How did Italy Lose to Ethiopia? (1895) | Animated History


This video is sponsored by Brilliant. More on that later. Hi, I’m Griffin Johnson. The Armchair Historian. Today’s video – “How did Italy Lose Against Ethiopia?” During the scramble for Africa every indigenous nation that was invaded by European powers felt within a matter of decades, all except one The Ancient empire of Ethiopia also known as Abyssinia as a world watched the supposedly primitive Ethiopians were able to repel a modern European army. This defeat was grave and humiliating and many were puzzled as to how it could have occurred. Before we start analyzing this defeat let’s get some background on the cause of invasion In 1869, not long after Italy was unified into one kingdom, the Italians who felt that they were fall behind in this scramble for Africa, purchased a small port on the Red Sea from the local eretrians and began expanding outwards. In approximately 20 years they control a significant portion of East Africa and as this was occurring the nearby Ethiopian empire which have existed in the region for over 600 years suddenly found itself cut-off from the sea and by 1887, skirmishers were occurring between the Italians and local Ethiopian warlords. This culminated in the Battle of the Galley in which an Italian column was ambushed and destroyed by the Ethiopians. After this the Italians were determined to pacify Ethiopia and they saw their chance when its emperor died and the throne was claimed by the Italian supported Menelik II Italy signed a treaty with Menelik that promised backing to his claim as well as financial and military aid in exchange for recognition of Italy’s colonial territories. However, there were 2 versions of the treaty One was written in the Italian and the other Amharic, the language of Ethiopia and each have different terms. The contentious clause which eventually would lead to the outbreak of war was in the Italian version of the treaty which stated that Ethiopia was effectively a colonial protectorate of Italy a provision that did not exist in Amharic draft. After Menelik tried to establish diplomatic relations with other European countries, it was only a matter of time before the Italians accused him of breaching the treaty. Although all other European nations refused to recognized Ethiopia’s independence Russia was supportive of Menelik’s ambitions as they were both Orthodox Christian countries. War finally came in December of 1894 when a group of Ethiopian insurgences under the leadership of a local king attacked an Italian Court in the colony of Victoria. In response to this, the Italian sent expeditions into Ethiopia, an act which served as a declaration of war. The leader of this expedition General Oreste Baratieri had previous military experience in the Wars of Italian Unification and in Eritrea, Baratieri’s expedition of 20000 men was composed to both Italian soldiers and local Eritrean auxiliaries who are mostly equipped with the nearly outdated vetterli rifle which used a black powder cartridge Although Baratieri’s expedition encountered initial success against some of the local kings, things would change after Menelik assembled a massive army of 200000 men in September of 1895 Though they were armed with spears and swords, about half of them were armed with modern rifles which had been purchased from the Russians. Interestingly, the Ethiopians all things considered were better equipped than their Italian counterparts who were unaware of this due to Menelik scumming He let the Italians to believe that Ethiopia was a completely primitive country on the brink of collapse The Italian government therefore ordered Baratieri to make a drive straight for Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Although the Italian were successful in their initial movements, the first omen of what would come of their ambitions in Ethiopia came at the Battle of Amba Alagi on December the 7th of 1895. Only a few months into the new year, the Italian campaign abruptly ended when Baratieri finally encountered Menelik’s army in the mountain near the town of Adwa General Baratieri’s expediton was already beginning to run low on water, amunitions and morale And when the huge Ethiopian army of aproximately 120,000 men was spotted, he was understandably planning to retreat but this was not an option as he was ordered by Italian prime minister Crispi, no I’m not making that name up to attack Menelik’s force. On the of February 29th, Baratieri divided his expedition into three prongs and began marching into the mountains near Menelik’s encampment When sun rose, the three Italian brigades stood miles away from each other due to outdated maps. To make matters worse for Baratieri, his men had been spotted by the enemy and were in no position to create the crossfire situation that they had originally planned. Rather, the left brigade found itself under heavy rifle and artillery fire and the Ethiopians had positioned themselves at higher elevation. The other brigades did not arrive in time to support and the Italian left was annihilated in a series of charges. Similarly, the center brigade which was now dangerously isolated was consumed by mass infantry assaults And when the final Italian brigade attempted to retreat, it was funneled into a narrow ravine and was utterly destroyed by Menelik’s cavalry. During all of this, the Ethiopians lost 10% of their men while the Italians lost nearly 60%. After this decisive defeat, Baratieri retreated back into Eritrea but was not pursued by Menelik, who wanted to preserve his strength. When news of the disaster at Adwa reached Italy, there were mass riots and protests against Crispi’s administration. Italy was forced to sue for peace and after some negotiation, the two nations signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, which demanded little from the Italians except the recognition of Ethiopian independence. In conclusion we can see that the Italians lost due to a combination of factors, the biggest being that they were unprepared for a remote war, especially against a state as well organized and well-equipped as Ethiopia. The Battle of Adwa serves as a perfect microcosm through which to view the First Italo-Ethiopian War. Adwa was a feisty ill-conceived operation undertaken by a force with inadequate planning against numerically superior enemy that was incorrectly perceived, at least by the Italian government. A secondary reason for the Ethiopian victory was Menelik’s foresight, as he had been stockpiling modern weaponry for years after Ethiopia had been devastated by a British invasion in 1868. In the long term Ethiopian hegemony would not last, as the rise of fascism and revanchist rhetoric after the First World War made it clear that Italian affairs in East Africa were not over. King Menelik II has gone down in history as one of the most innovative leaders in Africa. His methodical approach to solving strategic and bureaucratic issues allowed him to conduct the war against Italy successfully and develop Ethiopia into a modern state with electricity, infrastructure and financial institutions. It is the same methodical approach that our sponsor Brilliant along with mathematics, science and physics. The stem field may sound extremely daunting, especially for an armchair historian like yourself but Brilliant allows you to learn these concepts through bit-size problems. In all of Brilliant’s lessons they are both visuals and thorough explanations. If you’re currently a student or just a lifelong learner, we highly recommend starting your free trial at brilliant.org/armchairhistorian. The first 98 users the same amount of artillery pieces that were used in the Battle of Adwa will get 20% off of their first annual subscription.

David Anderson

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