Ethiopia 1935-36: mustard gas and attacks on the Red Cross

13-08-2003 Article, Le Temps, by Bernard Bridel

Original title: "Les ambulances à croix rouge du CICR sous les gaz en Ethiopie" – Article by Bernard Bridel published in the Swiss daily "Le Temps" on 13 August 2003. How the ICRC witnessed atrocities during Italy’s Abyssinia campaign and became embroiled in diplomatic controversy.

When Italian forces launched their invasion of Ethiopia – Abyssinia at the time – on the night of 2-3 October 1935, Il Duce could be fairly confident that he risked little in the way of prevention or reprisals. The “international community” of the time, through its enfeebled League of Nations, condemned the aggression but the sanctions it imposed were futile.

France and the United Kingdom were little inclined to take coercive measures against a European government which, at that time, appeared a possible ally against any bellicose intentions of Germany, then rapidly re-arming. The Suez Canal remained open, allowing Italy ease of access to the region through its existing colony in northern Somaliland.

Italy’s overwhelming military superiority, notably its air power, left little doubt about the outcome. By early May 1936 Italian forces had entered Addis Ababa and Emperor Haile Selassie had been forced to flee.

At the outset of the war, the ICRC’s chief concern was to uphold the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, protecting the wounded and sick and – since 1929 – prisoners of war. It quickly persuaded Ethiopia to sign up to the Convention on sick and wounded – but the Emperor declined to accept the treaty covering prisoners. However, both Ethiopia and Italy were bound by the 1925 Pr otocol banning the use of poison gas.

As it does at the start of every conflict, the ICRC offered its services to both sides. Italy, through its Red Cross society, said it needed nothing; Ethiopia, on the other hand, needed everything. It had no Red Cross, no military medical services – a situation much as the one Europe had faced a century earlier and which led to the creation of the Red Cross. 

  “… an oily liquid, dropping like fine rain and covering a huge area with thousands of droplets, each of which, when it touched the tissues, made a small burn, turning a few hours later into a blister… Thousands of soldiers were affected by severe lesions…”.
  Report by Dr. Marcel Junod 

An ICRC delegation was dispatched to Addis to help organize field hospitals – and thus began the remarkable humanitarian career of Dr. Marcel Junod *, taking him to war zones around the world up until 1945. Junod set about coordinating the work of a dozen mobile field hospitals, some of them sent by other national Red Cross societies.

The two sides traded allegations – through the ICRC and the League of Nations, with the media in full cry - of abuses and violations of the law: the Italians claimed that units bearing the red cross emblem were being used to mask Ethiopian military operations, and accused the Ethiopians of severe ill-treatment of captured servicemen. Junod was unable to verify the latter point, as his requests to see prisoners h eld by the Emperor’s forces fell on deaf ears (as did the ICRC’s approaches to the Italians on the same subject).

However, his own observations in the field bore out the Ethiopians’ complaints: some of the field hospitals, including those sent by the British and Swedish Red Cross societies, were destroyed by bombing, and he himself had a narrow escape when his plane – parked at a remote airfield – was attacked and blown up. 

Effects of mustard gas on a patient picked up by a Norwegian Red Cross ambulance.  

Effects of mustard gas on a patient picked up by a Norwegian Red Cross ambulance.
© ICRC / H. Smith / hist-03503-19

Junod also confronted the appalling reality of mustard gas and its effects: " That evening [18 March 1936 ] I had occasion to see with my own eyes an Italian aircraft spraying the ground with an oily liquid, dropping like fine rain and covering a huge area with thousands of droplets, each of which, when it touched the tissues, made a small burn, turning a few hours later into a blister. It was the blistering gas the British call mustard gas. Thousands of soldiers were affected by severe lesions due to this gas…”
The ICRC’s subsequent refusal to make Junod’s reports available to the League of Nations for the purposes of its enquiry into the allegations was received with indignation, by both the League and some sections of the media: the ICRC was obliged to defend its neutrality and explain its need for discretion.
Its President, Max Huber, later wrote: “The reason is not indifference or lack of courage but the responsibilities incumbent on a body which must always remain capable of offering to all parties a guarantee of the most objective possible judgement and of conduct free from any suspicion of political or other partiality.”
This, like other aspects of the Abyssinian conflict, appears as an eerie forecast of situations to come…
 * His work is described in his gripping book, Warrior Without Weapons


Article reproduced with kind permission of Le Temps; no reproduction in any form without the prior permission of Le Temps. The article’s editorial content and style are those of Le Temps and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ICRC, which has provided the summary as an informative guide to the article.