Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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10:55am, 28 June 1914. Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina.

"Sophie, Sophie! Don't die! Live for our children!"

But even as he said the words, Archduke Franz Ferdinand saw the life’s blood drain from his wife. As the light went out of her eyes, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire slumped back in the seat of their car. ‘It’s nothing’, he muttered, blood pumping from the bullet wound in his neck. ‘It’s nothing, it’s nothing.’

And he kept on saying that until he died a few short minutes later.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek had been star-cross’d from the start. Emperor Franz Josef, the Archduke’s uncle and head of the House of Hapsburg, vehemently opposed their marriage on the grounds that Sophie’s family were not sufficiently regal.

It took diplomatic appeals from the Pope, the German Kaiser and the Russian Tsar to persuade the old Emperor to relent. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie could marry on condition that their children would never succeed to the throne. Amongst other prohibitions, Sophie was not to ride alongside her husband in a Royal carriage, nor sit next to him in a Royal box at the theatre.

Their love survived such hurdles and by 1914 they had two young sons and a daughter. Obsessed by hunting, the Archduke can have had little time for his children. As a trophy hunter, he was virtually unsurpassed in the annals of all time, clocking a mind-blowing 300,000 game kills in his diary, including 5,000 deer. Approximately 100,000 of these trophies were on exhibit at Konopišta, his castle outside Prague.

The Hapsburgs popularity in Sarajevo had been on the slide since 1908 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although the authorities had attempted to woo the Bosnians with new railways and hospitals, anti-Hapsburg feelings were rife. In 1910, Emperor Franz Josef narrowly survived an assassination attempt on these same streets of Sarajevo.[i]

Sarajevo’s student population was increasingly drawn to Young Bosnia, a nationalist organization that sought to break with Austro-Hungary and form a pan-Slavic state with the nearby Kingdom of Serbia.

Amongst these was Gavrillo Princip, a quiet but ambitious Bosnian farmer’s son, who joined Young Bosnia while studying at a merchant college in Sarajevo. By 1912, he was living in the Serbian capital of Belgrade where he tried to join the Black Hand, the Serbian equivalent of the Irish Republcian Brotherhood, but was rejected on the grounds that he was too small and weak. Such insults were to sear deeply into him over the ensuing two years, not least when he began coughing up blood in what were clearly the first signs of the tuberculosis from which he later died.

As with so many assassinations, theories abound as to who was actually behind the Sarajevo murders. The Black Hand are frequently cited while the role of the Serbian authorities is also consistently questioned.

In any event, 19-year-old Princip was one of six young men recruited to carry out a major political assassination. Three assassins, including Princip, were riddled with tuberculosis and thus knew their time on this earth was short. The other three were simply prepared to die for their cause.

The men were stationed at intervals along the royal procession and armed with a variety of bombs and guns.

Princip carried a semi-automatic Browning, manufactured by Fabrique Nationale of Belgium. The revolver’s journey from Belgium to Bosnia was of particular interest to the late Kilkenny writer Hubert Butler. In 1934, Mr Butler was assigned to translate into English a report submitted by Leo Pfeffer, the judge assigned to investigate the motives of the Archduke’s assassins.

As Mr. Butler concluded in a 1955 essay entitled ‘Mr Pfeffer Goes to Sarajevo’, Pfeffer’s meticulous report provided ‘an all but complete picture of the passage of six bombs and four revolvers from Belgrade through the Bosnian highlands to Sarajevo, of the endless variety of men and women who handled them and hid them in cow byres and in reading rooms and under pillows and in loaves of oaten bread, till finally the heir apparent lay dead on an iron bed in the governor of Bosnia’s palace’.[ii]

Had any of connections failed, the assassination attempt at Sarajevo would have almost certainly been called off.

As it was, the six assassins were armed and in position by the morning of Sunday 28 June when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, their designated target, appeared on the streets of Sarajevo in an open-top Gräf & Stift sports car. He had come to Sarajevo in his capacity as inspector general of the armed forces of Austria-Hungary.[iii] Clad in the sky-blue uniform of a cavalry general, he sported a helmet bedecked in bright green peacock feathers. By his side, his ample wife wore a long white silk dress and an ermine scarf over her shoulders. They were three days shy of their 14th wedding anniversary.

The Royal car was the third in a six-car procession. As the motorcade passed along the quays of Sarajevo’s River Miljacka, the two first assassins lost their nerve and failed to act.

The third, a flamboyant student called Nedeljko Cabrinovic, came a good deal closer when the grenade he threw actually hit the Royal car. However it bounced off the hood and, 10 long seconds later, it exploded under the fourth car, seriously wounding its two occupants and peppering a dozen spectators with shrapnel. Realizing he had missed his main target, Cabrinovic flung himself into the river, biting a cyanide capsule as he leapt. The cyanide transpired to be out of date. Moreover, most of it was washed away by the water. ?abrinovi? was hauled out by a mob and beaten up before the police took him into custody.

One might have expected Franz Ferdinand to call it a day after the bomb went off. When Princip saw the Royal motorcade accelerate at speed from the scene of Cabrinovic’s bomb, he made his way to a nearby café to consider his options.

Meanwhile, the Archduke managed to recompose himself at the Town Hall but while the authorities dithered over whether they needed to tighten up security, he and Sophie insisted on visiting those injured in the earlier blast.

Their unscheduled journey threw everyone off course, not least the Archduke’s chauffeur who took a wrong turn.

And so it was that Princip was sitting outside the café at 10:55am when the open-top Royal car unexpectedly purred into view. When the driver realized he was on the wrong street, he was compelled to stop the car because it had no reverse gear and would therefore need to be pushed backwards.

Princip calmly walked up to the car and when he was 5 feet from the passengers, he pulled out his semi-automatic Browning pistol and fired twice.

The first bullet caught Franz Ferdinand in the jugular vein. Sophie dived across her husband just as the second bullet left the pistol; it slammed into her abdomen. They were both dead within minutes.

The revolver was wrestled from Princip’s hands before he could fire a third shot. Like ?abrinovi?, he attempted to consume his cyanide pill but promptly got sick.

All bar three of the 16 conspirators rounded up for the plot were under the age of 20, and thus could not be executed under Hapsburg law. Princip, ?abrinovi? and another student were given the maximum prison sentence of 20 years. All three were dead by the end of the war. Princip died at a prison camp in Bohemia in 1918, racked by skeletal tuberculosis so severe that his arm had to be amputated.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire blamed the Serbian government for the Archduke’s murder. Within weeks, the world had tumbled into the cataclysm of World War One.

A curious aside of interest to Irish readers concerns Princess Marie-Therese von Hohenberg, a great-granddaughter of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In 2007, she married the diplomat and public affairs correspondent Anthony Bailey. Mr Bailey has been a Board Director of the Waterford Museum of Treasures since 2009. He is also Vice President of the Association of Papal Orders in Ireland and a member of the UK Board of Co-Operation Ireland, the charity which works to foster greater co-operation between Britain and Ireland.


[i] Assassination was by no means unknown to the Hapsburg dynasty. Franz Josef’s wife Sisi, a frequent visitor to Ireland, was stabbed to death by an anarchist in Geneva.

[ii] The bombs had a particularly circuitous route. Mr. Butler estimates that they changed hands 20 times between Belgrade and Sarajevo. For instance, two weeks before the assassination, a school teacher on the Serbian frontier happened to be helping the village priest cross a river swollen by floods when a ploughman appeared from a nearby woodland and explained that two students wished to see the teacher. The teacher met the two students – one of whom was Princip – who explained they had bombs in their rucksacks with which they intended on killing the Archduke. They wondered if the teacher could help escort the bombs to their next destination at Tuzla, a market town. The teacher duly placed the bombs in the panniers of his horse before transferring them to a Tuzla-bound cart carrying a farmer’s son who had just cut himself while scything.

[iii] The Archduke’s visit coincided with Vidovdan, a great day of mourning for the Serbs, commemorating those killed by Turks during a massive defeat inflicted on them by the Turks in the 14th century. Vodovdan 1914 was always going to be spicy because the Serbs had lately beaten the Turks in the First Balkan War.