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Series: Ethiopian Patriots
11. Approaching the European War
We saw last week that the Duke of Aosta, who replaced Graziani as Viceroy, for tactical reasons adopted a somewhat more “liberal” approach than his predecessor. The new policy was desirable, and almost essential, for the Italian leadership, which knew it would soon be at war with the British and French, and could not afford further to alienate the “native” population, whose opposition could be decisive in the international struggle ahead.
General Nasi’s Change in Policy
The new fascist approach was apparent in a memorandum by General Nasi, issued on 6 March 1940, just over three month’s before Mussolini’s entry into the European war. Its author, hitherto one of Graziani’s most loyal followers, entitled his paper ‘Voglio ascari, non voglio razziatori” (“I want soldiers; I do not want raiders”). Urging that “the moment has come to act against those remnants of rebel formations which, fed with hopes of a very active foreign propaganda,” had not “wanted to believe in my offers of peace,” he stated that, before giving orders to begin police operations he wished to express his will to all the troops that would be called upon to take part in the fighting, and enumerated the following points:
“(1) The campaign is undertaken against rebels and not against the poor peoples of the regions haunted and plundered by them. So I do not permit on any condition raids, fires, acts of violence, or ill treatments which surely would not hit those whom we want to hit surely would not hit those whom we want to hit.
“(2) The Commanders of battalions, of bandas, and of smaller detached units, must prevent and repress these crimes for which, in every case, they are responsible…
“(3) The above-mentioned commanders, without thereby avoiding consequent penal or disciplinary action, must in every case on the spot, compensate the losses suffered at the expense of those guilty, or collectively at the expense of the detachment.
“(4) The people, who in the main have returned to their houses, prepared the soil for new sowing, have shown trust in us. That trust should be strengthened and confirmed by the ascaris who are fed, clothed and paid by the Italian Government which they also represent”
Nasi concluded by arguing that the soldiers had “nothing to do but to be honest men,” and that they would “know how to be that if they are supported and guided by the iron will of the officer. But it is necessary”, he added, that the officer should first be convinced that in fact it is not true that “colonial warfare and raiding are synonymous”, and that colonial troops “cannot subsist” without raidings.
“Of these dangerous supermen, carriers of infectious microbes, I have already made a clean sweep and I have decided to continue.
“Moral: I want to eliminate the rebels, I do not want to create new and more implacable ones, and I am even inclined to let some of the old ones escape rather than repeat the errors and the crimes which colonial history quotes as the reasons for revolts in all times and all countries.”
Such more “liberal” principles, however, were not easy to enforce, and a week or so later the general was forced to repeat his instructions. Implicitly overturning the policy of his former commander, Graziani, he declared: “I earnestly recommend that rebels surrendering in battle or who are captured in any other way, should not be shot, but be transferred to prison camps. It is necessary to put an end to the legend that our troops do not spare even those who surrender, which is always an act of cowardice in order not to push others to a desperate resistance who today have no further will to resist.” And lest it were thought that these recommendations were only altruistic he added: “these prisoners may supply us with precious forced labour.”
Stalemate in 1939
By 1939, the year of the outbreak of the European war, a stalemate seems to have developed. The Italians, as we have seen, had failed to crush the Patriots, but the latter, found themselves unable to dislodge the invaders from their heavily fortified positions. Ciano, on 1 January 1939, noted that the Duce was “very much dissatisfied about the situation in East Africa,” and added: “Amhara is still in a state of complete revolt, and the sixty-five battalions that are stationed there, are compelled to live in Fortini,” i.e. small forts.
A similar picture was drawn by the “Daily Telegraph” corespondent in Egypt, who reported, in February, that foreign traders in Ethiopia stated that the “rebels” were “very active”, and “roamed the whole country. The Italians”, he added, “hold only the towns, and it is dangerous for anyone to venture even a few miles out of Addis Ababa.” The consensus of opinion among merchants, he thought, was therefore that Italy was “unlikely to attack France. . . partly because the Abyssinians would take the opportunity to intensify their revolt.” Continued Patriot activity was likewise recognised by R. G. Woolbert, a student of Ethiopian affairs, who declared, in June 1939. that “neutral observers are agreed that there is still considerable resistance on the part of the Ethiopians.”
Patriot strength was also admitted by General Nasi. Reporting on the situation in Shoa at the end of 1939, he estimated that Ras Abebe Aregay still had 18,000 rifles, and declared, revealingly, that the chief’s organisation, “which embraced all Shoa, was much more solid than we thought.”
The British journalist George Steer, who had a chance to talk to many of the Patriots, felt that they had, however, by 1939 lost much of their earlier prowess. He claims that they had “long since ceased to attack Italian forts,” and were “flagging… in attacks on Italian communications. The enemy garrisons, by threats of reprisals on villages and property, were gradually extending their area of control and forming Bande of irregular submitted Ethiopians communities to protect it.”
Discussing specifically to the Patriots of Gojam. he observed that:
“though they could destroy bridges and create obstacles on the roads they were by now unwilling to ambush effectively large Italian columns as they moved along the main communications of Gojam. When the Italians came out, the patriot’s first thought was for his wife and family. When he had driven these off to a place of safety and the enemy had entered his village, burned down his house, stolen his grain and honey, and broken his cooking pots, the patriot returned and harassed the enemy on the way back to their fixed defences. He presented a supple front to the Italians, and by winging a few flank guards, usually collected a few rifles from every hostile raid.”
The presence of the Patriots in Gojam, Steer, recognised nevertheless “kept in Gojam the sum of sixteen colonial battalions, four Blackshirt battalions and two regular Bande groups, not to mention the irregular Bande armed by the Italians”, but they were, he felt, “quite incapable of interfering effectively” with the Italians’ “strategic distribution and with the movement of reserves”.
Steer nevertheless stated that in the country at large “the Ethiopian patriot chiefs were still playing a sinister tune on Italian nerves and kept large Italian forces busy on the work of internal security.”
Waiting for the European War to Open
Though now perhaps on the defensive, the Patriots, it must be emphasised, were in large measure merely biding their time, awaiting more favourable circumstances, which were bound to arrive whenever Mussolini’s international ambitions led him into conflict with France and/or Britain. This point was clearly recognised by a correspondent of the London “Evening Standard”. Reporting from Djibouti, in April 1939, he cited a Patriot leader, whose name he omits to mention, as telling him, quite frankly: “We have learned to be cowards. Once upon a time we fought face to face with our enemies. Now we know the value of guerrilla warfare – we call it coward’s fighting. But that way we shall defeat the Italians.” Elaborating on these tactics, and the need to avoid outright attacks on Italian forts, he went on: “”Do they think we are fools? Do they think we shall throw ourselves against these modern fortified works as we did during the campaign? No, we shall wait until the Italians are hard pressed in Europe or by guerrilla warfare here. Then we shall surround their cities and camps; we shall harass them but never attack them direct; we shall cut their communications; we shall starve them.”
The Duke of Aosta’s Preoccupation
The Duke of Aosta was also preoccupied with such possibilities. Ciano noted, on 14 March 1939, that the Viceroy had urged the fascist leadership in Italy “to avoid a conflict with France”, which, in his words, “would bring on to the high seas the task of pacifying our empire and jeopardise the conquest itself”.
In the last months before Italy’s entry into the European war the Patriots were thus waiting upon international events. General Nasi, who was not unaware of his enemy’s tactics, reported in January 1940, that Shoa was, as he put it, “very sick”, and instanced not only the large number of rifles in the possession of the “rebels’” , “confusion of spirit”, a euphemism, we may note, for discontent, which, he said, “we are only now able to estimate in its profundity.”
A month later the General reiterated that Shoa was “characterised by a profound disturbance of spirit,” which was “kept alive essentially, by uncertainty as to the European situation,” was encouraged by “insidious propaganda,” and resulted in a “painful quest for rifles and cartridges.”
Talks with Ras Abebe Re-opened
At this critical juncture talks with Ras Abebe Aregai were again attempted by the Italians, this time through the intermediary of the Ethiopian scholar, Tesema Eshete, but again came to nothing. The result was that the Patriot leader remained posed to strike whenever Mussolini decided to attack the Allies.
The degree of popular opposition to the fascist regime, and the military implications thereof, were evident to most Italians, fascist and ant-fascist alike. In May Consul-General Arconovaldo Bonacorsi, the head of the Blackshirts in East Africa, produced a revealing report in which he complained that “the assassination of our officers from April 1939 until today has become a normal phenomenon,” and added:
“Throughout the Empire, there is a state of latent rebellion which will have its final and tragic denouement when war breaks out with our enemies. If at any point whatever of our Empire a detachment of English or Frenchmen were to enter with banner unfurled they would need little or no troops for they would find the vast mass of the Abyssinian population would unite themselves to that flag to combat and eject our forces. In the case of such an emergency we would find ourselves unable to withstand the enemy given the state of unpreparedness and the lack of equipment of our forces.”
This article, which takes us to the eve of Mussolini’s declaration of war on Britain and France, on 10 June 1940, ends the present series.