Battle of Adwa
Battle of Adwa
The Battle of Adwa (usually known as Adowa, or sometimes by the Italian name Adua) was fought on 1 March 1896 between Ethiopia and Italy near the town of Adwa, Ethiopia, in Tigray. It was the climactic battle of the First Italo-Ethiopian War, securing Ethiopian sovereignty.
As the 20th century approached, most of 19th-century Africa had been carved up among the various European powers. The two independent exceptions were the tiny Republic of Liberia on the west coast of the continent and the ancient Ethiopian Empire in the strategic Horn of Africa. The Kingdom of Italy was a relative newcomer to the colonial scramble for Africa. Italy had only two recently-obtained African territories, both located near Ethiopia on the Horn of Africa: Eritrea and Somalia. Both were impoverished. Italy sought to improve its position in Africa by conquering Ethiopia, which would join its two territories.
In 1889, the Italians signed the Treaty of Wuchale with Emperor Menelik II. The Italian language version of the disputed article 11 of the treaty stated that the Emperor of Ethiopia consented (i.e. was required) to Italy representing Ethiopia in its relations with all f oreign sovereigns and states, which made the Ethiopian Empire a protectorate of the Kingdom of Italy. The Amharic version of the article stated that the Emperor of Ethiopia could use the good offices of the Kingdom of Italy in his relations with foreign sovereigns and states if he wished (optional). As a result, Italy and Ethiopia faced off in what was later to be known as the First Italo-Ethiopian War.
In late 1895, after advancing deep into Ethiopian territory, a small Italian-led unit was defeated by a much larger Ethiopian group at the Battle of Amba Alagi. The Italians were forced to withdraw to more defensible positions in Tigray, where the two main armies faced each other.
By late February 1896, supplies on both sides were running low. General Oreste Baratieri, commander of the Italian forces, knew the Ethiopian forces had been living off the land, and once the supplies of the local peasants were exhausted, Emperor Menelik‘s army would begin to melt away. However, the Italian government insisted that General B aratieri act. On the evening of 29 February, Baratieri met with his brigadiers Matteo Albertone, Giuseppe Arimondi, Vittorio Dabormida, and Giuseppe Ellena, concerning their next steps. He opened the meeting on a negative note, revealing to his brigadiers that provisions would be exhausted in less than five days, and suggested retreating, perhaps as far back as Asmara. His subordinates argued forcefully for an attack, insisting that to retreat at this point would only worsen the poor morale.  Dabormida exclaiming, “Italy would prefer the loss of two or three thousand men to a dishonorable retreat.” Baratieri delayed making a decision for a few more hours, claiming that he needed to wait for some last-minute intelligence, but in the end announced that the attack would start the next morning at 9:00.  His troops began their march to their starting positions shortly after midnight.
The Italian army comprised four brigades totaling 17,978 troops, with fifty-six artillery pieces. However, it is likely that fewer fought in the actual battle on the Italian side: Harold Marcus notes that “several thousand” soldiers were needed in support roles and to guard the lines of communication to the rear. He accordingly estimates that the Italian force at Adwa consisted of 14,923 effectives. One brigade under General Albertone was made up of Eritrean askari led by Italian officers. The remaining three brigades were Italian units under Brigadiers Dabormida, Ellena and Arimondi. While these included elite Bersaglieri, Alpini and Cacciatori units, a large proportion of the troops were inexperienced conscripts recently drafted from metropolitan regiments in Italy into newly formed “di formazione” battalions for service in Africa.
As Chris Prouty describes:
They [the Italians] had inadequate maps, old model guns, poor communication equipment and inferior footgear for the rocky ground. (The newer Carcano Model 91 rifles were not issued because Baratieri, under constraints to be economical, wanted to use up the old cartridges.) Morale was low as the veterans were homesick and the newcomers were too inexperienced to have any esprit de corps. There was a shortage of mules and saddles.
Estimates for the Ethiopian forces under Menelik range from a low of 73,000 to a high of 100,000, outnumbering the Italians by an estimated five or six times. The forces were divided among Emperor Menelik, Empress Taytu Betul, Ras[nb 2] Welle Betul, Ras Mengesha Atikem, Ras Mengesha Yohannes, Ras Alula Engida, Ras Mikael of Wollo, Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael, Fitawrari[nb 3] Gebeyyehu, and Negus[nb 4] Tekle Haymanot Tessemma. In addition, the armies were followed by a similar number of traditional peasant followers who supplied the army, as had been done for centuries. Most of the army was composed of riflemen, a significant percentage of which were in Menelik’s reserve; however, the army was also composed of a significant number of cavalry and infantry only armed with lances. Also, in the Ethiopian Army there was a small team of Russian advisers and volunteers of the officer the Kuban Cossack army N.S. Leontiev. On the night of 29 February and the early morning of 1 March three Italian brigades advanced separately towards Adwa over narrow mountain tracks, while a fourth remained camped. David Levering Lewis states that the Italian battle plan
called for three columns to march in parallel formation to the crests of three mountains — Dabormida commanding on the right, Albertone on the left, and Arimondi in the center — with a reserve under Ellena following behind Arimondi. The supporting crossfire each column could give the others made the… soldiers as deadly as razored shears. Albertone’s brigade was to set the pace for the others. He was to position himself on the summit known as Kidane Meret, which would give the Italians the high ground from which to meet the Ethiopians.
However, the three leading Italian brigades had become separated during their overnight march and at dawn were spread across several miles of very difficult terrain. Their sketchy maps caused Albertone to mistake one mountain for Kidane Meret, and when a scout pointed out his mistake, Albertone advanced directly into Ras Alula’s position.
Unbeknownst to General Baratieri, Emperor Menelik knew his troops had exhausted the ability of the local peasants to support them and had planned to break camp the next day (2 March). The Emperor had risen early to begin prayers for divine guidance when spies from Ras Alula, his chief military advisor, brought him news that the Italians were advancing. The Emperor summoned the separate armies of his nobles and with the Empress Taytu beside him, ordered his forces forward. Negus Tekle Haymanot commanded the right wing, Ras Alula the left, and Rasses Makonnen and Mengesha the center, with Ras Mikael at the head of the Oromo cavalry; the Emperor and his consort remained with the reserve. The Ethiopian forces positioned themselves on the hills overlooking the Adwa valley, in perfect position to receive the Italians, who were exposed and vulnerable to crossfire.
Albertone’s askari brigade was the first to encounter the onrush of Ethiopians at 6:00, near Kidane Meret, where the Ethiopians had managed to set up their mountain artillery. Accounts of the Ethiopian artillery deployed at Adwa differ; Russian advisor Leonid Artamonov wrote that it comprised 42 Russian mountain guns supported by a team of fifteen advisers, but British historians suggest that the Ethiopian guns were Hotchiss and Maxim pieces captured from the Egyptians or purchased from French and other European suppliers). Albertone’s heavily outnumbered askaris held their position for two hours until Albertone’s capture, and under Ethiopian pressure the survivors sought refuge with Arimondi’s brigade. Arimondi’s brigade beat back the Ethiopians who repeatedly charged the Italian position for three hours with gradually fading strength until Menelik released his reserve of 25,000 Shewans and swamped the Italian defenders. Two companies of Bersaglieri who arrived at the same moment could not help and were cut down.
Dabormida’s Italian brigade had moved to support Albertone but was unable to reach him in time. Cut off from the remainder of the Italian army, Dabormida began a fighting retreat towards friendly positions. However, he inadvertently marched his command into a narrow valley where the Oromo cavalry under Ras Mikael slaughtered his brigade, while shouting Ebalgume! Ebalgume! (“Reap! Reap!”). Dabormida’s remains were never found, although his brother learned from an old woman living in the area that she had given water to a mortally wounded Italian officer, “a chief, a great man with spectacles and a watch, and golden stars”.
The remaining two brigades under Baratieri himself were outflanked and destroyed piecemeal on the slopes of Mount Belah. Menelik watched as Gojjam forces under the command of Tekle Haymonot made quick work of the last intact Italian brigade. By noon, the survivors of the Italian army were in full retreat and the battle was over.
According to UNESCO General History of Africa – VII Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935, the battle of Adowa was a remarkable victory for Menelik, King of Shoa and Emperor of Ethiopia:
- “During the battle, 261 Italian officers, 2918 Italian non-commissioned officers and men, and about 2000 askaris, or local troops, were killed. In addition, 954 Italian soldiers were permanently missing; and 470 Italians and 958 askaris were wounded. Total Italian casualties amounted to over 40 percent of the fighting force, which was almost completely routed and lost all its artillery, besides 11000 rifles. As a result of Menelik’s victory, the Italians agreed, on 26 October, to the Peace Treaty of Addis Ababa, which annulled the Treaty of Wuchale and recognized the absolute independence of Ethiopia”.
 Immediate aftermath
The Italians suffered about 7,000 killed and 1,500 wounded in the battle and subsequent retreat back into Eritrea, with 3,000 taken prisoner; Ethiopian losses have been estimated around 4,000–5,000, but with 8,000 wounded. In their flight to Eritrea, the Italians left behind all of their artillery and 11,000 rifles, as well as most of their transport. As Paul B. Henze notes, “Baratieri’s army had been completely annihilated while Menelik’s was intact as a fighting force and gained thousands of rifles and a great deal of equipment from the fleeing Italians.” The 3,000 Italian prisoners, who included General Albertone, appear to have been treated as well as could be expected under difficult circumstances, though about 200 died of their wounds in captivity. However, 800 captured askaris, regarded as traitors by the Ethiopians, had their right hands and left feet amputated. Augustus Wylde records when he visited the battlefield months after the battle, the pile of severed hands and feet was still visible, “a rotting heap of ghastly remnants.” Further, many had not survived their punishment, Wylde writing how the neighborhood of Adwa “was full of their freshly dead bodies; they had generally crawled to the banks of the streams to quench their thirst, where many of them lingered unattended and exposed to the elements until death put an end to their sufferings.” There does not appear to be any foundation for reports that some Italians were castrated and these may reflect confusion with the atrocious treatment of the askari prisoners.
Baratieri was relieved of his command and later charged with preparing an “inexcusable” plan of attack and for abandoning his troops in the field. He was acquitted on these charges but was described by the court martial judges as being “entirely unfitted” for his command. Chris Prouty offers a panoramic overview of the response in Italy to the news:
When news of the calamity reached Italy there were street demonstrations in most major cities. In Rome, to prevent these violent protests, the universities and theatres were closed. Police were called out to disperse rock-throwers in front of Prime Minister Crispi’s residence. Crispi resigned on 9 March. Troops were called out to quell demonstrations in Naples. In Pavia, crowds built barricades on the railroad tracks to prevent a troop train from leaving the station. The Association of Women of Rome, Turin, Milan and Pavia called for the return of all military forces in Africa. Funeral masses were intoned for the known and unknown dead. Families began sending to the newspapers letters they had received before Adwa in which their menfolk described their poor living conditions and their fears at the size of the army they were going to face. King Umberto declared his birthday (14 March) a day of mourning. Italian communities in St. Petersburg, London, New York, Chicago, Buenos Aires and Jerusalem collected money for the families of the dead and for the Italian Red Cross.
The Russian support for Ethiopia led to the advent of a Russian Red Cross mission. The Russian mission was a military mission conceived as a medical support for the Ethiopian troops. It arrived in Addis Ababa some three months after Menelik’s Adwa victory.
 Ethiopian failure to follow up victory
One question much asked – both then and long afterward – is why did Emperor Menelik fail to follow up his victory and drive the routed Italians out of their colony? The victorious Emperor limited his demands to little more than the abrogation of the deceptive Treaty of Wuchale. In the context of the prevailing balance of power, the emperor’s crucial goal was to preserve Ethiopian independence. In addition, Ethiopia had just begun to emerge from a long and brutal famine; Harold Marcus reminds us that the army was restive over its long service in the field, short of rations, and the short rains which would bring all travel to a crawl would soon start to fall. At the time, Menelik claimed a shortage of cavalry horses with which to harry the fleeing soldiers. Chris Prouty observes that “a failure of nerve on the part of Menelik has been alleged by both Italian and Ethiopian sources.” Lewis believes that it “was his farsighted certainty that total annihilation of Baratieri and a sweep into Eritrea would force the Italian people to turn a bungled colonial war into a national crusade” that stayed his hand.
As a direct result of the battle, Italy signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, recognizing Ethiopia as an independent state. Almost forty years later, on 3 October 1935, after the League of Nations‘s weak response to the Abyssinia Crisis, the Italians launched a new military campaign endorsed by Benito Mussolini, the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. This time the Italians employed vastly superior military technology such as tanks and aircraft, as well as chemical warfare, the Ethiopian forces were soundly defeated by May 1936. Following the war, Italy occupied Ethiopia for five years (1936–41), before eventually being driven out during World War II by British Empire and Ethiopian patriot forces.
“The confrontation between Italy and Ethiopia at Adwa was a fundamental turning point in Ethiopian history,” writes Henze. “Though apparent to very few historians at the time, these defeats were the beginning of the decline of Europe as the center of world politics.” On a similar note, the Ethiopian historian-anglophile Bahru Zewde observed that “few events in the modern period have brought Ethiopia to the attention of the world as has the victory at Adwa;”.
The Russian Empire enthusiastically paid victory compliments to the Ethiopian army. One of the documents of that time states, “The Victory immediately gained the general sympathy of Russian society and it continued to grow.” The unique outlook which polyethnic Russia exhibited to its ally Ethiopia disturbed many supporters of European nationalism during the twentieth century. The Russian Cossack captain Nikolay Leontiev with team of volunteers of participated in the battle as an advisor to Menelik.
This defeat of a colonial power and the ensuing recognition of African sovereignty became rallying points for later African nationalists during their struggle for decolonization, as well as activists and leaders of the Pan-African movement. As the Afrocentric scholar Molefe Asante explains,
After the victory over Italy in 1896, Ethiopia acquired a special importance in the eyes of Africans as the only surviving African State. After Adowa, Ethiopia became emblematic of African valour and resistance, the bastion of prestige and hope to thousands of Africans who were experiencing the full shock of European conquest and were beginning to search for an answer to the myth of African inferiority.
On the other hand, many writers have pointed out how this battle was a humiliation for the Italian military. One student of Ethiopia, Donald N. Levine, points out that for the Italians Adwa “became a national trauma which demagogic leaders strove to avenge. It also played no little part in motivating Italy’s revanchist adventure in 1935”. Levine also noted that the victory “gave encouragement to isolationist and conservative strains that were deeply rooted in Ethiopian culture, strengthening the hand of those who would strive to keep Ethiopia from adopting techniques imported from the modern West – resistances with which both Menelik and Ras Teferi/Haile Selassie would have to contend” .