The Battle of Adwa: When Ethiopia crushed Italy!

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The Battle of Adwa: When Ethiopia crushed Italy!


Dabormida’s remains were never found, although his brother learned from an old woman living in the area that she had given water to a mortally wounded Italian officer, “a chief, a great man with spectacles and a watch, and golden stars”.

The remaining two brigades under a Baratieri were outflanked and destroyed piecemeal on the slopes of Mount Belah. Menelik watched as Gojjam forces under the command of Tekle Haymonot made quick work of the last intact Italian brigade. By noon, the survivors of the Italian army were in full retreat and the battle was over.

Italian defeat

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 4-5,000 killed and 8,000 wounded.

In their flight to Eritrea, the Italians left behind all of their artillery and 11,000 rifles, as well as most of their transport.As the historian Paul B. Henze notes: “Baratieri’s army had been completely routed while Menelik’s was intact as a fighting force and gained thousands of rifles, pistols and a great deal of equipment from the fleeing Italians.”

Public opinion in Italy was outraged.The historian Chris Prouty offers a panoramic overview of the response in Italy to the news:

“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 Cross”.

Forty years later, in 1935, still stung by this ignominious defeat, Italy’s fascist leader Mussolini, who was aligned with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, took advantage of the advent of the Second World War to invade Ethiopia, complete with chemical weapons, bombs, tanks, and aircraft. 

Italy threw in 595 aircraft to Ethiopia’s 3, as well as 795 tanks to 3. They occupied Ethiopia for five years, and were again flushed out by Emperor Haile Selassie with the help of Allied forces, in the main the British army.

The prominent African-American historian, Professor Molefi Asante, opines on the significance of Adwa: “After the victory over Italy in 1896, Ethiopia acquired a special importance in the eyes of Africans as the only surviving African state. After Adwa, Ethiopia became emblematic of African valour and resistance, the bastion of prestige and hope to thousands of Africans who were experiencing the full shock of European conquest and were beginning to search for an answer to the myth of African inferiority.” 


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Written by Pusch Commey

Pusch Commey is a Barrister of the High Court of South Africa, Award winning writer and associate editor of New African Magazine since 1999. He is based in Johannesburg South Africa. He is the author of 9 books including the best selling 100 great African kings and queens, and Tofi's Fire Dance. He is also the CEO of the South African based Real African Publishers, and the founder of the Real African Writers  series.

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