History

How the News was received in England

The English “man in the street,” who until then had
been profoundly unaware of Italian diplomatic
manoeuvres to annex Ethiopia, opened his newspaper
sixty years ago to learn that, for the first time since
the Carthagian Hannibal marched into the Valley of
the Po some two thousand years earlier, an army from
Africa had decisively defeated a large and well equipped
European force. It is interesting to examine how these
events were presented to the British public by The
Times, and how that semi-official newspaper explained
what it considered to be the interest of the British
Government.

The dramatic news from Africa immediately resulted
in the collapse of the Italian Government of Signer
Crispi, which was considered responsible for the defeat.
Newspapers all over the world were therefore con-
fronted almost simultaneously with exciting war reports
and news of an Italian Cabinet crisis. The Rome
Government had of course been deeply implicated in
the Ethiopian war and only a few days before the battle,
The Times had published a revealing report from its
Rome correspondent which illustrates Franco-Italian
jealousy about the intended partition of the Horn of
Africa. It asserted that the Italian Government was
aware of “a secret treaty” between France and Ethiopia
in which the French were supporting Menelik in order
to discomfort Italy. The Paris Temps immediately
denied what it called this “extraordinary” report, while
a despatch from the Paris correspondent of The Times
made it apparent that colonially minded sections of
French public opinion, though opposed to Italy as a
rival colonial power, were unwilling to side with the
invaded country because it was situated on the African
Continent.

” No one here—I have not to take notice of this or
that scatter-brained person, or a few habitually malevo-
lent minds—wishes for the success of the Abyssinians
at the price of the discomfiture of a civilised nation,
from which it is quite possible to differ in aims and
opinions without being supposed to cherish any ill-will
when that nation is face to face with a brave but bar-
barous foe.”

Despite these words, the Paris correspondent averred
that there was a tendency in French circles to be “rather
kindly disposed ” toward ” the presence of serious diffi-
culties for Italy in Africa.” He was confident, how-
ever, that the “somewhat bitter complaints” of the
Italian politicians would “induce no revival of hostility”
against Italy in France.

The great Ethiopian victory necessarily changed the
entire picture. The Times, which until then had referred
to the Ethiopians as a “barbarous foe,” now chided
General Baratieri for imagining that he was confronted
with “undisciplined and ill-armed savages”; as we shall
see, a few days later, the newspaper declared that the
Ethiopians were “a civilised power both in the way
they made war and in the way they conducted their
diplomacy.” On March 6, it discussed the Italian politi-
cal crisis in the following words:
” Though the Crispi Government cannot be held
directly responsible for the Italian defeat at Adowa, it
was certain that General Baratieri’s blunder would bring
about its overthrow . . . Signor Crispi’s action appears
to have the approval of moderate men . . . but the
extreme Left, enraged by the curtailment of its oppor-
tunities for vituperation, has not been able to control its
temper either within the Chamber or outside. The
sitting seems to have closed in hopeless confusion, while
Radical Deputies placed themselves at the head of
excited mobs, marching through the streets with loud
cries for the impeachment of the fallen Ministers. It
is, happily, difficult for human nature to remain long at
fever-heat. The very violence of these demonstrations
tends to shorten their duration, so that after a certain
amount of shouting, gesticulating and anathematising,
we may expect the Piazza Colonna to regain its wonted
calm and the people to regain the rational consideration
of events.”

Reporting that the Marquis di Rudini had set up what
was to prove a merely interim administration the news-
paper alluded to other Italian problems:
” While the excitement in Rome arises naturally out
of the profound chagrin with which a sensitive people
receives the news of a great calamity, there are threats
of disturbance in other parts of Italy which are of a
more disquieting character. In Sicily there is chronic
disaffection, which, it will be remembered, was not long
ago suppressed or driven under by Signor Crispi. His
fall in circumstances so deplorable will undoubtedly
prove a great encouragement to all the disorderly fac-
tions … It must therefore be hoped by all friends
of Italy that, whether under the Marquis di Rudini or
another, a Government may be promptly formed cap-
able of steadily maintaining the authority of the laws.”
Despite the hopes of such “friends of Italy,” riots were
reported from Rome, Naples, Milan and the other prin-
cipal cities, and a telegram even reached London, report-
ing the assassination of ex-premier Crispi. On the
following day, March 7, it was learnt, however, that
this report was unfounded, a Times editorial declaring:
” the good name of the Italian people has not been dis-
honoured in its hour of trial by the crime of a maddened
mob.” The editorial went on to recall that “the Italians
of to-day” were “the descendants and the heirs of the
people whose Senate thanked an erring and defeated
General, after the crushing disaster of Cannae because
he had not despaired of the Republic.” The news-
paper would “not permit” itself “to discuss the possi-
bility that the (Savoyan) dynasty may be threatened”
as “a revolution in Italy would be unspeakably calami-
tous to the country itself and would menace the tran-
quillity of the whole of Europe.” (These arguments
were to be voiced again almost half a century later
when it was thought that action by the League of
Nations might possibly bring Mussolini’s invasion of
Ethiopia in 1935 to a halt). Advising the Italian people
not to display such “ingratitude” to King Humbert,
whose father had “played so noble a part in winning
and consolidating Italian unity and freedom,” The Times
advised a policy of caution and compromise as best cal-
culated to serve Italian interests in Africa:
” What is to be deprecated in the interests of Italy is
the hasty and inconsiderate adoption of a policy of
extremes. Some of her counsellors support the present
outcry of the populace for an immediate and uncon-
ditional retirement from Abyssinia. Others exhort her
at all costs to wipe out what is represented as a stain
upon her honour by renewing her military and financial
efforts on a greater scale than ever. Both courses, in
our opinion, are equally unwise. A complete and pre-
cipitate withdrawal would be surely and speedily
repented, and the responsibility for it would be urged
against the King’s Government at no distant date by
those whose interest it is to create troubles. On the
other hand, it is absurd to say that the honour of Italy
can only be secured by undertaking the conquest of
Abyssinia—a task which would not be hopefully
attempted in the existing state of public opinion. Her
true policy would appear to be that of withdrawing
from the mountain region where General Baratieri met
his ruin, as well as from Kassala, where she is threatened
by the Dervishes, and holding Massawah with the domi-
nating positions in the neighbourhood, as a pied-a-terre
from which to watch events. Thus the present might
be made safe while the future would not be com-
promised.” However “natural” the impulse “to pour in
men and munitions” to avenge the defeat, the political
horizon was “not so clear,” The Times added a few
days later, that Italy could not “afford to entangle herself
in adventures which there is no hope of carrying to a
successful issue except by means of exhausting expen-
diture and persevering effort.”

Meanwhile the Parliamentary crisis dragged on in
Italy and fuller news of the debacle of Adowa poured
in. On March 9, The Times had much to say on both
subjects. Discussing the battle, detailed news of which
had at last reached England, the newspaper seemed
almost to be fighting the engagement a second time; it
went to considerable length to point out Baratieri’s tacti-
cal errors. Being pro-Italian it repeatedly referred to
the Ethiopian army as “the Shoans,” though in fact the
principal provinces of Ethiopia were all included in the
armies at Adowa, and in particular the Tigre, which
the Italians had assiduously endeavoured to detach from
its loyalty to the Ethiopian Empire.

The Times’ account is as follows:
” The latest accounts place the Italian loss in the
battle of Adowa at a figure so high that we cannot but
hope there is a serious mistake somewhere. It is esti-
mated at no less than 7,000 white and 2,000 native
troops, though what proportion of the missing are killed
and how many are prisoners it is at present impossible
to say. As the total number of troops engaged in the
attack is given as 15,000 and cannot have been very
easily in excess of that number, the disaster has clearly
been one of quite exceptional magnitude. One-half the
forces, and, if the figures are correct, much more than
one-half seem to have disappeared. Italians will find
a melancholy consolation in the fact that their troops
fought with desperate gallantry. One division seems
to have been practically destroyed where it stood, after
inflicting enormous loss upon the enemy. It was prob-
ably owing to the severity of their punishment that the
Shoans abstained in a manner otherwise unaccountable
from a pursuit which might have rendered the catas-
trophe even more appalling. They have evidently now
followed up their victory for Adigrat is invested, and
the position of its garrison renders the whole situation
infinitely more difficult to deal with. Adigrat is not
upon the direct line of retreat, and General Baratieri
seems to have been too hard pressed either to turn aside
and avoid leaving the road to Asmara open to the
Abyssinians, or even to give the garrison timely notice
of its impending isolation. With 600 sick in hospital its
movements were seriously hampered, and the enemy
seem to have been within a few kilometres before the
commander was aware of his danger. From the tone
of his message it may be doubted whether he is even
now acquainted with the full extent of his disaster, for
he speaks cheerfully of having a month’s provisions. So
far as can be judged at the present there is little chance
of relief reaching Adigrat within a month in face of
what is plainly a forward movement on the part of the
Abyssinians.

” While the Italian troops displayed splendid valour,
their generals seem to have set at defiance all the elemen-
tary rules of warfare, and especially of mountain war-
fare. The Shoan army was posted upon an elevated
plateau to the number, it is said, of 80,000 men. General
Baratieri must have had abundant opportunities of learn-
ing of their equipment and the use they could make of it,
consequently he can hardly have imagined that he was
dealing with undisciplined and ill-armed savages. Yet
he behaved as if nothing were in front of him but a
rabble which would melt away on contact with disci-
plined troops. He attacked that plateau with three
divisions, marching through three valleys or ravines,
and therefore completely isolated and incapable of
mutual support. He neglected the elementary rule never
to engage your forces in a defile without occupying the
hills that command it. The rocky heights that effectively
separated his columns were taken possession of by the
Shoans with the utmost facility, because they practically
entered on the level. They could therefore flank each
of General Baratieri’s divisions, which struggling in the
narrow passes, had no room for the evolutions required
to offer even such defence as was possible against such
odds. To attack such an enemy at all on the front was
a serious blunder, but to attack in that particular manner
shows an almost incredible disregard of the rudimentary
principles of military science. The motives which
impelled General Baratieri to push forward regardless
of the danger to which he exposed his reinforcements
he knew to be on the way, and to make his ill-judged
attack without awaiting their arrival, almost baffle con-
jecture. It would, however, be well to await further
details before attributing his impatience purely to per-
sonal motives. Italy is not the only Power which on
political or religious pretexts interests herself in Abys-
sinia, and it is just conceivable that there were political
motives for pressing the unfortunate General to score
some success if possible, even at the serious risk of
failure.”

Turning to the political situation in Italy, the news-
paper announced that Signor Saracco had failed in his
efforts to form a cabinet. It continued:
” On the immediate question of the policy to be pur-
sued in Abyssinia, the Cabinet will have to come to a
decision which, whatever its nature, will arouse opposi-
tion from one side or another. Each of the three pos-
sible policies has its advocates. With a large section of
the nation the whole Abyssinian enterprise is unpopular,
and nothing short of complete abandonment would
satisfy some critics. On the other hand, the feelings of
a high-spirited people are profoundly stirred by the
crushing reverse at Adowa, which to many will seem
to1 call for the most determined efforts to regain the
position that has been lost. Between these two is the
middle course which we have ventured to urge upon the
Italian Government that of rigorous concentration
within an area capable of being, defended without exces-
sive effort.”

Elaborating this proposal, the editorial concluded:
” Italy need not abandon any of her claims or renounce
any project that careful consideration may show to be
feasible. But in the meantime a defensive and waiting
policy seems to be clearly indicated alike by military
and political motives.”

The Times deeply regretted the fact that a European
army had been decisively defeated by a “native” force.
It now stressed the difference between the Ethiopians and
other inhabitants of Africa, then also confronted with
imperialist pressure. The Ethiopians, it declared, were a
“civilised power both in the way they made war and
in the way they conducted their diplomacy.” They
should, therefore, not be confused with “savage tribes
incapable of making a stand against a regular European
attack.”

Discussing the outcome of the campaign The Times
added:

” It was true that, in some respects, the military
disaster seems to be less crushing than was supposed.
The Abyssinian generals do not appear to have followed
up their victory with the vigour enjoined by all the
masters of the art of war. Hence the actual destruction
of the Italian forces is less complete than it might easily
have been and has been assumed to be.” Moreover,
considerable numbers of stragglers were turning up at
Italian headquarters. The newspaper continued:
” Unfortunately this is about the only gleam of con-
solation that can be found in the story of a most dis-
astrous enterprise. Though the men remain, the army
has sustained a deadly blow. Such a reverse, accom-
panied by heavy loss of artillery, cannot but prove
demoralising to any force and specially to one largely
composed of native levies. The more we learn about
the matter, the more serious does it become from this
point of view.”

All this merely served to strengthen the newspaper’s
conviction that it would be “unwise” for Italy to
attempt a policy of immediate revenge. It added:
” Were the Shoan army to make an energetic forward
movement, it would be difficult to assign limits to the
embarrassments of the Italian Government.”
Actually, as we shall see, the Emperor Menelik con-
fined his advance to the frontier existing at the time,
Ras Makonnen signed in Rome on Ethiopia’s behalf
the annexe to the Treaty of Uccialli, even though the
Italians by trickery had advanced that frontier beyond
the line they occupied when the Treaty was signed.
The attitude of The Times was thus one of friendship
for the aggressor, qualified only by a criticism of Italian
tactical mistakes. Thus it declared that the Italians had
” to do more than merely reconsider the plan of opera-
tions followed, under considerable pressure from home,
by General Baratieri. They have to revise their whole
policy towards Abyssinia, and if on mature consideration
they think it necessary to attempt the conquest of the
country, they must make up their minds to efforts very
much greater and more exhausting than they have
hitherto contemplated.”

Developing this train of thought the same editorial
concluded: “It is felt at this moment, in every European capital,
that the position in Italy is critical, and her action is
watched, if with varying sympathies, at all events with
unvarying closeness of attention. A mere African expe-
dition against nomad tribes would not affect her general
position or call forth all this anxiety. It is seen that
she is involved in an enterprise of a totally different kind,
which, if persevered in, cannot but profoundly affect all
her European relations. Her allies of the Triple Alli-
ance are exhibiting the most unmistakable symptoms of
concern.”

Discussing the British attitude the newspaper was
brutally frank:
“The sympathies of this country cannot be thought
doubtful for an instant. Englishmen have a sincere and
enduring friendship for Italy, while English policy
regards her as an essential and most valuable factor in
the political equilibrium of Europe. Her aims in
Abyssinia we in this country regard without the faintest
tinge of jealousy, while her general well-being, political
and financial is earnestly desired.”

The fact that The Times admitted that Ethiopia was a
“civilised power,” both in her methods of warfare and
in her diplomacy, renders cynical the sympathy accorded
to Italy in her unprovoked and unscrupulous aggression
and the assertion that she “need not abandon her
claims,” but she should bide her time to strike again at
Ethiopian freedom at some favourable opportunity.
Italy’s claim to govern Ethiopia, we have seen, was
based on a discreditable trick—the inclusion in the
Italian version of the Treaty of Uccialli of words which
did not appear in the Ethiopian version, the only one
which the Emperor Menelik signed. British sympathy
for Italian aggression had, in fact, three motives: (1)
Hope that Italian expansion would prevent the French
from obtaining influence in the area in question; (2)
desire to win possible Italian support in the Mediter-
ranean; (3) fear less the defeat of a European Power
by an African nation would create unrest in British
colonies.

When order was at last established in Italy The
Times devoted a leader to the situation on March 11,
wherein it expressed its thankfulness that the Italian
Government appeared to have adopted the course of
action it had itself been recommending. It declared:
“After the first outburst of national grief and disap-
pointment men are settling down to calm and earnest
consideration of the condition of affairs . . . Popular
demonstrations against the despatch of reinforcements
to Massawa have given place to a general conviction that,
whatever decision may be ultimately arrived at as to
Italian policy, it is indispensable that General Baldissera
should receive all the support he may deem necessary.
Those responsible, whether immediately or approxi-
mately, for the disaster at Adowa, will undoubtedly be
called to account in good time. But for the moment the
more pressing duty is to effect the relief of the garrisons
at Adigrat and Kassala. and to offer the Negus a front
sufficiently formidable to make Italy once more mistress
of her actions in Eritrea.

” The fact must be faced, although it is nowhere more
sincerely deplored than in England, that events in
Abyssinia constitute a grave embarrassment for Italy,
no matter in what way they may be dealt with . . .
Italy is most unfortunately involved in a difficulty which
cannot be immediately shaken oft’ by anything she can
do; and to that extent she is hampered in any other enter-
prise she may desire to pursue.”

The columns of The Times make interesting reading
throughout the first half of 1896. The St. Petersburg
Correspondent, for example, reported that some 12,000
roubles had been collected in Russia for an “Abyssinian
fund,” but that the Italian authorities were obstructing
a Russian Red Cross mission to Ethiopia which had been
despatched at a cost of 130,000 roubles. “The conse-
quence is that the nursing sisters, with part of the
baggage have been ordered back to Russia, and the rest
of the party are obliged to make a much longer and
very difficult journey though desert country with no
prospect of arriving at Menelik’s camp before the rainy
season . . . These painful details have been officially
announced at a special meeting of the Red Cross
Society.” Tsarist Russia was, in fact, the only European
power to champion Ethiopia at the time of Adowa.
The rulers of St. Petersburg had close religious ties with
the Ethiopian Church, were totally devoid of colonial
ambitions in Africa, and were, moreover, anxious to dis-
comfort the Italians, at that time the allies of Germany
and Austria, a rival European power group. In April,
The Times reported the despatch of a Russian scientific
mission to Ethiopia led by M. Dimitreff, which was
closely followed by General Shvedoff, ” several military
officers” and a priest. The newspaper felt the matter
deserved a leading article which ridiculed the fact that
the Russian Red Cross chaplain had brought with him
“20,000 small crosses of the Orthodox pattern,” com-
plained that the officers were seeking to stir the troubled
waters for sinister reasons and warned the statesmen of
the French Republic that the Imperialism of the Tsar
might be more dangerous to their Red Sea colony than
that of their Italian neighbours.” ” The sudden develop-
ment of Russian interest in the Abyssinians,” it declared,
“is a subject for the curiosity of Europe . . . Russia,
it is true, is not more noted in the annals of philan-
thropy for any unusual eagerness to succour than for
zeal in ministering to their spiritual necessities. As a
rule her works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual,
are rigidly restricted to members of the Slav race. But
as she has manifested lately an unexpected concern for
the religious welfare of the subjects of King Menelik,
it is quite natural that she should likewise display an
exceptional solicitude for his wounded soldiers . . .
Russian military officers have proved most effective
missionaries before now, and perhaps the Abyssinians
may harken to them for the present . . . Several of
of the Balkan States have enjoyed in an unexpected
fashion, the beneficence of the Tsar. Servia wanted
money, Montenegro wanted rifles, and the ruler of
Bulgaria had cravings to be recognised by the Powers
. . . The Russian adventure in the domains of King
Menelik seems rather worthy of Count Ignatiefl (the
leader of Russia’s ‘military party’ advocating the
manifest destiny of Holy Russia and general Slav ex-
pansion) … It is not, perhaps, very likely to succeed,
but if it does succeed nobody will have more cause to
regret its success than France. The Republic will find
the Tsar a much more unpleasant neighbour to Obok
than the Italians.”

In May, The Times reported the issue of an Italian
Government Green Book. Though the publication of
this volume had clearly been devised by the Italians to
blame their debacle on lack of support from Britain,
it also contained interesting diplomatic revelations. In
particular, it showed that after much discussion the
British Government had agreed on the eve of the battle
to allow the Italian army to land at the port of Zeila
and pass through Somali territory so as to divert
Ethiopian forces southwards for the defence of Harar.
The Times strongly criticised the publication of this
Green Book, declaring that it was calculated to stir up
anti-British feeling in Italy, and was so arranged as to
bring into “undue prominence” the points of difference
between the two powers so that “the substantial agree-
ment on essentials was in no small danger of being
ignored.” On the projected campaign against Harar it
commented:
” The point of most interest to ourselves in the docu-
ments is the account they give of the negotiations opened
up by Italy in respect of Zeila. The Italians, at one
period of the campaign, believed that by landing troops
at that port and marching them in the direction of Harar,
they could distract the attention of the Abyssinians and
divert a portion of their forces from the theatre of
operations further north. General Ferrero, the Italian
Ambassador in this country, was instructed to ask our
permission for the landing of the troops. The British
Government were quite willing and even anxious to
give the Italians any aid they rightly could give them,
but the objection to the proposal was obvious. It was
possible that the column operating from Zeila might be
repulsed and driven back upon Somaliland. Were we
to endanger a British possession from a desire to assist
a friendly people?”

There was, moreover, another diplomatic obstacle—
the opposition of France. The Times continues:
“France regarded the project with intense jealousy,
and we were naturally reluctant to give her any just
grounds of offence, either of a general kind or arising
from our agreement with her in regard to Harar itself.
These topics were discussed with the freedom usual in
diplomatic conversations of a confidential nature between
Lord Salisbury and General Ferrero, in London, and
between Sir Clare Ford and Baron Blanc, in Rome . . .
The project was received, and in January of the present
year Lord Salisbury assented to the passage of the
Italian troops through Zeila while making reservations
to spare any just susceptibilities on the part of France.
At various points in the negotiation of this extremely
difficult and complex affair, our Government were not
able at once to accept the view of the Italians, and on
one occasion especially Baron Blanc, in conversa-
tion with the British Ambassador, in Rome, signified his
annoyance in very plain terms. Exaggerated language
was employed, and in possible contingencies action was
spoken of which, doubtless, it was never intended to carry
out. These conversations have been published in the
Green Book, and it is difficult to suppose that they can
have been published with any object but one. That
object certainly was not to inform the Italian people as
to what the relations between Great Britain and Italy
really were at the close of the Crispi Administration.
Those relations were always friendly, as they are friendly
now. They depend on interests too deep and solid to
be affected by petty questions in remote parts of Africa.
Our friendship rests upon our common interests and
our common objects in the Mediterranean, and while
those remain it can never be shaken.”

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