Ethiopia managed to stay independent through the Scramble for Africa and into the twentieth century due to diplomacy and a strong army. However, Ethiopia was also surrounded by two colonial super powers, England and France, and Italy. All three countries had interest in Ethiopia but not agreeing on how to exactly carve her up prolonged Ethiopia's impendence. Italy, after first failing to win over Ethiopia in 1896 after being defeated in Adwa, never stopped scheming. After Mussolini came to power in Italy, his desire for glory and revenge was what led to war. 15,000 Italians and 275000 Ethiopians died (Sbacchi 33). The victory however was short lived, as Italy would eventually be kick out of Ethiopia after only 5 years.
The so called Second Italo-Ethiopian War started in 1935 but Italy started serious discussion on the invasion of Ethiopia as early as 1930 (Pankhurst 220). Soon afterwards the Italians began political subversion along the Eritrean and Somalian borders (Parkhurst 222) The two other colonial powers in East Africa, France and England, fearing that Italy would align itself with Nazi Germany unless Italy got what it wanted, dropped their prior opposition on Italy's aim in Ethiopia (Pankhurst 222-3). Instead, France and England decided to be neutral and stopped providing arms to both sides (Pankhurst 224). Germany, however, provided Ethiopia with airplanes and weapons, because they wanted Italy occupied in Africa as long as possible (Pankhurst 226)
Skirmish at Wal Wal was what eventually led to the war. The Ethiopians brought the matter before the League of Nations and thus creating a worldwide scandal, which instead of diffusing the situation, ensured that the aggressors, the Italians would not back down (Mockler 40).
The war started on October 3, 1935. Italy invaded from Eritrea, headed by De Bono and from Somalia, headed by the future infamous viceroy of Ethiopia, Graziani. Within days the Italians took Adwa with no resistance. This was by design for Haile Selassie wanted the world to know who the real aggressor was (Mockler 61-2). Ras Haile Selassie Gugsa of Mekele defected to the Italian side, a matter the Italians had settled before war broke out. The Italians however were disappointed by the minimal gains it brought, for they had underestimated Ethiopian nationalism when being attacked by outsiders (Mockler 63). In November, the Italians took Mekele, again with no resistance (Mockler 65). The attack from Somalia was also easily advancing on the Ogden but more to do with bad moral and poor leadership. The matter improved a bit after the emperor made an unannounced appearance in November (Mockler 70). Eventually the emperor was forced to relieve the Ras, his son-in-law, to help morale (Mockler 90-95)
On the Ethiopian side, the first attack came from Ras Imru from the west of Aksum. He was able to reach within a few miles of Aksum. However Italians aerial superiority and the use of mustard gas halted his attack. With Ras Imru beaten back, the Italians were able to take Gondar without a fight (Mockler 76-81). The next major battle was conducted by Ras Mulugeta and it ended in a disaster, as his army was the most modern in the Ethiopian empire. His army was dispersed and he lost his life (Mockler 104). This set the scene for the greatest battle in the war, the Battle of May Chaw, fought on March 31st. The Ethiopians charged with the armies of Ras Kasa, Ras Getachew, Ras Kebbede and Ras Seyum and led by the emperor himself (Mockler 83). However, the Italians knew in advance, by intercepting wireless communication, of the upcoming attack and were well prepared. The Ethiopians fought bravely but they were defeated. The emperor ordered a retreat but the retreat itself was worse than the battle; the Italians bombed the retreat heavily and more Ethiopians died in the retreat than did in the battle (Mockler 116-122). With the northern front destroyed, the emperor ordered Ray Seyum and Ras Kebebe to carry out guerrilla warfare while he returned to Addis Ababa accompanied by Ras Kasa and Ras Getachew (Mockler 133). Also that same week, Graziani took Harar (Mockler 145). With all hope lost, the emperor decided that Ethiopia's only hope was for him to go to Europe and make a personal appeal in front of the League of Nations. He left Ethiopia accompanied by his family, Ras Kasa, Ras Getachew and other members of the nobility (Mockler 136). The Italians took Addis Ababa on May 5th. Shortly afterwards Ras Seyum surrendered (Mockler 146). Ras Imru continued to wage guerilla warfare for another six months but he also surrendered and was shipped off to Italy. (Mockler 168-9)
There were many factors that lead to Italy's decisive win. Foremost, was aerial superiority; Ethiopia had 12 airplanes at the beginning of the war (Mockler 47) whereas the Italians had 400 (Mockler 72). None of Ethiopia's planes were weaponized and they were used for transportation and dropping leaflets. Another factor, besides having better weapons, was the fact that the Italians had more men fighting. The Italians also used of mustard gas and were able to intercept and decipher wireless communication. But the most critical factor lay within the Ethiopian army itself. It was undermanned, poorly lad, and ill prepared. In addition to doing battle with the Italians, it also had to fend off attacks from Ethiopians who defected to the Italians side or were disgruntled with Haile Selassie's rule (Zewde 158-160).
Mockler, Anthony. Haile Selassie's war. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2003.
Sbacchi, Alberto. Ethiopia under Mussolini : fascism and the colonial experience. Trenton, N.J. London: Africa World Turnaround, 2004
Zewde, Bahru. A history of modern Ethiopia 1855 1991. 2nd ed. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 2007.