How Ethiopians managed difficult terrains of Adwa to conquer Italian forces

126 years ago, Ethiopians wrote history with their blood. The unity and heroism of Ethiopians at that time was able to defeat the colonizers mentality as they declare the equality of peoples, regardless of their race. The victory at Adwa broke colonialist’s arrogant outlook that “they have the power to do everything they want in Africa”.

This history, the victory of black people, and a milestone that changed the course of history was made a reality at the Mountains of Adwa, after the invading Italian forces were defeated by Ethiopian heroes led by Emperor Menelik-II.

The topography of Adwa, abounded by chains of mountains and plateaus, played a significant role in repelling the invaders. Without any need to question, the Victory at Adwa is always attributed to the gallant and heroic Ethiopians that campaigned from all over Ethiopia heeding to the urgent call of Emperor Menelik II to rescue their nation. The complex nature of the mountain also doesn’t compete for credit with the Ethiopian army. But their complexity adds for the astonishment of people who read about the adventure of the Ethiopian heroes who dared these difficult terrains at that moment where there were no modern transportation facilities.

In this battle, the role of the mountain chains of Adwa is undeniable. Controlling strategic positions during that battle also needs special wisdom of war leaders. The Ethiopian military commanders and experts also exploited the advantage they were given by the topography to manage the battle with well articulated plans and map reading. The military officials’ first controls the strategic locations, water points and other critical places before the operation started, this later contributed to win the battle field at Adwa against Italy.

Emperor Menelik with his military officials and advisors properly managed the topography and the activities of the enemy force. This combination finally helped the Ethiopian army to defeat well-armed modern European army within a day and wrote a unique history.

From the battle of Ambalage, Ethiopian army used the advantage of topography properly to defeat the enemy army. With the tactic of Empress Taitu, the Ethiopian Army controlled the water source at Ambalage, forcing the Italian army to retreat without military action. The tactic of using the topography properly applied at Adwa helped the Ethiopian army to defend the country from colonialism. It is due to Adwa that Ethiopia remains the only un-colonized country in Africa.

Awgichew Amare, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Gonder said that war needs military engineers and professionals. The Ethiopian Army led by Emperor Menelik used the Adwa Mountains accurately to defeat the Italian Army. The military heroism of Ethiopian Army was supported with best tactics including controlling the strategic places, water points and mountains timely, Awgichew told The . To use the proper place timely, it needs professional decisions of the leaders of the war.

A book by Tilahun Tassew entitled “Emperor Menelik –II: The military strategist and diplomat who changed the course of History” stated that Ethiopian Army led by Emperor Menelik were focusing on controlling water sources, mountains with strategic importance and the locations that the Italian Army was used since it came with three directions. Even after the battle started, the Ethiopian army used the stones and grasses properly to attack the Italians.

Tilahun on his book stated that General Baratier planned to start the offensive on 29 February 1996 in three directions, but due to heavy rainfall the offensive was postponed for the second day. “After the offensive postponed the second day, Menelik ordered the cavalry to control water points in the surrounding areas. Though the Italians observed the cavalry moving to control water points, they were misinformed by Ethiopian spies and believed that the cavalry was dispersing into the villages to look for food,” he noted.

After Italian army marched in three direction for offensive that night, Emperor Menelik focused on separating the Italian forces from connecting each other by deploying his army to the strategic locations and controlling the mountains and plateaus.

According to the book by Tilahun, first, Italian army led by Albertone has occupied the entrance to the Kidane Mihret church of Adwa, a way to the main mountains of Adwa from the city. Then “Menelik ordered Taitu’s special force led by Bejirond Balcha with five artilleries on the right side and Menelik’s special force with heavy artilleries on the left side and they shelled Major General Alberton’s strong positions to occupy Kidane Mihret and Aba Gerima plateaus facing Major general Alberton’s led army.” Menelik effectively separated the Italian army in three places.

With this strategic and energetic movement Menelik and his wise understanding of the importance of the mountains he “climbed and descended to the next plateau and positioned himself above the enemy. This was the greatest feat and the most decisive measure of the Battle of Adwa/Aba Gerima.”

Tilahun stated on his book that after occupying the high ground Menelik grouped his army into two assigning to each group an army led by Rases. One group moved to Belah Mountain attacked major general Dabormida from the back.

The second group moved to Zeban Daero and then attack the Italian army led by Major general Armondi.

“The occupation of Zeban Daero was critical and Major General Baratieri tries to occupy the height before the Ethiopians reached. Ethiopians occupied it before the Italians and from that high point the Ethiopian army attacked the Italians. After this action out of 610 high rank Italian officers only 258 survived to flee,” he stated.

The author added that controlling the elevated mountains throughout the fight helped Menelik to win the battle.

After defeating the army led by Major General Baratieri and Major General Armondi, Menelik turned his full attention to the Italian army led by Major General Dabormida combining his special force with forces of Ras Alula and Ras Mengesha.

To attack the army led by Dabormida, “for two hours the Ethiopian army sneaked covered by the long grass and stones encircling the Italian army,” Tilahun on his book noted.

Ethiopian sharpshooters who are disguised under the stone and in the grasses killed the army leaders of Italy. With this tactic, at the battle of Adwa, the Italian army paid heavy price and its two major generals were killed, one captured while two survived major generals fled the battle field, the book reiterated.

This shows us that Ethiopian army has properly used the strategic mountains, plateaus, water points and even the grasses and stones to defeat the Italian invading army at Adwa.

In this regard, Awgichew commented that controlling strategic places and mountainous areas has crucial role in battle field. Understanding this, the Ethiopian army led by Menelik applied war science properly especially in managing and controlling strategic locations.

In controlling the strategic locations and mountains, the Ethiopian army jointly with the military officials of the area, that have deep knowledge about the topography of Adwa, exploited the advantage of these strategic areas, he added.

“In this regard the local community, warriors from the local area and military officials from Tigray Province jointly with Ethiopian spies contributes their role in leading the Ethiopian army, showing the strategic locations and water points and other topography related advantages,” he stated adding “the military decision makers led by Emperor Menelik well exploited their comparative advantage and used the opportunity to defeat the invader army at Adwa.”

“No doubt, the victory of Adwa was by the heroic struggle of Ethiopians” Awgichew stated adding “the topography of Adwa and the chained mountains also played crucial role in defeating the invading army.” We have to understand that the Mountains were there and both forces have the change to use these strategic positions, but the Ethiopian army used it properly and win the battle.



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