Major General Orde Wingate 1903 - 1944

History: Key Figures
Home Page > History > Key Figures > Major General Orde Wingate 1903 - 1944

Transcript of a Lecture given by Trevor Royle in Edinburgh on 17 September 2002

What The Centre has been doing in Leeds, is of primary importance for anyone who is interested in British history over the past century because history never can be just a matter of dusty dates. It can never be about the way in which one King succeeded another. It can never be just the descriptions of battles. Its about the way in which ordinary people react to great events, and that is the one of the great things that The Centre has been doing. It brings us face to face with the reality of warfare and most of us, although not all of us, in this room have never had to face that reality. I say that because when my book on Orde Wingate came out in 1996 it started a summer season of debate in The Times Literary Supplement which quite astonished me. The book was reviewed by John Keegan, favourably I am pleased to say, but what happened next was not so much about the book. It was about whether or not the Chindits were a good thing. Whether or not Wingate was a good leader or a bad leader, and for a summer silly season those who supported Wingate and the Chindits argued their side of the battle, while those who thought that Wingate and the Chindits were a side show who had taken away effort, material, ammunition and personnel from the great battle at Imphal in 1944. They thought of course, that it was just a silly side show. So I was quite content actually to let these two sides continue arguing, but it did show to me that even in 1996, long after the Second World War had ended, what happens in 1943 and 1944 was very much alive and living for those who had taken part in those momentous events.

I want to begin though not in 1943 or 1944, but in the summer of 1941, the period which I think gave rise to the creation of The Chindit Forces. The place, The Continental Hotel in Cairo, an anonymous room. A Major of Artillery called Orde Charles Wingate goes up to his bedroom, closes the door and then attempts to commit suicide. With him he has a Bowie hunting knife which had been given to him by an American war correspondent during the recent operations in Ethiopia. He doesn't lock the door. Goes to the mirror. Takes out a hunting knife and jabs it into the right hand side of his neck. Misses the artery. Looks around and suddenly realises that the door isn't locked. With the knife still in his neck, walks across to the door, locks it. Goes back to the mirror and has a go at the left hand side. Again he misses. Collapses on the floor. Fortunately next door is another officer who had lunched well, no doubt unwisely, hears the bump, goes into the room and finds Wingate lying on the floor bleeding copiously.

Wingate is taken to The 15th General Hospital in Cairo where they set about pumping fourteen pints of blood into him. Now in those days blood transfusion was in its infancy, and I owe this to the actor David Rintoul who played Dr Finlay recently in the television series. His Father was a doctor with 15th General Hospital and he said that the blood in fact was contained in Gordons Gin bottles. So I guess that if the spirit didn't get to Wingate the tonic certainly did.

They saved him, but as Wingate lay there he became convinced that the doctors and nurses roundabout him were devils come to torment him. That his childhood fears had finally come true. That he had died and hadn't been given the benison of going to heaven but he was condemned forever to utter darkness. He screamed and shouted. Now these were good Presbyterians that he was shouting at and they didn't like it one little bit until eventually a Catholic Chaplain came into the operating theatre and Wingate looked at him and said "am I damned", and the chaplain looked at him and said "no, you are saved", and at that moment, just as a bright dawn can get rid of the night time fears of the storm the night before, Wingate suddenly realised that he was saved, and that is why I began my book with these words. " The day that he tried to kill himself in Cairo, Major Orde Charles Wingate was finally convinced that he had been born to do great things".

An odd way to start a book, a suicide, an attempt to do away with yourself. An odd way for a very ambitious young officer who had already had a great future behind him, if you know what I mean. He had led the patriot forces in the invasion of Ethiopia. He had helped to put King Haile Selassie back on his throne, but suddenly everything had gone awry, hence the suicide attempt.

His patron, General Archibald Wavell, had been sacked as a result of The Afrika Corps attack on Egypt and he himself, Wingate, was in disgrace for having written an intemperate report about the re-conquest of Ethiopia, in which he had condemned everyone bar those who had fought with him. Said harsh words about the High Command and accused the British Empire of trying to do a dirty deal in Ethiopia.

Now there are times in your life when you can get away with writing reports of that kind, but when you are a Major of Artillery in the middle of a war in which Britain is fighting to save herself, that might not have been one of those moments, and Wingate felt that he was in disgrace. He felt that everything he had done that had gone before him counted for nothing. That his great plans of doing God's great work on earth was lying in tatters, and so the only thing to do was to go up to his bedroom in The Continental Hotel and stick a Bowie knife first in one side of his neck and then the other.

Wingate survived the assault on his body. The blood transfusions worked. He was probably saved too by having his neck packed like that so that not doing the job properly. He was also found to have malaria, and I gather afterwards that the mixture of the malaria bodies inside his bloodstream together with the medication that he was doing did induce depression of some kind or another, but my own feeling is that Wingate, at that moment when he did decide to do away with himself, was trying to commit suicide, because he felt that nothing that had gone before was going to help him and that his career was lying in tatters.

Now to understand why Wingate should have done such a thing, which is quite unusual I would imagine for an officer in The British Army, we have to go back to his family background, his childhood and his education, because to understand the man sometimes we have to find out what drove the boy.

Wingate came from a military background. His Father was an officer in The Indian Army. His Mother's family, the Orde-Browns, were also from an Army background, but the big driving factor in his childhood was the fact that his Mother's family, the Orde-Brown's, were Plymouth Brothers, and his Father's family came from a Scottish family which had their roots back in Stirlingshire, in Glasgow, and they were very much connected with The Church of Scotland, and after 1843, the great disruption with The Free Church of Scotland, his Grandfather, William, had been a minister in the Church of Scotland's mission in Hungary to convert Jews to Christianity, and Wingate took a great deal of interest in that background. I mean as a, he wasn't a fervent Scot. He was never a Scottish Nationalist. He hadn't even thought of himself as being a Scot, although there are photographs of him as a young man wearing his family's Douglas kilts, but what it did leave him with was the religious fundamentalism that came from his association with The Free Church of Scotland, that salvation wasn't just a matter of going to heaven, it was a matter of wrestling of the individual's soul with God, and that no earthly authority, however august, must be allowed to come between.

He was born in India in 1903 at Naini Tal in The United Provinces, and like many other people who were born in India he came back to an England that was a foreign land. His family went to live at Godalming in Surrey, and he himself was eventually educated at Charterhouse. He wasn't educated as a boarding school boy. He was educated as a day school boy and so he missed out, I suppose, on the public school ethos which was very much printed into Charterhouse at that time. This also meant of course, that he never had any feelings at all about Charterhouse, and I guess he might have shared Max Hastings' great comment about Charterhouse "that no day is too short to do an old Carthusian down".

After Charterhouse he followed his Father into the Army and was commissioned into The Royal Regiment of Artillery, which meant that he went to The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He was an indifferent young cadet. He didn't join in, but he was a good horseman, and therein lay one of the earliest moments which led to, almost led to, his undoing. He made sure always that he got the best horses so that he could go out hacking with them. He was also a member of the local hunt. He was very keen on horses, and horses were very good with him, but because he was always pushing himself forward he stood accused of his, of the cadets in his year, of being too pushy, of being too keen, of just being a bit too different. Now at Woolwich in those days they had a system of dealing with cadets who didn't conform. It was called "running". Basically what happened was that you were pulled out of your bunk, you were stripped naked and you were made to run the gauntlet of your fellow cadets, who stood either with, whipped you with knotted towels or a swagger stick to give you a damned good hiding as you went past, and then they threw you into one of the water tanks.

Wingate was run, but he dealt with his running in a quite different way. He stood in front of his tormentors, carefully stripped himself b**** naked, walked between them looking with them eye in eye. Got down to the tank, dived in and that was the end of the story. Nobody dared hit him.

So I think that gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of person that he was. I mean he came from a background where he felt always that unless he kept himself within the precepts of Christianity, unless he kept himself within a covenant with God, he was never going to do God's great work and would be forever dammed. That was both a strength and a weakness. It was also an interesting characteristic I think for a young officer in The British Army in the inter war years.

I am going to have to skip very quickly over what happened next because it's not part of the Chindit story.

After leaving Woolwich he was commissioned into The Royal Regiment of Artillery and, like many other young men of that period, he looked on the Empire as a means of getting on in his Army career. He served with The Sudan Defence Force and was interested, in fact was one of the people who was very keen to find the oasis of the Zurroh (ph). Those of us who have seen The English Patient will know the kind of thing that he was involved in, and he also served in Palestine before the war, where he developed the special night squads which were set up by The British Army to protect Jewish settlements during the Arab revolts. This led him of course, to being a Zionist. Many people thought with his angular dark looks that he must be a Jew himself. He wasn't as I have explained. He came from a Scottish background, but its certainly true that he did espouse Zionism at a time when it was most unpopular in The British Army. In the Middle East The British Army tended to be pro-Arab, and for Wingate to take a pro-Zionist point of view of course, was considered to be quite remarkable.

So fast forward again to Cairo and the summer of 1941. Wingate, after having tried to commit suicide, got his career back on course. Now I know there are several people in the audience tonight who either have been in the Army, or are in the Army today, and they will know that sometimes you have to make your own luck. Sometimes when appointments come up, when promotions are in question, the luck that you either have made for yourself at that moment, or you have made for yourself in the past, will come to your rescue, and so it was with Wingate. From being a disgraced, well, not disgraced. Suicide isn't exactly a plus mark in your Army record, but from being a disgraced Major in The Royal Regiment of Artillery, with perhaps not much looking out for him, he suddenly got a message from India from his old patron Archibald Wavell, who had been sent to India to command the forces there at the time when India was facing invasion by the Japanese through Burma and Assam.

It was one of those invitations I guess that any young officer would kill for. It more or less said "come across to India. See what you can do to try and help us fight the Japanese. You can do what you like. Its an open book. See what you can do, see what you can do to help us". So in the rank of Half Colonel he was sent to India on unspecified staff duties.

Wingate, being Wingate of course, jumped at it, because he didn't just see this as a simple command from the staff in India. He didn't just see this as a behest from his old patron Archibald Wavell. He saw God's hand at work. Suddenly after all those years of playing around in the wilderness, trying to find himself, of even trying to kill himself in Cairo, had come to fruition. There was a chance in life and he was determined to take it.

© Trevor Royle