How the Guns of August Led to WW I and WW II

On this day in 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his consort Sophie, were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip of the Black Hand in Sarajevo, Bosnia, presaging the outbreak of World War I. 52 months later, the resultant conflagration had caused the fall of four great imperial dynasties, including Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey, resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and, with its destabilization of European society, laid the groundwork for World War 2.

Franz Ferdinand was in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as inspector general of the Imperial Army, and the visit was not a popular one. Balkan politics were turbulent, Serbia was inflamed by the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, and had set sights on neighboring Bosnia. Moreover, the date chosen for this imperial visit and Hapsburg show of force was June 28, a black day in Serbian history as the anniversary of the Turkish victory over Serbia at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.

The royal couple was travelling in a motorcade through Sarajevo in an open-topped car, ignorant of the fact that several pro-Serbia would-be assassins awaited along the route of their planned stops. Shortly after 10 AM, amid cheering crowds lining the wide avenue called Appel Quay, one of the attackers, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, threw a grenade at the royal couple’s car. The bomb bounced off the back of the vehicle and exploded behind them, injuring members of the entourage who were in the next car and peppering bystanders with shrapnel.

After completing the planned reception at City Hall, the shaken royal couple insisted on changing their schedule and visiting the hospital to check on one of the officers injured in the morning attack. Confusion among the drivers in the motorcade followed, with the drivers starting off in the wrong direction, down the very avenue where the conspirators were still present.

When the royal motorcade mistakenly entered a side street and stopped to turn around, a compatriot of Cabrinovic, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, seized his moment. Approaching the royal couple’s open car, he shot both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie with a Browning pistol. The driver of the couple’s car then sped off for medical help and Sophie died en route, while Franz Ferdinand expired shortly after.

Back at the murder scene, Princip tried to shoot himself but was apprehended by bystanders, and all of the conspirators were eventually found and arrested. Exempted from the death penalty because of his young age, Princip was sentenced to 20 years in prison, where he died from tuberculosis in 1918. Ironically, days before the assassinations, Serbian prime minister Nikola Pašić had learned of the plot and warned the Austrian government, but his message was too cautiously worded to be understood, and went ignored, with historic consequences.

Anti-Serb protests and riots followed throughout Austria-Hungary in the wake of the assassination, and exactly one month later Austria-Hungary declared war on the country seemingly behind the murders, Serbia. This set the Triple Alliance of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy against Serbia’s allies in the Triple Entente of Russia, France, and Britain. Momentum, driven by ancient grudges, royal family feuds and relative economic deprivation became inexorable.

The First World War left a legacy of over 40 million total military and civilian casualties; 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. This total number of deaths included 9.7 million military personnel and not less than 10 million civilians, with Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Great Britain each losing nearly a million lives or more.

The four years of slaughter ensuing after the first shots from the Guns of August saw introduction of the machine-gun, long-range artillery, aircraft, poison gas, armored tank, and other grisly tools to the business of killing. And the bitter peace that followed provided the incubator for a far deadlier and purely evil conflagration 20 years later.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.