The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1913 Prince Wilhelm von Weid - the quiet cavalry officer who accidentally started a war After the conclusion of the Balkan War by the Treaty of London in January 1913, many in Europe’s capitals saw the Balkans as a potential source of future conflict. There were many areas of concern, not least the possibility of the Balkan League fracturing, with Bulgaria known to be dissatisfied with their share of the spoils. Many feared that German attempts to divide Bulgaria from its Balkan allies (and thus also from Russia) would result in internecine warfare between them, with the potential for this to lead to a wider conflict. Alternatively, the possibility of the Balkan League using their success against the Ottomans as a springboard for the liberation of their Slavic cousins in Austrian Bosnia could not be discounted. Neither, of course, could the possibility of Ottoman revanchism, nor that the League would not simply renew an assault on them in the name of claiming the long-desired territories of Ionia, Thrace and Constantinople. However, few at the time predicted that the ‘settlement’ of the London Treaty would break down so quickly, nor that the tinderbox for doing so would be a dynastic dispute over Albania. Carved out of Ottoman territory on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, Albania was a poor country and was expected to become a de facto protectorate of the League under a minor princeling whose identity was to be determined. However, the boundaries as set by the Treaty of London largely ignored the demographics on the ground and had created a nation where a largely pro-Ottoman and Muslim peasantry was exploited by their predominantly Christian landlords. The great powers took until the spring of 1913 to come up with the compromise nomination of Prince Wilhelm von Wied – a Prussian cavalry commander and nephew of the Queens of both Romania and the Netherlands – as their candidate. While he was acceptable to the Albanian provisional government, Wilhelm stunned his advisors when he turned down the offer of the throne on 7 March. Wilhelm, correctly as it turned out, predicted that the throne of Albania would not be worth the material it was made of. Into this power vacuum, the former Ottoman officer Essad Toptani declared that he was now the Prince of Albania and assumed de jure control of the country’s government (which he had already de facto controlled for some months by this point). In this capacity he received the support of the Ottomans on 14 March. The reaction of the Balkan League was furious and they made renewed attempts to get Wilhelm to agree to take the throne (their earlier concerns about his possibly pro-German sensibilities discarded) and the Greek government began to arm separatists in North Epirus. Over the next fortnight, this lead to a generalized breakdown of law and order in the nascent principality with no clear resolution in sight: President Roosevelt’s suggestion that Albania be made an American protectorate was immediately vetoed by Germany. On 6 April 1913, Ottoman forces invaded Albania in order to prop up Toptani. Although this was not, by any particular definition, an attack on any member of the Balkan League, the League nonetheless interpreted the move as a violation of the Treaty of London as well as a deliberate provocation towards Greek naval interests in the Aegean (given that the Ottomans moved most of their troops by sea). In secret, League officials sought and received a guarantee from the Russian government that the Russians would come to their aid in the event of any League nation being attacked by any of the Great Powers, which in turn lead to the combined governments of the League issuing an ultimatum to the Ottomans on 20 April, demanding that they immediately withdraw. When the Ottomans, predictably, refused to comply, the League commenced a full mobilization of their forces on 24 April, with Russia ordering a partial mobilization a day later. Outraged by what they saw as an affront to their Ottoman allies, Germany and Austria mobilized their forces on 28 April, at the same time issuing a seven-day ultimatum to the League to withdraw their own ultimatum and cease mobilization. They argued that Albania was not a member of the League, that its only legitimate (or quasi-legitimate) government had invited intervention from the Ottoman forces, and that such intervention was only necessary because of destabilization by elements in Albania who were loyal to the League. All these arguments were technically correct on their own terms, although they did rather ignore the point that Albania had been declared a neutral territory in the Treaty of London and that, although Toptani’s invitation to the Ottomans gave the Ottomans a degree of legal cover for their intervention, this was flimsy at best. Having been violated first in spirit and then in letter by both sides, the Treaty of London was already a dead letter three months after its signing and the Balkans was now geopolitically lawless. What happened next was the key point in the slide towards war and away from peace. With Germany now mobilized and the war in Albania now almost certain to spill out of that country’s borders, Russia ordered a full mobilization of its forces on 29 April. Over the previous week, the US ambassador to France, John M. Parker, had been running between his residence and the Elysee Palace attempting to control events as they developed. Eventually, on the night of 29 April, he was faced with the Russian mobilization and the question of whether France could rely on American backing in the event of the war which now seemed likely. Guessing (correctly, as it turned out) his president’s wishes, he confirmed that the American government would support their French and Russian allies. On 30 April France ordered a full mobilization and on the same day President Roosevelt announced a mobilization of the US Army and called up the National Guard. Although they were intimately aware of the events unfolding in Europe, Britain had thusfar managed to stay out of the maneuverings. However, this was never going to be a practical long-term position and on 1 May the Belgian government sent secret messages to London asking for confirmation that the British would intervene to preserve Belgian neutrality in the event of Germany marching troops through its borders. After fierce debate in cabinet, Lloyd George and Haldane got the cabinet to agree that declaring war on Germany in order to protect Belgium would be worthless. It was a pretty clear abrogation of the UK’s obligations under the 1839 Treaty of London but the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary successfully made their case on the grounds of geopolitics. The decision was transmitted not only to the Belgian ambassador in London but also, separately, to the German one. The following day, Germany issued a formal request for Belgium to allow free passage of their forces, before beginning an invasion on 3 May. Contrary to most expectations, however, the Belgian government did not declare neutrality but instead attempted to repel the invasion. On 4 May, the French also invaded Belgium to attack the German army there, declaring war on the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans) at the same time. A few hours later, the United States and Russia did the same thing.