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Robert Elsie

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Postcard of old Shkodra.

Postcard of old Shkodra.


G. F. Phillips:
Memorandum on the General Situation in Albania

The First World War was drawing to a close in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe. Austro-Hungarian forces had been forced to withdraw from Albania in early November 1918. Shkodra was occupied by an Allied garrison under French command, that included a British detachment. The situation was chaotic and Albania's very survival as an independent country was in question. Brigade General G. F. Phillips, head of the British Military Mission in Albania, arrived in Shkodra at the end of December 1918 and descibed the situation in the country as he found it.


On arrival at Scutari [Shkodra] on the 26th December 1918 I found the general situation with regard to the town far more satisfactory than I had expected. The people are quiet, the condition of affairs between the Christians and Mahomedans on a better basis than when I knew the place so well. Food is dear but plentiful, trade is developing; the middlemen have made fortunes if the upper and lower classes have suffered to a certain extent.

The situation outside Scutari and Valona [Vlora], the two chief towns is different. In the north and all down the eastern frontier there is unrest, starvation and in many places fighting. The Servians and Essed Pasha under their protection are apparently bent on keeping the country in a disturbed condition for several purely selfish reasons, among them being the attempt to prove their expeditions are punitive against Albanian aggression, that Albania is unfit to be a separate autonomous country, and to emphasize that they have a right to enter the country according to the proposals in the 1915 Treaty. In the south the country is more at rest owing to the presence of strong Italian forces, and the fine network of roads some 500 kilometers in length made by that country.

The complete difference between the peoples of the north and south is more than ever apparent, the south are ready to fall temporarily under any yoke, although as far as brains are concerned, there are more men of rank and capability in the south than in the north, but they use their brains in rather a complicated diplomacy of an eastern caste, while those in the north have the blunt directness of most highland man.

At the present moment Mehmet Konitza Bey and Mufid Bey Libohovo, whom I met at Valona are attempting to form a commission of delegates to represent Albania at the Peace Conference, and incidentally a government at Durazzo [Durrës]. Mehmet Konitza Bey expressed himself to me as sure of success, but he is a complete southerner and I fear has little chance of carrying the north with him as he is openly under the protection of Italy. The commission is meeting at Terrana [Tirana], the middle and south of Albania are well represented, those from the north are quite unsatisfactory; in reality the north is not represented.

Since my arrival here, I have seen and had long conversations with all the leading men in Albania, and the result of these interviews and of what I have heard and seen while travelling through the country is as follows:

The Mussulman, having at the long last given up all hope of the return of the Turk, under whom he practically managed his own affairs, as a whole recognise that Italy may be their natural protector. They have an instinctive doubt as to the honesty of the French towards Albanian interests, but for the moment they appear to be leaning towards this latter country an the sole ground that they are afraid of the Serbs, dread Essad Pasha's return because of the inevitable trouble which will ensue, apprehensive of a possible powerful Jugo Slav nation, and do not consider Italy is strong enough to protect them.

The Orthodox in the north are a negligible quantity, in the south they are in the annoying condition of mind, while refusing to become Greeks, they wish to be independent Albanians. They are, I believe, ready to accept anyone but Italy, but I cannot vouch for this.

The Christians, who are almost entirely in the north, were formerly adherents of Austria, the defeat of that country joined to the shameful behaviour of their troops, has driven them en bloc for the moment towards the Italian protectorate, although they too regard her, owing to her hesitating policy and apparent drawing back before the strong action France has taken here, as not being strong enough to guard Albania against the present aggressive Servian policy and the development of Jugo Slav State.

While the above conflicting emotions are upsetting, the various sects of Albanians, they are absolutely unanimous in their desire to come under the direct influence of England, or in a lesser degree of America.

The welcome which was given to me throughout Albania, in Scutari and in such places as Alessio [Lezha], was very marked; some of it may have been personal owing to former circumstances, but there is no doubt that in spite of many things such as the loss of Antivari [Tivar/Bar] and Dulcino [Ulqin/Ulcinj] years ago, the delimitation commission of 1913 and 1914, the 1915 Treaty which has become public property; the support given to Servia, their most deadly enemy, the retaking of Scutari by King Nicholas in 1915, the belief in England's honesty and in an Englishman's word, not only remains unshaken but is deeper rooted than ever. An English officer coming here at such a time of bewilderment and transition is in itself sufficient to give these much oppressed peoples a feeling of hope and security which nothing else could equal. This to my mind is somewhat astonishing, but from a national point of view highly satisfactory, should circumstances arise, under which it may be thought necessary for England to give a lead, a moment which may arise at any time should this open antagonism, which every Albanian is aware of, between Italy and France continue and Serbia is not stopped.

The French authorities here do not hesitate to inform the Albanians that they are in favour of the complete Albanian independence when they are prepared for it. The Colonel Commanding (Colonel de Fourton) has shown me reports and has informed me that he has recommended that Dulcino, Antivari, Vir Bazar [Virpazar], Hoti and Gruda should be returned to Albania. Capt. Billes, his police and political officer, has also shown me his reports which are equally emphatic, recommending that Servia should be peremptorily stopped, Albania established with enlarged frontiers and that the whole should be placed under French protection for at least five years. These of course are but expressions of opinion given in the form of advice to the French Government by French local authorities, but from what I have learned of French methods and actions in the Balkans during the last six years, I think they are significant and point the direction in which the French Government desires the wind to blow.

I have pressed to be allowed to go into Montenegro; reports from there I have found too unreliable to form any just conclusion, but there is no doubt that many people are swinging back towards their ancient Monarchy under the pressure of Servian occupation. How far this is a general revulsion of feeling, or what proportion of the inhabitants are an each side, I cannot at present state. Definite news that the Montenegrins and Servians are quarrelling in Ipek [Peja / Pec] has just come in, and similar news, which I am not yet prepared to accept is continually being brought forward from other places in Montenegro.

As well as the places such as Antivari mentioned by the French Colonel, there are Ipek and Djakovo [Gjakova/Djakovica] purely Albanian. Prisrend [Prizren] is doubtful, I am inclined to regard it as Slav, but Debra [Dibra] both upper and lower are Albanian.

The momentous question to the Albanians at this present moment is their desire, which appears a natural and just one, to send Delegates before the Peace Conference and should they hear that they will be allowed to lay their claims before the Conference and their wrongs as they see them, as to territory wrested from them by the powers and their neighbours be adjusted, then I believe, it would be possible to get a united Albania with a prospect of future peace and prosperity. If on the contrary they do not succeed in getting an open hearing, there appears to me to be nothing to expect but disruption, endless bloodshed and misery, whatever country it is finally decided shall have the protectorate.

Although the Albanians, as all Balkan people will claim large tracts of country long lost to them, I am inclined to doubt whether much restoration is expected, but apart from Antivari and Dulcino and such places, common humanity demands the immediate assurance, at the very least, of the open markets of Ipek, Djakovo and Debra, a thing promised but never granted, as I know to my own knowledge, by the Servians and Montenegrins, which has resulted in thousands of deaths by privation in the high mountains, whose markets they have been for hundreds of years and geographically must be so. The taking of these towns away from their rightful owners has also given endless opportunities, and will continue to do so, for so-called justified raids, the burning of villages and the shooting of men, women and children, because Malasores, driven half mad by starvation and hereditary hatred, have striven to obtain the necessities of life and probably committed crime in doing so.

The principle of small nations, the guarding of the weak by the strong, the proposals regarding the League of Nations, and Mr. Wilson's points are discussed in every town, hamlet or mountain hut, and have filled this people with such hope after centuries of domination by foreigners, that there is every sign that a United Albania could be formed, an accomplishment which I decidedly doubted in former days, should a sympathetic protectorate without fear of absorption be established.

To my mind, Italy geographically and historically is the natural protector of Albania, but unfortunately as a whole, the Albanians have always had an antipathy towards that country, and although recent events may have done something to allay this, as already stated, every day goes to show an ever increasing desire for some other country to guard them during the time of probation, before complete independence.

The fear of a Jugo Slav state somewhat naturally tends to their desire to have a power strong enough to protect them; they are convinced Italy can never be this, Her prestige, always low, is sinking every day, first the Servian occupation, and then their allowing France to control Scutari has finally confirmed the previous opinions held by them.

In a long conversation with the Archbishop Sereggi of Scutari, they most enlightened man in the north, it was apparent that he held much the same views as expressed above, and as well as others, prays that England should be the protecting power, and fears above all an international commission, in which I venture to entirely agree, after our mutual experience before and during Prince Wied's time. The Archbishop pressed the point that if it came within my province, he begged me to state that with the single exception of England, the Albanians must for their own security gain a written treaty as to the length of time any country selected should have dominating powers over them, and a clear statement as to jurisdiction, and that no attempt at colonization should be made.

The greatest trouble in Albania is the vice of internal quarrels. Could this be mitigated and finally overcome, I am strongly of opinion that this virile people of a distinct race, owning remarkable business capabilities, a people with a unique history and tradition, with the strongest possible patriotic sense as their past has abundantly demonstrated never having been absorbed, never having intermarried, never having become part of the nations who have held sway over them for so many centuries, will be able to take their place among the small nations of Europe and have a direct effect for good in the future stability and peace of the Balkans.


(Signed)        G. F. Phillips

                     Bde. General

Head of British Military Mission in Albania


31st December 1918


[first published in: Bejtullah D. Destani (ed.), Albania & Kosovo: Political and Ethnic Boundaries, 1867-1946. Documents and Maps. Slough: Archive Editions, 1999.]


Postcard of old Shkodra.