Geeska Afrika Online

The Italian occupation of Eritrea to attack Ethiopia

This one is entitled: “Italian Crown Prince in North Africa”. It carries on the back this text:

“The Prince of Piedmont, Crown Prince of Italy, reviewing troops drawn up in his honor in Asmara, the Capital of Eritrea, during his visit to the Italian colony on the East coast of Africa.” It is dated April 12 1928.

The Eritrean ‘askaris’ can be seen drawn up on the left of the picture, led by white officers.

I have no further information about the visit, but would appreciate any contact regarding the it, which I will add to this entry.

This caption on the photograph below reads: “After Italians Capture Adigrat.” Native and Italian troops rest up in Adigrat after the town had been captured by the invading forces in the North. The Italians then advanced southward and capture Adowa and Aksum.” The photograph is dated 11 January 1935.

Italian and Eritrean troops after the capture of Adigrat

Italian and Eritrean troops after the capture of Adigrat

This contemporary commentary is from The Advocate, published in Tasmania.

“Italians Capture Adowa Alter Stubborn Fight.


It was learned to-day that Adowa had been taken by the Italians, after a stubborn defence by the Abyssinians. The invaders have also captured Agame and Adigrat. Messages from Addis Ababa report that the Italians have been held up 17 miles north of Adowa, where desperate hand to-hand fighting with bayonets and daggers took place. Many were killed on both sides. Speaking at West Wickham, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Cosmo Lang) said it was sickening to think that the Abyssinians were being mown down by a great war machine, which had been carefully prepared.

The Abyssinian troops, who are displaying great pluck, captured three machine-guns north of Adigrat. Columns of mules laden with machine-guns and ammunition, slip and slide over rough trails as the invaders toil through defiles of steep hills. Huge herds of cattle, which stir up clouds of dust visible for miles, are being driven along, to be killed later for food for the troops. Thousands of Italian laborers, stripped to the waist and drenched with sweat, attack the tracks, widering and clearing them for guns and motor transport.

Emperor Haile Selassie has announced his intention of establishing his headquarters at the front and directing operations. His coolness and energy are doing much to maintain the morale of his subjects. The Italians have been waiting on tiptoes for news of the fall of Adowa, which is regarded as wiping out the rankling humiliation of the defeat sustained there at the hands of the Abyssinians on March 1, 1896. The Italians are trying to. induce the natives in the province of Tigre to abandon the Abyssian in Shoa province and throw in their lot with Italy.”

Addis war damage

This photograph, dated 8 December 1936 has no formal caption. On the back is written: “Wars. Ethiopia – Italy. Street in Addis Ababa after Ethiopian flight”.

I am not sure that the date is correct. The collapse of Ethiopian resistance in Addis Ababa took place in May 1936, when Haile Selassie fled from the city. Perhaps it took a long time for the photograph to emerge from the chaos of the war.

This description, provided by US Ambassador to Ethiopia, Cornelius Van H. Engert gives a graphic picture of what took place.

On the night of May 1, 1936, the Emperor abandoned his country in such haste that even his American advisor, John Spencer, had not been informed. Spencer awoke to find the following:

‘The morning of May 2 was a lovely, bright springlike day with, as usual, not a breath of wind stirring under a startlingly blue sky. One glance down the broad Station Road, however, caused me for an instant to think it had snowed. The entire asphalted pavement down to the station itself was an unbroken stretch of white. I soon discovered that the incredible appearance of the avenue was caused by the feathers of hundreds of pillows and mattresses that had been disemboweled onto the street by looters who had gone methodically from house to house; what they could not carry away, they scattered onto the road… Armed bands were roaming around firing at random. The chief of police, whom I knew, came up to me in a frenzy declaring that a revolution had broken out after the departure of the Emperor and that even the police were killing each other. As though to emphasize his remarks, a machine-gun chattered near by. The British consul, Hope-Gill, came up at that point, pleading with the chief of police to take matters in hand and exert some authority. The poor man was too excited even to hear him.

It occurred to me that it would be foolish to wait for the looters to come to my house and so I drove over to the American legation compound, not far from the large market. En route, I saw men attacking each other for the loot they were carrying. The American minister, Van H. Engert, gave me a most cordial welcome and graciously put me up in the one guest room in the residence. I sent back the car for all the food and guns, ammunition, and supplies at my house and placed them at the disposal of the legation, by this time already short of all of these. Along with my personal effects, I brought the files of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The minister generously allowed me to bring in my servants. When they arrived with their families the total was 18 additional refugees.’

Shortly thereafter, 3 American missionaries arrived, followed in the afternoon by a group of 37 Greeks, 13 of them children, who had fled by climbing over the stone walls separating adjacent properties to avoid the streets, where they would have been killed… Still later, various American journalists showed up: Ben Ames, Hilaire du Berrier, and Harrison, the Reuters correspondent. They recounted a veritable orgy of looting in the city, guards walking about in top hats, and champagne selling for ten Ethiopian cents the bottle.

How people escaped as they did from the indiscriminate shooting is beyond belief. During the first two days, men pulled the triggers of their rifles irrespective of where the latter were pointing whenever a vehicle passed them.

As firing on the American legation continued, and supplies of food and ammunition dwindled, British Minister Sir Sidney Barton graciously offered to evacuate the women and children and take them to the relative safety of the British compound, then patrolled by a company of Sikh guards under Major W. Forster Charter.

Just as it was getting dark, three open trucks arrived at the U.S. Legation bearing British Consul Hope-Gill, three officers and 15 Sikhs. Among the evacuees, Engert’s two children, Roderick and Sheila, aged 10 and 7, and their English governess, Yvonne Hughes, were loaded onto the floor of one of the trucks, as a turbaned guard patrolled from each of the four corners. Jostling along deeply rutted roads for the seven miles to the British Legation, they caught glimpses of flaming buildings, including the main Post Office. By now the children were practically catatonic, though this was more from having to share their cramped floor space with another passenger — a cheetah that belonged to one of the war correspondents.

Arriving at the British Legation, they found not just some stragglers’ outpost but a fully operating refugee camp.   In all, nearly 1,800 people took refuge here — essentially the entire white population of Addis, along with Hindus, Moslems, and some 250 Ethiopians. Given the numbers involved — and the tremendous time and resource constraints — it is amazing what the British were able to concoct. Tents were supplemented with corrugated iron sheets from the grounds of the Belgian Legation, verandas became open-air dormitories, and the consulate prison cell was turned into a storage area.

People made do the best they could under these odd circumstances — and some even thrived. George Steer, correspondent for The Times and the New York Times, found the British Legation encampment, with its backdrop of street rioting and gunfire, an ideal setting for his marriage to fellow journalist Margarita Herrero of the Paris newspaper, Le Journal. “They spent their honeymoon behind the barbed-wire defences of the legation, awaiting, with some trepidation, the arrival of the Italians.” And little seven-year-old Sheila Engert barely had time to settle in before she was asked to be an attendant at the outdoor ceremony. Clearly the impromptu arrangements disturbed her courtly young sensibilities for what she remembered most — years later — was that the bride wore muddy boots!   The groom half-staggered from the celebrations and took up once again with the business of defending the Legation:

I do not remember much about that afternoon because, as I suppose, I was in a rather fuddled condition…After all I had just been married, a white carnation was in my buttonhole, and my sense of responsibility was clouded by the usual liquid consequences of the event…When I grew tired of standing, I shot from a chair. But, as I say, I do not remember much, and I do not know if I sat shooting at anything in particular.

And right in the midst of everything, a taxicab packed to overflowing with luxury furnishings arrived at the British Legation gate, at which point the driver and other looters leapt out and attempted to re-sell their stolen goods back to the original owners!

Meanwhile, back at the American Legation, the situation was becoming increasingly dangerous. Mrs. Engert had refused to evacuate with the other women, insisting instead on remaining with her husband. She later made light of how she had “sat knitting, with a loaded revolver in her overcoat pocket.”

The next morning when I went with her to the rear of the compound to collect eggs to expand our limited food supplies, we were fired upon at close range. We barricaded the entire residence, and somehow I managed to cut a trap door into the floor of the dining room to provide access to the remaining food stores in the basement. I cut loopholes in the drawn shutters over the windows and provided the legation guards and my own servants with arm bands to distinguish them from possible infiltrators. Thus, we mounted guard.

There were four persistent shooters, whom we named George, Edward, Mabel and Bertha — she was the loudest. Whenever anyone showed himself or a light was lit, they would fire.

A brave man was spectacled U.S. Minister Cornelius Van H. Engert, who with his wife, four naval radio operators and half a dozen others decided to hold out at the U.S. Legation as long as possible. ‘Among us,’ he radioed Washington, ‘we have nine rifles, two shotguns, ten revolvers and a fair amount of ammunition.’

On May 4, Engert again radioed the Department: ‘First definite attempt to gain access to the legation was made by a band of marauders this morning… they suddenly attacked our two widely separated back gates with heavy rifle fire from behind trees and fences…White flags now flying on most houses… Several buildings are still ablaze in town and the insensate random firing continues unabated.  We now have one sub-machine gun which was brought by a policeman who fled to our compound for protection because he used to sell Cramp Abyssinian curios.’

As the attacks on the legation intensified, two Ethiopian women were shot:

‘Situation is getting worse,’ radioed Minister Engert. ‘Two native women in our servants quarters have been seriously wounded… With the assistance of a few Sikhs and one Lewis gun we could hold this legation, if Italians arrive within a few days.’

But by this time — with the supply of ammunition nearly spent — there seemed no alternative but to evacuate. Secretary of State Hull in Washington radioed instructions to Engert to abandon the Legation.

As all telephone lines had been cut, we resorted to sending messengers across the city to the British legation asking for guns and ammunition. None of them was able to make it to the legation. Nor was it possible to get in contact with the legation by radio since it kept operating schedules and frequencies only with Aden. Finally, the transmitter which the U.S. navy had supplied from an obsolete submarine was started up to send out an urgent call for help. The message was transmitted to the U.S. Naval Station at Cavite in the Philippines which, in turn, relayed it to Washington, and from there to the Department of State which telephoned it to the American embassy in London, which in turn took it to the Foreign Office where it was relayed to Aden which then passed it on, according to its operating schedule, to the British legation in Addis Ababa. This call for help which had circled the planet in approximately four hours to reach its destination only seven miles away, unfortunately arrived just as the nearby Belgian legation was being attacked. Sikhs had to be rushed to its defense and evacuation of the American legation had to be postponed until the next day.

The following morning, May 5, the British sent over four trucks loaded with Sikh guards, darkly menacing with their old-fashioned Lewis machine guns, to evacuate us to the British legation. Mr. Engert promised 100 Maria Theresa thalers each to the servants who would agree to remain and guard the legation until the staff could return. We pushed off into the city where the looting was continuing into its third day.

As Engert’s wife, Sara, recalled:  ‘I did not want to leave when the British Minister came for us. But our ammunition and supplies were inadequate, and we had to go. I had just thirty minutes to decide what to take with me from my home which I might never see again, and in the excitement I made some pretty odd decisions. I took, for instance, the needles with which I was knitting a skirt for my little girl. But I left my grandmother’s silver spoons on the dining room table.’

In his memoirs, Nobel laureate Cordell Hull, America’s longest serving Secretary of State, reflected back on those nerve-wracking hours in Addis:

‘At the moment of the collapse of Ethiopian resistance, our Legation in Addis Ababa underwent a three-day siege by bandit groups from the time Emperor Haile Selassie fled from the capital on May 2, 1936, until the Italian troops arrived on May 5. Minister Engert and his staff conducted themselves admirably and bravely under fire. Finally, on the morning of May 5, the personnel in the Legation, including citizens of other countries who had taken refuge there, were evacuated, with British military help, to the British Legation which was defended by a company of Sikh troops.’

The evacuation was arranged partly through one of the most round-about systems of communication in our diplomatic history. The American Legation was only a short distance from the British legation, but between them swarmed lawless bands of armed Ethiopians, and at times direct communication was impossible. Both Legations had their own radios, but these were attuned to communicate with their respective capitals and not with each other. Consequently, Engert radioed his message to me. I had it telephoned to the American Embassy in London, which communicated it to the British Foreign Office, which, in turn, radioed it to their Legation in Addis Ababa — all within the space of a few hours.

Newspapers referred to Engert as “America’s fighting envoy,” and “hero of the day.” One wrote that “A glorious chapter of courage was written into the history of the American Foreign Diplomatic Service to-day by a Dutchman who adopted America as the land of his choice.”

At 4 p.m. on May 5th the Italians, under Marshal Badoglio, reached Addis Ababa. Trucks and tanks roared in throughout the night and by morning 25,000 Italian troops had entered the capital:

‘There was nothing spectacular about it — no shouting, no excitement, no cheering crowds, not the slightest ceremony. Yet it was one of the great moments of modern history, and it lacked no genuine element of drama and color. The setting was an imperial capital in ruins — buildings still burning, the stinking dead still lying about the streets, gutted houses and stores gaping blackly and emptily at us as we drove by.’”

Martin Plaut: Born in Cape Town, South Africa, I was educated at the University of Cape Town and Witwatersrand, before going on to Warwick University. While I was at university in Johannesburg I was involved in the Soweto uprising of June 1976. It was a traumatic event, but eventually led to the freedom of South Africa with the end of apartheid in 1991. martin plaut worked on Africa since the 1970′s, first for the Labour Party and then for the BBC. I was Africa editor, until I retired in November 2012 and I am currently a Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London

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