Monday, August 15, 2011

Belgians Aid Defense of Ethiopia

You can always learn something new and recently, talking to a friend about the second Italian-Ethiopian War, I did also. In that conflict, one of the predecessors of World War II, the only Belgian connection I knew of was Crown Princess Maria Jose, wife of Crown Prince Umberto of Italy, and neither of them had anything to do with the conflict. However, I have learned there was a fairly significant Belgian contribution to the war on the Ethiopian side. Here is how it happened: Clearly, since the first war between Italy and Ethiopia (which the Ethiopians won at their favorite battle of Adwa) there had been tensions between the two countries. Later, however, they signed a something like a friendship treaty. It seems doubtful though that either took the document seriously. The Italians extended their most favorable trading relationship to Ethiopia and assumed or expected that Ethiopia would be their customer and obtain all of their foreign goods from then. Ethiopia, however, was wary of the Italians and began buying weapons and recruiting military advisers from foreign countries other than Italy in case there was another war. The Italians were upset by this but that was expected and there were also internal problems in the country that made the famous Emperor Haile Selassie think it best to have the strongest army that he could.

The contribution of foreign experts to the instruction and modernization of the Ethiopian military was considered crucial and the largest probably came from Sweden. However, there were Swiss, British, Dutch, Finnish and an array of other foreigners represented in helping the Ethiopians prepare themselves to fight the Italians. The Belgian government sent a military mission to Ethiopia in 1934 which established itself at Harar to build up two completely modern infantry battalions, in addition to squadrons of horse cavalry, camel cavalry and armored cars. In 1935 one Belgian Colonel Reul commanded the "Unofficial Belgian Mission" to Ethiopia, all modern soldiers where he reported to Emperor Haile Selassie at his headquarters at Dese. The Belgian Congo also sent many military instructors and these were highly prized since the Force Publique was the most feared military force in Africa made up of African soldiers. They helped to organize and modernize the Ethiopian army and Belgian officers even led some of these troops into battle such as Captain Cambier who was killed in one of the early battles with the Italians.

Ethiopia did not win, mostly because they simply did not have enough of the latest technology that the Italians had. However, they put up a very fierce struggle for seven months and this was possible, not because they were, like many think, a huge mob of primitive warriors, but because, thanks in part to the help of the Belgian volunteers, they became a modern, organized army that would have been a formidable enemy for any force in Africa. Also, the Free Forces of the Belgian Congo also helped in the liberation of Ethiopia from Italian rule during World War II and played an instrumental role there.

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