First Battle of Tembien

The First Battle of Tembien was a battle fought on the northern front of what was known as the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. This battle consisted of attacks and counterattacks by Italian forces under Marshal Pietro Badoglio and Ethiopian forces under Ras[nb 1] Kassa Haile Darge. This battle was primarily fought around Warieu Pass in what was then the Tembien Province of Ethiopia.

First Battle of Tembien
Part of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War
Date20-24 January 1936
Tembien Province, Ethiopia

Strategic Italian victory

  • Ethiopian threat to the Italian I Corps and III Corps neutralised


 Ethiopian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Pietro Badoglio Ras Kassa
Ras Seyoum
300 field guns
14,000 draft animals
Casualties and losses
1,083 casualties 8,000 casualties


On 3 October 1935, General Emilio De Bono advanced into Ethiopia from Eritrea without a declaration of war. De Bono had a force of approximately 100,000 Italian soldiers and 25,000 Eritrean soldiers to advance towards Addis Ababa. In December, after a brief period of inactivity and minor setbacks for the Italians, De Bono was replaced by Badoglio.

Haile Selassie launched the Christmas Offensive late in the year to test Badoglio. Initially successful, the goals of this offensive were overly ambitious.

As the progress of the "Christmas Offensive" slowed, Italian plans to renew the advance on the "northern front" got under way. In addition to being granted permission to use poison gas, Badoglio received additional ground forces. The elements of the Italian III Corps and the Italian IV Corps arrived in Eritrea during early 1936. By mid-January, Badoglio was ready to renew the advance on the Ethiopian capital. Badoglio overwhelmed the armies of ill-armed and uncoordinated Ethiopian warriors with mustard gas, tanks, and heavy artillery.[1]


In early January 1936, the Ethiopian forces were in the hills everywhere overlooking the Italian positions and attacking them regularly. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was impatient for an Italian offensive to get under way and for the Ethiopians to be swept from the field. In response to his frequent exhortations, Badoglio cabled Mussolini: "It has always been my rule to be meticulous in preparation so that I may be swift in action."[2]

The Ethiopians facing the Italians were in three groupings. In the center, near Abiy Addi and along the Beles River in the Tembien, were Ras Kassa with approximately 40,000 men and Ras Seyum Mangasha with about 30,000 men. On the Ethiopian right was Ras Mulugeta Yeggazu and his army of approximately 80,000 men in positions atop Amba Aradam. Ras Imru Haile Selassie with approximately 40,000 men was on the Ethiopian left in the area around Seleh Leha in the Shire Province.[3]

Badoglio had five army corps at his disposal. On his right, he had the Italian IV Corps and the Italian II Corps facing Ras Imru in the Shire. In the Italian center was the Eritrean Corps facing Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum in the Tembien. Facing Ras Mulugeta atop Amba Aradam was the Italian I Corps and the Italian III Corps.[3]

Initially, Badoglio saw the destruction of Ras Mulugeta's army as his first priority. Mulugeta's force would have to be dislodged from its strong positions on Amba Aradam in order for the Italians to continue the advance towards Addis Ababa. But Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum were exerting such pressure from the Tembien that Badoglio decided that he would have to deal with them first. If the Ethiopian center was successful, the I Corps and III Corps facing Ras Mulugeta would be cut off from reinforcement and resupply.[2]

On 19 January, the day before the offensive in the Tembien began, Badoglio ordered General Ettore Bastico, commander of the III Corps, to leave Makale and occupy Nebri and Negada. By doing this, Badoglio effectively closed the road to the Tembian to Ras Mulugeta, preventing him from sending reinforcements to Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum.[2]


On 20 January, Badoglio launched the First Battle of the Tembien. On the left of the Eritrean Corps, the 2nd Eritrean Division advanced in two columns through the area around Abaro Pass. On the right of the Eritrean Corps, the 2nd "28th October" Blackshirt Division advanced towards the torrent that was the Beles River. The Italian III Corps held Nebri and Negada.[4]

After some initial confusion where forces on both sides ended up in temporarily isolated positions, the Ethiopians managed to push the advancing Italians back. By the end of the day, the 2nd Eritrean Division fell back to positions around Abaro Pass and the 2nd Blackshirt Division on the Italian right was driven back to the Warieu Pass where it and the garrison were surrounded and besieged. For three days the Ethiopians launched wave after wave of attacks against the Italians cut off at Warieu Pass.[4]

Badoglio moved up the 1st Eritrean Division to join the 2nd Eritrean Division at Abaro Pass. Badoglio then ordered the commander of the 2nd Eritrean Division, General Achille Vaccarisi, to advance on the Warieu Pass and relieve the besieged Italians there.[5]

By the afternoon of 22 January, the Blackshirt division and the garrison at Warieu Pass were still cut off, the fury of the Ethiopian attacks was reaching a crescendo, and Badoglio anxiously drew up plans for a general withdrawal. There is no way to know what the result would have been if he had attempted to withdraw 70,000 men, 14,000 animals, and 300 guns of the Italian I Corps and III Corps down the single road from Makale with the forces of Ras Mulugeta at their rear.[5]

On the third day, the Italians at the Warieu Pass were relieved by Vaccarisi and his Eritreans. According to the Italians, the Ethiopians melted away when the relief force appeared. According to the Ras Kassa, the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica Italiana) saved the day for Badoglio. His men could no longer stand up to the deadly clouds of mustard gas rained down non-stop on the roads his troops took, the base camps where they gathered, and any area surrounding them.[5]


By the morning of 24 January, the First Battle of Tembien came to an end. While the armies of Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum had retreated from the area around Warieu Pass, they were not destroyed and they still held the Tembien. In addition, the armies of Ras Imru and Ras Mulugeta were fully intact. However, the threat the armies of the Ethiopian center posed to the I Corps and III Corps was neutralised and now Badoglio was free to turn his attention to the Ethiopian right and Ras Mulugeta. The Battle of Amba Aradam followed next.

Roughly one month later, the Second Battle of Tembien would prove to be a more decisive encounter for Ras Kassa and Ras Seyoum.

See also


  1. Roughly equivalent to Duke.
  1. John Laffin. Brassey's Dictionary of Battles, pg. 28
  2. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 59
  3. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 55
  4. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 61
  5. Barker, A. J., The Rape of Ethiopia 1936, p. 62


  • Barker, A.J. (1971). Rape of Ethiopia, 1936. New York: Ballantine Books. pp. 160 pages. ISBN 978-0-345-02462-6.
  • Barker, A.J. (1968). The Civilizing Mission: A History of the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-1936. New York: Dial Press. pp. 383 pages.
  • Laffin, John (1995). Brassey's Dictionary of Battles. New York: Barnes & Noble Books. pp. 501 pages. ISBN 0-7607-0767-7.

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