HAILE SELASSIE EMPEROR OF ETHIOPIA
Haile Selassie's Speech to his Soldiers.
“It is better to die free than to live as slaves. Soldiers, follow the example of your warrior ancestors. Young and old, unite to fight the invader. Your sovereign will be among you. He will not hesitate to shed his blood if necessary for Ethiopia and her independence. For forty years Italy has cherished the desire to conquer Ethiopia. We were resolved to safeguard our honour, but we consider that a Government does not degrade itself by submitting to a ruling pronounced by an impartial and qualified international body. We therefore solemnly declared that Ethiopia would bow immediately and completely to any ruling against her if she were found at fault. Right up to the last moment we shall persist in our efforts for peace. If our repeated endeavours and goodwill fail, our conscience will be pure. God will defend the just cause of our country.”
In the preceding chapters the stage has been slowly set for the last act. Either Ethiopia will emerge from the conflict a free and strong nation—or she will go under fighting, a long drawn out agony of guerilla warfare, with its records of ambush and capture, disease and starvation, to underline the irony of the term “Italian civilisation.”
It was on November 24th, 1934, that a telephone call informed the Emperor that an “incident” had occurred at Ual-Ual in the direction of the Somaliland border. No blood had been shed, but an Italian outpost had behaved in most insulting fashion to a Border Commission composed of Ethiopian chiefs and British officers, who were examining the state of affairs along the frontier for the purpose of clearing up certain difficulties arising from the movements of nomad tribes. Later in the day a message from the British representative at the capital enquired if the Emperor had any news of the trouble.
It was some time before the full account of what had happened was available. The facts were these.
The Commission had reached Ual-Ual on November 23rd, and had wished to make use of the wells. There were two British officers, several Ethiopian officials and an escort of about five hundred troops.
It must be emphasised that it was not the Italian frontier in which the Commission were interested. They did not realise until they saw the Italian flag flying on a defensive post ahead of the line of wells that they were near any territory which the Italians might consider theirs. Their work concerned the British Somaliland boundary to the north-east; and in any case the maps which the Commission were using showed Ual-Ual to be at least sixty miles within the boundary of Ethiopia.
The British Commissioners were astonished when the Italian Somali troops (about two hundred and fifty in number and under a native sergeant) showed themselves hostile; but the Abyssinians were in much greater strength and the Somalis at length retreated beyond the wells.
This is an important point since it shows that when they were in vastly superior strength the Ethiopian officers were able to restrain their men. Some days later, by which time the Italians had brought up aeroplanes and tanks, it is alleged that the Ethiopians deliberately attacked them—though they were now, if not outnumbered, obviously hopelessly outclassed. To return to the actual course of events. The Englishmen protested to the Italians against this interference; what followed is best seen in the account of the Commission.
The reason for the British officers and their party retiring had best be explained in full, since it has often been questioned, for it is not the tradition of the British to retire in the face of possible trouble. The fact was that Captain Taylor, Mr. Curie and their companions thought that the Italian Commander might be suffering from an attack of nerves and could not credit that his attitude was part of definite official intention to force a quarrel. The tropics produce strange effects in white men and it is said that the British believed that this explained the whole affair, though the action of the aeroplane pilots showed more than normal Italian irresponsibility.
Were British casualties to result under such circumstances a comparatively unimportant error of judgment on the part of an overwrought officer might be magnified into an international imbroglio to which there was no seeing the end. Besides, the Commissioners were the guests of the Ethiopians, and it was the duty of the latter as hosts to see that their guests were not insulted. Rather than embarrass the Ethiopians by remaining in so awkward a situation the British showed their good sense by getting out of the way. The Abyssinian forces did not retreat because to have done so might have enraged the local population who, on seeing the forces sent to protect them apparently abandoning the task, would probably have taken matters into their own hands. Any subsequent fighting might easily have imperilled the safety of the Commission.
This was unofficially explained to the Emperor who perfectly appreciated the correctness of the British Commissioner’s conduct. But before this was done news came that fighting had begun.
The Italians had the best of it. Their casualties were thirty killed and twice that number wounded. The Abyssinians had one hundred and seven dead and forty-five wounded. The figures are instructive—an Italian hit meant a death twice in three times. Abyssinian hits killed only once in three.
As to the responsibility for the firing of the first shot there can rarely have been a case in which the accounts of the disputants were more directly at variance. The Italians say that the Abyssinians paraded along the line of the native Somali troops shouting insults and “executing provocative fantasias,” and that early on December 5th they attacked the Italian pickets. The report which reached the Emperor said that the Somalis ambushed a party of Ethiopians sent for water. This accords well with the scene of the disturbance and the observed habits of the Somalis.
Needless to say the Ethiopians were completely overwhelmed by the modern equipment of the Italian troops; but they did not retreat in disorder, some detachments showing amazing nonchalance under withering fire. The enemy then bombed the line of retreat, and three days later, when all possible danger to the invader was passed, bombed the defenceless town of Ado which the British Commission had only just quitted and where their baggage still remained. And three weeks later, by way of demonstration, there was a further and utterly unprovoked air raid upon Gerlogubi.
The Emperor consulted with his ministers on receipt of the news and wrote to the Italian Government on December 6th, asking for arbitration as provided for by the 1928 treaty of friendship between the two nations. Nothing could have been more correct and objective than the Emperor’s attitude. The Italians, however, refused to receive the Ethiopian envoy and replied in the following terms:
“It is 1914 over again,” said an Ethiopian merchant to a British resident, “and we are Serbia.”
At this stage, however, the rest of the world cared nothing about an obscure frontier incident in a remote part of Africa, the general impression in diplomatic circles in Europe being that Signor Mussolini was, as usual, acting the part of the “strong man,” and that provided he were allowed to occupy the stage in that role, he would not, as one official remarked “throw any coconuts at the audience.”
But those in touch with the situation at the British Foreign Office noted two things. First, that the clash at Ual-Ual had been premeditated on the part of the Italians, since more than two years previously the commander of the troops in that region had, in a letter to the British Administration, implied a claim to the disputed wells. (The British, extremely puzzled by this apparently quite irresponsible implication, refused to reply.) Secondly, the Italians were moving troops both in Somaliland and Italy in a manner quite out of proportion to the apparent issues involved.
The Emperor of Ethiopia was approached and urged to exercise the greatest possible restraint over his forces. To show good faith he ordered all frontier patrols to withdraw.
Late in December, however, there was brought to the attention of the Emperor an article in the Italian periodical Forze Armate which seriously alarmed him. Knowing that the whole press of Italy was under such strict control that this article could hardly have appeared without official sanction, both Haile Selassie and his immediate advisers were troubled to find that it outlined a claim so fantastic that were it to be maintained there was no possibility of avoiding conflict.
In the treaty of 1908 the Italian Somaliland boundary is discussed as follows:“From the Webi Schebeli the frontier proceeds northeast following the line agreed on in 1897. All the territory belonging to the tribes towards the coast shall remain dependent on Italy; all the territory of Ogaden and all that of the tribes towards Ogaden shall remain Abyssinian.”
(The Webi Schebeli is the principal river of that district. It does not reach the sea, but the Italians think it might be made the basis of extensive irrigation.)
Now, as has been shown, the tribes involved move at certain seasons, and therefore, some two or three years after the signing of the treaty, the Italians sent General Citerni to clear the matter up. It was almost precisely the same problem as that which Rennell Rodd had dealt with so efficiently, but the Italians never managed to straighten things out.
The article in Forze Armate stated that the Ethiopians had proved so “intolerant, hostile and insulting” that the Italian mission had been compelled to withdraw. The report of Ethiopians concerned was to the effect that when they refused to allow frontier landmarks to be erected quite arbitrarily General Citerni broke off negotiations.
The article (which was published in two parts) continued that in the case of nomad tribes normally under Italian protection, the treaty conveyed jurisdiction to Italy wherever these tribes moved. This was called “frontier delimitation based on ethnic criteria,” and was an entirely novel proposition in international relations. But there was worse to follow—for finally, as if aware of the unsatisfactory nature of the arguments already advanced the journal played one last card, a trump of the most peculiar kind.
In 1885 the Sultan of Obbia concluded a treaty with the German East Africa Company by which rights were given extending over an area “twenty-five days’ march inland.” When in 1889 by a series of treaties with the various Somali Sultans, Menelek, Britain and the Sultan of Zanzibar, Italy was given her sphere of influence (which she confirmed in 1905 by purchasing the Benadir ports for £144,000 from the Sultan of Zanzibar)—these rights granted in 1885 became, so Forze Armate argued, vested in Italy forthwith. That Italy could claim a hinterland frontier at twenty-five days’ march inland on the strength of a trading agreement with a Sultan of Obbia was perhaps the most fantastic claim that any country has ever made in territorial matters. It might well have been held to bring half Ethiopia under Italian rule. The Sultan was selling something he had no right to sell—unless he considered a day’s march to be in the neighbourhood of seven or eight miles: and even then his jurisdiction was extremely doubtful.
This article, so hopelessly wrongheaded, so wilful in its defiance of common-sense, produced a profound impression on the Emperor. From that moment, while determined to permit not the slightest act of provocation on the part of his men, he was convinced that he would shortly be compelled to fight for the independence of his country.
There were several points of view in the Emperor’s Council. One was that an immediate attack before the Italians could bring up reinforcements was the best course. From a military point of view this was allowable. The Italian attitude, and the constant reinforcement of the Somaliland troops, together with the construction of military roads, pointed to definitely hostile intentions and constituted acts of war.
Nor would an attack have been a breach of the League Covenant, for the Italians were clearly the aggressors in that they had refused arbitration. But it had been plain to all the signatories of the Covenant that the question of what constituted aggression was the one weak point in the scheme and would inevitably lead to all sorts of subtle distinctions and evasions. When, as in the present situation, the borderline between two nations was not strictly delimited, there was obviously splendid scope for special pleading. The policy of attack, which the Emperor never for one moment considered, belonged to another age. The Emperor determined to rely on the League of Nations.
He would have appealed at once, but it was suggested to him through diplomatic channels that the effect of this might be to magnify the importance of what, after all, might prove a very easily arbitrated dispute. He therefore adopted the middle course, exercising his right under Art. 11, Section 2 of the Covenant, which reads:
“It is also declared to be the friendly right of each member of the League to bring to the attention of the Assembly or of the Council any circumstance whatever affecting international relations which threatens to disturb international peace or the good understanding between nations on which peace depends.”
(Italy had already committed a breach of the Covenant by refusing arbitration of a dispute which is made compulsory upon all League members by Art. 12 of the Covenant.)
On December 14th the Emperor notified Geneva by telegraph just as the Council was about to meet, that a dangerous situation had arisen with Italy, concluding the message: “In the presence of Italian aggression the Abyssinian Government draws the Council’s attention to the gravity of the situation.”
Now the League was faced with a challenge. At once the subtle diplomats began a series of moves by which they hoped to prevent any action. The Emperor, realising that if he were to rely implicitly upon the League, he must at once test its quality, decided on January 3rd, 1935, after Italy had persistently refused any sort of arbitration, to make a definite appeal.
That same day Monsieur Laval left for Rome, following which, on January 19th, it was announced from Geneva that since both of the Governments concerned in the dispute had agreed to negotiate in the spirit and under the terms of the 1928 Treaty of Friendship between them, the appeal of Ethiopia to the League would be postponed until the following session in May.
Now it is important that Europeans understand how this situation appears to Ethiopia. The average educated inhabitant of Addis Ababa is a keen student of European news and draws very acute conclusions from what he reads. To him the facts appear in this light:
First Italy refuses to submit her claims to arbitration. She has therefore broken the Covenant and Ethiopia appeals to the League.
The Prime Minister of France consults hurriedly with the Duce of Italy.
Italy is reported by the League of Nations to be willing to negotiate.
On the strength of this statement the League postpones consideration of Ethiopia’s appeal.
Meanwhile, the Paris newspapers are full of articles urging Italy on to a war of conquest in the name of civilisation, and it soon appears that Italy is absolutely unwilling to agree to arbitration on any terms which Ethiopia could possibly accept.... The mobilisation of Italian forces continues steadily. From this sequence of events the Emperor drew one definite conclusion.
“Once again we are dealing with treachery,” he told his Council. “There is a bargain between France and Italy. The promise which the Italians have made to arbitrate concerning the trouble at Ual-Ual is not sincere. They are wasting time deliberately because their forces are not yet ready for an advance. The rains will soon begin. During the whole of the rainy season our enemies will prepare. In the October of this year the attack will come.”
This astonishingly acute analysis was borne out in every detail. Looking back on the series of events which led up to the attack on Adowa, which was hailed as so great a victory by the Italians, the student can see that this was merely the final move in a well-thought-out programme to which Mussolini adhered without once wavering, keeping up a pretence of negotiation in the meantime to quiet British opinion and to provide the League with an excuse for continued inactivity.
But to return to the events of January, 1935. On the 20th of that month there came serious news. A party of Abyssinian raiders on the edge of French Somaliland came into contact with a French patrol which was wiped out completely, the casualties including a French officer of a colonial regiment.
The Emperor was aghast when the report was placed before him; he was also puzzled. Having carefully scrutinised such details as were available he called for his Minister of War (a very capable man) and went into the matter with all the quiet thoroughness of his character.
“We must find out what the raiders were doing,” he said. “That frontier is quiet at most times. It is strange that this raid should come just at that very moment when we wished above all things that no such trouble should occur. Send out reliable men to enquire what is behind this. It is not a matter of slaves or ivory. We may find that spies are among the border tribes stirring them up.”
Rough justice was inflicted upon the raiders. Three minor chieftains, believed to have fostered the trouble though they had not taken part in it, were seized and questioned. Two of them were found to have Italian money hidden in their huts.
Now there was a chance that this money might have been the result of honest trading, but in view of all the circumstances that seemed highly unlikely. The Emperor did not make any wild charges but he set in motion a vast “comb out” of the frontier areas. Of just how much Italian money was found there is no record. But the results of the enquiry were appalling to the Emperor and his advisers. Secret orders were issued that spying must be met by counter-spying and that the traffic of corruption must be stopped.
It is hard to recapture for the English public the feelings with which the inner circle of advisers waited in Addis Ababa for each day’s news. At this time the dispute was still presented as a minor affair in the English newspapers. No one in London really expected war. Permanent officials one and all expressed the opinion that it would all blow over. But at the centre of the storm sat the Emperor, each day’s reports before him, and he could see better than any other observer that the enemies of his country were slowly hemming her in.
Already Mussolini was talking of Italian East Africa—a name which had not hitherto appeared upon any map. Marshal de Bono, whose utterances concerning Ethiopia had been for many years persistently hostile and militarist, was appointed Governor-General of this newly conceived area. The Duce himself became Minister for the Colonies and there were huge increases in the appropriations for Colonial administration.
Ethiopian observers stationed on the Suez Canal watched the steady influx of Italian troopships. There could, fortunately, be no concealment, for since the dues charged by the Canal Company depend on the number of passengers as well as the tonnage of the vessels which pass through, there were official figures in existence showing to the last man how many Italian soldiers had been sent to the Red Sea ports.
Even in the last months of 1934 there had been a persistent trickle of Italian troops through the Canal, but now the numbers were increasing to such an extent that it was clear to everyone that this was more than the mere reinforcement of border patrols.
Few people realise in Great Britain how the actions of their country’s rulers have appeared from the Ethiopian point of view. This is perhaps inevitable; it is, however, most unfortunate since did the mass of English people realise how weakly and in some ways discreditably the situation was met by British diplomacy they would probably express their views concerning those responsible with a force and candour highly disturbing to the calm of high office. The first shock to the Emperor came when he learned that Great Britain had given a lead to Europe by stating that in the interests of peace she was prohibiting the export of arms to either of the disputants.
In view of the fact that it was known that Italy was amply supplied while Abyssinia was utterly without means of manufacturing armaments of any sort whatever in the modern sense of the word, the pretence that the prohibition was impartial must be classed as one of the most grotesque pieces of humbug of which civilised diplomacy has ever been guilty. The Emperor was bitterly indignant when he learned of this decision.
Certain of his advisers who claimed to be in close touch with British government circles and to know the mentality of the British nation attempted to cheer their ruler, however. Their argument in brief was this: Great Britain can be trusted. You can rely on justice from her. It may be a long while coming but it is very certain in the end. She has now denied you arms, admittedly a strange way of showing sympathy to a small and comparatively defenceless nation confronted by a powerful and militarised aggressor; but do not despair—the British mind always works strangely in matters such as these. She is denying you supplies of arms to defend yourself, but by that very action according to her standards of honour, she binds herself to defend you. This prohibition of which you are complaining is the very best thing that could have happened. If Britain is forbidding you arms it is because she intends to forbid the war. And this she could do single-handed.
This was an attractive hope, but it was somewhat damped by the tactics by which Mr. Anthony Eden tried to arrange for the peaceful settlement of the quarrel. Ethiopia, according to his suggestion, was to cede to Italy, for the purpose of satisfying Italian honour, a comparatively unimportant tract of territory, and in return for this sweet reasonableness was to receive from Great Britain a corridor leading to the sea at the port of Zeila not far south of Jibuti but in British Somaliland.
This proposition was considered in some quarters to be a skilful solution. Actually it was one of the most glorious howlers of which the nice-mannered young traveller in international soporifics has ever been guilty. Mussolini, perceiving that Great Britain hankered after compromise, stiffened his attitude. Haile Selassie replied that while he would be grateful for access to the sea he saw no reason why he should cede one foot of land to an aggressor nation when the League of Nations guaranteed the territorial integrity of its members. But this was not all. There was a howl of rage from the French who saw in the proposal an attempt, whether deliberate or inadvertent, to ruin the port of Jibuti by opening a competing port close by. The French are always a little sensitive about Jibuti, a terrible town indeed, of which it is universally stated by travellers that they have managed to make the worst. It is always referred to by those who have sojourned there as the ‘world’s worst port.’
In England, too, there was an exhibition of rage. Retired colonels gnashed their teeth in public at the thought of abandoning one single Somali tribesman now enjoying British care to the barbarous Abyssinians—though everyone with the least knowledge of that part of the world was aware that these tribes roamed at will into all the adjoining territories and would be completely indifferent to any changes of boundary which could not to any appreciable extent affect their lives.
A French diplomat expressed the view to the present writer that in no country but Great Britain could a Cabinet Minister have survived a blunder so egregious. He would have been hounded from office, and overwhelmed with ridicule. “But,” he added, “in Great Britain, though he has made everyone furious, he has probably increased his reputation. Which since I like him immensely suits me very well.”
The next incident in which the British Press and also the Government behaved very queerly from the Ethiopian point of view was in their comments on the announcement by the Daily Telegraph early in September, 1935, that a mysterious Mr. Rickett had been granted a large concession to prospect for oil in Abyssinia. The Emperor was solemnly lectured as to his unethical conduct in granting such a concession at a time of international tension, as though it were tacitly agreed in Europe that as his property was already divided in secret agreements between the great powers it was a breach of good taste or even worse on his part to dispose of any rights himself. That is the sort of attitude which infuriates the educated Abyssinian—the tacit assumption that Ethiopia is not a free agent in the same sense as other nations and must only act after receiving advice. As the Emperor was quick to state he had the perfect right in the interests of his country to make concessions to any responsible applicant.
It is useless to recapitulate all the diplomatic shifts of the rainy season which was now drawing to a close. They can all be summed up as consisting of frantic efforts by Britain and France to bribe, cajole, or as a last resort, bully Italy into giving up her plans for war. Mussolini goes straight ahead with his military preparations showing only just sufficient interest in the various suggestions of the other European Powers to keep up the pretence of negotiation, which suits him well enough, since he is playing for time.
Ethiopia does not enter into the picture at all except to make an occasional protest of which no notice is taken. Then, as soon as the rains show signs of ceasing, Mussolini begins movements of troops which leave no possible shadow of doubt as to his intentions. Determined to leave no chance for any fresh ‘incident’ to give Mussolini the opportunity of claiming that Abyssinia had committed an act of agression and thus fogging the issue, Haile Selassie ordered all his patrols to withdraw from the frontiers. This astute move embarrassed Mussolini not at all. He had got past the point of needing excuses. On October 2nd, coinciding with the mobilisation of millions of civilians throughout Italy, the Italian troops crossed the border of Ethiopia. Only now did the Emperor order mobilisation, and even as he did so came news of the first fighting near Adowa.
The steps by which the dispute had slowly blossomed into a disgraceful war can best be appreciated in the form of a summary. Comment is superfluous.
THE PROGRESS OF THE DISPUTE
Nov. 23rd, 1934.—“Incident at Ual-Ual.” Anglo-Abyssinian Boundary Commission conflict at Ual-Ual.
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July 14 , 2021