Last week I wrote about the Italian campaign in Ethiopia (or Abyssinia, as many in the world still called it) in 1935–36. It barely registers in the western historical consciousness today. After all, there are two things that military historians in the U.S. have little respect for: the Italian army, and the fighting quality of the African “natives.”
The point I’ve been trying to make in these last few posts, however, is that this campaign deserves more attention than it usually gets. First, it was more evenly matched than we usually think. Ethiopian “natives,” even if fighting as feudal levies more loyal to a local chief (“ras”) than to a central government, were a tough enemy. They were savvy, hardy, and capable of prodigious marches in the high altitude of the Ethiopian plateau. The Italian army invading this forbidding country was mechanized, to be sure, but in a very light way, spearheaded by thinly armored “tanks” that barely register as such. Virtually all of its infantry was truck-mobile (i.e., motorized, rather than mechanized) and very fragile in combat. Indeed, the opinion of the day was that this was going to be one hard campaign.
No doubt, there were some things to admire in the Italian military achievement. The invaders displayed genius in areas of planning, organization, and supply. They built roads galore through the wilderness, as their Roman ancestors had and as they continue to do today in the United States. They were the first army in the world to operate large motorized and mechanized units in the field, after all the years of discussion, debate, and dissent. They were the first to demonstrate that it was possible to keep an “army on wheels” supplied, fed, and in command over vast distances—distances much larger than any European army was likely to face, and in much rougher country. They were the first to demonstrate the awesome power of the air arm, which had done something that no European force had done for decades: carry out a successful pursuit. Italian fighters and bombers had apparently replaced the cavalry, taking on a mission that the horse could no longer perform.
Indeed, they did more than that: air forces could be used to supply the ground component. After the fight at Mai Ceu, the Italian Eritrean Corps (20,000 men) force-marched around the left flank of the disintegrating Ethiopian army to Dessie, cutting themselves loose from their supply lines on the ground. Italian aircraft supplied the vast column for the entire 200-mile length of the march, even dropping livestock by parachute. Supplied with over 113 tons of airdropped supplies, the Eritreans made it to Dessie in less than a week, an average of over 30 miles per day.
The exclamation points on this success? Marshal Pietro Badoglio transferred his army headquarters by air to Dessie on April 20, a true innovation. Twelve heavy Caproni-133 bombers brought the marshal and his entire army staff 110 miles forward in just 90 minutes. To a world accustomed to World War I maneuver rates, this was not merely impressive. It was positively insane. More than a hundred miles in an hour and a half? As my high school daughter likes to say nowadays: are you serious? This was nothing sort of a new paradigm, a veritable revolution in military affairs. Consider Badoglio’s final lunge from Dessie to Addis in the last days of the war. Setting out from Dessie on April 26 with a gigantic motorized column, including some 1,700 trucks, the force made over 250 miles in just 10 days, facing steep ascents, sudden plunging ravines, and everything in between. Badoglio called it, in the bombastic Fascist style, “the March of the Iron Will.”
That’s how they saw it at the time, in 1936. A few years later, a lot of things had happened. A much larger conflict had broken out, and it would enter the history books as World War II. The Ethiopian War now seemed positively quaint to most western analysts. This new war was intense, European-on-European fighting. The real thing, as it were. Blitzkrieg (allegedly). Fall Weiss. Barbarossa! In this new war, the Italian army soon looked like a joke. The “not ready for prime time players,” a parody commanded by a clown and led in the field by amateurs. It is an unfair and simplistic picture, but so ingrained now that it will take generations to pass away, if it ever does.
The point here is not to rehabilitate the reputation of the Italian army—probably impossible in any event. It is merely to reiterate a point I’ve made here a few times: history is not merely “what happened.” It’s what people think happened. In 1936, a lot of people thought that the Italian army was pretty formidable, and that the “Ethiopian campaign” was some kind of classic achievement.
I wonder: what ideas do we hold today that might look foolish in a decade or so?