The Battle of Adwa
In 1896, when the “colonial era” was well advanced on the African continent, and it served notice that Africa was not just there “for the taking” by European powers. More than this, it marked the entry of Ethiopia into the modern community of nations: Menelik’s victory over the Italians caused the other major European states, and Italy itself, to recognise Ethiopia as a sovereign, independent state in the context of modern statecraft.
The actual battle which took place on March 1 and 2, 1896, at Adwa, the principal market town of the North of Ethiopia, had been precipitated by the great rush of the European powers to colonise Africa. Italy and Germany had lagged behind other European powers — most notably France and Britain — in seizing large parcels of the Continent to colonise. Thus, the Conference of Berlin was convened in 1884-85 to “divide up” the remainder of Africa among the other European powers, anxious to obtain their own African colonies to satisfy the urge for imperial expansion and economic gain. Italy was “awarded” Ethiopia; all that remained was for Italian troops to take possession.
Significantly, until this time, Ethiopia had been left alone by the European powers. Its coastal littoral was well-known to traders, but the heartland in the highlands was peopled by nations notoriously unwilling to accept and embrace external contact and influence. But the Ethiopian nations had been known in the past to be fractious and divided, and from all accounts, Italy’s leaders expected a rapid conquest of the individual national leaders. Britain had, in 1868, waged a successful war against Emperor Téwodros II (Theodore), leading to his death. The Italians, however, failed to recognise that Emperor Menelik II had re-shaped Ethiopia since he came to power in 1889, uniting its various kings and leaders, and creating in the process a substantial army, outnumbering and outperforming the invading Italian professional army of 17,000 to 20,000 men.
The modern parallel to the situation came with the Israeli-Egyptian confrontations of 1967 and 1973. The Israeli victory in 1967 (the Six-Day War) left Israel complacent and confident in the superiority of its forces over those of the Egyptians. Apart from this, the Israelis had put in place the Bar-Lev Line of fortifications, which were expected to hold against any conceivable Egyptian attack. But the Israeli leadership and intelligence services failed to note that the crushing defeat inflicted on Egypt so quickly in 1967 had brought about a dramatic transformation in the psyche of the Egyptian leadership. President Anwar as-Sadat totally transformed the education, training, equipment and doctrine of the Egyptian Armed Forces, without Soviet help (Soviet advisors had been expelled in 1972), within six years of the defeat. When Egypt initiated the October 1973 war, the transformed situation took Israel by complete surprise. Despite the massive logistical re-supply of Israel by the US — which effectively saved Israel from complete humiliation — and the recovery of initiative by Israeli commanders, Egypt achieved its strategic objectives. The Suez Canal was re-opened, the Sinai returned to Egypt, and peace achieved.
That the Battle of Adwa is still fresh in the minds of Ethiopians became apparent when, on July 5, 1998, Ethiopian volunteers were cheered off to battle against invading Eritrean forces. As a Reuters report noted: “Residents from the city’s [Addis Ababa’s] 265 neighbourhood associations danced and sang songs recalling the Battle of Adwa where Ethiopia defeated the invading Italian army in 1896.”
With even less intelligence on which to base its actions, Italy could only draw on the British victory at Magdàla and the commonly held European belief that no African forces were a match for disciplined and well-equipped European military formations.
But much had happened since Magdàla, and Emperor Téwodros’ defeat. Indeed, the British victory had even at that time obscured from General Robert Napier and his officers the sophistication of the system which they had just defeated. Victory often breeds contempt in the victors against the vanquished; at best it breeds an unwillingness to learn from the enemy so recently crushed.
Apart from the overall political and social aspects of Ethiopia in 1868, Emperor Téwodros had based his defence against the British on the Rist-Gult system of recruitment, military structure and logistical support. This logistical structure was entrenched in what was commonly called Mesfint Hagr: namely, the present day highlands of Eritrea, the region of Tigré, Gonder, Gojjam, and Wello. The rest of Ethiopia was under a second type of resource system known as the Geber Madriya system, which formed the basis of the fiscal and military organisation of Emperor Menelik’s Government.
The Rist-Gult system was used not only at Magdàla, but also against Egypt at Gundet (1875), Gura (1876), Italy at Dogali (1887), and against the Mahdist Sudan at Metemma (1889). [It was in this battle, at Metemma, that Emperor Yohannes IV had died.] The Battle of Adwa was based mostly on the Geber Madriya system. Ethiopian historian Tsegaye Tegenu noted that in all of these large battles, the background composition of the troops were similar. “All were drawn from the various ethnic groups and constituted the class of military nobility, regional aristocracy and peasantry. However, there was a difference in the manner of administration and the use of human and material resources [at Adwa]. The troops of Adwa were recruited basically through the Geber Madriya system, which had qualitatively different methods of remuneration, revenue administration and provisioning, which was in harmony with the form of economy.”
One of the major failings of the Italian planners of Savoyard Italy was that they failed to notice the fundamental change in Ethiopia under Menelik. Emperor Menelik II had transformed the administration of the economy and had greatly improved the tax base of the country. This in turn improved dramatically his capability to raise armies and to equip them.
The complex tax base meant that the battles fought during the era of the Rist-Gult system were precariously-managed affairs. As Tsegaye Tegenu noted: “It is not difficult to see the desperate effort of the kings to overcome the fiscal limits of the system to fight against external aggression.” And Menelik managed this transformation to a new economic base in such a way as to prepare Ethiopia for the most decisive battle.
Emperor Menelik took immediate steps upon hearing of Italy’s plans to annexe Ethiopia. He called, on September 17, 1895, for national mobilisation, and within two months more than 100,000 troops were assembled in the specified areas: Addis Ababa, Were Illu, Ashenge, and Mekele. About two-thirds of these troops were raised through the Geber Madriya system. The Emperor himself mobilised some 35,000 troops, commanded by his court officials. His Queen — Empress Taitu — also mobilised her own force of some 6,000 men.
The Imperial Army also included troops raised by governors-general, such as Ras Makonnen (the father of Ras Tafari Makonnen, later Emperor Haile Selassie I) who commanded some 12,000 troops. Dejazmatch Tesema commanded some 5,000 soldiers; Ras Welde Giorgis about 5,000; Ras Bitwoded Mengesha Atakim, about 6,000; and so on. Troops of the regional princes numbered about 35,000, and of these, Ras Mengesha of Tigré commanded about 8,000; King (Negus) Tekle Haimanot of Gojjam about 6,000; Ras Welle of Begémder another 6,000; Wagshum Guangul of Wag a further 5,000.
In all, Menelik (shown at left) was able to mobilise some 70,000 to 100,000 modern rifles for Adwa. By 1895, he had obtained at least 5,000,000 cartridges. He had spent more than $1-million (in 1895 currency), a sum which would have been unthinkable to Emperor Téwodros, or even Emperor Yohannes IV. And this sum did not even include the artillery which Emperor Menelik had secured. This component of the force — the Corps of Gunpowder and Shell — was commanded by a Bejirond: a treasurer in charge of finance and the storehouse of the Palace, and by the Lij Mekuas, who was also commander of the Royal cavalry.
The logistical tail of the Adwa campaign, from the Ethiopian side, was no less impressive than the logistical effort put forth to carry and support the invading force of some 17,000 Italian troops from Europe, supplemented by local recruits. Italy had already occupied the highlands of Eritrea, and therefore was well-placed with forward support for the battle. Moreover, it was aware of the problems which had been challenging Ethiopia and Menelik. Famine and internecine squabbling were preoccupying the country, and Menelik was initially unable to mobilise forces to resist Italy’s occupation of Eritrea and its expansion into the hinterland. An emboldened Italy pushed further into Ethiopia, crossing the Mereb River and chasing out Ras Mengesha, the ruler of Tigré; full control of the region seemed at hand, and Italian forces settled in for a permanent occupation.
Italian General Baraterie, commander of the occupation force and governor of the Eritrean colony, sought and obtained an additional budget of four-million lira and 10,000 more trained troops. But Gen. Baraterie seemed unaware of Menelik’s main strategic imperative, which was to wait for the opportunity to confront — with infantry and artillery — the main Italian force and its supplies, rather than engage in piecemeal battles at the enemy’s choosing. To this end, Menelik focused his efforts on building a large coalition force, capable of the mission. This entailed a process of diplomacy with the regional princes and rulers, not only to secure the participation of their individual armies, but also to be able to access their logistical support base.
The strategy and tactics employed by Menelik were not only due to the Emperor’s diplomatic and military skills, but also to the unique doctrines developed by Ethiopia literally over several millennia. These doctrines were also created in virtual isolation from the military lessons learned by the rest of the world, and reflected Ethiopia’s own history and topography. In this sense, then, the Ethiopian forces under Menelik did not conform to the expectations of the Italians. As a result, the Battle of Adwa was to become a significant case study for military schools for the next century, and almost certainly well into the future.
It would not be fair to say that the Italians had failed to study Ethiopian military history. But by basing their perspectives on the very different strategies of the Rist-Gult system used by Téwodros and Yohannes, they could not comprehend the vastly superior mobilisation capabilities of Menelik’s Geber Madriya system. Thus, when the Italians expected to meet a force of about 30,000 Ethiopians, they met instead some 100,000.
Having said that, the Geber Madriya system was based on a form of recompense to the soldiers which involved grants of land and the payment of food, drink and honey, etc., to the soldiers from tenants working the land. In other words, it was a non-monetarised system which provided for the welfare of the troops. As a result, it was not a system which could be projected far beyond the supporting geography. The Battle of Adwa came in such a way that — because Emperor Menelik had lured the Italian main force into his own territory — it fitted perfectly the criteria of the Geber Madriya system. But Menelik, after the stupendous victory at Adwa, could not use the same structure to pursue the Italians into Eritrea and throw them entirely into the Red Sea.
The result was that, although Ethiopia was, as an Empire, saved by the Battle of Adwa, the Italians remained lodged on the periphery. More importantly, the concept of seizing Ethiopia remained in the Italian psyche, so that when fascist Italy once more dreamed of empire in the 1930s, it again embarked upon an attempt to conquer Ethiopia. And, in that campaign, even though they met with initial success, it was once again an overreaching of Italian resources and Italy was thrown not only out of the Ethiopian heartland but also out of Eritrea. Thus, less than 50 years after Adwa, Eritrea, too, was restored to Ethiopia.