Adwa, Ethiopia (1896 AD)
The Battle of Adwa was one of the last and largest military engagements during the European colonization period of Africa. It pitted Italy, the weakest of the European colonial powers, against Ethiopia, arguably the strongest independent nation in Africa, and as a result was one of the few truly major victories for an African state. At the time of the battle, Ethiopia was (along with Liberia) the last major independent nation in Africa. It was the climactic engagement of the brief First Italo-Ethiopian War, and ensured Ethiopia’s independence for another four decades.
The era of colonization reached in zenith at the end of the 19th century during the period that is known as the Scramble for Africa. Between 1880 and 1900 virtually every square inch of Africa was conquered by foreign powers, with the sole major exception of Ethiopia. Protected by its isolated, inland location, limited resources, ancient established monarchial government, and a large army with access to (relatively) modern weapons made it an unattractive target for conquest.
However, by the 1890s, this last stretch of ‘virgin’ territory on the continent brought it to the attention of Italy, who already controlled the coastal areas of Somaliland and Eritrea but few other African territories. In 1895, a treaty dispute led the Italians to invade, and early victories in Eritrea misled the Europeans into believing the war would be quick, easy and successful. In the meantime, the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II ordered the conscription of a large army. At the same time, Ethiopian diplomats in St. Petersburg secured Russian assistance in the form of arms and military trainers.
By 1896, the Ethiopian position was much improved. The Italian commander, General Baratieri, recognized this, and decided that a conservative approach to the war would be best. Specifically, he decided that his army had sufficient supplies to outwait the poorly fed Ethiopians, an assessment that was probably correct. However, prompted by the Italian government for a quick military victory, he initiated an ill-conceived campaign at conquest that ended almost as soon as it began.
The two armies clashed in the mountains north of Adwa on March 1, 1896. Approximately eighteen thousand Italian soldiers with superior arms and artillery faced off against over seventy thousand Ethiopians aided by Russian military officers. The Italian surprise morning attack failed due to the fact that most of the Ethiopians were already awake for church. The resulting battle was fairly straightforward, with the Italians simply overwhelmed by numbers. Casualties on both sides were enormous, with a total of over thirty thousand dead. In the end the surviving Italians were forced to flee, and Ethiopia remained the only secure, independent state in Africa until the 1930s.
The Adwa Battlefield consists of a large, open plain surrounded by cragged hills jutting up from the landscape. Fighting took place throughout both the open and hilly areas. A large tree supposedly marks the spot where Emperor Menelik II condemned the Eritrean allies of the Italians after the battle. A stone monument, erected by the forces of Benito Mussolini in 1935, commemorates the Italians who fell in the battle.
The Adwa Battlefield is located just north of Adwa, approximately five miles east of Axum and 180 miles north of Addis Ababa. It is an open site. As of this writing no visitor information was available. www.tourismethiopia.gov.et (official tourism website of Ethiopia).