In 1936 Vladimir Pozner, a young immigrant writer with left-wing views, was trawling the underground of the Russian community in Paris for information on a dead Baron.
The people he talked with had been driven out of their homeland twenty years before by the Bolshevik revolution. It was a world of former colonels driving taxi-cabs; aristocrats in genteel poverty scratching for rent; Russian language newspapers on cheap paper predicting the fall of Communism any day now; and tea rooms in which the clock had stopped in 1917.
Pozner had no sympathy for these shards of old Russia embedded in the French capital. He was researching the biography of a general from the Civil War. The best place to find information was among the Russian exiles still mentally fighting the Bolsheviks.
“The taxi drivers and workers in the automobile factories made their way right across Paris to read the memoirs of their former leaders in the Russian Library,” he wrote. “They surrounded the page with exclamation marks and comments such as ‘Traitor!’ ‘Jew!’ ‘Coward!’ Everything that might be read between the lines of these books was shown up here, pencilled in, rubbed out, and scrawled in again by subordinates bursting with retrospective rage.”
Darul Islam was on the run in late 1949. The jihadist army’s jungle camp was a hive of soldiers in short-sleeved shirts and Dutch army helmets. They slept in bivouacs under the palm trees and leaned their old rifles in tripods. The perimeter was strung with rattling tin cans strung on wire.
Down time was spent crouching around cooking fires watching cassava boil. On a good day the jihadists would get an extra pinch of sugar or salt but sometimes food was so scarce they ate leaves. A pack of Escort cigarettes was the kind of luxury that could make a man feel like a king.
The 15,000 strong Islamic army was trapped in a shrinking triangle of territory down in Pasundan’s south-east, a state in newly independent Indonesia. Some locals supported them. Others waited until the green Darul Islam flag with its crescent moon wrapped tight around a star had passed out sight, then contacted the authorities. If the soldiers of Darul Islam discovered the disloyalty they would return and exterminate the village, the houses left in ruins and crops polluted by bodies and blood.
My book about the crazy gang of foreign mercenaries who fought for Ethiopia in the 1930s went to the printers last week. It has a shiny new cover in gold and marble grey, and should be in the shops some time this summer.
The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in late 1935 outraged the world. Communists saw it as proof of Fascist barbarism, liberals were shocked by the display of outdated imperialism; even the empire builders in London and Paris were reluctant to welcome Mussolini into their club.
It was a war between far-right modernity and patriarchal traditionalism. The Italians had airplanes, high explosive, and mustard gas. The Ethiopians preferred swords and spears. Emperor Haile Selassie needed expert foreign help. What he got was a bunch of mercenaries who could barely shoot straight and leaned further to the right than Mussolini.
Lost Lions of Judah tells the whole colourful, blood-stained story.