The Battle of Adowa-1896

Updated on July 7, 2018
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Introduction

While the battle of Adowa is little known today, it was a major turning point in the European scramble for Africa. Adowa is located in Ethiopia, one of only two nations to keep their independence during the 19th century scramble for African colonies. The battle of Adowa resulted in a decisive defeat for the Italians, cementing Ethiopia's independence.

Africa divided into Colonies

Africa divided into colonies
Africa divided into colonies

Background

As the industrial revolution in Europe gained stride during the 18th and 19th centuries, European nations began to look for colonies. The reasoning behind this was partly economic, as colonies would provide primary resources and ensure markets for the imperial nations products. By the 1880's, almost all of Africa was carved into colonial possessions by the European powers. Newly reunited Italy felt left out, as even tiny Belgium acquired a colony in the Congo.

Italy proceeded to take control of Eritrea and part of modern-day Somalia. These two colonies were small, poor and geographically separated by the ancient Orthodox Christian Ethiopian kingdom. Aside from Liberia, it was the only independent state remaining in Africa, posing a tempting target for Italian expansion. In 1889, Italy and Ethiopia signed the treaty of Wuchale, in which Ethiopia ceded certain territory in exchange for recognition of Emperor Menelik II as Ethiopia's ruler, as well as financial and military assistance.

A discrepancy in translation caused a diplomatic storm. The Amharic version of the text claimed that Ethiopia could, but was not bound to, conduct foreign affairs through Italian diplomatic channels, while the Italian version obliged them to, in essence making Ethiopia a protectorate. This would be the first step in what would ultimately be annexation, and the Ethiopians resisted vigorously. The Italians decided to force the issue and invaded in 1895, following a failed uprising in their newly acquired frontier lands.

Menelik II of Ethiopia

Menelik II of Ethiopia
Menelik II of Ethiopia

Culmination & Order of Battle

By late 1895, the Italians had successfully advanced far into the Ethiopian kingdom. In December 1895, a force of about 4300 Italians and Eritrean Askari (colonial troops) were badly mauled by a 30,000 strong force of Ethiopians. The defeat forced the Italians to retreat into the region of Tigray, putting them on the back foot and setting the stage for the battle of Adowa.

At this point the two armies squared off, both facing looming supply shortages just as the incoming rainy season threatened to make the situation worse. The Italians had four brigades, totaling roughly 18000 men and numerous artillery. The soldiers varied in quality and discipline, with three brigades of Italian troops and one brigade of Eritrean Askari. While the Italian brigades had a sprinkling of elite units like the specialized mountain troops called Alpini and Bersaglieri, many soldiers were newly raised conscripts. In addition, they were hampered by inadequate and antiquated supplies, while they had to detach several thousand soldiers to guard their supply lines and rear echelons.

The Ethiopian forces ranged against them had a large numerical advantage. Official numbers range from 75,000 soldiers, all the way up to 120,000 if camp followers are included. The main reserve was commanded by Emperor Menelik II himself, and composed of 25,000 riflemen and 3000 cavalry, as well as artillery. There were seven other detachments, ranging 3,000 to 15,000 men. A large host of armed peasants and camp followers was also present, but they were generally only armed with swords and spears, and relied on numerical advantage.

The supply position of both sides was tenuous, but the Ethiopians were much harder pressed. Unlike the Italians, who could continuously (although slowly) supply themselves from their Eritrean colony, the vast Ethiopian host was forced to live off the land. The Italians were aware that eventually, and most likely quite soon, the Ethiopian army would run out of provisions, and would inevitably weaken through desertion and disease. However, their own tenuous morale meant that any retreat would be disastrous, especially for the home front, which was growing weary of the war. Thus the die was cast, and the Italians decided to attack on the night of February 29th and morning of March 1st, 1895.

Italian Artillery

Italian Artillery
Italian Artillery

The Battle of Adowa

The battle plans of the Italian army were simple. Three brigades would advance in unison, providing support for each other and dispersing the Ethiopian host with their superior firepower. The fourth brigade would remain in reserve, to be committed to the battle only once the enemy was met. The maneuver began to go badly south as the Italians advanced over difficult mountainous terrain with inaccurate maps. This resulted in holes opening in the Italian line, with the Italian left wing blundering straight into a 12,000 strong force of riflemen. To make matters worse, Ethiopian scouts were able to detect enemy movement early, giving Emperor Menelik II time to position his forces on high ground to meet the disoriented Italian left wing.

The battle started around dawn, when the Eritrean Askaris of the Italian left wing met with the entrenched Ethiopians. The Ethiopians launched a fierce assult, helped by artillery and Maxim machine guns mounted on high ground. The Eritreans knew that if they fell into Ethiopian hands, they could expect no quarter. They held on for two hours until General Albertone was captured. Morale crumbled, and under enormous pressure the Eritreans fought a fighting retreat, desperately trying to reconnect with the center brigade.

The center was hardly in a better position, having undergone three hours of continuous assault. As the Ethiopian ranks faltered, it looked like the Italians might be able to hold on long enough to regroup. Seeing the tide turning, Emperor Menelik II threw in him reserve of 25,000 men, hoping to overwhelm them before they could regain their footing. This final assault proved decisive in buckling the Italian center, and even the hasty arrival of two elite Bersaglieri companies could do nothing in the face of the onslaught.

Meanwhile, the Italian right maneuvered to support the center, but could not intervene in time to save their beleaguered comrades from annihilation. As the center broke, the right wing and reserves found themselves separated and alone. The right wing brigade attempted to retreat, but again due to faulty maps blundered into a narrow valley, where they were surrounded by fierce Oromo cavalry. They were promptly slaughtered, leaving all hope for an organized Italian retreat lost. The remaining isolated Italian forces were swamped by the Ethiopians, and by noon, roughly six hours into the battle, the remnants of the Italian forces were in headlong retreat.

The Battle of Adowa

The Battle of Adowa
The Battle of Adowa

Aftermath

The Italians ended up with 7,000 dead, 3,000 captured and roughly 2,000 wounded, while the Ethiopians lost 5,000 dead and 8,000 wounded. The imprisoned Italians were treated as well as possible, to be used as a bargaining chip. The Eritrean Askaris on the other hand, met a grisly fate at the hands of their captors. Considered traitors for serving the Italians, they had their right hands and left feet cut off as punishment, and were left to fend for themselves. Many died of their wounds, and even months later the battlefield was strewn with their remains. The Italian retreat left their colony of Eritrea wide open to attack. However, with his army exhausted, the rainy season on the cusp of starting and with few provisions, Emperor Menelik II held back. Back in Italy news of the defeat caused major riots, which forced the Prime Minister to resign. Pressure was put on the government to bring an end to the unpopular conflict.

Meanwhile, Emperor Menelik II realized that if he pushed into Eritrea, he might galvanize the Italians into greater resistance. He offered the Italians peace, which resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Addis Ababa in 1896. In essence the new treaty abrogated the Treaty of Wuchale. Ethiopia gained a formal recognition of its independence from Italy, which also led to further treaties with France and England recognizing Ethiopia as sovereign. Its military victory over the Italians ensured that Ethiopia would, for the time being, remain an independent kingdom in the middle of a continent ruled by Europe.

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