Most historians consider the Italo-Ottoman War, 1911-12, as a prelude to World War I. Although it has fallen into obscurity, some relics, such as this compelling panoramic map of the war’s first major engagement, may revive our interest.
Italy’s claims to North Africa were rooted in Roman times. Over the millennia, the provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, with their long Mediterranean seacoast, have never failed to attract statesman, invaders, and rulers, including Italians, who considered the region to be within their own sphere of influence.
In the late nineteenth century both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – today, along with Fezzan, the nation of Libya – attracted Italian foreign policy makers like a magnet. The region afforded Italy opportunities for expansion towards its colonies in Eritrea and Somalia, as it attempted to consolidate the hinterlands of North Africa.
Italy’s diplomatic and military maneuvering to control Libya in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were part and parcel of the international machinations then being played out between and among the major European powers, such as Great Britain, France, Germany, and Russia. Rivalries, claims, congresses, alliances, treaties, ententes, annexations, and invasions defined the period, all of which culminated in the First World War. Italians did not wish to be left out of events; and by March 1911 a nationalist surge began calling for an invasion of Tripolitania.
Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, however, were then ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Although under the auspices of Constantinople since 1517 and 1835, respectively, neither was the most vital part of the doddering Ottoman Empire. Italy, availing itself of the situation but without a sound military policy, declared war on September 29, 1911, expecting a warm welcome from the Arab inhabitants of Tripoli.
The first map presents us with a bird’s-eye view of the Battle of Tripoli, October 23-27. Italian warships are depicted off the coast, having bombed Turkish fortifications and the port itself, taken by Italian sailors by October 7th. Tripoli, a former haven for Barbary pirates, is finely drawn, its medieval architecture reflected in its defensive walls and bastions, its historic Red Castle, its mosques, the old lighthouse, and jetty. The Italian Expeditionary Force, indicated by a line of tri-colors, has formed a defensive perimeter in a semi-circle over a radius of roughly two-and-a-half miles. From west to south trenches fronting palm groves overlook the desert, but to the east from Fort Mesri to the sea, the line extends into a labyrinth of gardens, groves, and orchards, many connected by sandy paths lined with hedges of prickly pear cactus.
Troops on the Italian right flank, consisting primarily of the 84 Fanteria (84th Infantry) and the Batteria 21 Artiglieria (21st Artillery Battery), lie behind earth works, and fire in defense of the Pozzi di Bumelliana, the chief source of water for the city. Behind stone fortifications the 82 Fanteria (82 Infantry Regiment) and the Batteria da Sbarco (Landing Battery) fire cannons on charging Turkish-Arab troops.
Surrounding the Italian perimeter and attacking on three sides are an estimated 14,000 Turks and Arab-Berber irregulars, symbolized by the red flags with a white crescent and star. Cannon fire erupts on both sides as the Ottoman forces advance. The fighting is especially heavy on the Italian left flank, where, on October 23, a large force of Ottoman and Arab troops overran the Italian lines near the former oasis of Sciara el Sciat (Sciara Sciat / Shar al-Shatt), inflicting more than 500 fatalities on the 11th Bersaglieri Regiment, marking the beginning of resistance to colonial rule. The Italians responded with a wholesale massacre of 4,000 Arab civilians. And, just to the west of Sidi Mesri, Ottoman forces managed to breach a weak point in the Italian line held by the 82nd Fanteria Regiment, but were driven back with artillery and explosives.
According to the map itself, the Turkish-Arab forces suffered 2,000 fatalities, 4,000 wounded, and many prisoners, whereas the Italians counted only 374 additional dead and 158 wounded, notwithstanding the massacre at Sciara el Sciat and the many who succumbed to cholera. Over three thousand Arab captives were deported to island penal colonies and Italian prisons, with about half to die from privation.
The Italians had scored their first victory in a colonial war. Although Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were not unified as a colony until 1934, the Italians began referring to the region as Libya, in imitation of its ancient Roman nomenclature.