Italo-Turkish War (1911–1912)

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 THEATER(S): Libya, Rhodes, and the Dodecanese Islands

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 Italy.


Italy, 50,000; Turkey, far fewer, including native Arab troops

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 straits.

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 period.

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 assumptions.

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 partnership”.

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 happened.

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 operational plans.

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 flying helmet.

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).


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