Total Colonial Warfare: Ethiopia II

Map showing the military actions from 1935 to February 1936.

Map showing the military actions from February to May 1936.

Giulio Douhet was one of the first to define the distinction between guerra totale and guerra integrale. The term guerra totale implied a war fought with all means against combatants. Guerra integrale, by contrast, implied a war fought against noncombatants as well. Other contemporary thinkers took up Douhet’s arguments and elaborated on the difference between the two concepts. Thereafter, strategists in Italy and elsewhere were not content to restrict their plans to land warfare or decisive battles among regular armies. Airplanes and noncombatants had become central in their thinking. Future wars would take place everywhere and encompass everyone. The morale of civil populations, friendly and enemy alike, would be essential. As formulated by Douhet and his disciples, the concept of a guerra integrale in Europe emphasized a war against civilians. In his pioneering writings on air power, Douhet noted in 1921 that the enemy’s urban centers should be destroyed. He considered aerial bombardment an effective and efficient solution to the stalemate of land warfare. He worked out the doctrine of the “command of the air,” which represented the prize of aerial warfare among technologically advanced nations. The tools of strategic bombing were explosives, incendiary bombs, and poison gas. Paradoxically, Douhet wrote, the annihilation of the enemy’s cities and industrial production would shorten the war and spare the lives of soldiers.

Living conditions in the colonial world, where there were few cities or areas of industrial concentration, hardly conformed to this vision. Nonetheless, colonial warfare resembled European war in the twentieth century in at least one respect, which might not be immediately apparent. Beginning with the Italo-Turkish War in 1911-12 and through the Great War, the “pacification” of Libya in the 1920s, the Italo-Ethiopian War, the Spanish Civil War, the invasion of Albania and finally World War II, Italy experienced war, both in Europe and overseas, almost without interruption for more than three decades. While theorists such as Douhet, Amedeo Guillet, Ugo Fischetti, and Ernesto Coop pondered the question of war in Europe, colonial officers, such as Rodolfo Graziani, Riccardo Barreca, and Ambrogio Bollati, focused on colonial warfare. Italian military doctrine evolved in the exchange of ideas and experiences between these two camps, primarily through the medium of the military journals.

De Bono moved to Eritrea in early 1935 in order to supervise the preparations for the campaign. As war broke out in October, De Bono, who was supposed to invade the Ethiopian plateau, hesitated. As soon as Mussolini became aware of the old general’s behavior, he dismissed him and named Badoglio his successor. Meanwhile, Badoglio had developed a series of new operational plans, which testified to his aggressiveness and enthusiasm for the campaign. The fact that he had also dropped his demand to delay the war until 1936 convinced Mussolini to choose him. In his operational plans Badoglio relied on air power, which was to bomb enemy combatants and to destroy the Ethiopian military infrastructure, including lines of strategic communication and supply centers. Badoglio assumed that the enemy troops would operate in masses, so bombers could locate objectives and inflict great damage. “200 kilometers south of our borders, our aircraft could cause such devastation that an army of 300,000 soldiers would be forced to withdraw,” he wrote. His strategy featured a colossal march over more than 800 kilometers, from Eritrea to the capital of the Ethiopian Empire, Addis Ababa. Passing through Adowa, the invading column was to advance steadily southward by foot or on motor vehicles. Warplanes were to precede the convoy and “prepare the territory,” bombing every city and intimidating the country’s population. Everything of importance was to be bombed with explosives and incendiaries. Terror was to reign. Badoglio’s war plans exceeded the traditional dimensions of limited colonial warfare. Indeed, Badoglio’s plans appear to have absorbed much of Douhet’s vision of future warfare. The totalization of warfare had become a necessity. Italy could not stand a long war, for Mussolini’s military advisers feared a deterioration of the political situation in Europe after 1936.

In November 1935 Badoglio assumed command of all the armed forces on the Eritrean and Somali fronts. Some three-quarters of the mobilized soldiers and officers thus came under his direct command. In Mogadishu, the other quarter of the Italian forces was commanded by general Rodolfo Graziani, who oversaw his part of the campaign with great autonomy and was more answerable to Mussolini than Badoglio, his immediate superior in the chain of command.

The war was fought against an enemy who was from the beginning at an enormous disadvantage. In fact, the war presented the Italians with a unique opportunity to practice aspects of modern warfare with little risk. Logistics were put to a severe test, because nearly everything had to be imported from Italy. Thousands of soldiers, officers, blackshirt volunteers, and workers were mobilized; and even the ascaris were allowed to demonstrate their reliability.

Immense effort went into the propaganda of war in Italy, the colonies, and the Ethiopian regions close to the borders. A Ministry of Propaganda was established in 1935 to confront its first challenge in the Italo-Ethiopian War. Critics were to be silenced by means of coordinated official communiques. Censorship of written correspondence, telephone calls, telegraphic ‘ communications, and the radio was to do the rest. Journals, literary and scientific reports, and books were full of war propaganda, which extended to the theatre, cinema, songs and poetry, museums, research centers, exhibitions, postcards, and stamps, even into comics and children’s books. Imperial expansion and war were portrayed as necessary. In the illustrated reviews, photography and printing depicted the color and exoticism of colonial life. The subjects of the propaganda were the heroic Italian soldiers, militiamen, and workers, who were fighting for the glory of the new empire in the distant colonies.

In Africa, De Bono set up rudimentary offices of censorship, in Asmara and in Mogadishu, in January 1935. Thereafter the flow of military and personal information from the front to families in Italy or abroad, and from families to the front, was put under increasing control. The censors read the reports of hundreds of Italian and foreign correspondents. Journalists were gathered together in an elaborate media center, which was established in an old camp near Asmara, far from the front. The center included a dining room, a settlement of huts for lodging, and a special office that supplied journalists with photographs and documentation, as well as a post office and a telegraph and telephone station. Within eight months, 80,000 meters of film were recorded, and some eight thousand official photos were shot, to be reproduced more than three hundred fifty thousand times. In addition, special newspapers and radio transmissions went out to the soldiers and road-builders. The purpose of all this effort was to keep up the morale of listeners and readers and to promote a ruthless policy.

The correspondence carried by airplane or ship to and from Eritrea and Italian Somaliland amounted to two million letters and postcards monthly. The censors selectively read two hundred thousand pieces of civilian correspondence and a similar amount of military correspondence. Reports from the front were read with special attention, and letters that contained sensitive information were censored. This procedure allowed the political and military leaders to keep abreast of the general situation in other countries, as well as the Italian people’s feelings about the invasion of Ethiopia and reactions to the sanctions that the League of Nations imposed. Of greatest importance was the correspondence to and from Italy. Surveys of censored correspondence were transmitted to the ministries, secret services, and the secret police, who could use it to reconstruct regional patterns of resistance to the war.

The army’s secret service (Servizio Informazioni Militari, SIM), the navy’s secret service (Servizio Informazioni Segreti, SIS), and the information service of the air force (Servizio Informazioni Aeronautiche, SIA) decoded telegraphic correspondence within Ethiopia, including messages sent to and from the emperor and telegrams among the Ethiopian military commanders. In this way the Italians were normally well informed about the enemy’s armament, mobilization, and, later in the war, about crucial troop movements. A staff of translators and spies kept information and rumors flowing. As the process took on a certain momentum, the mass of news to be controlled and censored (or the rumors to be spread) increased. Errors and misinterpretations were impossible to avoid. Sometimes secret information on Italian military operations leaked out. But on the whole, the “information front” underwent totalization in this war.

Neither Badoglio nor Graziani shied away from using chemical weapons. Although Italy had in 1928 ratified the international convention forbidding the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons, this document proved to be no obstacle. The “pacification” of Libya in the 1920s concluded as Italians employed chemical agents, although military operations in Libya did not find much echo in public opinion. In the case of Ethiopia, the use of chemical agents was long planned. The documents that related to chemical weapons were treated with great discretion, and use of gas was often only implied. In his memorandum of December 1934, Mussolini ordered “absolute superiority in artillery and gas weapons.” The commander of the chemical services in Eritrea had already completed studies of gas warfare by the spring of 1934. He concluded that the terrain, meteorological conditions, and an enemy who would be unprepared all favored the use of gas. His report recommended its employment as soon as the Ethiopian Army came within range of the air force. The results would be effective if the Ethiopians’ routes and rallying points were properly contaminated. Nor were Ethiopian soldiers to be the only people targeted. E. Venditti, the chief of the chemical services in Asmara, wrote in February 1935 that the air force should also use fire-bombs, in order to destroy Ethiopian huts, which were built of highly flammable materials such as tree branches, twigs, and straw.

In his correspondence with Badoglio in February 1935, Giuseppe Valle, the undersecretary in the Air Force Ministry and chief of staff of the air force, also proposed the use of chemical agents in bombing Ethiopian cities, such as Addis Ababa, Gondar, and Harrar.

Chemical weapons, above all mustard gas, were in fact used during the Italo-Ethiopian War. Gas was not, however, released over the capital. It was instead employed in remote areas, over provincial towns, against the armed forces, and later against the guerillas. Rochat, who pioneered research on the gas war in Ethiopia, calculated that before January 1936 about 300 tons of mustard gas were used on the northern front. On the southern front, 30,500 kilograms of mustard gas and 13,300 kilograms of phosgene were put to use. 35 On the variety and quantity of bombs used in the following months, there is little information.

Bacteriological weapons were not used in the campaign, although De Bono had suggested the idea in February 1935 and Mussolini had welcomed it early in 1936. The Italian failure to employ these weapons was not due to Badoglio’s humanitarian feelings. It was rather a question of political rationality. The overwhelming superiority of the Italian Army after the battle of Enderta had altered the situation. Badoglio did not want to attract ` the animosity of the local population by needlessly harming Italy’s future subjects. Particularly in the Tigray region, the official policy became one of reparation in 1936, as the Italians tried to make amends for the damage they had caused. This policy, too, was part of the propaganda effort to win the confidence of the local elites, above all the clergy. Between February and April 1936 at least 476,000 leaflets, printed in Amharic, Tigrine, and Arabic, were dropped by airplane over villages and towns. In some cases buildings and Coptic churches were reconstructed, indemnities were paid, and village chiefs were allowed to lodge complaints about marauding troops at the newly established bureaus of the unita politiche `.

Many aspects of the war against the civilian population are waiting to be examined. While there is a good paper on the attitude of the International Committee of the Red Cross, we know little about the treatment of Ethiopian civilians in the north and south. Given the rivalry between Badoglio on the northern front and Graziani on the southern, we can speculate about different military priorities and their effects on combatants as well as noncombatants. The impact of the Italo-Ethiopian War on civilians deserves an important place in the totalization of war in the twentieth century. The employment of forbidden weapons is but one dimension of this story. Another is the perception of the enemy, combatants and noncombatants alike. The Italians’ representation of the Ethiopian enemy was deeply influenced by fascist ideology. Racism became a prominent feature in it, as the mass media celebrated the beauty of war, and millions of Italians professed adoration for the Duce. The Italo-Ethiopian War was thus of fundamental significance in the regime’s pursuit of two goals: the militarization of society and the fascistization of the army.

While the ruling Ethiopian elites fought for survival, for Ethiopia’s independence, and the preservation of their own social and economic positions, Italy’s war aims were more limited. Unlike Libya, Ethiopia was not to become a settlement colony for Italian peasants. The goals of the Italian leadership were to destroy the Ethiopian army and to conquer the land in a short period of time. Officially the war lasted seven months. But the conquest of Ethiopia was by no means complete. Italian propaganda misrepresented the situation, as it spread the news that Italy had accomplished its “total” aims.

Nor did the conflict approach “total war” in other respects. Although a huge army was supplied for the first time with motor vehicles and from the air, the tactical and strategic lessons of the war were modest. Italian leaders were aware that they could not have waged war in the same fashion against an enemy that was armed with a comparable air force, artillery, and antiaircraft guns, or one that could exploit the same kind of mobilization and propaganda machinery as the Italians enjoyed.

Nonetheless, the enormous financial, propagandistic, and military exertions caused by the Italo-Ethiopian War vastly exceeded the parameters of nineteenth-century imperialism. The doctrines and techniques of warfare, the mobilization of society, and the attempt to establish total control over the war effort all reached dimensions unknown in the previous century.

Military violence, new weapons systems, and the full powers of propaganda were used against noncombatants as well as combatants. Involving civilians in war in this fashion admittedly resembled practices in earlier wars of colonial conquest, but it also conformed no less to the futuristic vision laid out in Europe’s military academies, military journals, and general staffs.

The Italian mobilization for war was impressive. Several hundred thousand tons of war material and some nine hundred thousand men were transported to Africa. In addition, the war had had a tremendous impact on the minds of the Italian people, as it forged a kind of community feeling. As Italian historians emphasized in the 1970s, the war served in this way the purpose for which it was launched, to legitimize the Fascist regime. Growing popular self-esteem went hand-in-hand with the expansion of the Fascist Empire. During the war the populace was increasingly subjected to government control. The incessant repetition of the message that Mussolini and the military commanders in the colony had the situation well in hand created a climate of stability and faith in the regime. Propaganda pervaded nearly ‘ every sphere of life – schools, youth organizations, trade unions, leisure time, women’s organizations, and, to a certain extent, even the church, as well as the armed forces. Above all in its methods, in its wholesale mobilization of the population, the attempt to establish total control, and the systematic waging of war on civilians, the Italo-Ethiopian War represented an important way station on the road to total war.

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