South African Military History Society

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The Chairman, Ivor Little, opened the meeting with the usual welcome and notices and then introduced the first speaker for the evening, Colonel (Dr) James Jacobs. Colonel Jacobs is a career soldier and professional historian and the theme of his talk, the evening's curtain-raiser, was the "Battle of Adowa, 1 March 1896."

In true military fashion, James commenced by giving us the geographical and historical background of Ethiopia from pre-history until 1885, the start of his story. This was at the time of the so-called "Scramble for Africa" and Italy started to participate in this by taking over the port of Massaw in Eritrea from Egypt in that year. They then advanced further inland into Eritrea but were decisively defeated at Dogali by the Eritreans in January 1887. At about this time Menelek II, the king of Shoa in central Ethiopia, became Emperor of the whole of Ethiopia. He enjoyed Italian support and consolidated his empire as well as founding the new capital city of Addis Ababa.

Having supported Menelek in this, the Italians decided to obtain by guile what they had not obtained by conquest. Accordingly, they talked Menelek into signing the Treaty of Ucciali in May 1889, in which Italy was able to colonize Eritrea and occupy Asmara. The catch was that there were two versions of the Treaty, one in Amaharic and the other in Italian. They differed in one very important aspect in that the Italian version effectively made Ethiopia a protectorate of Italy. This version was accepted by most European nations, except for France, Russia and Turkey. Menelek himself rejected the Italian version with contempt and while the Italians advanced into Ethiopia to enforce the establishment of their protectorate, he concentrated on building up his own power base and military, by means of arms received from France and Russia. During this time the Italians consolidated their grip in the Ethiopian province of Tigre, at the north-eastern corner of Ethiopia.

Their forces were commanded by General Oreste Baratieri and he pushed south with 4 000 native troops and, by July 1895, he had established three fortified strategic strong points in Ethiopia. This string of minor victories made him a hero back in Italy and the Italian government decided to finance the conquest of the whole of Ethiopia. Thus encouraged, Baratieri pushed even further south until he reached a line of mountain peaks beyond which lay the town of Adowa, his next target.

By this time Menelek was ready for the Italians. Despite a long and difficult supply line, he gathered a force of 70 000 men and promptly overran two Italian garrisons and forced Baratieri to retreat towards Eritrea. Menelek then called for a truce and paroled his prisoners, but the Italians, by now thoroughly humiliated, would have none of it.

In February 1896, Baratieri launched a four-pronged attack on Adowa with 17 700 men and 56 guns. The intention was to advance under cover of darkness so that by dawn on 1 March they would be through the hills and overlooking Adowa. The resulting battle was a farce and reminiscent of similar failed British enterprises in South Africa. The country outside Adowa in the mountains is extremely rough, with no roads. The four columns had no knowledge of the countryside, extremely poor maps and very soon lost communication with each other.

One brigade on the far right advanced so far ahead that they were literally "out on a limb". The two in the centre got nowhere and on the left the brigade commander took what he thought was his objective, only to find that he was on the wrong hill and six kilometres short of where he should have been! Gaps opened up in the advancing Italian line and Menelek's commanders took full advantage of this. Even so, it appeared for a while that the Italians would prevail because of superior fire-power, but as the day progressed the Ethiopians slowly but surely swamped the opposition.

Using a Power Point presentation, James took us slowly and clearly through these phases of the battle, which ended in a resounding victory for Menelek. The Italians suffered crippling losses and retreated back into Eritrea, where the pursuit ended at the border. Menelek allowed them to keep Eritrea as a sop to their pride and to allow them the coveted colony in Africa that they so desperately wanted.

Ethiopia has maintained its independence ever since, apart from the short period from 1936 to 1940 when it eventually fell to Italy under Mussolini.

Ivor thanked Colonel Jacobs for an extremely interesting and well presented talk and then introduced the next speaker, Ms Ann Bourdin.

Ann is a real citizen of the world who has spoken to us previously. Her interests are tramping the world's battlefields and the science of logistics. This latter has a direct effect on many aspects of military history which have gained Ann's attention. In her research in this direction she has come across one underlying problem which is mentioned by nearly all military writers, particularly those writing informally, and this was the theme of her talk - "A Century of Mud - 1860s to 1960s".

Using an excellent Power Point presentation and displaying a wry sense of humour, Ann proceeded to show how a simple fact of nature can put paid to the best laid plans of generals.

After leading in with a description of the various kinds of mud, i.e. swamp, clay, seasonal or waterlogged soil, Ann gave a number of fascinating examples of how mud can hold up the advance of entire armies, even in this day of mechanical transport. During the US Civil War for instance, General Ambrose Burnside, a Union general, decided to cut off the enemy by crossing the Rappahanock River into Virginia. A sudden thaw in January and four days of unceasing rain produced mud which mired men and mules to their bellies and, after three days of battling and doing a mile a day, the advance was dropped and Burnside was replaced by Hooker.

Everybody with the slightest interest in military history will be able to connect with Ann's photographs of World War I and it's churned up and flooded fields of mud. Less well known are the images of German troops floundering through seasonal mud during the invasion of Russia in 1941. Two miles a day was the norm as vehicles and tanks bogged down on roads which simply deteriorated into muddy ditches.

Moving across to Burma in the monsoon, Ann paused to show various types of makeshift engineering solutions to this perennial problem, such as wire mesh, planks, gravel, bitumen-soaked sacking and other more bizarre solutions. Mud also led to infected wounds, trench foot and plain general misery which affected the common soldier also in Viet Nam and, more recently, in Iraq.

This was a most entertaining and light-hearted talk on an obscure but extremely annoying facet of military operations.

At the end of Ann's talk, Marjorie Dean stepped forward to thank both speakers for their exceptional talks and to present each with the customary bottle of wine, after which the meeting adjourned for tea.

Ivor Little,

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The Scribe has been asked to mention two new books written by members of the Cape Town branch of the Society. These are:

"The Official History of the South African Naval Forces during the Second World War (1939-1945)" by Cdr H R Gordon-Cummings; and

"South African Recipients of the Pacific Star" by Cdr M Bisset.

The first is published by the Naval Heritage Trust at P O Box 521, Simon's Town 7995, price R250 plus R30 for packaging and postage, or from or

The second is available from City Coins in Cape Town or

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