First Italo-Ethiopian War

In the 19th century, almost the entire world was divided between European states. Having entered the industrial age earlier than others, they acquired powerful armies that broke the resistance of the brave, but undisciplined and poorly armed warriors of Asia and Africa. And only one nation was able to defend its independence.
In 1871, after more than a thousand years of fragmentation, the Apennine Peninsula was again united under the rule of a single state – the Kingdom of Italy. There was no limit to the inspiration of his subjects, it seemed to everyone that a new era of prosperity was about to begin.

But bad luck – the new state had no colonies. In the nineteenth century, when colonial expansion reached its peak, few could imagine a modern, successful country without overseas possessions. They were considered the main source of wealth, and for a reason – the leading colonial powers used enclaves on other continents as a source of cheap raw materials for industry and free labor. There was a real race for the possession of ever more extensive possessions, and for Italy, which joined it too late, there was practically no free piece of land left where it was possible to hoist its banner.

Ethiopia seemed to be one of the few exceptions – the only African state on the territory of which the European colonialist did not step. The history of civilization on these lands goes back many millennia. Even the ancient Egyptians in their papyri mentioned the country of Punt, in the first millennium of our era a powerful Aksumite kingdom was formed here, which controlled vast lands and numerous trade routes. Its capital, during its heyday, impressed even seasoned travelers and was the largest port on the Indian Ocean coast. Ethiopian merchants traveled far beyond their homeland, and strong ties with neighbors led the kingdom to adopt Christianity in the 4th century.

With the beginning of the Arab conquests, Aksum was cut off from the rest of the civilized world and gradually fell into decay. So he would have disappeared from the pages of history if a new dynasty of emperors had not risen to power, or, as they called themselves, Negus-negesti, who considered King Solomon their ancestor. Ethiopia, the last bastion of Christianity in Africa, once again became an empire that controlled vast lands in East Africa and possessed untold wealth.

However, in the 19th century, the Solomonid powers were not in the best shape. Religious wars, protracted feudal fragmentation, an agrarian economy without a hint of an industrial revolution – all this turned the country into an easy prey, which the Europeans did not get their hands on only by coincidence. The Italian kingdom considered that fate itself kept this land for the descendants of the Romans, and began preparations for the transformation of the ancient kingdom into a colony

Beginning in 1880, Italians, with the help of military force, established themselves on the coast of East Africa. Formally belonging to Ethiopia, these lands were not controlled by the Negus, and therefore, wishing to avoid a clash with the Europeans, the new emperor Menelik II agreed to sign an agreement on their transfer to Italy in exchange for establishing clear boundaries and concluding trade agreements. However, immigrants from the Apennine Peninsula did not even think to play fair. The text of the treaty, drawn up in two languages, differed markedly in the Ethiopian and Italian versions. Citing the latter, the Europeans continued to expand their presence, and in the early 1890s demanded complete submission from the negus.

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The Italians were more than confident in their abilities. In a colony bordering Ethiopia, they concentrated an army of 20,000, armed and equipped with the latest technology of the 19th century. The experience of other countries suggested that this should be enough to conquer any “savages”. In the end, in 1867, thirteen thousand people were enough for the British to surround the Ethiopian Negus Theodoros II in a swift military campaign and force him to shoot himself in order to avoid shameful captivity.

Under the command of General Orestes Baratieri, Italian troops begin a cautious, methodical expansion beyond Eritrea, capturing territories controlled by Ethiopian feudal lords who have not yet recognized Menelik’s rule. Formally, this was not yet a war with Abyssinia, but everyone understood what was going on. Only one thing the Italians did not take into account – the new negus negesti had qualities that the leader of any state would envy.

Menelik, nicknamed “The Leopard” by his people, was the son of the ruler of the semi-independent province of Shoah. He became the father-in-law of Theodoros II, but decided to oppose the emperor at the first opportunity – the reason for this was the desire to avenge his father, who was killed by the order of the Negus. But with the next ruler, Yohannis IV, Menelik was on good terms, and together with him conducted a number of campaigns of conquest aimed at restoring the unity of the country. In 1889, Menelik himself ascends to the Ethiopian throne, by that time enjoying the well-deserved respect of his subjects. He has more than ten years of successful military campaigns, experience in strategic planning and tactical army command in battle.

Realizing the inevitability of a large-scale war, Menelik II decided not to avoid it. After declaring his refusal to abide by the agreement concluded in 1889, he creates an extensive spy network in Eritrea, the Italian colony, receiving information about every step of the enemy. Having established diplomatic contacts with Russia and France, he purchases modern small arms and, with the help of military specialists who have arrived in Ethiopia, trains his fighters in the tactics of European armies. A call is announced, to which all the feudal rulers of individual regions had to obey, standing under arms personally and bringing soldiers with them.

Menelik manages to collect more than 80 thousand soldiers. I must say that the idea that they were armed with bows and spears is not entirely true – there were fifteen percent of such fighters. The rest had firearms, albeit an outdated smoothbore with flint locks. The most efficient units had about four thousand modern rifles purchased in Europe. There was artillery – about forty guns of various calibers. Not God knows what, but comparable to what the Italian colonial troops had. According to some reports, the Ethiopian artillery was commanded by Russian military specialists. The Ethiopians compensated for the lack of weapons and training with the courage that Menelik was able to kindle in the hearts of his subjects, urging them to stand up to defend their homeland, and with good accuracy. At the end of 1895, the Negus goes on a campaign,

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Menelik II at different periods of his life

The Italians realized too late that they had underestimated the determination of their adversary. They found out that something bad was happening only when the 30,000-strong army of the Makonneun race, advancing in three columns, was near the fort, which was defended by only 2,500 people with four guns. Major Teselli, in command of the Italian detachment, requested assistance from General Orestes Baratieri. After a two-hour battle, realizing that reinforcements could not be expected, the major tried to retreat – and fell into a trap set by the Ethiopians. The Africans settled down on the slopes, from which the path, which seemed to the Italians salutary, was perfectly shot. Hardly two hundred Europeans managed to get out of that slaughter.

Following on the heels of the fleeing colonial infantry, the Ethiopians approached the fortress of Mekele. It was not possible to take it on the move – then the troops surrounded the fort, cutting off the Italians who had settled inside from the sources of water and food. On January 20, 1896, exhausted Europeans throw out the white flag. We must pay tribute to the Negus – the enemy soldiers were allowed to leave with weapons, they were even provided with mules for transporting the wounded and provisions.

The first setbacks, however, did not shake the Italians’ self-confidence. Well, you can understand them: the Europeans and before from time to time suffered defeats from the natives, but, in the end, they achieved their goal and established colonial rule. General Baratieri, who received a categorical demand from Rome to immediately defeat the presumptuous “savages”, rejected the Negus’s proposal for peace negotiations and, having collected seventeen thousand people, set out on his own

General Orestes Baratieri

A disdainful attitude towards the enemy and a clear underestimation of Menelik’s talents – this is what caused a real military catastrophe that befell the Italians near the city of Adua. The Ethiopian Negus, with the sagacity of an experienced strategist, accurately predicted the actions of the Italian general. Menelik chose a favorable location for his army, which, by the mere fact of its presence here, constrained the possibilities for the Italians’ actions. He intended to oppose superiority, courage, and precision to the skill, technology, and self-confidence of Europeans — and waited until they were forced to go on the offensive. And so it happened. The Italians advanced in four columns, intending to drive off the enemy. Menelik, watching the movement of the enemy with the help of scouts, was able to plan out the battle plan in detail, predicting where the enemies would be.

On March 1, 1896, Africans attacked the head column of the colonial forces. Ethiopian rifle lines encircled the Italian column in a semicircle, quickly moved from place to place, focusing fire on different areas, and skillfully fired on the move. Starting as scattered clashes, the battle quickly escalated into a fierce firefight, which the Ethiopians now and then translated into hand-to-hand combat, of which they were recognized masters. The Europeans were forced to go into a deep defense, and there was no question of any advancement. After a few hours of dagger fire, the Italians began to retreat, and soon they completely fled from the battlefield.

Pursuing them on their heels, Ethiopian troops hit the second column on the move. This time the backbone of the army led by Menelik II joined the attack. It is known that the emperor took a personal part in the attack, fighting on a par with his soldiers and thereby fueling their courage. At a certain moment, it seemed that the Italians still had a chance to gain the upper hand: having gathered their strength, they organized a counterattack and for some time pushed the Ethiopians out. However, the skillful command of Menelik and the courage of his officers, who, fighting in the forefront, inspired people by their example, led to the fact that the onslaught of the Italians was drowned. The commander of the second column was killed by a well-aimed bullet, after which his subordinates were seized by panic. Most of them were killed, only a few managed to miraculously break through the encirclement.

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The third column, which clashed with the troops of the Makonnyn race, resisted the longest. Realizing that the battle was lost, General Dabormida, who commanded this part of the colonial army, decided to retreat. The artillery had to be left as trophies to the Ethiopians – it only got in the way. At first, the Italians retreated in an organized manner, fighting off the enemy who was pressing on them. However, after they were joined by the panic-stricken survivors of the first two columns, their terror passed on to the others. The organized retreat turned into a general flight. General Dabormida was killed and the Italian Army Expeditionary Force ceased to exist. The winners began a uniform hunt for intruders.

Menelik II and his men paid the price of four thousand killed for Ethiopia’s freedom. However, this could not be compared with the losses of the Italians: they left eleven thousand corpses on the battlefield, almost four thousand Europeans were captured. It was a real military disaster, forcing Rome to abandon its plans of conquest for Ethiopia for a long time. Now the Negus-negesti dictated his terms of the contract, reminding the whole world that his people were not just a handful of ragamuffins-savages, but the inhabitants of a country with an ancient history, culture, traditions – and a sense of dignity that would not allow them to bow their heads to anyone. He not only forced Italy to recognize the independence of Ethiopia, but also – for the first and last time in history – obliged a European country to pay an indemnity to an African power

After the memorable victory, Menelik II’s authority skyrocketed. In subsequent years, he continued his campaigns of conquest, tripling the territory of his state and finally restoring the integrity of Ethiopia, protecting it from the sad prospect of becoming a colony. The emperor became famous for his reformatory and educational activities: by order of the Negus, roads were built throughout the country, schools and hospitals were opened. Even today, despite the overthrow of the monarchy, compatriots honor the memory of the monarch, and March 1, the day of victory at Adua, is considered a national holiday.

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