Most colonial-period wargamers are familiar with Napier’s highly successful 1868 campaign against “Mad King Theodore” of the Abyssinians. What they sometimes don’t realise is that Abyssinia offers much more than that for the nineteenth century wargamer.
Between 1875 and 1896 the Abyssinians fought off Egyptian, Dervish and (most famously) Italian invaders. This article will provide the background and a battle re-fight scenario for each of the three campaigns.
Part 1: The Egyptian Invasion of 1875
The Egyptians first invaded inland Abyssinia in October 1875, with a column of some 3400 men under the command of a Colonel Arendrup, a Dane in the service of the Khedive. The expedition was designed not necessarily to do any fighting, but to overawe the “ignorant savages” into accepting the fact that Egypt held the Massowah region, and to stop them constantly raiding into Egyptian-held territory.
Unfortunately, Arendrup severely underestimated his foe. Although accounts vary, it seems almost certain that he split his force into several parts, with the 800-strong section that he was leading being wiped out, along with their illustrious leader, in the defile of Goundet.
This slap in the face for the Egyptians could not go unpunished, so in December 1875 a second expedition was dispatched: numbering about 16,000 men under the command of Ratib Pasha and his American advisor, General Loring, who had fought in Mexico and was now in service to the Khedive.
This expeditionary force remained at Massowah for some months, but then moved some 80 miles inland. There, two forts were established. The closer, on the slopes of Mount Kayakhor being named Fort Kayakhor, and the other, six miles further inland, in a valley that effectively commanded the lines of communication for the area, Fort Gura.
Ratib Pasha had about 7,500 men at Fort Gura and 5,000 men at Fort Kayakhor: the rest being distributed between two more strong points established along the route back to Massowah.
Meanwhile, King Yohannes had gathered around 45,000 of his warriors and was heading towards the waiting Egyptians.
In the face of this obvious threat, rather than concentrate his forces at either Gura or Kayakhor, Ratib Pasha dithered: eventually marching 5,000 of his men out of Fort Gura to a position approximately midway between the two strong points!
Here, on 7th March 1876, the Abyssinians attacked: scoring a great victory over the Egyptian troops, who were abandoned by their officers as soon as their enemy came into view, and slaughtered like lambs in the confusion that followed.
Only some 500 immediately escaped back to Forts Gura and Kayakhor: 2,000 or so died in the battle, 1,000 or so were captured and killed by the Abyssinians in revenge for the mutilation of Abyssinian dead and wounded, and the remaining 1,500 straggled in over the next few days.
The garrisons of the two forts never left the safety of their walls, content to watch their comrades die.
Although an Abyssinian attack on 9th March on Fort Gura was repulsed, the heart had gone out of the Egyptian force: Ratib Pasha particularly seemingly to have lost his nerve.
Leaving garrisons in place, the Egyptians retreated first to Kayakhor, and then back to Massowah itself. Ratib Pasha’s failure so damaged the Khedive’s influence over the Abyssinian question that opponents to the scheme were able to get their way. The garrisons were left to rot and the Egyptians withdrew from Abyssinia, never to return.
The battle of Gura is best run as a sort of Kobiyoshi Maru incident (a Star Trek reference meaning a training scenario that it is impossible to win, designed to teach the officer cadet about facing defeat) where the Egyptians are going to lose unless they run for the forts as soon as the Abyssinians hove into view.
Don’t show the either the Egyptian or Abyssinian players the wargaming table until after they have read their briefings and the first turn is about to start. The idea is to get the Egyptians to suddenly realise how dire their position is, and have their fun deciding what to do. Their victory conditions are to get as many men into either of the two forts as possible…but they don’t know that!
For the Abyssinian player(s) the matter is simpler: kill all the invaders!
“You are a junior officer in a 16,000-strong Egyptian army sent to quash Abyssinian marauders. After some time ‘in-country’, you have occupied the Gura valley and now effectively control all lines of communication in the area. A fort has been built at either end of the valley, and you are currently marching with a reconnaissance-in-force of around 5,000 men between the two strongpoints.
“It is now around 1pm, and your force has been halted in the middle of the valley for some time, whilst your commander Ratib Pasha decides what to do next. You have noticed what appear to be large numbers of Abyssinian tribesmen in the hills surrounding the valley, and there have been somewhat panicky reports of a nearby massacre, but you are not sure who has been killed, by whom and where.
“Suddenly there is a huge commotion, and, looking where your men are pointing, you see hordes of Abyssinians pouring out of two passes to the north of where you are.
“You look to your senior officers for instruction, but all you can see is a cloud of dust marking their departure towards Fort Gura….”
Six battalions of around 600 men each, armed with Remmington single-shot breechloaders; two batteries of Krupp 75’s; two squadrons of cavalry of around 40 men each, armed with carbines and swords.
The Egyptian infantry begin at the point marked “E” on the map, facing north. Note that Ratib Pasha had deployed the infantry in the centre with an unsupported-by-infantry battery on either flank. In the actual battle, the right hand battery was quickly over-run by the Abyssinians. The cavalry should be deployed some way in front of the infantry, in skirmish formation, facing south, returning from their latest patrol.
Note that each fort has another three battalions of infantry and one battery of guns, but these men will not leave the protection of the fort’s walls. Regrettably, afraid of attracting the attention of the Abyssinians, they will also only shoot Abyssinian units directly attacking them!
“The Egyptian invaders of glorious Abyssinia have bottled themselves up in the Gura Valley. Your army, ten times their number, is now ready to take them on.
“Kill them all!”
Around 40,000 men (2000 figures at 1:20; 800 at 1:50), divided into warbands of around 1000 warriors. About one quarter should be armed with old-fashioned smoothbore muskets; another quarter with sword and shield; and the rest with clubs!
The Abyssinian force begins at the points marked ‘A’, with three units appearing at each point each turn until all forty are deployed. There may be a need to recycle units, or to use markers to represent the warbands at the back!
The terrain is horrible: around the outside of the valley mountainous scrub dotted with steep-sided hills, the valley itself crisscrossed by very rough trails and the odd cluster of huts.
Movement within the valley, even on the ‘roads’ marked, should count as rough terrain; the surrounding hills as difficult; and the darker areas as impassable.
The forts were capable of beating off a sustained attack by the Abyssinians, and should therefore count as medium works or similar. Any troops (including refugees from the reconnaissance force) that are in the fort may shoot at enemy units directly attacking the forts.
Note that the two forts should be positioned approximately six miles (10,560 yards) apart: just over 2½ metres of rough terrain using Principles of War!
The Egyptian player(s) scores one point for every Egyptian soldier that reaches a fort (base-to-base contact indicates that the figure has disappeared inside) and one point for each two Abyssinian figures killed.
The Abyssinian player(s) score one point for each Egyptian soldier killed
The Egyptians wore a red fez and either the summer dress of white jackets and trousers or the winter dress of dark blue trousers and tunic. Officers wore winter dress.
Ordinary Abyssinians wore white shirt and trousers, with a white cotton cloak. The more affluent wore colourful tunics with an animal skin or embroidered cloak. Chiefs and mighty warriors wore scarlet, and might have their outfits trimmed with lion’s mane hair.
You shouldn’t have any problems getting hold of Egyptian figures in either 15mm or 25mm scale: almost any Sudan range will have them.
Abyssinians are produced in 25mm by Italwars and Bicorne; and in 15mm by Irregular; Gladiator and Tin Soldier.
Part 2: The Mahdist Invasion of 1887
In 1887, the Mahdists took advantage of the fact that Emperor Johannes IV of the Abyssinians was busy campaigning against the Italians (see Part 3) by invading northwest Abyssinia.
As with Egypt when it controlled the country, the border between the Dervish-controlled Sudan and Abyssinia was a matter of some dispute. To this was now added a religious dimension: the Mahdists wanting the Christian Abyssinians to convert to Islam (a previous Mahdist jihad had already been repulsed in September 1885).
Initially the Mahdists had some success: with Yohannes’ vassal, the king of Goijam, defeated, and the holy city of Gondar sacked.
Johannes gathered an army of some 100,000 warriors and, through a series of inconclusive skirmishes, pushed the Mahdists back, mainly through sheer weight of numbers, to the border town of Gallabat (aka Metemma).
There, the Dervish commander, Zaki Tamal, made a stand and, on March 12th 1889, a great battle was fought.
At first the Abyssinians did well: penetrating the Mahdist defences through a series of fierce attacks and, again, overwhelming numbers. However, at the climax of the battle, Johannes was shot and killed: and the Abyssinian army broke and fled.
The Dervishes do not appear to have re-invaded Abyssinia: perhaps more concerned with events in other parts of the Sudan.
The battle of Gallabat is a straight, stand-up fight between defending Mahdists and attacking Abyssinians.
The town itself is on the main east/north-west road in the area at the point that the road comes down from the mountains (see map).
Although no exact dispositions are available, good sense dictates that the Mahdists are dug in on either side of the road, blocking the way to the more open terrain to the northwest. Accounts also state that the Mahdists had constructed “wooden forts”, and used their riflemen as snipers.
- Negus Johannes IV (best sort of General available in your rules)
- 1 x Bodyguard unit
- Irregular B Fanatics (or equivalent)
- 1 x Negus’ Tribe Brigade
- 5 units of Irregular B warriors (or equivalent)
- 4 x Other Tribe Brigade
- Each: 5 units of Irregular C warriors (or equivalent)
- 2 x Battery of Artillery
- Each: 2 units of Irregular C Tribal Artillery (or equivalent)
The Abyssinians are armed with spears or swords; shields; and about one third of each unit would have guns: the Bodyguard and King’s Tribe Brigade having breech-loading rifles (captured from the Egyptians in section 1); the rest have muzzle-loading smoothbores or similar. The artillery is armed with Krupp 75’s. Unit size is up to you, but should be about the same as the Dervish units, below.
Special Rule: If the Negus is killed, the army breaks! Oh, and he has to lead from the front, but remember that Abyssinian leaders dressed as common soldiers, with a decoy courtier decked out in the full Negus regalia somewhere else on the field. Reduce what your rules state is the chance of Johannes being killed appropriately.
- General Zaki Tamal
- 3 x Mahdist Foot Brigade
- Each: 5 units of Irregular C warriors (or equivalent)
- 1 x Mahdist Cavalry Brigade
- 3 units of Irregular B warriors on horse or camel (or equivalent)
- 3 x Mahdist Artillery Batteries
- Each: 3 units of Irregular C Tribal Artillery (or equivalent)
The Mahdist infantry and cavalry are armed almost identically to the Abyssinians above. Once again, Egypt kindly provided the arms!
Special Rule: Three wooden-walled forts, each with a frontage of one foot or artillery unit placed anywhere in the Mahdist deployment zone. Up to three units may be placed in each Fort, although only one may fire in any given turn.
The shaded areas should be difficult terrain, with the unshaded areas counting as rough. The main road and north/south track improve this by one (i.e. normal and rough terrain respectively).
The Mahdist deploy first: placing all their troops in the marked deployment area. The Abyssinians begin at point A.
Uniforms & Figures
See Part 1 for Abyssinian details.
There should be no problem with Mahdist figures, and they can be dressed in either jibba’s or other standard Dervish garb.
Part 3: The Italian Invasion of 1885-6
After Arabi’s revolt in 1882, the British had effectively taken control of Egypt and its holdings, including the Abyssinian port of Massowah. In 1885, keen to divest themselves of this white elephant and to spread the burden of resisting the Mahdi, the British gave control of the port to the Italians, who were eager to create a colonial empire to rival those of their European neighbours. Italian missionaries had been in the Eritrean region of Abyssinia since the 1850’s, and there was also an Italian commercial presence at Assab, purchased from the Egyptians in 1869.
The Italians steadily expanded into inland Eritrea, but were constantly harassed by Danakil tribesmen: King Yohannes IV being furious at yet another invasion of his territory. An Italian squadron landed troops at Massowah in February 1885 and, for a time, these proved sufficient to keep the marauders in check. During a fight at Sabarguma in March 1885, for example, the appearance of an Italian observation balloon panicked the Abyssinian attackers; electric spotlights having the same effect at night.
All this contributed to a dangerous feeling of Italian superiority over their tribal opponents: a feeling that was abruptly shattered on January 26th 1887 when a column of 550 Italians marching to relieve the besieged garrison of Saati was slaughtered by the Abyssinians in what became known as the Dogali Massacre.
The Italians responded by sending 20,000 troops to Massowah, but these troops, however, were never deployed: Yohannes was killed fighting the Dervishes at Gallabat in March 1889 (see Part 2) and his successor, Menelik II, keen to unite Abyssinia and build up his strength before confronting any external aggressors, did a deal with the Italian invaders, signing on May 2nd 1889, the Treaty of Uccialli (aka Wichale). This treaty gave the Italians control of the Massowah region and part of Tigre. The Italians consolidated: taking Keren in June 1889; Asmara in August 1889, and deploying troops along the banks of the river Mareb.
Throughout the early 1890’s, Menelik tightened his grip on Abyssinia and used the vast wealth generated from taxes, ivory, gold, silver, musk and slaves to arm and equip his troops with the best modern military equipment that money could buy. Magazine-loading rifles, rifle-barrelled artillery, and plenty of ammunition all flowed to his new capital at Addis Ababa. He also fell out with the Italians, who were now claiming that the Treaty of Uccialli actually made Abyssinia their protectorate, and effectively severed diplomatic relations with them some time in 1893.
The Italians provoked a small uprising by the Okule Basai (a tribe from the most northerly part of coastal Abyssinia) in December 1894, which was easily put down by the Italian military commander General Oreste Baratieri (who was himself just back from capturing Kassala from the Mahdists), with a Major Toselli defeating Batha Agos, leader of the Okule Basai, by arriving in his rear with a column of 1500 men and two guns as the Abyssinian besieged the 220-strong garrison of the small fort of Halai (near Saganeiti) with around 1600 poorly-armed tribesmen.
The surviving rebels fled to inland Tigre: to Ras Mangasha, a chief who had previously been sympathetic to the Italians but had now decided to throw in his lot with Menelik after aid promised by his European “allies” had failed to materialise. Baratieri sent an ultimatum to Mangasha: ordering him not only to give up the rebels but also to send troops to attack the Dervishes at Ghedaref.
Mangasha had actually been preparing an uprising against the Italians of his own: so did not reply to Baratieri in the expected manner. He continued to gather together his own army.
Baratieri reacted instantly, and took 3,500 askari towards Adowa, which he captured without any sort of fight on December 28th 1894. Although this rapid response cowed many local leaders into submission, Mangasha remained at large, and Baratieri, his small force somewhat exposed at Adowa, retreated to the strategically well-placed Adi Ugri four days later.
Reinforced on 12th January, Baratieri then moved to intercept Mangasha’s army, now moving eastwards towards Coatit. On 13th January 1894 the two sides fought the battle of Coatit: with Baratieri’s force of 105 Italians; four mountain guns and around 3,750 askari’s taking on Mangasha’s 12,000 riflemen (around half of them would actually have had old-fashioned muzzle-loaders) and 7,000 sword and spearmen. Although the battle was more of a draw than a win for either side, it was Mangasha who retreated first: Baratieri pursuing him as far west as Senafe, where the Abyssinian army melted away.
Baratieri garrisoned Tigre and returned to Massowah and then to Italy: hailed as a hero and promising to next defeat Menelik himself.
Menelik, meanwhile, calmly gathered his feudal host: now ready to take on the Italians. He had amassed a force of around 196,000 men: over half armed with modern rifles, and at least 34,000 of them from Menelik’s own Shoa tribe.
Hostilities opened on December 7th 1895, with the annihilation of 1,300 askari’s under Major Toselli by a force of some 30,000 Abyssinians in a narrow mountain pass near Amba Alagi.
Shortly afterwards the Abyssinians also besieged Makalle: with Baratieri forced to strategically withdraw to Adigrat, where he dug in and waited to see what Menelik would do next.
The King, still keen to seek a diplomatic solution, allowed the 1,200-strong garrison at Makalle to go free after a siege lasting 45 days, and offered to negotiate with Rome. The Italians refused any sort of compromise: sending Baratieri reinforcements with which to settle the matter.
Baratieri wanted Menelik to attack his prepared positions at Adigrat, but the Negus outflanked him and occupied Adowa. Baratieri withdrew further to Sauria, where his 20,000 men and 56 guns dug in anew.
Finally, with both sides now running short on supplies, on February 29th 1896 (leap year), Baratieri advanced out of his lines to attack Menelik’s army: stung by thinly-veiled accusations of cowardice from Rome and encouraged by his less experienced brigade commanders.
The Italian General planned to advance under cover of darkness to high ground overlooking the Abyssinian camp at Adowa: splitting his force into three fast moving, brigade-sized columns that would re-unite to crush the enemy at daybreak (Askari’s under Albertone and Dabormida on the left and right respectively, Europeans under Arimondi in the centre).
Unfortunately, the terrain to be covered had not been properly scouted, and the Italian troops were still struggling, separated, towards their objective at dawn the next day.
The Abyssinians, surprised, nevertheless attacked at once: 82,000 rifle and sword armed infantry, 20,000 spearmen and 8,000 cavalry (supported by 40 quick firing mountain guns manned by Russian-trained Abyssinians) rapidly converging on Baratieri’s force of 17,700 men and 56 guns.
The Italians were caught in their three separate columns, and although their superior fire-discipline held off the Abyssinians for some time, causing massive casualties and severely worrying Menelik, the centre and left-wing columns were overwhelmed and routed when the Negus, at the urging of his Empress and Ras Mangasha, committed his 25,000 Royal Guard to the battle. See map to the right.
Dabormida’s right-wing column had inexplicably marched away from their colleagues when battle was joined, and was overwhelmed in turn and largely annihilated.
The Italians lost around 8,000 men (over 4,000 Europeans) at Adowa: a crushing defeat of a European force that easily overshadowed the British defeat at Isandlwana in 1879.
Menelik did not follow up his victory with an invasion of Eritrea. Some say it was because the 17,000-odd Abyssinians killed or wounded at Adowa took the fight out of the army, some say that he recognised that invading Eritrea would be a logistically very difficult task and force the Italians into a long-term confrontation that the Abyssinians would not be sure of winning. Whatever his reasons, he did force the Treaty of Addis Ababa on them: ceding them Eritrea, but ensuring that inland Abyssinia itself was free of European influence, and allowing him to properly conquer the tribes of Kaffa and Galla to the south.
Forty years later, of course, the Italians took their revenge…
This is a fantastic battle to fight as a skirmish game involving small parties of Italian soldiers (both European and askari) attempting to fight their way to safety through mountainous and rugged terrain. The objective should be the Italian base camp at Sauri, still defended by Brig. Gen. Ellena’s reserve brigade.
The evading parties should consist of the following troop types:
Alpini (Italian elite mountain troops): Elite figures, armed with magazine rifle and bayonet. A movement bonus should apply in mountainous terrain.
Bersaglieri (Italian elite light troops): Veteran figures, armed as above.
Other Europeans (mostly Italian conscripts): Average figures armed as above.
Askari (native Eritreans soldiering for Rome): Average figures armed as above.
Characters can include the brigade commanders Albertone; Arimondi; and Dabormida; and could even include Baratieri himself.
Their Abyssinian pursuers should consist of parties of the following troop types:
Shoa Royal Guard: Veteran figures armed with magazine rifle and sword.
Oromo Horsemen: Veteran figures armed with magazine rifle, spear and shield.
Warriors: Average figures armed with magazine rifle and sword.
Poor Warriors: Average figures armed with muzzle-loading rifle and sword.
Spearmen: Average figures armed with sword or spear, and shield.
The Italian’s European troops would have been in either their blue dress uniforms, or in their light khaki field service kit. Pith helmets were the official headgear, and line uniforms were trimmed in black. Bersaglieri and Alpini would have had green trims, and would have worn a cluster of dark green or black feathers on their helmets.
The Italian askari were a pretty regular force, so could be given the same basic uniforms as above: perhaps with white “native” trousers and more esoteric headgear.
The Full Tabletop Encounter
This can be played in a number of different ways. Either the Italians can start out at their base camp and attempt to beat the Abyssinians from scratch or, perhaps more interestingly, the scenario can begin at the moment that the Abyssinians begin their attack on the three separated columns. The map shows the full area of the battle, leaving both options open.
Baratieri had about 17,500 men with him, accompanied by 56 mountain guns. Approximately 10,600 were Europeans: most Italian conscripts, but with a few companies of elite Bersaglieri or Alpini light troops. The rest were native Eritrean askari.
The infantry was divided into four brigades, under Arimonde (European); Albertone (askari); Dabormida (askari); and Ellena (European). Battalion strength would have been 800 on paper, so give each brigade five or six battalions of around 700 men, and dot the odd company of Bersaglieri amongst them. Divide the guns between them.
Historically, Albertone went left, but crashed into Arimondi in the centre; and Dabormida went off to the far right. Baratieri accompanied the reserve battalion, but joined Arimondi once fighting started.
Menelik had 82,000 men armed with magazine rifle and sword, including the 25,000 Royal Guard. He also had about another 20,000 less well-armed spearmen; and about 8,000 cavalry. Forty mountain guns, manned by Russian-trained natives, also accompanied his army.
His army was also divided into right, left and centre wings: with he himself commanding the Royal Guard reserve just behind the centre wing. The centre and right wings attacked the interspersed Albertone and Arimondi brigades; the left wing attacked Dabormida in what was almost a separate battle.
An Abyssinian army is a useful and flexible addition to anyone’s colonial collection: being able to legitimately fight British, Egyptian, Dervish or Italian opponents.
Tired of your Zulus getting a battering under the guns of their European opponents? Get the Abyssinians and shoot back!