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After failing to assassinate Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, a conspirator gulped cyanide, jumped into a four-inch river

Martin Chalakoski

It was the summer of 1914, and a group of Bosnian-born Serbs saw a chance to strike out against the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Bosnia and Herzegovina had just joined the empire, ruled by the Hapsburg Franz Joseph. A group of Serbs, members of the secret society known as the Black Hand (also known as Unification or Death), opposed the integration of their people into the alliance. They vowed to try to assassinate the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Their opportunity arrived on 28th of June, with the arrival of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, to the provincial capital, Sarajevo, in what was supposed to be an ordinary state visit. The same morning, just before 11 o’clock, both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were assassinated in their car in front of the Moritz Schiller cafe by Gavrilo Princip, creating a chain of events that led to World War I and the deaths of nine million combatants and seven million civilians.

The royal couple had in fact survived an earlier attempt on their lives that day, carried out by another of the Black Hand conspirators, Nedeljko Čabrinović. Not knowing there was a 10-second delay, Čabrinović threw a grenade at their car, only to see it bounce off. After failing to execute his target, he tried to commit suicide. The cyanide pill that Čabrinović swallowed before he threw himself into the Mijacka River had expired, however, and the river on that day was running only four inches deep.

“Latin bridge” in Sarajevo. The site where Nedeljko Čabrinović failed to commit suicide. Author sundeviljeff – CC-BY 2.0

“Latin bridge” in Sarajevo. The site where Nedeljko Čabrinović failed to commit suicide. Author sundeviljeff – CC-BY 2.0

Coming to Sarajevo was clearly dangerous. In light of the Black Hand’s failed attempt to assassinate his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef, three years earlier, Franz Ferdinand’s announcement of a visit two months ahead to a volatile city exposed himself and his wife to risk.

Dragutin Dimitrijević (1876-1917) with two of his comrades. Pictured sitting on the right, he was the leader of the secret military society formed in 1911, named the Black Hand

Dragutin Dimitrijević (1876-1917) with two of his comrades. Pictured sitting on the right, he was the leader of the secret military society formed in 1911, named the Black Hand

On hearing of the planned royal visit, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, the leader of the Black Hand, asked for three new  Bosnian Serbs to be put under his command and organized them to be smuggled across the border through a chain of underground-railroad-style contacts. Gavrilo Princip, Nedeljko Čabrinović, and Trifko Grabež were three trained bomb throwers and marksmen from the Serbian military, brought back into Bosnia for one reason only, to be the assassins.

Grabež, Čabrinović, and Princip in Kalemegdan, Belgrade, May 1914

Grabež, Čabrinović, and Princip in Kalemegdan, Belgrade, May 1914

At 10 a.m. on June 28, the royal couple arrived by train from Ilidža Spa. They were greeted by local dignitaries and seated in the third car of the six-car expedition through the city, along with Oskar Potiorek, the Governor of Bosnia, and Lieutenant Colonel Count Franz von Harrach.

The Archduke and his wife greeted by the mayor moments before the attack in Sarajevo

The Archduke and his wife greeted by the mayor moments before the attack in Sarajevo

The three assassins, supported by other conspirators that day, were each supplied with hand grenades, brand new Browning FN Model 1910 automatic pistols, and special maps with a marked route of patrolling gendarmes in the city. They placed themselves at intervals along the archduke’s route. All of them were staged along the Appel Quay and instructed to try to kill the archduke when the royal car reached their position. In addition to this, they were given money and suicide pills in case something went wrong.

The first who spotted them was Muhamed Mehmedbašić, another member of the Black Hand, but he froze in panic when they approached his position near the Austro-Hungarian Bank, thus allowing it to pass freely. He later testified that a policeman was standing right behind him and he feared he would be caught and put the whole mission in jeopardy before trying something.

Sarajevo trial (1914). Those accused of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, front row from the left: Trifko Grabež, Nedeljko Čabrinović, Gavrilo Princip, Danilo Ilić, Miško Jovanović

Sarajevo trial (1914). Those accused of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, front row from the left: Trifko Grabež, Nedeljko Čabrinović, Gavrilo Princip, Danilo Ilić, Miško Jovanović

Minutes later, at 10:15, Ferdinand and his entourage were passing the central police station in the city when 19-year-old Čabrinović flung a hand grenade at the archduke’s car. The driver of the car saw the object flying towards them and accelerated, but the grenade was an old model with a 10-second delay and so it exploded under the fourth car. Eric von Merizzi and Count Alexander von Boos-Waldeck, who were travelling in it, ended up slightly wounded, along with a dozen bystanders who were hit by the shrapnel.

Photo of Miljacka river in Sarajevo, 1914. Latin Bridge can be seen in the distance.

Photo of Miljacka river in Sarajevo, 1914. Latin Bridge can be seen in the distance.

After Čabrinović saw his bomb bouncing off the car and exploding under the wrong one, he knew he had missed his chance. To avoid capture and interrogation by the police who were rushing toward him, he swallowed the cyanide pill and started running. The cyanide pill was out of date and only made him nauseous. To ensure his death, he jumped into the River Miljacka from the riverbank near the Latin Bridge, landing in only four inches of water. The summer heat had lowered the water level. A few seconds later he was hauled out, attacked by the crowd, and detained by police. As he was taken away, vomiting, he supposedly was heard saying, “I am a Serb hero.”

Gavrilo Princip, after seeing all this, hid in the crowd and found a seat in Moritz Schiller’s cafe, contemplating suicide to avoid his own arrest. A shaken Franz Ferdinand gave his planned speech, and then he and his wife got back in the car. The itinerary had been changed so that the archduke could go to the hospital and see to the wounded.

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As Franz Ferdinand’s car approached the café where Princip still sat, the assassin saw his chance. Rising from his table, he pulled his pistol and fired two shots, killing the archduke and the duchess. Frank Ferdinand’s last words were “Sophie…Sophie… don’t die. Live for our children.”

After their eventual trials, Gavrilo Princip and Nedeljko Čabrinović were sentenced to 20 years, both dying in prison.