On 5 December 1934, Italian and Ethiopian border patrols clashed at Walwal (Ualual), an oasis in a disputed area between Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland. Ethiopia immediately filed a protest with Italy and requested that the affair be arbitrated under terms of an Italo-Ethiopian treaty from 1928. Italy refused and demanded a formal apology, an indemnity, and the arrest and punishment of the Ethiopians involved.
On 3 January 1935, Ethiopia formally appealed to the League of Nations under Article 11 of its covenant. This action probably sealed Mussolini's intention to invade. In its January meeting, the League Council postponed consideration of the incident, hoping that it might in the meantime be settled by an arbitration commission and urging direct negotiation between the two governments. The arbitration commission's unanimous decision, announced on 3 September 1935, found that neither side was to blame for the Walwal clash, since each believed it was fighting on its own soil. Meanwhile, the British and French governments began negotiations with Italy to reach a solution, but Mussolini rejected the Anglo-French proposal that would have secured for Italy an economic mandate under the league for the financial and administrative organization of Ethiopia.
Italy instead proceeded to build up its troops and supplies in Africa, and on 3 October 1935, the Italians invaded Ethiopia. Adowa fell to them on 6 October. The next day, the League Council declared Italy an aggressor state in violation of Article 12 of the covenant, marking the first time the league had applied this provision to a European great power. The council's decision was then referred to the League of Nations Assembly for action. That body concurred in the verdict and appointed a committee to consider appropriate measures under Article 16, which treated sanctions.
The sanctions selected, which were adopted by most states, included an immediate arms embargo against Italy, financial sanctions, a ban on the importation of Italian goods, a ban on the exportation to Italy of key war materials, and a call on member states to try to replace imports from Italy by imports from states that normally had profitable markets in Italy. The assembly committee eventually decided that all sanctions against Italy would go into effect by 18 November 1935.
These sanctions were never applied with full force, and a ban on the one export commodity that might have halted Italy—oil—was approved but held in abeyance. Indeed, French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval and British Foreign Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare agreed to limit the sanctions even before they were applied. The two were, in fact, playing a double game, hoping not to drive Mussolini into the arms of Adolf Hitler. Publicly, the diplomats argued that sanctions on oil, which probably would have brought the Italian war machine to a halt, would not be effective because Germany and the United States were not bound by them. Most Italians did not comprehend their new status as an outlaw nation, and they instead rallied behind Mussolini.
While incomplete sanctions were being applied to Italy, the French and British governments were, in fact, trying to appease Mussolini. The result was the notorious December 1935 Hoare-Laval Proposals, which planned the cession to Italy of areas in Ethiopia in the vicinity of Eritrea and Somaliland and the establishment of an extensive zone of expansion and colonization in southern Ethiopia in which Italy should have a monopoly of economic rights. In effect, Hoare and Laval were prepared to cede most of Ethiopia to Italy. However, public condemnation of the plan was so widespread and vigorous in Britain and France that both men were forced to resign.
With the League Council again considering the adoption of oil sanctions, Adolf Hitler sent German troops into the Rhineland in March 1936. His decision to violate the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pacts further complicated the situation and definitely ended the possibility that France would support an oil embargo.
While the diplomats talked, Italian forces had been carrying on military operations in Ethiopia. Before the war, Emperor Haile Selassie had done what he could with very limited resources to improve his army, but his air force consisted of only 12 aircraft on the outbreak of the war. Belgian military advisers worked to train the army, and Swedes ran an Ethiopian officer cadet school, but time was too short for them to accomplish much. The Ethiopians had a few radios, but this worked to their disadvantage in that the Italians intercepted their communications and were thus aware of all their tactical moves. More than any other single factor, this helped win the war for the Italians. Complete Italian command of the air was another decisive factor. The Italians also employed mustard gas, which, because it was absorbed through the skin, severely affected the Ethiopian soldiers, most of whom went barefoot. Italian military engineering was another key, overcoming considerable natural obstacles in advancing the Italian war machine. The Italians also exploited the tribalism and factionalism of Ethiopia. Neither side was eager to take prisoners.
General Emilio De Bono commanded Italian troops in East Africa. But he refused to advance beyond Makale to Amba Alagi as Mussolini had demanded, and as a result, on 17 November, Marshal Pietro Badoglio took over for De Bono and reorganized the Italian forces. General Rodolfo Graziani commanded the southern prong of the Italian offensive from Italian Somaliland. His motorized column, including tanks, took Ethiopia's second city, Harar. He, too, was made a marshal for his actions, and he replaced Badoglio as viceroy of Ethiopia in late May 1936. Following a lull, fighting was renewed on a more intense scale, and in April 1936, the primitive Ethiopian resistance collapsed before the modern Italian military. Emperor Haile Selassie, his armies demoralized and his retreat to the west cut off by disaffected tribal chiefs, fled on 2 May to French Somaliland, where he boarded a British warship.
Meanwhile, 30,000 Italian troops, in what was perhaps the greatest motorized column yet organized, moved by two main routes toward the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, which they entered on 5 May. In Rome that same day, Mussolini announced, "Ethiopia is Italian." On 9 May, Il Duce decreed that all of Ethiopia was under Italian sovereignty and that King Victor Emmanuel III was now the emperor of Ethiopia. On 1 June 1936, Italian East Africa was reorganized as Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI), an area of some 666,000 square miles and a population estimated at some 12 million people in 1939.
The one-sided nature of the conflict was shown in the casualty totals. In the war, Ethiopia lost 760,000 dead, both military and civilian, whereas the Italian government claimed losses of some 2,000 dead, with another 1,600 lost from among its Eritrean allies. In postwar fighting and the Italian pacification effort, Ethiopia had another several hundred thousand killed.
In June 1936, Britain took the lead in dismantling the sanctions, despite the fact that the small neutral states wished to continue them. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described the continuance of a policy of sanctions as the "very midsummer of madness." This pronouncement was followed on 18 June by a statement from Foreign Minister Anthony Eden confirming the cabinet's decision to propose to the League of Nations that sanctions should be abandoned. Other nations followed suit, and after a polished and moving address on 30 June by Haile Selassie, pleading his cause in person before the league, the assembly adopted a resolution on 4 July 1936 recommending the ending of sanctions. Italy had won: none of the big powers was prepared to use force to preserve Ethiopian independence, and another crushing blow had been dealt to the belief in the efficacy of collective action to halt aggression. The war also served to give Mussolini an exaggerated sense of Italy's military effectiveness.
Ethiopian resistance to Italy continued, and in July 1936, Ethiopian patriots attacked Addis Ababa. Their attempt to seize power failed, and most of them were executed. Intermittent Ethiopian resistance continued, and in 1941, British Commonwealth troops liberated the country.
Spencer C. Tucker
Dugan, James, and Laurence Lafore. Days of Emperor and Clown: The Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935–1936. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973.; Gentilli, Roberto. Guerra aerea sull'Etiopia, 1935–1939. Florence, Italy: Ed. A.I., 1992.; Mack Smith, Denis. Mussolini's Roman Empire. New York: Viking, 1976.; Mockler, Anthony. Haile Selassie's War: The Italian-Ethiopian Campaign, 1935–1941. London: Grafton, 1987.