The English general, statesman, and writer Archibald Percival Wavell, 1st Earl Wavell (1883-1950), is best known for his devastating victories over the Italians in 1940 and 1941.
Archibald Percival Wavell, the son of Maj. Gen. Archibald Graham Wavell, was born on May 5, 1883, at Colchester. After spending 3 years in Summer Fields, the famous preparatory school at Oxford, he won a scholarship to Winchester and entered in 1896. As a student, he developed a well-disciplined and comprehensive intellectual ability. When he was 17 he passed on to Sandhurst; a year later he was commissioned into the Black Watch. In 1901 he was sent to South Africa, where he served as a subaltern in the later stages of the Boer War.
After the war Wavell continued his vigorous pursuit of a military career. In 1903 he went to India, where he remained for five years and served with distinction. Leaving there in 1908, he entered the staff college at Camberly, which, at that time, represented the stepping-stone to extraregimental promotion. He then spent several years in Russia studying the language and customs of the people and attending army maneuvers. In 1912, at the age of 29, he was appointed to the War Office.
When World War I broke out, Wavell was eager to serve in France, and in September 1914 his opportunity came. He spent most of the next two years in France, but in 1915 he managed a short leave to marry Eugenie Marie Quirk in England. In 1916 he was back in France and engaged in an attack at Ypres Salient, where he was wounded and lost his left eye. After a short convalescence he returned to France for another brief tour, and then later in the year he was sent to Russia to serve as the British military representative on the staff of the Grand Duke Nicholas. With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, however, he was again reassigned and rounded out the war years serving in the Near East under Gen. Allenby, a man from whom he learned lasting lessons about conduct of war.
In the interwar years Wavell gained a wide reputation in public as well as professional quarters. In spite of some unorthodox ideas, such as his statement that "my ideal infantryman has the qualities of a successful poacher, a cat burglar and a gunman, " he advanced steadily. In 1930 he received command of the 6th Brigade at Blackdown, and in 1935 he was appointed commander of the 2d Division at Aldershot. Two years later he was appointed to assume the command in Palestine, and in 1938 he was called home to receive the important Southern Command. One year later, on the eve of World War II, he accepted the appointment of general officer commander in chief, Middle East, in which capacity all of his talents would be tested severely.
In the Middle East, Wavell not only commanded a vast area but also faced an enemy much larger and better supplied than his own forces. Once the war began, he was, moreover, under constant pressure from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to achieve victory immediately and at all cost. But Wavell possessed a quiet resolve, a sense of daring, and a grasp of strategy that made him equal to his task. When, on Sept. 12, 1940, the Italians invaded Egypt, he successfully defended his position and in December launched his own devastating counteroffensive. Under his direction the Italians were completely defeated; Tobruk and Benghazi were captured, and Mussolini's empire in Ethiopia was liquidated.
In the spring of 1941, however, the Germans were successful in Greece and Crete, and Wavell's counteroffensive in North Africa failed. Churchill, consequently, decided to replace Wavell with Sir Claude Auchinleck. Wavell, in turn, assumed Auchinleck's position as commander in chief in India. After Japan entered the war, he became allied commander of the Southwest Pacific, and, fighting again against great odds, he lost Malaya and Burma. From 1943 to 1947 he served as one of the last viceroys of India. In 1943 he also was promoted to field marshal and was created Viscount Wavell of Cyrenaica and Winchester. In 1947 he was created earl.
Wavell was a likable and many-sided man who always had the respect and confidence of his men. As a soldier, he was uncomplaining and professional. His reputation survived all of his misfortunes; he was a general of exceptional quality. He also was a scholar and a talented writer. He published The Palestine Campaigns (1928), Allenby: A Study in Greatness (1940), Generals and Generalship (1941), Allenby in Egypt (1943), Other Men's Flowers: An Anthology of Poetry (1944), Speaking Generally (1946), The Good Soldier (1947), and Soldiers and Soldiering (1954). In 1947 he retired to London, where he died on May 24, 1950.
The best book on Wavell is John H. Robertson (John Connell, pseudonym), Wavell: Scholar and Soldier (1964), a brilliant, exciting biography that thoroughly relates Wavell's career up to June 1941. Winston Churchill's The Grand Alliance (1950) and The Hinge of Fate (1950), along with Anthony Eden, The Reckoning (1965), provide interesting reflections on Wavell. Useful specialized studies include Correlli Barnett, The Desert Generals (1960); Anthony Heckstall-Smith and H. T. Baillie-Grohman, Greek Tragedy: 1941 (1961); and B. N. Pandey, The Break-up of British India (1969). For a full appreciation of Wavell his own works should be consulted.
Lewin, Ronald, The chief: Field Marshall Lord Wavell, Commander-in-Chief and Viceroy, 1939-1947, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980.