Nonfiction

History’s Greatest Chumps: Oreste Baratieri

30 April 2013

Sometimes a military man can sneak his way up through the ranks without anyone realising that he is actually a dangerously incompetent chump. Some such men will scrape through without getting thousands of their own men killed. Baratieri, however, was not one of them. How does a man go from Italy’s most celebrated commander to a shunned nobody in one very short lifetime? Baratieri managed it, and managed to get thousands of Italians killed along the way. Good one Baz. Baratieri was born in Trentino, Italy in 1841. At the tender age of twenty, he was fighting with Garibaldi’s Redshirts during the unification of Italy. He rose through the ranks in the way that career soldiers do and thirty years later he was made commander of the new state’s forces in Africa. He was the eighth person to hold the position in six years, because subjugating natives is super hard work, you guys. In the 1880s, the so-called Scramble For Africa was at its height, but Italy was late to the party and managed to claim only two, relatively small colonies—Eritrea and part of Somalia. Ethiopia lay between them but early attempts at colonisation were conclusively repulsed. In 1887, conservative politician Francesco Crispi was swept into office as Prime Minister of Italy. Mussolini was a big fan of him and he has been described by one writer as “a fool, a bigot, and a very dangerous man”—in short, a chump.

Feeding the highly jingoistic zeitgeist, Crispi announced that the new Italy required “the grandeur of a second Roman Empire”, with a renewed attempt upon Ethiopia—led by Baratieri—being the key to achieving this. By 1892, the Italians had seized much of the northern province of Tigray.

Two year later, a major uprising in Tigray began, but Baratieri—rather unchumpily—utterly crushed it. Crispi and his cabinet were overjoyed; Baratieri was promoted and widely praised. In July 1895, he briefly returned to Italy. Public favour for the Ethiopian expedition was at a feverish high and Baratieri boasted to the crowds that he would bring Menelik—the Ethiopian emperor—back in a cage. Ugh.

Privately, however, he was scared shitless of Menelik. He tried to resign three times, knowing Crispi’s bankrupt government could not provide enough funding nor enough troops to defeat a full-scale assault from the Ethiopians, but each time he was refused.

That September, Menelik mobilised men from across Ethiopia, and by the end of the year, the Italians had almost entirely been pushed out of Tigray. Baratieri constantly shifted the main bulk of his forces around their remaining territory, deliberately avoiding a pitched battle, and probably wetting himself the entire time. But Crispi wanted a quick conclusion to what was rapidly becoming a big, humiliating mess and by early 1896 he was sending insulting letter and telegrams to Baratieri, goading him into finishing it.

As it turns out, Baratieri was right to be scared. The Italians had estimated that Menelik could amass an army of thirty thousand men—double the size of their own. At the climactic Battle of Adwa in March 1896, the Ethiopian host was 115,000 men strong.

The night before Adwa, Baratieri held a meeting with his subordinate generals. He asked for their counsel, strongly suggesting that they retreat back in Eritrea. All four declared that this would be dishonourable and generally bitched out Baratieri for being “a total pussy” [citation needed]. Unfortunately, he listened to them.

The Italians got fucked on. Of the fourteen thousand men on the Italian side, at least six thousand died, one thousand went missing in action and some fifteen hundred were wounded. The Italians’ casualty rate was said to be higher than that of any side in any major European battle of the 19th Century. “Oops”, Baratieri reportedly said as he fled for his life as his men were slaughtered in scores behind him.

When the news broke back in Italy, there was widespread rioting, and Crispi’s government fell. The survivors were booed and hissed at their homecoming. A new treaty was signed later that year, and the world has to recognise Ethiopia as an independent nation that was not to be fucked with. Baratieri was court-martialled, and though he was acquitted, the tribunal described him as “entirely unfit to cope with the exigencies of the situation”. He retired in disgrace and soon died in obscurity.

As British observer Sir Gerald Portal, put it, “It is the old, old story… contempt of a gallant enemy because his skin happens to be… brown or black”. But there’s another old story here. The story of a man who know the right thing to do, but doesn’t do it, because he is afraid of what other people will think of him. If Baratieri had balled up and told Crispi and his generals to piss off, he could have prevented the catastrophe at Adwa. But vanity overcame common sense, and literally thousands of men died for it. How chumpy.


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