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The First World War from Tripoli to Addis Ababa (1911-1924)

 | 
Shiferaw Bekele
, 
Uoldelul Chelati Dirar
, 
Alessandro Volterra
, 
et al.

Colonial Policies

Askaris and the Great War. Colonial Troops Recruited in Libya for the War but Never Sent to the Austrian Front

Alessandro Volterra

Résumé

Between January and February 1915 an Ottoman army of 25,000 men tried in vain to invade Egypt. Subsequently the Ottoman Empire gave a hand to any Senussi military activity in neighbouring Cyrenaica (in particular the oases inland of the Libyan-Egyptian border and along the Mediterranean coast). Italy had been at arms with the Senussi resistance since as early as 1914 and had actually been dragged into the world war in Libya way earlier than the official date of 24 May 1915. In light of this, the recruitment policy of Italy and its political and military decisions in the face of war become extremely interesting. This article explores a few key issues: the increased number of soldiers from the Horn of Africa sent to Libya; the Libyan troops sent to Sicily between summer 1915 and spring 1916; and the debate over the use of African troops on the Italo-Austrian front.

Texte intégral

Introduction

  • 1 For an idea of the state of affairs that Italians were facing during this period see Del Boca 2004.
  • 2 In this context, the Jihad proclaimed by Turkey in November 1914 definitely played an important rol (...)
  • 3 Sauer 1932.
  • 4 Italian edition, MacMunn and Falls 1937.
  • 5 Between January and February 1915 the Turkish army had attempted to occupy the Nile Delta and the a (...)

1Contemporary Italian historians spare few words for Libya’s role in the Great War. For the most part they focus on the large scale withdrawal of Italian troops from the coastline, or rather from the main urban centres, after 1914. In fact it is wrong to speak of Libya as a single entity, given that the military situation in Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica followed different patterns. In Tripolitania and Fezzan, Italian troops had been defeated at Wadi Arsi and Sir el Mezza in 1914 and again at Gasr bu Hadi (Qasr Abū Hādī, battle of Qardabiyya)1 in April 1915. This is a clear sign that, even before officially entering the war, Italy was already heavily involved in combat with Turkish forces in alliance with the central European empires.2 The situation in Cyrenaica was more complicated. British intervention on the one side and German backing on the other meant that there were more players involved. Any study of the string of events there can also be based on the history of the German and British fronts, additionally to that of the Italian one. Two examples of this, though there are many more, are the memoirs of Captain Suer,3 and the History of the Great War Based on Official Documents (British Official History).4 Both fronts see the Italian involvement as secondary, almost “marginal.” The most likely reason why the central European empires backed up the Senussi lies in their involvement in a low intensity conflict in the region around the Suez Canal. The Turks had attempted to seize the area in 1915.5

  • 6 On this see Pagano (forthcoming); Biasutti 2004.
  • 7 A chronological insight into the Great War that spans an entire decade, dealing with various Europe (...)

2At the outset, especially in Tripolitania, the Italian High Command attempted to forcibly implement an already tried and tested arrangement that they had used in Eritrea. It was the “politics of the chiefs,” a variation of Šäwan and Tigrean regional politics. In Libya, however, the system did not work, and in the course of the conflict it evolved into the “politics of the qabile,”6 tribal confederacies. The Italian colonial policy of the time was closely tied to political and military events during the First World War. These events open a window on the political situation of the time, and on the military strategy of Italy in Libya. Let us start by looking at the role of Italy in the conflict of 1914. There is absolutely no doubt that the country had already been drawn into the war, in spite of its alleged “neutrality.” Its enemies were easy to spot, not just in the Libyan “rebels” but also in the might of Turkey and Germany. This second point sheds new light on the chronology of the conflict. At least in Africa, the Italian commitment in the war cannot be pinned down to 1915 to 1918. The country had been at war since 1911, in a conflict that was only to end with the “military pacification” of Tripolitania and Fezzan, and the transfer of Jubaland in 1924. For Italy, unlike for other nations caught up in the Great War, not only the conflict in Africa was far from minor, or peripheral to what was a worldwide conflict, but it also lasted much longer.7

On Eritrean, Somali, Ethiopian, Yemenite and Libyan askaris

  • 8 There is a vast bibliography concerning various aspects of colonial troop deployment during the Gre (...)
  • 9 On financial compensations as a means of encouraging recruitment; recruitment as a kind of welfare (...)
  • 10 The majority of available documents are housed in the Archivio dell’Ufficio Storico dello Stato Mag (...)
  • 11 They can be found in the source AUSSME, L7 (Eritrea), Roma, 63, 64, 65, 66, 68 and 71 which contain (...)
  • 12 Eritrean R.C.T.C., Dislocazione e situazione numerica della forza al primo gennaio 1916, documents (...)
  • 13 Eritrean R.C.T.C. Command Memorie storiche per l’anno 1914, 1915, 1916 e 1918. AUSSME, L7, b. 162.
  • 14 Eritrean R.C.T.C. Dislocazione e situazione numerica della forza al primo dicembre 1918. AUSSME, L7 (...)
  • 15 Ufficio Coloniale, promemoria, oggetto: askaris abissini. AUSSME, L7, Rome, b. 184, f. 7, Mixed Eri (...)

3In addition to the above listed elements, there are other details at the heart of this paper that I consider extremely interesting: troop enlistment, in particular the question of the regions these recruits came from; and where these colonial troops were deployed during the conflict.8 There were askaris operational in Libya in all the Royal Corps of Colonial Troops. They were a mix of Libyans, Eritreans and Somali. It is during this period that the nature of the army changed in a way that would deeply affect the colonial policy of Italy, particularly in Eritrea. The army increasingly assumed a leading role as a kind of colonial corporation, hiring its workforce not just locally but from the surrounding regions as well, especially Ethiopia. The relationship between the traditional and this new “modern” society was to change profoundly. The introduction of skilled labour had repercussions on social mobility within the colony.9 To begin with, a brief glance at the documents at hand helps piece together an idea, if only numerical, of the annual revenue generated from enlistments in Eritrea. Amongst these documents,10 the ones concerning the “Strength of Arms”11 are fundamental. The train of events Italy found itself caught up in was often reflected in its recruiting policy of askaris, as these documents show. During the period between the outbreak of the hostilities between Italy and Turkey and the beginning of the First World War, the number of colonial battalions was increased. The occupation of Libya was reflected by an increase in Eritrean recruits. Two important factors come to light in the documents: first, there were an estimated ten thousand Eritreans in the ranks at that time12 (this is a significant number, especially considering the territory the men came from); second, the vast majority of recruits originated from the highlands. The historical memoirs of the Royal Corps of Colonial Troops (R.C.T.C.) include tables referring to discharged askaris serving in the Mobile Militia between 1914 and 1918. Over seventy percent came from the centres of Asmara, Saganeiti and Adi Ugri (today’s Mendefera).13 So great was the Italian need for fresh troops that it was necessary to systematically extend enlistment beyond the borders, into neighbouring regions, above all Ethiopia. In this way, during the First World War, Battalions XIII, XIV and XV were made up of “all elements from across the border, [who were] permanently stationed in Libya, and not a part of the Eritrean R.C.T.C.”14 The same document goes on to report that, at the end of the conflict, there were eighteen battalions which “were numbered progressively following the twelfth already belonging to Eritrea[, and] to distinguish them even better from the first local twelve, known as ‘pure’ or ‘natural’, they were called Eritrean-Libyan up to 1920 and Eritrean-mixed from 1920 onwards”.15 This widespread enlistment opens up interesting new fields of research: what was the reasoning behind the enlistment of these men from Ethiopia? What happened to them after they were discharged and became citizens of Asmara?

  • 16 Private archive in Rome (hereafter ApR), telegram of 12 Apr. 1908, n. 1,008, Reserved, Tittoni to t (...)
  • 17 ApR, telegram of 28 Apr. 1908, n. 1,198, Reserved, Tittoni to the Eritrean Government.
  • 18 Scala 1952, 562.
  • 19 For a strictly military reconstruction see e.g. Appunti 1926, III/1, 14-16; and Appunti 1926, III/3 (...)

4Similar enlistment of indigenous locals from across the colonial border took place in the Somali R.C.T.C. Apart from the usual enlistments in Colonia Eritrea and Ethiopia, in this case, army recruiting offices also worked on the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in Yemen. Already, from the birth of Italian Somalia on 5 April 1908, the recruits were seen as a heterogeneous mass. This can be read into a note sent from the Foreign Minister Tittoni to Salvago Raggi, the then Governor of Eritrea: “I am working with H.M. consulate in Yemen on the enlistment of a further five hundred askaris with over one thousand already recruited […] pray telegraph me, Your Excellency, the number of Eritrean Muslim volunteer askaris that can be sent to Banaadir […].”16 Another telegraph, in the same dossier, confirms that in the end six hundred Eritrean askaris were posted to Banaadir.17 In this phase Somali troops were coordinated into ten autonomous companies.18 Somali troops were also involved in operations in Libya19. Edoardo Scala reports that Major Pàntano:

  • 20 The First Benaadir Battalion was made up of the “8th Eritrean Company and the 13th, 14th and 15th A (...)
  • 21 Scala 1952, 563.

departing from Mogadishu in March 1913 at the head of the First Banaadir Battalion,20 took the contribution of 750 indigenous troops to Tripoli from our colony on the Indian Ocean. This contribution turned out to be extremely effective against the Orfella tribes and then in Cyrenaica, especially in the clashes at Zuwetina and Gedalia. A second battalion set off from Benghasi in the January of the following year under Captain Cimino. In March a third battalion was sent to relieve those nearing the end of their draught. In 1920 they, and the others, went on to form the mixed Eritrean and Libyan XVI Battalion.21

  • 22 From a Telegram sent by Major Malladra and the publication “Bollettino Ufficiale della Somalia Ital (...)
  • 23 the following uncommissioned officers and askari are put forward for an Order of Military Merit: J (...)

5One element that emerges from the documents concerning troops in Libya is that, at least up to the end of the First World War, a very high number of soldiers in the Somali units had been recruited outside of the country. An example of this can be seen in the report of the II Banaadir commander after the clash of arms at Zuwaytīna.22 Among the names he puts forward for an Order of Military Merit there are seven non-commissioned officers and askaris. In only one case the annotation “Somali” is found next to the name.23

6The method of enlistment, freed from colonial borders, highlights a procedure that appears to be innovative (taking into account the total number of recruits), compared to the policy of the military administration of other African colonies. It opens up new fields of research into the social history of the colonies of Italy.

Libyan askaris in Sicily

  • 24 Della Volpe 1996, 1168-1182. Marco Lenci mentions the event in an online article published at: <htt (...)
  • 25 The figure given for the number of Libyans present in Sicily oscillates the whole time they are the (...)
  • 26 There is no doubt that the decision to transfer their families too was dictated by a need to safegu (...)
  • 27 “The suspicion arose that the Libyan troops may have mutinied, and so, to lead them out of temptati (...)

7Between the summer of 1915 and the spring of 1916, troops of the Tripolitania R.C.T.C. received an unprecedented treatment. The event has already been looked into by various scholars,24 whose work also raises the important matter of the use of these colonial troops on the European front. A significant number of Libyan soldiers were transferred to Sicily,25 often accompanied by wives and children.26 There were several reasons for their families to join them. On the one hand it was feared that the troops would mutiny if separated from their loved ones. On the other there was the practical decision to safeguard the latter from possible retaliation on the part of anti-Italian resistance fighters.27

Fig. 1: While events concerning the Italian presence in Africa are photographically documented, there are no snapshots of the Libyan presence in Sicily. An Italian scholar, Gabriele Zorzetto, managed to lay his hands on the photograph album of an Italian officer serving with the III Libyan Battalion between 1914 and 1917, and stationed in Sicily between August 1915 and June 1916. Unfortunately the album does not contain any picture of the “Sicilian Period.” The present picture could date to the period 1915-1916 even if there is no definite clue to confirm this apart from the countryside, which could just as likely be inland Libya. The picture was taken from Gabriele Zorzetto’s private archive, whom I thank.

  • 28 “judge question valid from practical point of view, in our interests win war quickly as possible st (...)
  • 29 “Decided, soon as possible, send somewhere in Sicily two Libyan battalions, three Savari cavalry sq (...)
  • 30 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 122/6, f. 54.Draft of telegram n. 79 of 29 Jul. 1915, sent from Governor Am (...)
  • 31 “Your Excellency please urgently telegraph if, given state of things, You believe it inconvenient t (...)
  • 32Libyan askaris fear hatred of many Eritrean askaris so exclude their transfer with families to Eri (...)
  • 33 Were the one thousand five hundred Libyan askaris to come to the colony these could easily cause d (...)
  • 34 AUSSME, L8, b. 5, f. 19, letter prot. 210 of 2 Sep. 1915, subject: Proposed Libyan troop deployment (...)

8The reason was the military situation in Libya at the time, which had degenerated to a critical level between the spring and the summer of 1915. A series of upsets had brought General Giulio Cesare Tassoni, Governor of Tripolitania, to consider transferring the regular indigenous troops to Italy.28 His successor, General Giovanni Ameglio, came to the same conclusion in July 1915.29 Their desire was to avoid any chance of men being disloyal to their regiment or to simply desert. The troops’ morale was low because they were being forced to “fight against fellow countrymen and even relatives.” On top of this the Libyan askaris “were also somewhat demoralised by the fact that they felt they were mistrusted by the local population.”30 Ferdinando Martini, Minister for the Colonies, also toyed with the concept of stationing them in Eritrea,31 an idea immediately forgotten after the opposition of both Ameglio32 and Cerrina Feroni.33 On the other hand, the idea of transferring the colonial soldiers out of Libya was welcomed with open arms by the High Command, in the person of General Luigi Cadorna. This was in the light of the fact that the idea of using them on the Austrian front was being played with. Cadorna believed that the explanation for such a deployment could be summed up as follows: 1) the moment the news that Libyan troops were being deployed in the war in Italy would be released in the colony, there would be a surge in the number of recruits, just as there had been in Eritrea at the outbreak of hostilities with Turkey; 2) since France and Great Britain had already deployed colonial soldiers, their use by Italy as well would not be seen as a failure to recruit troops in the homeland: “in such a war [writes Cadorna] as vast as the one at present, and with the limitless armies that have stepped into the field, a few colonial battalions are not enough to compensate for a supposed lack of national troops.” On the contrary, Italy would have been able to draw some tangible advantage from her colonies in a moment of national crisis; 3) the Libyan troops would be deployed until autumn at the latest. On their return to the colony, stories of their exploits would encourage further recruits to step forward and take their place in the following spring.34 In response to the reasoning behind the High Command’s request, General Vittorio Zuppelli at the Ministry for War answered in a typically political fashion:

  • 35 AUSSME, L8, b. 5, f. 19, letter prot. 4,869 of 27 Aug. 1915, subject: Proposed Libyan troop deploym (...)

As for Your Excellency’s proposal to deploy the so-called coloured units in the ongoing conflict in Europe, I believed it wise, given the political, and not just military, nature of the matter, to consult His Excellency the President; in principle, he is opposed to the question in matter: 1) The present situation in Libya impedes the transfer of further units from that colony; hence, given that it is impossible to set up the mixed unit indicated by Your Excellency, only one regiment is available; and the figures of this unit are well below battle strength. 2) Given the clearly nationalist nature of our war, the deployment of Libyan askaris could generate a negative impression both in our Country and beyond its borders, making it appear as if there is not enough home manpower to repel the enemy, and we have been forced to rely on colonial troops. 3) On top of this, these troops would have little to offer given the exceedingly short period of time in which they could be deployed. The truth is that with the fall of winter, these men wouldn’t survive the harsh climate, as is opportunely pointed out by this command. 4) In closing, the askaris have their families with them and it would be very difficult to separate the two. The families would inevitably have to be settled in the combat zone, and the serious inconveniences this would cause, for their well being, goes without mention. For the reasons listed above, at least for the moment it would be best to reject the idea Your Excellency puts forward, though recognising and appreciating the advantages that Your Excellency has opportunely illustrated. Minister Zuppelli.35

  • 36 Gerwarth and Manela 2014, 9.
  • 37 Volterra 2015.
  • 38 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, draft of telegram n. 239 of 11 Sep. [1915], sent by Cadorna b (...)

9Another point, raised by Gerwarth and Manela, can be added to the argument: “If a ‘coloured’ man was trained to kill other Europeans, what guarantee was there that he would not one day turn on his own colonial masters?”36 The question brings to light another issue, that of the reliability of colonial troops. This doubt comes to the surface consistently in the higher echelons of the Italian colonial army.37 Despite the fact that his project had been rejected by political authorities, Cadorna attempted to follow it through. In September 1915 he wrote: “this Command requests that preparations be made to transport three Libyan battalions to the war zone once supplied in all haste with a complete set of equipment and winter dress. They will be off loaded at Cervignano.”38

  • 39 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, draft of telegram n. 1,901 of 19 Sep. 1915 from Martini to Ca (...)

10This was an outspoken standpoint openly putting Cadorna on a crash course with the powers that be, especially with the Minister for the Colonies, Martini. From this point on, the available documents of the following months clearly show how the two men stood up to one another, at times in a harshly critical fashion, over what decision was to be made over the deployment of askaris on the Italian front: “As per the resolution of the Cabinet, of which you are aware, I request the suspension of any provisions to send Libyan askaris to the front.”39 Again, in a different document, Martini reiterates that during summer 1915 the Cabinet voted against the deployment of Libyan askaris on the front twice:

  • 40 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, Reserved Letter from Martini to the Government – High Command (...)

the Cabinet voted against sending coloured troops to the front. Following the energetic insistence of the Army Chief of Staff [Cadorna] the question was yet again brought before the Cabinet, who confirmed unswervingly their previous verdict. The Army Chief of Staff was informed of the reasons why the Cabinet voted against.40

  • 41of inspection Colonel Grazioli of High Command Libyan units Sicily under orders Supreme Command. [ (...)
  • 42 Col. Grazioli’s report is found in the appendix to Della Volpe 1996, 1177-1182.
  • 43 Cadorna is so convinced that he is God Almighty that it is impossible to have a reasonable discuss (...)
  • 44As for the askaris presently stationed in Floridia, their commanding officer Colonel Nigra, has to (...)
  • 45 “On 18 this month Cabinet examined two questions over deployment of coloured troops on front and av (...)
  • 46 “In the Cabinet meeting of 18 April last, after a debate it was decided not to send coloured troops (...)
  • 47As for the Eritrean battalions, without going deeply into their indisputable military merit, I mus (...)
  • 48 “consider wise question deployment coloured troops on front be again raised next Cabinet meeting, a (...)
  • 49Cabinet naturally aware of two telegrams from Your Excellency of 22 March n. 112 and 14 May n. 675 (...)

11Cadorna tried again in the spring of 1916, ordering a troop inspection by Colonel Grazioli.41 From a military point of view, the outcome of this inspection42 was substantially positive. Politically, it was once again Minister Martini who voiced his objection43 alongside General Ameglio,44 who had expressed second thoughts about the deployment of the Libyans. On 18 April 1916, the question of sending colonial troops to the front was raised yet again in a Cabinet meeting. For the third time they voted against it.45 Martini’s role was decisive in blocking Cadorna’s initiative. He did not limit himself to pointing out a series of political problems involving Libya, but provided a series of judgements concerning Eritrea as well.46 The oldest colony of Italy was meant to provide about three thousand askaris to set up a colonial brigade to deploy on the front with Austria. Martini picked out a series of problems that could emerge from this.47 Apparently this sour exchange of words between Martini and Cadorna did not come to an end in April 1916. In spite of the Cabinet’s negative decision and the proposal to send the Libyans back to the colony, the War Office, willing to follow Cadorna’s advice, yet again submitted the question to the Cabinet in the following May.48 This was in spite of the “mutated opinion of Governor Ameglio.”49 Ameglio appears to have been under pressure from the High Command in this period, wedged between Minister Martini and General Cadorna. In June 1916 the Libyan troops returned to the colony. This put an end to the dispute between Martini and Cadorna. Martini’s political victory was short lived, however. On 18 June he left his position in the Ministry for the Colonies with the fall of Salandra’s government.

Fig. 2: Three graduates of the III Libyan Battalion taken in Bardia (Bardiya), Cyrenaica, a few weeks after returning to Libya from Sicily (From Gabriele Zorzetto’s private archive)

12There is a considerable pile of documents covering the military and political aspects of the matter. Among the folders of reports and dossiers drafted by various administrative offices, both military and civil, it is possible to pick out a few elements that help shed light on the conditions the Libyan askaris were living in and the evolution of the relationship between the colonial soldiers and the local Italian population. The Libyans had not been in Sicily long before Governor Ameglio himself wrote to the Ministry for the Colonies. He pointed out two important problems that had emerged from the letters the askaris were sending to their relatives in Libya:

  • 50 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, from the Governor of Tripolitania to the Ministry for the Col (...)

The Italy of which the askaris had heard talk of, where they had expected to admire the most marvellous wonders in the world, was unexpectedly cut down to size before their very eyes. Their judgement was based on what they saw before them, visually very similar to Libya, and, what is worse, the sight of poverty, the poverty of our small agrarian communities, more heartrending and indisputable than what they had suffered here (in Libya), on top of that the exasperation of the war, in this world of hardship, coupled with small scale speculation and occasional labour, the odd little world of the askaris has fallen into a snake pit. […] The latter economic delusion runs far deeper and was maybe even more of a surprise, since that up until now the askaris had only met rich Italians, compared to them, who had often been generous to them.50

  • 51 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos 115/3, f. 35. “Relations between askaris and locals are ever more cordial [… (...)
  • 52 The following short passage documents an askari’s theatre trip. It is clear that in their free time (...)

13The Foreign Office archives house a series of reports written between December 1915 and March 1916. They emphasise a series of elements related to the coexistence of the colonial military and Italian civilians. It becomes apparent that the Libyans had to face up to a reality far from the one the Italians they had known back in the colony represented: while in their minds Italy was seen as rich and powerful, what they found in front them was both material and moral misery. The askaris were seen as a possibility to make a fast buck, a chance for a rip off or, for prostitutes, the possibility to take someone for a ride. On top of that, most of them were still single, given the young age of the recruits, and in the reports there is more than one mention of dalliances between colonial soldiers and local women. Obviously, any such relationship was in direct contrast to any principle of the master and servant society at the root of colonialism. One last thing to bear in mind is how the military reports were compiled,51 given the biased nature of their sources. They illustrate a reality where it is clear that one of the major preoccupations was discipline, and subsequently public order (take for example the availability of alcohol to the troops). At the same time, a picture revealing some degree of integration of these Libyan askaris into the everyday life52 of a few small Sicilian communities emerges.

Conclusion

14Research into how much of an impact troop enlistment in the Italian colonies had, the First World War and the decision not to deploy askaris on the European front has opened up a vast and complex new world, where certain topics, here just brushed upon, deserve more in depth analysis: the process of enlistment beyond the colonial confines takes on a more important role than it has been given so far, given the numbers of recruits involved; the impact that this process had on the colonies (the new social mobility that recruitment caused, and the fact that there were new citizens non-native to the colonies in the urban centers of Italian Africa, for example from the Yemen and Ethiopia); the way in which the Italian administration looked at its East African colonies, Eritrea in particular, and their relationship with the Ethiopian Empire. These are arguments that provide important new horizons to aim for, in decidedly more articulated research projects than what this paper offers. This is just a jump board to deeper analysis and reflection.

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Scala, E. 1952. Storia delle Fanterie Italiane, vol. IV, Le fanterie Italiane nelle conquiste coloniali (Roma: Tipografia regionale, 1952).

Scardigli, M. 1996. Il braccio indigeno (Milano: Franco Angeli, 1996).

Tùccari, L. 1994. I governi militari della Libia (1911-1919) (Roma: SME Ufficio Storico, 1994).

Volterra, A. 2005. Sudditi Coloniali. Askari eritrei 1935-1941 (Milano: Franco Angeli, 2005).

Notes

1 For an idea of the state of affairs that Italians were facing during this period see Del Boca 2004.

2 In this context, the Jihad proclaimed by Turkey in November 1914 definitely played an important role. On this point see Aksakal 2016, 53-69.

3 Sauer 1932.

4 Italian edition, MacMunn and Falls 1937.

5 Between January and February 1915 the Turkish army had attempted to occupy the Nile Delta and the area around the Suez Canal. An expeditionary force of 25,000 men had set off from the Sinai Peninsula. This Ottoman army was defeated by British troops stationed in Egypt.

6 On this see Pagano (forthcoming); Biasutti 2004.

7 A chronological insight into the Great War that spans an entire decade, dealing with various European theatres of war including the Irish fight for independence and the Russian Revolution, also emerges from British history books: “The paroxysm of 1914-18 was the epicentre of a cycle of armed imperial conflict that in some parts of Europe began in 1911, with the Italian attack on territories in Northern Africa and the Mediterranean previously controlled by Ottoman Empire, and the Balkan Wars which broke out the following year. Moreover, the massive waves of violence triggered by imperial collapse continued until 1923, when the Treaty of Lausanne defined the territory of the new Turkish Republic and ended Greek territorial ambitions in Asia Minor”, Gerwarth and Manela 2014, 2. Concerning Italian colonial possessions see: Bosworth and Finaldi 2014, 34-51. The broad time span covering the role of Italy in Libya is a topic well documented in Labanca 2012.

8 There is a vast bibliography concerning various aspects of colonial troop deployment during the Great War. Some of the more important works are listed here: special issue of The Journal of African History on World War I and Africa, 19/1, 1978; Killingray 1979; Page and McKinlay 1987; Echenberg 1991; Martin 1997; Lunn 1999; Fogarty 2008; Koller 2008.

9 On financial compensations as a means of encouraging recruitment; recruitment as a kind of welfare benefit in times of economic crisis or starvation; and military specialisation introducing new professional roles, though later on, see: Volterra 2005.

10 The majority of available documents are housed in the Archivio dell’Ufficio Storico dello Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito in Rome (hereafter AUSSME). Other extremely interesting documents can be found in the Archivio Storico Diplomatico del Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale (hereafter ASDMAECI), Rome, and in some private collections. Of note, the dossiers used to produce the five volume report of the Ministry for the Colonies, Direzione Generale degli Affari Politici e dei servizi relativi alle truppe coloniali, La ribellione in Tripolitania nell’anno 1915. Memoria confidenziale (nuovi documenti - maggio 1916), Roma: Tip. del Senato, 1916. Including documents, sketches and maps, some of the documents found in the AUSSME have already been published by Tùccari 1994.

11 They can be found in the source AUSSME, L7 (Eritrea), Roma, 63, 64, 65, 66, 68 and 71 which contain the “Situazioni della forza” (here translated as “Strength of Arms”), though missing several entries, between 1889 and 1920.

12 Eritrean R.C.T.C., Dislocazione e situazione numerica della forza al primo gennaio 1916, documents 6,636 Eritreans in service, as well as the six battalions deployed in Libya at the time (these were Battalions IV, VIII, IX, X, XI and XII. As units at war each one could be made up of between 800 and 1000 men). AUSSME, L7, Roma, b. 71, f. 18, Deployment and Numerical Situation 1916. See also: Eritrean R.C.T.C. Dislocazione e situazione numerica della forza al primo novembre 1918, which documents 7,362 Eritreans in service, to whom the three battalions stationed in Libya at the time have to be added (these were Battalions I, XI and XII). AUSSME L7, Rome, b. 162.

13 Eritrean R.C.T.C. Command Memorie storiche per l’anno 1914, 1915, 1916 e 1918. AUSSME, L7, b. 162.

14 Eritrean R.C.T.C. Dislocazione e situazione numerica della forza al primo dicembre 1918. AUSSME, L7, b. 162.

15 Ufficio Coloniale, promemoria, oggetto: askaris abissini. AUSSME, L7, Rome, b. 184, f. 7, Mixed Eritrean battalions (origins).

16 Private archive in Rome (hereafter ApR), telegram of 12 Apr. 1908, n. 1,008, Reserved, Tittoni to the Eritrean Government.

17 ApR, telegram of 28 Apr. 1908, n. 1,198, Reserved, Tittoni to the Eritrean Government.

18 Scala 1952, 562.

19 For a strictly military reconstruction see e.g. Appunti 1926, III/1, 14-16; and Appunti 1926, III/3, 3-4.

20 The First Benaadir Battalion was made up of the “8th Eritrean Company and the 13th, 14th and 15th Arab Companies.” (“Bollettino Ufficiale della Somalia Italiana”, n. 3, 31 March 1913. ApR, Stralci del “Bollettino Ufficiale della Somalia Italiana” relativi ai reparti di truppe somale inviati in Libia. Anni 1913-1916.)

21 Scala 1952, 563.

22 From a Telegram sent by Major Malladra and the publication “Bollettino Ufficiale della Somalia Italiana”, 3/31, March 1914, we learn that at the time of the occupation of Zuwaytīna the II Benaadir was made up of five companies (including the 13th, 14th and 15th, made up of men from Yemen for the most part) and by the “centuria Amarica”. See Stralci del “Bollettino Ufficiale della Somalia Italiana” relativi ai reparti di truppe somale inviati in Libia. Anni 1913-1916. In ApR.

23 the following uncommissioned officers and askari are put forward for an Order of Military Merit: Jusbasci Ali Samantar; B. Basci Hamed Mohamed Anzi; askaris Nagi Ismail Giumay; askaris Sala Hamed Erzai; askaris Abdù Alì Naclani; askaris Jusuf Alisenghen (Somali); askaris Alì Tabel Genadi […]”. See e.g. ApR, Notizie storiche sul Battaglione somalo in Tripolitania dal 18 novembre 1914 al 9 luglio 1915, 1916, 3 Libya also provided a contribution by sending men to work in Italian factories, about this see Di Pasquale 2009 and Mozzati 2006.

24 Della Volpe 1996, 1168-1182. Marco Lenci mentions the event in an online article published at: <http://www.treccani.it/scuola/tesine/colonialismo_italiano/4.html>, and writes: “An unusual case – still talking about Libya – was that of thousands of Libyan askaris who, in August 1915, their commanding officers fearing they might desert, were embarked on seven steamships and transferred to Syracuse, ending up in a sort of concentration camp in Floridea and Canicattini Bagni with the idea of deploying them in the war in the Alps. This did not happen, and at this point, not having been sent to the Carso highlands or the mountains in Trentino they ended up “run aground” on a Sicilian plain, the askaris were not even permitted to go back to Tripoli: they were held for about a year (interned? exiled?) in Floridia abandoned and left vulnerable to infection and disease.”

25 The figure given for the number of Libyans present in Sicily oscillates the whole time they are there. On their departure – the transfer operation started on 13 August 1915 and ended on the 16 August 1915, the documents talk of 2,554 Libyan askaris with 1,780 family members and an additional 66 officers, of whom one was indigenous (AUSSME, L8, Rome, b. 5, f. 19, letter prot. 16,270 of 21 Aug. 1915, Libyan askaris in Sicily, from the Ministero della Guerra to the Comando Supremo). But after less than a month the troops numbered 2,625 men, said number was “variable because new elements are constantly arriving from Tripoli” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 122/6, f. 54, telegram n. 246 of 11 Sep. 1915, from Commander Floridia to Cabinet Minister for the Colonies). It appears evident that given the need to re-found and enlarge the complement of the units, the chance was seized as described by Governor Ameglio: “continuous numerous presentations Askari either prisoners or indigenous for enlistment have come gathering Tripoli groups re-enlisted askaris and recruits after various weeks summary instruction tested for suitability subsequently sent to respective battalions Floridia. […] To guarantee safety transfer Floridia exploiting escorted steamship. Last transfer of one hundred fifty five askaris on steamship ‘Roma’. Said unit as previous, one nine askaris transferred April seven and another 79 transferred March 29.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 122/6, f. 54, telegram n. 477 of 22 Apr. 1916 from Governor of Tripolitania to the Minister for the Colonies.) In May 1916, a few weeks away from the definitive return to the colony of all of the Libyans, Governor Ameglio again writes: “shall embark […] eighty Libyan askaris newly enlisted and already trained. […] believe it useful said askaris should certainly join battalions to consolidate with units and increase efficiency.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 22/6, f. 54, telegram n. 575 of 5 May 1916 from Governor of Tripolitania to the Minister for the Colonies.) The traffic between Libya and Sicily was not only in one direction. Evidence of this comes in the shape of a letter from the Mayor of Noto to the Chief Magistrate of Syracuse. Dated 24 February 1916, it concerns the “Transport of Arabs and askaris.” It requests details of the expenses incurred sending some colonial subjects back home. The letter is part of a small amount of correspondence concerning the repatriation of “destitute Libyans.” (It was shown to me by Francesca De Pasquale, who has been working for years on Libyans, both civilian and military, in Italy. In Archivio di Stato di Siracusa, Fondo prefettura, b. 2,319, f. Rimpatrio libici 1915-1916.)

26 There is no doubt that the decision to transfer their families too was dictated by a need to safeguard them from potential reprisals. There is also the fact that in the Italian colonies, the presence of families in military encampments, especially those of the Eritrean askaris, was an everyday normality. So much so that the encampments were known as “Family Camps.” For family camps see: Volterra 2005, 165-173; Scardigli 1996, 83-84.

27 “The suspicion arose that the Libyan troops may have mutinied, and so, to lead them out of temptation, it was decided to transfer practically all the regular troops of Tripolitania to Sicily to reorganize them, also in the light of their possible deployment on the Carso front. So, in August of 1915, 2,554 Libyan askaris set off with 1,780 women and children and were billeted in Floridia and Canicattini Bagni. There were four battalions – I, III, IV and V – all with four companies, two mountain batteries […] and two Savari cavalry units, one zaptié patrol unit and an unmounted group of Meharisti camel cavalry. The II Battalion had been virtually wiped out in the clash at Beni Ulid in July 1915. It was dissolved a few days after and its survivors transferred to other units. On 30 April 1916, with the four companies of all the other four battalions present, the battalion was reformed in Sicily. It became clear that the battalions were not adapted for deployment in a war like the one going on in the Carso highlands or along the River Isonzo. Once the units had been reorganised it was decided to send them back to the Colony. Out of caution, when the troops were transferred back in June 1916 they were not stationed in Tripolitania, but in Cyrenaica. The following June the idea of sending two battalions to Palestine was considered. They would have been reinforcements for the Italian troops fighting the Turks in that region. Instead of Palestine, one of the battalions, the IV, ended up in Rhodes towards the end of 1918,” Ales, Crociani and Viotti 2012, 13-14. Of the possible deployment of three Libyan battalions (two from Tripolitania, one from Cyrenaica) in Palestine, there are some details in: AUSSME, L8, b. 40, f. 2, Diari storici del Comando Truppe del Governo della Cirenaica. The project was not carried through, as can be seen in the “Dislocazioni dei Comandi Riparti e servizi” (Deployment of Command Units and service personnel) which lists the units as serving in Libya.

28 “judge question valid from practical point of view, in our interests win war quickly as possible stop For this ends every means be considered useful given that enemy does not hold back using any means even barbarous unjustifiable stop Our answer every means legitimate reprisal and not sign of weakness stop Aspect patriotic intent our war cannot exclude use of coloured troops subjects of the state stop Allies do whose war has patriotic aspect no less than ours stop Also enemy would not hesitate use colonial troops if could stop Therefore proposal General Tassoni if practicably feasible meets my approval stop Pray Your Excellency transmit my positive opinion Ministry for Colonies stop Cadorna” (AUSSME, L8, b. 5, f. 19, Telegram n. 551 of 13 Jul. 1915, from Supreme Commander Cadorna to the War Office Minister Zuppelli).

29 “Decided, soon as possible, send somewhere in Sicily two Libyan battalions, three Savari cavalry squadrons and Zaptié patrols absolutely contrary to disbandment in colony as would pass into enemy hands.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 122/6, f. 54, Telegram n. 40 – Top Secret of 21 July 1915, from Governor of Tripolitania to the Minister for the Colonies.) The same Ameglio, referring to Libyan troops, provides a clear and complex picture of the situation that the colony, and in the same way the askaris, was going through: “must confirm askaris happy accept transfer Italy and commanding officers Libyan units convinced troops also ready take part our war with Austria and given fine level instruction units attained doubtless first class fighting element our eastern front stop Vice versa problem treatment askaris if remain Colony ever more serious doubts of local population in conduct combating Arab mehalle, may occur 9 to 12 during Ramadan, disarmament discharge or similar general measures possible severe consequences reprisals Cyrenaica distressing carried out against troops always fought well and so far shown first class proof of loyalty and valour stop. Finally regarding possible measures mentioned above signal final curtailment installation indigenous units stop Obviously discharge unreliable or dishonest elements already done stop Given present presence Tripoli hired employees evacuate Misurata should be free tomorrow, transport Libyan units Italy made easier stop Governor Ameglio” (AUSSME, L8, b. 5, f. 19, Telegram n. 169 of 6 Aug. 1915, from Governor of Tripolitania to the Minister for the Colonies). This line of political action was further confirmed a few days later in a newsletter, written by Ameglio too, sent to Colonel Nigra and all the officers of the Libyan units transferred to Italy: “The temporary transfer of Libyan units to Italy is an exceptionally important matter of which […] I expect the best results, in an improvement of morale and spirit of Italianness of the non-commissioned officers and askaris, after our political actions in the Colony, where fatal errors have potentially shaken the prestige and faith of this people in our true authority as a civil and humanitarian nation. The Libyan battalions stationed in Italy can only further convince our friends of the generosity of our methods and the sincerity behind our concern for the true well being and civil advancement of this colony. The affectionate and paternal attention of the officers, hand in hand with firm principles and discipline and the unquestionable dignity imposed by the standing and superiority of the race, will have to instill in our coloured friends the concept of the conviction as yet embryonic of the justness of our methods and the high ideals behind our every action both as individuals and as a society. The brotherly hospitality of our compatriots and the – after all spontaneous to our people – dutiful concern for a guest, in spite of them nurturing painful and bitter doubts, will turn them into unquestionable servants – put together to create diehard believers in our country and cause; all of which will instill principals and convictions that, repeated and communicated to distant relatives down here, to friends, acquaintances – especially if they happen to be amongst the rebels – can only go to transform, albeit slowly, the essence of this indigenous environment, which has turned out to be so adverse to us, and wear down the mistrust and breathe life into new, widespread, sentiments of comfort in which only Government action can pave the way towards success. About this Italian propaganda operation which parting from the Libyan units, in the womb of the motherland, can spread to these lands, it is pointless that I insist on showing you its worth and effectiveness; so I warmly recommend all the officers of the Libyan Corps temporarily stationed in Italy, to devote their best attention to the task in hand, to encourage and stimulate their charges to convey in their letters to their fellow countrymen down here, be they with us or in the rebel camp, their sincerest impressions of our environment, of our greatness and of the reality that we have known how to and wanted to create in our motherland to remove them, in this painful moment for their own motherland, from the thankless task of having to potentially counter their own brothers in revolt. All of this without pressurising or insisting, but in a way in which the letters and the propaganda they contain appear spontaneous. Pray give assurance. Governor Ameglio” (AUSSME, L8, b. 5, f. 19, Top Secret Newsletter, prot. n. 281 of 11 Aug. 1915, Subject: Italian propaganda from the Libyan units transferred to Italy, from the Government of Tripolitania – Ufficio Politico Militare (Military Political Office) to Colonel Nigra Cav. Arturo and all Commanders of Libyan units transferred to Italy, in).

30 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 122/6, f. 54.Draft of telegram n. 79 of 29 Jul. 1915, sent from Governor Ameglio to Minister Martini – transmitted on 29 Jul. 1915 by the Ministry for the Colonies Martini to the President of the Cabinet Salandra.

31 “Your Excellency please urgently telegraph if, given state of things, You believe it inconvenient to send Libyan askaris and their families to Eritrea. Martini.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, draft of telegram n. 4,405, of 7 Aug. 1915, Absolute priority – reserved, from the Ministry for the Colonies to the Government of Tripoli.)

32Libyan askaris fear hatred of many Eritrean askaris so exclude their transfer with families to Eritrea. Ameglio.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, draft of telegram n. 183 – reserved – of 7 Aug. 1915 from Governor Ameglio to Ministry for the Colonies.)

33 Were the one thousand five hundred Libyan askaris to come to the colony these could easily cause dangerous and serious repercussions and therefore express opinion, also encouraged by the commander of these troops who I informed of the intentions of this Minister, that this is to exclude by all means. I have come to this recommendation with the following considerations: 1st Given the terrible example of colonial troop discipline it will not stay hidden for long that the real reason why they have been sent here is a fear for their loyalty. 2nd Disruption of the normal disciplinary and administrative procedures with the presence of such a mixed bunch of elements in this troop who already feel a fathomable sense of damaged morale from their lengthy time in Libya. 3rd Inevitable hostile propaganda aimed at us by a population who as I have already mentioned […] tends to give weight to the words of instigators. 4th The chance that representatives from Sudan and Arabia may find among the Libyan askaris fertile terrain for their propaganda. […] 5th The news could not fail to soon spread across the borders, naturally exaggerated and twisted. It would provoke sweeping comments over our intentions of attacking Ethiopia feeding the suspicions and mistrust over both the real reasons easily deducible from the unexpected deployment of said troops thus confirming voices already circulating in Ethiopia and the Colonies about our unhappy situation in Libya. This suspected bullying across the border would thus be a new incitement to move against Eritrea, convinced Italy, as seriously committed in Europe as in Libya, would be unable to send reinforcements from the motherland to defend Eritrea. I therefore hope that Eritrea will be spared this new and more serious calamity and that these Libyan askaris may find better deployment in Italy or some garrison in Cyrenaica. I would be just as grateful if His Excellency Governor Salvago were consulted on the matter. Cerrina,” Giovanni Cerrina Feroni substituted Giuseppe Salvago Raggi as Governor of Eritrea on 17 Aug. 1915. This long telegram, which introduces a series of political reflections on the social situation in Colonia Eritrea, and the latter’s relationship with nearby Ethiopia, was written during the period of the handover between the two. (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, draft of telegram n. 14,419 – urgent – of 9 Aug. 1915, from the Governing Body of Colonia Eritrea to the Ministry for the Colonies.)

34 AUSSME, L8, b. 5, f. 19, letter prot. 210 of 2 Sep. 1915, subject: Proposed Libyan troop deployment in the war in Italy, from Chief of H.M. Army to Supreme Command.

35 AUSSME, L8, b. 5, f. 19, letter prot. 4,869 of 27 Aug. 1915, subject: Proposed Libyan troop deployment in the war in Italy, from War Minister Zuppelli to Chief of H.M. Army.

36 Gerwarth and Manela 2014, 9.

37 Volterra 2015.

38 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, draft of telegram n. 239 of 11 Sep. [1915], sent by Cadorna but with no recipient, probably the Minister that the message reached was the one for the Colonies.

39 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, draft of telegram n. 1,901 of 19 Sep. 1915 from Martini to Cadorna.

40 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, Reserved Letter from Martini to the Government – High Command – Tripoli on 25 Sep. 1915, subject Libyan askaris.

41of inspection Colonel Grazioli of High Command Libyan units Sicily under orders Supreme Command. […] stayed two days witnessed two night and day exercises various divisions hand thrown gelignite pipe grenades for trench warfare and barbed wire. Invited to observe short field exercises all divisions located in two different places question of deployment. H.M. Colonel telegraphed armed corps: ‘fully satisfied special training programme ordered by Supreme Command and admired discipline military spirit this marvellous troop.’ ‘Colonel Nigra’. Ameglio.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 122/6, f. 54, telegram n. 283 of 13 Mar. [?] 1916, from Governor of Tripolitania to the Ministry for the Colonies. “Communicate following telegram reached Floridia: ‘Duty bound report Supreme Command notifies personnel to be sent to these troops to instruct askaris use of hand thrown gelignite pipe grenades. Said fact prelude to deployment of troops need to provide for families field equipment supply trains and pay rise for askaris. F. to Colonello Nigra’.) “This Government has received nothing on matter being contrary to deployment of Libyan troops on front given present political situation in Colonia pray inform War Office and Supreme Command in case deployment of Libyan troops is now among intentions of authorities. Ameglio.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, draft of telegram n. 112, Top Secret, of 22 Mar. 1916, from Governor of Tripolitania to the Ministry for the Colonies. This telegram is repeated word for word in the Diary of Ferdinando Martini.)

42 Col. Grazioli’s report is found in the appendix to Della Volpe 1996, 1177-1182.

43 Cadorna is so convinced that he is God Almighty that it is impossible to have a reasonable discussion with him: he now wants the Libyans in Floridia to massacre. Is there any way of making him see that their massacre could create serious problems and new revolts in Libya and Tripoli itself? And Ameglio, who had said these troops wanted to fight for Italy but now wants to keep them in Sicily, what kind of a figure does he cut?” (Ministry for the Colonies 23 March 1913 in Martini 1966, 664 (De Rosa). This page of Ferdinando Martini diary is also cited by Del Boca 1986, 300-301.)

44As for the askaris presently stationed in Floridia, their commanding officer Colonel Nigra, has to say, out loud, explicitly, that these are not suitable for the type of warfare in course (barbed wire, trenches etc), and that to deploy them would be to expose them to a definite and desolate massacre. It cannot escape Your Excellency’s mind the terrible political repercussions that such an event would have in Libya, threatening to hinder future recruitment and annul the useful results that begin to be seen from the political operations so patiently carried out to regain control of an abandoned country. Also recently, General Ameglio, communicating […] a telegram [of] Colonel Nigra, which notified the reception from Supreme Command, orders to prepare those askaris for a forthcoming deployment on the front, confirmed he was resolutely contrary to such a use of the Libyan troops, also given the current political situation in the colony, asking that the Ministry for the Colonies and the Supreme Command be informed of his opinion, were such an application for the Libyan troops in the real intentions of those authorities. […] Martini.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, letter prot. 3,093 of 15 Apr. 1916, Top Secret and Urgent, from the Ministry for the Colonies to the Cabinet President.)

45 “On 18 this month Cabinet examined two questions over deployment of coloured troops on front and availability of white troops in Libya to send to front. On first point, Cabinet’s view decidedly against. Therefore necessary to send home Libyan troops stationed Floridia.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, draft of telegram n. 2,461, Top Secret, of 20 Apr. 1916, from the Ministry for the Colonies to the Governor of Tripolitania.)

46 “In the Cabinet meeting of 18 April last, after a debate it was decided not to send coloured troops to the front. After which I telegraphed General Ameglio and after receiving Your Excellency’s letter of 27 April last, I urged the necessity to remove the Libyan battalions from Italy and wrote to Your Excellency, praying you to give the necessary orders to the commanding officer of the Military Corps in Palermo to encourage the transport of these. […] It is no longer possible to go back on these orders, which must be carried out, unless you wish to profoundly unsettle the delicate situation in Cyrenaica or halt General Ameglio’s measures to send Italian troops back to the motherland. […] In the meantime I renew the request to encourage the transference of the Libyans to Cyrenaica, as requested by General Ameglio […].If, as it seems, the Supreme Command wish to present a new proposal for the deployment of a brigade of coloured Libyan and Eritrean troops on the front different to that which have thus far been their requests universally believed to be unfitting […] there is a need to bear in mind there’s a risk of damaging Libya and Eritrea with the present conditions they are in and Cyrenaica and Tripolitania and Eritrea together without reaping advantage from our troops stationed at the front, leaving those of our colonies in a constant situation of uncertainty, and, possibly, generating in the askaris themselves, knowledgeable as they are by now of the constant shift of opinion of the Government, a sense of mistrust which clearly won’t contribute to their stability. Martini.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 122/6, f. 54, draft of letter, Top Secret-Urgent, prot. 3,927 of 11 May 1916, from the Ministry for the Colonies to the War Office.)

47As for the Eritrean battalions, without going deeply into their indisputable military merit, I must, for my part, show myself as decidedly against their deployment on the front, as I cannot take the responsibility of lessening their number in Libya, against the will of the Governor, also in the light of the imminent occupation of the port of Bardia, for which the deployment of Eritrean troops is foreseen and necessary. […] the question over Ethiopia is still in the dark; from secret documents we have come to know that some of the great chiefs of the Empire have it in mind to attack Eritrea, were the opportunity to arise. The small rains haven’t yet started in Eritrea, and distancing the indigenous battalions would weaken our defences and may encourage those vague intentions to mutate, across the border, into decidedly menacing and hostile intentions without mentioning that that would generate the worst of appearances in Ethiopia where the mentality of those peoples as well as the ruling élite would, without a doubt, see the participation in our war, of coloured troops, as our weakness in just the same light as they saw a Russian military weakness when the Russian government asked the Ethiopian government to sell them the Russian weapons sold to them by Japan. There are also practical considerations which recommend a continuation of the determination shown by the Cabinet. The low number (about 3,000, officers and ordinary ranks included) of Libyan troops available in Floridia (there are about 3,200 Eritreans), the as yet unstable Libyan discipline, the lawless nature they have shown in Italy especially towards women, the suggestion that the troops be followed to the front by indigenous women, causing new problems to avoid greater ones, and, lastly, the climactic conditions of the places where they would have to operate, completely unsuited to the Libyans themselves, all of this would lead to, whatever the case, a mediocre material performance that would not compensate the unavoidable damage to morale deriving from their participation in our war. It’s worth citing what happens in England and France, countries with numerous coloured troops, disciplined, well placed and stable: all qualities which the Libyan troops leave wanting. Summing up, taking into account the various considerations I’ve voiced, my opinion on the question is in concordance with that already expressed by the War and Foreign Offices and by Your Excellency... Martini.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, letter prot. 3,093 of 15 April 1916, Very Urgent-Top Secret, from the Ministry for the Colonies to the Cabinet President.)

48 “consider wise question deployment coloured troops on front be again raised next Cabinet meeting, and as such also to Your Excellency, meantime obvious, postpone order transport Libyan askaris Sicily to Cyrenaica. Morrone.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 122/6, f. 54, telegram n. 4,694-G of 12 May 1916, from War Office to the Ministry for the Colonies.) To which Martini’s dry response: “Cabinet meeting question Libyan askaris again discussed confirmed previous resolution, that is, coloured troops not deployed on front but return to Libya. Of this War Office to inform Supreme Command. Martini.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 122/6, f. 54, telegram n. 3008 Urgent of 15 May 1916, from the Ministry for the Colonies to the Governor of Tripolitania.)

49Cabinet naturally aware of two telegrams from Your Excellency of 22 March n. 112 and 14 May n. 675 concerning deployment Libyan askaris on front. Pray tell reasons behind Your Excellency’s change of opinion over said deployment from both military and political points of view. Given government’s strong line of not sending coloured troops to front and Your Excellency not believing opportune return of Libyans to Tripoli three solutions remain, continued stay of blacks in Italy, decision that should by now have been excluded for complex series of reasons Your Excellency knows; disbandment, something that given the confirmed quality of the troops would be most serious loss to Colony for foreseen Corps of colonial troops Libya; last resort send them to Cyrenaica. Your Excellency opted for last solution. On my behalf I was and am not immune to the preoccupations casting shadow over your telegram 675, especially with actual delicate situation Cyrenaica; am certain, however, Your Excellency will want to take every chance possible to ensure these are transferred to garrisons which, the coastal ones for example, I believe less hazardous, more isolated, easier to patrol and easier to get out of. Also call Your Excellency’s attention to it being opportune in places where Libyans will be stationed strength of Italian troops be superior than theirs. Martini.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 122/6, f. 54, telegram 3,036 secret of 16 May 1916 from the Ministry for the Colonies to the Governor of Tripolitania.) “confirm what expressed to Your Excellency in last telegram that Libyan units if deployed on front would be better prepared militarily than two months ago as for their gradual transfer to the colony today’s situation [illegible] am less confident than last March. Libyan units stationed in Cyrenaica as established and communicated by myself […] their distribution in various garrisons turns out following parameters of convenience, and security following regulation that strength of Libyan unit never more than quarter of garrison strength. Regulation fuelled by lengthy colonial experience result that indigenous troops not fully trusted for loyalty. Ameglio.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 122/6, f. 54, draft of telegram n. 816 of 17 May 1916, from the Governor of Tripolitania to the Ministry for the Colonies.)

50 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, from the Governor of Tripolitania to the Ministry for the Colonies, 18 Sep. 1915, prot. 1,363, subject: Libyan askaris.

51 ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos 115/3, f. 35. “Relations between askaris and locals are ever more cordial […] I have noted however that some askaris show signs of wishing to convert to Christianity and some women to baptise children. I have informed all unit commanders of the serious consequences that could result from any such event and they are to insure that it doesn’t happen.” (Letter from Indigenous Battalion Group Command – signed by Group Commander Col. Nigra – to the Ministry for the Colonies, of 31 Dec. 1915, prot. 18, subject: Monthly Report.) “The locals, who draw from the permanency of the troops in these towns, a substantial profit, treat the askaris in return with considerable cordiality, as far as can be seen between the two parties there is a genuine wave of sympathy. As an immediate consequence of this fact […] many intimate relationships have sprung up between askaris and local women, but all of this is forbidden in the name of discretion; the military authorities find it hard to combat the incitements the askaris are receiving from all sides.” (Letter from Indigenous Battalion Group Command – signed by Group Commander Col. Nigra – to the Ministry for the Colonies, of 31 Jan. 1916, subject: Monthly Report.) “The only cause of absenteeism is wine, and no matter how much is done, it is always extremely difficult to keep the askaris from the greed of local profiteers who want to sell at all costs. […] Relations between askaris and locals are consistently excellent but by now perhaps too intimate. The good askaris, educated, friendly, enticed by the good humoured encouragement of the locals is happy to accept invitations to visit the commoners’ homes; often it’s only too late that he realises that many times these are a secret intention to sell him something or to forge a relationship with him of an intimate nature for profit. All of this means that yes, relationships are more cordial, but at times they can be damaging from the effects of the wine or the abuse of women.” (Letter from Indigenous Battalion Group Command – signed by Group Commander Col. Nigra – to the Ministry for the Colonies, of 29 Feb. 1916, subject: Monthly Report for February.) “there are complaints that many intimate relationships have been forged between the askaris in Floridia and local women, immediate direct measures are required to put an end to said contacts.” (Letter from the Ministry for the Colonies – Director General Political Affairs – Libya Office of the War Office – Secretary General, 8 March 1916 n. 1,699 Reserved.) “in Solarino and Avola two cases have been signalled of askaris brawling with civilians but in neither case was there an assault, and at the inquest in this respect it was always clear that the askaris had reacted to provocation having been picked out by disreputable persons […] Of the excessive intimacy forged between askaris and Italian women in Solarino which resulted in the transfer elsewhere of that battalion, proof came to light when entire families, single women and girls [the word ragazze is semi-legible and may be ragazzi, referring to boys] from Solarino tried to follow the unit and settle down in the new location in Marina di Avola. They were, however, made to return home. All that lives on of this is postal correspondence which thanks to the Officers is blocked, so that the relationships will finish by fading away. […] Regrettably unscrupulous men constantly accompany women of easy virtue to the vicinity of the encampments in an attempt to lure the askaris.” (Letter from Indigenous Battalion Group Command – signed by Group Commander Col. Nigra – to the Ministry for the Colonies, of 31 Mar. 1916, prot. 2,208, subject: Monthly Report).

52 The following short passage documents an askari’s theatre trip. It is clear that in their free time they could go and enjoy themselves in the town centres without the escort of Italian military personnel. “On the evening of the 26 in Avola as some askaris were leaving the theatre a pistol shot was heard; at the same moment an askaris was lightly wounded in the face. The reason for the gesture is (as yet) unknown; the askaris though surprised remained calm and dignified. He or they that had inflicted the wound vanished. […] The results of the inquest are expected […] at the moment it seems to have been isolated, thoughtless, pointless, and without consequences.” (ASMAECI, ASMAI II, pos. 115/3, f. 35, news clip – no date or recipient, it was probably attached to one of the reports – signed Col. Nigra.)

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1: While events concerning the Italian presence in Africa are photographically documented, there are no snapshots of the Libyan presence in Sicily. An Italian scholar, Gabriele Zorzetto, managed to lay his hands on the photograph album of an Italian officer serving with the III Libyan Battalion between 1914 and 1917, and stationed in Sicily between August 1915 and June 1916. Unfortunately the album does not contain any picture of the “Sicilian Period.” The present picture could date to the period 1915-1916 even if there is no definite clue to confirm this apart from the countryside, which could just as likely be inland Libya. The picture was taken from Gabriele Zorzetto’s private archive, whom I thank.
URL http://books.openedition.org/cfee/docannexe/image/1400/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 872k
Légende Fig. 2: Three graduates of the III Libyan Battalion taken in Bardia (Bardiya), Cyrenaica, a few weeks after returning to Libya from Sicily (From Gabriele Zorzetto’s private archive)
URL http://books.openedition.org/cfee/docannexe/image/1400/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 819k

Auteur

Dipartimento di Scienze Politiche, Università degli Studi Roma Tre

© Centre français des études éthiopiennes, 2018

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