Brief History of Italian Imperialism, Part III: Turkish (Libyan) War 1911-1912, the Great War, and the Italo-Abyssinian War, 1935-1936

Following their defeat in Ethiopia expansionist & imperialist sentiment was very quiet while Italy recovered in the wake of unrest that rocked most of the free world in the late 1890's and 1900's. Italy would play a major role nevertheless in the inter-state conflicts that preceded the Great War in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Balkans, leading inevitably into buildup of nationalist sentiments that stoked the fires of a great conflict in 1914-1915.

Captain Piazza’s BlĂ©riot XI during the campaign in Libya 1911

The Italian desire for expansion in North Africa, a more natural region geographically speaking to conquer, or acquire diplomatically than Ethiopia would have been, led the Italians to seek war with Turkey ( and the Ottoman Empire) over control of Libya, known then by the regional states of Tripolitania, Fezzan, & Cyrenaica.

The Italians used gunboat diplomacy successfully where the German Empire had failed in the Moroccan crisis with France in July of 1911. Using heavy naval bombardments the Italians eventually occupied both Tobruk and Tripoli in October of 1911 and most of the coastal territories of Libya by 1912. 

Mustafa Kemal and the mujahideen 1912

Next the Italians used artillery and massed troop movements, aided sporadically by airplanes and zeppelin bombers to send the Turks into retreat. Following the end of the conventional war a small but loyal contingent of Turkish officers, including Mustafa Kemal (b.1881-1938) retreated away  from the coast into the interior to train and command mujahideen forces made up of Arab Libyan tribesmen.

Bersaglieri's and an Italian officer in Libya 1911

With the conflict developing with the Balkan League states the Turks sued for peace with Italy annexing parts of Libya and the Dodecanese Islands, principally the island of Rhodes. Diplomatically the Ottoman Empire admitted defeat though Italy had conquered very little territory and did not actually control the regions ceded to them by the Ottoman Empire. Control itself would again need to be installed through military force, which is stalled following the events of 1911-1923 before, during, & after the Great War and its corresponding conflicts.

Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti attempts the first ever bombing raid in November 1911

Italian army, 1911 Libya

Following the start of the Great War Italy remained neutral before declaring war on the Central Powers, starting the brutally fought Italian Campaign from 1915-1918. In the coastal possessions of Libya colonial forces continued to fight the Libyan tribes of the South for control over much of Cyrenaica and Fezzan until late 1915 when Italy went to war with Austria and the German Empire and their colonial operations lessened in intensity.

Following the end of the War in 1918 Italy like most countries rapidly transformed socially and culturally in the wake of perhaps the most important event of the 20th and 21st century so far. In 1922 Benito Mussolini a veteran of the trenches and former journalist and socialist activist took power in Italy as the prime minister. By the 1930's he is the toast of Europe as the citizens of Rome and elsewhere in Italy hail "Long Live Duce!"

Mussolini in 1917

Mussolini and his fascist party brought about a national revolution which greatly bolstered Italian national pride beginning in the mid 1920's, and the particular military-political fervor created by his fascist blackshirts helps to make securing the African territories a top priority for the Italian fascist generals and colonial governors.

For Mussolini conquering the Abyssinian Empire would be a propaganda victory for the new fascist Italian culture, over the Ethiopians who had embarrassed the Italian national pride, the military, the colonial system itself. The defeat in the great Battle of Adowa had totally halted Italy's imperialist ventures in the region after 1896. Of equal interest was Libya where the Italians restablished a presence through military conquest and an increased social and bureaucratic presence. General Rodolfo Graziani conquered the rest of Libya rather brutally, earning the name The Butcher of Fezzan. He would serve a number of positions as a governor and officer throughout the colonies during Italy's neo-colonialist ventures of the 1920-1930s and into the early 40's.

General Graziania, the Butcher a Fezzan, a hero to some and fascist war criminal to many others

Mussolini in Libya, an example of iconic propaganda. This photo was doctored by propagandists to hide the Ethiopian ascari holding the reigns of Mussolini's charger.

The invasion of Ethiopia by Italian forces stationed in Eritrea and Somaliland in October of 1935 was one of a series of conflicts in the lead up and prelude to World War in 1939-1940. The Italian colonial forces marched on Abyssinia in a flagrant violation of international law which was ignored by the world and the League of Nations member states. By 1936 they had conquered Abyssinia brutally, crushing the rather weak but still brave resistance of the Ethiopians, sending Emperor Haile Selaissie I into exile. The Italian military with tanks, warplanes, machine guns, and even poison gas had avenged their loss at Adowa in 1896 and confirmed the revival of the Italian Kingdom under Mussolini's grand plans for a New Roman Empire.

Map of Italian military advance of October 1935


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.