A Gnarled Oak with a Broken Heart

Maj. Gen. Syed Ali Hamid pays tribute to Field Marshal Auchinleck

A Gnarled Oak with a Broken Heart
Seventy years have elapsed since Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck handed over the British India Army to its successors and 37 years since he passed away. But his memories remain in Pakistan. A couple of decades ago when Brian Cloughley (author of a book on the Pakistan Army) was stationed at Astor with the UN Observer Group, he saw a picture of the Auk (i.e. Field Marshal Auchinleck) hanging in the office of a battalion commander. When Brian expressed surprise and pleasure, the colonel said simply, “He’ll never be forgotten.”

In Jhelum, which was the Training Centre for Auchinleck’s battalion, the 62 Punjabis (renumbered as 1st Punjab), the Auchinleck Lines still bear his name and the museum of the Punjab Regimental Centre in Mardan, proudly displays the swords and medals that he bequeathed to the regiment in his will.

In the gardens of the C-in-C's residence, Delhi - 1945

Throughout the armies of the British Empire, he was referred to as “The Auk” and I often wondered why ‘the’, the only definite article in the English language, was attached to the diminutive of his name. As a determiner, ‘the’ is used to refer to a particular object or person who is unique. In spite of Montgomery’s successes and great appeal to the British public, he was never referred to as ‘The Monty’, and even Field Marshal Slim, the soldier’s general, was fondly known as ‘Uncle Bill’ but not ‘The Slim’. I partly found the answer in the copious files and records of my late father Maj. Gen. Syed Shahid Hamid who served as Private Secretary to the Auk in the two years before Independence. There is a folder on the Auk that contains press clippings related tohis second tenure as Commander-in-Chief, India as well as obituaries and letters to the editor that appeared in the British press when the field marshal passed away in 1981. All of these together provide glimpses on his nature and what made him ‘The Auk’.

Auchinleck had two tenures as C-in-C, India; a brief one of a few months in 1941 and a much longer second that lasted from 1943 (when he was dismissed as C-in-C Middle East Command), till Independence.

Celebration for the 80th birthday of Field Marshal Auchinleck at the 'In and Out' Club in London, 1964. With him are Maj Gen & Begum Shahid Hamid and their son Hassan

“In the days before the war, the Indian Army had already decided that the man they would like as C-in-C would be ‘The Auk’,” states an article titled ‘Britain meets, and likes the Auk’ that was published in the Illustrated magazine in 1945. “But” it continues, “they thought regretfully that two ‘faults” would present an insurmountable bar – he did not belong to the cavalry and he and his wife were much too informal for the stiffness of Delhi.”

Three of Auchinleck’s immediate predecessors, Field Marshal William Birdwood, Field Marshal Chetwode and General Robert Cassels, were all associated with the cavalry but this did not prove to be a bar to the Auk’s appointment as C-in-C India. Nor was the informality of the Auk and his wife a barrier to a second stint as C-in-C and the magazine reports a “complete absence of ‘stuffed shirt’ atmosphere in the C-in-C’s house [...] He is by nature a simple man and his pleasures are simple too. An Aberdeen terrier is lord of the house and a pair of Sarus cranes are kings of the garden”.

The pomp previously associated with a visit by the C-in-C to headquarters and units also ceased. “No ceremonial parades are arranged to greet him. Work and parades carry on normally, and woe betide the C.O. who arranges something special for ‘The Auk’ who keeps a keen look-out for ‘eyewash’.”

Celebration for the 80th birthday of Field Marshal Auchinleck at the 'In and Out' Club in London, 1964. With him are Maj Gen & Begum Shahid Hamid and their son Hassan

The article attributes his phenomenal memory for names of officers and soldiers to a combination of hard work and a genuine interest. And the Auk studied all lists of casualties, promotions and appointments with care. “Not so long ago, the C-in-C came to visit a battalion which he had not seen since 1936. On the way to the parade ground, a Jemadar passed and saluted. The Auk stopped. ‘Well Hardev Singh’, he said, ‘how are you?’, and the ensuing conversation showed that he recollected everything about the man.”

A similar impression of the Auk is conveyed by Douglas Kay in an article published in 1946 titled ‘The man who will hold India together.’

Talking to a young cadet in a Boys' Battalion

“To tour with ‘the Auk’ – an exhausting experience since he insists on seeing everything and at 62, in a temperature of 110 degrees, can walk most people off their feet – is to realize how deep the influence of one man can be….. ‘The Auk’ needs no briefing. Most of the COs he calls by their Christian names, he seems to know every subedar major in the Indian Army personally, and as he passes down the ranks, he will stop and talk to sepoy after sepoy about his district.”

Both the articles equate the Auk with Lord ‘Bob’ Roberts of Kandahar fame in the regard they were held by the Indian Army. Douglas Kay also observed that the Auk, “[…] is respected, trusted and revered almost like a God”. While to the officer corps he was ‘The Auk’ or ‘Chief’, to the rank and file he was ‘Laat Saheb’, a term whose genesis was ‘Lord Sahib’.
The Auk was an intensely private person. It was one thing that Lal Deen could take advantage of, being his servant, but he would not allow an indiscretion even from a close friend

Maj Gen Bill Cawthorn, the Director Military Intelligence in Delhi during the War and his wife Mary were living adjacent to the C-in-C’s house and grew very close to the Auk. Mary remembers him as a shy and somewhat isolated figure, sitting at the top of the huge Indian Army pyramid. She also remembers how the Auk reacted to the news of being promoted to field marshal. Both Montgomery and Alexander were junior to the Auk but had been awarded the rank earlier. On the day in 1946 when his appointment came through, he called on her, obviously delighted about something and aching to tell her about it; but he simply could not say it, and when she heard the news later in the day and hurried to the Commander-in-Chief’s house to congratulate him, she found him walking alone in the garden with no celebration seemingly wanted or planned. However the Auk had his moments of relaxation as Mary discloses in a letter to Maj Gen Hamid.

When the Auk was not to be found, we hardly liked to ask where he was,” she recalls.

The Auk listens to a veteran sharing his problems

“He was fishing in war time!” She remembers many happy hours spent with him playing “….a silly game called ‘Football’ which was on a board with wooden footballers on rods which we moved about to play the game. This was the kind of fun we had in the midst of a serious war,” writes Mary and confesses, “We had to act the fool in order to forget our worries.”

It was not Churchill’s government but that of Attlee during which the Auk was awarded the Field Marshal’s baton – but there is evidence that Churchill greatly respected the Auk’s soldierly qualities. In spite of dismissing Auchinleck as C-in-C Middle East Command, within his writings on the Second World War, Churchill admitted:

“It was like shooting a magnificent stag”.

However Sir John Langford-Holt accuses Churchill of not telling the whole story and endeavours to set the record straight in a letter to the editor on the eve of a memorial service for the Auk. “In 1948 when I was a very young MP in the Conservative party, then led by Sir Winston, I happened to be sitting alone with him. […] At one point in our conversation I asked Churchill who in his view was the greatest general that Britain produced in the war.[…] Churchill’s answer was immediate and definite – Auchinleck”.

Peter Godwin was stationed in Delhi in 1946 as a Public Relation Liaison Officer with the Indian Army when the Auk befriended him. Peter wrote a book on the Auk but unfortunately he lost the manuscript. However, in a set of notes that he sent my father after the Auk’s death, Peter recounts his meetings with the Field Marshal. Appearing prominently in Peter’s recollections is Lal Deen, the Auk’s private servant for many years and a mother hen to the ‘Laat Saheb’. When the Auk visited Karachi in 1951, Peter was staying in the room next to him at the Metropole Hotel. One morning he walked into the Auk’s room as he had to accompany him to a meeting with Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan.

The Chief looked tired and pale of face”, recollects Peter. “Lal Deen was in the room attending to him. He (Lal Deen) turned to me and said in the vernacular ‘Look at the Lat Sahib’s face – no colour in his face – too many drink parties consuming all that liquor’. The Chief said ‘Chup raho’ (be silent). Lal Deen retorted, “Why should I be silent in front of Peter Sahib? He is one of us.’ The Chief said to me in an undertone, ‘Lal Deen takes advantage of me in his position as my personal servant’”.

When the Auk visited Rawalpindi a few years later, Peter was living there. He recollects asking Lal Deen what dye the Laat Sahib used because at his advanced age of 72 years, the Auk had hardly any discernable grey hairs. Lal Deen said, “Nonsense, Peter Sahib. The Laat Sahib uses no dye in his hair”. That evening when Peter dropped the Auk back from a boxing match that he witnessed along with General Ayub Khan, C-in-C Pakistan Army, while walking up the steps the Auk paused, turned around and said, “I would like you to know that I do not use any dye in my hair”. “Lal Deen has been talking out of turn, Sir,” replied Peter. “Nonsense!” exclaimed the Auk. “You have been talking out of turn for discussing me with Lal Deen”.

The Auk was an intensely private person. It was one thing that Lal Deen could take advantage of being his servant, but he would not allow an indiscretion even from a close friend. There is a sequel to this incident that provides a glimpse of the Auk’s sense of humour. Years later Peter happened to be in London and Auchinleck invited him for lunch at the ‘In and Out’ Club. They were joined at the table by Field Marshal Alexander who knew the Auk intimately since 1935 when the two had commanded neighboring brigades in the North West Frontier Province. “When the Chief bent his head to look at the menu card, I happened to casually glance at his head,” recollects Peter. “He intercepted my look and said in his usual gruff voice, ‘Still no dye in my hair, Peter’.”

Gordon Brook-Shepherd, an intelligence officer turned author who became a friend of the Auk in London, wrote a touching obituary. He felt that the Auk’s death called “[…] for more than a military obituary,” unlike others that appeared in the press. “Our last surviving World War II Field Marshal was not merely a model of outward dedication to this profession, his sovereign and his empire. The dedication and the sense of propriety it produced went so deep down inside the man that, though ill-used by his political masters, underestimated by his contemporaries and finally robbed of his most cherished hopes, he nonetheless spurned repeated post-war offers to fight his battles with the pen[…] Instead, a silence that was unrelenting yet, amazingly not bitter, a silence sustained by the conviction that history itself would set right the crooked record of his career”.

The Auk stood by his code of conduct.

Qurban Ali Khan, Inspector General of Police and later Governor of NWFP, was a good friend of the Auk. While studying in London during the 1950s, his son Asad frequently called on the Auk. On one occasion, Asad had to wait in the small lobby because the Auk was busy with John Connell who was writing his biography. The two were having a heated discussion because the author wanted to include some information in the manuscript that the Auk was privy to but was not prepared to allow it. Finally Asad heard the Auk say forcefully, “John! You don’t understand. It’s not the done thing”.

Much has been said and written about the Auk versus Montgomery in the context of the campaign in North Africa but the Auk was not prepared to enter into the debate. Mary Cawthorn recalls that the Auk would “shut up like a clam” when anyone as much mentioned the dramas of the desert war. Colin Legum, a South African journalist and the Auk’s friend of many years standing writes that, “Only once did he allow himself to write a letter to the Sunday Times correcting one of Montgomery’s searing untruths which kindly, he attributed to a faulty memory”.

The author’s elder brother Hassan (whom the Auk was very fond of), was studying in Cambridge University during the 1950s and invited the Auk to deliver a talk to the Pakistan Society. “On what?” enquired the Auk. Hassan suggested the war in North Africa, Montgomery, etc. On hearing Montgomery’s name the Auk commented, “Silly man”

In his tribute Colin Legum reflects on Auchinleck’s life of loneliness in London after his retirement: “A gnarled formidable oak with a broken heart. But living by his old fashioned code of private conduct, he steadfastly refused to defend himself against the diminishing of his role. […] with oriental fatalism he left his career to be judged by history. Living alone at 3 Down Street, Mayfair, […] his modest flat became a place of pilgrimage for Indian and Pakistani friends alike. He would stride alone around London looking for new Indian restaurants […] There were those moments of reward when on entering restaurants or while strolling, he would be greeted by men who had known him in the Army. ‘Good God. The Auk!’ Invariably followed by a stiffening of the arms at the side and a corrective ‘Sir!’ Then the Auk’s eyes – narrowed to a slit by decades in the hot sun – would brighten, and he would allow himself that infrequent hardly perceptible vulnerable smile which showed his real kindness and innate gentleness.”

I, as a boy of 13 years, was fortunate in witnessing one of these encounters while accompanying the Auk to Nathiagali with his father in 1962. We were walking through a small bazaar when an old man shot out of a shop and gleefully greeted the Auk. He had served in the Auk’s battalion (1/1 Punjabis), and hugged him. I saw the Auk with that ‘hardly perceptible vulnerable smile’ greet the veteran by his name and standing in the middle of the road, the two shared a few minutes of camaraderie – field marshal and sepoy.