1: 100 Years Ago Today


100 Years ago today Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian radical in Sarajevo. How did this event result in a war that would consume not just Europe but the World? In this episode we will talk about the situation in Europe in 1914 and the nations that would take part in the war. We will also discover how an assassination in Sarajevo, Bosnia resulted in the largest armies in the world striving for dominance over the next four years.



Hello and welcome to History of the Great War. My name is Wesley Livesay and every week this podcast will walk through the events of the first world war that happened almost exactly a century ago. On June 28th 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo setting into motion events that would lead to the First World War. For the next four years Europe, and the world, was embroiled in a bitter struggle that resulted in millions of deaths and the drastic alteration of the map of Europe. This podcast will cover a week by week account of the events around the world as they happened in the second decade of the 20th century. We will journey from the borders of France in the blistering heat of 1914, to the shores of Gallipoli, to the banks of Somme, to the final knockout attempt by the German army in the spring of 1918.

Before we get to the account of the war, it is important to understand the situation on the European continent leading up to the conflict in 1914. Therefore, in this episode we will first look at the state of the major players of the war in 1914 and some events that had large effects on them in the years leading up to the war. We will then move to Sarajevo and find out who Archduke Franz Ferdinand was and how and why he was assassinated. Finally, we will look at the alliances of Europe in 1914 and how their structure played such a critical role in bringing all of Europe into the war.

The British were still the dominant sea power around the globe with an empire that reached from Canadian Wilderness to the Indian subcontinent. They were fiercely protective of their dominance of the sea with naval expenditures far exceeding any other country. Britain had also been careful not to enter into any alliances with the major European powers that would require it to enter a war on the continent and this would present it with options in the years leading up to the war. With its dominance of the seas and their distance from the battlegrounds, Britain’s entrance into a war was not guaranteed.

The ruler of Russia at this time was Tsar Nicholas the second, the last in a long line of rulers from the Romanov dynasty that stretched all the way back to 1613. After the well-publicized and humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 the Czar had begun a large project of military modernization which was scheduled to be completed in 1917. Russia also had many internal problems that lead to the Russian Revolution of 1905. While this revolution would not have the same catastrophic affects as one to come 12 years later it still clearly shows the large level of unrest present in Russian society at this time. The peasants weren’t happy because they could barely feed their families, industrial laborers weren’t happy because the government stifled all types of reform, and the educated classes weren’t happy because any form of free thought and defiance was met with a very heavy hand. While the Revolution was ended in 1907 with the Tsar making concessions the wounds were not fully healed and would play a very big part in the role Russia would play in the coming World War.

While entire podcasts could be dedicated just to the first few decades of French history in the 19th century, a large part of who France as a nation was in 1914 came out of the defeat they suffered at the hands of the Prussians in 1870. During the war the French army was soundly beaten by their Prussian opponents for a number of reasons such as the pre-eminence of the Prussian General Staff, the more modern nature of the Prussian army, and the more comprehensive nature of Prussian mobilization. After the sound defeat of the French military that left most of north-eastern France under Prussian control the French had to pay a large war indemnity of 5 billion francs to the Prussians and lost the French territory of Alsace-Lorraine. The Third French Republic was created out of the ashes of the war, replacing the French monarchy, this Republic would lead France all the way into 1940. These events resulted in a very strong anti-German sentiment throughout the entirety of French society.

Another event that would shape French society leading into World War 1 was the Dreyfus Affair. In 1894 an artillery officer named Alfred Dreyfus in the French army was accused of giving military intelligence to a German military attaché. Dreyfus was then convicted of treason and sent to a penal colony in French Guiana. While Dreyfus was exonerated in 1906 of any wrongdoings, over the 12 year span of his imprisonment there grew to be two very divergent factions within France, the pro-army, mostly Catholic, faction and an anti-army, anticlerical, faction. This division would play a large role in the promotion and posting of French officers leading up to the war. As we move into episodes closer to the war it will be seen how the religious and political views of French military officers affected their roles in the fighting.

On the other side of the Franco-Prussian war was Germany. They made quite a name for themselves by beating the French in 1870, and one of the after effects of the war was the unification of Germany which had previously been many separate and independent states. With the unification the Germans possessed the best and most respected army in Europe. The results of the war shocked the French and other nations in Europe and put into stark relief the danger of a united Germany, this shock would be the cause for creation of the alliances that would play a part in bringing all of Europe into the war in 1914. Prussia took the leadership role in Imperial Germany and Wilhelm the first King of Prussia was proclaimed its new Emperor. Wilhelm the first would die in 1888, succeeded by his son for a few months, who was then succeeded by Wilhelm the second in late 1888. Wilhelm the second would lead Germany into the war years. Throughout the years between 1870 and 1914 Germany continued to grow its army and navy and continued to prepare itself for a European conflict. While its growing army would be of great concern to its continental neighbors its large investments in its navy would make the leaders of Britain very concerned about Germany’s future naval ambitions.

Austria had been ruled by the Hapsburgs since 1526. In 1867, after a defeat at the hands of their future ally the Prussians, the Emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph, was forced to seek a compromise with the second largest ethnic group in the Austrian empire, the Hungarians. This compromise resulted in a dual monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed. There were separate monarchs, parliaments, prime ministers, and budgets although there were joint ministries around defense and trade and the two monarchs always worked closely together. A very big problem for the Empire at this time was the large number of nationalities under its rule. With an empire stretching from Germany and Austria down to Bosnia and over to Transylvania Austria had perhaps the widest diversity of ethnicities in continental Europe. In the south there was often a large amount of tension between the empire and their neighbors of Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria who had in the mid 19th century all won their independence from the Ottoman empire. All of the ethnic tensions in the region played a very big role in its instability through the late 19th and early 20th century from 1912 to 1913 there were two wars in the region and while neither of these wars involved the Empire, they played a big role in continuing the trend of Balkan instability.

One of the largest causes of the Great War, and the one that occurred on June 28th 1914, was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. So who exactly was the Archduke? Why did somebody want him to die? Why did his assassination put into motion events that would cause millions of soldiers to die on the battlefield. Let’s find out.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand became heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1889 after his cousin committed suicide. The archduke was not well liked by the emperor Franz Joseph and their relationship was often very tense. He was known for his delight in hunting, he even made a hunting trip to Australia. In 1894, after returning from Australia the Archduke met Sophie Chotek and the relationship that developed between them would be one of the primary reasons for the tense relationship between the Archduke and the Emperor in the coming years. It was a rule within the Hapsburg family that members of the House could only marry a member of another ruling house in Europe. While Sophie could trace her lineage to some minor German princes she was not a member of one of these houses. After keeping their relationship a secret for two years they sought to marry and were denied by Franz Joseph. It took 3 years and the influence of other rulers in Europe such as Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia before they were allowed to marry. They were finally married in 1900, however, the ceremony was not attended by any member of the ruling family except for the archdukes stepmother. The now married couple were forced to agree to an arrangement that saw Sophie not receive any of the rank and privileges usually afforded an archduchess and their children would not be eligible to sit on the throne.

The political views of the Archduke were different than those of the emperor and several high ranking advisors in that he actually wanted greater autonomy for most of the minority ethnicities within the empire. He favored a strong regional government with wide powers in the realm of administration but a strong central government that controlled the military. I think it is a bit odd that this is the view that played a large role in why it was the archduke that was assassinated. If he would have become emperor and given greater autonomy to the Slavs it would have greatly eased tensions with the Slavs within the empire and would have thwarted the desires of radical Slavic groups in the Balkans who wished to create an independent Slavic state.

One of these radical groups was the Serbian organization named Black Hand. The goal of this group was to see the highly Slavic areas of the Austro-Hungarian empire split off and joined to Serbia to create a greater Slavic state. This group had at least some connections with the Serbian government, at the very least they were associated with Dragutin Dimitrijevińá the Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence. On June 28th 1914 there were 6 assassians in Sarajevo. They were placed along the route the archduke was to take on his day in the city and armed with bombs and pistols, provided by one of Dimitrijevic’s close assistants. One of these assassins was named Gavrilo Princip who would eventually be the successful member of the six.

Gavrilo Princip was a young Serbian who was just 19 years old in 1914. Gavrilo was a man of small stature who had tried several times to join elements of the Serbian army during the Balkan wars of 1912-1913, every time he attempted this he was rejected due to his small size. I’m sure this history of rejection played no small part in the decisions he would make leading up to June 28th. After his last rejection in 1913 he moved to Belgrade where he met up with some very radical Bosnians and attended training in the usage of bombs, firearms, and knives at a location called the Center outside of Belgrade. In early 1914 he returned to Belgrade until he was called upon to go to Sarajevo to attempt the assassination of the Archduke.

In June 1914 the Archduke was in Bosnia to observe some military maneuvers and decided to go to Sarajevo to celebrate the opening of a state museum in that city. On the morning of June 28th the procession of 6 automobiles began driving through Sarajevo and on the way to the Town Hall, one of the assassins threw a bomb at the Archduke’s vehicle. This bomb bounced off of the back of the vehicle and caused the car behind to explode killing several people and injuring many more. After this explosion, the rest of the cars in the procession raced to the Town Hall. At the Town Hall the plans for the rest of the day were scrapped and the Archduke was insistent that he visit the hospital where the wounded from the bombing were being treated. While several members of the group thought this was a very bad idea, the Archduke was insistent so they began to move towards the hospital. On the way to the hospital, due to a communication error with the driver of the Archduke’s car, the driver took a wrong turn and needed to turn around.

After playing no part in the first assassination attempt Princip had searched for a spot to intercept the motorcade on its return journey and decided upon waiting at a food shop near his first position. After the wrong turn the Archduke’s driver stopped right in front of Princip. Princip ran up to the car and fired two shots hitting the Archduke in the neck with the first and Sophie in the stomach with the second. The pair died just minutes later as the car raced to the Governor’s mansion where they were to receive medical care. Two shots and the world was on the road to war.

In the following days Princip and 15 others were arrested and charged with treason. They were sentenced to long prison sentences or death by hanging. In an interesting bit of trivia Princip only received the long prison sentence and not the hanging due to his age which qualified him as a minor in the Empire. An investigation was started by the Empire into the assassins and those who assisted in the act. Due to the role played by Serbian officials the relationship between the empire and Serbia, which was already very strained, became even more tense. On July 23rd Serbia was presented with an ultimatum that would in essence surrender a large part of its sovereignty to the empire. The empire had presented the ultimatum with the message that all points of the ultimatum must be met by Serbia. Serbia ended up agreeing to 9 of the ten points in the ultimatum, far more than Austria anticipated, all of them except for allowing Austrian police to operate within Serbia. Even after several attempts to mediate by other countries, particularly Great Britain, on the 28th of July the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia.

So, one heir to the throne died. Countries in Europe had gone to war for far lesser reasons in the 19th century, so why did this war grow to be so huge? The biggest reason for this was the alliance structure of the great powers in Europe. These had grown out of the changes in the European landscape in the last half of the 19th century and we will now look at why each group of countries came together to form alliances to oppose the other.

After their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 France was understandably concerned with future hostilities with the now united Germany. In 1892 this resulted in France looking eastward to Russia for a strong friend. The alliance that was signed included the clause that if either country was attacked by Germany or Austria the other country was obligated to enter the war. The treaty also included a clause that if one country mobilized its army the other would match the mobilization with one of its own. This, of course, set up some dominoes to be knocked down in 1914, and they would be. France also sought to develop an alliance with Great Britain. The British government was a bit hesitant to agree to an alliance that would oblige them to join a large continental war. There were however officials in the British government who supported strong relations with France and Russia. Two of these men, Edward Grey Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs in 1914 and Henry Wilson Director of Military Operations were instrumental in an agreement that was agreed to with France in 1912. However, this ended up being more of a gentleman’s agreement than a binding contract. In fact Parliament only became aware of this agreement in August 1914, after the war had started. These three countries would form a group known as the Triple Entente.

On the other side of the coin was the Triple Alliance, Germany, Italy, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the Austro-Hungarian empire declined in the late 19th century it sought out powerful allies that could provide a necessary balance to combat increased Russian interest in the Balkans. In 1879 it founds it ally in the now united Germany. Germany agreed to the alliance due, in no small part, to the growing French and Russian relations. Concerned over a war on two fronts from two of the major powers of Europe Germany agreed to the alliance with Austria to provide some counterweight. The alliance signed between the two countries compelled either to come to the aid of the other should they be attacked by Russia. In 1882 Italy joined the alliance. It is interesting that Italy joined into an alliance with Austria, a country that had so strongly opposed Italian unification in 1871. While it is a bit of a spoiler and I am getting a bit ahead of myself I will ruin the surprise and say that Italy doesn’t stick with its allies very long and in 1914 it would join in the war against them, not exactly the best friend to have.

With the two alliances formed all the pieces were in place for a continental wide war in Europe and the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo was simply the match that lit the fuse. It would be over a month before German troops invaded Luxembourg on their way to Paris and during the span there were many political moves to try to prevent, and to also to guarantee, the coming war. While in the coming podcasts we will cover some of these political developments next week we will talk about the armies that were preparing to go to war in July 1914 and how they planned to fight a war on a scale the world had never seen.