The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Col (Dr) C James Jacobs

The kingdom known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Ethiopia was centred in what is now Sudan. Its capitals were Napata and later, Meroe. The ancient Aksum kingdom, ancestor of modern Ethiopia, was founded by Semitic-speaking immigrants from southern Arabia who landed in more or less 1 000 BC on the northeastern African coast. They established bases on the northern highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau and from there expanded southward. The conversion of the country to Christianity took place in the 4th century AD.

The Ethiopian church was dependent on the Egyptian Coptic Church, which they followed in the Monophysite belief that Jesus Christ was solely divine, not both human and divine.

The rise of Islam in the 7th century led to the isolation of the Aksumite empire and a centuries long conflict with neighbors, especially Islamic countries.

By the 19th century Ethiopia had a history of conflict with neighboring countries as well as dissent amongst the feudal chiefs and the royal house. But in 1855 a leader from the northwest frontier, Kassa Haylu, had himself crowned Emperor Theodore II. He revived the imperial power and endeavored to unite and reform the country.

As the consequence of a 2 year delay by Queen Victoria of Britain in replying to a letter Theodore had sent, he imprisoned several British officials. After the failure of diplomatic efforts to release them, a military force under the command of Sir Robert Napier was sent to Ethiopia in July 1867 and a year later Napier captured the fortress at Magdala when the prisoners were held. Theodore consequently committed suicide and the British forces withdrew from the country.

Theodore was succeeded by Johannes, a Tigray chief who ruled for 20 years. He conducted wars with numerous enemies, Egypt, Sudan and Italy. Italy took over the port of Massawa from the Egyptians in 1885. The Italians then advanced inland into the Eritrean province, but was defeated by Johannes at Dogali in January 1887. However, in March 1889 he was killed in a battle with the Sudanese Army.

Menelik II, king of Shoa in Central Ethiopia, who for years enjoyed Italian support, now became emperor of Ethiopia. He reconsolidated the empire by extensive conquests, especially towards the southeast. He made his camp the new capital, Addis Ababa (New Flower).

His ambitions were soon matched by the drive by the Italian government under prime minister Crispi, who reckoned that they had Menelik in his pocket and that by a ruse they would in time be able to proclaim an Italian protectorate over the whole of Ethiopia.

In May 1889, the treaty of Ucciali was concluded between Italy and Ethiopia. On the surface friendly relations seemed to exist, as it allowed the Italians to occupy Asmara and colonize Eritrea. However, there was two treaties. The one in Amharic, the official Ethiopian language, stipulated that Ethiopia might, as its option, employ Italy's good offices in the conduct of its diplomacy. The Italian copy, on the other hand, stipulated that the Ethiopians were compelled to do so, meaning Italian control over Ethiopia's foreign affairs. This was then used to proclaim a protectorate over Ethiopia with most European power acknowledging it, with the exception of France, Russia and Turkey.

Menelik rejected this proclamation with contempt. The Italians advanced into Ethiopia with military forces and successes against forces led by Ras Mangasha of Tigray convinced them that they would easily defeat any Ethiopian military forces opposing them.

Menelik decided that the best way to stop the Italian incursions would be to import modern weapons and train his army in modern warfare. During 1895 the Ethiopians received modern rifles and artillery from Russia and France via the port of Djibuti.

The next step was to liaise with the rulers of the different kingdoms as to get their cooperation in combining their forces to defeat the Italian invaders. The Italians hoped get Mangasha, the Tigre chief's cooperation, but their destruction of his fiefdom through war made him chose the side of the emperor, as did the other chiefs.

At the end of 1894 general Oreste Baratieri, officer commanding Italian forces in Eritrea, found the excuse for incursion deeper into Ethiopia. An Eritrean chief Batha Hagos had been intriguing with Menelik and then openly revolted against the Italians.

Baratieri killed Kagos and stamped out this revolt. Then he invaded Ethiopia right into the centre of Tigri territory with 4 000 native troops. In southern Tigre he planned to fortify three strategic strongpoints, Makalle as the first redoubt and Adigrat and Adowa as the natural line of Defence. Together they commanded the two roads to the north. In July 1895 Baratieri sailed back to Italy where he received a hero's welcome. The Italian government then allocated a substantial amount of money to support Baratieri to enlarge his force and complete the conquest of Ethiopia.

On 26 September 1895 Baratieri landed at Massawa and hurried to this army at Adigrat. On 9 October the Ethiopian force under the command of Mangasha was driven back and Baratieri pushed the advance elements of his army into southern Tigre.

From Adigrat the town of Adowa was invisible, more or less 30 kilometres to the west, beyond a line of mountain peaks, shaped like towers and turrets. Due to lack of resources Batarieri could not occupy the town during the 1st offensive, but he was now confident that he would be able to achieve it.

The Ethiopians faced major challenges. There was always the possibilility that the Muslem Sultan of Aussa in the eastern desert or the Dervishers from the west might attack his forces. He also had to trust the feudal princes in his own country while their loyalty was doubtful.

Menelik also had serious transport and supply problems. The Ethiopian Army had to be supplied over a distance of 600 kilimetres across the tangled gorges of the high plateau, while food in Tigre was scarce due to war and famine.

In contrast to Italian belief Menelik succeeded in securing the loyalty of the feudal princes and their armies. On 11 October the advance guard, consisting of the 50 000 Shoan army set off towards the north, accompanied by the imperial family. Along the way, other contingents joined them so that the Ethiopian force numbered more or less 70 000 when they reached the border area.

The approach of the Ethiopian Army of this size shocked Batarieri as he expected them not to exeed 30 000 men, due to the logistic problems facing them.

The forward Italian positions under command of Major Toselli and 2 000 Eritrean Askaris were cut off on the mountain of Amba Alagi. Next the 1 200 strong garrison at Makalle were besieged. Batarieri could do nothing for these unfortunate forces and had to retreat to Adigrat, awaiting reinforcements from Italy.

By late January 1896 Menelik released the garrison of Makalle under a flag of truce and expressed a desire to negotiate for peace.

The Italian government allocated more money and sent reinforcements. They were determined to avenge the humiliation.

Baratieri could not act offensively as the Ethiopians outnumbered him 6: 1. The Italian forces had well prepared defences in the hills south of Adigrat, but he was outmanouevred by the emperor when the Ethiopian Army outflanked the Italians by occupying Adowa in the strategic valley to the west of Adigrat.

Yet, Baratieri was in a good position. He now had a field force of more or less 20 000 men with 56 guns. His supply line was relatively short, only 130 km, taking the shortest track from Massawa.

In contrast the Ethiopians had to be supplied over a distance of over 600 km long. If Baratieri could display patience, the Ethiopians would have to withdraw, mainly due to a lack of food. However, the Italian government was bent on revenge and wanted Menelik defeated. In secret they already sent a replacement for Baratieri.

On 28 February 1896 Baratieri held a council of war with his 4 brigade commanders. The decision was taken to take the offensive due to the expectations at home and the effect on the morale on the soldiers if they are idle too long.

On 29 February Baratieri decided to advance to Adowa. The brigades would advance under the cover of darkness. Each would follow a different route towards the mountain peaks west of Sauria, so that by first light they would be holding a defensive line on the far side of the mountains. Baratieri believed that this would leave the Ethiopian Emporer with only two choices. He could attack the Italian positions, with a huge loss of life or wait and run the risk of a collapse of the sustainment of his forces. If that happened Adowa would fall into the hands of the Italian Army without any fighting.

On the day that the Ethiopian Army decided to conduct a retrograde operation back to Addis Abbeba, the news reached the emperor that the Italian advance had started. Baratieri's army consisted of 17 700 men with 56 guns and the plan was that they would advance under the cover of darkness so that by dawn on March 1 1896 they would be dug in on the high ground overlooking the Ethiopian camp at Adowa. The Ethiopians would then be left with only two options, attack frontally or retreat.

The four brigades of the Italian Army were supposed to advance along separate routes and arrive at their objectives before dawn, starting at 02:30 am. From the start the Italians found themselves struggling through precipitous passes, across barren hills and around the steep ravines, gorges and treacherous crevasses that cut up the country so badly that one Italian described it as "a stormy sea moved by the anger of God". Furthermore, the maps they possessed were little more than vague sketches [which] proved to be of little value.

Due to the difficult terrain and mist the left wing of the army (Alberone's brigade) got mixed up with the centre (Arimondi) and this chaos was not sorted out until 4 am. Meanwhile the right wing under Dabormida continued to advance, creating a gap between the differenent components of Baratieri's forces. On the left wing Alberone reached what he thought to be the hill of Kidane Meret (supposed to overlooking Adowa), but this hill was still another 6 km to his front. Assuming that Arimondi's brigage was protecting his right flank he advanced and at 6 am, after advancing 3 km encountered the forward elements of the Ethiopian Army.

By 7:45am Baratieri became aware of a huge gap between Albertone and Arimondi's brigades. He then ordered Dabormida's brigade to swing to the left to support the centre and left wing of the army, but for some reason Dabormida's force moved in the opposite direction, creating an even larger gap with the rest of the army.

At that moment, Ras Makonnnen of Harrar and 30 000 Ethiopean warriors arrived and attacked through this gap. From the crest of hills and from out of narrow passes the Ethiopian warriors attcked in waves, a sea of green, orange and red standards and with copper and gold crucifixes, brandishing dyed-cloth headdresses and lion's mane adoned shields.

Melelik's army consisted of 82000 rifle and sword-armed infantry, 20 000 spearman and 8 000 cavalry. In addition 40 quick-firing mountain guns added to the confusion from the slopes of Kidane Meret.

Ras Tekla-Haymanot commanded the right wing, Ras Alula the left while Ras Mangasha and Ras Makonnen jointly commanded the centre. The reserve consisted of 25 000 royal troops, 3 000 infantry and 600 cavalry under the emperor's personal command.

The Ethiopians would suffer serious losses as they did attack the flanks of the Italian formations, but still focussed mainly on shock action. By 08: 15 the mist had cleared and it looked as if Italian fire-power would carry the day. However, just as Menelik considered withdrawing his wife and Ras Maneasha persuaded him to commit the reserve on a final assaul ton Kidane Meret. By 08:30 Albertone's brigade started to disintegrate as a fighting entity.

Arimondi's artillery tried to support the elements that withdrew, but waited to long before the storming Ethiopians and the Askari's were so intermixed that their fire could only add to the confusion.

At 09: 15 Baratieri galloped from his HQ in the rear with Ellena's reserve brigade to estimate the situation. He still had no idea that Dabormida's brigade were too far deployed to the right.

The Ethiopean forces continued to advance and by 10:00 the spur of Mt Bellah was captured.

Arimondi's brigade started to disintegrate and Baratieri ordered a general retreat. In the fighting Alberone was taken POW and Arimondi died. The Ethiopian attacks continued and by 12:00 two Italian brigades had ceased to exist as combat formations.

On the right flank Dabormida had no clue where the rest of the Italian Army was or what happened to them. By 2:00 pm the pressure of the Ethiopian attacks on his front escalated to the point where withdrawal became the only option. In contrast to the chaotic disintegration of the other two brigades, Dabormida's force conducted an orderly withdrawal, but in the process still suffered immense losses including the brigade commander whose remains were later found lying among those of thousands of his soldiers scattered along the valley.

The Italian losses during the battle of Adowa/ Adwa was 289 Italian officers, 2 918 European soldiers and 2 000 Askari's killed. A further 954 European troops were missing, presumed dead, while 470 Italians and 958 Askari's were wounded. Some 700 Italians and 1 800 Askari's were taken POW. A total of 11 000 rifles and all the 56 guns were captured by the Ethiopian forces as the Tigrean population harrassed the Italians as their remnents retreated to Eritrea.

The Ethiopians lost 7 000 dead and 10 000 wounded.

Menelik did not pursue the Italian Army into Eritrea as he realised that to do so would rob the Italians of an opportunity to salvage something and retain a colonial possession of sorts in NE Africa.

On 26 October 1896 the Italian government signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, accepting Menelik's terms to end the war. It restored the independence of Ethiopia. The victory at Adwa saved Ethiopia from European colonialism, but for the short period of 1936-40 when Mussolini avenged the events. Ethiopia was regarded as a sovereign nation from 1896 until 1936 by most powers in the world, serving as a source of inspiration to the rest of Africa in its quest to free itself from foreign domination.


Blake, G.: Ethiopia's Decisive Victory at Adowa, Military History, October 1997.
Encyclopedia Encarta: Ethiopia, 17/8/2010.
Francis, J. 2002: The Battle of Adwa, Shama Books, Addis Ababa.
Pakenham, T. 1991: The Scramble for Africa, 1876-1912, Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg.
Wikipedia, Battle of Adwa, wiki/Battle of Adwa, 18/1 0/2009.

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 9 September 2010

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