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The Battle of Adwa

Author: Raymond Jonas

Reviewed By: Lloyd Sabin

I read a lot, and there are a lot of books I remember nothing about. I read a lot of military history and have for years, and surprisingly a lot of titles in this category rank from ‘dry’ to ‘utterly forgettable.’

Of course, there are the titles at the other end of the spectrum that have made military history a passion for me. These books ignite the reader’s imagination and not only tell a great story, but literally transport a person to a different time and place. Beyond that, they give insight into how and why the protagonists in the book behave the way they do. The Battle of Adwa does exactly that and is one of the best books I have read in a long time.

Timing is Everything

When I was in graduate school, one of my writing professors repeatedly proclaimed “If you want to be a successful writer of books, remember anniversaries. People love anniversaries. If you can release your book during the anniversary year of a memorable event, the book has a much greater chance of being successful.”

Raymond Jonas, author of the Battle of Adwa, may not have stuck to the above advice, but I wonder if he had some pre-release information on the latest Civilization V expansion, God and Kings. It was that game, which includes the Ethiopians as a playable faction, which led me to search for a book on Ethiopian military history. Unsurprisingly, I did not have much to peruse and found The Battle of Adwa at the top of the heap, just published in 2011.

Hitting All the Right Notes

Not only does The Battle of Adwa center on Ethiopia, it also focuses on the struggle between Ethiopia and imperial Italy in the 1890s. That Second Age of Empire, as it is sometimes called, is one of my favorites to study, and I am a sucker for any book that involves lesser known powers like Ethiopia taking on second-tier imperial powers, like Italy (and giant steam powered battle cruisers). My attraction to the title did not stop there either.

The actual Battle of Adwa, fought on March 1, 1896, the culmination of ten years of great-gaming on the part of the Italians, was unique in that it saw a traditional European power defeated by a native African power. Like many I love underdog tales like this and it just made The Battle of Adwa that much more irresistible.

Meat and Potatoes

So far, so good: great setting, great story. I have encountered this setup before though, and weaker writers can make even the most fantastic, true military tales dry as sand. When I snapped the book open I almost instinctively prepared myself to be disappointed. “There is no way an academic title like this, written by a history professor, will not put me to sleep. Fingers crossed,” I thought. I was wrong.

Broken down into three roughly 100-page sections – one on the Italian presence in Ethiopia and Africa in general in the 1880s and 1890s, one on the intricacies of the actual battle itself, and one on the battle’s ramifications – the narrative flows smoothly and is excellent.

Tight and easily understood language and a solid sense of humor make The Battle of Adwa a quick, exciting read. I was never bored. I picked up a lot of facts on the equipment, troop types, tactics and weaponry used both by the Italians and the Ethiopians, the geography of East Africa, and the culture of the major trading cities in the region.

The author made it clear why the Italians wanted Ethiopia as part of their empire, which may not be particularly clear looking at the state of Ethiopia in 2012. He also showed how enormous a task it was just to move Italian Army units into the theater of operations in the last years of the 19th century. The descriptions of Ethiopian culture are also excellent. I really did learn a lot on a part of the world I knew next to nothing about beforehand.

A Steady Hand

An added benefit of Raymond Jonas’ writing is that he never appeared to favor one side of the conflict over the other, which can be difficult to do when writing about imperial conquest and resistance. He never made the Italians into caricatures, and he never puffed up the Ethiopians to be supermen.

He did give reasons why the Italians thought and acted the way they did, and he also gave great insights into Ethiopian military culture. By the end of the book Ethiopian pride and independence is explained well, but so is the Italian point of view.

Raymond Jonas was not too politically correct in writing about either side, which is refreshing. The author does not insult his readers’ intelligence, does not hand-hold, and lets students of the Battle of Adwa make their own decisions.

The book is an entertaining, engaging academic work and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys military history, African history, or titles on the Second Age of Empire. And admittedly, it’s great to read a book on this type of subject matter, like King Leopold’s Ghost, that is not totally centered on the British or the French. Note that The Battle of Adwa does have its darker moments, but nothing compared to the industrial genocide found in King Leopold’s Ghost.

Additionally, Raymond Jonas has set up a companion website, intended to be used by students while reading the book. It can be found here.

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