Five a.m., March 31, 1936.
Sitting on a flat stone near the summit of a modest peak overlooking a wooded, hilly valley was a lone, uniformed figure. He was holding a pair of worn and dented field glasses, looking into the dim first light of dawn, studying the Italian military formations on Maichew, the mountain across the valley less than two miles away,
He was Col. Theodore Eugenovich Konovaloff, valedictorian of the class of 1906 of the Mikhailovskaya Artillery Academy in St. Petersburg, head of the Czar’s military mission to Great Britain, decorated veteran of the Battles of Gumbinen, Tannenberg, Bolimov and Lutsk, aide-de-camp to Gen. Alexie Brusilov, briefly, adjutant to the white Russian General Lavr Kornilov, and now chief European military advisor to the Emperor of Ethiopia.
Konovaloff was not a happy man. He’d played out the coming battle again and again in his mind’s eye, and the outcome was never good. It wasn’t a matter of numbers—if anything, the Ethiopians held the edge. And it wasn’t the amount of artillery arrayed against them. The Italians hadn’t yet been able to get their big guns through Amba Alagi Pass. Even the Regia Aeronautica wasn’t a decisive Italian advantage—yes, the bombers were terrifying, yes the gas was horrible, but the Ethiopian warriors had learned to find cover, so the casualties had been relatively few.
Konovaloff put the field glasses down, fished a pack of Galoises papier mais out of his soiled khaki uniform jacket pocket—only two packs left, out of the 50 he’d brought to Ethiopia, he calculated grimly—and lit up, taking a deep and highly satisfying drag. Then, for the fourth or fifth time, he ran through his analysis of the situation, though he knew his conclusion would be the same.
There were three barriers to an Ethiopian victory at Maichew all of them insurmountable, he reminded himself. The least worrisome was the Ethiopians’ comparative lack of modern military equipment—especially artillery and anti-aircraft weapons--despite his personal intervention.
When it became clear that Mussolini would be satisfied with nothing less than war, Konovaloff prevailed on his old friends among the European artillery manufacturers to sell arms to Haile Selassie. Their effort had yielded a pathetic handful of old cannons, plus a few new Oerlikons.
They were, however, able to accumulate 200 machine guns, tens of thousands of rifles, some practically pre-historic but most still in working order, as well as plenty of ammunition. But, Konovaloff repeated to himself, this wouldn’t be enough to prevail—especially when you factored in the other two problems.
He took another drag on his cigarette and contemplated problem number two. Problem number two was the troops, the fierce and courageous warriors of Abyssinia. And they were fierce and courageous, he couldn’t argue that. They were also fatally impatient. If they did not achieve instant success, they retreated. They retreated even when they won, failing to hold the ground they’d taken, mistaking plunder for victory.
The Ethiopian soldiers knew nothing of western warfare, military tactics or discipline. They were boastful, thoughtless and careless, incapable of doing anything by stealth. And at this point in the war, their morale was low. They’d seen too much death. They were frightened and they were homesick. Some soldiers. Some warriors. If only he’d had two or three years to train them…He he wrenched his mind away from that thought. “If only” thinking led to paralysis.
Problem three, he concluded—again—was the worst. There was no solution to it, at least none that the Emperor would accept.. Problem three was the military leadership. The crying shame was that it didn’t have to be this way. If the Emperor had only put him and the other European military advisors in command of the troops—people who understood war—it would have made all the difference.
He’d shared this conclusion with Selassie many times, speaking as diplomatically as possible. The Emperor nonetheless instead insisted on giving complete control of the vast Ethiopian armed forces to the politically powerful Rases.
“They are the governors of our provinces,” He’d told Konovaloff. “They raised the armies in their own lands and they command their loyalty. They are all mature and serious men, not to mention extremely wealthy. I need their support, so I cannot, by fiat, put Europeans over them.”
As a result he, Col. Reul of Belgium and Gen. Eric Virgin and Capt. Viking Tamm of Sweden were relegated to the status of non-combatants and advisors, and it was only as a result of Konovaloff’s obnoxious persistence that the Emperor had granted him leave to come to the front and observe the fighting.
Lesser men, Konovaloff assured himself, might have been irked, even insulted. He left that kind of narcissism to others. He wasn’t here for praise or money. He honestly believed in this little man who called himself Emperor and he wanted to help him however he could.
Konovaloff took another drag on his cigarette. The truth was, Haile Selassie was not an easy man to help. One had to be tactful. And diplomatic. Last week, for example, when he, Kassa and Seyum arrived at the Emperor’s camp, Selassie had found a moment to talk to him privately, and the conversation had required the Russian to exercise great subtlety.
They’d talked about Ras Kassa and the battles in the Tembien. Had Kassa really been defeated, the Emperor wanted to know. Had he been forced to retreat? Did his officers tell him his position was untenable, that it would be best to withdraw? Konovaloff hesitated before answering. How could he tell the Emperor the truth without condemning Kassa, whom he liked?
The facts, as he saw them, were that Kassa had decided to quit the battle, without thought or analysis, without consulting him or any of his chiefs or officers. He’d decided to quit after the Italians had encircled him—though he’d had a dozen opportunities to disrupt the Italian maneuver and could have broken free even at the end.
Kassa simply hadn’t known what to do—he had no military experience or knowledge—and he was too overwhelmed to ask for instructions. Like the other Ethiopian Rases, Kassa was completely out of his element, a stranger to everything taught at Sandhurst or Saint Cyr. He was inept, disorganized and defeated even before the battle began. So, as soon as the fighting started, most of the Ethiopian soldiers abandoned their positions, ran for their lives, hid in distant caves or crevices, and the army simply dissolved.
Konovalov had told the Emperor that the Italians had secretly contrived to surround Kassa’s forces, that even he, with all of his Great War experience at Tannenberg and Bolimov, etc., etc., etc. had been fooled, that Kassa had consistently acted with great honor, if not great skill.
The Emperor had listened to him attentively, nodding slightly. Perhaps he understood, perhaps not. But Konovaloff knew brutal honesty would not help the Emperor’s spirits or improve his chances.
5:15. The sky was brightening. Konovaloff looked downhill from his position. He could see the Ethiopian forces spread out below him, the thousands of warriors—few of them in uniform, few wearing military insignia. Intermingled among them were the pack animals, mules and donkeys, the women at their cookfires, the children cleaning the rifles, the servants and slaves. This was supposed to be an army, but it was more like a large, temporary village, and at the moment, it was getting ready to roll downhill.
The terrain they were preparing to enter was covered with vegetation, a grassy valley decorated with eucalyptus and juniper trees, and low, cactus-like euphorbia trees, their candelabra arms reaching toward the sky. Even the mountains were covered by green, except at their rocky peaks.
Soon, the advance would begin, with the Ethiopians crossing no man’s land, the gap between the two forces, and engaging their enemies. Of course, the Italians knew they were coming. Their planes had spent yesterday afternoon drenching no-man’s land with poison, knowing that Selassie’s barefoot warriors would have to cross it.
The Emperor had realized the danger. He warned his men to change direction if they caught scent of the poison, to wear footwear, if they could find any, and if the poison touched their skin, to wash immediately, over and over again. How they could pause in the middle of a battle to bathe themselves, Konovaloff could not imagine.
Across the way, the Russian officer could see the Italians preparing for the coming battle, perhaps two or three thousand in plain view, digging trenches, building light wooden breastworks or low stone walls, loading their weapons, stacking ammunition.
What was about to take place, he knew, was the decisive battle. If the Ethiopians lost, the Italians would utterly destroy the only Imperial army still in the field. His sole role was to witness it all. Out of habit, he field stripped his cigarette, reached for another, then changed his mind. If he didn’t ration himself, he’d soon be facing the agony of smokeless days.
Up the mountain a few dozen feet, the Emperor climbed out of the trench Konovaloff had dug for him and came down to stand next to his Russian advisor. Unlike Konovaloff, the nervous smoker, whose uniform was a record of the rough road they had traveled, the Emperor was both immaculate, and totally composed, He looked at the battlefield to be, silent and motionless, his mind clearly hard at work. Konovaloff resisted the urge to ask what he was thinking. He’d speak when he was ready to speak.
The previous night, the Emperor summoned the Rases, the Dejazs, and all his ranking officers and chiefs to the mountaintop and pointed out to each one of them where and how they were to attack Italian positions. This was something new, as far as Konovaloff was concerned. Never before in his experience with the Ethiopian army had the commanders been given such specific direction—or any direction at all.
Now it was time to see if the commanders could—or would—follow directions. This was Selassie’s last throw of the dice and both of them knew it. Everyone knew it. Couldn’t something unexpected happen? Couldn’t the Italians make some kind of fatal mistake—after all, this was not the Prussian army. Couldn’t the Ethiopians—out of determination or sheer luck—find some unexpected weakness in their enemies’ formations?
Konovaloff considered himself a man of great intellect, even genius, but he knew that even he was capable of error, sometimes quite distressing error. He’d sat there, for instance, on August 20, 1914, perched on a folding camp stool in General Samsonov’s rain-soaked brown canvas tent, side-by-side with the rest of the general staff, and, like the rest of them, vociferously argued that German General Pittwitz was about to withdraw the German Eighth Army to the Vistula River. Then he’d blithely seconded Samsonov’s order to pursue and destroy the retreating Germans.
No one on the Russian side knew then that von Moltke had sacked the timid Pittwitz and replaced him with the far more aggressive von Hindenburg. No one knew that von Hindenburg had cancelled Pittwitz’s withdrawal orders and had commanded the Germans to move forward, in a full-scale attack. No one, including himself, knew that in the next few days, 95,000 of Samsonov’s original 150,000-man army would be captured and 30,000 of his crack troops killed. No one knew that it would take a German search team 48 hours of tramping through the deep woods of eastern Prussia to find Samsonov’s body, after he’d shot his brains out.
So yes, Konovaloff admitted to himself, he’d been wrong, stunningly and tragically wrong. And not just at Tannenberg, the greatest defeat ever suffered by the Russian Army. He’d made other foolish errors as well, not all of them so public, not all of them so deadly. Now, perhaps he was wrong again, despite his genius. He’d know soon enough. Perhaps he’d misjudged the Ethiopians—or the Italians, yes that was possible, perhaps the Italians were terrified and incompetent. Perhaps they would crumble or run.
Five-twenty a.m. Konovaloff heard a woosh from behind, somewhere, and two bright red flares arched into the breaking dawn and over the valley. Suddenly, the mountains came to life, first the Ethiopian side and, an instant later, the Italian side, more than 50,000 men on the move. The rustling breeze and the first tentative twitters of the birds were immediately drowned out by the clatter of Ethiopian machine guns and the whomp of artillery from the Emperor’s 75 mm guns, supporting the advance. Curtain going up.
The Emperor exchanged glances with Konovaloff and offered a slight shrug, as if to say, “what will be, will be,” then left the Russian’s side and briskly walked back to the euphorbia-covered mountain to take command of the reserves. “If any of you need help,” he’d told Kassa, Getachew and Seyum the night before, “send a messenger to me and I’ll rush reinforcements.”
Konovaloff gazed at the Italian lines, across the valley and nearly a thousand feet below him. Little blue lights—bullets striking rocks and trees—flashed all across the Italian center, sparkling like an infestation of fireflies. This was the work of the diversionary troops, which were doing their best to convince the Italians they were the vanguard of the main Ethiopian attack.
As dawn turned into day, the little blue lights disappeared in the sunlight, and Italian machine gunners returned fire. But the Ethiopians had crossed no man’s land and had succeeded pushing back the Italians by two or three hundred yards—real gains, although modest.
Konovaloff slowly swept his field glasses across the field of battle, toward the far left. There, Ras Getachew, the silly, short, plump man with a prinz-nez, was leading a column of about three thousand warriors, who were quietly running through the undergrowth and the trees between the euphorbia-covered hill and the cone-shaped mountain on the east, crouching to avoid detection. Ras Kassa and Ras Seyum were following close behind, each at the head of another five thousand eager warriors or so. So far, so good.
Konovaloff patted his jacket pocket, found the somewhat crumpled pack of Galoises and lit up another one, his eyes never leaving the battlefield. For awhile, the three Rases made genuine progress, and it looked as though they’d achieve their goal—flanking Italian lines. Seyum’s men, launching spears, swinging their swords with one hand and firing their rifles with the other, drove units of the Eritrean askaris out of their forward positions, back up the mountain.
Kassa’s men advanced more slowly, against heavier opposition. Konovaloff found himself wincing as Italian shots hit their mark and Ethiopians fell out of the charge. But the rest bravely pushed forward, penetrating Italian lines and resolutely heading toward a small grouping of tukuls, an abandoned village. On reaching it, they lit torches and flung them onto the huts’ straw roofs, which instantly blazed into fire.
What was the purpose of this? Konovaloff asked himself. Then he understood and he reacted the way any European army officer would react--he was disgusted. The Ethiopian soldiers were seeking plunder—jewelry, clothing, money, even pots and pans. If they’d been Russian soldiers, they’d be shot on the spot. He’d be happy to give the order.
As for Ras Getachew’s column, Konvaloff was gratified to see it circling around the back of the Italians’ right flank, into areas that had not been well- fortified. Once more, the Italians pulled back to escape the withering fire of the Ethiopians. Maybe Getachew wasn’t quite as silly as he’d thought.
Konovaloff knew counter-measures were coming, however. And the Italian answer came soon—thunderous volleys from massed artillery. By his well-informed estimate, some 200 guns opened up with a continual bombardment of the Ethiopian columns, guns he’d expected wouldn’t make it through Amba Alagi pass for at least two more days. The Ethiopian advance faltered and stopped.
Now, the Russian artillery officer heard aeroplanes approaching and turned his attention to the skies. A pair of Italian bombers. He could see that they had plenty of human targets, but they paid no attention to them. Instead, the planes bombed and once again gassed no-man’s land, the gap between the three advancing Ethiopian columns and the mountain where the Emperor waited with the Imperial Guard. Konovaloff understood the strategy—the Italians were trying to cut off the Ethiopian columns from their reinforcements. It was a clever idea, but it failed to take into account the Ethiopians’ inbred courage.
Meanwhile, in the center of the battlefield, the Ethiopians had broken through the first ranks of the Italian front lines, braving machine guns and point-blank artillery fire, recklessly flinging themselves into battle. Some were sawn in half by machine gun fire, others dismembered by artillery, and still they advanced.
This was familiar territory, Col. Konovaloff thought with distaste, act one of what would surely be a terrible tragedy—the initial slaughter, in which thousands of otherwise sane men set their minds on killing as many other living, breathing human beings as they could, punishing them for the unforgivable sin of wearing the wrong uniform or coveting a plot of land which, though otherwise worthless, was equally coveted by the other side. Having see it happen a dozen times during the Great War, he recognized it for what it was, the collapse of reason.
And with act one came the noise, the grim, chaotic cacophony of the battlefield, a wildly dissonant symphony of death scored mainly for the percussion section—hundreds of thundering artillery pieces; bombs falling out of the sky like linked sausages and exploding in no recognizable rhythm, the inhuman and mechanical whine of the aeroplanes—who said fire-breathing dragons were extinct?—the massed jack hammers of the machine guns, hundreds of them on both sides of the line; and, occasionally the contrapuntal crackle of rifle volleys or single shots.
Ugly as it was, this nerve-shattering roar of war, Konovaloff was thankful that it at least prevented him from hearing the inevitable vocal accompaniment—the hideous shrieks of the wounded—man and beast; the uncontrolled outcries that go together with the intolerable pain of legs being severed at their roots; or shrapnel ripping open chests and abdomens. Nothing was more dispiriting than this.
Then there were the sights, too far away from his mountaintop perch to discern distinctly, Konovaloff thought thankfully, a distant diorama splashed with blood, bodies and body parts, blurred by the acrid smoke of gunpowder. The scene was so compelling—and so horrendous—that he was unable to look away. He found himself smoking again, with no memory of lighting up.
As he watched, all three Ethiopian columns approached the rear of the Italian formation, standing tall, running swiftly, brandishing their weapons with malevolent fury. They smashed against the Italian fortifications like huge ocean waves roaring up from the sea, and like ocean waves, their energy dissipated at their farthest reach—the stone walls—they soon slipped back, the warriors finding crevices or holes to crawl into. Still, they kept shooting, with rage and determination, but also with wild inaccuracy, bent on continuing the attack until their ammunition was exhausted, whether or not they hit anyone.
Then, when their cartridge belts were empty, the Ethiopians pulled back en masse, as Konovaloff had anticipated. He couldn’t make out what the officers were shouting, but he knew they must be imploring their men to stay put, to hold the territory they’d taken. Unfortunately, that was not part of the Ethiopian fighting repertoire. If he were commanding a Russian army against them, he’d let them advance until they were sure they’d won, then order the cavalry to trample them into the mud.
To Konovaloff’s admiring surprise, however, one group of Ethiopians—some of Kassa’s men, or perhaps Seyum’s, he wasn’t sure which—not only resisted flight, but pushed forward, in a show of determination and courage. They hit the stone walls running at full tilt, and in several places, broke through them.
The Italians frantically countered, askaris lugging a dozen additional machine guns to the front, which the white soldiers immediately put to work cutting down row after row of Ethiopian attackers, creating a grisly pile of dead bodies and body parts. Even the most courageous Ethiopians retreated. And as they pulled back, the Italians flooded into the areas their enemies had abandoned, counter-attacking with a sadistic fury all their own. Hundreds of Ethiopians were slaughtered—shot from behind—before they could get back to safety.
Konovaloff realized that Haile Selassie was standing beside him once again, looking down the mountain at the battlefield. His expression, as usual, was unreadable. “They are really quite brave,” the Emperor observed.
“That’s true,” Konovaloff agreed, “There’s no denying that.”
Selassie allowed himself a little smile. “Yes. But I meant the Italians.”
A sudden roar erupted directly in front of them—a huge, white, three-motored Italian bomber, dived out of the sky and headed right for them, simultaneously dropping bombs and strafing, the bullets kicking up puffs of dirt along the mountainside, in neat little rows.
The aeroplane flew over the mountain top and out of view, and then, a few minutes later, circled back for another attack. Whether or not the pilot knew that he had the Emperor in his sights Konovaloff had no idea, but an unpleasant surprise was waiting for the Italian bomber: half a dozen Ethiopian machine guns pointed into the sky, directly at the aeroplane.
As the aeroplane approached the mountainside again, the entire group of Ethiopian machine guns simultaneously opened up, spitting vicious torrents of bullets at the intruder. The bomber suddenly seemed to stumble, and one wing dipped precipitously. For one terrifying moment, Konovaloff was sure he and the Emperor would be chopped to shreds by the aeroplane’s propellers. Then it veered off, trailing yellowish-brown smoke, wobbled erratically, fell out of the sky just on the other side of the mountain and exploded, to the joyous cheers of all the Ethiopians—even those in the midst of combat.
For Konovaloff, the downed aeroplane was one of many small and insignificant Ethiopian victories that morning, all of which—even taken together—were trumped by the Ethiopian pullback along the entire front, a pullback that left Haile Selassie’s warriors and their Italian enemies in almost exactly the same place they were at 5:15 that morning. Act one was over. The Emperor’s plan had failed.
Now came one of those odd moments so common to great battles, and yet, Konovaloff thought, so perplexing: an intermission. The boom of the great cannons gradually faded away, the machine guns went on vacation and the aeroplanes took a leave of absence. All of the battlefield noise ceased, except for random rifle shots, and the moaning and occasional shrieking of the wounded. He’d seen lulls like these at all the great battles he’d witnessed and still he didn’t understand them. If this were theater, the audience would be standing curbside, smoking, critiquing what they’d just seen.
During the lull, Konovaloff watched thick, dirty clouds drift over the battlefield from the north, low enough to cover it with a gloomy grey mist. The clouds brought a light but persistent rain. He carefully stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette and slipped it back into the pack to protect it. Eventually, he knew, the intermission would be over. Rain or no rain, the war would re-ignite itself and the killing would resume. But to what end?
Konovaloff soon noticed some activity in the foothills below him, and he focused his field glasses on the scene. Of all people, it was the chubby Ras Getachew, and his officers who were busily reassembling their forces and dragooning men from Kassa’s and Seyum’s columns, preparing for another rush at Italian fortifications. Evidently, act two in this all-too-familiar drama was about to begin.
Konovaloff looked across the gap, at the Italians. They’d finished reoccupying the lines from which they had been driven that morning, and had settled down to wait for the Ethiopians to hurl themselves once more against their artillery and machine guns, no doubt confident the result would mirror the morning’s skirmishes.
Now, he heard a sharp whistle, and 15,000 Ethiopian warriors sprang into action, running headlong at the Italian formations, a ferocious mob determined to kill, forcing Italian and askari troops to once again retreat from their forward positions.
When the Ethiopians hit the second line of defense—the low stone walls—hundreds leaped up and over them, fiercely engaging the Italian defenders, the Ethiopians concentrating, as their officers had so often pleaded with them to do, on enemy officers—and God be praised, hitting quite a few of them, leaving entire enemy units leaderless and confused.
At this moment, anyhow, Konovaloff decided, the Ethiopians were a genuine military force, doing serious damage to the enemy, a force bent not on plunder, for a change, or on even taking territory, but on simple butchery, quick and efficient.
The Italians, however, were not passively receiving this reckless attack. They’d brought up still more machine guns from the rear and lined them up in a solid phalanx, from one end of the battleline to the other. They seem to have a never-ending supply of these things, Konovaloff reflected.
As the Ethiopian warriors approached, leaping into the fray, massacre in their minds, hundreds of Italian machine guns let loose a curtain of leaden death, with a continuous, ear-shattering ratatatat roar..
After 15 minutes of carnage, the Ethiopians pulled back out of the killing grounds, back over the stone walls, back over the forward positions they had conquered, bullets following them as they ran, many hitting their mark. Noticeably fewer than before, the warriors reassembled on the other side of the gap.
That was the trouble with act two, Konovaloff told himself. It was fairly palatable if kept short. But when it was protracted—like now—it was an almost unbearable, no matter which side you were on.
Down below. Ras Getachew somehow rallied his men again and gathered them for another assault on the Italian redoubts—the low walls, the trenches, the machine gun bunkers. And they were off, running, screaming, waving swords over their heads with terrifying ferocity.
Ah, Konovaloff observed, the dramatist had come up with an unexpected wrinkle here. Thanks to the previous charges and the dead Ethiopians that now littered the battlefield, the attackers this time found themselves with a macabre cover from the machine gun fire. The dead also served.
After three successive charges, three impossibly courageous attempts to break through the Italians and drive them off the mountain and back through the pass, bodies were everywhere. From what Konovaloff could see, most of the dead were Ethiopian, but the Italians and their Eritrean askaris had also sustained heavy casualties. Several of their smaller units were no longer effective fighting forces and others were hanging on by their fingernails.
This was the moment, Konovaloff knew his military school instructors would have pointed out, to throw the reserves into battle—while the Italians were confused and reeling and while the Ethiopians still had the strength for another attack. He had to tell the Emperor as soon as possible and hope the man would listen. What happened in the next 15 minutes might tell the tale.
He stood, looked back toward the euphorbia-covered mountain, and was relieved to see that the reserve forces were already heading down toward the battlefield, led by the Emperor himself. He was clearly intent on joining Ras Getachew’s dwindling army for the next charge. Haile Selassie hadn’t needed any advice from a once-upon-a-time Czarist artillery expert.
Konovaloff resumed his seat on the rock, now cold and wet, extracted the half-smoked Galois from the pack, and after three attempts, managed to light it, despite the rain and wind. Down below, on the Ethiopian side of the gap between defender and invader, someone had set up a machine gun on a small rise and the Emperor had taken his place behind it.
With the Emperor’s reinforcements, Konovaloff estimated, Getchew, now joined by Kassa and Seyum, commanded a force of over 20,000 impatient fighting men, ready to launch themselves against the Italians lines again despite the devastating outcome of the previous charges.
It was 4 p.m. by now. The showers had turned into a driving rain. Konovaloff gave up on his cigarette. Despite the downpour, the Rases and the Emperor had organized their men into attacking formations, held them briefly, like horses at the starting gate, then let them loose, full force. Act three had begun.
Once more, Konovaloff was surprised. It should have been hard to convince these men to attack again and their hesitancy should have been obvious on the battlefield. These men seemed eager, however. They were not afraid, but enraged, determined to obliterate the invaders and to take bloody revenge for their fallen friends.
The Ethiopians crashed into the Italian lines, aiming to break through two weak spots—the junction of two big Eritrean divisions and the far right edge of the line, where white Alpini soldiers held the flank. To Konovaloff’s delight, they succeeded in forcing a gap between the two Eritrean divisions and they appeared to be rolling back the right flank. It looked to him like the Alipini were running out of ammunition.
What happened next was, Konovaloff sardonically told himself, a significant deviation from the standard script. Some three or four thousand mounted warriors suddenly appeared on the battle line’s left flank and thundered into the fray, wild-eyed, like stampeding cattle.
The Galla, Konovaloff told himself. The Galla have arrived at the most critical moment of the day, as the entire battle teeters in the balance. They’ve arrived to reinforce what could be the final charge of the Ethiopian army and perhaps the last defense by the Italian invaders. Zobat, the Galla headman could not have chosen a better time to add his shifta forces to the Ethiopian attack.
For a few moments, it looked as though the play would not conclude as Konovaloff had anticipated, with the total destruction of the Ethiopian forces, but with an unexpected deus ex machina twist, rarely seen in real life and therefore worthy of note. It was almost—as they say—too good to be true.
It took Konovaloff a few moments to see that the old cliché was true again. The Galla weren’t joining the Ethiopians in order to attack the Italians. They were assaulting the Emperor’s men, and from their rear, brutally setting on them with metal-tipped spears and shiny new rifles, and sniping at them from the hillsides.
No, he observed grimly, this wasn’t the deus ex machina twist. It was the more common Judas Iscariot maneuver. The Ethiopian warriors were now pinned between two hostile forces, throwing them into confusion and sapping their courage. They held their ground briefly, then retreated back toward the gap. The Galla parted, to let them pass, and as they passed, shot at them point blank. As the sun fell, the retreat became a route.
Back they ran, the Ethiopian warriors, through the rain, through the mud, shedding weapons, shedding reason, seeking respite, their commanders screaming at them in utter futility, trying to rally them, trying to create order out of chaos. Now this, he knew, this was how such plays must end. In catastrophe.
Konovaloff got up and picked his way down the mountain, seeking to offer the Emperor what help he could, What he found was even worse than he’d expected—many fewer men, at least half of them wounded, their weapons gone, their clothing in tatters, totally exhausted. It was the faces that bothered him most—downcast, dead-eyed, devoid of expression. There were no soldiers here, just men who had learned, in the deepest places in their souls, the meaning of defeat.
That night, Haile Selassie implored his commanders to reassemble their forces, to prepare for a new attack. Konovaloff realized that the Rases and Dejazes wanted to say yes, absolutely, let’s do it, but they simply could not rise to the occasion. Instead they told the Emperor that they no longer had enough soldiers to mount an attack, that they lacked ammunition, that the men are simply too weary to charge again.
After all this, the Emperor—who still wanted to attack again the next morning—came to Konovaloff and asked his opinion. The Russian praised the Ethiopian warriors, especially their courage, but told Selassie that conditions were no longer right for an attack. “There is nothing to be done, Janhoy, except to retire from the battlefield,” Konovaloff said. He suggested that they reassemble at their former base, a few miles south, at Korem. The Emperor, with the greatest possible reluctance, agreed.
The next morning, they began the march south in fairly good order. Most of the nobles—the Rases and the Dejazes—were mounted, the Emperor on his big white horse, wearing a pith helmet and a pristine uniform. Konovaloff rode behind them, on a brown bay.
The rain had stopped and the sky was clearing, and, Konovaloff reminded himself, it could have been worse. The Italians could have followed up the retreat with an attack of their own. The Ethiopians had neither the means nor the spirit to resist. It would have been a massacre.
Instead, the Ethiopians were being saved by the timid and probably incompetent Italian officer corps. Just before the Ethiopians had broken camp, he’d taken one last look at the battlefront. The Italians had spent a nervous night, anxiously repairing their defenses and bringing up ammunition. They evidently expected another attack. Ah, if only that were possible. God, what Brusilov’s army would have done to these Italian idiots.
The Ethiopian column was only half a mile out of last night’s bivouac, and Konovaloff was beginning to feel relieved when a large white aeroplane overflew the marchers, took the measure of them, and flew off without doing any damage. Within the hour, to no one’s surprise, the Regia Aeronautica was back, in wave after wave after wave—as many as 150 planes, Konovaloff estimated-- unleashing almost continuous raids on the retreating army.
From this moment on, the skies were filled with falling bombs, misty sheets of mustard gas and machine gun bullets—all aimed at the helpless Ethiopian column, which could do nothing except to keep marching, leaving a trail of bleeding corpses, some dismembered. That was something civilians didn’t really imagine about modern warfare, Konovaloff reflected. The dismemberment. Perhaps wars might be fewer or at least shorter if ordinary people could see this for themselves.
The aeroplanes would have been bad enough all by themselves, but they weren’t the only threat to the retreating Ethiopians. The mounted Galla shifta were back on the job again, riding swiftly, harrying both sides of the retreating column, sniping at the army’s flanks, and biting at Ras Getachew’s rear guard like the savage animals they were.
Of all the slaughters in this merciless war, Konovaloff thought, of all of the heartless violence, this was the most terrible, the most inhumane. No one and nothing in the retreating column was immune—men and women, pack animals, horses alike were ripped apart by bombs dropped anonymously, from on high.
Those lucky enough to survive the bombs had to contend with the deadly mist the aeroplanes were spraying over the retreating column, as though it consisted of bugs that required extermination. The yperite was so thick in the air that the Ethiopians’ thin cotton shammas reeked of it. Even his own uniform was soaked with the stuff.
And this is the way things went, as the Ethiopians retreated across Golgola Plain, toward Korem and the highlands. This is the way it went for almost two full days, until the Ethiopians at last arrived at Korem, out of the range of the Galla, and, in the mountain caves, somewhat protected from the Caproni bombers, far from the Italian artillery and machine guns.
As night fell, and Ethiopians settled back in, commanders took stock of their forces. More than 40% of the original 31,000 fighting men were gone, half of them dead on the battlefield or too grievously wounded to join the retreating column, the other half having drifted away during the march south, going home to protect their families or simply unilaterally withdrawing from further combat. No one had tried to stop them. As for the serious weapons of war—the cannons, the Oerlikons, the machine guns—most had been abandoned at Maichew.
So there they were, The Emperor, the Rases, the Dejazes and some 20,000 men, along with thousands more camp followers, relatively safe for the moment, but in deep despair. A big question hung over them all, and no one seemed to have a good answer to it: what do we do now?
The Emperor desperately wanted to attack again. The Rases—and Konovaloff—said that was impossible and suggested that they either move out into the countryside and conduct a guerilla war against the Italians, or fall back to the capital and prepare a last ditch defense. They spent half the night discussing every possible alternative—except one: surrender.