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All the world wondered

24 August 2002

12:00 AM

24 August 2002

12:00 AM

AMEDEO Sebastian O'Kelly

HarperCollins, pp.333, 18.99

Every cavalryman must envy the hero of this book. Between 1936 and 1941 he led no less than five charges on horseback in Abyssinia, the final and most famous being the last cavalry charge that the British army has faced. And he survived to tell his tale. Indeed Tenente Amedeo Guillet is still living, aged 93, in Co. Meath, to which, very suitably, he retired for the hunting after a highly adventurous life, and where he still rides out.

The last charge of the British cavalry was, as far as I know, in 1920, on 13 July, by the 20th Hussars – a thousand yards’ successful dash against the flank of Kemal Ataturk’s advancing troops in the Ismid Peninsula during the Chanak crisis. Though there were still mounted yeomanry regiments in Palestine and Syria some 20 years later in 1941 – as readers of John Verney’s classic Going to the Wars will remember – they may have patrolled, but they were certainly never mad enough to charge their Vichy French enemies.

We all know about the wildly brave Polish lancers charging Panzer divisions in 1939. Amedeo, almost two years later, was equally reckless. His irregular force, the Gruppo Bande Amhara a Cavallo, was ordered to hold up the advancing British in the Eritrean lowlands for a day: 800 wild Ethiopian/Arab horsemen, 400 Yemeni mercenaries on foot, and 200 Camel Corps, a magical command for the six young Italian officers in charge under their Commandante Amedeo. In his three previous cavalry charges against Ethiopians, Amedeo had led a charmed life, with only bullet fragments in his left hand after two horses had been shot under him in 1936, but he had never had to face anything worse than shifta machine-gunners in 1938, though that was bad enough.

However, in January 1941 he virtually did a Lord Cardigan. His cavalry launched frontal charges, twice, against armoured cars, pretty steady Sikh regulars, and a battery of 25-pounders. It was only the surprise and astonishment of the men of Brigadier Frank Messervy’s Gazelle force that saved the Gruppo Bande from annihilation. And when his second-in-command, Renato Togni, charged three of our own ‘Panzers’, the heavy Matilda tanks, with 30 men and the little Italian pepperpot hand- grenades that simply bounced off the armour, only two of the horsemen survived, not including Togni. Still everyone acknowledged the courage of the Italians, and for a vital day the helter-skelter British advance on Asmara was halted and thrown into confusion.

This book is subtitled ‘A True Story of Love and War in Abyssina’. Unfortunately it is both a little more and a little less than that. Sebastian O’Kelly begins with a charming and witty introduction but then gets bogged down in following his hero’s lifetime adventures in somewhat novelettish sequences through Italy, Libya, Spain, the Yemen and – in the epilogue – half a dozen other countries. The ‘War’, is good, but the cavalry charges are over by page 161, exactly halfway through the text; and the ‘Love’ is, alas, unromantic and uninspiring – an Eritrean chieftain’s daughter as compa–era and an Italian fiancZe of good family successfully married back in Naples in 1944. Amedeo’s white stallion Sandor has much more character than either of these ladies.

There is difficulty too in maintaining a consistent tone between the background wodges of military history and the personal memories and emotions of Amedeo who, one feels on occasions, has certainly kissed the Blarney Stone. But the illustrations alone are worth the price; and, above all, the old slur of Italian military cowardice is triumphantly dispelled.

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