On Sunday, 28 June 1914, the 50-year-old heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Countess Sophie, paid an official visit to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia, to inspect troops of the Austrian-Hungarian army. And it was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife on this day in this city that would unleash a chain of events that rapidly escalated into the most devastating war the world had seen – the First World War.
Archduke in love
The Emperor of the Austrian-Hungarian (Habsburg) Empire, Franz Joseph, had ruled since 1848, and was to do so until his death in 1916, aged 86, a rule of 68 years. When his nephew and heir presumptive, Archduke Franz Ferdinand announced his desire to marry Sophie Chotek it sent shockwaves through the royal family. For Sophie, although a countess, was a commoner. But the archduke was in love and no amount of family pressure would dissuade him from taking her hand. They married on 28 June 1900. Sophie, as a non-royal, would never become queen, and the archduke had to sign away the right of his future children to succeed him. To add to the indignity, Sophie was barred from attending royal occasions, the only exception was in regard to the archduke’s position of field marshal when, acting under his military capacity, he was allowed to have his wife at his side. (Pictured the archduke and Countess Sophie moments before their assassination).
The Black Hand
Bosnia had been a recent and unwilling addition to the Habsburg Empire. Resentful Bosnian Serbs dreamt of freedom and incorporation into the nation of Serbia. The 28 June was also a significant day for Serbia – it was their national holiday. Only in 1878, after five hundred years of Turkish rule, had Serbia gained its independence – but not the Bosnian Serbs who remained first under Turkish rule, then, from 1908, Austrian-Hungarian rule. Nationalistic groups formed, determined to use violence to strike terror at the heart of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. One such group, the sinisterly named Black Hand, included among its number a nineteen-year-old named Gavrilo Princip. And it was in Sarajevo that Princip would change the world.
Each armed with a revolver, a hand grenade and, in the event of failure, a vial of cyanide, the would-be assassins joined, at various intervals, the mass of spectators lined along a six-kilometre route and waited for the six-car motorcade to come into view. The first lost his nerve, whilst the second, Nedeljko Čabrinović, managed to throw his bomb causing injury to a driver and a few spectators but leaving the Archduke and his wife unharmed. Čabrinović swallowed his cyanide and jumped into the River Miljacka behind. But the poison, so old, failed to work and the river only came up to his ankles. Arrested, he was attacked by several bystanders. Meanwhile, Princip, witnessing the failure of the mission, traipsed to a local inn.
Franz Ferdinand, unsurprisingly, was not impressed. On arriving, as planned, at the City Hall, he complained to the city mayor, ‘Mr Mayor, I come to Sarajevo on a visit, and I get bombs thrown at me. It is outrageous.’ Then, in delivering a speech, he ended with the words, ‘I see in [the people of Sarajevo] an expression of joy at the failure of the attempt at assassination.’
Later in the day, on the countess’s suggestion, Franz Ferdinand declared his wish to visit the injured lying in hospital. On leaving the hospital, his chauffeur, unfamiliar with his part of the city, turned down a one-way street, ironically named after the emperor, Franz Josef. On realising his mistake, the chauffeur tried to reverse but stalled next to the tavern where Princip was still cursing his bad luck.
On seeing the royal car in front of him, Princip drew his revolver and leapt onto its running board and fired. The first bullet killed the countess instantaneously. ‘Sophie, don’t die,’ cried the archduke, ‘stay alive for the children’. The second bullet caught him in the throat. As the car rushed to the governor’s residence, a member of his entourage asked him if he was in great pain, to which the archduke replied several times, ‘It is nothing’, before expiring. Princip was wrestled to the ground (pictured), his revolver snatched from his hand. He managed to swallow the cyanide but, the poison, being so old, had no effect.
The Road to War
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (pictured) had very much been the work of Gavrilo Princip and his band of Black Hand conspirators but Austria-Hungary saw an opportunity to assert its authority over Serbia. But first it sought reassurance from its powerful ally, Germany. Austria-Hungary and Germany had formed the Dual Alliance in 1879 which, three years later, became the Triple Alliance when Italy added its signature. The German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, gave Austria-Hungary the assurance it needed then promptly went off on a cruise around Norway.
It took the Austrian-Hungarian government three weeks but the ultimatum they sent Serbia was, in the words of Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, the ‘most formidable document ever sent from one nation to another’. Serbia was given 48 hours to comply with ten demands specifically designed to humiliate and be rejected. Although the Serbs agreed to eight, suggesting, quite reasonably, that the other two be decided by the Hague Tribunal, it was never going to be enough for the bellicose Austrian-Hungarians and on 28 July they declared war on Serbia.
Events now moved quickly, one triggering off another. In response to Austrian-Hungary’s declaration of war, Russia, which saw itself as protector of Serbia, began to mobilise. France, Russia’s ally since 1892, offered her its support. In response, the Germans gave Russia twelve hours to halt its mobilisation. The deadline passed, thus on 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia and, two days later, on France. ‘The sword has been forced into our hand,’ claimed the Kaiser.
Germany’s determination to invade France through Belgium brought in Great Britain, who in 1839 had signed a treaty guaranteeing their neutrality. Germany could not believe that Britain would go to war with a ‘kindred nation’ over a ‘scrap of paper’, a treaty signed 75 years before. But it did. Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August. Sir Edward Grey, gazing out from the Foreign Office, remarked, ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’.
Within a matter of weeks, what started off as ‘some damn foolish thing in the Balkans’, as the former German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had once predicted, had escalated into a major conflict, one that would last 1,568 days, from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918, and cost over 9 million lives.
Gavrilo Princip’s gun; the car in which the archduke and the countess was riding; his bloodstained sky blue uniform and plumed cocked hat, and the chaise longue on which he died, are all on permanent display in the Museum of Military History in Vienna, Austria.