‘It is nothing’ – the assassination of Franz Ferdinand

To mark 100 years today since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinaz of Austria and his wife Sophie, here’s a chapter from my unpublished WW1 novel, Shot: a great war story, that among other things retells the events of that day.

 

June 28, 1914

‘One comes here for a visit and is received with bombs…. It is outrageous!’

Franz had never felt so furious. How could this be, how could they let this happen? To think that his life and that of his Sophie had been in mortal danger from the actions of some fool in the crowd.

He saw again the slow loop of the explosive as it headed towards them, first bouncing off the bonnet of the car, before he had instinctively swatted at it, knocking it away. Then only to learn that Eric and the Count had been badly wounded in the car behind. And now this simpleton of a mayor is intent on giving a welcoming as if nothing has happened.

The scorn of his uncle and the Imperial court over this debacle would be insufferable, Franz thought, when he felt Sophie take his hand. She was standing by his side at the top of the town hall steps, where they were supposed to be basking in the warmth of an official welcome and the appreciation of the people, and where a stunned mayor stood fingering his notes.

What point is there after what has happened? Franz thought. Someone has tried to kill us! The realisation of how naïve he had been, how unrealistic, began to dawn on him. He turned to Sophie, feeling her trembling, seeing her lip quiver, and reached to wipe a tear, then noticing a slight graze on her cheek.

‘Sophel, oh my dear wife, I see you have been injured in the blast. My God, how close we have come to tragedy!’

She flinched from his touch, produced a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at the graze.

‘I am all right, Franz, do not fuss. We must not be overcome by this. Look, the people do really love you,’ Sophie said,  whispering in his ear.

He did look, scanning the crowd, noticing broad smiles, some mouths hollow and wide with cheers, most unaware of the earlier drama. Hands were moving everywhere with applause and he began to calm. Franz realised that the mayor, confused after his furious outburst, was now stumbling through his prepared speech, unsure if he should proceed. We will survive this, Franz thought, and with a squeeze of the hand from Sophie, he strode confidently to the mayor, shook his hand vigorously and waved to the crowd.

‘Certainly you should now continue,’ Franz said. And he listened as the relieved mayor returned to his notes.

‘Our hearts are full of happiness over the most gracious visit with which Your Highnesses are pleased to honour our capital city of Sarajevo…’

Listening to the mayor’s extravagant and devoted words and drawing strength from the rising cheers of the crowd, he felt that perhaps, after all, everything would work out for the best.

As the ceremony drew to a close, with Franz making a few closing remarks in which he noted the crowds expression of pleasure over the failure of the assassination attempt, he and Sophie stood together and waved to the crowd – despite everything, savouring their moment together in an official capacity. It felt so natural to Franz, so enlivening to have her there, but as they turned to enter the town hall and the noisy crowd receded, he found his mind again reeling at how close they had come to disaster.

So often the hunter, he could not overcome the feeling that he was now the hunted. The man with the bomb had been waiting for them, had known where there would be, and surely there would be others. If it was he, Franz, doing the hunting, he would prepare by knowing which way his target was to travel, where he would be slowest, most exposed. But now having survived, there was also a growing feeling of invincibility, much like when he was himself staring through the sights of his gun, the fate of one of God’s creatures in his hands.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark vestibule inside the building, his entourage became visible, standing in twos and threes, speaking seriously while all the time watching the Royal couple. Two ladies then approached Sophie, and after polite greetings, led her up nearby stairs and Franz recalled she was to receive a delegation of Muslim women, and he wondered at her stamina to go through with the program.

Ah, here is Count Harrach, General Potiorek and… where is Andreas, yes, here he is… surely we will not give them another chance to harm us, Franz thought, as members of his party drew near.

‘Well done Sir, you have given a good account of yourself in the face of today’s disturbance. And the Duchess too, if I may say so,’ Potiorek said.

‘Well said General, I agree His Imperial and Royal Highness has shown great fortitude in the face of such distress, and of course, the Duchess,’ Andreas said, hands outstretched in appeal. ‘But I’m sure you understand, General, that we could not risk any further danger to the royal couple.’

‘Do you think Sarajevo is full of assassins? I can assure you Your Highness, you have nothing more to fear here,’ said General Potiorek, eyes blazing defiantly as he looked around the group.

Franz was feeling light-headed, and wondered if the shock of the earlier attack was overtaking him. He wondered at Potiorek’s words… he was inclined to believe right then that Sarajevo was indeed full of assassins. The men began to argue over the best course of action and Franz found it difficult to follow and became frustrated with the confusion.

‘Gentleman, we will proceed as planned, although by the new route, I think, that the General proposes. Only I will go without Sophie, she must not be exposed again.’

There was a nodding of heads and clasping of hands and some faces bearing the smugness of victory as their proposal was favoured.

‘Morsey, where is Baron Morsey? Ah, there you are. Please find the Duchess and arrange to drive her and her ladies directly to the Governor’s residence. Take a guard and explain that I will meet her there,’ Franz said.

His Chamberlain, Bardolff, then insisted that the new arrangements be discussed again so that everyone was certain what was to occur, when a hand was laid lightly on Franz’s arm and a throat politely cleared.

‘Gentleman, be assured, as long as the Archduke shows himself in public today I will not leave him.’

All conversation ceased momentarily, and many of the men bowed slightly, Franz noting the admiration in their eyes.

‘But surely darling…

‘No Franz, I am going with you. This date carries old wounds of separation, I will not add to them now.’

They all knew she spoke of the declaration Franz had been forced to sign before the court at the Imperial palace, on this date, just two days before their wedding years before. A declaration setting aside any claim she had to his title or to be his Empress.

‘What’s more, we have not had a moment to think of our friends, your men, wounded in the attack. Whatever else occurs today, surely we should see to their well-being?’ Franz turned to her and clasped her hands in his.

‘Again you see to the heart of the matter my dear, here is why you should be by my side always,’ he said, with eyes only for her. Then he turned to the men, straightening his uniform and twirling the end of his moustache thoughtfully.

‘Sophie speaks well I think. We should make haste to the hospital and see to the welfare of our brethren. And then, perhaps after all, it is better that we depart Sarajevo. General, the city may not be full of assassins but even one more would be too much to bear.’

The General nodded, accepting Franz’s decision and hasty arrangements began immediately as to how best to convey Franz and Sophie to the hospital, before they were ushered out of the town hall, once again to their open car, with attendants and officials shouting and scurrying around them in confusion.

As they seated themselves in the rear of the car along with General Potiorek, Count Harrach leapt to stand on the running board for greater protection. Franz heard the General bang sharply on the side of the car, a signal for the driver to move on, but he noticed Sophie jump at the sound.

‘It won’t be long now and we will be away from all of this. You are very brave to stay with me,’ Franz said, again holding Sophie’s gloved hand.

‘It is not bravery that drives me,’ Sophie said. Franz knew as he looked into her eyes that it was her boundless love for him, a love that he could scarcely comprehend, that would keep them to the end.

The car was by now travelling at a furious pace and Franz realised he was less certain about the route they would take, but trusted this to the General and Leopold the driver who had been so steady previously. And he would be glad to see Eric and the Count and be assured of their recovery.

Crowds were still thick on the street, crammed along the Miljacka River on one side, although Franz could see many people traipsing off, disappearing down side streets, perhaps giving up on their chance to see the heir to the empire and his wife.

The wind was roaring in Franz’s ears and he wondered if his plumed hat would survive. Sophie was holding on gamely to hers. In that moment he imagined himself again on the deck of the SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth, the same rush of air and movement, as he stared down his destiny, searching for experiences that would rouse the sleeping soul within him, and perhaps quieten some demons.

His appetite had sought so much that was exotic and strange, decadent and desireable, and yet it had left him no more complete. Instead it had been the love of the woman beside him, and that of their children, which had accomplished more than ten months travelling the world, to heal and restore him and settle him again as a man of faith and possibilities. He longed again to be kneeling by his children’s beds, Sophie watching from the door, as he prayed the simple prayers of love and protection.

He turned to Sophie and, perhaps it was the wind of the open car, or the stress of their day, but he felt tears brimming in his eyes. But on her face he saw a studied dignity, an expression as serene as her title, and then a blurred smile of a well-wisher as they passed by, and he realised how much this opportunity to be with him, to be free, meant to her.

Franz felt time slowing and again, memories of his journeys flooded his mind. The car turned, clumsily he thought, and the crowd seemed thicker, slower. The General was yelling something but his hearing on that side was less than adequate, a consequence of so much hunting.

He saw the face of a young man in the crowd, looking surprised but also somewhat familiar. Had he seen this serious man standing close when they visited the bazaar just days before? The car had now stopped, they must have taken a wrong turn, Harrach and Potiorek were gesturing madly. Sophie gripped his arm and he felt he should be doing something, but he could not think what.

The young man’s face bobbed closer but there behind him, Franz saw a boy, about the age of his own Ernst, and suddenly there came a rush of memory of another boy, with black skin, pleading with him not to shoot a goanna. What a strange thought to come to mind, he thought. He told himself that the man he was today would have listened to the Aboriginal boy, would have understood.

He was staring now at the young man who now stood very close to the car, which seemed to have stalled. There were shouts and jostling and he gripped Sophie’s hand tighter. It would all soon be quiet again, he thought, he wanted to reassure her. The young man was fiddling for something in his pocket, looking up anxiously.

Those anxious eyes… he saw death in those eyes… and again a rush of recollection… just as he had seen death in that father’s eyes as he stared at his boy lying crumpled, bloodied, the smoke from his gun filling the air. Of all the shots for which he had been responsible, that shot he regretted the most.

Crack!

My God, Franz thought, I’m losing my mind, I am hearing that gunshot all over again. Sophie leant against, him, whimpering,

He focused again on the young man who was like a fixed presence in the chaos that seemed to be erupting around them. Now he saw he saw a gun pointed toward him, a puff of smoke like a balloon above the barrel, which he noted was less than straight. A F.N model pistol he thought, a gun he might have used to kill a small animal, or to hide away so no one would see it.

And then a sound of the world rushing in on itself and his senses coming alive and time resuming its normal pace as he realised the man meant to shoot him.

Crack!

A sharp pain leapt from his neck as the plumes of his hat splayed over the car and he pointed at the man and meant to yell, to tell Harrach to arrest him, to stop him, but no sound would come from his mouth, and instead a thin stream of blood spurted from somewhere and hit Harrach on the cheek, so that it seemed he instead had been shot.

In an instance he saw the man put the gun barrel in his mouth as if to kill himself but he was set upon by the crowd and he heard no further shot. Instead, Sophie stirred suddenlybeside him, shouting.

‘For Heaven’s sake, what has happened to you?’ she said, grasping his face between her hands, before slumping toward him, seeming to dissolve and bend so that she was then kneeling before him in the car, her head resting in his lap.

Franz felt the dampness on her as she slid across him and with his own warm fountain gushing from his neck, filling his sleeves and pockets and pooling on the seat beneath him, an excruciating grief rent his heart as he realised she too had been shot.

‘Sopherl! Sopherl! Sterbe nicht! Bleibe am Leben für unsere Kinder!’

He lifted her head and where there had been dignity and pride in her eyes now he saw, his own sight growing dim, there was emptiness, as if she had already left him. He lay her head down gently and then felt Harrach grab his uniform firmly, holding up his body which so much wanted to simply lie down with his wife.

It feels like a war inside of me… the past came to him again, carrying these words that had he played with in his mind countless times.

‘Your Imperial Highness, are you hurt badly, are you suffering?’

Franz felt the car reversing now, but he knew it was too late, that there was nothing left. At least they had been together. But oh, the children, who will care for them?

‘There is nothing,’ he said.

‘Sir?’

‘It is nothing… it is nothing… it is nothing…’

It is nothing for you oh God to watch over my children… help us, he prayed. Though I am not worthy. He opened his eyes, now feeling nothing but coldness and watched lazily as a green feather from his hat, rose in the air twirling, waving, and then he knew no more.

 

– Peter Hallett 2014 ©

 

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