meant that the British could no longer put off their promise of granting self-government to India. That Churchill was defeated in the general election in 1945 meant that a new prime minister, Clement Attlee, took over and he was committed to carrying this out. But, to be historically accurate, by the end of the war Churchill had also come to realise that decolonisation had to take place and it was under his authority that the Simla Conference was held in 1945, bringing together Indian political leaders as a prelude to commencing discussions on self-government. And so, even if Churchill had remained prime minister, I think the process of transferring power would have continued. Let’s also not forget that Britain was under a tremendous financial obligation to the United States government that was pressurising Britain to decolonise.

What was Wavell’s Breakdown Plan for Indian independence?

While discussions between the Indian political leaders remained deadlocked, and with a fear that law and order would break down if Britain did not take some steps towards transferring power, Wavell conceived what he called the ‘Breakdown Plan’: the withdrawal of British presence into the north-west and north-eastern wings of the subcontinent where there was still contention between the main communities — Muslim, Hindu and Sikh — which would effectively give independence to those areas where there was no conflict. This was before the idea for Partition was formalised. But the British government labelled the plan ‘defeatist’ and it did not get any traction in London.

Why was Wavell dismissed from his post as viceroy so suddenly in February 1947?

Given the rejection of Wavell’s Breakdown Plan, a belief had developed in London that a new viceroy was required to inject energy into the discussions and Attlee chose Admiral Lord Mountbatten. Wavell did feel that he had been shabbily treated because his dismissal was hurried, but — given the pressures the British felt they were under and the mounting expectations in India — the government obviously did not consider itself bound to observe the niceties of a particular time-frame. Wavell had been appointed as a ‘wartime’ viceroy and was well aware that he had remained longer than initially expected. The events also have to be put in the context of the abnormal post-war conditions worldwide. The Middle East was explosive and the political leaders were reacting to situations as they saw fit rather than sticking to pre-conceived plans. People often talk of conspiracies, but this credits those involved with far too much foresight than ever existed.

The interviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 18th, 2018

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