Mehal Sefari & Kebur Zebanga
The Mehal Sefari, literally “the one that camps at the center” are perhaps the most distinctive troops in Haile Selassie’s army. They have not the look of the European style Imperial Guard nor the tribal warriors of the powerful Rases, the Mehal Sefari was older than emperor himself, forming an important role in Ethiopian society. A significantly large force they were also to provide many recruits to the more professional and better equipped Imperial Guard battalions under the emperors modernisation programme. Dressed in a blend of traditional dress and contemporary military style clothing they make for a unique looking Ethiopian soldier unlike others of their time.
The Mehal Sefari and Kebur Zabanga are closely related so it is convenient to discuss them both in one post. We provide some more detail and discussion behind the thinking when putting together the Chain of Command:Abyssinia army lists.
The modernisation process that Haile Selassie instituted within the Kebur Zebanga (and until it was interrupted the Mehal Sefari too), is often documented, but not detailed. This created a huge problem when compiling a force lists for them. Authors tend to skirt around the issue and detail the Ethiopian government and social structure, as if that had any bearing on the military itself. We would not detail Britain’s Royal Family, nor extend a military role to Lord Lieutenants of shires and town mayors, were we describing the British Army; nor indeed the same to U.S. Senators and State Governors in terms of the U.S. Army.
We were therefore left with quite well-detailed notes for the armies of the Rases, but very little that was useful for the Kebur Zebanga and Mehal Sefari. Battalion-level and above was reasonably covered, despite some holes, but as far as companies and platoons went we were stuck fast. The Kebur Zebanga and Mahel Sefari lists are therefore composed of a fair degree of extrapolation and guesswork. However we did go about it logically, extrapolated sensibly and used what other evidence we did have to support it.
What we do know is that the reorganisation retained the traditional ranks, but meant a nominal reduction in the number of men that some commanded. In Ethiopian society ranks and status were highly important, but the actual number of men that were commanded could fluctuate greatly. So while an individual might not worry overly that the number of men he commanded would be reduced, to suggest that his rank be reduced accordingly would be highly unpopular to say the least, to the point that mutiny and rebellion could result.
Evidence also suggested that instead of companies of ‘a hundred’, they were companies on the European model of some two hundred men, with battalions of four to six companies. Each company was composed of four platoons.
In the modern Ethiopian Army, baluch (half company) actually refers to a platoon. So it seemed a safe decision that this was the case with Haile Selassie’s new army too. The new company organisation made the most junior ‘officer’ rank of Meto Aleqa (leader of a hundred) redundant, but there were a lot of men who held that rank. While some would be promoted to the rank of Shambel (company commander) over the new larger companies, a role would need finding for the rest. Again in the modern army, Meto Aleqa is the rank of platoon commander, so we went with that.
There was now the problem of the Amist Aleqa (leader of fifty), who had effectively just been replaced by his superior, which also impacted on his subordinate the Ila Amsa Aleqa (leader of five), or the ‘first amongst equals’ in terms of the Asira Aleqa, or leaders of the hazb that formed the baluch. There was also no documentary evidence given on the number of hazb in each baluch, nor the number of men per hazb. With Turkish, Swedish and more recently Belgian advisory teams training Selassie’s men, it did not seem to make sense that the traditional structure would remain in place either.
Once more the modern Ethiopian Army uses Amist Aleqa for deputy platoon leaders, Ila Amist Aleqa for staff sergeants and Asiraleqa for squad or section leaders. With the lack of evidence to the contrary we decided to go with that as the template for the ‘new model army’, as it filled the theory regarding giving everyone a job without stealing their precious status and title from them. So we now had section leaders, deputy platoon leaders and platoon leaders, but no idea of how many sections neither in the platoon, nor barring the previous ‘ten’ any idea of how many men.
Taking the Belgians as the most recent advisors to impact on the military, we suspected that they would work with what they knew, i.e. the Belgian platoon structure, which in 1935 was four sections. Four sections was somewhat universal for European armies of the time, with only the French and Italians having three. While this seems logical, more proof was needed. It also did not fully accommodate that we needed four or five section leaders, two intermediary leaders and a platoon commander; unless it was a British-style pattern where sections were paired, with a senior and junior section leader leading the two squads in each pair.
While the Ethiopians are not well documented at this level of organisation, they were however well-photographed and filmed. We turned to what images and old newsreels we could find to try and get a better idea, or if any clues dropped out; we weren’t disappointed. While combat footage and photos were not actually of much help, those shot before the invasion began showed the Ethiopians assembling their armies and drilling their men.
A number of things stood out. The platoon leaders rode asses (the mule kind, we don’t mean they were hard-core trainers of fighting men) and left the shouting to two men who either marched at the front of the platoon, or to the sides, or one in front and one to the rear. Those of you with military or paramilitary backgrounds, will probably recognise that these are the positions of platoon sergeants and what in the U.S. Military are called ‘platoon guides’; a sort of intermediary rank between section leader and platoon sergeant. They can be found in different forms in other armies too.
The rank and file members of the platoons marched in column of fours, twelve deep. This again is common when there are four sections of twelve men. A firing line in one photo seemed to be two ranks of twelve men too, with another appearing to start on the edge of the photo. With all this and other visual evidence gathered together, albeit with some exceptions, we surmised that the platoon was four sections of twelve men (which matched the Belgian structure), with two supernumerary leaders, who presumably led a pair of sections each, one leader being subordinate to the other.
While the organisation we have described is not supported by any documentary evidence, we feel we have presented it correctly, or at least as well as we were able. Obviously we could indeed be wrong and of course if anyone does in fact know better, we would be the first to want to hear about it. We would like to get it right historically speaking, just the same as we believe people using chain of Command lists would want it to be too.
Having agreed on the platoon structure we were left with what weapons each section and platoon had. The same method as seemed to work for the organisation, would not serve so well for this. Like any military on parade, rifles and bayonets were the sole weapons carried. Anyone watching Britain’s Trooping of the Colour, or virtually any similar ceremonial event, also only see rifles and bayonets, yet we do know that in battle, a variety of other weapons are deployed.
With the Kebur Zebanga having four infantry battalions, the previously mentioned BARs were sufficient to give each section in a rifle platoon one each. In like manner the 450 plus light machine guns could again equip each section in the Mehal Sefari. The separation of the weapon types in this manner seems a touch unlikely, but possible. Taking a step back however, there were certainly enough automatic weapons of all types to provide one to each section.
Contemporary tactics of the time tended to follow French methods developed in the Great War, at least to the point that there would be both fire-support and manoeuvre elements in the typical infantry platoon of any army. Light machine guns provide a good basis around which to build a fire support element. As we are talking pairs of sections, it seems logical to assume one was the fire-support element and therefore received light machine guns. The BAR is a good weapon to add to the fire of an assaulting rifle section, so it is also possible that while one section had a light machine gun, the other had a BAR.
However we have some eighty years of military innovation separating us from the Abyssinian Crisis and what seems logical and sensible to us, may not have been the case at the time. We have therefore set the lists up to allow the issue of an automatic weapon to some, all, or none of the sections, giving players the choice of deciding what works best for them; be it BAR and LMG, solely LMG, or whatever mix they can produce from the list. Our preferred suggestion is to pair a BAR in one section with an LMG in the other for the Kebur Zebanga and just have two of the sections in each platoon of the Mehal Sefari with an LMG or a BAR. There were at least twice as many LMGs to BARs, so players should bear this in mind when deciding.