After the Italians moved into Ethiopia there was little doubt in how the war would end, unless another European power became involved.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 34 - The Italo-Ethiopian War Part 1 - The Invasion. This week a big thank you goes out to Jacqueline for the donation and to George, Dave, Grant and Patrick for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon where they now get access to ad free versions of all of the podcasts episodes plus special Patreon only episodes released once a month. If that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. One of the cornerstones of European diplomacy during the 1920s and early 1930s was the relationship between Britain, France, and Italy that had been built during the First World War and then had continued after it was over. With the retreat of the United States back into a posture of semi-isolationism after the Paris Peace Conference, and the relative state of political chaos in many other parts of Europe, it would be these three nations and their goals that would drive much of European politics during this period. The shift of the Italian government and the rise of Mussolini to power that we discussed way back in Episodes 7 through 11 did not greatly alter these relationships. However, during the 1930s the relationship between the three nations would become strained, and eventually would break down entirely. There were many reasons for this, but undoubtedly one of them was the Italian invasion of Ethiopia which would begin in October 1935. This would trigger a political crisis between Britain, France, Italy, and the League of Nations as the three allies tried to reconcile the various political and public feelings both within their own nations and among the international community, differences that would be very challenging to overcome. At a basic level the Italians, led by Mussolini, were looking to expand their influence in Africa, and used a few events to justify an invasion of Ethiopia. This would not be the first time that the Italians attempted to invade one of the few independent African states, having already failed in an invasion of Ethiopia in 1896. The British, driven primarily by public opinion and imperial interests in Africa, were the primary voice against this Italian aggression and they would use the League of Nations and the threat of economic sanctions to try and alter Italian actions. The French were mostly just stuck in between, with the rising power of Germany and with many of these events occurring simultaneously with the obvious signs of German rearmament, the French just tried desperately to prevent any kind of war between their allies, both of which they saw as essential to national defense. In Ethiopia, one of the few areas of Africa not under the direct control of Europeans, the Ethiopian nation and people were entirely dependent on the League, they could not match the Italian military, and so they hoped that by appealing to the League of Nations they would find support against Italy. As would so often happen the League of Nations would not prove up to the task, and the Ethiopians would not be the first or last nation to be disappointed by the results. In this episode we will discuss some of the political maneuvering that occurred in the lead up to the Italian invasion, and next episode we will discuss the events after the invasion. One terminology note, I will be used Ethiopia to refer to the nation in Africa that Italy invaded, but it is also often referred to as Abyssinia. If you do any reading on these events the terms are often used interchangeably and refer to the same nation and geographic region. Also, the borders of Ethiopia at this time I think exactly match modern day borders, or at least were incredibly similar.
The events in Ethiopia would not be the first time that Italian actions in Africa had been violent during the 1930s, earlier in the 30s violence had erupted in Libya after the trial of Omar al Mukhtar, an Arab leader. This would result in the bombing of cities, and the use of chemical weapons against entirely defenseless civilians. When this did not end resistance to Italian control the Italian Army, led by General Badoglio, would escalate the violence through raids where the men were told to be ‘ferocious and inexorable.’ Thousands would be captured and imprisoned, men, women, and children, and many would die due to the lack of facilities in the prison camps. The violence would continue into January 1934 when Libya was finally handed over to Italian civilian leaders and the military’s job was complete. All of this was in preparation for what the Italian leaders saw as a huge opportunity for a bit of imperial expansion for Italy, with the idea that hundreds of thousands of Italians would eventually move to Libya. This would give those immigrants opportunities, and also grow the Italian economy and control of the region. These numbers would prove to be greatly out of reach and over the next several years before the war began, the number of Italians who migrated to Libya numbered only in the tens of thousands. This example is just to show the overall blueprint for what Italy hoped to achieve in Ethiopia. However, the global political outlook on Libya was quite different than Ethiopia. Libya was an Italian colony, and any international action led by the League of Nations or any other coalition would have required the support of Britain and France, both of whom did not want to set any precedents about international control and oversight of European colonial possessions. During this period the British were working quite well with the Italians, as they had been since the First World War. In fact in 1917 a committee had been setup to determine what British policy in northern Africa should be, and it recommended working closely with the Italians out of concern that French influence in Ethiopia and elsewhere was in danger of further expansion. During the Paris Peace Conference Ethiopia was studiously avoided by those involved, and then afterwards Anglo-Italian cooperation sought to ensure the limitation of French influence. When Mussolini took power there was not real concern in London, at least as it related to the common interests between the two nations in Africa. In 1925 the British negotiated with the Italians and the Ethiopian government so that that British could build a dam on Lake Tana, and in exchange the Italians would be given more control in Western Ethiopia. London would still seek to ensure that Ethiopia remained independent, with the hope that it would never come directly into conflict with Italian interests due to the mutually beneficial relations that the two nations had in European affairs, which would prove to be true for a short period of time. In Addis Ababa the Ethiopians were in some ways trapped between two European nations. They would try to push back against the seemingly endless growth of British influence and Italian territorial control, but their options were limited. In Eastern Ethiopia, after some agreements made with Italy there were some Ethiopian concerns after the Italians built a military installation at the Wal Wal Oasis, today known as Welwel, which was far inside the previously agreed upon border. Whenever the Ethiopian representatives at the League of Nations attempted to bring the matter to the League Council for some kind of resolution they were always encouraged not to force the issue by the British. This presented a road block that the Ethiopians were hesitant to cross. To maintain any control of the situations they had to remain on good terms with the British, but they did not want any formal dispute to be put before the League. Instead the League Council would create one of its favorite tools, a boundary commission. The Ethiopian representatives were assured that this commission would be able to restrain Italian ambitions, and it would be done in a way that would prevent issues between the European nations. The problems with such a commission is that to achieve its goals it needs the cooperation of all parties, they all need to want to find a solution, or there has to be a third party that is forcing them to accept a solution. While there was hope that a deal could be made with Mussolini and the Italians, this represented mostly just a misunderstanding of what Mussolini’s ambitions were for Africa and for Ethiopia. Italian goals in the region were not limited to moving the border a few miles one way or another, they wanted far greater control and far less British influence on the entire region. This would not be the first or last time that British leaders would believe, or hope, that they could both maintain friendly relations with other nations while also believing that they could negotiate on a mutual understanding of restraint which would often not exist. Back in Ethiopia British and Ethiopian representatives would visit Wal Wal with an armed Ethiopian escort. This visit was fully communicated to the Italian government, however the Italian commander at Wal War, where Italian and African forces were stationed, was not informed. There would be a somewhat heated exchange of words, although actual fighting would not start for several days. When it did begin several men were killed on both sides, and the Italian government demanded compensation, compensation that was far greater than what could be expected in such a situation, terms that were designed to be rejected. Ethiopia, now even more in trouble, would send an official appeal to the League of Nations on January 3, 1935 in hopes that the situation could finally be sorted out with the help of other nations. this request, instead of being picked up immediately, would sit with no action for months. This was early 1935, and so things were beginning to shift in Europe, Hitler would announce Germany’s intention to rearm itself, rejecting the restrictions placed upon the German military by the Treaty of Versailles. This would then cause the British, French, and Italian leaders to meet in April to create the Stresa Front, which would shortly thereafter fall apart. During the Stresa meetings the topic of Ethiopia was completely avoided. Mussolini made it incredibly clear to everyone involved that Italy would only discuss European affairs, and the British and French were not motivated to push back against this, because they really wanted Italian cooperation in Europe. This is why the final declaration from the Stresa Conference reads “The three powers, the object of whose policy is the collective maintenance of peace within the framework of the League of Nations, find themselves in complete agreement in opposing, by all practicable means, any unilateral repudiation of treaties which may endanger the peace of Europe, and will act in close and cordial collaboration for this purpose.” You will not the ‘of Europe’ part of that quote, which was insisted on by Mussolini.
As the year would continue the British government, almost against its will would fall deeper and deeper into the growing tensions between Italy and Ethiopia. Many groups within the government did not want this to happen, mostly due to concerns about the ramifications of a drastic downturn in relations with the Italians. However there was a strong demand among the British public for Britain to take the lead on enforcing the decisions made by the League of Nations, this being a period when League sentiment was particularly popular in Britain, and also safeguarding Ethiopia against Italian aggression. This would mostly result in pressure to perform some kind of political action, but this would also spool out into discussions about economic sanctions to try and force the Italians to stay in line. The British Treasury resisted calls for sanctions out of concern that it would negatively impact trade, which was still recovering from the Great Depression. The Royal navy was very concerned that such actions might ignite a war, and they were far more concerned with the growing strength of Japan and Germany, and this made good relations with Italy, from a naval perspective, more important than they had been since the end of the war. They would also need French support if it came to war, with there being some fear that it would be hard to ascertain given the absolute priority that France put on holding together alliances against Germany. There were also many questions about whether or not the British people really wanted to go to war with Italy over Ethiopia, even if they supported British leadership in the political arena. All of this would cause the British cabinet to delay decisions, or even real discussions, as long as possible. This would be one example of the British being asked to lead a League of Nations project, and maybe not being completely willing to do so. Louis Joh Smith in Great Britain and the Abyssinian Crisis, 1935-1936 explains why: “From the first, British statesmen tended to view the peace-keeping function of the League of Nations as essentially conciliatory rather than coercive in nature. In this, they differed consistently with their French counterparts. As Professor Medlicott has observed, the British recognized that with the rejection of the Covenant by the US Senate. Britain clearly became a ‘producer’ rather than a ‘consumer’ of security under the League system. In addition, the nature of economic sanctions was such as to impose the heaviest burden on the British Fleet.” Sir Samuel Hoare would take over as Foreign Secretary in June and would walk directly into a minefield as tensions began to increase. He would be blamed for much of the eventual failure of British policy, but by the time that he entered the picture in June the possibility of any kind of reasonable and peaceful settlement had probably already passed. Italy was well on its way to military intervention, and Mussolini had already staked his position on Italian expansion in Africa. There was also a bit of time pressure, with the Italians wanting to launch their invasion as soon as the rainy season was over. In Addis Ababa the mindset was little different. During July the resolve of the Ethiopians to defend themselves from invasion grew, and instead of yielding to any kind of international agreement which would almost assuredly reduce their own sovereignty Ethiopians planned to defend their borders with all available resources. Hoare was more than willing to put British support behind League action, but he made it clear that Britain would not go alone. This put negotiations in an odd, and somewhat hopeless situation. The Italians would only really negotiate from the assumption of territorial expansion, the Ethiopians would not allow for any of that, an din the middle the British proposals were completely off the mark and acceptable to neither part. All the while military preparations continued.
In late July the League Council would once again kick the decision into the future and would set a September 4th deadline before the matter would once again be discussed, making it clear that economic sanctions were a real possibility if the deadline passed. British, French, and Italian representatives would meet in Paris on August 16th to try and come to an agreement outside of the League. Well, I say they were negotiations but that may be too strong of a word, there were discussions, but negotiations imply that there was some sort of bargaining occurring from a shared position of common interest. The British and French wanted to find an agreement, the Italians were by this point pretty adamant that they would accept nothing short of full political control of Ethiopia. Just two days later Mussolini would end the discussions, after rejecting the very basis of a settlement proposed by the other two nations. Mussolini would argue that at this point Italy was simply doing exactly the same thing that the British had done in Egypt over the preceding decades, or what the French had done in Morocco. He also informed the French that if economic sanctions were put in place there would be serious discussions in Rome of withdrawing from all previous Franco-Italian agreements, including those aimed against Germany. These threats put serious questions into whether or not the French would truly support any collective security action originating from the League that might endanger the existing treaty structures of Western Europe There were also concerns about all of the nations that were not part of the League of Nations, Germany obviously being an important one but also nations like the United States which had never joined the League. It was also clear that Mussolini could, by September 1935, not be properly reasoned with when it came to discussions about Ethiopia, and that the best possible hope for a peaceful outcome would involve collective League actions, to intimidate him and the Italians through threats of possible consequences. Therefore during the council meetings leading up to and after September 4th, the deadline for an agreement, Hoare and Laval, the French Foreign Minister would put an optimistic spin on what might happen moving forward. Then on September 11th Hoare would make a speech before the League Assembly, announcing British support for League action on the matter, the speech would receive a two minute ovation. There was still hesitancy among British and French leaders though, and even though they agreed to being applying economic pressure on Italy, they would do so slowly and over time, providing every opportunity for negotiations to resume at any moment. A Committee was created by the League Council to coordinate actions and to continue to reach out to Rome, and during September there was still belief that a non-violent outcome could be attained. However, in retrospect this seems highly optimistic, perhaps even fool-hardy. Some of the diplomatic language used by Italy in September made it clear that not only did it feel that it could take action in Ethiopia, it did not even believe that the League had jurisdiction over its actions in this case. To quote from a report submitted to the League Council on October 7th 1935, from a committee created to investigate the situation “In presenting his Government’s memorandum on September 4th, the Representative of Italy told the Council that Italy reserved ‘full liberty to adopt any measures that may become necessary to ensure the safety of its colonies and to safeguard its own interests.’ In the observations which the Italian Representative made on September 22nd on the subject of the suggestions of the Committee of Five, he said that ‘a case like that of Ethiopia cannot be settled by the means provided by the Covenant.'”
One October 2nd, 1935 the ambiguity of the situation would be over as Italian forces would move into Ethiopia. It had taken almost 9 months for the preparations to be completed, and the invasion would be launched from both Eritrea in the north and from Italian Somaliland in the south, and when combined they would have over 100,000 men. The northern force would be commanded by General Emilio de Bono and it quickly ran into problems. Part of these issues were supply related, Bono was insistent that good supply roads should link back to bases in Eritrea because his army was at the end of a 2,500 mile supply chain, from Italy to the port of Massawa and then to the front lines. This made Bono feel justified in his very cautious approach which limited the speed that he would advance. General Badoglio would arrive to replace him in December, to try and move the attacks forward at a quicker pace. In the south, with forces commanded by General Rodolfo Graziani, there would be similar problems. The force in the south was designed to be smaller and more mobile, but Graziani was also very cautious in his approach to the advance, stopping for days and even weeks at a time after only short advances to ensure a proper supply chain. At the same time the Italian forces had massive advantages in terms of technology. The Italian Air Force would meet almost no resistance in the air, and would be able to operate with impunity. This would allow Italian planes to both attack Ethiopian troops, as well as to support Italian advances in other ways. For example a 26,000 man force from the Eritrean Corps would be supplied from the air during a long flanking maneuver, with 113 tons of supplies dropped during their 200 mile advance on Dessie. The Italian forces would also be some of the largest motorized and mechanized forces in the world, at least that had seen combat, with the CV-33 two man tankette, with two machine guns for armament, being the primary vehicle used by the armored forces.
The invasion put the British and French in a bind. The brutality of the campaign combined with the open flaunting of the League of nations and the Covenant that Italy had signed, were troubling. The Ethiopian government would send a telegram to the League of Nations on December 30th 1935, and here is the full text “Over and above the violations by the Italians of the laws and usages of war already reported to the League of Nations they have during their recent retreat in Shire and Tembien burned the churches and proceeded to the systematic extermination of the civil population. Now, December 23rd, they have made use against our troops in the Takkaze region of asphyxiating and poison gases, which constitutes a new addition to the list, already long, of Italy’s breaches of her international undertakings. We protest vigorously against such inhuman practices.” The League would officially declare the Italian invasion an act of aggression, which meant that Britain and France had to, as the League’s most important members, either take actions that would alienate them from the Italians or essentially remove whatever power the League of Nations still possessed by taking no action. There was hesitancy to do either of these actions, and so instead the League would continue to drift while a middle ground was south, with economic sanctions put in place, but mild ones that did not include some vital commodities like oil. Even these would require some level of willpower and resolve to maintain, and war appeared to be a distinct possibility, even if the French were dead set against it. Next episode we will look at the British military situation at this point during the 1930s, and whether or not they, and most importantly the Royal Navy, was ready for a possible war in the Mediterranean.