Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
10. Anglo-French Diplomacy, and the Initial Italo-Ethiopian Campaign of 1935-6
We saw last week how the League of Nations, faced by Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, branded fascist Italy as the aggressor, but imposed only ineffective sanctions. Now read on:
The Hoare-Laval Proposals
The British and French foreign ministries, which also had no desire to see the imposition of an oil sanction, strove meanwhile to devise a compromise peace which would render it unnecessary to impose one. Proposals were duly formulated, after which Hoare went to Paris, on 7 December, to finalise them. Their terms were then submitted to both Rome and Addis Ababa. They were also leaked to the French press, and thus almost immediately became known to the entire world.
The Hoare-Laval plan, which from the geographical point of view was strikingly reminiscent of the Tripartite Convention of 1906, proposed that Ethiopia should cede to Italy more or less all the areas then occupied by the Italians, i.e. Tegray and Ogaden, and that Italy should be given “economic rights” over most of southern Ethiopia, except the very far west, which had earlier been considered a British sphere of influence. Ethiopia in return was to be offered an outlet to the sea at Asab, and a corridor through the Afar desert leading thereto, i.e. the very same arrangement which Ethiopia had found unsatisfactory when proposed by Italy seven years earlier, in 1928.
These proposals, which the Emperor described as “a prize offering to the aggressors”, led to a storm of indignation, in Britain and to a lesser extent throughout the world. Hoare was obliged to resign, and was replaced by Anthony Eden. In the general excitement public opinion, however, largely forgot about the question of an oil sanction. The British and French governments were thus able to continue their opposition thereto almost without debate. The policy of the new Foreign Secretary, it soon transpired, differed little from that of his predecessor. He thus claimed in the House of Commons, on 24 February 1936, that the limited sanctions then in force would “ultimately have an important influence”, and that there was therefore no need to extend them to oil, which, he declared, was merely “a sanction like any other”. This inane remark carried the day, even though it was regarded with incredulity in some opposition quarters. The British liberal newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, for example commented, “The half-naked Abyssinian meeting a “mechanised” enemy could tell him otherwise”.
If Great Britain had Closed the Suez Canal”
The British and French Governments remained also unwilling to contemplate closing the Suez Canal, which would almost certainly have brought the invasion to a halt. This was later recognised by the American President, Franklin Roosevelt, who observed, “if Great Britain had closed the Suez Canal, Italy would have been balked in respect to Abyssinia”.
Failure to impose the oil sanction, or to close the canal, resulted in the last analysis from the fact that the British and French Governments saw no interest in halting Mussolini’s invasion. They were reluctant to see the Duce humiliated, and threatened by rebellion, let alone provoked into a hostile show of force, and driven into a closer military alliance with his ideological partner Hitler. Hugh Wilson, the American representative in Geneva, recalls, “Time and again, I was told that sanctions applied to Italy must be such as not to drive that nation to desperation, not to push it to a point where it would assault the States applying the pressure”.
The Ethiopian army, though faced by a much more powerful foe in full command of the air, succeeded at the end of 1935 in launching a major counter-offensive, aimed at isolating the Italian position at Maqale. This operation was carried out by forces under three separate commands: On the western flank, Gojjam and Bagemder soldiers commanded by Ras Emru Hayla Sellase. In the centre, Ras Kasa, the overall commander of the northern front, with his three sons, Asfa Wassan, Abarra, and Wandwassan, and Ras Seyum Mangasha, with their men, composed respectively of Amharas and Tegrays. On the eastern wing, the soldiers of Ras Mulugeta Yeggazu, a veteran of the Adwa war and nominal Minister of War. These four main commanders, like their Italian opposite numbers at Adwa forty years earlier, had relatively little contact between each other. This, however, was not entirely a disadvantage, for the invaders broke the Ethiopian code, and were therefore informed as to Ethiopian radio and telegraph messages.
A “Black Period” for Fascist Arms
The Ethiopian Christmas Offensive, as it was sometimes called, drove the enemy back from the Takkaze River, out of much of the territory De Bono had captured. This enabled Ras Emru, the most successful of the three principal Rases, to defeat a force of Italian colonial troops at the pass of Dambagwina, and advance at several points as far as the Eritrean frontier. Some Italian observers described this as a “black period” for fascist arms. The invaders, however, threw all their forces into the struggle, and made extensive use of artillery, tanks, bombing, and, on Emru’s front, mustard gas. The Ethiopian advance was halted, and decisively defeated, between 20 and 24 January 1936.
The Italian victory in the above fighting, which came to be called the First Battle of Tamben, opened the way for a powerful new fascist offensive. This was at first directed against Ras Mulugeta and the imperial troops, who were stationed on the natural fortress of Amba Aradam, south of Maqal. The Italians employed 170 aeroplanes and 280 cannon, and at one point dropped no less than forty tons of bombs in five hours, besides a vast quantity of mustard gas. Massed artillery fire, reminiscent of that of World War I, was also used. Ethiopian casualties were considerable, and included the aged Ras himself.
The Italians then turned their assault on Kasa and Seyum, whose forces were vastly inferior in numbers, let alone fire-power. The defenders inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy, but were fairly easily crushed, between 27 and 29 February, in the Second Battle of Tamben. The eastern and central Ethiopian fronts had thus both been broken, and the two Rases, to escape Italian encirclement, were obliged to withdraw precipitously, with what was left of their army, to join the Emperor at Qoram, in southern Tegray.
One of the effects of this retreat was that Ras Emru’s army, though still undefeated, was obliged to undertake a strategic withdrawal, across the Takkaze River, to avoid encirclement. This operation was rendered the more difficult by the fact that Dajazmach Ayalaw Berru, the ruler of Samen, and some of the Gojjam troops, had been in secret contact with the enemy, and were uninterested in continuing the struggle. Emru’s retreat, known as the Battle of Shere, took place at the end of February and first days of March, and involved some of the fiercest fighting of the war. The invaders dropped as much as eighty tons of bombs on Emru’s army, set the surrounding countryside on fire with incendiary devices, and made extensive use of mustard gas. The Ras later recalled that his men held firm against bombs, and put enemy tanks out of order with their bare hands, but could do nothing against gas: they could not “kill” such rain.
Bombing of the Red Cross
The Royal Italian Air Force was meanwhile also engaged in the systematic bombing of British, Swedish, Egyptian and other international Red Cross hospitals and ambulances in Ethiopia. Attacks were so severe that virtually all foreign personnel were driven from the field. Dr John Melly, head of the British Red Cross unit, wrote, on 13April, “This isn’t a war – it isn’t even a slaughter – its the torture of tens of thousands of defenceless men, women, and children, with bombs and poison gas. They’re using gas incessantly, and we’ve treated hundreds of cases, including infants in arms”.