Abyssinian War: Hospital Bombardment (More)

Reader Dave Lull has accessed a full copy of the State Crime Journal’s article “Between Sovereignty and Race: The Bombardment of Hospitals in the Italo-Ethiopian War and the Colonial Imprint of International Law” mentioned in a recent post. (Thanks to Dave for providing a link.) In fact the authors were not referring to Waugh’s discussion of the alleged Italian bombing of the hospital in Adowa (as assumed in the posting), but rather to an incident that took place at Dessye. As explained in the article :

Notwithstanding Italy’s use of mustard gas and the widespread bombardment of civilian sites, various foreign journalists, like the renowned novelist-turned war correspondent Evelyn Waugh, blamed Ethiopia for abusing the [Red Cross] emblem (Salwen 2001). In his memoirs, Waugh, who covered the Italian-Ethiopian war for the London-based Daily Mail, described the first Italian bombardments of an Ethiopian hospital in Dessye. Close to the town’s main hospital, he wrote, there was a Coptic church building above which “a Red Cross [was flying . . . while an Ethiopian] anti-aircraft gun was mounted on the balcony” (Waugh in Abyssinia,1936: 204). He went on to raise doubts about the way in which the Ethiopians had gathered the testimonies they had sent to the League of Nations, depicting the local population as both primitive and as deploying complex methods of perfidy: “Tricking the European was a national craft . . . Tricking the paid foreign advisors, tricking the legations, tricking the visiting international committees – these were the ways by which Abyssinia had survived and prospered” (Waugh in Abyssinia, 1936: 27). Several Italian newspapers readily adopted Waugh’s claims, publishing articles about “the Red Cross pseudo medical units” and about “what hides in Ethiopia behind the inviolable Red Cross”.

Waugh also described the situation at Dessye in a report attached by the Italian Government to its note to the League of Nations on 28 February 1936. Reprinted in EAR, p. 185:

I was in Dessye at the end of November [1935]. There were two properly constituted hospitals there: A French mission outside of the town which was untouched by the subsequent bombardment, and the Adventist mission in, but at the extremity of, the town, where a ward was destroyed by fire. This lay next to the former Italian Consulate where a detachment of the Imperial Guards was stationed with two pieces of artillery and some anti-aircraft machine guns mounted on lorries. A third building in the city flew the red cross; this was the Governor’s private residence (not the Crown Prince’s ghebbi). Two anti-aircraft guns were mounted on the verandah. An Irish transport officer quartered in this house, working for the Red Cross, protested about the presence of the guns and there was some talk of moving them. Whether it had been done before the attack on 6 December I cannot say.

The recent article in State Crime Journal goes on to describe in some detail wide-spread exaggeration in the Italian press of the Ethiopian practice of hiding behind Red Cross emblems to escape bombardment. It may well be the case that Italian newspaper reports used information from Waugh’s stories out of context to take advantage of his stature among the press corps covering the story. But whether Waugh consciously misreported or covered up Italian attacks against bona fide Red Cross facilities is not evident from the material discussed in the article.  The note in the article to the source “Salwen 2001” refers to M B Salwen, “Evelyn Waugh in Ethiopia: The Novelist as War Correspondent and Journalism Critic”,  Journalism Studies, v.2, pp. 5-25 (2001).  It may shed more light on Waugh’s coverage of the hospital bombardment issue but is unavailable from sources to which I have access.

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