Geography of War - The Battle of Adwa

The Battle of Adwa (First Italo-Ethiopian War)

March 1, 1896

Modern Location:
Northern Ethiopia

Ethiopia (led by Emperor Menelik II) vs. Italy (led by General Oreste Baratieri)

In the late 19th century, much of the African continent had been controlled and colonized by various European powers.  Ethiopia had been influenced by the Italian occupation of Eritrea to the north, but its loosely-connected tribes remained largely autonomous under the leadership of an emperor.  In a battle for succession after the death of Emperor Yohannes IV in 1889, Italy supported a claimant named Sahle Mariam who eventually was able to build a strong enough confederation to successfully assume the title of Emperor Menelik II.  The bond between the two nations was seemingly strengthened by the signing of the Treaty of Wichale which formally recognized Italy's control over Ethiopia's neighboring coastal colony of Eritrea and provided substantial financial support for the new emperor and his nation.  There was, however, a dispute over the meaning of one of the articles in the treaty that led to tension - whether Ethiopia was permitted to use the Italian government in their foreign relations, or if they were required to do so (thus making Ethiopia a de facto protectorate of Italy).  The argument was significantly severe that Menelik formally rejected the treaty in 1893 and then wasted little time gathering forces in preparation for an invasion.  His assumption of Italy's intentions was correct, as military action soon erupted and Italian forces quickly moved deep into Ethiopian territory.  By the end of 1895 Ethiopians significantly outnumbered the Italians and had pressed them back into a defensive position in the city of Adwa, and as 1896 began the two armies prepared to face one another.

For nearly a month General Baratieri waited within his well-defended position.  His supplies were running low and he knew he was outnumbered by a well-armed force, but he also knew that Emperor Menelik's army was surviving on what they could obtain from the land and local peasant farmers.  The Ethiopians, on the other hand, seemed unwilling to attack despite their numeric advantage.  The Italian government, however, soon lost patience and insisted that Baratieri attack or be replaced.  After meeting with his generals on the evening of February 29, he finally agreed to an attack on the morning of March 1.  Italian forces, supported by native Eritrean Askari troops, departed shortly after midnight to advance across the mountainous landscape towards their enemy.  Bad maps, insufficient supplies for the terrain, outdated weapons, and local spies ruined the Italian battle plan, and when the sun came up the next morning they had lost the element of surprise as well as any sense of a cohesive formation.  Emperor Menelik, just one day prior to breaking camp because of insufficient food supplies, received word that the Italians were approaching and gathered his nobles to face the attack.  One of the Italian commanders led his column to the wrong mountain where he was supposed to have set up artillery, and when he attempted to correct himself instead found Ethiopian artillery had arrived first to command the strategic point, as well as most of the other high ground surrounding the Adwa valley.  With a huge advantage in numbers, a significant tactical advantage, and modern weaponry that was more than adequate, the Ethiopians cut down their attackers quickly with repeated, relentless advances.  Attempts to fall back and regroup failed, as the Italians were unaware of the Ethiopian reinforcements that controlled narrow valleys and cut off their paths of escape.  Within six hours of the first shots of the battle, the surviving Italians were in full retreat with well over half of their army of 17,000 killed, wounded, or captured.  The Ethiopians had actually sustained a larger number of casualties, but with nearly 100,000 troops on the field it represented a much smaller percentage of their force.

View of the battlefield from above the city of Adwa:

The climate and landscape of the battlefield both played vital roles in the outcome.  The Italians were not equipped or trained well enough to handle the terrain.  A rocky landscape full of hills and valleys that were difficult to navigate caused their units to become disoriented during the night, resulting in the columns being spread out over several miles as the battle began.  If Italy's political leadership had exercised more patience, however, the very same rocky terrain may well have granted them victory.  The landscape was not especially fertile, especially as the region had experienced a fair amount of drought and famine in the years prior to Italy's invasion, and the lack of food very nearly forced the Ethiopians to either relocate or begin disbanding to search for more supplies.

Emperor Menelik did not pursue the Italians across the border into Eritrea, although there have been differences of opinion about whether his decision was influenced by a lack of resources or nerve, or if it was simply borne of a desire to insure Ethiopian independence rather than eliminate the invaders.  The nation's prominence was significantly boosted on the world stage, as it represented one of the few successful defenses against European colonialism.  The Treaty of Addis Ababa that ended the war officially recognized Ethiopian independence and helped spark a movement of anti-colonialism across the continent of Africa.  The humiliation of defeat, however, may have played a role in the rise of militant fascism in Italy over the following decades, as Benito Mussolini used the battle as an excuse to defy the League of Nations and invade Ethiopia again in 1935.  Nevertheless, Ethiopia maintained its prominence among the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa because of its history of successful national defense, and capital city Addis Ababa remains host to major international organizations such as the African Union.


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