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First Shot of World War I

By Christopher Clark 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: September 08, 2013 
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The bodies of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and wife Sophie lie in state in Vienna's Hofburg Palace just days after their June 1914 assassination in Sarajevo. The murders would spark a world war. (Photos here and on home page: AKG-Images)
The bodies of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and wife Sophie lie in state in Vienna's Hofburg Palace just days after their June 1914 assassination in Sarajevo. The murders would spark a world war. (Photos here and on home page: AKG-Images)

'Despite warnings that a terrorist outrage was likely, the archduke and his wife traveled in an open car along a crowded and entirely predictable route'

The following excerpt is from The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark. Copyright © 2012 by Christopher Clark. All rights reserved. Published by arrangement with Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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On the morning of Sunday, June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie Chotek von Chotkowa und Wognin, arrived by train in the city of Sarajevo and boarded a motorcar for the ride down the Appel Quay to the City Hall. There were six vehicles in the motorcade. In the lead car was a security detail. In the second car were the mayor of Sarajevo, Fehim Effendi Curcic, dressed in a fez and a dark suit, and the Sarajevo police commissioner, Dr. Edmund Gerde. Sitting behind them in the third car, a splendid Gräf & Stift sports coupé with the roof rolled back so the passengers could be seen by the crowds of well-wishers lining the streets, were the archduke and his wife. Opposite them on the folding seat sat General Oskar Potiorek, governor of Bosnia. Sitting in the passenger seat at the front beside the driver was Lt. Col. Count Franz von Harrach. Behind them followed three further cars carrying local policemen and members of the archduke's and the governor's suites.

A picturesque view unfolded before the couple as the motorcade swung on to the Appel Quay, a broad boulevard that runs along the embankment of the river Miljacka through the center of Sarajevo. On either side of the river, which gushes from a gorge just above the town to the east, steep hills rise to a height of over 5,000 feet. The hillsides were dotted with villas and houses standing in orchards. Farther up were the cemeteries with their glowing spots of white marble, crowned by dark firs and bluffs of naked rock. The minarets of numerous mosques could be seen rising from among the trees and buildings along the river, a reminder of the city's Ottoman past. At the heart of the town, just off the Appel Quay, was the bazaar, a labyrinth of lanes lined with shaded wooden booths backing on to warehouses of solid stone. Carpet traders, greengrocers, saddlers, coppersmiths, dealers in every craft, worked their trades here, each in their allotted quarter. A small house at the center of the bazaar dispensed coffee free of charge to the poor at the expense of the waqf, an Ottoman charitable foundation. The previous day had been cool and rainy, but on the morning of June 28 the city was bathed in hot sunshine.

The Austrians had chosen an unlucky date for the visit. On this day, St. Vitus' Day, in the year 1389, Ottoman forces had destroyed a Serb-led army on the Field of Blackbirds (Kosovo), putting an end to the era of Serb empire in the Balkans and creating the preconditions for the later integration of what remained of Serbia into the Ottoman empire. The commemorations across the Serb lands were set to be especially intense in 1914, because this was the first St. Vitus' Day since the "liberation" of Kosovo during the Second Balkan War the previous year. "The holy flame of Kosovo, which has inspired generations [of Serbs] has now burst forth into a mighty fire," the Black Hand journal Pijemont announced on June 28. "Kosovo is free! Kosovo is avenged!" For Serb ultranationalists, both in Serbia itself and across the Serbian irredentist network in Bosnia, the arrival of the heir apparent in Sarajevo on this of all days was a symbolic affront that demanded a response.

Seven terrorists organized in two cells gathered in the city during the days preceding the visit. On the morning of the archduke's arrival they positioned themselves at intervals along the quay. Strapped around their waists were bombs no bigger than cakes of soap with detonator caps and 12-second chemical fuses. In their pockets were loaded pistols. The surplus of weapons and manpower was essential to the success of the undertaking. If one man were searched and arrested or simply failed to act, another stood by to take his place. Each carried a paper packet of cyanide powder so that he could take his own life when the deed was done.

Official security precautions were conspicuous by their absence. Despite warnings that a terrorist outrage was likely, the archduke and his wife traveled in an open car along a crowded and entirely predictable route. The espalier of troops who usually lined the curbs on such occasions was nowhere to be seen, so that the motorcade passed virtually unprotected in front of the dense crowds. Even the special security detail was missing—its chief had mistakenly climbed into one of the cars with three local Bosnian officers, leaving the rest of his men behind at the railway station.

The archducal couple was strikingly unconcerned about their own safety. Franz Ferdinand had spent the last three days with his wife in the little resort town of Ilidze, where he and Sophie had seen nothing but friendly faces. There had even been time for an impromptu shopping visit to the Sarajevo bazaar, where they had walked unmolested in the narrow, crowded streets. What they could not know was that Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian Serb who would shoot them dead just three days later, was also in the bazaar, shadowing their movements. At a dinner in Ilidze on the last night before they took the train to Sarajevo, Sophie happened to meet the Bosnian Croat leader Dr. Josip Sunaric, who had warned the local authorities against bringing the couple to Bosnia at a time of heightened national emotion for the local Serbs. "Dear Dr. Sunaric," she told him, "you are wrong after all.…Everywhere we have gone here, we have been treated with so much friendliness—and by every last Serb too—with so much cordiality and unsimulated warmth that we are very happy about it!" Franz Ferdinand was in any case known for his impatience with security procedures and wanted this last part of his Bosnian journey to have a distinctly relaxed and civilian flavor. He had spent the past few days playing the role of inspector general at the army maneuvers in the nearby Bosnian hills; now he wished to go among his future subjects as heir to the Habsburg throne.

Despite the many obstacles thrown in their path by Habsburg court etiquette [due to Sophie's non-royal lineage], the archduke and his wife had since their wedding established an extremely contented family life. Marrying "my Soph" was the most intelligent thing he had done in his life, Franz Ferdinand confided to a friend in 1904. She was his "entire happiness" and their children were his "whole delight and pride." There is no reason to believe that the warmth of this relationship—unusual in the context of dynastic marriages in that era—had in any way diminished by the time they came to visit Sarajevo. Sophie had insisted that she be allowed to remain at Franz Ferdinand's side that day, and there was doubtless a special pleasure in the fact that in this attractive and exotic outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire, they could officiate together in a way that was often impossible in Vienna.

The cars rolled past houses and shops decked with Habsburg black-and-yellow and Bosnian red-and-yellow banners, toward the Sarajevan [assassin] Muhamed Mehmedbašic, who had taken up a position by the Cumurija Bridge. As the cheers rose from around him, he prepared to prime and throw his bomb. It was a tense moment, because once the percussion cap on the bomb was cracked—an action that itself would generate a loud report—there was no going back; the bomb would have to be thrown. Mehmedbašic managed to free his bomb from its swaddling, but at the last moment he thought he sensed someone—a policeman perhaps—stepping up behind him and was paralyzed by terror, just as he had been when he aborted the mission to kill Oskar Potiorek on the train in January 1914. The cars rolled on. The next assassin in line, and the first to go into action, was the Bosnian Serb Nedeljko Cabrinovic, who had placed himself on the river side of the quay. He freed his bomb and broke the detonator against a lamppost. Hearing the sharp bang of the percussion cap, the archduke's bodyguard, Count Harrach, assumed that a tire had blown out, but the driver saw the bomb flying through the air toward the car and stepped on the accelerator. Whether the archduke himself saw the bomb and managed to bat it away with his hand, or whether it simply bounced off the folded fabric of the roof at the back of the passenger compartment, is not clear. At any rate, it missed, fell to the ground and exploded beneath the car behind, wounding several of the officers inside and gouging a hole in the road.

The archduke responded to this mishap with astonishing sangfroid. Looking back, he could see that the fourth vehicle had ground to a halt. The air was thick with dust and smoke and still ringing with the force of the explosion. A splinter had cut Sophie's cheek, but otherwise the couple was unharmed. The passengers in the fourth car were wounded but alive; some were attempting to dismount. The most seriously injured was General Potiorek's adjutant, Colonel Erik von Merizzi, who, though conscious, was bleeding heavily from a head wound. A number of bystanders had also been hurt.

As soon as Cabrinovic had thrown his bomb, he ingested the cyanide powder he was carrying and threw himself over the parapet into the Miljacka. Neither of these actions had the intended result. The poison was of inferior quality, so that it seared the young man's throat and stomach lining but did not kill him or even knock him out. And the river was too low in the summer heat to drown him or carry him away. Instead he merely fell 26 feet to the exposed sand at the side of the riverbed, where he was quickly captured by a shopkeeper, a barber armed with a handgun and two police officers.

Instead of leaving the danger zone immediately, the archduke saw to the treatment of the wounded and then ordered that the cavalcade should continue to the City Hall in the center of Sarajevo and then pass back along the Appel Quay, so that he and his wife could visit the wounded in hospital. "Come on," he said. "That fellow is clearly insane; let us proceed with our program." The motorcade lurched back into motion, with the rearmost drivers picking their way around the smoking wreck of the fourth car. The remaining assassins, still waiting at their posts, were thus given every opportunity to complete their task. But they were young and inexperienced; three of them lost their nerve when the car and its passengers came within close range. Vaso Cubrilovic, the youngest of the terrorists, froze like Mehmedbašic at the last moment—apparently because he was put off by the unexpected sight of the archduke's wife beside him in the imperial car. "I did not pull out the revolver because I saw that the duchess was there," he later recalled, "I felt sorry for her." Cvjetko Popovic, too, was undone by fear. He remained at his station ready to throw his device but was unable to do so, because he "lost [his] courage at the last moment when [he] caught sight of the archduke." When he heard the report of Cabrinovic's bomb, Popovic sprinted to the building of the Prosvjeta, a Serb cultural society, and hid his own bomb behind a box in the basement.

Gavrilo Princip was at first caught off guard. Hearing the explosion, he assumed that the plot had already succeeded. He ran toward Cabrinovic's position, only to see him being borne away by his captors, bent over in agony as the poison burned his throat. "I immediately saw that he had not succeeded, and that he had not been able to poison himself. I intended to shoot him quickly with my revolver. At this moment the cars drove by." Princip abandoned the plan to kill his accomplice and turned his attention to the motorcade, but by the time he could see the archduke—unmistakable in his helmet adorned with brilliant green ostrich feathers—the car was moving too fast for him to get a clear shot. Princip stayed calm, an extraordinary feat under the circumstances. Realizing that the couple would soon be returning, he took up a new position on the right side of Franz Joseph Street, along the publicly advertised route by which the motorcade was to leave the city. Trifko Grabež had left his post to look for Princip and had been caught up in the heaving of the crowd after the first explosion. When the motorcade passed him, he too failed to act, probably from fear, though he later claimed that the crowd had been so thick that he was unable to extract his bomb from under his clothes.

At first it seemed the archduke was right to have insisted on continuing the program. The motorcade reached its destination in front of the Sarajevo City Hall without further incident. There followed a tragicomic interlude. It fell to the mayor, Curcic, to deliver the usual speech of welcome to the august visitors. From his vantage point at the front of the motorcade Curcic knew that the day had already gone very wrong and that his innocuous text was now grossly inadequate to the situation, but he was far too nervous to improvise an alternative or even to modify his words so as to take account of what had just happened. In a state of high agitation and perspiring heavily, he stepped forward to deliver his speech, which included such gems as the following: "All of the citizens of the capital city of Sarajevo find that their souls are filled with happiness, and they most enthusiastically greet Your Highness' most illustrious visit with the most cordial of welcomes…" Hardly had he got underway when he was interrupted by a furious expectoration from the archduke, whose rage and shock, pent up since the attack, now burst forth. "I come here as your guest, and you people greet me with bombs!" In the horrified silence that followed, Sophie could be seen whispering into her husband's ear. Franz Ferdinand regained his calm: "Very well. You may speak."

Once Mayor Curcic had struggled through to the end of his address, there was another pause when it was discovered that the sheets bearing the text of Franz Ferdinand's own prepared reply were wet with the blood of the injured officer in the fourth car. Franz Ferdinand gave a graceful address, in which he made tactful mention of the morning's events: "I thank you cordially, Mr. Mayor, for the resounding ovations with which the population has received me and my wife, the more so as I see in them an expression of pleasure over the failure of the assassination attempt." There were some closing remarks in Serbo-Croat, in which the archduke asked the mayor to convey his best regards to the people of the city.

After the speeches it was time for the couple to separate. Sophie was scheduled to meet with a delegation of Muslim women in a room on the first floor of the City Hall. Men were barred from the chamber so that the women could remove their veils. The room was warm and close, and the duchess appeared somber and preoccupied with thoughts of her children—seeing a little girl who had accompanied her mother to the gathering, she said, "You see, this girl is just about as tall as my Sophie." In the meantime, the archduke had dictated a telegram to the emperor, assuring him that both of them were well, and he was being shown the vestibule of the City Hall. The shock of the morning's events seemed to be catching up with him. He was speaking in a "funny, thin voice," a local eyewitness later recalled. "He was standing quite grotesquely, he was lifting his legs high as if he were doing the goosestep. I suppose he was trying to show he was not afraid." There was some taunting of Potiorek, whose security arrangements had so manifestly failed.

How should the visit now proceed? The original plan had been to drive a short distance back down the quay and then turn right just after the bazaar into Franz Joseph Street to the National Museum. The archduke asked Potiorek whether he thought a further attack was likely. According to his own testimony, Potiorek made the disheartening reply that he "hoped not, but that even with every possible security measure, one could not prevent such an undertaking launched from close quarters." To be on the safe side, Potiorek proposed canceling the rest of the program and driving straight out of the city back to Ilidze or, alternatively, to the governor's residential palace, the Konak, and from there to the Bistrik railway station on the left bank of the river. But the archduke wanted to visit Potiorek's wounded adjutant, now recovering in the garrison hospital on the western outskirts of the city. It was agreed that the tour of the museum should be canceled, and that the motorcade should proceed straight back down the Appel Quay rather than up Franz Joseph Street, as any further prospective assassin would presumably be expecting. The original plan had foreseen that the couple would separate at this point, the archduke proceeding to the museum and his wife to the governor's palace. But Sophie took the initiative and announced to her husband in front of the entire retinue, "I will go with you to the hospital." For good measure, Count Harrach decided to stand on the running board on the left side of the car (toward the river), in case there should be a further attack.

The motorcade rolled back through the city in the gathering heat, westward now, away from the City Hall. But no one had informed the drivers of the changed itinerary. As they passed the bazaar district, the lead vehicle swung to the right into Franz Joseph Street, and the car carrying Franz Ferdinand and Sophie made to follow suit. Potiorek upbraided the driver: "This is the wrong way! We are supposed to take the Appel Quay!" The engine was disengaged and the car (which had no reverse gear) pushed slowly back on to the main thoroughfare.

This was Gavrilo Princip's moment. He had positioned himself in front of a shop on the right side of Franz Joseph Street, and he caught up with the car as it slowed almost to a stop. Unable to disentangle in time the bomb tied to his waist, he drew his pistol instead and fired twice from point-blank range, while Harrach, standing on the running board, looked on in horror from the left. Time—as we know from Princip's later testimony—seemed to slow as he left the shade of the shop awnings to take aim. The sight of the duchess gave him momentary pause: "As I saw that a lady was sitting next to him, I reflected for a moment whether to shoot or not. At the same time I was filled with a peculiar feeling.…"

Potiorek's recollection conveys a similar sense of unreality—the governor remembered sitting stock still in the car, gazing into the face of the killer as the shots were fired, but seeing no smoke or muzzle flash and hearing only muted shots that seemed to come from far away. At first it appeared the shooter had missed his mark, because Franz Ferdinand and his wife remained motionless and upright in their seats. In reality, they were both already dying. The first bullet had passed through the door of the car into the duchess's abdomen, severing the stomach artery; the second had hit the archduke in the neck, tearing the jugular vein. As the car roared away across the river toward the Konak, Sophie teetered sideways until her face was between her husband's knees. Potiorek initially thought she had fainted with shock; only when he saw blood issuing from the archduke's mouth did he realize something more serious was afoot. Still straddling the running board and leaning into the passenger compartment, Count Harrach managed to hold the archduke upright by clutching his collar. He heard Franz Ferdinand speaking in a soft voice words that would become famous throughout the monarchy: "Sophie, Sophie, don't die! Stay alive for our children!" The plumed helmet with the green ostrich feathers slipped from his head. When Harrach asked him if he was in pain, the archduke repeated several times in a whisper, "It's nothing!" and then lost consciousness.

Behind the retreating vehicle, the crowd closed in around Gavrilo Princip. The pistol was knocked from his hands as he raised it to his temple to take his own life. So was the packet of cyanide he endeavored without success to swallow. He was punched, kicked and beaten with walking sticks by the surrounding mob; he would have been lynched on the spot if police officers had not managed to drag him off into custody.

Sophie was already dead by the time they reached the Konak palace, and the couple was rushed into two rooms on the first floor. Franz Ferdinand was comatose. His valet, who had run all the way from the scene of the shooting to rejoin the archduke, tried to ease his breathing by cutting open his uniform at the front. Blood splashed up, staining the yellow cuffs of the valet's uniform. Kneeling beside the bed, the valet asked Franz Ferdinand if he had a message for his children, but there was no reply; the archduke's lips were already stiffening. It was a matter of minutes before those present agreed that the heir apparent was dead. The time was just after 11 a.m. As the news fanned out from the palace, bells began to toll across Sarajevo.


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4 Responses to “First Shot of World War I”


  1. 1
    Jeff says:

    I saw the car and the Archduke's uniform at a museum in Vienna in 1987. There were all manner of mourning flags on display as well. His jacket still has the dried bloodstains and the bullet holes of the vehicle were never patched. It's a sobering display. They are buried in a crypt below his former castle home in Artstettin, Austria. It is open to the public with displays about the Archduke, Sophia and their children.

  2. 2
    Sally says:

    I saw the car, the uniform, and other artifacts from the assassination this summer at a military museum in Vienna. It was quite striking. Having visited the lodge at Mayerling and the Hapsburg crypt in Vienna earlier in the week, I got a much better sense of the tragedy.

  3. 3

    [...] The First Shot of World War I – The most important narratives of the Corporate Media are collected into portfolios and published as HISTORY.  This is then taught to the indoctrinated masses passing through public schools as fact. [...]

  4. 4

    [...] hall. There the town’s mayor greeted the archduke with a prepared speech that declared that “All of the citizens of the capital city of Sarajevo find that their souls are filled with happiness,….” The Archduke erupted in anger: “One comes here to visit and is received with bombs. Mr. [...]



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