This book is such a fascinating account of ten years in one man’s extraordinary life that I initially struggled to believe it all. But by the end of its 322 pages there is such a wealth of photographic and third party testimony that I don’t doubt the thoroughness of the research by the author and master storyteller, Sebastian O’Kelly.
The life in question is that of Amedeo Guillet, whose aristocratic family connections and daring exploits in Abyssinia and Eritrea in the 1930s and early 1940s gave him access to many of Mussolini’s inner circle of military officers.
I can’t help thinking that if Amedeo had been English or American he would have quickly become and remained to this day a household name in either country. If Churchill’s early prestige was based solely on his fortuitous escape from Boer captivity in late December 1899 and likewise Jimmy Doolittle for his bold long range bombing mission of Tokyo in 1942, then in either country Amedeo’s remarkable career as a cavalry office would have won him the same type of everlasting fame.
Understandably perhaps, Italians after the war chose to forget people like Amedeo but there was no shame attached to his soldiering and it is a testament to him that after the war he became lifelong friends with many of his British, Arab and Indian adversaries, including those who had single-mindedly hunted him down when he remained at large as a saboteur who refused to ever surrender.
In one of those strange coincidences of life, the Sikh corporal, Mohinder Singh, who was up and out of his tent early in January 1941 on the plains of Keru in Eritrea making tea for his captain, and personally faced this final time the British army was confronted by a full scale cavalry charge with sabres drawn, 35 years later became the official driver for the leader of that cavalry charge when Amedeo arrived in New Delhi as the new Italian ambassador to India, his final appointment in a long line of prestigious post-war diplomatic postings.
Ironically, only a few hundred miles to the west of Keru was the place the British themselves had last sent mounted cavalry to charge the enemy but that was in 1898 at Omdurman. Churchill was part of that charge as a young subaltern and he must have been as surprised as anyone when as the British Prime Minister he learned of this cavalry charge 43 years later against his army equipped with tanks and machine guns. But Amedeo by 1941 was an experienced and very able officer and his cavalry charge was successful in its goal of allowing the Italian army to escape, due to the element of surprise and the complete audacity of Amedeo himself.
This is but one episode in the remarkable period of ten years that the book covers.
In bygone days this would have been called a ‘ripping yarn’ in colloquial English and definitely the type of book that I would have devoured as a 15 year old, but almost 50 years later I enjoyed it just as much.
You can call it an adventure story or a biography as you wish but it is simply a great read and one of those all-too-few books which are so absorbing that you just can’t put them down because you desperately want to find out what happens next.
And much of the credit for telling this fabulous story in such a captivating way must go to the author who spent a great deal of time with the 90 year old Amedeo at his homes in Ireland and Rome, became his friend and travelled with him back to Eritrea where this story unfolds.