Italo-Turkish War

Italo-Turkish War

Italian offensive
Date29 September 1911 – 18 October 1912
(1 year, 2 weeks and 5 days)
LocationOttoman Tripolitania (Ottoman Libya), Aegean Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea

Italian victory

Italy gains Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and the Dodecanese islands (Italian Libya established)
 Italy  Ottoman Empire
Senussi Order
Commanders and leaders
Italy Victor Emmanuel III
Italy Carlo Caneva
Italy Augusto Aubry
Ottoman Empire Mehmed V
Ottoman Empire Enver Pasha
Ottoman Empire Mustafa Kemal
Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi
Expeditionary force: [1]
34,000 troops
6,300 horses & mules
1,050 waggons
48 field guns
24 mountain guns
Reinforcements: [2]
85,000 troops
Initial: [2]
~8,000 regular Turkish troops
~20,000 local irregular troops
Final: [2]
~40,000 Turks and Arabs
Casualties and losses
1,432 killed in combat [3]
4,250 wounded [4]
1,948 died of disease [3][4]
~14,000 casualties [5]
10,000 killed in reprisals & executions with beheading and mutilation [6]

The Italo-Turkish or Turco-Italian War (Turkish: Trablusgarp Savaşı, "Tripolitanian War"; also known in Italy as Guerra di Libia, "Libyan War") was fought between the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and the Kingdom of Italy from September 29, 1911, to October 18, 1912. As a result of this conflict, Italy captured the Ottoman Tripolitania Vilayet (province), of which the main sub-provinces (sanjaks) were Fezzan, Cyrenaica, and Tripoli itself. These territories together formed what became known as Italian Libya.

During the conflict, Italian forces also occupied the Dodecanese islands in the Aegean Sea. Italy had agreed to return the Dodecanese to the Ottoman Empire according to the Treaty of Ouchy[7] in 1912 (also known as the First Treaty of Lausanne (1912), as it was signed at the Château d'Ouchy in Lausanne, Switzerland.) However, the vagueness of the text allowed a provisional Italian administration of the islands, and Turkey eventually renounced all claims on these islands in Article 15 of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.[8]

Although minor, the war was a precursor of World War I as it sparked nationalism in the Balkan states. Seeing how easily the Italians had defeated the weakened Ottomans, the members of the Balkan League attacked the Ottoman Empire before the war with Italy had ended.

The Italo-Turkish War saw numerous technological changes, including the airplane. On October 23, 1911, an Italian pilot, Captain Carlo Piazza, flew over Turkish lines on the world's first aerial reconnaissance mission,[9] and on November 1, the first ever aerial bomb was dropped by Sottotenente Giulio Gavotti, on Turkish troops in Libya, from an early model of Etrich Taube aircraft.[10] The Turks were the first to shoot down an aeroplane by rifle fire.[11]


The claims of Italy over Libya dated back to Turkey's defeat by Russia in the war of 1877–1878 and subsequent discussions after the Congress of Berlin in 1878, in which France and Great Britain had agreed to the occupation of Tunisia and Cyprus respectively, both parts of the then declining Ottoman Empire. When Italian diplomats hinted about possible opposition by their government, the French replied that Tripoli would have been a counterpart for Italy. In 1902, Italy and France had signed a secret treaty which accorded freedom of intervention in Tripolitania and Morocco.[12] However, the Italian government did little to realize the opportunity and knowledge of Libyan territory and resources remained scarce in the following years.

The Italian press began a large-scale lobbying campaign in favour of an invasion of Libya at the end of March 1911. It was fancifully depicted as rich in minerals, well-watered, and defended by only 4,000 Ottoman troops. Also, the population was described as hostile to the Ottoman Empire and friendly to the Italians: the future invasion was going to be little more than a "military walk", according to them.

The Italian government was hesitant initially, but in the summer the preparations for the invasion were carried out and Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti began to probe the other European major powers about their reactions to a possible invasion of Libya. The Socialist party had strong influence over public opinion. However, it was in opposition and also divided on the issue. It acted ineffectively against a military intervention. (The future fascist leader Benito Mussolini – at this time still a left-wing Socialist – took a prominent anti-war position. A similar opposition was expressed in Parliament by Gaetano Salvemini and Leone Caetani.)

An ultimatum was presented to the Ottoman government led by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) party on the night of 26–27 September. Through Austrian intermediation, the Ottomans replied with the proposal of transferring control of Libya without war, maintaining a formal Ottoman suzerainty. This suggestion was comparable to the situation in Egypt, which was under formal Ottoman suzerainty, but was actually controlled by the United Kingdom. Giolitti refused, and war was declared on September 29, 1911.

Military campaign

Opening maneuver

Italian dirigibles bomb Turkish positions on Libyan territory. The Italo-Turkish War was the first in history to feature aerial bombardment by airplanes and airships.[13]

Despite the time it had had to prepare the invasion, the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) was largely unprepared when the war broke out. The Italian fleet appeared off Tripoli in the evening of September 28, but only began bombarding the port on October 3. The city was conquered by 1,500 sailors, much to the enthusiasm of the interventionist minority in Italy. Another proposal for a diplomatic settlement was rejected by the Italians, and the Turks determined therefore to defend the province.[14]

The Turks did not have a full army in Ottoman Tripolitania. Many of the Ottoman officers had to travel there by their own means, often secretly, through Egypt, since the British would not allow Turkish troops to be transported en masse through Egypt. The Ottoman navy was too weak to transport troops by sea. The Turks organized local Arabs and Bedouins for the defence against the Italian invasion.[15]

Italian landing in Libya

Between 1911 and 1912, over 1,000 Somalis from Mogadishu, the then capital of Italian Somaliland, served as combat units along with Eritrean and Italian soldiers in the Italo-Turkish War.[16] Most of the troops stationed never returned home until they were transferred back to Italian Somaliland in preparation for the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.[17] The first disembarkation of Italian troops occurred on October 10. The Italian contingent of 20,000 troops was deemed sufficient to accomplish the conquest at the time. Tobruk, Derna and Khoms were easily conquered, but the same was not true for Benghazi. The first true setback for the Italian troops happened on October 23, when poor placement of the troops near Tripoli led them to be almost completely encircled by more mobile Arab cavalry, backed by some Turkish regular units. The attack was portrayed as a simple revolt by the Italian press, but it nearly annihilated much of the small Italian expeditionary corps.

The corps was consequently enlarged to 100,000 men who had to face 20,000 Arabs and 8,000 Turks. The war turned into one of position. Even some of the earliest examples of utilisation in modern warfare of armoured cars[18] and air power by the Italian forces had little effect on the initial outcome.[19] However, the war was notable for the first military use of heavier than air craft. Capitano Carlo Piazza flew the first military reconnaissance flight on 23 October 1911. A week later, Sottotenente Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades on Taguira and Ain Zara in history's first aerial bombing.[20]

Trench phase

16 May 1912: surrender of the Turkish garrison in Rhodes to the Italian general Ameglio near Psithos.
(From Italian weekly "La Domenica del Corriere", 26 May - 2 June 1912).

The Arabs and Turks, estimated at 15,000, made frequent attacks by day and night on the strongly entrenched Italian garrison in the southern suburbs of Benghazi. The four Italian regiments of infantry acted on the defensive and were supported by the San Marco and Agordat. The Italians rarely attempted a sortie.[21]

An attack of 20,000 Turkish and local troops was repulsed on November 30 with considerable losses. Shortly after this the garrison was reinforced by the 57th infantry regiment from Italy. The battleship Regina Elena also arrived from Tobruk. During the night of December 14 and 15 the Turks attacked in great force, but were repulsed by aid of the fire from the ships. The Italians lost several field guns.[21]

At Derna the Turks and Arabs were estimated at 3,500, but they were being constantly reinforced and a general assault on the Italian position was expected. The Italian and Turkish forces in Tripoli and Cyrenaica were constantly reinforced. The withdrawal of the Turks into the interior enabled them to reinforce their troops considerably.[21]

The cost of the war was defrayed chiefly by voluntary offerings from Muslims. Turkish officers and men, weapons, ammunition, and all kinds of supplies were constantly sent across the Egyptian and Tunisian frontiers, notwithstanding their neutrality. The Italians occupied Sidi Barrani on the coast between Tobruk and Solum to prevent contraband and troops from entering across the Egyptian frontier, while the naval blockaders guarded the coast and captured several sailing ships with contraband.[21]

Italian troops firing on the Turks in Tripoli, 1911.

Successively Italian troops landed at Tobruk after a brief bombardment on December 4, 1911, occupied the seashore and marched towards the hinterlands facing weak resistance.[22] Small numbers of Turkish soldiers and Libyan volunteers were later organized by Captain Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The small December 22 Battle of Tobruk resulted in Mustafa Kemal's victory.[23] With this achievement, he was assigned to Derna War quarters to coordinate the field on March 6, 1912. The Libyan campaign ground to a stalemate by December 1911.[4]

On 3 March 1912, 1,500 Libyan volunteers attacked Italian troops who were building trenches near Derna. The Italians, who were outnumbered but had superior weaponry, held the line. A lack of coordination between the Italian units sent from Derna as reinforcements and the intervention of Turkish artillery threatened the Italian line, and the Arabs attempted to surround the Italian troops. Further Italian reinforcements, however, were able to stabilise the situation, and the battle ended in the afternoon with an Italian victory.

On September 14, the Italian command sent three columns of infantry to disband the Arab Turkish camp near Derna. The Italian troops occupied a plateau, interrupting Turkish supply lines. Three days later, the Turkish commander, Enver Bey, attacked the Italian positions on the plateau. The larger Italian fire drove back the Turkish soldiers, who were surrounded by a battalion of Alpini and suffered heavy losses. A later Turkish attack had the same outcome. After that, operations in Cyrenaica ceased until the end of the war. Although some elements of the local population collaborated with the Italians, counterattacks by Turkish soldiers with the help of local troops confined the Italian army to the coastal region.[6] In fact, by the end of 1912 the Italians had made little progress in conquering Libya. The Italian soldiers were, in effect, besieged in seven enclaves on the coasts of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.[24] The largest of these, at Tripoli, extended barely 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the town.[24]

Naval warfare

Italian cruiser bombarding Ottoman vessels in Beirut harbor.

At sea, the Italians enjoyed a clear advantage. The Italian navy had seven times the tonnage of the Ottoman navy and was better trained.[25]

In January 1912, the Italian cruiser Piemonte, with the Soldato class destroyers Artigliere and Garibaldino, sank seven Turkish gunboats (Ayintab, Bafra, Gökcedag, Kastamonu, Muha, Ordu and Refahiye) and a yacht (Sipka) in the Battle of Kunfuda Bay. Successively the Italians blocked and damaged the main ports of Yemen.

Then, on 24 February, in the Battle of Beirut, two Italian armoured cruisers attacked and sank an Ottoman casemate corvette and six lighters, retreated, then returned and sank an Ottoman torpedo boat. The Avnillah alone suffered 58 killed and 108 wounded. By contrast the Italian ships not only took no casualties, but no direct hits from the Ottoman warships at all.[26] Italy had feared that the Ottoman naval forces at Beirut could be used to threaten the approach to the Suez Canal. The Ottoman naval presence at Beirut was completely annihilated and casualties on the Ottoman side were heavy. The Italian navy gained complete naval dominance of the southern Mediterranean for the rest of the war.

Although Italy could extend its control to almost all of the 2,000 km of the Libyan coast between April and early August 1912, its ground forces could not venture beyond the protection of the navy's guns and were thus limited to a thin coastal strip. In the summer of 1912, Italy began operations against the Turkish possessions in the Aegean Sea with the approval of the other powers that were eager to end a war that was lasting much longer than expected. Italy occupied twelve islands in the sea, comprising the Ottoman province of Rhodes, which henceforth became known as the Dodecanese, but this raised the discontent of Austria-Hungary, which feared that this could fuel the irredentism of nations such as Serbia and Greece, causing imbalance in the already fragile situation in the Balkan area. The only other relevant military operation of the summer was an attack of five Italian torpedo boats in the Dardanelles on 18 July.

Irregular war and atrocities

Main article: 1911 Tripoli massacre

With a decree of November 5, 1911, Italy declared its suzerainty over Libya. Although it controlled the coast, many of the Ottoman troops were not killed in battle and nearly 6,000 remained to face an army of nearly 140,000 Italians. As a result, the Ottomans began using guerrilla tactics. Indeed, some "Young Turk" officers reached Libya and helped organize a guerrilla war with local mujahideens.[27] Many local Arabs joined forces with the Turks because of their common faith against the "Christian invaders" and started a bloody guerrilla warfare: Italian authorities adopted many repressive measures against the rebels, such as public hanging as a retaliation for ambushes.

On October 23, 1911 nearly 500 Italian soldiers were slaughtered at Sciara Sciatt in the outskirt of Tripoli by Turkish troops.[28] As a consequence in the next day—during the 1911 Tripoli massacre—Italian troops systematically murdered hundreds of civilians by moving through the local homes and gardens one by one, including setting fire in the fighting to a mosque with one hundred refugees inside.[29] Although Italian authorities attempted to keep the news of the massacre from getting out, the incident soon became internationally known.[29] The Italians started to show photos of the massacred Italian soldiers at Sciara Sciat in order to justify their revenge.

Treaty of Lausanne

Turkish and Italian delegations at Lausanne (1912). From left to right (seating): Pietro Bertolini, Mehmet Nabi Bey, Guido Fusinato, Rumbeyoglu Fahreddin, and Giuseppe Volpi.

Italian diplomats decided to take advantage of the situation to obtain a favourable peace deal. On October 18, 1912, Italy and the Ottoman Empire signed a treaty in Ouchy near Lausanne (the First Treaty of Lausanne).[30][31]

The main provisions of the treaty, often also called Treaty of Ouchy to distinguish it from the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, were as follows:[32]


Italian Alpini and Libyan corpses after the attack against "Ridotta Lombardia".
Chromolitograph of Turkish troops were beheaded after Italian execution of 10,000 Turkish and Arabs troops at Concentration camp in 1912.

The invasion of Libya was a costly enterprise for Italy. Instead of the 30 million lire a month judged sufficient at its beginning, it reached a cost of 80 million a month for a much longer period than was originally estimated. The war cost Italy 1.3 billion lire, nearly a billion more than Giovanni Giolitti estimated before the war.[33] This ruined ten years of fiscal prudence.[33]

After the withdrawal of the Ottoman army the Italians could easily extend their occupation of the country, seizing East Tripolitania, Ghadames, the Djebel and Fezzan with Murzuk during 1913.[34] The outbreak of the First World War with the necessity to bring back the troops to Italy, the proclamation of the Jihad by the Ottomans and the uprising of the Libyans in Tripolitania forced the Italians to abandon all occupied territory and to entrench themselves in Tripoli, Derna, and on the coast of Cyrenaica.[34] The Italian control over much of the interior of Libya remained ineffective until the late 1920s, when forces under the Generals Pietro Badoglio and Rodolfo Graziani waged bloody pacification campaigns. Resistance petered out only after the execution of the rebel leader Omar Mukhtar on September 15, 1931. The result of the Italian colonisation for the Libyan population was that by the mid-1930s it had been cut in half due to emigration, famine, and war casualties. The Libyan population in 1950 was at the same level as in 1911, approximately 1.5 million.[35] In 1912, when Turkish troops were surrender to Italian troops, 10,000 Turkish troops were executed by Italian troops with decapitation and mutilation.[6]

Because of World War I, the Dodecanese remained under Italian military occupation. According to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which was never ratified, Italy was supposed to cede all of the islands except Rhodes to Greece, in exchange for a vast Italian zone of influence in southwest Anatolia.

However, the Greek defeat in the Greco–Turkish War and the foundation of modern Turkey created a new situation that made the enforcement of the terms of this treaty impossible. In article 15 of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which superseded the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, Turkey formally recognized the Italian annexation of the Dodecanese. The population was largely Greek, and by treaty in 1947 they became part of Greece.[36]

George F. Pentecost spoke out against western imperialism, saying: At the same time Italy, another so-called Christian nation, has taken advantage of Turkey's weakness to jump on that hapless country, and for what? To bring to Mohammedan Turkey the blessings of Christianity? Not at all; purely to control the trade of Tripoli.[37]


  1. Italy. Esercito. Corpo di stato maggiore (1914). The Italo-Turkish War (1911-12). Franklin Hudson Publishing Company. p. 13.
  2. 1 2 3 The History of the Italian-Turkish War, William Henry Beehler, p.13-36
  3. 1 2 World War I: A Student Encyclopedia, Spencer C. Tucker,Priscilla Mary Roberts, page 946
  4. 1 2 3 Emigrant nation: the making of Italy abroad, Mark I. Choate, Harvard University Press, 2008, ISBN 0-674-02784-1, page 176.
  5. James C. Bradford: International Encyclopedia of Military History, Routledge 2006, page 674
  6. 1 2 3 Spencer Tucker, Priscilla Mary Roberts: World War I: A Student Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2005, ISBN 1-85109-879-8, page 946.
  7. Treaty of Ouchy (1912), also known as the First Treaty of Lausanne
  8. Full text of the Treaty of Lausanne (1923)
  10. U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission: Aviation at the Start of the First World War
  11. James D. Crabtree: On air defense, ISBN 0275947920, Greenwood Publishing Group, page 9
  12. "Alliance System / System of alliances". Retrieved 2007-04-03.
  13. Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, pg.19
  14. 30 September Italy and Trablusgarp (tr)
  15. M. Taylan Sorgun, "Bitmeyen Savas", 1972. Memoirs of Halil Pasa
  16. W. Mitchell. Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Whitehall Yard, Volume 57, Issue 2. p. 997.
  17. William James Makin. War Over Ethiopia. p. 227.
  18. Crow, Encyclopedia of Armored Cars, pg.104.
  19. Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, pg.19.
  20. Hallion Strike From the Sky: The History of Battlefield Air Attack, 1910-1945, p. 11.
  21. 1 2 3 4 William Henry Beehler, The History of the Italian-Turkish War, September 29, 1911, to October 18, 1912, Engagements At Benghasi And Derna In December 1911 (p.49)
  22. "1911–1912 Turco-Italian War and Captain Mustafa Kemal". Ministry of Culture of Turkey, edited by Turkish Armed Forces-Division of History and Strategical Studies, pages 62–65, Ankara, 1985.
  23. "1911–1912 Turco-Italian War and Captain Mustafa Kemal". Ministry of Culture of Turkey, edited by Turkish Armed Forces-Division of History and Strategical Studies, pages 62–65, Ankara, 1985.
  24. 1 2 Libya: a modern history", John Wright, Taylor & Francis, 1981, ISBN 0-7099-2727-4, page 28.
  25. Tucker, Roberts, 2005, page 945.
  26. Beehler, William (1913). The history of the Italian-Turkish War, September 29, 1911, to October 18, 1912. Annapolis: The Advertiser Republican. p. 58.
  27. Smallwarsjourna: guerrilla war organized by Young Turks
  28. Robert Gerwarth: Sciara Sciatt massacre
  29. 1 2 Geoff Simons (2003). Libya and the West: From Independence to Lockerbie. I.B.Tauris. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-86064-988-2.
  30. Treaty of Peace Between Italy and Turkey The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 7, No. 1, Supplement: Official Documents (Jan., 1913), pp. 58–62 doi:10.2307/2212446
  31. "Treaty of Lausanne, October, 1912". Mount Holyoke College, Program in International Relations.
  32. "Uşi (Ouchy) Antlaşması" [Treaty of Ouchy] (in Turkish). 31 May 2009. Retrieved 24 August 2010.
  33. 1 2 Mark I. Choate: Emigrant nation: the making of Italy abroad, Harvard University Press, 2008, ISBN 0-674-02784-1, page 175.
  34. 1 2 Bertarelli (1929), p. 206.
  35. The Libyan Economy: Economic Diversification and International Repositioning, Waniss Otman,Erling Karlberg, page 13
  36. P.J. Carabott, "The Temporary Italian Occupation of the Dodecanese: A Prelude to Permanency," Diplomacy and Statecraft," (1993) 4#2 pp 285-312.
  37. "AMERICA NOT A CHRISTIAN NATION, SAYS DR. PENTECOST". The New York Times. February 11, 1912. Archived from the original on 25 March 2014.

Further reading

  • Askew, William C. Europe and Italy's Acquisition of Libya, 1911–1912 (1942) online
  • Baldry, John (1976). "al-Yaman and the Turkish occupation 1849–1914". Arabica. 23: 156–96. 
  • Beehler, William Henry. The history of the Italian-Turkish War, September 29, 1911, to October 18, 1912. (1913; reprint: Harvard University Press, 2008)
  • Biddle, Tami Davis, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914–1945. Princeton University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-691-12010-2.
  • Childs, Timothy W. Italo-Turkish Diplomacy and the War Over Libya, 1911–1912. Brill, Leiden, 1990. ISBN 90-04-09025-8.
  • Crow, Duncan, and Icks, Robert J. Encyclopedia of Armored Cars. Chatwell Books, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1976. ISBN 0-89009-058-0.
  • Hallion, Richard P. Strike From the Sky: The History of Battlefield Air Attack, 1910-1945. (second edition) University of Alabama Press, 2010. ISBN 0817356576, 9780817356576.
  • Paris, Michael. Winged Warfare. Manchester University Press, New York, 1992, pp. 106–115.
  • Stevenson, Charles. A Box of Sand: The Italo-Ottoman War 1911-1912: The First Land, Sea and Air War (2014), a major scholarly study
  • Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of imperial conquest in Africa, 1830-1914 (Indiana University Press, 1998)

In other languages

  • Bertarelli, L.V. (1929). Guida d'Italia, Vol. XVII (in Italian). Milano: Consociazione Turistica Italiana. 
  • Maltese, Paolo. "L'impresa di Libia", in Storia Illustrata #167, October 1971.
  • "1911–1912 Turco–Italian War and Captain Mustafa Kemal". Ministry of Culture of Turkey, edited by Turkish Armed Forces-Division of History and Strategical Studies, pages 62–65, Ankara, 1985.
  • "Trablusgarp Savaşı Ve 1911–1912 Türk-İtalyan İlişkileri: Tarblusgarp Savaşı'nda Mustafa Kemal Atatürk'le İlgili Bazı Belgeler", Hale Şıvgın, Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 2006, ISBN 978-975-16-0160-5

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