|Emp. Haile Selassie & King Vittorio Emanuele III|
Many misconceptions continue to be held about the conflict and many of the facts will doubtless come as a surprise to most people. Italy did not actually start the war, nor was it a pre-planned event. The Ethiopians were not a horde of ignorant primitives fighting with sticks and stones, despite what you may have heard. The outcome was not a foregone conclusion, indeed many in the international community expected the Italians to be defeated or at least that any victory would be so difficult to obtain that the Fascist regime would be brought down by a combination of a long, drawn-out war with heavy losses and the crippling effect of League of Nations sanctions on the Italian economy. Today, the war is often portrayed as an almost effortless military parade with the Italians crushing the backward Ethiopians like insects with the African natives having no hope for victory. That is certainly not how it looked at the time and the conclusion of the war, far from being preordained, took most people by surprise, certainly in how quickly events unfolded. It was the war which solidified the Fascist hold on Italy and which brought an end to the independence of the last un-colonized corner of Africa.
|Haile Selassie on the day of his coronation|
In 1932 Haile Selassie crushed another revolt in Gojjam and waged what some historians have called a genocide against the natives of Azebu Galla, the Oromo people having long been the victims of enslavement and persecution. Earlier, in 1928, Haile Selassie had signed a friendship and trade treaty with Italy but after coming to power made it clear that he was no more interested in friendship than Mussolini was. Some historians question whether his immediate campaign to build up and modernize the armed forces, particularly his personal troops, was intended to suppress internal rivals or to dominate the Horn of Africa and absorb the Italian colony of Eritrea in particular with its port facilities. The Italians, at that stage, had no designs on Ethiopia but simply wished to keep it out of the hands of any other foreign power. Toward that end, it was Italy which sponsored Ethiopia joining the League of Nations, a decision they may have come to regret eventually, because of their fear that the British would bend to the powerful anti-slavery societies in that country to launch an expedition into Ethiopia and annex it to the British empire. The British had no such plans but it was for that reason that Ethiopia, a tribal absolute monarchy that practiced widespread slavery, was brought in to the supposedly liberal and democratic League of Nations.
|Ethiopian Imperial Guard unit|
That only changed with the Wal Wal Incident of 1934. Several years before, the Italians had built a fort at this remote oasis and the Ethiopians said nothing about it. Then, on November 3, 1934 an Ethiopian military force of about a thousand men approached the fort and demanded its surrender, saying it had been built within Ethiopian territory. Why this was not mentioned at any time in the roughly four years since the fort had been built was not explained. In any event, the Italian commander refused. Tensions were raised but nothing immediately happened. That changed when a column of reinforcements for the tiny garrison arrived and on December 5, 1934 fighting broke out between the two sides. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Italian colonial troops held their own and the Ethiopians retreated. Ethiopia protested to the League of Nations and before the month was out, Mussolini had dispatched one of the leaders of the Fascist “March on Rome”, General Emilio De Bono, to Eritrea to take command of the forces being assembled for an invasion of Ethiopia.
|Italian soldiers establishing a defense line|
In January of 1935, Mussolini obtained the assurance of the French that they would not intervene in any conflict in East Africa. It was not until July of 1935 that Emperor Haile Selassie announced to his people that a danger of war existed. And, all the while, the League of Nations delegates and the assorted foreign ministers tried to work out some sort of compromise that would prevent the whole thing from happening. The British and French foreign ministers, Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval, made a proposal that Mussolini seemed agreeable with which would have seen Abyssinia partitioned, Italy taking one portion and Haile Selassie retaining control of the rest. However, the Abyssinian crisis had become the fashionable cause of the day and public opinion in the liberal democracies of the west was solidly opposed to Fascist Italy and firmly on the side of Emperor Haile Selassie and the proposed agreement was leaked to the press. Immediately there was a huge public outcry and the public in France and Britain denounced this as a shameful caving in to the hated Fascists. The agreement was immediately dropped, Hoare and Laval were both forced by public pressure to resign (Laval would be shot after World War II for having participated in the Vichy regime). Compromise was off the table.
|General De Bono (with white whiskers)|
On the Ethiopian side, Emperor Haile Selassie mustered his forces, conscripting all able bodied men. Newsreels of the day showed hordes of barefoot Africans wearing loincloths and waving swords and spears. However, Haile Selassie had forbidden his army from wearing shoes and had uniforms but reserved most of these for his personal troops, the Kebur Zabagna, or Imperial Guard which also had the latest weapons. Despite the popular image, most Ethiopians had rifles and the army was equipped with a fair amount of artillery and machine guns. They also had trained officers, European advisors and European officers fighting as mercenaries. One of the most prominent foreigners was the Turkish General Mehmet Wehib Pasha, leader of the Turkish advisory mission to Abyssinia, who referred to himself as the “hero of Gallipoli”. He served as chief-of-staff to Ras Nasibu, Ethiopian commander of the southern front and oversaw the construction of a fortified line nicknamed the “Hindenburg Wall” in reference to the famous Hindenburg Line of World War I. Wehib Pasha was of course a Muslim as were the vast majority of the Eritreans and Somalis in the Italian colonial army. However, he was happy to fight for Abyssinia as he had an intense hatred of Europeans and would fight them anywhere under any flag.
|General Rodolfo Graziani|
|Haile Selassie Gugsa with Italian officers|
|Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio|
Massed attack was the preferred fighting method for the Ethiopians and as the offensive began, the Italians were overwhelmed. At the Dembuguina Pass the Italian Gran Sasso Division was forced to retreat and Ethiopian forces recaptured the Scire area. It looked as though the victorious onslaught at Adowa was being repeated on a larger scale. However, toward late December an Italian pilot, Tito Minniti, was captured by the Ethiopians, tortured, mutilated and finally beheaded. The Ethiopians have since denied this but mutilation of captives was an age old custom in the country (as photos of those captured in the first war after Adowa show) and such things doubtless occurred. This happened on the southern front and General Graziani ordered immediate retaliation. Later, this was also used to justify Italian use of poison gas, banned by international law, against the Ethiopians. However, Marshal Badoglio had requested and, indeed, already began using poison gas days before Minniti was shot down. In all likelihood, Minniti was tortured and executed, as were many other Italian and African colonial soldiers, however the use of poison gas also likely had less to do with this than with the ferocity of the Ethiopian offensive that Badoglio had to deal with.
|Ethiopian machine gun unit|
In any event, while the Italians were being hammered by the Ethiopian “Christmas Offensive” in the north, in the south, General Graziani continued to make steady progress. In early November his forces intercepted and defeated an Ethiopian motorized column (a fact which will doubtless surprise those who think the Ethiopians had no modern means of transportation at all) near Hamaniei. In December, the Sultan of Olol Dinle set his warriors against the Ethiopians at Golle and Italian forces occupied Denan by the end of the month. A major breakthrough followed shortly thereafter when Graziani crushed the southernmost Ethiopian army at the Battle of Genale Wenz in a fight lasting from January 12-16, 1936. The Ethiopians did win a bit of a propaganda victory of their own in the aftermath though, when a number of Italian colonial troops deserted to the Ethiopian side. This was mostly done for religious reasons, African Coptic Christians feeling little solidarity with the largely Muslim Somalis and their Catholic Italian officers. However, by the end of January, the Italian forces had taken Borana and reached the Ethiopian military base at Negele.
|HRH the Duke of Bergamo|
|Ethiopian forces at Maych'ew|
The Ethiopian army broke and began to retreat and it was at that point that insult was added to injury. Prior to the battle, Haile Selassie had tried to buy back the support of the Azebu Galla (the people he had nearly wiped out prior to the war) with a cash bribe for each man and lavish gifts for their leaders. They pledged support but had remained on the sidelines during the battle. Then, when the Ethiopian army began to flee, they suddenly joined in, attacking the Ethiopians and cutting them down as they ran away, only intermittently deterred by Italian bombers who also joined in attacking the fleeing army. Haile Selassie, having seen his forces devastated, ordered the remainder to disperse and sent the Crown Prince to Dessie where he hoped to organize a new army to carry on the war. However, the Crown Prince later abandoned Dessie without a fight and the hoped for widespread resistance failed to materialize.
|Italian colonial troops (Eritreans) at Dessie|
|Marshal Badoglio enters Addis Ababa|
|King Victor Emmanuel III, Il Re-Imperatore|
For the time being, however, the Italian victory over Ethiopia changed everything. Mussolini, stung by the opposition of France and Britain in the League of Nations, infuriated by their economic sanctions, broke from their anti-German front and finally accepted the extended hand of Adolf Hitler. On a visit to Germany, Mussolini told a stadium full of people that Italy would “never forget” how Germany had refused to join the sanctions regime when so much of the world had turned against them. His opposition to the German annexation of Austria evaporated and the plan of Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg to restore the Austrian monarchy under Archduke Otto was stopped cold. Previously, Mussolini had approved of the plan, even talking about another Habsburg-Savoy royal marriage to cement their alliance but the reaction of the western powers to the war in Ethiopia changed all of that. In Italy, Fascism was more popular than ever and Mussolini more confident in the military prowess of the armed forces. Soon he would be sending tens of thousands of Italian troops to Spain to aid the nationalist forces of General Franco against the Spanish Republic.
For a seven-month colonial war, the second clash of Italy and Abyssinia had proven to be quite consequential. The last un-colonized corner of Africa was conquered, Britain and France made an enemy, Germany gained an ally, the post-World War I world order embodied by the League of Nations was shattered and the last realistic hope for the restoration of the Habsburg monarchy was brought to ruin and Germany gained control of Austria all as a result of this conflict. It is also not a great leap to imagine that had the war ended differently, had Italy lost, there might have been no help for Franco in Spain and the Second Spanish Republic might have carried on, at least until the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Second Italo-Abyssinian War was a conflict that warrants greater study and understanding. It was far more significant and had many more far-reaching consequences than most people realize.