It being the closing days of the month of June, the Year 7 history lessons seem to be looking at the outbreak of the First War.
Going into my colleague’s classroom after this morning’s lesson, I noticed notes on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the whiteboard. I wanted to add a satirical graffito from college days, “Archduke Franz Ferdinand found alive – First World War a mistake,” but he thought it not a wise thing to do.
Yet read the accounts of events in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, and satire is not adequate. There can only be a sense of astonishment at the staggering incompetence of the authorities.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, an empire that included much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. His visit to the capital of Bosnia, one of the countries in the empire, aroused hostility among those in Bosnia who sought independence.
As Franz Ferdinand passed through the streets of Sarajevo, Nedeljko Čabrinović, a member of a Bosnian nationalist group, threw a grenade at the archduke’s car. Čabrinović’s act of terrorism failed. The grenade exploded behind the car carrying Franz Ferdinand and injured the occupants of the vehicle following them. Franz Ferdinand was enraged. Going to the residence of the imperial governor, the archduke protested, “So this is how you welcome your guests – with bombs!”
It was not as though political assassinations had not happened before and not as though the imperial administrators were not aware of tensions in the city. An elementary understanding of security would have told them that Franz Ferdinand should not travel further that day, and, when he did move, should only do so under strict security. Instead, astonishingly, he and his wife were allowed to leave the residence in an open car to visit the hospital to which those wounded by the grenade attack had been taken.
Even the foolish decision to travel the streets need not have been fatal. Had the drivers taken the correct route, there would not have been a problem. No-one had thought to tell the driver of a car that had been subject to a bomb attack that same morning that the route had changed. The drivers of the vehicles had to turn around, which need not have given an opportunity for further attack, were it not for the fact that one of the cars stalled, bringing the whole line to a halt.
A competent administration would have ensured the archduke’s car was immediately surrounded by policemen or soldiers, but Franz Ferdinand was left unprotected.
Gavrilo Princip, another Bosnian nationalist was sat at a cafe and saw what had happened. He walked across the street and took out a low-powered pistol, at which point one might have expected him to have been brought down by gunfire from those charged with the archduke’s protection. Princip did not even shoot Franz Ferdinand first; he shot the duchess Sophie in the abdomen before shooting the imperial heir in the neck.
The archduke died at the scene, the duchess on the way to the hospital.
The shambolic death of Franz Ferdinand seems, in retrospect, a mere precursor of tragi-comic conduct in the weeks that followed.
In London, there was Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary who did not speak French, which would not have been a problem if it were not for the fact that the French ambassador in London did not speak English in his meetings with Grey, and hated England so much that he went home to Paris at weekends. They would meet without interpreters; the history of Europe hanging on encounters between two men who did not understand each other.
Grey was not the worst. British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, sat at meetings of the British Cabinet writing. The sheets of paper were not notes on what was being said by Government ministers about events that would change the world, but letters to his girlfriend.
The satirical graffito had a kernel of truth. The unfolding events of that summer were shaped as much by a bumbling ineptitude as by political, economic or military pressures towards conflict.