Second Italo-Ethiopian War

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Emperor Haile Selassie

The Second Italo–Ethiopian War (also referred to as the Second Italo-Abyssinian War) was a brief war, begun in October 1935, between the Fascist Italian state and the Ethiopian Empire (also called Abyssinia). The war is infamous for the Italians' illegal use of mustard gas. The war resulted in the annexation of Ethiopia, which had resisted Italian occupation in the nineteenth century, into Italian East Africa alongside Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. Politically, the war is best remembered for exposing the inherent weakness of the League of Nations. The Abyssinia Crisis, along with the Mukden Incident (the Japanese annexation of three Chinese provinces), is often seen as a clear example of the ineffectiveness of the League. Both Italy and Ethiopia were member nations; the League was unable to control Italy or to protect Ethiopia.

Ethiopia had been the only African state to avoid colonization in the nineteenth century. It can still claim to have escaped colonization since the period 1935-1941 was regarded an illegal occupation and lacked international sanction. On the other hand, Italy was merely copying other European powers, which had carved out huge empires for themselves by tramping on the rights of the people whose territory they annexed. The Scramble for Africa had taken place when the colonial powers, acting together as they did in the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, where they carved Africa up among themselves, represented the only “international agency” in existence, so they could claim to be acting legally vis-à-vis international law. Italy did as their European predecessors had, but in a different climate and when the League of Nations, as ineffectual as it proved to be, did have a more global membership. Indeed, France and Great Britain more or less condoned the attack, hoping to retain Italy within their anti-Germany alliance.


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 Mediterranean and North Africa during the First Italo–Ethiopian War. His new empire would also avenge past Italian defeats. Chief among these defeats was the Battle of Adowa which took place in Ethiopia on March 1, 1896. Mussolini promised the Italian people "a place in the sun," matching the extensive colonial empires of the United Kingdom and France.

Ethiopia was a prime 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, and it would serve to unify the Italian-held Eritrea to the northwest and Italian Somaliland to the east. It was considered to be militarily weak, yet rich in resources. In addition to the invasion being condemned by the League of Nations, it was also a breach of the Kellog-Briand Pact which Italy had signed. The Pact, however, proved completely ineffectual since, as with the League, there was no agreed method to compel states to comply with its provisions. It established important principles regarding crimes against peace and use of diplomacy to resolve conflict, however.

Italian incursion

The Italo–Ethiopian Treaty of 1928 that delimited the border between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia stated the border was 21 leagues parallel to the Benadir coast. Acting on this, Italy built a fort at the Walwal oasis (Italian Ual-Ual) in the Ogaden desert in 1930, and garrisoned it with Somali dubats (irregular frontier troops commanded by Italian officers).

In November of 1934, Ethiopian territorial troops, escorting the Anglo-Ethiopian boundary commission, protested 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. In early December, the tensions erupted in a clash that left 150 Ethiopians and 50 Italians dead. This resulted in the Abyssinia Crisis at the League of Nations.

The League of Nations exonerated both parties for the Walwal incident in September 1935; 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. With an attack appearing inevitable, Emperor Haile Selassie ordered a general mobilization. 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.[1]

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 cooperation.[2] Next, in April, Italy was further emboldened by being a member of the Stresa Front, an agreement to curb German expansionism.[3] 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.[4]

Opposing forces


According to Italian estimates, on the eve of hostilities, the Ethiopians had an army of 760,000 men. Only about one-quarter of this army had any kind of military training and the men were armed with rifles of every type and in every kind of condition.[5]

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

The serviceable portion of the Ethiopian air force included three outmoded biplanes.[6]

The best Ethiopian units were Haile Selassie'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, and proved to be an excellent target.[7]


The Italian East African Empire after 1935/

In April 1935, the Italian build-up in East Africa started in earnest. In a few months, eight regular army divisions arrived in Eritrea. Twelve regular divisions arrived in Italian Somaliland. These units alone, without the Italian units already in East Africa, native units, or units arriving during the war, represented 480,000 soldiers. This included a great number of logistical and support units. There were also 200,000 Italian soldiers in Eritrea and Italian Somaliland before these reinforcements arrived.

The equipment for the build-up alone included 6,000 machine guns, 2,000 pieces of artillery, 595 tanks, and 150 aircraft. Before these arrived, the Italians had 3,000 machine guns, 275 artillery pieces, 200 tanks, and 205 aircraft. The Italians had tons of ammunition, food, and other necessary supplies. The Italians also had vehicles to move supplies and troops while the Ethiopians carried supplies in horse drawn carts.[8]

Italian invasion

On October 3, 1935, Marshal Emilio De Bono advanced into Ethiopia from Eritrea without a declaration of War. De Bono had a force of 100,000 Italian soldiers and 25,000 Eritrean soldiers under his command. A smaller force of Italians, Somalis, and Libyans, under the command of General Rodolfo Graziani, advanced into Ethiopia from Italian Somaliland.

By October 6, Adwa (Adowa) was captured by De Bono's forces. In 1896, Adwa was the site of a humiliating Italian defeat during the First Italo–Ethiopian War, the Battle of Adowa. By October 15, De Bono's forces moved on from Adwa to capture the holy capital of Axum. The invading Italians looted the Obelisk of Axum after capturing the city.

On October 7, the League of Nations declared Italy the aggressor and started the slow process of imposing sanctions. However, these sanctions did not extend to several vital materials, such as oil. The British and French argued that if they refused to sell oil to the Italians, the Italians would then simply get it from the United States, which was not a member of the League (the British and French wanted to keep Mussolini on side in the event of war with Germany, which by 1935, was looking like a distinct possibility). In an effort to find compromise, the Hoare-Laval Plan was drafted (which essentially handed 3/5ths of Ethiopia to the Italians without Ethiopia's consent on the condition the war ended immediately), but when news of the deal was leaked public outrage was such that the British and French governments were forced to wash their hands of the whole affair.

By mid-December, De Bono was replaced by General Pietro Badoglio because of the slow, cautious nature of his advance. Haile Selassie decided to test this new general with an attack, but his forces were repelled due to the Italians' superiority in heavy weapons like machine guns and artillery.

On January 20, 1936, the Italians resumed their northern offensive at the First Battle of Tembien between the Warieu Pass and Mek'ele. The fighting proved inconclusive and ended in a draw on January 24.

Following the capture of Amba Aradam (Battle of Enderta) on February 15, the Italians advanced again on the northern front, commencing the Second Battle of Tembien on February 27. This resulted in an Italian victory and the fall of Worq Amba.

At the Battle of Maychew on March 31, 1936, the Italians defeated a counteroffensive by the main Ethiopian army, including the Imperial Guard, under Haile Selassie.

During the final months of 1935, the Italians had also advanced from the south through the Ogaden Desert from Somalia. There were clashes on the River Dewa (October 30), Hamaniei (November 11) and Lama Scillindi (November 25). On December 31, the Italians occupied Denan.

Between January 12 and January 16, 1936, the Italians defeated the southernmost Ethiopian army in the Battle of Genale Wenz. After a February lull, the Italians began a major thrust towards the city of Harar. On March 29, Graziani's forces firebombed and subsequently captured the city. Two days later, the Italians won the last major battle of the war, the Battle of Maychew. Haile Selassie fled into exile on May 2, and Badoglio's forces took the capital, Addis Ababa, on May 5, 1936.

Italy annexed the country on May 7, and the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III, was proclaimed emperor on May 9. Italy merged Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somaliland into a single state known as Italian East Africa.


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 tons 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 terrorize the local population. Furthermore, the Italians carried out gas attacks on Red Cross camps and ambulances.[9]

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, 27 October '35. A.S.E. Graziani. The use of gas as an ultima ratio to overwhelm enemy resistance and in case of counterattack is authorized. Mussolini."
"Rome, 28 December '35. A.S.E. Badoglio. Given the enemy system I have authorized V.E. 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 secret orders imparted by Mussolini, with respect to the Ethiopian population, were very clear:

"Rome, 5 June 1936. A.S.E. Graziani. All rebels taken prisoner must be killed. Mussolini."
"Rome, 8 July 1936. A.S.E. Graziani. I have authorized once again V.E. 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."[10]

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. These orders and this conduct was a clear breach of the rules of war. Mustard Gas had been banned by 1925, in Geneva.[11]

Church statements

While the pope 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."


When victory was announced on May 9, 1936, from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia, the Italian population (who had not been informed of the use of mustard gas by their troops) was jubilant. On June 30, 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie gave a stirring speech before the League of Nations denouncing Italy's actions and criticizing the world community for standing by. He warned that, "It is us today. It will be you tomorrow." As a result of the League's condemnation of Italy, Mussolini declared the country's withdrawal from the organization.

The Italian Empire was officially recognized by the Empire of Japan on November 18, 1936.[12] The occupation was marked by recurring guerrilla campaigns against the Italians, and reprisals which included mustard gas attacks against rebels and the murder of prisoners. In early June 1936, Rome promulgated a constitution bringing Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland together into a single administrative unit divided into six provinces, Italian East Africa. On June 11, 1936, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani replaced Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who had commanded the Italian forces in the war. In December, the Italians declared the whole country to be pacified and under their effective control. Ethiopian resistance nevertheless continued.

A failed assassination attempt against Graziani occurred on February 19, 1937. During a public ceremony at the Viceregal Palace (the former Imperial residence) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Abraha Deboch and Moges Asgedom, two men of Eritrean origin, attempted to kill Viceroy 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.[13]

This harsh policy, however, did not pacify the country. In November 1937, Rome therefore appointed a new governor 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. In the meantime, however, the Italians had decreed miscegenation to be illegal. Racial separation, including residential segregation, was enforced as thoroughly as possible. The Italians showed favoritism to non-Christian ethnicities such as the Oromo, Somali, and other Muslims (some of whom had supported the Italian invasion) by granting them autonomy and rights effectively abolishing slavery and abrogating feudal laws previously upheld by the dominant Amhara rulers of Ethiopia, in an attempt to isolate the Amhara, who had supported Haile Selassie I.

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. In exile in Britain, the Emperor sought to gain the support of the Western democracies for his cause but had little success until Italy entered World War II on the side of Germany in June 1940. Thereafter, Britain and the Emperor sought to cooperate with Ethiopian and other local forces in a campaign to dislodge the Italians from Ethiopia and British Somaliland, which the Italians had seized in August 1940, and to resist the Italian invasion of Sudan. Haile Selassie proceeded immediately to Khartoum, where he established closer liaison with both the British headquarters and the resistance forces within Ethiopia.

Italian East Africa proved to be a short-lived state, as Ethiopia was liberated from Italian control in the subsequent East African Campaign in 1941.


  1. Pankhurst (1968), p. 605-608.
  2. Peter N. Stearns and William Leonard Langer, The Encyclopedia of World History: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001, ISBN 9780395652374), p. 677.
  3. Andrew J. Cozier, The Causes of the Second World War (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997, ISBN 0631171282), p. 108.
  4. Stackelberg (2002), p. 164.
  5. Barker (1936), p. 29.
  6. Barker (1936), p. 57.
  7. Barker (1936), p. 29.
  8. Barker (1936), p. 20.
  9. Bernard Bridel, Les ambulances à Croix-Rouge du CICR sous les gaz en Ethiopie, International Committee of the Red Cross, in French. Retrieved May 25, 2008.
  10. MacGregor Knox, Mussolini Unleashed, 1939-1941. Politics and Strategy in Fascist’s Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, ISBN 978-0521338356).
  11. IRC Geneva, Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. Retrieved May 25, 2008.
  12. Lowe and Marzari (1975), p. 307.
  13. Del Boca (1996).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barker, A.J. 1936. The Rape of Ethiopia. New York: Ballentine. ISBN 9780345024626.
  • Del Boca, Angelo. 1996. I gas di Mussolini: il fascismo e la guerra d'Etiopia. Roma, IT: Editori riuniti. ISBN 9788835940913.
  • Lowe, C.J., and F. Marzari. 1975. Italian Foreign Policy, 1870-1940. London: Routledge & Paul. ISBN 9780710079879.
  • Mockler, Anthony. 1984. Haile Selassie's War. New York: Random House. ISBN 9780394542225.
  • Pankhurst, Richard. 1968. Economic History of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, ET: Haile Selassie I University.
  • Stackelberg, Roderick. 2002. Hitler's Germany: Origins, Interpretations, Legacies. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780203257708.

External links

All links retrieved January 25, 2023.


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