HL Deb 26 March 1914 vol 15 cc746-51

My Lords, I rise to ask His Majesty's Government whether they can give any information regarding the political situation in Southern Albania. This is a subject which must be of considerable anxiety to His Majesty's Government. It is largely due to their action that an autonomous Albania was set up, and they have recently further shown their anxiety on behalf of perhaps the oldest of the Balkan races by Sir Edward Grey obtaining a grant from the Treasury of £5,000 for the relief of the distressed people. It is not chiefly on sentimental grounds that His Majesty's Government were anxious to see an independent Albania, but because the independence of Albania is one of the most essential factors in the maintenance of the peace of Europe. There are four or five other Powers surrounding that little kingdom who cast covetous eyes on parts of the country, and it is very hard that this newly-formed State should, at its birth almost, be confronted by such a state of things as is described from day to day in the Press. We are told that in the southern portion, in Epirus, there is practically an insurrectionary movement, with all the horrors of burning of villages, massacring of the people, and general disorder, and of course this new State is not in a position to resist such a movement of violence as this.

Perhaps I may briefly trace the recent events regarding the southern portion of Albania. After the Turkish Government left the country the great Powers set to work to try and form this new kingdom, and they appointed an International Commission to mark out the frontier between Greece and Albania. We took a prominent part in that Commission. A very com petent officer, Major Doughty Wyllie, was our representative, and I fancy that it was largely due to his work that the frontier as laid down was accepted. Greece was not satisfied with the frontier and wished it placed considerably further north. On the actual merits of the frontier line I cannot say a word, but as it was adopted by all the other Powers interested one presumes that it was a very fair adjustment of a difficult and vexed question. But now arises a condition of things which really constitutes Epirus or Southern Albania practically an international Ulster, because Greece refused for a considerable time to evacuate this disputed territory. In fact, she only began to do so this month, and for several months previously she was pouring in Greeks from other parts, and also, I believe, 30,000 rifles were imported into this disputed land. The people were drilled, men and women, and it is quite understood that as soon as Greece has evacuated the territory the people should rise as volunteers to resist the enforcement of Albanian rule, and that officers and men were to leave the Greek Army and co-operate with the inhabitants of the country for this purpose. I believe Greece and her Prime Minister, Monsieur Venizelos, are quite honestly endeavouring at the present time to counteract this movement, but no doubt up till the actual evacuation they were aiding and abetting the system of so arranging this disputed land that when Greece evacuated the people themselves would take up resistance against Albanian rule.

That is the actual position and the consequence of what must be regarded as the extraordinary inactivity of the great Powers of Europe, whose interest it was to see that Albania was started on a proper footing, that her independence should be maintained, and that she should not suffer aggression at the very outset. Yet they did nothing at all to check this action on the part of Greece. We ourselves had a special responsibility in the matter, because all these acts really took place from Corfu. By the Treaty of 1864, when we handed over Corfu and the other Ionian Islands to Greece, it was distinctly laid down that in no circumstances was Corfu to be allowed to be a depot for any warlike purpose. The actual words of the second clause of the Treaty are— Corfu and its dependencies should be neutral in perpetuity. Secondly, no armed force, neither naval nor military, shall be assembled or stationed in that territory or in the waters of this island. That stipulation has been flagrantly violated, and particularly during all these months when this territory had not been evacuated by Greece. It is, therefore, the Powers of Europe, and particularly our own country, who are very much to blame for having failed to make good this strong condition laid down in the Treaty of 1864. I only go by the reports I see in the newspapers, and I shall be glad if the Government could say what steps are likely to be taken to put down this state of insurrection.

At present there is an excellent force of gendarmerie, commanded by Dutch officers who have done good work, which everybody agrees will soon be a force of considerable strength and efficiency, but no doubt their numbers are not yet sufficient to take on the enforcing of order in a large and wild district like Epirus. Therefore if this condition of things is to go on, how is Albania itself to meet these unfortunate circumstances? Do the great Powers propose to send international forces, or will they be able so to amend and rectify the frontiers as to satisfy Greece and their inhabitants in this debatable territory, or can they give any powers to the Commission of International Control now sitting at Valona not far removed from this disturbed region? There is one very alarming feature reported in the newspapers. It is that the Minister for War in the new State, a very powerful personality in that part of the world, declares that he must have 25,000 men to combat and confront this insurrection. I cannot believe for a moment that it would be agreed to by any of the great Powers that such a practical state of war should be established. I am afraid it would lead to very serious complications with the other Powers. Therefore I would like to know whether the noble Viscount can say or indicate what is likely to happen to put an end to this state of things and to enable Albania to go ahead in a position of greater security than she at present occupies.


My Lords, the noble Lord asks what His Majesty's Government and the six great Powers think is likely to be the end of the operations and transactions that are now proceeding. I think a very little reflection will convince him that it is no easy matter, it is impossible in fact, for any of the great Powers to have any firm idea of what will ultimately he the conformation of this great attempted settlement of the Balkan difficulties. As far as the present state of things goes, it is only possible for us to work with the other Powers. When the noble Lord says that we are more particularly responsible than any other Power, that is, I must remind him, the exact opposite of the principle that has marked Sir Edward Grey's policy—a policy that has been pursued, as I am sure all your Lordships will agree, with, though provisional, still great provisional success. I think it will be better for me to say, and I suppose that is what the noble Lord really wants to know, what is going on at this moment. It all turns upon one point at the moment, and the noble Lord has indicated that clearly enough.

What are the factors in the situation which the noble Lord has indicated? On the one hand there is the Albanian population, who are Musulman; and on the other hand the people of Epirus, who belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, with the so-called Sacred Legion which was raised by the Epirotes to resist the Albanians. On the one side is the Albanian Government, and on the other the Epirot population. The noble Lord alluded to attacks that have been made or are alleged to have been made on Christian villages, while similar countercharges are brought against the Greek irregulars, who are said on various occasions—and this is the important thing—to have been supported by Greek Regulars. There is not evidence enough for any decisive estimate of the truth of these charges or of the extent of the alleged disorder. To even attempt an approximate estimate of how wrong is distributed would not be fair in the present stage of information either to the Greeks or the Albanians.

Now this is the hopeful sign. The Greek Government are undoubtedly doing their best to carry out the evacuation, as was prescribed by the Powers, by March 31, the date fixed for its termination, and they have prohibited ex-officers of the Greek Army from assisting the Epirotes. On February 24 they decided to send the Prefect of Corfu to concert with the International Commission as to the arrangements for evacuation. On February 28 Monsieur Zographos, who was, if I remember, a former Greek Foreign Secretary, issued a proclamation stating that he had been appointed by a General Assembly of the district President of the Provisional Government of Epirus, and autonomy has been since proclaimed at Santa Quaranta, Delvino, and Khimarra. The Greek Government have proclaimed a blockade of Santa Quaranta, and have given orders that the Greek authorities there and at Argyrocastro and Delvino are to be maintained against the autonomous Government. The Greek Government are continuing to carry out evacuation, but it proceeds slowly owing to the fear that, unless the Greek troops hand over to the Albanian Regular Gendarmerie, which the noble Lord described as being under a Dutch commander, the Epirot population will suffer at the hands of the irregular Albanian bands, while there is the further difficulty that if the Epirot population resisted being handed over, then either the Greek troops must fire upon them or disobey orders and help them. That is the dilemma, which I hope I have made intelligible.

The Greek Government would therefore in certain cases prefer to evacuate without handing over and leave the Epirot population to face the Albanians. The Greek Government are not themselves taking any steps to achieve this result. Major Thomson, a Dutch gendarmerie officer, has been appointed by the Prince of Albania to superintend the occupation of Northern Epirus, and a conference, apparently of a satisfactory nature, has taken place between him and Monsieur Zographos. The intention of the Greek Government is that the evacuation shall be completed by March 31, but information reached Sir Edward Grey this morning that the insurrectionary movement in Epirus is spreading rapidly and that the withdrawal of the Greek troops has been partially suspended in view of the complications that will ensue if the country is left unoccupied by either Greek or Albanian Regular forces. This may seem to be somewhat of a contradiction of my previous statement. The situation depends at present upon the results of the negotiations between the Albanian Government, represented by Major Thomson, and Monsieur Zographos, as to which His Majesty's Government have no precise information. I am afraid that is all I can say in reply to the noble Lord.


There was a statement in the Press recently that our Commandant at Scutari was going to be withdrawn and replaced by an Albanian Commander-in-Chief. Could the noble Viscount say whether or not that is true?


I am afraid I cannot.