Photograph of Dr John Melly in Ethiopia during the Italian-Ethiopian War

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In a black and white photograph from 1935 to 1936, a smiling young man leans against a car. The car has stopped at the edge of a dusty road which cuts through a hilly landscape. A red cross against a white background is emblazoned on the doors and windscreen. A member of personnel stands upright behind the young man, by the car’s open door. The young man is Dr John Melly, who led the first British Red Cross ambulance unit to Ethiopia in 1935. The car in this photograph is one of those ambulances. At the bottom of the photograph a caption reads: ‘Inter Arma Caritas. Andre John Mesnard Melly, died Addis Ababa, May 5th, 1936’. Dr Melly had died tragically in 1936. He had been shot in the lung during a riot in Ethiopia’s capital, as he treated a patient in the street.

Melly was a surgeon from Liverpool, and also a devoted Christian. He dreamed of combining his two passions – faith and medicine – and becoming a medical missionary. He was known as an upbeat, charming man who showed up for night rounds in full evening dress. At one point, he even lured a burn victim into dancing the Charleston with him after she refused to exercise. Melly visited Ethiopia in 1934, where he strolled around the capital in a blue hat, carrying an ivory fly whisk. After recognizing the signs of looming war, he returned to Britain, where he founded the British Ambulance Service in Ethiopia. This became integrated with the British Red Cross. He initially funded the BASE himself, having gathered the support of influential figures. Before Melly’ unit left for Ethiopia, the Archbishop of Canterbury blessed the Red Cross flag and wished the men ‘Godspeed.'

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935 to 1936 was the first humanitarian operation that the British Red Cross had been deeply involved in since 1918. It was extremely difficult to organize a constantly moving ambulance unit under these conditions. The unit had to travel when low cloud banks hindered bombs, and often at night through thousands of pack mules and donkeys.

Melly was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to help others. He was upbeat and perseverant in times of adversity. I believe that Dr John Melly encapsulates the spirit of the British Red Cross.

Audio recording by Antonia Dalivalle (Volunteer), London.
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