Italo-Ethiopian War

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(Italian-Abyssinian War)
(1935 to 1936)

When Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini came into power in 1922, his dream was to re-establish the old Roman Empire.  Two Italian colonies, Eritrea and Somalia, were separated by the independent African empire of Abyssinia (later called Ethiopia) at the Horn of Africa.  The Italians had already tried to conquer the country, but they were defeated at the Battle of Adowa by a well equipped Abyssinian army in 1896.

In 1925, Italian forces took control of some strategic water holes along the Abyssinian border. Some of these location, however, were clearly within the Abyssinian territory.  Immediately after this fact became obvious in October 1926, the Abyssinians complained about it.  To settle this conflict, talks between Italy and Abyssinia began and a treaty was finalized in 1928.  However, this did not stop the Italians.  By 1932, they had even build a road through Abyssinian territory.

That same year the Abyssinian Emperor Haile Selassie, started to modernize his armed forces by buying modern equipment and getting military instructors from Belgium and Sweden to train his soldiers. Immediately Rome’s military attaché complained that this newly-created force would threaten the Italian colonies. However, Abyssinia only has 3,000 soldiers trained and equipped for modern warfare in September 1934.

At the end of November 1934 an Anglo-Abyssinian boundary commission inquired into the encrouchment of the Italians into Abyssinian territory. They found an Italian armed post at Welwel which was without any doubt on Abyssinian territory.

While the British delegation returned to its base, its Abyssinian escort dug in. During the next two weeks a dispute started between the Italian officer in charge and the Abyssinian delegation about the possession of the wells of Welwel. On the afternoon of December 5th, 1934 Italian troops started an attack. The fighting lasted for two days in which the Italians also brought tanks and aircraft into action. The Abyssinians were beaten and had to retreat. The Italians counted thirty dead and more than 60 wounded. Both countries brought this dispute to the attention of the League of Nations with Italy demanding heavy reparations.

The border incidence was a welcome pretext for Mussolini to begin a campaign against Abyssinia. Italy started to move troops to its colonies in February 1935 and set up eleven new divisions four month later. Even Mussolini’s son in law was drafted as an air force pilot.

The timing favoured the Italians. The fear of Nazi Germany created an environment in which Mussolini could offer a military alliance in case Hitler would invade Austria. Paris signaled its willingness to negotiate about Abyssinia because it had only minor interests in this area. On January 7th 1935 a formal pact was signed between France and Italy that conceded France disinterest in this sphere. At that time no other European power was in the position to stop Italy from invading Abyssinia.

During the summer of 1935 the League of Nations tried to find a solution for the ongoing crises at the Horn of Africa, but it failed. Meanwhile Selassie realized his forces could not withstand a modern force supported by aircraft. However he still hoped that the League of Nations, especially the European powers would not allow an attack on his country. Knowing about the enemy strength, the Abyssinian soldiers were trained in guerrilla warfare. On September 25th, the emperor announced that his troops would remain 30 kilometers away from the frontiers to avoid any armed incidents ao Abyssinia could not be accused of being an aggressor. At this time Italy already had 200,000 soldiers at East Africa and an other 140,000 ready to go there.

Realizing the Italians prepared to invade his country within the next few hours, the emperor ordered the general mobilization on October 2nd, 1935. He called about 500,000 men to arms, many of them equipped with only wooden spears and bows.

The next morning, 100,000 Italian troops in three formations under Marshal Emilio De Bono crossed the undefended border and advanced quickly. Also, the Abyssinian commanders had order to retire until their troops could be reinforced through the mobilization.

Four days later the League of Nations accused Italy of being the aggressor in the ongoing conflict. The issue of sanctions was raised at the meeting, but it was blocked by the French. It took more than a month to establish some sanctions against Italy, but Mussolini overcame them with a strict policy of saving resources. Also, U.S. suppliers sold oil to Italy during the whole campaign.

General Pietro Badoglio took over command of the Italian troops in December. The first major battle of the war started on January 17th, 1936, and was won by the Italians after four days of fighting. Despite the overwhelming military superiority of the Italians, their advance into Abyssinia was very slow. Therefore they started to use of aircraft and poison gas to overcome Abyssinian positions. Large area were poisoned, extinguishing any life. The following month the Abyssinian armies were destroyed one by one by the Italian troops using poison gas in their attacks.

Selassie throw his last organized troops into battle against the advancing enemy on March 31st. However from intercepted messages the Italians learned about their enemy’s plan and the attack was no surprise. At the end of the battle the last Abyssinian troops in front of the Abyssinian capital Addis Abeba had been destroyed. Selassie who was with his army survived the day and escaped to the capital.

On May 2nd a special train brought Selassie together with his family to the French-controlled Djibouti. From there he boarded a British war vessel and went into exile to London two days later.

On May 5th, 1936, Italian troops occupied Addis Abeba. Four days later the Italian government decided that Abyssinia would become part of the Italian empire. The title of emperor of Abyssinia was taken over by the Italian King Emanuel III.

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