Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Amedeo Guillet (1909-2010), The Italian Lawrence of Arabia

Signed picture of Amedeo Guillet

Young Amedeo Guillet

Amedeo Gulliet a champion horseman at Genova 1933

Second Lieutenant for the Cavalry of the Royal Italian Army, Amedeo Guillet, in the "Cavalleggeri di Monferrato" regiment

Old Amedeo Guillet

On 20 June 2000, an important and magnificent ceremony was held in the house of Commons of Capua. The object of the ceremony was to award the honorary citizenship to Ambassador Amedeo Guillet. For the occasion, the highest civil, political and military authorities of the province were invited, along with various representatives of diplomatic centers of Italy and other foreign countries, television and journalists. This event was welcomed by the 91 year old host, who in his participation had said “to appreciate and longed for this citizenship”. For the city, these words meant great virtue, in fact, Ambassador Amedeo Guillet is decorated with the maximum military and civil honors.

At the time of the ceremony, his chest was pinned with 5 Silver Medals, 1 of Bronze to the Military Worth, 5 Crosses of War, Cavalier of the Military Order of Savoia, Cavalier of the Great Cross of the Order to the Merit of the Italian Republic, Grand Official of the Order of the Nile of the Arabic Republic of Egypt, Cavalier of Great Cross of the Order of Saint Gregorio Magno of the Santa Sede, Cavalier of Great Cross of the Order to the Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Cavalier of Great Cross of the Order to the Merit of Kaukab of the Hashemita Reign of Jordan, Cavalier of Great Cross of the Order to the Merit of the Alaouita Reign of Morocco!
These titles are only some of the more important acknowledgments of one of the more eclectic and glorious men that the history of a nation like Italy can boast. Many pages have been written, but never enough on the long and adventurous life of Amedeo Guillet, who is also the Baron, Gen. of Cavalry, with two degrees. Numerous articles were written by his brotherly friends, Indro Montanelli and Sergio Romano, who published part of his authorized biography a few years ago which was edited by Victor Dan Segre. It had reached the eleventh reprint and a new one is already in process.

Amedeo Guillett gained part of his notoriety, compounded by his privacy, when the British vainly fought him in Italian East Africa (AOI).

It is opportune to remember who Amedeo Guillet is, but also to know that the things said from now on are only a chronological synthesis of the life of a man with values and ideals that have the taste of something noble and chivalrous. What will be narrated could viewed as a tale from other times. We can assure you that it is all absolutely true, it is documented and excludes any rhetorical tones.

Even today, the truth can be seen in the eyes and the words of Ambassador Guillet, veiled from a serenity and an immense culture, the same firmness of mind, forces and unrestrainable will which encompassed him as the unseizable “Devil Commander”.

Around 1860, Cav. Giuseppe Guillet (1835-1914) left S.Pierre d’ Albigny where he was born, and followed his king, Vittorio Emanuele II, in the conquest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. At Capua, a very important fort, he found the ideal atmosphere and married Maria Domenica Paggiarino (1848-1924), kin to a rich capuana family. Cav. Giuseppe Guillet, a nobleman of the Army and civic virtues, had three sons, Alfredo (1872-1950), Amedeo (1874-1939) and Ernesto (1876-1961). All three undertook military careers, rising to the highest and much sought after assignments. Although they traveled all of Italy, they were always tied to Capua, where by their own choice, lay rest in the local cemetary beside their parents. Of these three, Amedeo, became a senator of the Reign in area near his hometown of Capua during the 30′s (as senator, a not elective assignment was also held of extreme prestige). The other brother, Alfredo, Col. of the CC.RR. and one of the heroes of the Podgora, married Franca Gandolfo, sister of Engineer Rodolfo to whom Capua is always grateful.

In February, 1909, our Amedeo Guillett was born in Piacenza. Amedeo, born from a life of military and as consequence, embraced the military himself, lived all over Italy but always with a particular affection for Capua and Piazza dei Giudici that faces the balcony of the Guillet house. In that house, his parents retired themselves just as his grandparents before them. Amedeo Guillet spent several years of his youth between walls of the ancient Capua. Even today, Amedeo Guillet, comes to visit, which includes a stop to his beloved wife, Bice, buried in an austere chapel in the cemetery of Capua. He spends entire days behind those windows that face the Town hall. In those moments his mind is crowded of many juvenile memories; beside him there is still the piano that belonged to his mother, he sees his first steps as skilled pianist in what became a familiar passion.

Amedeo graduated from the Academy of Infantry and Cavalry of Modena in 1930 and began his career in the Regio Esercito Italiano. He was one of the greatest cavalryman of his time, both in civil and military fields. Still, as of the date of this writing, Amedeo rides his beloved thoroughbreds in Ireland at the age of 92.

He became an uncontested winner of equestrian competitions that helped him further his career, and he was accepted in the bourgeoisie and the roman nobility where his handsome looks and noble origin didn’t come unnoticed.

In 1934 he was in Libya. In 1935, he participated with the Spahis of Libya in the War of Ethiopia. This land and its proud population will forever mark the mind and the life of that young officer. Subsequently he went to Spain, as commander of a Company of Arditi of the Div. “Fiamme Nere”, where he consolidates a friendship with Col. Giuseppe Amico, from Capua as well, who in 1943 was awarded the M.O.V.M. in memory.

Amedeo became commander of a Tabor of Moroccans. After a short period in Italy, and already distinguished as a capable organizer of men and means, he was sent to Libya as commander of the VII°Savari Squadron in 1937. He was recognized for the optimal relationships established with the natives and placed in charged of the organization of the equestrian part, that due to the number of men and the demanding engagements, should have been held by a higher officer. This was specifically for the celebration by Mussolini (10 April 1937) in which the “sword of Islam” was unsheathed.

Amedeo Guillet was a knight of sublime skill, and often took advantage of someone’s ability tied to the equestrian world. He was a skillful instructor of men and horses. This characteristic helped him save his life on many occasions. While in other circumstances, it was useful in order to obtain the confidence of important tribe leaders, statesmen and men of government.

He returned to Capua after contracting malaria and stayed in his parental home. he was lovingly attended to by his mother Franca and his cousin Bice, his future wife. As soon as he was completely recovered, he asked to leave, to delay marriage, and to prevent from being accused of using this leave in terms of benefits of licenses and promotions.

In 1938 he was sent as lieutenant of 13° “Cavalrymen of Monferrato”, in A.O.I. He participated in the first actions with the XIV° Group Squadron of the Amhara. In 1939, he was a participant of a obscure episode that we want to tell the readers of this review.

On August 6, in the Dougur Dubà zone, he became aware of attacks from rebels against populations under the Italian colonial government. He reached the place and forced these bandits to runaway. In one instance during a cavalry charge, his horse was shot down, and he immediately ordered his orderly to give him his horse. This horse was also hit. Amedeo found himself on foot, carrying a machine-gun, where he chased and cut down the last rebels! This indomitable, brave action which was conducted on the front lines with a scorn for death, merited a silver medal for military bravery.

In 1940, he was tasked to form a “Gruppo Bande a Cavallo”. The “Bande a Cavallo” were native units, usually dubat, that were recruited from Italian officers who commanded these units. The human tie that was created between a commander and dubat was the secret for success or failure of these Bands. Amedeo Guillet succeeded in recruiting thousands of Eritreans of different ethnicity’s, often with contrast between them, by speaking with Bedouin to Bedouin and with several heads of village. His “Band”, already named in the history books as “Gruppo Bande Guillet”, were distinguished for their absolute “fair play” with the local populations and for the visceral tie that tied the men who were so different than their commander. Amedeo Guillet could boast at never being betrayed, and 5000 Eritreans knew perfectly well who he was and where he lived. It was during this time in the horn of Africa that the legend of a group of Eritreans with excellent fighting qualities, commanded by a notorious “Devil Commander” was born.

Amedeo Guillet’s ability to project fair play, sense of honor and loyalty, at any costs, to his given word, gave him credibility to a tribal society that cherished those qualities. At the end of 1940, the English realized that they were facing a unique individual who could bring them many problems, and not just military ones. Using regular troops, then with help of the intelligence service, they began to chase the “Devil Commander”. The ally forces faced him on the road to Amba Alagi, and specifically, in proximity of Cherù. He was entrusted by the Duca Amedeo Of Aosta in the task of delaying the allied advance from the North-West. The battles and skirmishes in which this young lieutenant was a protagonist (Amedeo did not have the appropriates rank, but he commanded an entire brigade) are boldly written in the British bulletins of war. The fiasco that he created from day to day, almost seen as a game, explains why the Anglo-Saxons called him not only “Knight from other times” but also the Italian “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Horse charges with unsheathed sword, guns, incendiary and hand bombs against the armored troops had a daily cadence. A look at official documents show that in January 1941 at Cherù “… with the task of protecting the withdrawal of the battalions… with skillful maneuver and intuition of a commander… In an entire day of furious combats on foot and horseback, he charged many times while leading his units, assaulting the preponderant adversary (in number and means) soldiers of an enemy regiment, setting tanks on fire, reaching the flank of the enemy’s artillery… although huge losses of men,.. Capt. Guillet,… in a particularly difficult moment of this hard fight, guided with disregard of danger, an attack against enemy tanks with hand bombs and benzine bottles setting two on fire while a third managed to escape while in flames.”

In those months many proud Italians died, including many brave Eritreans who fought without fear for a king and a people who they never saw or knew. Even today, the “Devil Commander” uses words of deep respect and admiration for that proud population to whom he feels himself in debt as a soldier, Italian and man. He never stops to repeat that “the Eritreans are the Prussians of Africa without the defects of the Prussians”. His actions had the hoped success and saved the lives of thousands of Italians and Eritreans who withdrew in the territory better known as the Amba Alagi.

Between the many insurgents we cannot forget the one that happened at the end of January 1941 at Cherù when LT Guillet decided to give a strong hit to the enemy armored troops. At dawn he charged against steel weapons with only swords, guns and hand bombs at a column of tanks. Passing undamaged between the English who were fascinated and struck dumb by such a scorn for death. Amedeo then returned to the steps in order to recharge. In the meantime, the English succeeded to organize themselves and fire at raised zero with their howitzers. The shells ripped the chests of the horses before exploding. From this act forms the figure of this Italian that rides his fabulous white horse, Sandor, with a squadron of dubat crying “Savoia” that remained in the historical memory of the Anglo-Saxon people. It was the last cavalry charge the English faced and the last but one in the history of the cavalry. In fact a little more than a year later, as ironic as it seems, a beloved friend of Guillet, the Col. Bettoni, launched the men of the “Savoia Cavalry” against the Soviet troops in Russia.

His Eritrean troops paid a high price in terms of human losses, approximately 800 died in little more than two years, and in March, 1941, his forces found themselves outside the Italian lines. Amedeo Guillet still remembers many friends of the 800 that had fallen, whose deaths he has suffered as well and whose indelible memory follows him day by day. Amedeo, faithful until death to the oath to the Savoia House, did not lose his spirit in being far away from the Italian lines and began his own private war against the English. (On this argument see V. Dan Segre, the private war of Ten. Guillet, Corbaccio Editore). Hiding his uniform near an Italian farm, he set the region in fire and flames at night for almost eight months. His reputation increased day by day, He become Arabic to the Arabs, he loves to remember that he did not eat, live, prayed, spoke “like” an Arab, but he did all these things “As” an Arab. From that moment, Amedeo Guillet no longer existed and born was Ahmed Abdallah Al Redai, a Yemen beggar, refugee in Eritrean land, who couldn’t bear to see the Italians. His clandestine act was so perfect, that he was offering tea and entertaining an official of the English services, Cpt Gibbs, while he was questioning some Italians to find the hiding place of the “Devil Commander”. A ransom of 1000 pounds of gold, a considerable amount in that context for his capture, dead or alive, had no results, and the creation of an ad hoc team of the Intelligence were useless in finding him.
The fear and the respect that he inspired in his opponents was so strong that he was frequently awarded merit for many sabotage and guerrilla actions of which he was not a part of at all.
In the end “The Devil Commander” had to leave his white horse Sandor, his faithful Dubat and his best soldier, the young and beloved Princess Kadjia.

After thousands of adventures, including working as a water seller, he was finally able to reach Yemen, where for about two years he trained soldiers and cavalrymen for the Imam’s army, of whose son Ahmed became a brotherly friend.

Despite the opposition of the Yemenite royal house, he succeeded to embark incognito on a Red Cross ship and return to Italy a few days before the armistice.

As soon as he reached Puglia (Italian region) he asked for ships, men and weapons to help his Eritrean brothers. But unfortunately, times had changed. Suddenly promoted Major for merits of war, he was assigned to the Military Intelligence Agency (SIM). In this role, he was chosen by the British for some very dangerous missions on Italian ground that was still not freed.
Even in this new “mission”, Major Guillet didn’t mind the risks he was facing because of the oath to his country. On many occasions, he took advantage of his position (sometimes against his new allies ) to complete his assigned tasks. He worked closely with an official of the services, a cadet of Col. Harari , Victor Dan Segre, who later became his brotherly friend and biographer. Col. Harari was the commander of the British special unit services that tried to capture Amedeo Guillet in AOI.

At the end of the war, and with the defeat of the Monarchy, Amedeo Guillet expressed a high desire to leave Italy. He informed Umberto II of his intentions, but the King forced him to keep serving his Country in whatever form of government it would become. As always, he couldn’t disobey an order of his King, so he expressed his will to teach anthropology in the University.
In fact, Amedeo Guillet was not only a Baron, but was also a graduate in Colonial Sciences and Law. But above all, he loved the Arabic world of which he was an expert. He knew perfectly well the customs, habits, mentality, ways of prayer and just as importantly, he could speak many local languages with the right inflections. However his perfect clandestine actions in Eritrea could only happen thanks to being in tune with the Arabic world.

At the age of 40, Amedeo Guillet had completed exceptional and amazing things that would have satisfied any common human being. Not him! He was still “The Devil Commander”. Devil of fact before name.

Thanks to his numerous acquaintances, and appreciations gained during the dark years of the war, he was asked to enter in Diplomacy. He accepted, but he wanted to participate in a regular examination as he didn’t want any favoritism. He participated in a test for 15 positions with 400 participants and placed 5th. When he mentions this accomplishment, he says it like a proud young student who just received a good grade. But just by looking at him, you can perceive a bitter regret to have not been the first!

His new life took him to diplomatic centers of Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco and finally India until 1975. And always, when returning in Italy, Amedeo Guillet payed a visit his mother, and his sons Paolo and Alfredo who as students at the Nunziatella, were often at their grandmother Franca’s place in Capua.

He used to entertain friends, but only the closest ones, with extreme confidentiality and humility, he narrated the things of his life.

An example of his humility was during the end of the 1950′s, when he was re-introduced to Imam Amhed as Ambassador to Yemen with all the diplomatic corps. Imam was the leader who had given him hospitality for two years and did all he could to keep him in Yemen during the war. Guillet did not have the words in order to introduce himself, he did not know what to do in the presence of a such an influential and susceptible person who badly regretted his leaving for Italy. Imam watched him with severity and said to him…”finally you decided to return home”.
He spent approximately seven years in that comfortable country with a brother like relationship with the powerful Imam. Never forgetting the reason of his presence in Yemen, he avoided every type of involvement except those of Italian interests.

His diplomatic activity, perhaps less known, is now being studied by a work group in Ireland, where he resides in a manor with his loved horses. The documents that he keeps in his immense archives are confirming the prominent role that Italy has had in one of the most secret and troubled historical periods in the Middle East.

In fact, for Amedeo Guillet the diplomatic career was not a resting assignment at all. On the contrary, he always tried to do something new and important, which succeeded in giving Italy credit , renown and perspectives, both in politics and economy. He continued to take devilish risks a lot, not for glory but only for his country; as done by his grandfathers, his parents, his uncles and the cousin Paul, who was immortalized in the skies of El-Alamein. His friendship with Lord Mountbatten, Indira Ghandi, king Hussein and Hassan II° will remain in history. He was with Hussein, who used to call him uncle, in the Six Day War. He succeeded in saving many notable people during a riot in Morocco. In Jordan, he rescued many German families that risked being slaughtered for revenge by Palestinian Integralists.

The Santa Sede awarded him the Cavalierato di Gran Croce di S. Gregorio M., the highest decoration for a layman, for having organized the entire visit of Pope Paul VI in Palestine; and in those years it was not an easy thing to mediate between the fighting factions in the Middle East. Ambassador Guillet is particularly proud of this decoration, being deeply religious and remembers how his mother Franca, in her own testament, had donated to the Capuana Church a thorn of Jesus’ cross which belonged in his family for various generations. One of the existing 32 thorns in the world attested from Papal seals.

Since 1975, he has lived in Ireland, encircled by his loved horses and the English friends who continuously show him their affection and respect. He often comes to Rome where his sons live and never misses a visit, and a day of rest, in his beloved Capua where often his bright memory reminds him of the juvenile years spent there.

In regards to the English, Amedeo Guillet loves to remember that one of the few enviable qualities that they have, is fair play. In short, that great firmness of mind to recognize and give the right value to the opponents. The English would have done the impossible to kill him, and he would have done the same. But once the war ended they looked for him with more doggedness in order to give the honors that he deserved. For example, a more meaningful encounter was with Col. Harari, his hunter on behalf of the English Service, who gave him a silver cast of the hoof of his mythical horse Sandor, which was killed. Col. Harari wanted to create this memory because he felt within himself that the “Devil Commander” would survive the British adversity and that he would want to have had the honor to bestow him the due homages!

Amedeo Guillet is also very proud of being invited four times as host of honor to the reunions of the surviving English officials in which Gen. Platt periodically organizes. To be invited in one of these ceremonies is very difficult, and practically impossible for a foreigner. Imagine being as honored host, and for four times.

Since 1975, his roaming have not finished. The high reputation that he gained in the Arabic world make him rise still nowadays as protagonist in diplomatic consultations. In fact, in his mandates of extreme objectivity, he always shows the high credentials that he had to the several Arabic ethnicities, and the respect, the uncontested confidence, that conquered the high English spheres. The above virtues, together with the immense cultural experience, and his passion for the horses, opened up doors that were usually closed. His proud friend Montanelli, says that “… the Devil Commander, in order to continue to do his devilry, lives in Ireland where the horses are cheap, and there is plenty of space to ride them, and that at the age of 90, with none of his bones in the right place, he continues ride every day”. Montanelli does not know that Amedeo Guillet will not only keep on doing his devilry in Ireland, but also in Rome, Capua and everywhere his young mind and indomitable spirit suggests him to go.

When I personally met the Ambassador, the evening of the 19 June 2000, he told me about a recent fact that impressed him a lot, and intimately marked him. He was by chance in Rome, in May, when he was invited personally by the young Eritrean president, Isayas Afwerki, to see again the places where he was protagonist in the 1940′s. He accepted the invitation to Asmara and was welcomed with the protocol that is used for the Heads of State. During the arrival ceremony, approximately 200 Eritreans who had been under his command suddenly appeared. After 56 years, they had no intention to miss his presence as they had felt hundreds of times in the nights of the 1941. Amedeo Guillet, who was certainly not new to strong emotions, has been really touched by this and the episode moved him a lot.

He was touched to see how the memory of his actions, handed from father to son, became part of the historical memory of a nation. In fact, in Ethiopian lands, he is considered a real idol, a patriot, not only for the Italian cause but above all for the Eritrean independence.

He is very proud of being loved by a people who he respects and in a certain way he envies, comparing it to the western societies. He also remembers that it was he, before leaving for Yemen, who revealed the hiding places of all the Italian weapons that were left in the desert. Giving life to the war of liberation and independence from Ethiopia that ended only few years ago. This partially explains the reason of the memory in the Eritrean culture of “Devil Commander’s” deeds.

A last and meaningful episode happened on 12 July 2000, when the Pres. Ciampi received in audience Gen. Guillet, and a few other Cav. of the Military Order of Italy, at the Quirinale, where a reserved ceremony took place. We are sure that in those familiar halls to Amedeo Guillet, the few who did not know him tried to confirm if all the tales were true.

Even if extremely late, President Ciampi on 4 November 2000, the day of the Festivity of the Armed Forces, named him Cav. di Gran Croce dell’Ordine Militare di Savoia. The highest decoration that a military, and not only civilian, can deserve. Granted from 1855 to 1942, the date of the last nomination, only 28 Italians, such as Ferrero Della Marmora, Menabrea, Cadorna, Diaz, Badoglio, Thaon di Revel and Bastico received this award. Just to give an exact importance of this decoration, the hero of the Risorgimento, Giuseppe Garibaldi, is enrolled in the same Order but in a lower Class!

Today Amedeo Guillet is deservedly one of the most decorated, both in civil and military, Italian of all the History of Italy (in fact, this article does not mention the story of his beloved cousin and wife Bice Gandolfo, or the beautiful love story with Kadija, his family, or all the military adventures in Spain, Africa and during his diplomatic missions).

I would like to conclude this brief biography of Amedeo Guillet by stating this message, received at the ceremony held in Capua, from the Ambassador of Italy in Ireland Ferdinando Zezza. These simple words full of deep feelings, from one of the highest charges of our country, more than every other word can conclude this article and give the right meaning to what has been narrated.

The Ambassador

Geom. Vincenzo D'angelo, Don Peppino Centore, Pietro Montagna, S.E. Gen., Amb, dott. Barone Amedeo Guillet, Preside Rosolino Chillemi, Prof. Giulio Cosco

Dublin, 20 June 2000
Regretful at not being able to be with You in this important occasion, I wish that the expression of my sincere, live, gratefulness for the decision to confer to General, Ambassador Amedeo Guillet, the honorary citizenship of the city of Capua reaches You.

Heroic soldier, most distinguished diplomatic, the General, Ambassador Amedeo Guillet – of whose friendship I honor myself – has built up in all his life and in very difficult moments, a bright example of fidelity to the noblest values of a man and citizen so strong to be carried as example for the Italians who will come. To the City of Capua, to its new illustrious citizen and personally to the Mayor goes the moved thought in this propitious day.

Ferdinando ZEZZA Ambassador of Italy – Dublin
Today 16/06/2010 Amb. Gen. Amedeo Guillet, 101 years old, is riding in the sky…..good travel Comandante Diavolo!

PUBLISHED ON: Le MUSE, Pignataro Maggiore (CE) Italy, Ass Edition. Amici della Musica 2001, year III number 2, pp. 7-17.

Article written By: Pietro Montagna and endorsed by Amedeo Guillet. Translated by Lele

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