A passion for conflict

Orde Wingate: Irregular Soldier

Trevor Royle

Weidenfeld £20

In the Twenties, gentlemen cadets at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, had a nasty little way of disciplining a contemporary who was unpopular, unconventional or both.

Called "running", it was not an official punishment, but a sort of half- serious lynching, one of those sadistic rituals with which closed societies enforce conformity through humiliation. A baying mob of cadets would arrive outside the victim's room and announce the sentence. He would then be stripped naked, taken to the rugby pitch and made to run the gauntlet between two lines of cadets, who would lash him with knotted towels or swagger sticks. Finally he would be thrown into a water tank.

Orde Wingate's offence was that he was in the habit of cutting parade so as to make sure he had first choice of the best horse. When the lynch mob arrived, "Orde walked very slowly the whole way down the line, with a dangerous look in his eye". Few of the cadets could bring themselves to strike him, an eyewitness records, and most slunk away feeling ashamed of themselves.

Orde Wingate never lacked courage and never gave a damn about popularity. The British officer class produced regiments of disciplined boobies, as brave as lions and as dim as donkeys, for the peacetime round of parade ground and company office, hunting field and messnight. But it also always produced a saving minimum of wayward originals, men whose idea of soldiering was not to be safely conformist on Salisbury Plain but to be alone with a handful of devoted soldiers in the world's dangerous places.

They learned languages and wrote poetry, crossed deserts and climbed mountains, and ignored orders if they thought them stupid. Orde Wingate was one of the last, the greatest and the most wayward of these military individualists. When he was killed in an aircrash in Burma in 1944, aged only 40, Winston Churchill, one of the breed himself, said that Wingate was "a man of genius who might also have become a man of destiny".

His military genius as a leader of irregular troops is not in serious question now. He proved it in Palestine between 1936 and 1940, where he formed and led Jewish settlers in Special Night Squadrons to protect their settlements from Arab raiders. He became - to the amazement of anti- Semitic officers and Arabophile administrators - a convinced Zionist, inspired by the romantic passion for the Old Testament he had inherited from his father, an Indian army colonel of evangelical faith, and from his mother's family, who were Plymouth Brethren.

He proved it again in his astonishing campaign to put the ousted Emperor of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie, back on the throne from which Mussolini had ejected him. He led a ragamuffin Gideon Force of 1,000 Ethiopian irregulars commanded by officers who included the explorer Wilfred Thesiger and such romantically named Sudan hands as Bimbashi Harris and Maxwell Bey. After a 1,000-mile campaign he and they outmanoeuvred an Italian army nearly ten times larger than his own and then conned them into surrendering.

Back in Cairo after this triumph, but cold-shouldered by the military bureaucracy, Wingate tried to cut his own throat with a Bowie knife. (It had been given to him by an American war correspondent called Hiram B Blauveldt.) He was suffering from cerebral malaria at the time, of which one of the symptoms is dementia. He was also undoubtedly in a passion of fury at the way the military bureaucracy passed him over after one of the great feats of arms of the war.

Finally, he demonstrated his gifts by the two campaigns of his Chindits against the Japanese in Burma. Wingate's idea was that radio and air supply would enable properly trained forces to penetrate deep behind the enemy's lines and survive, cutting his communications, forcing him to divert resources and sapping his morale. The first Chindit campaign, in 1943, was an epic. Marching hundreds of miles through the steep jungle of northern Burma, Wingate's irregulars achieved their objectives and succeeded in withdrawing, though with heavy casualties.Their second campaign had the enthusiastic backing of Winston Churchill, but only grudging support from the staff in Delhi and from Fourteenth Army commander, Sir William Slim, who was in two minds about Wingate.

Wingate was never in two minds about anything. He was one of the most single-minded men ever to argue with a superior commander for more troops or to lead men through pestiferous jungle with 60-pound packs on their backs. On his way home to meet the fiance who was waiting for him, he decided he was in love with a schoolgirl of 16 and by sheer force of personality persuaded her to marry him and her parents, wealthy and cautious Scots, to agree.

He was also more than a little mad. More conventional officers certainly thought he was crazy. But then they also disapproved of his insistence on making sure his troops ate lots of salads and fresh vegetables, and they simply couldn't understand his belief in the fighting qualities of Jewish soldiers. One of Wingate's most attractive qualities was his belief that men of every background, not just the "fighting races", could be turned into good soldiers if the motivation and the leadership existed to a sufficient degree.

Like many charismatic leaders, Wingate cultivated eccentricity. His uniform was always scruffy, and he went into battle in a 19th-century "Wolseley helmet". He rarely cleaned his teeth, brushed himself with something like an oversized toothbrush, and liked to wander round his headquarters naked.

Trevor Royle, in this perceptive and fair-minded reassessment, which on balance restores Wingate's reputation and rescues it from his detractors, concludes that his hero probably suffered from cyclothymia, a mild form of manic depression.

To which Winston Churchill, a sufferer from depression himself, might have responded rather as Abraham Lincoln did when they came to him and told him that Ulysses S Grant drank too much: "Find out what kind of whisky he drinks, and give it to my other generals".

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own