An act that triggered a World War

June 28, 2014 05:28 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 12:08 pm IST - Chennai

A century ago this day, a double murder carried out by a group of Bosnian assassins became a historic event.

On June 28, 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated by a pro-Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Princip was one of a group of six assassins. The political objective of the assassination was to break off Austria-Hungary's south-Slav provinces so they could be combined into a Yugoslavia.

This power-play at Balkans triggered the restive European powers who went into an all-out war — the Great War. It became a new chapter in the history which also changed the maps of many countries in Europe. Of the four major players in this Great War — Germany, Russia, Britain and France — three of them belong to centuries-old dynasties. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, Britain’s George V and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II were cousins.

While the Balkans were restive after this assassination, the then European powers were eager for a role to redraw the maps of many countries. For some years, the Balkans was the bone of contention between Austria and Russia. This brutal attack prompted the imperial countries to test their powers. All of them started consolidating their forces to strike at an opportune moment.

Germany secretly pledged its support to Austria, whereas Russia which was at loggerhead with it, was biding its time to strike. Feverish diplomatic efforts were made to defuse the crisis. Such moves were also used by the imperial powers to form alliances and mobilise forces. Austria gave an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia.

Though Serbia accepted 9 out of 10 conditions imposed by Austria, considering the moral support of Kaiser and secret assurance of German Army, exactly a month after the assassination, Austria fired the first shots to invade Serbia. As Russia was already in readiness, Germany invaded neutral Belgium and Luxemburg. Its next target was France. It led Britain to declare war on Germany.

Thus Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria became the axis powers in this war, the Great Britain, Russia, France and Italy became the allies. In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire joined the war, opening fronts in the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and the Sinai. Italy and Bulgaria went to war in 1915, Romania in 1916, and the United States in 1917.

In one of the largest efforts in history, 70 million military persons including 60 million Europeans were involved in this Great War which went on till November 11, 1918. More than 9 million combatants were killed in action. The wily efforts of the imperial powers to redraw the map turned into a nightmare for almost every one of them.

The Great War came to a close due to the dethroning of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II in a civil war in February 1917. Subsequent armed revolution in November that year finally stopped Russia’s involvement in this war. The new Russian Bolshevik government was ready for truce with central powers. Thus the Russian revolution transformed into a resolution to this war.

On November 4, 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire agreed to an armistice. After a 1918 German offensive along the western front, the Allies drove back the Germans in a series of successful offensives and began entering the trenches. Germany, which had its own trouble with revolutionaries, agreed to an armistice on 11 November 1918, ending the war in victory for the Allies.

This Great War became a death knell to four centuries-old imperial countries. Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungarian and Ottomon empires ceased to exist. While the first two empires lost considerable territories as a result of their defeat and armistice respectively, the latter two empires were fully dismantled.

At the end of this Great War, the maps of Europe and Southwest Asia were redrawn. Many independent nations were created. Though the successful nations decided to form a League of Nations to prevent such large scale war in future, it was not to be as the world witnessed another Great War from 1939 to 1945, thereby changed the name of this Great War into World War I in the history.

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