The Cost to the Victor

The cost to the Ethiopians of defeating the Italian
invaders at Adowa was heavy and was paid by thou-
sands of Ethiopian families from all parts of the coun-
try. The full extent, of Ethiopia’s loss may be judged
from an account of Augustus B. Wylde, sometime
British consul for the Red Sea, who reached Massawa
six weeks after the battle, having been sent by the Man-
chester Guardian to investigate the causes of the Italian
defeat. In his book Modern Abyssina he relates that
during his tour of Northern Ethiopia he was first visited
at Adi Caieh by Ethiopians who gave him terrible
accounts of the famine and cholera that had devastated
the country as a result of the human carnage. As he
approached the site of the battle, he found the familiar
countryside tragically transformed.

“From a distance a hamlet on the mountain side
might be seen, and looked as if it were perfect, only no
people could be seen moving about, and no smoke issu-
ing from the cottages. On approaching, the roofs of the
huts would be found in bad repair, and on entering it,
not a human being was to be seen. The doors of the
building were nearly off their hinges, the torn bushes
that shut the enclosures round the huts were to one side,
and grass and weeds were growing everywhere; a more
luxurious patch of vegetation or rank grass, about six
feet length by two in breath, would mark the spot where
some poor victim lay unburied. On looking into the
houses they would be found as if the occupants had just
vacated them, but on closer examination, when the eye
got accustomed to the semi-darkness inside after the
glare of the bright sunshine in the open, several skeletons
would be found, either on the raised end of the hut or
on a bedstead. In one hut I found five remains; one was
that of a woman, as I could tell by the remains of her
dress, alongside of her on the same bed lay two small
skeletons, one a little larger than the other, both of the
little skulls resting on the arm bones of what perhaps
was their mother. Behind the door was another body,
evidently a boy, the leg bones stretched out and those
of the upper part of the body in a small heap. The owner
of them had evidently died with his back resting against
the wall; the last body was curled up near the fire-place
alongside which were several empty cooking vessels.
One examination of these abandoned villages was
enough for me, and from this specimen I could see what
this fertile country had suffered from the series of years
of war, famine and pestilence.” Everywhere were “burnt
villages and destruction.”

“The best view of Adowa,” he continues, “is to be
obtained from the hill on which are situated the old
ruins of the Jesuit town of Fremona, which is situated
to the north-west and about two and a half miles off.
Two miles further off to the north is the monastic
settlement of Adi Aboona, the property of the Aboona or
chief of the Ethiopian Church. Although Adi Aboona is
on slightly higher ground than Adowa, a good view of
it is not to be got owing to an out-jutting spur from
Mount Selado, which ends just vis-a-vis to Fremona.
From the latter the whole panorama of the town is
spread out before one, and to me after an absence of
twelve years I could hardly believe that the heap of
ruins and the nearly deserted houses were the same place
that I had spent so many pleasant days in. With the
exception of the five churches of Our Saviour, the
Trinity, the Virgin Mary, Saint Michael and Saint
George and some few large houses, the place seemed to
be a mass of ruins and broken-down enclosures.
“I had come from Aksum by the direct road and on my
way the villages the nearer one got to Adowa showed
what the country had gone through, as the majority
of the houses were unroofed and in a tumble-down con-
dition. Skulls of men and bones of animals were fre-
quent, victims of the famine and the plague, and every
yard from Fremona towards once happy Adowa pre-
sented some fresh horror . . . here were the remains of
unburied humanity, dirt, filth and corruption at every
step, and, although the heavy rains had washed away
parts of the fragments, and the grass was growing
luxuriantly, still a sickly smell of decaying flesh per-
vaded the atmosphere, and every few yards I had to put
my handkerchief to my nose and go as fast as possible.
I asked Schrimper if he called it healthy and a fit place
to come to, and he replied, ‘Oh, this is nothing to what
it was ten days’ ago; it was not sweet then. ‘Nearing the
end of the town the ground was not so bad, and at the
market-place it was clean enough, and there was nothing
much to grumble about; but still there was a sort of
unhealthy feeling, and my spirits were down at seeing
the ruins, the misery and the alteration in everything. I
looked in vain for the good houses and the enclosures
with their nice shady trees that used to exist at the
west of the market green. Ras Aloula’s fine establish-
ment, that formerly covered the ledge of ground above
the market, was in ruins, the bare walls and the black-
ened timbers alone marking the spot where once used
to be a well-ordered household . . .

“The day after my arrival at Adowa, I made the first
of many visits to the battlefield, perhaps the most dis-
agreeable task I ever had to perform in my life, one
position being more foul smelling and disgusting than
another. A burying party of Italian engineers had been
allowed by the Ethiopians to come and inter the dead,
but the condition of the corpses prevented them from
being moved, and a few loose stones were their only
covering which, instead of facilitating the decomposition,
only retarded it; not half of the bodies had been attended
to, and in some places, putrescent masses held together
by ragged clothes marked the details of the fight . . .
Bird and animal life was absent, they even could not
face the horrible Golgotha, and the hyenas had long ago
left the district to procure something more tempting than
what the battlefield offered them … There are some
things in one’s life that never can be forgotten, and this
is one of them that I shall carry with me as long as I
live, and shudder when I think of the thousands of white,
brown and black men that lay dotted about this lovely
country, that gave up their lives to gratify an election-
eering policy in a far-off land’.”


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