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A Box of Sand - The Italo-Ottoman War 1911-1912
The First Land, Sea and Air War
This is the first book in the English language to offer an analysis of a conflict that, in so many ways, raised the curtain on the Great War. In September 1911, Italy declared war on the once mighty, transcontinental Ottoman Empire – but it was an Empire in decline. The ambitious Italy decided to add to her growing African empire by attacking Ottoman-ruled Tripoli (Libya). The Italian action began the rapid fall of the Ottoman Empire, which would end with its disintegration at the end of the First World War. The day after Ottoman Turkey made peace with Italy in October 1912, the Balkan League attacked in the First Balkan War.
The Italo-Ottoman War, as a prelude to the unprecedented hostilities that would follow, has so many firsts and pointers to the awful future: the first three-dimensional war with aerial reconnaissance and bombing, and the first use of armoured vehicles, operating in concert with conventional ground and naval forces; war fever whipped up by the Italian press; military incompetence and stalemate; lessons in how not to fight a guerrilla war; mass death from disease and 10,000 more from reprisals and executions. Thirty thousand men would die in a struggle for what may described as little more than a scatolone di sabbia – a box of sand.
As acclaimed historian Charles Stephenson portrays in this groundbreaking study, if there is an exemplar of the futility of war, this is it. Apart from the loss of life and the huge cost to Italy (much higher than was originally envisaged), the main outcome was to halve the Libyan population through emigration, famine and casualties.
The Italo-Ottoman War was a conflict overshadowed by the Great War – but one which in many ways presaged the horrors to come. A Box of Sand will be of great interest to students of military history and those with an interest in the history of North Africa and the development of technology in war.
Charles Stephenson is a naval and military historian and is the author of several books including The Admiral’s Secret Weapon: Lord Dundonald and the Origins of Chemical Warfare (2006) and Germany’s Asia-Pacific Empire: Colonialism and Naval Policy, 1885-1914 (2009) as well as numerous studies on fortifications and castles. He has been described as being ‘among the world’s leading maritime historians’ and has written articles for History Today magazine and Casemate, the magazine of The Fortress Study Group. He lives in North Wales.
A five-minute interview with Charles Stephenson, author of 'A Box of Sand'
The Tattered Flag: Charles, many thanks for your time. ‘A Box of Sand’ is an impressive work of military history in its scope and detail and must have taken considerable research. How did your interest in military history come about?
Charles Stephenson: That’s definitely the $64,000 question. I can’t answer it simply; history in general has always fascinated me, and I don’t think military history can be properly understood without taking into account the various political, social, diplomatic, and no doubt several other factors, that impinge upon it. For me context is all.
TF: So why the Italo-Ottoman War? What was it that motivated you to write about it?
CS: For some reason it is the lesser known episodes that hold me in thrall. I seem to be drawn to what a reviewer of one of my earlier works called the ‘obscure yet interesting.’ Perhaps it is because there is so relatively little, or at least in English, on the conflict that drew me to it. I think I first set eyes on it, as it were, when writing about Gunther Plüschow, who participated in the first ever air-to-air combat over China in 1914. Whilst researching his exploits I discovered that the first combat bombing missions had taken place a few years earlier in what is now Libya. It planted a seed, as one might put it, and the desire to know more came from that.
TF: Do you think the war could have been averted by the involvement by other Powers?
CS: There were two, maybe three, powers that could, had the political will existed, have stopped the Italians in their tracks; Britain was one and Austria-Hungary the other, though France might also be included. However, the entire Italian campaign was predicated on exploiting the ‘wriggle room,’ as it might be termed today, between the two Great Power blocs. Neither of her formal allies, Germany and Austria-Hungary, were willing to put too much pressure on the Italian government for fear of driving it into the arms of the opposing bloc. Conversely, the British, French and Russian governments had no desire to do anything that would cement Italy’s alliance with their potential enemies.
TF: Were lessons learned by the Great Powers from the Italo-Ottoman War?
CS: There weren’t that many to be learned. Virtually the entire conflict was asymmetrical (in today’s terminology), inasmuch as the Italians tried to fight a conventional war whilst the Ottomans and local Arab and Berber forces resisted by adopting guerrilla methodology in the main. There was no opposition to Italian naval preponderance, so with command of the sea the Regia Marina could do more or less what it liked, including an abortive attack into the Dardanelles. Whilst very minor in itself, this might have offered some pointers for potential future operations in that neck of the woods.
TF: Did the Italians use combined arms effectively?
CS: I think so. They became adept at conducting sophisticated amphibious landings, which their command of the sea allowed them to undertake almost at will. Such operations are though inherently hazardous, even with accurate intelligence as to enemy whereabouts and strength. On several occasions ‘dummy’ landings were carried out, or at least the threat of them made, and when these drew the attention of Ottoman land-forces the real operation took place where the enemy wasn’t, as it might be phrased. Though Italian accounts are pretty much silent on the matter, it is probably the case that one or two landings were seen off. Because of the techniques they had developed, of landing only a small force to secure the beachhead before the main force was despatched, these did not though result in disasters. They also made use of aircraft, the first time this had been done in warfare, and the relative success of these very much pointed to the future. It is probably no exaggeration to say that, in terms of reconnaissance at least, airpower, both of the lighter and heavier than air variety, was very useful.
TF: You have written about castles and fortifications: were they used to any extent in the Italo-Ottoman War?
CS: Both sides, though mainly the Italians, constructed quite extensive earthworks in Tripoli (Libya), though of course nothing like on the scale that was to be seen on the Western Front a few years later. The art or science of fortification, depending upon how one views it, was not though much called upon during the course of the war in that theatre. The Italians generally dug themselves in around their coastal enclaves, and their enemy had not the artillery to dislodge them. The forts and batteries of the Dardanelles saw some action, and Italian naval forces were sensibly nervous of them.
TF: Aside from military history, you also write fiction: which do you enjoy most, as a writer?
CS: About equal I would say. They engage different parts of the brain, though since I have written only historical fiction thus far I haven’t wandered too far from my comfort zone. I’d love to do something like Lord of the Rings but don’t think I have the skills or imagination.
TF: ‘Desert island’ time: one work of military history and one work of fiction; what would they be?
CS: Very, very, difficult, but if forced to choose I’d go forBarbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (aka 1914) and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
TF: Very many thanks for your time, Charles.