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J.W.S. Macfie Ethiopian collection 1935-36

Reference Code: GBR/0115/RCS/Y304296A

Scope and Contents

Collection of loose prints and duplicates, by various photographers, and three associated volumes.

At the age of 56 John Macfie volunteered to join the British Ambulance Service in Ethiopia (B.A.S.E.), which was being organised by Dr John Melly, who had paid two visits to Ethiopia before the Italian invasion with the aim of establishing a hospital there. Macfie was appointed second in command to Melly.

The B.A.S.E. arrived at Berbera, British Somaliland, at the beginning of December 1935, and after a few days landing lorries, gathering stores, recruiting African personnel, and planning its organisation, left on 10th, crossing the Ethiopian border two days later, and reached Jijiga. It arrived at Harar on 13th, and Diredawa on 18th, whence it travelled by train to Addis Ababa, reached on 19th. Camp was pitched in the British Legation grounds.

On Christmas Day the unit left for Dessie in the north, crossing mountainanous country by difficult roads. During more than two weeks at Dessie (28 December 1935 - 16 January 1936) it was visited by the Emperor Haile Selassie. In mid-January the Unit moved to Waldia, 75 miles north of Dessie, to tend those wounded by bombing, but in addition many cases of illness were treated.

The unit could not move nearer the front until the roads were improved, but on 28 February it left Waldia and made its way over the Ala River to Kobbo, thence over the Alamata River to Ashangi Plain, where camp was pitched in the neighbourhood of Koram on 2 March. Macfie had led a small exploratory party on the same route early in February, but no attempt has been made to differentiate photographs of the two journeys, nor indeed to record the movements of personnel separated from the main unit from time to time.

On 4 March the camp was bombed and the unit moved to a ravine by the Chechelo Mado River, where its tents and lorries could be camouflaged. Better accommodation was found four days later in a cave overlooking the Ashanghi Plain. On 17 March two Ethiopian Red Cross planes were destroyed by Italian bombing. The following day Macfie, whose health was deteriorating, was sent to Addis Ababa to report. By early April the Ethiopian army was in retreat, and Dr Melly and the unit returned to Addis Ababa. On 24th, Macfie was invalided. The Emperor left Addis Ababa on 1 May, and in the ensuing disorder Melly was fatally wounded by a looter. He died on 5 May, the day the Italians entered Addis Ababa.

These photographs were gathered by Macfie to illustrate Macfie (1936), in which 24 are reproduced, and they form an important historical record. Unless otherwise stated, they measure 95 x 65 mm (or 65 x 95 mm). Most of the prints are captioned on the back in Macfie's writing, though some, especially those taken by Gatward, are in other hands. Additional descriptions, and occasional quotations from Macfie (1936) and Nelson, K. and Sullivan, A. (1937), are also included.

Received with the photographs, and housed with them, were:
a) Stiff-covered notebook, containing a pencilled diary of 114 pages, from Macfie's departure from London, 16 November 1935, to his return to Tilbury, 15 May 1936, presumably copied from a pocket diary kept during the Unit's activities, and forming the raw material from which Macfie (1936) was expanded, also 2 pages of medical notes.
b) Stiff-covered scrap book containing 100 pages of press cuttings on the work of the Ambulance Service, many illustrated.
c) Walker (1935), a 63 page duplicated typescript volume with a limp cover.

The photographs were supplied by Dr Barkhuus, Dr Empey, Mr de Halpert and Mr Gatward (see list of personnel below), and those marked 'B' or 'G' were presumably those taken by the first and last respectively. Some of the Gatward photographs have a serial number. Some Gatward and de Halpert photographs were also used in Nelson, K. and Sullivan, A. (1937) but the originals of most are not in this collection.

Personnel of the Unit (with index of the photos).
Commandant: A.J.M. Melly - 2, 25
Second in Command: J.W.S. Macfie - 2, 38, 39, 105, 123, 124, 138, 141, 153
Adjutant: Capt. R. Townshend Stephens - 2, 73
Medical Officers:
C.A.V. Barkhus - 40, 73, 105
C.E. Bevan - 2, 39
W.S. Empey - 29, 41, 42, 44, 104, 120, 124, 155
J.J. Perverseff - 2, 29, 41, 44, 105
Transport Officers:
Capt. A.B.H.L. Purves (invalided January 1936)
Capt. S.H. Dobinson - 116
S.O. Gatward - 43, 155
F. de Halpert - 155
Warrant Officers:
D. Atkinson - 155
L.J. Bunner - 155
E.D. Chandler - 137
D. David - 116
C.A. Turner - 155
Base Officer: Col. J.M. Llewellyn.

Illustrations in Macfie (1936).
Plate 1 - The C.O., Dr Melly (right), and the author examining a patient (Planet News).
Plate 2 - The Archbishop of Canterbury blessing the Red Cross flag of the Unit (Planet News).
Plates 3-26 - Photographs collected by Macfie and listed.

Illustrations from Nelson, K. and Sullivan, A. (1937) relating to Ethiopia.
Facing 145 - Same as plate 2 of Macfie (1936).
Facing 176 - Outpatients at Waldia (by de Halpert).
Facing 177 - Road building at Alamata, ten miles south of Lake Ashangi. The unit was the first to use this road (by de Halpert).
Facing 208 - Macfie's car (being pushed by Ethiopians). (by de Halpert).
Facing 209 - Gauze operating tent at night - Macfie at right.
Facing 224 - Unit lorries crossing Tarmabier Pass (10,000 feet). (by de Halpert).
Facing 225 - Two photos - 'Bombed unit camp'. (by Gatward).
Facing 240 - View from the 'operating cave' (9,000 feet) overlooking Lake Ashangi. Near this the last battle of the war was fought. (by de Halpert).
Facing 241 - Dr Empey and six faithful Abyssinian dressers (by Gatward).
Facing 272 - At the Legation (John Melly's funeral).
Facing 273 - In the Legation gardens (John Melly's grave).


  • Creation: 1935 - 1936


Conditions Governing Access

Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (

Biographical / Historical

John William Scott Macfie (1879-1948) was a distinguished doctor in West Africa; an account of his career can be found at Y3043C.


.03 cubic metre(s) (3 volumes and 1 archival box containing 168 images)

Language of Materials


Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

The photographs are in good condition apart from a few torn edges, but are curled.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Presented by R.L. Paton, nephew of Dr. Macfie, in 1985.


Accounts of the work of the British Ambulance Service in Ethiopia can be found in: Macfie, John William Scott (1936), 'An Ethiopian Diary', London: University Press; Nelson, Kathleen and Sullivan, Alan ed. (1937), 'John Melly of Ethiopia', London: Faber. Received, and housed, with this collection: Walker, C.H. (1935), 'Amharic phrase book for the use of the British Ambulance Service in Ethiopia', [no publication details].


This collection level description was entered by SG using information from the original typescript catalogue.


Macfie, John William Scott, 1879-1948, doctor

Includes index.
2004-08-03 15:01:39+00:00
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
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Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom