The task of punishing the tyrannical Emperor fell to Sir Robert Napier, a distinguished Indian army officer who blended bravery, amply demonstrated in the Indian Mutiny of 1857, with administrative flair. The success of the campaign, as Napier emphasised to the government, depended on a large-scale expedition provided with an efficient transport system.
He selected some 13,000 British and Indian troops gathered an impressive array of artillery, while the Foreign Office sent out agents to scour Spain, India and the middle East for 3,000 horses, 16,000 mules and ponies, 5,000 bullocks, 8,000 camels and 44 elephants. Troops, guns, stores and animals were then packed into a vast fleet of steamers and sailing vessels and landed at the little Red Sea village of Zula, which lay in an Egyptian enclave on the coast of Abyssinia.
The First troops to arrive at Zula were Indian sappers who set about transforming the village into a giant base camp. Their first task was to build a pair of jetties where ships could unload. Soon rolling-stock, engines, lines and sleepers began to arrive from Bombay and within a few weeks a railway was snaking away to Kumayli, where the mountains began.
Britain provided Napier with impressive scientific equipment: searchlights, well-boring machinery, telegraphic equipment and water-condensers. The sprawling base throbbed with activity day and night. While steamers were disgorging tons of ammunition food and forage, horse transports disembarked vast herds of apprehensive baggage animals. Troopships followed crammed with perspiring cargoes of soldiers. Transports brought an army of labourers, farriers, grooms, muleteers and camel-drivers.
By 1868 this mass of men and animals had been organised into an army, and Napier gave the signal to advance. After crossing 13 miles of burning salt desert to Kumayli, the expedition climbed ponderously into the mountains on the first stage of the 400 mile march towards Theodore’s fortress at Magdala.
The road to Magdala passed over sheer slopes and yawning chasms. Nevertheless, Napier maintained a steady 10 miles a day advance into the mountains. After enlisting the support of an Abyssinian prince named Kassai at a meeting on February 25th, Napier led the column into Antalo, halfway to Magdala. The army set off again ten days later.
As it spilled onto the Arogi Plain before Magdala on Good Friday 1868, with its baggage mules in the lead, Theodore attacked. Guns boomed from the mountainsides and a wave of warriors swept towards the animals. But Napier was ready for the onslaught and a hail of fire from breech-loading rifles tore into the advancing mass. Theodore’s hordes wavered, halted then fled. The British killed 700 Abyssinians and wounded 1,200 more, at negligible cost to themselves. The road to Magdala was open.
After his crushing defeat at Arogi, Theodore released the British consul and the European hostages whom Napier had come to rescue. The freed captives were greeted at the British camp with cheers from the troops. Napier had achieved his first objective. But if Theodore thought he could avert the day of reckoning with a conciliatory gesture he was sadly mistaken, for Napier was determined to sweep the Emperor from his natural rock fortress of Magdala.
The British attack was preceded by a furious artillery bombardment. Then assault troops marched up a narrow path and burst in. After Magdala fell, troops searched for the Emperor but found him dead.
He had shot himself through the head with pistol Queen Victoria had given him. Napier set fire to the Emperor’s bastion blew up most of the captured guns and marched for the coast.
Dramatic events had been taking place in Theodore’s camp since The British Commander-in-Chief’s demand of 11th April 1868 for unconditional surrender. Once his rage had calmed down, the Emperor summoned a full council of chief, and debated his future moves. Some spoke of killing the prisoners forthwith, but the majority favoured their release and to everyone’s surprise the paradoxical Theodore consented. Then suddenly in a maniacal fury, that must have caused his followers to doubt his sanity he seized a pistol and attempted to shoot himself through the mouth, however the weapon failed to fire. Soon a jubilant Rassam (the Iraqi diplomat acting as go-between with the British) was leading Consul Cameron and several more members of the European party down the hillside. There was a rousing cheer as the party reached the British lines. Several European families still remained in Magdala through of illness or other circumstances but by April 12th the last of them were safe. “I send the prisoners to the rear tomorrow” wrote Napier to his wife “It is not easy to express my gratitude to God for the success as regards the prisoners”.
After releasing the hostages, Theodore persuaded himself that this pacific gesture including a present of 1,000 cattle and 500 sheep for Napier would induce him to relent. But when the British turned back his herds he saw he was wrong. In great despondency Theodore returned to his fortress. Early on the 13th he made a bid to escape with 2,000 men from the northern side of Magdala but changed his mind when he realised that all effective exits were blocked by the bloodthirsty Gallas tribesmen who had been persuaded to co-operate with the British. In Magdala Theodore gave permission for any of his followers to defect and surrender and soon a multitude of warriors and their families cattle and possessions were swarming out of Magdala.
By the early hours of the 13th Napier had decided Magdala would have to be stormed without further delay. At about 9a.m. On Easter Monday the advance began. Three companies were to occupy Fahla and two more scale Selasse. By midday a new flood of disarmed Abyssinian warriors and their families were streaming down from both peaks. Some eye witnesses placed their number about 25,000. With both mountains secure soon after, Napier called up the Armstrong Guns on elephant-back to site them on the saddle between the peaks. Soon the 12 pounders were in action. In the meantime a squadron of Indian cavalry led by Captain Speedy pressed forward onto Islamgee where gradually the plateau filled with British and Indian troops as the brigades and guns arrived. At the foot of the precipice they soon discovered the putrefying bodies of the captives that had been hurled down from Magdala on Theodore’s night of fury. A reconnaissance of the natural and man-made defences guarding the northern approaches to Magdala had revealed a sharp dip at the southern end of Islamgee and a towering 300 feet high cliff-face, scalable only by a single narrow twisting path. Two fortified gates 4’ wide guarded this slender avenue of approach. Theodore had strengthened the defences by piling blocks of stone against the inside of the closed lower gates making them virtually impenetrable.
Only a frontal attack up the path through the gates was practicable. Just after 1pm Napier began an artillery bombardment but did little damage. An hour later the commander-in-chief ordered the storming column to advance to the assault. The lower gate was reached but there was a disconcerting pause when it was realised that the sappers had omitted to bring their powder charges and scaling ladders.
Now took place a celebrated incident which earned the 33rd Foot its first two Victoria Crosses. A tall private soldier named J. Bergin managed to hack away with his bayonet some of the protruding thorn bushes from a section of the 12 ‘ high palisade along the lower defences. He then asked a nearby drummer “Magner” to give him a help up. It proved easier however for Bergin to heave up Drummer Magner towards the top of the wall until he could just grip the edge. A strong shove from Bergin’s rifle butt quickly deposited Magner on top of the wall. Ignoring heavy rifle fire, Magner was just able to lean over and haul his companion up beside him, where after he continued to assist more comrades up in the same way while Bergin fired away single handed at every Abyssinian he could see, killing several. A way was thus opened through Magdala’s lower defences. As more and more British and Indian Soldiers appeared on top of the wall the defenders turned and fled to the upper defences.
Losing no time Bergin’s party rushed forward in hot pursuit and managed to prevent their adversaries from closing over the second set of gates. Another party helped the main body the obstinate lower gate and soon the 33rd, were inside the fortress. Magdala had fallen, and to set the seal on the victory, the Emperor was found dead a short distance within the inner gate. At the moment when it became clear that all was lost, he had turned to his gun-bearer, Welder Gabre, and said “flee, I release you from your allegiance as for me, I shall never fall into the hands of an enemy”, then drawing a pistol - ironically one of those originally presented to him by Queen Victoria - he shot himself through the mouth and fell dead instantly.
With the death of their leader, most of Theodore’s men were only too willing to lay down their arms. The colours of the 33rd were lashed to the top of the highest roof in the fortress.
The Commander-in-Chief could congratulate himself on achieving both the main purpose of this expedition. The captives were safe, and their persecutor lay slain at a cost of only 15 wounded. The last days of Magdala were not uneventful. There were 265 native prisoners to liberate - including no less than 36 Abyssinian princes and senior chieftains, some of whom had been incarcerated for as long as 30 years.
The troops trudged back towards Zula, their spirits raised for a time by a generous issue of new boots, chocolate rum and beer. Even the aloof Europeans they had rescued began to unbend. By June 2nd, all the troops had reached Zula and a week later, they were sailing for home. When they arrived, they were greeted by ecstatic crowds and bands playing “See the Conquering Hero Come”. For, to the ordinary public, these men were the men who had vindicated Britain’s honour. Napier, feted everywhere he went, was raised to the peerage. Two years later he was appointed Commander-in-Chief in India. He died at home 20 years later, a venerable Field-Marshall.
The cost of rescuing Consul Cameron, who died, worn-out by his ill treatment in 1870., had been a staggering £8,600,000. But after the initial furore, Parliament and country were consoled by the fact that Napier had gambled on performing a near-impossible task and won. No one was going to quibble over the stakes.