The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Ethiopian Study Visit - Tuesday 21st June 2011
Imperial War Museum
Given by - organised by Dorothea McEwan
Reviewed by - Bernard Lardner
Fifteen members attended the study visit to the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London on Tuesday 21 June.
We were first entertained by Allan Jeffreys, responsible for the exhibits sector, who gave us a detailed description of the battle of Keren which took place in February/March 1941 and was the key to the liberation of Ethiopia during World War II. He had prepared a map of the battlefield as well as panoramas to show the steep mountain terrain. Unfortunately, the two large models of the battlefield held by the museum have been retired to storage out of London.
Allan drew largely on the work of A. J. Barker in his definitive work Eritrea 1941 to build a picture of the forces on both sides. The British army was, he explained, a truly Empire Force with the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions forming the major part. The 4th had achieved a crushing victory over Italian troops at Sidi Barrani in North Africa and were, therefore, in fine heart. Both Divisions were very fine fighting units and included British Regiments such as the Essex, Worcester's and West Yorks. They were well led by Generals Platt and Heath and Brigadiers such as Slim, who was later to become well known in the Burma campaign.
The Italians fought well having their best regular troops in well prepared defensive positions on precipitous heights. They were also well led by General Frusci, one of the Italian divisional commanders in the Spanish Civil War.
Allan explained that this position could not be taken quickly and, despite having air superiority, it became a battle of attrition. He brought to life the terrible conditions including heat during the day, cold nights, endless flies thriving on putrefying bodies which could not be buried in the rocky ground while the monotony and lack of water took its toll.
Allan passed round Italian and British hand grenades which, he reassured us, had been defused! What was striking was that Italian ones were significantly lighter so they could be thrown further than the heavier British ones, a distinct advantage in close fighting.
The second part of the visit was conducted by Sarah Bevan, an art curator, who showed us selected items from the Museum's extensive art collection; the second largest of modern British art after the Tate. We were privileged to be the first group to visit the new archive area but, as space for viewing is very limited, group visits may, in future, be stopped. Much of the work in the collection has been made by war artists. In the case of the Ethiopian campaign the official war artist was Edward Bawden RA who travelled with the Essex Regiment. The collection includes about one hundred of his works. Given the time constraint we could only view a limited number and these were pen and ink sketches over laid with coloured washes. As the group was split into two I can only report on what I saw which included a picture of the Emperor (said by Bawden 'to have been the greatest personality on that Front') in his office in Khartoum, a member of the Imperial Guard, the battle of Keren and Debre Markos as well as two very striking pictures of members of the Eritrean Police Force. These can be viewed on the Museum's website by typing Edward Bawden's name into the online search facility.
The visit was a reminder of the great sacrifice made to liberate Ethiopia. It was interesting too to hear that some of our members were very familiar with the story and had, in the past, taken time to visit the Commonwealth War Graves at Keren.