Amedeo: The True Story of an Italian’s War in Abyssinia
by Sebastian O’Kelly
HarperCollins. paperback edition, 2003. Pp. xvii + 333. Illus. Index. £7.99. ISBN 0-00-655247-1.
A knight on horseback, young love, the comradeship of war, escape in disguise, set against epic scenery, Amedeo has all the makings of one of Scheherazade’s 1001 tales – yet the book recounts the true tale of a remarkable man, Amedeo Guillet, who is far from a myth.
Beginning in the slightly surreal period of Italy’s early Fascist years, it recounts how a young man came of age in an era now fading from memory, but not yet history. The involvement of Guillet and his generation on the fringes of Fascism is treated more sympathetically than is currently the vogue, and the forgotten disagreements between Italian and German Fascism are recalled.
The tale continues with Guillet’s soldiering in Italy’s African Colonies: Libya, and Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI). It begins with the Italians’ second (this time successful) attempt to capture Abyssinia, their subjugation of the population, and monumental engineering works. Guillet is tasked with raising colonial levies to garrison a security post on the main supply route. While becoming progressively more involved with Khadija, the daughter of a local chief, Guillet is engaged in the sort of cooperation with the local population which has again become a facet of military operations. Then the tale slides into the tragicomedy that was the East African Campaign: the armies of both sides considering it pointless, yet goaded into action by politicians.
The high-point of the book – and possibly of Guillet’s career, despite his subsequent honours – is his command of the Gruppo Bande Amhara a Cavallo, composed of Amhari cavalry, Yemeni mercenary infantrymen, with a leavening of Eritrean NCOs. He leads the Gruppo Bande with courage and verve through attacks, the Italians’ slow retreat (occasioning a delaying cavalry charge by Amedeo against British light armour), and surrender – and into operations of dubious legality.
After an escape attempt foiled for sectarian reasons and a nearly fatal mugging by Eritrean Danakil, Guillet succeeds in reaching Yemen, where (after his initial imprisonment in Hodeida) Imam Yahya welcomes an opponent of the British. Guillet’s experience adds a little to the few descriptions of Yemen of the time, but after a year and a few months (covered in ten pages), he decides to return to Italy, where his scheme to promote an insurgency in AOI is aborted by Italy’s capitulation.
The rest of the War and its immediate aftermath are reminiscent of current events, although mutual lack of revenge might usefully be imitated in the wider Middle East region. The next forty years of Guillet’s life are covered in an Epilogue of twenty pages: tantalising statements about life in Yemen are little elaborated – perhaps understandably given the book’s subtitle.
While sympathetic to his subject, O’Kelly is largely uncritical – in particular of Guillet’s decision to ignore the AOI Viceroy’s formal surrender, and to continue to fight against the British in a foreign country. The prose is mostly well written, if marred by the odd typographic error. The archaic spellings are distracting (Massaua for the more usual Massawa; Ras Dascian for Ras Dashen; and, alas, shafeit for Shafa’i). The mapping, as happens all too often, is barely adequate: in such immensely complex terrain, the superb natural fortresses of the ambas are a major force multiplier – yet barely shown. In the map of the Conquest of Ethiopia on page 50 the area in detail is smaller than the area in general, and neither shows any relief. This contrasts with the useful map of Eritrea on page 178 which shows the relief which allowed Guillet to operate successfully against a seemingly more capable but less agile force. The photographs, many previously unpublished, are evocative.
Those hoping for much detail on Guillet’s life in Yemen will be disappointed; those looking for a graphic account of the Abyssinian campaign from a different viewpoint will not be.