The Libyan War of Independence (1911-1932)
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- 17th September 2013 #1
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- Jul 2013
The Libyan War of Independence (1911-1932)
It was to take twenty-one years, six governors and over eleven thousand five hundred Italian lives before the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini declared Libya an overseas Imperial province.
Even then however, ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD), otherwise known as chemical and biological weapons, concentration camps in which up to two hundred thousand civilians died, a scorched earth policy by which livestock, farms and arable land was decimated, air power, canons and tanks (none of which the Libyans possessed or knew how to counter attack) were used to win the highly unpopular war.
At first Italy lost three thousand five hundred lives in the opening two years against Turkey (under Mustapha Kemal as the principal general) and local Libyan irregulars and tribes during the initial phase of the war (1911-1912). Over three thousand were killed between 1912-1915 and in the third phase (1923-1932), another five thousand Italian soldiers were dead. This was minus the thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean military mercenaries and Pro-Italian Libyan fascist regiments that were slain.
Italy’s International violations of war in Libya were overlooked by both the UK and France (there was no UN at the time), the two so called champions of justice in Europe, as Italian appeasement was necessary to join the war effort against Germany. Weapons, armoured fuel and other key supplies to consolidate occupation and atrocities continued to flow in.
Since 1911 Italy had closed all access to the coasts and ports to the Libyans to prevent ships carrying food, rations, clothes, medicine, armaments and soldiers. The Egyptian border was heavily guarded by British soldiers while Algeria and Chad were fortified by France, both whom only denied Libyans their rights while allowing Italians to use and cross into their territories.
The Italians nevertheless quickly lost most of Libya after 1914 and did not regain overall superiority until the late 1920s. Libyan independence forces scored some fantastic victories during the 1910s, notably Derna in 1913 and Hammadah in 1914. In January 1915 the Libyans attacked Italian garrisons to retake the Giofra oases of Uaddan, Hon and Sokna. The Italians retreated, first to Bu Najim and then to Beni Ulid. By February 1915 the Italians were barely holding the line at Mizda-Nalut.
The Italian counter attack (involving 4, 000 Italians and 3, 500 Libyans) ended in disaster. Only a handful of the large Italian army returned from the battle. The rest had either been slain or were never heard of again. Shuteywi, a previously pro-Italian Libyan and the head of the force, had privately defected to the Mujahideen and ordered his men to turn fire on his own side. After this Italian garrisons began abandoning the forts rather than fight. The Libyans occupied Sinawan, Mizda and Qusabat in June 1915 and were soon marching towards Ben Gashir, only fifteen miles from Tripoli the capital.
In July 1915 the Tarhuna garrison was captured, Beni Ulid surrendered next, the Garian garrison was taken. Misurata and Zuara were annexed by August. From August 1914 until August 1915, at least three thousand Italians had been killed to date. In addition, two thousand four hundred Italians and their mercenaries had been captured as prisoners of war.
Unfortunately however, inter tribal warfare erupted soon after and seriously harmed the war effort. A little later a series of incorrect decisions allowed the Italians room for another counter offensive; this time, a successful one after the closure of the First World War.
Despite Italy’s numerical superiority, its advanced military arsenal, its violation of international war-related legislation and use of local forces against a largely guerrilla irregular indigenous army, the Libyan forces successfully held out with highly decisive victories over several years.
For a brief period the first of many peace talks occurred when neither side could claim victory. The Italians held the cities, the coastal areas, the large areas outside of the desert and most of the north. The Libyan forces consolidated and controlled the desert, the south and the centre. It had remained this way by the start of the 1920s. Libya had become something of an embarrassment to Italy.
It was during the third phase (1923-32), Umar Mukhtar, at the age of sixty, became the leader of the Libyan forces and for eight years defeated the Italians in many a savage battle. A as commander of the Jihad in Chad some years earlier against the French Empire, Umar Mukhtar was selected to lead the Libyan Mujahideen as well.
Italian officials had heard of Umar Mukhtar and some of them attempted to entice them to their side as they had done to Amir Idris Al Senussi (later King Idris of independent Libya 1951-1969) and members of his family earlier. He was offered to become the principal personality as a [slave] subject, his needs, accommodation and stay would be the direct responsibility of the imperial empire and under the legal jurisdiction of the Italian kingdom. The proposal was rejected. It was the first of a succession of bribes and all with the conditions of accepting Italian sovereignty over Libya.
Amir Idris Al Senussi, while receiving his salary from the British and Italian empires, was still the nominal head of the Jihad and as such was spearheading the struggle from behind the scenes in Egypt where he was in exile. Umar Mukhtar met him there before returning to Libya as an appointed commander.
He was greeted by jubilation when he arrived in Barqa in Libya. The Mujahideen had just defeated the Italians in the Battles of Bi’r Bilal and Al Bareeqa in early 1923. A series of bitter encounters followed left heavy casualties with varying fortunes on both sides. Despite the inability to win outright and decisively by the Italians, the European empire still occupied areas within Barqah and the Mujahideen moved on.
Pro Italian Libyan informants almost captured Umar before he joined the Mujahideen in Ijdabiyah. The surprise assault by Italian armoured vehicles on the small fifty-man force of Umar Mukhtar resulted in a brief battle between them that left the Mujahideen with high morale and their adversaries with many of their comrades permanently on the field.
1924 and 1925 both passed with heavy battles, major skirmishes and indecisive encounters for both armies. However, Umar Mukhtar’s name and identity flowered during this period and by 1926 all of Libya had heard of the great military leader.
Between 1923-27, the Italians controlled only Ijdabiyah in one region and tried to break into outside Bareeqa without success. The Libyans remained firmly entrenched in their positions and punished Italian excursions into their territory heavily and launch successful assaults themselves. Using guerrilla tactics and the lure of the Sahara, further and further Italian expeditions were encouraged and mounted into the desert to catch the elusive natives only to result in further losses. In 1928 the Italian army, under new governor, Rodolfo Graziani, however invaded the province of Fezzan. By 1929 the Italian empire was adding more territory and accumulating great wealth.
Graziani ordered the complete destruction of all lands held close to those occupied by the Mujahideen. All non desert regions close to Libyan held areas that could be cultivated, used to grow food and allow animals to pasture were burnt while entire villages and small towns from within (many of whom did not participate in the war) were at first ‘de-populated’ and then razed to the ground as official policy.
Those in the cities and larger towns were transported to concentration camps where disease, deliberate neglect and hunger took its toll on those who had not fallen into battle. If executions did not take you first, Libyans found starvation was a greater adversary. Tens of thousands dropped dead at the camps and were buried day after day within weeks of arriving there.
As actual and possible allies, arable land, oases and livestock became scarcer; the opportunities to hold on to territory and successfully retaliate started to diminish. By 1930 most of Libya was under Italian authority and jurisdiction.
In 1931, Umar Mukhtar was eventually captured himself. His trial was brief and his public execution in September 16th is celebrated across Libya to this day. The following year, the Italians declared the war over. Libya remained an Italian possession until 1943 when it was annexed by the Anti-Axis alliance. Libya was then divided into spheres of influence and governed between separate governments including France and the UK. The new Kingdom of Libya was finally given ‘paper independence’ in 1951.
The new country’s first and only monarch, King Idris Al Senussi, was the same man who had been the nominal head of the Libyan War of Independence some twenty years earlier and knew Omar Mukhtar personally.
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