The battle of 1896

It is not hard to see why the battle of Adwa on 1 March 1896 between the Ethiopian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy is held in such regard. With the battle of  Isandlwana in January 1879, when the Zulu army attacked and annihilated a British army, killing 800 British soldiers and taking nearly 1,000 rifles and ammunition, it is a rare example of an African army defeating a European power.

At Adwa the Italians were severely beaten and subsequently retreated back into Eritrea, with 3,000 taken prisoner. Ethiopian losses were estimated around 4,000–5,000 killed and 8,000 wounded.

One Italian brigade under General Albertone was made up of Eritrean askari led by Italian officers. The 4,000-strong askari brigade formed the left wing of the advance. By 6 a.m. the askari they encountered the Ethiopians. Lingering darkness and heavy morning mists obscured much of what was happening, but there was soon heavy fighting.

From the crests of hills and ridges and from out of the narrow passes, Emperor Menelik’s warriors came on in waves, a sea of green, orange and red standards, copper and gold crucifixes, burnished metal helmets, dyed-cloth headdresses and lion’s-mane-adorned shields. Menelik’s force consisted of 82,000 rifle- and sword-armed infantry, 20,000 spearmen and 8,000 cavalry–the fierce Oromo horsemen roaring their war cry “Ebalgume! Ebalgume!”


By 8.30, after Emperor Menelik committed his final reserves, the Italian army began to break up. Most of General Albertones’ officers were already dead. Albertone was taken prisoner. The askari, assailed on all sides by what seemed to be limitless numbers of enemies, gave up the struggle. They fled or surrendered.

The cost of defeat

The Battle of Adowa cost the lives of 289 Italian officers, 2,918 European soldiers and about 2,000 askari. A further 954 European troops were missing, while 470 Italians and 958 askari were wounded.

Some 700 Italians and 1,800 askari were captured by the Ethiopian troops. The prisoners were forced to march to Addis Ababa, where the Italians were repatriated after payment of 10 million lire “reparation” by the Italian government.

A far more terrible fate befell the askaris. Some 800 captured askaris, regarded as traitors by the Ethiopians, had their right hands and left feet amputated.

The report below is from a British officer and was published in the British Medical Journal of 29 August 1896.

The battle of 2022

The current fighting in and around Adwa is intense. At present we only have the outlines of what is taking place, but once again Adwa seems fated to be the theatre of a decisive battle that will determine the future of the Horn.

What appears to be happening is that fierce fighting is currently under way in and around the town.

The analyst, Rashid Abdi reported two days ago that:

“Fierce battles raging in Tigray as ceasefire talks enter day 3. Most intense fighting around Adwa. A counteroffensive by TDF has basically cut off and trapped 10s of 000s of EDF and ENDF in a strategic sector. This will now be template of war. Draw in enemy, then cut them off

The BBC Africa editor, Will Ross provided as similar assessment on Wednesday:

Heavy fighting reported to be taking place on several fronts Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. A senior military commander with the Tigray forces told the BBC that the clashes near the town of Adwa involved heavy artillery and tanks.

From these reports – and other information that is difficult to verify – it will seem that both the Ethiopian forces and the Eritreans are facing a severe test at Adwa. Will a defeat, similar to that inflicted on the Italians and their Eritrean colonial troops, be repeated in 2022? We will have to wait and see.

One can only hope that if this does happen, the Eritreans will not suffer the fate inflicted on them in 1896. So far the Tigrayans have generally treated their prisoners well – recently releasing thousands of troops they had taken captive.