The Build-Up to Conflict

In 1862, King Theodore II of Abyssinia made a request to the British for munitions and military experts. He was a Coptic Christian who was regularly engaged in warfare with his Moslem neighbours. He thought that an infusion of expertise from the British could help his realm in this turbulent part of the world. With this in mind he dispatched a letter to Queen Victoria asking for help. As time passed by, it became clear that the British Foreign Office had completely ignored this particular request. This did not please the King at all. He became even further infuriated when he found out that the British Consul, Captain Charles Cameron, had just returned back to Abyssinia after a visit to neighbouring Egypt; A country that the King considered to be one of his enemies. Exasperated by this antipathy of the British, King Theodore decided to hold Captain Cameron, and others, as hostages until he received a reply to his letter.

The Hostages
The Hostages
At the time of this event, Gladstone and the Liberals were the ruling party in Britain and they were deeply reluctant to get involved in any imperial adventures. This was despite the fact that their own inaction had helped to create this particular problem. Letters from Captain Cameron to the British press, and the fact that British women and children were numbered amongst the hostages, meant that the profile of this incident was high in the public imagination. It just so happened that a General Election was underway at the time and this incident played a small, but important, part in the campaign. During the campaign, the Conservative party milked the situation for all they could, but in doing so they had committed themselves to sending some kind of rescue expedition in order to retrieve the British hostages. When they were returned victoriously in the polls, Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli confessed that a military campaign had become unavoidable. Preperations were duly made to punish, in the minds of the British public, the petulant King in what was a classic case of the 'Small War' that would so characterise the Victorian military era.

Organisation of Relief Expedition

In what was little more than a creative accounting dodge, it was decided that the whole affair would be run and organised by the Indian Army. In this way, the British government could honour their expensive social programs at home, but still finance their expensive imperialist adventures overseas. In actuality, the government did not dodge the issues of cost at all. They merely delayed their installments by making the accounting trail travel over the Indian Ocean before being redirected to London with all of the consequent and timely delays that this involved. This political and financial chicanery meant that Bombay would provide all the necessary organisation and personnel. Sir Robert Napier was duly appointed as the Commander of the operation and he set about organising an effective force that could land in Abyssinia, march deep into the interior of the continent, keep supply lines open and fight and win a battle at the mountain fortress of Magdala. He estimated that he would require at least 12,000 soldiers to be successful in the endeavour. In the end, 13,000 troops, 8,000 labourers, thousands of horses, hundreds of camels and even elephants were despatched from Bombay on the 21st of December 1867. It took them little more than two weeks to reach Annesley Bay on the East Coast of Africa.

The sleepy fishing village was transformed into a hustling port in just a few short hours. The 13,000 troops, auxilliaries and over 36,000 animals were all piled onto the shoreline in a highly efficient manner. It was clear that the painful lessons on logistics learnt during the Crimean war were now being put to amends admirably. A narrow gauge railway was even laid to expedite the unloading of the ships. Time was indeed of the essence as the whole expedition had to have been victorious by June in order to miss the torrential summer rains that would have put an end to any kind of campaigning. The force quickly assembled itself and set off on its 400 mile journey to the interior on January 26th. Units of the 3rd Dragoon Guards and the 26th Regiment of Foot were left at Annesley Bay to guard the bridgehead itself. The 4th, 33rd and the 45th Regiments of Foot, together with a number of Indian regiments and support units, constituted the task force itself.

The Journey to the Interior
The Hostages
Chetta Ravine
The long and arduous journey took nearly two and half months to complete with each infantry man carrying upwards of 55Ibs of equipment. In the course of the journey, they crossed plains, scrubland and farmlands before finally meeting with the hills and mountain plains that they would have to traverse in order to get to the fortress of Magdala. These mountains would present serious logistical problems. The trails were at times non-existant and ropes and pulleys would have to be employed in order to move stores and equipment. The unusual peoples, fauna and animals would make the whole experience seem quite surreal to the soldiers as they saw strange new animals or met with strangely attired native villagers. The weather was also unsettling, tropical downpours appeared from nowhere to drench the hapless expeditionary force. And all the time the force was hemaroging men as the the commander insured that his supply lines remained open by posting units and guards along the length of the route.

On the 24th March the force entered Dildi. From here they could see the fortress of Magdala off in the distance. It was only 25 miles away as the crow flied, but the mountains would require a tortuous circumventing route of some 60 miles distance over some of the most inhospitable mountain country imaginable. Deep ravines and precipices ensured that the expedition advanced at a very slow and careful rate. It was almost with relief that the units approached the ominous looking mountain fortress of Magdala. Their journey was nearly at an end. However, before the force actually reached Magdala an unexpected battle took place on the approach road to the fortress. King Theodore decided that he would try to take the initiative and do battle on the plateau of Arogi.

The sacking of Magdala
The intention of King Theodore may well have been to take the initiative, but the result was that he had completely and utterly lost it with his ill advised attack. He had lost the bulk of his foot soldiers and most of the artillery. He had no option but to retreat into the fortress itself and await the final assault. He attempted to sue for peace but was only informed by the British that he and his family would be honourably treated. The British soldiers had become noticably less sympathetic to their Abyssinian adversaries on discovering a mass of putrefying corpses who had been forced over a precipice near the fortress. They were thought to have been his prisoners, but the fact that a number of women and children were amongst the dead did not endear King Theodore to the British soldiers or elements of the British press. Some honour was slightly restored when he released all of his British hostages unharmed.

A steady stream of men, women and children left the fortress carrying all their worldly belongings. A number of chiefs and their followers also left in order to surrender to the British forces rather than be massacred as at the battle of Arogi. The British duly made preparations to storm the fortress.

The fortress burning
Burning of Magdala
The Armstrong battery and 8in mortars opened the initial bombardment. Soon after, infantry elements began firing their Sniders to provide covering fire for the engineers to approach the gates. A steady stream of enemy musket fire emanated from the fortress walls. A storming party of engineers arrived at the gate under fire only to realise that they had forgotten their powder kegs. Fortunately, soldiers of the 33rd found an alternative, if difficult, entrance to the fortress. They climbed up a naturual scarp one soldier at a time. Enough soldiers made this assent that they were able to overpower the defenders at the gate. As soon as this had been achieved, the defenders all but capitulated.

The body of King Theodore was discovered by soldiers of the 33rd near to the gate. He had committed suicide by discharging a pistol in his mouth. Ironically, this pistol had been a present from Queen Victoria. The remainder of King Theodore's forces were rounded up and the fortress was cleared out. A few days later, the engineers destroyed the gates, the remainder of any ammunition and the city was torched. The troops then had to turn around and march the 400 miles back to the coast.

map of campaign
Location of Campaign
Illustrated London News Images
Images of Campaign
Commanding Officer
Sir Robert Napier
Significant Individuals
British and Imperial forces involved
British Army

3rd (Prince of Wales's) Dragoon Guards
4th (The King's Own Royal) Regt of Foot
26th (The Cameronian) Regt of Foot
33rd (Duke of Wellington's) Regt of Foot
45th (Sherwood Foresters) Regt of Foot

Indian Army

10th Regt of Bengal Lt Cavalry
12th Regt of Bengal Cavalry
3rd Regt of Bombay Lt Cavalry

21st Punjab Regt Bengal Native Infantry
23rd Punjab Regt Bengal Native Infantry (Pioneers)
2nd Bombay Native Infantry (Grenadier)
3rd Bombay Native Infantry
10th Bombay Native Infantry
21st Bombay Native Infantry (Marine)
25th Bombay Native Light Infantry
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

August Decision reached to send a force to Abyssinia
Dec 21st Force leaves Bombay
Early January Force arrives at Annesley Bay
Jan 26th Force departs for interior
Mar 21st Force arrives at Dildi. The fortress of Magdala can be clearly seen in the distance.
Apr 9th Battle of Arogi
Apr 15th Magdala stormed
Apr 18th Magdala set alight
Mid-June British troops land at Portsmouth to a hero's welcome
British and Indian:
2 officers and 27 other ranks wounded

At least 500 dead, thousands wounded.

Abyssinian War Medal
Suggested Reading
The Abyssinian Difficulty
The Emperor Theodorus and the Magdala Campaign, 1867 - 68

by Sir Darrell Bates
Victorian Military Campaigns
by B. Bond
Victorian Colonial Warfare: Africa
by Donald Featherstone
Record of the Expedition to Abyssinia
by Major Holland and Captain Hozier
Queen Victoria's Enemies
by Ian Knight
The March to Magdala: the Abyssinian War of 1868
by F. Myatt
Coomassie and Magdala
The Story of Two British Campaigns in Africa

by Henry M. Stanley

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