The photograph below is a caption of a Finnish newspaper article published in 1935, at the time of the crisis which preceded the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The translation of the headline is: “Finns tend to get involved everywhere: a hundred volunteers want to leave to fight in Abyssinia”. The subtitle continues further: “The local consul of Abyssinia tells about his country, which is not a ‘Negro state’ [sic], but one of the oldest Christian nations”.
The international solidarity which emerged during the Abyssinian War did eventually spark a modest international volunteer movement. The Pan-African sentiments of the time are well-known, and the foreign military men who ended up serving in Haile Selassie’s ranks included the former Ottoman general Wehib Pasha and White Russian colonel Fedor Evgenievich Konovalov. The potential Finnish recruits were regretfully given no opportunity to satisfy their desire to fight against Mussolini. According to Jarl Ahrenberg, the consul of Abyssinia in Helsinki, the number of these Finnish volunteers eventually reached four hundred – many of whom were willing to pay for their travel expenses – but the Abyssinian visa ban, issued after the outbreak of the crisis, made it impossible to organize any recruitment, even if Ahrenberg had been interested in such an undertaking.
Although the Finnish volunteer movement failed to materialize, the small Nordic country did support the distant Empire in East Africa on a more official basis. A fundraising campaign organized in November 1935 yielded over 150 000 Finnish Marks, and the Finnish Red Cross also equipped an ambulance unit to provide humanitarian aid for the Ethiopians, following the example of Sweden and Norway. This was a high-profile undertaking, and the initiative came directly from no less a person than marshal C. G. E. Mannerheim, who was, at the time, the chairman of the Finnish Red Cross. The ambulance was headed by the internationally-renowned surgeon Richard Faltin, Mannerheim’s very old friend, whose profile is engraved in the memorial medal portrayed below. Faltin was already 68 years old, and his former feats as a practicing physician had involved an attempt to save the life of Russian Governor-General Bobrikov thirty years before. The close friendship between Mannerheim and Faltin was demonstrated as the marshal cordially informed driver Birger Lundström that he would be “directly answerable for professor’s security on this expedition”.
The Finnish Red Cross Mission consisted of five men. Faltin was accompanied by his two colleagues; dental surgeon Severin Tigerstedt, who had performed jaw operations for Russian soldiers in the Eastern Front during the First World War, and doctor Arvo A. Seppälä, who had served as Faltin’s assistant. Aside driver Lundström, the expedition was also joined by author Arvid Håkan Mörne, whose task was to act as the official war correspondent of the group, as well as an unofficial jack-of-all-trades. The expedition was well-equipped, and the three lorries had all the necessary gear required to set up a surgical field hospital with fifty beds. With two X-ray machines and a generator, the Finnish ambulance unit dispatched to Abyssinia was a genuine mobile surgical hospital of its day.
The Finnish ambulance unit reached Abyssinia at the beginning of February 1936. The disorderly atmosphere and the African weather caused a major culture shock to Faltin, who was a man of strict discipline and dictatorial tendencies. Even worse, the first few weeks were spent merely providing ordinary medical care for the local civilians. Even though treating dysentery and parasites was valuable work, it was not much of a challenge for the three highly-competent Finnish surgeons, who had prepared for far more serious and demanding tasks. By the end of February, the Finnish ambulance unit – which was operating in the town of Degehabur in the present-day Somali region of Ethiopia – was nonetheless doing its part in the campaign. At this time, the Finnish expedition was providing ambulatory polyclinical aid for approximately one thousand people, most of them soldiers of the Ethiopian Imperial Army, suffering from dysentery and other diseases. As the days passed, Faltin’s attitude began to soften, and he developed a considerably more positive opinion of the Africans, while simultaneously becoming more and more critical towards the European colonial powers.
At the beginning of March, the Finnish ambulance moved to Jijiga, the capital of the Somali region, where it operated together with a detachment of Egyptian Red Crescent mission, headed by Prince Ismail Daoud. The two medical teams decided to divide their tasks, with the Egyptian mission concentrating on the everyday health care of the local population and the Finns setting up a field hospital for more demanding operations. By this time, however, things were starting to get serious on the Harar front. On March 22nd, right after Faltin and his team had managed to convert the local petrol station into a surgical hospital, the Italians launched an air raid on the locality. The Regia Aeronautica continued to bomb Jijiga for three days, destroying not only the Finnish hospital, but also most of the town itself. The desperate inhabitants took refuge in the countryside, and Jijiga was desolated.
After the mid-April, the Finnish ambulance returned to duty, this time together with the Swedish Red Cross Mission in Harar. During the following six weeks, which witnessed the decisive Battle of the Ogaden, Richard Faltin and his two colleagues performed 211 operations and provided polyclinical aid for 1350 patients. By May 1936, the Italian forces of Rodolfo Graziani – supported by Libyan colonial troops – finally captured Harar. The last Ethiopian soldiers in Ogaden now began a desperate guerrilla war, which was to last for five years. The Finnish ambulance unit was evacuated to the French Somaliland, and started its journey home from Djibouti in May 20th, returning to Finland by the Midsummer.
For Richard Faltin and the other doctors of the Finnish Red Cross mission, the Abyssinian War provided the first experience of a ruthless, modern, total war, where helpless civilian population and international organizations were also targets of military operations. Only a few years later, the Republic of Finland became a victim of a similar, although considerably less severe, totalitarian aggression which had fallen upon the ancient African Empire. After providing aid and relief for the Lion of Judah, it was time for the Lion of Finland to fend for itself.
Finnish National Archives, Helsinki.
Rainer Baudendistel, Between bombs and good intentions: the Red Cross and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936. Berghahn Books, 2006.
Hagai Erlikh, The Cross and the River: Ethiopia, Egypt and the Nile. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.
Richard Faltin, Sotakirurgi ja Punaisen Ristin työntekijä (Military Surgeon and an Employee of the Red Cross). Otava, 1967.
Håkon Mörne, Afrikansk oro : upplevelser i Abessinien, Somaliländerna, Sudan, Egypten och Palestina. Natur och kultur, Stockholm 1936
Gunnar Rosén, Sata sodan ja rauhan vuotta: Suomen Punainen Risti, 1877-1977 (Hundred Years of War and Peace: the Finnish Red Cross, 1877-1977; Revised Edition). SPR, Helsinki, 2002.