28 June 1915 – Anniversary

On the first anniversary of the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the world is still in flames. Gavrilo Princip, the man who shot the couple dead amid a total breakdown of the inept General Conrad von Hötzendorf‘s inadequate security arrangements, was arrested immediately and convicted. According to his sentence, Princip spends this entire day isolated in a dark room with no mattress or food so he may better reflect on his crime. All twenty-five of his co-conspirators caught within the bounds of the empire have been convicted, and imprisoned or executed, yet the war rages on regardless.

Weak with internal contradictions, the decrepit Austro-Hungarian Empire sought justice against those who allegedly hatched the conspiracy within the Serbian ‘rogue state‘ bordering the contested province of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Beginning with a diplomatic ultimatum to maintain a fig leaf of aggrieved patience rather than launch an immediate invasion, the Hapsburg regime left time for the Russian Tsar to assert his own imperial ambitions in the Balkans, invoking alliances and inspiring actions that dragged the entire continent into armed conflict. While every step seemed logical and rational at the time, from a year’s distance the slaughter seems far out of balance with the crime which began it.


Gavrilo Princip being dragged into a police station after his arrest. He did not resist or deny his guilt at any point

Joseph Stalin, currently exiled in Siberia, will one day be quoted declaring that the death of a single person is often seen as a tragedy even while the deaths of millions are regarded as abstract statistics. Few men in the violent 20th Century will be better qualified to make such pronouncements, and indeed Stalin’s actual words — “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics” — are made in the context of his Ukrainian famine, not a war. But the more popular epigram nevertheless contains a severe truth about the incomprehension we experience in grappling with the sheer immensity of the human carnage brought on by the murder of the Archduke: more than a million Germans, a million Russians, and a million men of the Austro-Hungarian Empire have already been killed, wounded, or captured; altogether, these three combatants have suffered almost four million casualties.

Three successive attempts to invade Serbia have resulted in embarrassing defeats, but each failed expedition has also killed tens of thousands of Serbs. On the Western Front, hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen, tens of thousands of Belgians, and hundreds of thousands of men from all across the British Empire are dead. And a new Southern Front has opened up as Italy joins the allies against the Central Powers, promising hundreds of thousands more dead on each side. The allied expedition in the Dardanelles is turning half a million imperial subjects and a commensurate number of Turks into casualties, while fighting in Africa has accounted for thousands more.

The death and destruction do not end with battles, however: atrocities, disease, and dislocation have already affected millions of civilians and killed hundreds of thousands of them. Food systems are being strained, if not destroyed, by the Great War’s disruption of trade routes, so rationing has already appeared in the Central Powers, where hunger soon becomes a genuine problem. In Namibia, where the Union of South Africa is currently rolling up all resistance from the German colonists, the defenders’ scorched-Earth policy has slaughtered the livestock and poisoned the wells of Ovambo tribesmen, resulting in famine by September.

And yet things are just getting started. It will be a year before the butchery of the Western Front achieves true industrial scale and the Brusilov Offensive adds another million casualties to the Austrian lists. Even when the Great War ends, the killing is not done: revolution in Russia has produced civil war, spin-off conflicts such as the Greco-Turkish war last well into the next decade, and the genocide of Armenians does not fully subside until 1923. Spanish Influenza has yet to appear, but when it does, it will burn through the malnourished and vulnerable peoples of Europe like tinder. The dying has barely begun.


The ‘bloody shirt:’ Archduke Ferdinand’s blood-stained uniform coat is still on display at the Vienna Military History Museum