Giulio Gavotti dropping 4.5lb Cipelli bombs at the Turks.
Italian artillery battery near Tripoli.
The Italian invasion of Ottoman-ruled Libya, which comprised the provinces of Tripolitania, with its capital at Tripoli, and Cyrenaica, with its capital at Benghazi, in October 1911, was, in the words of Italian historian Angelo del Boca, "a project nurtured for 30 years." Although Italian designs on Libya can be traced back to the early years of the nineteenth century, actual planning for the conquest of the region only began in earnest in November 1884, when the Italian government came to believe that the French, who had just established a protectorate over Tunisia, were about to seize Morocco, which would have given them control over all of North Africa, save for Egypt and Libya. Rome feared both for Italy's maritime security, as the Mediterranean risked becoming a French lake, and for Italy's future as an imperial power, a future already darkened by the French occupation of Tunisia, where many Italians lived and Italy had played a leading economic role for decades. Some Italians also cast covetous eyes on what they believed, quite erroneously as it turned out, was a rich caravan trade across the desert from sub-Saharan Africa to the Libyan port of Tripoli, and feared its diversion to entrepots in Tunisia or Algeria controlled by France.
Italy's motives for acquiring Libya differed in some particulars from those espoused by other imperial powers. Italians liked to portray their attempt to seize Libya as the reconquest of a lost colony. The region had been part of the Roman Empire in ancient times. Also, the Italian government saw Libya - and Eritrea and Ethiopia - as places in which to settle the country's surplus population. The loss of so many citizens to new allegiances in the Americas was a burning issue in Italian politics in the early twentieth century. This led some Italian politicians and journalists to make exaggerated claims about the agricultural and commercial potential of Libya. Some Italian politicians and statesmen coveted Libya for strategic reasons. They believed Italy needed ports and naval bases in North Africa in order to keep control over the central Mediterranean in the hands of Italy's new and formidable navy. These people tended to be Sicilians or southern Italians, for whom Libya was a short voyage away.
The Italian invasion of Libya was preceded by a successful diplomatic campaign to secure approval of the venture from the major European powers. The only power that might have posed obstacles to the Italian scheme was France, but she was won over by Italian support for her position in the Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911. The pretext used by the government of Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti to justify launching an invasion of Libya was alleged Turkish discrimination against Italian businesses in Libya and the presumed inability of the Ottoman authorities there to guarantee the security of foreign residents. An ultimatum delivered to the Sublime Porte on September 28, 1911, gave the Turkish government 24 hours to agree to Italian military occupation of Libya. Although the Turkish response was conciliatory, Rome declared it unsatisfactory and ordered its fleet into action. The army was mobilized, but since Italy used regular army conscripts, not a purpose-built colonial army like France, for example, to fight its wars in Africa, precious time had to be spent assembling the approximately 45,000 soldiers assigned to the invasion force and equipping them for tropical warfare.
The war that ensued was almost solely a product of the machinations of the Italian government, particularly of Foreign Minister Antonino di San Giuliano and Prime Minister Giolitti, and its conduct stayed very largely in the same civilian hands. The armed forces remained pretty much in the dark about the government's intentions until the final weeks before the war began and, once the fighting started, the advice of the generals and admirals was only rarely sought and even less often listened to. Although the Italian Constitution, or Statuto, placed the military under the direct control of the king, in actual fact the nation's armed forces marched to the orders of their civilian superiors.
The first Italian soldiers came ashore at Tripoli, Libya's largest city, on October 9, by which time the city already had been occupied, following a short bombardment, by 7,000 sailors. The scratch force had set up a defensive arc around the city, well within range of naval gunfire. The small Turkish garrisons in the main cities of Libya, meanwhile, had withdrawn to the interior, where they joined forces with Arab militia and tribal levies to mount a resistance to the Italian invasion. The Italian army and its civilian masters had believed that the Turks would give up and return home, but Rome had done almost everything in its power to assure that this did not happen. Prior to the war there had been some discussion in Italian government circles about declaring a protectorate in Libya, as the French had done in Tunisia and the British in Egypt. This would have permitted the Turks to retain nominal sovereignty, while ceding the actual running of the country to the occupying power. Mainly on the insistence of Prime Minister Giolitti, this idea was dropped, on the pretext that such an arrangement would be too complicated for the Libyan masses to comprehend. The real issue, it would seem, was Giolitti's fear that the increasingly nationalistic Italian population would settle for nothing less than full sovereignty over Libya. Thus, on November 5, 1911, a decree was issued by the Italian government formally annexing Libya. In retrospect, this appears to have been a big mistake.
The Italian government and military had also concluded that because of their dislike for their Turkish overlords, the Arab and Berber populations of Libya would greet the Italians as liberators. The fact that this supposition proved false and that the shared faith of ruler and subject outweighed all other considerations, when added to Turkey's unexpectedly firm military commitment, made the conflict in Libya very rough going for Italy.
On October 23, 1911, a mixed force of Turkish soldiers and Arab irregulars launched a surprise attack on a weakly defended sector of the Italian defense cordon around Tripoli. The subsequent massacre of Sciara Sciat, in which some 500 Italian soldiers were killed, provoked severe reprisals by the Italian army, including large-scale summary executions and the opening of concentration camps in Libya and Italy. The Italian response to the massacre stirred up considerable anti-Italian sentiment in Europe, in particular in Britain.
From October 1911 well into 1912, Italian forces made little headway against Turkish-Arab opposition, despite receiving reinforcements in November 1911 and enjoying a lopsided advantage in weaponry, including aircraft and dirigibles used to bomb enemy positions. This was the first time that aircraft were used in a combat role, rather than simply for reconnaissance. The Italian army in Libya also pioneered the use of armored cars and developed a system of battlefield wireless communications. Toward the end of the conflict, the Italians brought in a battalion of ascaris, African colonial troops from Eritrea on the Red Sea coast, in the twin hopes that these soldiers, presumably more acclimated to desert warfare, could spearhead an advance into the interior, and that their Muslim background would impress the local population. The latter hope faded when it was discovered that some of the Eritrean troopers were Christian.
Lack of progress in the war stemmed in part from the difficult terrain and climate and the low morale of the largely conscript force, but also was a product of the army's lingering fear of being drawn into "another Adowa." This Italian defeat at the hands of the Ethiopians in 1896, the bloodiest encounter in the whole of the European colonial wars, had brought down a government, and fears of a repetition were only made more intense by the Sciara Sciat massacre. Many of the generals who served in Libya, including the commander, General Carlo Caneva, had fought in East Africa earlier in their careers. Turkish leadership proved somewhat more inspired, although, even with mass Arab support, Turkish regular troops were consistently outnumbered in the field and were seldom able to take the offensive. The Turkish officers who served in Libya included Kemal Atatürk, who would become the first president of the new Turkish Republic in 1923, and Enver Bey, who served as Ottoman minister of war during World War I.
Enver played a particularly important role in effectively liaising with the powerful Sufi brotherhood, the Sanusiya, who served as the spiritual and, to some extent, political leaders of the Bedouin of the desert interior of Libya, particularly in the province of Cyrenaica. The orthodox Sanusi traditionally had carried on an arm's-length relationship with the Turks, not considered very good Muslims, and this had been seen by Italian officials as an indication that the brotherhood might rally to Italy or at least remain neutral in case of an Italian invasion. Agents of Prime Minister Giolitti, beginning in 1908 when he was interior minister and continuing down to the eve of the war, had used pledges of money and arms to try to win over the Sanusi. As it turned out, however, after a short period of inactivity following the Italian landings, the Sanusi, on the urging of Enver Bey, took the leadership of Bedouin reinforcements for the Turkish regulars in Cyrenaica, with the result that Italian troops were unable to penetrate into the interior of that province for the duration of the war.
The fighting between Italy and Turkey could only be brought to an end when the Italians decided to expand the war to the eastern Mediterranean. A naval raid on the Dardanelles was followed by the occupation by Italian troops of Rhodes and other islands in the Dodecanese chain in the Aegean Sea. This, plus anticipation of renewed conflict in the Balkans over what remained of European Turkey, brought the Turks to the peace table. On October 18, 1912, a settlement was reached at Lausanne in Switzerland, granting Italy sovereignty over Libya. The Italians also agreed to remove their troops from the Dodecanese Islands as soon as the Turks evacuated Libya, but Turkish participation in World War I on the side of the Central Powers allowed Italy to continue to occupy the islands down into World War II.
The consequences of the Turco-Italian War, the only war between European powers from 1878 to World War I, proved ominous. For Italy, the war was costly, not so much in blood as in treasure. More Italian soldiers died of disease than enemy bullets - 1,948 to 1,432 - but what many of them were calling a "war for a desert" by the end of the conflict had cost Italy around 527 million lire and had drawn off a large portion of its army and modern military equipment. Worse, the fighting in Libya did not end with the Peace of Lausanne. An Arab insurrection continued until 1932, when Mussolini's army used scorched earth tactics to finally bring it to an end. In 1916, when the Italian army entered its second year of heavy fighting in the Alps against the Austrians during World War I, over 40,000 of its soldiers were still battling guerrillas in Libya. The Arab struggle against the Italians in Libya, which gained support, mostly moral, from Muslim peoples around the world, has been called the first pan-Islamic mass resistance movement against western colonialism and has been credited with providing modern Libya with the necessary credentials to declare itself an independent nation-state. Defeat in the war seriously weakened the Ottoman Empire, a development which quickly led to the Second Balkan War, casting Turkey into a losing battle against the newly independent states in the Balkans and raising the long-dreaded specter of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, followed by war among the European powers eager to get their share of the spoils. In this way, the war between Italy and Turkey over Libya added significantly to the tension in Europe that would help produce World War I.
Further Reading Askew, W. C. (1942) Europe and Italy's Acquisition of Libya, 1911-1912. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Del Boca, A. (1986) Gli Italiani in Libia. Volume 1: Tripoli, bel suol d'amore, 1860-1922. Bari-Rome: Laterza. Gooch, J. (1989) Army, State and Society in Italy, 1870-1915. New York: St. Martin's Press. Herrmann, D. G. (1989) "The Paralysis of Italian Strategy in the Italian-Turkish War, 1911-1912," English Historical Review, 104 (411): 332-356. Labanca, N. (2012) La guerra italiana per la Libia, 1911-1912. Bologna: Il mulino. Malgeri, F. (1970) La guerra libica (1911-1912). Milan: Bompiani. Maltese, P. (1968) La terra promessa: la guerra italoturca e la conquiste della Libia 1911-1912. Milan: O. Mondadori. Romano, S. (1977) La quarta sponda: La guerra di Libia 1911-1912. Milan: Bompiani. Simon, R. (1987) Libya between Ottomanism and Nationalism: The Ottoman Involvement in Libya during the War with Italy (1911-1919). Berlin: Klaus Schwarz. Vandervort, B. (2012) To the Fourth Shore: Italy's War for Libya (1911-1912). Rome: Stato Maggiore dell'Esercito. Ufficio Storico.