Ten Biggest Battles of the 19th Century


Battle Year Combatants Outcome
Nanjing, China



Taiping Rebellion (Qing victory)
Siege of Paris, France



Franco-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Leipzig, Germany



Napoleonic wars (Allied victory)
Sadowa, Czech Republic



Austro-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Dresden, Germany



Napoleonic wars (French victory)
Siege of Metz, France



Franco-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Sedan, France



Franco-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Solferino, Italy



2nd Italian war (French / Sardinian victory)
Gravellotte, France



Franco-Prussian war (French victory)
Wagram, Austria



Napoleonic wars (French victory)


The question of which was the largest war of the 19th century is a matter of some debate, however broadly speaking, in scale, cost and impact, the biggest four were probably –

  1. The Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815)
  2. The Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864)
  3. The American Civil War (1861 – 1865)
  4. The Franco Prussian War (1870 – 1871)

Although the Franco-Prussian war has many of the century’s largest battles, it was relatively short in duration containing a small number of large battles, most fought on the frontier – as a contest it was over within three months, although the siege of Paris continued into the following year. The American Civil War, by comparison, had more soldiers (about 3m), but lasted much longer (4 years) and consisted of a large number smaller battles (nearly 400). The largest battle of that conflict was the Seven Days which had 195,000 combatants – about the same as Waterloo, but neither make it onto the list above. Neither do two other decisive battles of the 19th century – Austerlitz (1805) and Gettysburg (1863); both of which had about 170,000 combatants although Gettysburg lasted much longer, 3 days, whilst Napoleon needed just 8 hours to annihilate Kutuzov at Austerlitz.

The Battle of Nanjing, China (1864)

The 3rd battle of Nanjing was the decisive engagement of the Taiping Rebellion, which raged across southern China from 1850 to 1864, the latter stages occurring at the same time as American Civil War. About 1,000,000 government troops, loyal to the ruling Qing dynasty, fought about 500,000 well-armed Taiping rebels.

The Qing (“ch-ing”), known in western histories as the Manchu, had ruled China since the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 and were originally from Manchuria, being of a separate ethnic group to the majority Han. Qing power reached its zenith in the early 18th century, particularly under the 61 year reign of the Kangxi Emperor and formed the basis of what is now the territorial area of modern China. During the early and mid 19th century a combination of natural disasters, economic stagnation and disastrous wars against more technologically advanced foreign powers, such as the British who annexed Hong Kong, had substantially eroded Qing authority.

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom grew from a quasi-religious, millenarian cult founded by Hong Xiuquan (“hung hsiu-chuan”) in Guangxi province during the 1840’s. Hong had been an applicant for the Imperial Civil Service the previous decade who had locally been exposed to the preaching of Christian missionaries, and possessed a Chinese translation of the bible. Although he paid little attention to Christianity at the time, when in 1836 he failed the entrance examinations for the 4th time (not so strange, the pass rate was less than 5%) the failure brought on a period of intense depression which culminated in a nervous breakdown during which he claimed to have experienced a spiritual revelation during a series of dreams. He interpreted this experience as a divine summons to rid China of “demon worship” and came to believe that he was a re-incarnation of the younger brother of Jesus Christ and began preaching among the local community of the Hakka ethnic group, of which we was a member. He laid out a quasi-Christian philosophy that included common ownership of property, equality for women (but also strict separation of the sexes) and the destruction of Buddhist and Confucian symbols and images. By 1840, the sect had as many as 40,000 followers and attracted the attention of the Qing authorities who attempted to violently supress it, leading eventually to civil war.

The revolt proper began in Guangxi province in 1850 when a 10,000 strong Taiping force attacked and captured the town of Jintian (present day Guiping). The Qing government, already heavily committed in the 2nd Opium War against the British, failed to quell the revolt and by 1853 and the rebels had occupied Nanjing and declared it their capital, changing its name to Tianjing (“heavenly capital”). The Heavenly Kingdom expanded its control over more of south east China and attempted to enlist the support of European powers, but were rebuffed. In 1860 they attempted to take the city of Shanghai, but were repulsed by Qing forces, by now trained and advised by a small number European officers, and a slow painful fightback by the government began.

By 1864, most of the rebel area had been re-occupied and the Qing, by now with the support of western powers, prepared to re-take Nanjing. By June, Nanjing had been surrounded and was preparing for siege when Hong suddenly died, most likely of food poisoning. With a force of 500,000 Qing troops against of maybe 400,000 in the city a bitter struggle erupted in the outer suburbs as government troops took the city gates and bridges one-by-one, eventually capturing the city on the 19th of July, and carrying out a massacre of the inhabitants in which as many 100,000 may have been killed. The fall of Nanjing effectively destroyed the Taiping army and, although sporadic resistance and interlinked rebellions in neighbouring provinces continued for several years afterwards, the Heavenly Kingdom collapsed with the fall of the city.

The Taiping rebellion may well have been the largest and bloodiest civil war in all human history, although the Napoleonic wars in Europe were a larger scale conflict. Both sides engaged in the destruction of urban commercial centres and rural agricultural production, including the massacre of inhabitants, as an economic warfare tactic; as many as 600 major towns and cities were destroyed in this way. It has been estimated that as many as 20-30m people died during the conflict – to put that in context, it is more than the total Soviet Union war dead, civilian and military, during the whole of the second world war.

Always an avowedly peasant and working class movement, the Taiping were referenced in later Chinese history by both nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen and communist Mao Tse Tung as examples of the power of ordinary Chinese to stand up to a decaying and corrupt imperial system. Although victorious in the rebellion, the Qing dynasty was gone within 50 years; the last emperor, Pu Yi, was overthrown in 1912 and China became a republic after 2,000 years of rule by the Emperors.

Siege of Paris (1870)

At the outset of the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870, France was led by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III (nephew of Napoleon I). Although elected as president of the Second Republic in 1848, he seized power in a bloodless coup-d’état in 1851 and crowned himself Emperor, initiating the short lived Second Empire. He had already fought a successful war in Italy to aid the Italian nationalists in ejecting the Austrian army from northern Italy and speeding Italian Unification as well his attempt to install Maximillian Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico; he was also the prime mover in the coalition that fought Russia in the Crimean war.

Prussia was then a monarchy under William I, but real power lay in the hands of his formidable Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Territorially enlarged from wars with Austria and Denmark, and rapidly industrialising – Prussia was the “Tiger” economy of 19th century Europe, riding a wave of German nationalism as head of the North German Confederation – a growing and ever present threat to the pre-eminence of France in European power politics.

When war broke out in 1870, the French appeared the stronger side – the two armies where evenly matched in size (900,000 French v 1.2m Prussians, Wurttenburgers and Bavarians), but the French had the interior lines and a much shorter route to the frontier. In addition, the French army was 50% regular troops, whilst the bulk of German force was conscript. In weapons the French had a clear advantage – the German Dreyse rifle that had decimated the Austrians at Sadowa was now outclassed by the French Chassepot – the best in the world; also the French possessed the Mitrailleuse, an early form of machine gun. The Prussians for their part had the steel barrelled breech loading Krupp six-pounder artillery piece that fired contact detonating shells, whilst the French still used bronze cast muzzle loaders. The greatest advantage the Prussians had however was their leaders – they had the only professional general staff in Europe – the speed and efficiency of their mobilisation plus their adaptable tactics where to prove the decisive factor from day one.

Only partly mobilised and badly organised, the French Army of the Rhine was divided into two wings – one under Marshall McMahon and accompanied by Louis Napoleon; the other, commanded by Marshall Bazaine and under huge political pressure, attacked first and crossed the border to occupy the manufacturing town of Saarbrucken. Rapidly outnumbered by the speedy Prussian mobilisation, the French fell back fighting a series of rear-guard actions as the Prussians, many deployed by rail, started to pour across the border. The fast moving Prussian columns surrounded them and used their superior artillery to destroy most of the French army at the catastrophic defeats of Metz and Sedan in September 1870, after just 3 months of war, with Louis Napoleon himself among the captured. Von Moltke is reputed to have said to a captured French officer after Sedan “If my army had your rifles, I would have won this war in three weeks, and if your army had my generals then you would have won in two weeks!”

What was left of the French army fell back into the defences of Paris. Completely cut off from outside supplies and able to communicate only by hot air balloon or carrier pigeon, the French held out from Sept until January of the following year, by which time much of Paris had been damaged by artillery bombardment and food was running out. The city was surrounded by 240,000 regulars of the pan German force and its defences contained 200,000 French regulars, plus another 200,000 militia and sailors; 640,000 in total. French defeat brought about German re-unification plus the loss of Alsace – Lorraine and a huge indemnity (5 billion francs); the re-building of Berlin was paid for largely with the French indemnity. The most important consequence however was the proclamation of the 19th century German Empire – the Second Reich – in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

Dresden and Leipzig (1813)

The four day battle fought near Leipzig, Germany in October 1813 was also known as the Battle of the Nations, and was far the largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, and the largest pitched battle of the whole century. It was the decisive engagement of the Sixth Coalition war, fought by the allied powers to finish off Napoleon after his defeat in Russia. Just two weeks after Napoleon’s return from Russia a coalition formed consisting of Russia, Prussia, Austria, Great Britain, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Sicily and Sardinia to capitalise on his defeat and finish him off. Napoleon, who still had a few allies (Kingdom of Italy, Duchy of Warsaw, Naples, Denmark-Norway, Switzerland, Confederation of the Rhine) was able to put 900,000 troops into the field against about 1 million allied troops, although this number swelled as the war went on and Napoleon’s allies began to defect – the allies swelled to 1.2m, whilst Napoleon’s army reduced to 400,000.

The war was fought on three fronts. In Dec 1813, Swedish troops attacked the Danes in Holstein and fought the battles of Bornhoved (Swedish victory) and Sehested (Danish victory). By the terms of a separate treaty after the war in 1814, Denmark was forced to cede Norway, which had been previously ruled by Sweden during the 17th century. The Norwegians however rejected this and declared independence and this led to a Swedish invasion of Norway which restored rule from Stockholm and left Norway part of Sweden until 1905 when it regained its independence.

Meanwhile, in Iberia, A force of British and Portuguese regulars with Spanish partisans led by Arthur Wellesley had been tasked with completing the ejection of the French, begun in 1808. Allied victories at Burga and Vitoria where 100,000 allied troops (50% British, 25% each Spanish and Portuguese) defeated 65,000 French were followed by the Spanish capture of Pancorbo the following month. Despite a French fightback at the battles of Maya and Roncesvalles, by October 1813 the allies were across the Bidasoa river and into France proper.

The main action however took place in Germany. Napoleon invaded Prussia with a force of 400,000 in April 1813 and defeated the allies at Lutzen and Bautzen, inflicting heavy casualties; a brief armistice was declared in June with the combined casualties from April having now reaching 250,000. When fighting resumed  in August, Napoleon with 135,000 defeated 214,000 Austrians, Russians and Prussians at the two day battle of Dresden; but weakened by his losses and lacking cavalry he withdrew 190,000 of his force to Leipzig in Saxony, where he was finally cornered by 430,000 Russian, Austrian, Prussian and Swedish troops (although 50% of the allied force was Russian). The resultant four day battle completely destroyed Napoleon’s force and he was compelled to flee. The following year, 1814, the allies invaded France and finally forced Napoleon to abdicate on 6th April 1814 – to be exiled to the Italian island of Elba, whilst the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France.

Sadowa, Czech Republic (1866)

Known also the Battle of Konnigratz, it was the decisive battle of the Austro-Prussian war. Fought less than 12 months after the end of the Civil War in America, it had more than twice the number of combatants as that war’s largest battle – The Seven Days, Virginia (1863) which had 190,000. Austria’s defeat is regarded as an important milestone in the development of Prussian and, ultimately, German nationalism. The conflict marked the end of Austrian ambitions to be the leader of the huge collection of German speaking states that the medieval German empire (the First Reich) had collapsed into after the devastation of the Thirty Years War in the 17th century. The emerging power of Prussia, now rapidly industrialising and, with possession of the coal fields of Silesia, taken from the Austrians a century earlier, now became the clear leader among the German states. Fought in a single day near the village of Sadowa in Bohemia; 221,000 Prussians, armed with rapid firing, breech loading Dreyse rifles beat 206,000 Austrians and Saxons still armed with muzzle loading musket-rifles; the Austrians suffering 44,000 casualties, against only 9,000 Prussian. The aftermath of the battle led directly to the formation of North German Confederation and fostered the idea of “little-Germany” nationalism – the idea of unification of German speakers, but without Austria. It was also an important pre-cursor conflict to the Franco – Prussian war four years later.

Gravellotte, Metz, Sedan (1870)

Marshall Bazaine’s early advance into Saarland was quickly reversed as the German commander von Moltke deployed his huge force to outflank and surround them. The French rapidly withdrew across the border with the Prussians in pursuit; on 4th August von Moltke attacked part of McMahon’s army at Wissembourg in the first major battle of the war. 8,000 French troops with 12 guns fortified the small town and fought hand to hand in the streets against 60,000 Germans. The local populace, trapped in the town during the fighting were eventually so sickened by the slaughter around them, that they formerly surrendered the town to the Germans to stop the bloodshed.

Further Prussian victories at Worth and Spickeren left Bazaine’s force falling back towards the fortress of Metz and led to the two interlinked battles of Mars-Le-Tour and Gravellotte. At the second of these the French were finally able to establish an effective defensive posture and took a heavy toll of the Prussian infantry, who lost 20,000 casualties to Chassepot and Mitrailleuse fire against 12,000 of their own, almost all of those from artillery fire . Although a tactical French victory, Baziane’s army had been badly mauled and fell back to the defences of Metz to regroup and await re-enforcements from McMahon.

Von Moltke, like Grant at Fort Donaldson in 1862 or O’Connor in the western desert in 1940, realised that by quick manoeuvre he could cut off the routes into the town and turn a fortress into a prison. Quickly surrounding Metz he trapped 190,000 French troops in the fortifications of a small town designed to hold a tenth of that number.

The newly formed French Army of Chalons commanded by McMahon made two attempts to relieve Metz, the first was defeated at Beaumont-en-Argonne whilst the second occurred close to the fortress of Sedan where McMahon’s main force was deployed. Again, the battle centered on a small town, in this case Bazeilles, who’s populace where trapped in the town during the fighting and helped the army build barricades as the battle commenced with a street by street fight for the town. The fighting spread south from the town into the countryside with McMahon himself wounded – under heavy Prussian artillery fire, the French were finally driven inside the defences of Sedan, where they were rapidly surrounded and cut off from any relief. The following day, 2nd September, 120,000 men of the army of Chalons surrendered along with their commander McMahon and their Emperor Louis Napoleon. Shortly afterwards, and facing starvation, the 190,000 troops in Metz also surrendered.

With the fall of Sedan, the bulk of France’s field army had been lost after just 3 months of war; on the following day, 3rd September the news of Louis Napoleon’s capture reached Paris and a bloodless coup-d’état ensued led by Trochu, Favre and Gambetta that overthrew Louis Napoleon and proclaimed the Third Republic, plus a determination to continue the war. Just as in 1940 after Dunkirk, the small remnant of the regular army that survived fought back with near fanatical bravery, but it was too late. Once they had fallen back to the defences of Paris, their fate was sealed. Louis Napoleon was to go into exile after the war in Britain, where he lived at Camden House, Chislehurst until his death in 1873, referring several times in his last words to Sedan.

Solferino (1859)

Louis Napoleon is remembered as the loser at Sedan, but he was no fool, he had his successes too. One of these was his assistance to the Italian independence struggle, Il Risorgimento (“the Resurgence”). Italy had long been divided into petty states that individually fell prey to many foreign powers over the centuries – Spanish, French and Austrian – and its independence movement was initially looked on favourably by France and Britain, but neither were prepared to do anything to upset the Austrians. Consequently the First Italian Independence war, fought by the leading Italian state, Piedmont to drive the Austrians from Lombardy and Venice, failed through lack of great power support.

The situation was brought home to Louis Napoleon personally in 1858, when an attempt was made on his life; this shocked Napoleon into realising that the Italian situation would spiral out of control if not resolved and he determined to aid the nationalists in the hope of acquiring a useful ally in the new Italy and seriously diminishing his rival Austria in the process. Piedmont had previously been an ally for the French in the Crimean war; it also had a railway line designed by Brunel.

Thus was set the scene for the Second Italian Independence war, the decisive engagement of which was the seventh largest battle of the 19th century, fought near the villages of Solferino and San Martino, south of Lake Garda between Milan and Verona.

In 1858, Louis Napoleon concluded a secret treaty with the Comte di Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont that France would aid the Italians in ejecting the Austrians from Lombardy and Venice, whilst receiving the provinces of Nice and Savoy in return. Napoleon committed half the French army – 130,000 men, plus brought along 70,000 Sardinian troops against 240,000 Austrians.

At the outbreak of war, there were no French troops in Italy, so the French commander, McMahon organised a mass deployment by rail into Piedmont to link up with the Sardinians. The first major clash was at the battle fought for the railway junction at Magenta, near Milan in June 1859 where McMahon’s 60,000 men defeated 125,000 Austrians and shortly afterwards occupied Milan. The Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I now personally took command of his army, the last European battle in which two monarchs personally led their armies against each other.

Attempting to counter – attack after their defeat at Magenta, they ran into the French at Solferino and were drawn into a confused and fast moving fight for three small towns Solferino, Cavriana and Volta Mantovana. Badly mauled, the Austrians drew off beyond the Micinio and Po rivers and, at the treaty of Villafranca in July 1859 ceded Lombardy to the Piedmontese, but not Venice. The Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed two years later, in 1861.

The battle will remain best known however, for the visit to battlefield after the conclusion by a Swiss businessman and philanthropist where he witnessed the suffering of the battle’s estimated 30,000 casualties and was moved to found an organisation to relieve their suffering who took it’s symbol from the reverse colours of the Swiss flag. The businessman was Henri Dunant and the organisation he founded was the Red Cross.

Wagram (1809)

During the Fourth Coalition war, and after Napoleon’s success against the Austrians at Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805, Austria had been left subdued, and the Emperor turned his attention to Prussia. At the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt Napoleon’s 120,000 French troops defeated 110,000 Prussians and Saxons so comprehensively that Berlin was occupied shortly afterwards and Prussia reduced to a French vassal state, which it would remain until the Sixth Coalition war in 1812. The trauma that Prussia suffered during the Napoleonic occupation acted as a spur to the modernisation of the state – later reformers such as Clausewitz , Scharnhorst and Gneisenau served in the army and were profoundly affected by it, as was the philosopher Hegel who called it “the end of history”.

Wagram was the main engagement of the Fifth Coalition War, and was fought in 1809; the coalition consisted of Austria, Great Britain, Spain, Sicily, Sardinia and Brunswick against a French led alliance with Duchy of Warsaw, Confederation of the Rhine, Italy, Naples, Switzerland and Holland.

The war was fought on two fronts. In Iberia, both Spain and Portugal had been invaded a few years earlier and the small British force driven out, when Napoleon entered Madrid at the head of 80,000 troops having first fomented a coup. By 1809, however, the British had returned and with Arthur Wellesley in command set about the recovery of Portugal, after Marshall Soult had invaded again. Wellesley’s Anglo-Portuguese force defeated Soult at Grijo and Porto in May, whilst Marshall Ney with another French force was defeated by the Spanish at Puente Sanpayo. With Portugal secure, Wellesley pushed on into Spain and linked up with Spanish partisans. The costly British victory at Talvera forced Wellesley’s hasty retreat after the battle with French re-enforcements nearby, but the essential objective, that of liberating Portugal, had been achieved.

Buoyed by allied success in Iberia, and heavily subsidised by the British, the Austrians made their move by invading Napoleon’s ally, Bavaria in March 1809. The Austrians massed their army in Bohemia on the frontier of Prussia, then a French vassal, in the hope that it would foment an anti – French revolt and bring in Prussia on the allied side, but this never happened. Also, Austrian hopes of assistance from the Russians were dashed by the fact that they were technically at war with Britain, which also meant that Britain’s ally Sweden would not intervene either. Nonetheless, the speed of the Austrian advance across the Inn river caught the French by surprise and at first they fell back as a series of mistakes by the French commander Berthier allowed the Austrians to occupy the old imperial capital of Regensberg. Napoleon himself arrived in Bavaria on 17th April to take command and launched a series of counterattacks that resulted in the French victories at the battles of Eckmuhl and Ebersberg and re-took Regensberg while the battered remains of the Austrian army fled back across the border.

Pursuing them, Napoleon crossed into Austria and, on the 13th May occupied Vienna for the second time in four years. Despite a failed attempt to cross the Danube that resulted in the battle of Aspern-Essling (Napoleon’s first significant battle defeat), the French retained the initiative and crossed the Danube in force in June and resumed the offensive. The two armies finally met near the village of Wagram north east of Vienna where 140,000 French fought a two day battle against 160,000 Austrians resulting in a decisive French victory with high casualties on both sides (80,000 in total), mostly caused by artillery fire into the packed ranks of 300,000 troops crammed into a battlefield just a few miles across.

Napoleon imposed harsh terms on the Austrians taking provinces containing 20% of Austria’s population and leaving them bankrupt. Despite his overwhelming success, the Fifth Coalition war was to prove the high water mark for French ambitions – just three years later Napoleon embarked on his disastrous Russian campaign, followed by the cataclysm of the Sixth Coalition war in 1813/14 that climaxed with the battle of Leipzig and the eventual fall of France and Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814.

Copyright ©2015 Savereo John


Libya – A Lesson From History

Originally published 27/03/2011


Muammar Q’daffy is, they say, something of a military history buff. Perhaps whilst he is holed up in whatever secret location he has chosen, he has dipped into a copy of William Beehler’s 1913 book The History of the Italian-Turkish War. If not, I would advise him to obtain a copy and read it; for it is one of the great ironies of history that the man who is currently in hiding for fear of being killed by a Tomahawk cruise missile launched from a Royal Navy submarine in the Med rules over a country that almost exactly 100 years ago witnessed a seminal moment in the history of warfare. Just 28 miles south east of Q’daffy’s compound in Tripoli lies the Tajura Oasis. It was there, on the 1st November 1911, that Lt Giulio Gavotti, flying a German-built Taube (“Dove”) monoplane of the Italian airforce, dropped three 2kg bombs onto a Turkish military encampment – the first documented occasion in history of an air raid. In Gavotti’s own words ..

“…Before long I could clearly see the dark mass of the oasis approaching fast. With one hand holding the joystick, I opened the box containing the bombs, extracted one and placed it on my lap. Changing hands on the joystick, I extracted a detonator and put it in my mouth. After I had closed the box and primed the bomb and detonator, with about one mile to go to the oasis, I was ready. I could now clearly see the Arab (sic) tents – there were two square camps, one of about 200 tents, the other of about 50. Shortly before this, I had grabbed the bomb in my right hand, tore off the security key with my teeth and threw it out from the cockpit. I followed the bomb for a few seconds before it disappeared. After a moment I saw the little tents covered by a dark cloud; I had aimed at the bigger tents and had missed, but had fortunately hit the little ones instead. I overflew the camp several times and dropped two more bombs, but could not see the effect ….”

The Italo-Turkish War, known as the Guerra di Libia (Libyan War) to the Italians and the Trablusgarp Savasi (Tripolitan War) to the Turks, broke out in 1911. Italy, although an ancient land, was in still a young country in political terms; the Italian re-unification movement Il Risorgimento (“the Resurgence”) had occurred barely fifty years earlier; this was a land long divided and controlled piecemeal by foreign powers. Northern Italy had been fought over for centuries by France and Austria. The 7th largest battle of the 19th century, Solferino, was fought there during the Italian Independence War and was witnessed by Swiss businessman Henri Dunant who was inspired to found the Red Cross. Italy in the early 20th century was a society still trying to define itself; everyone knew there was an Italy, but who were the Italians ?. Its government in that period was a constitutional monarchy under Victor Emmanuel III; power however was vested in the veteran politician Giovanni Giolitti, serving his third (out of an eventual total of five) terms of office as Prime Minister. A political liberal, his early ministries were marred by financial and political mismanagement. This resulted in his impeachment for abuse of power in 1893, following the collapse of the Vatican owned Banca Romana after it was shown to have indulged in fraudulent transactions involving an array of leftwing politicians; although the impeachment was subsequently quashed he was to spend seven years in the wilderness whilst Italy was governed by figures of the right. Foremost among them was former Garibaldian nationalist Francesco Crispi, who saw Austria-Hungary as Italy’s great enemy and the Ottoman Empire as a source of potential colonies. Rehabilitated, Giolitti returned to power in 1903, but had to live with the rapidly growing nationalist tide.

The policy of Europe towards Turkey had been set at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, called by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, to attempt a diplomatic solution to the increasing problem of declining Ottoman Turkish power. Turkey in that era comprised not just the modern-day country, but also most of the Balkans (known in those days as the “Near East”), the North African shore and virtually all of what we today call the “Middle East”, except for Persia which had maintained a precarious independence. It had occupied those regions during the heady days of late medieval period when the gunpowder – equipped armies of the earliest Ottoman emperors had swept all before them. By the mid 19th century however, political stagnation and economic decline had left Turkey weak and vulnerable in the face of the newly industrialised European powers, most especially Russia, which was desperate to obtain an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, via the Dardanelles. Moscow’s attempt to appropriate swathes of Ottoman territory had already triggered two major conflicts; the Crimean War in 1853 and the Russo-Turkish War in 1877. In the discussions that followed the Congress France and Britain agreed a carve up of the most valuable Turkish assets in North Africa, with the French taking Algeria and Tunisia and the British taking Egypt and Cyprus. Italian diplomats got wind of the plan and threatened to obstruct it unless they got something too; to mollify them, the French offered Tripolitania as part of the Italian sphere of influence. This was further cemented in 1902 by a secret treaty between France and Italy which allowed each other freedom of intervention in Morocco and Tripolitania.

It was not until 1911 however that the Italians finally acted. Giolitti, back in power since 1903, was opposed to war, believing it to be imperialistic in intent, and for which Italy was moreover, economically unprepared. He would later argue passionately against Italy’s entry in to The Great European War in 1915, on much the same grounds. The nationalist tide was too great however, and he was bounced into action; anti-war sentiment came also from the Socialist opposition, including the young Benito Mussolini, then editor of the leftwing newspaper Avanti !. Turkey was presented with an ultimatum demanding the annexation of the provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. Public sentiment was whipped up by the right – wing press with exaggerated stories of attacks on Italian citizens and businesses by religious fanatics. Turkey responded by offering a deal similar to that which they offered the British over Egypt, i.e. that the territory would remain formally under the suzerainty of the Sultan but would actually be controlled by the UK. This was deemed insufficient and war was declared on 29-09-1911.

Italy, and most of Europe, expected a short decisive campaign with the poorly equipped Turkish military expected to put up little resistance. As well as aerial reconnaissance and bombing the Italians also showed innovation in deploying some of the first armoured cars in warfare, constructed at the Fiat works in Torino – then Italy’s largest industrial city. Libya had no regular Turkish army to defend it, and the few thousand troops that were there had no senior officers, who had to travel to the battlefield at their own expense. All the early Turkish resistance was by local Bedu and Tuareg tribesmen led by Turkish officers. The Italian fleet appeared before Tripoli the day before war was declared, but didn’t open fire for a further five days. After a short bombardment the small garrison fled and the city was occupied by 1,500 sailors. Further unopposed landings took place at Tobruk, Al Khums and Darnah. Only at Benghazi did they meet any serious resistance when 4,000 Italian troops ran into 450 Turkish regulars dug into the dunes overlooking the landing beach; they took a heavy toll before finally withdrawing from the city. At Tobruk in Dec 1911 a small force of 200 Turkish regulars and Arab militia took on and defeated 2,000 Italian troops, the only Turkish victory in the war. They were led by a brilliant young Turkish officer – Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk.

With the ports secure, the Italians put ashore 20,000 troops commanded by Marshal Carlo Caneva, to mop up the small Turkish force, but were almost annihilated a few months later at Sciara Sciat near Tripoli where they were surrounded by fast moving Libyan cavalry assisted by some Turkish regulars. They extricated themselves, but realised that they had hopelessly underestimated the opposition and increased the expeditionary force to 100,000. The Turks would eventually deploy 8,000 troops and 20,000 local Arab militia, led by Qur’ranic scholar Omar Mukhtar. Born in the village of East Janzour, near Tobruk, Mukhtar already had considerable military experience from his years as a Mujahideen fighting the French in Mali and Chad. He brought not only new tactics, but foreign fighters as well to swell the local Arab militia, many of them from Egypt and Palestine

At sea, the war was almost as one-sided as the air war. In January 1912, an Italian force passed through the Suez canal and at the Battle of Kunfida Bay, off the coast of Saudi Arabia, destroyed the small force of gunboats that where the Turks only presence in the Red Sea. Later, off the coast of Lebanon at the Battle of Beirut, the main Italian fleet destroyed the only remaining Turkish ships in the Med, one of them an American Civil War era Ironclad built in 1860’s, and established complete command of the sea from that point on. Thus emboldened, they went on to seize the main Turkish-held islands in the Aegean sea, beginning with Rhodes.

By mid 1912, both sides were weary of the conflict which had, especially for the Italians, taken far longer and cost far more than they had ever imagined. Peace feelers were put out by both sides, but the issue was decided for them in the autumn of 1912 when Slav nationalists in Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro took advantage of Turkey’s weakness to declare war and initiate the First Balkan War to wrest control of the last remaining Balkan enclaves of Ottoman rule. By the Treaty of Lausanne (1912) Italy gained Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, but was forced to return the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea. Thus did a minor and little written about conflict in the early 20th century set in chain the sequence of events that would culminate in the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria by a Serb nationalist in the former Ottoman city of Sarajevo in 1914 that ignited the Great European War. It also created the (Italian administered) territory on the north African shore that would one day become the modern state of Libya. Curiously to the 21st century mind, no Libyan was consulted at any point during that process.


In 2011, Libya again finds itself a pawn in the hands of others; but since this is the 21st century one of those “others” is the country’s erstwhile leader Muammar Q’daffy. Like France or India, Libya is a state created from the boundaries of a former colonial administration and lumped together a variety of cultural and ethnic traditions that had never previously been used to thinking of themselves as a unified group. Independence, when it came, was a leap in the dark for the young state. But before Independance came, there were the years of the Italian administration prior to the second world war. Omar Mukhtar continued his resistance to the Italians, conducting a guerrilla campaign against them for decades afterwards. His power base was in the Green Mountains, and in the remote oasis town of Al-Jaghbub (Giarabub in Italian), close to the Egyptian border. This was the home base of the Senussi Order, a religious – political movement founded in Mecca in 1837 by Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi, the Grand Senussi. The Senussis were instrumental in organising resistance first to French, and later Italian control in the Sahara. When Al-Jaghbub fell to the Italians in 1926, it was Omar Mukhtar who re – organised the Sennusite forces and continued the fight against the Italians.

By the 1930’s Italy was no longer governed by men like Giolitti; instead the former editor of Avanti ! (“Forward !”) had completed his transition from Socialism to National Socialism. By combining the elements of Nationalism, Militarism and Socialism he created Fascism – rarely seen in the modern world, although the Ba’thist Socialism of Syria, and of Iraq before the American attack, certainly come close. Mussolini took a much harder line against Mukhtar’s insurgency, and in 1930 dispatched General Rodolfo Graziani to deal with him. Graziani first organised mass deportations of Arabs from towns in the interior of Cyrenaica and held them in a series of concentration camps along the coast where many died or were executed; having emptied the countryside of sympathisers he then ringed the area with troops, constructed a barbed wire fence along the border with Egypt and eventually ran Omar to ground and captured him. He was hanged in public on 11-09-1931, his last words were said to be “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.” (“To God we belong and to Him we shall return.”).

In 1940, the Second world war was in its early stages in Europe and was essentially Fascist Germany and Italy against the decadent liberal democracies, France and Britain. Graziani was in command of the 150,000 men, 600 tanks and 1,200 aircraft of the Italian 10th Army, tasked by Mussolini to seize the Suez Canal, then held by the British. He moved his huge force into Egypt but then halted and established a chain of fortified camps. The British forces were commanded by General Richard O’Connor and comprised the British 7th Armoured Brigade and the Indian 4th Infantry Division, barely 38,000 men with 250 tanks and about 150 aircraft. Like Grant at Fort Donaldson in 1862 or Moltke at Sedan in 1870, O’Connor realised that by bold and rapid manoeuvre he could isolate the forts and cut off their supplies – turning a fortress into a prison. He staged a series of lightning strikes around the open flanks of the Italian camps and captured most of their occupants. Dashing on into Libya, O’Connor captured a string of towns familiar to a modern audience, Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, Beda Fomm, Ajdahbia and finally halted at El-Agehiela (Al-Uqayla, 25 miles west of Brega). By the time he stopped O’Connor had taken 110,000 prisoners, destroyed 400 tanks and destroyed or captured 1,000 aircraft, effectively ending Italian control of Cyrenaica. Although a rout for the 10th Army, one small Italian unit held out until March 1941, a month after O’Connor reached Al-Uqayla. Col. Salvatore Castagna and his small force of Italian regulars and Libyan militia held the town of Al-Jaghbub, home of the Senussi Order, against a much bigger British force – the only Italian success of the campaign. Graziani resigned after the catastrophe and took no further part in the war. Due to the deal reached with the Allies when Italy surrendered, no senior Italians stood trial for war crimes and Graziani was never charged either for his actions in Libya or for his maltreatment of Ethiopian POW’s in the Abyssinian invasion.

Libya became a British Protectorate for a short while after the war and transitioned to full independence in 1951, the result of a UN Security Council resolution in 1949; Libya was the first country in the world to be established by direction of the UN. Initially a constitutional monarchy under Idris as-Senussi, grandson of the Grand Senussi of Al-Jaghbub. Oil was discovered in 1959 and commercial exports began in 1963. As with so many other states in Africa and beyond, the discovery of oil and the tsunami of western petro-dollars that followed soon after destabilised the fragile new state and led inevitably to a coup-d’état, in this case by Q’daffy in 1969. From the beginning his skill at knitting together the various ethnic and religious groups in Libya was undone by his bizarre and eccentric views on the government and on the outside world. On coming to power he abolished all existing laws and put in place a one party state “execution is the fate of anyone who forms a political party” he said in 1972. With a mixture of Sharia law and state socialism he nationalised all the main industries and imposed income caps on all citizens; an extensive secret police network existed to gather information on citizens in a manner similar to North Korea or Iraq before the invasion, together with brutal repression of any opposition. What he had created was, in effect, Libyan Fascism – where Graziani failed, Q’daffy succeeded. Yet it was his actions towards foreign governments that would eventually make him enough enemies that when the Arab Spring came to Libya, that there were few who would be willing to help; Lockerbie was only the most the visible example of a leader who was like a bull in a diplomatic china shop for more than four decades. Some in the Arab world saw through him very early on, in 1971 Gaafar Nimiery, then President of Sudan observed “he has a split personality, both parts evil”.

Only Russia and China demurred in the security council vote, eventually abstaining; yet the UN, and US, were in fact bounced into action by Sarkozy and Cameron who were minded to go it alone. Had the UN not backed action, what little authority it still had would have faded away. Just as with Saddam Hussein in 2003, the west judged him simply too dangerous to have at large when they were already deep into a war with Al Qaeda. In the case of Q’daffy, for the heady first few days when it looked like the rebels would stroll into Tripoli, the western powers had all declared the for rebels, formally or informally. Their die was cast at that moment, they could not now allow him to stay in power, even if the country were partitioned. A rogue state that has previously launched terrorist attacks against the US, the UK and many others, on the borders of southern Europe is simply too dangerous to contemplate. Whatever UN resolution 1973 says, the west will have to see through the overthrow of Q’daffy in any event.

If the events of the past week are anything to go by, a military defeat of Q’daffy seems inevitable, although what is likely to come in his wake is anyone’s guess right now. A long drawn out war is in no – one’s interest, least of all Libyans. Future governments can be devised, but first we have to escape from the current arrangement. Q’daffy was derisive of British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s suggestion in the first few days that he might like to pack his bags for Venezuela, but it would be have better for all concerned, including Q’daffy himself, if he had taken Hague’s advice. There is still time for him to step down, but not much time, because with the war going the way it is right now if he isn’t killed by a British Tomahawk (made in America) with the words “Lockerbie” stencilled on the side, then it may be his own side who dispose of him. But he is the past, the future belongs to Libyans. The UN created Libya in the first place, and it can do so again. The 1911 intervention by Italy in Libya triggered a far greater conflagration, but does history always have to be that way ? Cannot revolutions sometimes be harbingers of positive change ? Can a successful transition of Libya into a peaceful and productive state become a template for others in that troubled region ?

The TV news coverage of Libya has thrown up some excellent reporting and analysis. Lisa Holland’s powerful reporting on Sky News and the overall coverage from the English language version of Al Jazeera has been of a high quality. But for me the definitive image of the affair came from BBC news; in the early days many foreign contractors had been stranded in the desert, terrified of the moment that either bandits, or worse, Q’daffy’s men turned up. One told of the moment that he finally knew he was safe – when he reached his destination on the coast he saw a huge sign put there to greet him and his colleagues – “Welcome to Free Benghazi !”

Copyright ©Savereo John 2011