Articles in this series:
Series: Ethiopian Patriots
09. The Dismissal of Graziani
We saw last week that Mussolini and his followers were deeply worried, in 1937, by the continued resistance of the Ethiopian Patriots, whom they seemed unable to crush, despite the extensive use of aircraft, and yperite gas. Now read on:
“Eliminate Them, Eliminate Them, Eliminate Them”
The Patriots, in the last months of 1937, were indeed very active, but their operations, at least in Shoa, as Graziani recalled in a memorandum of 9 November, dated back from May of the previous year, and “did not present any new element.” Reiterating his point of view to Lessona, the fascist Minister of Italian Africa, he urged that it was necessary to “lose every residue of sentimentalism regarding the Amharas and Shoans even outside Amhara territory”. For his own part he had undoubtedly done this, for he speaks of the need to “Eliminate them, eliminate them, eliminate them, as I have been preaching against the illusions of others since I assumed my office.”
In a later report, of 1 December 1937, he again emphasised the continuous character of the rebellion in “various regions, especially those of Amhara and in a special manner in Shoa,” and warned of the danger of “foreign influence” – a clear reference to the British and/or French, which, he declared, could increase Italian difficulties by “direct or indirect help to the ” rebels”. Emphasising the two “dangers,” of “internal revolt” and “external events”, he once more urged the leadership in Rome to send him more troops. On 12 December, he revealed that informers had reported what he called “considerable rebel activity” in Wallo, a province hitherto little affected by Patriot activity. On 23 December, however, he claimed that the situation was “everywhere improving,” but added, very significantly, that the Italian position in Amhara had “still to be stabilised”, i.e. the “rebellion” there had still to be crushed.
The Dismissal of Graziani
Graziani was dismissed as Viceroy, by Mussolini, on 26 December 1937, and replaced by the Duke of Aosta, whose period of office was to run from the beginning of 1938 to the ignominious end of Italian rule three years later.
Ugo Cavellero’s Report
Despite Graziani’s optimistic forecasts of the previous months, the situation at the time of the Duke’s assumption of power was by no means favourable to the Italians, for Patriot resistance was far from broken. The position at this time was frankly summed up by the Dukes’ chief of staff, Ugo Cavallero. He later admitted that, though “the old Colonies of Eritrea and Somaliland could be regarded as completely organized… large parts of the Shoa and Amhara territories were still in rebellion and some secondary pockets of resistance persisted in the GallaSidama country”. In the “southern fringes of the new Eritrea,” i.e. parts of the Ethiopian Tigray province then recently annexed to the Italian colony, a few bands of armed men of “brigand-like character” had likewise “made their appearance.”
“The state of rebellion”, Cavallero claimed, “was due above all to the presence in those areas of armed bands of varying strength obeying dissident chiefs, which imposed themselves on the people with threats or took advantage of their connivance, in both cases keeping a state of open hostility towards us”.
Turning to the strength of these forces Cavellero declared:
“The people gave full support to the rebels, either from conviction or convenience and, many being armed, were ready, in the event of a clash, to swell the ranks of the combatants, who could thus in some districts reach a strength of several thousands. Every rebel group had a following of a strong band of men without weapons or armed only with spears and sticks, who would pick up the weapons of the fallen and join fiercely in the exploitation of any success”.
Emphasising the constant difficulties created for the fascist regime by the Patriots, he adds: “Although numerous guards for the protection of workshops and the more important places were posted along the roads which were then being built, work was often interrupted on many stretches by attacks from rebel bands, and safe passage could only be assured by strong mobile escorts.”
Mussolini “Anxious About the Empire”
Mussolini was also worried by the extent of Patriot activity. His sonin-law Ciano observed, on 8 January 1938: “The Duce is anxious about the Empire – Gojam is in revolt. The rebels number 15,000. Our garrisons are besieged.” Ever hopeful, however, he added: “It will take two months and strong forces to suppress the movement”. But of course it didn’t take anything of the sort, for it was never “suppressed”.
The Weakness of the Fascist Empire
The extent of Patriot resistance was confirmed by a London “Evening Standard” report of 4 February, 1938, which stated that “bands of Abyssinian soldiers attack Italian outposts almost every night”, and added: “The Italians are greatly handicapped by mass desertion of Askaris”, i.e “native” troops in Italian service.
A modern historian, Harold Marcus, summing up the situation at this time, likewise commented that “insurgent activity” had at this stage reached such proportions that, for all intents and purposes” the Italians no longer ruled either Gojam and Begemder. Mussolini’s empire was thus at least partially in ruins.
The Ethiopian people, it should be emphasised, were still by no means entirely disarmed. Early in January 1938 it was reported that they had by then surrendered 297,295 rifles, 1,011 machine-guns, and 1,542 pistols, but the “Daily Telegraph” Aden correspondent significantly commented that this constituted “only about a third of the arms “which the Ethiopians had possessed at the close of the war. “This does not mean,” he prophetically concluded, “that the Italian occupation is in jeopardy. So long as Rome keeps her peace with Europe, Egypt and French North Africa, she will hold her new empire; but in the event of her being involved in a war beyond her frontiers the Abyssinians might drive her out”. And Mussolini, in the long run, would not of course be content to remain at peace with his neighbours!
The Duke of Aosta’s Leaflets
The Duke of Aosta, not unreasonably concerned by the armed opposition to his regime, gave orders, shortly after his appointment, for the renewed dropping of leaflets on Patriot-held areas. The most important of these documents, which were somewhat naively designed both to threaten and entice the Patriots to abandon their resistance, declared:
“Hear! These aeroplanes which you see flying in the sky and which are capable of hurling death and desolation and these armies, which you see marching upon the earth, have come to strengthen the work of pacification and peace. If, therefore, you hasten to deliver up your arms to our military chiefs, you will be pardoned, but, if you do not do so, I shall cause terror to rain down from the sky upon you, your goods and your kindred, who will necessarily include women, children and old men, and I shall destroy you all”.
The Overall Picture in Spring 1938
The extent and geographical distribution of Patriot activity in the Spring of 1938 was described by Emperor Haile Selassie in an important communique issued in London on 7 May 1938. This was shortly before the fascist occupation’s third rainy season. In this survey of his country’s military fortunes he inter alia declared:
“North and North-West
“During last autumn, and throughout recent months, there has been energetic opposition to the Italian operations, which sometimes developed into fighting on a considerable scale. There have been revolts in the provinces of Tembien and Sokota under Dejaz Hailu Kabbade, and further to the North-East in Tigre under the daring Dejazmatch Gabre Hewot. In the provinces Begameder and Lasta there has been almost continuous fighting, resulting in the destruction of Italian posts and the capture of supply columns…
“Reports have… been received that fierce engagements are taking place at different points of the Ethiopian territory. Even in Tigre, the province bordering Eritrea, Italian troops control only the towns and villages where they have posted garrisons. The rest of the province is outside their control. In the province of Begemder there are only two garrisons, at Debra Tabor and Gondar, and these are isolated and have to be supplied by air.
“Gojam Province has violently broken its benevolent neutrality towards the invading army… By way of reprisals, from thirty to forty aeroplanes leave Addis Ababa every day to go and bombard the towns and villages of the vast province, which was completely freed from Italian troops.
“In the Wollega region and more particularly in the districts of Chelleag, Gaido, Gouder and to the neighbourhood of Ambo, to the South-West of the capital, the Ethiopians remain masters of tho situation. The two garrisons in the province of Wallega… cannot control the extensive hills and fertile country beyond their immediate neighbourhood.
“Centre “In the province of Shoa there have been revolts under Dejaz Fikre Mariam. The railway to Djibouti has been frequently attacked. Ethiopian armed troops are frequently raiding the main roads leading from Addis Ababa to the North and West… The Ethiopians are gaining ground and there is a marked hardening in their resistance. Great aerial activity continues but is not having much effort.
“South and South-West
“In the whole of this vast area of about 100,000 square kilometres there are Italian garrisons only at five towns, namely: Djiren, Yirga-Alem, Mega, Goba and Ginir. All other parts of the territory had to be abandoned owing to pressure of numerous guerrilla bands… In the provinces of Gurafarda, Gimirra and Kaffa many Italians have been forced to withdraw and the roads are unsafe.
“Reports received in recent months show that there have been numerous concentrations of armed Ethiopians which have attacked Italian convoys on the road through Harrar to Jigjiga…”
“The Italians exercise no control whatever over the provinces Danakil and Aussa.”