Italy, united as one nation relatively recently in 1861, hoped to arouse genuine feelings of patriotism and national identity, and saw acquiring colonies along the Red Sea in East Africa as the best way of doing so. In 1883 the government purchased land from an Italian firm, eventually expanding out to form colonies in modern-day Eritrea and Somalia. The Abyssinian (Ethiopian) Empire, a vast but politically divided state, resented being cut off from the Red Sea as well as inland Italian expansions, leading to rising tensions between the two sides. Italy did achieve some victories against local Ethiopian forces, but was ultimately defeated by Emperor Menelik II’s fully-mobilised army of well-equipped warriors at Adowa in March 1896. Not only did the Italian government collapse, but the battle marked the most costly defeat yet suffered by a colonial force against a non-European enemy, not being surpassed until Spanish defeat at the hands of Berbers in 1921.
Italian infantry and officers
The majority of Italian conscripts had little knowledge of the terrain or why they were fighting in the first place, while the more experienced colonial troops naturally fared better. By the time of the Battle of Adowa, morale and supplies had dwindled significantly.
This volunteer private (left) serves with the Cacciatori light infantry unit, distinguished by a green feather panache and battalion number on the right side of the helmet. He displays the standard appearance and equipment of Italian infantry at Adowa; 1887-pattern khaki uniform, gaiters and an M1874/81 dark blue cape slung across the body. A blue-white haversack and wooden water canteen were also used (not shown). National symbols consist of a tricolour helmet cockade as well as national stars on the collar. The old M1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali rifle was the primary weapon for Italian troops, firing four rounds from a box magazine. Remington ‘rolling-block’ rifles were used by Italians and Ethiopians alike, and is carried here by a corporal (second left); note the red cuff rank and M1887 straw hat.
Officers shared similar predicaments as they were thrown together with their men in such short time. Their uniforms slightly differed from regular troops, often with more pockets and differing shades of khaki as a result of private tailoring. This Bersaglieri captain (right) displays the helmet plumes of his branch, as well as a holstered pistol and M1888 sabre. He and the major standing next to him display the M1894 white helmet with light blue officers’ band; the latter is dressed in the M1894 dark blue full dress uniform, with his rank identified by a silver star on the shoulder straps instead of the cuffs.
Ascari and native irregulars
Recruited from Eritrean or Sudanese populations, the first battalions of ascari were formed in 1888, and fought just as bravely as the Italian regulars at Adowa. Coloured waist sashes and tassels on the red tarbush identified battalion number; this sciumbasi (sergeant-major, left) wears light blue, the colour of the 2nd Eritrean Battalion, with three silver rank stars on his tarbush and red chevrons on his sleeves. He carries an M1870 single-shot Vetterli with waist bandolier.
Italians serving with native units, such as this lieutenant (second right), wore white uniforms; an M1887 cap is worn here, showing the officer’s old regimental number.
Appearance and clothing often differed amongst native troops; locally-made items or weapons could be used, as seen with the ascaro of the 4th Battalion (second left) wielding a shotel sword. Irregulars living in and around Eritrea and the Sudan also fought for the Italians, including members of the Beni Amer (middle) and Habab/Beja (right) peoples, armed with traditional weapons.
European horses used by Italian troops were largely unsuited to fighting in the desolate Ethiopian highlands compared to their tougher local counterparts. The ascaro (right) has a hawk’s feather and cavalry badge on his tarbush, as well as a multi-coloured turban. Members of the 2nd (Keren) Squadron wore red sashes, and fought against Sudanese raiders in 1894. He carries an M1870/87 Vetterli carbine slung on his shoulder, a revolver, M1874 cavalry sabre, and a locally-made knife tucked into his sash. Ammunition for the carbine is kept in a local waist bandolier, whilst revolver ammunition is kept in a cartridge belt.
The cavalry major (left) also carries a holstered revolver to his right; the standard M1888 officers’ sabre can be seen as well. Light blue distinctions are worn on the helmet and body, complete with cloth leggings; officers of mounted branches commonly wore a leather pouch belt over the left shoulder. A chinstrap is provided for the helmet, unlike infantry officers or privates.
The Type 75B light mountain gun was the primary artillery piece used at Adowa by the Italians; effective in other campaigns, they were easy to disassemble for transportation and fired deadly airburst shrapnel rounds. The majority of crews were ascari (centre) from the Sudan, who wore yellow sashes. This lieutenant (right) wears the M1895 service cap, used by officers in various branches, which was worn as an alternative to the pith helmet used by the major (left). It displays crossed cannons as the badge of his service branch, complete with two gold rank stripes. He carries an M1864 artillery officer’s sabre.
By Ibrahim Zamir
‘How did Italy Lose to Ethiopia? (1895) | Animated History’ (2018), The Armchair Historian. YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Hln0GjuUQk&t=426s) Date accessed: 22nd September 2020
McLachlan, Sean (2011). ‘Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896: The Italian Disaster in Ethiopia’ (Oxford, England. Osprey Publishing).