The Egyptians in Abyssinia



East Africa Invasion
Egyptian vs Abyssinian

The Egyptians had had a presence in Abyssinia since the Turks had leased the Massowah coastline to them. In 1853 an Egyptian army had attacked and taken Keren, and, in 1875, the port of Massowah was also under Egyptian control, with the area surrounding it being claimed by both the Khedive and King Yohannes of Abyssinia.

The Egyptians first invaded inland Abyssinia in October 1875, with a column of some 3400 men under the command of a Colonel Arendrup, a Dane in the service of the Khedive. The expedition was designed not necessarily to do any fighting, but to overawe the “ignorant savages” into accepting the fact that Egypt held the Massowah region, and to stop them constantly raiding into Egyptian-held territory.

Unfortunately, Arendrup severely underestimated his foe. Although accounts vary, it seems almost certain that he split his force into several parts, with the 800-strong section that he was leading being wiped out, along with their illustrious leader, in the defile of Goundet. The remainder of Arendrup’s expedition either made it back to Massowah under the guidance of its American officer, Major Dennison, or were slaughtered by the Abyssinians as well. The confusion may have arisen as there are also accounts of a column of around 2000 Egyptian reinforcements from Kassala being attacked and slaughtered by Donkali tribesmen at Mereb near Adowa.

This slap in the face for the Egyptians could not go unpunished, so in December 1875 a second expedition was dispatched: numbering about 16,000 men and under the command of Ratib Pasha, who was accompanied by an American advisor, General Loring, who had fought in Mexico and was now in service to the Khedive.

This was a well-armed and well-equipped force of picked men sent down from Suez, with the infantry being armed with Remington rifles, and the artillery equipped with Krupp guns.

The expeditionary force remained at Massowah for some months, but then moved some 80 miles inland, up onto the Kayakhor plateau. There, two Forts were established: the closer, on the slopes of Mount Kayakhor itself, being named Fort Kayakhor and the other, six miles further inland, in a valley that effectively commanded the communication lines for the area, Fort Gura.

Ratib Pasha had about 7,500 men at Fort Gura and 5,000 men at Fort Kayakhor: the rest being distributed between two more strong points established along the route back to Massowah.

Meanwhile, King Yohannes had gathered around 45,000 of his warriors (one quarter armed with a variety of ancient firearms; one quarter with swords and shields; and the rest with clubs) and was heading towards the waiting Egyptians.

In the face of this obvious threat, rather than concentrate his forces at either Gura or Kayakhor, Ratib Pasha dithered: eventually marching 5,000 of his men out of Fort Gura to a position approximately midway between the two strong points! Here, on 7th March 1876, the Abyssinians attacked: scoring a great victory over the Egyptian troops, who were abandoned by their officers as soon as their enemy came into view, and slaughtered like lambs in the confusion that followed. Only some 500 immediately escaped back to Forts Gura and Kayakhor: 2,000 or so died in the battle, 1,000 or so were captured and killed by the Abyssinians in revenge for the mutilation of Abyssinian dead and wounded, and the remaining 1,500 straggled in over the next few days. The garrisons of the two forts never left the safety of their walls, content to watch their comrades die.

Although an Abyssinian attack on 9th March on Fort Gura was repulsed, the heart had gone out of the Egyptian force: Ratib Pasha particularly seemingly to have lost his nerve.

Leaving garrisons in place, the Egyptians retreated first to Kayakhor, and then back to Massowah itself. Ratib Pasha’s failure so damaged the Khedive’s influence over the Abyssinian question that opponents to the scheme were able to get their way. The garrisons were left to rot and the Egyptians withdrew from Abyssinia, never to return.