The looming defeat

By 1936, the war was going badly for the Ethiopians as the Italians steadily ground down their resistance and destroyed their armies. On the Southern front, General Rodolfo Graziani’s use of poisonous gas had helped his forces eliminate Ethiopian resistance at Ganale Doria, his bombers dropping canisters on the Ethiopian troops who had no defences against the "terrible rain that burned and killed.".

On the Northern front, Field Marshall Pietro Badoglio’s forces had methodically eliminated one Ethiopian army after anther; Ras Mulugeta Yeggazu's army was destroyed at Amba Aradam; Ras Kassa Haile Darge’s at Tembien and Ras Imru Haile Selassie’s army at Shire.

Aerial view of Addis Ababa in 1934.

By 31 March, only one Ethiopian army remained intact – led by the emperor himself, Haile Selassie. Despite this formation including some of the best troops Ethiopia had to offer – six battalions of the Imperial Guard – they were defeated at the battle of Maychew, in which a risky, frontal assault on well sited Italian defences, resulted in Selassie’s army taking heavy losses and being forced to retreat and the survivors being harried and picked off in the days that followed.

With the last Ethiopian army destroyed, Marshal Badoglio moved his headquarters to Dessie, and advance the two-hundred hundred miles from there to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Aside of processions of refugees attempting to escape the violence, the road to the capital appeared clear.

The 'mechanized' column

Sensing an opportunity, Badoglio sent a ‘mechanized column’ – or at least the 1936 Italian version of one - which in reality was simply motorised, his troops travelling in a variety of available vehicles, mainly commandeered cars and trucks.

Badoglio was fortunate that he had a very capable Quartermaster-General - Fidenzio Dall'Ora - at his disposal to arrange all of this. Thanks to Dall'Ora’s hard work between 21-25 April, Badoglio was able to send in 12,500 Italian troops in a column of 1,785 cars and trucks of a variety of makes and models: Fiats, Lancias, Alfa-Romeos, Fords, Chevrolets, Bedfords, and Studebaker. Additionally, the column included a squadron of L3 light tanks, eleven batteries of artillery and 193 horses being transported via vehicle. Badoglio had grasped the propaganda value in victoriously entering the Ethiopian capital city riding one of the aforementioned horses and at the head of the largest motorised column to appear in the war.

The Horn of Africa and southwest Arabia – Mid-1930s. The March of the Iron Will was between Dessie and Addis Ababa. At the same time, General Rodolfo Graziani was advancing from the south towards HararEmperor Haile Selassie travelled from Addis Ababa, to Harar to Djibouti in French Somaliland to go into exile.

As an added precaution, Badoglio sent 4000 of this Eritrean troops ahead to sweep away any last vestiges of Ethiopian resistance, although in the end they found the biggest obstacle was the mud and condition of the road between Dessie and Addis Ababa, which Badoglio dismissively described as a ‘bad cart track’.

The motorised column made steady progress towards the capital, only being delayed twice.

The first occasion to repair a stretch of damaged road and the second, more seriously, when they were ambushed by an Ethiopian force commanded by Haile Mariam Mammo, which cost the Italians 170 colonial troops killed and four captured (including two doctors) who were later released.

This hiccup aside, the Italians continued with their advance.

The advance of the Badoglio column on Addis Ababa. At the centre, Badoglio stands with Lessona, Minister of the colonies.

Fondo Bottai, Milan.

June 1931, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia --- A statue honoring Monarch Menelik II stands by St George's Cathedral.

Addis Ababa

With the Italians closing in on the Ethiopian capital, Emperor Haile Selassie contacted the French foreign minister. Knowing that it was impossible to defend the capital, he arranged for his wife and two sons - Empress Menen Asfaw, Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen, 19, and Prince Makonnen, 13, to leave the country. They would find refuge initially in French Somaliland before then moving on to the British Mandate of Palestine.

With arrangements for his family in place, Selassie addressed the crowd that had gathered outside his palace, telling them:

Ethiopian soldiers shooting at Italian aircraft over Addis Ababa, 1936.

Gaspare Sciortino architect

The crowd roared back to their Emperor:

Selassie returned to his palace for a final conference with his remaining chieftains. They had no good news for him – the final Ethiopian army under Ras Nasibu Emmanual – was facing destruction at Ogaden as it was slowly ground down by Italian forces under General Rodolfo Graziani, who were advancing from the south. All the chieftains suggested that Selassie needed to escape.

After informing his chieftains that the government would have to leave Addis Ababa and relocate to Gore but the mayor of the city to remain to try and maintain order until the arrival of Italian forces. Ras Imru Haile Selassie would be appointed Prince Regent during his absence.

Italian Eritrean colonial troops on the march.

Selassie then visited Sir Sidney Barton at the British Legation, hoping that the British would be able to help. However, throughout the duration of the conflict, Great Britain had proved strong in its vocal support of the Ethiopian cause, but less so when it came to actual material aid – only selling a few guns to Selassie’s forces. Once again, Selassie was disappointed as no help was forthcoming from the British.

Now having felt he had done all he could, Selassie promptly left the city on the night of 1 May 1936. His departure was conducted so rapidly that it caught many by surprise. His U.S. advisor, John Spencer, had not been informed that Selassie had gong and awoke to find a city on the brink of anarchy:

Addis Ababa, 5 May 1936. The population waved white drapes as a sign of surrender at the entrance to the city as Badoglio's column approached.

Fondo Bottai, Milan

By the evening of 2 May - with the emperor having left Addis Ababa and on to eventual exile in England – civil order had completely broken down in the capital. Of those that were still left in the capital, many succumbed to criminal behaviour and ran amok – looting shops and abusing foreigners.

Gunfire reverberated around the city as rifles were fired into the air and Selassie’s palace was left unguarded and open to the public. Within 24 hours, the Ethiopian empire effectively ceased to exist as without an effective leader and the country overrun by Italian forces, law and order completely broke down.

In Addis Ababa, rioting grew worse and most foreigners – fearing for their safety - sought refuge in one of the foreign compounds.

May 5, 1936. Badoglio enters Addis Ababa. 

Fondo Bottai, Milan.

Despite the initial reluctance to assist Selassie directly, the British legation performed commendably regarding offering shelter and some degree of protection as law and order in the city fell apart. Around 2000 people were given shelter here, mainly in tents supplemented by iron sheets from the Belgian legation for added protection.

The Treasury ‘gold house’ was attacked and a few loyal employees with machine guns tried to defend it, but suffered hands being lopped off by enraged, sword-wielding rioters.

Some of the damage inflicted on Addis Ababa during the conflct.

The Italians arrive

On the evening of 4 May, the first Italian forces reached the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Elements of the 1st Eritrean Brigade managed to beat Badoglio’s ‘mechanized’ column, despite being on foot. Badoglio continued to urge his column on though, using aircraft to reconnoitre ahead and it eventually reached the capital at 4:00 pm on 5th May, as a rainstorm fell upon the city.

Almost immediately, the rioting started to die down and order started to be restored. White flags appeared all over the city as Badoglio finally was able to make his triumphant entrance into the city. With the city now calm though, many residents took the opportunity to flee south or gain entrance to one of the foreign compounds (the very same compounds that had been under attack only a few hours before) dotted around the city, preferring these options to living under Italian rule. Other Ethiopians accepted their new Italian masters, a unit of Ethiopian customs guards forming up and presenting arms as Badoglio’s car travelled past them.

Addis Ababa shortly before the Italian arrival, crowds flocking to a square close to the Post Office with a building ablaze in the background.

When Badoglio finally reached the Italian legation at 5:45pm, the Italian flag was hoisted and three cheers sounded out for their King Victor Emmanuel and their Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. News soon reached Rome, where wild celebrations broke out at the news of the victory, Mussolini returning ten times to lap up the constant applause at Palazzo Venezia

Despite the bad weather and rough terrain, Badoglio’s column covered the distance in only ten days – an impressive feat and one which demonstrated the potential for fast moving, motorised forces in a conflict – a fact probably not lost on other European leaders, particularly Adolf Hitler.

However, given the lack of significant opposition faced by Badoglio’s troops and the ramshackle nature of their transport, the “March of the Iron Will” was probably best looked at as a successful exercise in logistics and transportation, rather than a blueprint for a modern, military operation. 

An unnamed journalist at the time described it as:


In the week that followed the start of the Italian occupation, one of Marshal Badoglio's staff officers, Captain Adolfo Alessandri, made a point of visiting all the foreign envoys still present in Addis Ababa to reassure them that they would continue to "every diplomatic privilege until the time of your departure."

This was Fascist Italy’s way of stating that Ethiopia would be a permanent colony under the ownership of the Kingdom of Italy. The German Minister to Ethiopia, Dr. Johann Hans Kirchholtes, visited Badoglio – who was now Viceroy and Governor-General of Italian East Africa – to offer the first recognition by a foreign government that Ethiopia was now controlled by Italy.

Giuseppe Bottai became the first Governor of Addis Ababa and took Emperor Selassie's former Palace as his official residence.

On 1 June Italy officially merged Ethiopia with Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, calling the new state Italian East Africa.