765.84/3406: Telegram

the Chargé in Ethiopia (Engert) to the Secretary of State

14. My 8, January 5, 8 p.m.3

Fundamental considerations outlined in my 208, December 5, 10 p.m.5 remain the same. Time is still playing into the hands of the Abyssinians, and just as in October and November unexpectedly late rains hampered Italian movements; so did an unexpectedly early beginning of the so-called little rains towards the end of December which ordinarily do not fall before early February. It is also possible that the Italian Government ordered a slowing down of military operations while France and Britain were making their peace efforts. In any event it looks as if so far things were going more or less according to Ethiopian plans.
The second phase of the Italo-Ethiopian war may be said to [Page 35] have begun when Marshal Badoglio assumed supreme command at Asmara on November 28th and the Emperor of Ethiopia6 arrived at Dessie November 30th. Until then most of the fighting had been between reconnoitering detachments and although Abyssinian resistance had been much stiffer than even the texts of the few and meager communiqués would indicate, no large units were involved and the losses on either side were insignificant. The Italians had been advancing with the utmost caution evidently in the hope of effecting a kind of pacific [apparent omission] by the distribution of propaganda leaflets from the air behind the Ethiopian lines and by special efforts to give remunerative employment to the inhabitants corduroy road making in occupied territories. But the ineptitude of the propaganda and the ruthlessness with which the Italian armies are reported to have commandeered grain, cattle and fodder from a half starving population nullified all attempts to gain their good will. Since Guksa’s treason of November only minor and unimportant chiefs have voluntarily submitted to the Italians and the number of their followers has been negligible.
Even the slow and careful advance of the Italians seems to have been too rapid to prevent the formation of enemy guerrilla bands behind their lines whose mobility and agility subjected the Italian troops to severe tests. By the middle of December it had become evident that large Italian forces could not move much faster along narrow mountain trails than their engineers could construct roads behind them. For, although artillery and tanks mark Italy’s greatest superiority over the Abyssinians, this advantage is almost canceled by lack of roads and an elusive enemy.
Another advantage, namely, that of a highly organized air force has likewise proved disappointing to the Italians for it was found that in the absence of forts, arsenals and industrial centers, there were comparatively few targets suitable for bombing. As explained in my 206 [208], paragraph 15, Abyssinian troops scatter and hide by day and reassemble to march or attack at night. Besides an extremely high percentage of Italian bombs proved to be duds which considerably lessened the moral effect air action might otherwise have had. However, throughout December intense aerial activities were reported from both fronts of which the raid on Dessie was probably the largest operation. According to an official Ethiopian report some 3,000 bombs were dropped south of Makale during the week ended December 31st. There is a small landing field at Makale which has increased Italian air range southward but most of the machines operating on the northern front are based on Assab, Asmara and Aksum. Besides Dessie the following places in the north have been subjected to severe raids; [Page 36] Ambai, Antalo, Buia, Dabat and Gondar. In the south Dagabur has been the principal target but on December 30th in bombing a point 50 miles north of Dolo a Swedish Red Cross unit was badly wrecked. So far neither Harrar nor [apparent omission] have been bombed and the fact that no attempt has been made to destroy railway to Djibouti at any point is interpreted here as indicating that there is understanding on the question between the Italian and French Governments.
While Badoglio’s appointment would seem to imply that Italy no longer regards her African war as in the category of purely colonial punitive expeditions, his appointment—apart from intensified air activity—appears to have made surprisingly little difference, considering how much had been expected of him even by the Abyssinians. On the other hand the Emperor’s presence at Dessie—where he had gone only after he had personally reviewed all his vassals and their troops which passed through Addis Ababa—has coincided with what promises to be important developments. In fact, for Ethiopia the war is only now beginning in earnest because the concentration of her armies has but recently been completed. Her warriors who have been restrained with difficulty by their leaders are spoiling for a fight, and it may be said that during the past month their tactics of retiring and luring the enemy as far as possible into the country by rear guard actions were almost imperceptibly changed to the beginnings of a counteroffensive.
Although no decisive battles may be in sight yet such inferences as can be drawn from official and other sources point to the fact that the Abyssinians are now not only ready to stand their ground but to advance. It is also clear that contrary to earlier expectations the principal fighting will be on the northern front although it is less clear why the Italians should have chosen it for their main effort considering that the physical difficulties and hazards of an advance from the north seems so much greater than in the south. Tempted perhaps by rumors that there was friction between Ras Kassa and Ras Seyum, the Italian Seventh Army Corps under Biroli has been trying to drive a wedge between the Ethiopian forces but without success. Although it captured Abbi Addi provincial capital of Embien [Tembien] on about December 7th it was unable to make any headway amidst a labyrinth of rocky ridges of the Tembien plateau itself.
The ever widening gap between it and the Second Army Corps which had remained much too far behind gave Ras Kassa—greatest of Ethiopia’s feudal lords—and Dejazmatch Ayleleu on his left their long sought for opportunity. On December 10th there was a sharp encounter at Adda Enkato in the District of Southern Shire which ended in a minor Ethiopian success and proved that the Italians did not yet control the right bank of the Takkaze River. This was followed on December 16th by a surprise attack launched by some 3,000 [Page 37] men against further Italian positions north of the Takkaze in the Tsembela district. The Italians were routed and obliged to withdraw to the Dembeghina Pass in the direction of Aksum and the Ethiopians claim to have captured 10 tanks and 28 machine guns. An Italian communiqué admitted the withdrawal and the loss of nearly 300 officers and men in killed alone.
The second major engagement of the war likewise ended in an Italian defeat. On December 22nd Ras Seyum’s troops counterattacked and retook Abbi Addi again killing some 300 Italians. As the Ethiopians publish no casualty lists.8 That in both battles they lost more men than the enemy but with their numerical superiority they can afford it.8 Ras Seyum has the reputation of being the most aggressive of the Ethiopian leaders and, with his principal Lieutenant Dejazmatch Maru, feels confident of being able to hold the Tembien Italian army against much larger forces than the Italians have so far employed. His headquarters are at Samre in the Seloa District and his principal aim is to turn General Biroli’s flank. The gorges of the Ghevaca [Ghevd] an affluent of the Takkaze River offer formidable obstacles to an Italian advance west of Makale and even in the Gheralter District to the north Makale Abyssinian bands are still ambushing enemy convoys.
Nor is the situation on the southern front more encouraging for the Italians. Here, too the appointment of Badoglio was expected to have important results for it was an open secret that Graziani and de Bono did not get along very well. But no startling changes have taken place during the past 5 weeks and the Italians still only hold isolated outposts in the desert. It would have seemed most logical if the Italians had made the south their main line of attack because the terrain in the Ogaden gave mechanized forces their best opportunity to engage in comparatively swift movements which might have brought them within reach of two of their principal objectives, namely, the roads to Berbera and Zeila and the railway to Djibouti. But Graziani was only given two divisions for a front of some 400 miles and he was apparently obliged to spread them too thinly and too widely to advance successfully on Jig Jiga and Harrar. They suffered severely from lack of water, malaria, and many of the native Somali troops proved unreliable. When his thrust toward Sasabaneh in November failed—Ethiopians had quite a notable success at the Anale Wells, the Italians were obliged to withdraw almost to where they started from. It seems doubtful whether they now even hold Gorahai, at least it is seriously asserted that they are in possession only during the day and evacuate at night!
On the Ethiopian side an elaborate defense system is being constructed at Dagabur about 100 miles south of Jig Jiga despite frequent bombing from the air, considerable forces are being collected in the neighborhood of the Anale Wells by the commander in chief Nasibu. His principal lieutenants are Dejazmatch Habte Mikael, Dejazmatch Makonnen and Dejazmatch Ababaemtu, brother of Ras Desta. Ras Desta himself and his army are somewhere between Nughelli and Filta about 120 miles northwest of Dolo. He is considered an able man with modern ideas and his men are good fighters. By gradually moving down the Ganale Doria River he has probably been instrumental in preventing the Italian right wing from giving its undivided attention to an advance on Jig Jiga. He too is being heavily bombarded by Italian machines based on Lughferandi southeast of Dolo.
As regards the situation in the Danakil country, a veil of mystery seems to have descended upon it. Conflicting reports from both Italian and Ethiopian sources are quite unreliable. Like the Somali nomads, the Danakil tribes are of doubtful value to either side and the support of most of the minor chiefs can at least temporarily be purchased with cash and rifles. Thus it seems that the small Sultanate of Bisu in the extreme north, being wedged in between the Italian forces under Santini in the west and Mariotti in the east, has made submission to the Italians. On the other hand the Sultan of Aussa who controls most of the Danakil desert is still loyal to Ethiopia thanks probably to some very clever Moslem propaganda by the Emperor, and the possibility of the Italians being able to link their northern and southern fronts at Saidire Dawa [at say Dire Dawa?] is a very remote one indeed.
Mussolini may derive comfort from the thought that his troops have occupied some 15,000 square miles out of a total of 350,000 and that old scores have been evened by the capture of Adowa and Makale. But the fact remains that after 14 weeks and little opposition they have not even penetrated as far as they did in 1895 and have been obliged to relinquish some of their gains. One can hardly blame the Abyssinians for hoping that a repetition of minor Italian reverses may have begun which 40 years ago ended in the disaster of Adowa. Eritrean deserters have brought reports of much confusion in Italian communications behind the lines and of mediocre morale of Italian infantry which seems reluctant to attack unless accompanied by tanks and planes. The Abyssinians on the contrary after having captured a number of tanks and brought down several planes no longer feel as helpless as they did at first against Italian superiority in mechanical resources.
If, however, this feeling of optimism should tempt the leaders—contrary to the tactics recommended by the Emperor—to launch a [Page 39] general offensive they may change radically to their disadvantage. They probably do not appreciate the difficulties of attacking without artillery lines firmly held by modern troops behind barbed wire and massed machine guns nor is it as yet known what effect poison gas—which the Italians only began using quite recently may have upon the morale of these primitive people. Although Ethiopia’s reserves of man power are large, her best men and her only trained troops are now at the front and could not [sic] hardly afford the heavy casualties which ill-advised large scale attempt to drive Italians out of the country may inflict upon them.
Much will also depend upon the international situation. As pointed out in my 246, December 21, noon,9 the Franco-British peace proposals were looked upon as sacrificing most of Ethiopia’s interests and caused much bitterness and resentment. In was, therefore, probably more than a mere coincidence that their rejection was accompanied by the greatly increased activity in the field described in this telegram. The Emperor doubtless desires to show that he and his people are determined to fight to the bitter end, not only for the life and independence of their country but for the sanctity of treaties and the rights of all small nations. Only a concerted effort on the part of the world to make collective security a reality can therefore prevent the bloodshed from continuing indefinitely.
  1. Telegram in three sections.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Foreign Relations, 1935, vol. i, p. 689.
  4. Haile Selassie.
  5. This sentence is apparently garbled.
  6. This sentence is apparently garbled.
  7. Not printed.