When it invaded the remaining Ottoman North African possessions in 1911, unified Italy had existed for exactly fifty years. Since the 1870s, its politicians had slowly prepared local and international opinion for its eventual colonial oversight of Tripolitxania, Cyrenaica, and Fazzan. In doing so, it had been aided by a persuasive imperialist lobby that had touted Italy’s progress into Somalia, Eritrea – and now potentially Libia – as Italy’s version of manifest destiny, providing commercial opportunities, trade, and an outlet for the nation’s industrial goods and its perennial surplus population. In addition, the failure to annex Ethiopia in 1896 had strengthened the country’s resolve to claim Libya as a necessary bulwark – the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio’s lyrical Fourth Shore – to protect its strategic security in the Mediterranean and its growing shipping trade, and to project its Great Power aspirations.
The Italian Occupation, 1911–1923
Italy seized upon alleged Ottoman hostility to its economic activities in Libya as a casus belli, sending an ultimatum to the sultan on 26 September 1911 that included its intention to occupy Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. A seaborne invasion the following month allowed Italy to occupy the major coastal cities – Tripoli, Benghazi, Darna, Homs, and Tubruq – where they were met by a number of small but determined Ottoman garrisons. These had been augmented by the local population who, while not favorable to the sultan, still considered him as their “commander of the faithful.” The Italian government announced the annexation of the two provinces on 5 November 1911 and formally annexed them on 25 February 1912, but these were largely empty gestures. For despite the introduction of the latest new weapons from Europe – including airplanes and airships – and the presence of 115,000 troops by April 1912, the war reached an impasse by the Spring of 1912. Although the total of Ottoman and local forces constituted only one-fifth of the Italian presence, the difficult terrain and Italy’s inexperience had brought the campaigns to a standstill.