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Military


Abyssinian Army - 1895

In late 1895, Italian forces invaded Tigray. However, Menelik completely routed them in early 1896 as they approached the Tigrayan capital, Adowa. He was first brought emphatically to the attention of modern Europe by this crushing defeat of the Italians at Adowa, a defeat which Italy had not soon forgotten. This victory brought Ethiopia new prestige as well as general recognition of its sovereign status by the European powers.

The Abyssinian army consisted of regularly constituted regiments, volunteers and militia. The volunteers, engaged for one year, form little permanent armies around the governors and the Emperor. The volunteer received his food and clothes as in Europe, and he also received a small stipend, which was larger in the service of the Emperor than in that of the ras. This army was not quartered in barracks, but among the peasantry, and the maintenance of two or three warriors was accepted by the State in lieu of some of the taxes.

The national organisation of the Abyssinian army, that which defeated the Italians in 1896 and Ras Mangasha in 1898, may be shortly described as follows. At the head of all was the Negus Nagasti, the King of Kings. This title does not imply that he was usurping a description usually reserved for the Deity, but merely that there were several Neguses or Kings in Abyssinia. He was their feudal chief; King of the Kings of Ethiopia is his true title. Below the Negus came the Ruses, or generals, usually governors of a province. Below the Rases were the commanders of the four great divisions, the Dedjazmatch (who commanded the rearguard), the Cagnasmatch (right wing), the Guerasmatch (left wing), and the Fitaurari (advanced guard). These were the highest grades; below them rank the Balambaras (commandant of a fortress), the Basha, &c.

But matters were much complicated by the irregularity of the organisation. Young men of noble birth are often in command of a body of soldiers more numerous than those led by officers of considerable standing. Or, again, each ruler of a great province has an army similar to that of the Negus Nagasti, with dedjazmatches, under his command, whose titles are indistinguishable from those of men appointed by the Negus himself. But as a rule the officers are well chosen, because the lives of the rulers depend on their efficiency.

As regards the men, they may very roughly be divided into three classes. Firstly, there are the sons, clients, and household of the chiefs who are bound to follow them in time of war; secondly, a large number of young men who become regular soldiers. A soldier in Abyssinia had the right when on the march of requisitioning food from the peasants, and if victorious was allowed a liberal share of loot; in time of peace his chief would often quarter him on a village, and he also receives a few thalers as pay. It was therefore one of the most agreeable professions for a young man who disliked work; and, indeed, the idleness and immense numbers of the military class have been one of the curses of Abyssinia. But the true strength of the organisation lives in the third means of recruiting, namely the general obligation that lay on every man to take service in time of danger. It corresponded to the ancient Fyrd of England, and had been frequently resorted to.

The Abyssinian soldier was very brave, particularly in the attack. The first shock was usually terrible. At the moment of the charge he utterred discordant and ear-splitting cries, which was intended to create, and often did create, fear and disorder in the ranks of the enemy. During a campaign the Abyssinian soldier could go whole months without eating anything more than a few handfuls of flour. Ten thousand Abyssinian soldiers could live a whole year under conditions that European soldiers could not endure three months.

The Abyssinian army probably had on the battlefield of Adua 60,000 rifles, of small or mediocre value. After that battle large acquisitions of weapons were made, almost all of them breech-loading, and not a few magazine rifles of the best models. The army which routed the Italians was largely composed of volunteers recruited from among the peasantry. In addition to everything being found - clothing, living, and travelling expenses - each soldier is given a small regular pay. The regiments are not lodged in barracks, but a certain number of men are billeted on each village, the expenses of their keep being considered in the local taxation. The whole army, including regulars, volunteers, and militia, counts something like half a million of men. The militia are only called out when there is pressing need ; they possess no regular arms, but will answer the roll-call bearing old guns, swords, and the national weapon, a javelin. They are very redoubtable at close quarters, and are said to make the finest charges of any army in the world. The Abyssinian soldier possesses singular powers of endurance. For whole months together he will live on a few handfuls of flour and dried peas, and ten thousand Abyssinians will exist for a whole year on food that would disable the same number of Europeans in three months.

There can be no harm in discussing the military powers of Abyssinia as those of any other friendly nation. Whatever one may think of the individuals of the lower classes in Shoa, which was after all only a part of Abyssinia, the Abyssinian army had shown that it had bravery enough to work satisfactorily as a military machine with modern weapons, and was capable of bringing a very effective fire to bear on an enemy. The Shoan had probably won his victories chiefly by the real dash, skill, and bravery of his chiefs; for the feudal system, if founded on real military strength and not degenerate, always produces good men at the top. In no country probably were the upper classes in greater contrast to the masses. No doubt, also, much of the reputation for courage of the Abyssinian army was due to the charges of spearmen belonging to outlying or subject races who were probably not Abyssinians at all.

Menelik's government has been well described as 'a military despotism tempered by distance.' The foundation of his power was the Shoan army, which he took care to keep, in numbers, arms, and equipment, far superior to the armies of any of his provinces. He himself directed the administration of Shoa and Ifat, and governed the newly-conquered Galla country and his other acquisitions through the military officers in charge of the garrisons of his own troops, whom he could appoint and dismiss at his pleasure.

The Emperor was general-in-chief of the Abyssinian army, and here, likewise, he was supreme, presiding at all the court martials which punish deserters and traitors. Menelek had done a great deal for the military organization of the empire, and his best work was having established discipline. He insisted on his soldiers obeying the laws, and he punished severely all pillagers. The cavalry, infantry and artillery were organized and regulated in about the same way as they were in Europe. They marched in good order and not in bands like those picturesque hordes described by earlier Abyssinian explorers.

The Emperor stopped at no sacrifice in order to purchase rifles and small pieces of artillery. The armament was that of a modern army. The days were passed when Oubieh could terrorize Abyssinia with a small piece of cannon. The courage, activity, frugality, and, above all, the natural cunning of the Abyssinian soldier weny far to remedy other defects. He did not, like the Dervish, rush across the open plain spear in hand against trenches full of men and magazine-rifles. He understood the efficacy of modern weapons, and takes cover during his advance. He was a good shot and did not waste cartridges, for until lately there were so few in Abyssinia that they were usually kept, for safety, in a church. As recently as the year 1890 only about one warrior out of every two possessed a firearm, and the usual allowance of cartridges served out before an engagement was only thirtyfive to forty per rifle. Consequently there were no volleys and very little firing at long ranges. But even this scarcity of armament has some advantages. The Abyssinian loved his weapon. He was a proud man on the day that he obtained a Remington, which was his favorite pattern.

The Emperor's victories over the Italians further augmented his resources. If he chose he could put into the field three hundred thousand men armed with very good rifles. Considering his success as a soldier it was remarkable that Menelek should not have been tempted to undertake further conquests. But, fortunately, he was a man of intelligence and wisdom. He knew how much war cost, and he only approved of it when it was to protect his frontiers. He never put himself at the head of his army except upon great occasions, for at one time he had to win all the provinces of his empire sword in hand.

His courage was loudly praised, but he is noted above all for his gentleness and humanity. No soldier had ever shown so much clemency to the conquered, and it is in this respect particularly that he showed himself to be a reformer. In all the thirty years he spent on the battle field, he never departed from his humane sentiments. He always spared the conquered, even the kings who have waged war against him. When he conquered the king of Godjam, the latter was left wounded on the field of battle. The soldiers brought him to Menelek and asked what they should do with him. The Emperor had the wounded man put in the care of his own European physician, and when he was cured gave him back his kingdom. Sovereign of a people barely issued from the darkness of barbarism, he had undertaken to civilize warfare, to abolish slavery and to prohibit the mutilation of human bodies.




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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:38:59 ZULU