Ethiopia is a fascinating country with a fascinating history that deserves to be much better known, and we, not surprisingly, have played something of a role in it.
As far back as the early fifteenth century we have a letter from Henry IV intended for the King of Abyssinia. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century, however, that we became a major player in the region. By 1855, we were signing a treaty with Abyssinia and by 1868 we were invading it.
Emperor Tewodros (sounds an exotic name to the average Brit, but it’s basically Theodore), mentioned in the Eritrea section, was having a spot of trouble with local rebels and wrote to assorted European powers requesting their assistance in the matter. When he didn’t get the answers he was looking for, he took the unwise step of grabbing some hostages. After various negotiations had failed we sent in the troops.
Lieutenant General Sir Robert Napier and an expeditionary force from the Bombay Army was given the job. After extensive preparations had been made on the Red Sea Coast (see Eritrea), the force moved inland to face the emperor. Tewodros failed to unite the Abyssinians (Ethiopians) against us, and when his remaining forces faced Napier’s outside Magdala, his capital, on 10 April 1868, for the loss of just two dead from our side, the emperor’s forces were crushed and the hostages were released. Shortly afterwards Tewodros was dead.
With the war over and having got his title (Napier was soon to become Baron Napier of Magdala, imaginatively enough), Napier withdrew his troops, in the process handing over a lot of expensive military kit to a helpful (to us) local leader, Ras Kassai, who then used it to help himself to become emperor as Yohannes IV. He also picked up a British military adviser, one John Kirkham.
In the following period, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) had rather more to fear from other directions apart from us. For example, we were on its side against Muhammad Ahmed (see Sudan). It was Italy that started taking a rather intense and unwelcome interest in the area. This culminated in Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, bringing it under Italian control in 1936.
The good news is that Italian control wasn’t to last long. In the summer of 1940, the Italians picked a fight with us in the region, with a series of probing attacks followed by their conquest of British Somaliland in August.
We, however, were not going to let Mussolini take over. We soon struck back both in Somaliland and elsewhere, including Ethiopia. Our invasion of Ethiopia was to come from a number of directions. In the south, units advanced into southern Ethiopia from Kenya. In the north, units advanced south from Eritrea after its fall. In addition, Emperor Selassie himself crossed into Ethiopia to lead patriot Ethiopian forces in alliance with Gideon Force, led by Orde Wingate, in a sort of precursor to the role played by Wingate and the famous Chindits later in Burma.
On 6 April 1941, General Cunningham’s forces advancing from the south took Addis Ababa. On 5 May 1936, the Italians had taken Addis Ababa from Haile Selassie, then on 5 May 1941, five years later, it was Haile Selassie who was entering the city. In July, the Italian stronghold at Jimma fell and finally, in November, the Italians at Gondar also surrendered to British, Commonwealth and Ethiopian troops.