A ripping tale of martial glory, commemorating a little-known fighter in a now-forgotten war.
Amedeo Guillet, now 93, was born into a Turin family whose members considered themselves Savoyards first, Italians second, defenders and protectors of “Europe’s oldest and most tenacious ruling dynasty.” Entering military service as a young man, he shone brightly as a familiar of the soldier king Vittorio Emmanuele III, an equestrian member of Italy’s 1936 Olympic team, and an able leader. A fine soldier, yes—but was he a fascist? British journalist O’Kelly sidesteps such distinctions, suggesting that although Guillet had only the dimmest inkling of what Mussolini intended when he started sending his troops into Libya, and then Ethiopia, he stood ready to serve, convinced that it was his country’s duty to bring law, order, and civilization to the heathens. Guillet distinguished himself as a cavalry commander against the fish-in-a-barrel opposition of Haile Selassie’s troops, served a spell in Spain fighting for Franco, then returned to the desert to take on the British, who proved better armed and tougher than his earlier foes. After leading one of the last great cavalry charges in history against a British tank column, he slipped away to organize a guerrilla band that included his Ethiopian lover. (“They had been friends, enjoying each other as life flashed by,” O’Kelly writes in a bodice-ripping moment. “But an empire had fallen since then, and their relationship had deepened.”) After bothering the British a while longer, he returned to Italy just in time to surrender to the Allies, then spent the postwar years serving as a diplomat until retiring to Ireland, enjoying the company of former enemies. O’Kelly spins out this improbable tale with a good eye for dramatic incidents, in which this account abounds, avoiding the usual blood-and-guts clichés. If only our hero—and so he was—had fought for a better cause.
A satisfying morsel for fans of The Four Feathers and Lawrence of Arabia—or perhaps of Rafael Sabatini.