Italy determined to grab Libya, the last surviving
North African state under nominal Ottoman control, and use it as a buffer
against further French expansion. The Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 demonstrated
the effectiveness of the Italian navy led by the reform-minded naval minister
Rear Admiral P. L. Cattolica. Calling up its naval reserves, the Italian fleet
bombarded the Adriatic coast at Preveza and shelled and captured the Libyan
port cities of Tripoli, Tobruk and Benghazi. Moslem Arab guerrilla tactics led
to an Italian naval blockade of the Libyan coast, angering France and Britain.
The British-led Ottoman fleet retreated behind the Dardanelles, and in the
spring of 1912 the Italian navy captured Rhodes and the Dodecanese Islands.
When the Italian army overran Libya, Turkey submitted and ceded Libya, Rhodes
and the Dodecanese to Italy.
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Italy vs. Turkey
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Libya, Rhodes, and the Dodecanese
DECLARATION: Italy against Turkey, September 29, 1911
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Italy wanted to establish a
North African empire.
OUTCOME: Turkey ceded Libya, Rhodes, and the Dodecanese to
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS:
Italy, 50,000; Turkey, far fewer, including native Arab
CASUALTIES: Italy, 4,000 killed, 6,000 wounded, 2,000 died
from disease; Turkey, 14,000 killed or died from disease
TREATIES: Treaty of Ouchy, October 17, 1912
At the end of the 19th century, Italy felt itself woefully
behind other nations in acquiring colonial holdings. With the Ottoman Empire
crumbling, Italy targeted the Turkish provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica
(eastern Libya) in North Africa as prizes ripe for the picking. Italy began by
sending merchants and immigrants into the region during the 1880s. By 1911, these
areas had accumulated a substantial population of Italian nationals, and on
September 28, 1911, the Italian government, claiming that its nationals were
being abused, presented the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman government) with a
24-hour ultimatum, threatening immediate invasion. Receiving no satisfactory
reply, Italy declared war and invaded North Africa the next day with 50,000
troops. Caught by surprise, the Turks could do little as Italian forces
bombarded Tripoli with 10 battleships and cruisers for two days. A landing
force occupied Tripoli on October 5, encountering little resistance.
As a newer state which had been forced to consolidate its
own internal position and structure before expanding its horizons to a colonial
empire, Italy was slightly later than the other European countries in
developing its interests in Africa. But across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy
lay the decaying carcass of the Ottoman Empire’s North African possessions,
already the subject of intense French efforts at its western end (Tunisia,
Algeria, and Morocco), and slightly smaller British effort at its eastern end
(Egypt). In between lay Libya, and here Italy saw the possibility of securing
the important economic and political niche it ‘ desired in North Africa. On 29
September 1911, therefore, Italy declared war on Turkey.
In the shorter terms the Italians tried to distract the
attention of the Turks from North Africa, its naval forces undertaking a
bombardment of the Turkish base at Preveza on the eastern side of the Adriatic
Sea in Epiros. For two days (29 and 30 September) the Italians maintained their
effort, sinking several Turkish torpedo boats and effectively suggesting that
the Italians were interested in a move east across the Adriatic rather than
south across the Mediterranean. On 3 October the Italian intentions became
clearer when a sustained naval bombardment was started against the major city
and port of Libya.
For three days the heavy bombardment of Tripoli continued,
compelling the Turkish forces to evacuate the Libyan capital and leaving it
open for the Italian invasion force that began to land on 5 October. Farther to
the east another force had landed and taken Tobruk on the previous clay. These
initial beach-heads were a naval responsibility but an Italian army
expeditionary force under General Carlo Caneva arrived on 11 October to expand
Italy’s hold in their two areas as well as to occupy Benghazi, Derna, and Homs,
thereby securing Italian control of Libya’s littoral. In place the Turks
resisted with considerable courage but indifferent capability and the Italians
were generally unmolested as they continued with their task of consolidating
their initial lodgements.
For the rest of 1911 and the first half of 1912 there
followed a military stalemate: the Turks were unable to respond militarily to
the Italian invasion, but they inflamed the local Moslem population against the
`infidel’ Italians so successfully that Caneva thought it better not to essay
further advances, concentrating his efforts instead on the complete
consolidation of the Libyan coastal regions. Between 16 and 19 April 1912 the
Italians launched a naval feint off the Dardanelles, this persuading the Turks
that the Italians intended to sail through to Constantinople and attack the
capital of the Ottoman Empire. Widespread defensive measures were rushed
through, but the Italians withdrew as the Turks succeeded in closing the
The Italians’ real interest in the area was the Dodecanese
islands in the southern part of the Aegean Sea and in May 1912 the Italians
took Rhodes and other islands without resistance. Then in July the Italians
started finally to expand their holding in Libya, cautious but well-planned
moves steadily increasing the area of Italian conquest. The campaign culminated
in decisive Turkish defeats at Derna and Sidi Bilal, and on 15 October the
Treaty of Ouchy was signed to bring the war to a close. Turkey faced a clear
threat from the imminent Balkan wars far closer to home, and after two months
of negotiations the treaty conceded Italy’s possession of Libya and the islands
already seized in the Aegean. Assessment of Italy’s campaign was in general
unfavourable, for against indifferent opposition poorly led in areas far from
home, the extraordinarily cautious Italians had been checked for a substantial
Having declared itself neutral, Egypt refused passage to
Ottoman troops, so that Turkey had to enlist the aid of Arabs, who occupied
coastal regions and brought the war to a standstill in November 1911. Italy
sought to break the stalemate with the naval bombardment of Beirut and Smyrna,
then followed this by occupying Rhodes, Jos, and other islands of the
Dodecanese. Italian vessels bombarded Turkish fortifications protecting the
Dardanelles, which forced the closure of the straits.
The Turks and their Senussi allies retreated to the
interior; the Italians held their coastal enclaves and maintained a close
blockade. In July 1912, Italy launched an offensive into the Libyan interior.
The toughest battle the Italians faced in Libya was not
against the Turks, however, but against pro-Turkish Senussi tribal warriors,
who made a fierce attack on Tripoli during October 23-26, 1911, in an attempt
to retake the Libyan capital. The Italian defenders lost 382 killed and 1,158
wounded in repulsing the attack. The tribesmen lost about 1,000 killed and
wounded, but were forced to withdraw.
If the Italians faced fierce “primitive”
opposition, they themselves employed some very modern weapons. In addition to
naval bombardment, the Italians introduced into the land war the first armored
fighting vehicle. The Bianchi, a wheeled armored car, fought in Libya in 1912
with good results. The Bianchi heralded the use of armored cars and tracked
vehicles-tanks-in WORLD WAR I.
The invasion of Libya was well planned. The 1884 operational
plan had been updated periodically, most recently on the eve of the invasion.
As it turned out, however, the plan was based on certain highly questionable
First, it had been decided after some debate that the large
Arab population of Libya was not likely to take part in the fighting against
Italian forces and could safely be ignored. The assumption, shortly to be
proved erroneous, was that the Arabs, oppressed as they were by their Turkish
overlords, would welcome Italian “liberation”, or at the very least
remain neutral. The idea that the Arabs might make common cause with the Turks
on religious grounds seems to have been dismissed by the Italian general staff.
Secondly, it was assumed by the planners that Turkish
opposition would not be heavy. Italy’s military attaché in Istanbul assured
Rome that Turkey was already heavily committed in the Near East and in the
Balkans and would not be in a position to offer much resistance in Libya.
Intelligence reports indicated that there were only 5,000-6,000 Turkish troops
in Libya, most of them in Tripoli, the capital. It was expected that this
handful of troops would resist just long enough to uphold their honour and
would then march off for home through Egypt. The possibility that the Turks
might, instead, retreat into the desert and wage a guerrilla war does not seem
to have been discussed.
The army learned in early September 1911 that the invasion
of Libya was going ahead and began making the necessary preparations. Orders
were drafted and efforts made to assemble the matériel necessary to equip an
expeditionary force. Troops were called up on 23 September and two days later
the navy was mobilized. On 27 September an ultimatum was presented to the Turks,
giving them 24 hours to turn over the Libyan coastal region, Cyrenaica and
Tripoli and its environs, to Italy. The Turks refused, and the Libyan War of
1911-12 was on.
An Italian expeditionary force of just under 45,000 men set
sail for the shores of Tripoli under the command of General Carlo Caneva.
Tripoli, however, was already in Italian hands when the soldiers arrived,
having fallen almost without a struggle to a landing brigade of sailors and
marines. The main task of the army over the next two weeks was to secure the
city of Tripoli against the possibility of a Turkish counterattack. Although
the Turkish garrison had disappeared before the first Italian troops landed,
and it could be assumed that they had fled the country, no chances were taken.
The oasis surrounding Tripoli was occupied and a defence perimeter 5 km-deep
drawn around it. To the west and south, where the oasis faded into desert,
trenches were dug and barbed wire strung. To the east, however, the Italian
positions fronted onto an Arab quarter called Sciara Sciat, and here no attempt
was made to erect defences. During this initial period of the occupation every
effort was made to convince Italy and the rest of the world of the truth of one
of the assumptions underlying the invasion, that the Arabs of Libya welcomed
deliverance from their Turkish oppressors. Relations between the expeditionary
force and the local population were described as a “happy
On 23 October, this illusion was rudely shattered. A joint
force of Turks and Arabs launched attacks all along the Italian defence
perimeter. The main thrust, however, hit the part of the line which was
weakest, the unfortified section opposite the Arab quarter of Sciara Sciat.
After fierce fighting, the attackers were beaten back, but not before some 250
Italian soldiers captured at Sciara Sciat were taken to a Muslim cemetery and
killed. While the Turkish and Arab dead numbered thousands, Italian losses were
also unacceptably high: 500 dead and 200 wounded.
Having chosen to believe that the Arabs were estranged from
their Turkish overlords, the joint Turkish-Arab assault took the Italian high
command completely by surprise. The other ranks, who had been told that they
had nothing to fear from the Arabs, were shocked and outraged at what had
Officers and men were ignorant of Arabs and Berbers, and
saw in their resistance to conquest and fearlessness of death evidence of their
bestialita. Panic, and a desire to inflict reprisals on a native populace which
had apparently betrayed them, led to a brief orgy of summary executions in
which hundreds – perhaps thousands – of Arabs were shot.
The Italian reprisals stirred international protests. In
order to avoid the possibility of outside intervention and a settlement by
arbitration which would surely fall far short of Italian goals, the Giolitti
government was now forced to escalate the war. Troop levels were increased,
until Italy had nearly 100,000 men in Libya. Plans were made to occupy the rest
of Tripolitania, which would be officially placed under the Italian flag, and
to occupy Turkish islands in the Aegean and blockade the Turkish mainland. The
campaign into the Tripolitanian interior was launched, towns were taken, but
the anticipated enemy capitulation failed to take place.
The rest of the war was a stalemate in the desert between an
Italian army that lacked the resources and will power to carry the fight into
the interior, and a Turkish-Arab force that held the initiative but was too
weak to break through the Italian defences. On the sea, the Italian navy tried
to lure the Turkish fleet out of the Dardanelles into a general engagement,
and, when this failed, contented itself with occupying a number of Turkish
islands, including Rhodes.
Fortunately for Italy, the Turks were in an even tighter
spot than she was. Their troops in the Libyan desert had not been paid for
months, and were falling sick and running short of water. Besides, Turkey had a
number of looming crises in the Balkans to contend with. In Lausanne in the
summer of 1912, peace terms were finally agreed. Italy was given Libya and
agreed to leave the Aegean islands once Turkish troops had departed from North
Africa. Since the Turks did not evacuate their troops from Libya until the end
of the First World War, Italy held on to the Aegean islands.
Italy had survived what would soon be known as Phase One of
the war in Libya; she had not won a victory. Her army had failed to defeat the
enemy in the field, even though it was equipped with the latest military
hardware, including aircraft. And while the Turks had submitted to the loss of
Libya – officially, at least – the Libyan people themselves were unwilling to
accept a transfer to a new set of masters, especially Christian ones. The
guerrilla warfare in the desert was resumed despite the Lausanne accords, and
would continue on well into the interwar period.
Part of the problem for Italy was the difficulty of getting
her conscript army to adjust to fighting an anti-guerrilla war in the desert.
No training for this kind of warfare had been provided before the troops left;
common soldiers had been given only a fleeting and inaccurate idea of the
nature of the population they would find in Libya and the enemy they would have
to fight. As far as transporting the army to Libya, the planning had been
handled well enough, but once the troops had come ashore, it seems to have
foundered. Having confidently assumed that the Turks would simply melt away and
that the Arab population would be friendly, the general staff had made no further
The war was costly both in lives and money. Some 4,000
Italian soldiers died in combat, from wounds or disease; another 5,000 were
wounded. The war cost just over one billion lire – about half of Italy’s total
annual revenue. The Libyan adventure drained the nation’s defence forces at
home of men, rations, ammunition, horses and other supplies. Almost all the
infantry machine gun sections ended up in Africa. When the First World War
broke out, there were still 50,000 Italian troops in Libya. “Before 1911
Italy had been militarily weak on one continent”, wrote John Gooch,
“after 1912 she was weak in two”.
The first campaign in which military aeroplanes were
employed was the war between Italy and Turkey in Libya in 1911-12. An Air
Flotilla of the Italian army, consisting of nine aeroplanes, 11 pilots and 30
mechanics, was despatched by sea to Tripoli in October 1911. In August 1911 the
Italian Army manoeuvres had shown a potential for aircraft in general
reconnaissance roles, and on 25 September came an order to mobilise the Italian
Special Army Corps and, more significantly. an Air Flotilla. On that date the
Flotilla comprised a total of nine aeroplanes-two Bleriot XI monoplanes, two
Henry Farman biplanes, three Nieuport monoplanes, and two Etrich Taubes-manned
by five first-line pilots, six reserve pilots and 30 airmen for all forms of
technical maintenance. All nine machines were immediately dismantled, crated
and sent by sea to Libya, arriving in the Bay of Tripoli on 15 October. With
minimum facilities available, the crated aircraft were put ashore and
transported to a suitable flying ground nearby, where assembly commenced almost
immediately. The first aeroplane was completed by 21 October.
On their arrival the aeroplanes were uncrated and assembled,
the first being ready for action within a week. On 23 October a Bleriot XI
monoplane, piloted by Capitano Carlos Piazza, the Air Flotilla’s commander,
made a reconnaissance flight over advancing Turkish forces. This was the first
sortie by a military aeroplane in wartime.
Further reconnaissance flights followed and the Air
Flotilla’s military usefulness was increased by using the aeroplanes to observe
artillery fire and to correct the gunners’ aim by dropping them messages. On
the initiative of Capitano Piazza, one of the Bleriots was fitted with a plate
camera for aerial photography. In November a second air unit was despatched
from Italy and this established itself at Benghazi. Its commander, Capitano
Marengo, distinguished himself in May 1912 by making the first night
reconnaissance flight. His only night-flying aid was a torch attached to his
The great innovation of the Libyan Campaign was aerial
bombing, which was first tried during a raid on the Tanguira Oasis on 1
November 1911. By February 1912 the early hand-held bombs had been replaced by
a bomb cell fitted to each machine which could release up to ten bombs
individually or in salvoes. Opposition to the Italian aeroplanes was confined
to ground-fire, but the only fatal casualty among the Italian airmen was the
result of a flying accident rather than enemy action. By the end of the
conflict the aeroplane had been convincingly demonstrated as a weapon of war.
The Scramble for Africa triggered a succession of
Islamic-inspired revolts against European imperialism. When Italy invaded Libya
in 1911, the Ottoman Empire stirred its nominal Muslim subjects into a fierce
jihad. Here, Libyan Muslims swear an oath of fidelity to the Ottomans.
Despite the Senussi resistance, the Ottoman forces were
simply overwhelmed. Moreover, the Sublime Porte was reeling in the aftershock
of the recently concluded YOUNG TURKS’ REVOLT from 1908 to 1909. Therefore, the
Ottoman government concluded the Treaty of Ouchy on October 17, 1912, by which
the Turks ceded Libya, Rhodes, and the Dodecanese to Italy.
Further reading: Denis Mack Smith, Italy, a Modern
History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969); Rachel Simon, Libya
between Ottomanism and Nationalism: The Ottoman Involvement in Libya during the
War with Italy 1911-1919 (Berlin: K. Schwarz, 1987).