The Guardians of the Gate – Serbia’s place in British Geopolitics

It is now 100 years since Serbia acted as a detonator for the Great War. It was not responsible for that Great War – only the war with Austro-Hungary that the provocative assassination in Sarajevo sparked off. It is possible that this war could have been confined and become just another Balkan war. But it wasn’t and it became a European war and then a World War, when England decided to make it one by throwing its Empire into the conflict in early August 1914.

The following article, now in two parts, was originally published in Irish Foreign Affairs in 2011. It deals with Britain’s relationship with Serbia, which it took to be Germany’s gate to the East and which Britain was intent to close. It reveals that Serbia was used as an instrument of British foreign policy in its two world wars on Germany and was shamefully betrayed during its second. It also looks at the character of the Ottoman Empire that Britain set out to shut away from German investment, destroy and carve up with its Imperialist allies after victory.

‘The Guardians of the Gate’ – Serbia, British Geopolitics and World War

The Reverend R.G.D. Laffan was with the Entente invasion force which violated Greek neutrality by occupying Salonika in October 1915. According to Churchill, the occupation of Salonika by the ‘Army of the Orient’ was fundamentally an attempt to intimidate the Greeks into joining the war against the Germans, Austro-Hungarians and Ottomans. However, at the time it was widely represented as an attempt to save the Serbs (from the mess they had created for themselves in the belief that they had powerful backers and could, therefore, behave irresponsibly toward Vienna after the Sarajevo assassinations).

Prior to the repulsing of the Entente invasion of Turkey at the Dardanelles in 1915 Greece had been relatively unimportant to Britain. But the failure to break the Turks (and the Germans in the West) led to a drastic expansion of the war on England’s behalf. Irredentist ambitions were employed to lure the Greeks, Italians and the Balkan nations into the war. These irredentist ambitions that Britain promoted were often in conflict with one another and stored up trouble for after the war. But no matter! Such things could be sorted after the war was won – and the important thing was to win the war at all cost.

The Serbs had proved a useful detonator for the launching of the Great War on Germany. But, like the Poles in 1939, that’s all they were for many in Britain. Having served their importance in the launching of a general war on Germany they were largely forgotten until they became part of the strategic position again in late 1915 after Turkey and Germany had proved more difficult nuts to crack than anticipated.

The Reverend Laffan believed the Serbs were worth more than that and gave a series of lectures about the Serbs to the British occupiers of Salonika. His lectures were collected in a book entitled The Guardians of the Gate and published by Oxford, Clarendon in 1918. A Foreword was included by Vice Admiral Troubridge.

The book marked the reappearance of the Serbs on the ‘usefulness to England’ list, beside the Greeks and Italians.

To Hell with Servia!

In his Introduction the Reverend Laffan noted that Englishmen were generally ignorant of the importance and specialness of the Serbs when they invaded neutral Greece to rescue them:

“When we arrived at Salonika last summer, most of us were entirely ignorant of the Balkan peninsula… In the past most Englishmen, who have spoken to me about the Balkans, have expressed very decided views. Nine out of ten have said that all the Balkan nations were as bad as each other; that, as between Turks and Christians, it was six of one and half-a-dozen of the other; that all were savages and cut-throats and past praying for… Now, when we return to England, we shall, at any rate, be in a position to declare that we found one Balkan race, the Serbs, to consist of the best of fellows… the Serbs look back with pride to the great days of their independence in the Middle Ages, and to their empire which once embraced the whole Balkan peninsula, except southern Greece and the coast-towns. They were a great people six hundred years ago. Never have they been more glorious than in their present humiliation, exile, and disruption. But, please God, that spiritual glory which encircles them to-day will soon be expressed in the ‘outward and visible signs’ of material greatness, and they will again take their place among the mighty nations of the earth.” (p.13)

Perhaps Laffan was thinking of some of the press coverage directed at the Serbs in Britain when it began to become apparent that Britain was to shed blood and treasure on their behalf.

Horatio Bottomley, who founded the Financial Times, was Liberal MP for Hackney from 1906 to 1912. After being charged with conspiracy to defraud he was declared bankrupt and thus lost his seat in Parliament. Bottomley also, however, set up John Bull in 1906, an enormously popular patriotic paper that sold more than a million copies weekly – mostly to a working class readership. At the start of 1915 it was said that “next to Kitchener the most influential man today is Mr. Horatio Bottomley” (Julian Symons, Horatio Bottomley, p. 164.)

John Bull produced a famous headline on August 8th 1914: “To Hell with Servia.” The underlying article contained more than a grain of truth in it – later lost by the war propaganda produced in service of the ‘war for small nations’ to mobilise Liberal support:

“We see no reason whatever why the peace of Europe should be imperilled by Austria’s just demands, and we wish the old Emperor the satisfaction of seeing… the ‘elimination’ of the Servian nation. At any rate we most solemnly protest against the shedding of a single drop of English blood to save these people from the Nemesis which threatens to overtake them… The foul murders of the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria by a Servian assassin in the pay of the Belgrade plotters, encouraged by the press and people of the country, have at last precipitated a just vengeance… and we would not lift a finger to write a word to save them. We repeat what we said a few weeks ago – Servia must be wiped out. Let Servia be removed from the map of Europe.”

However, a week later, when Britain had declared war on Germany John Bull headlined with ‘Day of Britain’s Greatest Glory’ and explained its turnabout thus:

“We still hold that the blood-guiltiness of Servia has robbed her of all sympathies of Europe; and had it been possible to confine the issues… we should still have contended that the intervention of Great Britain was wholly unjustified, if not, indeed, tantamount to the aiding and abetting of a crime. ‘To Hell with Servia’ we cried last week, and ‘To Hell with Servia’ we repeat with no less fervour to-day. But in the immensity of the later crisis, the murders of Sarajevo and the murderers of Belgrade have faded into the background. To recall them to-day would be to confuse the issues of the mighty conflict which has been thrust upon us… We shall fight to the death, for compromise would be tantamount to surrender. We shall neither ask or accept quarter… We make no mistake as to the magnitude of the task before us… the German fleet must be swept from the face of the seas. Her pretensions to the mastery of the waves must be buried ocean deep. No false notions of humanity or of economy must be permitted to hinder the work of destruction.” (August 15, 1914)

A week later ‘To Hell with Servia’ had become, To Hell with Germany:

“As regards Germany herself, we repeat, she must be wiped off the map of Europe. Her colonies must be taken over by either France or ourselves or both of us, and whatever ships she has left must be added in equal proportions to the French and British navies.”  (August 23, 1914)

And so “plucky little Serbia” became one of those heroic small nations on whose behalf Britain threw the world into chaos in August 1914.

John Bull’s Liberal Imperialist attitude to the war seems to have been the most honest of all the Liberal press in describing Serbia as a despicable ‘rogue state’ but supporting a war on her side all the same. (The Unionist press such as The Times on the 29th July, for instance, described it as a pure Balance of Power war on England’s part, for which the Ententes with France and Russia had been formed and which had to be followed through with for their ultimate purpose: “it is our settled interest and traditional policy to uphold the balance of power in Europe.”)

Serbia had been the detonator for a local war with Austria; this had led to a wider European war provoked by Russian support for the Serbian ‘rogue state,’ (as it would be called today) backed by her ally, France. And having drawn Berlin in to defend Austria this was the opportunity for Britain’s Great War on Germany to be launched. John Bull said it was the ‘Day of Britain’s Greatest Glory’ – An English Der Tag, perhaps?

During 1916 after the evacuation at Gallipoli and the transference of British forces to Salonika there was a revival of enthusiasm for Serbia in England. By this time the Serbian army had suffered severe defeats at the hands of the Germans, Austrians and Bulgarians and it had gone into full retreat. The Allied army at Salonika failed to link up with the Serbs and their fate was sealed:

“Posters that praised ‘brave Serbia’ and urged prayers for Serbia on ‘the Kossovo Day’ could be seen… in London and other British cities. The same year the Kossovo Day Committee was formed in London. It was chaired by Dr Elsie Inglis, and its members included R.W. Seton-Watson. Seton-Watson was a leading British expert on East-Central Europe alongside Arthur Evans of the London Times, who worked closely with the Committee, as did the Oxford-based historian Charles Oman and his Cambridge counterpart R.G.D. Laffan. Seton-Watson’s essay ‘Serbia: Yesterday, To-day, To-morrow’ was read aloud in schools across the country.

‘The Kossovo Day’ in fact turned into a ‘Kosovo week’. On 2 July 1916, which was made the ‘Serbian Sunday’, Anglican priests prayed for Serbia and its dynasty; the Serbian priest Fr Nikolaj Velimirović officiated at a service in an Anglican church in London’s Soho – the first time a Serbian Orthodox priest had done so in an Anglican church. Five days later Fr Velimirović and the Archbishop of Canterbury held a joint service in London’s St Paul’s cathedral. The event was advertised with posters all over London, with the heading: ‘Think of Serbia, Pray for Serbia, Restore Serbia’. (Djokic, Dejan Whose Myth? Which Nation? The Serbian Kosovo Myth Revisited’, p.21)

 Greater Serbia Imagined

Whilst Serbia was almost no more Reverend Laffan’s book begins to make the case for rewarding the vanquished detonator/rogue state with greater territory after the war, for services rendered to humanity:

“There are three distinguishable parts of Serbia… – ‘ Serbia proper ‘, ‘Old Serbia’, and ‘Serbian Macedonia’. By ‘Serbia proper ‘ I mean the roughly triangular little State which we knew as Serbia before 1912… By ‘ Old Serbia ‘ I mean the central belt round Skoplye, Kumanovo, and the Kossovo plain, including the old Sandjak of Novi Pazar, which ran up to the Bosnian frontier. Here are the towns and sacred places of mediaeval Serbia; Skoplye, where Stephen Dushan was crowned emperor; … Kossovo, where the Serbian power went down before the Turks. By ‘ Serbian Macedonia ‘ I mean the middle Vardar valley below Veles and the hilly country which lies between that and the lake of Ohrida.” (p.17)

Not only had Servia a greater existence from what it was in 1914 it had people elsewhere who could be incorporated with their neighbours into a greater Yugoslav state of the future:

“Let us remember throughout that only a part of the Serbian race lives in Serbia. Bosnia and Herzegovina are Serbian lands… Almost the whole population of the Austrian province of Dalmatia is Serbo-Croat, while the Slovenes of the country round Lyublyana (Laibach), though devotedly Roman Catholic and so divided from the Serbs on religious grounds, are Slavs and use a language closely akin to Serbian. Hungary, too, has its large percentage of the same race… Also in Croatia and Slavonia there are the Croats, Roman Catholic in religion, but using the Serbian language, though written in the Latin or western characters, not in the Cyrillic alphabet of Serbia. Lastly, the little state of Montenegro differs on no test of race, language, or religion from Serbia and its inhabitants are but an independent and allied portion of the Serbian nation.

Consequently, of recent years when Serbia showed signs of growing strength and vitality, not unnaturally many of her friends expected her to play a great role in the future and to be the nucleus round which a state should grow up, embracing all the Slav peoples of southern Austria-Hungary, as well as the Serbian portions of the old Turkish Empire.

There have been many obstacles to the fulfilment of such a hope. Quite apart from the present catastrophe that has overtaken our Serbian friends, the religious difficulty still exists, though similarity of race and speech have drawn Catholics and Orthodox into the common movement. Also the Slavs of the Dual Monarchy in Croatia have felt themselves the superiors of the Serbs in civilization, and have been unready whole-heartedly to seek national salvation at Belgrade. But the tyranny of the Hungarian Government, which has done so much to draw the Southern Slavs together, has nearly succeeded in removing all the moral barriers to what is called Yugoslav solidarity.” (pp.20-1)

Laffan’s passages include footnotes directing the reader to the publication, The New Europe. The New Europe was a weekly periodical running through 1916 and 1917 which sought to develop ideas from various contributors amongst the Allied nations about the type of Europe they would construct after the defeat of Germany and Austro-Hungary. It was founded by R.W. Seton-Watson, a British academic, whose purpose was: “To provide a rallying ground” for those favouring “European reconstruction on the basis of nationality, the rights of minorities and the hard facts of geography and economics” as the best answer to “the Pan-German project and Berlin-Bagdad.” In other words, it was concerned at what buffer-states could be manufactured in Eastern Europe in place of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to keep Germany from Russia and avoid the possibility of a future alliance developing between them – the nightmare of British geopolitics that was given full expression by Sir Halford Mackinder’s dictum “he who controls the heartland controls the world.”

Those who wrote for The New Europe included such luminaries as Masaryk, Benes, Harold Nicolson and Sir Samuel Hoare. They produced Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and an Austrian stump out of the Hapsburg Empire. So it could be said it was very responsible for the Europe between the Wars, which produced a rise in anti-Semitism, the breeding ground for Hitler, and ultimately another World War.

The Yugoslav State that was constructed after the Great War included Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and was called The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, until 1929. It was what Laffan defined as Greater Serbia plus. The Croats would have preferred to remain part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but Britain decided to destroy this leaving the Croats with no choice but independence or being part of a South Slav State. The former option became closed off to them because of the irredentist promises made to the Italians to entice them into the war. In the secret 1915 Treaty of London the Croatian and Slovene coasts and hinterlands had been promised to the Italians. Only by joining with the Serbs were the Croatians and Slovenes able to resist the Italians and preserve their territories.

Laffan’s book infers that he would not have been happy with England’s subsequent relations with the Serbs. In 1944 Churchill helped create and impose communist government on the Yugoslav State by demoralizing Serbian national resistance and arming the communists against it. He also compelled the King of Yugoslavia to dismiss the leader of Serbian resistance, General Mihailovitch, as War Minister. Tito accomplished his communist revolution through Churchill’s assistance and had General Mihailovitch executed for treason.

The Rule of Turkish Gentlemen

Before Britain was engaged in promoting and expanding Serbia and then subsequently breaking it apart the Reverend Laffan had some things to say about the five hundred year period of Ottoman rule over the Serbs (which was considerably more orderly and stable than the last three-quarters of a century in which Britain practiced her statecraft in the Balkans):

“Now let us turn to the history. Serbia was conquered by the Turks about five hundred years ago. Although the Serbs suffered a crushing defeat on the plain of Kossovo in 1389, they cannot be said to have been brought definitely under Turkish rule for the next seventy years… Then the Serbs sank into a deep sleep of four hundred years. The gross darkness of Turkish rule covered the land. From having been an independent and conquering people they became the working class of a Turkish pashalik or province. As against their Moslem lords, who took possession of the land and for whom they laboured, they had few rights and little chance of successful appeal to the distant government of the Sultan.

There has been and is now a tendency in England to regard the Turks as a race of honourable gentlemen, clean fighters, and even, when left to themselves, very tolerable governors.

The nations whom they have ruled have thought very differently… It seems as though the Turk had retained the chivalry of caste coloured by Mohammedan contempt for ‘infidels’. To his equal in wealth or military prowess the Turk has usually appeared as a gentleman, with the qualities of the gallant fighter, but woe to those whom Allah has made weak and delivered into his hand, should they not submit to all his wishes !” (pp.21-2)

How often does one come across the phrases: “The Turk is a gentleman” and “the clean-fighting Turk” in British speeches and literature of this period?

When the Ottoman Turks were taken on as another enemy by Britain in 1914, to facilitate the giving of Constantinople to the Czar for services rendered against Germany and to grab Palestine and Iraq for the British Empire, the propaganda departments concentrated their efforts against the Turks. The big problem Wellington House was confronted with in creating propaganda against the Turks was the notion that existed in England at the time which can be summed up in the phrase ‘the Turk is a gentleman’. This came about because the traditional view of the Turk in Britain presented him as ‘a clean fighter’ and an honorable and honest opponent to all and sundry. The propagandists therefore attempted to overcome this view with a great output of atrocity propaganda.

The classic example was Mark Sykes’s famous article in The Times called, ‘The clean fighting Turk – a spuriously claim’. (Sykes was involved in carving up the Middle East with the French at the same time as Britain was promising and Arab state to the Arabs.)

Laffan tries to get over the high regard that the Turk was held in, particularly in Tory circles in England, by putting forward the view that Turks were only honorable, clean-fighting gentlemen to their equals or betters.

Suffice to say, I have read many accounts written by Arabs, Jews and even Balkan Christians that wished the Ottoman rulers had remained after they saw what happened to their lands and peoples after they were ‘liberated’ by England.

Ireland – Another English Blindspot

Reverend Laffan becomes very excited when he considers how the Serbs may have survived as a nation under all this ‘oppression’ from the Ottomans:

“In this long period of extinction two forces were mainly responsible for keeping alive the national spirit of the Serbs. One was their church, part of the Holy Orthodox Church of the East. True to the precepts of Mohammed, the Turks did not force their religion on the peoples whom they conquered. They offered the three-fold choice of Islam, the sword, or tribute. Should a subject-race reject the Mohammedan faith and also not wish to be exterminated, it was spared on condition of paying tribute. So it came about that, at a time when Western Europe thought it the first duty of a government to impose what it considered the true religion on its subjects, the Sultan of Turkey drew his revenues from subjects who were allowed to abhor the faith of their ruler. Separate nationalities have never been allowed in the Turkish Empire. Religion is for the Turk the mark of distinction between men, and the people who would retain a united social life must find it in ecclesiastical organization. This the Serbs possessed in their national church with its patriarchate of Fetch ; and thus it was their church, the one institution left to them, that embodied the traditions, the hopes, and the unity of the people.

The second influence that preserved the national spirit was that of the folk-songs and ballads (pesme). In these the lays of the saints and heroes of the glorious past were gathered, and they formed the whole sum of learning and culture to the greater portion of the people. The singing of these mournful and haunting ballads, which may often be heard from the lips of Serb soldiers, was the special business of the blind musicians who accompanied themselves on their one-stringed gousle, but every Serb would know several by heart and, his memory not being weakened by the arts of reading and writing, the words would remain indelibly printed on his mind. Thus the pesme would be handed on from generation to generation without ever being committed to paper ; and though many have been collected and edited during the last century, there must be many that have never been written. In the long winter evenings, when the Serbian farmers could not work, they would gather round the fire and sing together of past heroes and the golden age. Thus the Serbian soldier of to-day has a rich store of national history in his songs and knows far more of the tradition, the triumphs, and the struggles of his own people than does his English brother-in-arms. The great figures of English history are to most of our countrymen nothing but names in history books. To the Serbs the old heroes are familiar characters, some of whom… will appear in moments of national crisis to lead their people to victory.” (p.22-4)

It never ceases to amaze what blind spots England has in its view of the world. How could an Englishman who must have been aware of how his country treated Ireland not notice how Ottoman rule in the Balkans was so much more admirable than the English treatment of Ireland? The Reverend Laffan argued that the Turks “offered the three-fold choice of Islam, the sword, or tribute” to the Serbs. How generous of them!

In August 1892, Wilfred Scawen Blunt, the English Radical, recorded in his diary how he had had a discussion on politics with Arthur and Gerald Balfour during a visit to the country:

“Drove with the Balfours… had a grand discussion about patriotism, Gerald maintaining that patriotism was the Imperial instinct in Englishmen, who should support the country’s quarrels even when in the wrong… Gerald has all his brother’s scientific inhumanity in politics, and it is a school of thought decidedly on the increase, for it flatters the selfish instincts of the strong by proving to them that their selfishness is right… On our way home we renewed our argument as applied especially to the Irish. ‘They ought to have been exterminated long ago,’ said Gerald, ‘but it is too late now.’  (My Diaries, Vol I., p.85.)

The three-pronged seventeenth century English policy of Protestantism, the sword and tribute had not been thorough enough to enact an extermination of the Irish – although it had not been for want of trying. Whilst the English ‘civilizing’ of Ireland had involved the destruction of Gaelic society, and the attempted eradication of Catholicism, there were not the population resources necessary in England and Scotland to supplant an exterminated native population with enough colonists. The English State had to rule out extermination as a practical policy and the Irish lived to fight another day and eventually to thwart the English design.

Ireland preserved its distinctiveness from England through the very means that Laffan gave adulation to with regard to the Serbs – religion and music. The English conquest more or less wiped out the other badges of peculiarity that they found in Ireland which were obstacles to civilizing ‘progress’ – Gaelic culture and the language. The Irish were left with their distinctive religion, which they took care to preserve as an act of resistance. And having failed to destroy it the English sought to utilize Catholicism as a moderating force against revolution with the result that it had uses for Britain even after the Treaty was signed.

Music and song were the fundamental means by which Irish identity preserved itself over the centuries in which England attempted to eradicate it. Memory of the longer time seems to be the last thing that leaves the human mind (This was a thing brought home to me personally when my mother in law developed dementia to the extent she no longer recognized her family. One day she picked up a concertina, the first time in thirty years, and played a set of jigs without forgetting a note.)

As per usual, however, where England was concerned, what was admirable and exemplary in nations outside the British Empire was something to be disdained and discouraged within its own dominion.

The Ottomans and the Wreckage Peoples

Nicolae Batzaria was a Christian from Monastir in Macedonia who became a Young Turk. His Memoirs, Din Lumea Islamului, contain a useful analogy concerning the Ottoman attitude to the races contained in their Empire. He notes that from the time the Turks conquered the Balkans, in the Fourteenth Century:

“Turks did not, either at that time or later, think about denationalizing other peoples or about imposing upon them a different culture… The Turk rule from this viewpoint had a good effect upon nationalities. This rule could be compared to the snow that covers the crops and protects them from winter freeze. The Young Turks desired to depart from this policy and sought to introduce a policy of denationalization. It was too late and the policy was doomed to fail. It was too late because, due to the regime of tolerance adopted by Turks with regard to ethnic groups in national and cultural matters, the existing national groups had developed and strengthened themselves to the point where they could cope with any action likely to threaten their existence and ethnic structure.” (p.123)

In the latter part of the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was assailed by Western ‘progress’ in the shape of nationalism. The Ottoman Empire had become the ‘sick man of Europe’ because it was the last holdout of ethnic complexity and diversity (as well as being rooked by Western governments and financiers). When the Young Turks attempted to save the Ottoman Empire by making concessions to the Western version of progress they found that the tolerance of the Ottomans, which had created a multi-national empire, proved too much of an obstacle to an alternative course.

The Balkans was an unstable region that the Ottomans had managed to govern effectively for centuries and keep remarkably stable. But after the deluge of nationalism that was sponsored by the Europeans, and the intrigues of the Great Powers in the region the Ottomans began to fight a losing battle in stabilizing the region.

Joseph Starke, an American writer, put in all quite well in 1921 in surveying the Balkans:

“Within a comparatively small territory there are thrown together in that area some seven or eight nationalities, and semi-nationalities: Greece, Roumania, Bulgaria, Servia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania, to which we must add Hungary, Croatia, Slavonia, Turkey and Italy to make this political crazy-quilt complete. The Balkan and adjoining Slavic nationalities are largely intermixed along their real and imaginary boundary lines, and the whole area is permeated by Greeks, Turks, Italians and numerous Jews, also some Austrians and Germans. Each country claims parts of the others on ethnological and historical grounds; each has proud traditions of former independence; they all claim the glories of ancient Greece and Rome as their heritage. In reality they are a collection of ‘wreckage peoples,’ evolved from the transition periods of ancient civilizations, mixed with nomadic settlers from the east, and hence, of most indefinite lineage. In character they are turbulent… and of the worst political reputation… England is directly responsible for this exasperating and baffling state of affairs. By nourishing in these peoples, under the impulse of Gladstone’s humanitarian eloquence, an inordinate sense of importance quite beyond their deserts and the nationalistic possibilities of the situation as it stood at that time, she directly encouraged their restlessness and violence, increased the racial jealousies between them and interfered with the natural evolution of these related countries to a strong and united Slavic state under Austrian guidance – the fertile scheme of the murdered prince Francis Ferdinand.” (Light And Truth After The World Tragedy, p.39)

The achievement of the Ottomans in managing these “wreckage peoples” was put into perspective during the twentieth century when the Balkans passed out of the Ottoman sphere and into the realm of Christian European influence. When the Ottoman administration began to retreat from the region the Balkans became a killing ground for the best part of a century. Millions died and millions more were uprooted by the ‘march of progress,’ when nationalist passions were unleashed and nation states on the Western model were constructed out of the peoples of these regions.

Transfer to Vienna

As Starke contended, the Balkan region might still have remained stable if the other great Empire in the region had been allowed to stabilize it.

The Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire, like the Ottoman Empire, was not an Empire in the same sense of the word as the British one – with its far-flung colonies and racialist order ruling over the “lesser breeds.” It was a single land block of territories combining together a number of different nationalities of mostly German, Hungarian and Slavic origin, which were being added to the governing of what originally had been a Viennese Empire of the Hapsburg dynasty. Since 1867 it had been governed as a Dual Monarchy, with a single King governing two Austrian/German and Hungarian State systems. And it was greatly admired by Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein as a vast improvement on the Union between Britain and Ireland – in the knowledge that nothing further would be permissible.

In 1914 Austro-Hungary was in the process of becoming a triple monarchy by incorporating the Slavs into the system. The principal advocate for introducing a distinct Slav component to the dual monarchy was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg throne.

But in 1908 Austro-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, and this event formed the basis of conflict with Serbia – which was encouraged by Russia in its expansionist ambitions to incorporate all Serbs into a Greater Serbia.

Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina had both been part of the Ottoman Empire but by 1878 they had become independent. Bosnia-Herzegovina had a mixed religious population of Orthodox and Catholic Christians and Moslems. The territory was claimed by the Serb nationalists and to prevent a Serb takeover of the area the Hapsburgs occupied it at the time of the Congress of Berlin in 1878, with the agreement of Britain and Russia. The reasoning behind the acceptance of Austria’s protectorate was that the mixed population of Croats, Serbs and Moslems would be best administered by a powerful state that had the experience of reconciling these elements together effectively. And in relation to the Moslem population this proved a wise move since this community actually grew under Austrian rule whilst everywhere else in the Balkans that Ottoman territory fell into the hands of a Christian state the followers of Islam were wiped out by one means or another.

The Austro-Hungarians presumed that the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina would be a matter of routine. The Austrian rule of thirty years was generally accepted as progressive across Europe, Bosnia-Herzegovina had a liberal and representative diet containing all the communities, the territory was stable, and the transition between protectorate and annexation was a common British and French policy of the time.

But Vienna miscalculated on two counts. Firstly, on account of the return of Russian expansionism to the area: The fact that Russia had turned her eyes back to the Balkans as an area for expansion as a result of being blocked from an outlet to the ocean in the Middle and Far East – by Britain in Persia and Britain’s ally, Japan, in the war of 1905.

And secondly, the Anglo-Russian understanding of 1907 had removed the main barrier toward Russian expansion in the Balkans.

The effect of this latter factor was seen almost immediately. Russia had had a secret agreement with Austro-Hungary from May 1897 to preserve stability in the Balkans. But this was undermined by the 1907 Agreement between England and Russia. In January 1908 the Austrians obtained a concession from the Sultan at Istanbul to conduct survey work on a railway line across a strip of territory between Serbia and Montenegro. Over the previous decade this would have presented no difficulty to the Russians but the circumstances of the 1907 Agreement the Austrian railway began to be seen as an a German attempt to link up with the Ottomans and the Railway to Baghdad.

Austria-Hungary and Russia had reached an understanding that if Russia was supported by the Hapsburg State in her desire to have free passage through the Straits for her navy the Russians would not object to the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But when the Russian Minister informed the British and French of the agreement they found the Entente objecting to it as an infringement of the terms of the Triple Alliance. Having found themselves rebuffed the Russians began to attack the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and work up the Serbs about it.

A Serbian View

To M. Bogitshevich, the Serbian Charge d’affaires in Berlin, England’s attitude to the annexation was a real eye-opener. He noted in his book Causes of the War (p.25) that England had assured the Austro-Hungarians of its entire support at the Congress of Berlin with regard to incorporating Bosnia in its empire but in 1909 changed its position entirely. It not only supported the Greater Serbian nationalists but also put pressure on the Russians to take a more uncompromising attitude to Vienna.

Bosnia would have remained with good and stable government if it had been a part of the reforming Hapsburg State in a region where the Ottoman State also revived under German assistance. It would have simply transferred from one multi-national state to another with the experience of handling regions of mixed nationalities.

However, the British interest in the area had changed. Previously, the British desire to prevent Russia coming down to Constantinople by blocking her in the Balkans had produced a stabilizing influence in the region by curbing Russian expansionism and holding Serbian ambitions in check.

At the Congress of Berlin in 1878 England nullified the gains that Russia thought she had made in her war with Turkey (1877-8) and which had been agreed at San Stefano. The frustration of Russia was directed, not however against Britain but, against Austria-Hungary because she gained territorially in the Balkans at the expense of the Ottomans and began to successfully integrate the Southern Slavs into her state rather than the Slavs becoming the recipients of Russian expansionism. So when Britain removed her block on Russia in 1907, as part of the preliminaries for war on Germany, all the Russian antagonism became directed at Vienna – as England hoped. “The Russo-Austrian antagonism was the inducing cause of the European war.” (M. Bogitshevich, Causes of the War, p.5)

Bogitshevich’s book is interesting for another reason. The Serbian reveals how much his country was indebted toward Austria for its territorial borders. At the time of the Congress of Berlin Austria took Serbia ‘under her wing’ and won for it territory that Russia had already assigned to Bulgaria at San Stefano. Again in 1885 after the war between Serbia and Bulgaria the Austrians checked the advance of the Bulgarian forces into Serbia.

From the 1880s the Russians intrigued to gain influence in Serbia but it was not until 1903 that Moscow managed to detach Serbia from its friendship with Vienna. King Alexander and his wife were assassinated in an army coup and were replaced by King Peter. King Peter was a strong Francophile who had been brought up and educated in France and had even fought in France’s army in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. France had gone into alliance with Russia after the Kaiser failed to renew the reinsurance treaty with the Czar. Under the weak and Francophile new King Peter the Greater Serbian Radicals took charge of foreign affairs in Serbia and gravitated toward Russia and against Austria. Thus began a great Serbian propaganda offensive against the Austrians that aimed to sow seeds of discontent amongst all Slavs living within the Austro-Hungarian state at the very time that their formal representation was being advocated in a ‘Triple Monarchy.’

By 1908 England had instituted a complete reorientation in its foreign policy in order to cut Germany down to size as a commercial competitor. Britain, from preventing Russia from expanding its influence in the Balkans now supported Russian and Serb expansionism. However, Britain still found it necessary to block Russia advancing her objectives in the Balkans diplomatically and in agreement with the Austro-Hungarians – so that she was maintained in a position of hostility against Vienna and Berlin. In such a hold Russia would welcome a general European war conducted against Germany when a favourable opportunity came.

The first fruit of the reorientation of British foreign policy and the re-alignment in the Balkans was the Balkans War of 1912 which drove the Ottomans out of most of the region. This emerged from Russia bringing Bulgaria and Serbia together and a British adventurer (James Bourchier) helping to add the Greeks to the mix to form the Balkan League. In this way the former antagonistic elements of the region were brought together by Russia (with nods and winks from London) to disrupt the stability of the region and throw it into the melting pot – where it has largely been ever since.

This aspect will be explored in a future article marking the centenary of this event.

Bogitshevich also notes that it was significant that Serbia did absolutely nothing to satisfy Austrian in the three weeks after the assassination of the royal couple in Sarajevo. Serbia remained totally indifferent to what might befall her and attempted no conciliatory measures that might have brought about some sort of accord with Vienna. Why? Because she knew that the backing of Russia was there, and behind it the backing of France, and the backing of England.

Bogitshevich has some interesting material in the Appendices of his book. It is clear from many included Serbian documents from 1908 to 1914 it was common knowledge that the Entente powers were planning a war against Germany and Serbia was advised to hold back in any action against Austria until the time was right for war (rather than be disowned as an aggressor and be left high and dry). In 1912 a Serbian Minister advises the Ministry of Foreign Affairs not to push for an outlet for land-locked Serbia to the Adriatic as yet but to “await with as great a degree of preparedness as possible the important events which must make their appearance among the Great Powers.”(p.98)

In 1911, just after the Agadir crisis, which nearly resulted in war between the Entente and Germany, the Serbian Charge d’affaires in London reported to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a conversation he had with the French Ambassador to London, Paul Cambon. This document explains why the Entente decided not to launch the war against Germany at that particular moment:

“M. Cambon is of the opinion that the present negotiations with Germany will be conducted to a conclusion and that an agreement will be reached… The agreement has the one result that the war will be postponed three or four years… France and her allies are of the opinion, that the war – even at the expense of greater sacrifices – must be postponed to a later time, that is to say until the year 1914-15. The necessity of this postponement is required less by France’s material preparedness for war, which is complete than by the organisation of the upper command, which is not yet finished. This delay is wanted also by Russia. England alone will derive no advantage from this arrangement, because the superiority of her fleet over that of Germany decreases every year. Out of consideration for the preparedness of her allies, France urges that an understanding be reached with Germany for the present.”(p.108-9)

Bogitshevich had the following to say about Russia’s calculations and England’s position after the Sarajevo assassinations, which was chosen by the Entente as the detonator for war:

“There is no other explanation for the fact that in the summer of 1914 the war had become unavoidable because… Russia would no longer permit postponement of a war which the Entente Powers regarded as inevitable… a war, too, which they had firmly resolved upon. Russia desired no postponement for the reason that there was no prospect at any time in the future there would arise a relatively better political and military constellation of facts…

It is often contended that England would not have taken part but for the violation of Belgium’s neutrality by Germany. But already on July 16 I had it direct from Jules Cambon… that Sir Edward Grey had already stated to Prince Lichnowski (this was therefore before the Austrian ultimatum became known) the following, namely, that England could not remain uninterested in the struggle in case it came to a conflict on Serbia’s account between France-Russia on the one side and Germany-Austria on the other; in other words that she would take part on the side of Russia and France.

Thereby, Sir Edward Grey encouraged Russia and France to make war, whereas his purpose was to discourage Germany from doing so… For the maintenance of peace England’s strongest card was to keep herself free from binding obligations, and this trump card she played out of her hand too soon, and into the very hands of those who wished the war… If Sir Edward Grey, at the beginning of the war, was really opposed to a European war or to a war by England against Germany, then, to put it mildly, he made a mess of it…”(pp.67-8) 

I think Bogitshevich gets his interpretation of Edward Grey mostly right. But he does not see or develop the significance of his sentence: “Sir Edward Grey encouraged Russia and France to make war, whereas his purpose was to discourage Germany from doing so.” What he actually saw, in all probability, was Grey encouraging the Russians and French on whilst making his position to Germany deliberately unclear. Bogitshevich is probably right that Grey would have went to war even without the German entry into Belgium but he wanted to lure the Germans into Belgium in order to bring his party, the Liberals, with the government. If it had been made clear to the Germans that Britain would go to war with them (as it was three years previous in the Agadir crisis) if they crossed Belgian territory then the Kaiser would have certainly thought again.

Continued in Part Two

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.