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First Italo-Abyssinian War (1895-1896)

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The Battle of Adwa, Adwa also spelled ADOWA, Italian ADUA (March 1, 1896), military clash at Adwa, in north-central Ethiopia, between the Ethiopian army of King Menilek II and Italian forces.

The decisive Ethiopian victory checked Italy’s attempt to build an empire in Africa comparable to that of the French or the British.

The death (in 1889) of the Ethiopian emperor Yohannes IV was followed by great disorder, during which the Italians helped Menilek of Shewa (Shoa) win the throne.

In addition, the Treaty of Wichale (Ucciali), which Italy had signed with Menilek in 1889, was interpreted by the Italian premier Francesco Crispi as implying the declaration of an Italian protectorate over Ethiopia.

Accordingly, the Italian possessions in Africa were constituted (January 1890) as Colonia Eritrea.

Menilek first rejected in September 1890 the ambiguous Article XVII of the treaty and then, in September 1893, rejected the treaty altogether, afterward preparing to fight the Italians’ attempt to impose their dominion militarily.

By late February 1896, supplies on both sides were running low. General Oreste Baratieri, commander of the Italian forces, knew the Ethiopian forces had been living off the land.

Besides, once the supplies of the local peasants were exhausted, Menlik’s army would begin to melt away, he thought.

Nevertheless, his government insisted that General Baratieri act, and he met with his brigadiers Matteo Albertone, Giuseppe Arimondi, Vittorio Dabormida, and Giuseppe Ellena on the evening of 29 February.

His subordinates argued vigorously for an attack, with Dabormida exclaiming, “Italy would prefer the loss of two or three thousand men to a dishonorable retreat.”

Baratieri announced that the attack would start and accordingly, his troops began their march to their starting positions.

The Italian army comprised four brigades totalling 17,700 troops, with fifty-six artillery pieces.

One brigade under General Albertone was made up of Italian officered askari (native infantry) recruited from Eritrea.

The remaining three brigades were Italian units under Brigadiers Dabormida, Ellena and Arimondi.

From the Ethiopian side, the forces were divided among:
• Emperor Menelik
• Empress Taytu
• Ras Wale
• Ras Mengesha Atikem
• Ras Mengesha Yohannes
• Ras Alula Engida
• Ras Mikael of Wollo
• Ras Makonnen
• Fitawrari Gebeyyehu
• Negus Tekle Haymanot of Gojjam

Besides, the armies were followed by traditional peasant followers who supplied the army, as had been done for centuries.

On the night of Feb 29 and the early morning of March 1, three Italian brigades advanced separately towards Adwa over narrow mountain tracks, while a fourth remained camped.

David Levering Lewis states that the Italian battle plan called for three columns to march in parallel formation to the crests of three mountains:

  • Dabormida commanding on the right
  • Albertone on the left
  • Arimondi in the center with a reserve under Ellena following behind Arimondi

The supporting crossfire each column could give the others made the … soldiers as deadly as razored shears.

Albertone’s brigade was to set the pace for the others. He was to position himself on the summit known as Kidane Meret, which would give the Italians the high ground from which to meet the Ethiopians.

Nevertheless, the three leading Italian brigades had become separated during their overnight march and at dawn were spread across several miles of very difficult terrain.

Unknown to General Baratieri, Emperor Menelik knew his troops had exhausted the ability of the local peasants to support them and had planned to break camp the next day (2 March).

The Emperor had risen early to begin prayers for divine guidance when spies from Ras Alula, his chief military advisor, brought him news that the Italians were advancing.

The Emperor called the separate armies of his nobles and with the Empress Taytu beside him, ordered his forces forward.

  • Negus Tekle Haymanot commanded the right wing
  • Ras Alula the left
  • Rasses Makonnen and Mengesha the center, with Ras Mikael at the head of the crack Oromo cavalry; the Emperor and his consort remained with the reserve.

The Ethiopian forces positioned themselves on the hills overlooking the Adowa valley, in perfect position to receive the Italians, who were exposed and vulnerable to crossfire.

Albertone’s askari brigade was the first to encounter the onrush of Ethiopians at 6:00, near Kidane Meret, where the Ethiopians had managed to set up their mountain artillery.

His forces held their position for two hours until Albertone’s capture, and under Ethiopian pressure the survivors sought refuge with Arimondi’s brigade.

Arimondi’s brigade beat back the Ethiopians who repeatedly charged the Italian position for three hours but didn’t last longer.

Two companies of Bersaglieri who arrived at the same moment could not help and were annihilated.

General Dabormida’s Italian brigade had moved to support Albertone but was unable to reach him in time.

Cut off from the remainder of the Italian army, Dabormida began a fighting retreat toward Italian positions.

Nevertheless, Dabormida inadvertently marched his command into a narrow valley where the Oromo cavalry slaughtered his brigade shouting Ebalgume! Ebalgume! (“Reap! Reap!”).

General Dabormida’s remains were never found, although his brother learned from an old woman living in the area that she had given water to a mortally wounded Italian officer, “a chief, a great man with spectacles and a watch, and golden stars”.

The remaining two brigades under Baratieri himself were outflanked and destroyed piecemeal on the slopes of Mount Belah. By noon, the survivors of the Italian army were in full retreat and the battle was over.

The Italians suffered about 7,000 killed and 1,500 wounded in the battle and subsequent retreat back into Eritrea, with 3,000 taken prisoner, while Ethiopian losses have been estimated around 4,000-5,000, but with 8,000 wounded.

In their flight to Eritrea, the Italians left behind all of their artillery and 11,000 rifles, as well as most of their transport.

As Paul B. Henze notes, “Baratieri’s army had been completely annihilated while Menelik’s was intact as a fighting force and gained thousands of rifles and a great deal of equipment from the fleeing Italians.”

The 3,000 Italian prisoners, who included General Albertone, appear to have been treated as well as could be expected under difficult circumstances, though about 200 died of their wounds in captivity.

Nevertheless 800 captured askaris, regarded as traitors by the Ethiopians, had their right hands and left feet amputated.

Baratieri was relieved of his command and later charged with preparing an “inexcusable” plan of attack and for abandoning his troops in the field.

The Crispi government fell, and was replaced by a new administration with a policy of avoiding further colonial adventures.

The decisive victory of Ethiopia over Italian aggressors resulted in the the Treaty of Addis Ababa, signed in October 1896, abrogated the Treaty of Wichale and reestablished peace, and Italy recognized the independence of Ethiopia.

The Italian claim to a protectorate over all Ethiopia was thereafter abandoned; and the Italian colony of Eritrea, finally delimited by a treaty of peace (September 1900), was reduced to a territory of about 200,000 square km (80,000 square miles).

Various treaties concluded with Italy, France, and Great Britain in the years up to 1908 fixed the borders of Ethiopia with the neighbouring territories ruled by the European powers.

Keywords: Adwa, ADOWA, ADUA, King Menilek II, Italian forces, Treaty of Wichale, Ucciali, Emperor Yohannes IV, Francesco Crispi, General Oreste Baratieri, Matteo Albertone, Giuseppe Arimondi, Vittorio Dabormida, Giuseppe Ellena, Emperor Menelik, Empress Taytu, Ras Wale, Ras Mengesha Atikem, Ras Mengesha Yohannes, Ras Alula Engida, Ras Mikael of Wollo, Ras Makonnen, Fitawrari Gebeyyehu, Negus Tekle Haymanot of Gojjam, Somali National Army, Harerge, Bale, Sidamo, Jijiga, Siad Barre, Ogaden War,

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