Much has been written and debated about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife Sophie on June 28th 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The event has been considered to be the “Spark that ignited the First World War”. The perpetrator was a very poor but determined 19 year old Bosnian student, Gavrilo Princip. Was he a Terrorist or a Freedom Fighter?
In their book, The Assassination of the Archduke, Sue Woolmans and Greg King poignantly describe the utter devastation and crippling sadness and confusion suffered by the Archduke’s three children when they were told that their loving and devoted parents had been killed. They suffered immensely; their anguish was indescribable. Princip’s determination had been to attempt to exterminate a representation. In doing so he shattered an honourable family who ironically were slowly rising above an old and crumbling dynasty that they were part of. A global war could not have been further from the minds of Princip and his co-conspirators; the back story is fascinating.
My intention was to look and search deeper into the mechanics of this event which provoked an international catastrophe and a world war.
Bosnia-Hercegovina had been annexed by the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1908. Neighbouring independent Serbia shared a Slavic sympathy with Bosnia and were suspicious of Austrian expansionism. Officialdom kept the status quo but there was a well staffed clandestine terrorist organisation within the Serbian military called the Black Hand. They watched the Austro-Hungarians very closely and leaned towards direct violent actions. The steady creation of a group of protesting students in Bosnia caught the attention of their leader, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, (Apis). This self styled organisation which called itself Mlada Bosnia, (Young Bosnia), protested the annexation of their country which they considered the Habsburg dynasty had pillaged.
Despite organising local government and creating an infrastructure, the largely rural peasant workforces toiled in a feudal system with over 90% of Bosnians remaining illiterate. Rich in natural resources, Bosnian territory safeguarded the southern flank of Austro-Hungarian empire. Mlada Bosnia strived to provoke political protest. Some were prepared to use violence to bring attention to their dissatisfaction and frustration. One of those members was Gavrilo Princip. Slightly built and short in stature this intelligent son of a peasant family was more radical than the majority. He was very focused and wanted to perpetrate an assassination attempt; he was determined to highlight Bosnian dissatisfaction to the world. But this was a national issue. It was never Princip’s view, however far reaching, that his action would provoke a world war. Europe was already a tense political environment, a tinder box of military posturing, complex alliances, sabre rattling and imperialist ambition. Princip and his co-conspirators had caught the attention of the Serbian Black Hand; they wanted to assassinate a member of the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty. When it was discovered that the Heir apparent to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was going to visit Bosnia in an official capacity in June 1914 they hatched a loose plan. It wasn’t of particular interest to them that it was the Archduke, it was his representation that was important. It would have been more appropriate to have been the ageing and uncompromising Emperor, Franz Josef who felt nothing but contempt for the average Bosnian. Whilst initially doubtful of a success the Black Hand were impressed with their intentions. Whilst not being directly involved with the physical aspects of the assassination they supplied the group with weapons, training and travel assistance with their 200 mile route to Sarajevo in Bosnia from the Serbian capital, Belgrade. As a country, Serbia may have been sympathetic to the cause, but they had no knowledge of the plan and would not have condoned it.The Black Hand dragged Serbia into the volatile mix after the event.
A large military exercise was planned to take place near Sarajevo in Bosnia in June 1914. The Emperor, Franz Josef felt that it was an ideal opportunity for his nephew, the Heir Apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand to visit the southern flank of their empire. There was always a general unease in Bosnia and Franz Ferdinand was acutely aware of it. Waiting for his rise to the Austrian throne this deeply private man had plans for reconstruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His uncle had been in power since 1848; his political doctrine was simplistic, draconian and unimaginative. Nothing had changed. The Governor-General of Bosnia, General Oskar Potiorek had the privilege to welcome the Royal Party. Despite intelligence reports and the recognised risks Potiorek’s attention to security arrangements were poor. Having held Bosnia on a tight leash he wanted to dispel the notion that the country was bristling with insurgent blades, bombs and bullets. It was a naïve approach. The later part of the visit would be a series of receptions in Sarajevo, this would include a royal motorised procession through the city on the 28th June. The aim was to introduce the Archduke to the population and bring him to the people. The route was well publicised in order to maximise the potential crowds. This was to be Potiorek’s moment. His attention was clouded by his own sense of importance. The concerns of the military and police were largely ignored and a chain of events unfolded. Troops were not to be deployed on the streets because they didn’t possess the correct ceremonial uniforms. The city’s 150 strong police force were thinly spread and woefully inadequate. The visit was well published. There were few secrets as to where the Archduke would be over the visiting period. The routes in Sarajevo were out and returns, an important and basic anti-ambush drill was to be totally ignored.
The Archduke had not wanted to go to Bosnia on this occasion because he saw the visit as provocative and wholly unnecessary. Nevertheless he obeyed the Emperor. He was reluctant to take his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenburg but she insisted on accompanying him. Their three young children remained in Austria.
The Archduke was an immensely private man, serious and aloof and seemingly ill at ease but he had worked hard at his rightful position in the country’s royal family. Devoid of a warm personality in public, in private he loved and adored his wife Sophie and their three children. The Emperor Franz Josef was an uncompromising traditionalist who saw strict court protocols as far more important than the greater well-being of the far reaches of a crumbling empire. The Archduke’s marriage to Sophie in 1900 was virtually unrecognised by the royal household. Sophie despite being from an aristocratic background was not considered royal enough. Despite his frustration and being deeply offended he continued with his duties. His adoring wife rose above the cruel indignity and graciously supported him.
Sarajevo June 28th 1914
The Sarajevo programme would include a route that would convey the Archduke from the railway station to a reception in the City Hall, the last part of the route along Appel Quay, the road running alongside the Miljacka river. This would be a six car convoy, the Archduke and his wife in the third car. The car was a military supplied vehicle, an open top Graef und Stift sports limousine. The Archduke sat in the left rear seat, Sophie to his right. Potiorek was sat in front of the Archduke in the middle row of seats. Beside the driver in this right hand drive car was Lieutenant Colonel Count Franz Harrach, a motor transport officer. Once the Archduke had delivered his speech in City Hall his party would be conveyed back along Appel Quay but would turn right into Franz Josef Street to visit the city museum. This it was considered would give more opportunity to the Sarajevo population to see the royal party. It was a hot sunny day and the crowds were all prepared and in place. Potiorek was more focused on the potential prestige and accolade he would receive as Governor-General rather than the Archduke’s safety. He felt his arrangements were adequate. Appel Quay was closed to all traffic.
The group of seven assassins posted themselves along a 300 metre stretch of Appel Quay. Princip was in the centre outside the Morritz café opposite the Emperor’s Bridge. Cabrinovic was the first to make an attempt as the royal procession approached. He threw his grenade. It struck the rear of the Archduke’s car and fell into the road and detonated underneath the next vehicle. A number of people were injured, some seriously including an army officer. The Archdukes car accelerated away but stopped some distance ahead, the Archduke wanted to know what had happened. Meanwhile Cabrinovic slid down the wall into the shallow river but was apprehended by the police.
The party continued. Contrary to all security procedures after speeches in the City Hall the party planned to return along the same route and continue with the programme. Some officials had recommended cancelling the rest of the planned route. The Archduke had been shaken and expressed his concerns, he even sent a cable to the Emperor in Vienna informing him about the attack. He was concerned about the officer who had been wounded in the grenade attack and insisted the party should revise the route so that he could visit him in the hospital. This would mean continuing along Appel Quay and not turning right into Franz Josef Street. All the senior officials were now aware of his demand but incredibly nobody told the drivers, or at least the driver in the first vehicle. The vehicle procession set off from the City Hall. In those days traffic within the Austro-Hungarian Empire still drove on the left, you can sense this in what is considered to be the last picture of the royal party on Appel Quay just before they turn right into Franz Josef Street. On the route out the bomb had been thrown from the river side so Harrach anticipating that a further threat might come from the same side of the road positioned himself on the running board to the left of the Archduke to offer protection on the route back. It would be the last mistake in a catastrophic day.
Princip by now had considered all chance was lost. When the motor party returned as anticipated they were driving at high speed as if intent to continue straight. Princip saw them coming. To his amazement however the first car slowed and turned right on the original posted route into Franz Josef Street, the second followed. The Graef und Stift car conveying the Archduke instead of ignoring their mistake and carrying on straight ahead also slowed to turn right. Harrach immediately berated the confused driver, who somewhat flustered stopped and then struggled to put the car in reverse. The car now stationary was partly turned into the mouth of Franz Josef Street and directly in front of the Morritz café. Princip was just feet away.
Realising the hand grenade would be less effective he reached for his pistol. At his trial he described that he looked away as he fired two shots. The first bullet struck and penetrated Franz Ferdinand’s uniform collar on the right side. It then tracked into his neck, severing his jugular vein eventually coming to rest in his upper back against his spine. The Archduke barely moved and remained upright. There was no immediate sign that he had been hit. Princip’s FN ejected the spent 7.65 mm cartridge case out of the pistol’s ejection port to the right. It would have possibly struck a bystander and then fallen to the pavement. The pistol would have recycled another live round ready to fire in a fraction of a second. Princip claimed he also wanted to kill General Potiorek who was sitting in front of Franz Ferdinand. As he went to fire the second shot there was much confusion, policeman in the crowd lunged towards him, individuals in the crowd attacked the police officers. The second bullet struck and penetrated the light alloy vehicle superstructure next to Sophie. The round struck Sophie in the lower abdomen just above her right groin. It penetrated the iliac vein. Harrach realising what had occurred ordered the driver to drive to the Konak, The Governor-Generals residence just a short distance away on the other side of the river. Both Franz Ferdinand and his wife were mortally wounded. Sophie was dead before they reached the Konak. Franz Ferdinand died shortly after they reached it. At his trial Gavrilo Princip voiced his regret that he had killed the Duchess of Hohenberg; it was never his intention to harm her.
The car is now in the military museum in Vienna. The bullet hole in the alloy side panel is still there and clearly visible.
The event was a shocking, muddled and confused combination of poor security, random chance and assassins’ luck. What it led to was far out of proportion to the reason behind it. The Austro-Hungarians were convinced Serbia was responsible for the assassination, they invaded on July 28th 1914. Russia mobilised in support of Serbia. Germany were concerned about the French alliance with Russia and in support of their Austro-Hungarian allies they invaded Belgium and Luxembourg to gain a foothold before moving on France. Britain declared war on Germany. The Great War emerged. Most of the conspirators were rounded up and faced execution or died in prison. Gavrilo Princip died in Theresienstadt prison in Austria on the 28th April 1918. This was just months before the end of the war that he has so often been inaccurately accused of starting.
I was both intrigued and determined to find out more about the preparation that Princip and his fellow conspirators had embarked on. They never once considered or anticipated the global consequences of their national action. Why would they.
In May and June 2018 I made trips to Sarajevo In Bosnia & Herzegovina where Princip committed the assassination on the 28th June 1914 and Belgrade in Serbia where in the months prior he secured weapons, received training and finalised and planned the killing. Sarajevo is an interesting and unique city with a surreal history. It had hosted the hugely successful winter Olympics in 1984. Besieged during the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1996 there is still much evidence of the deliberate and wanton destruction. Bullet and blast damage still adorn buildings. Most of the population are Muslim, but white European Muslim. Past generations had converted to Islam for guaranteed benefits and living convenience during the Turkish Ottoman occupation up until the 17th century. It was a peaceful and voluntary process and it had worked favourably. My study of the 1914 assassination revealed Appel Quay, City Hall, the river and its bridges and the site of the assassination to be little changed. The Morritz café is now a museum.
I also wanted to visit Bembasa gorge which is on the eastern fringes of Sarajevo. This deep sided feature accommodates the Miljacka River which flows through the city from west to east. This is where Danilo Ilic took two members of the group he recruited just after the Belgrade team arrived and assembled in Sarajevo. Ilic, realising how unprepared these new recruits were thought better of wasting time and ammunition and compromising security. He apparently described the workings of one of the FN pistols and just fired one round into a tunnel at the side of the gorge. He had taken care however to take this pair sufficiently far from the city to avoid being seen or heard.
Sarajevo City limits to the east suddenly end at the entrance to Bembasa Gorge. You can walk alongside the river on the wide Divera tarmac foot/cycle path. As you walk east into the steep sided gorge the city infrastructure literally ends abruptly at the Sarajevo Sports Centre. You turn a bend in the gorge and a glance back, the city just disappears behind you. One could imagine that in 1914 the city limit was even more apparent and further back. Just 500 metres up the Bembasa Gorge there is an elevated road spanning overhead and supported by concrete uprights. I would never have imagined finding evidence of contemporary gunfire damage here but alas I found some. There is an upright on the other side of the river and a closer look reveals handgun bullet splashes on the face. I walked down to the river and estimated where the perpetrators had fired from. I didn’t expect to find this. Perhaps it was unsurprising in what had been such a volatile environment in more recent times. Nevertheless, it held a significance for me, a poignance that might escape the attention of most historical researchers.
Princip had assembled his team of assassins in Belgrade in Serbia. He needed weapons and weapon training. It was clear that they all needed preparation. A message arrived one morning directing Princip, Nedeljko Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez to go directly to the entrance of Topcider/Kosutnjak Park to the south of the city. On arrival they met a member of the Black Hand, Milan Ciganovic. In his possession was a box containing 3 new 7.65 mm Browning FN 1910 semi-auto pistols. They walked to a spot deep into a section of the Kosutnjak forest area and Ciganovic selected a large oak tree in the shape of a human torso to pin paper targets to. Over a period of 6 days they were instructed in their use. Loading, unloading, firing; clearing stoppages, stripping and assembling. Princip had the most natural skill, consistently hitting targets from a variety of ranges. On the last day and probably dictated to some extend on their security and the availability of ammunition the three assassins and their instructor made their way out of the park. Close to the entrance they were approached by a Park Warden who enquired if it was them who had been discharging guns in the forest over the past days. Not in denial they politely nodded abeyance to his demand that they stop and not come back. It was no matter; the training task was complete, the Park Warden walked off into his place in history and remained oblivious to their intentions.
In June 2018 I visited Belgrade and got myself accommodated in a small hotel to the south of the city on the edge of Kosutnjak forest. The closest study of the assassination was written by the Yugoslav, Vladimir Dedijer in 1966. The Road to Sarajevo mentions the remote Kosutnjak Forest as the chosen training venue site that prepared Princip, Grabez and Cabrinovic. This is where they received weapon training with the FN semi-auto pistols supplied by the Black Hand. Other authors site Topcider. There may have been some confusion because both forest park areas are joined anyway. Topcider is closer to the city and is now a smaller area than its original footprint. Surrounding the 18th Century Konak residence this immediate section is a manicured and tended city park. As it extends south it is probably not unlike its original format, but there is now plentiful access for walkers, joggers and cyclists via simple paths. Further south it links to Kosutnjak Forest which extends up a hillside. Kosutnjak is just as accessible but its hillside location and labyrinth of footpaths attracts the more fit and agile. Kosutnjak would appear to be the most sensible location to carry out clandestine pistol shooting.
The location is served by the no 3 tram which originates from the centre of Belgrade. This tram line was one of the first in Belgrade constructed in 1894. It originated in downtown Belgrade on Kneza Miloša, (The Great Street), the city’s main promenade. This was a short walk from Carigiskasa Street where Princip was accommodated. On my first day I decided to walk from my hotel next to Kosutnjak along the most direct route to Princip’s address and back again. This went via the fringes of Topcider and the smaller Hjad park then across the Sava river bridge. I completed this return walk in 30 degrees of summer heat, a total distance of around 12 km. Whilst a group of fit young men could easily complete this round trip it seemed unrealistic to me that they walked this route each day for 6 days carrying pistols and ammunition. I envisaged that they possibly used the tram to Topcider and then walked on to Kosutnjak. Perhaps they hid the weapons at the end of each day on site to minimise the chance of being caught with them.
There are several entrances to Kosutnjak park, accommodating visitors who arrive predominately in cars. Small tarmac roads criss-cross the parkland and the access point I found not far from my hotel welcomed visitors with a car park, a picnic area and a restaurant/bar. I would never have imagined being able to find evidence of contemporary gunfire damage in the 1914 “training” location of Kosutnjak, but I didn’t have to look far. A green steel/alloy litter bin just inside the canopy of trees beside a foot path off a tarmac road had been penetrated by a single handgun round, the bullet exiting the other side and creasing the upright stay. Just like my discovery in Bembasa 200 miles away in Sarajevo it was quite surreal.
In both places 104 years later gun play was still in existence. One could surmise that the perpetrators had perhaps no idea about the historical significance of their acts in these very specific locations.