The military system that Haile Selassie (Negus) inherited upon his appointment as emperor was feudal in all but name. Significant power resided with the provincial chiefs (Rases) and military appointments reflected the political necessitates of alliances to ensure stable rule. It was in many ways little different from the practices of medieval Europe. This resulted in titles and positions within the kingdom that would heavily influence the leadership structure of the Ethiopian army and its fighting methods and potential.
The military and political structure of the Ethiopian Army, intertwined as it was, had the emperor at its head. Nominally the Negus was the Commander in Chief of the army, however in truth he really only controlled his Imperial Guard. These soldiers were essentially household troops with which he could rely on in times of internal strife, being able counter to any contingents raised by a potential rival Ras, such were the politics of Ethiopian society at the time.
With the invasion of Ethiopia the Emperor could call a kitet (muster) by imperial decree, each Ras being obliged to supply forces for defence of the realm, at least on the face of it giving the impression of a united front. In reality a number of Rases were to change sides throughout the war.
Though titles could be passed along hereditary lines various leaders had authority to anoint individuals as they saw fit, thus a decentralised loyalty based authority permeated the command structure. This made it all the more important for the Negus to ensure a sufficient number of Rases were loyal to him to ensure his power base and as a result military competence within the senior command ranks was mixed. At the time of The Abyssinian Crisis the hierarchy appointed by the Negus was as follows;
A Ras was the governor of a region or group of provinces and in war he commanded troops recruited in his provinces. His influence and prestige went a long way to the number of troops he could call to his Standard. He was able to appoint a Degiacc, the chief of a small province or governor, who was descended from minor nobility. He was privileged to be preceded by 24 drums, indicating the number of Degiaccs he may have authority over in time of war.
Supporting the emperor directly was the First Fitaurari of the Empire (or Ras of Rases) who was the Chief of Staff, perhaps more accurately, the actual commander of the Imperial Army. Some titles were also given to individuals but had a civil rather than military function such as Lij (equivalent to a Ras) or Degismacc (commander of a province but a lower rank than a Ras).
Beyond the central authority came a Degiacc negust, the Chief of a large province, himself commanded by a Ras. He was privileged to be preceded by 12 drums, indicating the number of Degiaccs he may have authority over as described above. He was able to be appointed by the Negus or a Ras, and commanded the warriors recruited in his province.
Below the most senior titles and positions came the more military specific roles and title assignments which reflected their place within the army order of battle and their level of authority. The Fitaurari was the commander of the advance guard, the Asmac the commander of the rear guard. A Cagnasmac commanded the right wing and a Grasmac the left. The term Balambaras was conferred on an individual for a specific role or task.
These terms literally mean commander of the advance guard, rear guard, etc, as described, but they came to have a more permanent significance, in peace as well as in war. The more important were the Cagnasmac and Grasmac who, in time of peace, were chiefs of districts.
More junior ranks defined their authority within the ‘units’ that formed the army. A Seleca was the commander of 1,000 warriors; an honorary title that could also be conferred on elderly soldiers. This position represented a force equivalent to a European battalion. A Shambel commanded 250, roughly a company sized force. A Basciai was a junior officer with designations below this rank varying dependent upon whether they were serving in the Imperial Guard, Mahel Sefari or Irregular tribal levies.
Ranks were awarded arbitrarily by the Chief who had the power to make appointments. A chief often selected his sub-chiefs from among his followers who had contributed to his personal fortune. The selection of minor chiefs followed the same method.
Organisationally the Ethiopian army was made up of the Imperial Guard, the Mahel Sefari and Provincial tribal forces.
The Imperial Guard (Kebur Zabanga) was formed with the aid of a Swiss and subsequently Belgian military mission. Uniformly dressed in green-khaki with peaked caps similar to a British Tommy of the Great War, though with equipment was much lighter and less cumbersome than the usual European webbing. They marched bare foot (for speed) and were armed with Mauser rifles.
In total the Guard was comprised of six battalions each with two light machine-gun sections, supported by three heavy-machine gun companies, a unit of six 81mm Stokes-Brandt mortars and three batteries of mule-artillery equipped with 75mm mle1897 guns in an artillery ‘brigade’. Rounding out the guard was a cavalry squadron, telegraphist platoon, medical section and band. This force was officered by European trained Ethiopians and was highly regarded by foreign observers and considered an honour to serve in.
The Mahel Sefari, or ‘Army of the Centre’ as the term implies, was the core ‘regular’ force that the Negus had at his disposal. These forces were beholden to the central authority as they were not directly raised by the Rases, though some units served under their command as the emperor decreed. They were equipped with weapons from often under equipped government armories and dressed in a mix of khaki uniforms sometimes used in combinations with the traditional shammas. Headgear varied from broad brimmed hats to solar-topees.
The great bulk of the Ethiopian army was made up of dismounted Feudal levies troops in their distinctive white shamma who marched bare footed as did nearly all Ethiopian troops. There were some horsemen, especially among the Galla tribes, who both fought with and against the Negus.
Armament was varied. It includes all weapons from rifle, some antiquated cannon and machine guns to the common spear and shield. The soldiers was generally armed with a carbine or rifle often without bayonet, though not always. He carried a small dagger or curved knife and a long, curved double-edged scimitar for hand to hand fighting. He fired his weapon until his ammunition was exhausted then would close with the enemy. The prestige and wealth of the Ras and his subordinate chiefs more often than not determined the level of equipment that their men carried.
Mounted men carried a carbine and scimitar and also one or two javelins for use during the charge. The chiefs and higher ranking officers were armed with some type of pistol or revolver. No regular supply organisation existed.
The soldier himself provided for the transport of all that he required. Food supplies were carried by slaves, women, boys or mules accompanying the fighting forces. Usually 2 persons and 2 mules were required for each soldier, and this was a serious inconvenience as it lengthened the columns and increased the need for food supply.
In close proximity to the enemy, however, these primitive supply elements were left in rear and the mobility of the warrior troops was thereby increased. Such was the Ethiopian’s mobility that they could march twice as fast and twice as far as the Italian units in the same length of time. This proved to be their strongest military asset. It was general practice to live off of the country. When the food supplies in one section were exhausted the troops had to move.
The Ethiopian warrior/soldier is typically strong, hardy and warlike. He can put up with heat and cold, thirst, hunger and fatigue and his courage and ferocity in combat were remarkable. His chief defects were his lack of discipline resulting in frequent quarrels, rebellions and desertion, and his susceptibility to discouragement when he suffered a sharp reverse, has lost faith in his leaders or a favoured leader dies in combat.
At the time of The Abyssinian Crisis military training was practically unknown in the Ethiopian army, except in the Imperial Guard. The Ethiopian warrior considered rifle practice, for example, a useless waste of ammunition, which to him was more valuable than money. This lack of training was not a serious deficiency however as he generally got plenty of practice in marching, in the use of arms and in hand to hand combat once the conflict had started. Before the war with Italy he also engaged in conflict with other tribes so that the typical Ethiopian warrior’s courage and belief in self was very high when the war started.
The Ethiopian military art was elementary. Marching units were preceded by mounted warriors conducting reconnaissance. The nascent Ethiopian ‘airforce’ provided no intelligence in a military sense as the Italians had complete air superiority. The advance guard followed by bounds. Next came the main body usually composed of foot troops. At the head of the main body was the Ras’s personal contingent and those of the soldiers who were armed with better weapons, then the rear guard followed. The camp followers and primitive supply elements were left in the rear far removed from the scene of possible combat.
In combat a maneuvering mass usually pivoted on the advance guard and advanced swiftly by bounds, often at a run, to envelop the enemy and strike him in flank. In the assault the Ethiopians swept in at a run and closed quickly with the enemy seeking to destroy him in hand to hand fighting, often after having expended any ammunition they had by shooting first. They then withdraw without attempting to hold any position gained. This inability to seize and hold ground was a great strategic liability against a modern army.
I hope from this brief description it can be seen that the Ethiopian Army was made up of a diverse gathering of forces where self interest and duty to their ‘country’ and emperor often clashed. This resulted in a number of leaders changing their allegiance, which is understandable given the tribal nature of the political elite, who primarily sort to sure up their own position regardless of who was in power. For all that Haile Selassie did have many loyal leaders and given the limitations imposed on them by the international arms embargo the Ethiopian warriors gave a very good account of themselves.
This video shows quite good detail of the uniforms and the ‘look’ of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard.
This vide, though of a lower quality, gives a good impression of the full sweep of types that make up the Ethiopian forces.