The Battle of Adwa: Campaign Plan and Combat Actions – by Tsegaye Tegenu

By Tsegaye Tegenu
February 27, 2017

In spite of communication and transport problems, in a matter of two months after the call for total mobilization on September 17, 1895, more than 100,000 soldiers were assembled in the specified areas (Addis Ababa, Were Illu, Ashenge, and Mekele). Of these troops, about two-third were raised by the Gebar Madäriya system. The emperor himself mobilized around 35000 troops commanded by his court officials. The queen also mobilized her own troops numbering to about 6000. The imperial army also consisted the troops raised by governor generals (such as Ras Mäkonen who commanded on the average 12000 soldiers, Däjazmach Tesema, about 5000, Ras Welde Giorgis about 5000, Ras Bitweded Mengesha Atakim, about 6000, and others). The size of the imperial troops was well within the resource capacity of the system. Troops of the regional princes were on the average 35,000. Of these, Ras Menegesha of Tigray commanded an average about 8000, Ras Mikael of Wello about 8000, King Tekle Haimanot of Gojjam about 6000, Ras Welle of Begemder about 6000, Wagshum Guangul of Wag about 5000 soldiers.

The campaign plan, adopted by the emperor and the Rases, was not actually an operational plan. Control of troop movement and actual conducting of engagements in war was left to the initiation of the Rases. They did so following the course of action determined by the emperor and the council of the Rases. The Ethiopian campaign plan deals on measures taken in mobilization and moving of troops far deep into the enemy territory by passing small detachment force posted as defence and deterrence. The military action of the Ethiopian armed forces was basically a type of strategic offensive accomplished through the opening of two strategic fronts to defeat the main groupings of enemy troops deep into its territory.

The Ethiopian force which was dispatched at the beginning led under the command of governor-generals met on its way, at Alage, a fortified Italian force. The governor generals held a council meeting and decided to bypass the Italian fortification and proceed forward. According to the strategic objective war and the conducting of the campaign plan, the Ethiopian high command was given the instruction to avoid battle for each position of the enemy force (unit). According to the concept of the campaign, engagement was envisaged with the main enemy force far deep in the territory controlled by it. One of the commander, Fitawurari Gebeyehu, was however, unable to leave without fighting the Italians. Outside of the original plan, he led his force and attacked the Italian fortification. He was joined by the force of Qägnazmach Tafese. The Italian force was routed and another 5000 Italian forces sent in aid of the fortification were also chased and disbursed. Though the Ethiopian forces scored victory in its first engagement, the two commanders were detained since they fought on their own initiative without order from the high military leadership. They were released later when the emperor arrived and saw their case.

Until the incident of Alage, the march was conducted first without an immediate threat of encountering the enemy. After the news of the first engagement, the march was made in anticipation of meeting the enemy. At Wefla, two days after the first engagement, the emperor held military review, guns were saluted and fired. All military commanders lined up with their soldiers wearing their traditional uniform and decoration, which “glittered like the sun” the whole day. This was in the tradition of the Ethiopian army practised to assess readiness of the troops and affirm imminence of a battle.

The emperor held military review to see the level of the combat readiness of the army and to give them signal to prepare to carry out assigned missions. The emperor saw the level of personnel, arms and military equipment, availability of necessary reserves, the high level of combat moral, the mutual support of the forces of the Rases in the event of combat, the discipline and organization of the army. Since the military review at Wefla, troops were marching in complete combat readiness to perform the combat mission. The military review brought the troops into full combat readiness, in possible areas of military operation.

The advancing force of the Rases met another strong fortification of the Italians in Mekele, the capital town of Tigray. In this town, the Italians were building strong fortification for the last four months. This time the forces of the Rases encircled the fortification and waited for the coming of the emperor and an order to attack. The emperor artillery commanders shelled the fortification for two weeks until the enemy surrendered completely. Had the forces of the Rases attacked and captured the water source the enemy earlier, the attack would not have lasted two weeks.

According to the chronicler, Menelik saw taking measure against surrendered Italian forces as a disrespect to the Ethiopian state, and allowed the Italians to pack and leave in order that they join their main base at Adigrat. He bought 500 camels and mules and gave them to load their ammunition including artillery. He ordered Ras Mekonnen, to accompany them and guard their security. Though, this had disappointed some of the Ethiopian soldiers, it was suspected that the idea was to send Ras Mekonen as a cover for the further advance of the Ethiopian troops far into the interior of the enemy zone, without being surprised by the main force stationed at Adigrat. Menelik and his commanders left Mekele and marched cautiously by passing Adigrat, the strong base of the Italian forces. They encamped at Agula, Genfel; on the fifth day they encamped at Hawzen, and after two days at Harhar, then at WereA and to Tsadiya. After two days the emperor encamped at Zata, and then he left for Gendebeta. Seeing that the Italians were not coming out from their fortification and engage him in battle, the emperor decided to move to Hamasen and left for Aba Gerima Gult. After two days of marching, they camped at Adwa.

As the main forces of the two armies were getting close the troop movement was done in anticipation of a surprise attack from the enemy. The characteristic of the march had also changed: the length of the route and duration it took from the initial place to the far point of an assembly area became shorter. The problem of promising became also acute. The emperor held council meetings to discuss the developments. It was decided to attack the Italian position in the next morning, but Ras Mengesha argued against this idea stating the danger of attacking fortified position. He told the king about the death of his father, Emperor Yohannes, when he tried to attack the strong fortified position of the Mahdist of Sudan in 1889. For two days they discussed again on operational strategy, and finally, they dropped the idea of attacking the fortified Italian position and agreed to advance forward to Hamassen, the seat of the colonial government.

At that moment the Italian troops had provision left only good enough to feed for one week, and Baratieri decided to attack the Ethiopian force, which was supposed to march to Hammasen in the next morning. At night the Italian troops left their position at Adigrat and attacked the Ethiopian forces in the morning at 5 a.m. local time. The Ethiopian forces were not ready. About one-third of the forces were left either to look for provision, or some went to Aksum to visit religious center, the Saint Merry church. The rest were not ready for any engagement according to the tradition of Ethiopian battle.

The battle of Adwa can be called a meeting engagement, which is a variety of offensive type of combat action. It was a clash of troops of the two sides advancing toward each other. From the outset, both sides attempted to carry out the assigned missions by means of a strategic offensive. The Italians defeated and chased out the forces of Ras Mengesha and took important areas of terrain in the region of Tigray to defend their stronghold in Eritrea. The Ethiopian forces conducted a long march north to penetrate deep into the enemy zone and engage its main force. At Adwa there was a rapid closing of the two sides, and they entered into combat. Italy took the initiative, made a surprise attack (timely decision), through rapid commitment of the main forces, and carrying out attacks against the main center, and flanks of the Ethiopian army, to give it a sudden blow. But Italy could not retain the initiative.

The Italians had an operational plan that had a detailed precise on combat action. It was drawn up in detail on a map by Baratieri, the Italian commander and jointly with senior commanders. The operational plan elaborated the performance each unit, their mission, their position, direction of their main attack, times of accomplishment, and their mutual support. This operational plan failed to conceptualize the alignment, (i.e., grouping) of the Ethiopian forces and their possible operation. In the Ethiopian strategic culture, conducting of engagement was left to the freedom of the commander and individual initiative of the soldiers.

Even if the Ethiopian troops were not in a combat form, the laying out of campaign and the position of the troops was in such a structure that made combat formation of troops very rapid. The Ethiopian way of military camping had an in-built defence mechanism and flexibility for the manoeuvre of troops to counter attack. Traditionally, at camping,  force were organised at least eight-order (dänb) taking position with specific task: front camp, endärase, balämual, guard camp, left camp, right camp, rare-back camp, and agafari. Each camp had at least two or three captain units and was commanded by a saläqa, who hold titles that had strategic combat functions. For instance, the front camp and the left camp were commanded by Dägazmach who covers the center and the rear part in time of combat. The endärase and the guard camps were commanded by titles holders of Grazmach who units were assigned to attack the right flank of the enemy. The balämual, the rare and left camps were commanded by saläqa who had title of Qägnazmach and during combat their force was assigned to hit the left flanks of the enemy. The camp of the agafari was led by a saläqa who had title of Fitawurari, responsible for frontal advance attack. In combat action, camp commanders were expected to manoeuvre the troops in positions of left, right, center and rare as indicated by the strategic functions of the title. The manoeuvre is often accomplished by a close envelopment of an enemy flanks.

Though the Ethiopian army was surprised it was not difficult to search for a favourable position with respect to the enemy and to advance and make regrouping if the need arise. The very structural formation of troops was flexible enough for rapid manoeuvre of troops in a moon like shape, the essence of which consisted attacking of the outer flanks of the enemy while concentrating superiority of force in the middle for a subsequent annihilation. It seemed that the plan of Baratieri focused not in response to the structural formation and combat initiative of the Ethiopian troops, mainly it emphasised on the method of employing weapons (effective use of his firepower) following the European style of warfare.

In the Italian style of warfare there was a basic reliance on firepower. Improvements in firearms (lighter and rapid firing guns, for instance) and changing battle tactics (line formation, and shoulder-to-shoulder drill for volley technique) were aimed to increase and ensure effective and maximum firepower. Weapons were only effective when employed in a strictly disciplined way and steadiness became thus a crucial factor in tactics dominated by firearms.

In the Ethiopian context, there was no tradition of reliance on fire power. Until the second half of the nineteenth century firearms plaid limited role in battles. Their numbers were limited and their qualities were relatively poor as most of them belonged to earlier periods. Therefore, there was no dependence on effective use of firearms, thus no linear battle formation and no need for drill. The Ethiopian style stressed more on mobility and manoeuvre than on linear formation and on rank co-ordination. It was designed for short and decisive battle than for siege warfare. There was reliance on mass manoeuvre and a fast-moving confrontation involving cavalry and infantry forces. Battlefield tactics depended much on the nature of the mass manoeuvre and identification of the weakest links of the enemy. Actions were not characterised by battle formations, rather they were dominated by individual initiatives, mobility and energy. Leadership and morale were ingredients important for success.



Extracted from

Tsegaye Tegenu, (1998), “The Logistic Base and Military Strategy of the Ethiopian Army: the Campaign and Battle of Adwa, September 1895-February 1896”, in Abdussamad Ahmer and Richard Pankhrust (eds.), Adwa Victory Century Conference. Institute of Ethiopian Studies. Addis Ababa University.


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