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Italy's conquest of Abyssinia (1935-1936)


In a conflict that saw modern weapons – including poison gas – used against barefoot warriors, Italy turned down the ICRC's offer of humanitarian help. But on the Abyssinian side, everything had to be created from scratch – starting with a Red Cross society.

Creation of the Abyssinian Red Cross  

Following an incident on 5 December 1934, the already strained relations between Italy and Abyssinia (today called Ethiopia) rapidly deteriorated further. The resulting conciliation efforts, particularly by the League of Nations, came to nothing. On the night of 2-3 October 1935, Italian forces invaded Abyssinian territory from Eritrea.

At the end of an unequal struggle, during which the Italian army used chemical weapons, Abyssinia was finally conquered at the beginning of March 1936 and annexed by the Kingdom of Italy.

Aware of the possible outbreak of conflict, the ICRC initially concerned itself with Abyssinia’s vulnerable position, being neither a party to the Geneva Conventions nor having National Red Cross society.

To remedy this situation, the ICRC turned directly to Emperor Haile Selassie, suggesting that Abyssinia become party to the Geneva Conventions and establish a National Society. In July 1935, therefore, Abyssinia acceded to the Geneva Convention of 1929 for the protection of sick and wounded soldiers and set up its own Red Cross society. The country also adhered to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibiting the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases(to which Italy was already party). However, despite the ICRC’s best efforts, Abyssinia did not adhere to the 1929 Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.

Action alongside national societies  

When hostilities broke out, the ICRC offered its own services and help from National Societies to both the Italian and Abyssinian Red Cross organizations. The Abyssinian Red Cross immediately requested medical aircraft, ambulances and ambulance crews, medicines and medical supplies, as well as funds with which to run hospitals.

For its part, the Italian Red Cross replied that it already had everything it needed. Thus, given the disproportion between the resources of the two parties and the negative response from the Italians, the international assistance provided by the Red Cross went only to the Abyssinian Society.

More specifically, the ICRC took on three tasks: aiding medical units, organizing the newly established Abyssinian Red Cross and monitoring respect for international humanitarian law. As the local National Society – which in principle should itself have taken on this responsibility – was so weak, the ICRC also acted to centralize the aid sent by the National Societies of neutral countries, in particular coordinating the work of the foreign ambulances and seeking to ensure protection. Two ICRC delegates were sent to Ethiopia: Sydney Brown and Marcel Junod .  

Allegations from both sides  

The ICRC soon received a large number of allegations from both sides of violations of the Geneva Conventions. These were passed on to the national societies of the belligerents or, if necessary, to the governments themselves.

From the Italian side, the complaints concerned the misuse of the red cross emblem, the alleged use of prohibited weapons (exploding or dumdum bullets) and ill-treatment of Italians who had fallen into Abyssinian hands. Despite numerous representations, the ICRC succeeded in visiting only five Italian prisoners. Apart from this, no access was obtained to the prisoners of either side, nor was any information received about them.

The Abyssinian government mainly protested about raids by the Italian air force aimed particularly at ambulances and medical units protected by the red cross emblem, and the use of gas – confirmed by the ICRC delegates themselves – by Italian forces in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol .

Reprisals for ill-treating POWs?  

However, when the ICRC approached the Italian Red Cross about this, its president replied that the Protocol contained no provision prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in reprisal for the ill-treatment of Italian prisoners of war. The ICRC, in turn, reminded the Italian national society that, as far as humanitarian law was concerned, chemical weapons were very clearly prohibited.

Having received a number of Abyssinian protests, the League of Nations called on the ICRC in April 1936 to communicate the information in its possession regarding breaches of international law on the conduct of hostilities. Citing its position of neutrality and impartiality, the ICRC felt that it could not meet this request.

It nevertheless told the League that the two governments engaged in the conflict had expressed their desire to entrust the ICRC with an investigation into the allegations of violations of the Geneva Convention on the sick and wounded , in accordance with Article 30 of that treaty. However, the ICRC was ultimately unable to do so owing to the lack of agreement between the parties on how the investigation was to be carried out.



Truck carrying Abyssinian Red Cross personnel on the road to Dessié.  

Truck carrying Abyssinian Red Cross personnel on the road to Dessié.
© ICRC / hist-02491-07.jpg

Eritrea: surgical operation in a field hospital.  

Eritrea: surgical operation in a field hospital.
© ICRC / hist-03503-08

Wounded Abyssinian prisoners of war in a hospital ward.  

Wounded Abyssinian prisoners of war in a hospital ward.
© ICRC / hist-02491-07.jpg

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