August 1935 saw Evelyn Waugh dispatched to Abyssinia as war correspondent for the Daily Mail, “the only London newspaper”, he thought, “which seemed to be taking a sane view [that is to say a pro-Italian view, in line with the paper’s general pro-Fascist and pro-Nazi line in the 1930s] of the situation”.
The Abyssinian war “proved a disappointment” to the British media, writes Waugh’s biographer Christopher Sykes. (It proved a disappointment to Abyssinian civilians too, who were subjected to Italian poison gas attacks, but no matter.)
Ethiopian [Abyssinian] mobilization and Italian aggression were frequently reported by correspondents but always just without that touch of authority which would have made it safe for editors to print without the risk of any subsequent obligation “to regret to inform their readers” …
Waugh took the side of caution in what became known as the Affair of Nurse of Adowa when it was widely reported that an American nurse had been one of the fatalities of an Italian bombing raid on a hospital. Cables began to arrive for the members of the press urgently requiring “earliest name life story photograph American nurse upblown Adowa”. Waugh, having done a little digging himself, became convinced that no such event had occurred and sent back the famously terse telegram “Nurse unupblown”. The story died out.
Waugh was not a great success as a war correspondent however and by late November he was itching to get out of the country (he left, for Palestine, in December). Before his departure he wrote to Penelope Betjeman back in England:
In camp dessye wollo province Ethiopia
darling penelope ungrateful bitch I gave you a rare copy of my excellent book E Campion [his biography of the Catholic martyr] and not one word of thanks do I get … I am celibate since Aug 1st on account of the altitude which reduces the carnal appetite, the great ugliness and disease of Abyssinian women, & my love for Miss L Herbert [Laura, whom he married in 1937] … Send Xmas pudding to me at Deutsches Haus Addis Ababa. Patrick [Balfour] is in Araby. I am in a bitterly cold mountain with a boring hypochondriac socialist God I could kill him. The telegraph very sensibly refuses to accept press cables any more. I am a very bad journalist, well only a shit could be good on this particular job. We had a dinner for Thanksgiving Day given by a Yank it was beastly & no wine for fear of the great sensibilities of the 7th day adventist clergy. I have a lion skin coat it smells like a corpse …