Aggression and Occupation

The Italian campaign was entrusted to Marshal de Bono in the north and to General Graziani in the south. Eventually, their two armies met and joined hands in the capital.

The invaders made good use of modern methods of warfare. For years Italian agents, usually in the form of consuls or medical missions, had been instructed to spread the idea that Italian assistance would be forthcoming to such non-Amharic peoples as were wishful to shake off their allegiance to the Shoan Emperor, as they called him. If by these fifth-column methods Ethiopia could be absorbed into Italian colonial possessions—well and good. If not, other and sterner weapons must be sought to assist Italian expansion.

Assembled in Eritrea were thousands of vehicles, vans, tanks, and lorries which had been passing through the Suez Canal for the previous six months. In them were massed cylinders of poison gas, suitable for spraying on man and beast, should they prove intractable. Massed on the new-made airports were 300 aeroplanes—bombers and fighters which were to combat the half-dozen of the Emperor’s air force.

It remained to be seen whether the loyalty of the component parts of his empire would stand proof against such intrigues; whether the valour of the Emperor himself and the troops he led would stand fast in the face of this new ‘terror of war; whether the natural defence of mountain and valley, rift and canyon would deny passage to the invader.’

It is certain that the first weapon played a large part in the opening of the campaign in the north where Italian influence had been at work for many years, playing upon the jealousy of the northern provinces who had originally owned the dynasty and the capital, which had now been surrendered to the newly established Shoan hegemony. The entry of the Italians into the northern section of Tigre was greatly facilitated by the defection of Dejazmach Haile Selassie Guksa, son of Guksa Araia, who had been deprived of the governorship of Tigre in 1932. He was a descendant of the Emperor John, and it had been to bind him more closely to the throne that the Emperor had given him his second daughter, the Princess Zenab Worq, in marriage. But she had died in 1934, and he was resentful at the loss of a considerable part of his patrimony at his father’s death.

As soon also as it became evident that the Emperor’s army was retreating before the enemy, the Azebo and Wollo Gallas, tribes in the east of the escarpment, hastened to pay off old scores, and severely harassed the retiring troops.

As a result of this the Italian armies, once across the frontier, found the occupation of Tigre, and its capital Adowa, an easy task—and the capture of this last with its bitter memories of defeat was the occasion for great jubilation. Ras Seyum withdrew before them after a fruitless defence of his province and the Italians immediately issued proclamations as to their peaceful intentions, if the population would accept their terms. They claimed a bloodless occupation of the country that had originally belonged to them.

Meanwhile, in the south, General Graziani under more arduous conditions of heat and desert country, and hampered by rain, was making slower progress towards his objective of Harar province and town, and the railway beyond them. His plan was that of intensive air bombardment—a new and terrible experience for the Ethiopian troops in that bare and open country—and then advance to take advantage of panic and despair among the armies.

The first three months of the war, however, still gave some hope that the enemy might be held or delayed until the advent of the rains in the second half of the year might hamper his advance. This proved a vain hope. The Italians brought into use the second of their weapons. In 1936 Marshal de Bono, as a result of his refusal to use poison gas to speed up the invasion, was superseded by Marshal Badoglio, and the latter now began to press southwards. He had utilized the delay imposed on him at Makalle to build up his army, construct his roads, and organize the forces and ammunition at his disposal.

The first blow to the Ethiopian defence in the north was the defeat in the Tembien of the forces under the command of Ras Kassa and Ras Seyum; though they had made a gallant stand for some months without any major disaster, they were finally forced out of the region. Meanwhile, Ras Mulugeta, the Minister of War, and a veteran from the days and the fighting of Menelek’s campaigns, had established himself at Amba Aradam, a strong defensive position. On 10th February a battle was fought here against Italian troops advancing in two columns. This resulted in a severe defeat for the old Ethiopian general, who was surprised by an intrepid assault by Alpini troops from an unexpected quarter which he had thought inaccessible; he was able, however, to withdraw his troops, or what was left of them, in good order to the main road, though he himself died from pneumonia as a result of over-fatigue and exposure.

The Emperor, who had earlier paid a visit to the southern sector of the war, had now returned to Addis Ababa, and proceeded north to Dessie, which he made his headquarters and where he assumed command. To the north-west Ras Imeru and Dejach Ayelle were gradually forced out of the area north of Lake Tsana and the Italians had occupied Gondar and Gallabat on the Sudan frontier. After the defeat of Ras Mulugeta at Amba Aradam the Emperor pushed north from Dessie towards Lake Ashangi where the main Ethiopian army had retreated, in the hope of rallying his forces; and here he took command in the field. It was during this period that intensive use was made of mustard gas, which was dropped in containers and sprayed from the wings of aeroplanes on combatants and non-combatants alike—even upon the undergrowth that might afford them cover. Against this the Ethiopian soldiers were entirely without defence.

Meanwhile from his position near Kworam the Emperor was threatened by the two Italian columns who were advancing from the north and north-west; and now there was a further threat from the east, where a column from Assab was reported to be advancing, and to have already entered Sardo, the capital of the Aussa Sultanate. This was a serious danger, for this place was only one hundred miles from Dessie. Though attack from here would mean an arduous march through the heat of the desert, and a climb up the steep escarpment on the edge of which Dessie stands, the establishment of an air base would constitute a grave threat to the rear of the Emperor’s army.

It was in these circumstances that the Emperor struck first. Never perhaps has his personal courage been more clearly demonstrated than in this frontal attack against an enemy already flushed with easy victory—an enemy infinitely better armed, organized, and equipped. He had decided perhaps that he must either fight or make good his retreat without delay; his generals were men of the old school who knew no other methods of warfare than massed attack, and who were scornful of guerrilla tactics and confident of their ability to fight. However that may be, this decisive action of the war was opened on Ethiopian initiative, and in it the Emperor himself took an active part, firing a machine-gun for two days without sleep.

Although at first successful, fighting gallantly against withering fire from machine-guns and standing on their own against heavy artillery fire, in this final battle at Mai Chaw, north of Lake Ashangi, the Ethiopian army, under the personal leadership of the Emperor, was finally defeated. After four days of hard fighting it was routed and fled in disorder. Down the road to Dessie poured the troops, harassed by intensive air bombardment as well as by attacks from hostile and rebellious tribes of Azebo and Wollo Gallas along the road.

Marshal Badoglio followed up his victory with determination and speed, and within ten days his troops had entered Dessie. The Crown Prince, just twenty years old, remained there until the enemy were almost in sight, but unable to put up any defence against intensive air bombardment retreated towards Addis Ababa. As the survivors from the northern front straggled back into the capital their condition and the gloomy reports they brought of the situation gave rise to general despondency. Yet the Emperor himself gave no such indication. On 19th April an order was issued by the Government calling upon the whole male population capable of bearing arms to report for military service. On 30th April the Emperor, together with Ras Kassa and some others, returned to the town, and it was reported that the Government was planning to retire westwards, and reorganize resistance from some other headquarters. His return journey had been arduous and dispiriting through the mountainous country west of the main Dessie-Addis Ababa road. On more than one occasion treachery and brigandage among rebellious local tribes had revealed to him how much intrigue and propaganda had been at work within his own country—and he had had more than one narrow escape.

Yet on the evening of 30th April he told foreign correspondents in the capital that he intended to fight to the end. But a further blow awaited him; he learned of the defeat of his army under Dejazmach Nasibu in the south, and when he issued an appeal on 1st May for every able-bodied man to march northward to repel the invader, there was practically no response.

This disappointment, coupled with the possibility that perhaps the Galla people in the west would prove hostile to the idea of the war penetrating to their country, and with the almost intolerable strain, physical and mental, to which he had been subjected, caused the Emperor to change his mind. He had already arranged for the Empress and members of his family to leave the country, and at the last moment he decided to accompany them down the railway line. He would himself carry the case of his country to the Tribunal of the League. The possibility of defence from Dire Dawa had occurred to him, but as he passed through he heard that advanced Italian troops were already in his home town of Harar—thirty miles away. With his family, Ras Kassa, his Foreign Minister, Belatingeta Herowi, and a few other followers, he passed on to Djibuti, where he was met by a British warship which conveyed him and his family to Haifa.

With the departure of the Emperor the seat of Government was removed to Gore and the following account of the situation was issued on 8th May in a letter to The Times from the Ethiopian Minister in London:

A group of Ministers are still carrying on the Government in the west and are in possession of the archives which were saved from Addis Ababa. . . . Under present conditions it would not be politic for me to reveal the position of the Government headquarters, as this would merely invite the use of bombs and poison gas in the area.1

On 9th May Mussolini announced to the Italian people the passage of a decree annexing Abyssinia to Italy, and investing the King of Italy with the title of Emperor of Ethiopia. Marshal Badoglio was on 10th May appointed Governor-General of Ethiopia with the title of Viceroy and with full powers.

1 Arnold Toynbee: Survey of International Affairs 1935, vol. ii, p. 357.

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