TRIUMPH AND GLORY FOR ONLY TWO LIRE A DAY, The Battle of Coatit
by Ron Vaughan, Maps and Illustrations by Greg Rose, webified by Robert Avery
After the successful conclusion of the Kassala campaign in July of 1894, General Baratieri, Governor of Eritrea, was able to turn his attention once again to the Abyssinian question. It was nearly a year and a half since Emperor Menelik had repudiated the Treaty of Uccialli. During that period the Italian cause had advanced little, but that of the Negus had been steadily progressing. Menelik was welding together a united and powerful nation. Ras Mangasha of Tigre had been an ally of Italy but, in June 1894, he tired of the profitless alliance and traveled to Addis Ababa, tendering his submission to the Negus. Menelik reproved him for allying with Italy, and offered him the crown of Tigre, if he could reconquer the ceded provinces.
The Italian Cabinet dispatched Colonel Piano to Addis Ababa to endeavor once again to extract some semblance of an agreement to the Italian protectorate. He found Menelik busily engaged in constructing railways and telegraphs; coining money; talking of entering the postal Union; ordering machines of all kinds; and affecting indifference to the Italian Government. The Piano mission was no more successful than its predecessors, and the continued dispatch of these unfruitful embassies did not tend to raise the prestige of Italy in the eyes of the natives. It appeared to show a lack of dignity on the part of a great power, that an official would come to ask concessions of the Shoan chief, and be treated by him with open contempt. Under these conditions, among Abyssinians there was a growing ‚Äònegative patriotism‚Äô based upon a general hatred of the white man. A song had spread among the people from Shoa as far north as Okule Kasai, of which the principle refrain was: "Of a black snake‚Äôs bite you may be cured, but from the bite of a white snake you will never recover".
Mangasha returned to Tigre and secretly began hostile preparations, under the cloak of friendship with Italy. The tone of his letters was friendly: he warmly congratulated Baratieri on the capture of Kassala and even offered to attack the Mahdists in Ghedaref, but when this offer was accepted, he merely sent Ras Agos with a couple of thousand men into the western province of Shire to threaten them. On pretense of preparing to attack the Mahdists, he beat the Kitet and began collecting a large army.
Okule Kusai Rebellion
Ras Mangasha had not yet quite made up his mind as to which alliance would be to his best advantage when, on December 15th 1894, his hand was forced by the rebellion of Batha Agos, chief of the Okule Kasai. It was surprising that Batha Agos would rebel, for several reasons: Okule Kasai, one of the most northern provinces of Abyssinia, was easily accessible to the Italians, so it was an unlikely place to begin a rebellion. More peculiar still was that Batha Agos should have betrayed Italy, for he was bound not only by the ties of gratitude, but by those of interest. In the past he had been constantly at war with Emperor John and Ras Alula, who had driven him into exile. General Baldissera had raised him to the chieftainship of Okule Kusai. At Agordat no chief had shown himself more ready to fight for the Italians than Batha Agos. Apparently the cause of his defection was that he was a shrewd judge of political affairs and he concluded that the Italians were sustaining a losing cause.
On December 15th, Baratieri was informed that the telegraph wires were cut from Asmara to Saganeiti, the capital of Okule Kusai. Except for suspicions about Ras Mangasha, this was the only information he had, but he acted immediately. He ordered a caravan to start at once for Kassala, to enable it to hold out if attacked, and telegraphed to Major Toselli at Asmara to proceed at once to Saganeiti, giving his advance the appearance of a route march, in case of there being in reality no rebellion to be crushed. Reinforcements were sent to Toselli, but the largest available number of troops were concentrated at Asmara under the Governor‚Äôs own command.
On the 16th, Toselli arrived near Saganeiti, where he found that the Resident, Lt. Sanguinetti, had been treacherously seized and imprisoned. Toselli negotiated for his release ‚Äì a process that was prolonged as much as possible by Batha Agos, who did not realise that every hour brought reinforcements to Toselli. By the evening of the 17th, Toselli had 1,500 men and two guns, so he decided to attack early on the following morning; but on the 18th his attack turned out to be unnecessary, As Batha Agos had disappeared: no-one knew where.
Toselli guessed that the Dejatch had marched against Halai, a small fort further north, garrisoned by one company (220 men) under Capt. Castellazzi. So after only an hour rest, he started towards Halai. Toselli‚Äôs guess proved to be correct and saved the situation, for Batha Agos with 1,600 men had arrived that morning outside Halai and summoned the garrison to surrender. Capt. Castellazzi‚Äôs position was difficult, as his ammunition supply was very small, so he prolonged the negotiations in the hope of being relieved. At 1.30 the firing started. By 4.45 matters were becoming extremely critical when, suddenly, the rebels found themselves attacked in the rear by the advance guard of Toselli‚Äôs column. The natives fled leaving Batha Agos dead on the ground. The Italians lost 11 killed and 22 wounded, but the rebellion was crushed. Apparently, the loss of their leader had shattered the rebels‚Äô unity and demoralised them.
Invasion of Tigre
Many of the rebels sought refuge with Ras Mangasha. Baratieri wrote to him asking him to give up the rebels; to disband the force collected at Entisho; and to send Ras Agos to attack Ghedaref. To this letter, which amounted to an ultimatum, Mangasha returned an indefinite answer, so the Governor prepared to take action. A week later, on Christmas Day 1894, he had collected 3,500 Askari at the fort of Adi Ugri in Serae, and he wrote another letter to Mangasha. Receiving no reply, Baratieri advanced through the Pass of Gashsorki and on the 28th he encamped near Adowa, which Mangasha had abandoned.
Here the Governor published a proclamation stating that he had come not to make war, but to bring the peace that Mangasha had sworn on the bible to maintain. Many important men offered submission: the most notable being Theophilus the Itchegue, the religious chief who lived at the holy city of Axua, near Adowa. The clergy of Tigre, who feared the advent of clerical rivals from Shoa, were the most genuine allies who remained to the Italians.
Baratieri had counted on the morale effect of a triumphant entry into the enemy‚Äôs capital, but although it had some effect, Mangasha was still at Entisho to the northeast, threatening his line of communications, and the Kitet was still beating in all the Tigrean provinces. After four days, therefore, Baratieri perceived that he must withdraw: as his force was not sufficiently numerous to attack Mangasha in his mountainous position. Baratieri decided to make Adi Ugri his base of operations and, by January 3rd, was again encamped near that fort.
This dash on Adowa has been adversely criticised. Capt. De la Jonquiere called it a "sword stroke in the water". The effect on the enemy morale achieved by capturing their capital was somewhat offset by the Italian withdrawal. The task was now to gain a battlefield success to dissipate the effect of the retreat.
The Battle of Coatit
Ras Mangasha‚Äôs aim was to advance northward into Okule Kusai, and then perhaps to invade Eritrea. To accomplish this movement, he would have to leave Baratieri on his left, and give up his lines of communication, but this was a matter of little consequence to an Abyssinian general, as his army lived off the land. Also, because of this fact, they would be forced to make a move soon, before the country around them was exhausted. There were three ways by which Mangasha could invade Okule Kasai: via Gura; via Coatit, a little more to the northeast; or by a still wider easterly detour. In all three cases they were open to a flank attack, for Baratieri at Adi Ugri was near enough to intercept them by whatever route they advanced.
Baratieri decided he could improve his position by advancing east from Adi Ugri on January 9th to a strong position on the height of Kenafena. After several days he was able to satisfy himself that Mangasha was planning to evade the Italians by taking one of the more easterly roads. On the 12th, Baratieri crossed the Mareb and advanced to Adis Adi, where he was joined by Major Hidalgo‚Äôs troops from Okule Kasai. Scouts on the nearby Mount Tocule reported a long, low dust-cloud to the east. It was evidently Mangasha‚Äôs army advancing by road to Coatit. Two alternatives occurred to Baratieri: one was to attack the enemy while they were still on the march; the other was to occupy Coatit and await them. In most cases, the first option would have had the best chance of success, but in this instance he saw that it would involve another three hours‚Äô march in the sun, through rocky, thorn-covered country. Also, the enemy would be able to see them from the start, and therefore would have time to prepare to receive them. He decided to march on Coatit.
By 3 pm that afternoon, the advance guard under Toselli had occupied Coatit. Soon the other battalions had each taken up their allotted positions without the enemy having the slightest suspicion of their arrival. Mangasha thought he had evaded the Italians, whereas Baratieri was only awaiting the cover of darkness to move against him.
The Italian army consisted of only 3,883 men (66 officers; 105 Italians in the ranks; the rest being natives). There were three battalions (about 1,100 men each) of Askaris, each of five companies; one battery of four mountain guns; about 400 irregulars; and 28 Askari lancers.
Ras Mangasha‚Äôs force was estimated at about 12,000 riflemen and about 7,000 sword and spearmen. One half to one third of the ‚Äòrifles‚Äô were muzzleloaders of various kinds. Mounted natives were not mentioned. In an 1887 report there were 4,000 mounted Tigreans out of the 20,000 man army of Tigre. Later, at Adowa, Ras Mangasha had 12,000 riflemen and no cavalry. In any case, the terrain was too rugged for mounted troops.
The Italian outposts could see the enemy‚Äôs tents and campfires in two roughly formed camps - to the south that of the Ras himself, to the north that of the Fitaurari (advance guard commander). The Italian camp had few fires and was hidden by a hill. During the night both camps were silent. Two hours before dawn Baratieri issued the orders to his commanding officers. Major Toselli (with the 4th Bttn.) was to form the right wing, with a narrow gorge covering his right flank. In the centre, Major Galliano (3rd Bttn.) was to occupy a height. The paths and heights on the left were to be guarded by the irregulars under Sanguinetti and Mulazzani. Behind Galliano, major Hidalgo (2nd Bttn.) was in reserve; whilst the artillery (Capt. Cicco di Cola) was on the right with Toselli. The 5th company of Hidalgo‚Äôs battalion occupied a precipice on the right rear of the army in order to guard the water. In an hour and a quarter all the men were in position and the general advance began with the first gleam of morning (at 5.45am). The army wheeled slightly to the right, pivoting on the artillery. The little army crept forward towards the pale light in the east, guided in their march by the dark outline of a conical hill with a tukul on the summit. A little after 6am, the two leading battalions had some of their companies deployed, and the rest under good cover.
With first rays of the sun, Captain di Cola‚Äôs battery opened fire with shrapnel from its skillfully chosen position on a height 1,900 metres from the enemy camp. Baratieri and his staff, with the banner of Italy, occupied the high conical hill already mentioned ‚Äì henceforth called Commando (Headquarters) Hill. The irregulars on the wing, attracted in the direction of the hills that rose off the plain, unwittingly descended too far down towards the centre of the line, leaving almost unguarded on their left the height and village of Adu Auei.
Baratieri's report offers a vivid description of the first part of the battle:
In this manner, the battle raged in front of Mangasha‚Äôs camp, when suddenly Baratieri spotted a cloud of dust, denoting a large enemy group, that was making a turning movement towards his left. Soon the irregulars sent word that they were under heavy attack. Since they had moved too far towards the centre, there seemed to be a chance for the Tigreans to retrieve the day by turning the Italian flank. This counter-attack became the true point of danger, as the natives tried to cut the Italians off from Coatit. Although the troops on the right were rapidly gaining ground, Baratieri was obliged to order the 3rd Battalion (Galliano‚Äôs) to incline to the north, and to dispatch those companies that were not actually engaged to reinforce the left wing.
Galliano at once moved northwards with three companies, but in accomplishing this movement he took heavy losses, especially in one company, owing to its mistaking the advancing Tigreans for some of their own retiring irregulars, and being in consequence nearly surrounded.
Galliano‚Äôs movement created a gap in the front, so at about 9.30am, two companies of Hidalgo‚Äôs battalion (the reserve) were ordered into the firing line. On the arrival of these fresh troops the advance was renewed, each company gaining ground by rushes or bayonet charges, then halting to fire. The artillery was also pushed forward to 1,100 meters from the enemy. As for the Tigreans, they fought with the usual tactics of Abyssinian warriors ‚Äì concealing themselves, awaiting for the chance to make a sudden dash forward to get to close quarters. But the discipline of the Askaris prevented any favorable opportunity for the natives to charge home.
Meanwhile, on the left wing, the situation became more critical. Mangasha was there in person, with his Negarit (wardrum) continuously beating. Under his eyes the Tigreans were pushing forward among the euphorbias and olive trees, threatening to cut off the Italians from Coatit. Therefore, Baratieri was compelled to order Toselli and Hidalgo to halt their advance and retire towards the town, changing front left so as to keep the northern assailants at bay.
The artillery withdrew first, then Hidalgo and Toselli in succession. They succeeded in performing this very dangerous maneuver with difficulty. Baratieri himself was barely able to escape from Commando Hill. Three of his eight-man staff were killed, as he recklessly exposed himself in directing the retirement.
Once the change of front had been accomplished, the crisis passed. At every point the Tigreans were met by an impenetrable resistance. On the extreme north they had made their way through a hidden ravine to the church where the Italian wounded lay, but even here they were repulsed by Lt. Virdia, the doctor in charge, who armed his orderlies, mule-drivers, and slightly wounded men, and defended the cemetery wall. For some hours the firing continued, but the attacks gradually became less sustained until at length they died away altogether.
Who won? It was hard to say. The small Italian force had surprised their enemy, but their attack had been repulsed. On the other hand, Mangasha‚Äôs counter-attack had also failed. One thing was certain: the Tigrean losses had been heavier and, as was usually the case, the drawn battle was virtually a victory for the regular troops, who had greater powers of endurance and recuperation.
All that night (the 13th to 14th) Baratieri expected a fresh assault, but it never came. At dawn, however, the Tigreans opened fire. Baratieri thought of taking the offensive again but decided not to, because their position was too strong. He preferred to wait and stand on the defensive for several reasons. He was expecting a supply caravan from Adis Adi, he knew that the enemy were ill-supplied with water, and suspected that their ammunition would soon be expended. He gave orders to induce the enemy to fire away as many cartridges as possible.
At noon the Italian left was attacked, and later an attempt was made to gain the water supply on the right, but beyond a few ill-sustained efforts and a heavy fusillade, no very hard fighting took place. In fact so feeble did the enemy‚Äôs efforts become that Baratieri decided to drive him from his position the following morning. However, at 10pm Mangasha retired, with a considerably weakened and disordered army, as far west as Senafe. The victory now rested decisively with the Italians.
At dawn on the 15th the pursuit began, which lasted until sunset, covering 40 kilometres over rough country. Although the Tigreans had seven or eight hours head start, at 4.30pm the advance guard under Toselli sighted the enemy at the hill of Tarcia. By the light of the setting dun they saw the Tigrean camp, the Negarit was beating the assembly. Baratieri ordered his battery forward, telling them to open fire on the Ras‚Äô tent. Meanwhile the advance guard prepared to attack. As usual in this region, a thick mist rose at sunset enveloping the whole scene, and soon after came the darkness of night.
Two companies of the 3rd Battalion, the small detachment of lancers and the irregulars descended the hill to reconnoitre. They found that under cover of darkness Mangasha and his men had slipped away, abandoning everything. The tent of the Ras had been pierced by artillery shells and around it were several corpses. Seventeen negarits were scattered about, along with quantities of swords, firearms, lances and shields. The greatest find was a box containing the correspondence of the Ras, proving his treachery.
On January 18th, Baratieri returned northwards, leaving garrisons in Senafe and Siganeiti, and ordering the occupation of the strong positions of Adis Adi and Adi Caje. For the time being the war was over.
The campaign was a remarkable achievement for General Baratieri. In 32 days he had crushed the rebellion of Okule Kusai and then invaded the province of Tigre, defeating a force five times his strength. Officially the campaign is counted to have lasted 45 days ‚Äì from December 15th 1894 to January 20th 1895. During that period there were some 8,000 soldiers in the colony, but only 3,883 were available for the corps of operations. Their losses had been small: 95 killed (3 officers) and 229 wounded (2 officers). Those of the Tigreans were estimated at 1,500 killed and about twice that number wounded.
During those 45 days, the Italians expended 153,725 rounds, or about 40 per man. Assuming that the estimated losses of the Tigreans are right (probably exaggerated) it would seem that for every 34 shots one man was hit. Of course such statistics can have little accuracy. How many were killed by the 228 artillery rounds fired? Or how many by the bayonet fighting? All that can be said was that the shooting was good and the fire discipline excellent.
The most extraordinary fact of the campaign was the small cost ‚Äì only 500,000 Lire or about 19,000. Its smallness was largely due to there being no mobilization expenses: the battalions were all ready for war except 1,600 native militiamen, called out for 38 days, probably to garrison the lines of communications. Also, the troops were natives, whose food, pay, transport etc. was less expensive than that of Europeans. The principle expense items were as follows:
5,500 rations per day for 45 days‚.......50,000 Lire
Requirements of the Mobile Militia (1,600 men)‚...110,000 Lire
Arty and Eng‚ sanitary materials; quadrupeds; repair of equipage etc‚...100,000 Lire
Chief transport expenses‚ estimated‚...110,000 Lire
Intelligence and other personal expenses‚...30,000 Lire
Gratuities to widows of dead Askaris‚.....50,000 Lire
Payments and rewards to wounded, medals, etc‚....30,000 Lire
150 fresh enrollments to fill vacancies‚....4,000 Lire
General expenses, telegrams, etc‚...16,000 Lire
TOTAL ...500,000 Lire
The figures mean that General Baratieri waged war at an average expense of a little over 2 Lire (about 21 pence) per man per day! The lowest expenditure in a European continental campaign during the second half of the 19th Century was the German army in 1870: which spent about 5 shillings per man per day.
So brilliant were the victories over the Dervishes and Tigreans that undoubtedly the Italian Government and its Generals underestimated the difficulties to be overcome in a campaign against Menelik. Also, once again a night advance was used successfully, but would prove to be a disastrous tactic at Adowa.
Wargaming the battle of Coatit is difficult, due to the five to one superiority of the natives, two thirds of which had firearms. To give the Askaris a chance, half the native riflemen should have muskets with a short range and fire every other turn, or only half fire on any one turn. The natives should have poor accuracy in firing, since they tore off the rear sight. Sword and Flame players could use "spear" accuracy for muskets and "Zulu rifle" accuracy for riflemen. One thing I have done to give the colonial forces better firepower in S&F is to add a "Point Blank Range" of eight inches for Europeans and Askaris. At this range the next larger fraction on the fire table is used i.e. ‚1/3 becomes 1/2.
Also, the natives should have limited ammo, as the average Abyssinian carries only 30 to 40 rounds. I suggest six or eight turns of fire for each native rifle unit and a dozen "volleys" for the Askaris, with pack mules of reserve ammo available. It takes one turn of no combat or movement to distribute new ammo to an Askari unit. A native unit out of ammo has to start rolling "Critical Morale". If only part of a unit fires, count the whole unit as expending one round.
Open order should be the standard formation for the Tigreans or Abyssinians, except when charging home. This gives the Italians opportunities to make bayonet charges against the natives. Natives meleed in open order by regular troops in closed order fight with a minus one to their die throws.
To simulate the Italian surprise attack, start the game with the Tigreans encamped. When fire is opened or the Italian troops come within sight of the camp, the natives are alerted. Roll a die for each native unit: a roll of "1,2,3" means the unit is organised and ready to move and fight. Add one to the chances needed each turn if they fail.
If the Italian side loses 50% casualties, or the Tigreans lose 25%, that side must roll on the "Major Morale Table" to see if they continue to fight or withdraw. In the event that the Italians are able to occupy the Ras‚Äô camp, or the Tigreans are able to capture Coatit, add or subtract one to the morale die roll i.e. if the natives capture their objective, add one to the Italian roll, and subtract one from the Tigrean‚Äôs.
The Italian uniforms have been fully described by Marco Fantozzi in Vol. XVI, No .1 of S&S. For the Abyssinian troops, I shall describe the costume of the Tigreans and Amharas, who dressed similarly and whose style dominated the other peoples of Ethiopia. For information sake, I have included illustrations of other Ethiopians as well.
Until the early 20th Century, the masses wore white cotton clothing: a toga-like shamma, trousers and shirt. Only the men and ladies of the aristocracy were allowed to wear ornate clothing of silk and brocade, embroidered cloaks and red-bordered shammas. In southern Ethiopia, the colour green was reserved for the King. Theodore allowed his soldiers to wear shirts of silk; and animal pelts covering the shoulders was a customary part of military costume. Officers and cavalrymen often wore a lion‚Äôs mane head-dress. The band of this was usually a solid colour with gold or silver embroidery and gold fringe along the bottom. Status was indicated by the amount of gold decoration on scabbard, sword, shield embossing, and saddle mountings. A gold embroidered velvet cape, shaped like an animal skin, was often worn by men of rank. Prowess in battle was shown by bracelets, earrings and neck chains, worn to show that the warrior had rescued a companion, killed many men, or shown unusual bravery as a hunter. The shield of the common soldier was plain black ox-hide, while the leaders‚Äô embossed shields could be plain black ox-hide underneath, or covered with blue or purple felt.
Berkeley, George, THE CAMPAIGN OF ADOWA AND THE RISE OF MENELIK, 1902. A la Reader‚Äôs Digest, I have tried to condense the text of this invaluable book.
Last, Jill, ETHIOPIAN COSTUMES, 1980. I found this beautiful booklet in the library. I rote to Ethiopia about ordering a copy and what the price is but have received no response. Maybe if one enclosed five or ten dollars, there would be a response. If you want to try this, the address is: Ethiopian Tourism Commission, PO Box 2183, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
1.. Elephant hunter. These men sometimes wore their hair long and plaited.
2.. Oromo warrior with hippopotamus hide shield. Typical cavalryman.
3.. Warrior chief from the highlands.
4.. Hats worn by townsfolk at the turn of the century.
5.. A mounted warrior from the highlands.
6.. An Ashara leader in velvet cloak. Could represent a Ras or King.
7.. Warrior chief from the highlands.
8.. An aristocratic lady with gold embroidered cloak. Empress Taitu led a unit of troops at Adowa.
9.. Beni Amer (Italian allies) with leather bracelets, charm cases and sandals. The camel wears ceremonial panoply.
10.. Festive costumes of a Beni Amer horseman.
11.. Bilen camel girl in locally made cotton cloth and black head cloth.
12.. Bilen woman (Eritrea) in cotton shamma.
13.. Danakil or Afar warrior. Skirt can be various colours.
14.. Danakil or Afar camel girl, with colourful cloth skirt instead of the usual leather skirt. Black headcloth and silver jewelry.
15.. Somalis wore colourful calf length skirts and turbans. Men who had killed an enemy could wear an ostrich feather; an ivory bracelet marked the man who had achieved prowess in battle.
16.. The great curved knife of the Danakel and Afar.
17.. Wolayta (Western highlands) in leopard skin.
18.. Gurage (Western highlands) in typical cotton robe.
19.. Dorze (Western highlands) in Columbus monkey fur cape.
20.. Ethiopian sword used at Adowa. Cutting edge is on the concave side.
21.. Deacon of the Orthodox Church.
22.. Deacon of the Orthodox Church.
23.. Old priest of the highlands with flywhisk and prayer book.
24.. Yellow-robed priest from Gondor.
25.. Priest in festive dress from Addis Ababa.