‘For God, Emperor, and Country!’ The Evolution of Ethiopia’s Nineteenth-Century Army
Ethiopian soldiers were very different from troops raised by other African states. Traditionally, Ethiopian armies maintained an all-round defence with the commander and his best troops occupying the gadam, or 'central place'. Such picked forces, called elfign ashkar, obtained the best weapons and training. Although brave to the point of foolhardiness in previous battles with the Egyptians and British, by the 1870s most Ethiopians were familiar with the killing zone created by modern firearms. Nature severely retarded the growth of Ethiopia's mounted force via a rinderpest epidemic which killed vast numbers of horses in 1889–90. Except for its modern armament, an Ethiopian army on the march was but slightly removed from that of ancient Aksum. Ethiopian losses were heavy, with over 7000 dead, but the army was intact and poised to invade Eritrea. Italy was now ready to negotiate, allowing Menelik to secure favourable terms ending this last challenge to nineteenth-century Ethiopia's independence.