An independent African republic

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War, (1935–36), was an armed conflict that ended in Ethiopia’s subjection to Italian rule. Often seen as one of the events that paved the way for the Second World War, it demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations and the reluctance of other European nations to intercede in global events, particularly if undertaken by aggressive, authoritarian regimes.

In 1934, Ethiopia (Abyssinia), which Italy had attempted to conquer in the 1890s - an undertaking which ended in Italy's, humiliating defeat - was one of the last independent republics in a continent that was dominated by Europe.

Benito Mussolini created a justification to become involved thanks to a border incident between Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland that December. On

October 3, 1935, the Italians invaded Ethiopia after rejecting all arbitration offers.

The First Italo-Ethiopian conflict

The origins of the Second Italo-Ethiopian war can be traced back to the First Italo-Ethiopian war of 1895 - 1896, in which Italy suffered a humiliating defeat to the Ethiopians, the only European country to lose a conflict with an African nation.

This stunning Ethiopian victory ensured they retained their independence, a notable achievement at a time when Africa had been carved up between rival European colonial powers. All of Ethiopia’s neighbours had found themselves under the control of foreign countries.


Things not going to plan for the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, during the First Italo-Ethiopian War.

​For Italy, this defeat burned itself into the national psyche and later helped the growth in power of influence Mussolini’s fascists, as they promoted the idea of gaining revenge for the defeat.

For Mussolini in particular, it was a vital and logical step to take and part of his grand plan to restore Italy to its former greatness. Similar to his fellow dictator in Germany, the idea of reclaiming past glories and forging a new, ‘Roman’ empire, one to rival other European countries power and influence, was central to his beliefs.

More peaceful times. Mussolini and Selassie during the Ethiopian emperors visit to Rome in 1924.

Weekly Illustrated Magazine

The Abyssinian Crisis

Abyssinia (later, and more commonly known, as Ethiopia) a country in Africa, found itself at odds with Mussolini’s Italy in 1935 it what became known as the Abyssinia Crisis. Sparked off by the Walal incident, the two countries proceeded to provoke each other, with the League of Nations attempting to intervene and issue economic sanctions against Italy.

These sanctions were in turn ignored by Italy and so never properly implemented.

Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister of Italy.

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia

Political manoeuvring

Other European countries were watching as events unfolded. Britain and France, aware of increasing German belligerence, were keen to retain Italy as an ally should a European war break out.

A Franco-Italian agreement signed in 1935, essentially gave Italy a free hand in Africa, provided that they remained cooperative in Europe. As a result, little was done to prevent Italy’s military build-up in Africa.

However, the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, was aware of British sea power and so keen that Mussolini avoided antagonising the British.

For their part, Britain attempted to mediate and arrange a compromise solution – planning to give Italy a land corridor through Ethiopia which would link their African colonies in that area.

Mussolini rejected the plan though, emboldened by the knowledge that Britain would be unlikely to go to war over Ethiopia.

His intelligence services had managed to break British naval codes and so he was aware of various problems which were currently plaguing the British Mediterranean fleet.


1938 map of French Somaliland. Following the Franco-Italian agreement of 1935, the northern border of French Somaliland was moved south of the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb. 

This defined define the disputed parts of French Somaliland (now Djibouti) as part of Eritrea, redefine the official status of Italians in French Tunisia and - crucially - give Italy a mainly-free hand to occupy Ethiopia during the Abyssinia Crisis.

Édition L'Illustration, 1938 - auction

Germany was keen to see an Italian-Ethiopian conflict break out as it would cause a rift in Anglo-Italian relations. Although Germany sent military supplies to Ethiopia, this was in the hope that Italy may get bogged down in a lengthy war and force the League of Nations to try and impose sanctions on Italy and further estrange Italy from Britain and France.

This in turn may have helped encourage Italy into a closer relationship with Germany.

Addis Ababa. The imperial guard is mobilized. Newsreel Fox Movietone News 1935.

Gaspare Sciortino architect  Newsreel Fox Movietone News 1935.


On 3 October 1935, due to the incident at Walal (and as part of his expansionist policy), Mussolini –, having ignored attempts by the League of Nations to resolve the crisis - invaded Ethiopia with over 200,00 troops commanded by Marshall Emilio De Bono, who crossed the border into Ethiopia from Italian held Eretria.

At the same time, a smaller Italian force, led by General Rodolfo Graziani, attacked from Italian held Somalia, another of Italy’s African colonies.


Ethiopian soldiers on their way to the front line.

Scenes in Ethiopia 1935 - YouTube

Ethiopia and surrounding countries at the time of the invasion. Italian forces entered the country from Eritrea in the north and Italian Somaliland in the south.

In response, the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, issued the following order:

Haile Selassie reads on the radio the appeal to the nations against the Italian invasion.

Gaspare Sciortino architect  Newsreel Fox Movietone News 1935.

Italian Military

The Italian forces also included over 3000 machine guns, 275 artillery pieces, 200 tankettes (armoured fighting vehicles that resemble small tanks) and over 200 aircraft. The Italian forces included Somalis, Eritreans, Libyans and others recruited from their African colonies.

The best trained of these colonial troops were the Eritrean native infantry – also known as ‘Ascari’ – which were often used as the advance troops. The Eritrean forces also included artillery and cavalry troops, the most notable being the ‘Falcon Feathers’ – a colourful and well-trained unit.

An Italian soldier talking to his mother before leaving for Ethiopia.

Additionally, the Italians also had assorted other allied units fighting with them.

  • Volunteers from the Azeby Galla – a distinct ethnic group located in Ethiopia and Kenya
  • The personal army of the Somalian Sultan Olol Dinle – his motivation being the recapture of Ethiopian lands he considered rightfully his.
  • Volunteers from the country of Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden.
  • Italians from Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil who collectively formed the 221st Legion, part of the Divisione Tevere.

The Eritrean contingent

A vital aspect of the Italian plans were its colonial troops – particularly the numerous Eritrean soldiers. Mussolini understood that if his plans to conquer Ethiopia were come to fruition, it would take more than the Italian military alone to do it.

Despite the Eritreans status as simply vassals of Italy and in no way considered equal, Italy still recognised their military value and endeavoured to ensure they were reasonably well equipped and trained. As events would show, this was a wise move as the Eritrean forces would feature heavily in the forthcoming battles for Ethiopia.


The Ethiopian Military

The Ethiopian’s had a substantial number of soldiers – around half a million men – but they were compared to the Italians, poorly equipped. Some still carried spears while others brandished outdated rifles, some from the early 1900’s. Only around a quarter of the army had received any military training.

Emperor Selassie posing with a machine gun, presumably for propaganda purposes.

The Ethiopian’s had a mixture of heavier equipment, much of it outdated. Some artillery and anti-aircraft pieces, a few armoured cars and precisely four First World War Era Fiat 3000 tanks. Its small air force could muster three outdated Potez 25 biplanes and a few transport aircraft.

The best Ethiopian forces were the Imperial Guard – known as the ‘Kebur Zabagna’ who were better trained and equipped than the rest of the Ethiopian forces. Additionally, around 50 foreign mercenaries also fought on the side of the Ethiopians.

Two Ethiopian brothers embrace before traveling to separate fronts to fight.

The Northern Front

General Emilio De Bono was appointed the supreme commander of all Italian armed troops in East Africa on March 28, 1935.

On the northern front, De Bono was also in charge of the forces advancing from Eritrea. In the Italian I Corps, Italian II Corps, and Eritrean Corps, De Bono oversaw nine divisions.

De Bono would later be replaced by Marshall Pietro Badoglio when Italian leader, Benito Mussolini became frustrated with De Bono's slow progress.

The Southern Front

On the southern front, the forces advancing from Italian Somaliland were under the command of General Rodolfo Graziani. He initially commanded two divisions as well as a number of smaller units that included Italians, Somalis, Eritreans, Libyans, and others.

Italian Somaliland was seen by De Bono as a subsidiary theatre that needed to defend itself first but could support the main front with aggressive thrusts provided the enemy troops weren't too strong.

Initial gains

Despite the lack of roads and the failure of a propaganda campaign (the Italians had dropped leaflets encouraging Ethiopians to rise up against Selassie and support an alternative member of Ethiopian royalty, Lij Iyasu, who had been imprisoned by Selassie).

The Italians made significant progress, capturing the city of Adigrat on 5 October and the town of Adwa on the 6 October.


Ethiopian troops skirmishing.

Scenes in Ethiopia 1935 - YouTube

The capture of Adwa was notable as it was the scene of an Italian defeat and humiliation in the first Italo-Ethiopian war, so it’s capture provided a measure of ‘vengeance’ for the Italians, despite the fact it was captured without any fighting (the Ethiopian forces having already executed a tactical withdrawal).


On 7th October, the League of Nations officially declared Italy the aggressors and began to issue sanctions. However, this excluded vital war materials such as oil, due to the British and French governments protesting – they wanted to keep Mussolini on friendly terms should war with Hitler break out.

They also argued that the Italians would simply acquire oil from the USA instead as it was not a member of the League of Nations.

Between 1934 and 1936, Italian demands for coal and oil grew. Italy successfully increased its own production of coal whilst reducing the need for importing it externally. However, its own oil production only increased slightly while the need for exporting it grew greatly. Targeting Italian Oil exports may have been an effective way to bring Mussolini to the negotiation table, yet due to Britain and France blocking it, this potentially effective strategy was never implemented. 


Hoare-Laval Pact

In an effort to find a solution to ending the conflict, the flawed Hoare-Laval pact was created but which quickly died a death when the British and French public – largely sympathetic to the Ethiopians - became aware of its plans to sacrifice most of Ethiopia to the Italians in what looked like a clumsy attempt to maintain peace. 

This resulted in a swift back-pedal and the plan being abandoned.

This failure to find a workable political solution to the conflict reflected badly on both Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval (who lost their jobs) as well as the increasingly powerless League of Nations.


The planned outcome of the Hoare-Laval pact which would have resulted in a a large loss of territory for Ethiopia.

Ethiopia under the Hoare-Laval Pact |

Gugsa’s betrayal

With the loss of Adigrat and Adwa, the Ethiopian forces in the area were ordered to withdraw further away from the border, rather than directly confront the Italians. However, on 11 October, the son-in-law of Emperor Selassie, Haile Selassie Gugsa, who was ‘Commander of the Gate’ betrayed his emperor. He along with 1200 men surrendered to the Italians, with Gugsa switching sides and openly collaborating with the Italians.

Unsurprisingly, the Italian propaganda machine went into overdrive with these developments, loudly celebrating Gugsa’s surrender and his switching of sides, although in truth, only about a tenth of the men who accompanied him joined the Italian forces, the rest simply dispersing.

Haile Selassie Gugsa after switching to the Italian side. From left to right: Haile Selassie Gugsa, Emilio de Bono and Ferdinando Cona.

Zbiory NAC on-line

De Bono exits

Emilio De Bono

Next to fall was Axum, the Ethiopian holy capital and the site of the Obelisk of Axum, an ancient Ethiopian burial marker which was looted and transported to Rome (only being returned to Ethiopia in 2005). The city fell without fighting and the Italian commander, De Bono, triumphantly entered the city, riding a white horse.

However, Mussolini – seeking swift progress in the war, was becoming increasingly impatient with De Bono’s methodical approach. This came to ahead after the Italian capture of Mek’ele, the main Ethiopian city in the Eastern Tigre area of the country, Mussolini had De Bono replaced, promoting him ‘upstairs’ to Marshal of Italy and being replaced as commander by Marshal Pietro Badoglio.

The conflict rages

Despite the initial Italian successes, the Italians soon found themselves on the backfoot when Selassie launched his Christmas Offensive on 15th December, which managed to inflict substantial losses on the Italians and halt their advance for weeks.

Eventually though, the Italians broke through, their immense advantage in artillery and air power being the key and won a series of key victories over the Ethiopians.

On the Southern front, the battle of Ganale Doria saw a significant Italian victory which was followed up by further Italian successes at Ogaden.

Meanwhile, on the larger Northern front, the Italians – despite fierce resistance - gradually wore down the Ethiopian forces and the First Battle of Tembien and Amba Aradam before then routing them completely at the Second Battle of Tembien.

October 1935, An Abyssinian desert chief prepares to leave his village to fight in the Second Italo-Ethiopian war.


Cover of the Italian magazine “La Domenica del Corriere” depicting the end of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, 27th December 1936.

This was followed by another Italian victory at Shire and the last major battle at Maychew on 31st March 1936, where the last of Selassie’s forces desperately attempted to push the Italians back before being eventually defeated.

With this defeat, any chance of victory for the Ethiopians effectively ended.

The Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was forced into exile on 2 May 1936 and 3 days later, the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, fell to Italian Troops after the March of the Iron Will.

The war was effectively over, although fighting and resistance continued sporadically across the country.

Selassie's defiance

Emperor Haile Selassie would continue to act in defiance of the Italian occupation after fleeing Ethiopia in the face of the Italian armies. He put an end to his military's resistance to the invasion once he arrived in Jerusalem, which was part of the British mandate of Palestine. He referred to the invasion as "the most sweeping, the most unjust, and the most inhuman war of modern times".

He would travel to the League of Nations assembly in Geneva one month later and give one of the most well-known addresses of the 20th century there. His descriptions of the different war crimes committed by the Italian troops were corroborated by news accounts and subsequent research. Selassie remarked on the different ways the Italians had broken prior accords and international law in each segment of the speech. He did not hold back his critiques and saved his venom for the European powers he had previously trusted yet had failed to honour their word. He knew he had nothing left to lose.

His righteous anger at the League portended the passivity and cowardice that enabled the start of the Second World War. Typically, the League of Nations remained silent in response to him.
However, his speech garnered a lot of praise and attention from around the world. Selassie was able to communicate with people outside of Geneva thanks to the invention of newsreels. The speech had a strong impact on the people in many countries who were already upset over the League's inaction.


Because it was difficult to maintain proper records during the invasion and because the Statistical Bulletin no longer included information on mortality, there were few trustworthy figures available regarding Italian casualties.

Individual deaths were not registered, inventories were scattered, field hospitals' records were lost, and bodies weren't brought back to Italy.

Unpublished reports claimed 3,694 military and civilian fatalities among 44,000 casualties, and another 12,248 military and civilian fatalities among 144,000 casualties between May 1936 and June 1940.

Italian-Abyssinian War, 1935: Italian officers interrogate an Ethiopian POW who lies on a stretcher having been hit by shrapnel.

The Ethiopian government reported 275,000 soldiers killed in action, 78,500 Patriots killed in hostilities during the occupation from 1936 to 1941, 17,800 women and children killed by bombing, 30,000 people killed in the massacre of February 1937, 35,000 people perished in concentration camps, 24,000 Patriots killed in compliance with orders from summary courts, and 300,000 people perished after their villages had been destroyed in a memorandum submitted to the Paris conference in 1946.


The conflict was notable for its brutality. The Ethiopians used prohibited Dum-dum bullets, mutilated captured Italian soldiers, and massacred civilian workers. The Italians used Mustard Gas against soldiers and civilians alike, attacked Red Cross hospitals and committed large scale massacres against the Ethiopian population, described by some historians as constituting genocide.

Approximately 30,000 Ethiopian civilians died in the conflict.

Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Evidence of Italian use of mustard gas used against Ethiopian forces at Dolo. Blistered hands of a victim were caused by mustard gas. Jan. 1936. 

CSU Archives/Everett Collection


The now conquered Ethiopia became Italian Ethiopia, part of the larger Italian East Africa, and was divided into six regions, designed to aid Italian administration, and reduce resistance.

Investments in infrastructure and agriculture occurred, as part of the plan to ensure the region became a profitable part of the Italian overseas possessions. 



Mockler, Anthony (2003). Haile Selassie's War

The Twice Fought War: Ethiopia 1935-1945 Archives - The Writing Disorder              

Édition L'Illustration, 1938 - auction

CSU Archives/Everett Collection