On this Day, 28th June

On this day 70 years ago, 28th June 1944, I was born in the Westroyd Nursing home in Clifton Street, Bangor, County Down, Northern Ireland , near to the beloved monastery founded by Comgall of the Ancient British Cruthin or Pretani, and a few yards from Bangor Grammar School which I attended with David Trimble . And today 28th June, 2014, I am travelling, as I always do, on our Pilgrimage to the Ulster Tower at Thiepval, as chairman of the Somme Association, which I founded with the help of my friend David Campbell in 1990. We commemorate the heroic deeds of the Sons of Ulster who fought at the immortal Battle of the Somme on 1st July, 1916. I especially remember my two grannies’ cousin William Sloan of Conlig, who died on that day. We were all of ancient Irish stock and descended from Alexander Sloan, the father of Sir Hans Sloane of Killyleagh 

On this day 100 years ago, 28th June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria , heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian  throne, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead in Sarajevo, by Gavrilo Princip, one of a group of six members of the Black Hand Commando (five Serbs and one Bosnian Moslem), coordinated by Danilo Ilić. The political objective of the assassination was to break off Austria-Hungary’s south-Slav provinces so they could be combined into a Yugoslavia. The assassins’ motives were consistent with the movement which later became known as Young Bosnia. The assassination led directly to the First World War when Austria-Hungary subsequently issued an ultimatum against Serbia, which was partially rejected. Austria-Hungary then declared war, marking the outbreak of the war.

Leading these Serbian military conspirators was Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence Dragutin Dimitrijević, his right hand man Major Vojislav Tankosić, and Masterspy Rade Malobabić. Major Tankosić armed the assassins with bombs and pistols and trained them. The assassins were given access to the same clandestine network of safe-houses and agents that Rade Malobabić used for the infiltration of weapons and operatives into Austria-Hungary.

The assassins, the key members of the clandestine network, and the key Serbian military conspirators who were still alive were arrested, tried, convicted and punished. Those who were arrested in Bosnia were tried in Sarajevo in October 1914. The other conspirators were arrested and tried before a Serbian kangaroo court on the French-controlled Salonika Front in 1916–1917 on unrelated false charges; Serbia executed three of the top military conspirators. Much of what is known about the assassinations comes from these two trials and related records. 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

Gavrilo Princip

Photograph of the Archduke and his wife emerging from the Sarajevo Town Hall to board their car, a few minutes before the assassination

Under the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, Austro-Hungary had received the mandate to occupy and administer the Ottoman Vilayet of Bosnia while the Ottoman Empire retained official sovereignty. Under this same treaty, the Great Powers (Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, and Russian Empire) gave official recognition to the Principality of Sebia as a fully sovereign state, which four years later transformed into a kingdom under Prince Milan IV Obrenović who thus became King Milan I Obrenović. Serbia’s monarchs at the time from the royal House of Obrenović which maintained close relations with Austria-Hungary were content to reign within the borders set by the treaty.

This changed in May 1903 when Serbian military officers led by Dragutin Dimitrijević, stormed the Sebian Royal Palace. After a fierce battle in the dark the attackers captured General Laza Petrović, head of the Palace Guard, and forced him to reveal the hiding place of King Alexander I Obrenović and his wife Queen Draga. The King and Queen opened the door from their hiding place. The King was shot thirty times; the Queen eighteen. MacKenzie writes that “the royal corpses were then stripped and brutally sabred.” The attackers threw the corpses of King Alexander and Queen Draga out of a palace window, ending any threat that loyalists would mount a counterattack.” General Petrović was then killed too (Vojislav Tankosić organized the murders of Queen Draga’s brothers; Dimitrijević and Tankosić in 1913–1914 and figured prominently in the plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand). The conspirators installed Peter I of the House of Karaðorðević as the new king.

The new dynasty was more nationalistic, friendlier to Russia and less friendly to Austria-Hungary. Over the next decade, disputes between Serbia and its neighbors erupted as Serbia moved to build its power and gradually reclaim its 14th-century empire. These conflicts included a customs dispute with Austria-Hungary beginning in 1906 (commonly referred to as the “Pig War”), the Bosnian Crisis of 1908–1909 in which Serbia assumed an attitude of protest over Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (ending in Serbian acquiescence without compensation in March 1909), and finally the two Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 in which Serbia conquered Macedonia and Kosova from the Ottoman Empire and drove out Bulgaria.

Serbia’s military successes and Serbian outrage over the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina emboldened nationalistic elements in Serbia and Serbs in Austria-Hungary who chafed under Austro-Hungarian rule and whose nationalist sentiments were stirred by Serbian “cultural” organizations. In the five years leading up to 1914, lone assassins – mostly Serbian citizens of Austria-Hungary – made a series of unsuccessful assassination attempts in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina against Austro-Hungarian officials. The assassins received sporadic support from Serbia.

On 15 June 1910 Bogdan Žerajić attempted to kill the iron-fisted Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, general Marijan Varešanin. Žerajić was a 22-year-old Orthodox Serb from Nevesinje, Herzegovina, who made frequent trips to Belgrade. (General Verešanin went on to crush the last Bosnian peasant uprising in the second half of 1910.) The five bullets Žerajić fired at Verešanin and the fatal bullet he put in his own brain made Žerajić an inspiration to future Serbian assassins, including Princip and Princip’s accomplice Čabrinović. Princip said that Žerajić “was my first model. When I was seventeen I passed whole nights at his grave, reflecting on our wretched condition and thinking of him. It is there that I made up my mind sooner or later to perpetrate an outrage.”

In 1913, Emperor Franz Joseph commanded Archduke Franz Ferdinand to observe the military manœuvers in Bosnia scheduled for June 1914. Following the maneuvers Ferdinand and his wife planned to visit Sarajevo to open the state museum in its new premises there. Duchess Sophie, according to their oldest son, Duke Maximilian, accompanied her husband out of fear for his safety.

As a “Czech countess [she] was treated as a commoner at the Austrian court”. Emperor Franz Joseph had only consented to their marriage on the condition that their descendants would never ascend the throne. The 14th anniversary of the morganatic oath  fell on 28 June. As historian A.J.P. Taylor observes:

[Sophie] could never share [Franz Ferdinand’s] rank … could never share his splendours, could never even sit by his side on any public occasion. There was one loophole … his wife could enjoy the recognition of his rank when he was acting in a military capacity. Hence, he decided, in 1914, to inspect the army in Bosnia. There, at its capital Sarajevo, the Archduke and his wife could ride in an open carriage side by side … Thus, for love, did the Archduke go to his death.

Franz Ferdinand was an advocate of increased federalism and widely believed to favor trialism, under which Austria-Hungary would be reorganized by combining the Slavic lands within the Austro-Hungarian empire into a third crown. A Slavic kingdom could have been a bulwark against Serb irredendism and Franz Ferdinand was therefore perceived as a threat by those same irredentists. Princip later stated to the court that preventing Franz Ferdinand’s planned reforms was one of his motivations.

So it was that the archduke  travelled to Sarajevo in June 1914 to inspect the imperial armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908. The annexation had angered Serbian nationalists, who believed the territories should be part of Serbia. The group of young nationalists hatched a plot to kill the archduke during his visit to Sarajevo, and after some missteps, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip was able to shoot the royal couple at point-blank range, while they travelled in their official procession, killing both almost instantly. The day of the assassination, 28 June, is 15 June in the Julian Calendar, the feast of St Vitus. In Serbia, it is called Vidovdan and commemorates the 1389 Battle of Kosovo against the Ottomans, at which the Sultan was assassinated in his tent by a Serb; it is an occasion for Serbian patriotic observances.

The assassination set off a rapid chain of events, as Austria-Hungary immediately blamed the Serbian government for the attack. As large and powerful Russia supported Serbia, Austria asked for assurances that Germany would step in on its side against Russia and its allies, including France and possibly Great Britain. On 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the fragile peace between Europe’s great powers collapsed, beginning the devastating conflict now known as the Great War. After more than four years of bloodshed, World War I ended on 11 November 1918, after Germany, the last of the Central Powers, surrendered to the Allies.

On this day 28 June 1919, five years to the day after Franz Ferdinand’s death, Germany and the Allied Powers signed the Treaty of Versailles, officially marking the end of World War I. At the peace conference in Paris in 1919, Allied leaders would state their desire to build a post-war world which was safe from future wars of such enormous scale. The Versailles Treaty tragically failed to achieve this objective. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s grand dreams of an international peace-keeping organisation faltered when put into practice as the League of Nations. Even worse, the harsh terms imposed on Germany, the war’s biggest loser, led to widespread resentment of the treaty and its authors in that country – a resentment that would culminate in the outbreak of World War II decades later. I was born just as that War was ending.

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