The world view changed in 1935 when Mussolini decided to invaded Ethiopia, using modern weapons, again including poison gas, to attack a largely unarmed country. The Ethiopins had defeated an Italian Army in 1896 and Mussoline was determined to redeem what he saw as a blot on the national honor. Marshal Pietro Badoglio commanded the Italian invasion force. He extensevly used poison gas. (The Allies in 1943 made a deal with Badoglio to overthrow Musolini.) The Italian Ministry of Defence did not admit until 1995 that poison gas had been used by the Italian Air Force. [Del Boca] The Italian invasion was widely condemned at the League of Nations more than 50 other countries. The invasion gave rise to world-wide indignation, but nor military support for Ethiopia. Criticism was especially heated in Britain which, still thinking about World War I, people were truly shocked by Italy's use of poison-gas as well as deliberate bombing of Red Cross hospitals and ambulances--especially the British Red Cross Unit. [Waley] The British pushed in the League of Nations for scantions. The French played lip service, but were more interested in Italaian support for their efforts to limit Hitler. An oil embargo which might have affected the Italian war effort was not approved, provably for that reason. [Davidson, p. 130.] The Italians were condenmed by the League of Nations and then walked out of the organization. Mussolini was offened at this treatment. Hitler made it clear that Germany symphathized.
The Ethiopians defeated an Italian Army at the Battle of Adowa (1896). This preventeted Italy from adding Ethiopia to the Italian Empire. This was the only European army to be defeated by an army of black Africans.
Haile Selassie was born (1892) and crowned emperor (1930), just as Ilatian dictator Benit Mussolini was begiining to think about invading the counry. Te new Emperor had begun to implement reforms, but gave little attentiin to the ,ilitary. Mussolini believed by invading Ethiopia again would boost Italian national prestige. This was used as a rationale to invade Ethiopia, commonly called Abyssinia at the time. Mussolini saw it as an opportunity to provide land for unemployed Italians and and also acquire more mineral resources to fight off the effects of the Great Depression. Diplomatic reports appeared indicating that the Italians were preparing for a military action (September 1934).
Mussolini accoirding to his generals after World War II appears to have decided to invade Ethiopia (1933). [Szabó, p. 34.] A incident along the poorly dfined Ogaden border provided the pretext. Mussolini used an incident between Italian and Ethiopian (Abyssinian) troops at the Wal-Wal Oasis on the border between Ethiopia and Somaliland, buth within Etiopia (December 1934). Some 200 soldiers lost their lives in the encounter. Italy demanded reparations and an apology. Haile Selassie instead took the matter to the League of Nations. Both parties were exonerated in an investigation finding that it was accidental. Mussolini was furious at the finding, believing that the Ethiopians should been found responsible. Mussolini intensified military preparations for military action in Ethiopia.
The Italians had a substantial force in East Africa on the Ethiopian border, There were 400,000 Italian soldiers in Eritrea and 285,000 in Italian Somaliland as well as unknown number of colonial forces. The Italian military build up for the invasion began in a substantial way (April 1935). The Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) and the Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) in East Africa (Africa Orientale) began receiving substantial reiforcements. Eight regular, mountain, and blackshirt infantry divisions was deployed to Eritrea. Four regular infantry divisions was deployed to the south in talian Somaliland. These Italian units numbered about 685,000 men. More men arrived during the War. Thre were also a substantial number of logistical and support units. The Italians also dispatched some 200 journalists to make sure the Italian people were well informed of the galant action against the Ethiopians. [Baer, p. 13.] Mussolini appointed General Emilio De Bono was as the Commander-in-Chief of all Italian armed forces in East (March 28, 1935). He ws also appointed Commander-in-Chief of the forces invading from Eritrea which became the northern front. De Bono had under his personal command a force of nine divisions organized in three Army Corps: The Italian I Corps, the Italian II Corps, and the Eritrean Corps. General Rodolfo Graziani was under De Bono's command. He was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Italian forces grouping in Italian Somaliland whuch became the southern front. He began with two divisions and a variety of smaller units. His force were a more mixed assemblage of Italians, Somalis, Eritreans, Libyans, and others. The De Bono force was a secondary front, futher way from Adis Ababa, the principal objective.
While the Western democracies approached the Italian Government diplomatically, no country offered military assistance to Eyhiopia. In fact, Italy was permitted to increase purchases od stratehic material, including oil and items like trucks that the Italian Army needed, but we not classified as 'war material'. [State Deartment]
Finally as the Italians built up their forces in Eritrea and Somaliland, Emperor Haile Selassie ordered a general mobilization of the Ethiopiam Imperial Army. Some 0.5 million men were recruited. There were, however, no modern arms for them. Many had only spears or bows and arrows. Many soldiers had rifles, most of pre World War I vintage. Some estimate about 0.4 million rifles of any different types. Precise statistic do not exist, but various source suggest an Ethiopian Aemy of some 0.4-0.8 million men. Only a fraction, perg[s one-fourth, had ant form of military training. There was an almost total lackof heavy weapons. One report suggests 200 antiquated pieces of artillery mounted on rigid gun carriages. There were about 50 light and heavy anti-aircraft guns (20 mm Oerlikons, 75 mm Schneiders, and Vickers). There were a few Ford truck-based armored cars and Fiat 3000 World War I-era tanks. [Baker, p. 29.] The air force totaled 13 aircraft (mostly ambulance planes) and four pilots. The Air Force commander was a French pilot, Andre Maillet. The most effevtive Ethiopian units were the Emperor's "Imperial Guard" (Kebur Zabangna). These troops were well-trained and had some modern arms. The Imperial Guard was easily destinguishable. They wore easily recognizable khaki-green uniforms provided bu the Belgian Army. They thus stood out from the white cotton cloak (shamma) worn by most of the Ethiopian soldiers. The Rases, or generals in the Ethiopian armies, had no real military experience and proved incompetent.
American diplomatic contacts througout 1935 attempted to convince Mussolini that military action against Ethiopia would be a grave mistake. Bu mid-year it was claer that Italy was intent on invading Ethiopia. President Roosevelt sent a personal message to Premier Mussolini of Italy (August 18, 1935), The President infomed the Italian dictaor that the Government and people of the United States felt that failure to arrive at a peaceful settlement of this dispute and a subsequent outbreak of hostilities would be a world calamity the consequences of which would adversely affect the interests of all nations. [U.S. Department of State, pp.28-32.] Further diplmatic messages attempted to disuade Mussolini from military action.
The world changed when Mussolini decided to invaded Ethiopia, taking a major step toward World War II. The Italians using modern weapons, again including poison gas, to attack a largely unarmed country. Mussoline was determined to redeem what he saw as a blot on the national honor, the Ethiopian victory in 1896. Marshal Pietro Badoglio commanded the Italian invasion force. The Italians invaded Ethiopia without a formal declaration of war (October 3). More than a million Italian and colonial troops with modern weapons invaded Ethiopia. The Ethiian troops were outnumbered and poorly armed. The Italian Army attacked from both Eritrea and Italian Smaliland, already Italian colonies The main force attacked from Erirea. Italians aircraft 'symbolically' bombed Adwa on the first day. Ethipia had no air force or air dfenses. They took Aksum (October 15). They reached Maqale (November 7?). Using their airforce and artillery, the Italians steadily marched southward through Tigray Province into Ethiopia. Mustard gas was used extensively by the Italians. Mussolini promoted De Bono to the rank of Marshal of Italy (Maresciallo d'Italia) (November 16). Mussolini became, however, imptient with De Bono'slow progress. He replaced him with Pietro Badoglio who would play an imprtant role in Italy's World War II campaigns. The principal Ethiopian resons was the Christmas Offensive which achieved som results, although at an enormous cost (December). The Italians defeated one Ethiopian army after another. The Ethiopians were poorly armed and had no hope of fighting off a well-armed European army. The Italians defeated the last important Ethiopian army at May Chaw (April 1936). [Pankhurst, pp. 226-235.]
As far as we know the Italians still had World War I-era chemical weapns like mustard gas. Even after signing the Geneva Protocol (1925), the Italians chenical weapons before World War II. The Italians used chemical weapons on the Libyan resistance (1920s). And they used them agsinst the Ethiopians (1935). Mustard gas was extensively employed. Italian invasion forces dropped mustard gas bombs, sprayed it from airplanes, and spread it in powdered form on the ground. There were an estimated 15,000 Ethiopian casualties, mostly from the mustard gas. The chemical weapons played a substantial role in the Italian victory. Italian commanders extensevly used poison gas in Ethiopia . We are not sure yet about Del Bono, but Badoglio used it extensively. (The Allies in 1943 made a deal with Badoglio to overthrow Musolini.) The Italian Ministry of Defence did not admit until 1995 that poison gas had been used by the Italian Air Force. [Del Boca] This was a clear violation of the Geneva Protocol which Italy had signed. Reports were published in the British press, but Italians diplomats mananaged to descredit the reports (even though the reports were accurate). Here the British Government plaeyd a role as at the time they were still hopeful of Mussolini helping to moderate Hitler.
Criticism was especially heated in Britain which, still thinking about World War I, people were truly shocked by Italy's use of poison-gas as well as deliberate bombing of Red Cross hospitals and ambulances--especially the British Red Cross Unit. [Waley]
Mussolini claimed that his expansionst policies were not different from that of other European colonial powers in Africa. The Italian invasion was widely condemned at the League of Nations more than 50 other countries. The invasion gave rise to world-wide indignation, but nor military support for Ethiopia. The British pushed in the League of Nations for scantions. The French played lip service, but were more interested in Italaian support for their efforts to limit Hitler. An oil embargo which might have affected the Italian war effort was not approved, provably for that reason. [Davidson, p. 130.] The Italians were condenmed by the League of Nations and then walked out of the organization. Mussolini was offened at this treatment. Hitler made it clear that Germany symphathized. Haile Selassie spoke at the League of Nations (June 30, 1936). He was introduced by the President of the Assembly as "His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Ethiopia" ("Sa Majesté Imperiale, l'Empereur d'Ethiopie"). A group of Italian journalists present began jeering and insulting him. The Romanian Chairman, Nicolae Titulescu, reacted to the bbreach of decorum. He ordered, "Show the savages the door!" ("A la porte les sauvages!") The Emperor gave a unforgettable speech. He denounced the Italian agression and sharply criticizing the world community for inaxtion. The conclusion of his speech would be picked by the newsree;s, "It is us today. It will be you tomorrow."
Ethiopia was a very traditinal, essentially feudl society. Slavery still existed in Ethiopia at the time of the Italian invasion. The Europeans had largely iradicated slavery in most of the rest of Africa. Slavery still existed, however, in several Muslim countries. The Ethiopian emperors had attempted to abolish slavery. Each Ethiopian Emperor since Tewodros II had issued emancipation proclmatons. None had, however, amde any real effort to enforce their proclantions. De Bono issued a proclamation abolishing slavery (October 14). He soon fomd it would not be so simple. A few weeks later he wrote, "I am obliged to say that the proclamation did not have much effect on the owners of slaves and perhaps still less on the liberated slaves themselves. Many of the latter, the instant they are set free presented themselves to the Italian authorities, asking 'And now who gives me food'?". [Baker, p. 160.] Finally the Itlians did begin to enforce their proclamation. he Italians also definitively abolished slavery and abrogated Amharan feudal laws previously upheld by the Amharas.
The Italian invasion of Ethiopia was most notable at the time for exposing the inability of the League of Ntions to deal with aggression. This had been shown earier when Jan invaded Manchuria (1931). In fact it showed the unwillingness of Britain and France to deal forcefully with agressor nations. Less apparent at the time was despite the Italian victory, the campaign showed the military weaknessof Italy. Preparatiins required the purchase of substantial quantities of strategc material. And against a vrtually unarmed country ithout an air force, it took months for the Italians to reach Addi Ababa. And even this was only possible because of the use of poison gas. Italian newspapers trumpeted this as a great achievment. In fact, the military weakness of Italy that would become apparent when the Italians entered the war was already on display in Ethiopia. Mussolini simply ignored them. We can only wonder how he could hve been so titally unaware of the capabilities of his own armed forces.
Baer, George W. Test Case: Italy, Ethiopia, and the League of Nations (Hoover Institute Press, Stanford University: Stanford, California, 1976).
Barker, A.J. Rape of Ethiopia, 1936 (Ballantine Books: New York, 1971).
Davidson, Eugene. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.
Del Boca, Angelo. I gas di Mussolini. Il fascismo e la guerra d'Etiopia.
Pankurst, Richard. The Ethiopians (Blackwell: Oxford, 1998).
Szabó, Kinga Tibori. Anticipatory Action in Self-Defence: Essence and Limits under International Law (Springer TNC Asser Press: 2011), 366p.
U.S., Department of State. Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 Publication 1983, (U.S., Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1943).
Waley, Daniel. "British Public Opinion and the Abyssinian War 1935-6".
Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main early Italian aggressions page]
[Return to Italian Colonialism: Ethiopia]
[Return to Main Ethiopian World War II page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology] [Totalitarian powers]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]