Turco-Italian War

The Turco-Italian War of 1911-12 took place in the Ottoman province of Tripolitania, which corresponds roughly to modern-day Libya, spreading over time to the Adriatic Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Red Sea. This war is known in Turkey as Trablusgarp Harbi (The War of Tripoli), and in Italy as the Guerra di Libia (The Libyan War).

By the time of its unification in late 19th century, Italy had remained far behind the other European powers in the competition for colonies. Territories around the world were already being shared since the era of the great discoveries, and Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal had already set up empires upon which the sun never set.

Around this time, Italy was developing extensive commercial interests in Tripoli, which was located conveniently right across the Mediterranean Sea and after the occupation of Egypt in 1881 and the French occupation of Tunisia and Algeria in 1882 Italian aims had begun to materialize on this province, which was by the time the last remaining Ottoman territory in North Africa. In 1900 the French and Italian governments came to a secret agreement. France had designs on Morocco, Italy on Tripoli, and each would allow the other a free hand.

Ottoman Libya in early 1900s (Twitter|Ottoman Imperial Archives @OttomanArchive)

Starting from 1902, Italy began to practice a policy of “peaceful penetration” in Tripoli. With the financial support of Banco di Roma, Italy began to establish enterprises in the province, which were planned to prepare an economic ground for the physical invasion. The Ottoman government, which had only a nominal rule in Tripoli, put great efforts to stop this economic expansion and it was successful. The economic development stopped, and it was Banco di Roma that suffered most financially. The bank reached on to British and German financiers to pay its debts to shareholders and began to press the government into action in order to protect its investments in Tripoli and to enhance the value of its land holdings. The total value of the capital put into Tripoli by Banco di Roma up to 1911 was about 4-5 million dollars. In addition, the Italian government had established schools and post offices, sent archaeological expeditions and encouraged Italians to initiate undertakings of other sorts.

Turkish artillery in Benghazi ("Storia della Guerra Italo-Turca", F. Gramellini, 2010)

Meanwhile, although both of them were parties to the Triple Alliance since 1882, Germany had reservations about a possible Italian occupation of Tripoli. Germans had concerns that Italy could use this region as a base for further expansion, which would be against German interests.

As of September 1911, the Tripoli issue came to be widely discussed in Italy and appear in Italian media. The common opinion was that the Ottoman government had treated the Italians in an unfair way and the Germans were possibly involved in intrigues. Italy was now looking for a pretext for war. On September 23, the Italian Ambassador in Istanbul brought the diplomatic note of his government to the Sublime Porte. It stated that Turkish officers in the province were agitating the ignorant local population against the Italians, which was putting the lives of Italians in danger. Istanbul’s answer was that there was no threat against the Italians and the Ottoman Empire was strong enough to maintain security on its territory.

Ottoman gendarmerie guarding the local population

At the same time, the Sublime Porte began to use the diplomatic channels to prevent a war. A cable sent to the Ottoman Embassies in London, Paris and Berlin, stated: “Anything, which is possible or even impossible, should be done to reach an agreement with Italy. If they start a war by landing troops or in any other way, we will be facing the threat that our internal situation would seriously deteriorate.” The Ottoman Ambassador in Rome, Seyfettin Bey, met the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, San Giuliano, who made clear that they expected the Ottoman Empire to leave Tripoli in a peaceful way and if this was not to be the case, Italy would not hesitate to use military force.

In an attempt to support the Turkish garrison in Tripoli in the face of an Italian invasion that was apparently to come soon, the Turkish Chief of Staff decided to send material support to the province. Having escaped from the pursuit of Italian warships, the Turkish warship, Derne, loaded with guns and ammunition arrived in the town of Tripoli on September 25. The arrival of Derne was a great moral support for the local population as well.

The next day, four Italian warships, Varese, Napoli, Roma and Garibaldi, blockaded Tripoli. In a few days, the number of the ships on patrol duty would rise to 22. With Derne’s arrival, the Italian government now had the excuse it was looking for and on September 28, Italy sent a 24-hour-ultimatum to Istanbul, demanding the presence of Italian troops in Tripoli to protect the local Italian population, which numbered hardly a thousand by then and scarcely two hundred of these had come from Italy.

Neşet Bey

Meanwhile, the Ottoman Minister of War, Mahmut Şevket Pasha, was cabling the garrison commander, Colonel Neşet Bey, giving him instructions on what to do if the Italians would start an invasion. While the Sublime Porte was using the diplomatic channels to prevent a war, Neşet Bey and his men were already preparing the defences in consultation with Mahmut Şevket Pasha. The plan was simple. When the invasion began, Neşet Bey was to try to stop the Italian advance at the beachhead, but if this failed, new battalions were to be established using the reserves and there would be fighting retreat to Garyan. Here, the fighting would be with small units, instead of a large scaled attack. The plan also assumed that the landings would take place in Tripoli and Benghazi and the Italians would not attempt to attack inland. Mahmut Şevket Pasha also asked Neşet Bey to contact the leader of the local Sanusi tribe, who had great influence on the Muslim population.

On September 29, 1911, with the support of the British and French governments, and without waiting for the 24-hour deadline to expire, Italy declared war on Turkey. Two hours before the declaration of war, the Italian fleet sank two Turkish torpedo boats off Preveza in the Adriatic Sea. Grand Vizier Hakkı Pasha, who until the last minute was confident for a peaceful solution, resigned. His successor was Said Pasha.

There was complete disorder in Tripoli and the Ottoman authorities were unable to take the situation in the city under control. Local population was asked to join the volunteer battalions, but they preferred to stay home and defend themselves. There were not enough weapons and ammunition and there was a serious shortage of vehicles as well. Neşet Bey had only 8,000 ill-equipped men under his command.

On September 30, an Italian officer came ashore and asked for surrender. Neşet Bey asked Istanbul about how he should respond. Mahmut Şevket Pasha was still hopeful for a diplomatic solution and thought it was too early to start the fighting. He ordered Neşet Bey to leave some coastal zones to the Italians and move inland without resisting the enemy. The next day, Italians asked for the surrender of the two Turkish warships anchored in Tripoli, Derne and the gunboat Seyyad-ı Derya. Instead of handing the vessels to the enemy, their commanders decided to sink the two ships. On the same day, Derna was bombarded and the cable linking Tripoli to Malta was cut, which meant communication with Istanbul was no longer possible.

The commander of the Italian invasion force, Admiral Farevelli, issued an ultimatum to Neşet Bey on October 2, asking for the surrender of Tripoli. When this was refused, the next day, Italian naval gunfire began to bombard the city. Meanwhile, in accordance with Mahmut Şevket’s orders, Neşet Bey’s troops were retreating inland. This withdrawal caused a chaos in the city and upon the request of the Acting Governor Besim Bey, Neşet Bey sent a few units back to Tripoli to establish order.

Italian troops in Tripoli ("Storia della Guerra Italo-Turca", F. Gramellini, 2010)

Italian troops landed in Tripoli on October 5, one day after invading Tobruk, without facing much resistance. Occupation of the city was completed within one day, Admiral Borea Ricci was appointed the new governor and Besim Bey was arrested. Derna fell on October 16, Benghazi on October 20 and Khoms on October 21. At the time, the Turkish military presence in Tripoli was much weaker compared with the Italian invasion force, which consisted of 30,000 troops, 6,000 animals, 103 pieces of artillery, 800 trucks and 4 airplanes.

The Empire had already several problems with insurgencies in Yemen, Macedonia and Albania, and the land routes to Tripoli were cut which made logistic support extremely difficult, if not impossible. Additionally, the Italian navy also had the upper-hand in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the local tribes, which were fellow Muslims, were not really interested in the fight between the Turks and the Italians. Only the Sanusi tribe provided support for the Turkish resistance. All these resistance forces, Turkish troops and local militia, were assembling in Garyan.

Turkish officers mobilizing the Sanusi militia (Twitter | Süleyman Tekir @bysuleymantekir)

Meanwhile there was a great reaction among the young Turkish officers against the Italian invasion. They could not accept that a part of the homeland was in enemy hands and they wanted to join the Turkish war effort in Tripoli. Immediately after hearing the news of the invasion, Major Enver Bey, who was by the time the Ottoman military attaché in Berlin, came to Salonica. He suggested the Committee of Union and Progress to submit a battle plan to the Sublime Porte which would require the Turkish forces to pull the enemy inland and destroy them with night raids in the desert. After his suggestion was accepted Enver Bey travelled to Istanbul.

Officers in Tripoli including Mustafa Kemal Bey, Enver Bey and Nuri Bey

It was not only Enver Bey who wanted to go to Tripoli. Mustafa Kemal Bey, Eşref Bey, Süleyman Askeri Bey, military attaché in Paris Ali Fethi Bey, Major Halil Bey, Major Nuri Bey, Captain Fuat Bey and Captain Ali Bey were among the several officers who were trying to find a way to get there. In Istanbul, Enver Bey and Eşref Bey met Mahmut Şevket Pasha, who told them that the Empire could not enter a total war with Italy, but it would try to defend the province with local sources. His suggestion for the young officers was to go there under secrecy and if the government had decided on a full scale war, they would get all kinds of support. However, if the issue was settled through diplomacy, the responsibility would be theirs.

Enver Bey left Istanbul together with Rauf Bey and Ömer Fevzi Bey, all with pseudonyms and disguised as reporters, on November 1, arrived in Alexandria after two weeks and left for Benghazi after eight days in Egypt. Mustafa Kemal Bey, left Istanbul on November 15, disguised as journalist Mustafa Şerif Bey, met Nuri Bey and Fuat Bey in Alexandria, and after surviving risks of being caught by the British they arrived in Tobruk.

Local Sanusi militia in a review held before Enver Bey near Derna

The resistance had begun before the Turkish officers had arrived and already successful attacks against the Italians were carried out. However, these young officers brought greater coordination to these efforts and they immediately began to train and organize the locals. Together with the Turkish units already stationed there, they proved to be very successful in their attempts. Enver Bey would later say in a newspaper interview: "When I first arrived here, I found only 900 desert fighters. Now I have 16,000 trained soldiers.” The army they had created also managed to capture two machine guns, 250 rifles, two artillery guns and ammunition from the Italians.

Turkish efforts were also receiving a great support from the Sanusi tribe and their leader Ahmed Şerif, who declared a “holy war” against the Italians. It was Mustafa Kemal Bey’s task to ensure and organize the Sanusi participation. Together with him, the Sanusi had also a great confidence in Enver Bey, who was a son-in-law to the Caliph.

Ali Fethi Bey

According to the new structure of Turkish command in Tripoli, Neşet Bey undertook the command of the forces in Tripoli, Major Mustafa Kemal Bey became the commander in Tobruk and Major Enver Bey in Benghazi. The first organised attack was launched on September 23, when Neşet Bey and Ali Fethi Bey led their troops in a successful offensive against the Italians who lost 46 officers and 463 men in casualties.

On November 5, 1911, the Italian government announced the annexation of Tripoli. Istanbul’s protests did not change the course of the war. In November 1911, Italians could recapture some trenches they had lost earlier. In the following months, the resistance began to gain advantage. Mustafa Kemal’s units successfully fought the Italians in Tobruk and Derna -his units won the Battle of Tobruk on December 22, 1911- whereas Enver Bey was similarly successful in Benghazi and Neşet Bey did very well in Tripoli. They had managed to stop the Italian advance, however it was not possible to force them to evacuate Tripoli. Italians were enjoying reinforcements and at one point during the course of the war, their numbers had gone up to 100,000.

"Battle of Tripoli between Ottomans and Italians"("Libia: Una Guerra Coloniale Italiana", Basci, Labanca, Sturani)

In November 1911, Italy began preparations to attack the Dardanelles, however the plan was scrapped due to the objections of Russia, which was concern about its commercial interests. Instead, they sunk two Turkish vessels anchored in the port of Beirut. In January 1912, an Italian fleet entered the Red Sea, sank some Turkish ships, arrived in Yemen, which was in the midst of a rebellion, and shelled the port of Hudaidah.

Meanwhile the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, decided to act as mediator between the warring sides. On March 25, 1912, he met the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, in Venice. However, this meeting produced to results.

The Italian navy began to bombard the Dardanelles on April 18, 1912, which forced the Ottoman government to close the Straits to all kinds of naval traffic. This means great commercial losses for Russia, whose grain trade was hit, as well as for Britain, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. Istanbul re-opened the Straits to merchant shipping on May 10.

Mustafa Kemal with Red Crescent officials at Derna

On May 5, 1912, Italian forces invaded the island of Rhodes and in ten days they captured all of the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea. At the same time, war was going on in Tripoli and the Italians were gaining the upper hand. Turkish forces in Tripoli had to retreat to the desert in early June 1912 and Italians gained the control of the western shores in that summer. On July 12, five Italian warships tried to penetrate into the Dardanelles, however this attempt failed due to the steel nets and heavy Turkish artillery fire.

On August 13, 1912, peace talks began between Turkey and Italy, with fighting still going on. The outbreak of the Balkan War and the urgent need for the Turkish officers and manpower in Tripoli in other theatres of war, forced the Sublime Porte to accept Italy’s terms. Under these circumstances; a peace treaty was signed between Italy and the Ottoman Empire in Ouchy (a lakeside district of Lausanne in Switzerland) on October 18, 1912.According to the Ouchy Treaty, Tripoli was left to Italy with an autonomous status, but Turkey was to be the protector of the right of the Muslims in the region. The Dodecanese Islands would have been given back to the Ottoman Empire at the end of the Balkan Wars. However, the Italians violated the treaty’s related article and did not return the islands. This incident marked the end of the centuries-long Turkish authority in the Aegean Sea.

Enver and Mustafa Kemal with machine guns captured from the Italians (Twitter | Türk Askeri Tarihi @turkaskeritarih)

The war had ended, when the situation was in favour of the resistance. Italians had been able to penetrate to more than 3-4 kilometres inland and fighting was going on well for the Turks and their local supporters in Tripoli and Benghazi. It was very difficult for Istanbul to tell the people in the province that peace is made and they are left alone with their destinies.

"Ah, this Tripoli affair! As I told you, it became a personal affair of honour for me. Do you know that I am driving the Arabs here towards the Italians with their wives and children? I promise them that even if the Sultan lets them down, I won’t. How can I leave these brave people to the Italians who intend to destroy them? God, there are grave difficulties there in my country as well. But, no, I do not want to see that the Bedouins are more loyal to the promises they had made than I am. Backing down from a word of honour is nothing but cowardice, and besides, the Grand Chief of Sanusi is sending me the message that he will always obey my orders. God, what should I do? War has broken out with Montenegro and other Balkan states are likely to follow suit given the problems with Europe. Under these circumstances, what would our issue with Italy mean?" (A letter sent by Enver Bey to a friend of his only a few days before the armistice)

Meanwhile Neşet Bey could not receive information from the government about the peace conditions and the local people did not know what would happen to them. Enver Bey began to cable Istanbul, warning that the resistance would continue. The Sanusi were upset about the armistice.

Evacuation of Tripoli and Benghazi began with a delay, in December 1912, due to inefficient communication between Istanbul and Tripoli, as well as the reaction of some Turkish commanders and the local militia. Turkish officers were obliged to leave the province, but they made sure that supplies would be left behind as much as possible so that they could be used later by the Sanusi. The last contingent of Turks, which included Neşet Bey, left Tripoli on January 15, 1915.

Illustration depicting the Italian aerial bombardment in Tripolitania

The Turco-Italian War witnessed several “firsts” in military history. In Tripoli, Italy mobilized its Italian Aviation Battalion under the command of Captain Carlo Piazza, a well-known racing pilot, and on October 23, 1911, Piazza made history’s first reconnaissance flight near Benghazi in a Blériot XI. On November 1, Second Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti carried out the first aerial bombardment mission, dropping four bombs on two Turkish-held oases. In March 1912, Captain Piazza made the first photo-reconnaissance flight in history.

Meanwhile, the Turks carried out the first ever anti-aircraft operation in history. The first aircraft to crash in a war was the one of Lieutenant Piero Manzini, shot down on August 25, 1912 and the first aircraft to be captured was that of Captain Moizo, on September 10, 1912.

Turkish officers in front of an captured Italian aircraft

The Turco-Italian War of 1911-12 was the first in a series of wars that spanned a period of more than ten years and marked the end of the Ottoman Empire. Although it had shown to the rest of the world that there was a new generation of young officers rising to the ranks, this war was also a sign that the Empire was too weak to wage a full-scale war and its Navy was not capable of playing a decisive role. This was what encouraged Russia and the Balkan States to ignite the next war. It was also the first time when the Ottoman Empire lost a territory of which the majority of the population was Muslim. The Turco-Italian War war affected both Turkish and Italian domestic politics to a great extent. However, it is also important to note that also the origins of Arab nationalism can be found in Tripoli during the Turco-Italian War.