Initial Dispositions
Pioneers Charge the Abyssinians
Punjab Pioneers Charge
It was known that King Theodore held upto thirty European artillery pieces, 3,000 soldiers armed with percussion guns and a thousands of spear armed foot troops. As the British approached the plateau of Arogi they could see the artillery pieces and troop encampments guarding the approach road to Magdala itself. This certainly appeared to be a formidable defensive set up. This was the only approach to Magdala and would have to be taken one way or another. Unperturbed, the British advanced to the plateau in order to assemble into suitable formations for attacking the well defended Abyssinians. As they did so, the British troops paid little heed to their defensive position, not imagining for a second that King Theodore would wish to leave such impregnable defences. However, that is excactly what happened as the King surveyed the advancing British. What caught his attention most was the fact that the British baggage train was almost completely unguarded. His soldiers needed no encouragement to rush out of their defensive positions to seize all the potential booty on offer. Very quickly, the British had to change from being an offensive force to being a defensive one.
Course of the Battle

Soldier from the 4th Foot
Soldier from the 4th Foot
As thousands of Abyssinians rushed down the mountain, the British had to quickly redeploy. The 4th King's Own regiment was at the head of the column and they dispersed into skirmish order so that they could see the oncoming force over the ridge that obscured the rushing Abyssinians as they headed towards the baggage train. They opened fire at the Abyssinians when they were but 30 paces away. The effect of the fusilade was devastating. The 4th King's Own was using the very latest breech loading rifle; the Snider, which was seeing action for the very first time in the British army. The ability to reload so quickly was undoubtedly a key to the success of this skirmish deployed unit. The King's Own were quickly joined in their fusilade by the Baluchi's and the Pioneers. But what really shook the confidence of the Theodore's troops was the use of the unfamiliar rocket. Their bark was almost certainly worse than their bite, but to the native warriors it was an experience wholly outside of their understanding. The firepower and discipline of the British units completely overwhelmed the musket and spear armed Abyssinian forces. Yet they fought bravely on even as they realised the hopelessness of their cause. Over 500 of them were killed outright, but many thousands more were wounded in an engagement that lasted an hour and a half. In that time, the British and Indian troops barely suffered more than scratches. It was a one sided battle that illustrated the massive technology gap that existed between the African and European forces.

Consequences of the Battle
The Hostages
4th Foot
The British and Indian forces themselves were unsettled by the slaughter that had taken place. Particularly as they had witnessed the bravery of the Abyssinians under such uneven conditions. They were perhaps relieved that they no longer had such a difficult job ahead of them in storming the fortress of Magdala. Given the way that they fought, it would have been very difficult dislodging them from such sturdy defensive positions. King Theodore had effectively thrown away his only real chance of withstanding the British. He had lost the bulk of his foot soldiers, and even lost the bulk of his artillery pieces to an advance guard of the 33th Regiment of Foot who had taken advantage of the demoralised state of the Abyssinians to overpower the artillery men. But perhaps more than anything, the King had illustrated to his people the hopelessness of withstanding such a well organised and well armed force as the British represented. He withdrew into his fortress knowing full well that his fate had been sealed on the Arogi plateau.
map of battle
Map of Battle
Commanding Officer
Sir Robert Napier
British and Imperial forces involved
British Army

4th (The King's Own Royal) Regt of Foot
33rd (Duke of Wellington's) Regt of Foot
Naval Rocket Artillery

Indian Army

23rd Punjab Regt Bengal Native Infantry (Pioneers)
27th Bombay Native Infantry (1st Baluch)

No 1 Company of Bombay Native Artillery
Corps of Madras Sappers and Miners
Corps of Bombay Sappers and Miners

Medals
Abyssinian War Medal
Casualties
British: Superficial wounds only.
Abyssinians: 500 dead on battlefield.
Suggested Reading
Victorian Colonial Warfare: Africa
by Donald Featherstone
Coomassie and Magdala
The Story of Two British Campaigns in Africa

by Henry M. Stanley
The Abyssinian Difficulty
The Emperor Theodorus and the Magdala Campaign, 1867 - 68

by Sir Darrell Bates


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by Stephen Luscombe