Italy long had an interest in establishing an empire in Ethiopia. Before Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini (Il Duce) there were others including the Roman Empire. Mussolini’s foreign policy aimed to restore the ancient glory of the Roman Empire by expanding Italian colonial possessions and the fascist sphere of influence. In the 1920s, he ordered the Pacification of Libya, instructed the bombing of Corfu over an incident with Greece, established a protectorate over Albania, and incorporated the city of Fiume into the Italian state via agreements with Yugoslavia. In 1936, Ethiopia was conquered following the Second Italo–Ethiopian War and merged into Italian East Africa (AOI) with Eritrea and Somalia.
Before that Italy suffered a horrible defeat at the Battle of Adwa (Adowa), which is the point of today’s blog.
In 1889 Menelik II, having defeated dynastic rivals, declared himself Emperor of Ethiopia. In exchange for peaceful relations and subsidies, the Ethiopian Emperor ceded part of the province of Tigre to the Italians (forming the Italian colony of Eritrea).
The Italians were less interested in peaceful relations than the complete subjugation of Ethiopia. Two versions of the Treaty of Wuchale were prepared for signature, one in Italian and the other in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. Article 17 in the Italian version stated that Ethiopia was required to conduct all foreign affairs through Italian authorities (in effect making Ethiopia an Italian protectorate). In the Amharic version, the Ethiopians were given the option of communicating with foreign powers through the Italians.
In 1893, now secure on his throne, Menelik II repudiated the treaty, denouncing Italian duplicity, calling on the people of Eritrea to expel the evil foreigners. In December 1894 a revolt in Eritrea was crushed and the Italians decided to punish Menelik for not living up to the terms of the Treaty of Wuchale (as they saw it). The Italians crossed the Ethiopian border and occupied the towns of Makalle, Adigrat, and Adowa. Returning to Rome briefly to drum up popular enthusiasm for the war, Oreste Baratieri, the Italian commander, told crowds of cheering Romans that he would bring Menelik II “back in a cage” in much the same way as Julius Caesar had done with Vercingetorix, a king, and chieftain of the Arverni tribe who united the Gauls in a failed revolt against Roman forces.
Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, Menelik II was assembling his army. Ultimately, Menelik brought some 100,000 men onto the field. It was not a poorly armed native horde that Europeans were used to facing in Africa. During the previous three years, Menelik had used the gold and ivory of the kingdom (along with the subsidies provided by the Italians under the terms of the Treaty of Wuchale) to buy arms, ammunition, and artillery from Europe and the United States. Although the bulk of the Ethiopian forces carried shields and spears, some forty thousand were well armed with modern rifles and were supported by fifty artillery pieces.
General Baratieri, working on his triumphal parade back home before the battle had been fought, was woefully ignorant of these facts. Italian intelligence indicated that Menelik could not field more than thirty thousand men against the Italian army of seventeen thousand (ten thousand Europeans plus seven thousand Eritreans officered by Italians). It was expected that the Ethiopian forces would be undisciplined and poorly armed.
During most of 1895, Baratieri engaged in a number of small skirmishes with Menelik’s poorly armed vassals, re-enforcing his view of Ethiopian un-preparedness. On December 7th, however, a force of twelve hundred Italian trained Eritrean auxiliary troops, under the command of Major Pietro Toselli, were caught out on the open plains and annihilated by thirty thousand Ethiopian warriors. The Ethiopians next besieged the town of Makalle.
After forty-five days of siege, Menelik offered the Italian garrison at Makalle safe passage in exchange for possession of the town. The Italian government of Francesco Crispi ignored Menelik’s offer regarding it as an insult to the nation’s honor. Pursuing his own course, he sent more reinforcements to Ethiopia to aid in the war effort.
Menelik now set out to crush the Italians, easily occupying Adowa and the surrounding country, threatening to outflank the main Italian army. Baratieri abandoned Adigrat and fell back to better defensive positions to await Menelik’s advance.
Baratieri planned to lure what he regarded as the undisciplined horde of Ethiopian savages into a frontal assault against his strong entrenched defensive position where they would be slaughtered by his rifles and artillery (a strategy which British General Herbert Horatio Kitchener was to successfully employ in Sudan, three years later in 1898 at the battle of Omdurman against Sudanese troops). Menelik did not take the bait and offer his hoard up for destruction and the armies spent the next several months until late February 1896 staring out at each other.
Note: The Battle of the Little Bighorn took place in 1876; The Battle of Isandlwana took place in 1879 for context.
The stalemate was not acceptable to the government in Rome which needed victory on the battlefield for domestic political reasons. Baratieri received a cable from Rome which came close to accusing him of cowardice and demanding action. His ego pricked, Baratieri called his senior officers together. Baratieri revealed that the army’s supplies would be exhausted in five days. They must either retreat soon or attack. Baratieri’s officers counseled an immediate attack. Vittorio Dabormida, a brigadier general, proclaimed, “Italy would prefer the loss of two or three thousand men to a dishonorable retreat.” (Dabormida didn’t include himself among those two or three thousand Italian soldiers) European contempt for native enemies made even a tactical retreat unthinkable. Initially reluctant, Baratieri finally yielded and ordered an attack.
Baratieri’s “attack” was no more than an attempt to redraw the existing battle lines to force Menelik to launch the type of frontal assault he had thus far avoided. The entire Italian force advanced under the cover of darkness with the intention of digging in on the high ground overlooking the Ethiopian camp at Adowa. Menelik would then either have to attack the Italians or retreat.
The plan made little sense except in terms of placating the government in Rome and his own impetuous officers. Baratieri knew that the Ethiopians too were running out of supplies and were on the verge of retreat. He also knew that Menelik was unlikely to attack his entrenched positions on the high ground since the wily Ethiopian had steadfastly refused to launch a frontal assault for weeks. Nevertheless, for reasons which had more to do with ego than military necessity, Baratieri proceeded with the attack.
The advance began at 2:30 a.m., but it was not long before difficulties arose. The maps used for these intricate maneuvers were little better than rough sketches and were of little practical use. The Italians soon found themselves struggling through steep passes, across barren hills and around dangerous ravines, gorges, and treacherous crevasses that cut up the country so badly that one Italian officer described it as “a stormy sea moved by the anger of God.”
The various Italian brigades had become separated during the night march and at dawn were spread across several miles of difficult terrain. Emperor Menelik, who had been praying for divine intervention, received his divine mandate. Menelik had been planning to break camp and retreat the next day (March 2), and now, here the scattered Italian army advanced against his troops who quickly took up positions on the high ground overlooking the Italians and dug in their artillery.
Baratieri had squandered the advantages that defensive positions and concentrated firepower had given the Italian army, and now received the Ethiopian assault that he had been longing for. The Ethiopian cavalry swept in and through the ranks of Italians, slashing and stabbing, while wave after wave of foot soldiers rushed forward, and Menelik’s artillery pounded the Italians from the heights. The battle began at dawn and was over by noon.
The Italians suffered about 7,000 dead and 1,500 wounded, with 3,000 taken prisoner. The Italians lost all of their artillery and 11,000 rifles. Baratieri’s army had been annihilated as a fighting force. The Battle of Adwa (Adowa) was the most crushing defeat ever suffered by a colonial European power by native forces in Africa.