Mass use of artillery, a grinding strategic stalemate, the first use of combat aircraft and naval operations in the Dardanelles! I am not talking about the First World War, but a war just before it that marked a major turning point in European geopolitics and in the history of warfare. It destabilized the Balkans, and moved the Great Powers of Europe further down the road of rivalry, distrust, and militarization. It’s the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912. https://youtu.be/xJepy18PAlM
Following Italian unification in 1871, nationalist movements in the new Kingdom continued to call for further expansion. Under the banner of “New Italy” nationalists dreamed of the reconstitution of the Roman Empire through imperial expansion in the Mediterranean. But it was Britain and France who ended up expanding their influence in the region in the late 19th century. Italian imperialists looked on with dismay in 1882 as France took control of Tunisia and Britain occupied Egypt. The Moroccan crisis of summer 1911 was a clear sign that imperial competition in the Mediterranean was still alive and well. This left Ottoman Libya (the provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan) as the one viable Italian target in North Africa, and some Italians worried the French or British might take it before they had the chance. Italy did expand its soft power via banks, schools, and hospitals in Libya, but diplomats like Tommaso Tittoni called for military action:
“Tripolitania is necessary to Italy for the Mediterranean balance. We could wait if there were not the danger that we might lose it, and indeed we waited patiently until such danger appeared on the horizon. Today this danger begins to take shape, and with the passage of time it will grow more severe. Thus the occupation of Tripolitania imposes itself upon us as an unavoidable necessity.” (Caccamo 28)
The Ottomans knew about Italy’s ambitions and tried to avoid the worst by granting Italy economic concessions. But these offers couldn’t hide the empire’s weakness: it had suffered decades of economic and military decline, and political divisions caused by the Young Turk revolution of 1908 and failed counter-coup by the Sultan in 1909. Ottoman Minister to Rome Seifeddin Bey understood things with Italy were unlikely to end at the negotiating table:
“The concessions that we make to the Italians in our African provinces will do nothing but increase their appetite and offer them occasion to intervene… Italian appetite is not satiable, and whatever concessions or facilitations will be fatally followed by others. In this way, the sacrifices that we might undertake will have no outcome but to represent temporary satisfactions, without lasting effects.” (Caccamo 24)
With tensions rising in 1911, Italian Prime Minister Giovani Giolitti and Foreign Minister Antonio di San Giuliano went on a public relations and diplomatic offensive to win over nationalist support. The press reported on Ottoman supposed insults to Italian commercial interests and citizens in Libya, which were grossly exaggerated. Giolitti though, was still cautious:
“The Nationalists imagine that Tripoli is the territory of a poor black simpleton whom a European state can dethrone as he wishes. But Tripoli is a province of the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman Empire is a great European power.” (Vandervort 14)
Despite his hesitations, Giolitti felt he was running out of time. Not only was there the danger of British or French action, but Italy’s allies were against weakening the Ottomans. Austria-Hungary wanted stability in the Balkans, and Germany wanted a strong Ottoman Empire in case of war with the Entente. So the Italian government struck a deal with the French: France wouldn’t interfere in Libya, and Italy wouldn’t interfere in Tunisia and Morocco. Meanwhile the Ottomans had actually moved troops away from Libya to deal with a rebellion in Yemen, though they did bring in weapons to arm the locals in Libya in anticipation of the coming conflict.
On September 27, 1911, Giolitti gave the Ottomans an ultimatum based on supposed bias against Italian business interests: agree to Italian occupation of Libya within 24 hours, or face military action.
So Italy had thrown down the gauntlet in its quest for imperial glory in Libya. The Ottoman government offered some further concessions, but the Italians rejected them and the ultimatum expired on September 28 – it would be war.
The Italo-Turkish War began with a somewhat reluctant-sounding announcement from Giolitti:
“The Italian Government, therefore, finding itself forced to safeguard its dignity and its interests, has decided to proceed to the military occupation of Tripoli and Cyrenaica. This solution is the only one which Italy can accept…” (Hindmarsh, 112)
The Italian military now had to arrange an invasion on extremely short notice, since they weren’t fully aware of government plans until September. All the same between October 3 and 21, 1911 25,000 Italian troops landed along the coast and captured Tripoli, Tobruk, Berna, Benghazi and Homs. At first, Ottoman resistance was generally light since they were outgunned and outnumbered.
The Italian landings had been successful, but advancing into the Libyan hinterland would prove far more difficult. The Italians knew so little about the interior, some of their planning documents even used ancient sources like Caesar for topographic and demographic information. Italian leaders hoped that by seizing the towns, they could force the Ottomans to surrender. Instead, the Ottomans simply withdrew in good order beyond the range of Italian naval guns.
As Italian soldier Innocenzo Bianchi wrote, the invasion barely seemed to be a war at all:
“I believe that it is not real war but little attacks and soon we shall overcome . . . Overall I’m very happy and you’ll see that it will be finished very soon.” (Wilcox - The Italian Soldiers' experience in Libya, 1911-12 - 45)
Bianchi was killed in action just six days later.
One factor the Italian plan had not taken into account was the local Arab population. Italian planners assumed the Arabs would welcome them as liberators from Ottoman oppression, and did not expect local resistance – which turned out to be a mistake.
So by late October, the Italians were feeling confident – they had captured the coast, and the Ottomans had seemingly fled the field. But instead of capitulating as the Italians expected, the Ottomans and Arabs made common cause.
Militarily, the Italians seemed to be in a strong position. The Italian conscripts brought with them several new pieces of equipment, like their modern grey-green uniform and the Modello 91 magazine rifle. Both of these pieces of kit, with some modifications, would continue in service until 1945. The Italians also had the support of the large naval guns of the Italian ships offshore, as well as Maxim machine-guns and German-built Krupp artillery.
Estimates on the number of Ottoman troops vary greatly: there were probably somewhere between 2500 and 5000 Ottoman regulars and 20 to 35,000 Arab tribesmen under the command of local Sheikhs of the Senusi Sufi order. They also had German artillery but had no heavy naval guns to back them up. Their Model 1893 Mauser was considered superior to that of the Italians because of its larger calibre. British doctor Ernest Griffin was with the Turkish Red Crescent in Libya and explained why:
“The injuries produced by the small [6.5 mm] conical bullets used by the Italians were scarcely ever severe, and if the wounds had not been infected … we had the satisfaction of soon sending our Arab patients back to their duties in the field.” (Griffin 62)
Ottoman forces identified what they felt was a weakness in the fortified Italian line near Tripoli. Italian trenches in this area did not run through the usual scrubland, but directly through an oasis, which could provide cover for advancing Ottoman troops. Additionally, the Italians had not built many fortifications around the settlement of Shar al-Shatt.
On October 23rd, supported by diversionary attacks to the south, Ottoman forces attacked a 6-kilometre stretch of front between Fort Sidi-Messri and the sea. Around 1,800 men of the 11th Bersaglieri Regiment were awakened at 7am by the sound of gunfire and dogs barking. As the Italians scrambled to man their positions, local Arabs came out of Shar al-Shatt and attacked them from behind.
Italian soldier Evangelista Salvatore recalled the shock:
“The Saraceni seemed to rise out of the earth on every side of us:” (Stephenson)
Italian reinforcements arrived late and eventually beat back the Ottomans – but Italian losses were heavy. At least 21 officers and 482 men were killed, including 250 who were massacred in a cemetery after they’d surrendered. Some of the bodies had been mutilated.
Officially, the Italian General Staff downplayed the setback:
“Our losses were not light, but justified by the result, and showed that the morale of our troops was excellent:” (Tittoni, 29)
The Italian response on the ground was swift and brutal, as they executed around 4,000 Arabs by firing squad in the following days.
Shar al-Shatt and other guerilla raids caused the Italian government to increase the expeditionary force to 100,000 men, far more than planned – they even brought in askaris from Eritrea. Giolitti also escalated the war politically, and announced the full annexation of Libya on November 5th. This was mostly a symbolic gesture, since the Italians only controlled the coast, but historian Bruce Vandevort argues it ensured that the war would continue:
“In retrospect, [the annexation] appears to have virtually assured that the Turks would have no option but to continue fighting.” (Vandervort, 20)
The Battle of Shar al-Shatt was a major psychological blow for Italy. They had held their position, but it was a defeat that showed the war would not be as quick as they’d hoped.
By the late fall of 1911, the Italo-Turkish War had ground to a stalemate. The Ottomans couldn’t expel the Italians, but the Italians couldn’t force a decisive battle because the Ottomans and Arabs began to wage a full-on guerilla war.
Italian naval supremacy also meant the Turks couldn’t send reinforcements, but they did manage to sneak in shipments of arms and a small group of volunteer officers, including Enver Bey and Mustafa Kemal. Kemal made it to Libya by sailing to Egypt on a Russian ship and disguising himself as a journalist. Despite the previous struggles the Arab tribes had with the Ottomans, the two now worked together against the Italian invaders. Ottoman commander Enver Bey and tribal leader Sheikh Omar al-Mukhtar committed to the guerilla strategy: keep the Italians pinned in the coastal towns and exhaust them through attrition. Kemal, who was wounded in the eye, operated in the Derna sector and used his 9000 men to keep 15,000 Italians busy.
The Ottomans wanted to continue to dominate the Arabs, but also saw much value in their allies, as Enver Bey expressed:
“I have become the master of the situation. Into my hands has fallen a power [the Sanusiya], a force for which the various powers of Europe, the Italians, the French, the English spend millions to have in their hands. Even the Khedive had tried to appropriate and employ them against us. And thus, this force has come to me without my spending a dime.” (McCollum)
Arab leader Farhat al-Zawi made the somewhat different Arab motivations clear to a French reporter:
‘[Our men are] patriots in bare feet and rags, like your soldiers of the revolution, and not religious fanatics […] if the Turkish government abandons us we will proclaim that it has forfeited its right over our country. We will form the Republic of Tripolitania.’ (Stephenson)
Italian commanders wanted to push into the desert, but they lacked the intelligence and logistics, had poor desert equipment, and were vulnerable to the guerillas. So instead they advanced little by little, digging trenches as they went – sometimes as often as every 100 meters – one British journalist called it “purely imbecile.”
In December, the Italians tried to bring the Turks and Arabs to a decisive battle at Ain Zara, an Ottoman base on the high ground with commanding views around Tripoli. The Italian attack opened on December 4th with around 15,000 men supported by heavy artillery and naval guns. Two assault columns of Italian infantry advanced on the rudimentary Ottoman trenches, with one running into some difficulty. The defenders were forced to abandoned the trenches and were then hit hard in the open by Italian artillery fire.
The Ottomans withdrew 40 kilometres to the south, but the Italian cavalry failed to surround them. This allowed the Ottomans to escape once again, but they did leave much of their artillery behind. The Italian authorities and government-friendly newspapers trumpeted Ain Zara as a major victory, while journalists from neutral states were quick to point out Ain Zara was only a few kilometres from the Italian lines.
Even though the Ottomans lost at Ain Zara, they were becoming more confident. Time appeared to be on their side, and there was always more desert to withdraw into if need be. Meanwhile, as the Italians advanced, their morale dropped and disease spread, as Enver Bey well knew:
“... Sometimes there come deserters who say very interesting things of the Italians. Almost everyday Italian losses from “dysentery” are about 20 men. The hospitals are full. The morale of the troops is low and all want peace.” (Childs 135)
From December to March, the Italians made a few more landings to consolidated their position and intercept Turkish gun shipments, but these actions were simply meant to boost public support back home.
As the war dragged on, Italian media interest did not weaken. In fact, press coverage was unprecedented for a modern conflict and one aspect grabbed headlines more than any other: the war in the air.
ADDITION "On October 23rd, supported by diversionary attacks to the south, Ottoman forces attacked a 6-kilometre stretch of front between Fort Sidi-Messri and the sea."
The Italo-Turkish War saw the first significant wartime use of airplanes for reconnaissance and bombing. The Italian First Aeroplane Flotilla had nine machines including Blériot and Nieuport monoplanes plus 11 pilots. On October 23rd, Captain Carlo Piazza made the first ever official combat flight when he reconnoitered Ottoman positions along the coast. And on November 1st, Italians made the first ever bombing raid when pilots dropped Cipelli grenades into Ottoman camps. On October 25th, Ottoman gunners became the first to hit an enemy combat aircraft with anti-aircraft fire.
Although such fire was usually inaccurate, Captain Giuseppi Rossi experienced a close call:
“We flew at an altitude of 600 metres and had covered 15 kilometres when we spotted the first group of Arab tents. These welcomed us with such a volley of accurate fire that I had half a mind to give up continuing the mission...
At 100 metres away from the centre of the camp I gave the second signal […] It was a wonderful sight: the bomb had erupted with the intended effect. But the joy of this perception was severely impaired by the incessant crackle of the volley of fire aimed at us… . I tried to climb but was unsuccessful, and so was passing over the left side of the camp when my companion shouted that he was wounded. I had turned around to look at him when the engine stopped and we began to descend. Happily it started again, but we were struck by two more bullets.” (Stephenson)
Although aerial bombing grabbed public attention, its military effects were relatively minor. Reconnaissance, whether from fixed-wing aircraft or balloons, was far more valuable to Italian operations. The photos they took supplemented the limited maps of the region, and on several occasions planes were able discover and disrupt attempted Ottoman ambushes. But above all else, the Italian effort showed aircraft were robust and reliable enough to be used in war.
As the conflict dragged on into 1912, the Italians now looked not to the air, but to the sea to bring the conflict to an end. But as the war expanded, it inevitably clashed with the interests of the other European Great Powers.
The first targets of the Italian naval strategy to defeat the Ottomans were in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Italy had already attacked Ottoman ports in the area in fall 1911, but in January 1912 the Italian navy sank several Ottoman ships and delivered weapons to rebellious anti-Ottoman groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In February, Italian and Ottoman ships fought a pitched naval battle in Beirut harbour, resulting in a decisive Italian victory and 66 Beirut residents killed.
In April 1912, the Italians also sent a flotilla to the Dardanelles straits, a vital international shipping lane giving access to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. Following some inconclusive duels between the Italian navy and Ottoman shore batteries, the Ottomans closed and mined the straits to prevent a threat to the capital. This drew the attention of Britain and especially Russia, whose economy depended on shipping passing through the Dardanelles. This put pressure on both the Italians and the Ottomans, but it was the Ottomans who were forced to reopen the straits to shipping. Austria-Hungary was also worried about the war since they wanted to keep the status quo in the Balkans, which was also enshrined in the Triple Alliance with Germany and Italy. If the Ottomans lost too badly, the Balkans might erupt.
The Ottomans though were not able to take advantage of the divisions among the Europeans. The Empire was diplomatically isolated, and the Young Turk regime was badly divided between those who were still loyal to the Sultan and those who supported the revolutionary committee of Union and Progess. In 1911 and 1912, there were 3 different Grand Viziers and 3 different Foreign Ministers.
Despite the political risks, Italian leadership still felt in May 1912 that naval operations were the key to victory – so much so that operations in Libya were suspended in favor of a series of amphibious landings on Turkey’s doorstep.
The Italian command now turned to the Ottomans’ island possessions in the East Mediterranean. If they took Rhodes and the Dodecanese, Ottoman routes to Libya and naval options would be further reduced.
Admiral Carlo Rocca Rey was also thinking of the diplomatic advantages as early as October 1911:
“[…] I think it might be useful for us in the current war to occupy some part of the Ottoman Empire that will compel them to accept peace. Unfortunately we do not have a free hand and so we cannot act, for example, on the west-coast of the Balkan peninsula, or, by forcing the Dardanelles, go to Constantinople […] But we can […] take some island, as a bargaining counter at least. Strategically the island of Rhodes would be most valuable...” (Stephenson)
This was another risky move, since the islands were covered by the same Triple Alliance status quo agreement as the Balkans. The Italians tried to calm Austrian fears, and eventually Austria-Hungary agreed to a temporary occupation of the islands. And the Austrians only allowed even that under pressure from Germany - who wanted to strengthen the triple alliance before it came up for renewal in 1912.
Between April 28th and May 21st, 1912, the Italians seized 13 Ottoman islands in the Aegean with nearly no opposition, except on Rhodes. The Italian gamble worked, since the occupation of the islands increased Ottoman internal divisions between those who wanted to continue the struggle and those who wanted a negotiated peace.
So in the summer of 1912 it seemed there might be a road to the peace table, but there were obstacles: the Italians were reluctant to compromise and had already announced Libyan annexation, while the Ottomans expected major concessions since they had not been fully defeated.
Russian-led peace talks in May failed, and a new round of talks began in Switzerland in June. The Ottomans were willing to accept Libya becoming an independent state within an Italian zone of occupation. Italian demands were far more substantial, so the Swiss talks also fell through. One Italian diplomat put the blame on his Turkish counterpart:
“[The Ottoman delegate] had in his baggage only .... one word: autonomy” (Childs 163)
But internal pressure in Italy was also growing. The war was becoming less popular, especially among the working class, and rumours of talks increased demands for peace. Italian soldiers were also tired of the war, and there was unrest in the trenches and even desertions. The fact that the war was costing Italy 47% of its total expenditure was also helping to turn the formerly pro-war newspapers against it.
On July 18, the Italians tried one last action to force the Ottomans to the negotiating table. 5 specially camouflaged Italian torpedo boats snuck into the Dardanelles to attack the Turkish fleet at anchor – not unlike the Italian motorboat attacks against the Austro-Hungarian navy a few years later. Ottoman sentries spotted them and drove them away, but the Italian press exaggerated the raid to make it sound like a bold strike against the heart of the enemy state.
Journalist Giuseppe Bevione was not present during the attack but waxed poetic:
“The water boiled around the torpedo boats from stem to stern, and jets of water flew high as shells fell with horrible thuds, as if volcanic eruptions were flashing inexhaustibly beneath the water […] The air was full of flashes, of flames, explosions, and splinters. Convulsive, foaming, full of glare and reflections, the sea seemed to become a huge fiery furnace. But at the zenith shone always the star of Italy.” (Stephenson)
The Dardanelles raid marked the height of Italian naval adventures, and peace talks started up again in August. The new Ottoman government under Gazi Muhtar Pasha was willing to negotiate, partly because of pressure from other Powers and the outbreak of the First Balkan War in early October. The Ottomans still wanted to avoid any peace deal that gave the impression they’d abandoned the Libyan Arabs, since that might cause problems in other Arab regions of the empire.
The peace treaty ending the Italo-Turkish War was signed on October 18, 1912. The Ottomans declared Libya independent to avoid accepting Italian sovereignty over it, but they would not object when Italy then declared that sovereignty. The Sultan would continue to be recognized as the religious head of Libyan muslims. The Italians promised to return the Aegean islands and pay some reparations. The other European Powers quickly recognized Italian control over Libya.
So Italy had won the Italo-Turkish War and taken Libya from the Ottoman Empire. When peace was announced, the Italian elites, like popular contemporary historian Cesare Causa, were overjoyed:
“Praise be to God. We are longer “nothing”: We are an old people that has found its youth and strength; we are a great nation.” (Vandervort 23)
The majority of Italians were less enthusiastic. The war had not brought the impressive victory they’d been promised, and proved costly in blood and treasure. 3,500 Italians had died, mostly from disease, and 4,250 were wounded. The victory did little to improve Italy’s military reputation with the other Great Powers, and its new possession was not easy to govern. Libyan Arabs would go on to resist Italian rule for years, and the Italian authorities brutally repressed them in response. Italy would also refuse to give up the Aegean islands on the grounds of the increased costs of the Libyan occupation.
For the Ottomans, losing their last African province reinforced their reputation as the so-called “sick man,” but they managed to save some face with the complicated arrangement in Libya, and losing control of the region actually improved their finances. They suffered a similar number of military killed and wounded as the Italians despite Italian military superiority. The suffering of Libyan people was, however, significant, and special refugee offices were set up in Constantinople for those fleeing Italian repression.
The Italo-Turkish War was the last typical 19th century imperial small war, but it also hinted at what was to come in 1914. It featured trenches, machine guns, airplanes, the first tactical use of armored cars, Italian torpedo boat attacks, and a stalemate – though actual combat was not comparable to the First World War. The war also saw a guerilla force successfully resist a larger and more powerful conventional force, which forced the stronger power to seek victory by means other than a decisive battle. In fact the very same Senussi Arabs would also fight with the Ottomans in 1914-1918. The war in the air influenced military thought - the war was referenced in the founding charter of the British Royal Flying Corps, and the Dardanelles would be a key objective of the British in 1915.
The Italo-Turkish War, just as Austria had feared, did indeed destabilize the Balkans and helped bring about the Balkan Wars. Giolitti himself had worried about just such a scenario in 1911:
“The integrity of the Ottoman Empire is a condition for Europe’s balance and peace. Is it truly in Italy’s interest to shatter into pieces one of the corner-stones of the old building? And what if, after we attack Turkey, the Balkans move as well? And what if a Balkan war causes a clash among the groups of powers and a European war? Could we take upon ourselves the responsibility for igniting the gunpowder?” (Caccamo 24-25)
The Italo-Turkish War alone did not start the First World War – but it was one of the sparks that lit the long fuse of 1914.
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- Caccamo, Francesco, “Italy, Libya and the Balkans” in Geppert, Dominik ; Mulligan, William & Rose, Andreas (eds.), The Wars before the Great War: Conflict and International Politics Before the Outbreak of the First World War, (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2016)
- Childs, Timothy W, Italo-Turkish Diplomacy and the War Over Libya, 1911–1912, (Leiden : Brill, 1990)
- Griffin, Ernest H., Adventures in Tripoli: A Doctor in the Desert (London: Philip Allen & Co., 1924)
- Hindmarsh. Albert E. & Wilson, George Grafton, “War Declared and the Use of Force”, Proceedings of the American Society of International Law at Its Annual Meeting (1921-1969) Vol. 32 (1938)
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- McMeekin, Sean, The Ottoman Endgame (Penguin, 2013).
- Paris, Michael, “The First Air Wars - North Africa and the Balkans, 1911-13”, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1991)
- Stephenson, Charles, A Box of Sand: the Italo-Ottoman War 1911-1912: the First Land, Sea and Air War, (Ticehurst : Tattered Flag Press, 2014)
- Tittoni, Renato, The Italo -Turkish War (1911-12.) Translated and Compiled from the Reports of the Italian General Staff, (Kansas City, MO : Frank Hudson Publishing Company, 1914)
- Uyar, Mesut, The Ottoman Army and the First World War, (Abingdon : Routledge, 2021)
- Vandervort, Bruce, Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa 1830-1914, (Bloomington, IN : Indiana University Press, 1998)
- Wilcox, Vanda, Italy in the Era of the Great War, (Leiden : Brill, 2018)
- Wilcox, Vanda, “The Italian Soldiers' experience in Libya, 1911-12” in Geppert, Dominik ; Mulligan, William & Rose, Andreas (eds.), The Wars before the Great War: Conflict and International Politics Before the Outbreak of the First World War, (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2016)