Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, October 23, 2023

Remembering a Veteran: Lt. Colonel Claude Auchinleck, 62nd Punjabis and Future Field Marshal

62nd Punjabis, 1914
Captain Claude Auchinleck Far Right

James Patton

Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck, GCB, GCIE, CSI, DSO, OBE (1884–1981), nicknamed "The Auk," was born to a serving officer at Aldershot. He won a scholarship to Wellington College, completed Sandhurst and was commissioned in the Indian Army in 1903. Over a year later he was assigned to the 62nd Punjabis, a distinguished unit, formed in 1759, which continues to the present day in the Pakistani Army. 

He learned the Punjabi dialects and customs, which earned him lasting mutual respect with the subadars and havildars of the regiment. He became a lieutenant in 1905, spent two years in Tibet and Sikkim and caught diphtheria. Remarkably, he survived but was invalided back to the UK for a year. He returned to India in 1909 and in 1912 was promoted to captain.

In 1914 the 62nd was detached from the 6th (Poona) Division and deployed with Expeditionary Force F to the defense of the Suez Canal. They engaged the Turks at Ismaïlia in February 1915 and were then sent to Aden where they fought a small battle at Sheikh Othman in July.  

The 62nd was intended to rejoin the 6th, but they arrived in Basra too late as the division was besieged at Kut-al-Amara. Attached to the 7th (Meerut) Division, the 62nd fought in a series of bloody and fruitless relief attempts at Sheikh Sa’ad (6–9 January 1916), Hanna (21 January 1916) and Wadi (31 January 1916). Auchinleck was one of the few British officers who survived this mini-campaign. In July 1916 he was promoted to major and made 2iC of the regiment. He became acting CO in February 1917 and led the 62nd at the Second Battle of Kut (9 February 1917) and the Fall of Baghdad (11 March 1917). He was mentioned in dispatches, received the Distinguished Service Order and was promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel in November 1919 on the recommendation of Lt. Gen. Sir William Marshall, commander-in-chief,  Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force. 

On Right, Brigadier Auchinleck, 1935

Lt. Col. Auchinleck’s career was far from over. In 1920 he (belatedly) attended the staff college at Quetta, then married a 20-year-old American heiress that he met on holiday in France. Their childless marriage would end in scandal in 1944, when it became known that she was romantically involved with Auchinleck’s colleague Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse. 

Auchinleck attended the Imperial Defense College in London in 1927, then became an instructor at the staff college. Promoted to brigadier in 1933 and given command of the Peshawar Brigade, he led them in two campaigns on the northwest frontier in 1935. 

In 1936 he was promoted to major general and held staff positions until 1939 when he took over the 3rd Indian Division. Recalled to the UK in 1940, he was promoted to lieutenant general and given IV Corps, the only instance of an Indian Army general officer commanding an entirely non-Indian corps. Auchinleck led that corps in the unsuccessful intervention in Norway but was nevertheless promoted to general in 1940 and given higher command. Bernard Montgomery, then a major-general and a subordinate, supposedly said of Auchinleck "I cannot recall that we ever agreed on anything". 

Commander in Chief, India

Auchinleck became commander-in-chief, India, in January 1941. At that time the defense of the Suez Canal was assigned to the Indian Army, so in July 1941 he took it on. Although successful against the Italians, the war in North Africa turned against the British when the Germans intervened and, after the first battle of El Alamein, Churchill replaced Auchinleck with Gen. Sir Harold Alexander.

After ten months without a command, in June 1943 Auchinleck was re-appointed commander-in-chief, India. General William Slim later wrote: "It was a good day for us when he [Auchinleck] took command of India, our main base, recruiting area and training ground. The Fourteenth Army, from its birth to its final victory, owed much to his unselfish support and never-failing understanding. Without him and what he and the Army of India did for us we could not have existed, let alone conquered." In 1945 Auchinleck’s Indian Army had 2,250,000 men.

Three British Field Marshals:
Montgomery, Wavell, and Auchinleck

On 1 June 1946, Auchinleck was promoted to field marshal, but he refused a peerage. He thought partition was fundamentally dishonorable, but he stayed on until late 1948, when the division of the army was complete. He retired to the UK but in 1968 moved to Morocco, where he died at 96. 

He is buried in Ben M'Sik European Cemetery, Casablanca in a CWGC grave. A memorial plaque was placed in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral. The story goes that in 1979, as plaques for all of the great Second World War military leaders were being installed, Cathedral officials called Morocco to get the date of his death but were told "[I’m] here—but I won't be keeping you much longer!"

A personal footnote. In 1994, when I was in Shimla, the hill station where the Indian Army HQ was situated in WWII, I stayed at Eastbourne Lodge, which was Auchinleck’s residence when he was commander-in-chief. I even slept in his bedroom. 


  1. "The Auk" remains a controversial figure from WWII North Africa. He had terrible luck/terrible skill picking subordinate commanders, some attribute this to being from the Indian Army and not knowing the British Army senior officers. There's still debate on whether Auk or Monty gets credit for stopping the Axis at Alam Halfa before El Alamein.

  2. At least, there is reason to think that Montgomery built on what Auchinleck had achieved, and Montgomery's successes were achieved with far more resources than Auchinleck had. By all accounts, Auchinleck was a nicer man than Montgomery, though that is not an essential attribute for a successful general.