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, writes Martin Plaut.
Negotiations between the British, Sharif Hussein and his family had been going on in secret since 1914. It was the execution of his close allies in Damascus and Beirut by the Ottoman government, and news 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 Sharif Hussein he was about to be overthrown. T E 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.’
What followed is well understood, with the capture of the port of Aqaba in July 1917 and the ultimate fall of Damascus in September 1918, amid accusations of British duplicity. 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.
What is less well known is that Germany, supported by the Ottomans, had an equally ambitious plan that mirrored what the British were doing in Arabia: but on the opposite side of the Red Sea. Germany was intent on doing all it could to undermine London’s grip on Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia.
The Kaiser’s aim was to instigate a ‘wild revolt’ across the Muslim world and was given force in a memo from the Imperial Colonial Office dated 29 December 1915.
‘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…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.’
The memo declared that the German high command had May or June 1916 in mind for a ‘comprehensive attack.’ To achieve these aims the German government attempted to send couriers to Addis Ababa.
Berlin’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was Leo Frobenius, an explorer, archaeologist and a personal friend of the Kaiser. He set off in early 1915, but his expedition was halted by French and British warships on several occasions. After a journey via Constantinople, Palestine and Arabia, he finally reached the Eritrean port of Massawa. Frobenius reported to Berlin, but the Italians decided not to allow them to proceed, since Rome presumed that their aim would be to ‘agitate against us in Abyssinia.’ After a month, the Germans were allowed to leave Eritrea to return to Berlin.
The Frobenius mission had been a failure. However, it was not the last attempt to reach Addis Ababa. In June 1915 a second mission was despatched, but the envoy was detected when sharp-eyed Eritrean police spotted his corns – the result of wearing shoes rather than sandals – and he was uncovered. In the meantime the German envoy to Ethiopia, Frederick Wilhelm von Syburg received instructions to do everything possible to convince the Ethiopian government to enter the war.
Ethiopia 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, who had ruled since 1889, was in failing health. On 11 June 1908 he suffered a stroke and the following year, the aging emperor informed his ministers that his grandson and only male descendent, Lij Iyasu, would succeed him. The emperor had a massive stroke on 27 October 1909, which effectively incapacitated him.
On 10 April 1911 the sixteen year old Lij Iyasu claimed personal rule. It was a premature development; the prince was far too young. As a commentator wrote: ‘The youth was hardly ready to govern: during his adolescence, he had mostly abandoned the classrooms of the gibbi (Menilik’s palace) for the capital’s bars and brothels… 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.’
Keen to engage with the whole of the Empire, Iyasu wished to embrace more than just the Christian highlanders who had been the traditional rulers of Ethiopia. Much time and effort was spent travelling outside the capital and making links with groups that had been peripheral to the Empire: the Somalis and the Afar. These ties were cemented by marriage, with Iyasu taking Afar wives.
The relationships were deeply worrying for the Ethiopian elite. The Orthodox Church questioned Iyasu’s faith, while the Shewan Amhara nobility were concerned by Iyasu’s attempts to replace them with Tigrayans, Oromos, and others and the threat this posed to their positions and privileges.
By September 1916 matters came to a head. There was 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 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. Over-confident in the strength of his position as emperor, even if uncrowned, Iyasu dismissed warnings that his opponents were about to take action.
The British, Italian and French representatives in Ethiopia had criticised Iyasu’s policies, providing support to his opponents. On 12 September the Tripartite powers sent a formal message to the Ethiopian Foreign Minister complaining that Iyasu was supporting rebellion in Somaliland and demanded an immediate explanation. This time Abun Matewos agreed to the demands of the conspirators, excommunicating Iyasu and released people from their oath of allegiance. Menelik’s daughter, Zawditu was proclaimed empress and Ras Tefari [later crowned Emperor Haile Selassie], whom Iyasu had attempted to isolate, was declared heir to the throne.
This came as an immense relief to the Allies. As the British Consul to Ethiopia, Wilfred Gilbert Thesiger informed the Foreign Office: ‘the Government is now in the hands of those who are friendly to our cause.’ The threat from Iyasu was over: Germany’s aim of bringing Ethiopia into the First World War was at an end.
Martin Plaut is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and former Africa editor BBC World Service News. On 25 October he will be at the Anglo-Ethiopian Society speaking about Lij Iyasu and the German/Ottoman plot to involve Ethiopia in the First World War.