Total Colonial Warfare: Ethiopia I

Like no other Italian city, Rome symbolized the Fascist experience. The past was evoked by a huge monument with the inscription “Mussolini Dux” near the sports center Foro Italico, and by a series of architectural reminders in the form of bombastic buildings, large avenues, and spacious squares, which formed an ideal background for military parades and mass meetings. Even the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-6 left its footprint in the old capital of the Impero dell’Africa Italiana. One of the famous Axumite monoliths, which dates from the fourth century, still stands next to the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, although the Italian government has now promised to return it to Ethiopia as soon as possible. The obelisk was transported to Rome as a war trophy in 1937. Rome’s northeastern districts also display reminders of colonial times. “Viale Eritrea,” “viale Etiopia,” “viale Somalia,” “via Adua,” “via Dessie,” “via Tembien,” “via Endert ` a,” and “Piazza Addis Abeba” all ` refer to geographical locations in eastern Africa, which were sites of major battles in the Italo-Ethiopian War.

Even though the signs of the colonial past are still manifest, historians and the general public have until recently suppressed memories of the Italo-Ethiopian War. In contrast to the interwar commentary, Italian historiography has since 1945 been reticent about the Italian colonial experience and the colonial wars on the African continent, even though these conflicts had exercised a formative influence on the young nation-state for seventy-five years. The subject was long regarded as unworthy of mention. Defeat in World War II and the resulting loss of the Italian colonies as a status symbol led to this state of affairs. As a result, Italian historiography remained relatively unaffected by the turmoil of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. Even the Roman Catholic Church, particularly Pope Pius XI and his advisers Monsignor Pizzardo and Monsignor Tardini, never officially criticized the war in Abyssinia, despite ancient diplomatic relations between the Coptic Church and the Vatican. Fascism never hesitated to cooperate with as many supporters as possible. Moreover, the church and its missionaries were well versed in the game of imperialism. The exponents of the consolata order were literally mobilized to promote the war, and the fascist party exploited the idea of Italy’s “civilizing mission” in Africa to justify the cause. Thus, both clerical and secular authorities supported the seizure of Ethiopia. In most European historiographies, imperialism has registered as a narrative of colonial warfare. Italian expansionism provides no exception to this rule. But while the colonial histories of other imperialist powers featured wars of nation-states against stateless societies, Italian expansion in East Africa in the 1930s featured a war between two states. Both were members of the League of Nations, although they differed profoundly in their political, economic, and military development.

One telling example illustrates the disparity in military strength. In March 1929 young Ras Tafari challenged his last rival, Ras Gugsa Wolie. He achieved final victory thanks to a mysterious weapon, a single airplane that bombarded his enemy’s army. Soon after the victory, Ras Tafari was proclaimed emperor of Ethiopia and adopted the name Haile Selassie, “Power of Trinity.” Even as he did so, several hundred Italian officers, engineers, and scientists deliberated about the character of future war, its proper objectives and methods. In this connection, they seized on the idea of a “nothing-but-air war.” The enemy’s civilian population, not its armed forces, was to be targeted. In earlier wars civilians had been involved in military action and suffered attack, but never as directly, massively, or on such a sustained basis as the Italian advocates of air power now recommended. The employment of fleets of bombers represented one of several doctrines that emerged during the interwar period, but it was a central feature of the next European war.

The central question in this essay pertains to the character and significance of the Italo-Ethiopian War in the military history of the twentieth century. Was it an unlimited war of conquest, fought with all available financial, economic, and military means? Or was it a traditional colonial war, with limited expenditures and restricted war aims? Do lines of continuity extend from the first Italian expansion into East Africa, which culminated in the disaster of Adowa in 1896, to the Italo-Ethiopian War of the 1930s; or are there significant disjunctures between these two imperial episodes?

Statistics are lacking about the total number of those killed, injured, or imprisoned during this second East African war. Nor is it clear how many people starved to death, were dislodged or raped, or were crippled for life. The Italian historian Angelo Del Boca has estimated that on the Ethiopian side, 55,000 to 70,000 combatants were killed on the two fronts of the war – the southern, Somali front and the northern, Eritrean front. According to the files of the Central Archive in Rome, the Italians lost some 9,000 men. These numbers cover the period between October 10, 1935, and May 5, 1936, which marked out the official duration of the war. In addition, 500 Italian workers, who had been recruited for road construction in Africa, were killed. The soldiers and officers killed in action were generously decorated with medals. On average, every fourth fatality earned a medal.

In this “war of seven months,” mass armies fought one another. While the Italian armed forces comprised five hundred thousand combatants, the Negus managed to mobilize only half that number. In addition, the Ethiopians lacked modern equipment, weapons, and ammunition, as well as the financial resources to provision a larger army. There was thus a great material imbalance between the opponents. In spite of the discrepancies, Haile Selassie decided to confront his enemy with regular armies. He rejected the idea of a guerilla warfare, which would presumably have brought him a tactical advantage, for such a people’s war might have jeopardized his own claim to the imperial throne. In most of the five principal battles of the war, the Ethiopians were thus the weaker party, not only numerically but also technologically and logistically. In the fall of 1935, shortly before the conflict began, there were 170,000 soldiers, 65,000 ascaris, and 38,000 workers ready for war in Africa on the Italian side. In May 1936 there were twice as many – about 330,000 soldiers, 87,000 ascaris, and 100,000 workers. Ninety-thousand pack animals and 14,000 motor vehicles of various categories, from automobiles to trucks, supported the Italian forces. The effective Italian armaments included 10,000 machine-guns, 1,100 artillery pieces, 250 tanks, and 350 warplanes, most of which were reconnaissance planes and bombers. The daily petrol consumption of these machines exceeded Italy’s total petrol consumption during World War I. The Italian navy transported soldiers, building materials, and arms to the African colonies. Altogether 900,000 soldiers and civilians, as well as several hundred thousand tons of goods, were shipped to the colonies and back.

The most evident consequence of the Italo-Ethiopian War, and later the Spanish Civil War, was the loss of military effectiveness. Manpower and arms were exhausted. Fifteen hundred airplanes were lost during the two wars – about 20 percent of the air force’s entire capacity. In the aftermath, Italy had to increase exports of its own warplanes in order to finance imports of critical raw materials. The backwardness of Italy’s military technology on the eve of World War II was the product of the conflicts of 1935-6 and 1936-9. Diminished productive capacity and the expense of technological innovation impeded the modernization of the Italian military until the outbreak of World War II.

According to the initial plans, the Italo-Ethiopian War was supposed to cost 1.5 to 2 billion lire. But the financial burden amounted to 1 billion lire per month. Including the preparation of the campaign and the period of reconstruction shortly after the war, Italy spent about 57,303,000,00 lire from 1935 to 1940. The short-term effect of the Italo-Ethiopian War was to encourage Italian heavy industry, particularly the armament industries, and to reduce unemployment. But the country’s financial reserves diminished rapidly. From 1935 to 1940 some 77 billion lire were consumed by the costs of the wars in Ethiopia, Spain, Albania, and the pacification campaigns in East Africa. This sum corresponded to two-thirds of the military budget of that period.

The first serious plans for the campaign were initiated by Emilio De Bono, the minister of colonial affairs. He ordered two complementary studies. Within three months, the military experts in Asmara had prepared a memorandum dated September 8, 1932, which described a scenario for offensive war against Ethiopia. In December 1932 the second plan, an analysis of a defensive war, had been completed, too. The plan for the offensive war assumed that Europe was at peace and that Italy had arranged a diplomatic agreement with France and Great Britain, the two other powers that were interested in stability in the African Horn. The second memorandum, on the defensive war, posited an Ethiopian attack during a period of instability in Europe, during which the metropolitan army’s movement to Africa would be impeded. The first of these plans assumed that on the Italian side a colonial army of 35,000 regular soldiers and 50,000 mercenaries would suffice. Within one month, the Ethiopian army was supposed to mobilize 50,000 to 60,000 soldiers. Within three months, however, Ethiopian mobilization was to comprise between 200,000 and 300,000 men. The maximum force available on the Ethiopian side was supposed to reach 500,000 men. In the second plan, nearly all the manpower on the Italian side had to be provided by the colonies of Eritrea and Somalia. About 60,000 to 80,000 Eritreans would be called to arms. The equipment had to be imported from Italy, but the quantity and quality of the requested material was to depend on the military situation in Europe. In order to be prepared for any of the alternatives, offensive or defensive, on November 29, 1932, De Bono called for the deployment of at least a hundred airplanes, which the aircraft industry was to supply. He thus based his plans on the speed of Italian mobilization and on the destructive potential of warplanes, for he knew that the Ethiopian side possessed only a handful of airplanes and antiaircraft guns. De Bono planned to invade the Ethiopian plateau from the north. A second attack, from Italian Somaliland, was not considered at this time, because environmental conditions were regarded as too harsh for Europeans and Eritrean ascaris alike.

In 1932 Pietro Badoglio, the chief of the Supreme General Staff and governor of the North African colonies, became De Bono’s rival for leadership of the campaign. The rivalry grew in the ill-defined competencies of the Fascist bureaucracy. As governor of Libya, Badoglio was the colonial minister’s subordinate, but in military affairs De Bono was Badoglio’s. As chief of the Supreme General Staff, Badoglio coordinated the three branches of the armed forces and held the higher rank. The bureaucratic jungle encouraged the accumulation of important positions, however, and in this case, the issue was complicated by the involvement of Mussolini himself in his drive to institutionalize his own military power. In July 1933 he took over the War Ministry. Four months later he took over the Air Ministry and the Navy Ministry. The undersecretaries in the three ministries acted respectively as chiefs of the general staff of the army, the air force, and the navy. In the autumn of 1933, however, Mussolini designated De Bono, informally and secretly, as the military leader of a future African campaign, which both men anticipated would begin in 1935. Ignorant of the agreement, Badoglio worked out his own operational schedules for a campaign that carried special emotional significance for him: He had seen service at Adowa in 1896. However, he reckoned with a longer mobilization, which would conclude only in 1936; and he warned that the campaign would drastically weaken Italy’s military force in Europe. He expressed these concerns in a letter to Mussolini on January 20, 1934. A war against Ethiopia, he wrote, would not be one of the “usual colonial ventures.” It would be real war. It would catch the eye of the whole world and take place under completely different circumstances than the war of 1896. As Haile Selassie’s incipient modernization of the Ethiopian army made clear, that country was well aware of Italy’s desire for revenge for Adowa. In addition to the regular armies of his vassals, he had built up an Imperial Army, a kind of personal guard of several thousand men, all of whom were well equipped and well trained by Belgian instructors. Badoglio stressed that many Ethiopian officers had been trained in European military academies. Finally, Badoglio emphasized that the war would be fought by Italians, for he did not regard the Eritrean ascaris as reliable.

With countless problems waiting for solution, preparations continued secretly and at high speed after August 1934. The Italian ports in the Red Sea, Assab and Massawa, were enlarged, war materials were built up, pack animals bought, camps constructed, and the whole infrastructure improved. In addition, several landing fields were constructed. The colonial administration in Eritrea recruited most of the people who had earlier served in the Colonial Army. The training of the ascaris took place in special camps in Libya. Suddenly, at the end of 1934, Mussolini’s role became known, when he issued an appeal for war and explained to Badoglio the special features of the campaign he intended to “dictate” from Rome. He had become a convinced supporter of the campaign, for he recognized Ethiopia’s military inferiority. He wanted a decisive, powerful takeover, and he wanted it to happen quickly. The timing was crucial. A war 4,000 kilometers from home was feasible only while peace survived in Europe. The dictator trusted that a Franco-Italian diplomatic arrangement, which was imminent, would at least temporarily stabilize the European continent. In his memorandum of December 30, 1934, he scheduled the beginning of operations for October 1935. The goal of the war was to “destroy the Ethiopian Army and achieve the total conquest of the land” in a minimum amount of time. The sooner the war was over, he reasoned, the less resistance would arise in Europe, mainly from Great Britain and France.

In the view of the historian Giorgio Rochat, this memorandum held the key to Italy’s military policy in the interwar period. Rochat argued that Mussolini regarded the Ethiopian war as an opportunity to win broader support from the Italian middle classes. Ethiopia was hence, in Rochat’s opinion, no prelude to the conquest of other regions in Africa or Asia. Rochat’s interpretation of the war did not differ substantially from the analysis that he himself offered of the first Italian expansion into East Africa in the nineteenth century. In 1935 the proportions of the conflict were merely more vast. Nonetheless, Mussolini called his Ethiopian war a “national war.” The transition from colonial to national war was also analyzed by Esmonde Robertson. Like Rochat, he interpreted the war as an Italian response to an opportunity. He attributed the campaign in East Africa to an “improvised decision,” not to a systematic line of policy. Robertson’s interpretation portrayed the Italo-Ethiopian War as the last venture of European imperialism.

Historians are nowadays extending the investigation of modern military history. The “master narrative of total war” has itself been challenged and enlarged. Analysis is turning to neglected aspects of total warfare, such as the specific methods of war, mobilization, and the attempt to keep warfare under control – to make total war “practical.” If total war is conceived as the totalization of all these elements, the concept can be useful in comparing the world wars in Europe with the colonial war that was fought in East Africa in the 1930s.

However, two objections can be raised to this comparison straightaway. The first is the utter incomparability of the civilian casualties. The second is the fact that purists among the military thinkers in interwar Italy did not use the term guerra integrale to describe war overseas.