Last week I had some fun here, talking about a mighty warlord of the 1930s deciding to launch a war against a smaller and weaker adversary, and in the process precipitating World War II. Trying to be clever, I saved what television producers call the “reveal” for the end. Was it Hitler? No way! Hirohito! Nope.

No. The real warmonger of the mid-1930s was none other than the Duce, the lord of Italy, the “first Fascist”: Benito Mussolini. And the land he was invading? Well, let’s just say that it isn’t a place that we Americans tend to think about a lot today. It was Abyssinia. Or Ethiopia. Even now, historians can’t seem to decide what to call it.

Whatever. It was a big country. Mountainous. A land filled with brave men. We like to refer to them today as “warriors,” but that strikes me as a loaded term. It is how imperialists and interlopers have traditionally referred to the “natives”—primitive and underarmed and outclassed. Tribesman who were easy meat for western armies. It’s almost a term of military contempt.

In this case, I would recommend dropping all that baggage. The armed population of Ethiopia was simply…brave. Were they as well armed as a modern western army? Of course not. Tanks? No. Planes? No. I think Emperor Haile Selassie I owned a single trimotor aircraft, in fact. Antiaircraft guns, one of the main signifiers of modern armament in the 1930s? Unfortunately not.

But did the Ethiopians have firearms, aggressive commanders, and troops who were reasonably well trained in modern tactics? Did their army understand how to use the terrain to best advantage (then, as ever, a principal aspect of the military art)?

You bet.

And this is the point, I think, of the campaign of 1935–36. Although we largely ignore it today, the invasion of Ethiopia was the subject of a great deal of interest at the time. The Ethiopians had a martial reputation very different from their portrayal by modern writers. They were then known as one of the few colonial peoples in the last century to inflict a major defeat on a European power—these same Italians, in fact—at the battle of Adowa in 1896. Their land was remote, mountainous, and forbidding in the extreme. Most of the informed military opinion of the day spoke of the upcoming campaign in terms of its difficulties, not its alleged ease.

And they were right—easy it wasn’t. On October 3, 1935, an Italian army of some 100,000 men (General Emilio de Bono in overall command) invaded Ethiopia from Italian Somaliland. His force included nine full divisions, supported by tanks and the modern aircraft of the Italian air force (the Regia Aeronautica). The main thrust, under de Bono himself, came from the north, based on the Eritrean base of Asmara. A second, much smaller, came from the south under General Rodolfo Graziani, operating out of Somaliland with Mogadishu as its base.

The northern advance crossed the border without incident, but soon bogged down. Part of it was de Bono’s cautious nature. Part of it was the need to build a supply road back to his base. Part of it was the horrendous terrain. The Ethiopians took advantage of Italian hesitancy, however, and by December they were across the entire Italian front in force. They launched a series of powerful counterthrusts, which came close to breaking the Italian front. They never did manage to coordinate their attacks, however, and after some fairly dark nights, de Bono was able to marshal enough firepower to rout them.

In December, Marshal Pietro Badoglio replaced de Bono as the commander in the north and launched a series of multi-corps assaults that crushed the Ethiopian main force. Playing a conspicuous role here was the Italian air force. From the first day of the war, it operated with total impunity, harrying Ethiopian ground troops and bombing rear areas. Its real value, however, soon revealed itself: completing the destruction of already defeated Ethiopian forces as they were attempting to retreat. It was “magnificent sport,” in the words of Mussolini’s 19-year old son and Italian air force pilot, Vittorio. After the last great battle, at Mai Ceu (May 31—April 1, 1936), all that remained was the speedy occupation of the vast Ethiopian plateau. Badoglio entered Addis Ababa on May 5.

The campaign in the south was very different. The Ogaden Desert was the theater, and much smaller armies were in play. Italian commander General Rodolfo Graziani led a much more mobile force than Badoglio’s, organized into smaller task forces (gruppi) of tanks, armored cars, and truck-borne infantry, along with considerable support from the air. All this was very much in tune with the times. This was the era of the prophets, the Fullers and the Liddell Harts, preaching a new gospel of mechanization as a way to break the deadlock of trench warfare. Mobility was all the rage.

Did it work in the Ogaden? Yep.

Sure it did. Maybe.

Despite all his advantages in weapons and mobility, Graziani moved very slowly. Perhaps this was an omen for his later career in the Western Desert during World War II, but to be fair, it was also a warning sign to anyone who believed in a magic solution called “mechanization.” Graziani advanced in fits and starts. He paused repeatedly, then destroyed a clumsy and poorly supplied Ethiopian counterattack at Dolo. After that he sat for months. Not until April 18, six months into the war and two weeks after the destruction of the main Ethiopian army at Mai Ceu, was he prepared to resume his advance. Even then, his force took ten full days to chew through the Ethiopian positions in front of Negelli.

So, let’s add it up. Certainly, a triumph for the Italians. Total victory. A big win, the sort that ended with a parade through the streets of the enemy’s capital, and the hostile commander fleeing into exile. It was exactly the sort of win that had become extremely rare in the past half century.

The world was impressed. Observers of the campaign, both civilian and military, praised the Italian army, its efficiency, its drive, and its ability to improvise in such a difficult environment. Herbert Matthews of the New York Times called the conquest of Ethiopia “a difficult job superbly done,” and that would sum up the tone of much of the contemporary reportage.

All this is very different from our view today. Too many writers simply laugh at the Italian army. But perhaps this campaign is a classic example of confusing OUR thoughts (those of us who are alive today) with THEIR thoughts (those who were living then). It raises the question of what we should be about as historians. Is our job to lecture past generations about what they ought to have thought? Or should we try to figure out why they were thinking the way they were?

If you’ve been reading this column for long, I hope you know that I subscribe to that latter point of view. Was there a actually a time in history when it made perfect intellectual sense to respect the fighting qualities of Mussolini’s Italian army?
More next week.

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