The Italian–Turkish War 1911–12 – Qunfudha Bay [Kunfuda Bay]

Italy and Turkey went to war in 1911, with Italian forces invading Libya. Turkey mounted more resistance than had been anticipated, leading to a broadening out of the war. This was notably so with conflict in the Aegean, which led to the Italian conquest of Rhodes and the other islands of the Dodecanese and to Italian torpedo boats entering the Dardanelles. Italian warships also attacked the Hejaz, the Turkish part of Arabia. The maps locate the war and show Italian warships as victorious at the battle of Cunfida or Al Qunfudha Bay, 1912, the largest naval battle of the war. Naval bombardment of Turkish coastal positions is also shown. On 7 January 1912, the Italian cruiser Piemonte and the destroyers Garibaldino and Artigliere which had been searching for the Turkish Red Sea squadron found it in Cunfida Bay. In spite of shallow waters, the narrow entrance to the bay, and the opposition from coastal batteries, the Italian ships attacked and easily destroyed seven gunships out of the eight vessels composing the squadron. The eighth, the armed yacht Shipka, was captured and added to the Italian Red Sea squadron.

The Idrisi’s rebellion in `Asir had effectively driven the Turks from most of the country by the end of 1910. Abha, however, held out and the governor and an Ottoman garrison were bottled up. Attempts by Ottoman forces coming up from the Yemeni coastal town of Hodaida to relieve Abha were unsuccessful, and there was a real chance that the besieged town would fall into rebel hands, with the Ottomans unable to mount a relief expedition or to convince the Idrisi to accept some form of autonomy under Ottoman suzerainty. There was no alternative for the Istanbul government but to ask Sharif Hussein to lead an expedition against the Idrisi and to re-establish Ottoman authority. The Porte sent two battalions of regular Ottoman troops with artillery to join Hussein’s force of five thousand armed Bedouins and militia. On 15 April 1911 Hussein, together with his two sons `Abdullah and Faisal, marched out of Mecca to relieve Abha.

One of the columns, about three thousand strong and led by `Abdullah, with Faisal in charge of the cavalry and the sharifian units, had reached the town of Qunfudha on the way to Abha. The weather was scorching hot and the land scape bleak and desolate. The column was ambushed by the Idrisi forces in a place called Quz Aba al’Ir. In the ensuing battle that lasted six hours, both sides suffered heavy losses, but the Idrisi had the better of `Abdullah, who was obliged to retreat to Qunfudha with a greatly reduced force. Regrouping, the force, now stiffened with about 1,200 regular Ottoman troops, once more left Qunfudha fifteen days later. They met the Idrisi near the site of the earlier battle. Intense fighting ensued, in which Faisal led his cavalry against one of the Idrisi columns trying to break the relief force’s formations, and routed them. The second battle was decided in favour of the combined Ottoman and sharifian forces, but another enemy laid them waste: cholera. A third of the relief force came down with the dreaded disease, which disproportionately affected Turkish troops with their reduced immunity. Faisal later related the extent of the disease’s devastation. He ordered one of his sentries to shout out that the enemy was near. The call was carried into the tents, but out of a force of nearly seven thou sand only five hundred were able to get up and prepare themselves for battle. Faisal could only thank God that in fact there was no enemy in the vicinity.

The two battles of Quz showed both the courage and cruelty of the regular Ottoman troops. Their reprisals against innocent villagers whom they suspected of supporting the Idrisi were fearsome, and the burning of people alive, the impaling, mutilations and beheadings all profoundly disturbed Faisal. It was an early exposure to the horrors of war. Such dreadful scenes would multiply during the Arab Revolt.

Hussein’s forces finally entered Abha on 16 and 17 July 1911. The Idrisi forces fled to the mountains, but the `Asir campaign did not end the rebellion. The Idrisi’s influence on the tribes did not diminish and he continued to rule from his headquarters in Sabia, biding his time for another uprising. Nevertheless, Sharif Hussein could claim victory as he did lift the siege of Abha. His forces had done their fair share of fighting and the Istanbul government acknowledged his help in containing the threat of the Idrisi’s secession in `Asir by awarding him medals. Sharif Hussein, `Abdullah and Faisal returned to Ta’if in triumph in August 1911. Faisal, however, was carried on a litter. He had contracted malaria towards the end of the campaign, which debilitated him for a long time afterwards.

The confrontation with the Idrisi took another turn when the Italians declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 29 September 1911. Italy had coveted the Ottoman provinces of Libya ever since they had dreamed of an Italian overseas empire to rival that of Rome and put Italy on the same footing as other western imperial powers. On the pretext of the Ottomans’ `mistreatment’ of the Italian colony in Tripoli, the Italians invaded and occupied the coastal areas. The interior, however, continued to resist. The Idrisi took immediate advantage of this Italian declaration of war. The Italians promised him financial, military and logistical support. The Italian navy controlled the Red Sea and freely attacked Ottoman coastal installations. The port of Luhayya was besieged by the Italian navy from the sea and by the Idrisi’s forces on land. Elsewhere the Idrisi took over the important town of Jizan, which the Ottomans had evacuated. He then concentrated on cutting the Ottoman lines of communication between the `Asir and the Hijaz, and with the sea route blocked the Ottomans had little means of confronting the renewed challenge from the Idrisi. For the second time, they called on Sharif Hussein to help them in their predicament. Hussein agreed and this time put Faisal in charge of the campaign.

Faisal rode out at the head of a force of 1,500 Bedouins and 400 irregular troops of the sharif ‘s own private army (the bisha) and a Turkish- financed mercenary force of tribal Arabs from the Qasim area (the `uqail). The `uqail fighters only rode female camels on their expeditions, while the bisha mainly comprised people of African origin, that is, freed slaves. They were paid from the sharif ‘s own resources and were entirely loyal to him. They were frequently used for escorting pilgrim caravans. Faisal’s force reached Qunfudha and joined up with two Ottoman battalions that were already in the town. The Idrisi was also assembling his army in the area of Qunfudha in preparation for the expected battle. The Italian navy had sent its warships to support the Idrisi with their guns and to land Italian troops into Qunfudha. A fierce battle ensued between Faisal and the Turks and the Idrisi’s army supported by the Italian naval guns. The Italians abandoned the landing of their troops when the Idrisi was defeated on land, and fled the battlefield with the remnants of his troops. 30 In spite of Faisal’s military victory, the Qunfudha encounter did not eliminate the threat from the Idrisi. Faisal returned to Mecca, and the Idrisi continued in his activities against the Ottomans. The peace treaty that ended the Italian war in October 1912 left the Idrisi in his position and later Ottoman attempts to come to terms with him led nowhere. The situation in `Asir at the outbreak of the First World War had not fundamentally changed since 1912. But the Italians gained Tripoli, which the Ottomans had to concede to face a far bigger threat that broke out in September 1912: the First Balkan War.


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