The Second Italo–Abyssinian War (also referred to as the Second Italo-Ethiopian War) was a brief colonial war that started in October 1935 and ended in May 1936. The war was fought between the armed forces of the Kingdom of Italy (Regno d'Italia) and the armed forces of the Ethiopian Empire (also known as Abyssinia). The war resulted in the military occupation of Ethiopia and its annexation into the newly created colony of Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, or AOI). However, Ethiopia never capitulated or surrendered.
Politically, the war is best remembered for exposing the inherent weakness of the League of Nations. Like the Mukden Incident in 1931 (the Japanese annexation of three Chinese provinces), the Abyssinia Crisis in 1934 is often seen as a clear example of the ineffectiveness of the League. Both Italy and Ethiopia were member nations and yet the League was unable to control Italy or to protect Ethiopia when Italy clearly violated the League's own Article X. The war is also remembered for the illegal use of mustard gas and phosgene by the Italian armed forces.
Ethiopia was a prime candidate of this expansionist goal for several reasons. Following the Scramble for Africa by the European imperialists, it was one of the few remaining independent African nations. Acquiring Ethiopia would serve to unify Italian-held Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. In addition, Ethiopia was considered to be militarily weak and rich in resources.
In November 1934, Ethiopian territorial troops, escorting the Anglo-Ethiopian boundary commission, protested Italy's incursion. The British members of the commission soon withdrew to avoid an international incident but Italian and Ethiopian troops remained encamped in close proximity. In early December, the tensions erupted in a clash that left 150 Ethiopians and 50 Italians dead. This resulted in the Abyssinia Crisis at the League of Nations.
The League of Nations exonerated both parties for the Walwal incident in September 1935; Great Britain and France, keen to keep Italy as an ally against Germany, did not take strong steps to discourage an Italian military buildup. Italy soon began to build its forces on the borders of Ethiopia in Eritrea and Italian Somaliland.
Italy was able to launch its invasion without interference primarily due to the United Kingdom and France placing a high priority on retaining Italy as an ally in case hostilities broke out with Germany. To this end, on January 7, 1935, France signed an agreement with Italy giving them essentially a free hand in Africa to secure Italian co-operation. Next, in April, Italy was further emboldened by being a member of the Stresa Front, an agreement to curb German expansionism. In June, non-interference was further assured by a political rift that had developed between the United Kingdom and France following the Anglo-German Naval Agreement.
According to Italian estimates, on the eve of hostilities the Ethiopians had an army of 350,000-760,000 men. But only about one-quarter of this army had any kind of military training and the men were armed with 400,000 rifles of every type and in every kind of condition.
In general, the Ethiopian armies were poorly equipped. They had about 200 antiquated pieces of artillery mounted on rigid gun carriages. There were also about 50 light and heavy anti-aircraft guns (20 mm Oerlikons, 75 mm Schneiders, and Vickers). The Ethiopians even had some Ford truck-based armored cars and a small number of Fiat 3000 World War I-era tanks.
The serviceable portion of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force included three outmoded biplanes. A few transport aircraft were also acquired between 1934 and 1935 for ambulance work. The air force was commanded by a French pilot, Andre Maillet.
The best Ethiopian units were Haile Selassie's "Imperial Guard" (Kebur Zabangna). These troops were well-trained and better equipped than the other Ethiopian troops. But the Imperial Guard wore a distinctive greenish-khaki uniform of the Belgian Army which stood out from the white cotton cloak (shamma) worn by most Ethiopian fighters. Unfortunately for its wearers, the shama proved to be an excellent target. The Ras, the "heads" or the commanders of the Ethiopian armies, ranged from very good to far less than very good.
The equipment for the build-up alone included 6,000 machine guns, 2,000 pieces of artillery, 595 tanks, and 390 aircraft. Before these arrived, the Italians had 3,300 machine guns, 275 artillery pieces, 200 tanks, and 205 aircraft. The Italians had tons of ammunition, food, and other necessary supplies. The Italians also had vehicles to move supplies and troops while the Ethiopians carried supplies in horse drawn carts.
In addition to their own colonial troops from Eritra, Somalia, and Libya, the Italians had a variety of local semi-independent "allies" who fought for them. In the north, the Azebu Galla were one of several groups induced to fight for the Italians. For many reasons, the Galla were willing to sweep down on the fleeing Ethiopians. In the south, Sultan Olol Diinle commanded a personal army that advanced into the northern Ogaden alongside the forces of Italian Colonel Luigi Frusci. The Sultan was motivated by his desire to take back lands that the Ethiopians had taken from him. The Italian colonial forces even included some Yemenis recruited from across the Gulf of Aden.
De Bono was the Commander-in-Chief of the Italian armed forces on the northern front. He had under his command a force of nine divisions in three Army Corps: The Italian I Corps, the Italian II Corps, and the Eritrean Corps.
General Rodolfo Graziani, the Commander-in-Chief on the southern front, was forming up his forces in Italian Somaliland. Graziani initially had two divisions and a variety of smaller units under his command. Soon after De Bono advanced from Eritrea, Graziani would advance into Ethiopia with a force of Italians, Somalis, Eritreans, and Libyans.
On 7 October, the League of Nations declared Italy the aggressor and started the slow process of imposing sanctions. However, these sanctions did not extend to several vital materials, such as oil. The British and French argued that if they refused to sell oil to the Italians, the Italians would then simply get it from the United States, which was not a member of the League (the British and French wanted to keep Mussolini on side in the event of war with Germany, which by 1935 was looking like a distinct possibility). In an effort to find compromise, the Hoare-Laval Plan was drafted (which essentially handed 3/5ths of Ethiopia to the Italians without Ethiopia's consent on the condition the war ended immediately), but when news of the deal was leaked public outrage was such that the British and French governments were forced to wash their hands of the whole affair.
On 11 October, "Commander of the Door" (Dejagmateh) Haile Selassie Gugsa and 1,200 of his followers surrendered to the commander of the Italian outpost at Adagamos. De Bono notified Rome and the Ministry of Information promptly exaggerated the importance of the surrender. Ras Gugsa was Emperor Haile Selassie's son-in-law. But less than a tenth of his army defected with him. Two weeks before the invasion, Haile Selassie had been warned that Ras Gugsa was not to be trusted and he was shown evidence that suggested that his son-in-law was already in the pay of the Italians. But the Emperor had shrugged it off.
On 14 October, De Bono issued a proclamation ordering the suppression of slavery. However, he was to write: "I am obliged to say that the proclamation did not have much effect on the owners of slaves and perhaps still less on the liberated slaves themselves. Many of the latter, the instant they are set free presented themselves to the Italian authorities, asking 'And now who gives me food' ? "
By 15 October, De Bono's forces moved on from Adwa for a bloodless occupation of the holy capital of Axum. The old Fascist entered the city riding triumphantly on a white horse. However, the invading Italians he commanded looted the Obelisk of Axum.
De Bono's advance continued methodically, deliberately, and, to the consternation of Mussolini, somewhat slowly. On 8 November, the I Corps and the Eritrean Corps captured Makale. This proved to be the limit of how far the Italian invaders would get under the command of De Bono. Increasing pressure from the rest of the world on Mussolini caused him to need fast glittering victories. He was not prepared to hear of obstacles or delays from De Bono.
On 16 November, De Bono was promoted to the rank of Marshal of Italy (Maresciallo d'Italia). But, by the end of November, he was replaced on the northern front because of the slow, cautious nature of his advance. De Bono was replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio.
Under a blazing sun, the battle at Dembeguina Pass began between Criniti's Eritreans on the plateau and the Ethiopians holding the high ground around the pass. The Ethiopians formed up in a horseshoe formation on the surrounding crests and Criniti ordered his tanks to smash a way through them. Criniti organized his forces with the light tanks in the lead and with his infantry following close behind. He led the attack on horseback. The tanks lumbered towards the Ethiopians but the rough terrain soon made further forward progress impossible. Criniti was wounded in his initial attack and two of his officers were killed. The Ethiopians now counterattacked and the Eritreans rallied around the stranded light tanks. The pursuing Ethiopians joined the battle at this time and Criniti's command came under fire from all directions. The Ethiopians surged forward, slaughtered the infantry, and engulfed the Italian tanks. Some Ethiopians were able to approach the tanks from the rear and were then able to disable the tracks and machine guns. Their tanks rendered useless, the two-man crews were killed.
A relief column including another ten tanks was ambushed before it could get to Criniti's command. The Ethiopians immobilized several of the Italian tanks by rolling boulders onto the road in front of them and behind them. Once again, the infantry was picked off followed by the stranded tanks. Other tanks attempted to bypass the roadblock only to slip down steep roadside embankments and overturn. The Ethiopians set two tanks afire.
Criniti ultimately ordered his surrounded Eritreans to fix bayonets and charge the Ethiopians in front of them. The Eritreans made a breach and were able to escape. But Criniti lost fully half of his force on the battlefield and, if nothing else, the Ethiopians had scored a moral victory.
Badoglio's inability to get the Italians back on the offensive immediately caused Mussolini to fly into a rage. He threatened to replace Badoglio with Graziani.
But the Ethiopian offensive was ultimately stopped due to the superiority of the Italian forces in modern weapons like machine guns and heavy artillery. More importantly, on 26 December, Badoglio asked for and was given permission to use mustard gas. The Italians delivered the poison gas by special artillery canisters and with bombers of the Italian Air Force. While the poorly equipped Ethiopians experienced some success against modern weaponry, they did not understand the "terrible rain that burned and killed."
On 30 December, Haile Selassie formally filed a complaint with the League of Nations. He claimed that Italy's use of poison gas was yet another addition to the long list of international agreements contravened by Italy. In response, the Italians denied that poison gas was being used and, instead, decried the use of "dum dum" bullets and the mis-use of the Red Cross by the Ethiopians.
While Graziani had already done so during the Battle of Genale Doria on the southern front, it was during the First Battle of Tembien that Badoglio unleashed the indiscriminate use of mustard gas and phosgene as a primary weapon on the northern front. Speaking of the Ethiopian threat to Italian-held Makale and the resultant use of poison gas, Haile Selassie was to say:
It was at the time when the operations for the encircling of Makale were taking place that the Italian command, fearing a rout, followed the procedure which it is now my duty to denounce to the world. Special sprayers were installed on board aircraft so that they could vaporize, over vast areas of territory, a fine, death-dealing rain. Groups of nine, fifteen, eighteen aircraft followed one another so that the fog issuing from them formed a continuous sheet. It was thus that, as from the end of January 1936, soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes, and pastures were drenched continually with this deadly rain. In order to kill off systematically all living creatures, in order to more surely poison waters and pastures, the Italian command made its aircraft pass over and over again. That was its chief method of warfare.
In early February, the Italians captured Amba Aradam and destroyed Ras Mulugeta's army in the Battle of Enderta. While the battle on the ground was lop-sided, the heavy use of poison gas was what destroyed the vast majority of Mulugeta's army. In late February, the Italians destroyed the armies of Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum at the Second Battle of Tembien. Again poison gas played a major role in the destruction of their armies. In early March, the army of Ras Imru was attacked, bombed, and sprayed out of existence as it attempted to withdraw during the Battle of Shire.
On 31 March 1936 at the Battle of Maychew, the Italians defeated an Ethiopian counteroffensive by the main Ethiopian army commanded by Emporer Haile Selassie himself. The outnumbered Ethiopians could not overcome the well prepared Italian defenses. After a day of near non-stop attacks, the exhausted Ethiopians withdrew. The Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) finished off what was left of Haile Selassie's army by attacking the survivors at Lake Ashangi with mustard gas. On 4 April, Haile Selassie looked with despair upon the horrific sight of the dead bodies of his army ringing the poisoned lake.
Late in the year, the initiative on the southern front went over to the Ethiopians as it had gone over to them on the northern front. Ras Desta Damtu formed up his army in the area around Negele Boran with the goal of advancing on Dolo and invading Italian Somaliland. Between 12 January and 16 January 1936, the Italians defeated his advancing and then withdrawing army during what became known as the Battle of Genale Doria. In reality there was very little fighting on the ground as Graziani primarily used the Italian Air Force and poison gas to destroy Ras Desta's army.
After a lull in February 1936, the Italians in the south prepared a major thrust towards the city of Harar. On 22 March, the Italian Air Force bombed Harar and Jijiga as a prelude. Both cities were reduced to ruins even though Harar had been declared an "open city.
On 14 April, Graziani launched his attack against Ras Nasibu to defeat the last Ethiopian army in the Battle of the Ogaden. The Ethiopians were drawn up behind a defensive line that was termed the "Hindenburg Wall." Ten days after the battle began, the last Ethiopian army had totally disintegrated.
Very early on 2 May, Haile Selassie boarded a train from Addis Ababa to Djibouti on the Imperial Railway. From there he fled to England and into exile. Prior to his departure, Haile Selassie ordered that the government of Ethiopia be moved to Gore, he ordered that the mayor of Addis Ababa maintain order in the city until the Italian arrival, and he appointed Ras Imru Haile Selassie as his regent during his absence. The city police, under Abebe Aregai, and the remainder of the Imperial Guard did their utmost to restrain a growing and ever more restless mob. But, on the first day, attempts to maintain order were abandoned. Soon rioters took control. They rampaged throughout the city; looting and setting fire to shops owned by Europeans.
Badoglio's force marched into Addis Ababa on 5 May and restored order. While there never was a formal surrender, the Second Italo-Abyssinian War was over.
The Kingdom of Italy annexed the Ethiopian Empire on 7 May and, on 9 May, King Victor Emmanuel III was proclaimed Emperor of Ethiopia. Italy merged Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somaliland into a single colony known as Italian East Africa.
When victory was announced by Mussolini from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, the Italian population was jubilant. Of course, the crowds in the Piazza Venezia had not been informed of the use of mustard gas by Italian troops.
From his balcony, Mussolini proclaimed:
Four days later, the same scene was repeated when Il Duce in a speech about the "shining sword" and the "fatal hills of Rome" announced:
This was Mussolini's hour of glory. He knew that the Italian nation was united around him as it never was before. He knew that the exultation that he witnessed was genuine. And the Italian people appeared to have good cause for rejoicing. Italy gained a vast territory and untold mineral riches ... riches much magnified by Italian propaganda. Fascism was never so popular and the shouts of military victory drowned out the muttered grumbles about underlying economic ills.
By December, Graziani declared the whole country to be pacified and under effective Italian control. Ethiopian resistance nevertheless continued. The occupation was marked by recurring guerrilla campaigns against the Italians and Italian reprisals. The reprisals included mustard gas attacks against rebels and the summary execution of prisoners.
On 18 February 1937, a failed assassination attempt against Graziani occurred. During a public ceremony at the Viceregal Palace in Addis Ababa (the former Imperial residence), Abraha Deboch and Moges Asgedom, attempted to kill Graziani with a number of grenades. Both men were of Eritrean origin and not Ethiopian. The Italian security guard fired indiscriminately into the crowd of civilian onlookers. Over the following weeks the colonial authorities executed about 30,000 persons in retaliation -- including about half of the younger, educated Ethiopian population.
In the end, the harsh policies of Graziani did not pacify the country. Therefore, on 21 December, Rome appointed Amedeo, 3rd Duke of Aosta, as the new Viceroy and Governor General of Italian East Africa and instructed him to adopt a more flexible line. Accordingly, large-scale public works projects were undertaken. One result was the construction of the country's first system of improved roads. All in all, the Duke brought a program of progressive improvement that included 2,000 miles of new paved roadways, 25 hospitals, 14 hotels, dozens of post offices, telephone exchanges, aqueducts, schools, and shops.
However, with the good came the bad. The Italians decreed miscegenation to be illegal. Racial separation, including residential segregation, was enforced as thoroughly as possible. In addition, the Italians showed favouritism to non-Christian ethnicities such as the Oromo, the Somali, and other Muslims (some of whom had supported the Italian invasion).
And with the bad came the good. In an attempt to isolate the dominant Amhara rulers of Ethiopia, who supported Haile Selassie I, the Italians granted the Oromo, the Somali, and other Muslims autonomy and rights. The Italians abolished slavery and abrogated feudal laws previously upheld by the Amharas.
Early in 1938, a revolt broke out in Gojjam led by the Committee of Unity and Collaboration, which was made up of some of the young, educated elite who had escaped the reprisal after the attempt on Graziani's life.
The invasion of Ethiopia and the general condemnation of it by Western Democracies (weak as it was) tended to isolate Mussolini and the Kingdom of Italy more and more. From 1936 to 1939, after Ethiopia, Mussolini and German dictator Adolf Hitler joined forces in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. They then signed the Pact of Steel in 1939 and the Tripartite Pact in 1940.
In exile in England, Haile Selassie sought to gain the support of the Western Democracies for his cause but had little success until World War II. During that war, the United Kingdom and the Emperor sought to cooperate with Ethiopian and other local forces in a campaign to dislodge the Italians from Ethiopia and British Somaliland, which the Italians had seized in August 1940, and to resist the Italian invasion of Sudan. Haile Selassie proceeded immediately to Khartoum, where he established closer liaison with both the British headquarters and the resistance forces within Ethiopia.
On 18 January 1941, Emperor Selassie crossed the border into Ethiopia near the village of Um Iddla. Two days later the Emporer joined Gideon Force, a small British-led African regular force. The standard of the Lion of Judah was raised again. By 5 May, the Emporer and an army of Ethiopian irregulars entered Addis Ababa.
Among other things, the Treaty of Peace with Italy signed between the Italian Republic (Repubblica Italiana) and the victorious powers of World War II on 10 February 1947 in Paris, included Italy's formal recognition of Ethiopian independence and an agreement to pay $25,000,000 in reparations. At the time of this treaty, Ethiopia presented Italy with a bill of its own for damages inflicted during the course of Mussolini's colonial adventure. Claimed were the loss of 2,000 churches, the loss of 525,000 houses, and the slaughter and/or consfication of 6,000,000 beef cattle, 7,000,000 sheep and goats, 1,000,000 horses and mules, and 700,000 camels. The bill for all of this presented to the Economic Commission for Italy came to £184,746,023.
In addition, the following losses were recorded by the Ethiopians:
The armed forces disposed of a vast arsenal of grenades and bombs loaded with mustard gas which were dropped from airplanes. This substance was also sprayed directly from above like an "insecticide" onto enemy combatants and villages. It was Mussolini himself who authorized the use of the weapons:
"Rome, 27 October 1935. To His Excellency Graziani. The use of gas as an ultima ratio to overwhelm enemy resistance and in case of counterattack is authorized. Mussolini."
"Rome, 28 December 1935. To His Excellency Badoglio. Given the enemy system I have authorized Your Excellency the use even on a vast scale of any gas and flamethrowers. Mussolini."
Mussolini and his generals sought to cloak the operations of chemical warfare in the utmost secrecy, but the use of gas was revealed to the world through the denunciations by the International Red Cross and of many foreign observers. The Italian reaction to these revelations consisted in the "erroneous" bombardment (at least 19 times) of Red Cross tents posted in the areas of military encampment of the Ethiopian resistance.
The orders imparted by Mussolini after the war, with respect to the Ethiopian population, were very clear:
"Rome, 5 June 1936. To His Excellency Graziani. All rebels taken prisoner must be killed. Mussolini."
"Rome, 8 July 1936. To His Excellency Graziani. I have authorized once again Your Excellency. to begin and systematically conduct a politics of terror and extermination of the rebels and the complicit population. Without the lex talionis one cannot cure the infection in time. Await confirmation. Mussolini."
The predominant part of the work of repression was carried out by Italians who, besides the bombs laced with mustard gas, instituted forced labor camps, installed public gallows, killed hostages, and mutilated the corpses of their enemies. Graziani ordered the elimination of captured guerrillas by way of throwing them out of airplanes in mid-flight. Many Italian troops had themselves photographed next to cadavers hanging from the gallows or hanging around chests full of detached heads.
The following are a few of the foreigners who came to Ethiopia or who supported the Ethiopian people in whatever way they could:
While the majority of non-Italian foreigners in Ethiopia were with the Ethiopians, there were others who saw the war from the Italian lines. An example:
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