Friday, 29 September 2017

Italy's Pocket War and Its Dwarf Imperialsm

Italians fighting Turks at Tripoli
Italy was the site of one of the greatest empires -- the Roman -- but, to its shame, it was also the site of one of the more laughable empires, namely the Neo-Italian Empire that emerged following the unification of the country in the 19th century. 

Just as Italian unification owed more to the power machinations of the great states of Europe than the efforts of the Italians themselves, so too did the rise of the Neo-Italian Empire. This is demonstrated by what was the main chapter in this story, the Turkish Italian War of 1911-12, which started today 106 years ago.

First of all, due to the competing European alliances of Russia and France on the one side and Germany and Austro-Hungary on the other, all the big powers were well disposed towards Italy and keen to curry favour with the new state by being lenient to its overseas adventurism. After all it was only fair -- they all had their colonies and spheres of influence, why shouldn't Italy? This was all done in the hope that Italy would ultimately join their alliance. This meant that when Italy sounded out the Great Powers of Europe about a war against Turkey in order to seize Libya, none of them expressed opposition. 

The actions of the Great Powers had also prepared the perfect war for Italy, one that it thought it could easily win. This was mainly due to Anglo-French rivalry in Egypt over the Suez Canal, which had resulted in Britain taking of Egypt, which, at least officially, had been Turkish territory. This meant that Turkish-controlled Libya, lying just across the Mediterranean from Italy, was isolated and vulnerable to attack, especially as Italy's relatively large and modern navy completely outclassed the ramshackle Turkish one. In short, to the Italian war party Libya represented an easily winnable "pocket war" with obvious gains and a clear break off point.

The Italians enjoyed several technological advantages, like this early aircraft.
This is how it should have turned out, but in the event the war proved to be a lot messier and more expensive than expected due to the usual Italian military limitations. Following the declaration of war, the Italians appeared off the coast and made several landings, capturing most of the main towns, like Tripoli, Benghazi, Derna, and Tobruk. But, even though the Italians had enormous numerical superiority the Turks continued the fight and managed to successfully mobilize the local Arab population to wage war against the "Christian invaders." 

In October, the main Italian army tried to push inland, but was nearly cut off and surrounded by a more mobile enemy force. This setback resulted in the death of 500 Italian troops, including around 250 who were apparently massacred and mutilated after they surrendered. This led to brutal Italian reprisals, including the massacre of innocent civilians. Meanwhile, back in Italy, the prominent Socialist and future Fascist leader Benito Mussolini had denounced the war from the start.

Another person who was to later to become very important was involved in the war on the Turkish side, namely Captain Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, the "Father" of the modern Turkish Republic after WWI. He managed to inflict a defeat on the Italians near Tobruk. This, with other setbacks, meant that the Italians were generally confined to small enclaves near the towns they had captured, with the countries vast hinterland controlled by the Turks.

Italian forces boxed in at Tripoli.
Even large Italian reinforcements and attempts to blockade the Turks and prevent reinforcements and supplies from reaching them failed to break the deadlock. Instead the Italians decided to put pressure on the Turks to concede by using their navy to attack other parts of the Ottoman Empire. 

In the Red Sea, an Italian flotilla destroyed a Turkish flotilla off the coast of Arabia at the Battle of Kunfuda Bay (7th January), and then blockaded ports and bombarded Turkish positions at will. Then on the 24th of February, 1912, two Italian armoured cruisers attacked the port of Beirut and sank a Turkish corvette and a torpedo boat, along with several harbour barges. After this the rest of the Turkish fleet hid in the Sea of Mamara. 

Trench positions near Tripoli.
This confirmation of Italian naval superiority prepared the way for the occupation of the Aegean islands belonging to Turkey, including the Island of Rhodes.

By now both Italy and Turkey were weary of the war. It had gone on much longer and had cost much more than the Italians had anticipated, while the Turks were suffering from the actions of the Italian navy and concerned about rumblings in the Balkans. The two countries therefore decided to make peace on the grounds that Italy keep Libya while returning the Aegean islands.

In the event, this didn't happen. Italy's attack on Turkey had revealed the weakness of the Ottoman Empire, and this led to several Balkan nations hatching a plan to attack Turkey in Europe in the first Balkan War, which broke out shortly afterwards. In the diplomatic chaos that this caused -- followed by that of World War One -- Italy decided to hold onto the islands, which remained Italian territory until WWII, after which they became Greek.

Meanwhile in Libya, Italian control remained limited to the coast until well into the 1920s, when the Italian army was finally able to pacify the interior.

With this victory, the Italians could play at being a great colonial power, but in reality there was little glory and even less economic benefit in these territorial gains, which were all lost by that young Socialist who had opposed their acquisition.

Mussolini in Libya.

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