By Sean McLachlan
You have to love a job that lets you climb a mountain in Ethiopia one month, and sip wine in Rome the next.
This September Osprey will release Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896: The Italian Disaster in Ethiopia. It covers the colonial adventures of the Italians from their first colony on the Red Sea coast in 1883, their push inland fighting Dervishes and Ethiopians, and their final crushing defeat in 1896 at the hands of the Emperor Menelik II at the Battle of Adowa.
This was by far the most challenging book I’ve written for Osprey, and the most rewarding. While I had a wealth of secondary sources, I knew I needed to see the battlefield so I spent two months in the country working on the book and writing a travel series about Ethiopia.
My research started at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies on the lush campus of Addis Ababa University. Housed in Haile Selassie’s old palace, it’s certainly the most sumptuous library I’ve worked in, despite the regular blackouts! Even though we’re in the Information Age, nothing matches going to a place yourself. I found numerous articles and monographs I couldn’t find anywhere else.
From Addis I hired a car and headed north. My driver/translator/fixer Sntayehu Mekonen (firstname.lastname@example.org) was as excited about my research as I was. Adowa looms large in the Ethiopian consciousness and they’re proud of their status as the only African country never to be colonized. They don’t count Mussolini’s brief takeover from 1935 to 1941 because the Italians only controlled the cities and highways, and only in the daytime. Sounds like a certain war today. . .
Adowa is several days drive north through the remarkably green Ethiopian uplands past ancient cities and medieval monasteries. Then we entered the northern Tigray province, a drier, rockier region with steep mountains. Along the highway are wrecked tanks from the Ethiopian Civil War that toppled the Communist regime in 1991, and the Ethiopian-Eritrean War of 1998-2000.
Sntayehu introduced me to battlefield archaeologist Dr. Hiluf Berhe of the University of Axum. He’s an expert on Adowa and we spent a hot, exhausting, and exhilarating day tromping through the thorn bushes, ravines, and mountains that make up the battlefield.
Adowa is an important town and the doorway to central Ethiopia. The Italians under General Oreste Baratieri approached in three columns, passing between a chain of steep mountains that jut up like fingers to the north of town. Their army numbered 14,519 rifles, 44 cannon, and 12 “Quick-firers” (either mountain guns or machine guns). Orders got confused in the predawn march and their left flank ended up far ahead. Rough terrain kept the three columns from ever properly linking up and the Ethiopians defeated the colonial army in detail. The Italians had relied on sketchy maps and native guides who were mostly spies for Menelik. The Italians also underestimated Menelik’s army, thinking he could only rally 40,000 men when in fact he amassed at least 90,000 and 42 cannon. Thanks to illegal arms dealers, most carried relatively modern bolt-action rifles. The Italians bravely defended their positions for most of the day, but they’d lost from the beginning. They retreated to the coast, leaving 6,133 dead, 1,428 wounded, more than 3,000 taken prisoner, and all their guns. Ethiopian losses are estimated at 7,000 killed and 10,000 wounded. At that time it was by far the worst defeat of a colonial army by a native force.
Now I’m back in Ethiopia writing a travel book and photographing Ethiopian castles. Keep an eye out for a post on these unique fortifications when I return in April.
Coming up next: The Italian part of my research, in which Osprey’s Man in Africa runs off with a nineteenth-century cannon!
Figure 1: View from a ridge south of town, where Menelik stood to watch the battle. The mountains the Italians passed through are visible in the distance.
Figure 2: The mountain on which the Italian general Baratieri stood. His position was the green slope two-thirds of the way up. He couldn’t see his separated left flank from this position and it’s doubtful anyone made it to the summit. I only got five meters further up, and Dr. Berhe, who grew up climbing Tigrean mountains, only made it ten meters beyond me.
Figure 3: A monument to the Battle of Adowa, incorporating captured artillery from Mussolini’s invasion and a billboard showing a local hero of the Ethiopian Civil War. This monument to one war celebrates three.
Figure 4: Period print of the last stand of the Italians.
Figure 5: Burnt out Soviet-era tank by the side of the highway.