Battle of Adowa: Ethiopians Defeat Italian Invasion

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Battle of Adowa: Ethiopians Defeat Italian Invasion

Ethiopian painting depicting battle of Adowa (Adwa)
[Note Saint George in upper center aiding the Ethiopians]
Artist and date unknown, in the collection of the British Museum, London, UK
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History – March 1, 1896

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

Today the spotlight falls on one of the few battles of the Colonial Era (19th century) when a more numerous native army confronted a modern European army…and the Europeans came out second-best. It happened in what is today Ethiopia.


By the end of the 19th Century, the vast majority of the continent of Africa was under the colonial boot of one European nation or another. Great Britain and France owned the most extensive lands. Next came Portugal in Angola, the Cape Verde Islands, Portuguese Guinea and Mozambique. Even the kingdom of Belgium managed to grab itself a colonial fiefdom in the Congo. Coming late to the table was the newly unified Germany, taking over Cameroon, Togo, Namibia, Tanganyika (modern Tanzania), Rwanda, and Burundi. Finally, seeking to compete with the other major players was Italy. After nearly 30 years of conflict which sought to unify the Italian peninsula, the Italian people wanted to renew the empire of the Caesars.

As late-comers to the colonialism ball, the Italians had few places left to begin. In 1888, a treaty was made with the rulers of three Somali sultanates, placing their lands under Italian "protection." These lands – which comprise the eastern and southern portions of modern-day Somalia – allowed access into the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and eventually the Suez Canal. West of this Italian possession was the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), a land dating back to the days of the Egyptian pharaohs. It was one of two countries in all of Africa that had escaped the boot of colonialism (the other being the nation of Liberia, founded by American abolitionists to allow freed slaves to return to their continent of origin).

The Italians coveted the lands of the Ethiopians. In 1889, the Italians sought to hornswoggle the Ethiopians into a treaty not only recognizing Eritrea – the northernmost part of Ethiopia bordering on the Red Sea – as an Italian protectorate, the Europeans inserted a clause defining Italy as their overlords. When Menelik II, the Ethiopian emperor (his official title Negusä Nägäst meant "king of kings"), was told that the relevant clause was worded to his disadvantage in the Italian version, he renounced the treaty in its entirety. Approximately six years later, in early 1895, an Italian army entered Ethiopia from Eritrea intent on conquest.

Gen. Oreste Baratieri (1841-1901)
Gen. Oreste Baratieri (1841-1901)

The army was under the command of General Oreste Baratieri. He was 55 years old, and a veteran of the War of Unification, formerly serving as one of Giuseppi Garibaldi's Redshirts in the 1860s. He later served with distinction in the Italian army, and was appointed governor of Eritrea in 1892. Between 1892 and 1895, he fought not only the Ethiopians, but resisted attempts by Sudanese Mahdists to add his province to their conquests.

During most of the year of 1895, Gen. Baratieri did his best to avoid direct confrontation with the Ethiopian army. He even found the time to return to Italy briefly, telling a crowd that he would shortly bring the Ethiopian emperor back to Rome in a cage. Meanwhile, Emperor Menelik had managed to gather a host close to 200,000 men to oppose the Italian invasion. The Ethiopian army was an odd mixture of the feudal and the modern. It was supplied by a system requiring local farmers across the country to feed the troops. Many of the soldiers were still carrying swords, spears and shields. On the other hand, from the time Menelik came to the throne, he had been buying modern firearms from the French, the British, the Russians and – amazingly – even the Italians themselves. Despite these attempts to modernize, Gen. Baratieri still regarded the Ethiopians as little better than tribal barbarians.

Prelude to the Battle

As the new year of 1896 dawned, political pressure from Rome began to mount on Baratieri, urging him to finish the job he had started. On January 25, the general received a telegram from the Italian prime minister, goading him to take action. Consequently, on the evening of February 29, Gen. Baratieri called together his subordinates for a council of war. He revealed to them that the army was almost out of provisions; he recommended that the army pull back to Eritrea. His brigadiers vehemently opposed this proposal, saying it would make the army's bad morale worse. They urged the general to attack the Ethiopian host; one of his brigade commanders even said it would be better to lose a few thousand soldiers than to retreat. After a few hours spent examining his options, Baratieri announced to his brigadiers that the attack would commence the next day at 9:00 am. At midnight, the Italian force was awakened to begin a grueling night march to take up their positions.

Italian Army

Italian bersaglieri, c. 1900
Italian bersaglieri, c. 1900

The modern Italian army of about 18,000 men consisted of several well-known professional troops: the bersaglieri, fast-marching sharpshooters recognized by their broad-brimmed hats decorated with black grouse feathers (see above); the alpini d'Africa, men trained in mountain fighting; and, the cacciatori, crack riflemen recruited from Italian colonists in Eritrea. There was also a brigade of Eritrean askaris, local natives serving under Italian officers. Baratieri also had 56 modern artillery pieces at his disposal. However, most of his soldiers were conscripted into the army from Italy, had minimal experience, and were not happy about being in the hot, mountainous wilds of the Horn of Africa.

The Italian battle plan involved all four of Baratieri's brigades, a total of about 15,000 men, with the 56 artillery pieces distributed between them. Each brigade would be formed into a column, with the fourth brigade held in reserve in camp behind the center column. The left column was the lead unit, seeking to establish itself on a local mountain, Kidane Meret, which the other columns would then use as an anchor to meet the Ethiopians. This would give the Europeans high ground to rain death and destruction down upon the enemy. The plan, however, was doomed from the start.

Ethiopian Army

Unbeknownst to Baratieri, the Ethiopian host was on the verge of disbanding. Thousands of soldiers, ravaged by disease and hunger, had wandered away from their camps searching for food or simply going home. On the morning of March 1, Menelik was about to give the order to disperse the army. Suddenly, a mounted scout rode up to him, shouting that the Italians were on the move and had engaged a portion of the Ethiopian army. With his queen by his side, and a group of richly-dressed Christian priests intoning prayers, the emperor ordered his forces to engage the ferangi (foreigners). His army consisted of 82,000 sword- and rifle-armed men, 20,000 spearmen, and 8000 lance-armed cavalry, a force that outnumbered the Italians by six-to-one.

Battle of Adowa

The maps the Italians were using were sketchy at best, there were not enough horses or mules for transport, and many of the troops did not have proper footwear for the rugged terrain. The terrain consisted of barren hills, steep ravines, deep gorges and crevasses described by one Italian officer as "a stormy sea moved by the anger of God." Askaris from the left column got lost in the darkness and blundered into European troops of the center column. It was not until 4 a.m. before the confusion was sorted out. As a result, the three lead columns became badly separated, and were spread over an area of several miles. The left column halted far short of their supposed objective, mistaking another prominent hill for Kidane Meret. When a local guide pointed out the discrepancy to the column commander, he immediately began moving his men forward. Fighting began about 6:00 am. when the askaris ran into the right wing of the Ethiopian army.

Theoretical plan of Gen. Baratieri for movement of Italian troops before battle of Adowa
Theoretical plan of Gen. Baratieri for movement of Italian troops before battle of Adowa

Gen. Baratieri, tucked safely away with the reserves in the rear, began receiving reports from his left column of contact with the enemy.  At 7:45 he ordered the right column to move to support his center. Unfortunately, the right column moved in the opposite direction, opening a 2½ mile gap in the line. Heavy morning mists also played a role. When the fog finally lifted at about 8:15, the Italians saw an awe-inspiring sight…

From the crests of hills and ridges and from out of the narrow passes, Menelik's warriors came on in waves, an ocean of green, orange and red standards, gold and copper crucifixes, burnished metal helmets, dyed-cloth headdresses and lion's-mane-adorned shields. Even worse, the Ethiopians had deployed 40 quick-firing mountain guns (obtained mainly from Russian sources) on the slopes of Kidane Meret. Though the gunners had been trained by Russian adventurers, they were not completely expert in their use. In any event, the lobbing of shells into the Italian ranks still caused severe consternation to the enemy. Once the Italians were sighted, all discipline in the Ethiopian ranks dissolved, and a near-frenzy took over the entire army. They sought to outflank and envelop the Italians. The Ethiopians exploited the gap between the right and center Italian columns.

"Battle of Adowa" artist unknown, circa 1896; Image courtesy of
"Battle of Adowa" artist unknown, circa 1896
Image courtesy of

The Italians' firepower held the majority of the Ethiopian force at bay. At about this time, Emperor Menelik was about to order a retreat, but his queen and one of his generals persuaded him to release his reserves – the 25,000-man royal guard. These troops – hand picked for their size, strength and patriotic zeal – would provide the decisive blow. They moved forward and added their weight to the attack on the Italian left. The left column, which had been in contact with the Ethiopians for two hours, finally began to dissolve at about 8:30, the askaris falling back in the direction of the center column.

Battle movements of Italian (in red) and Ethiopian (in green) forces at battle of Adowa
Battle movements of Italian (in red) and Ethiopian (in green) forces at battle of Adowa

As the Eritrean troops approached the position of the center column, the Italians held their fire. Too late, they realized that mixed in with the askaris were Ethiopians hell-bent on exterminating their foes. Overwhelmed by sword- and rifle-wielding madmen to their front and flanks, the Italians fought desperately and took a high toll of their attackers. At about 9:15, Gen. Baratieri rode forward to assess the situation. He saw hordes of maddened Ethiopians being mowed down by his troops but not being stopped. He tried every measure possible to rally his army. Finally, at 10:15, the general ordered a withdrawal.

The Italian right column, out of touch with headquarters for several hours, finally realized that they were being surrounded and began a well-ordered withdrawal. They fought behind every rock available, using trenches they had dug earlier in the morning, contesting every yard with the frenzied Ethiopians. The artillerymen continued manning their pieces, finally being cut down by enemy swords and spears. Losing their way, the right column marched into a narrow valley, where they were boxed in and surrounded. Then, a large force of Ethiopians horsemen rode in on the trapped Italians, shouting their battle cry, "Ebalgume! Ebalgume!" (Reap! Reap!) The right column was slaughtered almost to a man. The remaining two Italian brigades were assaulted and destroyed piecemeal. By noon, the battle was over, and the few living remnants of the Italian army were routing back to Eritrea.

"Emperor Menelik at the battle of Adowa"; From French periodical <em>Le Petit Journal</em>, August 28, 1898; From oil on canvas painting by Fourtune Louis Meaulle
"Emperor Menelik at the battle of Adowa"
From French periodical Le Petit Journal, August 28, 1898
From oil on canvas painting by Fourtune Louis Meaulle


Italian casualties numbered some 6394 killed, 1428 wounded, 3000 captured. They also lost all their artillery, 11,000 rifles and all their horses and mules.

The Ethiopian army lost about 3867 killed and around 8000 wounded. They did not pursue the retreating Italians, which many historians still debate the reasons. The Italian prisoners were treated fairly well, and most were released in exchange for a 10 million lire "reparation."

Footnote #1: However, 800 Eritrean askaris did not fare so well; regarded as traitors by the victors, they were all condemned to have their right hands and left feet cut off. British traveler Augustus Wylde, inspecting the battlefield some months later, described the large pile of severed feet and hands as "a rotting heap of ghastly remnants." He also described the bodies of many of the crippled askaris littering the area.

Footnote #2: Back in Italy, news of the defeat was met with shock and horror. Street demonstrations occurred in most major cities. In Rome, to prevent these violent protests, theatres and universities were shut down. Police were called out to disperse rock-throwers in front of Prime Minister Crispi's residence; he resigned in disgrace on March 9, along with his entire cabinet. In Pavia, crowds built barricades on the railroad tracks to prevent a troop train from leaving the station. Funeral masses were intoned for the known and unknown dead. King Umberto declared March 14 (his birthday) a day of national mourning. Italian communities in various foreign countries collected money for the families of the dead and for the Italian Red Cross.

Footnote #3: Italy was forced to sign the Treaty of Addis Ababa in October of that year, recognizing the independence of the Ethiopian kingdom. The Italians never forgot the disgrace of this debacle, using it as a casus belli to launch a second war of conquest against Ethiopia in 1936, finally conquering the country. However, the Italian East African empire was dissolved 5 years later, as British forces invaded and liberated Ethiopia as one of the many side theaters of the Second World War.

Footnote #4: As a result of his defeat, Gen. Baratieri was court-martialed – though acquitted – and forced to resign his commission a year later. He died in retirement in the Austrian Tyrol in August, 1901.

Footnote #5: Emperor Menelik continued efforts to modernize his kingdom. He founded the nation's first bank, continued to seek economic development with European countries, and founded a council of ministers to help rule the nation. When he heard about a marvelous new way of executing criminals – the electric chair – he ordered three for his kingdom. However, since Ethiopia had no electrical power industry, he began to develop one.  Meanwhile, he began using one of the devices as his official throne. However, recent investigation has cast significant doubt on this story; apparently it was invented by a Canadian journalist in the 1930's. Menelik died of a stroke in December, 1913.

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