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ETHIOPIA 1935-1936, THE UNCLAIMED COLONY

Illustration of an Italian infantryman
in colonial service uniform and an Ethiopian
tribesman
The opposing sides – an Italian infantryman
in colonial service uniform and an Ethiopian
tribesman

Introduction

In October 1935, Italian Armies invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia) from their existing colonies of Eritrea and
Italian Somaliland, beginning an eightmonth war and a six-year occupation. This was an Italian adventure to expand Italy’s control of the region, as well as to impress European nations.

By 1932 Mussolini was already committed to an eventual war of conquest. Military planning began about this time. A border incident would eventually become the official cause of the war. Ethiopia, led by Haile Sellasie, was ill prepared to face an invasion by a modern industrial power.

Mussolini authorized the use of poison gas, not only against the Ethiopian troops but civilians as well.

By May 1936 the Italians had managed to defeat the Abyssinian Army and entered the capital, Addis Ababa.

image of Haile Selassie and Mussolini
Haile Selassie and Mussolini
A contemporary map showing the Italian invasion
A contemporary map showing the Italian invasion

La Domenica Del Corriere was a famous Italian weekly newspaper which ran from 1899-1989. It was
known for its front cover illustrations and its past issues are highly prized by collectors. It usually featured patriotic themes as shown in the example shown here, depicting the Italian army and air force during the invasion.

Response to the conflict by toy soldier makers – Britains

This article focuses on the response to the conflict by toy soldier manufacturers from Great Britain. Part 2 will cover the output from manufacturers in some other countries. The British response at
the time came from Britains, with sets representing both sides of the conflict, as well as Johillco and Crescent.

La Domenica Del Corriere, February 1936
La Domenica Del Corriere, February 1936
Set number 1438, Italian Infantry in steel helmets and in Colonial Service Dress, produced 1936-1941
Set number 1438, Italian Infantry in steel helmets and in Colonial Service Dress, produced 1936-1941
Set number 1436, Italian Infantry in Colonial Service Dress, produced 1936-41
Set number 1436, Italian Infantry in Colonial Service Dress, produced 1936-41
Set number 1435, Italian Infantry - steel helmets, produced 1936-41
Set number 1435, Italian Infantry – steel helmets, produced 1936-41
Set number 169, Italian Bersaglieri, produced 1912-1966
Set number 169, Italian Bersaglieri, produced 1912-1966

Britains were quick to produce sets of figures representing both sides in the conflict. They had already been producing, since 1912, the Bersaglieri set 169, as well as Italian Infantry in
review order (set 165) and Cavalry (set 166). In 1936 a number of new sets were introduced by Britains.

A new style of uniform was introduced in 1933 by Mussolini as part of reforms to modernize the army. This was accurately reflected by Britans. Two main versions existed – continental and overseas as worn in the Italian Colonies. The old Adrian helmet from the First World War was replaced with a more functional design as well as a tropical sun helmet which was more suitable for use in the expanding African colonies.

A single Bersaglieri Regiment (the 3rd) took part in the war. They were an elite high mobility light infantry and can be recognized by their distinctive wide-brimmed hat decorated with black western capercaillie feathers. This popular long running set was first introduced by Britains in 1911 and continued until 1941. It was reissued post war 1946-1949 and again in 1954- 59 and was still available in 1966. An officer was introduced in 1954.

Ethiopia/Abyssinia had a brave and relatively well trained and equipped Imperial Guard but it was too small. The majority of the troops in the conflict would be the tribal warriors, often armed with only swords and spears. They were generally clad in white.

The Bodyguard served the dual purpose of providing security for the Emperor and being an elite infantry division. It was, nevertheless, poorly equipped to face a modern European invading army.

Second grade figures from the Armies of The World range were also produced by Britains. The painting was simplified with less detail and were sold singly. The Tribesmen and the Emperor’s Bodyguard were included in the range after WW II. These were discontinued in 1959.

Set number 1425, Abyssinian Tribesmen, produced 1936-1941
Set number 1425, Abyssinian Tribesmen, produced 1936-1941
Both sides in the conflict—a group from the author’s collection
Both sides in the conflict—a group from the author’s collection
Set number 1434, Abyssinian Royal Bodyguard and Tribesmen, produced 1936-1941
Set number 1434, Abyssinian Royal Bodyguard and Tribesmen, produced 1936-1941
Set number 1424, Bodyguard of the Emperor of Abyssinia, produced 1936-1941
Set number 1424, Bodyguard of the Emperor of Abyssinia, produced 1936-1941

Response to the conflict by other British toy soldier makers – Hill and Crescent

Johillco logo
Illustration of soldiers

John Hill and Company was started in 1898 by a former employee of Britains and was the first big British hollowcast company to sell their figures individually. Less expensive than Britains figures, that were typically sold in sets, these individual toy soldiers were meant to be played with and enjoyed. Hill were not quite so interested in the authenticity or detail of uniforms as Britains, and the quality of their designs varied. But they produced some very fine figures to commemorate the Ethiopian campaign. By the mid1930s Hill had become second only to Britains in terms of quality and quantity.

Johillco also responded to historical events happening at the time with special issues for occasions such as the Italo-Abyssinian War, by issuing single figures and the occasional boxed sets.

A group of Hill single figures - left to right J 154A. Ethiopian infantry-slung rifle; J 182.
Ethiopian infantry marching; J 145 B. Mule carrying ammo boxes; and J 156-7 Ethiopian
Regular Army stretcher bearers and wounded man.
A group of Hill single figures – left to right J 154A. Ethiopian infantry-slung rifle; J 182.
Ethiopian infantry marching; J 145 B. Mule carrying ammo boxes; and J 156-7 Ethiopian
Regular Army stretcher bearers and wounded man.
Abyssinian Red Cross Unit sold as a boxed set
Abyssinian Red Cross Unit sold as a boxed set
Group of Ethiopian infantry accompanying mountain battery, including J154 B Italian Colonial Infantryman - first on left
Group of Ethiopian infantry accompanying mountain battery, including J154 B Italian Colonial Infantryman – first on left
J 182. Marching Ethiopian Infantry.
J 182. Marching Ethiopian Infantry.
J 145 B. Mules carrying ammo boxes.
J 145 B. Mules carrying ammo boxes.
Boxed set of the Mountain Battery with accompanying figures - J154 A. Ethiopian Infantry, slung rifles
Boxed set of the Mountain Battery with accompanying figures – J154 A. Ethiopian Infantry, slung rifles
The Mountain Battery with 1154 A. Ethiopian Infantry, slung rifles and J182 Marching Ethiopian Infantry
The Mountain Battery with 1154 A. Ethiopian Infantry, slung rifles and J182 Marching Ethiopian Infantry
Crescent Toys logo

Crescent produced a single Abyssinian figure which was also marketed as an African Tribesman.

Crescent began producing military figures in 1930. These early figures were well designed, but the painting quality varied. These colorful figures were the only ones they produced in response to the conflict.

In Part 2 we will return to the subject, focusing on the toy soldiers produced by other makers, including Heyde, CBG Mignot and others.

Hill J 155. Ethiopian Tribesmen standing at
the ready and J124. Sudanese Camel Corps
Hill J 155. Ethiopian Tribesmen standing at
the ready and J124. Sudanese Camel Corps
Illustration of Ethiopian soldier
Crescent A.23 Abyssinian Tribesman (also catalogued as CR.87 African Tribesmen)
Crescent A.23 Abyssinian Tribesman (also catalogued as CR.87 African Tribesmen)
Base of the Crescent figure
Base of the Crescent figure

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