Abyssinia Crisis

The Abyssinia Crisis was a crisis in the 1930s originating in the so-called Walwal incident in the ongoing conflict between the Kingdom of Italy (Regno d'Italia) and the Empire of Ethiopia (then commonly known as "Abyssinia" in Europe). The League of Nations ruled against Italy and voted for economic sanctions, but they were not fully applied. Italy ignored the sanctions, quit the League, made special deals with Britain and France and ultimately established control of Ethiopia. The crisis discredited the League and moved Fascist Italy closer to an alliance with Nazi Germany.

Italy pursued a policy of provocation and preparation for invasion in Ethiopia, described as follows by the League of Nations:

At places where there is not a single Italian national, a consul establishes himself in an area known as consular territory with a guard of about ninety men, for whom he claims jurisdictional immunity. This is an obvious abuse of consular privileges. The abuse is all the greater that the consul's duties, apart from the supplying of information of a military character, take the form of assembling stocks of arms, which constitute a threat to the peace of the country, whether from the internal or the international point of view.[1]

The Walwal incident

The Italo–Ethiopian Treaty of 1928 stated that the border between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia was twenty-one leagues parallel to the Benadir coast (approximately 118.3 km [73.5 mi]). In 1930, Italy built a fort at the Walwal oasis (also Welwel, Italian: Ual-Ual) in the Ogaden, well beyond the twenty-one league limit. The fort was in a boundary zone between the nations, which was not well defined; today it is about 130 km (81 mi) inside Ethiopia.

On 29 September 1934, Italy and Abyssinia released a joint statement renouncing any aggression against each other.

On 22 November 1934, a force of 1,000 Ethiopian militia with three fitaurari (Ethiopian military-political commanders) arrived near Walwal and formally asked the Dubats garrison stationed there (comprising about 60 soldiers) to withdraw from the area.[2] The Somali NCO leading the garrison refused to withdraw and alerted Captain Cimmaruta, commander of the garrison of Uarder, 20 kilometres (12 mi) away, to what had happened.[3]

The next day, in the course of surveying the border between British Somaliland and Ethiopia, an Anglo–Ethiopian boundary commission arrived at Walwal. The commission was confronted by a newly arrived Italian force. The British members of the boundary commission protested, but withdrew to avoid an international incident. The Ethiopian members of the boundary commission, however, stayed at Walwal.[4]

Between 5 and 7 December, for reasons which have never been clearly determined, there was a skirmish between the garrison of Somalis, who were in Italian service, and a force of armed Ethiopians. According to the Italians, the Ethiopians attacked the Somalis with rifle and machine-gun fire.[5] According to the Ethiopians, the Italians attacked them, supported by two tanks and three aircraft.[6] In the end, approximately 107 Ethiopians[nb 1] and 50 Italians and Somalis were killed.[nb 2]

Neither side did anything to avoid confrontation; the Ethiopians repeatedly menaced the Italian garrison with the threat of an armed attack, while the Italians sent two planes over the Ethiopian camp. One of them even shot a short machine gun burst, which no one on the ground noticed, after the pilot, seeing Captain Cimmaruta in the midst of the Ethiopians, thought that he had been taken prisoner by them.[9]

International response and subsequent actions

'Treaties or scraps of paper?'

To the Editor of The Daily Telegraph


Last Saturday’s leading article on “Abyssinia: Our Duty” is welcome indeed after the advice liberally offered to the Emperor of Abyssinia by some sections of the English Press, urging him to submit to Italy, not because the Italian blackmail is just, but because it would be so inconvenient for ourselves if he resisted.

We might be called on to do more than lip-service to the League; and how extravagant would that be!

Twenty-one years ago, when the consequences of honouring our obligations were far more menacing, we were indignant enough at the suggestion that treaties were, after all, only “scraps of paper.” But geography plays strange tricks with justice. Italy is breaking at least three solemn pledges in her aggression on a fellow member of the League – the very type of aggression that the League was created to prevent: but many of us do not find it matters very much. The League has not yet called on us; but there are already plenty of voices busy finding pretexts for us to shuffle out of the whole thing.

It is not our duty to defend Abyssinia single-handed – no-one has suggested it; but it is our duty, if covenants mean anything whatsoever, to oppose this piece of brigandage at Geneva, and after. It is our duty to be concerting with whatever Powers retain some decency, particularly the United States, what measures may be needed.

Europe has at its disposal sanctions that Italy could not defy, provided we have the courage to use them. But instead of that the English Press, with a few honourable exceptions, has been taken up with nauseating discussion of our own interests. Later on, one gathers, we shall be very firm with Italy about the water of Lake Tana. Meanwhile, Ethiopian blood is a cheaper commodity.

If this is to be the way of our world, why make treaties at all? Let us at least have the courage of our cynicism. Let us have done with covenants, since they no longer serve to deceive anybody. Let us have done with the League, since “collective security” means simply the security of those strong enough to be secure. And then, if we perish in the chaos for which the world is heading, it will at least be without having canted to our last breath.

This jungle-law may have ruled between nations in the past; the time is rapidly approaching when either it ends or else the world. If the League cannot enforce one law for weak and strong, black and white, sooner or later we are finished. And if we flinch every time a test arises, we shall have deserved it.

[From a letter by F. L. Lucas of King's College, Cambridge, British anti-appeasement campaigner, to The Daily Telegraph, 25 July 1935]

On 6 December 1934, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia protested Italian aggression at Walwal. On 8 December, Italy demanded an apology and, on 11 December, followed up this demand with another for financial and strategic compensation.

On 3 January 1935, Ethiopia appealed to the League of Nations for arbitration of the dispute arising from the Walwal incident. But the league's response was inconclusive. A subsequent analysis by an arbitration committee of the League of Nations absolved both parties of any culpability for what had happened.[10]

Shortly after Ethiopia's initial appeal, Minister of Foreign Affairs Pierre Laval of France and Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare of the United Kingdom met with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in Rome.

On 7 January 1935, a meeting between Laval and Mussolini resulted in the "Franco–Italian Agreement". This treaty gave Italy parts of French Somaliland (now Djibouti), redefined the official status of Italians in French-held Tunisia, and essentially gave the Italians a free hand in dealing with Ethiopia. In exchange, France hoped for Italian support against German aggression.

On 25 January, five Italian askaris were killed by Ethiopian forces near Walwal.[11]

On 10 February 1935, Mussolini mobilized two divisions.[12] On 23 February, Mussolini began to send large numbers of troops to Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, which were the Italian colonies that bordered Ethiopia to the northeast and southeast, respectively. There was little international protest in response to this build-up.

On 8 March, Ethiopia again requested arbitration and noted Italian military build-up. Three days later Italy and Ethiopia agreed on a neutral zone in the Ogaden. On 17 March, in response to continued Italian build-up, Ethiopia again appealed to the league for help. On 22 March, the Italians yielded to pressure from the League of Nations to submit to arbitration on the dispute arising from the Walwal incident, but continued to mobilize its troops in the region. On 11 May, Ethiopia again protested the ongoing Italian mobilization.

Between 20 and 21 May, the League of Nations held a special session to discuss the crisis in Ethiopia. On 25 May, a league council resolved that it would meet if no fifth arbitrator had been selected by 25 June, or if a settlement was not reached by 25 August. On 19 June, Ethiopia requested neutral observers.

From 23 to 24 June, the United Kingdom tried to quell the crisis, sending Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Anthony Eden to try to broker a peace agreement. The attempt was unsuccessful, and it became clear that Mussolini was intent on conquest. On 25 July, the United Kingdom imposed an embargo on arms sales to both Italy and Ethiopia. Many historians believe that the embargo was a response to Italy's decree that it would view arms sales to Ethiopia as an act of unfriendliness toward Italy. The United Kingdom also cleared its warships from the Mediterranean, allowing Italy further unhindered access to eastern Africa.

On 25 June, Italian and Ethiopian officials met in the Hague to discuss arbitration. By 9 July, these discussions had fallen apart.

On 26 July, the league confirmed that no fifth member of the arbitration panel had been selected. On 3 August, the League limited arbitration talks to matters other than the sovereignty of Walwal.

On 12 August, Ethiopia pleaded for the arms embargo to be lifted. On 16 August, France and the United Kingdom offered Italy large concessions in Ethiopia to try to avert war, but Italy rejected the offers. On 22 August, Britain reaffirmed its commitment to the arms embargo.

On 4 September, the league met again and exonerated both Italy and Ethiopia of any culpability in the Walwal incident,[13] on the ground that each nation had believed Walwal was within its own territorial borders. On 10 September, Pierre Laval, Anthony Eden, and even Sir Samuel Hoare agreed on limitations to sanctions against Italy.

On 25 September, Ethiopia again asked for neutral observers.

On 27 September, the British Parliament supported the initiative of Konni Zilliacus and unanimously authorized the imposition of sanctions against Italy should it continue its pursuit against Ethiopia.

On 28 September, Ethiopia began to mobilize its large but poorly equipped army.

The war and occupation

On 3 October 1935, shortly after the league exonerated both parties in the Walwal incident, Italian armed forces from Eritrea invaded Ethiopia without a declaration of war, prompting Ethiopia to declare war on Italy, thus beginning the Second Italo–Abyssinian War.

On 7 October in what would come to be known as the Riddell Incident, the League of Nations declared Italy to be the aggressor, and started the slow process of imposing sanctions on Italy. The sanctions were limited, however. They did not prohibit the provision of several vital materials, such as oil, and were not carried out by all members of the League.

The United States, exasperated by the League of Nations' failure to act, actually increased its exports to Italy, and the United Kingdom and France did not take any serious action against Italy, such as blocking Italian access to the Suez Canal. Even Italy's use of chemical weapons and other actions that violated international norms did little to change the League's passive approach to the situation.

In late December 1935, Hoare of the United Kingdom and Laval of France proposed the secret Hoare-Laval Plan, which would have ended the war but allowed Italy to control large areas of Ethiopia. Mussolini agreed to the plan, but it caused an outcry in the United Kingdom and France when the plan was leaked to the media. Hoare and Laval were accused of betraying the Abyssinians, and both resigned. Their plan was dropped, but the perception spread that the United Kingdom and France were not serious about the principles of the league. The war continued, and Mussolini turned to German dictator Adolf Hitler for alliance.

In March 1936, Hitler marched troops into the Rhineland, which had been prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles. The French were now desperate to get Italian support against German aggression directly on their border, so would not take any further action with sanctions. France was prepared to give Abyssinia to Mussolini, so his troops were able to continue their war relatively unchallenged by the rest of Europe.[14]

Haile Selassie was forced into exile on 2 May. All the sanctions that had been put in place by the League were dropped after the Italian capture of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on the 5th of May 1936. Ethiopia was then merged with the other Italian colonies to become Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana, or AOI).

Ethiopia never officially surrendered, and pleaded for help from foreign nations, such as Haile Selassie's 7 June 1936 address to League of Nations. As a result, there were six nations which did not recognize Italy's occupation in 1937: China, New Zealand, the Soviet Union, the Republic of Spain, Mexico and the United States. Italian control of Ethiopia was never total, due to continued guerrilla activity, which the British would later use to their advantage during World War II. However, by 1940 Italy was in complete control of three-quarters of the country.


The end of the AOI came quickly during World War II. In early 1941, as part of the East African Campaign, Allied forces launched offensive actions against the isolated Italian colony. On 5 May 1941, five years after the Italians had captured his capital, Emperor Haile Selassie entered Addis Ababa.

There were also major impacts on the League of Nations:

See also


  1. According to Mockler, 107 Ethiopians were killed and 40 wounded.[7]
  2. According to Time Magazine, 110 Ethiopians were killed and 30 Italians were killed.[8]
  1. League of Nations Official Journal, 1935, 1601. Quoted G.T.Garratt, Mussolini's Roman Empire, Penguin Books, April 1938, pp.46–47
  2. Domenico Quirico. Lo Squadrons Bianco. p. 267. ISBN 88-04-50691-1.
  3. Quirico. p. 271
  4. Shinn, p. 392
  5. Quirico. p. 272
  6. Barker. The Rape of Ethiopia 1936. Pg. 17.
  7. Mockler, p.46.
  8. Time Magazine, Provocations.
  9. Quirico. pp. 268–271
  10. "Yearbook of the International Law Commission" (PDF). Retrieved July 22, 2010. p. 184:"... these first incidents, following on that at Walwal, were accidental in character, while the others were for the most part not serious and not at all uncommon in the region in which they took place. In the circumstances, the Commision [sic] is of the opinion that there are no grounds for finding any international responsibility for these minor incidents."
  11. Shinn, p. 392
  12. Shinn, p. 392
  13. Shinn, p. 392
  14. Ben Walsh GCSE Modern World History 2001, p 252

Further reading

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