By Brad Dison
The Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna, Austria, houses a large collection of artifacts spanning five centuries of Austrian military affairs. The collection consists of weapons, tanks, airplanes, vehicles, as well as a plethora of other war-related items. In the Sarajevo display of the Franz Joseph Hall in the museum sits an antique 1911 Gräf & Stift convertible automobile which still displays its original license plate; AIII118. If you look closer, you will spot evidence of something sinister.
On June 28, 1914, Emperor Franz Joseph sent his son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, to Sarajevo to observe military maneuvers. Well-wishers waited to greet the Archduke and Duchess. Members of a terrorist group also waited.
In 1901, officers in the Army of the Kingdom of Serbia formed a secret military society known as Unification or Death, more commonly known as the Black Hand. Their singular goal was the unification of Serb-inhabited territories by training guerrilla-type fighters in the art of sabotage and assassination. By 1914, the Black Hand had hundreds of members who operated in small cells of three to six members. Supervisors each handled a small group of cells. Secrecy was of the utmost importance, and members of a cell rarely knew anything about the activities of other cells. Cell members went about their daily lives until their supervisor gave them a mission.
In the Spring of 1914, a six-member cell comprised of Vaso Čubrilović, Cvjetko Popović, Gavrilo Princip, Trifko Grabež, Nedeljko Čabrinović, and Muhamed Mehmedbašić, received the order to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his trip to Sarajevo. The Black Hand trained the six cell members and furnished them with six bombs, five Browning FN Model 1910 automatic pistols with .380 ammunition, an undisclosed amount of money, suicide pills, and maps. The members of the cell planned and trained for the Archduke’s and Duchess’s upcoming visit.
On Sunday morning, June 18, 1914, Franz Ferdinand, his wife, and several members of the royal entourage arrived at Sarajevo by train, where a motorcade of six automobiles waited. Franz Ferdinand, his wife, and two other officials rode in the third car, a 1911 Gräf & Stift convertible automobile with license plate number AIII118. Within minutes of their arrival, the motorcade set off through Sarajevo on its pre-announced route toward the Town Hall.
The assassins anxiously awaited their target. The Black Hand strategically placed each of the assassins at different points along the route as a failsafe of sorts. If one assassin failed, the next would step in. Mehmedbašić stood in front of the Mostar Café armed with a bomb. Čubrilović stood nearby with a pistol and another bomb. Čabrinović stood a short distance away on the opposite side of the street near the Milijacka River armed with a bomb.
The unsuspecting passengers in the motorcade passed Mehmedbašić and Čubrilović without incident. For some reason, both failed to act. At 10:10 a.m., the motorcade approached Čabrinović. He removed the safety from the bomb and threw it. His aim was good. The bomb hit the folded down convertible top of the Franz Ferdinand’s car, bounced off, landed under the next car in the motorcade, and exploded. Some contemporary newspaper accounts reported that “the Archduke saw the missile hurtling through the air and warded it off with his arm.” The bomb wounded some twenty people and left a small crater in the street. The other three assassins, Popović, Princip, and Grabež, heard the bomb blast and assumed Franz Ferdinand had been killed. They watched in shock as the remaining cars in the motorcade, including Franz Ferdinand’s car, passed them by at a high rate of speed toward the Town Hall.
Čabrinović swallowed his cyanide pill and jumped into the river, but his suicide attempt failed. The cyanide pill was weak and only induced vomiting. Due to a drought, the water level in the river was only a few inches deep. The crowd pulled him from the shallow river and gave him a severe beating before police took him into custody.
Franz Ferdinand was visibly shaken as he spoke at the reception at the Town Hall. During his speech, the Archduke said, “…as I see in them an expression of their joy at the failure of the attempt at assassination.” Franz Ferdinand and Sophie abandoned their planned schedule and decided to visit those injured in the bombing at the hospital. The drivers in the motorcade were confused about the route to take to the hospital, and drove along the same route they had taken from the train station to the Town Hall.
Undeterred by the unsuccessful first assassination attempt, Princip stood in front of a delicatessen near the Latin Bridge and waited for the Archduke to pass by on his return trip. The drivers of the first, second, and third cars in the motorcade, which included the Archduke’s car, made an incorrect right turn at the Latin Bridge. Governor Potiorek, who was riding in the car with Franz Ferdinand, told the driver to stop because he had made a wrong turn. The driver applied the brakes and stopped the car right beside Princip.
Princip would not fail this time. He pulled his .380 pistol, stepped onto the car’s running board, and fired into Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. One shot penetrated Franz Ferdinand’s jugular vein, and another struck Sophie in the abdomen. Princip attempted to commit suicide with the pistol but was seized by the crowd before he could pull the trigger. Sophie lost consciousness immediately, followed by Franz Ferdinand a couple of minutes later.
The driver sped the injured couple to the Governor’s residence for medical treatment. Sophie died before they reached the Governor’s residence and Franz Ferdinand died a few minutes after their arrival. June 28, 1914, the day of their assassination, was Franz Ferdinand’s and Sophie’s fourteenth weeding anniversary.
Most historians agree that Princip’s shots were the spark which ignited World War I, one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. This “war to end all wars” killed an estimated nine million combatants and thirteen million civilians, in addition to many millions more who died as a result of genocide and the related Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918.
If you visit the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in person or by virtual tour, you will see the macabre artifacts from the assassination including the pistol Princip used in the assassination, the clothing worn by Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, the cot on which the injured Archduke died, and the car in which they were assassinated. Some people have argued that the automobile’s license plate, AIII118, was prophetic. If you convert the letters and numbers of the license plate into a date format, the result is 11/11/18. The license plate on the car in which the Archduke was assassinated, the assassination which began the First World War, prophetically gave the date of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, the date on which the fighting ended in World War I.
1. The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), June 28, 1914, p.39.
2. The Guardian (London, England), June 29, 1914, p.9.
3. The Daily News and Star (Lawton, Oklahoma), June 30, 1914, p.1.
4. “Heeresgeschichtliches Museum.” Accessed August 12, 2020. https://www.hgm.at/en/.