WWI Centennial: Archduke Ferdinand Is Murdered in Sarajevo

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened.

June 28, 1914: Murder in Sarajevo

There were seven of them—six Bosnian Serbs and one Bosnian Muslim—blending in with the crowds along Appel Quay, the promenade tracing the sluggish River Miljacka through downtown Sarajevo. Some were armed with pistols, some with grenades, each hoping to strike a blow against Austrian tyranny on the sunny morning of Sunday, June 28, 1914.

The first four—Muhamed Mehmedbašić, Nedjelko Čabrinović, Vaso Čubrilović, and Cvjetko Popović—lined both sides of Appel Quay in front of the Sarajevo police station. Another conspirator, Gavrilo Princip, stood at the intersection with Franz Josef Street, where the latter turned to cross the River Miljacka over the Latin Bridge. Beyond the intersection the ringleader, Danilo Ilić, was pacing back and forth along the Quay, overseeing the operation. Finally, the seventh plotter, Trifun Grabež, was posted near the intersection with the Kaiser Bridge, in the “last chance” position.

Their target, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, had come to Bosnia to observe the empire’s annual military maneuvers, and only agreed to visit the provincial capital at the insistence of the Austrian governor, Oskar Potiorek. Actually, this wasn’t his first visit: Several days before, on Thursday, June 25, the Archduke and his beloved wife, Sophie Chotek, Duchess of Hohenberg, left their hotel in the nearby spa town of Ilidža to pay a surprise visit to the Sarajevo bazaar, where they did some shopping amid enthusiastic crowds. Then, on Friday and Saturday, while the Archduke was off observing the army maneuvers, Sophie returned on her own to visit various churches, mosques, and charitable institutions, again meeting with a warm welcome; on Saturday evening she gushed, “Everywhere we have gone here we have been greeted with so much friendliness,” even from Bosnian Serbs.

But today was the official event, the day for pomp and circumstance (and, coincidentally, the Archduke and Sophie’s wedding anniversary). Accordingly, the itinerary was planned more or less down to the minute: After attending a private mass in Ilidža, the Archduke and his wife arrived at the Sarajevo train station at 9:40am, then paid a visit to the local army barracks, where he reviewed the troops. By 10am they were on their way again, heading east on Appel Quay to City Hall to meet the local dignitaries.

Serbianna / Wikimedia Commons

They rode with Governor Potiorek in the back of a brand new Gräf & Stift “Double Phaeton” open-topped touring car owned by Lieutenant Colonel Count Franz von Harrach, who was serving as the Archduke’s bodyguard and sat in front with the driver, Leopold Lojka. Theirs was third in a motorcade of seven vehicles—the first carrying Sarajevo’s chief of special security and three policemen, the second the mayor and chief of police, and the rest various members of the Archduke’s entourage, as well as provincial officials and prominent local businessmen.

The motorcade proceeded at a leisurely pace so the crowds could see the Archduke, who was nervous about assassins but also felt compelled to appear casual and unconcerned. There were no troops lining the streets—Potoriek insisted, implausibly, that the populace was happy under his benevolent administration—and in fact most of the spectators seemed enthusiastic, shouting cheers of “Zivio!” (“long may he live!”) as the Archduke’s car passed. But the Archduke’s intuition was better than the governor’s.

The first conspirator, Mehmedbašić, lost his nerve—but the second, Čabrinović, was more determined: Around 10:15am, he threw a small bomb at the Archduke’s car. The device bounced off and exploded under the following vehicle, injuring two military adjutants, Count Erich von Merizzi and Count Alexander Boos-Waldeck. Čabrinović immediately took a cyanide pill and threw himself in the Miljacka, but the poison didn’t work, leaving him at the mercy of enraged onlookers, who fished him out of the shallow river and administered a severe beating before the police took him into custody.

Now the Archduke’s motorcade sped away to City Hall, too fast for any of the other would-be assassins to make an attempt; assuming that Čabrinović would crack under interrogation, their next priority was to avoid being rounded up—all except Princip who, coolheaded as always, meandered across the street to stand in front of Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen at the corner of Appel Way and Franz Josef Street, along the planned return route for the Archduke’s motorcade. (The story that Princip went to Schiller’s to order a sandwich is probably a myth.)

Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, the motorcade proceeded to City Hall, where Franz Ferdinand couldn’t conceal his anger. When the mayor (who’d been riding in a lead car and was still unaware of the bomb attempt) tried to begin his official greeting, the Archduke interrupted, “Lord Mayor, what is the good of your speeches? I come to Sarajevo on a friendly visit and someone throws a bomb at me. This is outrageous!” However, Sophie whispered something in her husband’s ear and he regained his composure, bidding the mayor to finish his speech and then giving his own prepared speech in return. Next came the presentation of local worthies including Muslim, Christian, and Jewish community leaders, followed by an official reception, where Franz Ferdinand tried to make light of the assassination attempt, joking, “Today we shall get a few more little bullets.” By 10:45am, the meet-and-greet was over and they were on their way again.

Wikimedia Commons

At this point, the itinerary called for the Archduke to attend another reception at a local museum, but instead he gallantly insisted on visiting the hospital to see the military adjutants, Merizzi and Boos-Waldeck, who were being treated for injuries sustained in the bomb attempt. The original plan had the motorcade turning right on Franz Josef Street, the shortest route to both the hospital and museum, but the Archduke’s security team, fearing more assassins might be lying in wait along this route, decided to change things up and take the long way round, back down Appel Quay. They also switched the order of the cars, with the mayor and chief of police in the lead car and the Archduke, Sophie, and Governor Potiorek in the second. Count von Harrach insisted on riding on the left running board to shield the Archduke from the south (river) side of the Quay, where the last attack had originated.  

Unfortunately, the driver of the lead car either wasn’t informed of the change in plans or simply forgot, and mistakenly turned right on Franz Josef Street, as called for in the original itinerary. Lojka, apparently confused, also began turning but Potiorek told him to stop, then called out to the lead car to turn around so they could resume their journey along the correct route. As the driver of the lead car began to maneuver about in the narrow street, Princip, still standing in front of Schiller’s delicatessen, was astonished to see his target sitting in the back of the second car, just five paces away. Without hesitation he stepped forward and fired two shots, hitting the Archduke in the neck and Sophie in the lower abdomen. Chaos ensued as a crowd of bystanders attacked Princip and wrestled him to the ground, while Lojka backed up to get away from the melee. Harrach, who was still clinging to the other side of the car, later recounted:

As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness's mouth onto my right cheek. 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.

In the days to come, all the conspirators except Mehmedbašić were apprehended, and anti-Serb riots broke out in Bosnia, as Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims took the opportunity to loot their neighbors’ homes and businesses. Further afield European public opinion was sympathetic to the Archduke and Austria-Hungary: Then, as now, terrorist attacks or “outrages” were viewed as barbaric and counterproductive, and newspapers like Britain’s Daily Mirror stirred readers’ emotions by dwelling on the Archduke’s “pathetic last words to his wife” and the “poignant fate” of their three orphaned children following the “ghastly tragedy.” Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was hosting the British fleet’s visit to Kiel, blanched on hearing the news: He considered the Archduke and Sophie personal friends.

Wikimedia Commons / Chronicaling America 

But ironically, the first response in Vienna was a secret (or not so secret) feeling of relief. While no one was happy that Franz Ferdinand was dead, exactly, the court had long been perturbed by his plans to reform Austria-Hungary by either adding a third monarchy representing the Slavs or—even more radically—transforming it into a federal state. Both options would have met with bitter opposition in the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy, where the Magyar aristocrats would see their influence diminished, and this looming conflict threatened to tear the fragile empire apart. Thus, the elderly Emperor Franz Josef displayed a strange combination of horror and resignation when he was informed of his headstrong nephew’s demise:

On hearing the news… the Emperor collapsed into the armchair at his desk as if struck by a thunderbolt. He remained motionless for a long time. At the end he rose, paced the room a prey to the most violent agitation, his eyes rolling with terror. “Horrible!... Horrible!...” was the only word which escaped his lips. At last he seemed to have somewhat recovered his self control, for he exclaimed suddenly as if speaking to himself: “The Almighty is not mocked!... A Higher Power has restored that order which I, unfortunately, was not able to maintain.”

In the same vein, the Imperial ambassador to Berlin, Count Szőgyény, confided to the former German chancellor Bernhard von Bülow that the assassination was “a dispensation of Providence,” as the Archduke’s ascent to the throne “might have given rise to serious conflict, perhaps even civil war…”  

In keeping with this attitude, and the court’s contempt for the Archduke’s morganatic wife, the funeral arrangements were very modest: There were few signs of public mourning as the couple’s remains arrived back in Vienna on July 2, and practically no one attended the ceremonial lying-in-state in the Hofburg palace or the funeral at the Archduke’s rural retreat at Artstetten on July 3. In the crowning act of petty cruelty, Lord Chamberlain Prince Alfred of Montenuovo even forbade the Archduke’s three orphaned children (now stripped of all privileges, as the offspring of a morganatic union) from saying goodbye to their dead parents.

Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

But this didn’t mean his death couldn’t serve some purpose. After years of Serbian defiance, the assassination provided a perfect opportunity to settle accounts with the Slavic kingdom by force, as the Austrian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, had so frequently advocated. This wasn’t just about avenging a single crime: The time had come to reverse the tide of Slavic nationalism, which posed an existential threat to the multiethnic empire. In short, war was the only option, even at risk of a wider conflict with Serbia’s great Slavic patron, Russia. In a meeting with his staff on June 29, 1914, Conrad outlined the case he would shortly present to Emperor Franz Josef, Foreign Minister Count Berchtold, and Hungarian Premier Count István Tisza:

Austria-Hungary cannot let the challenge pass with cool equanimity nor, after the blow on the one cheek, offer the other in Christian meekness, neither is it a case for a chivalrous encounter with “poor little” Serbia, as she likes to call herself, nor for atonement for murder – what is now at issue is the strictly practical importance of the prestige of a Great Power… The Sarajevo outrage has toppled over the house of cards built up with diplomatic documents… the Monarchy has been seized by the throat and forced to choose between letting itself be strangled and making a last effort to defend itself against attack.

Two people were dead; millions more would soon follow.

See the previous installment or all entries.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

WWI Centennial: Americans Attack the St. Mihiel Salient; the Flu Turns Deadly

Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 318th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here and buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 12-16, 1918: AMERICANS ATTACK THE ST. MIHIEL SALIENT; THE FLU TURNS DEADLY

“Something is going to happen,” wrote Katharine Morse, an American volunteering as a canteen worker, in her diary on September 9, 1918. “We have been used to seeing the French Army go by … But now, by day, by night, it is the Americans who are passing through… Coming home from the canteen in the evening one hears the heavy rattle that means artillery on the move, and standing by the road-side peering through the darkness one can just discern horses and caissons, slat wagons, supply wagons, and, looming ominously in the dim light, the formidable bulk of the great guns.”

Morse was right. Three days later the U.S. First Army launched its biggest American offensive of the war so far, a pincer movement coordinated with French forces to liberate the St. Mihiel salient—the triangular strip of German-occupied territory jutting into free France south of Verdun, with the village of St. Mihiel at its apex on the River Meuse.

Long a thorn in the side of the Allies, the Germans’ possession of the St. Mihiel salient gave them a bridgehead over the Meuse and denied the Allies full use of the important Paris-Nancy-Metz rail line, impeding movement of troops and supplies. However, like Lorraine and the Vosges Mountains to the southeast, this part of the front had been relatively quiet ever since a disastrous French attempt to liberate the salient early in the war.

Following a series of stunning Allied victories in July and August, when the doughboys proved their fighting spirit at Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, and the Second Battle of the Marne, and while the British crushed the Germans near Amiens, Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch and U.S. commander John “Black Jack” Pershing turned their attention to the St. Mihiel salient—an obvious next target, although there was some disagreement about strategy.

Western Front, September 1918
Erik Sass

On one hand, Pershing proposed a massive offensive by up to 20 U.S. divisions from First Army, followed by an immediate attack across the Franco-German frontier to capture Metz, which would deliver a major blow to German morale. Foch countered that this was too ambitious, in part because the Germans almost certainly knew the attack was coming while many U.S. troops were still untested. He instead proposed a limited attack, with 13 American divisions and eight French colonial divisions converging on the village of Vigneulles from north and south, followed by redeployment of U.S. forces under French commanders for a general offensive further west.

Determined to keep American troops under American commanders, Pershing refused Foch’s broader plan outright. This resulted in a compromise that was, paradoxically, even more ambitious than those previously discussed. After conquering the salient with Foch’s proposed limited operation, the U.S. First Army would stay together and immediately redeploy 60 miles northwest to launch a new offensive against the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne region, west of Verdun, in late September. Meanwhile, the planned U.S. Second Army would concentrate along the frontier for an eventual attack on Metz, as Pershing still hoped to execute.

“THE VERY HEAVENS SEEMED TO BE ON FIRE”

Although loose lips among inexperienced doughboys had already given away the coming attack, the Americans still did their best to at least keep the enemy guessing about precisely when and where it would fall. That meant another round of night marches to evade German aerial reconnaissance, typically made by exhausted doughboys in miserable conditions. “The rain was pouring and everyone got drenched. Carried ammunition all night of 10th and 11th until everyone was broken down. Raining and black as pitch each night,” Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, wrote in his diary on September 10, 1918. On September 12 Hanes noted, “No rations for men or feed for horses was sent up with us so we had to live on what we could pick up for about two days.”

To top it off, like their peers in European armies, the American soldiers carried a backbreaking amount of equipment. Emmet Britton, an American soldier, described a doughboy’s typical shelter and kit, which he carried in addition to a rifle, ammunition, grenades, gas mask, entrenching tools and other equipment:

“Each man carries one-half of a shelter tent, one pole, and five pins. This shelter half is a piece of canvas six feet by four feet, and forms the outside of the roll a man carries. To make up a roll the shelter half is spread on the ground, the one blanket is laid on it and inside of the blanket are placed the poles and pins, the one suit of underwear, and three pairs of socks, which make up all of a man’s outfit with the exception of the toilet articles which include one comb, one tooth brush, one piece of soap, one razor and one shaving brush. Add to that one can of bully beef and eight pieces of hardtack and you have the contents of a man’s pack.”

In another vain attempt to maintain the element of surprise, the Americans also replicated the recent Allied practice of foregoing a prolonged preliminary bombardment, in favor of a short, incredibly intense barrage just before the infantry went “over the top.” At 1 a.m. on September 12, 1918, around 3000 artillery pieces (most of them on loan from the French) opened up with some of the fiercest shelling of the war, firing a stupendous 1.1 million shells by 5 a.m, for an average rate of around 76 shells per second. One awestruck American soldier noted in his diary:

“At about 1 a.m. one of the most terrible barrages I have yet witnessed begins. The noise is deafening. The sky as light as day, words of mine can never describe the scene … The very heavens seemed [to] be on fire, the light of the bursting shells and the roar of the countless guns produced an unearthly uproar and tumult of noise so great that men had to shout into each other’s ears in order to be heard and understood.”

Hanes, the American artillery officer, left a similar account of stunning contrasts:

“You can never imagine the amount of noise made when the artillery opens up in one of these drives. It had been raining for two days steadily and we were all wet and muddy from head to foot. I had fallen down on an average of every 10 minutes for the two days as the ground was so slick I couldn’t stand. My men had been carrying ammunition to the guns for two of the blackest nights you have ever seen when suddenly everything was made light by the blazing of hundreds of guns all over the sector. We poured thousands of shells into the bloody rascals for about four hours and then started our barrage for the Infantry to advance under. They say it was a dandy and it certainly did the work as the Infantry met very little resistance and took thousands of scared and bewildered prisoners. One German officer was found dressed in his dress uniform, bag packed and orderly, waiting with him to surrender.

As it happened, the majority of the German forces occupying the St. Mihiel salient, who had plenty of warning about the impending attack, managed to withdraw just as the offensive was launched—in many cases retreating within view of the advancing doughboys. Altogether the advancing Americans captured around 13,000 German prisoners, a middling number for a major First World War battle. Thus the St. Mihiel offensive counted as an American victory, but one that fell short of Allied expectations (below, American troops in liberated St. Mihiel).

Entering St. Mihiel, World War I
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although only a few hundred French light tanks were available for the St. Mihiel offensive, the advancing infantry were supported by the largest concentration of air power ever assembled to date. At least 1500 Allied planes scoured the skies, attacked enemy forces on the ground, and harried German lines of supply and communication to the rear. Eddie Rickenbacker, the most successful American ace of the war, described carrying out a ground attack against the retreating Germans:

“Guns, stores, and ammunition were being hauled away to safety with all possible speed … One especially attractive target presented itself to us as we flew along this road. A whole battery of Boche 3-inch guns was coming towards us on the double. They covered fully half a mile of the roadway. Dipping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams. Horses fell right and left. One driver leaped away from his seat and started running for the ditch. Halfway across the road he threw up his arms and rolled over upon his face. He had stepped full in front of my stream of machine-gun bullets! All down the line we continued our fire—now tilting our aeroplanes down for a short burst, then zooming back up for a little altitude in which to repeat the performance. The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion. Horses plunged and broke away. Some were killed and fell in their tracks.”

Although the St. Mihiel offensive was a relatively easy “walkover” by the blood-soaked standards of the First World War, it was some American soldiers’ first introduction to battle, and many were clearly horrified by the gruesome sights they encountered. One soldier described the carnage wrought by German defensive shelling of the advancing troops:

“A large shell had made a direct hit upon four boys. All were dead. Limbs were mangled, bodies were torn. It was a sight revolting beyond description. Of one of my comrades I could only find small fragments of his poor body. None were larger than my hand … with the exception [of] his head, jerked completely from body. The powder-blackened face of a young Jewish boy stared immobile into eternity. Nearby was his hand which had been popped off at the arm just [at the] back of the wrist.”

Others however found themselves becoming hardened to horrors of war. Lieutenant Phelps Harding noted his acclimation to gruesome sights in a letter to his wife recounting the advance. “We passed dead men of both armies, but many more Boche than Americans,” he wrote. “I was surprised at the indifference I felt toward dead Americans—they seemed a perfectly natural thing to come across, and I felt absolutely no shudder go down my back as I would have had I seen the same thing a year ago.”

Conditions continued to be extremely challenging, as the supply service struggled to keep up with the advancing troops and American troops scrambled to redeploy to the Meuse-Argonne front for the next planned offensive. On September 22 Hanes recorded an excruciatingly slow advance. “The distance was only about seven kilometers but we were on the road about seven hours making it on account of the terrific traffic jams. The rain poured all night and the wind blew a gale. This is the most horrible night I have ever had,” he wrote.

On the other side, St. Mihiel was another nail in the coffin of German morale. Although the occupying troops had withdrawn successfully under fire, there was no way for the German high command to cover up the plain fact of another retreat before superior enemy forces.

Ominously, both German officers and rank-and-file troops were now eager to be taken prisoner for the short remaining duration of the war. Some likely reasoned that there was no point in sacrificing their lives for a lost cause. In a letter home dated September 19, Hanes wrote, “the prisoners as they came back seemed to be very well satisfied. Some of the infantrymen said, when they captured them, they shook hands with each other, laughed, and seemed to be most pleased that they had been captured.”

Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, may have been describing the same surrendering officer recounted by Hanes: “One German major was found with his kit all packed up, his arms folded, waiting to go to prison camp. He was furious with his high command... So, in high dudgeon and righteous indignation, he made no effort to escape.” And a German intelligence report from September 1918 noted an informant’s warning, based on conversations with ordinary soldiers, that there was no doubt “these men wanted to find out about the best way to get taken prisoner without any risk and attracting attention, and how to act as a prisoner in order to be treated well.”

INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC BECOMES EVEN DEADLIER

The first phase of the misnamed Spanish flu, which emerged in spring 1918, had been extremely virulent but relatively benign. The epidemic killed only a small proportion of those who became ill. However, in fall 1918, the second, far deadlier phase began with simultaneous outbreaks among troops in transit camps in Boston, Massachusetts; Brest, France; and Freetown, Sierra Leone—all within a few weeks in early and mid-September. The first report in Boston noted high mortality among wounded soldiers arriving back from Europe for medical treatment in the U.S. on September 5, 1918.

It’s unclear what caused the flu epidemic to suddenly become so deadly, but scientists speculate the virus may have undergone a “genetic recombination event,” in which two different strains of the virus infect the same cell and then swap DNA, creating a strain that is even more virulent and dangerous.

By some estimates, the flu may have killed as many as 100 million people around the world, far more than the war itself. While it ravaged combatant and noncombatant nations alike, its impact was worst in war-torn Europe. Contemporary accounts leave a frightening picture of rapid, widespread infection leaving whole communities powerless. Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer with the French Army, wrote home in October:

“This disease is certainly quick and deadly in its effect and creates a panic among those who have it, as they die frequently in three or four days. My chauffeur is just recovering. He was so scared, two days ago, when I went to see him the hospital, lest he die in France, that he was almost speechless. Four friends of one of the French officers in my office dined together last week, and now two are dead and buried."

Morse, the American volunteer, remarked on the incredible speed of the epidemic. “Curiously enough, it hit the camp all in a heap after dinner,” she recalled. “Thirty percent of the boys, the two officers, the building detail, and myself were all laid low between one and six o’clock.” Richard Wade Derby, an American medical officer, noted that the flu accounted for the vast majority of hospital admissions: “The evacuations mounted to four or five hundred a day, of which only a fifth were battle casualties.”

The flu was especially devastating for Germany, now at the limits of its manpower and suffering severe shortages of food and fuel. In October 1918, Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, wrote in her diary:

“Whilst depicting the last agony of the country at large, one is apt to forget the sufferings of the individual, but what the war is not destroying in human life, the terrible grippe epidemic is carrying off. One hears of whole families dying out in a few hours, and it is an extraordinary fact that most of the victims are young girls and women. An uncanny idea, death thus restoring the balance between men and women for life.”

After devastating the cities, the flu epidemic swept through the countryside, according to Blücher:

“There is hardly a family that has been spared. From our housekeeper at Krieblowitz I hear that the whole village is stricken with it, and the wretched people are lying about on the floors of their cottages in woeful heaps, shivering with fever and with no medicaments or anyone to attend them. The doctor from Canth is unable to come, as he is absolutely overworked, having the whole district to look after, his colleague being already dead of the grippe. I wired at once to the Convent of the Grey Sisters at Breslau, asking them to send a nurse, which they did immediately, and I heard this morning that from the moment of her arrival she only had three hours’ sleep for the next 48 hours, there were so many people to attend to.”

At a major Berlin department store, Blücher heard the following horrifying detail, reminiscent of medieval Europe’s Black Death:

“They told me that hundreds of their staff were at the moment laid up with the grippe, and that 70 of their girls had died last week of it. Herr B——, who has just arrived from Hamburg and lunched with us today, says it is like the plague there, 400 people dying in one day; and as they have not coffins enough to put the corpses in, they have used furniture vans to carry them to the cemetery … We are returning every day nearer to the barbarism of the Middle Ages in every way.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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