1 March 1896

A stylized mural painted between 1965 and 1975 depicts the moment at which the Ethiopian army of Menelik came to grips with a mixed Italian-Eritrean army near the town of Adwa in 1896. The Ethiopian army was modern by African standards and its tactics shocked the Italian colonizers.

By the mid-1890s the empire of Ethiopia, ruled over by the Lion of Judah, the emperor Menelik, was the only region of Africa not dominated by Europeans. It was a unique state, committed to an ancient form of Christianity, ruled over by a quarrelsome elite of kings and governors (Ras) who each ruled their own principality or province under the eye of the emperor. The European states misunderstood Ethiopia, assuming that it was just another barbarous African kingdom ripe for the European ‘civilising mission’. In 1895, an Italian force commanded by General Oreste Baratieri, governor of the Italian colony of Eritrea, invaded and occupied the Ethiopian province of Tigray. Italian imperialists itched to add Ethiopia to the tiny Italian empire. No-one considered it likely that Menelik would be able to organize resistance against a modern army, equipped with the tools of modern war. Against all expectations the Ethiopian emperor not only raised a disciplined army, but imposed on Italy’s invaders a humiliating defeat, the single most important reverse against the remorseless tide of nineteenth-century European imperialism.

Italian confidence was boosted by Menelik’s apparent failure to react to the occupation of Tigray. The appearance was deceptive. In September 1895, Menelik summoned the nation to war; but the slow pace of communication and the large area of the empire meant that months passed before the men assembled in answer to the summons.

By tradition all males had an obligation to answer the emperor’s call, bringing with them shield, lance, sword and, if they had one, a rifle. Menelik left his capital, Addis Ababa, in October, a royal procession that wound its way slowly across the mountainous terrain towards Tigray, gathering as it went an army of more than 100,000 men, most on foot, but with numbers of fierce horsemen, the Oromo cavalry, alongside. The Ethiopians had artillery, bought from European suppliers, and a surprisingly large number of rifles. The army was commanded in regional units by the Ras. Tactics relied on the sheer mass of soldiers, but the Ethiopian commanders also displayed a shrewd grasp of operational realities. The Italian army underestimated Ethiopian capability and did so at its peril.

The arrival of the vast Ethiopian army was a shock to the Italians posted as a vanguard to await developments. Expecting at most a few thousand, the 2,000 Italian and local askari troops atop the small plateau of Amba Alage watched 40,000 soldiers approach led by Ras Makonnen. They were overwhelmed and most of them slaughtered. The Italian fort at Mekele was then besieged and forced to surrender on 20 January 1896. Menelik continued his march, reclaiming much of Tigray and threatening Eritrea.

He camped on one side of a large plateau at Gundapta and waited for the Italians to come to negotiate their withdrawal from Ethiopian territory. Despite the recent setbacks, Baratieri rejected any compromise and brought most of his 16,000 soldiers, the majority of them askaris, to a camp at Sauria, on the eastern edge of the Gundapta plateau, in order to protect Eritrea. The standoff frustrated the Italian prime minister and arch-imperialist, Francesco Crispi. He decided to replace Baratieri, but in the interim sent him a final telegram prodding him urgently to take action. At almost the same time, Menelik moved his camp across the mountains west of Gundapta, to the small town of Adwa (Adowa). The Italians interpreted this as a retreat and Baratieri at last planned an offensive.

Confident that Italian firepower would keep the Ethiopians at bay, Baratieri divided his force in four. Two columns commanded by Generals Matteo Albertone and Vittorio Dabormida were to occupy the main passes between Gundapta and Adwa, while a third brigade under General Giuseppe Arimondi would hold the mountainside between them. A fourth brigade was held in reserve. Baratieri hoped that Menelik would be provoked to fight and his army destroyed by Italian guns, but he was less confident than his commanders, who eagerly expected a decisive Italian victory. The plan went disastrously wrong from the start. During the night of 25 March 1896, the askaris hurried ahead and then waited at the passes for the slower elements of the brigade to catch up.

When Albertone arrived, reluctant to let the local troops tell him his job, he insisted that the pass was much further on. As dawn broke the advance guard of his brigade had in fact descended to Adwa, where it ran directly into Menelik’s camp. Alerted by gunfire, the whole Ethiopian army assembled for battle. The Italian vanguard was destroyed, its few survivors running back in panic through the Italian lines. Albertone formed a line on a shallow hill but his force was soon embattled by 40,000 Ethiopians, who surged forward against the guns. Ethiopian sharpshooters were told to kill the white officers in order to leave the askaris leaderless; out of 610 officers in the Italian force, only 258 survived. Soon Ethiopian soldiers were working up the slopes surrounding Albertone, firing on all sides.

Baratieri saw at once what had gone wrong and ordered Dabormida to move forward from the second pass to stand at Albertone’s right, supporting his withdrawal. Instead Dabormida took the wrong fork on the path down and ended up far from Albertone, in the valley of Mariam Shavitu, surrounded by slopes on three sides. Menelik saw the mistake and sent 15,000 men into the gap between the two Italian brigades. At this point, General Arimondi finally arrived at the passes and was told to hold them to enable the Italian force to retreat. At 10.30 a.m. on 26 March, with most of his force dead or captured, Albertone ordered the withdrawal.

He was wounded and caught, but those still able to flee scrambled up to the passes and through Arimondi’s brigade, ignoring all orders to stop and fight. Now there was no hope. The askaris fled through the passes to the Gundapta plain, some north towards Eritrea. Ethiopian soldiers now swarmed over the hillsides, charging the few soldiers and artillerymen still in the fight. Crazed by thirst, hunger and fear, the whole force broke and was pursued through the passes and onto the flat plateau where Oromo cavalry cut hundreds of them down. Far away, cut off from the main battle, the Dabormida brigade stood its ground, surrounded by Ethiopian soldiers. At 3.30 p.m., the remnants charged at the circling enemy and Dabormida, revolver in hand, was killed where he stood, a forlorn Italian Custer.

The level of casualties on both sides was never calculated precisely. Some years later an Italian investigation team found the skeletal remains of 3,643 men, but hundreds remained unaccounted for. The Ethiopians who, the Italians said, ‘despised death’, embraced it in large but unknowable numbers, and almost certainly suffered considerably more dead than the enemy. On the field of battle, the Italian dead and wounded were stripped naked by soldiers keen for some semblance of booty. Some, though not all, of the Italians, dead, wounded or captured, were castrated.

Condemned in Europe as a barbarous practice, it was a symbol for Ethiopians of their ‘unmanning’ of a fallen enemy, a practice that had its roots in a traditional Ethiopian reading of the Old Testament. Adwa shocked Italian opinion. Baratieri was court-martialled, while Crispi was forced to resign. Menelik insisted on a peace treaty and following its signature in October 1896, the hundreds of Italian prisoners were allowed to go home. Adwa remained a symbol of a broader African wish for independence from European rule, a victory against the loaded odds of European imperialism.