|March of the Iron Will|
|Part of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War|
Italian colonial troops advancing on Addis Ababa
|Commanders and leaders|
Abebe Aregai |
Haile Mariam Mammo
|Casualties and losses|
170 Eritreans killed|
4 Italians captured
The March of the Iron Will (Marcia della ferrea volontà), or the Iron-Will Column (Colonna della ferrea volontà), was a Fascist propaganda event staged during the final days of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. The goal of the march was to capture the Ethiopian capital in a show of force.
From 26 April to 5 May 1936, an Italian "mechanized column" under the command of Marshal of Italy (Maresciallo d'Italia) Pietro Badoglio advanced from the town of Dessie to take Addis Ababa. The march covered a distance of approximately 200 miles.
On 3 October 1935, elements of the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) under General Emilio De Bono invaded the Ethiopian Empire from staging areas in the Italian colony of Eritrea on what was known as the "northern front". De Bono was the Commander-in-Chief of all Italian armed forces in East Africa. In addition, he was the Commander-in-Chief of the forces invading from Eritrea, the "northern front." Forces based in Italian Somaliland under General Rodolfo Graziani invaded Ethiopia on what was known as the "southern front." Ground forces on both fronts were amply supported by the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica).
Badoglio replaced De Bono in late 1935 and was immediately faced with the Ethiopian "Christmas Offensive". On the 26 December, Badoglio asked for and was given permission to use mustard gas and phosgene. The Italians delivered the poison gas by special artillery canisters and with bombers of the Royal Air Force. While the poorly equipped Ethiopians experienced some success against the more modern weaponry of the Italians, they did not understand the "terrible rain that burned and killed."
From early 1936, events on the field of battle did not go well for the Imperial Ethiopian Army. On the southern front, Graziani eliminated a large Ethiopian army commanded by Duke (Ras) Desta Damtew during the Battle of Genale Doria using poison gas. Badoglio used poison gas to eliminate the Ethiopian northern armies one after another. He destroyed Ras Mulugeta Yeggazu's army in the Battle of Amba Aradam. He destroyed Ras Kassa Haile Darge's army in the Second Battle of Tembien. Finally, he destroyed Ras Imru Haile Sellassie's army in the Battle of Shire.
By 31 March, the last Ethiopian army on the northern front was commanded in battle by the Emperor himself, Haile Selassie. His army included six battalions of Ethiopia's best troops, the Imperial Guard (Kebur Zabangna). The Emperor led an ill-fated counterattack during the Battle of Maychew which he could not realistically hope to win. The Emperor's army suffered heavy losses during costly frontal assaults on prepared Italian defensive positions. But the bulk of his army was destroyed during the days immediately following the battle when poison gas was used to decimate the withdrawing columns.
On 20 April, Marshal Badoglio flew to the town of Dessie in Wollo Province and made his headquarters there. He decided to advance from Dessie and take the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Dessie is only two-hundred miles (320 km) from Addis Ababa. Except for a pitiful procession of refugees, the road to the capital was clear. The Italian Commander-in-Chief faced no meaningful Ethiopian resistance.
Because of the lack of resistance between Dessie and Addis Ababa, Badoglio risked a spectacular advance with a "mechanized column" for propaganda purposes. In 1936, "mechanized" meant infantry transported in a variety of commercial cars and trucks. "Motorised infantry" is a more appropriate term for Badoglio's column.
Thanks to the organizational genius of a Quartermaster-General Fidenzio Dall'Ora, Badoglio's "mechanized column" came together in Dessie between 21 and 25 April. Dall'Ora was able to organize the most powerful "mechanized" column to appear on an African road up to that time. In addition to 12,500 Italian troops, the column included 1,785 cars and trucks of all makes (Fiats, Lancias, Alfa-Romeos, Fords, Chevrolets, Bedfords, and Studebakers), a squadron of light tanks (L3s), eleven batteries of artillery, and aircraft. Special vehicles carried 193 horses so that when the column arrived at the gates of Addis Ababa, the Marshal and his staff could leave their cars and ride in triumph on horseback.
On 24 April, Badoglio sent two columns of 4,000 Eritreans ahead by force march to protect his mechanized force as a precautionary measure. But the adversity the Eritreans and the march itself encountered was mainly caused by rain and mud. Badoglio's precautionary measure proved to be superfluous.
Badoglio's mechanized force advanced along the Imperial Highway between Dessie and Addis Ababa. The Italian Commander-in-Chief was to uncharitably refer to this road as "a bad cart track".
Badoglio expected some show of resistance at Termaber Pass, and the mechanized column did halt there for two days but all was quiet. The column stopped because a section of the road had been demolished and had to be repaired. On 4 May the Italian formation was ambushed in Chacha, near Debre Berhan, by Ethiopian forces under Haile Mariam Mammo. In the ensuing battle, Haile Mariam's men killed approximately 170 Italian colonial troops and captured four Italians, two of whom were doctors. They were later released.
In Addis Ababa, Emperor Haile Selassie visited the French Legation. After explaining to French Minister Paul Bodard that further defense of the capital was impossible, he explained that it was best for Empress Menen Asfaw and their two sons, Crown Prince Asfa-Wassan, 19, and Prince Makonnen, 13, to leave the country. Ultimately they would go to the Coptic monastery in the British Mandate of Palestine, but he asked the French Minister whether the Royal Family could temporarily find refuge in French Somaliland and was assured by Bodard that they could.
Haile Selassie then returned to his Palace and crowds gathered at the Palace steps. To the gathering throng, he said, "Ethiopia, will fight until the last soldier and the last inch! Let every man who is not wounded or sick take arms and enough food to last five days and march north to fight the invader!" The crowd roared back to their Emperor: "We will go!" With this, five thousand men, bravest remnant of the old Imperial Guard, shouldered their rifles again and marched away.[nb 1]
Forgetting the raw gas burns on his own arm, Haile Selassie retired into his Palace for a final conference with his chieftains. It was clear to him that the Government of the Ethiopian Empire would have to move from Addis Ababa. One possibility was for the government to relocate to Gore in the southwest and he sought comment on this plan. Initially his bearded chiefs said nothing at all. But, when the chiefs did talk, they explained that the one effective Ethiopian army left was fighting for its life under Ras Nasibu Emmanual in the Ogaden. This army was pitted against General Rodolfo Graziani's relentless advance on Harar. They added that the tribes to the west were in an ugly mood. One after another, the chiefs rose to tell how hopeless the situation was and to say that there was nothing for the Emperor to do but run for his life.
After his somber meeting with his chieftains, Haile Selassie visited Sir Sidney Barton at the British Legation. He spoke softly to Sir Sidney but to the point. Britain had encouraged him with fine words and had made many promises. However, Britain had provided Ethiopia with few guns for which the Ethiopians had paid cash. Haile Selassie stressed that he had risked his own life for Ethiopia but also for the League of Nations. He asked Sir Sidney whether Britain would now come to his aid in this hour of direst need. Shortly afterwards Haile Selassie drove away, his mouth grim with disappointment.
Before he departed, Haile Selassie ordered that the government of Ethiopia be moved to Gore, he ordered that the mayor of Addis Ababa maintain order in the city until the Italian arrival, and he appointed Ras Imru Haile Selassie as his Prince Regent during his absence.
Late on 2 May, after the Emperor left the city to go into exile, there was a breakdown in civil order. Only the dregs of Ethiopia's soldiery were left behind in the doomed capital. They went wild, looted shops, screamed curses at foreigners, and fired rifles into the air. The new Palace, pride of Haile Selassie, was thrown open to the mob. Most foreigners found safety within the British compound. In twenty-four hours, the Ethiopian Empire fell apart and native law and order disappeared. Rioting in Addis Ababa grew worse by the hour. An attack was made on the Treasury's "gold house." A few loyal employees tried to save the remnant of Emperor's gold with machine guns, but sword-swinging looters rushed them and cut off their hands as they clung to their guns.
During the evening of 4 May, elements of the I Eritrean Brigade reached the outskirts of Addis Ababa. They reached the city before Badoglio's mechanized column and they managed to accomplish this feat on foot. Meanwhile, Badoglio's motorized column, pushing on as fast as possible, drew closer and closer. Italian aircraft reconnoitred over the city.
By the time the main column reached the capital at 4:00 pm on 5 May, the truck-borne Italians were almost delirious with joy. Few could foresee that the conflict in Ethiopia would go on for another five years and that the day that these soldiers could reap the rewards would never dawn.
A heavy rain fell as Badoglio's forces entered the city and restored order. The rioting that started after Haile Selassie left lasted until order was restored with the arrival of the Italians. White flags were displayed everywhere as Badoglio made his triumphal entry into the city of the "King of Kings." Many city residents fled south or tried to take refuge in the foreign compounds which they had been attacking.
A detachment of Ethiopian customs guards presented arms as Badoglio's car drove past them. Further on, an Italian guard of honor, which accompanied the advance guard for this very purpose, paid Badoglio the same courtesy. There was no question now of stopping to allow Badoglio to use the horses brought for this occasion. The car and truck bound procession continued.[nb 2]
When Badoglio's entourage pulled up in front of the Italian legation at 5:45 pm, the Tricolour of the Kingdom of Italy was hoisted. Then followed three cheers for Italy's King Victor Emmanuel and three cheers for Italy's Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. After the cheering, Badoglio turned to a senior member of the Italian Royal Air Force and said:
The fall of Addis Ababa had been expected in Italy, but when the news reached Rome during the evening of 5 May, there were scenes of wild excitement. Mussolini was called back ten times by the jubilant crowds at the Palazzo Venezia.
Significantly, the march was completed in only ten days across difficult terrain and in bad weather. It was an achievement that demonstrated the offensive potential of motorized forces in securing bold advances. However, the Italian "March of the Iron Will" turned out to be little more than a logistics exercise. In the words of an anonymous journalist at the time:
During the week following Marshal Badoglio's entry into Addis Ababa, Dr. Johann Hans Kirchholtes, the German Minister to Ethiopia, visited what had been the Italian Legation in the Ethiopian capital city. Badoglio was now Viceroy and Governor-General of Italian East Africa and the former Italian Legation was now his headquarters. Kirchholtes provided the first recognition by any foreign government that the conquest of Ethiopia was an accomplished fact.
Meanwhile, one of Marshal Badoglio's staff officers, Captain Adolfo Alessandri, visited every foreign legation in Addis Ababa. Alessandri politely explained to each envoy that they would enjoy "every diplomatic privilege until the time of your departure." This was Italy's official notification to the world that occupied Ethiopia would not be considered to be on the same footing as the Japanese Empire's puppet state of Manchukuo. The former Ethiopian Empire was to be a colony of the Kingdom of Italy. Giuseppe Bottai was named as the first Governor of Addis Ababa and Haile Selassie's former Palace became his residence.