THE BATTLE OF ADWA
EMPEROR MENELIK II
Close to the end of the 19th century, the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia remained one of the few nations within the continent of Africa that had not fallen to European colonialism. Compared to the other great powers of Europe, Italy was late in its efforts to colonize, and possessed only the small acquisitions of Eritrea and Somalia. Italy therefore sought to increase its dominance over the region by conquering Ethiopia and creating a land bridge between its two provinces.
Opposing Italy's quest for an African empire was the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II. A shrewd and highly intelligent man, Menelik realized that Ethiopia's continued sovereignty would rely heavily on a strong military and set about acquiring modern weaponry from around the world.
Diplomatic tension between the two countries continued to grow hostile, until on May 2nd 1889, both Italy and Ethiopia signed the treaty of Wichale, whereby in exchange for peaceful relations, Menelik ceded part of the Ethiopian province of Tigre to the Italians.
The treaty however was presented for signing to the Ethiopian's as two documents, one in Italian and the other in Amharic. This allowed Italy to alter key articles in the Italian version which gave the impression that Ethiopia's diplomatic representation outside Africa would be solely handled by the Italian government. Italy touted the treaty as legal proof that Menelik had ceded sovereignty of Ethiopia to Rome.
When Menelik discovered the Italian betrayal he immediately rejected the treaty, ordering the inhabitants of Tigre to rise up and expel their overlords. The military governor of Eritrea, General Oreste Baratieri moved his army of 25,000 men into Tigre and quickly crushed the uprising. Then he boldly crossed the Ethiopian border and occupied the towns of Makalle, Adigrat and Adowa.
GENERAL ORESTE BARATIERI
Menelik was outraged by this blatant invasion of Ethiopian soil and summoned all his tribal chiefs to Addis Ababa for a consul of war. When the council adjourned, the Emperor was assured that all the country's resources would be directed towards the expulsion of their European foe.
Once assembled, Menelik's large army consisted of 100,000 men. Although the bulk of Menelik's force consisted of spear and shield armed infantry, 30,000 men were armed with modern weaponry including 50 artillery pieces. The Emperor could also call upon his personal body guard of 25,000 elite royal troops and 8,000 cavalry from the fierce Oromo tribe, who were renowned for their horsemanship in battle.
Events were now set in motion when on December 7th, a force of 1,200 native irregular Askari, under the command of Major Pietro Toselli, were caught out on the open plains and totally annihilated by 30,000 Ethiopian warriors. Menelik immediately followed up this success by laying siege to town of Makalle.
Baratieri now felt his position untenable and withdrew his forces to Adigrat to await further developments. After a forty five day siege in which the Italian garrison at Makalle repeatedly held their positions against Ethiopian attempts to re take the town, Menelik finally granted the garrison safe passage in exchange for its possession.
Menelik believed this act of good faith would allow him to negotiate a peace with Rome, but the Italian government ignored Menelik's envoys, instead sending more reinforcements to Ethiopia to aid in the war effort.
Menelik now knew this was a war for Ethiopia's very existence, and set about to crush the Italians once and for all. Menelik marched his army forward, easily occupying Adowa and the surrounding area. With his forces now in serious jeopardy of being outflanked, Baratieri abandoned Adigrat and fell back to better defensive positions around Sauria to await Menelik's advance.
Both commanders now adopted a wait and see policy, whereby they simply stared one another down across an inhospitable no mans land. This long period of inactivity lasted until February 25th when the Italian prime minister Crispi, became so desperate for a military victory to quell domestic anger and political opposition, that he sent Baratieri a message which strongly accused the General of incompetence and blatant cowardice.
Deeply disturbed by the telegram, Baratieri called his four brigade commanders for their counsel. It was brought to Baratieri's attention that the army was running low on supplies and would find their defensive positions difficult to maintain much less mount any form of aggressive operations past March 2nd. With the decision seemingly made for him, Baratieri began preparation's for his army to advance.
On the evening of February 29th under the cover of darkness, the Italian army numbering 18,000 men and 55 artillery pieces marched out from their defensive lines at Sauria. Baratieri planned for each of his four brigades to march along separate routes and arrive at their pre determined objectives before dawn. Once completed, the maneuver would effectively occupy the high ground and completely surround the Ethiopian forces encamped at Adowa.
Although Baratieri's plan was tactically sound, it began to unravel almost from the outset. The Italian forces soon found themselves struggling to keep cohesion with their flank's due to the hostile terrain, this combined with the map's they possessed of the country, which proved to be nothing more than outdated sketches handed down from previous explorers to the region, severely hampered their advance.
Completely confused as to their position, General Arimondi's center brigade halted and attempted to get their bearings and regroup. General's Albertone and Dabormida commanding both the left and right flank's respectively, continued blindly onward completely unaware of the army's confused state to their rear.
At 6:00am, Albertone finally reached his objective at mount Kidane Meret overlooking the Ethiopian encampment, Albertone assumed the other three brigades were also in position to attack and gave the order for his brigade to advance.
Menelik's scouts had given the Emperor very accurate reports on the enemy's movements the previous night and his army was in position and fully prepared for the Italian forces once they arrived. Albertone's brigade of 4,500 men was immediately confronted by a superior Ethiopian force numbering 15,000 warriors under Ras Tekla Haymanot.
RAS HAYMANOT GENERAL ALBERTONE
Baratieri now began to receive reports of increasing contacts to Armondi's front and that Albertone's brigade was heavily engaged and requesting reinforcements. At 7:45am Baratieri ordered Dabormida to move his brigade from the right wing and pull back to support the army's center.
For some unapparent reason, Dabormida moved his brigade further out towards the extreme right, away from the army. As a result a dangerous gap of nearly two miles developed between himself and the main force. Commander Ras Makonnen quickly seized the opportunity presented before him, taking command of 30,000 warriors from the Ethiopian center and marched into the opening.
Menelik now turned his attention to the Italian left flank where Albertone's brigade was still holding firm against ferocious assaults from Ras Haymanot's warriors. Empress Taitu and Ras Maneasha now persuaded Menelik to release the 25,000 strong Royal Guard and drive the Italian's from the high ground.
At 8:30am the Royal Guards attacked, these were not of the fighting caliber Albertone's troops had easily held at bay, these men were hand picked for their size and strength, specifically selected for their fanatical loyalty to the Emperor and patriotic zeal of country, this made them the most feared troops within the Ethiopian army.
After fighting for over two hours with no reinforcements, Albertone's exhausted troops could not hold back the massive Ethiopian assault. With the Italian ranks easily broken, the brigade simply disintegrated and melted away, with Albertone himself being captured.
With the Italian left flank now completely destroyed, Ras Maneasha and the Royal Guard now swept down from mount Kidane Meret on General Arimondi's central brigade. With no sign of Dabormida's brigade in the area, Ras Makonnen ordered his warriors to wheel right and join the attack on the Italian center
Arimondi's lone brigade of 5,000 men now found themselves outnumbered by as much as ten to one and facing assaults to their front and both flanks. Although all seemed hopeless, the Italian brigade was fortunate in that Arimondi was an experienced commander and they did possess the bulk of the Italian artillery.
Arimondi quickly placed his artillery surrounding the brigade in a rough semi circle, he then ordered the infantry to take up positions between each piece. Much to the dismay of his subordinates, Arimondi then delayed the command for his artillery to open fire, allowing the Ethiopians to advance ever closer to the brigade.
As the Ethiopians came within rifle range, Arimondi finally gave the order to open fire. With complete synchronicity, the entire compliment of the brigades artillery and infantry repeatedly released well disciplined volleys into the ranks of the enemy, killing hundreds with each salvo.
Arimondi’s troops continued to bravely resist out of sheer desperation, they knew they were fighting for their very lives. The endless waves of Ethiopian warriors continued to slowly press forward through the murderous gunfire put forth by the Italian brigade. When a front line warrior armed with a rifle was shot down, those behind armed with shield and spear courageously picked up the weapon and continued forward with the attack
At 9:15am Baratieri arrived on the scene with the reserve brigade. The General was in disbelief with the situation unfolding before him, off to his left in the distance, he could see the corpses of Albertone's brigade littering the ground, and there was no sign of Dabromida in the area. Arimondi's single brigade seemed to be the only Italian force present on the battlefield, and under heavy attack.
The trapped Italian brigade continued to fire into the oncoming mass of warriors, severely decimating their ranks,but they could not effectively break up the oncoming assault. After suffering horrendous casualties, the Ethiopian’s finally reached the Italian positions. Arimondi’s troops now found themselves engaged in bitter hand to hand fighting with hordes of ferocious attackers bent on their very destruction.
At 10:00am Lieutenant Colonel Galliano’s third battalion holding the left of the brigades line, buckled and gave way. The troops of the Ethiopian Royal Guard poured through the breach penetrating deep into the heart of the Italian defenses. Within minutes all command structure within the brigade completely disintegrated, eventually reducing the Italian’s to an undisciplined rabble, which were easily hacked down and butchered.
Baratieri had seen enough, he was not going to commit the reserve brigade to an already lost battle and ordered a retreat back to Sauria. Unknown to Baratieri, at about the same time Arimondi’s command was being wiped out, deep in the valley, Dabromida’s brigade had halted their march as the General was receiving reports of heavy concentrations of enemy forces in his area.
Scouts had informed Menelik of Dabromida’s position throughout the battle, and with the enemy’s forces now completely destroyed before him, Menelik decided the time was ripe to finish off the last remnants of the Italian army. Menelik ordered Ras Mikail and the entire Ethiopian left wing of 20,000 warriors supported by 8,000 cavalry to move on the lone Italian brigade and destroy it before it could escape.
Dabromida was caught completely by surprise at the sight of large numbers of Ethiopian forces converging on his position from all directions. As the enemy numbers grew and the pressure on his brigade intensified, Dabromida ordered a withdrawal, which soon developed into a fighting retreat.
THE DESTRUCTION OF DABROMIDAS’ BRIGADE
As the brigade continually fell back, Dabromida’s troops contested every yard of the Ethiopian's advance. The gunners fired their artillery pieces right up to the point when they were overrun. The Italian infantry continued to put forth devastating volleys of rifle fire from their continually shrinking lines, and the rear guards stood their ground to the last.
Sensing the enemy was close to collapse, Ras Mikail ordered his 8,000 cavalry to charge. The horsemen easily swept through what was left of the brigades defenses, slashing down the Italian’s and herding them into defenseless pockets, making them easy victims for the Ethiopian foot soldiers bearing down on them. Within half an hour the third and final Italian brigade on the battle field, numbering 4,500 men had been annihilated.
The battle of Adowa was now over and had ended in complete victory for Menelik, but at a high cost to Ethiopian arms. Ethiopian casualties numbered 25,000 warriors dead and 7,000 severely wounded of which 5,000 later died, compared to Italian losses of 13,300 dead and 700 taken prisoner.
The 700 Italian prisoners endured several months of harsh captivity under their Ethiopian captures until they were released in exchange for a payment of ten million lire by the Italian government.
The political consequences of the defeat were even greater, Prime Minister Crispi and his entire cabinet were forced to resign, and Italy had lost its place among the other European nations as a military power.
On October 26th 1896, Rome signed the treaty of Addis Ababa, recognizing Ethiopia as a sovereign and independent state.
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