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Italo-Turkish War - Early Months in 1911

The Turkish reply to the ultimatum, though conciliatory in tone, was not held to be adequate. The Italian Government, therefore, announced that: "As the Ottoman Government has not accepted the demand contained in the Italian ultimatum, Italy and Turkey are from this date, September 29, 2.30 P. M., in a state of war."

The announcement took Europe by surprise. In England the Turks were held to be the victims of Italian greed. "Only once in the memory of living man has any war to such an extent as the present one taken the world by surprise. On September 25, for the first time, we heard that Italy had any serious grievance against Turkey." l All shades of English opinion were at the outset unfriendly to Italy, who was looked upon as a wanton aggressor. Yet for the past ten years the Tripolitan question had been continuously discussed in Italy, and for the past nine years Italy's rights in Tripolitana had been agreed to by the Powers, more especially by France and Great Britain.

Up to the last moment it was believed at Rome that the Porte would accede to Italian demands, and that the Tripolitan expedition would be in the nature of a promenade militaire. On September 28 an Italian squadron proceeded to North African waters. The blockade of the coast of Cyrenaica and Tripol- tana was announced, and Italy notified Turkey that unless within three days Tripoli surrendered, the city would be bombarded. On the morning of October 1 the cable binding Tripoli with the outside world was cut, and the next day the Italian fleet cleared for action. Even then it was not believed that the Turks would resist. But word was passed that a show of resistance was to be made. Large numbers of the native civilian population fled, and on October 3, at 3.30 P. M., the first Italian shell struck the old Spanish fort which defends the seaside of Tripoli.2 Two hours later all resistance had been silenced. No troops, however, had arrived from Italy to occupy the town. A sudden change in Italian plans had diverted the first transports from heading for Tripoli to Tobruk, the spot which it was feared Germany had intention of seizing. Time had to be gained until troops could arrive. On October 4 another bombardment of the forts took place, and on the next day the Turkish troops having evacuated the city, the Arabs began to pillage the town. It was imperative that the Italians should land to maintain order. Therefore, a detachment of 1,600 sailors was landed, and the Italian flag hoisted over the city. On October 7 Rear-Admiral Borea Ricci took over the governorship of Tripoli. A large number of sheiks and Arab notables swore allegiance to the Italian Government; most conspicuous among them was Hassuna Pasha, whose friendship Crispi had gained twenty years before.

Without incident the expeditionary force landed, and by October 20, after brief skirmishes, the chief towns of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica: Tripoli, Derna, Horns, and Tobruk were safely in Italian possession. At Benghazi alone did the Italians encounter serious obstacles, but the capital of Cyrenaica also fell into Italian hands after a two days' assault. Elsewhere Turkish resistance had been feeble, and in Tripoli order was so speedily established that the campaign seemed over before it had properly begun. The natives seemed to accept Italian rule with equanimity.

Three days later, on October 23, came a rude awakening at Tripoli. The Turco-Arab forces had withdrawn to the south and west of the city; their numbers were not definitely known, but they were believed to be well over 12,000. At 8 A.M. they began an attack on the Italian intrenched positions to the eastward of the El Hanni plateau. It was soon rumoured that the Italian left had been crushed, and that the Turks were about to enter the town. Panic seized hold of the inhabitants. Suddenly the cry arose: "Death to the Christians." Italian soldiers were attacked with knives and sticks; some shots were fired, and in a moment what seemed to be a serious uprising burst forth. Orders were given to clear the streets, and natives found with weapons in hand were in some cases shot down. Whenever possible the Italian soldiery refrained from extreme measures. The rumour of the Turkish advance proved unfounded, and order was soon restored. On the next day it was deemed advisable to clear out whatever rebels remained. The work was trying. It required a house-to-house search. Sharp encounters took place between the Italian troops and the Arabs who had hidden in the oasis. "But by the evening of October 27 the task was practically completed. Several thousand Arabs had been brought into Tripoli, and of these some 2,500 were deported to Tremiti and Ustica."1 The Italians had lost heavily; 13 officers and 361 men killed, and 16 officers and 142 men wounded.

In quelling this native rising harsh measures were inevitable, but Europe soon rang with the tales of Italian atrocities, of wilful murder of helpless men and women, which would seem altogether unfounded. The opinion of Field-Marshal Lord Roberts on the events in Tripoli as stated in the Times of November 29, 1911, is a valuable commentary in extenuation of the Italian action:

"It is totally unfair, as we are a friendly nation, to criticise any military measures which the Italian Commander-in-Chief may have found it necessary to put in force, without having access to the information upon which he acted. As far as can be learnt from the more trustworthy reports that have reached this country, the Italians were suddenly faced with a rising of Arabs in the direct rear of their line of resistance. Such a desperate state of affairs would, in any case, warrant desperate measures to re-establish the equilibrium of battle. Time also was pressing, as the main attack by the Turks and Arabs was imminent. That the means employed to re-establish what I have called the equilibrium of battle was severe, is doubtless true, but in war it is usually the severest measures that are, in the long run, the most humane. No soldier will put any credence in the reports that women and children were deliberately killed by the Italians, but, doubtless, in the act of clearing hostile villages behind the Italian lines many innocent people suffered with the guilty. Such things are, unfortunately, inevitable in war.

"In no army in the world could the orders which General Caneva found it imperative to issue for the clearance of the Tripoli oasis have been carried out without instances of regrettable severity. The very urgency of the operation alone would necessitate this severity. Only those who have the experience of war in all its phases have the right to judge of the expediency of reprisals, and then only when they have access to the information which was at the time in the possession of the directing staff."

It cannot be denied that, after the rising of October 23, the Italians were looked upon with mistrust and suspicion by the native population, and their position became more difficult.

On November 5 Tripolitana and Cyrenaica were, by a royal decree, annexed to Italy under the generic name of Libya. The work of conquest had not, however, been completed. The Italians held only the main towns along the coast and the territory immediately surrounding these. Fighting continued in a desultory fashion throughout the ensuing months, with long periods of inactivity. In Cyrenaica more particularly, Turkish resistance was tenacious. Enver Bey, who at the time of the outbreak of the war was Turkish Military Attache1 at Berlin, left his post, proceeded to the scene of action, and organised the warlike Arabs into an efficient force which seriously menaced the Italians during the early months of 1912. Desperate fighting took place in the neighbourhood of Benghazi, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides.

It would seem reasonable to lend credence to the report that Turkish resistance to Italy was encouraged and supported by Germany. Von der Goltz Pasha, the chief of the German military mission at Constantinople, urged in so far as lay in his power-and this was very great-the continuation of the struggle, while the arrival of Enver Bey on the scene, coming directly from Berlin, would in the light of his pronounced pro-German sympathies conclusively prove that Germany had a direct interest in making the Tripolitan campaign as burdensome as possible to the Italians. There seems little doubt that the Berlin Government had expected to receive Tobruk for its own uses as a naval base in the Mediterranean, in return for its acquiescence in the Italian occupation of Libya. This explains the undue haste of the Italians in occupying this base to the detriment of the broader needs of the campaign. Further than this it is not unreasonable to assume that the Central Empires, no longer able to count on Italian support in the event of a European war, wished to make the campaign of North Africa so arduous as not merely materially to weaken the resources of the Kingdom, but actually to deter the Italians from further military enterprise for some time to come.

The war against Turkey was also carried on in other spheres. At the very outset of hostilities on September 29 and 30, an Italian squadron under the command of the Duke of the Abruzzi attacked and sank two Turkish torpedo-boats off Prevesa hi the Adriatic. But Italy was prevented from carrying the war into European Turkey by the vigorous protests of Austria. In November, 1911, Count Aehren- thal, the Austro-Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs, declared that "Italian action on the Ottoman coasts of European Turkey or the ^Egean Islands could not be permitted, as contrary to Article VII1 of the treaty of alliance." This protest, which Italy could not fail to heed in view of the fact that Germany let it be known that she fully supported the Austrian thesis, restricted for the time being the scene of operations.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:28:15 ZULU