Today marks the 144th day of the military intervention in Libya. The operation has been led by British and French forces, and has so far seen no allied combat casualties. It has been conducted entirely from the air and sea with no land deployments currently envisaged.
It is not the first Anglo-French military operation in north Africa. Operation Torch saw British and American troops fighting alongside Free French to recapture the French colonies of Morocco and Algeria. More ominously, the Suez crisis in 1956 saw an Anglo-French intervention in Egypt following Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal. Not only did it end in failure, for many it marked a clear end of imperialism for both fading powers (especially coming after the French rout in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954).
The echoes of this epic failure resonated loudly as intervention in Libya loomed. The Guardian’s Julian Glover quotes a British government minister whispering conspiratorially to a colleague; “An Anglo-French military operation in north Africa. How can it go wrong?” So far, the intervention has not gone wrong, but it has not delivered the speedy regime change that many hoped for.
Any European intervention in a country that is at once African, Muslim and Arab will inevitably draw a plethora of historical comparisons. Is it economic colonialism for valuable oil resources? Is it part of a Christian crusade against Islam? Or is it supporting a reassertion of tribal divisions in a somewhat artificially cobbled country?
Modern history provides plenty of comparisons for such military action. But I was drawn by the tale of a much older Anglo-French military expedition to Libya. The Mahdian Crusade (also called the Barbary Crusade) was launched in 1390. It is unusually well documented, featuring in Book IV of Froissart’s Chronicles.
Despite being launched in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, it attracted English nobles and their retinues to serve in the overwhelmingly French and Genoese forces. The Hundred Years’ War had provided an outlet for fighting glory and combat, and the crusade partially came about because one of the periodic spells of peace prevailed.
The crusade targeted Muslim pirates operating from Mahdia in modern day Tunisia, striking at the Hafsid Kingdom of modern day Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The wealthy, mercantile and independent Republic of Genoa had offered finance, ships and men and only asked that the French (and their allies) supplied knights and commanders.
A flower of nobility gathered, including Louis II, Duke of Bourbon, Enguerrand VII, Lord of Coucy, Philip of Artois and John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset. The siege and fighting were colourful set pieces with heavy, religious overtones. Little was achieved – the siege was unsuccessful and the negotiated peace saw both sides emerge claiming victory.