WWI Centennial: The Archduke’s Final Days

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 124th installment in the series. 

June 24, 1914: The Archduke’s Forebodings

While fact and fiction often blend in retrospect, according to various accounts in his final days, Archduke Franz Ferdinand expressed forebodings about his journey to Bosnia to observe the empire’s annual military maneuvers, scheduled for June 26 and 27, 1914, followed by an official visit to Sarajevo on June 28.

After leaving his estate at Konopischt ,the Archduke and his wife Sophie traveled together as far as Vienna, where they would part ways, with the Archduke heading to Trieste to board the new battleship Viribus Unitis (indulging his naval obsession, below) while Sophie continued to Bosnia by rail. But there were a few minor mishaps along the way.

On June 24, one of the axles on their private carriage began overheating, forcing them to switch to another carriage and provoking a sarcastic remark from the acerbic Archduke: “Well, well, this journey is getting off to a really promising start… You see, that’s the way it starts. At first the carriage running hot, then a murder attempt in Sarajevo and finally, if all that doesn’t get anywhere, an explosion on board the Viribus.” Later, on the way to Trieste, the electric lights in the Archduke’s carriage failed and the servants brought out candles, prompting him to ask one of his attendants: “How do you find this lighting? Like a grave isn’t it?”

Apparently these weren’t his first premonitions. According to his nephew Karl (who would become the last emperor of Austria-Hungary in 1916), in May Franz Ferdinand had confided: “I know I shall soon be murdered. In this desk are papers that concern you. When that happens, take them, they are for you.” A superstitious man, the Archduke also noted that the family crypt at their estate in Arstetten had recently been completed.

But through it all he was resolved not to live in fear. During a previous visit to Trieste, he dismissed worries about Italian assassins: “We are at all times in God’s hands. Look, some rogue could have a go at me now, coming out of that brushwood. Worry and caution paralyze life.”

Serbian Government Dissolved, King Peter Steps Down

As the plotters made their final preparations in Sarajevo, the neighboring Kingdom of Serbia was in political turmoil following an abortive military coup. After dissolving his cabinet on June 2, on June 24 Prime Minister Nikola Pašić called for new elections for parliament, which he hoped would confirm public support for his policies, including his attempts to put the army in its place. This meant he would have to devote the next two months to campaigning in the countryside, but the energetic elder statesman felt up to it (as it happened the elections were canceled following the outbreak of hostilities). It also meant there was only a caretaker government in place to handle the coming crisis.

Indeed, even the monarchy was in a state of flux: on June 24 King Peter, who was accused of siding with the military faction during the coup attempt, stepped down (supposedly on grounds of poor health, but probably under Russian pressure) in favor of his son, the Crown Prince Alexander, who would now serve as regent. However Peter would return to lead the battered Serbian army, along with huge numbers of civilian refugees, as they fled the attacking Central Powers during the horrible retreat of late 1915.

Royal Navy Pays a Friendly Visit to Germany

In 1913 and 1914, it seemed like relations between Britain and Germany, long strained by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s determination to challenge British naval supremacy, might finally be on the mend. Germany had tacitly agreed to accept British superiority on the seas, and Britain was accommodating Germany with colonial agreements and a deal on railroad construction in the Middle East.

Topical Press Agency, via Gutenberg.org 

To demonstrate the new friendly relations, the Germans invited the Royal Navy to participate in the Kiel Regatta (above), an annual naval exhibition and sailing competition hosted by the Kaiser at the port city of Kiel in northern Germany. On June 23, 1914, the British Second Battle Squadron dropped anchor in the harbor at Kiel, kicking off a week of festivities when officers and sailors from the two navies fraternized (occasionally to excess). Although First Lord of the Navy Winston Churchill didn’t end up attending, he was hopeful that the regatta might be a symbolic turning point in Anglo-German relations.

Not everyone was so optimistic. The June 1914 regatta was especially significant because it celebrated the opening of the newly deepened Kiel Canal across the foot of the Danish peninsula (Jutland), which would allow the German High Seas Fleet to shuttle back and forth between the Baltic Sea and North Sea without fear of interception by the Royal Navy. In 1908 Admiral Jackie Fisher, the architect of the modern Royal Navy, predicted that Germany would launch its war with Britain in the summer of 1914, following the completion of the canal.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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June 24, 2014 - 9:00pm
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