Medal recognizing the 1935-6 War
by John Norris
In 1928, six years after Benito Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister, Italy and Ethiopia entered into a 20-year “Friendship Treaty” that allowed Ethiopia to use the Italian-controlled port facilities at Assab in return for building road infrastructures in the area. The Treaty only held for six years until, in December 1934, troops from both countries engaged in a clash near Ualual (sometimes written as “Wal Wal”), resulting in the death of 100 Ethiopians and ten Italian colonial troops. For almost a year, a period of tension existed between the two countries until finally, on October 3 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia without any advance declaration of war.
Even if the Ethiopians had been prepared, it would not have made any difference in the fighting. It was a one-sided affair in favor of the Italians. By May 1936, the war was over, and Italy annexed the country.
During the several months of very bloody fighting, the Italians had used poison gas to defeat an unprepared, ill-equipped, and poorly trained army. The Italians had committed 200,000 troops to the fighting, but some sources claim as many as 500,000 were supported by almost 600 aircraft and about 800 tanks. The Ethiopian army numbered 800,000 men with only 13 aircraft and four tanks. The casualty rate was high, with 775,000 Ethiopians killed and wounded, and 10,000 Italian and colonial troops killed and a further 44,000 wounded.
CAMPAIGN MEDAL CREATED
The victorious Italian army issued a campaign medal to commemorate the occasion. The “Ethiopian Campaign Medal for 1936” was designed by the artist V. Peronne and by the sculptor and artist Giuseppe Romagnoli, whose name also appears on the medal.
Royal Decree N: 1150 instituted the medal on April 27, 1936. Measuring 33.5mm, it was awarded to those troops who were engaged, either directly or indirectly, in the campaign in Italian East Africa. Although initially presented to those troops who took part in the campaign between 1935 and 1936, the medal continued to be awarded to those who served in the theatre until Italy declared war against France and Britain in June 1940.
The 38mm-wide ribbon is made up of eleven vertical stripes alternating blue and black, with six blue stripes, including the edges, and five black stripes. The ribbon passes through an integral suspension bar at the top edge of the medal.
Many medals often have small manufacturing stamp marks on them that reveal more about the history of the award. These marks can easily be overlooked as they are almost imperceptible to the naked eye, unless one knows where to look Even so, it is advisable to use a magnifying glass to locate and clarify them. For example, on the obverse of this medal, at the bottom edge there is a tiny crowned ‘Z’ which stands for Regia Zecca, the Royal Mint that produced the medal. The name of Giuseppe Romagnoli appears in very tiny lettering on the lower edge of the medal, by the rim, just below the crowned Z.
The medal appears in dark bronze with the head of King Victor Emanuel III facing to his right. Born in 1869, the King was 66 years old when this image was created. He would live for another twelve years, and although the Italian monarchy would not be restored after the war, Victor Emmanuel outlived Mussolini.
Surrounding the king’s effigy in capital letters is the legend: “VITT. EM. III. RE.D.ITALIA.IMP. DI. ETIOPIA” which translates to “Vittorio Emanuele III King of Italy Emperor of Ethiopia.”
The reverse of the medal exhibits Italian national symbolism. The most obvious is the “Fasces” shown in relief with the blade facing toward the left hand edge of the medal. The axe held in the bound bundle of wooden rods is an ancient symbol dating back to the Roman Empire, and was the symbol of the magistrate’s power. The singular term is fascis and the emblem was used by the Fascist state of Italy under Benito Mussolini. The vertical shaft of the axe handle terminates in the form of a lion’s head.
The name of V. Peronne, the medal’s designer, appears on the edge in the 90 degrees formed between the lower edge of the axe blade and the handle. Again, it is only properly distinguishable using a magnifying glass.
The right hand side of the reverse of the medal is taken up with an image showing a mountain in relief with a landscape depicting the barren and hostile terrain of Ethiopia. Above the mountain in capital letters is the legend “AFRICA ORIENTALE”against a plain background. In the lower right hand quadrant of the medal, also in relief, appears the Fascist slogan in capital letters: “MOLTI NEMICI MOLTO ONORE” (“Many Enemies, Much Honor”). Below this appears the signature of Benito Mussolini.
A clasp in the shape of a garlanded Roman gladius sword was awarded to denote a combat award and this was worn on the ribbon. The medal is not rare, due to the number of awards made, but imagery of its design makes it is an unusual item, representing as it does, both the Italian monarchy of King Victor Emanuele III and the Fascist State of Benito Mussolini.
The medals were not named to the recipient but a certificate was issued. Unfortunately, these paper documents have been lost in most cases, making them extremely rare pieces of supportive history.
Prices vary according to condition and whether it has any supportive documentation or accompanying awards. Dealers in Britain certainly report how interest in the lesser-recognized medals is beginning to increase, and prices are going up accordingly. This includes Belgian medals of the First World War, but also Italian medals from both world wars, and especially the period when Italy was under the rule of Mussolini between October 1922 and July 1943.
The position of “Marshal of the Empire” was created for Mussolini in 1938 and ended with his downfall in July 1943. This makes him the first and only person to hold the unique title. Such a piece of history is important to any collector and can only add to this medal’s intrigue.