War Clouds

‘The tragic episode of international history which is recorded in this volume,’ says Arnold Toynbee in his introduction to the second volume of International Affairs 1935, ‘is a tale of sin and nemesis. . . . If we try to marshal the several participants in the tragedy in their order of merit we shall find that the poorest figure was cut by those with the most specious claim to represent the fine flower of western culture. The “beau role” was played by the Emperor Haile Selassie, the heir of a non- western tradition, who combined an antique virtue with an enlightened modernism.’1

How then did the first clouds begin to dim the horizon as the Emperor entered upon the fifth year of his reign?

Ever since 1896, the year of the Italian disaster at Adowa, the Italians had been smarting under their defeat. In 1906 the Tripartite Agreement between England, France, and Italy, though hardly justifiable when looked at through modern eyes, had strengthened the Italian position on the northern boundary of Ethiopia, where a good volume of trade flowed through the Italian colony of Eritrea down to an Italian port at Massowah.

In 1923 Italy had in agreement with France urged the admittance of Ethiopia to the League of Nations. By 1925 the Fascist regime was firmly established and Mussolini well on his upward trend to power. In 1926 notes were exchanged, on British initiative, between Great Britain and Italy, whereby the British agreed to recognize a zone of economic influence for the Italians in return for an Italian undertaking not to interfere with the waters of the Nile that flow from Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Government—her Emperor keenly alive to the situation—on the publication of these notes in accordance with the open procedure required of all League members, was naturally surprised and indignant, and immediately forwarded notes of protest to the two governments. It was stipulated by the Emperor that these should appear alongside the notes that were published in the ‘Treaty Series’ of the League of Nations. Then he was silent; his point had been gained. Here was a masterly passivity.

Two years later a twenty years’ treaty of friendship was signed with Italy. By this the Regent gained for his country access to the sea by securing a ‘free zone’ for Ethiopia at the port of Assab, in the coastal strip of Eritrea. A road was planned to link Dessie with this port, both signatories to the treaty undertaking to contribute to its building in their own country, and an Italo-Ethiopian company having the monopoly of the road traffic. This, however, proved nought but a source of disagreement, for the Ethiopians refused to allow Italian engineers within their territory, and the Italians refused to accept the plans proposed by Dutch engineers.

It was petty jealousy and bickering of this kind which fostered the mutual feelings of mistrust and ill will which grew so evident at this time. During the five years between 1930 and 1935, while the Emperor was redoubling his efforts, now that his hands were free, to govern, to educate, to equip, to train, Italy was building up a long series of complaints about frontier raids; though no details of these were ever produced until June 1935, when she complained that Ethiopian irregulars under the leadership of a Somali who was already ‘wanted,’ were massing near the Somaliland border.

At the same time an attack by the young hot-bloods of Gondar on the Italian Consulate in that town was disavowed by the Ethiopian Government but full reparation was made. However, as late as September 1934 the Italian Government agreed to reaffirm the Treaty of Friendship made six years previously.

The Emperor throughout these harassing and difficult years acted with the greatest patience and propriety. Although he must have seen, step by step, the game which his opponents were playing, he did not falter in his self-imposed tasks of reform and unification within the empire. The Constitution, Parliament, education, justice, finance, as has already been shown, were slowly shaping under his personal supervision and stimulus, against a background that darkened against him day by day.

Yet his faith in the League of Nations, in the protection and friendship of the other great powers, served to buoy him up against the possibility of desertion and disaster. So when the final clash at Wal Wal rang up the curtain on the fearful spectacle of imminent war, it found him confident of the loyalty of his own people, and of the friendship and support of his friends. That confidence, though it stood him finally in good case, was to be tested and stretched to breaking point in the coming years.

The tragic sequence of events which followed the so-called ‘settlement’ at Gondar is almost too well known to bear repeating.

It was on 6th December 1934 that a peaceful world was startled by the news that fighting had broken out between Ethiopian and Italian troops at a place called Wal Wal in the south-east of Ethiopia, 100 kilometres from the frontier of Italian Somaliland. The Ethiopian troops were the escort of the Anglo-Ethiopian Boundary Commission which had just finished the demarcation of the frontier running with British Somaliland, and they strongly resented the presence of an Italian garrison sixty miles beyond the frontier of Italian Somaliland. That frontier had never been demarcated on the ground, or even settled in detail; but, according to an old agreement and a recent Italian map, Wal Wal was well within Ethiopia.

There is reason to believe that the tribesmen who joined the Ethiopian troops had been incited by an agent of the Italians to attack their native troops. The Italians used armoured cars and there was heavy loss of life amongst their poorly armed adversaries. The Ethiopian Government proposed that the dispute be submitted to arbitration, but the Italian Government rejected arbitration and demanded heavy compensation. Consequently, the Ethiopian Government reported the incident to the League; and on 3rd January 1935 requested action under Article II of the Covenant. The League Council, however, on 19th January, after having induced the parties to agree to arbitration under the Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1928, decided to postpone consideration of the application of the Covenant until its next meeting, ordinarily four months later. Meanwhile it appeared that the parties were not in agreement as to the scope of the arbitration. Italy refused to allow the question of the ownership of the territory in which Wal Wal is situated to be submitted to the Arbitration Commission, whilst the Ethiopian Government naturally insisted that responsibility for the incident could not be assessed without determining which party rightly claimed the territory in question.

By a series of postponements and chicaneries the questions at issue were shelved from month to month. The Commission of Arbitration met for the first time on 25th June, but immediately suspended its sittings as the Italian representatives refused to discuss the frontier question. The League Council, meeting in extraordinary session early in August, decided that the question of the ownership of Wal Wal was not within the competence of the Arbitration Commission and instructed the members of the commission to meet and appoint an independent chairman.

Meanwhile General de Bono had been sent out to Eritrea at the beginning of the year, and troops soon followed him on the excuse that frontier incidents must be provided against. By March the Ethiopian Government became thoroughly alarmed at the continued flow of troops and munitions of all kinds to Eritrea and Somaliland, and protested to the League again and again from this time on without result. Its efforts to import arms were thwarted by the refusal of the British Government, followed by the French, to issue, from 25th July on, any further licences for the export of arms to Italy and Ethiopia. Italy was not buying in England, but Ethiopia was. Moreover, the French authorities at Djibuti held up consignments of arms for months on the ground that technicalities prescribed by treaty had not been complied with; and when these had been complied with, the railway company after the outbreak of war refused to carry them owing to Italian threats to bomb the railway bridges.

On 3rd September the Arbitration Commission decided that neither side could be held responsible for the Wal Wal incident; but this incident was already almost forgotten in the excitement and apprehension felt throughout the world at the obvious and rapidly growing menace of Italian aggression; for a powerful army well supplied with transport was already lined up on the Eritrean frontier, the Italian air force in the colonies had been multiplied many times, and several new aerodromes had been laid out.

Britain and France had indeed made proposals thought likely to be advantageous to Italy for modernizing the administration of Ethiopia and opening the country to economic development and exploitation by foreigners, in a conference at Paris in the middle of August; but these proposals were summarily rejected by Signor Mussolini, and he refused to formulate alternative terms to his demand for a protectorate over the whole country.

On 4th September the League Council at last began to take the threat of war seriously, and appointed a committee of five to examine the situation and propose a settlement. In the Assembly of the League on 11th September Viscount Templewood (then Sir Samuel Hoare) made his famous speech, which contained the following noteworthy and reassuring passages:

The ideas enshrined in the Covenant, and in particular the aspiration to establish the rule of law in international affairs, have appealed. . . with growing force to the strain of idealism which has its place in our national character, and they have become a part of our national conscience. . . . The League stands, and my country stands with it, for the collective maintenance of the Covenant in its entirety, and particularly for steady and collective resistance to all acts of unprovoked aggression. The attitude of the British nation in the last few weeks has clearly demonstrated the fact that this is no variable and unreliable sentiment, but a principle of international conduct to which they and their Government hold with firm, enduring, and universal persistence.2

Yet there was also a qualification, the importance of which was not generally realized until some three months later, as follows:

If the burden is to be borne, it must be borne collectively. If risks for peace are to be run, they must be run by all. The security of the many cannot be ensured solely by the efforts of a few, however powerful they may be.

Actually, as Professor Arnold Toynbee has observed:

It was not the public proceedings in the Assembly, but a previous conversation between Sir Samuel Hoare and M. Laval on 10th September, which determined the League’s action and sealed Ethiopia’s fate; for these statesmen, representing the two leading nations of the League, privately agreed on that day that no action should be taken under Article 16 in the nature of sanctions of a military character or of a kind which would involve any risk of war with Italy.3

The committee of five failed to produce any kind of plan which would satisfy both parties and, in view of the attitude adopted by Italy, there seemed to be nothing further that could be done in the way of conciliation. The Assembly adopted a watchful attitude, and decided to remain in session after the normal business of the annual meeting was concluded.

This was the position when Italian troops crossed the Eritrean frontier on 3rd October 1935, and began their advance upon Adowa, under the command of General de Bono. Simultaneously General Graziani opened hostilities on the frontier between Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland.

Meanwhile, faced with a situation which rapidly deteriorated throughout the year, the Emperor, though he delayed until the last possible moment, had done his best to prepare for the inevitable. But what were his chances? It is true that the frontiers of the Ethiopian Empire, and the central plateau of the Amhara people, formed one of the great mountain fortresses of the world, but were these natural advantages sufficient to counteract the advantages bestowed on Italy by her complete command of the weapons of modern war; weapons which were denied by the western powers to Ethiopia?

The order for general mobilization was not issued until 29th September 1935. This was the Emperor’s own decision in the face of much criticism. Although in the previous six months thousands of Italian soldiers had passed through the Suez Canal on their way to Eritrea—and Ethiopia—it was used by the Italian High Command as the pretext for marching into Ethiopia.

So the drums sounded at the big gate of the old Menelek Palace that opens on to a wonderful view of the city and its surrounding mountains, and as the excited crowds scrambled up the rocky hill to hear the news, there was read out the proclamation of mobilization, informing the people that the Italian army had on Wednesday, 2nd October 1935, crossed the Mareb and begun the invasion.

1 Arnold Toynbee: Survey of International Affairs 1935, vol. ii, p. 1.
2 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 187.
3 Op. cit., pp. 188, 192.

Next Chapter

Electronic edition created and published online by members of the
Emperor Haile Sellassie First Theocracy Reign
Order of the Nyahbinghi

Crest of the Nyahbinghi Order

September 10, 2019