Graziani's next move

As the events on the Northern Front – the battles at TembienAmba AradamShire and finally Maychew – gradually destroyed and routed the various Ethiopian armies and left the victorious Italian forces under Marshal Badoglio in a commanding position, the Southern front saw its own fighting flare up.

The Italian commander on the Southern Front, Rodolfo Graziani, concerned that his Northern rival would hog all the limelight, planned to launch his own offensive. Facing him was Ras Nasibu and an army of 28,000 Ethiopian soldiers. They were well dug into fortified positions at Degehabur, known as the ‘Hindenburg Wall’ – named after the ‘Hindenburg Line’ - famous German defensive line of the First World War. It had been designed by Wehib Pasha – Nasibu’s Chief of Staff and a former officer in the Ottoman Empire.

Rodolfo Graziani, commander of the Italian forces on the Southern Front.

Was the Hindenburg wall effective?

Despite its name, it is unclear just how well-designed the Hindenburg Wall was. This is mainly due to historians disagreeing on just how capable Pasha was.

According to A.J. Barker, Pasha had:

However, Anthony Mockler disagrees, describing Pasha’s defences as:

​Possibly, the truth lies somewhere in between. Regardless, David Nicole acknowledges that they were: 

​Whatever the truth, it is interesting to see historians disagreeing on such an issue.

Thirsty Ethiopian soldiers taking advantage of a well at Ogaden.

Italian forces

​Facing the Ethiopians were an Italian army of 38,000 men, armoured vehicles, artillery and ample air support. The air component was also focussed on the ground attack aspect, which given the lack of Ethiopian aircraft, made sense. This would ensure that they would be able to inflict a high amount of damage on any Ethiopian ground forces they encountered. As was customary, the Italian forces were arranged into three columns.

Bombing of Harah

​On the 29 March 1936, Graziani launched his attack, motivated by a stream of insulting messages from both Mussolini and Badoglio, criticising him for his lack of progress. He sent thirty-three aircraft to Harah, where they dropped twelve tons of bombs, causing considerable damage. This was despite Harah being declared an ‘open city’ and being devoid of any military activity. The bombings were only actually halted when reports started appearing in the European media regarding the destruction being caused.

Eritrean troops moving their artillery into position.

The Italians attack

​Following the air attack, on the 14 April, Graziani sent his entire army towards the Ethiopian front line, using his colonial troops as the leading forces with the Italian 29th Infantry Division “Peloritana” and 6th CC.NN. Division “Tevere” behind them in reserve. He intended to fight a ‘colonial war’ and thus, use his foreign-born soldiers to take the brunt of the casualties.

Heavy fighting

Despite spirited Ethiopian resistance, the Libyan division in the first Italian column, commanded by General Guglielmo, broke through the Ethiopian lines at Janogoto and Dagahamodo. The central column, commanded by Luigi Frusci and the third Italian column, commanded by General Agostini, advanced forward and engaged the Ethiopian defences.

Progress was initially slow going due to the strong Ethiopian resistance and the weather also playing its part: Heavy rain created swollen rivers and boggy, muddy conditions – never helpful if you are trying to move heavy equipment. To speed up the attack, the Italians introduced flamethrowers and laid down increasingly heavy artillery barrages in an attempt to dislodge the Ethiopian defenders.

By the 23 April, the battle was in full flow along the entire length of the ‘Hindenburg Wall’ with the Ethiopians also launching their own localised counterattacks to try and push the Italians back.  Neither side could make any significant progress though as the battle ebbed and flowed.

Ras Nassibu's Ethiopian troops marching to battle at Ogaden.

The wall cracks

It took a further two days before the Italians could finally break through with the ‘Hindenburg Wall’ finally cracking and breaking on the 25 April. The Ethiopian defenders started to fall back in a fighting retreat, with Degehabur eventually falling to the Italians on the 30 April. Nasibu withdrew his forces back to Harah where – on the 2 May – he learnt that Emperor Hallie Selassie had been forced into exile. With this news, many of Nasibu’s men did the same and around a third of the Ethiopian officers in his army ended up joining Selassie in exile. Eventually Nasibu would do the same. The remainder of Ras Nasibu’s forces escaped further destruction and melted away into the countryside and mountains, where many would continue to resist the Italian occupation.

March to Harah

​Although victorious, it was a costly victory for Graziani, his forces suffering around 2000 casualties (the Ethiopians suffering 5000), a much-reduced disparity in numbers than usual. He continued his advance – slowed by the heavy rain – to Jijiga and attempted to reach Harar before Badoglio’s triumphant March of the Iron Will reached Addis Ababa, although his slow progress ensured he eventually reached Harah on 8th May.

World 1900 - 1950: Italo - Abyssinian War 1935 -1936 (