With Austro-Hungarian forces closing in on the port city of Durrës, today Albanian strongman Essad Pasha Toptani embarks for Salonika on an Italian cruiser (see above) with his 500-man bodyguard. Subjected to a proxy war during 1915 in which Viennese gold paid for the northern and central tribes to turn on their country’s recognized leader, Toptani has kept Durrës open as long as possible while the Serbian Army collapsed under the pressure of attack from three enemy states. Altogether, hundreds of thousands of people have fled the enemy advance, including the civilian population of Durrës itself.
His own military record is spotty at best, and his countrymen will hold his reputation in low esteem a century hence for secret bargaining with devils in Serbia, Italy, and Greece to the detriment of the nation’s borders, yet Toptani has been the only option for the Entente allies while the Serbian kingdom evacuates to Corfu, and his efforts are greatly appreciated for the moment. He will soon be decorated by France and England.
Arriving tomorrow in the Greek city from which the allies hope to surge and restore the Serbs to their country, Toptani and his entourage are greeted by French General Maurice Sarrail, the commander of the expeditionary force, and an honor guard consisting of a cross-section of the diverse international presence in the ancient port city. A camera is present to capture the scene for future generations.
After consultations with Sarrail, Toptani relocates to Rome and sets up his government-in-exile at Naples. His Italian hosts have backed his regime since 1914, but they have also secretly bargained with France and Britain to take control of Albania as a postwar concession for their participation in the alliance against the Central Powers. Lying directly across the Strait of Otranto from the ‘heel’ of Italy’s ‘boot,’ the benighted country is a key landfall in Rome’s ambitions for a restoration of their imperial greatness. But with the bulk of their army fighting a protracted uphill campaign in the Alps, Italy cannot hope to hold onto the territory itself, and Toptani will attend the postwar peace conference to demand national recognition for the Albanian nation he once whittled away so freely in a bid to secure some central part of it as a state. Yet by then, Prime Minister Toptani will no longer be the strongman. Unpopular at home, his fellow Albanians soon begin to circumvent and subvert his nominal authority.
In a self-serving 1919 memorandum, the deposed leader complains of having been set aside:
I was received in Rome with great honour by the Prince Lieutenant, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and all three of them assured me that I would be considered and treated as the president of the de facto government. I would prefer not to speak about the negotiations underway between the government and myself and the reasons hindering their success.
[…] One is rather surprised to see a so-called delegation headed by Turkhan Pasha claiming to speak on behalf of Albania at the Peace Conference. Almost all the members of this delegation, having followed Wilhelm zu Wied into exile, settled in Switzerland and spread shameful propaganda against the Allies, not only in Europe, but also among the Albanian colonies in the United States. No one can deny this fact, which has been proven in a number of well-known documents. Other delegates have recently arrived to join them. Having remained in Albania throughout the war, these nouveaux riches were faithful collaborators of the Austrians.
Before August of 1916, Toptani’s negotiations with the Italian government fail, whereupon he relocates to Paris, taking him farther away from the action than ever. His small army is reconstituted at the island of Ponza and then forwarded to Salonika, where it does good service in the allied cause — glory with which Toptani seeks to gild his own name. Before the end of the year, much of the shine has worn away from his reputation.
As Toptani leaves his beloved city, so do the Italians. Their last troops pull out of Durrës tomorrow, along with the final formations of starving, weary Serbs, Montenegrins, and Albanians. For the Entente powers, it is one of the bleakest moments of the entire conflict: three of the smallest countries in their alliance have been overrun and conquered; two days after the withdrawal, Austrian troops stand at the shores of the Adriatic Sea. As a consequence, the Entente allies make extra efforts to dress the withdrawal up as a kind of moral victory.