The Battle

The campaign of Adowa may be said to have opened
between January 24 and 30, 1896, when the Emperor
Menelik, taking advantage of Ras Makonnen’s victories
at Amba Alagi and Makaile, proceeded to march forward
to Hausen and thence to Adowa. This advance out-
manoeuvred the Italian commander, General Baratieri,
whose communications with his base were threatened,
the Ethiopians having advanced nearer to Asmara than
he was himself. Accordingly, on February 1, the Italian
commander moved back the bulk of his army from
Edagahamus to Mai Gabeta, and two days later con-
centrated his forces between Mai Gabeta and Entichio.
Menelik’s armies had meanwhile taken up positions on
the hills to the north-east of Adowa, only some five miles
away. The two armies, which had once faced each
other looking north and south respectively, thus faced
east and west and were in close enough proximity to
open hostilities.

The Italians were, however, finding their communica-
tions difficult. The country was so mountainous that
transport animals moved slowly and had often to climb
dangerous precipices, which were rendered even more
dangerous by the activity of hostile forces in the rear.
Two local chiefs, Ras Sebath and Ras Agas Tafari, who
knew the country well and upon whom the Italians had
relied for help, had recently come out in support of
Menelik; Epizootic disease had broken out, with the
result that only about 20 per cent, of the local mules
were fit for service. Finally, Italian morale was dis-
integrating. Baratieri and members of his staff
quarrelled about the strategy of the campaign, while all
sorts of rumours circulated among officers and men. It
was said that agents from the Ethiopian side entered
the Italian camp with impunity, while the Italians, who
could not rely on the support of the native population,
often used spies who were, in fact, on Menelik’s side
and that Baratieri was the only person who believed
their reports. Italian field maps were, moreover, com-
pletely inaccurate.

Baratieri’s plan was to remain entrenched in his
position and wait there in the hope that Menelik would
attack or be forced to retire through lack of provisions.
The difficulty at this time was that although the
Ethiopians could marshal very large forces they had
no transport services to bring up supplies from the rear.
The huge army and its hordes of camp followers and
servants had, therefore, to rely on what could be pro-
cured locally; if this source failed it was necessary to
march into other areas. Baratieri, for his part, was
determined not to move from his camp, as to do so was
dangerous in view of the difficulty of the land and the
enmity of the populace. Baratieri, we may add, was
personally unpopular in the area; A. B. Wylde observes
that he had ” a very bad name at Adowa, owing to the
cruelties that took place when he first occupied the town.”

Ras Alula
Menelik, who had taken up his final position at Adowa
on January 21, was also determined to wait for his
opponent to make the first move. On January 23 he
had ordered Ras Mangesha, Ras Makonnen, Fitaurari
Gabre Ehu, Fitaurari Tekle and Likemekusas Adanou
to march northwards to Addi Koula, where they were
to await his arrival, but this force had been obliged to
return to base on account of shortage of water. On the
following day, January 24, the Italians had made a show
of attacking, but as soon as the Ethiopians moved out
to give battle they had returned to their fort, much to
the discontent of the Ethiopians, who complained that
the enemy was like a tortoise which retreated into its
shell whenever they approached. According to Gabre
Sellassie’s Chronicle of the Reign of Menelik the
Emperor had at first been provoked into ordering an
attack, but had been dissuaded by Ras Manglsha, of
the Tigre, who had reminded him of the losses incurred
by the Emperor Yohannes in attacking the fort of
Metemma. Menelik had therefore decided not to move
until the invader should launch his attack.

Accordingly, says Gabre Sellassie, the Ethiopian Com-
mand, decided, after long discussions on February 26
and 27, that they would not attack unless the Italians
themselves began operations; on the contrary, it was
agreed that if there was no sign of the enemy moving,
and their own men then searching for forage arrived in
time, the army would proceed into Hamasien, probably
on March 2. Such a move would once again have offered
an opportunity of threatening the Italian lines of com-
munication, but it was destined never to be attempted.
Meanwhile, indecision reigned in the Italian camp.

Though well entrenched, Baratieri was increasingly pre-
occupied with transport difficulties, and to make matters
worse received on February 25 Prime Minister Crispi’s
fateful telegram, which told him that his Government,
for political reasons, insisted on a victory and was
” ready for any sacrifice.” On February 28, however,
Baratieri ordered his army to move back, as his position
seemed to him unsatisfactory. It was the third time
the hesitating commander had given this order only to
countermand it. On this occasion some of the baggage
began to move, but again Baratieri changed his mind.
He asked for the advice of his four major-generals, who
advised him to reverse his order and, instead of retreat-
ing, to advance. Dabormida, doubtless having in mind
Crispi’s telegram, spoke for all when he said, ” Italy
would prefer the loss of two or three thousand men to a
retreat which would seem dishonourable.” Accordingly,
on February 29, the decisive command to attack was

According to Ethiopian tradition Baratieri made the
decision to attack because he had received intelligence
that Menelik was in no position to resist. It is asserted
that a certain Awalom, a villager of Entichio, had some
time earlier made contact with the Italians by supplying
them with eggs, chickens and other produce and had
been given 200 dollars by Baratieri to undertake
espionage work. Awalom, who, we are told, was a tall
man of soldierly bearing, was entirely loyal to the
Ethiopian cause and went immediately to Ras Mangesha
to report upon the confidence which had been placed
in him by the invader. It is related that Mangesha
interrogated him privately and being convinced of the
truth of his story dressed him as one of his own guards
so as to avoid drawing attention to the matter. He then
took him to Menelik and his generals. Ras Alula, who
was present, urged that his services should be used to
give false information to the enemy, and Menelik agreed
to this and handed Awalom a sum of money.

Ras Mengesha

This the latter refused, offering the Emperor instead the 200
dollars he had received from the Italians as his own
personal contribution to the war. Menelik laughingly
refused this and asked the patriot to fall in with Alula’s
plan. Awalom agreed with regret as he had hoped to
join Menelik’s armies as a soldier. He then returned to
Baratieri’s camp where he is said to have told the Italian
commander that it was necessary to attack at once as
the Ethiopian army was scattered and busily engaged
in searching for food. The statement that a large part
of the army was engaged in this work was of course
true and was confirmed by Baratieri’s spies. Corroboration
for these statements is to be found in the writings
of A. B. Wylde. Asserting that Entichio’ was altogether
the wrong base for an attack on Adowa, he declares, ” I
have every reason to know that the (Italian) Intelligence
Department was altogether at fault regarding the actual
number of Abyssinian soldiers present and did not give
them the credit for having the number of rifles or the
quantity of ammunition they possessed.”

Awalom, it is related, acted as guide to part of the
Italian army and led them towards the armies of Ras
Mangesha and Ras Alula. He then escaped from the
invading army and joined the Ethiopian forces so that
he could take part in the battle. He was later appointed
the Chika-Shum of his village and given exemption from
paying taxes. During the Italian occupation, which
began forty years later, some of his relatives fled to
Shire to avoid the invader’s wrath; others were exiled
to Nakura.

Ras Mikael
Baratieri’s new plan was to advance by night in three
columns, each made up of one brigade, with a fourth
brigade following as a reserve in the rear. The objective
was to occupy positions some nine miles forward and
only four miles from the Ethiopians, who, it was hoped,
would be obliged by this manoeuvre either to retreat or
to retaliate.

A. B. Wylde’s comments: ” General Baratieri thought
his attack would have been a complete surprise, and
as Signor Crispi, the Prime Minister, wanted to meet
his Parliament (which was discontented with the policy
in Eritrea) with a victory, no reward for General
Baratieri would have been too great had he succeeded,
and, like a gamester, he threw his dice for a big coup
and lost.”

The country to be traversed was, in fact, extremely
difficult and was inhabited by a hostile population. An
Italian officer describing the physical features of the land
subsequently referred to the “rugged slopes, precipitous
and broken, abounding in ravines, gorges and crevasses;
narrow and tortuous clefts in the hard rock; passes half-
closed, steep and very difficult, and granite summits that
rear themselves to the sky in the most strange forms and
dimensions. The surface seemed like a stormy sea
moved by the anger of God.”

The Italian force at this time numbered 20,000 well-
equipped men and 56 cannon*. This force, 17,700
strong (of which 10,596 were Italian and the remainder
Eritrean) took part in the operation; 1,466 Italians and
1,600 Eritreans were left behind in the camp. The
Ethiopians, on the other hand, were considerably more
numerous, but, generally speaking, less well equipped.
It is estimated that they comprised about 80,000 rifle-
men, 8,600 cavalry, 20,000 spearmen and 42 cannon.
According to Melli, these forces were divided among
the principal Ethiopian commanders as follows:

………………………………….. Riflles Horses Guns
Emperor Menelik ……………. 25,000 3,000 32
Empress Taitu ……………….. 3,000 600 4
King Tekla Haimanot ………. 5,000 — —
Ras Makonnen ………………. 15,000 — —
Ras Mangasha and Alula ….. 12,000 — 6
Ras Mangasha Atichim …….. 6,000 — —
Ras Mikael ……………………. 6,000 5,000 —
Ras Olie ……………………….. 8,000 — —
Totals ………………………….. 80,000 8,600 42

Battle Map

General Barartieri

The Ethiopian rifles were mainly breech-loaders
obtained from French, Belgian, Russian and other
travellers; their cannon were mainly well-nigh obsolete
models, though they included a number of Hotchkiss
guns which, according to A. B. Wyldet, were superior
to anything the Italians possessed and were to prove
of great value. The Italians, it must be noted, made no
use of cavalry, despite the fact that the British had found
them most useful during the Magdala campaign of
1867-8. Nor did they use heliographs during the battle,
though these were available.

Adowa itself, and the heights above it, were occupied
by Ras Makonnen and his Harari forces. To the right,
south of the city on a high irregular plateau with its
flanks protected by nearly perpendicular cliffs, up which
there were only a few sheep paths, lay the troops of
King Tekla Haimanot, with their cavalry thrown out
at the foot of the cliffs amongst water meadows. On
the left wing lay Ras Mikael with his Galla cavalry along
the southern and south-western slopes of Mount Selado.
Adjoining him on the north and north-west of that
mountain was Ras Mangasha and his Tigrean troops,
while on the extreme left, as far back as the heights of
Adi Abuna, lay the forces of Ras Alula. Menelik and
Empress Taitu made up the rear, being stationed near
the ruins of the Jesuit Monastery at Fremona; they were
encamped on rocky ground offering great opportunities
for stubborn resistance, while at the same time within
easy access of the rest of the army, so that if needed they
could easily move up in support of Ras Alula, Ras
Makonnen or Ras Mikael. Ras Woly was encamped
on low ground to the south-west of the Fremona spur,
immediately behind Ras Makonnen, whom he could
reinforce in less than half an hour, while Wagshum
Guangul lay behind Ras Makonnen and King Tekla
Haimanot, either of whom he could join if needed. The
Galla cavalry was encamped in some water meadows
eight miles off.

The Italian advance began by the light of the moon
at 9 p.m. on February 29, smoking being prohibited
so that the movement of troops should not be observed
by the unsuspecting Ethiopians. Dabormida’s brigade
was on the right, Arimondi’s in the centre, and
Albertone’s on the left. Ellena, with the reserve brigade,
followed Arimondi. From the outset, however, Baratieri
found it impossible to keep the three lines abreast.
Perhaps led astray by faulty intelligence he was himself
slow to take up a central position in the Memsah valley
and failed to place Ellena’s reserves in a position where
they could support either the flanks or centre. At about
2.30 a.m. on March 1, Albertone’s brigade crossed that
of Arimondi’s and caused him a delay of 1 1/2 hours.
At 3 he reached the hill named Kidane Meret on
Baratieri’s map (but not generally known by that name)
which he had been ordered to occupy and where he was
supposed to make contact with Arimondi. Not realising
that he had delayed the latter he waited impatiently for
half an hour and then began to think there was some
mistake about the location, and, on consulting his guides,
was told that Kidane Meret was some four and a-half
miles further off from Sauria. After another half-hour’s
wait he therefore set off at full pace in the hope of
catching up lost time, making for the true Kidane Meret
which overlooked Adowa and was only three miles from
Menelik’s camp. There he found himself isolated and
surrounded by Ethiopian troops, a fact which compelled
the other brigades to fight all day with their left flank
unguarded. When within 2 1/2 miles of his new objective
he halted in an effort to make contact with the force he
assumed to be on his right, but the advance guard failed
to receive his order and continued to march, with the
result that at 6 it found itself engaged all alone in fierce

Major-General Dabormida: “Italy would prefer the loss of two or three thousand men to a retreat which would seem dishonorouable

Meanwhile, the other units were moving according
to plan. Baratieri himself reached Rebbi Arienni at 6.
He heard some distant firing, but assumed it to be the
scrapping of an advance guard and that Albertone was
in his allotted position. Dabormida had reached a
position not far from his commander; Arimondi had
moved up the eastern slopes of the same high land; in
the rear Ellena’s reserve column came into sight. All
seemed well, except that Albertone’s levies, having
taken a wrong path, were nowhere to be seen.
The Italians had been counting on taking the Ethio-
pians by surprise. Baratieri had only just sent a letter
discussing peace terms, and it was only to be expected
that hostilities would be deferred until a reply had been
returned by Menelik or Ras Makonnen, who had been
obtain provisions, and that the camp is almost empty,
have decided to fall upon you by surprise.”
According to Gabre Sellassie, it was from Kagnaz-
match Teffesse that Menelik was first warned of the
surprise attack. ” Do you really believe the enemy is
going to attack and that this is not merely another trick
to force me again to rally uselessly for battle?” asked
the Emperor. ” To-day it is certain,” Teffesse replied.
Orders were immediately given to prepare for battle,
but it was not, says A. B. Wylde, until between 9 a.m.
and 10 p.m. that the main Ethiopian force could be
brought into action. Two-thirds of the army, Gabre
Sellassie confirms, were not in the camp; part were
foraging for food and part attending a service at the
Church of Sion.

Major-General Arimondi
The first exchange of shots took place at about 6 a.m.,
when, as we have seen, Albertone’s isolated force found
itself in conflict with Ethiopian troops. The chronicler
quaintly adds that their noise “resembled the rain of
Hamle, which falls without stopping.” At 6.45, Dabor-
mida was ordered to occupy the spur of Belah which
was more or less in the direction of the gunfire, and
would have supported Albertone if he had in fact been
where he was assumed to be. Unfortunately for Dabor-
mida, instead of inclining to the left he inclined to the
right and, therefore, instead of getting any nearer to
the missing general, proceeded in a parallel line to him.
Consequently, there was a 2 1/2 mile gap of mountainous
country between them which the Ethiopians promptly

Baratieri, stationed on Rebbi Arienni, was meanwhile
giving his orders on the altogether incorrect assumption
that his forces were stationed in the positions he had
ordered. At 8.15 he took up a stand on Mount Eshaho,
and to his surprise saw that Albertone was seriously
engaged. At 9, however, he received two notes from
Albertone written at 7.30 and 8.15 respectively, stating
that all was more or less well but that reinforcements
would be acceptable. After reading these messages the
commander galloped to Mount Rajo, where he saw to
his dismay a routed army streaming back from Mount
Rajo to Sauria. He sent officers in vain to stem the
rout. The Ethiopians, declared Major Gommera, an
eye-witness, had “manoeuvred with great skill” and
finally charged with “a hurricane of 25,000 men”; the
Italians fought back, “but cold, inexorable as death, a
storm of lead arrested them.”

On the Ethiopian side morale was high. The Empress
Taitu, in particular, showed great fortitude and, in the
words of the chronicler, “ceased to be a mere woman
and appeared as a valiant soldier.” When she saw the
troops waver she cried out: “Courage, the victory is ours!

Major-General Galliano
Baratieri, though now fully aware of the gravity of his
position, was still wholly ignorant of the true state of
affairs, and was without contact with units not in his
own immediate vicinity. At 9.15 he sent a note to
Dabormida, ordering him to cover Albertone’s retire-
ment, but the note was not delivered as the messenger
met one from Dabormida bringing word that “he was
holding out his hand to Albertone,” and therefore
thought it was useless to deliver the order. At 9.30 he
ordered Albertone to retreat, but the messenger failed
to get through, and eventually learned that Albertone
had been killed and that his army was in full retreat.
At 9.45 he sent forth a messenger to ascertain the where-
abouts of Dabormida, but only received confused intelli-
gence which turned out in fact to be altogether incorrect.
At 10, and again at 10.15, he sent orders to Dabormida
to move forward to support Albertone, but Dabormida
was not to be found as he had already begun an advance
which was to take him into the Mariam Shavita valley,
where he was killed.

Baratieri now reinforced his left flank in the belief
that the Spur of Belah, upon which everything depended,
was still held by Dabormida, though in fact it was no
longer occupied by any troops at all, Dabormida being
four miles to the west. Consequently Ethiopian troops
poured in, sweeping past Arimondi’s right and cutting
his line of retreat. The Ethiopians pursuing the routed
Italians were, moreover, able to penetrate within rifle
range as the Italians were unable to fire on them for fear
of hitting their own stragglers.

Major-General Arimondi
The victorious Ethiopians south of Mount Belah now
attacked the central forces of Arimondi; Galliano’s
Eritrean troops were accordingly brought up from reserve
and placed on the southern slopes of Mount Rajo. At
about this time, 10.15, another Ethiopian force swept
over the Hill and Spur of Belah from the east, thereby
cutting Baratieri completely from Dabormida and
threatening Arimondi, this time from the right. At 10.30
Galliano’s Eritrean force deserted to the Ethiopians,
which enabled Menelik’s forces to sweep forward in that
sector, thus almost completely surrounding the Italians.
Since both his flanks were now turned Baratieri
determined on a general retirement, which he hoped to
effect under cover of Dabormida’s force, then fighting
hopelessly in the Mariam Shavita valley. By this time,
however, complete confusion reigned in the Italian army.
The retreat inexorably turned into a rout as repeated
efforts to hold the Ethiopian forces proved abortive.
Italian morale collapsed as the exhausted troops
struggled back. “They were almost unconscious of their
surroundings,” says Baratieri, “and careless of every-
thing except their individual defence. The officers had
lost authority over the soldiers, who looked in a
bewildered and stupefied manner at those who gave an
order or attempted to halt them.” The flight continued
into the dark, the Ethiopians pursuing their foes as far
as the river Mareb. During the night many Italians,
including the commander himself, lost their way. “A
terrible destiny,” declared Baratieri, “weighed on my
head; it was the third time that I had lost my way during
the retreat, and my heart was breaking at the long hours
during which it had been impossible to give my orders
or to receive information.”

Major-General Albertone
In chronicling this series of mistakes and mishaps one
is entitled to wonder what would have been the course
of events if the Italians had employed other tactics. A. B.
Wylde’s reply to this question is as follows: “The opinion
of Ras Alula and many of the Abyssinian generals was
that it made very little difference what took place the
moment the Italians made their fatal advance, and if they
had made the surprise complete and lined the position,
they would still have been beaten and crushed … I
perfectly agree with their opinion, and the loss to both
sides would then have been too terrible to contemplate.”
As the survivors of the routed army retreated across
the Eritrean frontier panic spread among the entire
Italian population. Italian agricultural colonists aban-
doned their recently acquired lands and fled to Asmara,
and thence to Massawa. The remnants of the army
found their way to the fortresses of Adi Ugri, Asmara,
Adi Caieh and the Hadras pass. On March 6, Baratieri
learnt that even before the battle the Italian Government
had decided upon his dismissal; accordingly on that day
he handed over to his successor, Baldissera. For a week
or so it appeared that Menelik would follow up his
victory by advancing into Eritrea; on March 12 he
encamped at Feres Mai, an advanced post which seemed
to indicate an intention of moving on Gura. On March
20, however, to the great relief of the Italians, he ordered
his troops to retire southwards. Afterwards, to a priest
of Serae (on the way to Gura), he is reported to have
said: “We were very near to your country and intended
to go there. I was not able to do so—first of all because
we were short of water; and secondly, because many new
enemies had arrived, and, as you know, I do not love
spilling blood.”

“The only thing that prevented King Menelik from
following up his complete victory,” confirms A. B.
Wylde, “was want of provisions to feed his army.”
Had Ras Alulu been allowed to advance with his
army, strengthened by part of Ras Mangesha’s force,
“there is no doubt,” adds A. B. Wylde, “the whole of the
Hamasien plateau and the Bogos province, with the
exception of the fortified positions of Adi Ugri, Asmara
and Keren, would have again fallen into the hands of
the Abyssinians . . . the garrisons of these places were
not numerous enough to take the offensive in the open,
and it would only have been a question of time how long
their provisions held out before they would have to
capitulate, as it was hardly possible for reinforcements
to have arrived from Italy in time to relieve them. The
Italian fores, immediately after the battle, was a great
deal too demoralised to offer any effective resistance.”
At the battle of Adowa, the Italians lost, according to
their own figures, 2,918 white troops killed, 954 missing,
470 wounded, and 1,865 prisoners; as well as 2,261
Askaris killed and 958 wounded. These losses repre-
sented a large proportion of the total force (10,598
Italians and 7,100 Askaris). The debacle was, however,
far greater than the figures suggest, for the survivors
were completely demoralised. All three major-generals
who had taken part in the campaign, Albertone,
Arimondi and Dabormida, were killed, and Baratieri’s
army had ceased to exist as a fighting unit. Among the
booty was the entire Italian artillery, some sixty-five
cannon, 11,000 rifles and most of the transport. The
Ethiopians had lost 5,000 to 6,000 killed and 8,000 badly
wounded; among the dead were numbered Kegnazmatch
Abeina, Kegnazmatch Tafesse, Dejazmatch Machacha,
Fitauraris Gabrel Ehu, Hailu and Tadai, and Dejazmatch
Besheer, who died of his wounds on the following day.


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