Imagine, for a moment, a large, old house held up by rotten beams. Some have already given way, and you can even see where the roof is starting to sag from the weight of the structure. Now imagine that people are walking through this house swinging hammers at these beams. Each time one breaks, the roof seems to sag ever more threateningly. You know it will all collapse sooner or later, but the question is: which hammer blow will do it?

That should give you some sense of the situation in Europe and the world in 1914. Europe was enjoying an almost unprecedented stretch of peace; a major war hadn’t been fought on the continent since 1871. Looking back, the French would name this period La Belle Époque: the beautiful era. But underneath it all was a growing tension. War scares were occurring with ever-increasing frequency, and nations were busily dividing themselves into armed camps—building alliances, and manufacturing weapons in hitherto unheard-of numbers. All it would take to cause war was the wrong beam giving way. On June 28th 1914, it finally did.

The great German statesman, Otto von Bismarck, once famously remarked: “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”(1) He was absolutely right. The first shots of the Great War (later to be named World War I) were fired on a street corner in Sarajevo by a 19 year old Bosnian Serb.

The shooter, named Gavrilo Princip, could not have been a more unlikely character to ignite one of history’s largest wars. He was still a teenager, slightly built, and had no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. He was, for all intents and purposes, insignificant. Certainly not someone you would expect to start a war. However, the man he killed was very significant: Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the future heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

At the time, Franz Ferdinand and his wife were visiting Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in order to inspect Austro-Hungarian troops stationed in the region. The visit itself (to say nothing of the presence of troops) was considered inflammatory by Princip and other pan-Slavs (2) who saw Austro-Hungarian rule of Bosnia-Herzegovina as an affront. Princip and those like him wanted Bosnia to be part of an independent Slavic state centred on the Serbian capital of Belgrade, and they were willing to kill to make this a reality. When they heard of the Archduke’s upcoming visit, the opportunity seemed too good to miss. The Serbian terrorist group commonly known as the “Black Hand” dispatched Princip along with several others to Sarajevo with orders to kill him.

As is still customary in monarchies, Franz Ferdinand’s visit and his route into the city was much publicized, and large crowds gathered in the streets to welcome the Austro-Hungarian heir-apparent. Unknown to him, Princip and his fellow assassins were spread out amongst the crowd with a different sort of welcome in mind.

It was a sunny morning as the Imperial motorcade, travelling in open-topped cars, drove down the spectator-lined streets towards City Hall. The first assassin to catch sight of the Archduke’s car lost his nerve and let it pass. The second broke out of the crowd into the street and hurled a bomb at the motorcade, but he missed his intended target and the bomb exploded on the road injuring many, but leaving Franz Ferdinand unscathed. The Imperial motorcade sped away, the bomb-thrower was arrested, and the would-be assassins dispersed.

After a meeting in the Town Hall, where he angrily complained of the attack to the mayor, Franz Ferdinand decided to visit those wounded in the bombing. He, along with his wife and entourage, got back into his car and set off in the direction of the hospital. Fatefully, his driver made a wrong turn and, realizing his mistake, stopped the car in order to reverse—it stalled.

In what must be one of the most stunning coincidences in modern history, the car stalled directly in front of an astonished Gavrilo Princip, who had just exited a café after his lunch. There was his target: five feet away and unmoving—a target too close to miss. Princip pulled out his pistol and fired two shots. What happened next is told by Count Franz von Harrach who was acting as the Archduke’s bodyguard that day:

As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness’s mouth onto my right check. As I was pulling out my handkerchief to wipe the blood away from his mouth, the Duchess cried out to him, “For God’s sake! What has happened to you?”

At that she slid off the seat and lay on the floor of the car, with her face between his knees.

I had no idea that she too was hit and thought she had simply fainted with fright. Then I heard His Imperial Highness say, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die. Stay alive for the children!”

At that, I seized the Archduke by the collar of his uniform, to stop his head dropping forward and asked him if he was in great pain. He answered me quite distinctly, “It is nothing!”

His face began to twist somewhat but he went on repeating, six or seven times, ever more faintly as he gradually lost consciousness, “It’s nothing!”

Then came a brief pause followed by a convulsive rattle in his throat, caused by a loss of blood. This ceased on arrival at the governor’s residence.

The two unconscious bodies were carried into the building where their death was soon established. (3)

By the end of the day on June 28th, 1914, Franz Ferdinand’s children were orphans. Their fate would soon be shared by thousands of children all over Europe and the world. Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was the final blow to a precarious European peace. Over the next month, it would set into motion a complex chain of events that would result in the most destructive war the world had yet seen. It might have been a damned foolish thing, but what occurred in Sarajevo 100 years ago today changed the course of history. The long peace was over. The Great War was about to begin.


1 The “Balkans” refers to the region in south-eastern Europe that borders modern day Turkey, and is comprised of modern nations such as Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Greece, and others.

2 Pan-Slavism is the belief (popular in many Slavic countries at the time) that all ethnic Slavs should unite and create a single, independent Slavic state.

3 Firstworldwar.com. “Primary Documents – Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s Assassination, 28 June 1914.” http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/harrachmemoir.htm.

The above is a prologue for a project that will begin in earnest on 4 August 2014.

This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the start of the Great War (later re-named World War I). The Great War was profoundly significant in the history of our country and in the formation of the Royal Canadian Legion. As such, it seems proper to mark the centennial of this war, and reflect on its costs and repercussions for society.

Starting on the 4th of August 2014 (the 100 year anniversary of the British Empire’s declaration of war against the German Empire) we will post on this blog, in chronological order, original documents from the era such as letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles and write up a short contextualizing explanation for each. If you found the above interesting, please endeavor to follow us as we trace the course of the war through the eyes of those who lived it.

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