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World War One was triggered by the assassin’s gun in Sarajevo

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, World War 1 on Friday, 10 August 2012

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This edited article about World War One originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1976.

Sarajevo 1914, picture, image, illustration

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Clive Uptton

As the four-car motorcade turned into Franz Josef Street in Sarajevo, in the Balkan state of Bosnia, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip gripped the six-chamber Browning pistol in his pocket.

Princip’s lips were tight as he stepped forward and shot twice, from a range of five feet, at one of the cars. In it sat the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, who was struck in the neck, and his wife, the Archduchess Sophie, who received a bullet in her abdomen. Both victims died shortly afterwards.

Princip, and his fellow conspirators in the assassination, were Serbians, people of a country which is now part of Yugoslavia. They believed that, by killing the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, their cause for a greater Serbian nation would be advanced.

Nearly a month after the assassination, the Austrian government, suspecting that the Serbian government was behind the crime, but having no evidence to support this view, issued an ultimatum to Serbia. It gave the Serbian government 48 hours in which to stop Serbian propaganda and subversive activities on Austro-Hungarian territory. It ordered the arrest of all the people who plotted the assassination, and it demanded that Austro-Hungarian officials should be allowed into Serbia to investigate the background to the killing.

The Serbian government, uncertain what to do, sent back a vague, evasive reply. This was not good enough for Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, and on the 18th July, 1914, his country declared war on Serbia. Rapidly, the nations of Europe took sides and marshalled their armies . . . and the First World War exploded on Europe.

By the time it had begun, most people had forgotten about Gavrilo Princip, the man who had started it all. Although his was the finger which pulled the trigger, Princip was merely a pawn. To see just how little he was involved in the master planning, we need to look at the condition of the Balkan States at that time.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in a state of turmoil. An earlier war, 25 years previously, had destroyed the Turkish Ottoman Empire and had granted independence to Serbia and Romania and self-government to Bulgaria. It had also given Bosnia and Herzegovina (now in Yugoslavia) to Austria to occupy and govern. The Serbians were furious because they wanted these territories as part of their greater Serbian nation.

This Serbian fury had its controller and co-ordinator in the person of Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the Serbian Intelligence chief, who also masterminded a secret service organisation known sinisterly as the Black Hand Society. Dimitrijevic was nicknamed Apis (the Bee) because of his ceaseless energy in plotting against the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the plans for expanding the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It was Apis and the Black Hand who decided that the Archduke should be murdered. They even chose the significant day of 28th June – significant because it commemorated the Serbian anniversary of Vidovdan, a famous battle fought 500 years earlier.

It was important, of course, since the motive behind the assassination was simply to stir up unrest, that Apis, who was a Serbian government officer, should not be connected with it. So the man whose task it was actually to recruit the assassins was Major Voja Tankosic, an official of the Black Hand.

Dressed in civilian clothes, Tankosic wandered around the caf√©s and coffee shops of Belgrade where, for hours on end, young students talked zealously about their dream of a Greater Serbia. These were the haunts of Gavrilo Princip and his great friend, Vassa Chabrinovich, a policeman’s son who already, at 19, had a reputation for lawlessness. And here they met another teenager, Tryfon Grabezh, who was also a Serbian idealist.

When Major Tankosic was introduced to this trio of malcontents he was sure they were exactly the material he wanted. And all three left him in no doubt that his search for competent assassins was over.

“How do you think of doing it?” the Major asked.

“I think the sure way is a revolver,” replied Grabezh, and immediately the Major instructed one of his aides to take the trainee assassins to the shooting butts for some weapon lessons in how to use the weapon.

Besides the Browning revolvers, they were given six bombs for good measure and some cyanide. Their orders were to commit suicide after killing the Archduke.

When the three youths arrived in Sarajevo, their ranks were swelled by some interesting new arrivals. First they were joined by a 23-year-old schoolmaster and revolutionary named Danito Ilic. He had gained three local recruits, a Moslem, Muhamed Mehmedbasic and two students, 17-year-old Vaso Cubrilovic and Cvijetko Popovic, 18. The aim of the band, now seven-strong, was to position themselves individually along the route to be taken by the Archduke’s car and the civic procession following it and, if the first one in line failed to do the killing, the next would try, and so on down the line.

It was a Sunday morning, and already a sweltering hot day when the Archduke and the procession set off through the town and, at 10.15, entered Appel Quay – where the assassins mingled with the crowd along the route – for the last few hundred yards of their drive to Sarajevo Town Hall.

As the motorcade passed before Mehmedbasic, the Moslem’s hands perspired around his bombs and his pistol. But, paralysed with fear, he didn’t do a thing. His weapons stayed beneath his coat and to the cheers of his loyal subjects the Archduke drove on.

The next assassin in line was Chabrinovich. He did not hesitate for a moment. In one fluid movement he took his bomb from under his coat, knocked off the cap against a lamp-post and threw it at the Archduke’s open car.

The driver, who had heard the crack as Chabrinovich knocked the cap from the bomb, saw an object hurtling towards the car and accelerated. And the bomb, instead of landing in the car, was deflected by the Archduke’s hand on to the folded hood, from where it fell into the road and exploded. About a dozen spectators were slightly injured and so were some of the high government officials in the following car.

With commendable courage, the Archduke stopped his car and got out to see what had happened. People were lying on the pavement screaming and groaning, and the Archduke stayed a moment to give instructions. Then he declared: “Come on. The fellow is insane. Let’s get on with our programme.”

“The fellow” – Chabrinovich – had already broken his cyanide capsule between his teeth and jumped over a bridge into a river. For some unexplained reason the cyanide did not work and neither did Chabrinovich drown. Pulled out by angry people, he was marched away to police headquarters.

The next four assassins along the route were Cubrilovic, Popovic, Princip and Grabezh. When their turns came, they all proved as useless as Mehmedbasic.

Then, amazingly, an incredible piece of bungling gave the 19-year-old Princip his second chance. A Town Hall conference decided that, as the Archduke was determined to continue his programmed tour after the bomb incident, he should go by a quicker route. But they neglected to tell the one person who, of all people, should have been told – the Mayor’s chauffeur, who was driving the leading car and from whom all the other drivers were taking their cue.

It was not until they were turning into Franz Josef Street that the Governor of Bosnia realised they were still on the original route. He called on the Archduke’s chauffeur to stop and back up to get on the right road. The chauffeur did as he was told – and presented a sitting target of the Archduke to Princip, who was standing outside the Moritz Schiller delicatessen.

Men leapt forward to seize the young assassin, and Princip joined Chabrinovich in prison. Then followed Ilic. Yet, despite all their questioning, the police failed to elicit that Apis was behind the plot. And when the Austrian government report of the investigation was made, no reason was found for any suspicion that the Serbian government had been aware of the plot.

That, of course, considerably weakened Austria’s case. Their vaguely worded ultimatum was rejected by Serbia.

A variety of fates awaited the assassins. Mehmedbasic escaped to Montenegro. Princip, Grabezh and Chabrinovich were sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, the law then forbidding the hanging of anyone under 20. Ilic was sentenced to death. Cubrilovic received 16 years in prison and Popovic 13.

Princip, the man who fired the shot that started the World War, did not live even to see the armistice. Always sickly and neurotic, he died in prison of tuberculosis.

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