The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 9th November 2010

Postal History of the British Military in Ethiopia

Given by - Bernard Lardner

Reviewed by - Anne Parsons

Bernard Lardner's lecture on the postal history of the British Military in Ethiopia covered more than one hundred years and he certainly packed an enormous amount of information into a mere one hour illustrated talk to the Society. This short report can, alas, only give a taster of some of the interesting items we were shown.

Bernard started by showing covers relating to General Napier's expedition of 1868 to rescue the hostages at Magdala before hot footing it onwards to the 1930s and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The British public were fully aware of this invasion, and after the address given to the League of Nations in 1936 by HIM Haile Selassie were sympathetic to the Emperor's plight. A British 1½d stamp was issued and the Red Cross issued a set of stamps to raise money for the war effort. The Emperor sold 16,000 ounces of silver and it is speculated that he may also have sold many postage stamps to bolster funds.

In 1940-1, which was a particularly sensitive time during WWII and the period of the East African Campaign, we learnt that the censor was very active judging by the collection of opened and resealed letters from the troops. We saw several interesting photographs including the field post office at Keren and a military lorry with a letter box attached. A field post office was also opened in 1941 in the very elegant futurist style Fiat showrooms in Asmara.

Other photographs showed the return of Haile Selassie to Ethiopia from the Sudan after a difficult advance through Gojjam. Bernard had an envelope from this time from Lt Gen Sir Alan Cunningham to Harrods in London, although sadly no contents to explain the reason for writing. Bernard also had some examples of letters to POWs at Dire Dawa but he noted that judging by the date of the postmark the letters may have arrived at the same time as the POWs were actually released.

After the liberation of Addis Ababa (the Emperor returning on 5 May 1941 five years to the day since his exile in 1936) a post office was established in the city under the control of the British army for military use. Civilian use followed in 1942 and British stamps bearing the head of George VI were used for a further 3 months after this date.

Bernard brought us up to date (almost!) by concluding his talk with coverage of the RAF's role in delivering relief supplies in the 1984-5 famine. The RAF, who operated out of Lyneham in the UK, had its own field post office in Ethiopia and the last piece of post was sent on 15 December 1985.

Our thanks go to Bernard Lardner for a very informative, well presented and illustrated talk and for sharing much of his fascinating collection with us.

First Published in News File Spring 2011

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