It seems extraordinary to us now that the assassination of an unpopular Archduke in a relatively obscure country could have started the most significant war the world had ever known. A hundred years ago, on the 28th June 1914, a group of six teenage Serb terrorists set out to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his visit to Sarajevo. They were protesting about the annexation of Bosnia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire to which the Archduke was heir.
The image above shows the Archduke departing from the Town Hall with his wife, Sophie. A short time later they would be shot dead by the 19 year old Gavrilo Princip. This act upset the balance of power between the two major alliances in Europe and set in train a series of events, known as the July Crisis which would lead to the outbreak of war a few weeks later. Princip was later to say that if he had known the final outcome of the murder he would never have proceeded.
For an overview of why the Balkans region has been a focus of unrest for centuries, click on the Reuters film above which explains how the state of Yugoslavia was born in 1918.
Meanwhile Britain was undergoing social change which threatened the old order of aristocratic landowners. Trade unions were forming to protect workers’ rights and there had been several years of industrial strife. These factors had given Germany the opportunity to win more trade and British industry was losing out. Click on the image below to watch a cartoon which shows the British workman fighting back. This may have been produced as propaganda at the beginning of the war.
On 23rd July 1914, King George V and Edward, the 20 year old Prince of Wales spent time inspecting the the newly formed Grand Fleet. This was clearly a sign that tensions were high but it was unlikely any of the British public would have been aware war was so imminent and at that point the British Cabinet were doing all they could to ensure neutrality. Unfortunately the countdown to war had already started.
Observers in the North East of Scotland would have noticed something was afoot: A local photographer off the coast of Wick captured this image of battleships which were a presence in the area during WW1. It’s probable these ships would subsequently be involved in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 when the Grand Fleet fought the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet, resulting in great loss of life.
On the 4th August 1914 Britain finally declared war on Germany following the German invasion of Belgium. The Kaiser had feared being caught in a pincer movement between France and Russia and needed Belgium to give him safe passage in order that he could attack France. Belgium refused and the German troops flooded in despite the Kaiser’s attempts to call them back at the last moment.
The following propaganda cartoon was made in 1918 to show Britain and the Empire’s contribution to the war effort. It portrays the Kaiser’s warmongering activities in a comical way.
In early August 1914 many thousands of men came forward to enlist and fight for their country. Everyone was told the war would be over by Christmas and volunteers signed up with no expectation of a protracted conflict. Click on the clip below to watch crowds of volunteers queuing to enlist outside the War Office.
Recruitment took place across the country and was boosted by the numbers of unemployed men who were looking for a wage. After some intial training these inexperienced troops were despatched to face an uncertain future on the Western Front.
No one had wanted war and yet ultimately it had seemed impossible to avoid. All the nations who took part were hugely fearful for the future. David Grey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary famously expressed his despair at the time:
The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.
Europe would have changed irrevocably by the time the First World War finally ended and made a lasting impact on the lives of millions of people; whether they were casualties or survivors of this terrifying conflict.
- Accident or Choice? The Outbreak of the First World War : Podcast by Professor Margaret MacMillan
- Franz Ferdinand Assassination: How a hit on one man plunged a world into war : Blog Post by Matthew Seligmann