The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Book Review - Letters from the Horn of Africa 1923-1942 Sandy Curle: Soldier and Diplomat Extraordinary
Edited by Christian Curle
Reviewer - Richard Snailham
For me this is a cracking good book. I can't help saying so at the outset. It is a collection of letters written by a Scottish soldier who became a District Commissioner and Consul and then, with the advent of World War 2, an army officer again. But it is more than just that: it gives us a brilliant evocation of what went on in the pre-war army in Africa and in the colonial service, and both organisations come very well out of it.
The letters were written by Sandy Curle to his father in Scotland and were found and edited by his daughter Christian. It would have been even more marvellous to have had them interspersed with his father's replies but perhaps these did not survive the exigencies of war. If they had it would have put this book up among correspondents like Paddy Leigh Fermor and the Duchess of Devonshire or George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart Davis.
Its interest for members of our Society lies in the fact that Sandy Curle wrote these letters from Kenya, Tanganyika, British Somaliland and Abyssinia between 1923 and 1942 and matters Ethiopian loom very large in them. He ended the war as Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the 2 Irregulars (Curle's), a unit composed of Ethiopian refugee soldiers from Kenya who helped Cunningham's army drive the Italians out of southern Ethiopia.
The letters were never intended for publication and are the blunt, unvarnished observations of a young man often on his own in remote country. There is no PR here. Curle worked hard and played hard. He might spend the morning training his King's African Rifles askaris or, as an ADC later on, dispensing justice in some flea-ridden courthouse. Then he might have an early evening shooting sandgrouse before dining in solitary state with silver candlesticks on a decent tablecloth. The ghastly rigours of his work on the Somaliland-Abyssinia frontier demarcation in 1933 - tramping in l00°F heat up arid rocky hills and tedious days negotiating with obstreperous French and Abyssinian officials, relieved by the occasional outrage, a German ambushed and murdered - were to some extent ameliorated by a succession of dinners in railway station buffets, créme de menthe and soda and warm champagne
The letters are in no way spun and should be read by all those who sneer at the British colonial achievement in Africa. They record the work of a conscientious man who helped to bring good governance to parts of the world which have never had it since his time.
The postal services which made this exchange of letters possible must have been remarkably dependable. Curle regularly sent curios, birds' eggs, snakeskins, seeds and bulbs home to his horticulturally keen father who, in turn, sent out marrons glacés and other delicacies in Fortnum and Mason food parcels, copies of Sphere, Spectator and French novels. Almost all reached him - by the shores of Lake Tanganyika or deep in the Ogaden.
Perhaps the most fascinating pages tell of his part in the 1934 Boundary Commission which became involved in the Wal-Wal incident. He throws new light on what went on in this series of skirmishes used by Mussolini as a pretext for his 1935 invasion of Abyssinia.
The style is endearingly that of a young public school educated man of the 1920s: he upbraids the Italians for 'not playing the game' and finds the Goanese clerk's English 'always just misses the boat somehow'. As Lord Inge says in his foreword, it is a joy to read.
Letters from the Horn of Africa 1923-1942 Sandy Curle: Soldier and Diplomat Extraordinary. Edited by Christian Curle. Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley, S Yorks 2008.