The Battle of Adwa - 1st March 1896 Ethiopian Forces under the leadership of Empreror Menelik surprised the world by defeating the Italian army sent to conquer the empire.
Historically, Ethiopian women had played many important roles in war campaigns. As well as preparing supplies (food, drinks such as tej or araki, clothes, medicine), they were also known to encourage soldiers in the midst of battle, emboldening them to achieve greater feats. As laws governing land-tenure usually required at least part-time military service in times of war, widows of male soldiers could also be called upon to perform military duties.
Long military campaigns often entailed marches of up to 20 miles a day, particularly gruelling for pregnant women, or women recovering from childbirth, who were expected to keep pace with the rest. Women were also expected to carry heavy loads of provisions and supplies.
In late 1895, Empress Taytu and Emperor Menelik II set out on a campaign to reverse the Italians’ steady encroachment over Ethiopian territory. Enjoying unprecedented unity among the ruling elite and vital popular support from the peasantry who provided food, the Ethiopian army swelled during the march, reaching up to 100,000 soldiers. The Empress rode at the head of her own army of 5,000 infantry and 600 cavalrymen.
Ethiopian troops had their first taste of victory at the Battle of Amba Alage, where they defeated an Italian vanguard force well entrenched in a natural fortress. When they later arrived at the Italian fort at Makalle, Taytu immediately saw that the Ethiopians would lose countless lives in staging a frontal attack, despite their superior numbers. Yet her brilliant mind swiftly devised a plan to cut off the Italians’ water supply, thereby transforming the fort into a prison. The parched Italians were forced to surrender after a short siege.
The main battle, however, took place at Adwa on 1 March 1896.
Throughout the battle, Empress Taytu instructed the 10,000–12,000 women in the camp to fill jugs of water to reinvigorate tiring soldiers, and tirelessly urged the soldiers to fight to the last.
By midday, the Italians had been comprehensively defeated, and were fleeing for their lives. The resounding Ethiopian victory left Ethiopia as the only African country to successfully defend its sovereignty at the height of European imperialism.
However, Italy (and its diaspora) nursed its scar, and with the rise of Benito Mussolini’s fascist party, sought revenge. Again, inspired by the memory of Taytu and the victory of Adwa, Ethiopian women rose to the challenge. Women fighters such as Lekyelesh Beyan, Kebedech Seyoum, Shewareged Gedle and Qeleme Worq Tiruneh are rightly singled out for admiration. However, many thousands of women, often forced to flee to the hills to escape Italian bombing and poison-gas campaigns, heroically participated in the resistance through underground networks, guerrilla warfare and intelligence gathering. The Italians were eventually defeated in 1941.