History Of The Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935–1936)

History Of The Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935–1936)

The Second Italo-Abyssinian War (or the second Italo-Ethiopian war) was a colonial war fought between October 1935 and February 1937, in what was Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia, a process which began after the 1885 Partition of Africa.

Having been defeated in their first attempt at conquest at the battle of Adwa in 1896, allowing Ethiopia to become the only African nation to remain free of European control, Italian colonial forces remained in neighboring Eritrea and Somalia, and it was only a matter of time before the two nations would clash again.

The war resulted in Ethiopia’s subjection to Italian rule. Often considered to be one of the episodes which prepared the way for World War II, the war demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations when League decisions were not supported by the great powers.

After the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, took control of Italy in 1922, the prospect of war increased dramatically. Seeking for Ethiopia for its resources, Mussolini also sought to salvage the pride of the only European nation defeated by an African country. Furthermore, taking Ethiopia would bring to completion, Italian domination over the Horn of Africa. Opportunity would present itself when a border incident between Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland gave Benito Mussolini an excuse for intervention. Rejecting all arbitration offers, the Italians invaded Ethiopia on October 3, 1935.

The initial conflict which triggered off the war took place at Wal Wal, an oasis in the Ogaden Desert in 1934. Italian forces, on November 22, 1934, marched fifty miles into Ethiopia where they clashed with Ethiopian troops at Wal Wal, leaving two Italians and about one hundred and fifty Ethiopians dead.  The League of Nations evaluated the conflict, but exonerated both nations, although Italy was clearly the aggressor. Taking advantage of Great Britain and France’s (two powers who dominated the League) hopes to prevent Italy from becoming an ally of Nazi Germany, Mussolini signed agreements with both countries, thus isolating Ethiopia, forcing it to face Italy alone.

The imminent attack from the Italians prompted Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I to recruit and mobilize the Army of the Ethiopian Empire. His approximately half-million-man legion was ill equipped, armed with mostly bows and spears, with the exception of those who owned outdated rifles, some of which remained from the first conflict between the two states forty years earlier. Also, only a quarter of the army had any combat training. With a miniscule arsenal of outdated artillery and anti-tank or aircraft guns, and a handful of planes including some piloted by African Americans and other volunteers, the Ethiopians were poorly prepared for the second Italian invasion.

By contrast, the Italians had learned bitter lessons from their earlier defeat. By 1935, Italy had sent twelve Italian infantry divisions, approximated to six hundred and eighty-five thousand troops, to the Italian colonies surrounding Ethiopia, also recruiting additional soldiers from those colonies.  Beyond that, they had had in possession heavy artillery, ground and air vehicles, as well as extensive supplies.

The war began on October 3, 1935, one hundred thousand soldiers of the Italian Army commanded by Marshal Emilio De Bono attacked from Eritrea (then Italian colonial possession) without prior declaration of war, prompting Emperor Selassie to declared war on Italy. At the same time, a minor force under the command of General Rodolfo Graziani attacked from Italian Somalia. With the invading forces advancing rapidly into northern Ethiopia, both Adigrat and Adowa (a symbolic place for the Italian Army, being where the Italians had been defeated in 1896) were conquered by October 6.

On Octobe 15, Italian troops took over the ancient city of Aksum. There they tore down the obelisk adorning the city from its site and sent it to Rome to be placed symbolically in front of the building of the Ministry of Colonies created by the fascist regime. By November 8, they had conquered Mek’ele as well. Greatly annoyed; out of impatience nonetheless with what he called De Bono’s ‘slow and cautious progress’, Mussolini had him replaced with General Pietro Badoglio.

In an attempt to put Italy’s new commander to the test and rally his own nation, Emperor Selassie ordered an offensive counterattack against the Italians. Although his troops were initially successful and won the Battle of Dembeguina Pass, where they defeated about a thousand Eritrean troops under Italian command, the Italians continued their steady advance across the nation mainly due to their possession of superior weapons (particularly heavy artillery and aviation) which prevented the Ethiopians from taking advantage of their initial successes. Another advantage the Italians had was the Ethiopians did not have radio devices, which meant that communications service of the Ethiopian forces depended on foot messengers. Hence, this gave the Italians the opportunity to impose a narrow fence on Ethiopian detachments so to leave them totally ignorant about the movements of their own army. Despite being allied with Italy, Nazi Germany nonetheless sent arms and munitions to Ethiopia due to its frustration over Italian objections to its policy towards Austria. This helped to prolonged the war and divert Italian attention away from Austria.

Both sides are reported to have committed war crimes. While Ethiopian are said to have committed several war crimes, including the use of Dum-Dum bullets (or expanding bullets) in violation of the ‘Hague Conventions’, and began mutilating (often with castration) captured Eritrean Askari, since the first weeks of war, the Italians in response, through the orders of Badoglio, used some mustard gas in aerial bombardments, in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. Not only was this gas used against combatants, it was also used against civilians in an attempt to discourage the Ethiopian people. In addition, deliberate Italian attacks against ambulances and hospitals of the Red Cross were reported.

The Italians resumed the offensive in early March and on March the 29, 1936, Graziani bombarded the city of Harar. Two days later, the Italians won a great victory in the battle of Maychew, which saw to the nullification of any possible organized resistance from the Ethiopians. On May the 2, Emperor Selassie was forced to escape into exile, fleeing first to Palestine and eventually to England. Badoglio’s forces would arrive in the capital Addis Ababa on May the 5 and took the city.

Italy officially annexed the territory of Ethiopia on May the 7 and King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy was proclaimed emperor of Ethiopia by Mussolini. Also, Italy united the provinces of Eritrea, Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia to form the Italian province of East Africa.

When the World War II began in September 1939, Great Britain declared war on Italy. Two years later on April the 6, 1941, British and Ethiopian troops drove the Italians out of Addis Abba, restoring Emperor Haile Selassie as head of the Ethiopian government. Ironically, Ethiopia became the first nation liberated from Axis powers in World War II.


Yared, E. (2016, March 8). The Second Italo-Abyssinian War (1935–1936). Retrieved December 11, 2019, from Black Pride: https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/second-italo-abyssinian-war-1935-1936/





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