The Native Brigade (GEN Albertone) consisted of four big battalions (850-950 troops) of ascari infantry, largely Eritrean and Sudanese volunteers, and a small unit of tribal auxiliaries. Attached artillery included a native battery of 4 x 75mm cannons, two Italian mountain batteries (8 cannons) and a seperate section of 2 guns, for a total of about 4,000 infantry and 14 guns.The three Italian brigades were roughly similar; two regiments of six infantry battalions of about 400-500 or so, usually an attached "native" infantry unit, and 2 to 3 x 6-gun artillery batteries.
The 1st Brigade (GEN Arimondi) was the smallest; one of it's two regiments was the elite Bersaglieri light infantry which contained only two battalions, the attached native troops consisted of just one company, and two batteries for 2,800 infantry and 12 guns.
The 2nd Brigade (GEN Dabormida) contained two three-battalion infantry regiments and the "Native Mobile Milita Battalion" (another oversize unit of 950 rifles) and three 6-gun batteries for 3,800 infantry and 18 guns.
The 3rd Brigade (GEN Elleni) also contained two rifle regiments; one of the six infantry battalions was another elite unit, the Alpini mountain troopers. The attached native unit was huge; a 1,100-man infantry "battalion"; as if to make up for this 3rd Brigade had only two heavy weapons batteries*. A small engineer company rounded out the unit, which fielded about 4,100 rifles and 12 guns*.
*(There seems to be some confusion about these units. They are identified as "Quick-Firing Gun" units, and may have been equipped with some sort of automatic weapon; the Corpo Speciale d'Africa was known to have deployed Gardner guns - a type of early machinegun similar to the better known Gatling - but it is not certain whether these weapons were present at Adowa)A total of about 14,500 infantrymen and 56 heavy weapons (either artillery or 44 cannon and 12 "quick-firing" crew-served weapons of some sort) under GEN Baratieri.
የኢትዮጵያ ንጉሠ ነገሥት መንግሥተ, Mängəstä Ityop'p'ya (Army of the Ethiopian Empire) - The force that the Emperor (Negus Negasti, King of Kings) Menelik II brought with him to Adowa was the product of what was called "beating the kitet" - the Abyssinian equivalent of the tall tales of the Burning Cross raising the Highlands so beloved of Walter Scott.Although the Empire had only a small household force of standing troops the entire nation could be called to arms for a relatively brief period - we'll talk about this later when we discuss the campaign leading up to Adowa. But the best estimate of Ethiopian numbers at Adowa are:
Emperor Menelik (Imperial Household) - 25,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, 32 guns
Empress Taitu - 3,000 infantry, 600 cavalry, 4 guns
Negus Tecla Aimanot - 5,000 infantry
Ras Mekonnen - 15,000 infantry
Ras Mangasha/Ras Alula - 12,000 infantry, 6 guns
Ras Atichim - 6,000 infantry
Ras Mikael - 6,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry
The army also included about 20,000 footsoldiers armed with the medieval weapons of Abyssinia; shotel scimitar (only with the concave edge sharpened, steel spear, and buckler-type shield. Something like another 10-20,000 locals armed with whatever they could carry, from firearms to farming tools.
The Ethiopian artillery was sparse and bizarre but in a few cases surprisingly good. The bulk of the Ethiopian cannon were old Egyptian pieces either captured during the brief Ethiopian-Egyptian war of 1875-76 (which is quite a story in itself and plays a wide role in history, but I'll leave it to others to tell - you can read about it here, if you're interested) or after the Egyptians abandoned their outposts in present-day Eritrea in the 1880s.The best artillery pieces the Ethiopian Army fielded were a relative handful of 37mm Hotchkiss guns, so-called "pom-poms" because of the noise they made when fired. Although the Ethiopian tactical set-up didn't have much use for field artillery the pom-poms were a useful modern cannon and, in fact, had an advantage in both range and rate of fire over the Italian mountain howitzers.
The best guess is that the army of Menelik that day ranged somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000 troops all arms and 44 guns.
The Sources: Well, we're in the colonies again, aren't we? So you know what I'm about to say; the problem is, as always, that only one side got to write the history.
In this case, though, it wasn't the victor.
As far as primary sources go, they're all European.
Although the Kingdom of Italy didn't want to talk about getting its royal ass royally whipped by a bunch of dusky savages, there were too many literate survivors to completely suppress the business. Plus there was the usual business of courts-martial for the losing commanders - the record of GEN Baratieri's trial (and acquittal) the following June are a matter of official records, as are the usual unit strength reports, casualty lists, orders of battle, and communications logs.
Plus literate Italian troops - and it's worth remembering that in the late 19th Century many Italian privates and even some of the NCOs would have been marginally literate, if that - would have kept diaries and wrote letters.
European news organizations covered the expedition, and the Adowa force even had it's own embedded newspaper reporter.
Secondary sources were not long in following. The magnitude of the disaster was such that it was recognized as a decisive battle at the time and, as is the wont of such things, encouraged the observers to rush their tales into print.
So the first stories start coming out early; a Russian officer, Alexander Bulatovich, who had been seconded to the Ethiopian court to "advise" Menelik (possibly on the employment of artillery, although there is little evidence to show any sort of Russian influence on the course of the engagement) slammed out two books, From Entotto to the River Baro the next year, and With the Armies of Menelik II four years later.
Another contemporary account, and a rather decent one, The campaign of Adowa and the rise of Menelik, was written by one George Fitzhardinge Berkeley and published in 1902. Berkeley seems to have been one of those wonderful British amateur everythings; Oxford scholar (modern history? - Wellington and Keble), cricketer, reserve officer, justice of the peace and landowner it would seem in Oxfordshire - his address is listed as "Hanwell Castle".
(Here it is, by the way.
It's listed in Castles and Fortifications of England & Wales as "Built in 1490's of brick it consisted of buildings on 4 sides with a rectangular tower in each corner. It was demolished in 1770 apart from one tower which was incorporated into a farmhouse next to the church." So it sounds like our JP G. F-H. Berkeley was a sort of Oxfordshire squire with a fortified farmhouse. Be honest - where but GFT can you get this sort of fascinating historical trivia?)Oh, and speaking of Major Berkeley and his doings; a year after his wife of 34 years died he remarried - at the age of 64. I call that damned deadly determined optimism.
I think I would have liked the man.
Anyway, you can find Berkeley's Adowa work online in PDF form here.
The published Ethiopian accounts are really European, written either by Russian or Portuguese "advisors" serving with the Ethiopian forces. These accounts disagree with each other and many of them are known to be second-hand; Bulatovich, for example, arrived in Ethiopia with the mis-named "Red Cross Mission" several months after Adowa. As for the victors, they had the songs of their praise-singers, and that was enough for them.
The sources available on-line are respectable but thin. The Wiki entry is relatively well-written and well-referenced and differs from the printed sources no further than they differ from each other.
There's some sort of odd little on-line Ethiopian royalist outfit called the "Crown Council of Ethiopia" who appear to be pining for the good old days of Haile Selassie or something, but they have a very decent summary of the campaign and especially the reforms that enabled Menelik to engineer the victory at Adwa, although little detail on the day of battle.
One of the more interesting on-line resources is the Google books version of an 1897 publication entitled Sul Campo di Adua the diary of one Eduardo Ximenes covering the period March through June of 1896. This work is in Italian and as such is not especially accessible to the English-only speaker, but the illustrations are useful for both the period and the locale, and in particular the documentation of the Italian expedition to the battlefield in the spring and early summer of 1896; the intent appears to be to have been burial of the dead and monumentation of the principals involved.Well worth a look - the above picture is "the chestnut tree of death" as featured in a lovely little story in Ximenes about the heroic death of one of Dabormida's officers...
As usual, the Osprey people have produced a tidy little volume entitled Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896 (The Italian Disaster in Ethiopia) by Sean McLachlan.
Contains the usual wealth of tactical and military information along with a short but informative account of the political situation surrounding the engagement.
The Campaign: One of the keys to understanding Adowa is understanding that the late 19th Century brought two new European entrants into the race for global colonies; Germany in 1871, and Italy ten years earlier.
These nations were hundreds of years in being behind the big colonial powers Britain, France, Spain, and even the smaller outfits like Portugal and Belgium. As a result both were far behind in satisfying the Victorian greed for lording it over places containing yellow, brown, and black people. In Africa this devolved into an undignified scramble for colonies that has left its mark to the present day.This nasty little itch cannot be downplayed; for Europeans of the day - both the general publics as well as the elites of the European powers - an array of overseas colonies was a visible sign of their nation's power and importance.
For Italy, though, it meant largely resentment, since the bigger European powers had already seized the bulk of the non-white world. The lions of England and Spain, and the eagle of France, had devoured the juiciest parts of Africa, South America, and Asia. All that was left were some of the nastier peripheries of Africa for the jackal of Italy.
(The difficulty of acquiring colonies left a nasty taste in Italian mouths, and was the cause of the formation of the Central Alliance prior to World War I. One of the reasons that Italy and Germany spent so much of the 20th Century either allied or flirting with alliance is the shared resentment of the western European nations' selfishness in hogging all those lovely negroes, wogs, and asians.)The Italian lust for dusky people in faraway lands to rule was finally tickled in 1886, when the British cut a secret deal for part of northern Ethiopia known as Eritrea.As usual when shaking hands with the British over colonial matters it was best to count one's fingers afterward. The British wanted the weak Italians to control the northern portions of Puntland - the Horn of Africa - to forestall the stronger French from expanding out of their colony of French Somaliland into the weak Egyptian-held Eritrea. But the Italian presence along the north end of Ethiopia also brought them into conflict with the Ethiopian Empire, the last independent state in Africa.
The intrigues between the Italians, the Ethiopians, and Menelik, the then-ruler of the state of Shewa could fill an separate volume. Suffice to say that the Italians conspired to help Menelik seize the throne of Ethiopia and then (in 1889) signed a treaty with the Kingdom of Italy that is known for the location at which it was signed, Wuchale.
The treaty contains twenty clauses and was written in Italian and the primary language of Ethiopia, Amharic. It established the modern nation of Eritrea as an Italian possession in return for economic and military assistance to the new Emperor of Ethiopia. The critical part was contained in Clause 17.Now.
The problem for an English-speaker is that the critical issue surrounding Clause 17 revolves around the wording in Italian compared to the wording in Amharic. The wording in the English translation I found states: His Majesty the King of Kings of Ethiopia can use the Government of His Majesty the King of Italy for all treatments that did business with other powers or governments. Now assuming that the English translation gives the gist of this clause the critical bit appears to the the ninth word; "can".
Here's the Amharic version of the thing:In this transcription Clause 17 is supposed to have had the Amharic word for "can" or "may" written in this place - that is, that the relationship was an optional one. The Italian version of this wording, though, would have read La Sua Maestà il re dei re dell'Etiopia può usare il governo di Sua Maestà il re dell'Italia per tutte le tratazzioni di affari che averse con altre potenze o governi. But the actual Italian version is supposed to have used the word deve in place of può; "must".
This single word placed the government of Ethiopia in the position of a client state of Italy, opening the way for an eventual Italian takeover.
So much bloodshed over a word; no wonder the world fears diplomats.
When this duplicity was revealed to Menelik and his people they were, not surprisingly, furious. The Ethiopians had no intention of becoming an Italian colony, while, clearly, the Italians saw Ethiopia as the jewel in the Italian Empire's crown.
The two sides then spent the next four years jockeying for position.
Menelik's Ethiopia made two important moves; an upgrade to the Imperial armory - ironically, including purchases of Italian weaponry along with French and British arms - and a complete overhaul of the national tax system.
The former equipped the Ethiopian troops with repeating rifles. While the Negusa Negast couldn't reproduce a modern industrial army - Ethiopia had no manufacturing base worth mentioning - he could at least put his infantry roughly on a level, man for man, with his likely enemy.
And the tax reform was even more critical.
One of the great weaknesses of tribal warfare is logistics. Without a reliable way to provide the troops with food and equipment most pre-industrial armies tend to be small and transient. They can't grow very large or, if they do, they tend to eat through their rations too quickly to be effective. By the early 1890s, however, the Ethiopian imperium had established a reasonably efficient system of collecting supplies, conveying them to the troops, and distributing them. This enabled Menelik to both raise a far larger force than his predecessors and to sustain them in the field for a far longer time.The Ethiopians also tried to use the European rivalries to gain allies against their potential enemy, Italy. And attempt to finesse France foundered on French fears of Italian designs on their colony of Tunisia; the original Italian overseas interests had centered there, and only a French incursion in the 1880s and the resulting Treaty of Bardo (which established French "interests") had forced the Italians to look elsewhere. The French, in turn, used Ethiopian pressure as a means to push the Italian government into accepting the Bardo treaty and French colonial control over Tunisia.
The only European power that chose to side with Ethiopia was Russia; a diplomatic mission to St. Petersburg in the summer of 1895 resulted in a military assistance pact, although the actual assistance arrived after Adowa had been concluded.
Finally, in 1893, Menelik felt secure enough to publicly repudiate the Wuchale agreement. This was the first open step towards what would become known as the First Italo-Ethiopian War.The Italian response was to snaffle up several small territories along the Eritrean border, and then attempting to bite off a bigger piece - the Ethiopian province of Tigray - in late 1894. They expected Menelik's rivals and enemies, guys like Tekle Haymanot, King of Gojjam and Ras Mengesha Yohannes, ruler of Tigray and the heir-presumptive of the Negusa Negast Yohannes IV (that Menelik had overthrown), to go in with them. Instead the people of Gojjam, Tigray (or Tigre'), and the border states went over to the Imperial side, or were neutralized (as was the case of the Sultan of Aussa) by Imperial troops.
However, the Corpo Speciale d'Africa won several quick victories in December 1894 and early 1895; these included crushing the Hagos (or Agos) rebellion in their Eritrean territory of Akkele Guzay (also spelled "Okule Kusai", a foretaste of the problems that the Italians would have at Adowa) , and from there attacking into Tigray.
GEN Baratieri whipped the Tigrians at the Battle of Coatit on 13-14 JAN 1895. The battle itself was a hard-won engagement, the most noteworthy bit being that it opened with a night approach march by the Italian forces (in this case, Albertone's Native Brigade). The logistical weakness of the Tigrian forces meant that once they were unable to overrun the Italian ascaris on the first day of fighting their combat power dropped away precipitously; the second day was a walkover, and by 15 JAN the Tigrian force was smashed and in flight.That day the 3rd Native Infantry battalion overran Ras Mengesha's HQ tent and, among the other trophies, captured a mass of his official papers including evidence that Menelik had been involved with the business from the start; the Italian-Ethiopian cold war was suddenly exposed to the air, and like any fire, blazed up with the draft. The two countries reinforced their positions, and on 17 SEP 1895, Emperor Menelik beat the kitet for the nation in arms to meet at Were Ilu.
The first direct engagement between Ethiopian and Italian forces came on 7 DEC 1895, where a force of two Native Infantry battalions holding a border position was overrun and destroyed at Amba Alagi by some 20 to 30,000 Ethiopian and Tigrain troops. The Italian advance screen fell back; GEN Arimondi left a force of about 1,400 at Megele and pulled the remainder of the force back to the main Corpo Speciale assembly area at Adigrat.
The boys at Meqele did a hell of a job of work.
They were invested by the force that had overrun Amba Alagi on 18 DEC, but the garrison commander palavered for time, claiming that he would negotiate a surrender.
The main Imperial Army then arrived soon after the first of the year and conducted a two-week siege which included several unsuccessful attempts to take the fort - which had never actually been completed and was in pretty poor condition.Finally on 20 JAN the commander asked for, and received, permission from GEN Baratieri to surrender; in a bizarre 18th Century sort of coda the garrison was allowed to march away with their personal weapons and a pack train supplied by Menelik's forces.The Imperial Army then established forward positions along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border such as Adowa, in places where the Italians had not fortified the passes. The Imperial Army settled in at Adowa on 14 FEB, to wait.
GEN Baratieri, dug in around Sauria, could count, and he knew that in an open field engagement his forces would likely do little better than the British had at Isandlhwana 17 years earlier. He had anticipated about 60,000 Ethiopians - a force that, while large, he probably could have handled - but this was ridiculous. His best course of action now was to hold his ground.Because he also knew that even with Menelik's new logistical system that the Negusa Negast's army was more fragile than his own; if he could keep his own force in being while refusing a general engagement he stood a good chance of destroying the Ethiopian force through pure logistical attrition.
But politicians see things differently than the commanders in the field. For the Italian government of Francesco Crispi needed a victory over the damned wogs, and waiting around for them to starve themselves to death stank more of Fabius than Julius Caesar. And Baratieri's earlier confidence (when he anticipated a much smaller Imperial army) now sounded perilously like boasting, and Crispi had no patience with him.
Crispi is an interesting guy; from revolutionary in 1848 against the king of Sicily, he ran through a succession of ratissages until he found himself in London with the assembling Garibaldi crew. From there he is supposed to have been instrumental in persuading Garibaldi to begin his campaign to unify Italy in Sicily. He was a stormy petrel, too, between his political enmities (the man had a gift for pissing people off) and his marriages - at least two of which may or may not have been bigamous - he was always in and out of trouble. He had been Prime Minister of Italy earlier but had been defenestrated after a financial crisis in 1891. But now he was back, and pushing hard for a decisive win to seal the colonial deal for Italy.
And this boring lazing about in the Ethiopian hinterlands was pissing him off. Here's the cover of the French Le Petit Journal from 9 FEBthat gives you some idea of the sort of irritation this must have been to Crispi and his coterie; the damn Frogs were laughing at the notion of some dirty darky poking them in the head with a breadstick. That wasn't OK, and the pressure from Rome for Baratieri to do something was relentless.
Meanwhile Menelik's forces were rapidly eating their way through their provisions and losing interest in the Phony War.
So after about two weeks of eyeballing each other from their several camps, in a bizarre coincidence both leaders made up their minds to move on Leap Year Night, 29 FEB.
Menelik's plan was a sort of sideways maneuver, north into Hamacen province in Eritrea. Although we have no direct evidence, the logical thing for him to do would have been to pillage the enemy's territory to restock his larder, and a swipe at Asmara, the colonial capital, might bring Baratieri out of his entrenchments.
Baratieri, meanwhile, had decided on a Coatit-style night march on Adowa. It was against his military judgement - he still thought a Fabian withdrawal would further fragment the Ethiopians - but his brigade commanders, and pressure from the government in Rome forced his hand. Either way he would have to move forward or back - his logistical situation was almost as dire as Menelik's. His S-2 told him that much of the Imperial army had scattered, either to forage, or to church in advance of the 1 MAR religious holiday (this was in error, either a genuine mistake or an Ethiopian maskirova; in fact, few of the Imperial troops had strayed far, and even with that the Imperial force still outnumbered the Italian between 4 and 8 to 1).The terrain between Baratieri's camp at Sauria and Adowa is characterized by rough, mountainous ground that can be roughly divided (looking southwest) into higher ground to the northeast, a rough, hummocky valley ("Mai Agam"), and then a series of lower hills to the southwest.Baratieri's plan was for the Corpo Speciale to move in three columns to the heights northeast of the Valley of Mai Agam and hope that Menelik's forces would attack them. Ideally the terrain would channelize the attackers and force them into restricted avenues of approach while the proximity of the heights would provide interlocking supporting fires that would scourge the massed Ethiopians with rapid rifle and artillery fire.
Assuming the initial engagement went well Baratieri's plan then called for advancing to the lower heights to the southwest, driving the Ethiopian Imperial forces, fragmenting and destroying them.GEN Albertone's Native Brigade was tasked with the left flank column, with the objective of the Hill of Kidane Meret. In the center, GEN Arimondi's 1st Brigade was tasked with securing the heights of Mt. Belah, while GEN Dabormida's 2nd Brigade was assigned the hill of Rebbi Arienni on the right and to the rear of Arimondi's men. GEN Elleni's 3rd Brigade was placed in division reserve.
The columns moved off at about 2100 hrs, 29 FEB 1896, and nearly immediately ran into trouble.The Engagement: Any experienced soldier can tell you that a night movement to contact is one of the trickiest of tactical tasks. Troops moving at night nearly always make enough noise to announce their presence, while anything more than a tiny readjustment of position requires immense time to perform or risks making sufficient noise and confusion to alert any enemy within sight or hearing.
Add to that the steep, rocky terrain,
the relative inexperience of the Italian units both with the country and with the military, and the hopeless maps it wasn't surprising that something went wrong early.
After-action reports talk about units breaking contact as well as mistaking their routes; at one point most of Albertone's brigade veered north across the path of Arimondi's brigade, which had to halt and wait for the other unit to pass. This slowed the approach march but wasn't really what went wrong; the disaster was beginning up ahead, as GEN Albertone consulted with his local "guide".
We will never know anything about this man, or men. He (or they) would probably have been some local farmer or layabout snapped up earlier the previous day by Albertone's ascaris and was probably about as happy about being the local subject matter expert for these damn wop invaders as you could imagine. But whoever he was, or they were, his contribution to the Ethiopian victory was as great as anyone in Menelik's army that night.Because, you see, Baratieri's faulty intel had gotten the terrain wrong; he had designed the flat hilltop south of Mt. Belah as Albertone's objective, and had identified this as "Kidane Meret".
But this hillock had no such name.
In fact, it had no name at all - the locals probably called it "that fucking hill near Mount Belah" or the equivalent in Amharic. But - there WAS a "Kidane Meret" - actually called "Enda Kidane" or "Enda Kidane Meret" about four miles further southwest.
So the Native Brigade arrived at the flat-topped hill about 0300 and took a knee, and waited. But 1st Brigade was nowhere in sight (it had been held up by Albertone's guys earlier, remember, and was still trudging along to the north and east). And the local guy must have been jawing away at Albertone - "No, white-eyes, this ain't fucking Kidane Meret. Kidane Meret is down thataway, that way, you stupid fucking pinheaded pizza-gobbler. Christ, can't anybody here speak Amharic like a normal person?"
So after about an hour, Albertone's worries and the arguments of the local "guide" won out over his military instincts, and he ordered his unit to march order and filed down across the valley to the hill on the far side.
So by about 0600 the Italian position looks like this:- Native Brigade - concentrated roughly 4 miles southwest of the main body on the "Hill of Enda Kidane"
- 2nd Brigade - taking positions along the northwest slopes of Rebbe Arienni and the southwest slopes of Mt. Ensasho, on the right of the Italian front.
- 1st Brigade - deploying on the southwest slopes of Rebbe Arienni and the northwest side of Mt. Belah.
- 3rd Brigade - in reserve east of Rebbe Arienni.
Meanwhile the Imperial forces had alerted some time between 0400 and 0500 - Ras Alula's scouts had seen and heard Albertone's Native Brigade moving forward, and had notified the rest of the Ethiopian Army. By 0600 much of this entire force was moving north and east to engage the invaders.The first contact came even further southwest than the heights of Enda Kidane. For reasons we still don't really know Albertone pushed his 1st Native Infantry further down the road towards Adowa. This unit was attacked in force some time between 0600 and 0700, the firing being the first indication that Baratieri had that his force had been discovered.
At this point another one of these strange movements occurs. GEN Baratieri couldn't see where the Native Brigade actually was, but the direction of the firing suggested that it was southwest of his position on Mt. Esasho and was under attack. He ordered GEN Dabormida's 2nd Brigade to move to support Albertone's Natives. So Dabormida's guys move out.West.
For the life of me I can't figure this out. Even a slick-sleeved private with two bricks for brain cells should have been able to hear the firing to the southwest. But for some reason - mislead by his guide? confused by the terrain? just clueless? - 2nd Brigade wanders off into the northwest end of the valley, three miles north of the Native Brigade's position, and well out of supporting distance of any of the other Italian units.GEN Baratieri, who is still farkling about on Mt. Esasho, either doesn't know this has happened or doesn't understand that he now has a mile- to mile-and-a-half-wide gap in the center of his position.
Meanwhile the 1st Native Infantry was taking a pounding. It managed to hold its position for about an hour, but by about 0830 the unit's commander (or whoever was still in command at that point - the Italian officers and NCOs tended to be Victorian in their persistence in strolling about behind the prone or kneeling troops and the rifle-armed Ethiopians had learned to knock them over early on) attempted a withdrawal under pressure.Ethiopian tactics have been described as "skirmishing" for the most part; there was no real tactical order, but the individuals and small groups tended to stay fairly well dispersed when shooting at range. However, the hand-to-hand pre-industrial war traditions still kicked in when Imperial troops closed in and all the accounts report that this was often disastrous for them - the bolt-action rifles of the Italian troopers cut them down in swathes.
But the 1st Native tried to use a one-company delaying force, and this unit was just too small, it's weight of fire too light. The Ethiopian troops overran the company and put the rest of the battalion to flight. The remainder of the Native Brigade managed to hold on to Enda Kidane, but by now between 15,000 and 20,000 Ethiopian riflemen were enveloping the unit's position.
An increasing hot fight began to develop around the Native Brigade's position; Menelik committed some of his own household troops as well as getting the 37mm "pom-poms" in battery on Mt. Enda Kidane Meret to the north. Between 0830 and 9-ish Albertone's troops came under increasing pressure.GEN Baratieri caught this; he had moved forward from Mt. Ensasho to Mt. Raio and was clearly concerned about his left flank element. He sent several messengers to Dabormida's 2nd Brigade instructing them to move to support the Natives, and was informed by GEN Dabormida that his unit was "holding out his hand" to Albertone, while in fact 2nd Brigade made no move south and was by 0900-0930 coming under attack itself.
Worse was yet happening; the advance guys on the Ethiopian left wing enveloping Albertone's troops were finding nothing to the east of them but air. Several climbed Mt. Belah and the Spur of Belah to find lovely empty space and terrific fields of fire. Several of them must have rushed back to tell their buddies that they'd found a terrific place to kill spaghetti-benders from.
So; by 1000 hrs- Albertone's Native Brigade is under heavy pressure and getting cut to pieces by fire, while,
- Dabormida's 2nd Brigade has been cut off and is beginning to take fire, while,
- Ethiopian troops are beginning to filter into the open space in the center of the Italian position. Meanwhile,
- GEN Baratieri is only just now beginning to get a sense for his problems, and still thinks that 2nd Brigade is both trying to relieve Albertone AND has the heights of Belah secured.
It was between about 1000 and 1030 that things really started to go to hell for the Corpo Speciale.About that time the Native Brigade finally fell apart.
Enveloped on both sides, the unit broke up and routed back to the northeast. Both the attached artillery batteries tried to cover this retreat but were quickly overrun...
...and the shattered Native fugitives were pursued across the valley towards Arimondi's 1st Brigade posted on Mt. Belah and Mt. Raio.
These pursuers quickly began to target Arimondi's men. While 1st Brigade was engaged to their front to their right a mob of Ethiopian troopers poured up the slopes of the north Spur of Belah and seized it. A nearly four-battalion task force - three battalions from the 3rd Brigade reserve and two companies of Bersagliere from 1st BDE - were butchered trying to retake it. 1st Brigade was now in serious trouble - largely pinned down and being turned from the north.Meanwhile, oddly, 2nd Brigade thought they were doing pretty damn well.
An attack about 0900 had wiped out several front security companies placed on the other side of a ridge from the main force but after that Dabormida's troops had thrown back everything thrown against them - mostly troops from Ras Alula's units - with heavy losses.
By about midday things on the northwest had quieted down to a dull roar, though neither GEN Dabormida nor any of his subordinates were aware that his force was the only intact Italian unit left.
In fact, GEN Dabormida decided to go on the attack!
Leaving a single battalion and a lone company to secure his rear he advanced to the west, pushing Ethiopian troops back with a combination of rifle and artillery fire and bayonet rushes. Even as more Imperial troops turned on 2nd Brigade Dabormida's guys kept up the fight; tired, thirsty, and running low on ammunition.
Anyone who tells you that Italian soldiers can't fight would do well to remember the tough guys on the cold March afternoon in the dusty valley outside Adwa, fighting like sonsofbitches while outnumbered something like 10 to 1.
But numbers, in the end, told.
By 1400 2nd Brigade was running out of luck, and as many as 40,000 Ethiopian troops were closing around them. By 1630 GEN Dabormida ordered a final attack - to push the Imperials back - and then a retreat.
As with the Native Brigade, the covering batteries were overrun and the entire brigade disintegrated under pressure.
Dabormida himself was shot down at close range, and the fugitives pursued in a bloody, ferocious cattle drive to the southeast.1st Brigade had been falling apart even earlier; as early as midday individual units were being overrun, or attempting to retreat. By 1600 1st Brigade, too, had been wrecked, and its commander also killed.The remainder of the afternoon and evening of 1 MAR was a bloody nightmare for the Italian and ascari fugitives. Wounded men were usually killed; Eritrean ascari, in particular, were considered traitors - if they were "fortunate" enough to be captured they were usually mutilated by the amputation of a hand and foot.Many did not survive this.
Individuals, small groups, and small units managed to defend themselves for brief periods, but the odds were simply too great, and there was no organization left. The Ethiopian Oromo cavalry completed the wreckage with sword and lance in hand, butchering fugitives.GEN Baratieri's command group lead the largest group of survivors in a fighting retreat over 9 miles before the Imperial troops broke off pursuit. But even then their misery continued; Menelik's commanders sent out a call for the local people to converge on the fleeing Italian forces, and many individuals and small parties would have been wiped out by these home guards on the following several days.
Back at Adowa, his legions were cheering Menelik: "Mow, mow down the tender grass!" they cried, "The corn of Italy that was sown in Tigre' has been reaped by Menelik!"And they may well have looked down at a handful of black cock-feathers blown over the face of a man who had come 500 miles to die, before concluding,"And he has given it to the birds!"
The Outcome: Ethiopian Imperial strategic victory
The Impact: With the Corpo Speciale destroyed - the losses of Adowa came to something like 53% of the force that marched out on the night of 29 FEB - Rome was panicked that Menelik would proceed to invade and reduce Eritrea. This fear caused the Italians to offer peace terms to an African native polity, something that had never happened in the history of African colonialism. The Negusa Negast took them; his military resources were stretched, he had business in the other parts of his empire shoring up its defenses to keep the British, French, and their colonial proxies out. And to have pushed the Italians to the wall would have forced Rome into an all-out effort to save their northern Puntland colony. Better to force a deal on them that kept them penned in Eritrea for the next generation.
Menelik II ruled for another seventeen years and was instrumental in continuing what modernization Ethiopia experienced over the next decade or so. In a sense, however, the victory at Adowa made it more difficult - the traditionalists saw it as a vindication of the "old order" over the Europeans and the fancy-pants modern weapons. That, and the endemic poverty of the country kept Ethiopia an agricultural, semi-tribal polity and ensured that when the Italians returned in 1935 with tanks and aircraft that the next Italo-Ethiopian War would have a very different result.
Still. Ethiopia remained the last free African nation for another forty years.
The defeat was shocking and horrifying for Italy.The Wiki entry quotes Prouty (1986) on the effect of Adowa back in the Mother Country:
When news of the calamity reached Italy there were street demonstrations in most major cities. In Rome, to prevent these violent protests, the universities and theatres were closed. Police were called out to disperse rock-throwers in front of Prime Minister Crispi's residence. Crispi resigned on 9 March. Troops were called out to quell demonstrations in Naples. In Pavia, crowds built barricades on the railroad tracks to prevent a troop train from leaving the station. The Association of Women of Rome, Turin, Milan and Pavia called for the return of all military forces in Africa. Funeral masses were intoned for the known and unknown dead. Families began sending to the newspapers letters they had received before Adwa in which their menfolk described their poor living conditions and their fears at the size of the army they were going to face. King Umberto declared his birthday (14 March) a day of mourning. Italian communities in St. Petersburg, London, New York, Chicago, Buenos Aires and Jerusalem collected money for the families of the dead and for the Italian Red CrossThe disaster of Adwa and the failure of Italian arms in Ethiopia was the Sedan of Italy; Italian politicians and the Italian people would spend the next two generations trying to remove the blood of Baratieri's men from their garments.A colonial empire went from just another way to play with the European big kids to a crusade, and promising a great foreign colonial crown became for Italian politicians of the Oughts, Teens, and Twenties what "tax cuts" have become for the U.S. in the 21st Century.
The failure of liberal democracy to provide this, combined with the fiasco of Italy's military calvary in WWI, set the stage for the arrival of the fascisti in the Twenties. In many ways, the road to Adowa leads directly to the March on Rome twenty-six years later.
Touchline Tattles: One of the oddities of humans is that we don't always look at the same thing the same way. Here's a picture of Menelik II:Adowa, and the Ethiopian resistance to Italian colonial invasion, was and is taught as a morality tale in black Africa and the Negusa Negast is held up as a sort of African George Washington.
But in the teens one Benito Sylvain is said to have traveled to Addis Ababa to try and get the Menelik brand for his "Society for the Amelioration of the Negro Race" and the King of Kings is supposed to have told him: "Yours is an excellent idea; the Negro should be uplifted. I wish you the greatest possible success. But in coming to me to take the leadership, you are knocking at the wrong door, so to speak."
You can almost picture the earnest look on the King of Ethiopia's face as he concluded, "You know, I am not a Negro at all.I am a Caucasian."