The Austrian Adriatic, 1912

May 2 2007


The Austrian Lloyd mail-boat swung round to the right, as if it were going to butt straight into the iron-bound Dalmatian coast, when suddenly the amazing fjord of the Bocche di Cattaro [the Gulf of Kotor, now in Montenegro] opened out and took us in; and as we wound up one reach after another towards the head of the gulf, a profound change seemed to come over the face of the land. For ten months I had been abroad in the Balkans, and now all at once I felt myself at home. What was it that gave me that feeling? Certainly not the landscape, which was a grimmer version of the limestone crags of Greece. The things that were homelike here were the works of Man – something about the roofs on the houses and the metal on the roads and the fences between the fields; something quite indefinable, yet something which made me feel that I had passed a greater frontier than I did when, a few days later, I crossed from Flushing [in Holland] to Folkestone. And indeed it was a greater frontier. It was the frontier, not of one country, but of a whole world; it was the frontier of Western civilization.

Kotor or Cattaro, in Montenegro near the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, had been Venetian to the end. It passed to France during the Napoleonic wars and after them to Austria. Austria occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878 and annexed it in 1908.

All the same, this home-coming was not altogether reassuring, for it was the West in armour that I encountered here. For this was August, 1912, and there was war in the air. (A few weeks earlier, in Greece, I had been indignant at being arrested as a spy for walking over a railway viaduct, and I had never dreamed that we were on the eve of the first Balkan War – the prelude to the great cataclysm.)

In the First Balkan War (October 1912-May 1913), Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro, encouraged by Italy’s aggression against Libya, gained territory in Ottoman-held Macedonia and Thrace.

Serbia showed its intention of annexing a large part of Albania, in order to gain an outlet on the Adriatic, but this step toward a Greater Serbia was opposed by Austria-Hungary and Italy, and by the Albanians, who had proclaimed their independence. Conferences of the ambassadors of the Great Powers at London created (1913) an independent Albania, cutting Serbia off from the sea. Serbia was dissatisfied with these terms and demanded of Bulgaria a greater share of Macedonia.

Bulgaria thereupon (June 1913) attacked Serbia, only to be attacked by Romania, Greece, and Turkey. As a result of this Second Balkan War, Bulgaria lost territory to all her enemies by the Treaty of Bucharest (August 1913). The Balkan Wars prepared the way for the First World War by satisfying some of Serbia’s aspirations and thereby giving impetus to its desire to annex parts of Austria-Hungary; by alarming Austria and stiffening its determination to crush Serbia; and by giving causes of dissatisfaction to Bulgaria and Turkey.

I felt war in the air at that little wine-shop in Cattaro, squeezed in between the head of the Bocche and the foot of Mount Lovčen, whose summit stood in Montenegro. Why was that dark-eyed, rather truculent-looking Austrian officer at the next table gazing like that at the road which zigzagged – out of the West into the Balkans – up the mountain side? And I felt it again, next day, at Ragusa, when, in the cool of the evening after a burning, cloudless day, every street in the cramped little mediæval town was thronged with Imperial-Royal [kaiserlich-königlich] soldiers taking the air in those beautiful, fantastic uniforms, with the cut of 1848 and the colours of the Italian Quattrocento: impossibly high shakos of shining black, and impossibly ample cloaks of ethereal blue.

Ragusa had passed from Venetian to Hungarian to Ottoman hegemony, but eventually emerged as an independent republic. After the Napoleonic wars, it passed, like Cattaro, to Austria.

And then I felt it once more as I sat, high up over Trieste, at the gate of the Castello.

Trieste had been under Austrian control since the fourteenth century.

Who were those soldiers in fezes looking out over the walls? The little boy [there] was as mystified as I was, and the old man was beginning to tell him all about it in Italian. Why, that is the Bosnian battalion that came into the garrison here the other day; and the old man knows all about the Bosniachi; for he had been doing his military service in 1878 when the Imperial-Royal Government occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina. Such a country! Such fighting-men! Ping-ping from the right; pop-pop from the left; and mountains everywhere! It was no joke, that Bosnian campaign! And now here they are, those Bosnians, garrisoning Trieste. The Imperial-Royal Government is a mighty instrument of civilization.

Remembered in

A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen, Constable, 1931

Before that (probably) in The Nation and Athenaeum

Photograph, presumed out of copyright, from the collection of Tavik Frantisek Simon.

12 Responses to “The Austrian Adriatic, 1912”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Western civilization is already being defined in a way which excludes Orthodox eastern Europe.

  2. […] The Austrian Adriatic, 1912 […]

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  4. […] agricultural hinterland. The Austrian half provides the minerals and industry. Italian Fiume and Trieste offer the necessary ports, and the railway-routes which link these outlets with the interior are […]

  5. charles Says:

    Do you have the provenance of the above photograph (1899 Bocche di Cattaro)?

  6. […] [Turkish possessions in the southern Balkans; this happened in the First Balkan War, summarised here]. Great Britain, though to her credit she did not attempt at that time to alter the status quo in […]

  7. […] paying tribute money to Ottoman Turkey. It joined the Kingdom of Greece in 1913, in the First Balkan War (post here), as did Lesbos and Chios, which had been under full Ottoman […]

  8. […] Greece got it, and held it in the Second. Bulgaria had been liberated from Ottoman rule in 1878. Summary of the Balkan […]

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  10. […] The Austrian Adriatic, 1912 (old post) […]

  11. […] Summary of the Balkan Wars (old post). […]

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