War history: The assassin’s shots that echoed around the world

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. - Credit: Archant

A hard-to-fathom incident in Sarajevo... It triggered the series of events that would drag Britain, the Commonwealth and the British Empire into four years of war. Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian and chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, explains what happened

Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1910 with wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, and children Prince Ernst v

Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1910 with wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, and children Prince Ernst von Hohenberg, Princess Sophie, and Maximilian, Duke of Hohenburg. - Credit: Archant

It is sometimes hard to believe that 100 years ago this week the world teetered on the abyss of what we now know as the First World War. In July, 1914, not unlike today, many Britons believed that war between the major European nations was very much a thing of the past. In fact, a series of carefully negotiated treaties and alliances between the major powers made the prospect of war too dreadful to even contemplate. So in spite of occasional tensions, rivalries and competition for worldwide trade, war between the European powers seemed unthinkable. When war did eventually erupt, it came as a shock to the British people.

To the average citizen the series of events that led to Britain’s declaration of war on August 4, 1914, seemed so irrelevant and so far away from their own lives in East Anglia. Yet within three weeks the Army would be mobilised and a British Expeditionary Force would be preparing to sail to France.

Once in France, the BEF would fight alongside the much larger French army and the allies would stand in the path of the largest and most powerful military force in Western Europe, the Imperial German Army.

I often wonder how many of those British soldiers knew or really cared why they suddenly found themselves in France. Having been through what is described as the transition to war twice myself, I doubt that many men of the BEF had time to consider what was going on around them as they prepared to leave their barracks and summer camps to cross the channel.

Gavrilo Princip at his trial about three weeks before Christmas, 1914. He's sitting in the middle of

Gavrilo Princip at his trial about three weeks before Christmas, 1914. He's sitting in the middle of the first row. - Credit: Archant


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We will come back to the BEF in the coming weeks; today, we are going to take a brief look at the spark that ignited a trail of complicated and inter-related events that unleashed a war that would engulf the globe.

Today, most history students can tell you that the First World War started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. They would be almost correct. The assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire was the catalyst that initiated the chain of events that led to the outbreak of war. However, hostilities would not begin for some weeks and Britain would not formally declare war for another 37 days.

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In June, 1914, Archduke Ferdinand had travelled to Sarajevo to inspect Austrian troops on manoeuvres in Bosnia. The visit was seen by a terrorist group known as The Black Hand as an ideal opportunity to increase tensions in the region.

The Black Hand wanted Austria to relinquish Sarajevo and all the Bosnian territory it occupied. They were seeking the reunification of Bosnia-Herzegovina with Serbia. Their intent was to assassinate Franz Ferdinand and provoke Austria into invading Serbia in retaliation. The terrorists hoped that an Austrian attack would lead to intervention in Serbia by Russia; the Russians viewed themselves as the protector of Slav nations and would be unlikely to allow Austrian troops to occupy Serbia.

Gavrilo Princip in his prison cell.

Gavrilo Princip in his prison cell. - Credit: Archant

So the stage was set for an assassination attempt in the heart of the powder keg that was the Balkans.

The attempt on Franz Ferdinand’s life was planned for the morning of Sunday, June 28. The Black Hand planned to ambush the Archduke’s six-vehicle motorcade between Sarajevo railway station and the first appointment of the tour at a nearby army barracks.

There was some confusion at the station, and instead of travelling in a covered vehicle, Franz Ferdinand and the duchess set off in an open-topped car, an ideal target for the would-be assassins.

As the royal convoy moved along its route it passed within range of three Black Hand members. Only one of the assassins took any action, throwing a bomb at the open-topped car. The bomb hit the folded canopy of the vehicle and bounced off, rolling down the road before exploding underneath the car behind. The blast injured 20 bystanders but the Archduke and the duchess survived unscathed.

Later the same day they decided to visit the injured in hospital. By a cruel twist of fate their car stopped close to one of the Black Hand conspirators, Gavrillo Princip. He had an FN semi-automatic pistol and used it to fire two shots at the royal car. His shots found their mark, hitting Franz Ferdinand in the neck and Duchess Sophie in the abdomen.

Princip was arrested but the damage was done; both his victims were mortally wounded. Their deaths lit the fuse that would ultimately place Europe and the rest of the world on the path to a war of unprecedented scale and horror.

We will examine next week the far-reaching repercussions of the shots fired in Sarajevo.

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