Battle of Adwa, 1-2 March 1896

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The Battle of Adwa (also called Adowa and Adua) was fought over two days (1st / 2nd March) between Ethiopian forces under Emperor Menelik II and invading Italian forces, and was the deciding battle in the First Italo-Ethiopian war and a turning point in modern African history with a European Colonial power being defeated and Ethiopia being recognised as a sovereign nation state by the European powers.

As the scramble for Africa came to an end Italy was allocated Ethiopia but just needed to take control. Ethiopia was largely unknown to Europeans who were aware of the coastal areas due to trade but the central highlands had resisted any attempts to spread European influence. The Italians wrongly assumed that Ethiopia was made up of rival tribes and thought it would be a quick victory for their 20,000 strong invasion forces, only to face a united country with a much larger army.

Emperor Menelik II had swept away old fashioned recruiting systems which had led to defeat by British forces previously and replaced them with much better organisation and supply. With a better organised economy the Ethiopian Emperor had greatly increased his ability to raise and equip an army and he reacted quickly when the Italian plans became known. Within two months he had raised 100,000 troops while the Empress Taitu raised 6,000.  This Army also included troops raised by regional governors such as the future father of the Emperor Haile Selassie, Ras Tafari Makonnen who commanded 12,000 troops.

Equipment was also greatly improved with in excess of 70,000 modern rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunition being available for the battle of Adwa not including artillery. This mobilization was not without problems and delays and this gave the Italians time to become established.

The Italian forces were led by General Oreste Baraterie. His plan was to engage the Ethiopians in piecemeal battles and carve them up without facing their main force in a set piece battle. The Ethiopians on the other hand planned to use their advantage in infantry and artillery to smash the main Italian force in one battle, Menelik carefully build his alliance of princes but knew that he needed a decisive battle as he might not be able to hold the alliance together for a long protracted campaign. Ethiopian tactics and strategy were based on their own history and terrain and this was largely unknown to the Italians, so basing their ideas on the British experience the Italians expected to face a force one third of the size of Menelik’s Army.

By early 1896 both sides were running out of time, the Ethiopians living off the land, the Italian general under political pressure to act. Baraterie lacked confidence and this he displayed with a meeting with his officers on 29th February, present were brigadiers Matteo Albertone, Giuseppe Arimondi, Giuseppe Ellena and Vittorio Dabormida. During the meeting many of the officers argued for an attack and Baraterie finally decided to go ahead after several hours. The Italian forces were made up of around 18,000 infantry and 56 artillery guns, but several thousand Italian troops were allocated to supply duties and the remaining force included many inexperienced troops and some Eritrean lead by Italian officers, equipment was poor and morale low.

Menelik’s forces are likely to have numbered in excess of 100,000, the majority being riflemen but also a large number of lance armed cavalry. The Italian battle plan was for 3 columns which could provide fire support to each other but overnight they become separated and were several miles apart in rugged terrain. The battle was a bloody affair with the Italians fighting hard despite being out numbered. Slowly but surely the greater Ethiopian numbers had their toll. Albertone's column broke first and then Dabormida’s column was cut off and fell back.  Brigadier Dabormida now made a fatal error as he retreated back into a narrow valley where Ethiopian lancers wiped them out, his body was never recovered.  The last of the invading army was slowly destroyed and by mid day the battle was finished, over 7,000 Italians died with the Ethiopians suffering a similar number of casualties. The Italians taken prisoner were treated well but Ethiopian troops (around 800) who had fought for the Italians were mutilated with their right hands and left feet being cut off.

The battle proved to be a crushing defeat and the Ethiopians followed up, driving the retreating Italians into Eritrea and out of the area entirely.  The Treaty of Addis Abba on 26th October 1896 ended the war and the Italians recognised Ethiopian independence. The Italians did not give up on the idea of an Africa Empire and tried again under Benito Mussolini in the 1930s this time establishing their control before being driven off. In the aftermath of that defeat the Ethiopians freed Eritrea and returned it to Ethiopian control.

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (19 February 2009), Battle of Adwa, 1-2 March 1896 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_adwa.html

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