To provide a safe and stable haven for the growing number of refugees pouring out of the devastated Balkan state of Serbia, French forces take formal military control of the Greek island of Corfu on this day in 1916.
The northernmost of a string of islands in the Ionian Sea, Corfu was a British protectorate in the 18th century before passing into the possession of Greece in 1864. Over the course of 1915, as German and Austro-Hungarian forces battered Serbia—whose ambitions of self-determination had ostensibly sparked the entire Great War with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914—thousands of the country’s soldiers and civilians alike fled into the mountains of Albania. Near the end of 1915, in a massive rescue operation involving more than 1,000 trips made by Italian, French and British steamers, 260,000 Serb soldiers were transported to Corfu, where they waited for the chance to reclaim their country.
Corfu became the seat of the Serbian government-in-exile as well as an important base for supplying relief to the front in Salonika, on mainland Greece. In mid-April 1916, the first of 125,000 Serbian troops, escorted by French and British warships, traveled from Corfu to Salonika, where they would relieve a much smaller army and fight alongside their French and British allies.
In the summer of 1917, negotiations took place on Corfu between the representatives of various Slav countries over the creation of a new Balkan state, based on the assumption that Austria-Hungary would be dissolved in defeat and Serbia would be independent once more. The Pact of Corfu, signed on July 20, 1917, was a vision of a new nation made up of the three main ethnic groups—Serbs, Croats and Slovenes—and ruled by the Serbian royal family. This vision appealed to many—particularly the United States and its idealistic leader, Woodrow Wilson—but would require a decisive victory in the war to become reality. At the time of the Pact of Corfu, that victory remained far in the future.