The Road to War / Birth of Fascist Italy / Second Italo-Ethiopian War

An army divided

After the defeat and destruction of the Ethiopian armies at Amba AradamTembien and then Shire, Selassie found himself in the unenviable position of commanding the only intact Ethiopian army. Understanding the gravity of the situation, Selassie had located his headquarters at Korem and organised his forces in anticipation of the Italian attack.
The emperor divided his forces into four groups. He would command one while Ras Kassa, Ras Seyum and Ras Getachew would command the others. In total his troops numbered around 31,000 men – including his elite Imperial Guards - and in comparison to other Ethiopian units was well equipped. His forces included twenty 75mm field guns, several Oerlikon 37mm guns and some 81mm Brandt mortars. Selassie also paid Oromo people the princely sum of between ten to fifteen dollars to attack and harass the Italian forces. Although fairly impressive on paper, this paled into comparison to what the Italian forces could bring to the field.

A soldier of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard with a 1914 model "Hotchkiss" machine gun.

The Italians prepare

Badoglio, fresh off a string of decisive victories against the Ethiopian armies, could muster four divisions of the Italian I Army Corps and three divisions of the steadfast Eritrean Corps – in total Badoglio’s forces amounted to 40,000 troops, with the same number in reserve. For the first time the Ethiopians found themselves significantly outnumbered – never a good thing when your opponent also holds a sizeable technological edge over you as well.

Additionally, Badoglio also had access to the usual artillery and air support, along with a significant insight into the Ethiopian plans – his forces were able to intercept most of the Ethiopian radio traffic and so had an invaluable edge in intelligence over the Ethiopians.
​Despite his own reservations (and those of his advisors), Selassie was determined to go on the offensive against the Italians. His was the last intact Ethiopian army that stood between the Italian forces and his capital city, Addis Ababa. He planned to direct the attack himself – as per Ethiopian tradition, and with six battalions of his own Imperial Guard – the ‘Kebur Zabangna’ – at the vanguard of the attack.

Italian artillery being readied for action.

A lost opportunity

Had he launched his attack on the 24th March – the date originally planned – he may well have been successful too. The Italians were not yet fully reinforced, with many of their troops having only just arrived from Amba Aradam and supplies still be obtained. However, the opportunity was lost as the Ethiopians spent a week in war councils, banquets and prayers, frittering away what small window of opportunity they had. Instead, the attack on the Italians was planned for the 31st, giving the Italians extra time to prepare their forces and strengthen their defences.

Even worse for Salassie, a radio message he had sent to his wife – the empress Menen Asfaw – in which he indicated his plans to attack, was intercepted by the Italians. Upon receiving this information, Badoglio cancelled his own plans for an offensive and instead elected to prepare and wait for the Ethiopians launch their own, determining that he could inflict greater damage on their army if it faced him out in the open rather than from behind fortified positions.

Ethiopian Army Marching from Addis Ababa to the Battle of Maychew. More than 60% of the army never returned back to their families and loved ones.

The Ethiopians attack

On 31 March 1936 – St George’s Day - Selassie launched his forces in a dawn attack. Beginning at 05:45 in the morning, the intense fighting did not falter for thirteen hours. The Italians – anticipating the Ethiopian advance – having been prewarned by an Ethiopian deserter - had been on guard all night. Facing the Ethiopians in well-sited defensive positions and being held back in reserve, were some very capable and well-equipped Italian Units:

  • Mountain troops of the 5th Alpine Division "Pusteria"
  • 26th Infantry Division “Assietta”
  • 30th Infantry division “Sabauda”
  • 4th CC.NN. Division “3 Gennaio”
  • 1st Eritrean Division
  • 2nd Eritrean Division
  • 1st CC.NN. Division “23 Marzo”

A seated Haile Selassie with his personal guard - who is armed with a ZH-29 rifle - at Maychew.

The attacking Ethiopians had organised themselves into three columns, numbering around 3000 men in each one. Charging forward in waves and with effective support from mortars, the sheer ferocity of the Ethiopian attacks smashed into and partially through, the defensive lines of the mountain troops of the “Pusteria” division. However, counterattacking swiftly, the mountain troops were able to repel the Ethiopian attackers and stabilise the position.

Now switching focus, Ras Kassa assaulted the Eritrean positions with 15,000 troops, anticipating less resistance from the colonial troops. Intense fighting went on for an hour, with the Ethiopians pressure starting to slowly grind down the Eritreans. However, at 8:30, once again the Italian Air Force provided a timely intervention, dropping poisonous gas on the Ethiopians, causing their attack to falter.

Soldiers from Selassie's elite Imperial Guard.

Enter the Imperial Guard

​Selassie now reinforced Kassa’s troops with his own Imperial Guard, Ethiopia’s own elite soldiers. Their effectiveness soon became apparent as over the course of three hours, they steadily chipped away at the Italian flank and annihilated the 2nd Eritrean Division.

This time it was the Italian artillery who saved Badoglio’s forces, with the Italians calling down artillery on their own, overrun positions, to halt the Ethiopian advance and save the Italians.

Final assault

​Despite the brave and ferocious Ethiopian assaults, it became apparent to Selassie that the Italian line was still holding. With nothing else to lose, he launched a full-frontal assault along the entire Italian line, hoping that the sheer weight and size of the attack might shatter the Italian line. Such an attack had little chance of success and predictably failed, with the Ethiopians forced into full retreat, their troops demoralised and hungry and with so many commanders dead, entire units were now losing their cohesion.

As they withdrew from the battlefield, they were constantly bombed by the Italian Air Force and attacked by local Azebu Galla tribesmen who had sided with the Italians when it became clear which way the battle was going.

Ethiopian machine gunner during the Battle of Maychew.

Selassie, although proud of how his forces had fought, knew the game was effectively up, messaging his wife on the evening of 31 March:


On 2 April, under the cover of darkness, Selassie ordered the retreat and dispersal of his forces. Many of the commanders dispersed to their own lands, some with orders to wage a guerrilla war against the Italians, others to accompany the emperor to the safer highlands of Wag and Lasta.

Retreating in orderly columns and led by Selassie atop a white horse and wearing a pith helmet, the Ethiopians initially made good progress.

Ethiopian prisoners of war with their Italian captors.

However, both the Italian Air Force and hostile Azebo Oromos tribesmen located and relentlessly attacked the retreating Ethiopians, inflicting significant losses. The Imperial Guard acting as part of the rear-guard lost more men during the retreat then they did during the actual battle.

The Poisoned Lake

Upon reaching the relative safety of Korem, Selassie decided to disperse his columns of men. Although it meant they presented less of an obvious target, it also ensured that any remaining semblance of order and cohesion dissipated completely.

As the increasingly ragged retreating column continued, the weary Ethiopians continued to be relentlessly attacked and by the time they reached Lake Ashangi on 4th April, thousands had become casualties. Even worse, the lake had been poisoned with deadly chemicals by the Italian Air Force, resulting in the deaths of scores of unfortunate Ethiopians whose corpses ringed the lake, much to Selassie’s horror. 

Ethiopian soldiers on the attack during the conflict.

Withdrawal to Dessie

Although things now looked grim for the Salassie, there was hope that the Ethiopians could make a stand at Dassie. The Crown Prince Asfa Wossen had already been sent on ahead in the hope that he could raise another army and ammunition and supplied had already been stockpiled in the area. Selassie was delayed in reaching Dessie due to detouring on route to Lalibella to make a pilgrimage, understandable that given the events of the last few weeks, the emperor might seek some spiritual reassurance.

​However, when he did commence his journey once more, upon reaching Magdala he learnt to his horror that the Crown Prince had abandoned Dessie rather than face the advancing Italians and it was now occupied by hostile Eritreans. On 20 April, Badoglio himself reached Dessie and found a town already resigned to an Ethiopian defeat. Large strips of cloth were stretched across the streets with the words ‘The Hawk has flown’ written across them.

Ethiopian soldiers on the move.

To Addis Ababa

Meanwhile, Selassie had diverted to Worra Ilu in the hope of finding a new safe haven but then found out that this too had fallen to the marauding Italians. With options now running out, Selassie now settled on Fikke, and his party made their way there.

Ethiopia was now slipping away from him. Eventually, a month after the Battle of Maychew, Selassie, after leaving Fikke, would eventually reach his capital, Addis Ababa and found it in a state of near panic.