First Italo-Ethiopian War

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First Italo-Ethiopian War
Ethiopia Italia war-2.JPG
Clockwise from top left: Italian troops en route to Massawa; castle of Yohannes IV at Mek'ele;[1] Ethiopian cavalry at the Battle of Adwa; Italian prisoners are freed following the end of hostilities; Menelik II at Adwa; Ras Makonnen leading Ethiopian troops in the Battle of Amba Alagi
Date 1895–1896
Location Ethiopia
Result Ethiopian victory

Supported by:

Russia Russia
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Italy Oreste Baratieri Ethiopian Empire Menelik II
18,000[2] 120,000 (80–100,000 with firearms, rest with spears)[nb 1]
Casualties and losses
15,000 dead[2][4] 17,000 dead[4]

The First Italo-Ethiopian War was fought between Italy and Ethiopia from 1895 to 1896. Ethiopia was supported primarily by Russia with military advisers and the sale of weapons for Ethiopian forces during the war.[5]


On March 25, 1889, the Shewa ruler Menelik II — having conquered Tigray and Amhara, declared himself Emperor of Ethiopia (or "Abyssinia", as it was commonly called in Europe at the time). Barely a month later, on May 2, he signed a treaty of amity with the Italians, which apparently gave them control over Eritrea, the Red Sea coast to the northeast of Ethiopia, in return for recognition of Menelik's rule. Menelik II continued the policy of Tewodros I of integrating Ethiopia.

However, the bilingual Treaty of Wuchale did not say the same thing in Italian and Amharic. The former text established an Italian protectorate over Ethiopia, which Menelik discovered soon afterwards. The Amharic version, however, merely stated that Menelik could contact foreign powers and conduct foreign affairs through Italy if he so chose. Italian diplomats, however, claimed that the original Amharic text included the clause and Menelik knowingly signed a modified copy of the Treaty.[6]

Because of the Ethiopian refusal to abide by the Italian version of the treaty and despite economic handicaps at home, the Italian government decided on a military solution to force Ethiopia to abide by the Italian version of the treaty. In doing so, they believed that they could exploit divisions within Ethiopia and rely on tactical and technological superiority to offset any inferiority in numbers.

Opening phase[edit]

In 1893, judging that his power over Ethiopia was secure, Menelik repudiated the treaty; in response the Italians ramped up the pressure on his domain in a variety of ways, including the annexation of small territories bordering their original claim under the Treaty of Wuchale, and finally culminating with a military campaign and across the Mareb River into Tigray (on the border with Eritrea) in December 1894. The Italians expected disaffected potentates like Negus Tekle Haymanot of Gojjam, Ras Mengesha Yohannes, and the Sultan of Aussa to join them; instead, all of the ethnic Tigrayan or Amharic peoples flocked to the Emperor Menelik's side in a display of both nationalism and anti-Italian feeling, while other peoples of dubious loyalty (e.g. the Sultan of Aussa), were watched by Imperial garrisons.[7] Further, Menelik had spent much of the previous four years building up a supply of modern weapons and ammunition, acquired from the French, British, and the Italians themselves, as the European colonial powers sought to keep each other's North African aspirations in check. They also used the Ethiopians as a proxy army against the Sudanese Mahdists.

In December 1894, Bahta Hagos led a rebellion against the Italians in Akkele Guzay, claiming support of Mengesha. Units of General Oreste Baratieri's army under Major Pietro Toselli crushed the rebellion and killed Bahta at the Battle of Halai. The Italian army then occupied the Tigrian capital, Adwa. Baratieri suspected that Mengesha would invade Eritrea, and met him at the Battle of Coatit in January 1895. The victorious Italians chased a retreating Mengesha, capturing weapons and important documents proving his complicity with Menelik. The victory in this campaign, along with previous victories against the Sudanese Mahdists, led the Italians to underestimate the difficulties to overcome in a campaign against Menelik.[8] At this point, Emperor Menelik turned to France, offering a treaty of alliance; the French response was to abandon the Emperor to secure Italian approval of the Treaty of Bardo which would secure French control of Tunisia. Virtually alone, on 17 September 1895, Emperor Menelik issued a proclamation calling up the men of Shewa to join his army at Were Ilu.[9]

The unique Eurasian ally of Ethiopia was Russia.[citation needed] The Ethiopian emperor sent his first diplomatic mission to St. Petersburg in 1895. In June 1895, the newspapers in St. Petersburg wrote, "Along with the expedition, Menelik II sent his diplomatic mission to Russia, including his princes and his bishop". Many citizens of the capital came to meet the train that brought Prince Damto, General Genemier, Prince Belyakio, Bishop of Harer Gabraux Xavier and other members of the delegation to St. Petersburg. On the eve of War, an agreement about rendering the military help for Ethiopia was concluded.[10][11]

The next clash came at Amba Alagi on 7 December 1895, when Ethiopian soldiers overran the Italian positions dug in on the natural fortress, and forced the Italians to retreat back to Eritrea.[citation needed] The remaining Italian troops under General Giuseppe Arimondi reached the unfinished Italian fort at Meqele. Arimondi left there a small garrison of approximately 1,150 askaris and 200 Italians, commanded by Major Giuseppe Galliano, and took the bulk of his troops to Adigrat, where Oreste Baratieri, the Italian commander, was concentrating the Italian Army.

The first Ethiopian troops reached Maqele in the following days. Ras Makonnen surrounded the fort at Meqele on 18 December, but the Italian commander adroitly used promises of a negotiated surrender to prevent the Ras from attacking the fort. By the first days of January, Emperor Menelik, accompanied by his Queen Taytu Betul, had led large forces into Tigray, and besieged the Italians for 15 days (6–21 January 1896), trying in vain to storm the fort on several occasions, until the Italians surrendered with permission from the Italian Headquarters.[citation needed] Menelik allowed them to leave Meqele with their weapons, and even provided the defeated Italians mules and pack animals to rejoin Baratieri.[12] While some historians read this generous act as a sign that Emperor Menelik still hoped for a peaceful resolution to the war, Harold Marcus points out that this escort allowed him a tactical advantage: "Menelik craftily managed to establish himself in Hawzien, at Gendepata, near Adwa, where the mountain passes were not guarded by Italian fortifications."[13]

Heavily outnumbered, Baratieri refused to engage, knowing that due to their lack of infrastructure the Ethiopians could not keep large numbers of troops in the field much longer. However, the Italian government of Francesco Crispi was unable to accept being stymied by non-Europeans. The prime minister specifically ordered Baratieri to bring about a battle.

Battle of Adwa[edit]

Main article: Battle of Adwa
Battle of Adwa
An Ethiopian painting commemorating the Battle of Adwa
Russian military officer Nikolay Leontiev alongside an military Ethiopian man. Leontiev it was a volunteer sent to Ethiopia by the Russian government and he and other Russian volunteers fought on the side of Ethiopia during the Battle of Adwa.

The result was the Battle of Adwa (or Adowa) on March 1, 1896. The actual battle took place in mountainous country north of the town of Adwa. The Italian army comprised four brigades totalling approximately 17,700 men, with fifty-six artillery pieces; the Ethiopian army comprised several brigades numbering between 73,000 and 120,000 men (80–100,000 with firearms: According to Pankhurst, the Ethiopians were armed with approximately 100,000 rifles of which about half were "fast firing"),[3] with almost fifty artillery pieces.

General Baratieri planned to surprise the larger Ethiopian force with an early morning attack, expecting that his enemy would be asleep. However, the Ethiopians had risen early for Church services, and upon learning of the Italian advance, promptly attacked. The Italian forces were hit by wave after wave of attacks, until Menelik released his reserve of 25,000 men, destroying an Italian brigade. Another brigade was cut off, and destroyed by a cavalry charge. The last two brigades were destroyed piecemeal. By noon, the Italian survivors were in full retreat.

While Menelik's victory was in a large part due to sheer force of numbers, Menelik's careful preparations had made them well-armed numbers. The Ethiopian army only had a feudal system of organization, but could absolutely execute the strategic plan of Menelik's headquarters. However, the Ethiopian army also had its problems. The first was the quality of its arms, as the Italian and British colonial authorities could sabotage the transportation of 30,000–60,000 modern Mosin–Nagant rifles and Berdan rifles from Russia into landlocked Ethiopia.[citation needed] Secondly, the Ethiopian army's feudal organization meant that nearly the entire force was composed of peasant militia. Russian military experts advising Menelik II suggested a full contact battle with Italians, to neutralize the Italian fire superiority, instead of engaging in a campaign of harassment designed to nullify problems with arms, training, and organization.[11][14]

Some Russian councilors of Menelik II and a team of fifty Russian volunteers participated in the battle. Among them were N. Leontjev, an officer of the Kuban Cossack army.[15] Also, the Russian support for Ethiopia led to the advent of a Russian Red Cross mission. It arrived in Addis Ababa some three months after Menelik's Adwa victory.[16]

The Italians suffered about 7,000 killed and 1,500 wounded in the battle and subsequent retreat back into Eritrea, with 3,000 taken prisoner; Ethiopian losses have been estimated around 4,000–5,000 killed and 8,000 wounded.[17][18] In addition, 2,000 Eritrean askaris were killed or captured. Italian prisoners were treated as well as possible under difficult circumstances, but 800 captured askaris, regarded as traitors by the Ethiopians, had their right hands and left feet amputated.[19]

End of the war[edit]

Menelik retired in good order to his capital, Addis Ababa, and waited for the fallout of the victory to hit Italy. The casualty rate suffered by Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa was greater than any other major European battle of the 19th century, beyond even the Napoleonic Era's infamous Waterloo and Eylau.[20] Riots broke out in several Italian cities, and within two weeks, the Crispi government collapsed amidst Italian disenchantment with "foreign adventures".[20]


Menelik secured the Treaty of Addis Ababa in October, which strictly delineated the borders of Eritrea and forced Italy to recognize the independence of Ethiopia. Delegations from the United Kingdom and France—European powers whose colonial possessions lay next to Ethiopia—soon arrived in the Ethiopian capital to negotiate their own treaties with this newly proven power.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ According to Pankhurst, the Ethiopians were armed with approximately 100,000 rifles of which about half were "fast firing.".[3]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830–1914. 1998, page 160
  3. ^ a b Pankhurst, The Ethiopians, p. 190
  4. ^ a b The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia's Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. 2005, page 71.
  5. ^ Robert G. Patman. The Soviet Union in the Horn of Africa: The Diplomacy of Intervention and Disengagement. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  6. ^ Piero Pastoretto. "Battaglia di Adua" (in Italian). Archived from the original on May 31, 2006. Retrieved 2006-06-04. 
  7. ^ Chris Prouty, Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883–1910 (Trenton: The Red Sea Press, 1986), p. 143
  8. ^ Berkeley, George (1969). The campaign of Adowa and the rise of Menelik. Negro University Press (reprint). ISBN 1-56902-009-4. 
  9. ^ Marcus, Harold G. (1995). The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia 1844–1913. Lawrenceville: Red Sea Press. p. 160. ISBN 1-56902-010-8. 
  10. ^ "Russian mission to Abyssinia". 28 February 1895. 
  11. ^ a b "Who Was Count Abai?". St.Petersburg: through centuries. 
  12. ^ Prouty, Empress Taytu, pp. 144–151.
  13. ^ Marcus, Menelik II, p. 167
  14. ^ Cossacks of the emperor Мenelik II
  15. ^ The activities of the officer the Kuban Cossack army N. S. Leontjev in the Italian-Ethiopic war in 1895–1896 (Russian)
  16. ^ Richard, Pankhurst. "Ethiopia's Historic Quest for Medicine, 6". The Pankhurst History Library. 
  17. ^ von Uhlig, Encyclopaedia, p. 109.
  18. ^ Pankhurst. The Ethiopians, pp. 191–2.
  19. ^ Augustus B. Wylde, Modern Abyssinia (London: Methuen, 1901), p. 213
  20. ^ a b Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830–1914. 1998, page 164.