Thrilling Vintage Horsemanship

We forget today that before WWII, horse cavalry was an art that took years to perfect. Indeed, the US army lost so many skilled horsemen to the South at the beginning of the Civil War, that it did not effectively field decent mounted troops until two years into the war.

If you think you can just take a farm boy off the plow and plop him on a cavalry horse, take a look at these horsemen. The uniforms look like the Italian Army cavalry of the 1920s, possibly from the Tor Di Quinto school. (Although the stairs look like the Escola Prática de Cavalaria de Torres Novas from the Portuguese army)

One of their members was the Baron Amedeo Guillet,


Born in 1909, just five years before World War One to a noble family in the city of Piacenza, Amedeo Guillet went onto become a legend as one of the last cavalry commanders in military history. He grew up around horses, attended the famous the Tor Di Quinto school and the Officers Cavalry School in Modena where he graduated in 1930. His horsemanship was well-known, being selected for the Italian Olympic Equestrian Team in his early twenties. Eschewing the Olympics for the call of the bugle he joined the romantic Spahis Cavalry made up of feudal tribesmen from Libya who were being mobilized for an Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Lt Guillet served with this unit in a number of sharp engagements during the Second Italo–Abyssinian War (1935-36) in which Italy conquered and annexed Ethiopia. No sooner had the conflict ended then Guillet volunteered for service with the Italian advisors to General Franco’s Nationalist Forces in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). During that conflict he led Moroccan troops and was decorated.

Returning to the Italian African colonies in 1939, he was given command of a 2000-man force of Eritrean and Yemeni tribesmen on assorted horses, camels and dromedaries with only himself and five other Italian officers as an officer corps. These men were armed with obsolete 70-year old Vetterli rifles firing black powder 10.35x47R cartridges. Dubbed the Gruppo Bande Amhara, it was detailed to be the eyes and ears of the forces in Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana). When the British Army invaded in 1940 Guillet took to the desert with his force. In January 19, 1941 he led a remarkable charge through a British tank column that was all but forgotten in the sands of that desert sideshow. At the gorge of Cheru, Guillet, mounted on his champion white Arabian ‘Sandor’, Guillet led more than 500 of his troopers in a wild charge along the exposed flanks of the British 4/11th Sikhs Regiment of the 5th Indian Division. They charged the Indian soldiers, throwing grenades and firing at anything that moved at point-blank range. They literally ran through the entire Indian formation and only narrowly missed capturing an English Brigadier.

Sadly of the 500 men who charged more than 180 were left behind on the battlefield in the Indian positions, dead in their mounts. His force crippled, Guillet led his remaining men deeply into the desert, covering the Italian retreat.

Amedeo Guillet with Spahy di Libya, Ethiopia 1936 of the Gruppo Bande Amhara

Amedeo Guillet with Spahy di Libya, Ethiopia 1936 of the Gruppo Bande Amhara

With the surrender of the Italian forces in East Africa by General Guglielmo Nasi in November 1941, Guillet refused to break his oath while he could still fight. He formed the remnants of his force, known simply as the “Amhara” (Band) under a banner with the Cross of Savoy superimposed with an Islamic Crescent and the motto “Semper Ulterius”. He carried on a small scale guerilla conflict with the British and established arms caches that remained in the desert for years. Well armed but lacking ammunition and support, Guillet, who was known as ‘Comandante Diavolo’ (The Devil Commander) to both the natives and the British kept up his fight. It was the absence of support from outside the occupied area that effectively ended his almost one-man “Lawrence of Arabia” war. When finally cornered he disbanded his force and escaped to Yemen disguised as an Arab named Ahmed Abdullah al Redai. He there was granted service in the Yemeni king’s court as an advisor to the Royal guard.

He returned to Italy in disguise in September 1943 just before the Italian government switched sides and signed an armistice with the Allies. In reward for his services he was promoted to Major and reassigned against his wishes to Military Intelligence, finishing the war on missions in occupied German territory. After the war, Guillet entered the Italian diplomatic corps at the insistence of his king and served throughout the Middle East and North Africa until retiring from public service to his estate in Ireland in 1975. In 2000 he was awarded the Knights Grand Cross of the Military Order of Italy by the Italian President. It is the highest of high orders of Italy, with Guillet being only one of 28 people in history to be awarded such an honor. In 2001 the elderly Guillet visited Eritrea and was shocked to be greeted by an adoring crowd of thousands, including scores of also elderly Eritrean men, former horsemen of the Italian Cavalry force known as Gruppo Bande a Cavallo Amhara

(The Guillet information from an article I wrote at Suite 101 )

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