Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Battle of Adowa

The battle of Adowa is still one of the most famous battles ever fought on the continent of Africa. Songs, films and books are still made about it to this day and it ranks as one of the three biggest battles in which native African forces defeated European or at least European-led armies. It was the pivotal battle in the first war between the Ethiopian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy. Italy, united in 1861, was late to the colonial race and eager to carve out a place for herself on the world stage. Ethiopia was a complex network of tribes, often at war with each other and nominally under the rule of a “King of Kings” or Emperor but whose actual control over the country tended to be intermittent. In 1869 an Italian company purchased land for a coaling station in Assab Bay and in 1883 sold the territory to the Italian government. This area eventually became the colony of Eritrea. There were clashes with the religious rebels of Mohammed Ahmed, who claimed to be the “Mahdi” or Islamic messiah in the Sudan as well as clashes with Ethiopians as the Italians moved farther inland.

Emperor Menelik II
Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV clashed with the Italians but eventually came to terms with them. Meanwhile, one of his leading nobles, Menelik of Shewa, was building up his forces, making use of modern weapons sold to him by the Italians in return for his neutrality. When Emperor Yohannes IV was on his deathbed he named his nephew, Ras Mangasha -one of the most capable warriors in Ethiopia, as his heir in 1889. However, Menelik controlled the best land and the most men who had the most advanced weaponry. When Yohannes IV died he declared himself Emperor Menelik II and negotiated Italian support for his seizure of power. He signed the Treaty of Wuchale on May 2, 1889 with Italy by which the kingdom recognized Menelik as Emperor of Ethiopia in return for which he recognized Italian ownership of the land already under their control. Permanent friendship was pledged and trade agreements established, however, confusion over one clause in the treaty would ultimately lead to war.

Ras Mangasha
Article 17 was the cause of the trouble as it was different in the Italian and Ethiopian versions. According to the Italian version Menelik II had basically agreed that Ethiopia was an Italian protectorate. In the Ethiopian version the Emperor had the option to avail himself of Italian protection but no obligation. When Emperor Menelik II reached out to other European governments on his own the Italians objected. Emperor Menelik II objected to their objection and sent a letter of protest to King Umberto I of Italy. When the King failed to respond satisfactorily, Menelik II repudiated the Treaty of Wuchale, effectively declaring war on the Kingdom of Italy on February 27, 1893. After dealing with the forces of the Mahdi, who clashed with the Ethiopians and Italians alike, the focus shifted to the important province of Tigre. Menelik II, hoping to make an ally out of the man he had displaced, offered the province to Ras Mangasha if he could take it from the Italians. Ras Mangasha pretended to be friendly with the Italians and raised an army on the pretense of fighting the forces of the Mahdi. However, once gathered, he launched a surprise attack on the Italians. Mangasha was defeated but the fight resulted in Italy being drawn into a larger and more risky confrontation.

Generale Baratieri
Major General Oreste Baratieri was dispatched with a large Italian colonial army, most of the rank and file being native African troops under Italian command. He won a number of early victories which caused overconfidence while Emperor Menelik II spent his time gathering a massive army from across Ethiopia. Both armies fought a proxy war and played for time until they were each forced into a confrontation due to dwindling supplies. The feudal levies of the Ethiopian army could not be kept in the field, inactive for long and General Baratieri was being pushed by the government in Rome for a swift and decisive victory. The two armies moved and came together near the town of Adowa. Italian reinforcements had been dispatched to Africa but would not arrive in time and General Baratieri had no idea of how large an army was massed against him. He had expected, at most, about 60,000 men when in fact Menelik II was able to field over 100,000 warriors compared to only about 15,000 Italian colonial troops. Exact figures are not known but the Italians would be outnumbered at least 8 to 1 by most accounts.

Menelik II
Because of earlier victories over considerably larger forces, the Italian high command tended to underestimate the Ethiopians, causing them to be overconfident. Menelik II, however, was throwing everything he had into the upcoming battle. Contrary to popular belief, he was not ignorant of modern weaponry and many of his men carried rifles and his army even possessed some artillery. He had also made use of his support with the populace to confuse his enemy. Most of the scouts working for the Italians were actually in the employ of Menelik II and he used other means to fool the Italians into thinking his army was mostly dispersed. The Italians had also underestimated Menelik II himself. They had hoped to influence local chieftains against him or to at least secure their neutrality (as they had previously done with Menelik himself) but this time it didn’t work. Menelik II, upon taking the throne, enacted measures to ensure that the nobility would support him and the vast majority did exactly that. He moved his army forward while the Italians, unfamiliar with the terrain and being fed bad information by their native scouts, stumbled about in the dark and became separated.

Generale Albertone
As the Italian forces advanced on a night march the units became mixed up, setting back their timetable and a misunderstanding over the name of a certain hill caused General Matteo Albertone to advance far beyond the rest of the army. This caused something of a chain-reaction as the next brigade, told to take their place alongside Albertone, also became separated. By the time Emperor Menelik II sent his warriors charging against the enemy on the morning of March 1, 1896 the Italian forces were perfectly placed to be wiped out by the Ethiopians one piece at a time. In terms of the forces engaged, this was almost a purely African battle with the Italians involved being a minority. The African natives of the Italian army fought with remarkable discipline against tremendous odds, holding their positions and delivering devastating volleys of fire that took an immense toll on the attackers. Nonetheless, the Ethiopian warriors were just as determined in their ferocity and attacked again and again. As the day wore on the Ethiopians finally overwhelmed the Italians, destroying or routing the entire brigade. General Albertone himself was killed in the struggle.

Of the four Italian brigades, one was annihilated and another already close to the same fate when General Baratieri realized none of his messages had gotten through or if they had, lack of knowledge of terrain meant they had not been properly followed. He tried to organize a strong defensive position in the center of his intended battle line but, for the most part, by that time it was too little and too late. Fleeing troops overran these positions with Ethiopian warriors hot on their heels and despite some heroic stands the Italian position began to totally disintegrate. General Vittorio Dabormida, commanding the brigade sent to the relief of Albertone, was trapped and wiped out by Ethiopian forces, including the tough Oromo cavalry under Ras Mikael. Virtually the entire brigade was destroyed and again, the commanding general was among the dead.

General Baratieri tried to pull off a fighting withdrawal, and some units held off a few attacks, but this proved impossible and soon the entire army, or at least what was left of it, was in full flight. Emperor Menelik II called upon the local population to rise up against his enemies and many more Italians and colonial troops were killed after falling behind, collapsing from exhaustion or becoming lost during the retreat. In all the Italians had lost 6,133 men either killed in the battle or slaughtered during the retreat. Another 1,428 were wounded and all 56 pieces of artillery were captured by the Ethiopians. Emperor Menelik II lost about 7,000 men dead and 10,000 wounded; a much greater number certainly but representing only a fraction of his overall strength whereas the Italian losses counted for over half of their total force. Many of the Italian wounded also suffered a more horrific fate, some being killed, some being mutilated. The African colonial troops usually suffered worse than the Europeans as, depending on their origin, many of these men were considered traitors by the Ethiopians and had one hand and one foot cut off so as to make them permanently helpless and, in most cases, doomed to a slow, agonizing death from starvation.

Menelik II triumphants
The results of the battle were immediate and dramatic. In Rome the government of Francesco Crispi immediately fell and General Baratieri was wrongly blamed of abandoning his men in disgrace. Fortunately, he was cleared by a court martial but his reputation had suffered irreparable harm. All Italian colonial expansion in Africa was halted for more than a decade and total Ethiopian independence was recognized. Emperor Menelik II wisely made this his only real demand. While others howled for more blood, he realized that provoking an all-out war might have resulted in the loss of his throne and the total ruination of his country. He had gained what he wanted, earned himself a place in African history and was content to leave well enough alone. Ethiopia gained a new respect on the world stage and foreign recognition poured in for Menelik II who attained a new mythic status because of his victory. However, not everything that resulted from the battle was good for Ethiopia. The Italians had gained a new respect for the fighting ability of the Ethiopians and would not underestimate them next time; and many were determined that there would be a next time when the defeat of Adowa would be avenged. When the next contest came it would be the Ethiopians who, remembering their victory at Adowa, would tend to underestimate the Italians with disastrous results.

Still, the most lasting effect of the battle of Adowa was in the symbolism of it. Not since the Zulu victory at Isandlwana in 1879 had a European army been so totally defeated by a force of African natives. Even after Italy evened the score in 1935-36, Africans never forgot the battle of Adowa and African nationalists invoked the memory of that victory to inspire a new generation in the decades after World War II to rally to the cause of overthrowing the European colonial governments and asserting independence for the nations of Africa.


  1. A prime example of a Monarchy doing what is best for his people, if Ethiopia was a Kelptocracy, I mean Democracy, he would have dithered while the "Elected" officials took bribes from the Italians and sold their country down the river!

    Bless the Emperor for his aid in Keeping Ethiopia Free, Long live Monarchy!

    1. As part of the peace settlement Menelik was given a substantial "reparations" payment from King Umberto I (which was not public knowledge in Italy as it would have inflamed public opinion) and individual African nobles were paid for the release of Italian POW's but the primary demand Menelik overruled was the desire by some to carry on and wipe out the whole Italian presence in Africa (re-taking Eritrea).

      As I said, Menelik rightly realized that this would have turned the war into a national crusade for Italy and caused a bigger war he couldn't win. He also realized this would hurt his international position since he had previously recognized Italian rule of Eritrea (and the British had encouraged the Italians to annex that area and Ethiopia had been stung by Britain not very long before). So, all in all, he could see that going along with the warhawks would have presented more risks than potential benefit whereas leaving well enough alone brought him international acclaim, humiliated Rome and by going out on the high note of such a victory elevated him to near godlike status among the Africans.

      Every European colonial government and every African chieftain allied to them sat a little less easy after Adowa.


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