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Battle of Adowa

History -- Military history -- List of battles

The Battle of Adowa (also known as Adwa or sometimes by the Italian name Adua) was fought on March 1, 1896 between Ethiopia and Italy near the town of Adwa, Ethiopia in Tigray. It was the climactic battle of the First Italo-Abyssinian War.

As the twentieth century approached, Africa had been carved up between the various European powers, with the exception of the tiny republic of Liberia on the west coast of the continent and the ancient, landlocked kingdom of Ethiopia, bordering the strategic Horn of Africa. Though Italy, a relative newcomer to the colonial scramble for Africa, was left with only two impoverished territories on the Horn: Eritrea and Somalia, it sought to increase its influence by conquering Ethiopia and creating a land bridge between its two territories. Italy and Ethiopia faced off in First Italo-Abyssinian War, with the two armies at a standoff in Tigray.

By late February, 1896, supplies on both sides were running dangerously low. Succumbing to pressure from the Italian government, General Oreste Baratieri made the first move on the night of February 29. He did not calculate the rough terrain, however, and his army was divided into small pockets of troops without contact with each other. This was observed by the Ethiopian commander Ras Makonnen (father of Emperor Haile Selassie), who ordered his troops to attack. By morning, troops belonging to Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu joined the forays.

The Italians were heavily outnumbered by the Ethiopians by about 14,500 to as much as 100,000, and the Italian army was encircled and routed. Further casualties ensued during heavy skirmishing as the Italians retreated to their bases. The Italians took 11,000 casualties, while the Ethiopians had about 10,000.

As a direct result of the battle, Italy signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, recognizing Ethiopia as independent state. Responsibility for the fiasco fell on Baratieri, and he was relieved of his command. The humiliation remained with Italy for almost forty years, until 1935, when Benito Mussolini again tried to take Ethiopia. On the other hand, the defeat of a colonial power and ensuing recognition of African sovereignty were rallying points for later African nationalists during the struggle for decolonization.