The French Army, 1936

Written in 1936 for the Foreign Affairs magazine by French General René Tournès , this article provides an interesting look at the French military as perceived by a senior French officer of the time. Though its focus is on Europe it provides a fascinating insight into French military thought at the time of The Abyssinian Crisis – certainly interesting reading. 

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Like all armies, the French army exists as the instrument of a definite policy. To appraise its effectiveness in the restless and uncertain Europe of today one must first establish the broad lines of French military policy. The aim of this policy is simple, even though the execution of it raises complex problems. Having recovered her lost provinces in 1918, and already possessing a sufficient colonial domain, France has no further territorial ambitions either in Europe or abroad. The French army therefore does not exist either for revenge or for conquest; it has one sole purpose, to assure the security of France and her colonies.

The task of defending the colonies is the easier of the two, despite the extent of the empire, its distance from the homeland, and the war-like character of the native inhabitants. In 1935, France had to maintain an overseas army (armée d’outre-mer) of 210,000 effectives in North Africa, Syria and the colonies; at home she had only 320,000 men under arms. Among the colonial forces, however, are 100,000 natives of North Africa organized into special regiments of infantry and cavalry (sharpshooters and spahis), who besides helping maintain order in the African territories where they are mainly stationed are ready to participate in any struggle that might develop in Europe.

The overseas army is both a liability and an asset. It would probably turn out to be a liability if France were unable to maintain the freedom of her maritime communications. In the final analysis it is on the French army in France that the burden of defending the country will fall. To determine whether this home army is capable of fulfilling its mission we must first consider what Powers are the potential aggressors against which it might have to fight.

To find the answer to this question the French commander-in-chief does not need to consult the Minister of Foreign Affairs; the man in the street can give it to him. Indeed, it is indicated by history and geography. France has nothing to fear from England, Belgium, Switzerland or Spain, with whom she for long has been on the best of terms. No serious difficulties enter into her relations with any of these four neighboring Powers. Perhaps the French commander would be a shade less certain about Italy; but in the end the eventuality of an Italian attack would seem to him improbable. In any case, the Italians would find such an enterprise terribly difficult, for they would have to hurl themselves against the Alps, a powerful natural barrier reinforced by fortifications.

As for Germany, could the French generalissimo feel differently from any and every other Frenchman? Could he forget that Germany has invaded his country twice in fifty years? Would he trust in the speeches of Herr Hitler which affirm Germany’s peaceful intentions? Would he not recall that Herr Hitler himself says elsewhere, e.g.in “Mein Kampf,” that Germany must first of all destroy France as a preliminary to imposing supremacy on Europe? Does not Germany’s tremendous rearmament confirm that this is indeed the end which he has in view? Along the 125 miles of frontier from Switzerland to Lauterbourg, our province of Alsace is separated from Germany only by the Rhine, easily crossed by a modern army. For another 125 miles, from the Rhine to the Moselle, France is in immediate contact with Germany; along this frontier there are no natural defenses. As for the rest of our frontier, Moselle to the North Sea, Germany proved in August 1914 that she could and would attack our northern regions via Belgium.

After making this survey of the European horizon a French officer would have to come to the conclusion that France is menaced by only one of her neighbors — Germany. He would also have to confess that against this single enemy France is greatly inferior if left with only her home army. She is numerically inferior, because her 41,000,000 population does not furnish as many soldiers as does the 66,000,000 population of Germany. She is inferior industrially, because it would be vain to pretend that French industry could equal the foremost industrial nation in Europe in the production of war goods. In short, a conflict which ranged France single-handed against Germany would be an unequal duel; France can conceive of a war against Germany only if she has allies at her side.

Who are these allies? First of all, England, for the decisive reason that today her frontier is the Rhine, as Mr. Baldwin has expressed it. Indeed, if the German armies reached the Channel coasts England would be in even greater danger than France. Then there is Belgium, whose military fate is indissolubly tied to that of France. In addition to these two allies, whose interests cannot be separated from ours, we may count on the coöperation of all the nations which would feel menaced by a German aggression against France. First among these it is logical to place Italy; then those adjoining Germany on the south and east, Czechoslovakia and Poland, as well as Russia. Here a variety of more or less complicated political combinations would come into play.

The primary mission of the French army being to defend French territory against a possible German aggression, let us first examine the extent and nature of Hitler’s military preparations. This is the more necessary since the present French military preparations are the result of Germany’s rearmament program.

From 1919 to 1933 the German army was limited by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles to 96,000 professional soldiers, enlisted for twelve-year terms, and 4,000 officers. The armament of this force was strictly defined, offensive weapons being specifically forbidden. Fortifications could not be constructed nor garrisons maintained in a demilitarized zone along Germany’s western frontier. Thus restricted, the German army was not a menace to its neighbors.

The situation changed when Hitler attained power in January 1933. The country was rapidly transformed into a drill ground, and the manufacture of every kind of instrument of war was pushed forward at full speed. In 1935 Germany threw off the mask completely. By the law of March 16 she reëstablished obligatory military training of one year, to be preceded by a year in the “Labor Service.” By the law of May 21 she practically put all the citizens of the Reich, even in time of peace, at the disposition of the Minister of War. As a result, by the end of 1935 the German General Staff had created ten army corps, consisting of twenty-four infantry divisions, three mechanized divisions, two divisions of cavalry, a total of around 480,000 men.

To these must be added other regular forces (Landespolizei, Schutzstaffeln) with a strength of around 550,000, plus the 200,000 men in the “Labor Service.” By the end of 1936 the complete reorganization of the German army as outlined by Hitler will probably be completed. It will then contain twelve army corps, composed of thirty-six divisions of infantry and reënforced by a now unknown number of mechanized and cavalry divisions. Germany will then have a peacetime army (not including the “Labor Service”) of 700,000 men, of whom 260,000 will be professional soldiers. The German air fleet of at least 1,500 machines is superior both in number and in newness to the British or the French.

For three years Germany’s factories have been working intensively to turn out the most modern types of weapons: airplanes, tanks, heavy artillery, and the other implements and munitions needed by an army on a war footing. The size of this wartime army will be tremendous. Germany’s performance in the World War gives us an idea of what she is capable of doing: in August 1914 she put 107 divisions into the field, and in May 1918, the moment of her maximum effort, 250 divisions. At that time Germany had seven million men under arms.

From these bare figures one can measure France’s peril. Actually in process of organization on her north-east frontier is a peacetime German army of 700,000 men, equipped with the latest engines of destruction. Furthermore, as Germany has had her industrial machine mobilized for war purposes ever since 1933, she is in a position on the outbreak of a war to exert her maximum effort at once. France is thus exposed to a surprise invasion, to a lightning stroke. She feels her position the more dangerous in that during the period between the end of the war and 1933 she allowed her military establishment to deteriorate rather more than was justifiable.

It is true that France had good excuses to relax her military preparations. When Germany had ceased in 1918 to be a mortal and ever-present danger, France hastened to lighten the burden of military service which had borne so heavily on her citizens. She immediately lowered the period of compulsory army service to a year and a half; and later, in 1928, she cut it to one year. This policy was advisable, moreover, in order to liberate as much man power as possible to repair the damage done by the invading armies in four years of war. During this period the French army did not renew its armament; it continued to live on the accumulation left from the war. From 1924 to 1928 France passed through a severe monetary crisis, resulting finally in the destruction of four-fifths of the value of the franc. During these years of distress no military expenditures except those strictly necessary for upkeep were included in the budget.

By 1928 France had begun to come out from under the financial clouds, only to be confronted with negotiations which made it plain that the inter-Allied occupation of the Rhineland would soon terminate. The French High Command believed that before long Germany would resume her freedom to arm. They therefore obtained as large an increase in the military budget as was compatible with the financial situation in order to construct a solid fortified barrier along the whole north-east frontier. The plans for this had long been prepared.

This defensive system consists of two types. In Alsace, where an invading army from southern Germany would first have to cross the Rhine and would then encounter the Vosges mountains, the French High Command has been satisfied to multiply emplacements for machine guns and artillery commanding the river and the points on the French side where an enemy might be able to gain a foothold. On the other hand, along the 125 miles of open frontier between the Rhine and the Moselle there has been created an extremely powerful line of fortifications.

Reinforced concrete and armored forts have been constructed at the principal strategic points, and smaller forts and machine gun nests in the intervals between the main forts. The environs of the large fortifications have been made inaccessible to tanks and infantry by various devices, notably by systems of upright steel beams imbedded in reënforced concrete. All of these works have the most modern appointments: they are impervious to gas, they are supplied with electric appliances, and they are connected with the outside and frequently with each other by underground communications.

By 1933 the process of giving France an effectively fortified north-east frontier was well under way, but it was far from complete due to financial considerations which necessitated spreading the work over a number of years. The accession of Hitler showed France that her military preparations would have to be redoubled. In fact, it became necessary to reorganize the whole French army.

The question of effectives immediately became acute. Faced with the fact that by 1936 the German army would be 700,000 strong, could France continue to maintain military service at only one year? Arithmetic supplies the answer.

Up to 1935 France annually called up about 240,000 young men to perform their year of military service. However, from this figure must be subtracted the 25,000 men who are not fitted to take their places in the ranks and who are placed in the “auxiliary service.” The home army thus contained only 215,000 young men called to the colors. If we add the 58,000 professional soldiers (non-commissioned officers and specialists) and the 45,000 North African natives garrisoned in France, we find that in 1935 the French army could not have consisted of more than 318,000 men. This is a maximum figure, for the 45,000 native troops constitute the so-called “expeditionary force;” they must be ready to go to a colony on short notice and consequently might not be in France at the moment of a German attack. Furthermore, the French birth-rate fell sharply during the five years of war. In consequence, contingents formed of the men born between 1914 and 1919 will vary from a maximum of 159,000 men in 1936 to a minimum of 121,000 in 1937 and 1938.

If France had continued to maintain her military term at one year, the strength of the home army would have dropped to 242,000 men in 1936, to 203,000 in 1937 and 1938, rising to 233,000 only in 1940. During this same period Germany will be able without difficulty to maintain a peacetime army of 700,000 men. Her annual classes never fall below 400,000. Even if all the members of a class are not called up, the German taste for military service will certain lead to the enlistment of enough professional soldiers to supply the deficiency. In view of this great disproportion in number of effectives, could France regard her north-east frontier as secure?

The existence of so powerful a German army in time of peace raises for France another problem in the matter of effectives which is no less urgent and difficult. Before 1933 it was safe to assume that the German Reichswehr of 100,000 men was incapable of executing a surprise attack on France. The French army therefore was not organized to parry such a blow, to act, that is, as a “cover.” The High Command did not consider it necessary to occupy the fortifications along the north-east frontier permanently. It believed that it would have sufficient time for calling up the reserves, concentrating them on the frontier, and even giving them the necessary cohesion by several weeks of drilling before the German blow could be struck. The French army had thus become a mere cadre for the instruction of young recruits and of the reservists who were occasionally called up for brief periods of training. For convenience in mobilizing its effectives it did not take the trouble to concentrate them along the northeast frontier but dispersed them over the whole country.

But such vagaries were no longer permissible when the German peacetime army contained two and a half times as many men as the French home army; when the German forces had at their disposal extremely powerful road and railway transportation; when they had strength in tanks and airplanes permitting them to make a sudden attack; and when the German military tacticians were openly advocating precisely that manner of beginning operations. Under these conditions Parliament in the spring of 1935 authorized the French Government to take the requisite steps to remedy the disquieting situation in regard to the army’s effectives. The first step was to increase the term of service to two years during the period of low man-power from 1936 to 1940. This will be carried out so as to have continually in training in France proper two classes of 110,000 young men each. Concurrently the age of the recruits will in each of the next five years be lowered two months, thus increasing the annual contingent during the lean years by about 20,000 men. In this way the home army will be assured a total of 240,000 recruits under arms. If the present strength of the professional and North African troops is maintained, the French army will have a peacetime footing of around 340,000 men.

Its function is also being transformed. While continuing to instruct young recruits and the reserves, it now in addition serves as a covering army (armée de couverture). It therefore accentuates its concentration towards the north-east frontier. Special bodies called “fortress troops” have been organized to occupy permanently the line of fortifications on this frontier. At the end of 1935 these numbered 1,250 officers and 36,000 men. In case of a German invasion they could be reinforced within a few hours by the reservists living in the vicinity.

Obviously the army of 340,000 men under arms in France is greatly inferior to the German army of 700,000. It has only twenty divisions of infantry, four of cavalry, one mechanized division, and eventually the five divisions making up the “expeditionary force,” with which to oppose thirty-six divisions of German infantry supported by perhaps a dozen mechanized or cavalry divisions. Nevertheless, the French army feels confident that, strengthened by its modern armaments and the system of fortifications along the north-east frontier, it can protect the country until the national reserves, the North African troops, and the armies of its allies can reach the front.

The feverish German rearmament obliged France to transform her own armaments without delay. As has already been pointed out, from 1919 to 1933 a lack of funds prevented the General Staff from acquiring any new armaments, in particular those that are extremely costly such as artillery, tanks, and the equipment of mechanized units. In these categories the models remained those of 1918. As for aviation matériel, the Staff had to be content with only such slight changes as would not require expensive alterations in plant.

Thanks to credits voted by Parliament when the Hitler menace became apparent, the process of renovation has been proceeding at full speed. The infantry has already been taken care of. It was already provided with excellent automatic rifles and machine guns; it has now been supplied with howitzers, anti-tank guns, and very low, small trucks to be used in hauling ammunition up to the line of fire. Naturally the artillery and tank units will take longer to modernize. In compensation for that fact, French military aviation by the summer of 1936 will no longer be inferior to that of Germany. It will have both bombing and pursuit planes technically equipped so that it can maintain a close guard over French territory as well as carry out rigorous reprisals for enemy bombardments.

The French command has also undertaken to extend the permanent fortified barrier north of the Moselle so as to parry a thrust across Belgium and Luxembourg. The impovement of existing fortifications in the plain of Alsace and from the Rhine to the Moselle is also being rushed; the depth of the defensive system is being increased and many accessory works are being added.

This rearmament effort is far from being completed; on the other hand, Germany has not yet achieved her full remilitarization either. To provide the proper matériel is not, properly speaking, a war minister’s most delicate task. The problem is today being studied and solved in about the same manner in all modern armies. The solution requires merely technicians and money. In these regards France does not consider her potentialities inferior to Germany’s.

Now that it is assured of being able to provide its troops with an armament equal in quality to that of the Germans, the French High Command is centering its attention mainly on deciding the most rational utilization of the new matériel and the best apportionment of it among the armies. These problems are highly complex and delicate. For instance, how are tanks to be allotted? Shall they be distributed among the units or is it preferable to keep them among the general reserves of the armies or groups of armies?

At present the two great technical problems occupying the special attention of the French High Command are those concerning the “mechanization” and the “motorization” of divisions. A division is said to be “motorized” when it can be completely transported by automotive vehicles. It has permanently at its disposal the necessary trucks for its artillery, ammunition, and supplies; all that remains in the moment of need is to provide trucks for the men on foot (infantry, engineers, etc.) and horses and mules for the officers and machine guns. A motorized division is ready to go almost instantly into action with its full force; it will not have to wait, as in 1918, for its artillery, ammunition, food, etc. Of the twenty-five French infantry divisions, seven have already been motorized. Ought the number to be increased? The question is being argued and studied. It involves important tactical factors as well as consideration of the effects on our national economy, such as the raising of horses, the accumulation of oil supplies in time of peace, and the possibility of their replenishment in time of war.

Except for its superior mobility the motorized division is not very different from the ordinary division. A “mechanized” division, on the other hand, is a combat organ of quite a different character. Such a division has at its disposal at all times all the automotive means necessary for its transportation. Its weapons are all automotive: tanks, motorized cannon, and machine guns mounted on trucks. Its personnel, though they may fight on foot, are transported, until the moment for action arrives, in vehicles called tous-terrains that can travel over every sort of ground.

The problems raised by the development of mechanized divisions have not been solved any more than those raised by motorized divisions — indeed they are even more experimental and controversial. In consequence, the French High Command has so far created only one experimental unit in place of a cavalry division. Should the four remaining cavalry divisions be likewise transformed into mechanized divisions? Indeed, it is a question whether, as certain officers suggest, there ought not to be created seven extremely powerful mechanized divisions, each composed of three brigades: the first to contain two regiments of heavy and medium tanks; the second, two regiments of infantry mounted in trucks of the tous-terrains type; and the third, two regiments of artillery, one of them armed with heavy pieces.

Obviously, seven mechanized divisions which had prepared in peacetime could render most valuable service in the first days of mobilization. They could go to the aid of the Belgian army, well entrenched on the fortified plateau of Herve east of Liège but exposed on its southern flank in the Ardennes. They could also be utilized in the event of a German violation of Swiss neutrality. Thirdly, they would constitute a very mobile and very solid reserve for the French troops covering the 450 miles of frontier from the Swiss border to the English Channel. On the other hand, mechanized divisions have their drawbacks. For instance, they absorb a large proportion of the tanks, so that the number available is too much reduced. Furthermore, they require a large number of professional soldiers and specialists to service them, since costly and delicate machinery cannot be entrusted to new recruits and reservists. As a result the ordinary units are deprived of these trained men. The pros and cons of mechanized divisions obviously require careful examination and experimentation before the right decision can be reached.

In addition to these technical problems, the French military leaders must study the questions involved in organizing the national high command and an international high command. The experience of the World War showed the importance of these problems.

The French assume that a German aggression against them will inevitably cause the other nations which feel equally menaced by that aggression to enter the fight on their side. Undoubtedly the Belgian army will be attacked simultaneously with the French; the British army will then have to come to the aid of the French and Belgians as quickly as possible. These three armies will immediately engage the German armies on a well-defined front — the Belgian and French frontiers between Holland and Switzerland. In view of this it seems indispensable that before the outbreak of war the three armies should establish the basis for intimate coöperation. Political and personal reasons naturally make it difficult to designate in advance the generalissimo who would have supreme command of the three allied armies, following the formula adopted in March 1918 in the face of the imminent danger then prevailing.

But at least it should be possible, and it is essential, to regulate by precise conventions the composition, transportation, and concentration of the forces to be mobilized by each of the three partners. It is still more essential to set up in time of peace an inter-allied general staff which if war comes will serve the common commander-in-chief of the three armies. Admittedly the organization of an inter-allied command raises ticklish problems. We saw between 1914 and 1918 how it collides with national susceptibilities. For reasons of modesty, none of the countries seems willing to study the problem. But it exists nevertheless. And unless it is solved, do not the three armies risk losing the first big battle of the war, and without a Joffre can they count on another Marne? . . .

The coördination of the military effort of the British, Belgians and French may be the first condition of successful resistance to German aggression. But understandings with other allies such as Italy and Czechoslovakia are no less necessary. These arrangements will be easier to effect in that the armies of these powers will not be operating in the same theatre of war as the western powers and hence coördination will not have to be so intimate.

In the matter of organizing its own high command the French people face important problems. They have in time of peace three ministries responsible for preparing for war: navy, war and air. This anomaly, the legacy of a long past, is today universally condemned. French military opinion quite rightly demands the institution of a Ministry of National Defence on the German model, uniting under one unified authority all the French forces of land, air and sea.

The creation of a Ministry of National Defence will immediately have one advantage: it will show the necessity for giving the general in charge of the armies on the north-east frontier command over air as well as land forces. If it is possible to conceive of the French navy receiving its orders from the supreme war organ set up by the government, it is illogical to suppose that the pursuit and bombing squadrons can continue, as at present arranged, to be under the orders of some other than the commander of the armies at the front. Duality of command in time of war has never produced anything except the most tragic results.
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Finally, France has been obliged by the prodigious rearmament of Germany to ask of her people to make serious sacrifices in the moral as well as the material field. She has demanded that her young men accept an additional year of military service in order to assure the army its indispensable number of effectives. She has undertaken the formidable expenditures necessary for building up an armament on a par with that being created across the Rhine. But these material sacrifices would be vain if they were not accompanied by a spiritual resurgence. Since 1918 the French people have been led to believe that the period of wars was ended, that the League of Nations could prevent all conflicts by making even the most powerful and determined aggressor recoil before the coalition of nations which would spring to the assistance of the victim. Pursuaded by leaders like Briand, the man in the street imagined that because he was satisfied and pacific his neighbors were also.
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Lulled into a false sense of security, Frenchmen no longer directed their energies first and foremost toward mounting guard on the Rhine, that line where for two thousand years they have had to exercise perpetual vigilance. Their discovery that Germany was being transformed into an immense barracks, into a gigantic munitions factory, was abrupt, and the necessary change in attitude was not accomplished without complaints and murmuring. But today it is well under way. Led by officers schooled in the World War and composed of men capable of any self-sacrifice when they understand that their fatherland is in danger, the French army of 1936 can be regarded as entirely competent, under the conditions here outlined, to defend the country from attack.
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Italian Field Artillery in the Ethiopian Campaign

(From a study prepared in the Military Intelligence Division, War Department General Staff; July-August 1937, US Army)

Terrain.

Northern Front (Eritrea).

Extending southward over 400 miles from the Mareb River, which marked, in part, the boundary between the Italian colony of Eritrea, and the then independent state of Ethiopia, to include the latter’s capital. Addis Ababa, lies the high plateau of Ethiopia. It was in this area that the Italian main force conducted its principal military operations during the period October, 1935—May, 1936. The troops employed were predominantly Italian (European), and far exceeded in numbers those operating in Somaliland in the south.

The terrain of the high plateau is about as uninviting for artillery maneuver as are the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. But the 4th Field Artillery (USA) (2.95 pack) made a 1000-mile march in Wyoming and Colorado prior to the World War—perhaps knowledge of this trip added a bit to the vast experience of the Italians with artillery in the Alps and Appenines. In any event, pack artillery constituted the bulk of the artillery increment of the forces sent to East Africa. The plateau is a series of mountain ranges, high peaks which at times reach over 10,000 feet in elevation, deep ravines and gulches, very rocky and rough, and almost devoid of vegetation except along the water courses and over occasional tracts of land where the soil is fertile. Roads were practically nonexistent, and caravan trails constituted the only routes of communication.

The climate is neither unpleasant nor unhealthful. There are generally two seasons—the dry and the wet. The rainy season begins usually in May and lasts through September. It rains very hard at times, streams fill and flood, but mud appears to have had little influence except in isolated instances on the movement of troops or materiel. But throughout the entire year the most important factors, from an artillery viewpoint, are the mists and fogs in the valleys and clouds around the peaks which obscure visibility. With a wealth of terrestrial OP’s, this periodic condition was the principal mar to an artilleryman’s paradise.

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Southern Front (Somaliland)

Italian Somaliland is a most inhospitable region. Extending hundreds of miles northwest from the Indian Ocean, it is flat, insufferably hot and arid, and covered with a growth of equatorial thorny, bushy, shrub, which seriously limits both terrestrial and aerial visibility. It is dusty and sandy in dry weather, but after a moderately heavy rain, either in the foothills to the northwest or local in a given area, the trails are either flooded or become quagmires, and both wheeled and animal transport soon comes to a virtual standstill. Two principal rivers, the Scebeli and the Giuba, flow southeast into the ocean, and offer avenues of invasion and communication.

Caravan trails offer the other alternative, although, in dry weather, it is only necessary to clear the shrub to provide a passable road for motors. Some 600 miles inland the terrain slopes upwards to a more inviting region of the high mountains which bar the way to the capita, Addis Ababa. It rains off and on throughout the year, with definite seasons called the ‘little’ rains and the ‘big’ rains. Fog and mist were not obstacles for the artillery the thick brush and difficulty in securing good terrestrial OPs were. The forces employed in Somaliland were much smaller than those used in the north and were preponderantly native.

Organization of the Field Artillery.

Normal in Italy.

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Position de Luxe

The division artillery of the regular Italian infantry divisions in the homeland includes a normal total of 48 guns and howitzers, excluding antitank and antiaircraft weapons, organized into a single regiment of four (4) battalions, as follows:

  • 2 Battalions (3 batteries each) 75/18-mm. howitzers, which can be either packed or hauled. (Weapons of 75-mm. caliber with tube 18 calibers in length.)
  • 1 Battalion (3 batteries) 75/28-mm. guns, usually horse-drawn.
  • 1 Battalion (3 batteries) 100/17-mm. howitzers, tractor-drawn.
  • 1 Battery, 47-mm. antitank, and 1 battery 20-mm. antiaircraft.

For East Africa.

(1) Eritrean Theater.

With the terrain of the planned theaters of operation and the character of the opposing forces in mind, this normal complement of artillery was reduced materially in the divisions dispatched to East Africa. A minimum amount of artillery for the task at hand was provided. The divisions were reorganized with a view of attaining a high degree of flexibility, lightness, and maneuverability, and to have a high proportion of automatic weapons.

The regular army divisions in the north, seven in number, each had a regiment of mule pack artillery, consisting of two battalions of three batteries each. The armament was the 75-mm. pack howitzer—4 pieces to a battery. Each battalion had a total of 435 mules, of which 120 were in the combat train. This number was probably somewhat in excess of the normal need, but casualties in animals and the necessity of packing the ammunition forward from roadheads were undoubtedly foreseen and extra mules provided therefor. A single battery in one division used the Sardinian type of horse for pack purposes. This battery performed equally as well as the mule pack batteries, and lost from various causes a slightly smaller percentage of animals. The Sardinian horse is of Arab and Barb blood, and is small, hardy, and a good weight-carrier. The medium artillery was eliminated from the divisional regiment.

Five divisions of “Black Shirts” (Fascist Militia), somewhat lighter and with more reduced services than the regular divisions, were part of the northern army. Each had a single battalion of pack artillery of three batteries, furnished from the regular forces.

The two native divisions employed had two battalions of artillery each. This, in connection with the infantry organization of two brigades, permitted splitting a division into two equal parts for detached service. These battalions were motorized, using 77/28-mm. guns. Pack artillery was attached to these divisions during the later stages of the campaign, replacing the old-type guns.

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Pieces en Masse

The corps artillery available consisted of:

  • 2 battalions 100/17-mm. howitzers
  • 2 battalions 105/28-mm. guns
  • 2 battalions 149/13-mm. howitzers

All batteries were motorized, some being drawn by Pavesi tractors (wheeled) and some by trucks. The battalions were allotted initially equally to the I and II Corps. The Native Corps was not given any of this artillery. When the III and IV Corps were organized in the winter of 1936, part of the above artillery was put at their disposition for active operations.

This gives then, with Marshal Badoglio’s army in the north, a total of 308 pieces of artillery, as the corps units and units with the native corps were two-battery battalions.

(2) Somaliland Theater.

The forces in Somaliland, under command of General Graziani, consisted of two European divisions, one Libyan division, two mechanized-motorized cavalry regiments, and some 25,000 natives organized into battalions or “bands.” In addition there were auxiliary troops and services. The native troops did the greater part of the fighting.

The single regular army division had a three-battalion regiment (9 batteries) of pack artillery, armed with 75/13 and 75/27-mm. pack howitzers. The one Black Shirt division had a single battalion of 75/13-mm. pack howitzers. The Libyan division from North Africa had a three-battery battalion of mixed 75-mm. mule and camel pack artillery. In addition, there were available:

  • 5 batteries, mountain artillery, camel pack
  • 1 battalion, light artillery, motor-drawn or portee
  • 1 battalion, 100/17-mm. howitzers, tractor-drawn
  • 1 battalion, 105/28-mm. guns, tractor-drawn
  • This gave a total of 27 batteries of field artillery, or 108 pieces, on the basis of 4 guns to the battery.

This artillery was generally employed where its need could be foreseen, and the prime movers used were varied and fitted to the occasion—from pack, through all means of hauling, to portee. There was no hesitation shown in detaching batteries or battalions from their organic major units and employing them several hundred miles away to furnish additional artillery support to assist in accomplishing a certain mission.

Ethiopian Artillery.

To oppose this mass of 416 modern artillery weapons, abundantly supplied with ammunition. Ethiopia possessed probably not in excess of 200 pieces of artillery, some 50 of which, at the most, were serviceable. These were principally old models of assorted types, but included a number of small modern guns of Belgian manufacture. These were the “Oerlikon” 20-mm. antiaircraft weapons and the 10 received and used did some fair work against Italian planes. There were some 120,000 rounds of ammunition in the country, mostly antiaircraft, and all for the smaller calibers. There were no facilities for the manufacture of ammunition or the upkeep of the artillery materiel, and the training of personnel to serve the pieces was a difficult matter. The Ethiopian artillery was neither efficient nor effective, except in isolated instances against aircraft.

Employment.

Positions.

With threats of hostile counterbattery fire and air attacks entirely eliminated, almost complete freedom of choice was given the Italian battalion and battery commanders in the selection of battery positions. Concealment and defilade were not only unnecessary but undesirable, particularly on the defensive, for positions were needed from which fire could be delivered at short ranges with direct laying in the event of possible Ethiopian breakthroughs. Other considerations in the selection of positions were: Near good observation, employment of the fire power in mass under central control, protection from swift rushes from the flanks and rear, and relative ease of ammunition supply.

The Italian field artillery, as is always the case, was most vulnerable when on the march, and, on at least one occasion, suffered severely from a sudden surprise attack by the highly mobile Ethiopian forces. A mule pack battery of the Gavinana (19th) Division, marching with a battalion of infantry constituting the advance guard support, was attacked suddenly in flank near Selaclaca on February 29th, at the time of the launching of Marshal Badoglio’s first big offensive to the south. The battery barely got into action and fired a few rounds before being overrun. It lost all of its officers, and the majority of its men were killed, and its guns were in the hands of the Ethiopians until retaken by counterattack the following day with heavy losses to the counterattacking infantry. It is possible that our system of advancing advance guard batteries by bounds from position to position would have obviated this loss—on the other hand, the terrain militated against such employment.

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Hard Going

Communication.

Radio played a predominant and very vital role with the Italian forces. It furnished the principal air-ground means of communication for airplanes conducting adjustments for the artillery on defiladed targets. It also was a principal method of communication between the higher echelons of command.

When practicable, and it usually was, batteries were congregated in restricted areas to facilitate control. Short wire lines sufficed for artillery command purposes and fire direction. Wire lines connected batteries or battalions to their OP’s. Visual signalling was used at times. The lack of wire communication between the artillery and the supported infantry, however, was marked, and the need for its use was felt severely in certain combats, notably that at Birgot in the south.

Mobility.

The question of mobility apparently had relatively little influence once active operations began. The types of artillery sent to East Africa were suited to the terrain. The pack artillery maneuvered without great trouble.

The motorized units of medium artillery followed the roads when completed. Prior to the larger offensives, preparations were invariably made with the greatest care, and plenty of time was available to enable the artillery comfortably to occupy its positions and assure its ammunition supply. Once the attack was launched and Ethiopian resistance was broken, it became a question of following up the disorganized Ethiopians, usually a great distance, to their next position. The artillery pursued with fire up to the limit of its ranges and then advanced, with infantry protection, and occupied positions for the next attack. The pack artillery easily kept pace with the infantry.

One incident in the north is worthy of comment as illustrating the possibilities of truck-drawn medium artillery under adverse conditions of terrain. Following the temporary Italian reverse near Selaclaca, additional artillery was rushed to support the II Corps in that locality. A truck-drawn battalion of 149/13-mm. howitzers left its position south of Macalle and marched a distance of 500 kilometers in three days to Selaclaca. Marshal Badoglio termed this “an admirably swift march”—it is certainly a noteworthy example of strategic mobility.

Fire Support.

(1) Counterbattery.

Counterbattery was never a major mission of the Italian artillery for the simple reason that battery targets rarely existed. Whenever the Ethiopians did get a few pieces into position within effective range, their batteries were located promptly and soon silenced, if their relative importance permitted, with intense concentrations of artillery fire.

Most of the Ethiopian artillery was with the Imperial Guard of the Negus, Haile Selassie. A small amount appeared with Ras Mulughieta’s forces during the battle of the Enderta, or Amba Aradam, in February, 1936. Two batteries, one of 4 pieces and one of 6, entered into the action in support of counterattacks, but were in time silenced by Italian counterbattery fire. With Italian airplanes dominating the battlefield. Ethiopian artillery could not remain long undiscovered and free from well-adjusted artillery fire.

In the battle of Lake Ascianghi, in which the Imperial Guard made its supreme effort, the Negus had a certain amount of artillery and mortars, the exact amount of which is unknown. On this day, 31 March, 1936, the Ethiopians made their final bid by attacking desperately the Italian position, held by three divisions, to the north of Lake Ascianghi, and there probably the fiercest fighting of the entire war took place. The attack was preceded by a 15-minute artillery preparation of a sort which fell on the “Val Pusteria” Division of Alpini, but the attack itself developed further to the east—another indication of the complete lack of coordination within the Ethiopian forces. But the Italian artillery was so occupied in the defense of the positions against repeated attacks continuing from early morning to midafternoon, that counterbattery could not be included among its immediate missions, particularly since the Ethiopian artillery fire was mostly ineffective.

(2) Defensive.

The Italian artillery was handled with skill on the defense and proved itself again to be a most important cog with ground forces under almost any conditions of combat. Following the temporary loss of the battery near Selaclaca and the spirited fighting in which the entire Gavinana Division became engaged during the rest of the day (February 29th), the II Corps brought its remaining two divisions up, one on each side of the Gavinana, emplaced its corps artillery, and awaited further attack, while organizing for defense. Fire from the remainder of the Gavinana’s division artillery prevented the Ethiopians from removing the four captured pieces during the night.

On March 2d the Ethiopians again attacked, this time frontally, and principally against the positions of the Gavinana across the level floor of the small valley in which the town of Selaclaca is located. A small hill was occupied as the right of the Gavinana’s line and from this hill excellent observation was to be had over all the terrain within the valley. By early afternoon all the corps artillery was in position close behind the front, and, under centralized control, was enabled to maneuver an overpowering mass of fire from point to point as desired.

The effect of this fire was such as completely to destroy, both physically and morally, the spirit and will to attack of the Ethiopian troops; the attack was easily repulsed, and the forces of Ras Imru soon began their retreat. During the withdrawal, the artillery exacted severe losses from the Ethiopians with concentrations of interdiction fire placed on the narrow passes in the surrounding mountains, through which the Ethiopians were forced to withdraw. The corps pressed the retreat with its artillery displacing rapidly forward and continuing interdiction fires upon the limited avenues of escape. The Ethiopians throughout the campaign showed a surprising indifference to the staggering losses caused by the Italian automatic weapons but, on the other hand, were profoundly in fear of artillery fire. The moral effect of the latter proved invaluable.

In this engagement Ras Imru’s army was completely defeated and it was never again effective as a cohesive force. The following Italian artillery took part:

2 battalions medium howitzers: 1 battalion medium guns; 9 battalions light guns and howitzers. Total, 12 battalions, 33 batteries, 132 pieces. The corps artillery expended some 8000 rounds of ammunition, or approximately 222 rounds per gun; the division artillery consumed some 4000 rounds per division on the average—a total of about 20,000 rounds of ammunition during a three-day combat.

Of course the absence of Ethiopian artillery and aviation gave the Italian artillery complete freedom of action, and excellent observation, timely secured, guaranteed the effectiveness of its fires. An altitude of about 6000 feet in this area, with the resultant decrease in density of air, permitted longer ranges, and the pursuit with very effective fire up to the limit of the respective range of each type of weapon. The artillery was extremely well handled in the course of this engagement.

The second major defensive battle fought by the Italian forces in the north was that of Lake Ascianghi on 31 March, 1936, referred to previously. While completing the logistical preparations, including the construction of roads, for a further advance to the south, the I and Native Corps occupied a defensive position with three divisions (two of which were native) in line and three divisions and additional units in reserve.

The position was a strong natural one, and its front was well covered with the fire of automatic weapons. The artillery was carefully emplaced with fine observation available and had time thoroughly to prepare its fires in advance.

The attack, which had been expected, was launched early in the morning. It was broken up by the fire of automatic weapons and artillery concentrations, and the Ethiopians, reassembling to the rear under cover, became targets for intense artillery concentrations. Repeated attacks against different portions of the position met usually the same fate, for the Ethiopian piecemeal tactics permitted the ideal employment in mass of the Italian artillery.

On at least three occasions, however, the Ethiopians penetrated the Italian position, thus preventing the artillery from giving close-in support. These penetrations were ejected by automatic-weapon fire and counterattack, and when the best troops of the Negus finally broke in the late afternoon, after having fought all day with terrible determination and having taken enormous losses, the Italian artillery pursued with its fire and put the finishing touches to the shattering of Ethiopian morale. Through persistent bombing and ground-strafing, the air force kept Ethiopian morale at this low ebb, caused additional losses, and prevented the Ethiopians from reorganizing and occupying a defensive position. The artillery did its work well during this strenuous day, but, on the other hand, conditions were extremely favorable to its effective employment.

(3) Offensive.

The employment of the Italian artillery in the offensive was characterized by careful reconnaissance, deliberate occupation of position, detailed preparation of data for concentrations and schedule fires, decisive employment in mass, generally under centralized control, and fullest use to exploit a success when victory had become assured.

The six-day operation known as the Battle of the Enderta, or Amba Aradam, well illustrates its effective employment on the offensive. This was Marshal Badoglio’s initial major operation after assuming command and was launched during the period February 10-15, 1936, after all preparations had been made with the greatest care. Seven divisions participated, supported by nine battalions of corps (or army) artillery. Ras Mulughieta, the Ethiopian Minister of War, occupied the prominent flat-topped mountain, Amba Aradam, and its supporting defenses, with a force estimated at 70,000 troops. The Italian force totaled well over 100,000. It is interesting to compare these numbers with those engaged in our battle of Gettysburg—approximately the same.

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Amba Alagi

The operations of the first two days, which included the approach march and development, met with little opposition, as the area was well covered by the emplaced Italian artillery. On the third day, with a low fog overhanging the valleys precluding artillery observation and making infantry contact difficult, the advancing columns, three in number, were each struck by Ethiopian counterattacks, which had initial successes, caused severe losses and held up the advance. The corps artillery displaced forward meanwhile and, after a delay of two days due to rain and continuation of the fog and mist, was ready to support the continuation of the attack with carefully prepared fires centrally controlled. The devastating effect of this fire on Amba Aradam was too much for Ethiopian morale.

The artillery fire throughout this action is reported to have been especially effective. Batteries were placed in positions just off the road and jammed close together to facilitate control. Six batteries were in an area not a great deal more than 150 yards square. Ammunition supply was a simple matter and the 276 pieces of artillery taking part never lacked sufficient ammunition to enable heavy concentrations to be put down wherever needed on call and to maneuver this mass of fire from point to point with the fine observation available after the fog lifted.

This offensive operation is typical of the several major attacks by the Italian forces in the north, in which the effectiveness of the artillery was always notable, and undoubtedly due in great part to its employment in mass under central control and under special circumstances as to terrain, climate, and enemy.

Conditions with General Graziani’s forces in Somaliland were greatly different. In what was probably the hardest-fought combat in that area, the Battle of Birgot, engaged in by General Frusci’s column, the field artillery was on the whole ineffective, due to several causes—the defensive tactics of the Ethiopians who occupied caves in the banks of ravines and similar places, where they could be neither located by the air forces nor neutralized by the artillery; the thickness of the brush and consequent difficulty of locating targets, and the almost impossibility of the artillery securing even fair observation. Two battalions of camel pack 65/17-mm. howitzers and one battalion (2 batteries) of tractor-drawn 100/13-mm. howitzers were engaged, but the automatic weapons and fighting ability of the Arabo-Somali soldiers, well led by Italian officers, accounted mainly for the success at Birgot.

Ammunition Supply.

The Italian “Artillery Service,” which corresponds closely to our Ordnance Department, handles and distributes all classes of ammunition. Prior to the big advances in the north, the principal depot at Asmara in Eritrea was stocked with a reserve of 10 days’ of fire of all classes of artillery ammunition, and was equipped with the necessary workshops for the repair of materiel, equipment, and fire-control instruments.

Advance depots were established well forward to serve the troops in each important area or for each separate major unit. Combat units drew the necessary ammunition from these advance depots directly with their own transportation. No known shortage of artillery ammunition existed under this plan of supply.

Conclusions.

The outstanding features of the organization and employment of the Italian artillery in Ethiopia are: The care with which it was organized, especially as to type and amount, for the job at hand; and its employment in mass on every possible occasion and up to the limits of its capabilities.

While aerial bombing was employed on occasions for preparing the way for the infantry attack or in supplementing an artillery preparation, the results obtained by the aviation show that it cannot replace artillery for the close support of the infantry either in attack or defense. It cannot equal artillery in accuracy nor in capacity to deliver continuous and concentrated fire when and where needed, and with numerous targets beyond the range of artillery always available, it appears that the mission of infantry close-support preferably should be left to the artillery, while air units devote their attention to more distant targets.

The importance of artillery in military operations in any theater of war and against any class of opponent is again emphasized even after discounting the special circumstances under which it was employed in Ethiopia.

Feodor Konovalov and the Italo-Ethiopian War – part II

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We conclude Konovalov’s description of the Ethiopian army (part I), by picking up the story with the Italian response and preparations leading up to and from the Ethiopian Christmas Offensive and subsequent battle of First Tembien until the conclusion of the war.

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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.[60]

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.[61] 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.

Air attack

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.[62]

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.[63]

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.[64] 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[65] 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[66] 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,[67] 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.

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Italian Advance and Ethiopian Response, December 1935

On 21 December in the evening, we received information that the Italians had started their advance. We got the news from our outposts under the command of Dejazmach Chibude. The commanders immediately gave orders to rouse the camp and our long and tedious waiting before Amba Alage and Aiveto had at last ended. Prudence prevented our three old rases from going farther than the line of mountains surrounding Alage Pass, which provided a chain of natural fortresses. We remained there only a few days as Ras Kasa received an order to advance. This order came from the Emperor personally.

The chiefs agreed that Ras Mulugeta would stay around Antalo-Amba Aradom, a good natural position. Meanwhile, rases Kasa and Seyoum would go to Tembien and from there to Garalta to threaten the roads from Adowa and Adigrat, where they parted to lead to Mekele and from Hawsien to Tembien. Enemy airplanes sighted and bombed us when we left on 2 January and were going through the Gueva River Valley. Fortunately for us, there were many caverns and plenty of cover, so we hid ourselves and remained hidden for a day, after which we ventured back on the march. On the road, the news reached us about the Battle of Enda Selassie (Dembeguina) in which the troops of Dejazmach Hailu Biru of Wolkait in northern Ethiopia attacked Italian fortifications and inflicted many casualties.[68]

That day we reached Chevasaro (Enda Mariam Quoram)—a suitable place, where among the luxuriate vegetation we found caverns, one of which represented a fine old church. Enemy airplanes often passed over-head until on the morning of 9 January when our first column began to climb the mountain, they discovered us and we suffered a bombardment. Here, the soil of Tembien was sandy. Nature had designed everywhere many fantastic shapes and figures, and here it was not easy to march. On arriving at Abbi Addi,[69] we ascended Amba Debra, from where we could see the Italian positions. They were not far away, three to seven miles from our positions on the heights of Marbe-Shumearne. The Italian camp was not a strong one. The presence of two groups of Italians did not threaten our troops, which now had increased in number. While we were looking, the Italians opened fire toward the Mai Beles River, Amba Work, and Amba Debra. The aircraft were active and disturbing.

At midday on 18 January, the alarm rose in our camp: “Ighiragna tor metta” [the infantry is coming]. Soldiers ran in all directions, checking their rifles as they ran to surround Amba Debra from the west. Now they ran toward the Tini River from where they thought the enemy was coming.

The speed of the Ethiopian soldiers, the pace at which they pulled themselves together, and the energy with which they drew themselves up to face the enemy surprised me. It was a false alarm. Eritrean soldiers were taking their mules to water at the river in no man’s land.

Our soldiers seized some teams of Eritreans and their mules, getting close to the Italian positions, when they received the order to return. This episode played a large part in the events that followed. For our soldiers it was an introduction to battle, and it raised their morale. They had nearly seen the enemy and had gotten close to his lines. At the same time, another Tigraean detachment was attacking a column of Italian lorries on the Addi Zubbaha road and causing some casualties.

IMG_0197a

The First Battle of Tembien, 20-24 January 1936

On 20 January, news arrived that the enemy had attacked Dejazmach Workeneh at Molfa. Wounded himself, Workeneh had lost some of his troops. It had been a violent collision. Dejazmach Wondwossen immediately went to his aid, and at 7:00 p.m. on the 21st, the Italians began their attack against our position at Amba Debra, their main offensive bearing down on the valley of the Tini River.

Immediately, our soldiers reenacted the previous scene. From every point our soldiers ran, and while the troops of Yedju and Lasta attacked the enemy from the west, the Tigraeans advanced from the southwest, followed by the troops of Dejazmach Abera Kasa from the south.[70]

The Italians attacked from three sides, but had to retreat. Ethiopian soldiers in this battle showed they were capable of great mobility and impetus, reactions having been speedy and action immediate. Both sides suffered heavy losses. The Italian air force was active in this battle and their artillery heavy, but the Ethiopians had been able to cut the Italian defensive line and had infiltrated their camp. However, the Ethiopians could not fully exploit this opportunity, and three days later our soldiers withdrew to their first position and immediately began to mourn their dead.

At this stage, I recalled the book by Charles Tilstone Beke, British commercial agent to Ethiopia.[71] In 1859 at his headquarters in Basso, Gojam, he wrote to Lord Palmerston, British Foreign Secretary, that the Ethiopian soldier, well-taught and well-led, had no equal anywhere in the world.

Some soldiers brought us our portion of the booty, which amounted to some Parmesan cheese and a bag full of Italian cigarettes. We could have developed this battle—the first battle of Tembien as we called it—into a victorious clash at our sector of the front had we been better prepared. As it was, the results satisfied our high chiefs in that they had checked the Italian offensive, and the enemy had suffered many losses of men, arms, and goods of all kinds. They agreed that their program did not foresee moving fast and far, but the results satisfied all.

One young ordinary soldier with a likable face said to me, “The Ethiopian soldier is, after all, a good soldier. Look, the enemy has guns, planes, and ammunition in plenty, and yet we have managed to get into their camp even from natural and poor positions.” He went on. “Their camps are not like tents at all. They are like good, solid houses. Inside they have many things, and here is one of them.” He pulled a silver-framed mirror from his pocket to show me. Another soldier reported, “Their strength is in their hands. When I tried to hit one with my saber, he took hold of my wrist and twisted it to try to make me drop my weapon. He would have succeeded if not for my comrade who finished him.”

On 16 February, reinforcements arrived from Ras Mulugeta, whose main forces had until the 15th occupied Antalo-Amba Aradom. During that evening, the vanguard of his command entered Abbi Addi, Tembien’s principal town. Under the command of Dejazmach Meshesha Yilma, the Emperor’s nephew, with Dejazmach Meshesha Wolde, Dejazmach Dengo, and Fitwrari Zewdu Aba Korem,[72] their soldiers came from distant provinces such as Kambatta, Konso, and Kullo. It was unfortunate that Italian planes watched their maneuver and came in numbers and bombed their positions. Still greater numbers then attacked the formations of men as they passed the valley of the Gueva River. Through this attack, we could note the advance and the exact positions of our troops. The Italians bombed Abbi Addi itself several times a day. Planes circled the town the whole time, and as some completed their deadly task, others took their place. Churches and houses were burning at every point in the town.

Fighting Elsewhere

Soon, news about the battles in other parts of the country reached us. More and still more reinforcements arrived for the enemy. The Ethiopians tried to resist and attack at any point along the ill-defined frontline where opportunities arose, sometimes infiltrating right into the enemy’s lines and then retreating into the mountains. Our liaison system had broken down, and there was neither coordination of action nor mutual support between the different Ethiopian units. Chelikot-Antalo, near Mai Caich, and Adi Amheti were the scenes of continuing battle. In the latter, Dejazmach Makonnen Demissie tried to take fortified Italian positions. He advanced on horseback, but before long found himself up against barbed wire fitted with alarm signals. Italian machine guns mortally wounded him, and his men retreated.

Breda ethiopia

Battle of Antalo-Amba Aradom, 10 February 1936

News—bad news—of the battle of Antalo-Amba Aradom arrived on the 15th. The Italians had taken the excellent position, and this was to have grave consequences and seriously set back our future operations. The Amba Aradom-Debra Hoim line links the communities of Tembien and Alage, and communications had been good. Now, however, the troops of rases Kasa and Seyoum found themselves separated from those southeast of this line. This gave the Italians every chance to achieve their aim against our two forces, now isolated one from the other. It was disheartening, for Amba Aradom had been an excellent natural position held by Ras Mulugeta and his fresh and large army. About three to seven miles wide, this 6,000 feet high plateau had a natural rampart round it with caverns and natural ditches and fell steeply to the plains on all sides. It encouraged our men to glance in this direction, feeling the enemy could never take it. And now it had fallen into enemy hands and dampened the spirits of our men.[73]

During the night, I thought about this event. How could it have happened? The main cause was the unskilled generalship of our armies, their unpreparedness, and lack of training. The men, after all, were only peasants who had merely become “soldiers” because they had rifles thrust into their hands. They had no training whatever. With no schooling about what to do should the enemy attack, they immediately had to take their places on the battlefield. Old and tired, the ras found he was not the alert commander he should be, not being a military man by nature. Besides, he was unpopular among his troops. They thought him to be unmindful of their comfort and reluctant to spend money on improving it. The mountain must have been subject to heavy bombardment from both planes and artillery before the final assault, and the Italians had skillfully planned the operation.

Italian Propaganda

Soon after this, the Italians dropped leaflets from the air on our troops, saying in effect, “You said we could only fight behind our trenches and that in the open field you would immediately beat us. We beat the main army of the Negus—that of Ras Mulugeta—in their inaccessible position of Amba Aradom, and this army no longer exists. . . .” Ras Kasa showed me one of these pamphlets and asked me what I thought of it. From the tone of his voice and by his expression, I could tell his apprehension. Feeling perturbed, I told him the positions had not afforded the complete cover necessary against aerial bombardment combined with artillery fire, and our armies could not reply in the same way—we did not have the means. The Italians had concentrated their artillery fire and bombing, covering a wide area—everywhere Ethiopian soldiers had been. These bombardments had not caused great damage, not materially and not from the long-term point-of-view. The worst had been the effect of the defeat on the morale of our people.

Matters would become much worse when they began dropping gas bombs.

Second Tembien

The Second Battle of Tembien Begins, 27-28 February 1936

On 27 February at 7:00 a.m., artillery from the Italian lines opened fire against our forward positions at Amba Debra, Amba Work, and Debra Ansa. Ras Kasa and his staff were on a rocky hill into which Ethiopians had cut a church during the thirteenth century. When the Italians began their advance, they moved to Amba Debra. This was the third time our soldiers had to run to the ill-fated torrent of Tini River, and here again the Italians opened artillery fire and sent over their bombers. Evidently, the enemy had considerable forces at its disposal and this time intended to launch a serious offensive. I was with these men and on the road to Amba Debra, when I took cover in the large cave occupied by Ras Kasa and several priests. A service was taking place and the voices rang out with old, sad Ethiopian songs. Bells were ringing constantly and the air was thick with incense. Wounded men were beginning to arrive and among them were a major chief and a young man. These were from Dejazmach Diegne’s army, and they told us that when they heard the news about the Italian offensive, they immediately attacked, passing the first line of the Eritrean troops. They believed the Eritreans did not really wish to fight them, and the Eritreans allowed them to pass through unhurt, almost up to the Italian lines, when the Eritreans fired on them. One of the first killed was Dejazmach Diegne.

The battle was raging furiously. Men continued to file into the cave, and amid the crackle of artillery, the engines overhead, and the explosions of the falling bombs, we could barely hear the feeble noise of our rifles.

Dejazmach Meshesha Yilma, leading his Kambatas and having passed through the enemy troops of Amba Work, started to attack the Italians from the east.[74] His “bet askaris”—private servants, three hundred strong—after cutting the enemy’s line, got through the Italian camp itself. They then met another line of enemy troops, who attacked our small army on the flanks, causing heavy losses and retreat. The Dejazmach narrowly escaped falling prisoner. He told his Kambatas that in the morning they would recover their positions and they could open a further attack. Toward evening, the firing died down and I returned to my tent.

Early next morning—28 February—we learned the enemy had advanced in close lines and had surrounded both Amba Work and Debra Ansa. Their artillery literally cleared the path before them. Some of the shots fell close to Ras Kasa’s cave, and I saw that the situation indeed was critical. This time, it seemed, our troops had lost any possibility of escaping round the mountains, so some of them tried to pierce the enemy lines. Others tried to fight back and some ran away. All was utter chaos. The younger commanders tried their best to gather their soldiers around them to assemble a possible striking force, but these short halts cost us many lives. Meanwhile, the strong enemy troops were merely a few miles from Abbi Addi.

Dejazmach Ras Seyoum sent detachments of troops to stop the Italians.

They nobly attacked, but to no avail.

I went to Ras Kasa and asked him what our next move should be. With a smile on his tormented face, he welcomed me. He said we should retreat as soon as we could, or the Italians would surround us. “I advise you to go to Quoram and see the Emperor,” he added. “He has a large and fresh army at his disposal.”

“And you?” I asked

“Oh, I must stay here and defend Amba Debra,” he replied.

I tried to persuade him it would be better if all of us went to see the Emperor. There we could reorganize and continue the struggle. He just waved his hand. It was a difficult position for him. The Emperor had ordered him not to abandon Tembien. But the rout of Ras Mulugeta’s army had complicated things even more and had placed him in a hopeless situation.

Communications between here and the Emperor’s headquarters had broken, and he could send no word about his insurmountable difficulties. It was an impossibly unequal struggle.

That night we left toward Erbadoro with a caravan containing the ras’ luggage. We were only a few small columns of men. Our direction was eastward, our only possible chance of not meeting the Italians. Three airplanes discovered us early next morning and began to bomb our small party, sending whirlwinds of dust and smoke high over the valley as we made our way. We desperately searched for cover but found nothing until midday, when we stumbled on some caverns. By then, the Italians had killed fifteen of our escort, and we left them in that deep valley. By reaching the river once again, we heard the now all-too-familiar crackle of machine guns, which the Italians had placed to stop our escape. We changed direction. With us, we had the Red Cross ambulance manned by two Europeans, one Indian, and ten Ethiopians. We shared and divided between us the many difficulties and dangers of that march.

On the morning of 2 March, we met Ras Kasa with his brave and good sons, and Ras Seyoum. They had staunchly resisted the enemy for some days from their positions, but at last they had seen the utter uselessness of their position. They had decided to preserve the remnants of their army and try to join with the forces of the Emperor. Thus ended the Second Battle of Tembien. The losses suffered by our armies on the exodus from Tembien were heavier than before. Italian armies attacked us on the road. Nevertheless, we managed to get through. Bullets and cannon fire accompanied our evacuation, but the Italians surprisingly did not put forth a greater effort by committing heavier forces against us at this stage.[75]

Retreat to Quoram

At last we reached the sandy and waterless country, where at least the enemy would not follow. It was not until 17 March that we reached Hailu, but, alas, the torrent was now dry. By digging holes in the riverbed, some of our men managed to find enough of the precious liquid to quench their thirst. During the night, which was laden with bright starlight, I even heard for the first time in a long while the sound of conversation.

One middle-aged soldier said, “There are the old books in most of our monasteries, preserved by the monks. They prophesize many things—among others, that foreigners will enter our beloved country by force, and people will be unable to return to their homes for three whole years. The books say that in this time the Europeans will build all over the country. Buildings like those in Addis Ababa and good roads such as only they know how to construct. Then the peasants will return to their homes and become masters of these improvements. I had heard this prophecy before, but I did not believe then in its almost exact fulfillment.

After indescribable fatigue and privations, on 18 March we finally reached Quoram. We had crossed the mountains to the south of Quoram and the valley of lovely Lake Ashanghi.

All this time I had been with the sons of Ras Kasa, the Dejazmach Wondwossen and Abera Kasa. They were noble and charming young men and they had taken every possible care of me during their exhausting and exacting journey. Seven Italian prisoners, including an officer, accompanied us. Dejazmach Wondwossen had also taken care of these men, giving them his protection and what comfort he could in the way of bedding, tents, servants, food, and water. Eventually, the Italians mingled with our own soldiers, sharing their lives. Our men who had taken them prisoners and had wanted to kill them now had changed their minds and were calling these prisoners, “our Italians.” And so they too arrived in Addis Ababa, wrapped in the Abyssinian “shammas” and followed by their women servants.

On 19 March, the remnants of the armies of the two rases approached Quoram, looking like the people of the Great Exodus—peasants, women, boys, and beasts of burden carrying their modest belongings. Only this remained of the cheerful and lively band of fellows, who not long ago had marched lightheartedly into war.[76]

Many thousands of their countrymen lay scattered and dead in the valleys and on the mountains and plains of their beloved land in Tigrey, once the mighty and famous Axumite Empire. Looking, I pictured them, as happened so often, grabbing their rifles and vigorously running from all sides to meet the enemy, explosions and missiles flying round them and the continuous cracking of machine-guns mowing down rows and rows of them. And still they ran. Now the advances and retreats for almost half a year with heavy fighting and few supplies had exhausted their ammunition and spirit.

Approaching the Emperor’s headquarters, we saw the familiar scene of a large camp—many soldiers, horses, and mules; animation everywhere, campfires and movement.[77]

With the court’s chamberlain, we went up a narrow pathway to the Emperor’s cavern and His Majesty received us. He asked endless questions and wanted details on everything that had happened at the front. “Do you believe,” he asked, “that it was quite impossible to hold Tembien?” It was a difficult question, and I told him there had been occasions when we had allowed opportunities to slip by. I also pointed out that the Italians were far stronger than we had expected, and that, well-organized, they were good fighters with modern weapons and experience at their disposal. I asked the Emperor what the present general situation was. He told me that international sympathy was on our side. We should carry on normally. He then called for wine and apples. With a gentle smile, he said: “You have not eaten apples for some time?” Noting that our clothing was in a desperate state, he ordered campaign uniforms, blankets, and shoes. He allowed us to return to Addis Ababa with the Red Cross ambulance. Having reached the ambulance, however, I received a summons to return to the Emperor’s headquarters, where I

learned His Majesty had decided to start an advance to the north, crossing the valley of Lake Ashanghi.[78]

Абиссинский пулеметчик на линии фронта Адуа - Адди-Грат

Battle of Mychew: Ethiopian Preparations for the Attack at Mychew[79]

On the following day, he received me again. “I have decided,” the Emperor said, “to attack the Italians at their camp on Mychew. Before then, all our forces will assemble here, but I do not want to lose any time. Here is a sketch of their positions,” and he passed a sheet of paper to me with a smile, a deprecating smile. He remarked, “I am not an engineer and maybe my drawing is no good.” I looked at it. The mountains [were] drawn in perspective [and] the map was quite accurate. “Would you,” he continued, “go there with three of our “Saint-Cyrians”? Sketch for me a complete map of the region occupied by the enemy and prepare a plan so that our own troops shall be in their positions before the attack?”[80]

Therefore, with the three officers, graduates from the French military school, Saint-Cyr, I went to Mychew. From the heights before us spread the immense panorama. Right at the lowest point we could see the Debarre road crossed by the Amba Alage-Quoram road and the Mecan Pass (western). At the bottom lay the Italian camp, situated near the pass and the line of the Mecan hills. The entrenchments of their first lines were visible and something else behind them among the bushes. It looked as though their observation posts and artillery were on the high mountain of Amba Bohora. To the northeast, behind the first line of mountains and before the descending plain, mingled with the Ayeby Desert, we could see movement. It seemed the Italians were traveling along another route than Alage. Using large military binoculars, I could distinctly see the orderly lines of tents and the movement of men and animals right behind the camp. It was obvious the enemy was planning some maneuver and they were aware of our presence not far from their camp. I thought they could easily see the Emperor’s camp from the air. Behind the mountains to the northeast, the road was winding up to Lake Ashanghi. The Italians could surround this and threaten the road behind us, which could become our way of retreat.[81]

While I occupied myself with my observations, Ethiopian soldiers were arranging for the necessary equipment for any advancing staff and troops. Toward evening, the Emperor and Staff were in Moia and somewhat later, troops took up their positions in the neighborhood.

A meal was fed to the Emperor’s staff, the Imperial escort, the great chiefs, and down to the last soldier. His Majesty sat on an easy chair with our two rases on either side. We sadly noted the absence of poor Ras Mulugeta. Small basketwork tables replaced the usual board, and when I returned from my post, the meal was almost over. I showed my plans to the Emperor and he took notes. Among these orders was one [that stated] “Do not kill the enemy who surrenders—bring him behind the lines.”[82]

Giving me further information on the disposition of our troops, the Emperor ordered me to plan an attack. His resolution to attack immediately met with objections from some of the old chiefs, who protested that they were unprepared and that their units were still on the road. Mobilization in Ethiopia was no easy task. For example, traveling from south to north is a lengthy business. It is many hundreds of miles on foot, and though the head of a marching column might have arrived, it would be some time before they all reached their destination. Luggage, ammunition, provisions, and camping equipment was nearly always in the rear and carried by beasts which did not move fast and could not continue indefinitely without rest. The gift from Marshal Franchet d’Esperey to the Emperor—a 75mm gun[83]—did not arrive for a long while, and we had on the spot only a small-caliber cannon normally used for the accompanying infantry and some tens of Oerlikons. Machine-guns were of little use, being too heavy to carry for any length of time when the essence of the attack was speed and surprise.

The Emperor seemed exasperated by the delay in preparations and insisted firmly on the attack beginning as soon as possible. He wanted to lead his army personally as his august ancestors had done in historic battles of Ethiopia in the past.[84]

Priests served a solemn mass on the morning of 23 March, during which Italian planes circled overhead and began to bomb the neighborhood at times so close it seemed the cavern itself would collapse. The Emperor stepped outside and at that moment a plane passed along the slope where we stood. He turned to me and said: “Ils sont tres braves, ces pilots.” [They are very brave, these pilots.][85] Some of the old chiefs remarked they would give away two years of their salaries or would give someone two gashas of their land if only they could buy airplanes for their country in the future.[86]

The following day brought a still more concentrated attack by enemy airplanes. They killed many and wounded more in our lines. Dr. Melaku Bayegn, the Ethiopian surgeon, worked unceasingly, near the Emperor’s cavern.[87] The bombardment increased on 23 March and we again postponed our attack. I stressed that time was precious as daily Italian troops were becoming stronger in numbers and supplies. The Emperor agreed with me, but told me that his men were not yet ready and he wanted to wait still longer. He passed the days at the observation post, his eyes fixed to the binoculars, through which we could see reinforcements of men, materials, and mules arriving to the enemy’s lines, coming in from the mountains. Alongside the original Italian positions we could see increased activity preparing new positions and fortifying the old ones.

On 27 and 28 March, the Emperor ordered us to go closer to the enemy lines to observe. He spent most of the time at the post.

Nervousness and restlessness began to spread among us. The best time for the attack was slipping by. On the 28th, the Emperor fixed the date, but again rescinded the order to attack after a plea from the chiefs for one day more. That would be the eleventh day after our arrival at this position. Eleven days lost. The Emperor looked sadly at me and said, “I know myself that it is wrong, but there is nothing to do about it.”

There were obviously far more Italian troops ahead of us now than there had been the day of our arrival. The Italians had extended their lines and had fortified their positions. They had brought their reserves nearer. They knew the Emperor of Ethiopia was facing them with his last united forces, and they were ready to meet them.

After evening service on that Sunday, the Emperor left for the plateau covered with bush to see our modest artillery placed there. Between the plateau and our forces lay the plain and two miles of enemy. “May I have cover?” asked the Emperor. “Certainly, Sire, and at once,” I replied and with the workers of the Public Works we prepared a modest cover for His Majesty. “That is quite enough, “he [said and] interrupted our activity. “Just sit here and watch the enemy,” he ordered. A short while after when we passed through the positions of our own soldiers, we noted some of them were shooting into the air, excited by the presence of their Sovereign and the thought of their impending attack. We crossed the mountain and on the opposite slope we saw hundreds and hundreds of soldiers who had just arrived after a long and tiresome trek, lying exhausted on the ground.

On the morning of 30 March, the Emperor, with the chiefs and commanders of the Army, gained the plateau. Leaning against a tree, he had a long look at the Italian positions. Some days ago, he had said the defeat of his personal army would mean the end of everything. I recalled these words at the moment the Emperor was watching the Italian lines with great concentration. The scene in front of him seemed to charm his graceful figure and noble features in these dreadful circumstances. All of us stood in silence at a respectful distance. Suddenly, the Italian artillery opened fire, one missile flying close to the Emperor’s head. Those nearest him moved to push him back. Quickly he turned to us, “Colonel, give me the plans.” He took the papers and began to explain the general plan of attack, then the positions and movements of each individual chief, indicating the points to which they should march. All this time the Italian guns were firing at us continuously. Obviously, they had noticed our movement. The Emperor repeated his orders, urging everybody to remember his own positions for the future. We then returned “home” and ate in the open with the troops.

Trees and bushes covered our mountain position, and under every bush, behind every stone and boulder, in holes and ditches, and on the open ground lay our soldiers. By some chance or miracle, enemy planes had not discovered them, otherwise there would have been an untold number of victims. All signs and movement ahead told us the enemy was seriously preparing for attack; it looked too as if the Italians had scattered broken glass along their trenches, to catch our barefooted soldiers. However, later we found it was the juice of cactus, cut and quantities of it round the trenches that gave the impression of glass glinting in the sunshine.

The best time for our attack had passed. I could not hurry His Majesty. I saw his anxiety from the thought of dead and wounded men, his newly-arrived and weary soldiers, the general disorganization, and the knowledge that before us were rows and rows of strongly-fortified positions with vast Italian forces. However, the Emperor did not consider a change of plans.

He did not want to wait until the enemy made the first attack, knowing with their artillery and airplanes they could, through intense bombardment, compel us to abandon our positions. Besides, they could surround us and cut off our communication lines with the outside world. Retreat was out of the question, for the Ethiopian soldiers lacked discipline and once begun, they would immediately imagine they could return to their homes. Neither would this do credit to the honor of His Imperial Majesty and his personal army.

To surround the enemy was impossible. Should we bear down on an enemy not expecting an attack? But which front was that? Our front was a short line nearly perpendicular to the general direction of Dessie-Mekele. On the east, close by, were the steep escarpments falling away down to the Azeba and Raya Galeba, and then open country—impracticable for developing large numbers of troops. On the west, seventy miles away, where the Tekese River has its source, rose the highest massive in Ethiopia—the difficult mountains of Semien, 16,000 feet high. The Italians, with their forces concentrated in front of us, had probably not lost sight that we might try other tactics. With their aerial reconnaissance, they could immediately discover our movements and take their precautions and countermoves.

However, the question of the honor of Ethiopia was at stake, and the Emperor wanted to act at once. There was one hope—a sudden attack to cut the enemy’s frontlines, to break their morale and force them to retreat.

Toward midday on 30 March we went down to the small cavern, which the Ethiopians had prepared for such an occasion. His Majesty had invited some ten of us for lunch. The lunch went on, accompanied by the drone of engines, explosions of bombs, and the whistle of bullets aimed at the road behind us. Tired and nervous, the Emperor waited for the arrival of those forces, which last night should have crossed a small ravine to take up their positions from which to launch the attack.

Our plan put three rases in command—Kasa, Seyoum, and Getachew—the choices might have been better had the Emperor been able to break tradition by allowing younger and more alert men to take command. The Ethiopians would launch their attack on three different sectors. The three sections would march together to the south of the mountain situated to the southeast of the western Mecan pass. From there on, at twenty minute intervals, they would separate. Ras Seyoum’s column, three to four thousand men strong, would make for the northwest in a wide sweep, reaching the torrent of Mychew. Following the source of this river, he was to strike at the village of Mychew, where the enemy had a salient point subject to attack from both flanks.

Ras Kasa with his ten to twelve thousand men would make for the same direction, aiming at a smaller sweep and attack the enemy on the southeastern side of their second line of defense. Ras Getachew and his ten thousand men, among them the Imperial Guard, would attack on the eastern portion of the Italian first line. The plan included a fourth section which was to divert the enemy’s attention from these main sources of attack. This band would start from a point near the Moia pass, cross the region of Esba, and attack Amba Bohora. Having conquered that area, they would achieve ascendance over a portion of the Italian positions as the mountain dominated the neighboring ground for some distance. We thought the Italians would not expect the Ethiopian troops would undertake the difficult task of climbing this high mountain at that point when other slopes seemed far easier.

By evening, the Emperor again assembled his chiefs, and from a point near the enemy, he pointed out once more the enemy’s strong points and the lines by which they were to attack. “My place will be on the cactus hill,” the Emperor said, “From there I can see when I must send reinforcements and then send them out. I shall support and be with you.” The chiefs listened in silence, and I understood their feelings. The attack would demand their maximum efforts, both physical and moral. It would neither be an easy task nor a leisurely walk. Running along the uneven rocky ground under continuous fire, climbing up the rocky mountains, and eventually taking the fortified positions would not be easy either. The Emperor continued to give more and more detailed explanations.

By midnight, the Emperor declared zero hour. My place was with the guns to give technical assistance should their crews need it to keep our modest artillery in action. I felt emotionally tense waiting for the beginning of the attack.[88]

Map S5

The Battle of Mychew Begins

At 0530 out of the darkness of the night, as if by magic, the line of mountains ahead of me, silent and obscure until that moment, suddenly burst forth with thousands of bluish fires. They sparkled in rows, one behind the other. From behind those lines thundered canons. The battle, which would come to be known as the Battle of Mychew, had begun. This famous battle decided the destiny of an empire which had stood for thousands of years.[89]

The sun had not risen when the rifle fire on the Italian left flank had stopped.   Shortly after, the entire flank became silent. Here and there was smoke from burning fires. It looked as if the attack was progressing successfully. Planes, right from the beginning, were active. The larger ones were bombing, and the smaller types were flying almost at ground level and were machine-gunning our infantry.[90]

The units of men ordered to decoy the Italians scattered on the hills of Saefti and in the lower Esba region were everywhere. They also were to occupy Amba Bohora, if possible. If they succeeded, it would place the Italian right flank in a difficult position with our troops on the commanding mountain both behind and at the side of the Italian first and second lines. To cover this maneuver, several hundred of our soldiers, having crossed the small ravine, climbed the slopes near the village of Upper Esba and immediately attacked it. The rest of that unit followed the attacking troops, and already I could see part of their group had gained the summit of Amba Bohora. The Italians, however, had stationed large reserves behind this mountain. Had the Ethiopian soldiers dug themselves in there at once, they could have resisted and held their positions until the Emperor had sent his reinforcements, but unprepared and unaccustomed to this type of warfare, they had to retreat. The impetus of the attack barred them from carrying heavy machine guns, and once their cartridges were spent, the good they had achieved was all undone. However, they had almost achieved what had seemed impossible.

On the right, Ras Seyoum and his men met the colonial Italian troops occupying a belt between Mychew and Korbeta. After strenuous resistance, the enemy retreated toward Korbeta, where on the other side of the Mychew River there was another fortified belt of massed Italian troops. Having gone through a series of difficulties and repeated efforts of assault, our troops had to rest, and they stopped in front of the enemy’s position in the second line.

Although Ras Getachew’s column had been the last to leave, his advance was swifter than had been the rest. Among his troops were the units of the Imperial Guards, about whom Marshal [Pietro] Badoglio wrote: “The Imperial Guards with their high spirit and discipline. . . .”[91] Owing to their attack, they were in a more favorable position, and with more fighting zest than the others, they occupied the enemy’s positions in the first line of the left flank during the early hours of that morning. They continued without stopping, and they were in the second line where they met the main concentration of Italian troops and the fire of hundreds of machine guns. Here, for the Ethiopians to see, were the charred remains of the spacious manor of hereditary chiefs, with large compounds and inside courts. Being on the top of a hill, the Italians had used it as a fortress, ready-made for them. Here again our troops had been unable to carry their heavy machine guns owing to the speed of the attack when going was difficult. They carried their rifles and swords, but they did not have an unlimited supply of ammunition. Some of these troops had already reached the walls of the Italian redoubt, when the Italians met them with hand grenades from inside. The struggle reached a violent pitch. Ras Kasa’s column advanced more slowly and was not successful as the Italians brought their reserves against them and concentrated heavy fire on them. By evening, after the strenuous battle and repeated attacks, most of our troops had dug into their newly-gained positions on the small ridges between the Italian first and second lines and, sometimes, even more advanced positions.

The Emperor was among his men. All day, he had been under fire of enemy artillery and machine guns. Fitwrari Mekuria had pleaded with him to go behind the lines, but the Emperor upheld his position of Supreme Commander of the attacking army. In addition to the anxiety they felt about his personal safety, according to Ethiopian tradition, the Emperor’s death meant defeat and the army had to retreat.

Later in the evening, the firing ceased. Shooting, explosions, and planes gradually quieted as if war itself had grown tired of the long, intense, and feverish day’s work.

I went through the ravines to where the Emperor stood among some of his reserve troops and wounded men. His spirits still were high, animated although visibly tired, having been with his men at the advanced positions and eager to press on with the struggle. The tired men around had made shelter among the bushes, trees, and stones and were sitting or lying down.

Now that the noise of battle had died down, and on the arrival of the chiefs, the Emperor quietly gave more orders. Although less than a mile from the fighting front, it seemed to me at that moment we were far away. The tranquility of the scene gave the impression of security and made it difficult to realize that some little while ago a deadly and bitter struggle had been waged.[92]

Evaluations of the First Day’s Fighting

On the night of the 31st, we returned to our mountain. En route, I thought about our situation, feeling that our attack had not risen to expectations. We had not ousted the Italians, and our soldiers had occupied only one portion of their lines. Could we have done more?

First, of course, we did not have an accurate picture of the potential enemy forces. We knew that Marshal Badoglio, an experienced, able, prudent, and capable leader, had on the eve of the war gathered an enormous force of a magnitude we had not imagined. It was a formidable one. There were obviously many divisions in this decisive battle—at least six or eight, meaning ninety to one hundred and twenty thousand fighting men. And they had left nothing to chance—having already started building roads along which to move their transport. On our part, it was not merely a question of taking definite positions, for behind these lay other and greater resources and more reserves, with all the modern weapons available in limitless quantity. Not wanting to deprecate the fighting ability of the Italians, who fought well, I could only say to myself, “What could our own soldiers do against three or four times their number, with modern weapons and such constant supplies?”

We had launched our attack without the usual preparation of ensuring artillery fire on the enemy positions. Our artillery was insignificant and could do no harm and only give away our plans. The struggle was not only a battle in the open field, but also an attack on well-organized positions. The attacking troops had had to cross the barren, open plain under fire and had to cross and climb the steep slopes of the enemy’s fortifications, which in turn, they had to take from the entrenched enemy. Having done it, they had to move to the next and probably stronger position, and so it went. The only matter on which I could reproach the Ethiopian soldiers and chiefs was that according to their custom, they often did not finish the work begun. They liked to rest for a while, but “impetus does not tolerate interruption,” as the proverb says.

Another minor point was the disproportion of strength, causing the day’s failure and the difficult conditions under which we worked. The Ethiopian soldier had done what was humanly possible, and personally, I do not believe that there is any army which could claim better honors for themselves under these conditions. There was, after all, a certain measure of satisfaction with the day’s accomplishments[93].

Before leaving his troops, the Emperor spoke again to the chiefs, encouraging them. When we returned to the cavern, it was raining and we found no decent cover for the night.

In the early morning, the Emperor was at his observation post. He was eager to continue at once with the offensive, and so I went outside and listened to the talk of the soldiers as they told of the parts they had played in the battle. Some naive, some dramatic, the stories of these simple peasants whose lives the day before had been spared were interesting. It was obvious that according to what they thought, the event had been an ordinary one.

His Majesty told me, “I am happy we managed to attack the Italians. It was essential to our honor, but I never had any hope that we could vanquish them by one blow and reoccupy Debarre, Amba-Alage, and so on.”[94]

From our observation post, we could see few of our soldiers in the advanced positions where they had dug in the day before. The continuous firing had killed many. Others had hid in any cover available and some had retreated. And the Italians continued bombarding them. It was obvious that we could not continue yesterday’s achievement. To press on with an attack was impossible without reinforcements of men, ammunition, and guns. The Emperor, too, saw this. Through the binoculars, we watched the movement along the Italian lines, where they were engaging in some major operation. New troops were pouring in, and firing at our advance positions continued. Seeing the uselessness of their hopeless plight, many had begun to retreat.[95]

Having studied the scene for some time, the Emperor turned and asked me my opinion. I told him I thought it would be wiser to retreat and reassemble our forces for a later attack. Most of the chiefs agreed when the Emperor asked for their opinion.[96]

The same evening, we returned to the cavern at the mountains of Moia. At night this was a difficult journey, the cavern being near the top of the mountain, and a tired and deluded Emperor entered his cavern. Outside in the darkness we could hear, “Présentez armes” [present arms]. Sad and glum, the Emperor stepped into the improvised home, where he had spent many days before the attack. Suddenly, he stopped in the entrance and turned his head looking round as if he had forgotten something or had left something behind. Tired and exhausted, we were standing behind him, waiting respectfully. Everything was as we had left it except that one thing was missing—our hope, which seemed lost forever. This thought and feeling clouded the Emperor’s emaciated face. We had lost this hope on the rocky mountains, so difficult to attack and take, where now many hundreds of Ethiopia’s brave and cheerful children would remain forever.[97]

The Emperor sent for me to join him at supper. We had not eaten all day. His Majesty sat in the far corner of his tent, not touching his food and obviously despondent. At the sight of the Emperor’s sad and dark face, I felt the greatest compassion for this remarkable monarch facing insurmountable difficulties. I stood up exclaiming, “Your Majesty, all this will pass. You will see that everything will be as it was. Almighty God will not permit this unfairness. Here is the image of Saint George, which saved my life during the time of the Great War. Allow me to give it to Your Majesty, with my blessing.” And with this, I gave the Emperor my precious image. He accepted it, kissed it, and put it into his breast pocket.

In the early hours of the following morning, from our lofty position, where the cold was intense, a superb landscape view opened before us. The sea of clouds below had taken on the pink reflections from the slanting sun. Here and there, we could see through gaps in the cloud terraces, covered with ripening barley and green grass and trees.

Then an airplane approached our hideout and I went inside. In the large cavern, I heard the melancholic singing of priests with their tinkling bells. The scene before me, the singing, the incense, and the tired and dejected faces of the old and young chiefs and of the Emperor himself, at once brought my mind back to our sad and hopeless situation. I could not stay there and I left the cavern.[98]

Retreat and Ethiopia’s Swan Song

On 31 March to 3 April, we were marching to Quoram and to the south. Retreat is always disorganized and demoralizing, and we could not improve this situation in any way.[99]

Clearly, this was the Swan Song of the old, traditional, patriarchal Ethiopia. In its life and organization, Ethiopia lacked two essential things—study and training. The gap was too wide between it and European progress in intellect and culture. Ethiopia could not bridge this gap at once, nor could it hold out in a collision with a highly industrialized European power despite patriotic ardor and heroic resistance.

Out of this chaos a new Ethiopia had to emerge—more adaptable to modern conditions of life and, among the peoples of the world, knowing with whom to mix. The world from which it had managed so thoroughly to shut itself off, and where, according to the old Roman saying, “homo homini lupus est” [man is a wolf to his fellow-man].[100]

The Italians Enter Addis Ababa

Once Addis Ababa was full of returning soldiers, every rumor began to circulate. The mob decided to destroy and take all they could, so to leave nothing for the incoming enemy.

For three days, the town was agitated and disordered. For the first time in their millennia-old history, the Ethiopian people found itself without its own familiar authorities to guide them. The agents of the legal Ethiopian power now lost their authority, as though dismissed by the national catastrophe itself. Unknown forces were approaching the capital, forces that were to be masters of the situation as soon as they arrived.

At noon on 5 May, the town became more-or-less silent as inhabitants whispered that the enemy was near. Toward three in the afternoon—first barely audible, and then louder and louder—they heard a continuous throbbing of many engines. Coming from the direction of the Italian advance, the sound increased as the head of a seemingly endless column of big Italian lorries appeared on the main road.

The column advanced slowly. Many military motorcycles equipped with light machine-guns began to occupy bridges, crossroads, and other points of the town. The young, sunburned Italian soldiers cramming the lorries entered the town singing, uplifted by the conquest of this old African Empire. The Fascist war machine, which had organized this capture, had promised them a happy future in the vast and rich Ethiopian lands.

There was only one snag—the country belonged to others, but they did not let this concern them too greatly.

The inhabitants of the capital stayed in their houses; the streets were empty and the people gazed out of their small windows at the passing column.

The conqueror, Marshal Badoglio, escorted by light tanks, arrived some time later. The new Duke of Addis Ababa spent the evening paying a visit to the French Legation.

1936 badoglio

[1] Czeslaw Jeśman, The Russians in Ethiopia: An Essay in Futility (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975), pp. 143-149.

[2] Teferi Mekonnen took Ethiopia’s crown as Emperor Haile Sellase in 1930. See Chris Prouty and Eugene Rosenfeld, Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1982), pp. 91-93.

[3] Col. Th. Konovaloff, Con le armate del negus (Un bianco fra i neri) [With the Army of the Negus (A White among the Blacks)], trans. and ed. Comandate Stefano Miccichè (Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1938), v-x

[4] Emperor Yohannes IV founded Mekele as his capital when he relocated his power base there in 1881. The city is important to Tigrey’s economy. Adowa was once Tigrey’s capital and site of Ethiopia’s dramatic victory over Italian forces on 1 March 1896. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, p. 5.

[5] Ras Seyoum Mengesha served several times as governor of Tigrey. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, p. 168. Similar to “Duke,” Ras means “head,” the highest traditional title next to negus [king], and is a title conferred on heads of important houses, provincial governors, ministers, and high officials. During the Italian occupation, the rases lost their privileges.

[6] The province of Tigrey includes Aksum, the site of Ethiopia’s earliest kingdom. Before 1935, the central government tried to impose its will over the recalcitrant Tigreyans by dividing the governorship or by imposing a Shewan governor over them.

[7] Fedor Eugenievich Konovalov, “The Konovaloff Manuscript,” Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, pp. 307-309; Anthony Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War: The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935-1941 (New York: Random House, 1984), pp. 51, 60; George Lowther Steer, Caesar in Abyssinia (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1937), p. 298; Richard Pankhurst, “Le diverse versioni della testimonianza dell’colonnello Konovaloff sull’invasione fascista dell’Etiopia.” [Different Versions of Colonel Konovalov’s Testimony on the Fascist Invasion of Ethiopia] Studi Piacentini: Rivista dell’Istituto storico della Resistenza e dell’età contemporanea, vol. 17, 1995, p. 157.

[8] On Mychew, see Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, pp. 123-124.

[9] Founded by Empress Taytu in 1887 as Ethiopia’s new capital, “Addis Ababa” means “New Flower” in Amharic. Located in the center of the country on a large plateau in Shewa Province, it is the center of Amhara life and culture and is Ethiopia’s political, financial, and communications center. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, p. 4.

[10] Konovalov, “Manuscript,” pp. 310-346; Pankhurst, “Diversi versioni,” p. 157; Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War, p. 83.

[11] Pankhurst, “Diverse versioni,” pp. 157-159. I have not been able to find the French language draft of the story, and, apparently, neither has Dr. Pankhurst. Born in 1927 in London into a progressive, left-wing family, Richard Pankhurst received his Ph.D. in Economic History. He moved to Ethiopia in 1956 and began teaching at the University College of Addis Ababa. One of Ethiopia’s foremost historians, he has published nearly twenty books and more than 400 articles on the country.

[12] Steer, Caesar, p. 284.

[13] Ibid., p. 298.

[14] Ibid., pp. 299-338.

[15] Ibid., e.g., see pp. 307-308, and 316.

[16] Angelo Del Boca, Gli italiani in Africa orientale: La Conquista dell’Impero Roma (Bari: Laterza, 1979), p. 366, n. 56.

[17] In 1963, Richard Pankhurst founded The Institute of Ethiopian Studies, the oldest of the five research institutes within the Addis Ababa University system.

[18] Pankhurst, “Diversi versioni,” pp. 159-160. This manuscript, I.E.S. No. 827, carries the title, La guerra italo-etiopica vista da un testimone [The Italo-Ethiopian War As Seen by a Witness]. Other foreign, contemporary observers referred to Italy’s use of gas. John William Scott Macfie, An Ethiopian Diary: A Record of the British Ambulance Service in Ethiopia (London: University Press of Liverpool, 1936), e.g., p. 117; Kathleen Nelson and Alan Sullivan, John Melly of Ethiopia (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), e.g., p. 214; Marcel Junod, Warrior Without Weapons (New York: Macmillan, 1951), pp. 42-45; John Hathaway Spencer, Ethiopia At Bay: A Personal Account of the Haile Sellassie Years (Algonac, MI: Reference Publications, 1987), p. 47; Steer, Caesar, p. 8. For a few of the articles in The New York Times on Italy’s use of gas, see 17, 31 March; 4, 10, 15, 26 April; and 3 May 1936.

[19] St. Mark founded the Coptic Church in approximately 42 AD. Composed of Egyptians who had converted to Christianity in the second and third centuries, the Church developed its own language, Coptic, a combination of Greek and Arabic, to translate the Bible. Its patriarch was one of early Christendom’s most powerful figures. Holding the Monophysite doctrine, its followers left the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Coptic Church belongs to the Eastern Orthodox family of churches. The patriarchate is in Alexandria, though the Patriarch usually lives in Cairo. He chose Ethiopia’s first bishop in the fourth century. Despite interruptions, the See of St. Mark kept its privilege to name a Copt as abun [head] of Ethiopia’s church for fifteen centuries. With an Ethiopian appointed as abun, the Ethiopian church became independent between 1948 and 1950.

[20] Thomas M. Coffey, Lion by the Tail: The Story of the Italian-Ethiopian War (New York: The Viking Press, 1974), pp. 314-315; Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War, p. 115.

[21] Del Boca, Gli italiani, p. 366.

[22] Ibid. Although the claim of Ras Kasa Darge, 1881-1956, to Ethiopia’s throne was equal to Haile Sellase’s, he remained loyal to his cousin, the Emperor. The Italians killed three of his four sons. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, p. 112.

[23] Del Boca, Gli italiani, p. 366.

[24] Ibid.; Konovalov, Con le armate, xi.

[25] Konovalov, Con le armate, p. 26.

[26] Pankhurst, “Diversi versioni,” pp. 160-163.

[27] Ibid., p. 161.

[28] Konovalov, Con le armate, p. 187. Many philo-fascist works of this period emphasize this lack of ethnic unity, e.g., Edward William Polson Newman, Ethiopian Realities (London: Allen and Unwin, 1936) and Charles Fernand Rey, The Real Abyssinia (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969/1935). Compare Rey’s earlier work, Unconquered Abyssinia As It Is To-Day (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1924) for its more sympathetic view, e.g., pp. 305-306 where he asserts that a powerful Ethiopia would benefit the surrounding colonies held by Italy, France, and Great Britain.

[29] Konovalov, Con le armate, p. 210; Pankhurst, “Diversi versioni, pp. 162-163.

[30] Konovalov, Con le armate, p. 214.

[31] Del Boca, Gli italiani, p. 694. See also James Dugan and Laurence Lafore, Days of Emperor and Clown: The Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973), pp. 283-284, 289-290 and Edward Ullendorff, trans., The Autobiography of Emperor Haile Selassie I: “My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress,” 1892-1937 (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 291-292.

[32] Colonel Alejandro del Valle, Un hombre blanco en el infierno negro por el Coronel Alejandro del Valle [A White Man in a Black Hell by Colonel Alejandro del Valle], as told to Arturo Alfonso Roselló (Havana: Impreso en los Talleres Tipograficos, 1937). This work tells the story of a Cuban volunteer, Colonel Alejandro del Valle, who, like Konovalov, served at the northern Ethiopian front. Its anti-Ethiopian perspective is clear between the title and the photographs of mutilated Italian corpses at the end of the book.

[33] Pankhurst, “Diversi versioni,” p. 163.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Popolo d’Italia; 31 December 1937; Konovaloff, Con le armate, v-x; Pankhurst, “Diversi versioni,” p. 163.

[36] Jeśman, Russians, p. 148.

[37] Coffey, Lion, p. 314.

[38] Del Boca, Gli italiani, pp. 619-639.

[39] Jeśman, Russians in Ethiopia, p. 148.

[40] Zewditu Menilek ruled Ethiopia as empress from 1916 to 1930. Teferi Mekonnen, her second cousin, was her regent. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, p. 191.

[41] Konovalov, “Konovaloff Manuscript,” pp. 84-90.

[42] For Pankhurst’s discussion of the manuscript, see his “Diversi versioni,” pp. 164-166. Pankhurst complains that Konovalov still does not discuss Italy’s use of poison gas. Pankhurst is wrong in detail; Konovalov mentions gas twice. But he is correct in wondering why Konovalov did not discuss this more. See p. 164.

[43] “Patriots” designates those who resisted the Italians between 1936 and 1941. These leaders were often provincial or local chiefs from important land-owning families. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, pp. 144-146.

[44] Pankhurst, “Diversi versioni,” pp. 166-200, covers pages 307-367 in the manuscript. There appear to be fourteen pages missing from the manuscript copy, likely dealing with British military operations.

[45] Negadras means “Head of merchants.” Originally the leader of a merchant caravan, later Negadras came to signify a chief government official in charge of collecting customs.

[46] Aksum is the name of the ancient kingdom in northern Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant, brought from Jerusalem in the tenth century BC, rests in the sanctuary of St. Mariam Tseyon. This is the basis of Aksum’s status as Ethiopia’s holiest place.

[47] An amba is a flat-topped mountain.

[48] A Fitwrari commanded the advance guard and represented the rank below Dejazmach. In the civilian context, those loyal to the Emperor received this title.

[49] See Coffey, Lion, pp. 148-149. For more on Ras Seyoum’s unfamiliarity with modern warfare, see Haggai Erlich, “Tigrean Politics 1930-1935 and the Approaching Italo-Ethiopian War,” in Gideon Goldenberg and Baruch Podolsky, eds., Ethiopian Studies: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference, Tel-Aviv, 14-17 April 1980 (Boston: A.A. Balkema, 1986), pp. 116-117.

[50] Askari: Italian, British, Portuguese, German, and Belgian colonial powers in East Africa locally recruited askari soldiers. They helped in the initial conquest of the various colonial possessions and afterward served as garrison and internal security forces. Askari units often served outside the boundaries of their colonies of origin.

[51] Mesqel means “Cross.” The Feast takes place at the end of the rains and the beginning of the Ethiopian New Year. Rooted in ancient animist and Hebraic celebrations, the festival of finding the True Cross begins with open-air, morning religious ceremonies and reaches its climax when the participants light a great bonfire on which they throw sticks and yellow flowers, called “Mesquel” daisies. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, pp. 131-132.

[52] Tewodros II was Emperor between 1855 and 1868. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, pp. 171-172.

[53] Dejazmach Gebre Mariam served Haile Sellase in various court appointments and later as an official in the Interior Ministry. He died in action in 1936. Dejazmach means “Commander of the Door,” the individual in war camp who resided near the door of the Emperor’s tent. Dejazmach signified a senior court official, general, district chief, etc. and was a politico-military title below Ras.

[54] From England, John Bell was one of the most prominent Europeans of mid-nineteenth century Ethiopia. The reforming Emperor Tewodros II appointed him as his Court Chamberlain.

[55] Yohannes IV was Emperor from 1872 to 1889. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, pp. 188-189.

[56] Kagnazmatch signified the commander of the right wing of the army and was a politico-military rank above Grazmatch. In civilian life, the title was bestowed on district governors.

[57] See Coffey, Lion, pp. 162-163.

[58] On Dejazmach Haile Sellase Gugsa, including his desertion to the Italians, see Erlich, “Tigrean Politics,” pp. 109-113, 117-121.

[59] For the fierce battle of Shire, where the Italians used mustard gas, see Richard Pankhurst, “A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia. 10: Anglo-French Diplomacy, and the Initial Italo-Ethiopian Campaign of 1935-6,” Addis Tribune, 13 March 1997.

[60] Balambaras means “head of an amba,” a low-level administrative title given to a local civilian leader. It also refers to a commander of a fort.

[61] Actually, “sink” means “provisions” made of different ingredients for long-term preservation.

[62] For an enthusiastic endorsement of the effectiveness of Italian air operations in Ethiopia, see E.W. Polson Newman, Italy’s Conquest of Abyssinia (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1937), pp. 256-283.

[63] See Coffey, Lion, p. 216.

[64] For Ras Mulugeta’s role in the campaign, see C. Burgoyne, “Lost Month in Ethiopia,” Ethiopia Observer, vol. 11, 1967, pp. 246-346.

[65] Amba Aradom is a vast mountain, about twelve miles south of Mekele and slightly west of the Asmara-Addis Ababa road.

[66] Dejazmach Wondwossen, 1903-1936, was Ras Kasa’s eldest son and for many years a governor. He continued to fight against the Italians until killed in December 1936.

[67] Lij, literally “boy” or “child” was an honorific title generally reserved for sons of the royal family and upper nobility.

Those Ethiopians who studied in Europe before the Second Italo-Ethiopian War often came away from their experiences with a sense of the need to Japanize their country. The MA thesis entitled Pourquoi et comment pratiquer une politique d’assimilation en Éthiopie [Why and How to Practice Politics and Assimilation in Ethiopia], which Tedla Haile Modja Guermami defended before a panel at the Université Coloniale d’Anvers in July 1930, demonstrated the point. He had gone to Belgium in 1924, and he returned to Ethiopia at the time of the coronation in 1930. After being employed three years in the foreign ministry, he became consul at Asmara in 1935. Faërber-Ishihara Hidéko, “Heruy, le Japon et les ‘japonisants,’” in Alain Rouaud, ed., Les orientalistes sont des aventuriers. Guirlande offerte à Joseph Tubiana par ses élèves et ses amis (Paris: Sépia, 1999), p. 147. See also Richard Pankhurst, “Tedla Hailé, and the Problem of Multi-Ethnicity in Ethiopia,” Northeast African Studies, 1998, pp. 81-96.

[68] For Ethiopia’s “Christmas Offensive,” see Pankhurst, “Anglo-French Diplomacy,” Addis Tribune, 13 March 1997.

[69] Abbi Addi, the principal town of Tembien and for some time the headquarters of rases Kasa and Seyoum.

[70] Dejazmach Abera Kasa, 1905-1936, was one of the three sons of Kasa Hailu who lost their lives fighting Italy. With his brother Asfawossen, a small number of soldiers, and Abuna Petros, he attacked Addis Ababa in July 1936. A disaster, Abera surrendered a little later, and the Italians executed him in December 1936. Prouty and Rosenfeld, Dictionary, p. 1.

[71] Pankhurst believes that Konovalov was mistaken and was not referring to Beke, but to the British consul Walter Plowden. See “Diversi versioni,” p. 199 n. 34. Beke, 1800-1874, was a British explorer in Ethiopia, between 1840 and 1843.

[72] Fitwrari Zewdu Aba Korem, 1895-1954, fought with great courage in the war and became a provincial governor after the restoration. He later became Dejazmach. Ullendorff, Haile Selassie, p. 266.

[73] Again, the Italians used mustard gas. See Pankhurst, “Anglo-French Diplomacy,” 13 March 1997.

[74] Menilek II conquered Kembatta between 1890 and 1893. Its people are nominally Christian, but they also practice many old Cushitic rites and are of mixed Sidamo and Amhara-Tigrey ancestry.

[75] See Pankhurst, “Anglo-French Diplomacy,” 13 March 1997 and Coffey, Lion, pp. 296-297.

[76] Steer begins his version of Konovalov’s story here. See Steer, Caesar, p. 299.

[77] See Ibid., pp. 299-300.

[78] See Ibid., pp. 300-301 and Coffey, Lion, 311-313.

[79] See Steer, Caesar, pp. 304-309

[80] See Ibid., p. 301.

[81] See Ibid., 301-02. Interestingly, Konovalov now does not talk about disguising himself as a priest and infiltrating Italian lines. Nor does he estimate the numbers of Italian soldiers.

[82] See Ibid., pp. 302-303.

[83] The “gift” was more than five years old, given during the Emperor’s coronation in November 1930.

[84] See Steer, Caesar, p. 303.

[85] See Ibid., p. 305 and Coffey, Lion, p. 314.

[86] Gasha was a traditional Ethiopian measure of land, standardized at forty hectares. See Steer, Caesar, pp. 303-304.

[87] See W.R. Scott, “Malaku E. Bayen: Ethiopian Emissary to Black America, 1936-1941,” Ethiopia Observer 15, 1972, pp. 132-138.

[88] See Coffey, Lion, p. 315 and Steer, Caesar, pp. 309-311.

[89] See Steer, Caesar, p. 311.

[90] See Ibid., p. 311.

[91] Pietro Badoglio served with the Italian army in Eritrea in1896 and Libya in 1912. He rose to the rank of general in World War I and was governor of Libya from 1929 to 1933. Having replaced Emilio De Bono as head of Italy’s troops in Ethiopia, he approved the use of poison gas and finally captured Addis Ababa in May 1936.

[92] See Steer, Caesar, p. 312.

[93] See Ibid., pp. 312-314.

[94] See Ibid., p. 314 and Coffey, Lion, pp. 322-323.

[95] See Steer, Caesar, p. 314.

[96] See Ibid., pp. 314-315

[97] See Ibid., pp. 315-321.

[98] Richard Pankhurst, “A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia. 11: May Chaw and Badoglio’s Occupation of Addis Ababa,” Addis Tribune, 20 March 1997.

[99] See Steer, Caesar, pp. 316-338 for a more detailed discussion of the end of the Battle of Mychew and the retreat to Addis Ababa than is in the Hoover Institution manuscript.

[100] Pankhurst ends his translation here.