On 23 October 1911 the nature of warfare changed forever as the new technology of aircraft was used for a darker purpose. As Italian and Ottoman forces clashed around the Libyan city of Tripoli, Italian captain Carlo Piazza took to the skies to observe enemy troop movements.
“Airplane No. 1”
Some might say that it is a depressing comment on human nature that this extraordinary discovery was used to kill other people just eight years after it was discovered. The Wright brothers famously carried out the first heavier than air flight in December 1903 and just five years later they had received their first contract to create a plane that could be used for military reconnaissance.
The aircraft they delivered in June 1909 was listed as “Airplane No. 1, Heavier-than-air Division, United States aerial fleet.” The technological race of aerial warfare had begun, and with astonishing speed all of the world’s major powers were enquiring into the possibilities of aerial warfare. The Italians, however, were the first to put theory into practice as they sought a technological breakthrough in a war against the Ottoman Empire in Libya.
The Italo-Turkish War
The Italian claim over Libya dated back to the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. In the subsequent Treaty of Berlin Italy was allowed to stake a claim over Libya, then part of the declining Ottoman Empire, which has just been soundly defeated by Russia. In 1902 Italian and French ministers got together and Italy were given permission to do what they wanted with Libya.
By 1911 the Italians were envious of the colonial empires of other powers and their press were lobbying the government to finally act on their Libyan claim. The newspapers argued that the province’s Ottoman garrison numbered just 4000 and as the locals were unsympathetic towards their overlords this North African land seemed ripe for the picking.
After initial hesitancy the Italian government agreed to invade despite socialist opposition – and declined an Ottoman offer to let them occupy Libya under whilst Istanbul retained overall control.
The fighting began when Italian warships bombarded the coastal city of Tripoli on 3 October, and then captured it with a small force of sailors. With such a small garrison and access to Libya prevented by land and sea by the British, the only Ottoman response possible was to smuggle brave volunteer officers into the province, who then began to train local Arab and Bedouin troops. However, with 20,000 troops from Italy and the Italian colonies in Eritrea and Somalia, conquests came quickly.
Despite the odds being weighed in their advantage, the Italians met with their first serious difficulties near Tripoli – as a mobile force of Arab cavalry and Ottoman regulars encircled an outnumbered detachment of Italian expeditionary troops. Many of the Italians were massacred, and their bodies hideously mutilated by the vengeful horsemen.
Piazza takes to the skies
With the outcome of this struggle uncertain, Capitano Carlo Piazza took off from Tripoli to observe the fighting. It is impossible how exciting this must have been at the time – as this brave man took off into the unknown in an incredibly primitive plane made of wood and canvas.
In the end this attack proved to be a small setback as the Italians drove the Ottoman troops away, aided by the information brought back by Piazza. As the war continued new innovations came into play, and Sottotenente Giulio Gavotti dropped a bomb on Turkish forces from his aircraft just a week later on 30 October.
Despite these dazzling technological advancements the war itself was fairly static, as the Italians struggled to make real inroads into Libya in the face of firm resistance. However, the Italians retained their coastal possessions such as Tripoli, and in October 1912 the Ottomans were forced to sign a treaty which confirmed that they would remove their troops from Libya.
With much of the province now undefended the Italians seized large chunks over 1913 before the outbreak of the First World War turned their eyes elsewhere.
A new age of warfare
Some historians have argued that the weakness revealed by the Ottomans here helped lead to the Great War as the Balkan States yearned for independence and destabilised the region. The impact of aircraft in the wars of the future requires no such conjecture, and the technological race sped up dramatically over 1914-1918 as the opposing sides desperately searched for new technology capable of winning the war.
By the 1930s incidents like the bombing of Guernica were showcasing the potential aircraft had for killing, and the Second World War was largely decided by which side controlled the skies. After 1911 this new age of warfare – where civilians could be targeted just as easily as front-line soldiers – was a reality.