The anti colonial Heros of Ethiopia

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            This story of Ethiopian heroes was written by Englishwoman Clarissa Burgoyne as part of an account of her search for her missing husband in Ethiopia during the second Ethio-Italian war.  This piece was presented on the Ethiopia Observer, Vol. XI, No. 4, edited by Richard and Rita Pankhurst. The only change made to this excerpt was the correction of Demesow’s misspelled name (originally written as Bitwoded Makonen Demisse).

 

 

 

 

 

A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
Bitwoded  MEKONNEN DEMESOW


By LAKU DESTA

Mekonnen Demesow

Your name will live in Heaven and Earth
With those of the heroes of Mai Ceu
And with those of the Patriots who flailed
At the foe for five years in jungle and desert.
We watched your army parade
For Jan Hoy, saw it was splendid
Those who fought with you and saw
The cunning placing of your forces
Admired and wondered. Now that your bones
Are together in TRINITY Church
They will tell of your prowess.

Translation by Ato bahra Zawdie

 

Bitwoded Mekonnen Demesow was of a Shoan family and was born in 1884. Both his father Ras Demesow and his grandfather had been distinguished public servants and notable military men. The Emperor Menelik gave them all his confidence and they were early promoted by that shrewd monarch. Each in his time was known as “ The Incorruptible Ethiopian.”

Mekonnen followed his father Ras Demesow as Governor of Wallega and at once established a reputation as a just and benevolent governor with special consideration for the unfortunate, which word is generally, though not always, synonymous with” The Poor.” He was appointed to the supreme court and was credited with initiating a new legal policy of a highly progressive nature. 

Mekonnen shared with His Majesty a great delight in things mechanical, a taste which there was little opportunity of developing in the Ethiopia of that day. But whenever His Majesty took delivery of a new weapon it was Mekonnen who was called and together they would study it, with or without the experts. Mekonnen would amuse himself by taking a new machine gun to pieces, and without further practice, reassemble it blindfolded. 

A servant of the family tells that he could not bear to see anyone suffering, that he would go out in the morning with money in his pockets and if he met a sick beggar gave it all away, then have to send a message to his wife for more. Possibly the main quality of this man was generosity. He gave with both hands, and later, as was his habit, he deliberately paid away his life when his country was in trouble.

The Ethiopian nobles knew well how to enjoy their country life. During a visit to Kenya a retired Polish engineer gave me a colorful picture of the house-parties of that day. He had been engaged in road making for Mekonnen. When the work was completed he was invited to spend a week as the guest of the Governor. The guests were housed each in a private tukul with servants to attend them and every morning they would go out in a party after game, at evening returning to feast till late in Mekonnen’s huge circular living room.

Both Ethiopian and European food was served on massobs set before the guests who reclined on couches in Eastern style. Many European wines were provided as well as those of the country. The Governor’s handsome aristocratic wife was present with her ladies. 

When in 1935 Ethiopia was threatened with invasion by the Italians Mekonnen raised an army of Wollega irregulars. Recruiting was made difficult by an Englishman, a Captain Maurice, who was District Commissioner of a stretch of the Sudan bordering Wollega province.  He had considerable influence and with his utilitarian viewpoint was openly advising the Wollega folk not to “try their hands against Italy” since there was little hope of a profitable outcome.

The Governor of Wollega felt otherwise, sharing his Emperor’s view that the way to merit the expected support of the League of Nations was to demonstrate that his country was worth fighting for and he urged that every able-bodied man should go with him and bear arms for his country instead of taking advantage of the alternative which was to send a sum of money to Addis Ababa for the war-fund.

Mekonnen’s reputation for hospitality, and his generous feasts for the country-people, stood him in good stead as did the respect and trust which he had already inspired; so in spite of difficulties he recruited close on twelve thousand fighting men. They started from Arjo on October 1st on the journey to Addis where he bid goodbye to his favorite sister warning her that the sort of plans he had made would not allow for a return

A large proportion of this force had been well supplied with uniforms, Belgian rifles, ammunition and pack animals and it was remarked that though this was not the largest force to appear before His Majesty it was one of the best equipped. Mounted on the handsome charger sent to him by the Emperor, Bitwoded Mekonnen and his army were reviewed by the Emperor and Empress in Addis Ababa.

There was the traditional “ Boasting Ceremony” to be performed, designed in the olden days to encourage the ranks, but Mekonnen was impatient at the necessity for this and was overheard to say “It would be better to see what we can accomplish before proclaiming our deeds.”

After his army had been reviewed he sat with His Majesty to watch the other troops pass. He was much troubled that the Emperor was determined to lead his armies to war, and begged him to wait until he had seen how the Rases and the other commanders fared, asserting that only over their dead bodies should His Majesty ride to battle. He pointed out that the King of Italy did not leave his throne but remained in his capital directing affairs.

The army from Wollega camped on the outskirts of Addis. They went first on a pilgrimage to Debra Libanos to pray, then marched by way of Warra Hailu to Dessie where they expected to receive a further consignment of Belgian rifles. These had not arrived from the seaport but the Emperor spared Mekonnen ten anti-aircraft guns to defend himself against the planes. When they reached shifta country, some Raya Galla landowners waited for them with gifts of cattle to be slaughtered for the army, and great quantities of injera and milk. But Bitwoded Mekonnen would not stop and forbade the army to eat of their gifts, for these men were suspected of some mischief.  At Alamata some chiefs whom the shiftas had robbed of their cattle came to meet him and he gave them suitable compensation and black ceremonial cloaks, with which they were well satisfied. Next morning, after travelling by night, because of the bombing, they arrived at Quoram and stayed there a few days. 

The manuscript goes on to give an account of Bitwoded Mekonnen’s battle, death, and delayed burial, but it was at Quoram that he and Gerald met and continued the journey together and their joint story henceforth will be told later in the reconstruction of the lost month which it was now becoming evident that I should be able to compile.

Meanwhile in Addis I met a European businessman who had been a close friend of Mekonnen and on the, night before he left for the front Mekonnen had told him in confidence that though he had everything in life, for his part he did not intend to return from the war. For unless the present situation changed only desperate tactics remained by which to make any impression on the disproportionate strength of the enemy. Since he and his officers hoped for an opportunity of the sort to arise, the first step was to cast aside all desire for survival. 

In 1936 a knowledgeable Armenian was working with the Associated Press correspondent, Mr. Mills. He gave me the names of many people who might be in touch with Dr. Lambie’s old servants. I visited each one but fruitlessly. Dr. Lambie’s old house at Akaki, now taken over by the Dutch Embassy, also yielded nothing, the servants were all new and the district had changed.  A last effort was made by the kind help of Mr. Cramer of the Publicity Department, Ministry of Information.  He sent out an enquiry on the radio more than once, but no answers came in.

I took advantage of H.R.H. Asrate Kassa’s offer to find Ras Mulugeta’s former private secretary, whom he had told me he knew. His Highness has a house with a great view from the hill of Entotto, and here Ras Mulugeta’s secretary, Ato Tadla Tamrat, came one afternoon. In the hope that he might have seen Gerald somewhere near Amba Aradam I showed him the unflattering photograph in Red Cross uniform taken with the servant Ali. He studied it and said that as far as he could remember this was the Red Cross Officer who had joined Ras Mulugeta on the way to the north.

Ato Tadla Tamrat was a distinguished looking Ethiopian about 50 years old, now holding a position in the Ministry of Justice. He had been with Ras Mulugeta right from the departure from Addis Ababa for the north and all through the retreat until Ras Mulugeta was killed at Ahayo, keeping a diary carried in his tunic which he conscientiously entered up each day. This could be important so another appointment was made and he brought the diary. His Highness Asrate Kassa was then President of the Senate and we met in his office.  His Highness translated, as Ato Tadla read out each day’s entry in which the Red Cross officer figured. 

Almost too excited to hold the pen I took down every word. The Ethiopian Calendar differs from ours, but with some calculation it can be turned into European dates.

He said, “I will start with the day on which your husband joined Ras Mulugeta on the march to the north. It was Hedar 21, 1928 (which being transposed is December 1st, 1935). In the evening the Ras sent gifts of oxen, sheep, foods, and drink to the camp of your husband to be distributed among his men.

“On the 10th of Tahasas 1928, the Italians bombed us and a member of His Excellency’s bodyguard was wounded. Your husband was called to attend him, which he did efficiently.

“ On the 14th Tahasas 1928, the Italians bombed the Red Cross tents and practically destroyed all your husband’s medicines and his mules.” But by now thoroughly puzzled, I was scribbling on to gain time.  All the dates and places continued to work out wrongly.  It was soon obvious that it could not have been Gerald, but while writing, and thinking hard, I concluded that it might have been the ill-fated Dr. Belau1. I knew pretty well by now where all the units of the Red Cross of every nationality had been round about that time, and also the names of the men who had staffed them.

It was a fearful disappointment, especially as at last I had found someone who was meticulous about dates; added to this was the embarrassment at having taken the two gentlemen from their appointments for what was turning out to be only a wild  goose chase. But as we worked on, other interesting clues appeared, in particular the fact that Ato Tamrat had been near the river Ahayo when Ras Mulugeta and Gerali were killed and that it was he who had collected the Ras’s body and that he could therefore say whether the cause of death was a bomb or as is sometimes asserted a shifta’s spent bullet. 

We were sitting in the rather splendid office of the President in the Senate buildings ; I left without revealing my disappointing discovery, I hope it was not because I was pusillanimously overcome by the height, breadth, and general outsize of everything in that room including the pictures. I persuaded myself that anyway it was best to look into the matter and make quite sure of Dr. Belau’s movements, and I made a mental note to confess on the next occasion that we met.

His Highness had made an appointment for his secretary to take me to Trinity Church where Bitwoded Mekonnen is buried, and next day we were received by Aba Yohannes, who, robed in impressive Ethiopian Sacerdotal garb took us down into the crypt and showed us round, speaking very good English. We passed on the way some splendid marble sarcophagi in the wall, waiting for the Emperor, the Empress, Princess Tenagne Worq and other members of the Imperial family. 

There were many coffins of notable Ethiopians, that of Bitwoded Mekonnen was covered with a silken cloth, but it was painfully small-I knew by now the dreadful reason why. When I asked the Aba why Mekonnen, having been a normal sized man had not been given a normal sized coffin, he evaded the issue, sighed and said, “ You see how little space we have left in this crypt, it will have to be enlarged.”

Driving back from Trinity Church I stopped at the corner of Burgoyne Street to look up at the stone with Gerald’s name inscribed in Amharic, which His Majesty had ordered many years before. But I then had not discovered from the people on the fatal plain of Antalo what had been the last tragic service that Gerald had been able to render to his Ethiopian friend Mekonnen.

 

 

 

1 Dr. Belau and his helper Medzinsky were eventually captured with No. V unit on the summit of Amba Aradam in the Red Cross cave near that of Ras Mulugeta, and had been taken by plane to Italy, questioned, and bribed to sign a document declaring that the Italian Airforce had never either bombed the Red Cross units or stooped to the illegal use of gas.  As a result the doctor, now a sick man, was freed. He went to England, where the Emperor forgave him, even paying his hospital expenses until he finally succumbed to lung disease. Another doctor who fell into the hands of the Italians was also subjected to the same pressure to force him to sign a statement to this effect, but he resisted. and though in consequent ill-health. Directly caused by their treatment. Managed later to escape and after great hardship reached safety with the Greek consul in the Sudan.  This was George Dassius.

 

 

THE BATTLE OF AMBA ARADAM

MILITARY ASSESSMENT

by Major Mark Waters

 

 

When Bitwoded Makonen and Gerald Burgoyne reached Enda Medani Alem the situation on this, the northern front was briefly as follows: The Emperor’s forces formed an approximate arc, with the object of containing the Italian thrust south from Adwa. This town the Italians had captured as their first objective after crossing the frontier from their colony of Eritrea, . and they had reached the town of Makalle. It was clear that their object was to make the Asmara-Dessie road the main axis of their advance south.

In more detail, the Ethiopian nothern front consisted of a line of more or less linked defensive positions.

The army of Ras Mulugeta constituted the right or east flank; it was established on and around the mountain of Amba Aradam and bisected the main Asmara-Dessie road. From here the line stretched northwest into the Tembien. The center, which included the town of Abbi Addi, was held by the army of Ras Kassa. The army of Ras Seyum formed the left or west flank and was established on the mountain features around Debra Ansa, it also bisected the Adwa-Socota road.

Further west and beyond the left flank of this defensive line, the front became fluid, with the forces of Ras Imeru operating in an independent role in the area of the Takazze river.

The key position of the defense was undoubtedly the mountain stronghold of Amba Aradam on the right flank, held by Ras Mulugeta.

Topographically this mountain provided an immensely strong defensive position. It rose 2,000 feet above the surrounding country. It had a curious flat top storey with walls vertical in places, and its many caves and fissures provided good cover. Across the north front, and east flank of the mountain ran the river Gabat.

Ras Mulugeta had established about twenty thousand men on the heights of Amba Aradam. He had about another twenty thousand men under his command on the lower ground, east, south, and west of the mountain.

Thirty miles to the rear of these forward defensive positions, the Emperor was preparing to establish a second defensive line on the vast heights of Amba Alagi. This was a superb natural defensive position, which five years later when occupied by the Italians, was one of the toughest obstacles to the liberating armies. Around the northern spur of this mountain was the Force of Ras Kebede, and on the Emperor’s instructions Bitwoded Makonen had also left a part of his force here, on the heights of the mountain known as the “Gate of Alagi.”

At Dessie, further again to the rear, was the Emperor’s G.H.Q., with fresh troops moving up to the northern front.

Ras Mulugeta had now occupied Amba Aradam for five weeks. The formidable appearance of the mountain had worried the Italians and they had spent over a month in preparations for the necessary assault. According to Edward Hamilton18 (U.S. Press correspondent with Badoglio) five Italian Army Corps were used in this battle.

By Monday, February 10th, it must have been clear to Ras Mulugeta that the expected attack was imminent. There was much activity by the Italians across the river Gabat where I and III Corps were deploying to start lines.

Bitwoded Makonen was now at Enda Medane Alem where he could undoubtedly observe the incessant bombardment of the mountain. He had arrived here the day previously and had sent an immediate message to Mulugeta, informing the Ras of his arrival and asking how his force could best assist the situation. He received no reply until the following day.

Fortunately we know something of the exchange of messages between Makonen and Mulugeta at this period. The information was supplied by a telegraph operator who was attached to Bitwoded Makonen’s H.Q. for the purpose of “ tapping in “ on the north-south telegraph line from Dessie. This line was disconnected at Buie for security reasons having formerly continued north through the Italian positions. From Buie the messages had to be forwarded by runner to Mulugeta’s H.Q. on the mountain.

When Makonen arrived the telegraph was not at this moment working and the operator took the message the entire way on foot, and no reply was received until the next day. The substance of the reply was that Makonen should come no further, but should remain with his forces at Amba Alagi, where it will be remembered, a second defensive position was being established.

The Governor of Enda Medane Alem, had given Makonen news of the shattered state and high casualties of the bombed and gassed troops on Amba Aradam, and also of the activity across the river in the Italian positions, so it can be assumed that on arrival at Enda Medane, Makonen was aware of the immediately impending attack. The advance had, in fact, already started, as part of the Italian III Corps were at this time crossing the river.

Bitwoded Makonen’s force had been sent by the Emperor specifically to assist Mulugeta, and clearly .this could not be done by remaining at Enda Medane. In any case, he decided to ignore Ras Mulugeta’s instructions and to move his force forward to the Mahara locality. This area, had many caves and features which would provide cover and was only four or five miles south of the mountain and west of Buie.

They marched that night the 17 miles to Mahara and arrived before dawn on Wednesday, 12th.1

There is a record of a further exchange of messages at Mahara, in which Makonen suggests that Mulugeta must now consider the question of a withdrawal, and of Mulugeta’s absolute rejection of this proposal. Makonen again pressed for his co-operation in planning some operation in which his force could be used to relieve the situation.

The substance of the last message received from Mulu-geta is also known, in which he tells Makonen that Amba Aradam is about to be outflanked from the east and he adds rather contemptuously " fight if you want to— where and when you like."

 

A fundamental fact which dominated the entire campaign was that the enormous disparity in weapons— particularly artillery, and the total absence of an air arm, made it an impossibility for the Emperor's army, ever to mount a major offensive.

In the simplest terms, there were for the Ethiopian armies only two possible conclusions to any engagement: to be destroyed, or to disengage before this event occurred. The third alternative, of developing their successful local attacks into a major and decisive offensive was permanently denied them.

Thus for the Ethiopian commanders, every operation had a time limit, a period during which they could do as much damage to the enemy as possible, but when this time limit was reached they must withdraw or face destruction.

When Makonen arrived at Amba Aradam, Mulugeta's time limit was clearly up. In front of him was a huge force which had had many weeks to establish itself and to prepare for the assault on his position. On Aradam he had a battered army, perhaps no longer in a condition to interfere actively with the enemy's advance. The most that he could now expect from his troops was that they would hold and deny the ground they actually occupied.

Furthermore; the kind of defence in which Mulugeta was now engaged was the most destructive possible to the morale of his troops. The inability to retaliate has always a disastrous psychological effect. With no air support, and negligible artillery for which in any case there was very little ammunition, no retaliation was possible.

Each day heralded a further intensification of the already enormous bombardment, and a high, and ever increasing toll of casualities. The small medical unit consisting of Dr. Belau and his few dressers had already become inadequate to cope with these. Little could be done in any case for the casualties from gas. One can only regard with amazement the tenacity of these Ethiopian soldiers untrained in modern warfare, and the fact that they stood as firm as they did, in such circumstances, which, it is generally accepted, demand the highest standard of military training and discipline.

The time for Mulugeta to go had clearly arrived; we know that nevertheless he decided against it.

It is impossible to make any study of this campaign without discovering that Ras Mulugeta has been the subject of criticism for his handling of the operations at Aradam.

 

The critics allege that: (1) He failed to withdraw his army from an untenable position on Aradam in time to save it from destruction. Or: (2) That he withdrew from Aradam and thus caused the collapse of the Northern Front.

The fact that the two allegations are totally contradictory, and that if the critics cannot blame him for " going " they want to blame him for " staying," throws some doubt on the value of their opinions.

The answer to the first is that Mulugeta did not " fail " to withdraw his army from Aradam. We know from the exchange of messages with Makonen that he emphatically " refused " to withdraw it, and the reason for this decision is not difficult to discover.

The second allegation is nonsense; the survivors of Amba Aradam did not leave the mountain until the Italian flag was flying on the summit. Both Badoglio's war diaries and the foreign Press correspondents confirm this and the ferocious resistance of this already decimated army. Matthew's personal account of the carnage and the enormous number of corpses on Aradam after the battle, is grim enough evidence of the violence of the fighting.2

 

Ras Mulugeta was well aware that Amba Aradam was the key position to the Northern Front. Should the armies on his left, Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum, be forced to yield ground there would be no immediate change in the situation. In fact, if necessary, this left flank could be pulled back, and the front shortened without any great disadvantage. But Amba Aradam on the right flank must remain inviolate. As long as a large force occupied this mountain, completely dominating the road to the south, the Italian advance must remain halted. Of equal importance, the line of communications to the armies of Kassa and Seyoum would remain protected.

If Mulugeta withdrew from Aradam using the hours of darkness, he might succeed in getting his battered army back to the Amba Alagi defences. But this would leave the armies of Kassa and Seyoum in a disastrous position. Their communications would be immediately cut, and they would be completely outflanked and facing an enemy in their rear; a situation from which they could hardly hope to extricate themselves.

Alternatively if he remained on Aradam to the bitter end, he could only hope to postpone for a little time the same eventual disaster, a small gain for the sacrifice of his army.

 

In this war which necessitated special rules and tactics for the impossibly handicapped Ethiopians, and when disengagements and withdrawals were an absolute essential to the continuation of the campaign, the most correct decision might have been to withdraw while this was still possible.

While Badoglio's forces were still entangled with the outflanking operation of Kassa and Seyoum there would be time, a little but perhaps enough, to establish the Amba Alagi positions, and once again to bar the road to the south. But in the circumstances no one could be expected to take such a decision.

 

If this war was to be fought at all, the courage and endurance of the Ethiopian soldier had somehow to make up for the disparity in weapons. But unfortunately such qualities can provide no substitute for modern communications, and in fact, it was this lack as much as anything else, that was responsible for the collapse of the Northern front defenses.

Though there were at times, occasional radio links of dubious efficiency, the general inadequacy of com-munications completely precluded close liaison between the armies. Thus new plans could neither be quickly made nor communicated in time to cope with rapidly changing situations, and the armies were forced to operate more or less independently of each other once the battle had begun.

A withdrawal of the entire front, before Ras Mulu-geta's position had become too precarious, and starting with the disengagement of Ras Seyoum on the left flank, should have provided a feasible solution, and enabled a front to be re-formed across Amba Alagi.

The appearance of Bitwoded Makonen's army at Enda Medane must have caused Ras Mulugeta to review his problem again. But this conclusion was doubtless that this new force could have little effect at this eleventh hour on the overall situation. The less troops involved in the inevitable eclipse of Amba Aradam the better, and Makonen's army would be of infinitely more value at Amba Alagi where it could once again force the Italians to deploy and fight a delaying battle.

Makonen's explosion of disappointment and anger at Ras Mulugeta's attitude, a flat refusal to co-operate or even consider Makonen's carefully worked out plan, is recounted today by the inhabitants who live on the plain around Amba Aradam.

Mulugeta's refusal to make use of his army and his apparent acceptance of disaster were intolerable to the idealistic and energetic Makonen. The fact that the Ras was much senior to him in both age and rank made it impossible to force the issue further.

Meanwhile on this day, Wednesday, February 12th, the assault on the mountain had begun. On the day before the Blackshirt Division had crossed the river Gabat and occupied the foothill approaches to the mountain. Their further advance the next morning had been violently repulsed and they had suffered serious casualties. However, in the afternoon, after a concentrated artillery bombardment, Badoglio rushed up Alpine troops to support the Blackshirt Division, and the attack here began to gain ground.

Now also Badoglio's encircling operations on both flanks were well under way. Part of the Italian 1st Corps had reached round the east flank to Adi Akeite and were establishing machine gun positions on the hills above the village which could enfilade the low-ground to the east of the mountain and support a continued advance to turn this whole flank.

By the afternoon Bitwoded Makonen at Mahara was aware of the seriousness of the threat to this flank, and also that his reconnaissance had already located three of these machine gun positions. He realized that the build up here must be stopped at all costs. Although the mountain position might hold out for days, the troops on the low ground could find themselves encircled in a matter of hours.

To reach this flank with the least delay meant crossing nearly ten miles of the front; an area already registered by Badoglio's artillery and under the constant surveillance of his aircraft. Movement by daylight was out of the question, but movement by night appeared almost as difficult. There would be no time to reconnoitre a suitable route. It would have to be a compass-bearing march across terrain that was strewn with rocks, broken by craggy ridges and in places cut by deep and steep ravines. To maintain direction and control with a large force would be practically impossible. To add to the difficulty the nights were then very dark as the " little rains " had started, unusually early this year.

Clearly only a small and lightly equipped force would have any hope of arriving as an organized unit and in a condition to fight an immediate battle. Also only such a force would have a reasonable chance of crossing without being spotted by the Italian search-lights which at night traversed parts of this front. But a small force presented other problems. Success in this case must depend almost on surprise, and on the ability to time the operation so that the final assault would take place in the brief period of half-light before dawn, a period of very short duration in these equatorial latitudes, and one which heretofore was seldom or never taken advantage of in Ethiopian warfare.

Should surprise not be achieved, or unexpected developments delay the assault beyond this brief term of grace, the operation would become a massacre—an unsupported daylight attack up hill into the muzzles of entrenched machine guns.

Apart from the positions already identified on the ridge, the size of the enemy force in the area was an unknown quantity. There was no time for further reconnaissance, and the exact locating of the enemy would somehow have to be done on arrival in the dark, an appallingly difficult task. Nevertheless it must have appeared to Makonen that this might be the opportunity for which he had been waiting.

Even should they reach and capture these objectives, no one could know what other enemy positions the rising sun would finally disclose around them. These few hundred men must hold the ridge throughout the day until nightfall when they could at last be reinforced and the position built up from Mahara. Considering all the factors, the possibility of success was slim enough.

That night Makonen moved off with a small picked force. The rest of his army remained at Mahara. With luck, a lot of luck, part of it would move eventually by another route to build up the captured Adi Akeite position.

 

The final approach to Adi Akeite necessitated descending into a deep ravine. The descent is so steep that it is difficult to keep one's feet even by daylight. The climb up the other' side brings one to the level of the small stone houses and compounds which are dispersed over about half a mile. Above this again is the top of the ridge on the highest points of which were the enemy positions.

They reached this ravine unobserved. Here time was spent in re-locating the enemy positions and the approaches out of the ravine and through the village, whence the inhabitants had fled to the hills. How difficult this must have been on this dark night can easily be imagined. We are told that they were worried by dogs barking in the deserted village. Here also an incident occurred, small but characteristic of Makonen, which is recorded in a manuscript written by one of his officers in later years. At Mahara all had realised the probable cost in lives of this doubtful operation and Makonen's officers had requested him, as their irreplaceable commander not to lead the attack personally. It had then been decided that the few professional

officers, should lead the final assault. But now Makonen divided the force into three assault parties; the left under Dejasmatch Desta, the right under Dejasmatch Beyene, and the centre to be led by himself.

 

Fitwrari Gete, a veteran commander and old friend of Makonen's family; protested at these orders; "Are not the professional soldiers to lead?" Makonen had clearly agreed to the original proposal only to stop the argument, and now, exasperated by the endless frustrations of the last few days, he lost patience and raged at the old Fitwrari, accusing him of cowardice and lack of confidence in his leadership.

With dignity Gete replied: " I have lived my life under your roof and served your father and I will follow you now, and you will see that I shall fall before you."

Perhaps it is not out of place to recall that this small incident has a precedent in English history, when, at Trafalgar the same problem arose of " personal leadership " involving the most valuable man in the most vulnerable position, and that Nelson resolved the argument in the same way! Under pressure from Hardy and Blackwood, Nelson reluctantly agreed that the Admiral's flag-ship should not lead when the fleet closed with the enemy. It was arranged that Captain Harvey in Temeraire should take the lead and thus bear the brunt of the first salvos. But when Temeraire came up on the flagship's quarter, Nelson hailed her with the words " I'll thank you, Captain Harvey, to keep your proper station astern of Victory."

As the first faint light showed in the east they climbed the farther side of the ravine and began to slip through the candelabra trees and walled enclosures of the village of Adi Akeite.

It was here that the alarm was given and the bloody and desperate battle began. Few more details are known, but it is evident that complete surprise was not achieved and the fighting continued for several hours.

By 10 a.m. all three enemy positions were in Ethiopian hands, at a cost of over half Makonen's force in killed and wounded. He himself had been hit by a burst of machine-gun fire while leading the assault on the center position. One of his officers, Lemma Wolde, ordering some of the men to carry him to a safer place, snatched up his chief's " Biretta" and continued to lead the charge. Makonen although unable to stand, refused to leave, and continued to take charge of the operation from the rear trying to organize some sort of tenable defenses with the remainder of his force.

Daylight, as had been feared, revealed further enemy, sufficiently close to bring machine gun fire to bear on the captured positions. Soon also the Italian artillery, and planes from Makalle began a steady destruction of the positions on the exposed and stony ridge top. Thus, and perhaps inevitably, this courageous attack, which had succeeded against all probability in gaining its objective, was doomed to fail soon after attaining its object.

A small party managed to get the mortally wounded Makonen off the ridge. They carried him the ten miles back to the cave at Mahara, in which twenty-four hours before he had planned, with hope, but no illusions, this valiant contest of human courage versus machinery of modern warfare.

All this day, Thursday, February 13th, Gerald and his convoy had lain in cover, some sleeping, most listening anxiously to the noise of the battle in the east where the Wollega contingent was still attacking, violently in the early hours and sporadically later in the day.

Before daybreak they had delivered the Red Cross stores at a cave half-way up the mountain, unloading the mules by the light of the moon and handing them over to the officer in charge.

As the sun rose they came down from the mountain by the diagonal path which descends from the ramparts. "Marjor" as Desta Goza called him using his binoculars as visibility improved.

They passed through Antalo in search of food, where even at that hour they found wakeful villagers willing to sell bread at the rate of five bullets for one small piece.

Out on the plain they went into cover to await the dusk. Still with them were most of the Addis Ababa men, the full number of mules and the strong guard of Wollega irregulars provided by Bitwoded Makonen. Restless and strained, many of these could not be persuaded to remain through the day, but crept off with their rifles towards the east where their brothers were in action, a few returning before dark with varying reports; uncertain and unsatisfactory.

In the afternoon they heard that Makonen was wounded and was being carried back to the cave at Mahara. Gerald was anxious to find him and to do what he could for him. At sunset the whole party left their cover and headed in a heavy downpour in the direction of Mahara.

They lost their way twice but at last reaching the ravine through which flows the river Buie they left their mules under guard, then crept, crawled and slipped down the rocks clinging to the bushes in the dark, for that night the moon did not come out to help them until a few minutes before eleven.

The cave where Makonen lay was in the steep river bank near the bottom. Gerald found him only half conscious. Calling Desta Goza and Ali inside they lifted Makonen from the bloodstained couch then washed and bandaged his wounds. Makonen had been machine gunned from the side through his hips. He had bled internally and there could be little hope. Gerald said to the stricken attendants " why did you let him bleed so long?" They told him how he had refused to be carried off the field.

Attending also the surviving officers of the battle Gerald gave some advice for the comfort of the dying chief then went to care for the rest of the wounded.

In the night the revolver of Bitwoded Makonen lay close to his hand. He had said that he did not intend to be taken alive.

During the next morning Bitwoded Makonen drew his last breath, but his death was kept secret from the army. His officers were determined to carry his body south. How to get it all the way to Addis in secret, faced with so many dangers and difficulties, was now their problem.

By the late afternoon Makonen's officers had found a desperate expedient. They sent for the Englishman who had been with him and whose camp was near by. They spoke long and urgently with the Red Cross officer: " You have chemicals?" . . .  Aghast at what apparently was being asked of him, Gerald denied the assumption that he was a surgeon and explained that what knowledge he had was purely veterinary. The officers persisted: it was a matter of honor to get the body of Makonen back to his own part of the country and he had expressed a wish to be buried there. At the same time it was urgent that the news of their leader's death should be kept from his army, at least during this period of confusion and disaster, otherwise the irregular forces would disperse. Faced by their distress and the urgency of their problem Gerald said he would help them.

 

In speechless grief and gloom he and one other passed through the guards and entered the cave. The body of the Ethiopian chief was cut in two and put in a pair of sealed war drums.

According to an Italian report the evening of Friday, 14th, was one of violent rain storms and winds which devastated the countryside. During the night the rest of the Wollega army marched back to Enda Medane Alem. The men still believed that their wounded leader was with them.

Ras Kebede had heard the news of Makonen's death during the day and had caused a grave to be dug at Enda Medane Alem in spite of the fact that to hold a funeral, public or private, would inevitably reveal the secret that the Commander no longer lived.

On the morning of Saturday, 15th, Ras Kebede arrived for a conference with Makonen's officers. Looking down at the closely guarded war drums he said, " I told him so." Bitwoded Makonen's officers were offended and would not consider the Ras's proposal to make use of the grave.

A heavy fog that morning held up the fighting on Amba Aradam but by 10a.m. it had cleared and the final struggle for the mountain raged throughout the day. By 7 p.m. there was hardly an unwounded man on the Amba when Ras Mulugeta, his staff and the survivors, escaped down to the plain in the twilight. They travelled through the night and arrived about 2 a.m. at Enda Medane Alem on Sunday morning. Here the sadly few survivors of Makonen's staff met the Ras and exchanged views on the all too fast moving sequence of events. It was arranged that the party accompanying the body in the war drums should start that night and that Ras Mulugeta should overtake them later after he had got into communication with the Emperor by telegraph.

Ras Kebede had offered to take the war drums under the protection of his still complete and untried army, but the Wollega people had declined his offer with dignity. They had asked permission to go with Ras Mulugeta although at this present time he had only 50 armed men with him. There was also with him a loyal Tigrai notable called Kenyasmatch Meshesha Abrahawho had led him to the headquarters where the Rases conferred. While he was there a runner arrived from Enda Medane Alem with a despatch from His Majesty. This directed them to get an urgent message through to Rases Kassa and Seyoum, which would have to be sent on by a responsible messenger on foot. The party went back to Enda at once to see that this difficult assignment was carried out, for Badoglio by now controlled the ford of Nervi on the route to the armies of the Rases.

The notables of Enda were collected. These insisted that a message to the Tembien was now utterly impossible, numbers of attempts had been made, the messengers had all been killed, taken prisoner, or had returned with accounts of failure.

Ras Mulugeta and Ras Kebede, used the weight of their authority and asked for volunteers. Kenyasmatch Abraha Meshesha offered to go. Being a Tigrai man he knew the country, but he asked first for a promise, that in the likely event of his death his young son, then about eighteen years old, should be given as a protégé to the Emperor who would care for his future.

The Rases parted. Ras Kebede, taking the easterly track, returned to his headquarters. Ras Mulugeta retiring for a few hours of sleep before being disturbed by the departure of the War Drums, which strapped on their specially trained mules were to be taken by the Wollegas on the long climb up the north face of Amba Alagi. They travelled with torches, for now and during the next week there would be no moon until after midnight. At the Gate of Alagi on the high summit of the mountain they would meet with the sons of Makonen and would wait there for the Ras to rejoin them.

When Ras Mulugeta arrived on the heights of Amba Alagi on the morning of Monday, 19th, the Italian air pursuit was at its peak.

The retreating troops, after the weeks of bombardment on Amba Aradam and the exhaustion of the battle, had also endured several days of incessant air attack with gas and bombs as they crossed the open country towards Amba Alagi.

To try and stop them here was from the outset an impossible task. The pass at Alagi Ber was now a death trap to the river of soldiers that struggled along the mule track.

But for four days the old Ras remained. With eyes blood-shot from lack of sleep the huge figure stood, like some judgment-day angel of death, amidst the chaos and carnage on the road, trying hopelessly to stem the rout of two armies, with the help of the officers from Wollega and whom Bitwoded Makonen had left to guard the pass, on his way north.

By Wednesday evening only some officers and a handful of men had been added to the small holding-force of the Wollega army which still manned the unfinished positions, and all hope of organizing the defenses of the mountain was clearly gone. Ras Mulugeta turned to an aide-de-camp, and with a gesture of despair he said " we have no men."

That night a message was sent to Ras Kebede, whose army was still "waiting" on the northeast spur at Gerak Sadek; telling him that the mountain position was being abandoned. Ras Kebede was angry, he protested.

Amba Alagi was occupied by the Italians, unopposed, nine days later. But even without troops the abandoned mountain held up the Italian advance for several more weeks. The enormous task of constructing a motorable road over the top, for the artillery and wheeled transport, on which the Italian army so much depended, proved an even bigger job than had been anticipated. It was done

 (in the flamboyant cliche of Marshal Badoglio) " by iron will."

In the early hours of the next morning Ras Mulugeta started along the road for Quoram. With his staff and bodyguard were Makonen's sons, the War-Drums and the Wollega holding-force from the mountain.

They marched down the south face of Alagi and between Adishau and Aiba, found the entrance of the little used Dubai pass which curves away to the west in an alternative mountain route to Mai Ceu. Although it is longer than the main route and rises to 13,000 feet, the thickly wooded slopes would afford some shelter from air attacks. But another hazard plagued the tired force who found that here lived shiftas in great numbers and that they were forced to engage in continual battles.

On one occasion the war drums became the focus of an attack; their obvious weight and the close guarding of the mules which carried them, led the shiftas to conclude that they contained money. These succeeded in seizing them, but were beaten off by the furious Wollegas and the drums recovered.

Delayed by the fighting and the slow pace of their wounded they took three days to reach Mai Ceu.

Although Gerald started earlier and should have crossed Alagi Ber by the early part of that weekend, neither Dejasmatch Derege nor two others who were there remember seeing him pass through. There was so much confusion on the track, hundreds of wounded men and thousands of refugees hastening south that this is not surprising.

Yet we know that he got over the mountains some time during that weekend. He had his wounded to care for, his duty now being to transport as many south as he could carry on the mules. He must have halted somewhere and it would be a protected place where his patients would be safe.

According to one of the journalists with the armies of Marshal Badoglio one hundred tons of high explosives were dropped on the road during Sunday, 16th and Monday, 17th. Gerald knew of the leafy gorge between Alagi Ber and Adishau and this is as likely a place as any. He had camped there on the way up, and by-passed as it would be by the crowd hastening down the south side of the Amba it could seem a haven where they could lie up in peace for a day or two. But guessing is unprofitable and there is no information whatever up to date, about his movements on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday. Desta Goza who should have known, when questioned twenty-five years later, could not remember.

On Wednesday morning with the first glimmer of light Gerald must have resumed his journey. Such of the mules as he had been able to preserve were carrying some of Makonen's wounded Wollegas. The march from the gorge to the village of Adishau was all downhill and after a sharp climb over the next mountain and down again they found themselves in the lovely vale of Aiba.

Another six miles would have got them to Mai Ceu where Gerald was acquainted with the Governor Aberra Tadla. It was now well into the morning, progress was slow and perilous owing to the constant necessity to take cover from the planes. Gerald had a good eye for country cultivated by his soldier's training and his long years of hunting the fox, and the city boys from Addis had confidence in him. It was fine and sunny, for the day after the fall of Amba Aradam, the weather had changed, after having pelted with rain day and night during that long week's struggle.

They passed the circular enclosed church which stood alone in the foothills of the mountains which line the lateral limits of the valley.

At that moment a crowd of men in high woollen caps and cloaks of half-cured skins stormed out of the woods and with much yelling and wild shooting surrounded the party.

Ali Hamid foolishly jumped on one of the mules and attempted to get it into a gallop. He was shot and killed. Some of the boys had managed to run away though there was little cover and these arrived in Addis two months later with apocryphal accounts of Gerald's death, greatly confusing the later reports.

He had shot two of his attackers with his revolver before being overpowered by the curiously garbed Tigrai shepherds, tall men with countenances fierce but very handsome; as indeed they are today.

This was the occasion on which Belai Kassai rescued the party as related in Part II. Gerald asked to be taken to Aberra Tadla, the governor.

On the way to Mai Ceu with Belai Kassai, Gerald found that his story of the death of Bitwoded Makonen was the first definite news that had reached Mai Ceu for it had been spread abroad that he was only wounded.

The Governor, Aberra Tadla was watching the road with his field glasses when he saw the men approaching with what he at first took to be an Italian prisoner.

In answer to the Governor's questions Gerald reported that he thought that Ras Mulugeta must still be on Amba Alagi and that with him were the War Drums containing the body of Bitwoded Makonen.

With Ethiopian hospitality His Excellency gave orders that Gerald and his twelve remaining men and the wounded Wollega officers who had travelled with him were to be housed in his compound. They were all given new khaki uniforms, rugs and blankets were sent to the guest Tukol. The Governor's residence was high on a miniature Amba. At the top was what Colonel Konovo-loff describes as "The Spacious Manor of the hereditary Chief with its large compound and inside courts," consisting of a number of tukols' fitted up in comfortable old world style, each forming an independent room of the " Manor."

 

 

1 In the manuscript of Kenyasmatch Woubeshet the scene is described this: “ They beat the War Drums, and at once the patriotic soldiers assembled with their guns and machine guns to die fighting for their country.”

 

2 "The War in Abyssinia," Unicorn Press,   Lcrdcn

 

3  The author of the second manuscript.

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