WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed

WW1 Centenary Guest Post: Sarajevo A Century On by Robert Wilton

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Lucky shot? Remembering the Sarajevo assassination a century on.

They didn’t know they were going to change the world.

As the handful of Serb conspirators moved, a hundred years ago this week, from village to village through what they considered occupied Bosnia, trying to escape the attentions of the Austro-Hungarian police, their precious pistols and bombs being smuggled in by other trusted hands, obviously they had no idea of the carnage that would follow once they had converged on Sarajevo on June 28th 1914.

As it happens, they did dream of changing the world – as they saw it. 19 year-old Nedeljko Cabrinovic had angered his father by refusing to raise the hated Habsburg flag, and told him that ‘King Petar of Serbia will rule here within a year’. After throwing his bomb at Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car, swallowing poison and jumping into the Miljacka river, and then finding himself with a scalded throat and standing in six inches of water, Cabrinovic declared to the policemen who demanded his identity: ‘I am a Serbian hero!’

They were kids: teenagers with under-strength cyanide doses, fired up on ideology and dreams of glory by older wiser men who themselves ran no risks on that June morning. (In that sense they foreshadow would-be ideological martyrs of different wars today.) They weren’t well co-ordinated, most of them flunked their chances to kill the Archduke, and that staggering event was only possible with a once-in-a-century coincidence of incompetence and luck.

But the coincidence did happen, and the Archduke’s driver went the wrong way, and stopped to reverse, and for a world-shattering second put the Habsburg heir stationary and a few feet from a Serb patriot with a pistol and a dream of glory. Princip fired, and the clockwork of Great Power pride and fear and calculation and alliance deals and mobilization schedules began irreversibly to tick, and millions of men went to war and those who returned did so to a new world.

How should we commemorate this? Perhaps it’s possible to feel an echo of pride at the soldiers who would go off to fight for something they believed in, or to feel humble at the futile carnage that was all they won. But a hundred years later there can be no glory in that devastation, whatever your nationality; and political attempts to re-wrap the commemoration in the flag seem distasteful and foolish.

(It’s also a bit of a challenge trying to write an historical novel around the outbreak of war: everyone knows what happened, and it’s hard to make anyone look good. The Spider of Sarajevo focuses on the Great Power intrigues in the weeks before the assassination, and the troubled infancy of British intelligence, and while there’s plenty of courage and conspiracy there’s precious little glory.)

Perhaps, as we mark the centenary of the assassination and then the chimes of the July diplomacy and the outbreak of war, we should try to put a little less emotion into it and a little more thought. The strange overstrained political landscape through which those young assassins slipped was the product of European states meddling with societies they did not properly understand, and trying to draw lines on maps for their own convenience. And brave men went to war with dreams born in prejudice and ignorance. It resonates today more powerfully than we might like or think, and we should reflect more thoughtfully on the events of a century ago not because they’re now so far in the past, but because of how much they still have to teach us.


Writer-diplomat Robert Wilton has been working on and in the Balkans for more than a decade. The Spider of Sarajevo, the latest in the series of novels drawing on documents from the secret archive of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey, is published on the centenary of the events it illuminates He’s tweeting the context and countdown for war @ComptrollerGen, and there’s more at www.robertwilton.com



Author: ww1centenary

Military Historian & author who works in Television: visiting & interpreting battlefields all over the world. Currently working on WW1 projects for 2014-18.

One thought on “WW1 Centenary Guest Post: Sarajevo A Century On by Robert Wilton

  1. My grand uncle, Captain Percy Cherry VC MC, was involved in a “duel” at Pozieres in 1916. With regard to the “Duel” please see below an excerpt from Wikipedia and Les Carlyon’s the Great War;
    “Cherry transferred to the 7th Machine Gun Company in France and he commanded the company’s 1st Battery at Fleurbaix, Messines and on the Somme until 5 August, when he was wounded in a duel with a German officer at Pozières. He and a German officer—who was leading an attack against Cherry’s position—were exchanging shots from neighbouring shell-holes. Eventually, they both rose, firing simultaneously. The German officer hit Cherry in the neck but was mortally wounded by Cherry in return. Cherry approached the dying man, who pulled a package of letters from his pocket, and asked Cherry to have them censored and posted. Cherry promised to do so and the German handed over the letters, with the words; “And so it ends”. He died shortly afterwards. As a result of his wounds, Cherry was evacuated to England for treatment.”
    Cherry was killed at Lagincourt France in March 1917.
    We know that the letters to Germany were handed on to the Red Cross and part of the family’s remit for the Centenary is to reconcile WW1 events, learn the lessons and understand the social impact of WW1.
    We believe that we should try and locate the family of the German Officer and if possible have a meeting and reconciliation with the German Family.

    I appreciate that that a hundred years have passed and the trail may be cold however we believe there should be an attempt.

    Does anyone know exactly what German Units were opposite the 1st AIF at Pozières on this date?
    Does anyone have any suggestions as to a way forward?
    Are there definitive records of German Units that fought at Pozieres and if so where are they? Is there knowledge of this event outside Australia?
    Any advice or assistance that may be provided would be appreciated as I will be travelling to Germany in the near term and I will chase any information.


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