Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
11. May Chaw and Badoglio’s Occupation of Addis Ababa
We saw last week how the the Italian Fascist army began to advance on Addis Ababa in the early Spring of 1936. Now read on:
Badoglio and Graziani’s Manifestly Incorrect Picture of the War
In considering official Italian accounts of the war it should be noted that the fascist use of gas is fully substantiated, and was known indeed at the time throughout the world. Any mention of gas was, however, strictly excluded from the Italian press, which was highly censored. The use of gas is likewise entirely concealed in all the subsequent writings of Badoglio, Graziani and all other Italian officers, which therefore give a manifestly incorrect picture of the war. No mention was likewise made of the deliberate fascist bombing of international Red Cross units. The Italian Ministry of Defence, even more remarkably, refused, for almost sixty years, to admit that gas had been used in Ethiopia, until forced to do so in 1995, largely through the persistant efforts of an Italian professor Angelo Del Boca.
The Battle of May Chaw
Meanwhile, towards the end of March 1936, the Emperor, whose army had not yet been engaged in the battle, decided on a final counter-attack, aimed at driving the invaders back from May Chaw in southern Tegray. This move ran counter to his general advice to the chiefs that they should avoid a direct engagement with the enemy, and instead organise guerrilla resistance. The attack was delayed for over a week, until 31 March, which gave the Italians time to entrench themselves. The Emperor’s men, and his bodyguard in particular, attacked with great determination, but were unable to breech the Italian defences, the more so as they were soon subjected to heavy bombing and extensive mustard gas attacks from the air.
The Ethiopian army, after thirteen hours’ fighting, was obliged to abandon its offensive, after which it was attacked by the Rayya and Azebo people, whom the Italians had encouraged to rebel. The Emperor’s soldiers, forced to retreat, made their way southwards towards the Ashangi plain, where they were once more subjected to heavy bombing. Cesco Tomasseli, an Italian observer, wrote: “Wave after wave of bombers with full loads hammered their main objective, the Ethiopian columns making for the east shore… the bombs exploded among the dense mass of fugitives”. Mustard gas was also extensively used. “Of all the massacres of the terrible and pitiless war”, the Emperor later recalled, “this was the worst. Men, women, pack animals were blown to pieces or fatally burned by mustard gas. The dying, the wounded, screamed with agony. Those who escaped the bombs, fell victim to the deadly rain. The gas finished off the carnage the bombs had begun. We could do nothing to protect ourselves against it”. After the defeat at May Chaw the Ethiopian northern army disintegrated.
The Emperor, a broken man, made his way back to his capital, halting only for a brief stay to pray at Lalibala.
The Fascist Occupation of Addis Ababa
After his victory at May Chaw, Badoglio continued his southward advance towards Addis Ababa. This, in the absence of good roads, took him a little over a month, and led to his occupation of the Ethiopian capital on 5 May 1936.
Although the war was decided on Ethiopia’s northern front, considerable fighting also took place to the south and south-east of the country. The invading forces there were, however, far less numerous than those in the north. They were commanded by one of fascist Italy’s most ruthless colonial generals: Rodolfo Graziani, who had earlier served in Italian North Africa, where he had earned the nickname, `hyena of Libya’. He was opposed in the south by two of the Emperor’s sons-in-law, Ras Dasta Damtaw and Dajazmach Bayana Mared, and in the southeast by the governor of Harar, Dajazmach Nasibu Za-Emanu’el. Unlike the traditional Rases in command of the northern front, they were all three members of Ethiopia’s younger generation.
Grazmach, posthumously Dajazmach, Afawarq
Graziani, lacking anything like the men and material available to Badogio, played, to his disgust, a subordinate role in the campaign. Some of the fiercest fighting was played at Qorahe, referred to by the Italians Gorahai, a strategic Ethiopian post in southern Ogaden. One of the most heroic acts on the Ethiopian side was played by Grazmach (posthumously Dajazmach) Afawarq Walda Samayat, who personally operated one of the Ethiopian army’s few anti-aircraft guns. Faced by repeated enemy bombing, he was seriously wounded, but, determined to maintain the morale of his men, refused to abandon his antiaircraft gun. He died of a gangrenous leg, which could almost certainly have been cured had he agreed to leave his post for hospital treatment.
After Afawarq’s death, Qorahe soon fell, on 7 November – the day before De Bono’s occupation of Maqale. Italian forces then proceeded to capture Negelli, and later several posts in Ogaden. Graziani failed, however, to reach Harar until after Badoglio’s capture of Addis Ababa.
The Emperor’s Departure for Europe
The Emperor, who had returned to Addis Ababa on 30 April 1936, left the city almost immediately afterwards, on 2 May, to escape the invader, as well as to lay the cause of Ethiopia before the world. He was accompanied by his family and several of his closest associates.
Haile Sellassie’s departure, which shocked many of his subjects, was followed by a break-down of public order in the capital, and extensive looting. This is believed to have been started by several patriotic individuals, who sought to deny Addis Ababa to the invader, as the Russians had burnt Moscow prior to the advent of Napoleon’s army in 1812. Much of the destruction resulted, however, from mob violence, directed mainly against the business quarter by the destitute section of the population. The Italians, on reaching the capital, on 5 May therefore found Addis Ababa a city of ruins, with many foreigners seeking refuge in their legations.
Mussolini’s Proclamation of the Fascist Empire
Four days later Mussolini proclaimed the successful end of the war, and triumphantly declared: “Ethiopia is Italian”. Ethiopians continuing to resist were thereafter regarded as rebels, and, as such, were liable to immediate execution, without trial, even after surrender. Those so killed included two of the Emperor’s sons-in-law, Ras Dasta Damtaw and Dajazmach Bayana Mared, and three of Ras Kasa’s sons, Abarra, Asfa Wassan and Wand Bawassan.
The Emperor and his party had meanwhile travelled by train to Jibuti. He sailed thence, under British protection, to Haifa, and drove to Jerusalem, to pray in the Ethiopian church there. He then took ship, through the Mediterranean, to England, where he was to be given asylum in Bath, in the west of the country, for almost five years.
The Emperor’s Speech at Geneva
On 30 1936 June he made his way to Geneva to address the League of Nations. In his speech, one of the highlights of his career, he outlined, in coniderable detail, the `crimes’ committed by the invaders against his people, and asked the delegates the forceful question, “What answer am I to take back to my people?” His quiet dignity, which contrasted with the boisterous behaviour of a group of of Italian journalists who had to be removed from the hall, made a deep impact on international opinion. The League’s answer was, however, to vote, on 4 July, for the ending of sanctions.
From the outset, Italy’s unprovoked aggression, the dilatory action, or non-action, of the League of Nations, and the fascist use of poison-gas had made a deep impact on international opinion. Societies dedicated to the support of Ethiopia were founded in Britain, the United States, Holland, and a number of other democratic countries. Two pro-Ethiopian newspapers were established: New Times and Ethiopia News, edited by the former Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, in Britain; and the Voice of Ethiopia, by an Ethiopian medical doctor, Melaku Bayen, in the United States.
The invasion had a no less significant impact in Africa, and among people of African descent throughout the world. Not untypical was the reaction of Kwame Nkrumah, the former Ghana leader, who was then a student. He relates in his biography that he was in London, on the way to the United States, when he saw the newspaper poster, `MUSSOLINI INVADES ABYSSINIA’. He was immediately seized by a violent emotion. `At that moment’, he writes, `it was almost as if the whole of London had declared war on me personally. For the next few minutes I could do nothing but glare at each impassive face, wondering if these people could realise the wickedness of colonialism, and praying that the day might come when I could play my part in bringing about the downfall of such a system. My nationalism surged to the fore; I was ready to go through hell itself, if need be, in order to achieve my object’.
Opposition to the invasion was also voiced by many Italian anti-fascists, among them Carlo Rosselli, an exile in France, who edited the emigr newspaper Giustizia e Liberta, He was later assassinated in Paris, on Mussolini’s personal orders.
Recognition and Non-Recognition
Despite widespread popular opposition Italy’s “conquest” of Ethiopia was recognised by most of the world, most notably by Britain in April 1938. Eden, who had opposed Prime Minister Chamberlain’s policy of conciliation with Mussolini, had resigned two months earlier, the second British Minister to leave office as a result of the Italo-Ethiopian war. A few countries meanwhile refused to recognise the “conquest”. They were the United States, the Soviet Union, Mexico, New Zealand, and Haiti.