By 1896, the African Continent, which had long been a playground for the ambitions of others, had effectively been carved up and shared out among the Imperial powers of Western Europe. Only the small West Coast Republic of Liberia which had been created as a colony for freed American slaves and the Empire of Ethiopia to the East retained any semblance of independence. That they had survived at all was not out of any respect for their sovereignty but as a result of the strategic machinations of Foreign Ministries and Army Generals the length and breadth of Europe. Now, though the former was considered of little significance the latter was eyed greedily.
Italy, which had only been a unified State since 1871 sought to be more than a cultural oasis for visitors from abroad, it wanted desperately to establish itself on the World Stage and to be a nation worthy of respect and consideration in the committee rooms of the decision makers – and it was in a hurry.
To be taken seriously however, it required an Empire to match its ambitions and though it had come late to the Scramble for Africa it had recently seized the territories of Eritrea and Somaliland which had gone some way to seeing it become the prevailing power in the Horn of Africa but to achieve this end neighbouring Ethiopia would need to yield to Italian dominion.
In November 1889, Abeto Menelik was crowned Emperor Menelik II after what had been considerable dynastic squabbling and the implied threat of civil war during which to help facilitate his succession he had signed the Treaty Of Wuchale with Italy ending Ethiopian territorial claims to Eritrea which would therefore remain under Italian control. The two countries were to interpret the treaty very differently however, in particular its Article 17.
The Italian version appeared to clearly state that the Emperor of Ethiopia, whoever he may be, was obliged to conduct his nation’s foreign affairs with the authorisation of the Italian Government. In its Amharic translation Article 17 merely stated that the Emperor could consult the Italian Foreign Ministry and seek their advice if he so wished.
If Menelik accepted the Italian version of the treaty then his Empire would become little more than a Protectorate of the Italian State, and this he could and would not accept. The disagreement over the different interpretations of the treaty would provide the justification for war should the Italians seek to start one.
If Menelik would not abide by the terms of a treaty he had willingly agreed to and signed then the Italian Government had the right to act and impose its conditions within the legal framework of their responsibility.
As both sides expected talks to resolve the dispute came to nothing but the Italians content that they had done all they could to find a peaceful resolution now felt justified in acting more decisively. And so in late November 1894, Italian forces advanced from Eritrea into the Ethiopian region of Tigray.
They suffered an early setback when on 7 December at Amba Alagi an army made up of mostly Eritrean Askari but commanded by Italian Officers was almost wiped out by the Ethiopians under the command of Ras Makonnen.
The defeat was an embarrassment for the Italian Government and the Prime Minister Francesco Crispi was quick to force through Parliament substantial funds to re-supply and reinforce the army. He also demanded that it’s Commander, General Oreste Baratieri bring the campaign to a swift and successful conclusion.
Italian pride was restored somewhat when in January 1895, they defeated a larger Ethiopian force under the command of Ras Mengesha Yohannes at the Battle of Coatit, a decisive victory that killed more than 1,500 of the enemy at minimal costs to themselves and Italian confidence soared as they advanced further into Ethiopian territory soon after capturing the Tigrayan capital of Adowa.
The Italian Army appeared formidable on paper with more than 17,000 men supported by 56 artillery pieces, a very large force indeed by the standards of the Imperial armies in Africa at the time but much of it was made up of poorly motivated African Askari recruited in Eritrea and reluctant Italian conscripts, and despite being reinforced by elite Bersaglieri and Alpini mountain troops it remained less than the sum of its parts.
And the Ethiopians facing them were certainly not the spear-wielding rabble the Italians imagined.
Around 100,000 strong, disciplined and well led most had been provided with firearms by the Russians which though antiquated were still effective. They had also received artillery pieces along with the military training in how to use them.
The Government in Rome had received intelligence as to the Russian involvement but remained indifferent. As far as they were concerned a modern European army had been dispatched to Africa and they expected to see the results and quickly - the pressure on General Baratieri to act decisively intensified.
Oreste Baratieri was an experienced soldier who had been one of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s volunteer ‘Red Shirts’ before joining the regular Piedmontese Army and fighting against the Austrians at the Battle of Custoza in 1866.
In 1891, he had been appointed Governor of Eritrea and when war was declared on Ethiopia had made a rod for his own back by echoing Marshal Ney’s words at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte’s return from Elba and confidently predicting that he would bring Menelik back to Rome in an iron cage. Now under pressure to act and prove as good as his word, he did not want to act at all.
He knew full well that the Emperor Menelik’s huge army were living off the land and that in time their food supply would simply run out and they would be forced to withdraw. He was also aware of the problems faced by his own army for they too were in urgent need of re-supply and morale among his troops, especially his Italian conscripts was low.
At a meeting with his Brigade Commanders on 29 February, he suggested a tactical withdrawal to the town of Asmara to await developments but his subordinates outraged at the suggestion told him in no uncertain terms: "Italy would prefer the loss of two or three thousand men to dishonourable retreat."
For a time Baratieri remained undecided but a few hours later he ordered an advance to begin at 09.00 the following morning. Unknown to Baratieri, the order had already been given to the Ethiopian Army to withdraw but now faced with the Italian advance the order was reversed.
Baratieri’s plan was to take possession of three mountains in his army’s line of advance thereby occupying the high ground with each position being able to support the other with enfilading fire should the Ethiopians choose to attack.
So they advanced in three columns with a fourth in reserve but to split your army without fully knowing the disposition of the enemy is a hazardous and perilous endeavour.
The three advance columns were also expected to move parallel to one another but with poor maps and over difficult terrain they soon began losing contact with one another. As darkness descended chaos ensued when the column on the left flank of the advance collided with the centre which believing it was under attack briefly opened fire and for a time all sense of discipline disappeared as troops uncertain what was happening stumbled about in the dark, lost, frightened, and disoriented. Order wasn’t fully restored until 4 am. and the delay was to prove pivotal.
The Italians who had hoped to occupy the positions assigned to them during the night allowing them both time to entrench and take the Ethiopians by surprise would now be advancing over open ground in broad daylight.
The confusion continued as Matteo Albertoni, commanding the column on the left of the advance reached his destination, or so he thought, and began to dig-in until he was informed that it was the wrong mountain and ordered to withdraw.
The Emperor Menelik, who had accompanied his army, was in a position whereby as the sun rose on 2 March, he had a perfect view of the Italian advance. What he saw was an army exposed and vulnerable. He did not hesitate to order an attack.
At 06.00 in the morning, Albertoni’s Brigade of Askaris on the left of the Italian line were attacked by 25,000 Shewans, natives of Menelik’s home region and devoted to the person of the Emperor. They fought like furies but the heavily outnumbered Askari’s bravely held their ground for almost two hours before finally overwhelmed they began to flee towards the centre of the line which now also came under attack.
Witnessing this from his position on Mount Belah, Baratieri despatched two companies of Bersagliere to assist Giuseppe Arimondi commanding the centre but caught in the open, without cover, and lacking support they were quickly surrounded and wiped out - there were no survivors.
Having negligently lost so many of his best troops at 07.45 Baratieri ordered Vittorio Dabormida commanding the right wing to swing left to support the hard-pressed Arimondi. For reasons that still remain unknown, Dabormida instead turned right and away from the fighting causing a two mile gap to open up in the Italian lines.
Seizing his opportunity Menelik ordered 30,000 troops under Ras Menesha to push into the gap effectively dividing the Italian army.
The flight of what was left of Albertoni’s command towards the Italian centre had caused the troops to withhold their fire but it was time they did not have as wave after wave of Ethiopian troops now swept towards them.
The Italian artillery also proved ineffective as the few guns brought into action fired wildly proving as dangerous to their own men as they were the enemy. Baratieri also had cause to rue his earlier decision to withhold a shipment of modern rifles until all the old ammunition had been used up as on an open plain and with no entrenched positions the Italians were being overwhelmed.
Baratieri had little choice other than to commit his reserve to the fight or order a general retreat. He chose the latter, but the retreat soon turned into a rout.
In the meantime, Dabormida had stumbled into the Mariam Shavatu Valley where he found himself trapped. He tried to retreat north but found his way cut off by the arrival of a contingent of Oromo Cavalry. Armed with swords and lances they charged the Italians crying – Reap! Reap! as they did so.
In the desperate hand-to-hand struggle that followed Dabormida was killed along with most of his men - the Battle of Adowa was over and it had been a disaster for the Italians.
Baratieri had fled the scene in such haste that the wounded had been left behind and no effort had been made to recover the valuable artillery pieces which were abandoned on the field along with thousands of rifles and the munitions train.
In the fighting they had lost 5,212 men killed along with 3,900 wounded and captured.
The Ethiopians had also suffered grievously in the bloody struggle losing 7,000 men killed and 10,000 wounded.
Of those Italian’s who had fallen into Ethiopian hands many of them had been young conscripts only too eager to surrender. These were mostly well treated, though some 200 were to die in captivity. The same could not be said for the 800 Eritrean Askaris taken prisoner who considered traitors by the Ethiopians were harshly punished having their right hand and their left foot severed.
When news of the defeat reached Italy it was greeted with disbelief that soon took on the aspect of a national trauma with riots breaking out in many of the major cities. Even the Prime Minister’s official residence was attacked and Crispi was forced to flee under a hail of stones as troops were ordered onto the streets to quell the disturbances.
On 7 March, less than a week after the defeat at Adowa Prime Minister Crispi resigned.
In the meantime, General Orestes Baratieri had been ordered to return to Italy to face charges of cowardice for abandoning his army in the field. He was eventually cleared of the charges but was nonetheless forced to resign his commission in what was a very public humiliation.
Italy had been humbled before the world and her hollow pretensions towards being a great power had been laid bare, but her Imperial ambitions had not diminished neither had they been thwarted as might have been expected.
The Battle of Adowa had been the greatest victory achieved by native troops against the armies of any of the Imperial powers and it had secured Ethiopian independence for the foreseeable future but Menelik II did not seek to take advantage of the situation. He neither invaded the neighbouring Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somaliland nor demanded that Italy relinquish them, indeed Italy acquired more territory following the defeat at Adowa.
All Menelik sought was a re-writing of the Treaty of Wachule and the recognition of Ethiopian independence, and in this he was successful.
Humility and moderation in victory would not to save his country from Italian vengeance, however.
In 1935, Benito Mussolini ordered the Italian Army to once again invade Ethiopia, or Abyssinia as it was by then known, and in a prolonged and bitter struggle that saw extensive aerial bombardment and the liberal use of poison gas it was overwhelmed.
He believed that the conquest of Abyssinia had laid low the ghost of Adowa and removed the stain of inglorious defeat from Italian history but the brutality of the tactics employed and the barbarity of the occupation that followed merely appeared to compound it in the eyes of the world.