"King Umberto declared his birthday a day of mourning." Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia, defeats the colonial forces of the Kingdom of Italy at the Battle of Adwa

1 March 1896, the colonial forces of the Kingdom of Italy under General Oreste Baratieri, bent on the conquest of Ethiopia, were decisively defeated at the Battle of Adwa by Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia.

"Italy would prefer the loss of two or three thousand men to a dishonorable retreat." (Brigadier Vittorio Dabormida on the eve of the Battle of Adwa)

Menelik II (1844 – 1913), nəgusä nägäst, i.e. “king of kings”
or Emperor of Ethiopia as clear winner of the Battle of Adwa,
from the rather spiteful cover of the issue of 28th August 1898
of the French “Le Petit Journal”,
a daily Parisian newspaper published from 1863 to 1944.

It is not without irony that several thousand modern Carcano rifles were sold in 1889 under the government of Francesco Crispi to the Great Nagus, the Emperor of Ethiopia, to fend off the incursions of Mahdist fanatics from Sudan as well as territorial encroachments from the Anglo-Egyptian colonials. It is even more ironic that the new Italian supreme commander and governor of Italian Eritrea, Oreste Baratieri, stopped issuing the self-same guns to his own troops because there was the order to be economical about the conquest of Ethiopia and there were still enough cartridges for the old four-shot Vetterli repeaters left. Along with the wrong type of boots for the rocky ground, no communication equipment worth the mention, poor maps and mostly outdated artillery, Baratieri’s requisites for invasion of difficult terrain occupied by a determined enemy were a bit inadequate. In short: Sir Robert Napier, who had led the British Expedition to Abyssinia in 1868, would have wept. Couldn’t be helped, though, and while his replacement General Baldissera already was underway, Baratieri decided to approach the camp of Menelik at Adwa and at least occupy favourable terrain to be held against a 6:1 numerical superiority while the already meagre supplies ran short. So were those of the Nagus, though, whose large army was living off the land. They might just melt away in a few days. But the Crispi government insisted that Baratieri should act after a year of quite sensible delaying tactics. His army had about five days in the field left before he was out of supplies himself. Baratieri decided to attack the camp of the Nagus before dawn of a Sunday and take the Nagus’ 120,000 Ethiopians by surprise.

Ethiopian Cavalry at the time of the Battle of Adua
A contemporary Italian illustration showing the irregular cavalry of the Nagus

Ethiopia is traditionally Christian since 331 AD and Menelik’s army was up early for Sunday Service. They saw Baratieri approaching in three columns over the mountains and decided that turning the other cheek was better left for another day, Sunday or not. Rapidly closing with the Italians, many Ethiopian regulars and levees fired their Carcanos and with the support of Russian mountain guns, French Hotchkiss revolving guns and British Maxims, Baratieri’s 17,000, conscripts and locally recruited Askari, stood no chance and were overran. His elite Bersaglieri and Alpini held, retreated fighting but were finally cut up and slaughtered. Only 7,000 Italians were able to quit the battlefield alive. Ethiopian casualties were equally high, but they did not amount to two thirds of the Nagus’ army. The Crispi-Government’s colonial major power dreams were over at a single blow. When Baldissera arrived on the scene, he tried to organise what was left, but his first official act was to negotiate the Treaty of Addis Ababa, signed in August 1896 that guaranteed complete Ethiopian sovereignty. Not until then the 3,000 Italian PoWs captured at Adwa were released.

Last Stand at Adwa - contemporary British newspaper illustration
Baratieri's Last Stand at Adwa - contemporary British newspaper illustration

Eritrea remained in Italian possession, but when the news of the crushing defeat sank in back home in Italy, riots broke out and Crispi’s government fell. Ethiopia remained the only original African state not conquered by a European colonial power. The French had already assured Menelik II of their support, since they had viewed the new Italian colonial ambitions, especially in Tunisia, with suspicion, the Russians supported Ethiopia with materiel and military advisors and the British had already shown that they had no interest in the place in 1868. However, the Battle of Adwa came as a shock for all colonial powers, since the fate of Baratieri’s army could easily become their own. It never did, though. However, all of a sudden, everyone knew what and where Ethiopia was. Menelik’s victory at Adwa was seen as symbolic for all kinds of things in hindsight by various factions, the most unsavoury certainly being Mussolini’s revanchist call of “Revenge for Adwa” and the Second Italo-Ethiopian War that ended with a short-lived Italian occupation in May 1936.

Italian PoWs receive the news of their release after the Treaty of Addis Ababa
Italian PoWs receive the news of their release after the Treaty of Addis Ababa

And more about the Battle of Adwa on: