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.

Civil War Cannonballs Found on South Carolina Beach in Aftermath of Hurricane Dorian

ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images
ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images

Hurricane Dorian skimmed the United States' East Coast last week, creating a trail of damage residents are still dealing with. But it wasn't just trash and debris the storm surges left behind: As WCSC reports, two cannonballs dating back to the Civil War were discovered on Folly Beach in South Carolina in the aftermath of the storm.

Aaron Lattin and his girlfriend Alba were walking on the beach on September 6 when they saw what looked like rocks nestled in the sand. As they examined them more closely, they realized they had found something much more special. The weathered objects were actually cannonballs that have likely been buried in the area for more than 150 years.

Incredibly, this isn't the first time Civil War cannonballs have been discovered on Folly Beach following a hurricane: In 2016, Hurricane Matthew unearthed 16 of them. Folly Island was used as a Union base a century and a half ago, and items leftover from the artillery battery built there are still scattered around the shoreline. The couple behind this latest discovery believes there are more waiting to be found.

Old cannonballs may look like cool artifacts to treasure hunters, but they should still be treated with caution. Police and bombs disposal technicians were called to the scene at Folly Beach to confirm the cannonballs were no longer functional.

[h/t WCSC]

Henry Johnson, the One-Man Army Who Fought Off Dozens of German Soldiers During World War I

It was after midnight on May 15, 1918 when William Henry Johnson began to hear the rustling. Johnson was a long way from his home in Albany, New York, guarding a bridge in the Argonne Forest in Champagne, France. Sleeping next to him was Needham Roberts, a fellow soldier. Both men had enlisted in the New York National Guard just a few months earlier and were now part of the French Army, donated by U.S. forces to their understaffed allies in the thick of World War I.

As Johnson continued hearing the strange noises late into the night, he urged his partner to get up. A tired Roberts waved him off, believing Johnson was just nervous. Johnson decided to prepare himself just in case, piling up his assortment of grenades and rifle cartridges within arm's reach. If someone was coming, he would be ready.

The rustling continued. At one point, Johnson heard a clipping noise—what he suspected was the sound of the perimeter fence being cut. He again told Roberts to wake up. "Man," he said, "You better wake up pretty soon or you [might] never wake up."

The two began lobbing grenades into the darkness, hoping to discourage whoever might be lurking around the perimeter. Suddenly, in the middle of the French forest, Johnson saw dozens of German soldiers come charging, bayonets pointed toward him. They began to fire.

What transpired over the next hour would become an act of heroism that prompted former President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Johnson one of the bravest Americans to take up arms in the war. Johnson would even lead a procession back in New York City, with crowds lined up along the street to greet him.

Johnson may or may not have felt like a hero, though he certainly was. But he must have also felt something else—a sense of confusion. A man of color, he had been dispatched to a segregated regiment, where he received paltry combat training and was assigned menial tasks like unloading trucks. Even his homecoming parade was split up according to race. Henry Johnson, decorated virtually head to toe in French military honors, returned to a country that considered him both hero and a second-class citizen.

 

Though officers would later verify much of Johnson’s account of that night in the woods, his early life is harder to pin down. It has been reported that Johnson himself wasn’t quite sure when he was born. No one appeared to have kept a close eye on his birth certificate, which came out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The official U.S. Army website honoring Johnson’s service lists an approximate birth date of July 15, 1892. Other research indicates he could have been born as early as 1887 or as late as 1897.

After moving to New York as a teenager, Johnson took on an assortment of odd jobs; he was a chauffeur and a soda mixer, among other occupations. Depending on the account, he was living in Albany working either in a coal yard or as a railway porter when he opened a newspaper in the spring of 1917 and read that the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard was accepting enlistees. The regiment was comprised entirely of black soldiers.

Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform
Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Johnson showed up on June 5, 1917, weighing a slight 130 pounds and standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Assigned to Company C of the 15th—which later became known as the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment—he was quickly dispatched to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, where he trained along with the rest of the segregated unit. Though minorities had served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, they often lacked support from officials and got inferior training compared to their white counterparts. At Camp Wadsworth, Johnson was said to have been used primarily as labor, unloading supplies and digging latrines. If there was one bright spot during this time, it was that he married his wife, Georgina Edna Jackson, that September.

Johnson and the 369th were sent to France on January 1, 1918. There they continued laboring, which frustrated their commander, Colonel William Hayward. Hayward lobbied his superiors to give his men a chance in combat. Since France was experiencing a shortage of men, the 369th—which later became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because many of their members had come from Harlem in New York City—joined the 161st Division of the French Army, even wearing the jackets and helmets of the foreign military.

To the French, Johnson and his fellow soldiers were a welcome solution to their lack of manpower. Sent to the front lines in March 1918, Johnson and the others learned enough French to understand commands from superiors. They were armed with rifles and held on to the bolo knives used by the U.S. Army. The imposing 14-inch blades weighed more than a pound and had much of their weight running along the back, giving them a cleaving action similar to a machete. Johnson would soon be glad he had such a weapon on his waist.

Along with Needham Roberts—a man from Trenton, New Jersey—Johnson was assigned sentry duty on the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Patrolling near a bridge, Johnson and Roberts were given the late shift, on patrol until midnight on the evening of May 14. It would be a night neither he nor Roberts would ever forget.

As their shift wound down, Johnson saw two relief soldiers approaching. The soldiers were young and inexperienced, and Johnson felt uncomfortable leaving them alone. He stayed put and surveyed the area while Roberts went to rest in a trench. Shortly thereafter, he began to hear the rustling noises, which eventually became German soldiers rushing through the darkness. Johnson realized they were surrounded, and urged Roberts to run for help. But Roberts didn't get far before he decided to come back and help, and was soon hit by the shrapnel of a grenade in his arm and hip.

Still conscious, Roberts handed Johnson grenades to toss. When those ran out, Johnson began firing his rifle while being hit by bullets in his side, hand, and head. Quickly, Johnson shoved an American cartridge into his French rifle, but the ammunition and the weapon were incompatible. The rifle jammed. As the Germans swarmed him, Johnson began using the rifle like a club, smashing it over their heads and into their faces.

After the butt of the rifle finally fell apart, Johnson went down with a blow to the head. But he climbed back up, drew his bolo knife, and charged forward. The blade went deep into the first German he encountered, killing the man. More gruesome work with the weapon followed, with Johnson hacking and stabbing bodies even as bullets continued to strike him.

An illustration depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers
An illustration by artist Charles Alston depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers. The artwork was used by the Office for Emergency Management (OEM) to inspire American soldiers during World War II.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At one point, Johnson noticed the Germans had grabbed Roberts and were attempting to haul him away. He intervened, stabbing more soldiers, including one in the ribs.

The melee went on for roughly an hour, he said. When reinforcements finally arrived, the remaining Germans fled. Johnson was given medical attention. So was Roberts. Both lived.

The next day, military officials visited the scene of the battle. German helmets rested on the ground, along with puddles of blood. Four bodies were left behind. The officials estimated Johnson had wounded up to 24 others. Some men who walked the site said the death toll was six, with Johnson injuring 32 men. After all the fighting, Johnson had prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.

The nicknames came fast. The bridge was declared “the Battle of Henry Johnson.” Johnson himself was given the unofficial label “the Black Death” and the official rank of sergeant. He was headed back home.

 

Before they departed, the French honored Johnson and Roberts with the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest awards for valor. They were the first two Americans to receive it. Johnson’s was amended with the addition of the Gold Palm, intended to signify extraordinary valor.

It was an honor, though one that came with a heavy price. Johnson later estimated he had been shot five times, the bullets striking both feet, his thigh, his arm, and even his head. A scar stretched over his lip. A bayonet had been plunged into his torso—twice. He had to have a metal plate inserted into his left foot. In all, Johnson endured 21 injuries as a result of his defiant stand against the Germans.

Back home, he convalesced as the country sang his praises. Often, such reports of his bravery took pains to note he was a man of color. "When proudly speaking of fighting races we must not overlook the American Negro," read an editorial in the New York Evening Telegram. Other times, Johnson found himself in the peculiar position of being celebrated while simultaneously being reminded of his purportedly inferior status. The parade that honored the Harlem Hellfighters in February 1919 ran for seven miles, with Johnson leading the procession in an open-topped cab. But the Hellfighters could not march with their white counterparts.

Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918
Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unfortunately, Johnson’s postwar life remains as murky as his earliest years. He reportedly received disability payments from the government as well as medical care, but it’s unknown to what extent that supported him or how badly his injuries kept him from employment opportunities. (He did ask for, and received, as much as $100 per minute during speaking engagements in cities such as St. Louis—well over $1000 in today's money.) An attempt was made by the Albany Afro-American Association to raise money to build him a home as a way of expressing gratitude for his service, but it’s unclear whether the effort was successful. On July 1, 1929, Johnson died of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) while living in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996.

For years, it was unclear what became of Johnson's remains. In 2002, when the historians at the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs researched his service at the behest of his descendants (though it was later discovered they were mistaken and not actually related to Johnson), the historians determined Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. With confirmation of the gravesite, Johnson also became eligible for and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor, which was accepted on Johnson’s behalf by Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. And every June 5, Albany celebrates Henry Johnson Day in acknowledgement of the day he enlisted. The city also gives out a Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service for those making contributions in the area.

Those honors joined the Croix de Guerre, which Johnson was said to have worn with humility. He sometimes needed to be prodded into discussing his act of bravery, as if it were of no major consequence. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said. “[I] just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that."

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