Battle of Adwa

At the time there were internal divisions between the Emperor Menelik II, based at Addis Abeba, and the governor of Tigré, Ras Mengesha. The Italians in Eritrea tried to draw Mengesha into battle to resolve an Eritrean insurrection of the priesthood and aristocracy who resisted their lands being expropriated. Mengesha and Menelik agreed to resolve their differences so that they could present a unified resistance to the Italians, who underestimated the sophistication, military expertise and esprit de corps of their indigenous neighbours who had been mobilising an army of 100 000 soldiers. By contrast, the Eritrean army comprised a handful of European officers, headed by Baratieri, leading troops of dispirited Eritrean conscripts.
The battle took place on 1 March 1896, the Ethiopian Sabbath, which Menelik turned to his advantage by encouraging the priests to go among the troops, blessing them, hearing confessions and reinforcing the legitimacy of the Ethiopian cause. Oral tradition focuses on the lack or inadequacy of the Ethiopian armaments, but while a few of the soldiers may have chosen to use traditional weapons, Menelik had amassed a modern armoury through the French – the battle was won through military strategy and motivation. Baratieri’s losses were horrendous – 6 000 killed, 1 800 taken prisoner and thousands wounded, which amounted to 70% of his forces, while the Ethiopians lost only 10% of their fighters and gained a huge cache of captured weapons.
The Italians expected the Ethiopians to press home their advantage by invading Eritrea, but Menelik decided to call a halt at the border ratified in the disputed Treaty, to avoid conflict with other European powers. Moreover, his forces were suffering food shortages and Eritrea had been too decimated by the Italians to allow Menelik’s army to forage. The result of the Battle of Adwa was that the European powers kept a ‘hands off’ stance towards Ethiopia until World War II, although this needed Menelik’s vast skills of diplomacy to uphold his advantage, especially with regard to French attempts to take over the Sudan.

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