ACCORDING to the thesis of Signor Mussolini, Italy is obliged by stark necessity, both economic and demographic, to extend her political control over Ethiopia. In view of the strong sentiment for independence pervading this last stronghold (except for Liberia) of an independent African people, it seems certain that the Italian expansion can be achieved, if at all, only through extensive military operations against the armed forces of the Emperor Haile Selassie. The best defense of the Ethiopian people against invasion has always been the nature of the country they inhabit. Under ordinary circumstances, modern methods of warfare have vastly reduced the importance of topography and climate as military factors. But the more we study the program of a possible Italian campaign in Ethiopia the more we must be impressed by the importance of taking full account of the physical factors which will condition any large-scale action in such a remote and difficult land.

Assuming that Italy attacks Ethiopia, there are two bases from which her expeditionary forces can operate -- namely, the two East African colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. The former lies to the north of Ethiopia, on the Red Sea, the latter to the south, on the Indian Ocean just north of the Equator.

Eritrea is a vestigial remnant of the attempt to impose an Italian protectorate on Ethiopia in accordance with the Italian version of the Treaty of Uchiali which Crispi made with Menelik in 1889. It is there that during the summer of 1935 Il Duce has concentrated the bulk of the forces which he has sent to East Africa, and it is thence that the first major Italian attack may be expected to be launched. Geographically, Eritrea lacks any real unity or raison d'être. Economically, its chief value to Italy is that it controls the principal outlet for the meagre trade of Northern Ethiopia; in itself it produces very little, either agriculturally or otherwise. Militarily, it is important because it gives Italy a base of operations in a fairly temperate climate, and a foothold on the Ethiopian plateau at its northern extremity. Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is a town at an altitude of over 7,000 feet, enjoying a mean annual temperature of around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and thus quite habitable by Europeans. This is not true of the seaport, Massaua, where intense heat prevails during much of the year. The chief disadvantage of Eritrea is the chronic scarcity of water due to the short rainy season.

Italian Somaliland differs markedly from Eritrea. It belongs to that vast semi-desert region which hems in the Ethiopian highlands on the east and which includes British Somaliland, French Somaliland, the coastal lowlands of Eritrea, and the northeastern and southeastern provinces of Ethiopia itself. Unlike Eritrea, Italian Somaliland has no mountains of any consequence. Low lying, and close to the Equator, it has a very difficult climate for white men. The million odd natives subsist almost exclusively by primitive agriculture and pasturing. The chief assets are the Juba and Webi Shebeli Rivers, by which water for irrigation and alluvial soil for fertilizing purposes are brought down from the plateau on the north. Unless it adheres closely to those rivers, an army approaching Ethiopia from the seaport of Mogadishu must first traverse a 200-mile belt of steppe lands before reaching the wells at Ualual, Gherlogubi, etc., where underground water originating in the highlands comes to the surface. The strategic value of these springs is obvious.

The plateau of Ethiopia, roughly the area above 5,000 feet (see map on preceding page), is the only part of the country at all adapted for white colonization. Here dwells the ruling race of Christian, Amharic-speaking Ethiopians who hold the peripheral peoples in subjection. The plateau is formed of uplifted sedimentary rock on which in comparatively recent geologic times has been superimposed a layer of volcanic origin. Numerous mountains exceed ten thousand feet in height, especially in the north, and several are nearly fifteen thousand feet high. Eastward, between the plateau and the coast, is a great desert depression, into which the highlands fall away abruptly. This depression, the Danakil region, a northern extension of the Great African Rift Valley, is one of the most inhospitable areas in the world. Parts of it lie below sea level. Only two parties of Europeans have ever crossed it and returned alive. The leader of one of these, Ludovico Nesbitt, has called it the "Hell-hole of Creation." Towards the south the Rift Valley becomes much narrower, assuming the form of a trench separating the Ethiopian plateau proper from its southeastern offshoot, the Somali plateau. This southern section of the Rift Valley affords the central plateau much less protection against invaders than is the case further north. It is by this route that ever since the sixteenth century waves of Gallas have swept up into Ethiopia. Moreover, the southern side of the Somali plateau does not present a sharp escarpment. In this quarter, then, the chief obstacles to any Italian advance will be distance and inadequate water supply rather than difficulty of terrain.

In the north a topographic feature that must be taken into serious consideration by any army commander planning to invade Ethiopia from Eritrea is the presence of very deep trenches worn into the plateau by the River Takkaze and its tributaries. Since these tributaries cut across the route of advance from the north, and since they sometimes exceed a half mile in depth, they manifestly will greatly hamper military penetration beyond the neighborhood of Adua, especially as bridges or even passable roads are totally absent. The alternative is, keeping further east, to skirt the crest of the mountains by following the old trail south through Macalle and Magdala. This was the route taken by Napier's expedition against the Emperor Theodore in 1868.

The Ethiopians traditionally divide their country into three climatic zones.

The first, to which they give the name dega, comprises all land above 8,000 feet. This zone includes much of the northern part of the Ethiopian plateau, as well as the northern rim of the Somali plateau. Here cattle and sheep find pasture the year round. Some authorities, however, doubt whether the climate is well adapted to colonization by South Europeans. The annual mean temperature varies from 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

The second zone is that between 4,800 and 8,000 feet high, called woina dega. Here the annual mean temperature varies from 60 to 68 degrees. This temperate zone comprises a large part of the central Ethiopian plateau and the upper basins of the Juba and Webi Shebeli rivers. Here may be found such remnants of the old tropical forests as have been spared from fire and native exploitation. Cereals, the grape and the citrus fruits common to the Mediterranean prosper. According to the Ethiopians, as many as three crops a year may be harvested. This is the region most appropriate for European colonization.

Then there is the zone between 2,500 and 4,800 feet high, called the kolla. Here the mean annual temperature varies between 68 and 77 degrees. The Ethiopians regard this region as very rich, and irrigation would make it richer still. In it are to be found a large part of the Pleistocene lacustrine deposits and the fluvial alluvium brought down by the mountain streams during the rainy season, which lasts from June to September. A good grade of coffee is raised in the higher parts of this belt, and cotton and sugar cane grow in the lower. Other typical tropical products can be cultivated here when the combined conditions of fertility and rainfall are favorable. This zone is much less suited to European occupation than the woina dega, but on the other hand is much more susceptible to the exploitation of those staples which Italy lacks, in particular cotton.

Below these three zones come the intensely hot lowland regions where the mean annual temperature sometimes exceeds 86 degrees. These desertic tracts are inhabited by turbulent nomadic tribes and offer little of interest to Europeans.

There is this further strategic consideration. Not only does the Ethiopian plateau occasionally rise to great heights at certain points and drop into practically impassable canyons at others, but in between these exist few level areas. The whole plateau is heavily accidented, with the exception of the Lake Tana area and the beds of a few prehistoric lakes. Sites for large bases or for manœuvres in mass are distinctly scarce.

Another fact that the Italian General Staff will have to take into account is the widespread existence of a certain type of red soil commonly encountered in the tropics. In Ethiopia it prevails very generally at levels below 6,000 feet. During the dry season this soil is hard and friable, but after even a few millimeters of rain it forms a soapy paste which makes passage, even on foot, very difficult. This soil absorbs little water, and the rain, which usually comes in the form of sudden downpours, compresses rather than penetrates it. Under such conditions no vehicle can make headway, especially on heavy grades. A column of tanks or trucks caught by a sudden rain in a region of red earth would be obliged to wait until the sun had dried out the soil. This explains why no invader can undertake operations in Ethiopia before September, the end of the rainy season.

From this brief physical description of Ethiopia one can readily visualize what must be the tactics of an invader. The force advancing northwest from the Indian Ocean, after having crossed the hot but easily negotiable brush plains of Italian Somaliland and Ogaden, will have as its primary objective the occupation of the northern brow of the Somali plateau in the province of Harrar. Using Gherlogubi and Ualual as bases, the expedition may move by way of the Juba and Webi Shebeli basins under ever-improving conditions of climate and water supply. The achievement of positions along the Somali plateau will bring two advantages of great importance. One, it will give control over the watershed of the two principal rivers of Italian Somaliland; and two, it will give control of the Hawash River section of the Rift Valley, across which passes the railway from Addis-Ababa to Jibuti, the central plateau's only effective outlet to the sea. Even if the railway is not occupied, it can be completely dominated from the northern brow of the Somali plateau.

For a column coming from Eritrea the primary objectives must be the high mountains north and east of Lake Tana. As long as these refuges for guerrillas hold out, no invading army dare penetrate too far into central Ethiopia for fear of exposing its rear and flanks to constant forays. It may prove an important fact that in these mountains rise the Atbara, the Takkaze and the Blue Nile, the rivers from which the Sudan and Egypt obtain most of their water. The control of the sources of these streams, above all of the Blue Nile and its great reservoir, Lake Tana, is a matter of life-and-death importance to Egypt and only rather less so to the eastern Sudan. Britain, it may be expected, will continue her historic policy, embodied in numerous treaties and declarations, of refusing to acquiesce in any disturbance in the régime of the Nile waters by any European Power.

Troops penetrating Ethiopia from Eritrea, if they adhere to the plateau, will find a climate not greatly dissimilar from that of southern Europe, and a much more abundant water supply than that enjoyed by the columns coming from Somaliland. Their chief physical handicap will be, as already indicated, the exceedingly rough topography and the complete lack of roads and bridges. At the present time the Italian command is perfecting the system of roads inside the borders of Eritrea so that when the campaign opens the communications will be in first-class condition right up to the Ethiopian frontier. Thus far, of course, it has not been possible for Italy to build roads on Ethiopian territory. But presumably the large number of workers now known to be collected in Eritrea will be thrown into Tigre, on the heels of the army, to build and maintain all-weather roads that can stand up under the exigencies of modern warfare. Motorized units will be unable to advance until such roads have been constructed, and until the large ravines have been bridged. Tanks, light or heavy, can be employed as auxiliaries in infantry operations when the ground is dry and in the less mountainous regions. Their usefulness under other conditions appears problematical to say the least. In most cases the materials used in bridge and other construction work must come from a great distance. Even when built, the bridges, supply depots and mountain roads will be in danger of being washed away by floods, against which there is no sure protection. It will be readily seen that the military engineers will play an all-important rôle.

As Ethiopia's agricultural production barely suffices to meet the primitive requirements of the Emperor's armies a European expeditionary force will find little on the spot to eke out its needs. Thus practically every sort of provision for the Italian troops will have to come from overseas and be transported up to the plateau. This will be an arduous and costly task.

Enough has been said to indicate that every advance of the Italian troops will be dependent upon the construction of roads which will permit the regular passage of motorized columns between the predetermined advance posts and the supply bases on the coast. For these reasons any very rapid and extended Italian advance, especially from the direction of Eritrea, would seem dubious. Even with the superabundance of mechanical means which Il Duce will doubtless put at the disposal of the expeditionary force, the permanent conquest of enemy territory will be dependent on the occupation of tactical points, which must be organized one after another and placed under good-sized garrisons. These pauses at strategic points will have the principal advantage of allowing time for the engineers to bring forward the construction of macadamized roads. Only in this way can the Italian army derive the full benefit of its modern weapons of offense. Each organized advance post will constitute a base from which the light infantry can attack in quest of new positions.

An element determining the rapidity of the Italian advance will of course be the degree of resistance offered by the Ethiopian forces. The Ethiopians have certain indisputable advantages over their adversaries, above all their adaptation to their environment. They are able to cover on foot distances which whites would not attempt. They can make twenty-five to forty miles a day, and keep it up for many days at a time. They employ a native breed of mule that with a minimum of nourishment can perform prodigies of agility and endurance in the most rugged regions. These mules permit the transport to any point, regardless of how inaccessible or how high, of machine guns and small mountain cannon with which the Ethiopians can organize virtually impregnable positions for defense or for harrying the enemy's rear.

Against these classic guerrilla methods motorized units and infantry columns encumbered with the impedimenta of modern warfare will lose much of their efficacy. In other words, the invading force will have to employ large detachments in order to overcome hostile bands which are smaller in number and which have much poorer equipment. On account of the terrain, mass attacks will probably be infrequent, and the Ethiopians would seem well advised to avoid them in any case. If the Ethiopians employ their traditional tactics, which brought them such brilliant success at Adua in 1896, they will seek to draw the enemy into hollows or valleys where he can be cut to pieces. At the same time the Ethiopians will try to cut off the enemy's supplies and render his communications with his base as difficult as possible.

The secret of any Ethiopian success will reside in the Emperor's ability to maintain the freedom and swiftness of movement of his troops. If he is able to do this, the Italians will be forced to make a long series of attacks against positions well-fortified by nature. This will tend to wear down the élan of troops unaccustomed to withstanding great physical exertion at high altitudes. On the other hand, if the invader once succeeds in establishing fortified positions of his own deep in Ethiopian territory, the Ethiopian commanders will be obliged to risk large forces if they wish to counter-attack and recapture the lost terrain. This will weaken the defending army very seriously, for against modern machine guns and cannon, not to mention gas, the bravery of the Ethiopians will avail but little.

The usefulness of Signor Mussolini's great squadrons of bombing planes will be considerably impaired by the fact that they will lack important objectives. They cannot hope to surprise large bodies of Ethiopian troops, since these presumably will form only at night. There are no large cities or other fixed centers offering easy targets for aerial attack. The principal offensive use of the airplane will be the bombardment of bodies of troops in conjunction with infantry attacks. Doubtless the Italian command expects that the explosion of bombs dropped from the sky and the raking machine gunfire of Italian pursuit planes will seriously undermine the morale of troops unaccustomed to the latest methods of warfare. The civilian population will also presumably be impressed by the sight and sound of vast air fleets.

But although planes can be used for reconnoitering in preparation for and in conjunction with ground movements, their cruising radius will remain rather limited. In the end, the difficulty of preparing landing fields in such rough territory will probably induce the invader to make considerably less use of this branch of his military service than he normally would do in a European theater of war. But we must remember that since the airplane was perfected there has never been a war fought under the conditions that must govern the course of a conflict between Italy and Ethiopia. In this particular, then, experience alone can inform us.

All Mussolini's plans for attaining both his primary and his ultimate objectives must take account of the length of the dry season. Is the attainment of his ultimate objective, the subjugation of Ethiopia as a whole, feasible within a single season, regardless of how thorough have been Italian preparations?

As we have seen, the army coming from the north will be compelled to station large numbers of troops in fortified places to insure its communications with Asmara and Massaua, and will probably make slow progress after the first advance. Penetration from the south appears easier. In most of the Ogaden, camel and dromedary troops can serve as valuable auxiliaries to the native infantry. On this side the greatest obstacle to be encountered will be the ridge of the Somali plateau. But even on this front every advance must be accompanied by a corresponding lengthening of the roads that lead back to the Indian Ocean. Supposing that the occupation of the lowlands and intermediate highlands lying to the south and southeast of the main highlands were to be effected by Italy rapidly and without serious opposition from the Gallas and the local Moslem tribes, there would still remain the core of Ethiopia, the great central plateau.

The fighting, in other words, would have just begun. To reduce the central plateau to subjection would necessitate the subjugation of the warlike Amharas and Shoans, peoples which nurture an intense pride in their ancient traditions of independence. To the natural forces of resistance must be added a growing xenophobia, especially among the young Ethiopians who have returned from schools and universities in Europe and America. These elements, possessors of a badly digested education, are outspoken advocates of a new anti-foreign and pan-African Ethiopian nationalism.

These various considerations lead to the conclusion that Ethiopian resistance, weak on the periphery of the empire, will be bitter where altitude, topographic factors, and thorough familiarity with the terrain give the natives the advantage. There seems ground, then, to expect that Signor Mussolini will be obliged to prolong the campaign beyond one dry season. In that case the conflict may well degenerate into a long-drawn-out guerrilla war. In Cyrenaica, a land situated much nearer Italy and having a Moslem population of less than 200,000, guerrilla warfare lasted nearly twenty years. The Italian Government must therefore be prepared to employ a very large number of men in the conquest of Ethiopia, and immense sums of money.

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  • H. SCAETTA, engaged for several years in scientific work in northern, central and eastern Africa; now instructor in Tropical Bioclimatology in the University of Brussels
  • More By H. Scaetta