In 1896, Ethiopia fought a desperate battle against a stronger European nation attempting to invade, conquer, and colonize the smaller nation and more importantly, be able to exploit its natural resources. After a long siege in the mountains betweens Ethiopia and the bordering nation of Eritrea, a series of brutal battles were fought between the army of King Menelik II of Ethiopia and the Italian Army under the command of the Italian governor of Eritrea, General Oreste Baratieri.
The mistrust between the two nations had begun 7 years before during the signing of the Treaty of Wichale (or Uccialli) agreed to in principle in May of 1889. Menelik II agreed to provide to Italy land in the Tigray province in exchange for support in the form of weapons the Italians had been supplying him for some time. The Italians wanted more.
There were two versions of the treaty to be signed, one in Italian, and one written in Amharic. Unbeknownst to the conquering King was the fact that the version in Italian had been altered by the translators to give Rome more power over Menelik II and his kingdom of Ethiopia.
The Italians believed they had tricked Menelik II into giving his allegiance to Rome in the treaty. Mistakenly, they believed him to be unsophisticated in the way the Europeans believed themselves to be. To the Italians surprise, the treaty was rejected despite their attempt to influence the king with 2 million round of ammunition. He would have none of it and denounced them as liars who had attempted to cheat himself and Ethiopia.
When bribery failed Italy did what so many nations have tried throughout history. They attempted to set up Ras Mangasha of Tigray as rival by promising to support him with money and weapons, and hoped he would overthrow Menelik II who had denounced Italy. When that failed, the Italians turned to Baratieri, who had shown some promise in his handling of government affairs in Eritrea.
Baratieri was no stranger to battle and devised a good strategy to lure the Ethiopians into an ambush. There were three main problems with his strategy.
First, he had drastically underestimated the strength and will of the army facing him. Although aware he was outnumbered, the Governor of Eritrea believed the Ethiopians to be undisciplined and unskilled at the art of war negating the advantage in numbers. Certain he would have an advantage over the ‘savages’, he dug in his 20,000 troops and 56 guns at Adawa awaiting the King and his men.
In the meantime, Menelik II had trapped a thousand or so of the Italian army and besieged them. He agreed to allow them safe passage if Italy would reopen negotiations with him concerning a peace treaty. The Italian government refused and in fact did the opposite, authorizing more dollars to pursue the war in Ethiopia. Their Nations’ pride had been hurt by the African King and they sought to restore their ego and influence.
The second error Baratieri made was the assumption he could lure the Ethiopians out into an ambush. He did not think they had the tactics or knowledge of battle he possessed as an important leader in a civilized European nation. After a 3 month standoff his troops were out of basic supplies and he had to move forward or retreat. After a message came from higher up in the government calling him out as ineffective and unsure, he was pushed ahead to attack.
Baratieri’s third mistake of not understanding how poor his battle intelligence was became the most costly of his errors. The strategy he employed was to outflank the Ethiopian army under the cover of darkness and move in on them from the mountains above their camp. While Sun Tzu would have approved, the Italian commander did not account for the extremely harsh terrain nor the lack of direction and difficulty in communicating with his men would have out in the wild country.
After setting out confident in their battle strategy, the officers in charge of implementing the attack learned how poor the rough sketches they had were. It was dark and cold in a high mountain pass in February and it was doomed. Divisions of Italian soldiers became confused, lost, and disorganized. Through the confusion a two mile gap in their battle line was opened and the Ethiopians rushed in cutting the Italian attack in two. Baratieri had failed to claim the high ground and Menelik II hastily moved his artillery in above the attacking soldiers. Able to lob shells down upon the invaders, the Ethiopians raced to seize the advantage but the Italians held their ground and at mid morning it looked as if they may be able to win in spite of all the difficulty they had encountered.
Considering retreat, Menelik II was persuaded by his advisors to commit to the battle an additional 25,000 soldiers he had been holding in reserve. Those additional troops proved to be the difference in the outcome of the ferocious melee. Having fought hundreds of battles to protect their homeland, Menelik’s warriors attacked with a ferocity the Italians couldn’t have imagined. Taking hardly any prisoners, the victors of Battle of Adwa killed 289 Italian officers, 2,918 European soldiers and about 2,000 askari. A further 954 European troops were missing, while 470 Italians and 958 askari were wounded. Some 700 Italians and 1,800 askari fell into the hands of the Ethiopian troops.
With the victory at the Battle of Adwa in hand and the Italian colonial army destroyed, Eritrea was King Menelik’s for the taking but no order to occupy was given. It seems that Menelik II was wiser than the Europeans had given him credit for. Realizing they would bring all their force to bear on his country if he attacked, he instead sought to restore the peace that had been broken by the Italians and their treaty manipulation seven years before. In signing the treaty, Menelik II again proved his adeptness at politics as he promised each nation something for what they gave and made sure each would benefit his country and not a rival nation.