Wednesday, February 1, 2017
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.
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.
This reveals the little-discussed truth behind one of the major misconceptions of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. It is usually stated or at least implied that the Wal Wal Incident was something instigated by the Italians with the sole purpose of serving as a pretext for Mussolini’s pre-planned conquest of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). However, it is quite obvious that this cannot be true. The Italians did not initiate the engagement nor did it lead immediately to conflict. If this had all been staged, surely Mussolini would have had the Italian army already deployed and ready to attack. Instead, it would take the better part of the following year before the war actually started, before the Royal Italian Army could be transferred to Africa, deployed, equipped and supplied to begin the invasion. Clearly, this was not a pre-planned event. Mussolini did not set this up. However, he was certainly more than willing to take advantage of the situation and use this opportunity to conquer Ethiopia and take revenge for the past defeat at Adowa.
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.
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 Italians, 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.
Witnessing the situation falling apart, Haile Selassie worked frantically to organize a counter-offensive to halt the Italian advance. On March 31, 1936 the Ethiopian chieftain threw all the forces available to him at the enemy in a desperate gamble known to history as the Battle of Maych’ew. This time, Haile Selassie commanded his troops himself and even committed his prized Imperial Guard to the battle. However, Marshal Badoglio had intercepted a message Haile Selassie sent to his wife, telling of the planned attack. This allowed Badoglio to call off his own planned attack and take up carefully prepared defensive positions. The Ethiopians would be walking right into his trap. The initial Ethiopian attack was bloodily repulsed in hard fighting, after which the main assault shifted to the Italian left flank which was hit repeatedly but all to no avail. Finally, Haile Selassie committed six battalions of his Imperial Guard but despite being the best armed and equipped, they fared no better. In desperation, Haile Selassie ordered all units to attack all along the line but the only result was that they were all wiped out, most already being greatly weakened by that point anyway.
Meanwhile, on the southern front, the Ethiopians attempted to regain the initiative with an attack they hoped would culminate in an invasion of Italian Somaliland. However, this offensive was bloodily repulsed at the Battle of Genale Doria. General Graziani adopted the policy of offense being the best defense and made heavy use of Italian control of the air, decimating the Ethiopian forces with attacks from the sky. Graziani came up with an operation he called the “Milan Plan” and within five days all of his attacking columns had reached their objectives. In the Battle of the Ogaden, the vaunted “Hindenburg Wall” of Wehib Pasha was broken through and the last organized Ethiopian resistance in the south was utterly destroyed, the survivors fleeing into the countryside to wage guerilla war against the invaders. Graziani pushed on for Harar but while he met little Ethiopian resistance, bad weather and a lack of modern roads delayed his advance.