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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 Abyssiniamarker). 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 Japanesemarker annexation of three Chinesemarker 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.

The positive outcome of the war for the Italians coincided with the zenith of the international popularity of dictator Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime, in a phase called "the age of consensus" during which foreign leaders, including Churchill, praised him for his achievements, ignoring the social, political, and human cost of these achievements.


Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had long held a desire for a new Italian Empire. Reminiscent of the Roman Empire, Mussolini's new empire was to rule over the Mediterraneanmarker and North Africa. His new empire would also avenge past Italian defeats. Chief among these defeats was the Battle of Adowamarker which took place in Abyssiniamarker on March 1, 1896. Mussolini promised the Italian people "a place in the sun", matching the extensive colonial empires of Britainmarker and France.

Ethiopia was a very spectacular 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, probably due to its inhospitable and very mountainous terrain. Acquiring Ethiopia would serve to unify Italian-held Eritreamarker and Italian Somaliland. In addition, Ethiopia was considered to be militarily weak; much of the indigenous tribal forces were still largely armed with spears and shields, and its airforce comprised only twelve aircraft.

Italian incursion

The Italo–Ethiopian Treaty of 1928 stated that the border between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia was twenty-one league parallel to the Benadir coast (approximately 73.5 miles). In 1930, Italy built a fort at the Welwelmarker oasis (also Walwal, Italian: Ual-Ual) in the Ogadenmarker and garrisoned it with Somali dubats (irregular frontier troops commanded by Italian officers). The fort at Welwel was well beyond the twenty-one league limit and the Italians were encroaching on Ethiopian territory.

In November 1934, Ethiopian territorial troops, escorting the Anglo-Ethiopian boundary commission, protested against 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.

Border clash at Welwel

In early December 1934, the tensions on both sides erupted into what was known as the "Walwal incident." The resultant clash left approximately 150 Ethiopians and 50 Italians dead. The clash led to the "Abyssinia Crisis" at the League of Nations.

In September 1935, the League of Nations exonerated both parties for the Walwal incident. 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. A last possible foreign ally of Ethiopia to fall away was Japan, which had served as a model to some Ethiopian intellectuals; the Japanese ambassador to Italy, Dr. Sugimura Yotaro, on 16 July assured Mussolini that his country held no political interests in Ethiopia and would keep neutral in Italy's coming war. His comments stirred up a furor inside Japan, where there had been popular affinity for the African Empire. Despite popular opinion, when the Ethiopians approached Japan for help on 2 August they were refused completely: even a modest request for the Japanese government to officially state its support for Ethiopia in the coming conflict was refused.

Opposing forces


Medical supplies for the front in Addis Ababa.
With an attack appearing inevitable, Emperor Haile Selassie ordered a general mobilization of the Army of the Ethiopian Empire. His new recruits consisted of around 500,000 men, many of whom were armed with nothing more than spears and bows. Other soldiers carried more modern weapons, including rifles, but many of these were from before 1900 and were badly outdated.

According to Italian estimates,[56649] 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.Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 29

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 Oerlikon, 75 mm Schneider, and Vickers). The Ethiopians even had some Ford truck-based armored car and a small number of Fiat 3000 World War I-era tanks.

The serviceable portion of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force included three outmoded Potez 25 biplanes.Barker, A. J., "The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 57 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 the Emperor'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 skills of the Rases, the generals of the Ethiopian armies, ranged from very good to incompetent.


In April 1935, the build-up of the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) and the Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) in East Africa (Africa Orientale ) started in earnest. In a few months, eight regular, mountain, and blackshirt infantry divisions arrived in Eritreamarker and four regular infantry divisions arrived in Italian Somaliland. These units alone represented 680,000 soldiers. This number does not include the Italian units already in East Africa, colonial units, or units arriving during the war. For example, there were 400,000 Italian soldiers in Eritrea and 220,000 in Italian Somaliland before the new divisions arrived. The huge army forming up in East Africa also included a great number of logistical and support units.

The equipment for the build-up alone included 6,000 machine guns, 2,000 pieces of artillery, 595 tankettes, and 390 aircraft. Before these arrived, the Italians had 3,300 machine guns, 275 artillery pieces, 200 tankettes, and 205 aircraft. Thanks to the Royal Navy (Regia Marina), the Italians had tons of ammunition, food, and other necessary supplies. The Italians also had motor vehicles to move supplies and troops while the Ethiopians carried supplies in horse drawn carts.

During this campaign the Italians placed considerable reliance on their Royal Corps of Colonial Troops (Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali, or RCTC) - indigenous regiments recruited from the Italian colonial possessions of Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya. The most effective of these Italian officered units were the Eritrean native infantry (askaris) who were often used as advance troops. As advance troops, the Eritreans often suffered heavy casualties accordingly. The Eritreans also provided cavalry and artillery units. The "Falcon Feathers" (Penne di Falco) was one prestigious and colorful Eritrean cavalry unit. Other RCTC units employed in the invasion of Ethiopia included irregular Somali frontier troops (dubats), regular Arab-Somali infantry and artillery, and Libyan infantry.

In addition to their own colonial troops from Eritrea, 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 Yemenismarker recruited from across the Gulf of Adenmarker.

Italian invasion

On March 28, 1935, General Emilio De Bono was named as the Commander-in-Chief of all Italian armed forces in East Africa. In addition, he was the Commander-in-Chief of the forces invading from Eritreamarker, the "northern front". De Bono had under his direct 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 was De Bono's subordinate. He was the Commander-in-Chief of forces invading from Italian Somaliland, the "southern front". Initially he had two divisions and a variety of smaller units under his command. His forces included a mix of Italians, Somalis, Eritreans, Libyans, and others. De Bono regarded Italian Somaliland as a secondary theatre that needed primarily to defend itself and possibly aid the main front with offensive thrusts if the enemy forces there were not too large.

As the invasion began, aircraft of the Royal Italian Air Force scattered fliers asking the population to rebel against Haile Selassie and support the "true Emperor Iyasu V". Forty-year-old Iyasu had been deposed many years earlier but was still in custody.

De Bono's advance

At precisely 5:00 am on October 3, 1935, De Bono crossed the Mareb Rivermarker and advanced into Ethiopia from Eritrea without a declaration of war.Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 33 In response to the Italian invasion, Ethiopia declared war on Italy. At this point in the campaign, roadways represented a serious drawback for the Italians as they crossed into Ethiopia. On the Italian side, roads had been constructed right up to the border. On the Ethiopian side, these roads often transitioned into vaguely defined paths.

On October 5, the Italian I Corps took Adigratmarker and, by October 6, Adwamarker was captured by the Italian II Corps. Haile Selassie had ordered Duke (Ras) Seyoum Mangasha, the Commander of the Ethiopian Army of Tigremarker, to withdraw a day's march away from the Magreb River. Later, the Emperor ordered Commander of the Gate (Dejazmach) Haile Selassie Gugsa, also in the area, to move back fifty-five and thirty-five miles from the border.

On October 11, Dejazmach 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. Haile Selassie Gugsa was Emperor Haile Selassie's son-in-law. But less than a tenth of the Dejazmach's army defected with him.Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 35

On October 14, 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'?" The Ethiopians themselves had attempted to abolish slavery. Each Ethiopian Emperor since Tewodros II had issued proclamations to halt slavery, but without effect.

By October 15, De Bono's forces advanced from Adwa for a bloodless occupation of the holy capital of Axummarker. General de Bono 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 Mussolini's consternation, slowly. On November 8, the I Corps and the Eritrean Corps captured Makalemarker. This proved to be the limit of how far the Italian invaders would get under the command of De Bono. On November 16, De Bono was promoted to the rank of Marshal of Italy (Maresciallo d'Italia), but by December he was replaced with Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio because of the slow, cautious nature of De Bono's advance.

Ethiopian Christmas Offensive

Ethiopian painting depicting the Italo-Abyssinian War.
Haile Selassie decided to test this new Italian commander with an offensive of his own. What became known as the Ethiopian "Christmas Offensive" had as its objectives the splitting of the Italian forces in the north with the Ethiopian center, crushing the Italian left with the Ethiopian right, and invading Eritrea with the Ethiopian left. Ras Seyoum Mangasha held the area around Abbi Addimarker with about 30,000 men. Ras Imru Haile Selassie with approximately 40,000 men advanced from Gojjammarker toward Mai Timket to the left of Ras Seyoum. Ras Kassa Haile Darge with approximately 40,000 men advanced from Dessiemarker to support Ras Seyoum in the center in a push towards Warieu Pass. Ras Mulugeta Yeggazu advanced from Dessie with approximately 80,000 men to take positions on and around Amba Aradammarker to the right of Ras Seyoum. Amba Aradam was a steep sided, flat topped mountain directly in the way of an Italian advance on Addis Ababa.

The four commanders had approximately 190,000 men facing the Italians. Ras Imru and his Army of Shiremarker were on the Ethiopian left. Ras Seyoum and his Army of Tigremarker and Ras Kassa and his Army of Beghemdermarker were the Ethiopian center. Ras Mulugeta and his "Army of the Center" (Mahel Sefari) were on the Ethiopian right. A force of 1,000 Ethiopians crossed the Tekeze river and advanced toward the Dembeguina Pass. The Italian commander, Major Criniti, commanded a force of 1,000 Eritrean Infantry supported by L3 tanks. When the Ethiopians attacked, Criniti's force fell back to the pass, only to discover that 2,000 Ethiopian soldiers had occupied it. Criniti's force was encircled and taking fire from all directions. In the first Ethiopian attack, two of Major Criniti's officers were killed, and Major Criniti was wounded. Criniti's force attempted to use their L3 tanks to break out, but the rough terrain immobilized the vehicles. The Ethiopians slaughtered the infantry, then swarmed the tanks and killed their two-man crews. Italian forces organized a relief column made up of tanks and infantry to relieve Major Critini, but it ran into an Ethiopian ambush on the way. The Ethiopians occupying the high ground rolled boulders in front of and behind the several of the tanks, immobilizing them. The Ethiopians picked off the Italian infantry, and swarmed the tanks. The other tanks were immobilized by the terrain and unable to advance further. The Ethiopians set two of these tanks on fire. Meanwhile, Major Critini achieved a breakout, having ordered his Eritreans to fix bayonets and charge. Although half of the Major Critini's force was killed in the fierce fighting, they managed to break out of the Ethiopian encirclement. The Ethiopians claimed to have killed 3,000 Italian troops during the Christmas offensive.

Black period of the war

During the Christmas Offensive, a time that informed circles in Italy termed the "Black Period" of the war, the Italians were forced to fall back from the Tekezé Rivermarker to Axummarker and from Amba Tzellene to the Warieu Pass.Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 47 The ambitious Ethiopian plan called for Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum to split the Italian army in two and isolate the Italian I Army Corps and the Italian III Army Corps in Makale. Ras Mulugeta would then descend from Amba Aradammarker and crush both corps. According to this plan, after Ras Imru retook Adwa, he was to invade Eritrea.


The proposed division of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) under the pact
In early December 1935, the Hoare-Laval Pact was proposed by Britain and France. Under this pact, Italy would gain the best parts of Ogadenmarker and Tigraymarker. Italy would also gain economic influence over all the southern part of Abyssinia. Abyssinia would have a guaranteed corridor to the sea at the port of Assabmarker; however, the corridor was a poor one and known as a "corridor for camels". Mussolini was ready to agree to the pact, but he waited some days to make his opinion public. On December 13, details of the pact were leaked by a French newspaper and denounced as a sell-out of the Abyssinians. The British government disassociated itself from the pact and both the British and the French representatives associated with the pact were forced to resign.

Poison gas

The Ethiopian offensive was ultimately stopped due to the superiority in modern weapons like machine guns and heavy artillery of the Italian forces. More importantly, on December 26 Badoglio asked for and was given permission to use chemical warfare agents like mustard gas. The Italians delivered the poison gas by special artillery canisters and with bombers of the Italian Royal Air Force. While the poorly equipped Ethiopians experienced some success against modern weaponry, they did not understand the "terrible rain that burned and killed."Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 56

Renewed Italian advance in the north

As the progress of the Christmas Offensive slowed, Italian plans to renew the advance on the northern front got under way. In addition to being granted permission to use poison gas, Badoglio received additional ground forces. The elements of the Italian III Corps and the Italian IV Corps arrived in Eritrea during early 1936.

On January 20, the Italians resumed their northern offensive at the First Battle of Tembien in the broken terrain between the Warieu Pass and Makale. The fighting proved inconclusive and, on January 24, the battle ended in a draw, with the Italians having suffered 1,083 casualties and the Ethiopians 8,000 casualties. But, for all intents and purposes, the threat posed by the Christmas Offensive was over. The Ethiopians were never to split the Italian army and they were never to invade Eritrea.

Marshal Badoglio.
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 on the northern front the indiscriminate use of mustard gas and phosgene as a primary weapon. Speaking of the Ethiopian threat to Italian-held Makale and the resultant use of poison gas, Haile Selassie said:
It was at the time when the operations for the encircling of Makalemarker 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 Aradammarker and destroyed Ras Mulugeta's army in the Battle of Enderta. The battle on the ground was lopsided in the Italians' favor, but the Ethiopians managed to inflict significant casualties on the Italians, but themselves suffered heavy losses. The heavy use of poison gas destroyed the vast majority of Ras Mulugeta's army. During the slaughter following the attempted withdrawal of his army, both Ras Mulugeta and his son were killed. The Italians lost 800 killed and wounded while the Ethiopians lost 6,000 killed and 12,000 wounded.

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 the withdrawing armies.

In early March, the army of Ras Imru was attacked, bombed, and sprayed with poison gas in what was known as the Battle of Shire. Despite resistance, the Italians successfully crushed his army. The Italians had suffered 1,000 casualties and the Ethiopians 4,000 casualties.

On March 31, 1936 at the Battle of Maychew, the Italians defeated an Ethiopian counteroffensive by the main Ethiopian army commanded by Emperor Haile Selassie. The outnumbered Ethiopians could not overcome the well-prepared Italian defenses. For one day, the Ethiopians launched near non-stop attacks on the Italian and Eritrean defenders, 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. The Italians had 400 casualties, the Eritreans 873, and the Ethiopians 11,000. On April 4, Haile Selassie looked with despair upon the horrific sight of the dead bodies of his army ringing the poisoned lake.

Southern front

On October 3, 1935, Graziani implemented his "Milan Plan". The limited objectives of this plan were to remove Ethiopian forces from various frontier posts and to test the reaction to a series of probes all along the southern front. While incessant rains worked to hinder the plan, within three weeks the villages of Kelafomarker, Dagnerai, Gerlogubi, and Gorahai were in Italian hands.

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 Boranmarker with the goal of advancing on Dolomarker and invading Italian Somaliland. Between January 12 and January 16, 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 Hararmarker. On March 22, the Italian Air Force bombed Harar and Jijigamarker as a prelude. Both cities were reduced to ruins even though Harar had been declared an "open city."

On April 14, Graziani launched his attack against Ras Nasibu Emmanual to defeat the last Ethiopian army left. This attack was known as 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. 2,000 Italian soldiers and 5,000 Ethiopian soldiers were killed or wounded.

On May 2, Graziani requested permission from Mussolini to bomb Haile Selassie's train when he found out that Haile Selassie had left Addis Ababa on the Imperial Railway. Il Duce ("The Leader") refused his request.

March of the Iron Will

On April 26 1936, when Badoglio launched his "March of the Iron Will" from Dessiemarker to Addis Ababa, he faced no meaningful Ethiopian resistance. Because of the lack of resistance, he risked an advance with a mechanized column.

Very early on May 2, Haile Selassie boarded a train from Addis Ababamarker to Djiboutimarker 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 Goremarker, 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 Prince 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 May 5 and restored order. While there never was a formal surrender, the Second Italo-Abyssinian War was over.

The end

The Kingdom of Italy annexed the Ethiopian Empire on May 7 and, on May 9, King Victor Emmanuel III was proclaimed Emperor of Ethiopia. Italy merged Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somaliland into a single colony known as Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, or AOI).

Italian perspective: "Will you be worthy of it?"

King-Emperor Victor Emmanuel III waited for the crowds in the Quirinal Palacemarker on Quirinal Hillmarker. Months earlier, when the Ethiopian adventure first started, he told a friend: "If we win, I shall be King of Abyssinia. If we lose, I shall be King of Italy."

"Emperor! Emperor! Salute the Emperor!" ("Imperatore! Imperatore! Salute Imperatore!") chanted the crowd when Victor Emmanuel, in full Army uniform, showed himself on a balcony. The first Roman Emperor in 1,460 years raised his withered hand to the visor of his cap and said nothing. Elena, his Queen-Empress did not appear. She was in bed with a broken toe from falling off a stepladder in her library while reaching for a book.

While the Italian King-Emperor was silent, the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was not. When victory was announced by Mussolini from the balcony of the Palazzo Veneziamarker in Rome, the Italian population was jubilant. Of course, the crowds in the Piazza Veneziamarker had not been informed of the use of mustard gas by Italian troops.

From his balcony, Mussolini proclaimed:
"During the thirty centuries of our history, Italy has known many solemn and memorable moments -- this is unquestionably one of the most solemn, the most memorable. People of Italy, people of the world, peace has been restored."
The crowds would not let him go—ten times they recalled Mussolini to the balcony and cheered and waved while the boys of various Fascist youth organizations sang the newly composed 'Hymn of the Empire' (Inno dell'impero)."Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 129

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:
"At last Italy has her empire." And he then added: "The Italian people have created an empire with their blood. They will fertilize it with their work. They will defend it against anyone with their weapons. Will you be worthy of it?"

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.Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 131

Ethiopian perspective: "It will be you tomorrow"

While the Italian people were rejoicing in Rome, Haile Selassie was crossing the Red Seamarker in the British cruiser HMS Enterprise. On May 4, he had sailed from Djibouti. The British Mandate of Palestine was his destination on his way to England via Gibraltarmarker. Two days after his arrival in Jerusalemmarker, Haile Selassie sent a telegram to the League of Nations in which he wrote:
"We have decided to bring to an end the most unequal, most unjust, most barbarous war of our age, and have chosen the road to exile in order that our people will not be exterminated and in order to consecrate ourselves wholly and in peace to the preservation of our empire's independence... we now demand that the League of Nations should continue its efforts to secure respect for the covenant, and that it should decide not to recognize territorial extensions, or the exercise of an assumed sovereignty, resulting from the illegal recourse to armed force and to numerous other violations of international agreements."
The Ethiopian Emperor's telegram caused several nations to temporarily defer recognition of the Italian conquest.Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, pp. 131-132

On June 30, Haile Selassie spoke at the League of Nations and was introduced by the President of the Assembly as "His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Ethiopia" ("Sa Majesté Imperiale, l'Empereur d'Ethiopie"). In response, a group of jeering Italian journalists began yelling insults and had to be ejected before he could speak. The Romanian Chairman, Nicolae Titulescu, famously reacted to the buffoonery exhibited by the Italian journalists. He jumped to his feet and shouted: "To the door with the savages!" ("A la porte les sauvages!")Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 133

Haile Selassie then gave a stirring speech denouncing Italy's actions and criticizing the world community for standing by. At the conclusion of his speech which appeared on newsreels throughout the world, he warned that:
"It is us today. It will be you tomorrow."

International response

The international response to the Italian invasion was mixed. As stirring as Haile Selassie's speech before the League of Nations was, his resolution for the world body to deny recognition of the Italian conquest was defeated. In addition, he was not granted a loan to finance a resistance movement. German dictator Adolf Hitler supported the Italian invasion before it was launched. On November 18, 1936, the Italian Empire was officially recognized by the Empire of Japanmarker. In 1938, France and Britainmarker recognized Italian control over Ethiopia. When the agreement was signed by Britain and Italy which recognized Italian control, Conservative politician Winston Churchill called it "a complete triumph for Mussolini." The United Statesmarker never recognized Italian sovereignty over Ethiopia.


On May 10, 1936, in Ethiopia Italian troops from the northern front and from the southern front linked up at Dire Dawamarker. In Dire Dawa, the Italians found the recently released Ethiopian traitor, Hailu Tekle Haymanot.

Badoglio and Graziani

In early June, Rome promulgated a constitution bringing Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland together into a single administrative unit divided into six provinces. This administrative unit was known as Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, or AOI). Marshal Pietro Badoglio was proclaimed as the first Viceroy and Governor General of the new Italian colony. But Badoglio held these positions only briefly and on 11 June, newly promoted Marshal Rodolfo Graziani replaced him in AOI.

In July, Ethiopian forces still intact after the war, gathered together and launched an attack on Addis Ababa. The various attacking forces and the commanders fled after the attack ended in failure. Numerous members of Ethiopias royalty, like Ras Imru, were captured and made prisoners. Other members were executed soon after they surrendered. Three sons of Ras Kassa, Aberra Kassa, Asfawossen Kassa, and Wondosson Kassa were executed as rebels.

Six provinces of the AOI.
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. 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.

On 24 February, Ras Desta Damtew was executed after his capture. In December, he had been flushed from his base of operations in Irgalemmarker.

On 11 December, the League of Nations voted to condemn Italy and, as a result, Mussolini declared his country's withdrawal from the organization. In addition to causing condemnation on the world stage, the new colony was proving to be highly expensive to maintain. The budget for Italian East Africa from 1936 to 1937 required Italy to provide 19.136 billion lire to create the necessary infrastructure for the colony. At the time, Italy's entire annual revenue was only 18.581 billion lire.

Duke of Aosta

Duke of Aosta.
In the end, the harsh policies of Graziani did not pacify the country. Therefore, on 21 December 1937, 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 of new paved roadways, 25 hospitals, 14 hotels, dozens of post offices, telephone exchanges, aqueducts, schools, and shops.

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). 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 also 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 Fascist Italy more and more. From 1936 to 1939, after Ethiopia, Mussolini and Hitler joined forces in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. In April 1939, Mussolini launched the Italian invasion of Albania. In May, Italy and Nazi Germany joined together in the Pact of Steel. In September 1940, both nations signed the Tripartite Pact along with the Empire of Japan.

End of Italian East Africa

On June 10 1940, Mussolini entered World War II and joined Hitler as his Axis ally. As a result, the colony of Italian East Africa proved to be short-lived. Initially, the Italians attacked British and Commonwealth forces in the Sudanmarker, Kenyamarker, and British Somaliland. In August, the Italians even overran all of British Somaliland and forced the British and Commonwealth forces there to flee. But, by the end of 1941, during the East African Campaign, Ethiopia was liberated from Italian control by a combination of British, Commonwealth, Free French, Free Belgian, and Ethiopian forces.

While in exile in England, Haile Selassie had sought to gain the support of the Western democracies for his cause. But he had little success until World War II broke out. During that war, the British and the Ethiopian Emperor sought to cooperate with Ethiopian and other local forces in a campaign to dislodge the Italians from Ethiopia. Haile Selassie went to Khartoummarker, where he established closer liaison with both the British headquarters and the resistance forces within Ethiopia.

On January 18, 1941, Emperor Selassie crossed the border into Ethiopia near the village of Um Iddla. Two days later the Emperor joined Gideon Force, a small British-led African regular force. The standard of the Lion of Judah was raised again. By May 5, the Emperor and an army of Ethiopian Free Forces entered Addis Ababa. Following the Italian defeat, the victorious forces faced a guerrilla war carried out by remnants of Italian troops and their allies that just ended in last quarter of 1943 after the formal surrender of Italy.

Among other things, the Treaty of Peace with Italy signed between the Italian Republicmarker (Repubblica Italiana) and the victorious powers of World War II on February 10, 1947 in Paris, included Italy's formal recognition of Ethiopian independence and an agreement to pay $25,000,000 in reparations. Ethiopia became an independent nation again, and Haile Selassie was restored as its leader. 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 six million beef cattle, seven million sheep and goats, one million horses and mules, and 700,000 camels. The bill for this presented to the Economic Commission for Italy came to £184,746,023.Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 159

In addition, the human losses were recorded by the Ethiopians:
275,000 - combatants killed in action
78,500 - patriots killed during the occupation (1936-1941)
17,800 - civilians killed by bombings
30,000 - massacre of February 1937
35,000 - persons who died in concentration camps
24,000 - patriots executed by Summary Courts
300,000 - persons who died of privations due to the destruction of their villages
760,300 - TOTAL


In addition to conventional weaponry, Badoglio's troops also made substantial use of mustard gas, in both artillery and aerial bombardments. In total, the Italians deployed between 300 and 500 tonnes of mustard gas during the war, despite having signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The deployment of gas was not restricted to the battlefield, however, as civilians were also targeted by the Italians, as part of their attempt to terrorise the local population. Furthermore, the Italians carried out gas attacks on Red Cross camps and ambulances.

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, October 27 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, December 28 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, June 5 1936. To His Excellency Graziani. All rebels taken prisoner must be killed. Mussolini."
"Rome, July 8 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.

Church statements

While Pope Pius XI issued ambiguous statements, his bishops were quite vocal in blessing the armed forces of their Italian “fatherland”. In the book The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators, Anthony Rhodes reports:
In his Pastoral Letter of the 19th October [1935], the Bishop of Udine [Italy] wrote, ‘It is neither timely nor fitting for us to pronounce on the rights and wrongs of the case. Our duty as Italians, and still more as Christians is to contribute to the success of our arms.’ The Bishop of Padua wrote on the 21st October, ‘In the difficult hours through which we are passing, we ask you to have faith in our statesmen and armed forces.’ On the 24th October, the Bishop of Cremona consecrated a number of regimental flags and said: ‘The blessing of God be upon these soldiers who, on African soil, will conquer new and fertile lands for the Italian genius, thereby bringing to them Roman and Christian culture. May Italy stand once again as the Christian mentor to the whole world.


Invariably, any success achieved by the Ethiopians was attributed to foreigners or "Franks" (ferenghi). Most of these elusive individuals were military advisers, pilots, doctors, or just well wishers of Haile Selassie's "cause." While never numbering more than a hundred, the Italian propaganda machine magnified the number to thousands so that Rome could account for the virtual standstill of the Italian Royal Army after De Bono's first rapid advances. Something had to explain the Ethiopian's ability to launch the "Christmas Offensive" of late 1935.

The following are a few of the foreigners who came to Ethiopia or who supported the Ethiopian people:

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:

Other personalities of the war

See also


  1. Peter N. Stearns, William Leonard Langer. The Encyclopedia of World History: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, pg. 677
  2. Andrew J. Crozier. The Causes of the Second World War, pg. 108
  3. Roderick Stackelberg. Hitler's Germany: Origins, Interpretations, Legacies, p. 164
  4. J. Calvitt Clarke, "Japan and Italy squabble over Ethiopia: The Sugimura affair of July 1935", Selected Annual Proceedings of the Florida Conference of Historians, 6 (Dec. 1999): 9-20. (accessed 31 December 2008
  5. The condition of the Ethiopian Army on the eve of the war is discussed by Richard Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia (Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University, 1968), pp. 605-608.
  6. Piero Crociani, Le Uniformi Dell' A.O.I,
  7. Nicolle, David, "The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-1936", p. 41
  8. Gooch. Mussolini and His Generals. Pg. 301
  9. Gooch. Mussolini and His Generals. Pg. 299
  10. Nicolle, David, The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-1936, p. 11
  11. Also spelled Adowa.
  12. Clarence-Smith, W. G. The Economics of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century. 1989, page 103.
  13. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 36
  14. Nicolle, David, "The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-1936", p. 8
  15. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 45
  16. Mockler, Haile Sellassie's War, p. 75.
  17. Safire, William. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. 1997, p. 318.
  18. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 105
  19. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 70
  20. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 76
  21. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 112
  22. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 123
  23. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 126
  24. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 109
  25. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 125
  26. Time Magazine, Re ed Imperatore, 18 May 1936
  27. Time Magazine, Re ed Imperatore, 18 May 1936
  28. Kershaw, Ian, Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris, p.547
  29. Cedric James Lowe, F. Marzari. Italian Foreign Policy 1870-1940, p. 307
  30. U.S., Department of State, Publication 1983, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Government Printing Office, 1943), pp. 28-32
  31. Nicolle, David, "The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-1936", p. 12
  32. Barker, Rape of Ethiopia, p. 127
  33. Cannistraro, Philip V. (1982) Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy, Westport, Conn.; London : Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-21317-8. Pp. 5
  34. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 156
  35. Bernard Bridel, Les ambulances à Croix-Rouge du CICR sous les gaz en Ethiopie, Le Temps, 13/08/2003, in French, hosted at the International Committee of the Red Cross website
  36. ;
  37. Nicolle, David, "The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-1936", p. 18
  38. Time Magazine, Ethiopia's Lusitania?


  • De Bono E., La preparazione e le prime operazioni, Roma: Istituto Nazionale Fascista di Cultura, 1937.
  • Graziani, R., Fronte del Sud, Milano: A. Mondadori, 1938.
  • Kershaw, Ian, Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
  • Starace, A., La marcia su Gondar Milano: A. Mondadori, 1937.


  • Fascist Legacy, Ken Kirby, Royaume-Uni, 1989, documentary 2x50min [56650]

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