Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Great War in Italian Africa

The struggle for Africa in World War I is a subject not widely known. Among those who are aware of it, most are familiar with the campaigns by the Allies to seize control of the German colonies in Africa; Togoland, Kamerun, German Southwest Africa and most especially German East Africa where a small band of German colonial troops held out until the end of the war, evading or defeating forces vastly superior to their own. Yet, these were not the only areas of Africa touched by the Great War and the focus on Germany diverts attention away from another of the Central Powers that had big plans for African expansion and that was, of course, the Ottoman Empire. If the Great War had gone in favor of the Central Powers the Ottoman Empire was anxious to reclaim control of North Africa and East Africa from Egypt-Sudan to the Horn of Africa. Although the British were successful in stopping the Turkish efforts to invade Egypt, the Turks were energetic in forging alliances with Islamic groups already in rebellion in northern and eastern Africa against the friends and armed forces of the Kingdom of Italy.

Even before war broke out in Europe, Italian colonial forces were engaged in North Africa, fighting against Sanussi rebels. Italy had gained the three north African provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan after defeating the Ottoman Empire in a war in 1911-1912 and ever since there had been periodic rebellions in the form of attacks on Italian settlements and Italian farmers mostly by members of the Sanussi sect, a tribe and religious order of the Sufi branch of Islam. The Sanussi had been fighting the French in Chad but moved to attack the Italians as soon as the three provinces were handed over to Italy by the Turks. Ultimately, of course, these three provinces would be grouped together by Italy and named Libya, restoring the old Roman title for the area. Since most know it as that, for the sake of simplicity this region will be henceforth referred to as Libya here even though it would not become the official name until 1934. In February of 1914 the Italians began an offensive against Sanussi camps and punitive raids continued until late in the year. However, the number of Italian colonial forces was limited and these were stretched over an immense area.

In August, an Italian column was attacked and defeated by Sanussi rebels at Bir al-Fatia. Subsequently, there was a massive uprising in Fezzan, home of the Sanussi holy city of Kufra. The “supreme leader” of the Sanussi was, at this time, Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi and he would lead or direct his forces in attacks on the French, Italians and British throughout this period. The rebellion became so severe that the Italian forces had to withdraw to Tripolitania by early 1915. To make matters worse, the “Dervishes” of Italian Somaliland in East Africa were becoming increasingly aggressive and clashing with Italian or Italian-allied Somali forces in 1915. These so-called “Dervishes” were the followers of the “Mad Mullah” (who was actually not a mullah at all) Muhammad Abd Allah Hassan. Already, in 1914, he had caused considerable problems for the British in British Somaliland, defeating or at least bloodying British colonial forces in a number of clashes before moving across the border into Italian territory. Meanwhile, back in north Africa, a see-saw campaign, similar to what would later be seen in World War II was unfolding.

Early March, 1915 saw Italian troops defeat (or disperse without much actual combat) a large Sanussi force gathering in southern Tripolitania. Eager to follow this up, a large Italian column set out eastward in the hope of crushing the Sanussi rebellion in the area of Surt. However, on April 28-29 they were soundly defeated by a massive rebel attack at Abu Zinaf. The tide of war swung back in favor of the rebels and from May to June they had besieged Italian garrisons at Banu Walid and Tarhunah, preventing all relief efforts by other Italian forces. May also saw the formal entry of the Kingdom of Italy into the First World War on the Allied side. This had positive and negative effects for the war in Africa. While, Italy gained allies who were as equally threatened in the region, it also meant that Italian military strength would have to be concentrated almost entirely on the border with Austria with the result that the already hard-pressed troops in the colonies would be reduced to a bare minimum. In the summer, another attempt to relieve the siege of Banu Walid failed and when the garrison, driven to desperation, tried a breakout they were overwhelmed. Southern Tripolitania was abandoned  and by October all Italian forces in Cyrenaica as well were withdrawn to the coast.

Obviously, a major change had taken place and that was that the Ottoman Empire had begun to arm the rebels in the hope of eventually retaking their former provinces and reestablishing control of northern Africa. In spite of the fact that, at the time, Italy was only at war with Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire was effectively waging a proxy war against the Italians and Germany was also helping them do it, using German U-boats to smuggle weapons to the Libyan insurgents. In retaliation, on August 21 the Kingdom of Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire (Italy would not declare war on Germany until the following year). By the end of 1915, things looked bleak for the Italian position in north Africa. There had never been much of a real presence in Fezzan and Italian forces in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica had been forced to abandon their interior positions and concentrate their modest forces on the coast in the major towns and port cities. 1916, however, would open with another change in fortunes for the Italians in Libya. In the early months, alarmed by the radicalism of the rebels, the coastal population rallied to the side of the Italians in Tripolitania and Jabal Nafusah. Sanussi control was restricted to the area east of Wadi Zamzam. On February 1, 1916 the Italians were able to strike back for a change and wipe out a Sanussi rebel column.

Emperor Lij Jasu
As the year wore on and the tide seemed to be turning in Libya, events were growing worse in East Africa. The “Mad Mullah” Muhammad Abd Allah Hassan formed an alliance in May with Emperor Lij Jasu of Ethiopia who had reportedly converted to Islam. Both hoped to achieve their goals of expansion across the Horn of Africa by allying with the Ottoman Empire, placing Ethiopia and Somalia under the spiritual authority of the Ottoman Sultan, the Caliph of Islam. The “Mad Mullah”, the Ethiopian Emperor and the Ottoman Turks formed an alliance to wage war against the British, French and Italian presence in the region. The Ottomans had already been smuggling weapons into the area from southern Arabia across the Gulf of Aden. However, neither of their two allies were in total control of any country or colony. Hassan was already a wanted man by both Britain and Italy and the flirtation with Islam by Lij Jasu did not go over well in Ethiopia. Forces opposed to him declared him deposed and Ethiopia descended into another civil war. Italy rushed reinforcements to Eritrea, the oldest Italian colony in the region, to maintain security and plans were drawn up for a more vigorous colonial strategy.

In May of 1916 Italian troops launched a counter-offensive in Libya with an amphibious landing at Ras al-Muraysah in Cyrenaica that results in the recapture of al-Bardi after which another Italian column, in a joint operation with the British, destroy a major Sanussi camp near Darnah. The British became involved since, with the outbreak of World War I, the Sanussi leader Ahmed Sharid as-Senussi had invaded Egypt, capturing Sallum and provoking the British to strike back and take the Sanussi threat more seriously. Now, however, the Allies were advancing and later that month Italian forces retook Zuwarah in Tripolitania. They were so successful that, by July, the Sanussi agreed to meet for talks with the British and Italians about making peace. Some decide to lay down their arms but others do not and in early 1917 the Italian forces resumed their offensive, clearing the rebels west of Tripoli and completely retaking southern Tripolitania. At the same time, in East Africa, the “Mad Mullah” attacks the Sultan Uthman of Obbia who is allied with Italy but the forces of the Sultan soundly defeat him.

Back in Libya, the Sanussi finally agree to come to terms with Italy and Great Britain, promising to recognize their authority and cease hostilities. However, some rebel groups simply denounce the Sanussi leadership that made the agreement and carry on fighting anyway. Because of this, retaliation against these post-peace agreement rebels would often be quite severe. Throughout the rest of the year the restoration of Italian rule over Tripolitania continued at a steady pace while in East Africa the Sultan of Obbia launched his own counter-offensive against the “Mad Mullah”, winning another victory. 1918 saw an unbroken string of Italian victories across Libya with the rebels only managing to launch one major attack which was repelled by the colonial troops while taking heavy losses. In East Africa, the much vaunted threat of a Muslim takeover of the Horn of Africa came to nothing as local forces friendly to Italy proved capable of handling things on their own in Somalia while in Ethiopia, the deposed Emperor Lij Jasu ended up fighting for his own throne rather than waging a war of conquest against the French, British and Italian colonies.

Italian rule was restored and secured across the Italian African colonies. However, peace would not be permanent and it would take another major campaign before Libya was pacified in 1932. Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi left Libya in 1918 for the Ottoman Empire via Austria-Hungary, leaving the peace negotiations with his cousin Mohammad Idris who would, for a short time, become King of Libya after World War II. In Ethiopia, Lij Jasu (or Iyasu V) was deposed in favor of his aunt Empress Zewditu who kept him safe and tried to have him reconciled with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which had excommunicated him. However, Empress Zewditu was suppressed by Haile Selassie who made himself Emperor and finally had Lij Jasu killed during another war with Italy. The “Mad Mullah” took his fight back to British territory, was soundly defeated and died of influenza in 1920.

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