Articles in this series:
Series: Ethiopian Patriots
04. Fierce Fighting
We saw last week that the Ethiopian Patriots faced fierce repression in 1936, and were attacked in the north and east of the country, both by the Italian ground forces and by the Italian Royal Air Force, which made extensive use of yperite gas. Now read on:
Bombing in the South
Italian aerial operations against the Patriots also took place in Southern Ethiopia. Graziani, reporting on them, telegraphed on 16 November: “Addis Ababa air force will. . . intensify from tomorrow the same action from the north, bombing and yperiting Irgalem and Agheresalem and Allata.”
The importance of these tactics was not lost on the Ethiopian Legation in London, which commented on 30 January 1937:
“When the Italians wish to occupy any place they never send their soldiers until they have performed their cruel business of bombing and gassing that place and the surrounding countryside, killing both people and animals. Then they send their soldiers to occupy the devastated place.”
Italian forces were now advancing southwards into the hitherto unoccupied territories, to capture Ghimbi and Dilla on 9 November, Wadara on 13 November , Lekemti on 15 November, Jubdo on 17 November, Jiren on 18 November, Gore on 26 November, Yirgalem on 1 December, Bonga on 13 December, and Gambela on 17 December.
“I Ask You Not to Be Moved”
Repressive action meanwhile continued in the main areas of resistance to the north, particularly in Shoa which the Italians regarded as the heart of Ethiopian resistance. On 12 December, Graziani telegraphed to one of his commanders, General Tracchia, declaring: “in this region from which have originated all the offences that caused us the infernal situation during the rains it is necessary to disarm and liquidate immediately without mercy and illusions.” He went on to state that the inhabitants of the area were “now mostly obsequious because of the circumstances,” but added: “I ask you not to be moved.”
Italian reports continue to tell of considerable Patriot initiative in this area, notably near Tegulet on 19 December, and in and around Koromesh on the following day.
Active Ethiopian resistance was also reported by the Jibuti correspondent of London-based “New Times and Ethiopian News”, who observed, on 20 December, that “it is said that the Ethiopians gained good victories near Gore and Arussi and near Garamullata.” The Ethiopian Consul at the port, Andargachew Masai, had therefore hoisted the Ethiopian flag as a sign of rejoicing.
Perhaps the hardest fighting for the Italians, towards the end of the year 1936, according to their own reports, had been against Ras Desta, Dejazmatch Gabre Mariam, Dejazmatch Beyene Merid, and Shimellis Habte in the Gedel mountains. Some of this fighting continued into late January and early February 1937.
Ethiopian Forces Near Breaking Point
By the end of the year 1936 the organised Ethiopian armies, as opposed to the newly emerging Patriot units, had, however, reached breaking point.
This led to the capture of most of the principal Ethiopian leaders. Wondwossen Kassa was captured on 10 December, Ras Imru on 15 December, and Wondwossen Kassa’s brothers Aberra and Asfawossen Kassa, on 21 December. The three Kassa brothers were shot, in accordance with general fascist policy, but Ras Imru and another nobleman, Taye Gulelat, were treated, by the special order of Graziani, as prisoners of war. They were flown to Italy on 4 January 4, 1937, though the Viceroy noted that their submission, being “scarcely spontaneous”, special precautions would have to be taken to prevent their escape.
Beyene Merid, on the other hand, was taken prisoner on 20 February 1937, and Ras Desta Damtew, on 24 February. Both leaders were immediately shot.
At about this time the Italians announced that since the beginning of the war up to 20 December 1936, they had captured 95,727 rifles, 555 machine-guns, 473 pistols, and 155 cannon.
The Attempt on Graziani’s Life
The Patriot struggle entered a new phase as a result of the attempt on Graziani’s life on 19 February 1937.
The story of this incident, which was to have crucially important influence on the Patriots’ struggle, was told later in the day in a secret telegram which Graziani despatched to the Italian Minister of the Colonies. Copies, to be personally decoded, were also sent to the various Italian provincial governors, allegedly to “prevent the diffusion of incorrect and alarmist news”.
In this message, the Viceroy declared:
“This morning at eleven o’clock I had convened at the Ghebi [i.e. the palace, now the site of Addis Ababa University] the chief notables representing the Coptic and Muslim religious communities in order to distribute in their presence gifts for churches and mosques and alms for about three thousand poor people of the city in honour of the birth of H.R.H. the Prince of Naples. At twelve o’clock while proceeding to the distribution itself persons who up to now it has been unable to identify infiltrated among the chiefs and threw some ten Breda type hand grenades at the official party. As a result some thirty persons were wounded.”
Two Generals; “Multiple Shrapnel Wounds”
Graziani proceeded to list the principal victims, who included his chief of cabinet, and two generals. He also quoted the medical report on his own condition. This report revealed that he had suffered multiple shrapnel wounds, causing considerable bleeding, but that his general condition was “satisfactory”, and his morale most excellent.”
In the telegram he went on to explain that he was continuing to exercise control of the government, through His Excellency Petretti and General Gariboldi, who had been given joint powers to protect the security of the capital, and that he had already ordered the taking of “exceptional police measures”, i.e. repression. He reported, however, that the market that morning had been crowded, that there had been no prior indication that the incident was in the offing, and the population still “remained tranquil,” though some 200 persons had been arrested and the military authorities had begun investigations and interrogations”.
Two days later, however, it was officially announced in Rome, as the “Daily Telegraph”, of London, reported, that 2,000 natives” had been “arrested as suspects.” This figure was also later cited by Zoli. Graziani’s first figure of 200 had thus expanded ten-fold!
Graziani’s Subsequent Account
Recalling these events a decade or so later Graziani gave a slightly different account. He observed that the attackers had “hurled at least 18 bombs at me, trying to wipe out at one blow not only myself, but the whole government”.
Turning to the ensuing security action, the Viceroy added that the plot:
“did not. . . make me swerve from my fixed line of conduct by one millimetre. . . repressive measures were taken with extreme promptitude and prevented a rising of the native population of Addis Ababa. It was intended that they should take our defence lines from behind, and join hands with the rebels who surrounded the city on the outside, thus overthrowing the heart of our power. Instead the whole thing proved nothing more than an episode which left over 250 splinters of steel in my body, which I still bear as a souvenir.”
Graziani, despite this show of fortitude, seems to have suffered psychologically from the attempt on his life. Mussolini’s son-in-law Count Ciano, describing the subsequent fighting of 1940 in Libya, recalls that “it seems that his [i.e. Graziani’s] nerves are quite shaken since the time of the attempt on his life. They tell me that even in Italy he was so afraid of attempts on his life that he had his villa at Arciruzzo guarded by at least 18 carabinieri.”
The ” repressive measures ” referred to by Graziani in his above-mentioned telegramme, were defined by other eyewitnesses as nothing short of a massacre.
The events immediately following the bomb-throwing were subsequently described on oath by an Eritrean archivist, Dejazmatch Resario Gilazgi, who was in the Palace compound at the time. “I heard shooting,” he recalls, “cars going here and there, people running, machine-gunning, it was a big disorder – Ethiopians running from Italians, Italians running from Ethiopians. The Italians apparently suspected that the rebels had got into the city. It had been said before that Ras Desta would menace the city and that the Ethiopian patriots would come and kill every Italian.”
Ras Desta, it should be recalled, had, as already noted, in fact by then been killed.
Another description of these events was given by the Hungarian physician Ladislas Sava, alias Sashka, who reports: “Blackshirts were running all over the town ordering every shopkeeper to close his doors, and everyone else abroad to return to his home. In an hour there were no more people in the streets.”
Dejazmatch Rosario goes on to recall that he went with two Italians to the fascist party headquarters, where they met the party secretary, Guido Cortese, and a “good number” of other fascists to whom the latter declared:
“Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carta bianca to destroy and kill and do what you want to Ethiopians”.
“They went out,” Dejazmatch Rosario continues, “well equipped with their arms, and started their work. People who were not arrested by the carabinieri and were found in their houses or in the streets were killed… I saw with my own eyes burning houses… I saw young boys coming out from burning houses, but the Italians pushed them back into the fire… The next day, Saturday, the Italians were still burning small houses. On the bigger houses they wrote their names to keep them for themselves. They broke down the doors and went in looting. They could not find a single man to kill; the ones who were not killed had been arrested or had run away. At about 6.30 p.m. on Saturday we saw the flames from the petrol when they tried to set fire to St. George’s cathedral. The windows broke from the heat, but its buildings resisted”.