“The hour is grave. Arise everyone, take up your arms and rush to the defence of your country. Rally to your chiefs. Obey them wholeheartedly. Repel the invader. Those unable owing to infirmity must help in this sacred quarrel with prayer. God be with us. Forward for the Emperor and country,”

-Heile Salassie 1935

In August of 2012, the Mayor of Affile, in Italy, was able to obtain $160,00 in regional funds and also some private money for the building of a Mausoleum dedicated to preserving the memory of Field Martial Rodolfo Graziani, the “Butcher of Ethiopia.” Graziani was also responsible for countless deaths in Libya, many of them in concentration camps. The words on the monument were to be “Fatherland” and “Honor.” This would be very much like a German mayor using public funds to build a monument to Adolph Eichmann. In any event, this did not go down well in many places, especially Ethiopia. (See link to full story at bottom,)

French Imagining Ethiopian Army

SOFREP published a piece of mine about the three Ethiopian “Kagnew” (“Conqueror”) battalions in the Korean War. I was interested not least of all because my father was the first liaison officer to the first battalion deployed in 1951. In reviewing Ethiopia’s history, especially during the years 1935-1947, it is a wonder that Ethiopia was willing to place its soldiers in battle alongside those of countries that had caused it great harm through acts of commission or omission. Its early history with the United Nations was less than rewarding.

Ethiopia was a flourishing civilization at the time of the Roman Empire. It was the first empire to adopt Christianity (about 40 years before Rome). Ethiopia’s church is closely related to the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt. Rome and Ethiopia got on very well. Ethiopia these days about 70% Christian, 20% Muslim (no major problems there) and 10% Animist, Ethiopians can be very light skinned, or very dark. For the most part their features are not “African” but rather more “Semitic” from many hundreds of years of interaction with Arabs of various nationalities. Their food is spicy and more along Arab lines.

Ethiopia managed to avoid being a victim of the “Scramble For Africa.” In the 1890s, Italy tried to conquer Ethiopia (for details see Kagnew article). Italy suffered a crushing defeat, many soldiers killed, many taken prisoner (properly treated and released to the Italian government) and much equipment lost. The defeat at Adwa (also spelled Adowa) was far worse than the British had suffered at Isandlwana, The Italians had more men and far more modern weapons. The desire for revenge for Adwa would burn for decades,


Rodolpho Graziani

Italy did not become a single nation until well into the 19th Century, after a great deal of conflict. Being late to “form a band,” they were also late “going on tour.” England, France and others had colonies. Italy decided to catch up and wound up with Eritrea and Italian Somalia. Italy wanted more, but after Adwa left Ethiopia alone for a time.

By 1911 Italy had invaded Libya. The conquest took many years and was brutal. Many thousands of Libyans wound up in concentration camps and died of hunger and disease while many more were killed in the field. It has been claimed that Italian forces may have killed as many as half the population. Oddly, after years of fighting, the Italian colonial government moved to incorporate the survivors into the system. Libyans were allowed to join the fascist party, and also the Army. This (belated) “enlightened” policy would not be applied in Ethiopia.

Once Libya was out of the way Mussolini decided to revisit the Abyssinian adventure. The world then started to crumble around Ethiopia. Ethiopia depended on a rail line (owned by France) from the coast to bring in much needed manufactured goods including weapons. France sold the rail line to Italy. Britain and France wanted Italy to become an ally against Nazi Germany. Diplomats from both countries offered Italy 2/3rds of Ethiopia (the remaining third would be connected to the sea by a camel path,) When the attempted deal became public the diplomats had to take the heat and both were forced to resign, (the French diplomat later had a new career collaborating with the Germans in occupied France.) Italy started “pushing” at the borders and at one point occupied an Ethiopian oasis.

The British were forced to honor an earlier pledge to Ethiopia and send a “delegation” to accompany an Ethiopian boundary party. The British sent a single lieutenant, ordering him to abandon the party the second that he saw Italians, An Italian plane flew overhead and the lieutenant was gone. Shortly after a battle took place and many Ethiopians were killed. Italy invaded in October of 1935. Only the rains kept them from making any real progress. Unlike many of the Italian conscripts that would make a poor showing in the desert campaigns in WWII, the Italian troops pouring across the border were some of the best that Italy had. It’s armor would have been a joke, except that the Ethiopians had no armor and no anti-tank weapons.


Avenging Adwa

Ethiopia was ill prepared to face an invasion by a modern industrial power. The Emperor, Haile Selassie, went to Geneva to plead for help at the League of Nations. Both Ethiopia and Italy were members (Ethiopia since the 1920s) The Emperor gave a dignifies and eloquent speech, though Italian reporters in the back tried heckling him. He finished by saying, “It is us today, it will be you tomorrow.” He gained much respect, especially from populations of many countries, and was named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year,” But very little help would come from the League or its members. After conquering Ethiopia, Italy would renounce its membership in the League.



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The Italians invade

Some very feeble sanctions were enacted, The British government was forced by public opinion to close the Suez Canal to Italian troop ships, but otherwise tried not to offend Italy. Many countries openly violated sanctions. The only sanction that would have hurt was an oil embargo, but the Soviet Union negotiated a trade deal with Mussolini to make up any shortages. Ethiopia had a brave and relatively well trained and equipped Imperial Guard, but it was too small to handle entire field armies. The majority of troops would be tribal warriors, often with swords and spears.

Times “Man of the Year”

The Italians would soon notice the difference, Whenever possible they would target the khaki clad Guardsmen over the tribal warriors who were generally clad in white. The rains stopped and the Italians moved. Italian tanks and aircraft could not be stopped by the forces available (though the tanks stopped chasing tribesmen into rough areas without infantry support. The warriors would get to close range, then swarm over tanks, Half a tank battalion wiped out in one morning that way,) Mussolini authorized the use of poison gas against not only Ethiopian troops, but civilians as well.

Swedish Red Cross facilities (clearly marked) would also be attacked. Many populations around the world sympathized with Ethiopia. Their governments generally pretended not to see, or worse, The British Undersecretary, Lord Stanhope said that the UK would not sell arms to the Ethiopians as that, “would be going back on the white man everywhere,” Ethiopia had deeply admired Japan. It had survived the “Scramble For Asia” and had rapidly modernized itself.

Relations between the two countries had been very cordial. But when the Italians invaded, Japan made its support for Italy known, There were actual disorders among the Japanese population (quickly suppressed) who had been impressed by Ethiopia using them as a model. The Emperor was ready to try anything. He deeded 1/2 of Ethiopia to Standard Oil (U.S.) hoping to save something from the advancing Italian forces. The U.S. Secretary of State announced that he was “voiding” the deed, forbidding Standard Oil or any other U.S. firm from accepting such a document.


Imperial Guard
Tribal Warriors

Mussolini declared that he was fighting a war against a “savage people without culture,” ignoring Ethiopia’s ancient culture and rich history. He also called for all Italians around the world to support him.


Desperate Measures

Back in Italy the population (not fully aware of just how barbaric their country’s attack was) went wild with joy. The Italian Catholic Church blessed the campaign. Mussolini held the view that no matter where an Italian lived, down to the 7th generation, he was an Italian national. He called for Italian Americans to become involved. In the U.S. many Italian Americans in New York City, encouraged by Mayor LaGuardia, prepared to travel to either join the Italian forces, or to be settlers in Ethiopia.

Local politicians got the State Department to rush through travel documents (in clear violation of American neutrality,) (Mussolini would lose many Italian American supporters as he moved closer to Hitler, and most of the rest when he invaded France.) Blacks in Haiti and in the United States identified with Ethiopia. A great many American blacks tried to enlist in the Ethiopian Army, but the United States Government prevented all but a handful from ever leaving the country. The FBI had encouraged the government to prevent black enlistees, suspected that at best they would return and be “disruptive,” and at worst were “Reds,” (See youtube footage at bottom)


By May 31, 1936 Italian forces entered Addis Ababa, the capital, and declared the war over. Little did they know that it was just entering a new phase. General Graziani confiscated Ethiopia’s gold reserves (kept in the form of Austrian coins) It is said that he kept half for himself. Many religious, historical, and cultural treasures were sent to the Vatican by order of Mussolini.

In June Mussolini sent two ominous telegrams to his generals and bureaucrats in Ethiopia. They were to kill any prisoners taken from that point on. And there would be no power sharing with Ethiopian nationals. Ethiopians would be (in Hitler’s words re the Slavs) “hewers of wood and carriers of water,” SRIT 13 Italian political and military leaders in Ethiopia would soon discover a great many differences from Libya. They could not take their time as they had in Libya, Mussolini eager to clear the decks for European troubles (starting with Spain.)

The population was much larger, and the terrain was far different, in many places a nightmare to a modern army. And Ethiopians who might have responded to a “new deal” became embittered against continued Italian oppression. A significant part of the country in the North was not occupied, At least 25,000 guerrillas would tie down 500,000 Italian and Eritrean troops. Poor Italian peasant families had volunteered to farm tracts in Ethiopia, so too soldiers discharged there. Many of the peasants were disillusioned. Some had pictures of becoming “gentlemen farmers” with vast plantations worked by Ethiopian labor. This was only true of the already rich or politically connected. Many farmers wound up with less than ideal land, maybe an Ethiopian laborer or two.

Worse, many were settled in areas without large Italian garrisons. No garrison, no safety, The roads belonged to the Army, when they had large heavily armed convoys on them. Graziani was under orders not to share power with chiefs or nobles, but he would give them orders. Sometimes he would have them report to him at his villa at Lake Tana. Those who annoyed him were fed to the crocodiles, (Later an Italian Count would be made Viceroy, He honestly tried to improve matters, but he had no control over the military until it was too late.)

An attempt was made on Graziani’s life by non Ethiopian nationals. In response, in short order more than 30,000 Ethiopians were slaughtered, including the 300 monks at the country’s holiest shrine, and half of the young well educated people in the country that the Emperor had sent abroad for foreign educations.

In 1940 the U.S. State Department decided that the U.S. should cozy up to Mussolini and offer to recognize the “validity” of his conquest of Ethiopia. But before this unholy deal could be consummated, Italy invaded France. While Graziani was winning the hearts and minds of the crocodiles, the Emperor, at the entry of Italy into WWII moved from London to Khartoum to be closer to his resistance fighters and to inspect new Ethiopian regular recruits.

Photo Card

Winston Churchill had been opposed to Britain’s shameful dealings with Ethiopia, but he was a touch too paternalistic, thinking that Ethiopia would maybe be best served as a member state in the British Empire. Some British officers and politicos in the field had an even more restrictive view of Ethiopia’s future, one perhaps without the Emperor. When Britain invaded Ethiopia to kick out the Italians, regular forces including the South African Army handled the main campaign. The irregular campaign was led by (acting) Lt. Colonel Orde Wingate (of later Burma Chindit fame as a general).

Emperor inspecting new Ethiopian troops, Khartoum

The British had kicked Wingate out of Palestine because he “exceeded his orders” re commanding Jewish settlers against Arab raiders from Syria. He helped arm, train, and organize (and often led) an aggressive strike force that would become the Palmach. While not in any degree Jewish (from a severely religious Protestant family) he was an ardent Zionist. He called his mixed irregular force that was tearing through Ethiopia “Gideon Force,” Regional command (without informing Churchill) decided that it might be “convenient” if Haile Selassie was not permitted to enter Addis Ababa when it was liberated, and not interfere with their ideas about how Ethiopia should be run.

Some officers even toyed with breaking the Muslim Ethiopians away. Wingate had left one “holy war” and had found a new one. He ignored “serious suggestions” re detaining the Emperor and charged him right into the capital. Wingate was immediately reduced to his permanent grade of Major and bundled off to Egypt by the outraged local British brass hats, (Churchill would take over his fate from there, sending him on to Burma as a general) So Ethiopia joined the “United Nations.”

It declared war on Germany and Japan, (see Kagnew story for film of Ethiopians at Japanese peace treaty during the Korean War,) SRIT 16 The Emperor was forced by the British to sign a very restrictive treaty with them, It might have been intended to bind Ethiopia to the British Empire, but by 1944 Ethiopia was a backwater and a new and less restrictive treaty signed. After the war Ethiopia found itself still “under the bus.”

The United States, the Western Allies, and later the United Nations decided that Italy must not be antagonized by massive war crimes trials such as those going on in Germany. Italy had finished the war as an “ally” after it dumped Mussolini. There were fears that it would go Communist. So Ethiopia’s claims for justice and compensation would be given low priority.

An arbitrary and relatively low financial sum trotted out by the Allies. The Ethiopians were given very little time to prepare their brief. It was decided that Ethiopia would not be permitted to file charges of “genocide” but rather “murder” charges, which had a far higher burden of proof. (Poland was able to file “genocide” charges against Germany because of the targeting for extermination of their educated elites, exactly what had been done in Ethiopia.)

For compensation purposes the U.N. declared that the Ethiopian invasion was not “part of WWII,” though the Japanese invasion of China had been labeled as such, The U.N. ultimately decided that Ethiopia should take its claims directly to the Italian government. Not only was that unproductive, but some Italian newspapers used the same sort of language about Ethiopia that the hecklers had at the League of Nations. Had German newspapers done the same re a complaining country the Allied Occupying Powers would have tossed the editors into prison for a couple of years.

The Vatican did not act on the claims of the Ethiopian government regarding return of their religious, historical, and cultural treasures. The U.N. would not get involved. Field Martial Graziani was tried and was given a very heavy sentence. After four months he was released because “He was only obeying orders,” (Those convicted at Nuremberg might have wondered about that,)

Emperor with Orde Wingate

So Ethiopia was thrown under the bus and remained there for about 12 years. But somehow, in 1951 they sent their finest troops to stand beside American, British, and U.N. forces. I guess that they were just not as “practical” as those who let them down. “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.” -Haile Selassie- – YP-



So Ethiopia was thrown under the bus and remained there for about 12 years.  But somehow, in 1951 they sent their finest troops to stand beside American, British, and U.N. forces.  I guess that they were just not as “practical” as those who let them down.

“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.” -Haile Selassie

Suggested Reading

The U.S. Army and Irregular Warfare 1775-2007: Selected Papers from the 2007 Conference of Army Historians

Days of Emperor and Clown: The Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936

Fire in the Night: Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia, and Zion

Haile Salassie’s War: The Ethiopian-Italian Campaign, 1935-1940

Appeal To Pope Francis I Re: A Vatican Justice Delayed For Over 75 Years

A Monument for Graziani: Italy’s unresolved relations to its violent colonial past

Film :Italian invasion, Black Americans wanting to enlist http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtxL3idYS6k