"SOME FAILURES are greater than successes," Nehru said consolingly to Wavell on bidding goodbye to him in 1947. Wavell must have looked up sharply (or was it down, sadly?), and bitten off the retort, "But I wasn't a failure," to which Nehru, who was a kindly man, might have replied, "I meant that your policies, though right, didn't succeed," and the conversation would have languished.

A man of action is remembered for triumph over adversity. Otherwise, he is not remembered at all. If the truth be told, as Ronald Lewin tells it in The Chief, Wavell had only one triumph, over the Italians in Africa, which now no longer counts, because it led nowhere except to a very temporary surge in British morale. The remainder of his career was a catalogue of disappointments. He never defeated the Germans in battle. He never defeated the Japanese. As Viceroy of India he failed where Mountbatten succeeded. As so often before, other men gathered the flowers he sowed. His name now arouses only the vaguest associations in the minds of young Englishmen. He is not destined to become an all-time great. Greatness assumes enduring fame. Lewin (who has a good eye for quotation) cites Auden: a "History to the defeated May say Alas but cannot help or pardon."

Wavell's semi-eclipse might seem undeserved, were it not for this book by the most generous of British military historians. Lewin is not the sort of man who thinks that he would have been a better general himself. His previous biography of General Slim has established his as the finest of British commanders in World War II. His biography of Wavell will do the opposite. It reduces him in scale, though it is not a debunking book. He loves Wavell for his modesty, integrity, resilience and unsoldierly interest in literature. He admires the combination of courage and gentleness in his nature. But he seems to conclude that Wavell was not a born soldier. Unlike Montgomery, Pattor or MacArthur, he hated war, and once confessed to his chief-of-staff that it bored him. All decent people should hate war, except great commanders. Wavell lacked the killer instinct. He thought the whole process distasteful, apart from its subtler techniques. His hero was Stonewall Jackson.

He was a very silent man, a "shrouded personality." Conversation with him was agony, except to a few intimates. His habitual response to a report or a suggestion was, "I see." His uncommunicativeness often made his subordinates feel inadequate. It led to puzzled respect, a sort of negative submission to superior wisdom, as one might respond to the Delphic Oracle, but it could not create elation or affection in a democratic army, unless success proved that Wavell's inarticulate vision was always right.

The trouble was that it didn't. He ultimately failed in Africa. He failed in Greece and Crete. He gave the wrong advice on Iraq. He failed in Malaya, Burma and Arakan. Not because he faced impossible odds, but because he could not clearly foresee what those odds would be, and gambled against the run of luck. Lewin shows, for example, that Wavell approved of the Greek adventure when the cabinet gave him every opportunity to disapprove, and his experience should have warned him against it. The operation led to disaster both in Greece and in Libya. He succumbed too readily to political pressures, when his business was to win battles. Even after Singapore, he underestimated the Japanese. Churchill was right to fire him twice, first from the African command, then from the Far Eastern, each time promoting him to a face-saving post which became of greater importance than could have been foretold (the Japanese war, the Viceroyalty), because he knew that soldiers will fight only under a commander who is identified with success. Wavell was not a leader like Alexander, the Great or of Tunis, for whom men would willingly die. Churchill sensed this reaction and shared it. He always responded to men who expressed their opinions with fire. At cabinet discussions, Wavell was mute. Would he not be equally uninflammable in battle? "I always feel," Churchill once remarked, "as if in the presence of the chairman of a golf club."

Of all forms of history, the military is the most abrasive and merciless. Political leaders can decline and fall, and retain our admiration. Unsuccessful generals cannot. Wavell was a nicer and more humane man that Montgomery or Patton, but war is a brutal business, demanding an odious ambition to win fame by killing men with whom you have no personal quarrel, and a capacity to organize the killing. With his single eye (he lost the other in World War I), Wavell could not inspire devotion, and he could make mistakes because he was not quite clever enough nor sufficiently committed to his grisly trade. Ronald Lewin does not say this exactly, but it is implicit in his excellent biography.