Ras Alula Engida, a respected and influential military commander and Ethiopian lord around 1890
Ras Alula and around 10,000 of his men attacked a column of 500 Italian regulars who had set out to relieve forces attacked the previous at Fort Saati. Despite inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking Ethiopians the Italians were routed, loosing 23 officers and 407 enlisted men in the process. Like most victories over Imperial powers the Ethiopians could only enjoy their success for a time and by the end of year 18,000 Italian troops were in Eritrea. By 1888 these forces were supported by the first ascari units, local regiments of Eritrean, Ethiopian, Egyptian, or Sudanese levies.
The Italian defeat at Dogali by Michele Cammarano
Italian Officers pose with Ascaris in the 1890's
Luckily the Italians did not have to test this newly created force because peace talks were being initiated. Coupled with the rising intensity of the Mahdist Revolt, under the proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, Italo-Abysinian relations took a backseat to the fear of the Mahdi and his legions. The Ethiopians in the context of the Mahdist Wars, which took place from 1881-1899, actually became nominal allies with the Europeans against the Sudanese rebels who were fighting to convert all of Africa and to drive back the Christian oppressors, including the Ethiopians but the British in particular.
British Army officers and Sudanese levies holding the line against a Mahdist charge
Emperor Yohannes is fatally wounded fighting the Mahdists in 1889 and leaves a muddled line of succession following his death when he anoints his nephew, Ras Mengesha, not his son as his rightful heir. The Italians take a stand supporting the claim of another lord, Menelik of Shewa, who had portrayed himself a friend of Italy and as a result avoided the arms embargo placed on the tribes of Ethiopia.
By 1890 Eritrea and its surrounding regions had become an official Italian colony following the submissions of Ras Mangasha and Ras Alula to the rule of the newly crowned Menelik II of Shewa. In the same year a brigade of Italian officers and their ascaris met the Mahdist forces at Agordat, losing 4 Italians and 104 ascaris to more than 2,000 Mahdists killed including some of the elite Baqqara cavalry, famous for riding into battle armed with spears and broadswords and clad in chainmail armor. The Italians defeated Mahdist raids and incursions in a series of battles before and after General Oreste Baratieri took over military and civil command in the colony.
These incursions South into Ethiopia led to a weakening of the Mahdists which indirectly causes their defeat at Omdurman in 1898 to the forces of Britain and her Egyptian colony. They also helped to force the hand of Menelik II, leading to war with the Italians and their ascaris.
General Baratieri, a veteran of Garibaldi's army and perhaps one of the most distinguished military leaders besides Garibaldi in 19th century Italian military history
Following the Treaty of Wuchale, May 2, 1889 which confirmed Menelik II's rule as Emperor of Ethiopia and Italy's rule over most of the disputed territory, the Italian army and the ascaris garrisoned and prepared for the coming war with the Abyssinian's or Mahdist raiders.
Emperor Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia 1889-1913
By 1894 the Mahdists were gone from Italian colonial territory and Ethiopian territory though war had broken out in the Tigray Province amongst the Italian forces and armies of Ras Mangasha, who was indeed feigning loyalty to Emperor Menelik in order to ursurp the throne from him later hopefully. To Expel the Italians however was the most important task. Perhaps Menelik's best strength was his trust in his tribal lords who could field as many as 15,000-20,000 men in their armies.
Ras Mangasha at War, note his modern rifle and the round shield on his other arm
In series of battles Baratieri's columns defeated the armies of Tigray inflicting heavy losses on the Ethiopians who used mostly outdated muzzle loading rifles and swords or spears even. In all of these conflicts the ascaris consistently outperformed their opponents and the Italians who served with them, impressing the officers who survived with their courage in the face of enemy fire. What worried Baratieri however was the overtures of war with the army of Menelik, a royal military force much larger and better equipped than his own, which was less than half Italian and dangerously overstretched on garrison duty.
War came in 1895 when Emperor Menelik called for a general mobilization, calling to arms some 100,000 to upwards of 120,000 fighting men, perhaps less than a half of whom had modern weaponry. The Italians could muster some 30,000 men to the colony, including 1,500 officers by 1896.
Italian officers and NCO's 1895-1896
Despite several early victories Baratieri remained pessimistic about his armies chance of wining a prolonged conflict with the armies of the Abyssinian Empire. This coupled with political pressure from Rome and his brigade commanders advice on the military situation certainly influenced his decision to advance against the forces of Menelik and march to the rocky landscapes of Adowa, an important Italian garrison and the site of one of the greatest Italian defeats, and African (or anywhere for that matter) triumphs over imperialism in the modern age.
Like the Battle of the Little of Bighorn 1876, Isandlwana 1879, Adowa 1896 was a shocking and decisive victory for native forces fighting for their autonomy against Imperial ambition and colonial control. Adowa becomes so important historically not just because the Ethiopians annihilated the Italian army, tactically outwitting their experienced officer and destroying their army, but because the Ethiopians and the Abyssinian Empire became one of only two other nations in Africa to escape imperial domination in the 19th century to the early 1900's. Check out the Mad Monarchists post on the Battle of Adowa .
Beautiful Ethiopian interpretation of Adowa and the charge on the Italian guns
Baratieri lost 6,133 men in the rout at Adowa, most of his ascaris were killed and the Ethiopians took some 4,000 Italians prisoner though the General managed to escape on his horse. A feat he was eventually court martialed for, dieing in 1901 in disgrace.
General Baratieri in a bersaglieris' (marksman, light infantry, later mobile divisions) uniform
By 1900 the Italians had carved out their own imperial possessions through sloppy but nevertheless rather persistent diplomatic and military means. Besides Eritrea they had secured Italian Somaliland hoping to exploit the resources of East and North Africa by first building and securing the finances for great expansions in railroads and infrastructure to benefit mainland Italy through the harvesting of raw and unique materials or natural resources.