On October 23rd 1911, amidst the Italian massacres of civilians following the Arab revolt against the colonising troops at Shara al Shat, an Italian soldier of the 5th Artillery was attacked near the German consulate in Tripoli. As the soldier lay wounded, he was stabbed and killed. Two carabinieri in the vicinity rushed to the scene, and later that day arrested a young Libyan man who happened to be the second military agent of the German Consul, Dr Alfred Von Tilger. The young man’s trial and execution made front page news in the UK, and was reported in newspapers in Germany, France, and the US. Despite the inordinate coverage in the foreign press, the man remained nameless in these reports. It is thanks to Henry Cossira, a journalist for the Paris Excelsior, that his name is today known. Cossira was the only journalist who included in his first hand account of proceedings (published under the title Les premiers jours de l’occupation italienne à Tripoli : 3-28 octobre 1911), the accused’s full name: Hussein Lummalid.
Cossira had witnessed the trial and execution alongside many other foreign journalists including T.E Grant of the Daily Mirror, Ellis Ashmean-Bartlett of Reuters, Francis McCullagh of the Westminister Gazette and New York World, and Herr Von Gottburg of Berlin Lokal Anzeiger. In the immediate aftermath of Italy’s indiscriminate killing of the civilian population of Tripoli in October 1911, these five journalists published graphic details of Italy’s barbarity. In response, the Italians threatened Grant with expulsion (Grant like the other journalists was in Tripoli on a permit which allowed him access to the front line with Italian troops). Cossira was expelled after evading censorship and sending a telegram divulging details of Italian exploits following the executions of October 24th. McCullagh and Gottberg, horrified at the treatment of the Libyan population by Italian forces, handed their permits to General Caneva and left Tripoli shortly after.
Besides the reference to Lummalid in Cossira’s book, McCullagh published a more comprehensive (and perhaps also slightly embellished) account of the accused’s trial and execution which was published in Italy’s War for a Desert: Being Some Experiences of a War Correspondent with the Italians in Tripoli. An entire chapter is dedicated to Lummalid, although he is referred to by his first name only, Hussein, throughout the text. In addition to Cossira and McCullagh’s accounts, a further reference to Lummalid is made by Italian officer and writer Chevalier Tullio Irace in his book With the Italians in Tripoli: The Authentic History of the Turco-Italian War. It is doubtful Irace witnessed the trial or execution first hand; indeed his account is riddled with inconsistencies and omissions. He claimed that Lummalid was a native of Fez (and not Fezzan, as is the case), his description of the accused man’s appearance is inconsistent with that of McCullagh’s, his list of supposed witnesses includes one that does not exist in any other account, and he makes major omissions recounting the execution. I have used here predominantly the accounts of proceedings as reporting by Cossira and McCullagh, in addition to the numerous newspaper articles (from various and often unknown journalists).
An employee of the German consulate, while some reports suggest Lummalid was a cook at the consulate, others indicate he held a military position. The German consul, Tilger, was boarding a German ship leaving Tripoli the day of the alleged stabbing. The Italian vice consul is said to have informed Tilger of the events of that day, after which he returned to the consulate and handed Lummalid over to Italian forces to be court martialed. German correspondents criticised Tilger for what they perceived to be feebleness on his part, and suggested the consul should have tried Lummalid, an employee of the German Empire, and as McCullagh writes, a man who had “worn the German Eagle on his fez”, themselves.
It is largely reported that there were two witnesses against the accused. The first of which was a girl of thirteen years who had seen Lummalid bending over the wounded body of the soldier. Lummalid’s brother was the second witness, a boy of fifteen years, he reported to have seen the accused in the crowd when the Italian soldier was struck down. Neither witness saw Lummalid stab the solider. In addition to these witnesses, the prosecution presented one piece of evidence: a dagger, which was found concealed in the coal cellar of the consulate. Although some newspapers report that the dagger was blood stained, McCullagh claims that the dagger, which Lummalid admitted had belonged to him, was clean, as was his clothes.
It may have been Lummalid’s position and association with Germany that impelled the Italians to make his trial a very imposing affair, holding it on a public street and conducting it with the utmost pomp. The trial took place the day after the stabbing, on October 24th, and was attended by countless journalists. Lummalid was brought before the military court, which had assembled on a busy street by the sea front in Tripoli, at around half past four that afternoon. He was met by elderly moustached Italian officers in uniforms covered with small bars of cloth of varying colours sewn horizontally to the left side of their tunics. Of this scene, McCullagh writes:
They wore their hats and swords as they sat; they also wore the calmly assured and superior air of persons who represent civilisation, human society, the established order of things here below, not to speak of a Higher Power above. One would never have suspected from the dignified and deliberate movements of those cultured, well preserved, highly respectable old gentleman that they were the murders, the buccaneers, that there on the sands of Northern Africa, they represented nothing but the gin shop, the brothel, the gambling hell, and the devil.
There were six other prisoners being tried that afternoon. Lummalid’s was the first case to be heard. Lummalid was just eighteen years old. He is described of being of slight build, standing at five foot five. He was beardless, had a dark complexion, with bright, dark eyes, and regular features. He was draped in a clean, white djellaba, under which he wore a red fez. He is said to have faced his judges with a “perfectly composed and fearless air”, even smiling at times. He listened to the evidence against him and always responded, through an interpreter: “I have understood, but it is not so”. After the declarations of the witness, Lummalid was questioned. He claimed he only left the consulate out of curiosity in order to see the commotion on the street. “He denied without protesting, in a few phrases, and with a collected, almost dignified bearing”. Then the witnesses were called. By this time, the accused had stood erect before the judges for an entire hour, “without betraying any symptom of fatigue, of fear, or even of interest”. The chief judge then delivered his verdict: death. To the surprise, and perhaps dismay of the Italians, the condemned man remained stoic and indifferent, even as the translator conveyed to him that he would be shot at once. The sentence passed was death by firing squad; punishment reserved for traitors to Italy, and not the usually punishment imposed on Libyans who had resisted the invasion (ordinarily death by hanging).
Lummalid was executed within half an hour of the sentence being pronounced in an open space by the sea front. A corner was chosen close to an ancient wall which the Italians used as a latrine. Upon filth and excrement was placed a bale of compressed hay, and upon this bale of hay, Lummalid would sit, with his face towards the wall, and his back towards the firing squad. Eight Italian soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Vercelli were positioned around fifteen metres from the condemned man. Adjacent to the firing squad, a row of soldiers stood by the sea, and a crowd of correspondents and officers, and other spectators took their positions behind them. It is reported that not one Arab attended to the trial or executions; the only natives present were local Jews.
The condemned man was paraded about before being led to his position, walking calmly, and exhibiting a “splendid fearlessness”. “Even at this last moment, there was not a tear in his dark Arab eye, not a quiver on his beardless lip”. Lummalid sat there, his hands tied behind this back, cloaked in white, and entirely motionless, while continually uttering verses of the Quran under his breath. Two soldiers, who had led him to his position now stood at either side of him. They drew his barnoose so that it covered his red fez and his face, and then swiftly fled.
An order from the Lieutenant and the firing squad drew their rifles. Another order, and eight shots range out at once. Lummalid remained perfectly motionless, his snow-white djellaba undisturbed. Every single one of the eight shots had missed, at fifteen meters! Another order, and another volley. Two shots seemed to hit the prisoner. Lummalid fell slowly, gently, and silently to the ground. An Italian military doctor hastily walked over to him and bent over the prostate body. The prisoner’s dog, a retriever with black curly hair, brought to the execution by another military agent at the German consulate, ran to his owner’s side, and refused to leave. Lummalid was still alive. The order for the third volley was made, and further shots were fired (while the dog remained by the condemned man’s side; the dog was reportedly unharmed). After a few minutes of indiscriminate firing, a group of policemen walked over to the body. Incredibly, Lummalid was still alive. The chief policeman put a revolver to the prisoner’s head and fired two shots. A firing squad of eight soldiers, thirty six rifle shots, a policeman, and two revolver shots later, Lummalid was dead. His body lay in the stench filled latrine for over an hour, during which time spectators crowded over it with morbid curiosity.
Lummalid was not the only man to be condemned to death that day. Six men had been been shot at eight o’clock that morning, and five young prisoners in ragged clothing awaited their fate later that evening. As did a sixth prisoner, a broadly built elderly man, who stood at six feet tall, with an “extraordinarily striking face, the face of a rebel, of a free, defiant man”. Cossira and McCullagh both report that mass executions also took place that day. Thirty or forty Libyans were packed in the same corner of the courtyard and killed to avenge the death of an Italian colonel at the School of Arts and Crafts, painting the ancient wall with their blood. Cossira writes that the courtyard was left covered in the executed men’s brains. The names of these other countless victims of Italian savagery shall likely forever remain unknown to us.