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Albania during World War I

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Albania during World War I was an independent state, having gained independence from the Ottoman Empire on November 28, 1912, recognized by the Great Powers in 1913. A new country with various ethnic groups, it quickly unraveled and just a few months after taking power, its leader William of Wied, was forced to flee. After World War I broke out, anarchy took hold of the country as tribes and regions rebelled against central rule. To protect the Greek minority, Greek control was established in the southern districts replacing the Northern Epirote units. In response to this, Italy also landed troops, while Serbia and Montenegro took control of northern regions. In 1915 Serbia was overrun by the Austro-Hungarian Army and the Serbian army retreated through Albania, quickly followed by the Austro-Hungarian Army. As a result, the Austrians occupied most of the country, until a multinational Allied force broke through Austrian and German lines in 1918.

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The period leading up to the First World War in the Balkans was a time of great confusion. Most of the nations there had only recently become independent from the Ottoman Empire and national, ethnic, and religious tensions ran high. Nowhere did this hold true more, though, than the principality of Albania. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War special episode about Albania in World War One. Albania was actually the last of the Balkan nations to declare its independence from the Ottomans, but let’s go back a bit. In the decades before the war, as countries like Serbia and Bulgaria were becoming independent themselves, Albania was in a precarious position. It had its own independence movement, but several of the other newly independent nations considered Albanian land their for the taking. Albania had, for the most part, fought alongside the Ottomans in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, and the treaty of San Stefano after that had assigned Albanian land to Montenegro and Greece. As the new century began, Albanian demands for greater freedoms and rights began to cause frequent revolts, but when the first Balkan War erupted in 1912, Albania, still part of the Empire, saw its cities and villages occupied in all directions, by Serbs, Montenegrins, Greeks, and Bulgarians. This finally prompted the Albanian declaration of independence November 28th, 1912, which was immediately ignored by all of the occupying neighbors. But when the war ended in May 1913, Albanian independence was recognized - though under international control and with half the lands Albania had claimed. The second Balkan War began a month later, and ended in August with a strengthening of the Serbian position in the region, and Serbian acquisition of Western Macedonia, with a predominantly Albanian population. The Balkan Wars, though overshadowed by WW1 today, got a lot of attention in the west, particularly because of the wartime atrocities committed by all sides. In fact, the Carnegie Endowment for International peace specifically wrote about atrocities committed against Albanians in order to transform the ethnic character of regions inhabited by them. Numbers vary widely in various sources, but as many as 120,000 Albanians were killed in the regions occupied by Serbian forces during the wars, as Serbia sought access to the sea. Now, the non-occupied regions of Albania drifted into pretty much total chaos at this time. The Great Powers tried to bring some order to this chaos with an international commission that would govern the country until a Prince could be found. This commission was created October 15th. The following day, Essad Pasha, an Ottoman loyalist supported by Serbia, declared the independence of the Republic of Central Albania, with the goal of reuniting it with the Ottoman Empire. He held this “republic” until February 1914. He agreed to step down under pressure from the Great Powers, in exchange for a strong position in the government of William of Wied, a German officer and noble, who had been finally chosen as Prince of Albania. That month, though, the Greek minority of southern Albania, not wishing to be stuck in a country that was predominantly Muslim, declared the Republic of Northern Epirus, which included most of Southern Albania. William of Wied arrived in Albania March 7th, 1914, and tribal leaders pledged allegiance to him. He formed a government with Essad Pasha as Minister of War, and signed the Corfu Protocol, which gave the rebellious Greek minority autonomy within Albania. Then he began making reforms, such as separating church and state, which were hugely unpopular with the people. In addition, Islamists viewed the him as a crusader. The Prince, for his part, accused Essad Pasha of double service and conspiracy and had him arrested and taken to Italy. Within days, Central Albania was in insurrection. By the time the First World War broke out, William had lost control of most of the country. In addition, the Austro-Hungarian Empire demanded he send troops to fight for them, and when he refused, the financial aid he’d been receiving from the empire was cut off. William would leave the country of September 3rd, eventually joining the German army on the Eastern Front. So: power vacuum. Essad Pasha returned from Italy and made a deal with Serbian Prime Minister Nicola Pasic that ceded mostly Christian Northern Albania to Serbia in exchange for financial and military support. Essad took over central Albania with little resistance. Meanwhile, Greek Prime Minister Venizelos made a deal with British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey that allowed Greece to officially invade southern Albania. Shortly after that, Muslim leaders in Central Albania rose up against Essad Pasha and by late November he was surrounded in the capital, Durazzo. He was rescued by Italian warships, and indeed Italy invaded Valona in December, and soon took control of most of the coast from Valona to Durazzo. No major European power protested this invasion because at this time both sides wanted Italy to join them in the First World War. Much of Albania was now under the rule of local chieftains or the Central Muslim movement, while in the north, the Kachaks fought a guerrilla war against the Serbs. In April 1915, the Pact of London was signed that brought Italy into the war. The pact gave Italy a protectorate of most of Albania, southern Albania to Greece, and Northern Albania to Serbia and Montenegro. By the end of June, Northern Albania had been occupied, though the Albanians resisted the invasion and there was some fierce fighting. In October, Serbia withdrew from Albania to fight the Central powers invading Serbia, only to return weeks later in the retreat to the sea that would see tens of thousands of Serbian refugees and soldiers die of the freezing weather, starvation, and guerrilla attacks from Albanian forces. Soon Austria-Hungary controlled all of northern Albania, and the future King Zog of Albania - history’s heaviest smoker, look it up, and the only modern monarch to pull out his own gun and return fire on would-be assassins, true story - joined them in taking Durazzo. Many Albanians viewed the Austrians as saviors, but that took a real blow in April 1916, when the Austrians ordered the Albanians to surrender all weapons. You would think that Italy and Austria-Hungary, both occupying Albania, would fight each other there, but you’d be wrong, except for small skirmishes. By autumn 1916, the Allies were beginning to move in the Balkans. The French soon occupied Korcha and declared it an autonomous republic. This meant that French and Italian forces were now connected and an Albanian rifle regiment was even created in the French army. In June 1917, Italy declared Albanian independence and ousted Essad Pasha. Interestingly enough, especially considering what had gone on prior to the war, there was still no major fighting in Albania. Not till mid 1918, when an Italian offensive captured the Berat region. A month later, though, the Central powers recaptured most of the territory, which is quite interesting because it was the final real military success by the Central Powers in the war. On September 15th, the Allies began the final offensive on the Salonika front, soon defeating Bulgaria and forcing the Austrians to retreat. The Allies destroyed the port of Durazzo on October 2nd, the final major confrontation on Albanian soil, and by November 5th, the whole country was in allied hands. And what happened then? Well, the political confusion continued. Albania didn’t have a recognized government and Albanians feared that Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia would carve it up. It was US President Woodrow Wilson who spoke up for Albanian independence and in December 1920, the League of Nations recognized Albania as a sovereign nation and admitted it as a member. Okay, even though this is probably really confusing, it was still only a general outline of what was happening in Albania during the war. You should definitely look it up yourself for a deeper understanding because it’s really interesting, and almost mind-blowingly confusing. Of all the countries that took part in the First World War, it was in Albania that the Game of Thrones was played the most. Thank you to Lirm Bllaca for helping us out with this episode. If you want to learn more about the situation on the Balkans during Serbias retreat, you should check out our episode about that right here. If you want to help telling the story of your country in World War 1 on our channel, get in touch with our social media guy Flo on Facebook or through our official website.



Old Map showing Greek parts of Albania
Map of Northern Epirus (Epirote)

Albania was a country only created a few years before World War I. In the aftermath of the Balkan Wars Serbia, Montenegro and Greece all occupied and claimed parts of Albania. It was decided that William of Wied, a German prince would become leader of the new Principality of Albania.[1] The principality under William of Wied was established on 21 February 1914 and Prince William arrived in Albania at his provisional capital of Durrës on 7 March 1914 along with the royal family. The security of Albania was to be provided by a gendarmerie commanded by Dutch officers. Inside Albania he was called the King William; outside Albania, Prince William.

The southern part of the country, Epirote, which had a large Greek population, grated at being part of Albania and when the Greek soldiers left, it rose up against William. Under pressure from the great powers the Greeks backed down on independence demands and negotiations were carried out on the island of Corfu, where on 17 May 1914 Albanian and Epirote representatives signed an agreement known as the Protocol of Corfu. According to its terms Epirote would acquire complete autonomous existence (as a corpus separatum) under the nominal Albanian sovereignty of Prince William.[2] The agreement of the Protocol was ratified by the representatives of the Great Powers at Athens on 18 June and by the Albanian government on 23 June.[3]

World War I

Just one month after Protocol of Corfu was signed by the Albanians on June 23, 1914, war broke out in Europe. Officially starting on July 28, 1914, the war threw Albania into disarray.

Revolt and Prince William leaves Albania

One month after accepting the throne on 7 March, King William arrived in his provisional capital of Durrës and started to organise his government, appointing Turhan Pasha Përmeti to form the first Albanian cabinet.[4][A 1] This first cabinet was dominated by members of the nobility (prince Essad Pasha Toptani, defence and foreign affairs, prince George Adamidi bey Frachery, finances, and prince Aziz pacha Vrioni, agriculture).

His brief reign proved a turbulent one. Immediately following his arrival revolts of Muslims broke out in central Albania against his Chief Minister, Essad Pasha, and against foreign domination. Meanwhile, Greece encouraged the formation of a "provisional government of North Epirus" in the southern part of the country. Although an agreement was made to grant extra rights to the Greek minority, the Hellenic Army occupied Southern Albania excluding Berat and Korçë. William's position was also undermined by his own officials, notably Essad Pasha himself, who accepted money from Italy to finance a revolt and to stage a coup against William. Pasha was arrested on 19 May 1914 and tried for treason and sentenced to death. Only the intervention of Italy saved his life and he escaped to Italy in exile.[5] The outbreak of World War I presented more problems for Prince William as Austria-Hungary demanded that he send Albanian soldiers to fight alongside them. When he refused, citing the neutrality of Albania in the Treaty of London, the remuneration that he had been receiving was cut off.[6] Various tribal chiefs and self-styled warlords took control of central and northern Albania. In the Greek south, local leaders renounced the Protocol of Corfu and seized control. Prince William left the country on 3 September 1914.

Greek occupation of Northern Epirus (October 1914)

Sporadic armed conflicts continued to occur in spite of the Protocol of Corfu's ratification, and on September 3, 1914 Prince Wilhelm departed the country.[7] In the following days, an Epirote unit launched an attack on the Albanian garrison in Berat without approval from the provisional government, managing to capture its citadel for several days, while Albanian troops loyal to Essad Pasha initiated small-scale armed operations.[8] These events worried Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, as well as the possibility that the unstable situation could spill over outside Albania, triggering a wider conflict. On October 27, 1914, after receiving the approval of the Great Powers the Greek Army's V Army Corps entered the area for a second time. The provisional government of Northern Epirus formally ceased to exist, declaring that it had accomplished its objectives. Greek troops crossed the southern Albanian border at the end of October 1914, officially reoccupying southern Albania, exclusive of Vlorë, and establishing a military administration by 27 October 1914.[9] The Italians were not happy with the Greek occupation and sent in Italian marines to occupy Vlorë, or Avlona, or Vallona, as they called it.[10] On October 31 the Italians seized the strategic island of Saseno or Sazan Island.[11] In December Italy reiterated that Albania would remain neutral as stated at the London Conference and that Italian bluejackets were landed at Avlona with this objective.[12]

Serbian retreat and Austrian occupation (winter 1915)

As anarchy grew in Northern Albania and the Greeks moved into the South, Italy sent its troops to occupy Vlorë while Serbia and Montenegro occupied parts of northern Albania. Successful defensive moves during the Serbian Campaign of World War I kept the Central Powers out of Albania until 1915. Bulgaria was finally coaxed into entering the War on the side of the Central Powers and the Austro-Hungarians and Germans began their attack against Serbia on October 7 while on October 14, 1915, the Bulgarian Army attacked from two directions sending the Serbian armies into disarray.

After attacks from both Bulgaria and Austria, Serbian army leader Marshal Putnik ordered a full retreat, south and west through Montenegro and into Albania. The weather was terrible, the roads poor, and the army had to help the tens of thousands of civilians who retreated with them with almost no supplies or food left. But the bad weather and poor roads worked for the refugees as well, as the Central Powers forces could not press them hard enough, and so they evaded capture. Many of the fleeing soldiers and civilians did not make it to the coast, though – they were lost to hunger, disease, attacks by enemy forces and Albanian tribal bands.[13] The circumstances of the retreat were disastrous, and all told, only some 155,000 Serbs, mostly soldiers, reached the coast of the Adriatic Sea, and embarked on Italian transport ships that carried the army to various Greek islands (many to Corfu) before being sent to Salonika. The evacuation of the Serbian army from Albania was completed on 10 February 1916. In the Serb's wake came the armies of Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. They would occupy most of Albania until the Vardar Offensive of September 1918.

Austro-Hungarian occupation of Albania (1916–1918)

The largest part of Albania was occupied by Austria-Hungary. This occupation was presented as "friendly", because Austria-Hungary and Albania were not at war. The Austro-Hungarians left the local administration in place, formed an Albanian gendarmerie and opened schools. The development of a proper Albanian language and orthography was promoted to reduce Italian influences. They also built roads and other infrastructure. Less popular was their attempt to confiscate weapons, which were all-present amongst the civilian population.[14] Nevertheless, several thousand Albanians fought on the side of the Austro-Hungarians against the Allies, including when the Italian Army landed at Durazzo.

The Military Administration was established at Scutari.

Austro-Hungarian Military Commanders were:

Civil administrator was August Ritter von Kral.

Bulgarian occupation of Albania (1916–1917)

On December 10, 1915, the Bulgarian army crossed the Drin river, entered Albania, and attacked the positions of the retreating Serbian army.[16] Firstly the Bulgarian army advanced into the valley of river Mat, threatening to capture Shkodra and Lezhe.[16]

There was a rivalry between the Kingdom of Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary in establishing their influence in Albania.[16] Attempting to establish its influence in Albania, Bulgaria allowed Ahmed Zogu to establish his administration in Elbasan and supported him in his attempts to revive support for the regime of Wilhelm of Wied.[16] The double invasion by Austria-Hungary and Kingdom of Bulgaria and a lack of support by the Kingdom of Serbia or Italy, forced Essad Pasha Toptani to leave his proclaimed Republic of Central Albania on February 24, 1916, when he again declared war against Austria-Hungary.[16]

In September 1917 the French troops commanded by general Maurice Sarrail undertook an action against the armies of Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria in Albania. Although the armies of Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary were joined by Albanians, led by Hysejn Nikolica,[16] French troops captured Pogradec, ending the Bulgarian occupation of Albania.[16]

French and Italian protectorate over Southern Albania (Autumn 1916)

Map showing the zones of control of Albania during WWI
Occupation of Albania in 1916.

In May 1916, the Italian XVI Corps, some 100,000 men under the command of General Settimio Piacentini, returned and occupied the region of southern Albania by the autumn 1916,[17] while the French army occupied Korçë and its surrounding areas on November 29, 1916. The Italian (in Gjirokastër) and French forces (in Korçë), according mainly to the development of the Balkan Front, entered the area of former Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus (controlled by the Greek minority) in autumn 1916, after approval of the Triple Entente.

The establishment of the Autonomous Albanian Republic of Korçë was done on December 10, 1916, by French authorities with a protocol, according to which an autonomous province would be established on the territories of Korçë, Bilishti, Kolonja, Opar and Gora in eastern Albania.

On December 12, 1916, Italy asked for explanations from the Quai d'Orsay, through its ambassador, because the establishment of the Autonomous Albanian Republic of Korçë violated the Treaty of London.[18] Austria-Hungary used French precedent in Korçë to justify the proclamation of independence of Albania under its protectorate on January 3, 1917, in Shkodra.

The Kingdom of Italy did the same when proclaiming independence of Albania under its protectorate on June 23, 1917, in Gjirokastra.[19] General Giacinto Ferrero proclaimed on that day the Italian Protectorate and the next weeks entered Greece and occupied Ioannina in Epirus.[20] Neither Great Britain nor France had been consulted beforehand, and they did not give any official recognition to the Italian Protectorate.[21] This Albanian republic under the leadership of Turhan Përmeti, protected by 100,000 soldiers of the Italian Army, adopted officially a red flag with a black eagle in the middle, but raised a storm of protests, even in the Italian Parliament.[22]

In autumn 1918, the Italians expanded their Protectorate (without adding anything officially to Albania) to areas of northern Greece (around Kastoria) and western Macedonia (around Bitola), conquered from the Bulgarians and Ottomans. On September 25 the Italian 35th Division reached and occupied Krusevo deep inside western Macedonia.[23]

Macedonian Front (1916–1918)

Map of Balkans showing troops movement
The movement of armies on the Macedonian Front

The Macedonian Front, also known as the Salonika Front, of World War I was formed as a result of an attempt by the Allied Powers to aid Serbia. The Allies were able to move the Serbian Army from Corfu to regions of Greece and Albania where eventually, a stable front was established, running from the Albanian Adriatic coast to the Struma River, pitting a multinational Allied force against the Bulgarian Army, which was at various times bolstered with smaller units from the remaining Central Powers. The Macedonian Front remained quite stable, despite local actions, until the great Allied offensive in September 1918.

In September 1918, Entente forces finally broke through the Central Powers' lines north of Thessaloniki and within days Austro-Hungarian forces began to withdraw from Albania. On October 2, 1918, the city of Durrës was shelled on the orders of Louis Franchet d'Espèrey, during the Battle of Durazzo. According to d'Espèrey, the Port of Durrës, if not destroyed, would have served the evacuation of the Bulgarian and German armies, involved in World War I.[24] When the war ended on 11 November 1918, Italy's army had occupied most of Albania; Serbia held much of the country's northern mountains; Greece occupied a sliver of land within Albania's 1913 borders; and French forces occupied Korçë and Shkodër as well as other regions with sizable Albanian populations.

Under the secret Treaty of London signed in April 1915, Triple Entente powers promised Italy that it would gain Vlorë (Valona) and nearby lands and a protectorate over Albania in exchange for entering the war against Austria-Hungary. Serbia and Montenegro were promised much of northern Albania, and Greece was promised much of the country's southern half. The treaty left a tiny Albanian state that would be represented by Italy in its relations with the other major powers.


Albania's political confusion continued in the wake of World War I. The country lacked a single recognized government, and Albanians feared, with justification, that Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece would succeed in extinguishing Albania's independence and carve up the country. Italian forces controlled Albanian political activity in the areas they occupied. The Serbs, who largely dictated Yugoslavia's foreign policy after World War I, strove to take over northern Albania, and the Greeks sought to control southern Albania.

US President Woodrow Wilson intervened to block the Paris agreement. The United States underscored its support for Albania's independence by recognizing an official Albanian representative to Washington, and on December 17, 1920, the League of Nations recognized Albania's sovereignty by admitting it as a full member. The country's borders, however, remained unsettled.

In the meantime, the Italian Army had been chased out of Albania by an Albanian volunteer force during the Vlora War (June–September 1920).


  1. ^ Muslim uprising in central Albania, one of the factors that led to the Prince's withdrawal from the country and the fall of the so-called six-month kingdom on the eve of the First World War.



  1. ^ Young, Hodgson & Young 1997
  2. ^ Miller 1966, p. 519
  3. ^ Stickney 1924, p. 50
  4. ^ Heaton-Armstrong 2005
  5. ^ Pearson 2004, pp. 50, 64, 292
  6. ^ Kola 2003, p. 16
  7. ^ Ruches 1965, p. 94
  8. ^ Leon 1970, p. 74
  9. ^ Guy 2007, p. 117
  10. ^ New York Times 1914
  11. ^ The New York Sun 1914, p. 1
  12. ^ New-York Tribune 1914, p. 1
  13. ^ Tucker & Roberts 2005, pp. 1075–6
  14. ^ Encyclopedia 1914–1918 2015
  15. ^ 2015
  16. ^ a b c d e f g Pearson, Owen (2004). Albania and King Zog: independence, republic and monarchy 1908–1939. I.B.Tauris. p. 103. ISBN 978-1-84511-013-0. Retrieved January 11, 2011. December 10–11th; The Bulgarians crossed the Drin into Albania and attacked Serbian positions along the crest of Jablanica mountain range
  17. ^ Thomas 2001, p. 17
  18. ^ Popescu 2014
  19. ^ Ollé 1996
  20. ^ 2014
  21. ^ Stickney 1924, p. 66
  22. ^ Stickney 1924, p. 65
  23. ^ GDF 2014
  24. ^ Kabashi 2012


Further reading

External links

This page was last edited on 6 March 2019, at 14:00
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