Ethiopian–Egyptian War

The Ethiopian–Egyptian War was a war between the Ethiopian Empire and the Khedivate of Egypt, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, from 1874 to 1876. It remains the only war between Egypt and Ethiopia in modern times. The conflict resulted in an unequivocal Ethiopian victory that guaranteed Ethiopia's continued independence in the years immediately preceding the Scramble for Africa. Conversely, for Egypt the war was a costly failure, severely blunting the regional aspirations of Egypt as an African empire, and laying the foundations for the beginning of the United Kingdom's 'veiled protectorate' over Egypt less than a decade later.

Ethiopian-Egyptian War
Battle of Fort Gura (1884) - TIMEA.jpg
Depiction of the Battle of Gura
Result Ethiopian Victory
 Egypt  Ethiopia
Commanders and leaders
Khedivate of Egypt Isma'il Pasha
Khedivate of Egypt Reshid Pasha[disambiguation needed]  
Khedivate of Egypt Arnold Ahrendrup  
Khedivate of Egypt Werner Munzinger  
Khedivate of Egypt Arakil Bey  
Ethiopian Empire Yohannes IV
Ethiopian Empire Ras Alula
Ethiopian Empire Ras Woldemichael Solomon
32,000[1][2] 80-100,000[1]
Casualties and losses
2,000 killed
2,000–3,000 wounded[1]
5,000 killed
2,000 wounded[1]


Whilst nominally a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt had acted as a virtually independent state since Muhammad Ali's seizure of power in 1805, eventually establishing an empire to its south in Sudan. Muhammad Ali's grandson, Isma'il Pasha, became Khedive in 1863, and sought to expand this burgeoning empire further southwards.[3][4] After annexing Darfur in 1875, he turned his attention to Ethiopia. It was Isma'il's intention that Egypt forge a contiguous African empire that would both rival the empires of Europe, and allow Egypt to escape the territorial ambitions of those same European great powers. In addition to expanding into modern-day Chad, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Uganda, he wished to absorb within his empire the entirety of the Nile Valley, including Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile. Whilst Ethiopia's history mirrored that of Egypt in many respects, with both having ancient, continuous civilizations home to both Muslims and Orthodox Christians, the rapid modernization of Egypt under Muhammad Ali, and Isma'il's own enormous modernizing projects, convinced the Khedive that war with Ethiopia would result in certain Egyptian victory. Amongst Egypt's army were many European, and American officers, whose training and experience further strengthened Isma'il's confidence.[5] Meanwhile, King Yohannes IV became the King of Tigray in 1872 after defeating Tekle Giyorgis II in battle. He worked on modernizing his army, some of whom were trained by the British adventurer John Kirkham.

The Battle of Gundet

The Egyptians under Arakil Bey and Danish Colonel Ahrendrup invaded from their coastal possessions in Massawa, in what is now Eritrea. Following some skirmishes, the armies of Yohannes and Isma'il met at Gundet on the morning of 16 November 1875. Not only were the Egyptians vastly outnumbered, they were also taken completely by surprise as they were marching through a narrow mountain pass. The mass of Ethiopian warriors sallied forth from their hiding places up the slope and swiftly charged down upon the shocked Egyptian columns, nullifying the latter's advantage in firepower and causing many of the unenthusiastic fellahin soldiers to rout. This encounter ended in the complete annihilation of the Egyptian expeditionary force led by Colonel Arrendrup and in the death of its commander.[1]

Arrendrup's expedition was hopelessly inadequate for the tasks he set out to do. It amounted to scarcely more than some 4,000 troops and had no cavalry. Its leaders were, apart from the already mentioned Danish artilleryman and Major Dennison, an American, Major Durholtz, a Swiss, late of the Papal army, and Major Rushdi Bey, a Turk. Arakal Bey, the young nephew of Nubar Pasha (the Christian Armenian Premier of the Khedive) joined the expedition and was killed in battle.

About 2000 Egyptians perished with him and his two six gun batteries and six rocket-stands fell into the hands of the enemy.[1]

The Egyptians withdrew to Massawa on the coast and then to Keren, garrisoned since 1872 by some 1,200 Egyptians.[1] But Isma'il Pasha could not leave the matter there, it was absolutely essential to regain the lost prestige. At all costs, his European creditors had to be impressed, and he set out on mobilizing a larger force for a second expedition that would make amends for the devastating and humiliating loss he suffered in the hands of the Ethiopians at Gundet.[1]

The Battle of Gura

Following the botched invasion, the Egyptians again attempted conquest of Ethiopia, this time with an army of about 13,000 men. The forces of Isma'il Pasha, now under Ratib Pasha, arrived at Massawa on December 14, 1875.[6] By March, they had arrived near the plain of Gura and set up two forts, one in the Plains of Gura and the other at the Khaya Khor mountain pass a few kilometers away. The Ethiopians, with a force of some 50,000 (of whom only about 15,000 could fight at one time due to battlefield layout), engaged them on the 7th of March, 1875, and Ratib ordered just over 5,000 out of 7,700 men stationed at Fort Gura to leave the fort and engage the Ethiopians.[1] This force was quickly surrounded by the Ethiopian advance guard, probably commanded by Ras Alula, and quickly broke. The Ethiopians then fell back, and, on the 10th of March, mounted a secondary attack on Fort Gura, which was repelled. The Ethiopian force dissolved the next day, and the devastated Egyptians soon withdrew.[3]

DYE(1880) p519 The Battle Field of Gura

European involvement

Several foreigners were involved in the war. These include a British adventurer John Kirkham on the Ethiopian side, and the Dane Adolph Arendrup as well as a Swiss explorer Werner Munzinger on the Egyptian side.[6][7] Munzinger led one of the Egyptian attacks against Ethiopia, marching inland from Tadjoura, but his troops were overwhelmed by the army of Muhammad ibn Hanfadhe, Sultan of Aussa, and he was killed in battle.[8][5]

American involvement

Several ex-Confederate officers and Union officers who had both previously fought in the American Civil War participated in the conflict. The Egyptian Khedive was introduced to the idea of hiring American officers to reorganize his army when he met Thaddeus Mott, an ex-Union artillery officer and adventurer, in the sultan’s court in Constantinople in 1868. Mott regaled Ismail with testimonies about the advances the Americans had achieved in technology and tactics during the US Civil War that he convinced the Khedive to hire American veterans to oversee the modernization of Egypt’s armed forces. In 1870, the first of these military overseers, ex-Confederate officers Henry Hopkins Sibley and William Wing Loring, arrived in Egypt. Loring was appointed by the Khedive as Inspector-General of the Egyptian army, and in 1875 was promoted to chief of staff to the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military expedition in Ethiopia. A year later, Loring would play a decisive role at the Battle of Gura.[2]


Following the war, Ethiopia and Egypt remained in a state of tension, which largely abated after the 1884 Hewett Treaty.[6][5]

Ras Alula had shown himself to be a reliable general, and was promoted by Yohannes IV to the rank of Ras, and appointed governor of the Mareb Malash.[7]

The Egyptian defeat in the war had serious ramifications for Egypt. The war's costs added to the nation's massive financial debts, which, in 1879, were the cause of Isma'il's removal as Khedive at the insistence of Britain, and France.

At the same time, many Egyptian soldiers who had served in the war became politicized by their experiences, posing a threat to the Egyptian monarchy itself. Among these disgruntled army officers was Colonel Ahmed Orabi, who is said to have been "incensed at the way in which [the war] had been mismanaged".[9] Resentment over the defeat contributed to the general dissatisfaction with Tewfik Pasha, whom the Great Powers selected as Isma'il's successor, provoking the Orabi Revolt against the monarchy. The initial success of the revolt was met with alarm in Europe, and led ultimately to the United Kingdom dispatching its forces to occupy Egypt in support of Tewfik, thereby beginning the United Kingdom's occupation of Egypt.[10]

The result of the war had a defining impact on the trajectories of both African states. Prior to the conflict, Egypt had been in regional and, relative, international ascendancy, with aspirations of achieving geopolitical parity with the Great Powers of Europe. The defeat shattered these aspirations, and, combined with a disastrous economic situation in Egypt itself, contributed to the eventual deposition of Isma'il and subjugation of Egypt by the Great Powers, thereby leading to the very outcome which Isma'il's hopes for a pan-Nile Valley empire were meant to avoid.

Conversely, Ethiopia maintained its independence, and, hardened by war, was well prepared for its own defense during the imminent Scramble for Africa. The collapse of Egypt's African empire was seized upon by European empires, of whom Italy replaced Egypt in Eritrea, setting the stage for an eventual confrontation between Italy and Ethiopia in the First Italo-Ethiopian War 1895. Ethiopia's triumph in that war would in turn contribute to Fascist Italy's desire to conquer Ethiopia in the 1930s.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Jesman, Czeslaw (January 1959). "Egyptian Invasion of Ethiopia". African Affairs. Oxford University Press. 58 (230): 75–81. JSTOR 718057.
  2. ^ a b William Wing Loring, A Confederate Soldier in Egypt: Late Colonel in U.S. Army, Major-General in the Confederate Service, (Library of Alexandria: Dodd, Mead, 1884). ISBN 9781465534101.
  3. ^ a b "Ethiopian Treasures - Emperor Yohannes IV, Battle of Metema - Ethiopia". Retrieved 2021-06-01.
  4. ^ "Yohannes IV". Retrieved 2021-06-01.
  5. ^ a b c "01. The Reign of Emperor Yohannes IV".
  6. ^ a b c "Yohannes IV".
  7. ^ a b "Ethiopian Treasures - Emperor Yohannes IV, Battle of Metema - Ethiopia".
  8. ^ Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People, second edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 90. ISBN 0-19-285061-X.
  9. ^ Blunt, Secret History, p.101.
  10. ^ Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt (A.A. Knopf, 1922), p.14

Further reading