Tales from the Trenches
The War that Inspired The Daily Beast
In 1935, Benito Mussolini wanted to make Italy great again, so he invaded Ethiopia. The war boosted his popularity but also inspired one of the 20th century’s greatest satires.
I love Italy, and Italians, but I must admit that sometimes their relationship with their history can be confusing. Traipsing across that beautiful peninsula, going from battlefield to castle to landing beaches, I kept running across one item that threw me for a loop… busts of Italian dictator-for-life, Axis leader, enemy of America and founder of the Fascist Party, Benito Mussolini.
It turns out that in some parts of Italy, most noticeably in the general region south of Rome, “Il Duce” (“The Leader”) is still held in some reverence. This is not the time or the place to dive into the social, political and cultural history of Italy in order to fully grok how it is that one of the three government leaders of the Axis is still admired, in public, in the 21st century. It is enough to notice that there are some parts of their history to which the Italians cling, however illogically. Indeed, one could say that the Italian most affected by this tendency was Mussolini himself. It was an inclination that led to the real opening moves of what would become the Second World War. And it was where this news website would get this unique name, albeit indirectly.
In March 1896, when Benito was just 13 years old, Italy suffered a crushing and humiliating defeat at the Battle of Adowa in what is now Ethiopia. In that battle the Italians had approximately 6,000 of their men killed and about 3,000 captured out of a force that numbered around 15,000, though most of those were not actually Italians. This was the capstone battle in the First Abyssinian War (1895-1896).
In what was only later understood as an ironic act, the Italian general knew that his opponents were out of supplies and so he had proposed simply waiting them out. That was a good, militarily logical, and prudent decision. Of course you know that sort of thing cannot stand.
He was overruled by politicians micro-managing from Rome and ordered to attack despite the fact that he was vastly outnumbered, roughly six to one. In the devastating defeat that followed, the Italians lost not only the majority of their men, but also 10,000 rifles, all of their artillery, and almost all of their logistics resources, especially the transportation. The result of all of this was Ethiopian Independence and international recognition of their sovereignty.
The humiliation on the battlefield had other effects as well. The shame felt by the Italians was not just because of the scale of the loss, but because of who they lost to in that battle. In an era of rampant colonialism by Europeans and the associated casual racism felt by all Europeans towards the “lesser peoples,” an Italian force losing to indigenous people was doubly shocking for the Italians and added to their anger. So, as is often the case in such situations, the commanding general was court-martialed. But that was not enough to assuage the people and in the wake of riots in Rome, the Prime Minister was forced to resign as well. It was a national scandal.
Just short of 40 years later, Mussolini was “Il Duce,” the Fascist leader of Italy, and he was hell-bent on his agenda to “Make Italy Great Again.” (No, really, that was essentially the core of his original political platform. Yes, I know, it sounds sort of familiar. That is not my fault.) Of course the traditional way to do this is to declare an unnecessary war on a hapless underdeveloped country. Which is what Mussolini set about doing.
Italy still had two rump colonies on the Horn of Africa, the same ones she had back in 1895-96, Eritrea (to the north of Ethiopia) and what was called “Italian Somaliland” (also adjacent to Ethiopia, but to the east). But the British and the French also had their toes in these waters. Getting the geography straight is fairly simple.
Using your right hand make a “gun” like when you were a little kid by extending your index finger and raising your thumb up at a right angle to the index finger. Now, with your arm in front of you and your elbow raised high, point the “barrel” at the ground. From the “bottom” edge of the meat of your thumb down to the tip of your index finger, that is “Italian Somaliland.” From the right side (as you are looking at it) of the muscle of your thumb out to about the knuckle, that is “British Somaliland,” and from the knuckle to the tip of your thumb is “French Somaliland.” Eritrea (the other Italian territory) is where it is today on the map, to the north and west of all of this.
In 1934, following a limited Italian incursion into Ethiopia some years in the making, and a subsequent semi-artificially created “incident” that would be used as a pretext for war, Mussolini pushed forward with plans for a full-scale invasion. He started loading the Italian territories with troops, and modern weapons. Again, this was not so much for any economic benefit they might gain, but more for bragging rights, domestic (Italian) consumption, and as a way to redress the shame of the Battle of Adowa. Personally, I think it was that last that mattered most.
That “border” skirmish (in fact the Italians were well inside the Ethiopian border) was one of the first really major crises of the League of Nations, and the first of which also definitively demonstrated how utterly toothless that organization was in reality. In late 1935 the League declared both sides “innocent,” though a third-grader could have clearly seen that Italy was the aggressor. But by then the Italian territories were loaded with troops. Enter Evelyn Waugh, (technically Arthur Evelyn Waugh) writer, correspondent, author.
This being the second decade of the 21st century you might not have heard of him. Yes, him, though he was once married to a woman with the same first name. I cede, it’s a bit confusing until you learn that he was British, and by then an upper class sort, and they can be really strange. And I say that in the nicest of ways, knowing some daft upper-class Brits myself. But back to that writer you might not have heard of.
Suffice it to say that Waugh wrote some of the best prose of the 20th century. You can look him up at your leisure, but perhaps one of the best known to the general public was “Brideshead Revisted.” Not my own cup of tea, as it were, but people smarter than me think a lot of it, literary-wise. The point is that the man could write, and write well. What matters here are the events of 1935, when Italy, massed on both the northern and eastern borders of Abyssinia, looked like it was ready to invade. That was when Waugh was sent to the region by the British newspaper The Daily Mail. What came out of that, his second trip to the region, was pure comic genius, as well as a depressing and still relevant commentary on the nature of journalism, and perhaps a bit about British society.
Obviously, Italy did, in fact, invade. Between the Fall of 1935 and the Spring of 1936, Mussolini’s forces conquered Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia. The Emperor Haile Selassie had to escape (to England), and his nation was swept into what became, for a very short time, the “Empire of Italy.” Waugh was there at the outset and inadvertently got word of the impending invasion date. He tried to tell his newspaper, but to preserve the secrecy of his scoop, sent the word back to his office using Latin, assuming somebody on the receiving end would understand Latin. Bad, upper-class, call.
Journalism has always been the plebeian’s call, literature the patricians.
They missed his “scoop.”
The results of his experiences did not go entirely to waste, however, as it resulted in the novel Scoop. Now this, I encourage everyone, is something to read. It is a light, fast, insightful and witheringly sarcastic tale about whole swathes of humanity. In that novel Waugh lampoons his own experiences, melds them to those of some other correspondents, and skewers the very notion of war journalism, the concept of keeping people informed (vice manipulating them), and how wars are made. Scoop has all of that, and more. Get the book.
Oh, and the newspaper for which Waugh’s hapless neophyte reporter works for an egotistical and increasingly unbalanced owner and editor? That would be the fictional British daily newspaper known as, Daily Beast.
Get it now?
Writing for The Daily Beast this is Robert Bateman, signing off. As always I can be reached at [email protected]