“…the strangest campaign in the whole history of British arms..." Sir Robert Napier's Expedition to Abyssinia.

13 April 1868, 400 miles north of present-day Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, the mountain fortress of the Negus Tewodros II at Magdala was stormed by men of the expeditionary force under the command of Sir Robert Napier, ending the rescue mission and punitive expedition known as the British Expedition to Abyssinia.

“…the strangest campaign in the whole history of British arms..." (George MacDonald Fraser, “Flashman on the March”)

Men of Napier’s 4th (The King's Own Royal) Regt of Foot in their just recently issued khaki uniforms and white topis, helmets made of cork or pith with a cloth cover, posing at the Koket-Bir gate of Magdala on April 14th 1868. 

The hundreds of engineers that landed along with Sir Robert Napier’s expeditionary force of 13,000 men out of Bombay, together with ten thousands of workers and baggage animals, even elephants, to carry the mountain guns, were certainly not what the Negus had bargained for with his ill-fated letter to Queen Victoria, asking for development aid in 1862. By then, Tewodros II had made himself Emperor of Ethiopia already, uniting the warring tribes for the first time in centuries and preparing the country for its way to become a modern state, when a couple of paper pushers in Whitehall simply deemed the letter of some benighted potentate from the back of beyond as not important enough to bother anybody with it. The writ finally ended up in Calcutta, because Ethiopia basically fell under the jurisdiction of the Raj, from there at least a consul was dispatched to confirm the Great White Mother’s general goodwill but it was too late already. Tewodros, despite his remarkable skills at politics and warfare, was never known to be among the sanest of rulers, cashiered all Europeans at his court in Magdala, whipped the consul and put him and the rest of the Westerners in irons and sending a message of “So there!” back to India. The relief force to free Tewodros’ hostages was mobilised in July 1867.

A contemporary imagination of Emperor Tewodros II giving audience surrounded by lions

400 miles of rough, mountainous terrain with no roads or bridges to speak off lay before the British, occupied by people not exactly friendly to foreigners, let alone invading armies. However, Sir Robert overcame both obstacles in three months, with an astonishing feat of engineering and shrewd diplomacy, playing the tribal hostilities against each other, using the general disaffection with the Negus’ rule and stating that his mission was to rescue the hostages and not conquering Ethiopia for the British Empire. In the meanwhile, Tewodros handled the same challenges, pulling his considerable artillery park, including his 70-ton giant mortar “Sevastopol”, through rough, hostile country towards Magdala in an almost superhuman effort of a footslog, arriving only days before the British appeared on the plain of Arogye, stretching before the his mountain retreat. A few notes were exchanged, Sir Robert demanding unconditional surrender and handing over the hostages, Tewodros, obviously no longer compos mentis, answered rather wishy-wahsy, killed hundreds of his native prisoners by throwing them over a cliff at Magdala and Sir Robert gave the signal for general advance on April 9th.

The fortress of Magdala burning

It was touch-and-go for a while on the plain, Tewodros, who had always wanted to see a European army in action, watched with morbid fascination on his rock, while his artillery, probably deliberately sabotaged by his Swiss and German gun captains, misfired and “Sevastopol” exploded because of a barrel burst. A Congreve rocket literally blew up in Tewodros face while rapid fire of the new British Snider rifles, determined bayonet charges and field artillery firing at point-blank ranges cut the men still loyal to the emperor to pieces. Sir Robert reported back to London: “Yesterday morning (we) descended three thousand nine hundred feet to Bashilo River and approached Magdala with First Brigade to reconnoitre it. Theodore opened fire with seven guns from outwork, one thousand feet above us, and three thousand five hundred men of the garrison made a gallant sortie which was repulsed with very heavy loss and the enemy driven into Magdala. British Loss, twenty wounded." Two would later die of their wounds, the only British casualties of the expedition. On April 13th, Magdala was stormed and the body of Tewodor was found. He had shot himself. The hostages were freed, unharmed, and the Negus’ fortress was burned down after a thorough plundering and Napier withdrew with pipes and drums and flags flying to the coast and quit the place, his mission thoroughly accomplished at the cost of £ 9,000,000 – worth about a billion Euros in today’s money. The crown of Tewodor II, captured at Magdala on April 13th 1868, was returned to Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia by King George V in 1925.

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