The Battle of Adwa (also known as Adowa or sometimes by the Italian name Adua) was fought on 1 March, 1896 between Ethiopia and Italy near the town of Adwa, Ethiopia, in Tigray. It was the climactic battle of the First Italo–Ethiopian War.
By late February 1896, supplies on both sides were running low. General Oreste Baratieri, commander of the Italian forces, knew the Ethiopian forces had been living off the land, and once the supplies of the local peasants were exhausted, Emperor Menelik's army would begin to melt away. However, the Italian government insisted that General Baratieri act. On the evening of 29 February, Baratieri met with his brigadiers Matteo Albertone, Giuseppe Arimondi, Vittorio Dabormida, and Giuseppe Ellena, concerning their next steps. He opened the meeting on a negative note, revealing to his brigadiers that provisions would be exhausted in less than five days, and suggested retreating, perhaps as far back as Asmara. His subordinates argued forcefully for an attack, insisting that to retreat at this point would only worsen the poor morale. Dabormida exclaiming, "Italy would prefer the loss of two or three thousand men to a dishonorable retreat." Baratieri delayed making a decision for a few more hours, claiming that he needed to wait for some last-minute intelligence, but in the end announced that the attack would start the next morning at 9:00. His troops began their march to their starting positions shortly after midnight.
The Italian army comprised four brigades totalling 17,700 troops, with fifty-six artillery pieces. However, it is likely that even fewer men were on the Italian side: Harold Marcus notes that "several thousand" soldiers were needed for support and to guard the lines of communication to the rear, so he estimates the Italian army to have consisted of 14,500 effectives. One brigade under General Albertone was made up of Eritrean askari led by Italian officers. The remaining three brigades were Italian units under Brigadiers Dabormida, Ellena and Arimondi. While these included elite Bersaglieri, Alpini and Cacciatori units, a large proportion of the troops were inexperienced conscripts recently drafted from metropolitan regiments in Italy into newly formed battalions for service in Africa.
As Chris Prouty describes:
They [the Italians] had inadequate maps, old model guns, poor communication equipment and inferior footgear for the rocky ground. (The newer Remingtons were not issued because Baratieri, under constraints to be economical, wanted to use up the old cartridges.) Morale was low as the veterans were homesick and the newcomers, too inexperienced to have any esprit de corps. There was a shortage of mules and saddles.
Estimates for the Ethiopian forces under Menelik range from a low of 80,000 to a high of 150,000, outnumbering the Italians by an estimated five or six times. The forces were divided among Emperor Menelik, Empress Taytu, Ras Welle, Ras Mengesha Atikem, Ras Mengesha Yohannes and Ras Alula Engida, Ras Mikael of Wollo, Ras Makonnen, Fitawrari Gebeyyehu, and Negus Tekle Haymanot of Gojjam. In addition, the armies were followed by a similar number of traditional peasant followers who supplied the army, as had been done for centuries. Most of the army was composed of riflemen, a significant percentage of which were in Menelik's reserve; however, the army was also composed of a significant number of cavalry and infantry only armed with lances. On the night of Feb 29 and the early morning of March 1, three Italian brigades advanced separately towards Adwa over narrow mountain tracks, while a fourth remained camped. David Levering Lewis states that the Italian battle plan
called for three columns to march in parallel formation to the crests of three mountains — Dabormida commanding on the right, Albertone on the left, and Arimondi in the center – with a reserve under Ellena following behind Arimondi. The supporting crossfire each column could give the others made the… soldiers as deadly as razored shears. Albertone's brigade was to set the pace for the others. He was to position himself on the summit known as Kidane Meret, which would give the Italians the high ground from which to meet the Ethiopians.
However, the three leading Italian brigades had become separated during their overnight march and at dawn were spread across several miles of very difficult terrain. Their sketchy maps caused Albertone to mistake one mountain for Kidane Meret, and when a scout pointed out his mistake, Albertone advanced directly into Ras Alula's position.
Unbeknownst to General Baratieri, Emperor Menelik knew his troops had exhausted the ability of the local peasants to support them and had planned to break camp the next day (2 March). The Emperor had risen early to begin prayers for divine guidance when spies from Ras Alula, his chief military advisor, brought him news that the Italians were advancing. The Emperor summoned the separate armies of his nobles and with the Empress Taytu beside him, ordered his forces forward. Negus Tekle Haymanot commanded the right wing, Ras Alula the left, and Rasses Makonnen and Mengesha the center, with Ras Mikael at the head of the Oromo cavalry; the Emperor and his consort remained with the reserve. The Ethiopian forces positioned themselves on the hills overlooking the Adwa valley, in perfect position to receive the Italians, who were exposed and vulnerable to crossfire.
Albertone's askari brigade was the first to encounter the onrush of Ethiopians at 6:00, near Kidane Meret, where the Ethiopians had managed to set up their mountain artillery. His heavily outnumbered askaris held their position for two hours until Albertone's capture, and under Ethiopian pressure the survivors sought refuge with Arimondi's brigade. Arimondi's brigade beat back the Ethiopians who repeatedly charged the Italian position for three hours with gradually fading strength until Menelik released his reserve of 25,000 Shewans and swamped the Italian defenders. Two companies of Bersaglieri who arrived at the same moment could not help and were annihilated.
Dabormida's Italian brigade had moved to support Albertone but was unable to reach him in time. Cut off from the remainder of the Italian army, Dabormida began a fighting retreat towards friendly positions. However, he inadvertently marched his command into a narrow valley where the Oromo cavalry slaughtered his brigade, while shouting Ebalgume! Ebalgume! ("Reap! Reap!"). Dabormida's remains were never found, although his brother learned from an old woman living in the area that she had given water to a mortally wounded Italian officer, "a chief, a great man with spectacles and a watch, and golden stars".
The remaining two brigades under Baratieri himself were outflanked and destroyed piecemeal on the slopes of Mount Belah. By noon, the survivors of the Italian army were in full retreat and the battle was over.
Baratieri was relieved of his command and later charged with preparing an "inexcusable" plan of attack and for abandoning his troops in the field. He was acquitted on these charges but was described by the court martial judges as being "entirely unfitted" for his command. Chris Prouty offers a panoramic overview of the response in Italy to the news:
One question much asked – both then and long afterwards – is why did Emperor Menelik fail to follow up his victory and drive the routed Italians out of their colony? The victorious Emperor limited his demands to little more than the abrogation of the deceptive Treaty of Wuchale. In the context of the prevailing balance of power, the emperor's crucial goal was to preserve Ethiopian independence. In addition, Ethiopia had just begun to emerge from a long and brutal famine; Harold Marcus reminds us that the army was restive over its long service in the field, short of rations, and the short rains which would bring all travel to a crawl would soon start to fall. At the time, Menelik claimed a shortage of cavalry horses with which to harry the fleeing soldiers. Chris Prouty observes that "a failure of nerve on the part of Menelik has been alleged by both Italian and Ethiopian sources. Lewis believes that it "was his farsighted certainty that total annihilation of Baratieri and a sweep into Eritrea would force the Italian people to turn a bungled colonial war into a national crusade that stayed his hand.
As a direct result of the battle, Italy signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, recognizing Ethiopia as an independent state. Almost forty years later, on October 3rd, 1935, after the League of Nations weak response to the Abyssinia Crisis, in a new military campaign endorsed by Benito Mussolini, the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, the Italians soundly defeated the Ethiopian forces. Following the war, Italy occupied Ethiopia for five years (1936-41), before eventually being driven out during World War II by British Empire forces, aided by Ethiopian patriots, in the East African Campaign.
On a similar note, the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde observed that "few events in the modern period have brought Ethiopia to the attention of the world as has the victory at Adwa;" however, Bahru Zewde puts his emphasis on other elements of this triumph: "The racial dimension was what lent Adwa particular significance. It was a victory of blacks over whites. Adwa thus anticipated by almost a decade the equally shattering experience to the whites of the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905.
This defeat of a colonial power and the ensuing recognition of African sovereignty became rallying points for later African nationalists during their struggle for decolonization, as well as activists and leaders of the Pan-African movement. As the Afrocentric scholar Molefe Asante explains, "After the victory over Italy in 1896, Ethiopia acquired a special importance in the eyes of Africans as the only surviving African State. After Adowa, Ethiopia became emblematic of African valour and resistance, the bastion of prestige and hope to thousands of Africans who were experiencing the full shock of European conquest and were beginning to search for an answer to the myth of African inferiority.