The following article published by WWII Quarterly is an abridged account of the Italo-Ethiopian War by Colonel Feodor Konovalov, a military advisor of Ras Seyoum Mengesha, commander of the Western Tigrey forces. His is an eyewitness account and has many interesting military details from the Ethiopian perspective.
Like all commentators his views reflects those with whom he was attached though in his case he seemed to waver in both support for, and to a degree against, the Ethiopians as this article describes. Nevertheless the bulk of his description of events and the ‘fly on the wall’ perspective he offers of the Ethiopian troops and high command ‘humanise’ the Ethiopians because of his unique access at the time…it’s a good read to get inside the Ethiopian perspective of how they waged war.
We provide this rather lengthy account in two parts so grab a cuppa…it’s a good read! There is plenty of good stuff in here, lots of details and information. A very handy eyewitness account from the Ethiopian side by a foreign officer.
In the fifty or so years before the First World War, many Russians—adventurers, scoundrels, and saints—explored Ethiopia and often formed close ties with the country’s rulers. Steeled by this tradition, some anti-Communist, White Russians made their way to Ethiopia after the Bolshevik conquest of their country between 1917 and 1922.
After Teferi Mekonnen—the future Emperor Haile Sellase—had gained power as regent in 1916, one of his first steps was to recruit some of these White Russian officers to train his troops. Among them, the most important was Feodor Evgenievich Konovalov.
Colonel Konovalov, a native of the Crimea, had been a military engineer. Before the First World War, he began a new career in aviation, and during the war he served with the Imperial Guards Squadron, eventually commanding an aerial division. Konovalov served with Tsar Nicholas II’s last military mission to Great Britain. As the Bolshevik Revolution swept through Russia, and in the south was defeating the last of the White armies under General Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel, he fled to Constantinople, then to Egypt, and finally to Ethiopia in 1919.
An electrical expert, Colonel Konovalov soon found employment in the Ethiopian office of Public Works, became an Ethiopian citizen, and loyally supported Ethiopian independence. In July 1935, Emperor Haile Sellase entrusted him to go to the North to inspect Ethiopia’s main defenses along the likely route for invasion coming from Italy’s Eritrean colony. He flew to Mekele and then continued by automobile to Adowa, where he met Ras Seyoum Mengesha, governor of Tigrey, to offer him and other Ethiopian leaders technical-military advice.
Without declaring war, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia on 3 October 1935. As a military adviser, in January and February 1936 Konovalov witnessed the first and second battles of Tembien in Tigrey. He also observed the Battle of Mychew in March. He then retreated with the sovereign back to the capital of Addis Ababa. He watched as Italian troops entered the capital in May. Konovalov remained there for several months and witnessed Italy’s early occupation of Ethiopia.
George Steer Publishes Portions of Konovalov’s Manuscript
Konovalov almost immediately drafted, likely in French, a semi-autobiographical account of the campaign. Of historical importance, Konovalov’s work has led a troubled history as Richard Pankhurst impeccably documents.
Konovalov gave a copy of his manuscript to George Lowther Steer, who was visiting Ethiopia. Steer had covered the Italian invasion of Ethiopia for The Times of London, and he knew Emperor Haile Sellase, who later stood as godfather to his son. Describing Konovalov as “a white Russian without a passport and without [a] country,” Steer added, “Colonel Konovaloff, who is still in Addis Ababa, has written for me the story of the Emperor’s last battle. He was . . . the only European who saw it on the Ethiopian side.” In his popular book, Caesar in Abyssinia, Steer translated and published passages covering from 19 March 1936, after the Italians had defeated Ras Seyoum’s army, to mid-April, before the Emperor’s return to the capital. In this version, Konovalov sympathetically described Haile Sellase’s courage. The Emperor had exposed himself on the battlefield while manning a machine gun, and he had shown great calm and dignity during the disastrous final rout of Ethiopia’s army.
Konovalov’s Unpublished Italian Manuscript
After the Italo-Ethiopian War, Colonel Konovalov left the anti-Fascist cause and went to Spain, where he worked with the Fascist Falangists during the Spanish Civil War. Prior to this, someone revised and translated his work into Italian. Many years later, the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University received a typed copy, which likely is this first Italian translation. It consists of seven chapters and ninety-one pages typed on a typewriter at the Fourth Court of Appeals in Turin. Pankhurst details some of the differences between this translation and the version found in Steer. In particular, this new version downplayed the author’s friendly comments toward Ethiopia and added passages favorable to Italy, presumably to gratify the Fascist regime and to get by its censorship. Significantly, this manuscript said nothing about Italy’s use of poison gas during the war.
What explains Konovalov’s apparent change of heart found in the published version of this manuscript?
The American historian, Thomas Coffey, has insinuated that Konovalov could have always been playing a double game. He specifically charged that Konovalov could have deceived the Emperor by making him believe that he faced only 10,000 Italians at Mychew, while the enemy’s numbers were much greater. During his 21 March reconnaissance trip into the mountains north of the Ethiopian camp, he claimed to have passed through the Italian lines disguised as a Coptic priest. Doubting the truth of this story, Coffey concluded that, as a skilled military observer, if he had infiltrated the Italian lines, he must have discovered the Ethiopians faced more than 20,000 men. In his memoirs, he did not detail what he told the Emperor on his return, although he admitted that, on 29 March, he said he thought the Italians faced “five-to-eight thousand” Italians at Mychew.
A prolific writer on the history of Italian Fascism and colonialism, Angelo Del Boca, commented on Ethiopian fears of mercenaries fighting for Ethiopia, but actually in Rome’s pay. As an example, he called Konovalov’s behavior “ambiguous.” He rhetorically wondered about “this survivor of the wreckage from Wrangel’s army,” who found a job in Ethiopia, enjoyed the Emperor’s favor, and advised Ras Kasa Darge’s army. Del Boca, however, could not confirm rumors that Konovalov was sometimes in Italian pay and that he was playing a double game. Even so, continued Del Boca, after the war Konovalov’s published memoirs began with the puzzling dedication: “To the Italian soldier who showed to the world, at first skeptical and then amazed but always hostile, that glorifying in the new fascist climate, he has the ancient virtues of the Roman legionary.”
The Published Italian Version: Con le armate del Negus
This first Italian draft, although closer to the Fascist point-of-view compared to Steer’s excerpts, needed more manipulation before authorities would publish it. The work of revision fell to an Italian naval officer and a former “electro-technical adviser” to Addis Ababa, Commander Stefano Miccichè, who had known Konovalov in Ethiopia before the war. The new text came with a new title, Con le armate del Negus (With the Army of the Negus), and with a new, and racist, subtitle, Un bianco fra i neri (A White Among the Blacks). The commander also wrote a twenty-six page, semi-autobiographical and political Preface in which he assured readers that “I have kept the original text unchanged, except for leaving out some episodes to avoid repetition.” A false promise, unfortunately, for most know Konovalov only through Commander Miccichè’s revised edition.
First published in Bologna at the end of 1936 and reprinted two years later, Con le armate del Negus changed much, and Pankhurst again describes at some length these changes. It consists of nine chapters versus Konovalov’s seven in the first Italian draft. The book changed the order of the chapters to have Konovalov’s audience with the Emperor taking place on 17 July 1935 instead of 17 August, as in the original draft. Miccichè’s edition almost invariably changed Konovalov’s comments on Haile Sellase to the sovereign’s disadvantage. The term “negus” [king] replaced “Emperor of Ethiopia,” and the new edition omitted or weakened positive statements toward him.
As just one example of Pankhurst’s discussion of these differences, he notes that Miccichè added criticism along the lines fixed by Fascist propaganda, which described Ethiopia as weakened by ethnic differences. Konovalov’s Italian draft noted such problems, but Miccichè strengthened them. He now had Konovalov writing, “Ethiopia was a horde of races of peoples without order or national spirit. . . . Ethiopia could not survive the first serious test with any hope of success.”
Miccichè further changed Konovalov’s manuscript, again along the lines of Fascist propaganda, by adding a new chapter, “The Looting of Addis Ababa.” One passage specifically accuses the Emperor of responsibility for the looting that took place after he had fled his capital in early May. “Sometime Friday night, provoked by anger, he violently tore the silk curtains that adorned the canopy for the throne and shouted to the bystanders, ‘Take all, ransack, but do not set fire to the gebbi, the royal palace compound. This will bring you misfortune. Do not leave anything for the Italians.’” A photograph of looting strengthened the impact of this final chapter, and Miccichè’s edition declared that when the Fascist army entered the Ethiopian capital immediately after these events, “the population went out of their houses and hailed the new arrivals. The Italians did not come as conquerors, but as liberators.”
Contemporary writers, and Haile Sellase himself, contradict this version of events, as Del Boca shows.
Konovalov’s memoirs were one of only three meaningful works written by observers on the Ethiopian side—in addition to Steer’s book, there is also a book about a Cuban, Colonel Alejandro del Valle. Konovalov’s book, however, became a tool of Fascist propaganda, and Pankhurst calls it “a brilliant political move.” The blustering bravado in Miccichè’s Preface and the extended effort to use Konovalov’s words to rebut any denigration of the Italian people surely falls into the realm of defensive overcompensation. It comforted Italian public opinion—and international opinion as well. Writing, as the text underscored, as one of the Emperor’s closest collaborators, it countered both Steer’s writings and the opinions of most of the non-Italian residents in Addis Ababa before the occupation. These foreigners had vigorously condemned the Fascist invasion and occupation of Ethiopia.
The Duce himself enthusiastically supported Konovalov’s book, and on 31 December 1937 in Popolo d’Italia, he recommended the book. The second edition of the work in 1938 reproduced this approval.
While many have uncritically quoted Con le armate del Negus, three writers have underlined the book’s serious flaws. Czeslaw Jeśman derisively dismissed Miccichè’s text as “a garbled and tendentious version of Konovalov’s reminiscences.” Thomas Coffey more explicitly wrote that Konovalov “vividly and convincingly described many details, but was strangely silent, obscure, or baffling about others. His admiration for the Italians was greater than for their victims. He fulsomely praised Italian aviators but failed to mention the tons of mustard gas they sprayed on the Ethiopians.” Angelo del Boca underlined the inherent distortions in Miccichè’s text by noting its many inconsistencies compared to Steer’s publication.
Konovalov’s Manuscript at the Hoover Institution
Despite Miccichè’s edition, Emperor Haile Sellase evidently forgave Konovalov after Ethiopia’s liberation. The Russian spent about ten more years in Ethiopia, where he lived until 1952, when he finally left the country.
During his stay at Addis Ababa after the liberation, Konovalov wrote “History of Ethiopia,” a long draft in English that no one has published in its entirety. The Hoover Institution in California and The Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University hold copies of the manuscript. Typewritten, someone has begun editing part of it, and some sections clearly represent an early draft, full of mistakes, many of which are common for someone not comfortable with the English language.
Its most interesting and useful portions describe those events in which he took part or witnessed. Clearly enthusiastic about Ethiopia’s efforts to modernize, he favorably described Empress Zewditu Menilek, and lavished praise on Teferi, the future Haile Sellase, for his education and reformist spirit, which many in the country opposed. As an eyewitness, he described many of the preparations for Teferi’s coronation and the coronation itself as well as national improvements, such as road and church building, plus local administrative, postal, constitutional, and judicial reforms.
In a chapter entitled “1935-1936,” Konovalov described his participation in the Italo-Ethiopian War without the changes imposed by the Fascist politics. Although shorter than Con le armate del Negus, this interesting section begins with his first audience with the Emperor at the end of July 1935, which Steer did not include in his edition. The chapter sympathizes with the Ethiopian people in their difficulties and celebrates their religion, culture, and patriotism. Konovalov now favorably evaluates the Ethiopian chiefs, comments not included in the published Italian text, and he praised the common Ethiopian soldier striving under impossible conditions. Konovalov sympathetically praised the Emperor and wrote at some length about his personal conversations with him. Interestingly, Konovalov now glides over his underestimation of Italian forces at Mychew.
Konovalov’s comments on Italy’s occupation policy and the quick growth of guerrilla resistance provide a beguiling mix of Italian brutality and positive accomplishment, the latter especially in building a physical infrastructure and often forging close, personal relations with individual Ethiopians. Although Italy claimed victory on 5 May 1936 when its troops occupied the capital, in truth, Italy never pacified the country. Ethiopia’s “Patriots” played an underappreciated role in liberating their own country, the first freed from Axis oppression in World War II.
I have taken and severely edited the material below from the English language manuscript at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Pankhurst has used much of the same material for his Italian-language translation. Part of Konovalov’s much larger, projected “History of Ethiopia,” I have excerpted from pages 307-377 the material dealing with the eve of war, the Italian attack and victory, and Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia. I have closed with Konovalov’s witnessing British victory and Haile Sellase’s entry into Addis Ababa, after exactly five years of Italian occupation.
Konovalov Goes to Tigrey: The Adowa Battlefield
At the end of July 1935, the Emperor received me. He ordered me to go to Tigrey and try to contact Ras Seyoum Mengesha—commander of the western and most important part of Tigrey. That is, two-thirds of the likely front. The purpose was to examine the possibilities for defense in case war with Italy developed as well as to see what the Italians were doing beyond the frontier.
The Potez plane with the Ethiopian pilot landed at Mekele, where I spent two days with my lifelong friend, Negadras Wodaje Ali. On the third day, I began my journey by caravan to Adowa, which I reached the following day. This small town in its long life had seen many historic events. Adowa and the celebrated Aksum are the cradle of Ethiopian civilization, a contemporary of Rome’s.
To me, a student of Ethiopian history, all this was interesting. Adowa was the scene of the largest struggles of Ethiopia’s past: struggles with its own big feudal chiefs and with foreign invaders. Here Ethiopians had defeated Italy’s invading troops in the Battle of Adowa in 1896. We passed through the places of the battle as it had developed. Just before reaching Adowa there is Amba Garima, and to its right, Amba Saloda.
“We have shed blood everywhere, ours and theirs”—an old Fitwrari accompanying my caravan told me. “When the peasants are laboring their land, they find human bones everywhere. Both sides lost many here, and to what purpose? This is our land. The Lord gave it to our forebears. Now these Italians want to come in. Forty years ago they came. You can hear their tanks and guns beyond the boundary. Let them do it. They will not have our land—our sacred, sweet land—as before, we will not give it to them.”
The patriotic sentiment the old warrior expressed in these simple words touched me. I looked at him with mixed feelings of esteem and compassion. Over there were tanks, airplanes, all modern weapons, and over here were swords, old rifles and cartridges, and no knowledge of military science and modern techniques against an enemy well-versed in these things.
At last we arrived in Adowa, and Ras Seyoum immediately received me. A man in his early fifties, affable and sympathetic, the ras had the manners of a “grand seigneur” [great lord]. He thoroughly knew the history of his own country and Eritrea’s as well, and he told me many interesting tales.
After a few days as his guest, I started my inspection tour. The ras had made such comprehensive arrangements for my caravan that I wanted for nothing. Along the frontier, I could see how the Abyssinians were preparing to defend their land. They knew little of trench warfare and fighting from cover, and following orders received from the high command, the chiefs hollowed out earth for field fortifications as the Lord inspired them. I had to gather the chiefs from every section of the front and explain to them that their trenches were worthless, being visible from everywhere. To me, an old military engineer, this was sheer nonsense, and I invited the chiefs to retreat from the lowland plains to the slopes of the mountains, where they could find cover.
“You can see how many good places there are,” I said, pointing to the mountains.
“Let’s go and have a look.”
We climbed the nearest mountain, and there I showed a hundred men how little work they needed to do to make cover in places such as this. “These are the positions God himself created for you,” I said. “You can see everything before you, and you remain unseen and under cover.”
“This is true.” One of the old chiefs replied, “What do we do with these trenches below, which we made with such a cost of energy?”
“Let the Italians believe that our real positions are there.”
“And the big ditches—anti-tank ditches—are they good enough or should they be larger?”
“They are good,” I replied, for I did not like to disappoint good men.
“What kind of war is this,” sighed one of the chiefs. “We always fight in the open field. What sort of war is this – fighting behind stones?”
While we were talking, not far from us and beyond the frontier and the dry, stony valley, Italian tanks rolled on and their guns thundered. It was obvious that the Italian troops, newly arrived from Italy, had thoroughly studied the terrain and positions as well as the conditions for maneuvering in Africa. It seemed war might break out everywhere, and soon we would see how best to deal with the situation.
I returned to Adowa and reported to the ras, who, thanking me, told me that he would immediately forward my report to the Emperor.
He told me that his people had an outdated conception of war. Italian askari, when they saw his soldiers digging ditches, had called out: “What are you digging there? Graves for yourselves?”
September Feast of Mesqel
In the following days until near the end of September, I spent my time instructing the local chiefs. The ras invited me to attend the banquet to celebrate the big Feast of Mesqel. At first he hesitated to invite members of the Italian consular agency, but finally did so. The consulate was some miles out of Adowa, pleasantly located. The evening passed exceptionally well. Large and hospitable, the ras was a charming host, engaging in vivacious conversation with all his guests. An excellent dinner, half-European and half-Abyssinian, good wines, and pleasant people made that banquet one of the most enjoyable evenings I ever had. The grandson of the Emperor Tewodros II, Dejazmach Gebre Mariam, a handsome and affable man of fifty told all he could remember about his august grandfather and his Scottish chamberlain, John Bell. Bell’s granddaughter, an Abyssinian grande dame [great lady] was present. The ras told us about his ancestor, the Emperor Yohannes IV. All in a mellow mood, we wound up the evening toward midnight.
The Italians Attack, 3 October 1935: The Italian Consulate and First Air Raids
The following day, I learned there had been some incidents on the frontier. Early in the morning of 1 October, my “boy” rudely awakened me.
“Get up, get up, my master, there is big news. The Italian consul with all his staff and askari left last night for Eritrea. Before they went, they burned every paper, broke their rifles, and threw their cartridges into the river. This morning everyone is waiting for their airplanes to come and destroy the palace, the houses, and the town. The ras is going to Amba Saloda and wants you to join him.”
In Amba Saloda, Ras Seyoum’s headquarters, I learned more news. The Ethiopians under Kagnazmatch Kasa Darge had arrested the Italian consul and his entire staff during the night on their way to the frontier.
On my return to Adowa, I saw the captives amid a crowd of people on their way to the palace. The Emperor had received the news of their capture that evening by telephone. He ordered their captors to free the Italian consul and his staff immediately and to escort them to the Italo-Abyssinian frontier. The Italians, however, refused to go during the night but wished to leave the following morning. Their clandestine and hurried departure from their consulate home filled the ras and the rest of us with foreboding.
About 7:00 in the morning on 3 October, my boy again came running to my bedroom with the news, “They are coming, they are coming.”
“Who is coming?” I asked.
“Farengi [Europeans], and they are close.”
Immediately I went to the balcony of my second-floor bedroom, and looking north, I saw in the bright clear sky nine white airplanes swiftly approaching. My first thought was: “What is this? Is it war? What will happen to Ethiopia and its people?” This time the Italians would be well-prepared, and it would not be an easy war.
Meanwhile, the first plane, having circled the town, began to drop bombs.
“This is the beginning of war,” passed through my mind. Then from all sides, Abyssinians fired at the planes, whose bombs continued to explode. The ras gave the order to move the Italian consul and staff into the forest, where they would be comparatively safe. Here in the town, all buildings were in danger. He also told his cook to prepare breakfast for the men. They could start for Eritrea on 5 October, escorted by soldiers from Tigrey, who would leave them on reaching the border at some point of safety. However, even there they would face many dangers, because they had to risk attacks from both sides.
The bombing stopped and the town resumed its normal rhythm. In the streets and near their homes, Ethiopian soldiers gossiped among themselves about the events of the day. Fussy Abyssinian women began their household tasks and all had the air of peace as if this was not the beginning of the war and the bombing had never taken place. Only here and there were the badly wounded and dead. The crowds remained near their homes. Everything was bright and clear—as are the days after the rainy season in Ethiopia. The countryside was gaily green, with no clouds in the blue, sunny sky. But this was the end of Ethiopia’s tranquil life.
On 4 October, we went with the ras and his staff to Mariam Shewitu some distance from Adowa, where we heard again news that the Italians had bombed our town. Some other aerial squadrons bombarded the Ethiopian positions at Dare Takle, from which direction we could hear the noise of explosions.
At midday came the first news from the front. We learned that on 3 October, the Italians had passed the frontier at different points and had begun their offensive. Their main direction was Rama Dare Takle-Adowa, but they had also advanced toward Hodja-Igalla and probably into the region of Knarea-Gober-Adigrat.
We had three armed groups on our front. The first front was Wolkait under the command of the old warrior Dejazmach Ayelle Birru. The second and the largest was the western Tigrey under the personal command of Ras Seyoum. The last was the eastern section of Tigrey under the Dejazmach Haile Sellase Gugsa. Liaison between these three groups was not perfect. They were not regular soldiers, and their methods were primitive. Reports were mostly oral, reconnaissance unstable, and information incomplete and often tardy.
On the evening of 5 October, the commander of troops from the Shire region, Dejazmach Sahle, arrived with 2,000 men. He had violently collided with the Italian troops on the corrugated plain of Adi Arbata. He reported the Italian first-line consisted of colonial troops, for example, Eritreans. Behind them were the white, Italian soldiers. The Ethiopians had disabled two tanks in the deep trenches near Adi Arbata, and Dejazmach Hailu was resisting strongly on the Rama-Daro Takle road, where he had halted the enemy. Dejazmach Sahle’s troops had succeeded in stopping the Italian advance toward Rama and had even attacked the enemy.
We went to Amba Garima, where we found some Eritrean soldiers at our headquarters. That evening we passed around the amba and went as far as ten miles from Adowa from where we heard fierce firing.
“The Farengi are taking our Adowa,” I overheard. “Oh Lord of Ethiopia! What is that?” exclaimed the ras.
We watched the Italians conquering the town of Adowa from the mountain of Amba Garima, where forty years ago the Ethiopians had beaten the Italians despite their gallant struggle under General Giuseppe Arimondi.
It was essential the Ethiopians do something to maintain resistance until more reinforcements arrived. I said so to Ras Seyoum and suggested other alternatives for combating the enemy on our soil.
“Yes, yes, it is right,” replied the ras. “I have ordered Fitwrari Wasfine to stand fast on the right of Adowa and Dejazmach Sahle to stand fast on the left. We shall see what they can do.”
By midday further information arrived. The Italians had attacked Dejazmach Desta and Fitwrari Wasfine toward Daro Takle. Meeting strong tank forces, Dejazmach Desta and Fitwrari Wasfine suffered heavy casualties and had to retreat.
At Hois, meanwhile, Dejazmach Hailu was defending his position heroically and after retreating, he managed to retake the position. Dejazmach Worash had to leave Igalla and to retreat to Augher. Dejazmach Gebre Medhine continued to defend the region of Aksum and the eastern part of Shire. After some vigorous resistance, Dejazmach Maru, commanding the troops west of Daro Takle, had to retreat toward the Tembien region in Tigrey.
Having learned this, the ras decided to return to Tembien and wait for Ethiopian reinforcements to arrive from the south.
Casualties among the Ethiopians were heavy, and still worse was the knowledge that the forces against them were overwhelming. This could lead to defeatism and a loss of their warlike spirit. Several times they had succeeded in breaking through the first Italian lines but then had stalled. Their resistance was astonishing despite all this and that only a few had fairly modern arms and the supply of ammunition was sparse. They waited for the moment amid a battle when they could justifiably throw away their rifles and revert to the sword, for the Ethiopian soldier the only noble weapon. Such moments, however, are rare nowadays when armies throw into the field large masses equipped with modern arms.
En route to Tembien, we learned that the Italians, having occupied Adowa, had already erected a monument to those killed in action in 1896. They had brought the monument with them.
The First Battle of Tembien, December 1935-January 1936: Early Military Preparations
When we arrived at Tembien, which was the seat of the ras and the cradle of his family, the ras sent a telegram to the Emperor explaining the difficulties he faced and asking for instructions. The immediate reply showed the Emperor was aware of the problems. He urged the army to adopt guerrilla warfare tactics, and for encouragement he expressed his hope that allies would soon rally round.
After the tiring campaign, we relaxed in a grove of giant trees, which stretched their green branches overhead while allowing the rays of the sun to filter through and play on the green carpet of grass. Here a small stream rustled quietly by with crystal-clear water. A church was hiding behind a group of giant sycamores, and women filed along carrying pancakes and hot appetizing dishes. A feeling of security, quiet, and comfort obsessed me. “Oh, how good it is here,” I exclaimed involuntarily.
“It is, and for this the Italians are seizing our land,” said an old Dejazmach. “We always thought the Europeans were Christians with Christian justice and righteousness. But they have prepared these dreadful weapons for years to kill our children and to take away our old beloved Ethiopia.”
Many of those present looked at me. In their simplicity, they imagined that all Europeans were alike.
“Meskobach [Russians] are another kind of Europeans,” the ras remarked with a kind smile showing his sympathy with me. “First and foremost they are Orthodox as we are. They are our Farengi and he is helping us.”
“But what are the others doing?” continued the old man.
After lunch we held a council of war. I told the ras, that it was vital that we should do something as otherwise the enemy would think he had beaten us. It was necessary to see that our soldiers were not going idle.
“But what can we do now?” asked the ras.
“We must attack the enemy wherever possible from behind or on the flanks, where we do not risk large losses. He cannot be on guard everywhere. And the people will help as soon as they see we are doing something.”
The young chiefs immediately welcomed this type of warfare, and, indeed, they began to go into action. Dejazmach Gabrehiwot, who was still young, had succeeded in attacking an Italian convoy near Adowa, and on 8 November, Kagnazmatch Hadgu managed to attack and destroy an entire Italian battery on the march. Balambaras Adal’s forces successfully attacked another convoy.
At the beginning of November, word came from Ras Kasa that he was marching to meet us. Our own ras wanted to go and meet him personally, but after holding council decided against it and remained in Tembien for many reasons. Tembien was still free of the enemy. There it was possible for us to get our bearings and prepare for action, action in two directions—Adowa-Aksum-Sozia-Augher, and Adowa-Mekele. Having decided to stay at Tembien, the ras now declared mobilization of all remaining people. He wrote Ras Kasa telling him of his decision and the reasons for remaining in Tembien. He also asked him to send 15,000 men to help cut the enemy’s lines of communication.
Each soldier called to arms brought with him his rifle and ammunition and “sink”—food consisting of flour prepared with spices to preserve the mixture for some time. Several soldiers reported for duty carrying only a saber or a stick. It was unfortunate that the large government warehouse providing articles for such emergencies was now in enemy hands.
On our march to the south of Tembien, an army about fourteen- to fifteen-thousand-men-strong passed the deep valley of the Gueva River. As we entered this valley, an airplane passed overhead but fortunately did not notice us. We marched to Debra Hailu and from there went to Mugia Mountain. The thought that soon we would meet Ras Kasa’s fresh and strong army lifted our spirits.
On that evening on 16 November, from the top of the high mountain of Mugia, we could see far away the undulating plains and small hills skirted by the road from Addis Ababa, Mekele, and on to the north. A little nearer, we saw a row of hills behind which loomed the big massif of Amba Alage.
Two airplanes flew over us, when on 17 November we approached the camp of Ras Kasa. At 5:00 p.m., we entered the camp, and the meeting between the two rases was warm after their ceremonial greeting. They withdrew to Ras Kasa’s tent, where they conferred for an hour. Afterward they invited me to join them at dinner. To my surprise, I found there were foreigners with them: one Egyptian and two Czechoslovakians—radio-telegraphers.
On 18 November, the two rases and their armies stationed themselves somewhere in the higher mountains, providing cover and hiding places in caverns. Ras Kasa, then the first seigneur of Ethiopia, had invited all the big chiefs and me. We consulted and exchanged advice and opinions on conducting operations. After the others had spoken, the ras asked for my opinion. I had prepared some notes dealing with what I considered to be the best program, and I referred to it point-by-point. When I had finished, the Dejazmach Maru exclaimed: “Oh! Your program surpasses ours in every possible detail.” That was only natural, because I had been puzzling over moves and improvements all along, making notes, while the chiefs had to give a concise opinion immediately and unprepared. They had arrived there the day before.
Italian Air Attacks
We had not yet finished our war council, when the signal sounded warning of approaching Italian airplanes. I saw nine planes coming swiftly. Almost immediately they were over our valley, where our densely packed soldiers had little cover—those of Ras Seyoum on the left bank of the river and those of Ras Kasa on the right bank between Aiveto and Mugia.
“They have not seen us!” somebody near me exclaimed. The planes passed by—had they really not seen our camp? Some moments later they turned, flew over us again and dropped their bombs.
From our cavern high above the valley in complete security, we could watch the deadly spectacle enfolding before our eyes—as if we were the audience in the box of an enormous theater. We saw those below us submissively remaining at their places, waiting for their destiny, which would inevitably meet them. Only when the bombs dropped and the explosions started, did those not wounded begin to run. The tethered donkeys, mules, and horses in their terror broke their bonds and madly rushed in all directions.
Having dropped their bombs, this flight of planes made off, but as soon as the men below us began to move, another squadron approached. Again, the deadly game began—killing some and mutilating others. Where a moment before there were living and healthy human beings, now there were the dead and maimed.
Military Planning and Inexperience
The following day our soldiers hastily dug shelter. Ras Kasa again gathered the chiefs for further council. Both rases were sitting side-by-side with the chiefs sitting around them on the ground. Ras Kasa had before him an unfolded map. With his air of the “grand seigneur,” the ras looked a serious man and when eyeing papers or documents through his large spectacles, he seemed a learned university professor. Watching him, I recalled Ras Seyoum’s words: “Oh, Ras Kasa can study maps for hours.” Having studied the map for considerable time, and having asked me to give a few odd explanations, he turned to the old Dejazmach near him: “Here is the situation as I see it,” he said. “Those are the lines occupied by the enemy.” We traced out the Italian fortifications and the good old warrior Dejazmach kept his eyes on the ras’ pencil appearing to understand those complicated red, black, and brown lines and pinpoints on the map. “Now you understand where we are?” asked the ras over the top of his glasses.
The poor old man, not knowing what to say, made a timid movement of affirmation with his head. The ras continued, “Now we must make sure the enemy is at those points we estimate, and we must try to work out what we can do about it.”
The ras, prudent and Christian in his feelings, neither wanted unnecessary bloodshed nor unnecessary risk. To attack the fortified positions would be fatal. He preferred to meet the Italians on the high ridges of Amba Alage that represented our natural fortress. Ras Mulugeta, Ethiopia’s war minister, was not far away with his new army, and together we might be strong enough for almost any undertaking. That was Ras Kasa’s argument.
The council reunited two days later, and at that meeting the chiefs agreed to stay where we were and wait. Meanwhile, reconnaissance continued, and the result of one mission surprised us—the Italians had undertaken some works toward Chelikot. Fearing the enemy might occupy the favorable positions of Amba Aradom and cut the road to Tembien, the council decided to occupy these two massifs and to connect them by our main troops all along the line.
We got back late to our position at Aiveto and found all our soldiers standing around and singing hymns. Through the fresh and calm stillness of that fine evening, the melody of the religious songs surged from one end of the encampment to the other. After we had passed by and the men had stopped singing, we heard their voices as one shout: “Ho-o-o.” This was, they told me, their way of calling on God to listen to them. It was a most impressive scene.
After further council, the chiefs decided that their forces should occupy only one ridge. Ras Mulugeta’s approaching army would occupy the other. In such a way, all of us could defend the positions along the roads to the north of Amba Alage. Ahead of us was the ridge of Gomolo-Adigrat-Mai Nervi and fifteen miles farther along, the majestic Amba Aradom rose with its companion, Debra Hailu. The soldiers of Ras Seyoum’s army were to the left of Ras Kasa’s army, which was in its own positions with the soldiers of Dejazmach Wondwossen and Fitwrari Anderghe with men from Lasta Province. The chiefs decided to reserve the whole right flank for the soldiers of Ras Mulugeta, who would occupy the valley and the mountains to the east of Wajerat.
By the middle of December, Ras Mulugeta arrived. The three rases met in private and after that called in the other high commanders for a general discussion. They gathered in a large tent, open on three sides. They agreed, after much discussion, that they should pay attention to organizing their defense, after which they could think about an offensive. This disappointed the younger commanders, for in their youth they were keen to get out and to meet the enemy as soon as possible. But the three rases, the commanders of the three large groups of the army, were elderly men, Ras Seyoum and Ras Kasa in their fifties and Ras Mulugeta in his early seventies.
Ethiopia had not had a serious war since the Italian campaign of 1896, and hence the chiefs did not have the advantage of military experience behind them, nor did they know how to handle their large armies. The first two had received generalships in their youth, this being the custom among the high-born members of their class. The third ras had served his country as minister of finance, a non-military post. At one time, however, he had commanded and led successfully a military expedition against the rebel Ras Oukawo. None of these three chiefs had an idea about modern warfare and military techniques. Ras Kasa was a levelheaded, serious man, but his spirit was certainly not military-like. Apart from this, he was extremely religious and therefore against all bloodshed. Ras Seyoum, a sensible, likable gentleman, a grand seigneur, and a responsible commander was not enthusiastic about an unyielding attitude. They had spent their lives in the lap of plenty, and they felt at this time of their lives the hardships of a difficult campaign. Meanwhile, the less mature and younger chiefs were burning with desire to fight, but had to meet with the older ones’ prudence.
The Ethiopian consul in Asmara, Lij Tedla Haile, a graduate from the University of Antwerp, before the war began had been with Ras Seyoum. Intelligent and educated, as other youngsters, he was ambitious and thought he could act as military adviser to the ras. I once went into the cavern and found Lij Tedla dictating notes to Ras Seyoum’s secretary. While in Eritrea he surely must have collected information useful to the government, so I listened to what he had to say.
“Generale di Corpo d’Armata” [general of an army corps]. Then followed the name, “Generale di Divisione” [general of a division], and such, and so followed the names of fifteen other Italian generals.
I asked, “How many divisions do you think there are?”
He replied, “Oh, there are some tens of thousands, maybe forty, fifty thousand soldiers.”
I went on, “But you know, if you add the troops following grades and functions of all those generals, it would make at least ten to fourteen divisions. Each division has 15,000 men. If we take out all the generals in charge of other branches of the military command and administration, ten to fourteen generals would remain to command the effective divisions. This makes 150,000 or 200,000 men in all.”
“Oh no,” he said, “Italians love titles and ranks. The high ranking generals command units of the least importance.”
It turned out the Italians had about 200,000 men, counting Italians and colonial troops. It was a vast and well-armed number. As Mussolini said, “Many foes—much honor.” The old, peaceful, and unprepared people of Ethiopia could use these words. Two hundred thousand on a single front is a lot.
One of our good commanders was Ras Imam, who had already attacked the Italian lines on several occasions. Many of our commanders, especially the juvenile ones, were dreaming of battles and of heroic deeds. But the old ones saw that it would be bad strategy to risk attack at that moment on an enemy of greater experience, superior supplies, and more. The imbalance of power was great. Inaction was another source of bad influence on our men. They watched with anguish the foreigner’s fields in the north—and were dreaming of their own homes and fields lying idle and untended. They longed to return home to the familiar life of peaceful work and their families. They thought of their women left behind and worried how they could manage. War to them was only a duel. He who succeeded was the victor; it was man against man.
At this time, Ras Mulugeta invited me to his camp. He asked me to bring my maps to explain the situation to him. I went to see him on 20 December, and from the summit of the rise dividing the two camping grounds, I noted that theirs was a far larger encampment than was our own. Once there, I met soldiers at every turn. The valley was picturesque, gay, and full of life, movement, and sound. Bluish smoke from innumerable campfires lit the place and mingled with the morning mist. It looked like a happy picnic ground. Ethiopian soldiers, apart from the Imperial Guard, were wearing their mufti and there was no military look about the gathering. They had not erected the tents in military style, neat and regular. Oblique beams of the sun slid on the flat roofs of the houses and with red peppers, green trees, yellow fields, and a river full of life made a picture of perfect peace. The quiet stream, the woods and groves, the fields of barley, and the busy agricultural people—all spoke of life, not death. Death, which was inevitably awaiting many and soon.
About 8:00, we heard the humming of motors, and the valley rushed into life. The warriors quenched their fires, and I dove for cover beneath a cactus. However, the airplanes passed over us, obviously looking for some other targets, our camps—those of Ras Kasa and Ras Seyoum, where the enemy gathered a big harvest. I found Ras Mulugeta in his own billet. He offered me coffee and I handed him the maps explaining at the same time where our positions were and those of the enemy. He said: “You know that we shall have to advance soon?” He said that Ras Kasa and Seyoum would move to Tembien and Garalta and he to the east of Agula. They would intercept the roads to Mekele. Later he added: “I don’t see certain things marked on the map—not all we need to know, that is, the positions of our camps on the roads, the passes, the rivers and streams, and the caverns.”
“The maps are not complete,” I said. “But I advise you to find out this information from the local inhabitants. They are the people who must know. We must also organize an information service, and we must pick the men to deal with that and that point alone.”
He spoke to his chief of staff who was present, and we then worked out the details, chose the men, and immediately gave them their instructions.
Ras Mulugeta left with me a good impression, just as before when we had met on other occasions. He was serious, intelligent, affable but also, and understandably, tired. He was trying to be alert and hearty, but I could see he was agitated and knew he was not in his rightful place.
In part II we’ll pick up the story with the Italian preparation for the battle of First Tembien.