CLOSE

World War I Centennial: Balkan Armistice, Britain Warns Germany

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He’ll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 47th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

December 3, 1912: Balkan Armistice, Britain Warns Germany

Seeing his armies exhausted following their defeat at Chataldzha, Bulgaria’s Tsar Ferdinand (pictured) finally listened to the pleas of the Bulgarian civilian government and the advice of Bulgaria’s patron Russia, and consented to an armistice between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire. The armistice agreed on December 3, 1912, was a temporary ceasefire between the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro; with Greek forces still laying siege to the ancient city of Janina (Greek: Ioannina) in Epirus, the Greek commander-in-chief, crown prince Constantine, wanted to continue fighting.

This partial ceasefire was at least a step in the right direction as the situation in the Balkans threatened to escalate. Austria-Hungary was apparently willing to fight to prevent Serbia from gaining access to the sea through its newly conquered Albanian territory: On November 21, 1912, Franz Josef mobilized six Austro-Hungarian army corps at the request of foreign minister Count Berchtold, and a week later, on November 28, 1912, Ismail Qemali declared Albanian independence in Vlorë with support from Austria-Hungary. But the situation was far from settled: The Greek navy was bombarding Vlorë, the Serbs were still occupying most of Albania, and Berchtold still had to get the other Great Powers to agree to the creation of a new Albanian state in the west Balkans. In the back of everyone’s mind was the distinct chance that the Ottoman Empire might simply fall apart, precipitating a disorderly and violent scramble by the Great Powers to secure their shares of Turkish territory in Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East.

The armistice between (most of) the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire cleared the way for an international peace conference. First suggested by the French premier Raymond Poincaré in mid-October and finally convened December 17, 1912, the Conference of London (actually two parallel conferences) gathered diplomatic representatives from the European Great Powers, the Ottoman Empire, and the Balkan League in the grey, rainy British capital to settle the situation in the Balkans and keep the peace in Europe.

In the weeks leading up to the Conference, the foreign secretaries and ambassadors of the Great Powers met individually to exchange views, agree on priorities, and establish plans of action, while their bosses engaged in some public grandstanding to win domestic political points. The overall effect was to consolidate the two alliance groups, with Britain, France, and Russia on one side and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other (and Italy nominally supporting Germany and Austria-Hungary as Triple Alliance partners, but actually on the sidelines).

No one wanted to appear weak or vacillating in front of their allies, or at home. On November 17, 1912, the French premier Raymond Poincare assured the Russian ambassador that France would back up Russia, and on November 23, 1912, Tsar Nicholas II told his Council of Ministers that he had decided to mobilize three Russian army districts, although the ministers later convinced him to reverse the order.

Meanwhile, on November 22, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II privately promised Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, that Germany would back up Austria-Hungary in a war. Publicly, on November 28, 1912, German foreign secretary Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter told the Bundesrat (upper house of Parliament) that Germany was prepared to go to war in support of its ally Austria-Hungary, and on December 2, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg repeated the message to the Reichstag (the lower house). These veiled public threats drew an immediate public response. On December 4, Raymond Poincaré reassured the French Chamber of Deputies that he would protect France’s position in the Ottoman Empire, including commercial interests in the Balkans and Syria, while Paul Cambon, the French ambassador to London, privately warned that “Germanism,” represented by Austria-Hungary, had designs on the Mediterranean through the Balkans, threatening British interests. On November 22 and 23, 1912, Grey and Cambon exchanged letters finalizing the Anglo-French Naval Convention of July 1912.

The Balance of Power

In addition to the safety of their Mediterranean Suez route, the British were motivated by their longstanding concern to maintain the balance of power in Europe, which historically required preventing any Continental state from becoming all-powerful. In one of the most important private exchanges of this period, on December 3, 1912, the British chancellor (previously war secretary) Richard Haldane responded to Bethmann Hollweg’s veiled threat in front of the Reichstag by visiting the German ambassador to London, Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, and warning him that, if Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia and a general European war resulted, Britain would probably side with France against Germany. According to Lichnowsky, Haldane explained that “the theory of the balance of power was an axiom of British foreign policy and had led to the entente with France and Russia.” In short, Britain would probably honor its commitments to France, however vague.

Lichnowsky could hardly be surprised by Haldane’s warning: An Anglophile like his predecessor Metternich, he was sympathetic to the British viewpoint and frequently repeated Metternich’s warning that German naval construction was alienating British public opinion to his superiors in Berlin—Bethmann Hollweg, Kiderlen-Wächter and Kaiser Wilhelm II. The British chancellor’s warning of December 3 was especially noteworthy because of Haldane’s own “Germanophile” tendencies (he was a devotee of German philosophy) and supposed sympathy for Germany. And this was not just the view of a single minister: On December 6, 1912, King George V himself warned Kaiser Wilhelm II’s brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, that Britain would “very certainly under certain circumstances” take the side of France and Russia in the event of war.

Unsurprisingly, these warnings were angrily disregarded by Wilhelm II and the rest of the German government. Fulminating that Haldane’s warning was a “moral declaration of war,” on December 8, 1912 the Kaiser convened what came to be known as the “Imperial War Council” to consider the possibility of a European war with his top military advisors.

Characteristically, while planning for war, the Germans also tried to persuade themselves that the British were bluffing. In 1913, the new foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, wrote to Lichnowsky, telling him to “be more optimistic in your judgment of our British friends. I think you see things too black when you give expression that in the event of war England will be found on France’s side whatever happens.” In less than two years, the same basic combination of German belligerence and wishful thinking would lead Europe over the edge and into the abyss.

See all entries here.

arrow
History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
arrow
History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios