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The First World War from Tripoli to Addis Ababa (1911-1924)

Shiferaw Bekele
Uoldelul Chelati Dirar
Alessandro Volterra
et al.

International and Regional Politics/Developments

Great War Intrigues in the Horn of Africa

Patrick Gilkes et Martin Plaut


As the First World War went global, both Britain and Germany pursued similar strategies in the Red Sea, trying to stir up revolts and policy changes among each other’s allies and interests on opposite sides of the Red Sea, Britain to the east, Germany to the west. The British succeeded, almost by accident, in organising the Arab revolt in mid-1916, ultimately destroying the Ottoman Empire. Germany and the Ottomans, after failing in their attempt to attack Egypt directly, also failed in their attempt to ally with Ethiopia and use it to threaten British Somaliland or Eritrea and the route to India. The effort to lure Ethiopia to their side and counteract British influence in the lower Red Sea revolved around the young, uncrowned Emperor, Lij Iyasu, who had his own plans to break the power of the traditional ruling Christian Amhara nobility and involve the peripheral Muslim peoples of the empire, i.e. Somalis, Afars and Oromos, more centrally in government, aiming to create a more inclusive imperial administration. Together with the moves of the Ottoman Empire against Aden, this posed the possibility of a real threat to the British route to India. The successful putsch against Lij Iyasu in September 1916, welcomed by the allied powers, meant this threat disappeared; it also laid the basis for the long rule of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Texte intégral

Eritrean and Ethiopia, partial view. Made with Scribble Maps.


  • 1 Thesiger to London, National Archive FO 371/2593. The authors would like to acknowledge the encoura (...)

1On 3 January 1916 the British Consul-General in Ethiopia sent a telegram to the Foreign Office in London.1 Despatched at the height of the First World War, the telegram revealed German plans to encourage Ethiopia to attack a British ally: Italy.

2Wilfred Gilbert Thesiger (Britain’s Consul-General and Minister Plenipotentiary in Addis Ababa, 1909-1919) informed London that the

German Minister is urging the Abyssinians to seize Eritrea promising that, if they will attack the Italians now, Germany will allow them to hold the colony as part of Abyssinia but if, on the other hand, they do not take immediate offensive measures, then they must be prepared to see the Italian colony pass eventually under German control.

  • 2 Doughty-Wylie, Addis Ababa Intelligence Report for August 1914, 6 September 1914, FO 1881.

3The Ethiopian government certainly appeared to be tempted. Eritrea, its pathway to the sea, would have been an enormous prize and was widely seen as highly desirable, if only to put a stop to the perennial Italian interference in internal northern Ethiopian politics. The Emperor Menelik had failed to advance into the colony after his victory over the Italians at Adwa in 1896, but in Ethiopia, Eritrea was still regarded as Ethiopian. The then British minister in Addis Ababa, Doughty-Wylie, wrote in September 1914 that he believed that if France and Britain had declared war on Italy, Ethiopia would have moved against the Italian colony of Eritrea to oust the Italians. Italy, which frequently supported or gave asylum to dissident Ethiopian chiefs, seemed to believe in the possibility, building up its armed forces in the colony to 18,000.2

  • 3 There are intriguing, but quite unproven, suggestions that T. E. Lawrence even had a hand in events (...)
  • 4 It is remarkable how little attention this has received in the general literature on Africa and the (...)

4In the end no Ethiopian attack took place and the country remained neutral during the war. At the same time the episode underlines the complex relationship between the First World War combatants as they strove to use this theatre to pursue the global conflict. None had sufficient forces to engage in full-scale battles; rather they turned to covert means. The exploits of Colonel T. E. Lawrence on the Arabian Peninsula are well known.3 Less widely understood is that Germany had similar aims on the western side of the Red Sea. It deployed men like Leo Frobenius and Frederick Solomon Hall in an attempt to involve Ethiopia in the war. Berlin would have loved to set the Horn of Africa alight, drawing Italian, British and French troops away from the major battlefields. Forces on both sides of the Red Sea were therefore mobilised, with consequences that last until the present day.4

“War by Revolution”

  • 5 McKale 1998, 7 ff develops a detailed analysis of both German and British intentions before and dur (...)
  • 6 Landau 1990, 47.

5Germany had spent many years cultivating the Orient. Kaiser Wilhelm II had an almost obsessive interest in the Middle East, Islam and Turkey.5 The Kaiser visited Constantinople in June 1889 and made a second visit in October and November 1898. Relations became so close that rumours were even circulated suggesting that the Kaiser had converted to Islam – a story that had no basis in fact, although it was never denied.6 The aim was practical: to woo Turkey away from its alliance with Russia and extend German interests in the region. Railways were proposed to link Germany to Turkey and then on to the Persian Gulf, with plans for an extension to Mecca.

  • 7 Fischer 1975, 121 and Kroger 1994. Quoted in McKale 1998, 48.
  • 8 See Strohmeier 2016.
  • 9 Buchan 1916.

6German military missions were despatched to Turkey to reform and strengthen the sultan’s army. At the same time, anti-British propaganda was spread across the Middle East, all the way to India’s north-west frontier. By 1914 the Kaiser saw an Islamic revolt against British rule as an important part in his strategy in the coming conflict. A German historian went so far as to describe the Kaiser as having become an “emperor as revolutionary.” This was not far from the truth. On 30 July 1914 the Kaiser explained how subversion fitted into his plans for war against Britain. He scribbled on a diplomatic despatch from Russia: “Our consuls in Turkey and India, agents, etc. must inflame the whole Mohammedan world with wild revolt against this hateful, lying conscienceless people of hagglers; for if we are to be bled to death, at least England shall lose India.”7 Baron Max von Oppenheim, a renowned expert on the Middle East, was appointed head of the Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient (Intelligence Bureau for the East) after writing a “Memorandum for the revolutionization of the Islamic territories of our foes” in October 1914.8 This called for a holy war against Britain and its allies. The campaign would embrace propaganda as well as military campaigns in the Middle East, including the Arabian Peninsula. These aims were clearly understood in London. British fears that such a revolt might come about inspired John Buchan’s 1916 novel, Greenmantle.9

7As we shall see, the “revolutionary emperor” was to set about attempting to employ this strategy in the Middle East and Horn of Africa; but he was not alone. The British had similar war aims and they too were setting about undermining their opponents by covert action. The reason was straightforward: not only was this another arena in which to confront the Germans and their allies, it was of critical importance to London. This was certainly the British view. The official history of the First World War in this region, published in 1928, concentrated on the situation in Egypt, which was described as being one of “particular complexity.” Britain occupied the territory, but it was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire :

  • 10 MacMunn and Falls 1928, 7.

In theory…Egypt was still a province of the Turkish Empire; in practice she was save in certain minor matters, independent of Turkey…her importance in the Great War was immeasurable, mainly, though not entirely owning to the Suez Canal. The Canal was, indeed, in the popular German phrase, the ‘jugular vein’ of the British Empire. Half-way between England and India, on the route which was to be taken by troops from that country and later from Australia and New Zealand, on that followed by the bulk of the trade between Europe on the one side and Asia and Australia on the other, it was the most vital focal point upon the communications of the world.10

8At the outbreak of the war the situation was clear. Both the Allied Powers and the Central Powers saw the region as important to their war aims and would do all they could to attack each other. On the other hand both alliances were fully committed to confronting each other on the main battlefields. Despite the Suez Canal being a vital prize, neither had the men or materiel to devote to a separate venture. They had to work through informal alliances and by unorthodox means. Both would scheme and plot to undermine each other wherever possible. This meant, for the Germans, mobilising the Turks and providing them with all the assistance that Berlin could spare – short of a major deployment of troops. For Britain it meant bringing forces from India and the rest of the Empire. At the time both sides sought local rulers with whom they could work.

  • 11 Ibid., 13-14.
  • 12 “A patrol of 20 men of the Bikanir Camel Corps, under Captain A. J. H. Chope, was attacked at Bir e (...)

9The defence of the Suez Canal was the first priority for the British. Two Indian infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade were ordered to go to Egypt as soon as war broke out.11 British intelligence reported that Turkish forces were being moved into position and believed that “ere long 100,000 [Turkish] troops might be available in Syria and Palestine for action against the Canal.” On 30 October 1914 war was declared between Turkey and Britain. The first, minor, attack came from irregular forces allied to the Turks.12 Bedouin confronted Indian troops who had little trouble in beating them off. But the British had discovered that their own allies – Egyptian coastguards – were not particularly trustworthy and only too willing to go over to the enemy. The action, though not significant in itself, presaged what was to follow.

  • 13 Ibid., 50-51.

10By early 1915 it was apparent that a major Turkish attack on the Canal was imminent. It came on 1 February – lasting until 10 February. The Indian troops, supported by British naval forces in the Canal, repulsed the attack, with the loss of 2,000 Turkish soldiers.13 British losses totalled 163. The Turks had used an Arab, rather than a Turkish division in the first assault, and the German commander with the forces (Colonel Kress von Kressenstein) believed this was among the reasons for the failure. “The deep-seated, age-old hatred between Turk and Arab had been underestimated and it had been thought that a Holy War would unite the two races. The Arab soldiers proved unreliable and went over, sometimes in formed bodies, to the enemy.” Both alliances were learning that local allies could prove less than reliable.

  • 14 Bruce 2002, 38 ff.

11The initial attack on the Suez Canal had failed, but this did not end the threat. The Turkish army maintained troops and outposts in the Sinai Peninsula and attempted to carry out raids on the canal. These culminated in a campaign in April 1916 by German and Turkish troops led by Colonel von Kressenstein.14 Some 16,000 soldiers were deployed against the Allied positions, culminating in the battle of Romani in August, in which the German and Turkish forces lost almost half their troops, killed, wounded or captured.

  • 15 Paice op. cit., 215.
  • 16 Slight 2014, 103 (2), 233-242.

12Egypt was also threatened from the west and in early 1916 there was an attack by some 5,000 Sanussi tribesmen.15 South African forces, in England en route to France, were diverted to suppress the Sanussi, which they did by the end of March 1916. Recent research by John Slight has produced a more nuanced and complex view of the Sanussi, but as he concludes: “If the Ottomans, and to a lesser extent the Germans, had not applied pressure on the Sanussiyya to attack Egypt, the order would probably not have done so independently, and would have continued to focus on its on-going jihad against the Italians.”16

  • 17 Korda 2011, 290.

13While Egypt required guarding, the war in the region was concentrated on other fronts. On 25 April 1915 the Gallipoli campaign opened and all eyes turned northwards. Gallipoli proved to be a terrible mistake for Britain and its allies and it was by no means the only one. By the summer of 1916 British efforts in the Middle East were what has been described as an “abject failure.”17 Gallipoli had been a major reverse. So had the attack on Baghdad; while attempts to break the Turkish lines in Gaza had been unsuccessful.

  • 18 Ibid., 291. The number of German troops was exaggerated, as shall be seen below.

14Just as events seemed grim – from London’s perspective – they took a much more auspicious turn. On 10 June 1916 Sharif Hussein, guardian of the holy city of Mecca, fired a shot from a window in his palace at the Turkish headquarters nearby. This marked the start of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Negotiation between the British and Hussein and his family had been going on in secret since 1914. It was the execution of close allies of Sharif Hussein in Damascus and Beirut by the Ottoman government, and information that a 4,000 strong German force was going to march through the western region of what is today Saudi Arabia, en route to Yemen, that convinced the Sharif that he was about to be overthrown.18 Lawrence was delighted. Two years of promises and plots had come to fruition. “This revolt,” he wrote home, “will be the biggest thing in the Near East since 1550.”

  • 19 Strohmeier, op. cit.
  • 20 Strohmeier, op. cit.

15It is not the purpose of this article to rehearse the progress of the Arab Revolt, with the capture of the port of Aqaba in July 1917 and the ultimate fall of Damascus in September 1918, and accusations of British duplicity. What is clear is that the British had managed to mobilise irregular forces on the Arabian Peninsula to considerable effect, tying down thousands of Turkish troops and resulting in a serious defeat for the Ottomans and their German allies. In this the British were just one step ahead of Berlin. The Germans had sent a mission to the Hijaz area of the Arabian peninsular under Major Othmar Freiherr von Stotzingen. Karl Neufeld, who had undertaken a prior fact-finding mission to Medina, assisted the Major.19 The Stotzingen-Neufeld mission, some 245 men and instructions to forge links with German East Africa, left Berlin on 15 March 1915 with 180,000 Marks in English gold coins and silver Maria Theresa thalers. After an eventful journey Stotzingen and his men finally arrived in the vicinity of the port of Yanbu‘ on the Red Sea on 22 May. There they decided to wait, to collect information about the situation in Jidda, to which they had sent a small company of men. The company had been attacked by Bedouin and killed, a fact that Stotzingen discovered. Soon they also learned that Sharif Hussein had launched the Arab revolt in Mecca against the Ottomans. The Germans had been beaten to the punch. “On June 12, Stotzingen and his men were forced to quit Yanbu‘ with ‘heavy hearts’ and ‘in haste,’ leaving their entire baggage behind.”20 The Stotzingen-Neufeld mission had failed to achieve its goals.

  • 21 Paice, op. cit., 214.

16If Britain had succeeded in stirring up revolt to the east of the Red Sea, Germany was also pursuing much the same strategy on the western shores of the Red Sea. Berlin was intent on doing all it could to undermine London’s grip on Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The Kaiser’s aim of “wild revolt” was given force in a memo from the Imperial Colonial Office (or Reichskolonialamt) dated 29 December 1915:21

It is clear that the necessary requirements to instigate an insurgence are to be found in Sudan and also in the areas of Somalia that belong to British East Africa and in British Somalia. Such an uprising could, after initial success, take on a greater magnitude in Sudan and in any case could force the British to mobilise disproportionately large masses of troops to enter the area in order to suppress it […]. If the insurgence of the Mohammedan tribes on the north, west and south borders of Abyssinia is successful the […] English will be forced to deploy considerable number of troops, which would mean both that the Egyptian troops would be weakened and the pressure on the German East African troops would be relieved.

  • 22 Ibid.

17The memo declared that May or June 1916 were the months the German high command had for a mind for a “comprehensive attack.”22

  • 23 Scholler 1980, 303.
  • 24 When the Frobenius and Hall mission to Ethiopia was halted by the Italians in Eritrea in March 1915 (...)

18The first attempt to link Germany and Ethiopia had actually been initiated by Addis Ababa before the outbreak of war. In 1905 the Emperor Menelik sent an emissary to Germany asking for one million veterans, disguised as settlers, to be sent to Ethiopia.23 Nothing came of the approach, but when the First World War erupted the German Imperial government recalled Menelik’s request. Attempts were made to get Ethiopia to join the German-Ottoman alliance. Communicating these aims was no easy task since the German Legation in Addis Ababa was almost cut off from the outside world. Britain, France and Italy blocked most access by post and telecommunications, and prevented travel by couriers.24

  • 25 Scholler 1980, 310.

19The isolation of the Germans in Ethiopia did not prevent the General Staff from having the most wide-ranging ambitions in the region. Their aims were: “To force the enemy to commit large forces in defending their colonies on the Horn of Africa, thus weakening their European front and relieving the German forces fighting in German East Africa.”25 This called for “insurrection” in Sudan with the aim of toppling British rule. Ambitious as this objective was, it was modest compared with German aims in Ethiopia :

  • 26 Ibid.

The colonial Italian and French possessions on the shore of the Red Sea were difficult even impossible to defend without [the] commitment of large forces: chances were that an Ethiopian blow against the shores of the Red Sea and Suez Canal would either succeed at once, or that Italy and France would voluntarily withdraw in view of the critical situation of the European front, where all men and rifles were badly needed after the initial military successes of the Central powers.26

  • 27 Britain perceived that a threat existed from Darfur and sent a military force to suppress a jihad d (...)

20In Berlin’s view the “double threat” of internal insurrection in Sudan and an Ethiopian offensive would pave the way for a successful attack on the Suez Canal by Turkish forces “supported by a German expeditionary force.”27 The loss of the Canal would be a decisive blow against Britain and its allies, from which they would be unable to recover.

  • 28 Da Riva 2009, 29-111; Paice, op. cit., 220.
  • 29 Berger Holtz, 2009; Paice, op. cit., 220.
  • 30 Da Riva, op. cit., 76.
  • 31 Ibid.

21In order to try to achieve these aims the German government attempted to send couriers to Addis Ababa. The explorer and anthropologist Leo Frobenius, who was a personal friend of the Kaiser, led the first. The “Fourth German Inner-Africa Research Expedition,” consisting of five Europeans, thirteen Turks and Arabs, set off in early 1915.28 It included Frederick Solomon Hall (the son of a Polish ex-soldier who joined a German mission in Ethiopia and an Ethiopian mother) whose family had connections with Ethiopia stretching back many years.29 After a journey via Constantinople and Palestine the expedition finally set forth on a dhow for the Eritrean port of Massawa. It was a difficult voyage and French and British warships halted their vessel on several occasions. Finally, after 42 days, Massawa was reached on 15 February 1915.30 Frobenius reported to Berlin, but the communication was intercepted and within 8 days a cable had arrived in London describing five German “agents” who had landed at the port. The Italians decided not to allow them to proceed, since Rome presumed that their aim would be to “agitate against us in Abyssinia.”31 The Italians proposed that the British remove the Germans from Massawa. In the end Frobenius was allowed to visit Asmara, but he was under constant surveillance and was not allowed to proceed to Addis Ababa. Finally, after a month, the Germans were granted permission to leave Eritrea under a safe conduct agreement guaranteed by France and Britain. Travelling via Jaffa in Palestine, they proceeded to Naples and Rome before arriving back in Berlin.

  • 32 Berger Holtz op. cit., 98. Hall settled in Dire Dawa after the war, where he traded in coffee and m (...)
  • 33 Paice op. cit., 220.

22The Frobenius mission had been a failure, but it was not the last attempt to reach Addis Ababa. In June 1915 Solomon Hall set off again, carrying secret documents and disguised as an Arab. Unfortunately for Hall he failed to disguise his feet. Sharp-eyed Eritrean police spotted his corns – the result of wearing shoes rather than sandals – and he was uncovered. Hall and his colleagues were imprisoned first in Eritrea, and then on an Italian island in the Mediterranean, until the end of the war, four years later.32 Hall managed to destroy most of the documents he was carrying, but copies in the German archive give a clear picture of what they contained. Although Hall was intercepted the documents did reach Addis Ababa by October 1915 (by means that are not clear) and a reply was sent to Berlin, arriving in March 1916.33

  • 34 Bairu Tafla op. cit., 133.

23The German envoy to Ethiopia, Frederick Wilhelm von Syburg, received instructions to do everything possible to convince the Ethiopian government to enter the war. Bairu Tafla writes that Syburg was to encourage the Ethiopians to invade “British, Italian and French colonies in northeast Africa.”34 This was presumably Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and British and Italian Somalilands. These instructions were very much in line with the documents carried by the failed mission by Solomon Hall. The message for the Ethiopian government boasted of the “great victories” Germany had scored against the allies, and suggested that now was the time to act:

  • 35 Scholler, op. cit., 312.

The hands of the Allies are tied in desperately fighting off the progress of the German armies. Italy, England and France, pretending to be friends of Ethiopia, are insiduous [sic.] false friends, who have tried to subdue Ethiopia in the past, and who have robbed Ethiopia of her borderlands. Now the time has come for Ethiopia to regain the coast of the Red Sea driving the Italians home, to restore the Empire to its ancient size, but also to bring under her control the railway and the Port of Djibouti, by which the French still are trying to strangle her connections with world trade. Germany commits herself to recognize any territory which Ethiopia may conquer or occupy in military action against the Allied powers as being her rightful and permanent property and part of the Ethiopian Empire after the war.35

  • 36 Scholler, op. cit., 312; Bairu Tafla op. cit., 133.
  • 37 Paice op. cit., 217.
  • 38 Irons 2013, 209; Abdi Sheik-Abdi 1993, 173.

24Von Syburg was given another instruction: to try to contact the Sayyid, Muhammad Abdallah al-Hassan (called the “Mad Mullah” by the British), and to encourage him to revolt against the British.36 The Sayyid, born in 1856 in what is today Somaliland, mobilised Somali clans in a 20-year-long religious war against Christian forces in the Horn, including the British, French and Ethiopians. The Emperor Menelik and British troops had been attempting to crush his Dervish soldiers since the late 1890s.37 In March 1914 forty of his troops had attacked the capital of British Somaliland, Berbera, causing total panic. Indian and local Somali soldiers were sent to attack his strongholds in November 1914 and February 1915, but were unable to crush the 6,000 troops the Sayyid had at his command. The British instituted a policy of containment, with some success. His territory remained limited to a collection of forts in the Ogaden and his fortified capital, with the strength of his Dervish army gradually declining from 6,000 fighting men in 1913 to fewer than a thousand in 1919. Despite this, the Sayyid remained a constant threat until his final defeat in 1920 or early 1921.38

  • 39 Bairu Tafla op. cit., 132.

25German attempts to exploit this revolt did not proceed well. A German technician was sent to repair the Sayyid’s guns.39 A mechanic, Fritz Kersten, arrived in Ethiopia in 1914 and was despatched to work with the Sayyid, only to fall out with him. Kersten attempted to escape from Harar, but after walking through the desert he ran out of provisions and died of hunger, thirst and fatigue. Initial German attempts at stirring up revolt in the Horn had paid few dividends. But Berlin had one further potential ally – the heir and de facto emperor to the Ethiopian throne. It is this question that we will return to in the next section.

  • 40 Jolly 2013.
  • 41 Thesiger: Memorandum 16 March 1916, FO 371/2595.

26Germany and Britain were not alone in having ambitions in the region. Both Italy and France had important interests in the Horn. For the French their colony of Djibouti was a source of troops, with a Somali Battalion being raised and some 2,000 soldiers sent to fight in Europe; they fought with distinction, participating in a number of battles, including Verdun where around 500 were killed.40 The railway from Djibouti port to Addis Ababa, initiated with Emperor Menelik, was completed in 1917, cementing ties between the two countries. Before the war, Djibouti was particularly important for the arms trade and most arms for Ethiopia were imported through the port prior to 1914, especially during 1913-1914 according to Thesiger, the British Minister in Addis Ababa.41

  • 42 Baer 1967, 1.
  • 43 Ibid., 2.
  • 44 Tekeste Negash 1987, 48. Italy first sent Eritrean troops, or “askaris,” to Libya in 1912. The Erit (...)

27For Italy the Horn of Africa was even more significant. Rome saw the region as integral to its aims of expanding their African empire. The country’s interest in the Horn dated from 1869, when a shipping firm from Genoa purchased a strip of land at the port of Assab, to take advantage of the benefits of transport via the Suez Canal.42 The Ethiopian Emperor Yohannis objected, but could do little about it. Gradually the port was transformed into the colony of Eritrea. Sometimes there were clashes with the Ethiopians (as in the battle of Dogali in 1887 and, most famously, at the battle of Adwa in 1896). At other times there was co-operation, with Italy providing weapons to Emperor Menelik who used them for his extensive conquests.43 The Italian colony of Eritrea grew, and was not without its benefits, supplying troops before and during the First World War.44

  • 45 Ibid., 6.
  • 46 Bairu Tafla op. cit., 132.
  • 47 Hess 1963, 105-126.
  • 48 Ibid., 126. By the end of the war Britain and France were not weak, as they had been in 1915 while (...)

28In 1906, in preparation for the eventual death of Menelik, Britain, France and Italy concluded a treaty spelling out their interests in Ethiopia (without consulting the government in Addis Ababa, which would not have agreed.)45 Britain wished to control the source of the Blue Nile in Lake Tana, while France wanted the inviolability of its railway from Djibouti to the Ethiopian capital guaranteed. The Italians had far more ambitious aims. When the First World War broke out, Rome even attempted to undermine the Ethiopian government by delivering weapons to a warlord in Tigray, but the central authorities soon stamped this out.46 The Italians were seeking the north, south and east of Ethiopia as an Italian sphere of influence. These plans were incorporated into the Treaty of London of 26 April 1915, under which Italy joined the First World War on the side of France and Britain.47 These consolidated the Italian demands made in 1906, but went much further. Rome hoped to gain vast tracts of the Horn including control over most of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. In the end, most of these plans were frustrated. As Robert Hess puts it: “the ambitious colonial programme came to naught.”48

Lij Iyasu and the Ethiopian Throne

  • 49 Erlich 2014, 135.

29Ethiopia was by no means a bystander as the great powers wrestled to control the region. As an independent, un-colonised nation, it ran its own affairs, despite pressure from abroad. Yet the war could hardly have come at a more difficult moment. Emperor Menelik II had ruled since 1889 but was in failing health. On 11 June 1908 he suffered a stroke and the following year, summonsing his ministers the aging emperor informed them that his grandson and only male descendent, Lij Iyasu, would succeed him.49 The emperor suffered a further massive stroke on 27 October 1909, which effectively incapacitated him, though he did not die until December 1913.

  • 50 Marcus 1994, 113.

30Lij Iyasu’s short reign (he was overthrown in 1916 and was indeed never crowned),50 has been the subject of much controversy, and recent re-evaluation. The political infighting that followed Menelik’s incapacitation led to a series of confrontations as leading figures in the empire struggled for influence or control, ultimately leading to his removal. This is not the place to recapitulate these though it should be noted that Iyasu’s opponents certainly spread the numerous rumours of apostasy and other alleged crimes that reached the ears of the foreign missions in Addis Ababa and affected the views of the British and French ministers in Addis Ababa. After Iyasu’s downfall and the success of his enemies, these allegations became the accepted version of Iyasu.

31Harold Marcus summed up the version of Iyasu’s detractors:

  • 51 Ibid.

The youth was hardly ready to govern: during his adolescence, he had mostly abandoned the classrooms of the gibbi (Menelik’s palace) for the capital’s bars and brothels. Undoubtedly bright, he was, however ignorant about the running of an increasingly complex administration. He had a short attention span, and lacked political common sense, if not a grand vision. His idée fixe was a society in which religious and ethnic affiliation did not matter, a goal which contradicted the political situation in the empire. His insensitivity to this fundamental reality was left unchallenged by his advisers, a congeries of amusing but sycophantic courtiers.51

  • 52 See, in particular, Ficquet and Smidt, eds, 2014.

32It is only in the last decade or so that more recent studies have provided a more nuanced and sympathetic understanding of Iyasu’s aims and ideas.52

  • 53 Agstner 2014, 115.
  • 54 Agstner op. cit., 127.
  • 55 Ibid.

33In fact, far from such ideas, Iyasu displayed serious interest in possible policy changes, extending to both internal and external action. One early attempt to strengthen his position was by importing weapons from the Austrian empire. His grandfather, Menelik, had signed a treaty between the two empires in March 1905; days after a similar treaty had been signed with Germany.53 Under Iyasu these ties were strengthened, with the exchange of gifts and letters, leading to the conclusion of a deal for 120 cannon, which was concluded and paid for on 27 July 1914.54 It was an inauspicious date: the following day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and the First World War commenced. At the time Italy was still an Austrian ally and only declared war on its neighbour in May 1915.55 So, as Rudolf Agstner makes clear, the sale of this weaponry to Ethiopia cannot be interpreted as an attempt to open a second front against Italy. Some – but not all – of the cannon arrived in Ethiopia, although they were already obsolete. What the deal did suggest was that Iyasu was keen to strengthen his own military support, and look beyond the foreign powers with the greatest influence in the Horn of Africa: Britain, France and Italy.

34This, indeed, appears to have been a central factor in his subsequent interest in relations with the Central Powers and the Ottoman Empire after the outbreak of the Great War. Later in the 20th century, Ethiopia very successfully played off the United States and the USSR as sources of military assistance. It might be argued that Lij Iyasu’s interest in and his responses to German and Ottoman overtures could be seen as a precursor of the policies more successfully implemented fifty or sixty years later.

  • 56 Aramis Houmed Soule, 2014.

35Iyasu’s main concern was to try to widen his internal political power base. Rejecting the Shewan advisers of his grandfather, he aimed to encompass more than just the Christian highlanders who had been the traditional rulers of Ethiopia. Using the traditional imperial approach of establishing power by “going on circuit,” he spent much time outside of Addis Ababa, visiting peoples who had always been peripheral to the Empire: the Somalis and the Afars. His overtures included cementing ties by marriage with members of important Afar families.56 It might also be noted that he also took wives among the leading families of Christian groups, in Wallega, Gojjam and Yajju, though his enemies ignored this. These relationships deeply worried the Shewan elite that had held power under Menelik. They were seriously concerned by Iyasu’s attempts to replace them with Tigreans, Oromos, and others, and the threat this posed to their positions and privileges. Eventually, they also persuaded the Orthodox Church to question Iyasu’s faith.

  • 57 Ficquet 2014, 5.
  • 58 Sohier 2014, 53.

36Iyasu was born a Christian and educated as such by Menelik, but his father came from a line of imams and was said to be able to trace his ancestry back to the Prophet Mohammed himself.57 Iyasu’s father, Muhammad Ali, an Oromo, was baptised a Christian, took the name Mikael, and was made a ras in 1878 after his submission to Emperor Yohannis IV. Menelik made considerable efforts to highlight Iyasu’s Christianity. Instructions were issued for photographs to be taken showing the prince in the presence of priests and reading from the Book of Psalms.58

  • 59 Erlich op. cit., 135. Others point to evidence that Iyasu had no intention of converting to Islam. (...)

37Despite this, Iyasu’s religious identity became a live question with his interest in improving relations with both Somalis and Afars in particular as well as with the Ottoman Empire. Whatever the prospects this offered, it provided ammunition for his opponents. Haggai Erlich provides this summary of the issue: “Young, inexperienced and ambitious, he worked to build new coalitions in defiance of the already entrenched ‘Shewan nobility’ created by his grandfather. Seeking new local allies, mostly in Ethiopia’s periphery, Iyasu also flirted with Islam, as if returning to the faith of his ancestors.”59 This attitude prevailed until the outbreak of World War One, but then, suggests Erlich, the young prince’s religious orientation changed. The Ottomans proclaimed jihad against Britain, France and Russia; and Iyasu

  • 60 Erlich op. cit., 136.

mixing caution with miscalculation, gambled on an Ottoman victory. In preparing for it, he worked to build an alliance with the Somali Sayyid and Islamic holy warrior, Muhammad bin ‘Abdallah Hasan, hoping to have the Somalis included in his future empire. Iyasu apparently visualised a new order emerging after the war, under him, centred on Harer and stretching over the entire Horn of Africa, a wing of a renewed, Ottoman-orientated Land of Islam.60

38This would have been an extraordinary project, which would have not only changed the orientation of Ethiopia from Christianity to Islam, but vastly expanded the country’s influence, sweeping aside the interests of Allied Powers. Irrespective of the reality, there is certainly evidence that Britain was deeply concerned about Iyasu’s apparent conversion. Wilfred Thesiger reported to London in June 1915 that “every week” there was fresh evidence of the prince’s sympathy with Islam :

  • 61 Thesiger quoted in Erlich op. cit., 139.

I am coming to the opinion that the heir of the throne of Solomon is at heart a Moslem [sic.] and is entertaining dreams of one day putting himself at the head of the Mohammedan Abyssinians, who considerably outnumber the Abyssinian Christians, and proclaim a Moslem kingdom, which will stretch far beyond the frontiers of his present empire…This intention is being probably strengthened by the conviction of an ultimate Turco-German victory.61

39With the First World War gathering momentum in the region in 1916, the scene was set for a showdown. On the one side were the Allied Powers, including Britain, France and Italy. They looked on nervously as Iyasu changed the direction of the Ethiopian Empire. They had allies among the Ethiopian clergy and nobility, who were also increasingly concerned at the potential impact of Iyasu’s actions. The Allied Powers were attempting to maintain the security of Egypt and the Suez Canal, as well as drain troops away from Germany and the Ottomans. On the other side were the Central Powers. Germany had already despatched several missions in an attempt to win Ethiopia to their cause. Their hand was strengthened by Iyasu’s concern to win over the Muslims of the region. This brought about the possibility of an important new alliance between Iyasu and the Sayyid and it is to this relationship that we now turn.

  • 62 Ibid.
  • 63 Marcus 1975, 266-267.
  • 64 Erlich op. cit., 136.

40Erlich, drawing on Turkish, Italian and British archives, described the Ottoman efforts.62 The key figure appears to be the Ottoman envoy to Ethiopia, Ahmad Mazhar Bey, who took up his office in April 1913, moving his residence from the capital to the centre of Islamic influence in the country, Harar. There he formed a close alliance with Abdallah al-Sadiq, the “Ras al-muslimin,” or head of the local Muslim community. Al-Sadiq had long been in touch with the Sayyid and was a close ally of Iyasu, who regarded Al-Sadiq as a guide in his relations with the Muslim population. Al-Sadiq had also twice visited Constantinople as an agent of the Emperor Menelik, as well as being deported from India by the British.63 Erlich suggests that the relationship between these four men – Ethiopian ruler, Ottoman consul, Harar leader and the Somali warlord – was critical. After the outbreak of the First World War this relationship would, he says: “develop into an axis around which the Islamic-Christian struggle over the future of Ethiopia and Somalia revolved.”64

  • 65 Thesiger to Grey, 14 April 1915, FO 371/2228.

41From Harar the Ottomans pursued a three-pronged strategy to take control of the Horn: winning Iyasu to their cause; arming the Sayyid; and finally encouraging an Ethiopian invasion of the surrounding Allied possessions of Somalia, Sudan and Egypt. These aims were – as we have seen – in line with those of their German allies and they came close to success. Iyasu himself left Addis Ababa in June 1915 and spent the next nine months touring Wollo, eastern Shewa and the fringes of the Ogaden, consorting with his three key associates, Mazhar, Abdallah al-Sadiq and the Sayyid. According to Thesiger, before leaving Addis Ababa he visited the various legations to try and discover what either side in the European conflict might offer for Ethiopian support.65

  • 66 Erlich op. cit., 139.
  • 67 Ibid., 140.

42Mazhar reported to his Ottoman masters that Iyasu had sent an imperial letter to the Sayyid, with 10,000 cartridges, “advising the Mullah to push on against the Italians and British.”66 Mazhar predicted that Iyasu “supports us whole-heartedly” and would soon commit Ethiopia to the Ottoman cause. Further weapons and ammunition were sent from the Ethiopian ruler to Sayyid. The British believed that Iyasu had also provided the Sayyid with a Turkish flag to be used “when the Turkish troops land” in British Somaliland and “join hands with him and march on Berbera.”67

  • 68 Ibid., 141.

43By early 1916 Mazhar at least was sure that Iyasu appeared to have ended any previous indecision and decided to throw in his lot with the Ottoman and German cause. He would have been reinforced in this view by the Turkish successes in 1916 in Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia. In May 1916 matters came to a head. Mazhar was instructed by Istanbul to promise Iyasu that if he entered the war on the side of the Central Powers he would be allowed to hold any territory he captured after the war ended. “If they want a document” Mazhar was told by his superiors, “you can satisfy them by saying ‘whatever territories Ethiopians can take from the British, the Italians and the French, who captured these areas from the Ottomans in the past, we will support them even in peacetime to keep their conquest.’ This suits the Ottomans, too.”68

  • 69 Ibid., 145.

44In September 1916 Iyasu travelled to Jijiga in the Ogaden for a rally of Somali chiefs from the Ogaden region and from British Somaliland. Giving them arms and money, he performed Islamic rituals and was reported to have declared that he was a devout Muslim.69 While the latter assertion is likely to have been an exaggeration, he certainly told the assembled Somalis that he had been ordered by the Ottoman Caliph to liberate the entire coastline from the Eritrean port of Massawa to the British Somali port of Berbera; adding that the Caliph had granted him sovereignty over these territories and he hoped to occupy them shortly. Erlich concludes:

  • 70 Ibid., 146.

All the evidence we examined supports the assumption that Iyasu was returning to Islam, expecting an Ottoman victory and a military alliance with the Sayyid’s movement. His steps can not be interpreted other than leading towards a new Ethiopia, centred on Harer as the capital of an Islamic, African empire, allied with Istanbul and under his rule.70

45As we have seen, interpretation of Iyasu’s policies is hardly clear-cut, and whether or not Iyasu visualised this as an Islamic empire is certainly debatable. He always protested his Christianity, and built churches as well as mosques, even in Harar. One of his closest advisers, the Syrian Hasib Ydlibi, in his diary for April 1916 quoted Iyasu as telling him:

  • 71 Ydlibi, 2006, 250-51.

I have not changed my faith. I would never think of doing so. It is perhaps true that when I am in the country of my Muslim subjects, I might favour them, but I do the same to the Oromos when I am in their country. They are all my subjects and I believe that they are each entitled to every mark of favour in equal shares, be they Christian, Muslim or even heathen. All those who are not Christian have been persecuted in the past, but I intend they should all be treated alike. I would like to make my country a happy family...So long as I do not ask any of my subjects to change their faith they can have no ground for complaint. In time, I hope they will be able to grasp and understand my policy, and then they will thank me. I aim to unite my people regardless of religion.71

  • 72 Ibid., 245.

46Ydlibi adds that Iyasu also said: “As regards the legations, they too are wrong. I am of no party; I wish to keep quite neutral and in peace. I would like to remain on friendly terms with them all.” In her biography of her father, May Ydlibi notes that Iyasu also told her during his visit to Djibouti in 1915 that: “I do not believe that any European power can be a real friend to our Ethiopia without ulterior motives, so that the weaker they become, the better for my country.” She also noted that during this visit, Iyasu gave the concession to build a railway from Addis Ababa to Dessie, his father’s capital, to the French railway company.72

47The Italian Minister in Addis Ababa, Giuseppe Colli di Felizzano, who told Rome in November 1915 that Iyasu intended to convert to Islam, sent a very different report after meeting Iyasu in May the next year. Iyasu, he said, had told him:

  • 73 Colli to Italian Foreign Minister, Documenti Diplomatici Italiani 5th Series Vol. V doc. 95 tel. 77 (...)

the accusations levelled against him of sentiments favourable to Islamism and of intentions of converting to that religion are entirely unfounded and that his behaviour is meant solely to draw to his cause the Muslim people of his Empire, who have heretofore been abandoned and persecuted and who have been engaged in a state approaching open rebellion against the Ethiopian government; he assured me that he himself was convinced it would be the maddest of follies, on his part, even to think of converting to Islamism and to turn Abyssinia into a Muslim empire.”73

48Colli also reported that Iyasu said he did not trust Turkish and German agents.

  • 74 See McKenzie (n.d.); Rogan 2016, 13.
  • 75 Landau op. cit., 142.

49Equally, it is not difficult to see why Iyasu might have come to a decision to support the German/Ottoman cause at this point. As outlined above, the Allied cause had suffered serious reversals in the Middle East and the attack on Gallipoli had gone catastrophically wrong. On the opposite side of the Red Sea the Ottomans had laid siege to the British colony of Aden in July 1915, going on to claim that they had driven the British back to the city of Aden itself in early 1916.74 The Germans were also on the offensive with their propaganda. By 1915-16 Berlin was doing all it could to encourage Muslims in the region to believe that they were their true allies. Proclamations, with green flags, were sent to French Sudan, Darfur and Eritrea, declaring “the jihad required of all true Believers not merely a passive, but an active resistance to the Entente; and promised, as a reward, the establishment of an Islamic Empire under benign German protection.”75

  • 76 Quoted in Thesiger to Grey, 24 May 1916, FO 371/2593.

50Britain and her allies appeared weak and the Germans and Ottomans looked as if they might triumph. A victory for the Central Powers also fitted in with Iyasu’s own vision of the changes required within the Ethiopian empire, and the need to resolve the problems that Addis Ababa had with the peripheral peoples of the empire. In May Iyasu had also explained to the Italian Minister Colli that he needed to “pacify his Ogaden and Danakil Moslem subjects […] without having to recourse to force […] and once this was done he would then turn his attention to internal reform.”76 At the same time, in terms of the internal politics of the imperial court, Iyasu was concerned to break the power of the Shewan nobility, and replaced them at the centre of power by an alliance consisting of Oromos (notably his father, Michael, whom he had appointed Negus of the North), Tigreans, Afars and Somalis, but also including non-Shewan Amharas.

  • 77 Asher 1998, 162.

51Yet just as the Kaiser’s “war by revolution” in the region seemed likely to succeed it suffered a fatal blow. In June 1916 Sharif Hussein fired the shot that opened the Arab Revolt. The Arab army, supported by the British, won swift victories. Mecca surrendered on 12 June followed by Jeddah on 16 June. In late July, Arab forces overran two more Red Sea ports, Rabegh and Yanbu‘. In late September Ottoman troops at Ta’if, in the mountains southeast of Mecca, were captured together with the governor. The Hashemites had taken the main towns in the area, together with 6,000 prisoners. Michael Asher, biographer of T. E. Lawrence, concludes that the Arabs had achieved much more than a military victory: “they had scored a brilliant propaganda success: Turco-German dreams of a Jihad or Holy War were dead.”77

  • 78 Kakwenzire 1976, 261.
  • 79 Quoted in Kakwenzire op. cit., 274.

52The British immediately set about capitalising on these initial successes. Officials in Somaliland had assured London that most Somali tribes were loyal to Britain and did not support the Sayyid. The governor, Sir Geoffrey Archer, had told the Foreign Office in July 1916 that: “the general loyalty of our Somali tribes may be counted on at present […]. The mistake he [Lij Yasu] and our enemies in Abyssinia make is that they believe the Mullah, Mahomed Abdulla Hassan, is held in veneration and respect by the Somali tribes.”78 To underline the strength of the British position across the region Sir Geoffrey decided in July 1916 to organise a trip to Egypt of a group of Somali elders. The objective was to show the Somalis just how powerful the Allies really were. During the voyage it was pointed out that there was plenty of Allied shipping, but no German vessels in the Red Sea. Once they arrived at the Suez Canal, the Somalis were taken to various prisoner of war camps, of which one at Kantara made the greatest impact. As the British officer reported it “created the profoundest impression […] it showed clearly how futile had been the attempt of a Muslim Power (i.e. Turkey) to question the British supremacy, and also the price paid for making that attempt.”79

  • 80 Colli to Minister, 9 June 1916, ASMAI 37/11.
  • 81 Thesiger to Grey, 1 June 1916, FO 371/2594.
  • 82 Dodds to Law, 19 August 1916, FO 371/2594.
  • 83 Paice, op. cit., 221.

53Nevertheless, the links of Iyasu with the Sayyid continued to worry London and the Somaliland authorities. There were anti-British pamphlets circulating in Harar in August 1916. Turkish propaganda leaflets were also distributed in Somali areas in 1916. These declared: “be it known that the Abyssinian Government are not with our enemies and they are not in the war against the Government of Islam. They are friends and advisers of the Ottoman Government. The interests of Islam in this country concord with the Government of Abyssinian.”80 A few days earlier, Thesiger was reporting to London that Iyasu had conceived the idea of making the Sayyid King of the Ogaden under Addis Ababa sovereignty.81 In August 1916, 17 camel loads of rifles were sent from Harar to the Sayyid and the British Vice-Consul in Harar, Major Dodds, was reporting on rumours that the supplies being sent to Jijiga were intended to be for the Sayyid to attack to attack the city of Hargeisa, in British Somaliland.82 As Edward Paice concludes: “In August 1916, it was widely believed that Lij Iyasu was about to launch his joint Abyssinian-Dervish invasion of Somaliland (and marry the Sayyid’s daughter.)”83


  • 84 Ydlibi op. cit., 256; see also Bahru Zewde 1991, 127.

54By September 1916 the forces ranged against Iyasu decided to act. There had been an abortive attempt by a number of leading nobles and ministers to persuade the head of the Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa, Abun Matewos, to excommunicate Iyasu in late August. Reports then began to circulate that Iyasu had presented an Ethiopian flag with a Red Crescent and a quotation from the Koran to Somali troops in Dire Dawa. Iyasu himself, over-confident in the strength of his position as emperor, even if uncrowned, dismissed warnings that his opponents in Addis Ababa were about to take action.84

  • 85 Ibid., 127. See also Pankhurst 2014, 96 for Terzian’s (uncorroborated) assertion that Thesiger offe (...)
  • 86 Thesiger to Grey, 14 September 1916, FO 371/2595; Colli to Minister 21 September 1916, ASMAI 37/11.
  • 87 Thesiger to Grey, 27 September 1916, FO 371/2595.
  • 88 Uhlig 2007, 255.
  • 89 The church was, in fact, divided. There were two Abuna, Matewos in Addis Ababa, and Petros in Axum, (...)
  • 90 Erlich 2010, 81-82.

55The outspoken concerns of the British, Italian and French ministers over Iyasu’s policies provided support, direct or indirect, to Iyasu’s opponents.85 On 12 September the Tripartite powers sent a formal message to the foreign minister complaining that Iyasu was backing rebellion in Somaliland and demanded an immediate explanation.86 Thesiger and Colli, who had made clear their lack of sympathy for Iyasu, were informed in advance of the proclamation issued on 27 September.87 Iyasu was charged with apostasy.88 This time Abun Matewos did agree to the demands of the conspirators, excommunicating Iyasu and releasing people from their oath of allegiance.89 Menelik’s daughter, Zewditu, was proclaimed empress, and Ras Tefari, Iyasu’s cousin and former governor of Harar, whom he had attempted to isolate, was declared heir to the throne.90

  • 91 Shiferaw Bekele 2014, 161 argues persuasively that given the scope of Iyasu’s aims, this was more t (...)
  • 92 Quoted in Kakwenzire op. cit., 282.
  • 93 Del Boca op. cit., 68.
  • 94 Uhlig op. cit., 255.

56This putsch came as an immense relief to the Allies.91 As Thesiger informed the Foreign Office: “the Government is now in the hands of those who are friendly to our cause.”92 Iyasu attempted to respond by marching on Addis Ababa, but his forces were defeated at Meiso, half way between Harar and the capital. His father, Negus Michael, led an army south from Dessie but was also defeated at Sagale, fifty miles north of Addis Ababa, after a bloody day-long battle. Michael himself was captured and paraded in chains in Addis Ababa.93 Iyasu evaded capture until January 1921, when he was finally arrested in a church and imprisoned.94 Even while free, however, Iyasu had posed no further threat after he was deposed to any of his key opponents: the new Empress Zewditu, the Regent and Crown Prince Ras Tefari (crowned Haile Selassie in 1930), or indeed to the Allies.

57The attempt to set Ethiopia on a new course as part of Kaiser Wilhelm’s dream of inflaming “the whole Mohammedan world with wild revolt” had come to nought. Nor had there been a landing of German and Turkish troops. Yet it had been a close-run thing. If the Arab Revolt had not taken hold on the opposite side of the Red Sea and Iyasu had not played his cards quite so poorly; if German and Turkish supplies of arms and ammunition could have been delivered to the Sayyid in sufficient quantities, the outcome might have been rather different. At best, the German plans tied up considerable British resources at a time when they were in great demand on other fronts.

58The implications of an Ethiopia favourable to Germany and the Ottomans would also have been very substantial, and not only for the Horn of Africa. An Ethiopian invasion of Eritrea, and possibly even Djibouti and Sudan as well, would have had considerable repercussions for the Italians, French and British. Badly needed troops would have had to be re-deployed to secure the vital route between Europe and the East via the Suez Canal. But this is the realm of speculation. Ethiopia remained Christian and allied to the Triple Alliance; the Suez Canal remained open, while the Arab Revolt undermined the Ottoman’s hold on the Middle East. From the perspectives of London, Paris and Rome, this was an entirely satisfactory outcome –a sense of relief that was shared by the future Emperor Haile Selassie and his supporters in Addis Ababa.


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1 Thesiger to London, National Archive FO 371/2593. The authors would like to acknowledge the encouragement and insights of anonymous reviewers of this paper, an earlier version of which was published on the website of one of the authors, Plaut 2016.

2 Doughty-Wylie, Addis Ababa Intelligence Report for August 1914, 6 September 1914, FO 1881.

3 There are intriguing, but quite unproven, suggestions that T. E. Lawrence even had a hand in events in Ethiopia. Greenfield 1965, 138 wrote: “Some writers go so far as to suggest that then the famous Colonel T. E. Lawrence came secretly to Ethiopia and was involved in the production of propaganda against Eyasu at the instigation of the British Government.” Greenfield quotes Byron de Prorok “and others.” Prorok 1953, 152-163 writes that he went to visit Iyasu in a “mountain fastness” near Harar, where the prince was held in a “wood and iron cage.” De Prorok claims he saw Iyasu: “Lidj Yassou was lolling against a pile of silk cushions, surrounded by ten or twelve naked women who were offering him champagne and drugs.” A Greek (Zaphir) described to de Prorok how he a member of the British Intelligence Service “was closeted” with the British Minister in Addis Ababa just prior to Iyasu’s overthrow. “My friend Zaphir’s description of the man’s abilities fitted remarkably with that of the author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Revolt in the Desert – Lawrence of Arabia.” (162)

4 It is remarkable how little attention this has received in the general literature on Africa and the First World War. There is hardly a reference to the Horn of Africa in any of the following: Cornfield 2008; Page 1987; and Strachan 2004. The exception to this is Paice 2007, 212-223, who outlines the issue but notes that “remarkably little is known about Lij Iyasu,” (218) the heir to the Ethiopian throne.

5 McKale 1998, 7 ff develops a detailed analysis of both German and British intentions before and during the war.

6 Landau 1990, 47.

7 Fischer 1975, 121 and Kroger 1994. Quoted in McKale 1998, 48.

8 See Strohmeier 2016.

9 Buchan 1916.

10 MacMunn and Falls 1928, 7.

11 Ibid., 13-14.

12 “A patrol of 20 men of the Bikanir Camel Corps, under Captain A. J. H. Chope, was attacked at Bir en Nuss, 20 miles east of Qantara, by 200 Bedouin, who approached it under a white flag. The party extricated itself creditably, though with casualties amounting to more than half its numbers. Unfortunately this affair proved that the loyalty of the camel troopers of the Egyptian Coastguards, several of whom accompanied the Bikanirs as guides, was extremely doubtful, since they allowed themselves to be made prisoners in a manner virtually amounting to desertion.” Ibid., 20.

13 Ibid., 50-51.

14 Bruce 2002, 38 ff.

15 Paice op. cit., 215.

16 Slight 2014, 103 (2), 233-242.

17 Korda 2011, 290.

18 Ibid., 291. The number of German troops was exaggerated, as shall be seen below.

19 Strohmeier, op. cit.

20 Strohmeier, op. cit.

21 Paice, op. cit., 214.

22 Ibid.

23 Scholler 1980, 303.

24 When the Frobenius and Hall mission to Ethiopia was halted by the Italians in Eritrea in March 1915 the mail that Leo Frobenius was carrying was eventually delivered to the German legation in Addis Ababa through Italian channels. After this Bairu Tafla 1981, 133 suggests that the German government managed to continue to communicate with the Legation in “vaguely known ways.”

25 Scholler 1980, 310.

26 Ibid.

27 Britain perceived that a threat existed from Darfur and sent a military force to suppress a jihad declared by Sultan Ali Dinar. But recent research suggests there is no evidence of German involvement in Darfur, cf. Slight 2010.

28 Da Riva 2009, 29-111; Paice, op. cit., 220.

29 Berger Holtz, 2009; Paice, op. cit., 220.

30 Da Riva, op. cit., 76.

31 Ibid.

32 Berger Holtz op. cit., 98. Hall settled in Dire Dawa after the war, where he traded in coffee and married an Englishwoman.

33 Paice op. cit., 220.

34 Bairu Tafla op. cit., 133.

35 Scholler, op. cit., 312.

36 Scholler, op. cit., 312; Bairu Tafla op. cit., 133.

37 Paice op. cit., 217.

38 Irons 2013, 209; Abdi Sheik-Abdi 1993, 173.

39 Bairu Tafla op. cit., 132.

40 Jolly 2013.

41 Thesiger: Memorandum 16 March 1916, FO 371/2595.

42 Baer 1967, 1.

43 Ibid., 2.

44 Tekeste Negash 1987, 48. Italy first sent Eritrean troops, or “askaris,” to Libya in 1912. The Eritrean army was re-organised in October 1915 into 15 battalions with 9 sent to Libya. A total of 7,350 troops were under arms.

45 Ibid., 6.

46 Bairu Tafla op. cit., 132.

47 Hess 1963, 105-126.

48 Ibid., 126. By the end of the war Britain and France were not weak, as they had been in 1915 while Italy’s position was undermined by her failure to declare war on Germany until late in the war – August 1916.

49 Erlich 2014, 135.

50 Marcus 1994, 113.

51 Ibid.

52 See, in particular, Ficquet and Smidt, eds, 2014.

53 Agstner 2014, 115.

54 Agstner op. cit., 127.

55 Ibid.

56 Aramis Houmed Soule, 2014.

57 Ficquet 2014, 5.

58 Sohier 2014, 53.

59 Erlich op. cit., 135. Others point to evidence that Iyasu had no intention of converting to Islam. See, for example, Pankhurst 2014, 91-100.

60 Erlich op. cit., 136.

61 Thesiger quoted in Erlich op. cit., 139.

62 Ibid.

63 Marcus 1975, 266-267.

64 Erlich op. cit., 136.

65 Thesiger to Grey, 14 April 1915, FO 371/2228.

66 Erlich op. cit., 139.

67 Ibid., 140.

68 Ibid., 141.

69 Ibid., 145.

70 Ibid., 146.

71 Ydlibi, 2006, 250-51.

72 Ibid., 245.

73 Colli to Italian Foreign Minister, Documenti Diplomatici Italiani 5th Series Vol. V doc. 95 tel. 7789/92. Quoted in Del Boca 2012, 68.

74 See McKenzie (n.d.); Rogan 2016, 13.

75 Landau op. cit., 142.

76 Quoted in Thesiger to Grey, 24 May 1916, FO 371/2593.

77 Asher 1998, 162.

78 Kakwenzire 1976, 261.

79 Quoted in Kakwenzire op. cit., 274.

80 Colli to Minister, 9 June 1916, ASMAI 37/11.

81 Thesiger to Grey, 1 June 1916, FO 371/2594.

82 Dodds to Law, 19 August 1916, FO 371/2594.

83 Paice, op. cit., 221.

84 Ydlibi op. cit., 256; see also Bahru Zewde 1991, 127.

85 Ibid., 127. See also Pankhurst 2014, 96 for Terzian’s (uncorroborated) assertion that Thesiger offered Abun Matewos one hundred thousand Maria Theresa dollars to release the conspirators from their oath of allegiance.

86 Thesiger to Grey, 14 September 1916, FO 371/2595; Colli to Minister 21 September 1916, ASMAI 37/11.

87 Thesiger to Grey, 27 September 1916, FO 371/2595.

88 Uhlig 2007, 255.

89 The church was, in fact, divided. There were two Abuna, Matewos in Addis Ababa, and Petros in Axum, who was earlier supported by Negus Michael in a theological controversy with Abun Matewos. Marcus op. cit., 267.

90 Erlich 2010, 81-82.

91 Shiferaw Bekele 2014, 161 argues persuasively that given the scope of Iyasu’s aims, this was more than a mere putsch.

92 Quoted in Kakwenzire op. cit., 282.

93 Del Boca op. cit., 68.

94 Uhlig op. cit., 255.

Table des illustrations

Légende Eritrean and Ethiopia, partial view. Made with Scribble Maps.
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Adviser, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, London, UK

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