The Fortress of Magdala, prior to its destruction in April 1868.
British troops posing at a captured sentry post above Koket-Bir gate at Magdala fortress.
The mission of the British expeditionary force sent to Abyssinia in 1867-1868, under the command of Lieutenant General (later Field Marshal Lord) Sir Robert C. Napier, was to free the host ages held by Abyssinian Emperor Theodore and to punish him for his petulance and actions.
The advance party of the British force arrived at Zula on Annesley Bay, south of Massawa, on 21 October 1867. Most of the soldiers were ashore by December 1867, and Napier and his staff arrived on 2 January 1868. By this time, it had been ascertained that Theodore, with 8,000 warriors, his host ages, and artillery, was moving to his mountain fortress at Magdala. The British force deployed from Zula toward Magdala on 25 January 1868. The rough terrain and large support element made movement slow, with the main body arriving at Antalo, 200 miles from the coast, on 2 March 1868. After a reorganization of the force into assault (1st) and support (2nd) divisions and a ten- day halt , the force continued marching toward Magdala on 12 March 1868.
The force entered Dildi, from which they could see Magdala, on 24 March 1868. The rugged terrain required a meandering 60-mile march before the objective was reached. Magdala was an imposing fortress situated on a peak rising 300 feet above the southern end of the Islam gee plateau. Three of the sides were sheer, almost unscalable cliffs, although on the eastern flank the land rose gradually in three large terraces. There were two other peaks on the Islam gee plateau: Selassie to the north of Magdala, and Fala to the west of Selassie.
In early April 1868, Napier sent a formal demand for surrender to Theodore, but the ultimatum was ignored. On 8 April, the lead brigade was 12 miles from Magdala and halted to conduct final coordination. Two days later, the British advanced to reconnoiter the route to the Arogi plateau, the probable assault position for the attack on the Islam gee plateau. With a small escort, Colonel R. Phayre, deputy quartermaster-general, quickly reached the defile leading to the Arogi plateau. The infantry, however, due to the rock- strewn terrain and scorching heat, had lagged behind the rest of the force. Phayre apparently did not realize this when he signaled to Napier that the pass was undefended and then secured, and that the baggage animals and guns could be sent up the “King’s Road” immediately.
The supply trains began to move forward, as did Napier, who observed that the infantry was not holding the vulnerable pass as he had been led to believe. He immediately ordered an engineer unit to secure the pass, and at about the same time Theodore’s cannons thundered. Abyssinians began to stream down the slopes to attack. Theodore had observed what he thought was an unprotected baggage train and wanted to take advantage of his foe’s vulnerability by s ending 6,500 of his remaining soldiers to attack and loot the British supply column . Napier ordered his rockets to a firing position overlooking the Arogi plateau, but the bursting rockets did not stop the Abyssinians. British and Indian infantry battalions deployed into skirmishing order and opened fire at 150 yards. The British soldiers had the new Snider- Enfield breech – loading rifle, and after about an hour, their effective and rapid fire, combined with spirited counter attacks and artillery bombardments, defeated Theodore’s soldiers. The Abyssinians lost about 700 killed and 1,500 wounded, while the British suffered 20 wounded (of whom 2 died later).
Theodore, his confidence shaken, tried to negotiate on 11 April 1868. Napier demanded Theodore immediately release the hostages. The emperor vacillated but freed all the host ages the following day. One objective of the campaign had been accomplished. Theodore, however, refused to surrender, obviously preparing a last – ditch defense.
Napier, concerned that Theodore might escape, launched his final assault on 13 April 1868 after an agreed-on armistice had expired. The only practical plan was to clear and occupy the high ground of Fala and Selassie, from which supporting fire could be provided and then, from the Islam gee plateau, conduct a front al assault up a narrow path and through the front gate of the Magdala fortress. Against stalwart defenders, this operation would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible. By this time, however, Theodore was demoralized and his followers were deserting him.
The 1st Division assembled on the Arogi plateau as if on parade. The advance began at 8:30 A. M., with the sappers carrying scaling ladders in the van , followed by the 33rd Foot (Duke of Wellington’s), climbing up a steep path from the west. Artillery pieces were positioned near the path to provide supporting fire. The advance continued to and through the saddle between Fala and Selassie. Three Indian infantry companies scrambled up a spur to their right and occupied Fala, and two companies of the 33rd Foot climbed Selassie. Both peaks were occupied after midday, and artillery was displaced to the forward slope of Selassie. British troops occupied the Islam gee plateau.
Shortly after 3:00 P. M., the British artillery started their bombardment of Magdala, and the final assault began about an hour later. Two companies of the 33rd Foot deployed in skirmishing order to the foot of the 300-foot high cliff face and began to fire to suppress the enemy overhead. The 10th Company, Royal Engineers, followed by K Company, Madras Sappers and Miners, carrying scaling ladders, powder charges to blow up the gates, picks, and so on, passed through them and began climbing the path as it began to rain. Six companies of the 33rd Foot, with a further two companies and other units in reserve, followed.
The lower of two gates was reached easily when it was dis covered that the engineers had failed to bring or had lost their ex plosives and equipment. To maintain the impetus of the attack, two companies of the 33rd Foot shifted to the right to try to find another way into the bastion. A soldier used his bayonet to cut a hole in the thorn bush above the stone rampart and helped another soldier over the top. (Both soldiers later received the Victoria Cross.) In spite of heavy fire, more British soldiers entered the breach into the fortress and soon there were enough soldiers to attack the lower gate from the inside. The retreating Abyssinians failed to close the upper gate, which the British soon found undefended and poured through. Abyssinian resistance melted away, and the soldiers heard a single shot: Theodore had put his pistol in his mouth and killed himself. The Battle of Magdala was over. British casualties were two officers and 15 men wounded. Two days later, the engineers destroyed Theodore’s artillery and the fortress itself. Napier’s force had accomplished its mission.
References: Bates (1979); Chandler (1967); Farwell (1972); Myatt (1970); Smith (1987)