Saturday 24 February 2018

Shot! The assassination that pushed the world to war

The killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was one of the events that triggered a chain reaction

Police arrest a man after a failed assassination attempt. (Photo by Milos Oberajger/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Police arrest a man after a failed assassination attempt. (Photo by Milos Oberajger/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
The Browning pistol Gavrilo Princip used to shoot Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.
Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie shortly before their death. (Photo by Henry Guttmann/Getty Images)
How 'The New York Times' reported the story.
Assassin Gavrilo Princip is arrested
The bodies of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie lie in state. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Kiim Bielenberg

It was a wrong turn on a street in Sarajevo that changed the course of history, and ultimately brought 200,000 Irishmen into a European conflagration.

On June 29, 1914, readers of the Irish Independent would have woken up to see news of an alarming incident in the capital of Bosnia:

"The assassin has once more turned the Royal House of the ill-fated Habsburgs, and the whole of Austria, into mourning.

"Yesterday Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Heir Apparent to Throne, and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead while driving through the streets of Sarajevo."

The assassination started a chain reaction that ultimately led the great powers of Europe – Austria, Russia, German, France and Britain – into war. And it so easily could not have happened.

Bosnia had been annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908, much to the resentment of many Serbians, and the archduke was touring Sarajevo on June 28 in his role as Inspector General of the Armed Forces.

Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Serbian, turned up on that day with a gang from a group known as the Black Hand. Their intention was to kill the Archduke.

In the first attempt one of Princip's gang threw a bomb at the Archduke's car, but it rolled off the back of the vehicle. By the time it exploded, injuring an officer and some bystanders, the royal couple were out of harm's way.

The royal party then changed its route, but nobody told the driver, who turned into Franz Josef Street along the original itinerary.

The first assassination attempt had failed, and the gang was dispersing; but suddenly Princip found himself face to face with the Archduke just metres away in a stationary car. Having been told that it was a wrong turn, the driver stopped to go back.

Princip seized his opportunity, raised his Browning pistol and fired two shots at the limousine; the first hit Franz Ferdinand in the jugular vein, and the second hit his wife. Both died within an hour, and Princip was arrested.

The killing was covered extensively in the Irish press, but at the time we were facing our own crisis. Irish nationalists were hoping for Home Rule, and there was a surge in popularity for the military group, the Irish National Volunteers.

On the day after the Archduke's assassination, there was an advertisement on the front of the Irish Independent for Volunteer uniforms and bandoliers.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie helped to trigger conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.

Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the attack and won the support of Germany.

Russia backed its Slavic friend Serbia and the uneasy peace between Europe's great powers disintegrated rapidly – with Austria-Hungary and Germany on one side, and Russia and France on the other.

Germany had planned for an inevitable conflict and assumed that it would be a war on two fronts with France and Russia.

It aimed to knock-out France quickly by invading Belgium, but this brought Britain, and by extension Ireland, into the war.

For the British matters came to a head at the start of August when the German army marched into Belgium en route to France. This prompted the King of Belgium to remark that his country was "a nation, not a road."

Britain kept a promise, made in a treaty of 1839, to defend Belgium, and at 11 o'clock at night on August 4 issued a statement that "a state of war exists" between Great Britain and Germany.

By the middle of 1914 cable telegraph technology had enabled news to travel fast, and the details of the declaration and its implications were carried in detail in the Irish Independent of the following day. Unusually, a big headline was carried across an entire page: "ENGLAND DECLARES WAR AGAINST GERMANY"

In Ireland, the country was overcome with an atmosphere described in the paper as "war fever", and the concerns on that day united many nationalists and unionists.

Supported by the parliamentary leader John Redmond, the Irish National Volunteers issued a statement expressing "complete readiness to take joint action with the Ulster Volunteer Force for the defence of Ireland".

With 50,000 men already in the British forces, and tens of thousands more set to join up, the effect on the country was immediate. The Irish Independent reported that increased prices in Dublin – including for fish, butter, sugar and cabbage – "are now very marked as a result of the war".

Historians still ponder whether the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand started a war that many saw as inevitable. Europe had stumbled into war. The historian Christian Clark described the leaders of the great powers as "sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world."



See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

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