The Ethiopian- Egyptian War: 1874 –1876

Egypt emerged as a powerful force in Africa during the latter stages of the decline of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. In the second half of the 19th century, an ambitious and energetic new Khedive negotiated with the Ottomans to take control of Egypt. He intended to create an Egyptian African empire by swallowing up Sudan and Ethiopia.

For this purpose he recruited a large army staffed with European officers and Confederate officers from the American Civil War which had ended 10 years earlier. These officers were sent to Ethiopia, and the following accounts of the Battles of Gundet and Gura are drawn in large part from their diaries and other notes. The accounts are extracted from an article published in the Journal African Affairs in 193x by A.E. Robinson This account is useful as it presents a different perspective on the Ethiopia-Egypt conflict. Other accounts of these battles from Ethiopian and other sources can be found in the biography of Ras Alula and in general histories of Ethiopia.

Note: The battle sites of Gundet and Gura are both located within present-day Eritrea. Eritrea did not exist at the time. It is currently the fashion in Eritrea to hack out a separate Eritrean identity from the broader current of Ethiopian history. Therefore this period of history is ignored or deliberately twisted by Eritrean historians, and most of the younger Eritreans have no idea about it.

Gundet: 1875

Note: Colonel Kirkham was a British officer who was contracted to help train the Ethiopian soldiers. Munzinger was a Swiss adventurer who was in the service of Egypt.

In December 1874, a force of 1,200 [Egyptian] troops from Kassala, under the command of Munzinger, occupied Keren, but as protests were lodged, he withdrew. A skeleton garrison was however, left for the protection of the Roman Catholic mission (so it was said), although for nearly forty years, they had managed without such measures.

Owing to the presence of Turco-Egyptian troops within what he regarded as the Ethiopian frontier, Colonel Kirkham entrenched a force of Ethiopians at Ginda.

During the month of October, Colonel Arendup with an Egyptian force occupied Ginda without resistance. Arendup then hoisted the Turkish ensign. Colonel Arendup sent the Naib Muhammad of Arkiko to King John of Ethiopia with a message (which in reality constituted an ultimatum), whereby the immediate delimitation of the frontier was demanded. King John imprisoned the messenger, who occupied the unenviable position of being tributary to both the Turks and Ethiopians in respect to all custom duties he collected on imports and exports.

Meantime, reports reached the Ethiopians that the Gallabat garrison had been reinforced by the Egyptians, and had crossed the frontier into Ethiopian territory en-route to Gondar. This force was probably that of Munzinger Pasha, which marched from Kassala to Danakil country. It consisted of about 2,000 men, and would pass through Agordat and via the Mereb, near to Adowa. This force was ambushed, and Munzinger and nearly all his followers were killed on November 7th by Danakil tribesmen. There were practically no survivors reported.

On November 14th , Colonel Arendup’s force was attacked at Gundet, to which place it had advanced on the road to Adowa. His column consisted of 2,500 infantry, armed with Remington rifles, and 12 mountain guns. There were a number of European and American officers under his command.

Possibly due to overconfidence at the occupation of Ginda without any resistance, Colonel Arendup was unprepared for an attack, and the fact that the Ethiopians commenced firing with rifles was a complete surprise. His force was practically annihilated, despite the personal bravery of its commander. Among those killed were Colonel Arendup, Arakel Bey Nubar (nephew of the Egyptian Prime Minister), Count Zichy, and Rustem Bey. An American officer collected the survivors, and with Rauf Bey and Major Dornholtz, managed to reach Massowah.

For comparison, Haggai Erlich provides the following, more detailed description of the Battle of Gundet, based largely on a Ge’ez biography of Ras Alula written over 100 years ago.

“On 14 November, Alula crossed the Mereb river and immediately engaged forward Egyptian posts. The main Ethiopian army under the emperor (Yohannis IV) crossed the river on the night of 15-16 November. Meanwhile, Shalaqa Alula had disengaged his forces; he had completed a flanking action from the west against troops advancing from Addi Quala; and had appeared in the Egyptian rear, blocking their line of retreat. “

“On the morning of 16 November 1875, the Egyptians found themselves surrounded in a steep valley, and the battle soon turned into a massacre from which only a few of the 3,000 Egyptians managed to escape. Two thousand two hundred Remington rifles and sixteen cannons were captured by the Ethiopians, who lost some 550 dead and 400 wounded. Among the latter of whom was Alula’s brother Basha Tessema, whose wound remained unhealed for a long period.”

Gura: 1876

Note: After the defeat at Gundet, the Egyptians sent another, much larger force to attack Ethiopia in 1876. The Egyptians advanced to Gura and built a fort there.

On November 6th and 7th, the Egyptians were attacked by the Ethiopian army, (which was estimated at 60,000 men) and surrounded. Most of the Ethiopians were armed with firearms, and although they had only one field-gun, it is said to have had no effect in deciding the action.

The accounts of the American officers are silent on the point; but it is said that Rateb Pasha allowed his views to be overruled by Loring Pasha, who insisted on the ramps of the trenches which had been erected being razed, so that the artillery could have a clear zone of fire.

The gunners and infantry were enfiladed by the Ethiopians from higher ground, and the slaughter was so great that several regiments became completely demoralized. Those officers who attempted to rally their men and the survivors, were accused generally of joining in the panic, and of cowardice in the field.

The Egyptian troops and officers were called upon to fight under conditions hitherto unknown to them, and without the benefit of tried and skilled leaders. The result was inevitable. The regiment of Ismail Pasha Kamel stampeded during the action and could not be rallied.

The Ethiopians followed up their success, and closely invested Fort Gura, which they attacked in force on the 8th and 9th of March.

On March 10th, Rashid Pasha and Osman Bey Neghib led an attack on the Ethiopians which was repulsed with loss, and both officers were killed while leading their men. From one of the accounts, this attack would appear to have been a sortie from the fort of 5,000 picked troops and artillery (Loring, p. 413).

The Ethiopians then withdrew to loot the dead and collect the rifles, etc. which the panic-stricken Egyptian troops had abandoned. Most of the artillery was lost, as well as considerable quantities of rifle ammunition.

After the withdrawal of the Ethiopians, the Egyptian troops got entirely out of hand, and burnt the dead and wounded enemies. The Ethiopians retaliated by a cold-blooded massacre of about 600 prisoners whom they had taken. Among these prisoners killed were Dr. Muhammad Ali Pasha and Neghib Bey Muhammad. Dr. Badr (who had been educated in Edinburgh) escaped by the assistance of an Ethiopian girl who discovered him, wounded.

On March 12th, an amnesty was arranged, and Monsieur Sarzac (the French consul at Massowah) went over the battlefield… the survivors of the Egyptian army were collected, and reached Massowah in May.

[Note: The battle of Gura ended Egypt’s ambitions against Ethiopia. Two of the captured Egyptian cannon can still be seen at Aksum]