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SELLASSIE REMAINS CALM
|In Addis Abeba, the emperor remained calm as he planned for an unwinnable war. Wherever he went, his officers demanded weapons munitions, food, armored cars, fuel, anything to use against the enemy He doled out the little he had, but he and his more realistic generals knew that Ethiopia could not withstand a modern force supported by aircraft armed with poison gas. Diplomats in Geneva, London, and Paris hoped this obvious conclusion would soften Ethiopia's unwillingness to consider concessions to Italy. Haile Sellassie refused any deal, hoping that the great powers would come to their senses and intervene, realizing that Ethiopia's destruction would destroy the league. Meanwhile, he developed a defensive strategy that relied on hit-and-run tactics on the flanks and behind enemy lines to generate casualties and chaos and sap the Italian will to continue. Avoidance of positional warfare was a sound tactic, though it countered traditional Ethiopian military wisdom.|
Meanwhile, appeasement was the order of day in Europe, where most statesmen
avoided alienating Italy out of fear of Nazi Germany. London reasoned,
furthermore, that it had no interests in Ethiopia worth intervention, and in
France, Laval was committed to his Italian ally. The league therefore came up
with solutions tending to favor the Italians, who, by early September had
200,000 men in the Horn and another 140,000 being processed for travel there.
On 25 September, the emperor announced that Ethiopian troops would remain
thirty kilometers from the frontiers to avoid incidents and pretexts for
fighting. He nevertheless had signed a decree for general mobilization, which
he kept locked in his desk, hoping against all reality for a diplomatic
resolution to the crisis. He formalized the order on 2 October, when he learned
that the Italians had crossed the frontiers into Awsa.
The next morning, a stream of Ethiopians and European journalists made their way to the emperor's palace in response to the thudding of Menilek's great war drum, the old way of calling up the army. When the booming stopped, the court chamberlain clearly and loudly read out the mobilization order to a sober crowd. Haile Sellassie called on his people to fight for their national existence and their religion, without which they would be like the serfs of Somalia and Eritrea. He advised his soldiers to be cunning and not to wear white, or attend mass. As the crowd broke up, the news circulated that the Italians had invaded Tigray and the war was on.
At 5:00 A.M., 100,000 Italian troops under Gen. Emilio De Bono had crossed the Mareb River in three formations along a sixty-mile front. The Italian advance developed quickly because the border region was undefended, and Ethiopian commanders had orders to retire until mobilization would bring reinforcements. On 6 October, the Italians entered Adwa, after two days of bombing had shocked Ras Seyoum into a hasty retreat and the abandonment of large stocks of food and other supplies. The humiliation was followed by dishonor at Mekele, when Dej. Haile Sellassie Gugsa defected with 1,500 well-armed men. By 15 October, the Italians entered lightly defended Axum, which they garrisoned, and then slowly moved toward the Tekeze. On the Ogaden front, however, the Italians encountered stiff opposition.
Ethiopian troops at Korahe quickly learned to cope with air attacks by diving into deep trenches, and they had sufficient modern arms to thwart assaults on the ground and to inflict heavy losses. Their morale broke, however, when Gerazmach Afework, their valiant and intelligent leader, was mortally wounded on 5 November. Thereafter, the Italians soon dominated, although Gen. Rodolfo Graziani came to respect his enemy's, fighting abilities. He therefore paused to regroup, to rethink his strategy, and to consolidate his rear before marching on the 60,000 men that Dej. Nasibu commanded in the Harer-Jijiga-Degeh Bur triangle. With the lull in fighting came a flurry of diplomatic activity to end the crisis.
On 7 October 1935, the council of the League of Nations formally found Italy an aggressor, thereby raising the issue of sanctions. The French blocked any but the most anodyne measures while Mussolini blustered that he would accept peace only if Ethiopia ceded Menilek's conquests, eastern Tigray, and Ogaden -- in return for which he would graciously permit Haile Sellassie to follow Italian advice in ruling his rump state. The emperor answered by holding a massive military review during which all manner of troops marched past, including fierce provincial fighters armed only with sharpened sticks. From the parade ground, a quarter of a million Ethiopians marched northward to block the Italian advance.
On 18 November 1935, Geneva imposed relatively benign import and export
sanctions on Italy, which Mussolini used to rally his people to the war.
Restrictions on oil sales might have had some effect, but Paris complained that
such an embargo was a military, not a civil, sanction. This sophism was
matched by the efforts of Sir Samuel Hoare, the British foreign minister, and
Premier Laval to forge an arrangement that would satisfy Mussolini without
giving the appearance of rewarding aggression and placate Haile Sellassie
without signifying that honor and territory had been lost. On 7 December 1935 --
six years before another day of infamy -- the two men announced a scheme of
territorial cessions and Italian economic primacy that added up to appeasement
in new verbiage. Although never implemented -- indeed it met with worldwide
rejection -- the Hoare-Laval plan's cynical disregard for Ethiopia's fate
destroyed any chance of bringing the crisis to a just end.
Mussolini Decides To Invade | Sellassie Remains Calm | The Nightmarish Ending
*** Harold G.Marcus is Distinguished Professor of History and African Studies at Michigan State University. He is the author of the readable and concise book, "A History of Ethiopia, which surveys the evolution of the oldest African nation from prehistory to the present.
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