Sunday, 24 March – Saturday, 30 March 1912
Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean
The European naval competition, which had been highlighted by the presentation of competing British and German plans the previous week, continued to resonate during the last week of March 1912. On Wednesday, 27 March, the Journal de Genève commented that all the differences between the two powers could be resolved if there was a halt to the naval competition: “The only, the one truly grave, question between London and Berlin is that of the battle fleets. Germany is investing it with all the fervor of its global ambitions while for England it is a question of its very existence.” Another power in the equation, France, followed the other two countries in debating its new navy law in the Senate on 28 March. The Minister of the Navy, Théophile Delcassé, said that France was determined to maintain its status as fourth naval power (the third being the United States) and would pursue a construction program that would see it equipped with 28 modern battleships by 1920 and would modernize its naval bases to accommodate them. One senator, Paul Henri Benjamin Balluet d’Estournelles de Constant, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1909, spoke out against the program, saying that the continuing growth of the world’s naval fleets was creating more problems than it solved.
However, most of the world’s anxieties at the end of March 1912 centered on the eastern Mediterranean. On 30 March 1912 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov sent a circular letter to his ambassadors in Paris and London asking them to advise those friendly governments of the existence of the Serbian-Bulgarian treaty of 13 March. However, he did not inform the governments of the offensive nature of that treaty or the role of Russia as the arbiter between the two countries. Later, in August 1912, when French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré learned of its full contents during a visit to St. Petersburg, he rightly exclaimed that it was an agreement for war against Turkey.
The value of this alliance as a tool against Turkey was apparent elsewhere as well. On Tuesday, 26 March, the results of the elections in Greece were announced. The Liberal Party of Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos won a large majority – 146 seats out of 181. Venizelos was himself a native of the island of Crete who had headed up the Cretan revolt of 1908 against Turkish sovereignty before he left to go to the mainland in 1910, quickly becoming head of the Greek government. Under international law, Crete was an autonomous state guaranteed by Great Britain, France, Italy and Russia, with the Ottoman sultan as the nominal head of state. In fact, since a Greek nationalist revolt in 1908 it had been self-governing, and the revolutionary committee in charge had declared enosis, or union, with Greece, but it was not yet consummated. The committee had announced that they would be sending representatives to the new Greek parliament when it convened in May 1912. The Turks declared that seating the delegates would be an act of war, and that their army could quickly take Athens if need be. This put Venizelos in a difficult position: Greece had suffered a disastrous defeat in a war with the Turks in 1897, which had broken out over the issue of control of Crete. He did not want to take such risks again, yet his whole career had been devoted to uniting Crete with mainland Greece. Later, Venizelos admitted that he had tried at this time to negotiate secretly with Istanbul, proposing that the Cretan delegates be seated in the Greek parliament while the putative sovereignty of the Turkish sultan would be acknowledged with the island paying an annual tribute to the Ottoman government.
The Turks rejected the deal proposed by Venizelos, and so he opened up negotiations with Bulgaria instead about forming an alliance against Turkey, along the lines already agreed with the Serbs. The Bulgarians were said to be anxious to take on Greece as a partner because they valued the addition of the Greek navy in any military operations against the Turks while discounting the value of the Greek army, which had been humiliated in its most recent war with Turkey. The Bulgarians thought the Greek land forces would not constitute much of an adversary in their mutual competition for control of Macedonia, especially of the great seaport of Thessaloniki. (This calculation turned out to be wrong.)
There were problems in another Greek-speaking island under Ottoman suzerainty. The island of Samos, hard by the Asia Minor mainland, was ruled by a Christian prince nominated by and accountable to Istanbul. On 22 March 1912, the incumbent, Andreas Kopassis, was assassinated while on a visit to Istanbul. As part of the Turkish attempt to find the perpetrators, the leader of the Greek nationalists on Samos, Themistoklis Sophoulis, was forced to flee to Greece. Within a few months, he was to return as the new prince of Samos when the Greeks defeated Turkey in the first Balkan War. He later succeeded Venizelos as leader of the Liberal Party and served three terms as Prime Minister of Greece.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire was also undertaking elections, over an extended period, which would result in a majority for the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the “Young Turks”. The election provided for the representation of national and religious minorities in the proportion of 1:100,000, resulting in, for example, 27 Greeks and 11 Armenians being elected to the new parliament. However, there were many accusations that the Ottoman police tried to suppress minority votes, and during the last week of March, riots broke out in the town of Langkadas in the hinterland of Thessaloniki in which 10 people were killed and 25, including policemen, were wounded. There were similar disturbances elsewhere, including in the town on Xanthi, east of Langkadas.
The ongoing Italian-Turkish war over Libya was moving its focus to the eastern Mediterranean as well. There was much speculation in the press during the last week of March and first week of April that the Italians were preparing a naval attack on the Dardanelles. This turned out to be true: later, it was learned that the Italian Navy Minister, Pasquale Leonardi Cattolica, had started preparations for just such an attack on 18 March. Commentators asked what Italy hoped to gain from such an action, in that it would not have the means to follow it up with any substantive military action against Turkey proper. The answer was, of course, that Italy wanted to force Turkey to see that it would lose more from not conceding Libya than it would gain by continuing to fight. But the potential for catastrophe was great. The perspicacious Journal de Genève summed it up by saying, “This could be the opening of the final crisis, which Europe does not want, and it is for this reason that Italy is being restrained from striking at the heart of the sick man. The only real defense for Turkey and the Dardanelles is Europe, which will impose peace when it is ready.”
Trying to look for a way to end the war was in fact one of the main aims of Kaiser Wilhelm II when he met King Vittorio Emmanuele III on Monday, 25 March in Venice, on his way down the Adriatic to a vacation on the island of Corfu. The Italian king alluded to the expansion of the war, which had already included bombardment of Beirut, saying that if the Turks were not willing to make peace, then Italy could not be expected to fight “with one hand tied behind its back while its enemy hid behind the seconds to the duel”, i.e., the European powers. The Kaiser also wanted Italy to undertake an early renewal of the Triple Alliance (which also included Austria-Hungary), but Italian Foreign Minister Antonino di San Giuliano had already made it clear that this could not happen until the Turkish war came to a successful (from Italy’s point of view) conclusion. San Giuliano laid out Italy’s view that the Triple Alliance was not relevant to Asia Minor and the seas around it. So, the Kaiser’s stopover in Italy, which had been much ballyhooed in advance, did not accomplish anything. This was not surprising considering the mutual antipathy between the two men – in private, the Kaiser referred to the diminutive Italian king as “the Dwarf”.