With these words the exiled Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Sellasie, the self styled Lion of Judah, ended his address to the League of Nations. His country, recently defeated by the Italian army of Benito Mussolini, the ‘Duce’, was largely as a result of the ineffective action by the League.
However, what if the League’s members had acted differently and along the way history turned on a few momentous decisions to change the course of the war?
This Abyssinian Crisis scenario is explored using an alternate history proposition that Italy is confronted by a League mandate following its aggression in Ethiopia…from there our story unfolds…
…Italy postures for an invasion of Ethiopia., it masses its forces on the border of Italian Somaliland. The French sign the Franco-Italian agreement in Jan 1935, thereby essentially negating any potential (French) opposition to any Italian moves in Abyssinia in an effort to keep Mussolini from joining Hitler’s Germany with any form of agreement of their own. She is joined by the British in April ’35 when Italy, France and Britain sign the Stresa Front agreement to formally contain the rise of German power.
Britain takes the lead in opposition to potential Italian aggression in Abyssinia. Far from being concerned about the last independent nation in Africa, it is more concerned by the potential presence of a nation with the ability to interdict its shipping in the Red Sea and the short sea route to India, along with control of the Nile headwaters, should relations with Italy ever sour, like they were beginning to.
The French Government is initially supportive of Britain’s stance, but given previous British duplicity over Germany and the Middle East, it is more inclined to keep relations with Italy on an even keel and preserve the Franco-Italian Agreement. The Agreement and French stance is understood by the Italians to in effect give tacit approval for Mussolini to do exactly as he has done…at least that’s the way he sees it.
Further bolstering Mussolini’s view it is understood that a ‘gentlemen’s’ understanding had been reached at the Stresa Front conference. Mussolini now believes a clear signal is being given to him and that the annexation of Abyssinia would not be opposed by France, whilst Britain’s protestation are more about domestic consumption rather than its true position. With a resurgent Germany on her border France only wishes to appease Mussolini in an effort to create an anti-German bloc in Europe, effectively surrounding Germany.
To be certain of no interference from Britain, Mussolini issues orders to the Governor of Libya, Italo Balbo, to prepare a plan to re-deploy ten divisions near to the Egyptian border. He also orders reconnaissance overflights of Egypt and the Sudan, which remarkably go unnoticed by the British, as do the troop movements.
At this point a diplomatic row breaks out between Britain and France. First of all French intelligence assessments of the British Army prove indisputably that Britain could mobilise only one full-strength division for immediate deployment to Europe in the event of war. Their agreement is for ten immediate divisions, followed by further divisions of a similar scale to the Great War.
This alone might cause some ruffled feathers and choleric outbursts, but a second greater bombshell suddenly appears thanks to further efforts by French Intelligence; a week after the Stresa Agreement, Britain and Germany concluded a Naval Agreement.
While France and Britain had agreed to conduct conferences with Germany with an aim to restricting its re-armament, Britain had effectively allowed Germany to exceed the provisions set out by the Versailles Treaty without even consulting the French. While the treaty itself was duly announced in parliament and registered with the League of Nations, French agents were able to gain the subtext from their German informants.
Fearful of another war that would be the ruin of Germany, these highly placed informants gave the German view; the plan was for this agreement to be the first of a number of such agreements which would result in a full military alliance between Britain and Germany by the end of the decade.
A German Navy would only be of use in a war against Britain, no agreement had been reached on air or ground power; the principal weapons that would be used against France. “Perfide Albion” had done it again! Little wonder then, that when the British Foreign Secretary visited France with a proposal for granting Mussolini limited territorial concessions in Abyssinia, he was sent packing in no uncertain terms. The French right-wing press have a field-day with these series of events and public opinion swings further to the right as a result and Britain’s apparent attempt to secure itself against Germany creates a great degree of Anti-British sentiment.
The opposite sentiment is apparent within the League of Nations however. Britain’s continued stance against the Italian Invasion, which has now occurred and France’s apparent fence-sitting, has resulted in an underswell of support for the British from minor member-states. Britain is even able to portray French rejection of their plan for the partition of Abyssinia in a positive light. On the crest of its wave of popularity in the League, Britain demands that Italy withdraw its troops from Abyssinia, or that it will be forced to use military force to defend a fellow League state.
Pushed into a corner, the French remind Britain of the League’s founding principles to use negotiation instead of force and that itself and Britain had vowed to preserve that principle. How France thought that this would present them in a positive light is one for historians to debate, but it was seized upon by Abyssinia’s delegate who reminded the assembly that while France wanted a discussion and talks, his people were dying on Italian bayonets.
Whether through embarrassment or temporary insanity France’s delegate stormed out of the assembly, proclaiming their protest at the use of force, which they would neither provide nor condone.
France, now with few friends, prepares to defend its dominion in French Somaliland. It sends large shipments of men and material from the mainland as well as significant elements of its North African garrisons, turning Djibouti into the busiest port in the gulf region in the autumn of 1935. Defenses are strengthen, new trench lines built, making a mini Maginot line in the horn of Africa.As the weeks pass and the Italian offensive gains momentum, the British lament that the League’s sanctions fail to bite into Mussolini’s War effort, much to their frustration.
Though not known at the time the French are in fact secretly supplying the Italians in an effort to maintain cordial relations with the Duce, having a foot in both camps as best they can. It is also rumored that Italian ships have been flying the French flag through the Suez to avoid inspection, effectively running the British blockade. Still strapped for supplies the Italians gain a flow of vital material of war through American filibusters who openly laud the Duce’s war in the heart of Abyssinia.
Frustrated, the British navy commences maritime inspections of American vessels. The Yellow Press stir up much anti-British sentiment and Baldwin’s government is becoming more and more isolated internationally. These inspections nearly cause a serious diplomatic row, so careful not to offend the American congress, the British back off and no further ‘inspections’ take place. This public backdown allows the flow of supplies to continue, significantly alleviating the Italians problems of supply.
With the League’s mandate for sanctions seemingly in tatters it now appears that the British are taking punitive measures against the French for their lack of solidarity against the Italians. The French press, which adds a long list of post war grievances against the English make the case that they seem intent on strangling French trade.
With this the French government is now seriously forced to reconsider its position.
Aghast at the sequence of events the British have pursued, the French take the pragmatic view that fighting England in Ethiopia is far more preferable to standing alone against Germany in Europe. If they can keep Italy as an ally they can thwart any German designs on their disputed territories. With the Italians seemingly on the brink of victory as they prepare their final push to the capital Addis Ababa, they need Mussolini now more than ever.
For Britain however, with sanctions failing, their hand is forced. Their force in Egypt, Sudan and Palestine is meagre, and while movement orders have been issued to Imperial Forces in India and Africa to reinforce these areas, more time is needed to get them there. Time has however run out. To preserve its integrity within the League, it must act.
Mussolini makes much of these events and reminds the French of their agreement, which in fact is exactly what they secretly covet, a secure Franco-Italian alliance. Right or wrong the French Government bows to public pressure and their own intrigues threatening war with Britain if it does not desist from its maritime strategy. With luck the British would back down and the diplomatic wounds would heal in time, with Italy a firm ally against Herr Hitler.
In Downing Street the cabinet sat silent, while Prime Minister Baldwin, head in hands, was heard to mutter “How did it come to this?” Nobody looked at the corpulent ‘invited guest’, who was not a member of the cabinet, but as all agreed, was the man for this sort of thing, who puffed once on his cigar and said “However it has and we must act and delay no further… this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into Stanley…”