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Una Fatalia Storica - The Italian invasion of Libya

The Derna, a cargo ship, departed from Turkey in September 1911. Its cargo hold was filled with 20,000 rifles, 2 million rounds of ammunition and machineguns, destined to the Ottoman-Libyan port of Tripoli and to be distributed amongst loyal Libyan tribesmen. On 24 September, Italy caught wind of the ship’s journey and issued a warning to the Ottomans that “sending war materials to Tripoli was an obvious threat to the status quo” and endangered the Italian community in Libya. The ship started unloading its cargo at Tripoli harbor on the 26th of September. Infuriated, the Italian government issued a 24-hour ultimatum to the Ottoman empire on the 28th: the regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica are to fall under Italian jurisdiction and military occupation or else war would be declared. 

The Ottomans gave a reasonable and conciliatory reply but Italy would have none of it. On the 29th of September, Italy declared war on Ottoman Libya, a decision described by the Italian prime minister Giovanni Giolitti as fulfilling una fatalia storica – a history destiny.

The Ottoman-Italian war (photo from Commons)

But why Libya? At the time, Libya (formally called the vilayat of Tripolitania) was a neglected region in the Ottoman empire. It had neither roads nor railways, and produced (in the terms of a contemporary European writer) “products of primitive husbandry” such as livestock and dates. The farming industry barely managed to produce food to feed the whole population. What reasons did the Italians have to be in Libya?

To answer this question, we must go back to the time when Italy was born without Rome nor Venice, in August 1863. The Opinione paper of Turin had warned that 
If Egypt and with it the Suez Canal falls to the British, and if Tunis falls to the French and if Austria expands into Albania, we will soon find ourselves without breathing space in the dead centre of the Mediterranean. “
The Italian colonial empire, by 1940.
Even earlier, in 1838, Giuseppe Mazzini, who helped unify Italy, declared that North Africa belongs to Italy. In the 19th century, Italy was a relatively new & poor country that was seemingly surrounded by Great Powers on all three sides; the French, the Austrian Empire, the Ottomans and the British. Determined to become a Great Power in her own right, in the 1860s and 1870s, Italy began to court Tunisia, Rome’s first African colony and then still an Ottoman province. With a large Italian population of 25,000 by 1881, it seemed that Tunisia would be easy-picking for Italy. Unfortunately, the Bey (governor) of Tunisia accepted French rule in May 1881, dealing a blow to Italian pride and sending the country’s politicians panicking. 

France’s interference in Tunisia inadvertedly lead to Italy entering the Scramble For Africa, acquiring the unpromising but strategic regions of Somalia and Eritrea in 1889. Italy soon set its eyes on Ottoman Libya, compensation in their view for Tunisia. Control of Libya provided strategic access over the central Mediterranean, and territory close to the lucrative Suez Canal trade. In Italy’s view, they had to claim Libya to counter French (or others) influence in the Mediterranean. Mussolini later commented,
“For others, the Mediterranean is just a route. For us, it is life itself.”
From the 1880s until 1911, Italy pursued a vague policy of “peaceful penetration”; establishing Italian schools, encouraging the migration of Italian farmers in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), setting up of Italian banks and funding mineral prospecting expeditions. The Italian public was largely supportive of the movement; as far back as 1889, Italian nationalists, industrialists and the Catholic Church had called for the colonial expansion, arguing that it would combat Italy’s alleged overpopulation and mass emigration to the United States. 
To emigrate is servile,' Italians were told, 'but to conquer colonies is a worthy task for a free and noble people”
Nationalist newspapers depicted Libya as a good source of grains and olives as well as possessing lucrative trade routes.  Italian explorers ventured to Libya, calling it Italy’s Fourth Shore, and described the potential wealth of the unexploited countryside and the seemingly endless green fields of Cyrenaica (in 1911, a writer went as far as to say that 1/4th of the country could be cultivated using irrigation).

But why not simply invade? Why go through this decades-long process? The reason was that the Italians feared an invasion of Ottoman Libya would result in a greater European war, with perhaps the Austrians making unacceptable gains in the Balkans, and potential backlash with France or other European powers. As a result, the Italian diplomatic goal was to secure assurances and guarantees from Europe’s powers. In the 1900s, Italy acquired assurances from Britain, Austria & Germany (both being Allies), Russia and the United States. Year after year, the Italians waited for their opportunity to strike. In 1911, in the aftermath of the Agadiz crisis that saw France gain even more territory in North Africa, Italy decided to act, scheduling an invasion in the autumn, when the sea was calmest. 

Italy needed a casus belli and it found one. In 1908, two Italians (one of them a priest) were murdered in Tripoli, and the Ottoman investigation proved inconclusive. The Italian media hunched onto the story, claiming that Italian lives and property were in danger in Libya and campaigned furiously for an occupation. With the backing of the majority of the public (minus the Socialists, who rioted against the idea of an “imperialist invasion”, interestingly enough Mussolini was amongst the rioters and was jailed for his criticism of the invasion) and the Catholic Church (who praised the “crusading spirits” of the masses) , the invasion seemed in place. 

War & Peace:

Italian landing at Tripoli, October 1911
After the Derna incident, four Italian battleships disembarked from Italy on the 1st of October and anchored the next day outside of Tripoli. It was only at 3:15pm on the 3rd of October that the ships began bombarding the three Ottoman forts of Tripoli. On the 5th , 900 marines landed and captured the badly-damaged forts. The Turkish commander and his depleted garrison, seeking to spare the city from bombardment, withdrew from the city. By nightfall, around 1,700 more marines occupied the town of Tripoli. The Ottoman garrison, numbering less than 5,000, regrouped with Libyan tribesmen inland whilst the Italian vanguard awaited the arrival of the main expeditionary force, which arrived a week later.  
The Italian fleet, off the coast of Tobruk, in October 1911
Italy had hoped the Turks would seek negotiations after the capture of Tripoli but they had no intention to. The Italians were surprised to face stiff resistance from the native Libyans whom they thought would welcome them as liberators. East of Tripoli, the Italians were almost overwhelmed by a combined Libyan-Turkish assault at Henni on the 23rd of October. Meanwhile in Cyrenaica, Italian amphibious landings and shelling resulted in the capture of Tobruk, Derna and Homs on the 4th, 18th and 21st of October.

 On 18 October, another Italian battle fleet (consisting of 7 battle cruisers and 20 transport ships) anchored outside Benghazi and issued a 24-hour ultimatum, demanding the town’s surrender. The 280-man garrison defended the town against hopeless odds. After the ultimatum expired, the fleet shelled the city to the ground, destroying the city’s Grand Mosque and damaging the Franciscan mission as well as the British and Italian consulates, all of which were packed with refugees. Later that day, the Turkish garrison surrendered, but the Italian occupiers faced unexpected resistance from the inhabitants of the suburbs. The Turko-Libyan forces withdrew from the town in the next few days.
Italian battery bombardment of Benghazi

By the end of October 1911, Italy controlled five beachheads on the Libyan coast and had deployed 34,000 men, 6,300 horses,  1,050 wagons, 145 warships amongst others. The war was the first to see the deployment of new technologies such as machineguns, radio-telegraph and motor-transport as well as aeroplanes in battle. 

The town of Tripoli rioted against the Italians at the end of October but was brutally suppressed. On 5 November 1911, the Italian King Victor Emmanuel issued a royal decree, bringing Tripolitania and Cyrenaica under the Italian Crown. In what is comparable to George Bush’s premature “Mission Accomplished” declaration in 2003, so too was King Victor’s. It would take twenty years before Libyan resistance was effectively subdued. 

The invasion was a disaster primarily because it failed to account for the actions of the native Libyan population. The Italians had hoped the Libyans would welcome them as saviours from the corrupt Turks or at the very least to stay neutral in the war. However, the Italians failed to recognize that the Libyans and the Ottomans were bound in religion. Both people were Muslim and to the Libyans, they were fighting against an invading Christian army akin to the Crusaders. This blunder lead to the war being dragged out for a year, much to the relief of the Turks who were also surprised by the support they were given.

 Due to Italian naval supremacy and Britain’s reluctance to allow Ottoman troops to march through Egypt, reinforcements could not be directly sent. However, colonels and generals (such as a young Mustafa Kemal) smuggled their way through Egypt into Libya. Arms were smuggled from Greece and French Tunisia also.  The influential Sanussi tribesmen of Cyrenaica’s desert rallied armies in support of the Ottomans, though with poorly armed weaponry. 

A young Mustafa Kamel, in Derna (1912)
In 1912, a stalemate was reached. The Italians in Tripoli had managed to extend their radius of control by a few miles, the port of Misrata was captured in February. Italian troops were deployed to the Tunisian frontier to cease the arms smuggling. After 11 months, none of the five beach-heads had linked up. The Italian army dugged in in Derna were besieged by a 10,000-man irregular army.  
The signing of the treaty of Lausanne
The war was demoralizing for Italy (who expected it to be a walk-in-the-park) but worse for the Turks, who faced unrest in the Balkans and other regions.

 In July 1912, the Turks and Italians quietly met in Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva. It was only on 17 October 1912 that both parties declared peace, much to the surprise of Libyans who felt betrayed.  The treaty they signed was vague; the Ottoman Sultan was to declare Tripolitania and Cyrenaica as independent and that Libyans were now Italian subjects. In return, the Italians withdrew from the Dodecanese islands in the Aegean Sea. The Sultan also retained the power to appoint the grand religious cleric of Tripoli, allowing the Ottomans to retain religious control over the region. 

For the Italians, it was a cheap and fairly easy victory. The Ottomans could not afford to continue the war. However, Libyan irregulars continued to fight on. With the Italians only in control of the coastal settlements, Libya’s interior remained hostile tribal territory. To the Ottomans, their fight ended. To the Libyans, their fight has just begun.

Writer's note: This post was originally written for and published on 6 August 2013 (viewable here).


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