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Second Ethio-Italian War
The Italian invasion of Ethiopia known as the second Italo-Ethiopian war was a major event of its time. It tested the League of Nations effectiveness and was considered as one of the reasons for WWII to start. It started in 1935 and ended in 1936 until the Italians defeat in 1941. The war was conducted between the armed forces of the Kingdom of Italy and armed forces of the Ethiopian Empire.
Italy tried to conquer Ethiopia in 1890 but was defeated with the less trained and organized Ethiopian army. A border incident in 1935 between Ethiopia and part of Somalia, then occupied by the Italians, gave the fascist Italian empire, led by Benito Mussolini, a reason to revenge the 1890 defeat.
In 1928 Italy and Ethiopia signed a treaty declaring that the border between the Italian occupied Somalia land also known Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia be 21 leagues (roughly 116 Kilometers) parallel to the coast of Benadir, the coastal region of Somalia. By contradicting the treaty the Italians built a fort beyond the agreed limit at Welwel oasis, a town inside Ethiopian border. This led to confrontation between the two countries also known as the Welwel incident. The incident left 150 Ethiopians and 2 Italians dead. The Ethiopian government represented by King Haile Selassie I appealed to the League of Nations. The king declared that this was sign of aggression, asking the league to condemn Italy for its violation of the league’s treaty, followed by actions to help his country revert the aggression. The king stressed that the league was established to protect all its members not few. He also reminded member states that the basic principle that founded the league and inspired his country to be a member is the fact that an attack on one should be considered as an attack on all.
The League’s problem was that the major forces running it at that time were not interested to calm the situation and listen to the King’s appeal, even though they knew Italy was wrong. Hitler’s Germany was on the rise at that time and this was a threat to the British and French governments. They wanted to restrain Hitler from his ambition to conquer all German speaking nations in Europe and make them part of Germany. One of their hopes was Mussolini, who had a bilateral agreement with Austria to protect the country from any external aggression. Hitler’s first target was Austria and the British and French did not want to upset Mussolini and lose Austria. They did not want to take any action to avert the Italian aggression against Ethiopia.
On September 29, 1935 Haile Selassie stated that he was left out with no option but to get his troops ready for war. On the other side Mussolini declared a full scale invasion on October 3rd. By declaring war Italy violated the 1928 treaty of friendship between Ethiopia and Italy, and the league’s treaty “not to resort to war as a means of state policy”. The League of Nations condemned his decision and imposed economic sanctions on Italy. The sanctions were toothless and were ignored by France and Britain. This resulted for Haile Selassie to flee the capital to Britain in early May, and Italy officially declared Ethiopia as one of its territories on May 7th 1936. Haile Selassie went back to the League of Nations and made his famous prophetic speech which made him Time magazine man of the year. He claimed that the league has failed to inforce its own laws, and his people were left out to be invaded, terrorized, robbed and killed by warriors with the sole purpose of expanding their territory far away from their homeland to boost their national prestige at the cost of innocent lives. He also warned member states that this time it might be his country’s turn to be denied justice but next time it might be theirs. He emphasized that the Italian invasion, if not stopped, will burn Europe as it was burning his country. As he said it Germany caused a lot of damage in their march to conquer Europe.
The Italians had approximately 110000 troops ready to invade Ethiopia; they were led by General Rodolfo Graziani from the South and General Emilio De Bono from the North. The Ethiopians had about 800000 troops mainly led by Emperor Haile Selassie. The Italians were better equipped with tanks and airplanes whereas the Ethiopians had outdated weapons that consisted mainly of spears, some rifles and artillery. The Italian army advanced into Ethiopian territory from the North into the Tigray region. They have not encountered any major challenge until the Ethiopian “Christmas Offensive” of December 1935. They were able to advance deep to the region and capture the historical town of Axum. Mussolini was not satisfied with De Bono’s advance claiming it was not as fast as he wanted it to be. He replaced him with General Pietro Badoglio. On the other side Haile Selassie moved his command center from Addis Ababa, the capital, to Dessie a town in the North, and launched what is known as the “Christmas Offensive”. The main objective of the offensive was to create a safe path for the Ethiopian troops to advance to the North, towards Eritrea, an Italian colony at the time, by splitting the Italian army. The Ethiopian troops were led by four commanders. The Ethiopian commanders with their title equivalent to General were Ras Seyoum Mengesha with about 30000 troops in the center, Ras Imiru Haile Selassie with about 40000 troops positioned to the left of Ras Seyoum, Ras Kassa Haile Darge with about 40000 troops in the center to support Ras Seyoum, and Ras Mulugeta Yegezu to the right of Ras Seyoum. The plan was for Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum to divide the Italian first and third armies. This would give way for Ras Mulugeta and Ras Imiru to advance and take over the northern part, already under the control of the Italians, and move forward to invade Eritrea.
Initially the offensive was successful for the Ethiopian army. The army commanded by Ras Imiru crossed the Tekeze river and entered the Tigray region. An Italian unit led by Major Criniti was stationed across the river. The unit had 1000 troops and 9 tanks. The first division of the Ethiopian army attacked the Major’s unit and caused significant damage. The remaining unit run to a place called Indabaguna. The other division split from Ras Imiru army got to the place first and waited for the Major’s unit that was on the run. They attacked and killed several troops and destroyed their tanks. The Major was wounded and his officers killed. Criniti called for help, a total of ten tanks and two trucks were sent to rescue him. Before they arrived to the battle front they were ambushed by the Ethiopian army stationed to monitor the Italian army movement. They rolled large rocks to destroy the tanks. During this battle the Ethiopians were able to kill 3000 Italian soldiers and destroyed a number of tanks. The Major was able to escape with his remaining troops. The Ethiopian army was able to cross the river and control back several towns and was stationed 12 miles from the town of Axum. The moral among the Ethiopian army was high and prepared for a major offensive to capture back the town of Axum.
The Italian army reinforced its base in the capital city of the Tigray region, Mekelle. It was surrounded on all sides of the city. The Ethiopians were well positioned in high grounds and were attacking the Italians on a regular basis. Ras Imiru was stationed to the east ready to take over the towns of Adwa and Axum. To the west Ras Mulugeta was positioned to prevent any movements by the Italians to the South and ready to take over Mekelle. Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum joined their forces in the center ready to move forward and split the Italian army. On the other side General Pietro Badoglio had five army corps. He stationed the fourth and the second corps to face Ras Imiru, the Eritrean corps to face Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum and the first and third corps to face Ras Mulugeta. General Badoglio started his attack known as the first battle of Tembien on January 20. The Ethiopians effectively pushed back the offensive by turning back the Eritrean division to where it came from, and surrounded the Blackshirt division in an area called the Warieu pass. They attacked the surrounded division for three consecutive days until it was rescued by additional forces. The Italian army used mustard gas, against a treaty Italy signed as a member of the League of Nations, to neutralize any threat in the center. The battle ended on January 24 with Tembien in the hands of the Ethiopians.
After neutralizing threats in the center front from Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum, Badoglio turned his face to Ras Mulugeta. He launched the battle of Amba Aradam on 10 February. Amba Aradam is a mountain 9042 feet high which gave the Ethiopians territorial advantage. The Italians had significant advantage over weapons. The first and third corps were selected to conduct the attack and were equipped with 5000 machine guns, 280 pieces of artillery, and 170 planes ready to drop their mustard gas. Ras Mulugeta on the other side had 400 machine guns, few anti-aircraft guns and 0 planes. The Italians surveyed the area, with their reconnaissance airplanes, to identify the Ethiopians positions and gave this information to their gunners. Italian ground troops encircled the Ethiopian army without being noticed. After Ras Mulugeta realized he was surrounded he ordered his troops to go down the hill to fight. His troops bravely fought and were able to hold the Blackshirt division. Even though they were able to hold the ground forces they couldn’t sustain the Italian air force continuous attack using mustard gas. The Ethiopian army retreated from the mountain and tried to reassemble for counter attack. Ras Mulugeta was killed and his army defeated at the end.
Badoglio now planned his attack against Ras Kasa and Ras Seyoum. The strategic mountain of Amba Work, under the control of the Ethiopians, was the primary objective for Badoglio. He used his commandos to attack in the dark. The Ethiopian army not prepared to fight was defeated quickly. Ras Seyoum’s army tried to attack back the Italians in the open but could not resist the heavy machine guns. The Italians noticed that the Ethiopians were on the retreat; they followed them with their airplanes and dropped heavy bombs. Ras Kasa on the other hand wanted to go back to Amba Aradam to regroup with what’s left from Ras Mulugeta’s army. The Italian air force caught up with him and dropped bombs and mustard gas to kill thousands of his army. The battle ended on February 29. Ras Kasa and Ras Seyoum made it to where Haile Selassie made his headquarter with few of their army.
The last major offensive was the battle of Shire, against the last remaining Ethiopian commander Ras Imiru. The Italian fourth and second corps were selected to fight Ras Imiru’s army. The Ethiopians managed to attack the second corps until the Italian air force came again for its rescue. The Italian troops were able to advance against Ras Imiru’s army and were able to capture the town of Shire on March 3. The battle of Shire ended with fewer casualties from the previous wars and Ras Imiru’s army was able to retreat while still intact. Not too long after the war ended the Italian air force caught up with Ras Imiru’s army while crossing the Tekeze River. They rained their mustard gas and heavy bombs with full force. Ras Imiru’s army was defeated on March 4.
General Badoglio defeated all four battalions. His march to the capital Addis Ababa was left wide open. The only resistance he might encounter is against the Ethiopian Imperial Guard also known as “Kebur Zabagna”. This division was the best trained and equipped at the time. In his move forward, Badoglio was able to capture large cities like Gondar and Debre Tabor, where Ras Imiru was thought to have camped with his new army, with little or no resistance. He reached Lake Tana, located deep in the country, in a matter of days.
Haile Selassie moved to his new headquarter Quorom from Addis Ababa. He brought the Imperial guard to participate on his last offensive called the battle of Shire. Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum also joined him with their remaining troops. A new commander Ras Getachew joined them with fresh troops from the Kefa region. Badoglio prepared for the offensive with the first corps and three divisions from Eritrea. Haile Selassie launched his attack on March 31, 1936 one week late from the original attack date, which gave the Italians more time to organize their army. The Ethiopian caused significant casualties on the Italians. After several hours of fighting Badoglio ordered his air force to start raining their mustard gas. The well trained and equipped Imperial guard was able to destroy the 2nd Eritrean division during this battle. By the end of the day the Ethiopians were not able to resist the Italian air power, so Haile Selassie ordered his troops to retreat on April 2nd. Ras Seyoum returned to the Tigray region to start guerilla warfare. Ras Kassa and Ras Getachew accompanied the Emperor on the retreat. Crowne Prince Asfa Wosen was sent to the town of Dessie to protect it from being captured. He retreated with no fight on April 16 for the Italians to occupy it with no resistance. In the South General Graziani defeated the Ethiopian armies led by Ras Desta Damtew in the battle of Negele Borena. The Italian air force bombed the cities of Harar and Jijiga, making way for the army to attack the last Ethiopian army led by Ras Nasibu Emmanuel. On April 14 Ras Nasibu was defeated in the battle of the Ogaden.
On April 26 General Badoglio begun his move towards the capital, he named it “March of the Iron Will”. Haile Selassie arrived in the capital on May 1st and made his way to Djibouti by train the next day to go to England. On May 5th Badoglio and his army captured the capital city, Addis Ababa. On June 1st Italy announced that it merged Ethiopia with the other two Italian colonies in the region, Somaliland and Eritrea, to create the Italian East Africa. Italy’s king Victor Emmanuel III was proclaimed emperor of Ethiopia.
The League of Nations lifted the sanctions it imposed on Italy, and most countries recognized the new Italy with Ethiopia included. In 1937 six countries did not give recognition to Italy’s occupation, they are: China, Mexico, New Zealand, Soviet Union, Spain and the United States. Three years later only the Soviet Union recognized Haile Selassie as the legitimate Ethiopian leader, everyone else gave their recognition to the occupation. The Italians started building roads and other infrastructures to modernize the country. They stationed 250000 soldiers and 75000 civilians around the country to shape it in their image. Pietro Badoglio became Marshal and assigned to be the first Governor General. His assignment only lasted for a short time, and he was replaced by Marshal Graziani. The Italians implemented different measures to reflect their resist policies. They segregated schools and neighborhoods and prevented higher education for locals.
On the other side, the Ethiopians started guerrilla warfare mainly led by the former Addis Ababa police chief Abebe Aregai, the army commander in the battle of Shire Ras Imiru, and the army commander in the battle of Amba Work Ras Kasa. The Italians were able to defeat an attempt by these fighters to take back the capital. They killed Ras Kasa and his sons and captured Ras Imiru. But the resistance did not stop and the Italians were not able to govern the whole country peacefully. On February 19, 1937 two youngsters named Abraham Deboch and Moges Asgedom tried to kill Marshal Graziani as he was sitting outside his palace in the capital. They threw grenades towards Marshal Graziani and his entourage. They managed to injure the Marshal, the vice governor general and an Italian air force general. They were able to escape and made it to the border with Sudan, but ended up captured and executed. The Italians killed more than 30000 people in the capital in retribution. They burnt houses, sent thousands to concentration camps and captured young intellectuals who they thought can be threats to their power, under the direct order of Benito Mussolini. This incident encouraged many Ethiopians to join the resistance groups. February 19 is commemorated in Ethiopia as of today to remember the massacre.
Starting in 1936 Mussolini decided to stand with Hitler; they joined their forces in the Spanish civil war and signed a friendship treaty known as the “Pact of Steel”. When World War two started they stood together, as a result Italy became enemy of the West. Haile Selassie on the other hand got the recognition and support from the British and French before the war started. The start of World War 2 gave him the necessary support he needed to capture back his country. He moved to Sudan and created contact with the British army there and Ethiopian guerilla fighters inside the country. On January 18, 1941 the emperor crossed into Ethiopia with the help of a small elite British army. On May 5, 1941, exactly five years after the Italian army entered the capital, he arrived in Addis Ababa with Ethiopian and British forces. The Italian army did not want to confront the powerful British army; they mostly surrendered without much resistance. The five years occupation had officially ended.
Italy was forced to accept Ethiopia’s independence in the treaty it signed on February 10, 1947 with the winners of World War 2. They also agreed to pay $25 million in compensation for all their massacres, looting, and destruction of the country. Haile Selassie was king again, he ruled for the next 33 years. He worked in modernizing his air force and army with the help of Americans and the British. Mussolini was executed by the Italian anti-fascist partisans in April 1945. Marshal Graziani was sentenced to 19 years in jail in 1948, he died in 1955.
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