World War I on the Western Front

World War I Erupts


On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot dead in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip. This event led to a diplomatic crisis and the outbreak of World War I.

Franz Ferdinand was an Archduke of Austria-Hungary from 1896 until his death, as well as heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne. His assassination in Sarajevo precipitated Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia. This caused the Central Powers—including Germany and Austria-Hungary—and Serbia’s allies—Russia, and later England and France—to declare war on each other, starting World War I.


Learning Objectives

  • Examine how the assassination of Franz Ferdinand caused the outbreak of World War I.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Archduke Franz Ferdinand: heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary whose assassination started World War I

Austria-Hungary: multi-ethnic, multi-lingual state in central Europe comprising a territory that included present-day Austria, Hungary, Bosnia, parts of Romania, Poland, and the Balkans

Serbia: small, independent country comprised of Slavic-speaking peoples

Sarajevo: major city in present-day Bosnia famous as the site of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife

Black Hand: a clandestine, Serbian-based society that used terrorist tactics to achieve political goals; famous for its role in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand

Gavrilo Princip: nineteen-year-old Serbian nationalist and member of the Black Hand who assassinated Franz Ferdinand and his wife

July Ultimatum: Austria-Hungary’s list of demands placed on Serbia during July 1914 that was designed to humiliate Serbia in the name of preserving peace

July Crisis: breaking of diplomatic ties between Austria-Hungary and Serbia

Central Powers: one of the major combatant sides of World War I that included primarily Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire

Allies: the major combatant side of World War I that initially was led by England, France, and Russia, which later changed to England, France, and the United States in 1918.




Franz Ferdinand was born in Graz, Austria as the eldest son of Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria and his second wife, Princess Maria Annunciata of Bourbon-Two Sicilies. In 1875, when he was only 11 years old, his cousin Duke Francis V of Modena died, naming Franz Ferdinand his heir. Franz Ferdinand thus became one of the wealthiest men in Austria.

In 1889, Franz Ferdinand’s life changed dramatically. His cousin Crown Prince Rudolf committed suicide at his hunting lodge in Mayerling. This left Franz Ferdinand’s father, Karl Ludwig, first in line to the throne. Ludwig then died of typhoid fever in 1896. The death of his father meant that Franz Ferdinand, grandson of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, was now the direct heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.


Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.


Emperor Franz Joseph was displeased by the fact that his brash grandson was now his immediate heir and successor. To him, Franz Ferdinand was an arrogant and indulged man who had spent his adulthood traveling, hunting large game, and pursuing women who were not of royal stock. One of his pursuits led Franz Ferdinand to fall in love with a lady-in-waiting, Sophie Chotek. Alleging that he was deeply in love, Franz Ferdinand refused to marry anyone else. He was only granted the right to marry the commoner when he agreed to certain stipulations that would limit Sophie’s rights as a duchess and erase royal privileges for their children.

The relationship between Franz Ferdinand and his grandfather remained stormy. Still, despite his personal misgivings and dislike of his grandson, Emperor Franz Joseph conceded that he must train and treat his grandson as heir to the throne. In June 1914, he had Franz Ferdinand accept an invitation to inspect troops in Sarajevo. As a concession, the emperor allowed Sophie to travel with her husband. Little did the emperor suspect how radically that trip would shape the future of Europe.


The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand


On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, arrived in Sarajevo. A large city located in the southern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now present-day Bosnia), it offered a stark comparison to the mainly German city of Vienna. Sarajevo was a city comprised of Bosnians, Serbs, and other minorities. Many of the minorities wished to break free of the Germanic Austro-Hungarian crown and form independent states like their neighbor: the tiny Slavic country of Serbia. This sentiment was well-known by Emperor Franz Joseph who sought to strengthen the power and presence of the crown in the southern parts of his kingdom. As such, Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s visit was conducted largely as a show of power and presence. Little did the royals know that an underground, secret Serbian organization named the Black Hand was exhaustively planning the assassination of the heir to the throne.

In Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were welcomed by the governor and a motorcade. But not long after their welcome, a grenade hurled overhead, landing under the car behind their open carriage. A dozen men in the cars behind the archduke were injured. The rest of the motorcade arrived at city hall, shaken, but determined to carry-forth with the Archduke’s parade. Blood from the injured men remained on the Archduke’s uniform as he snapped at the city mayor, “Is this how you greet your guests?”


Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie leaving City Hall in Sarajevo. Photo shows the final minutes of the royal couple’s lives before their assassination.


What followed is, perhaps, among the strangest coincidences in modern history. Miscommunication among aides and drivers resulted in Franz Ferdinand’s chauffer, a stranger in Sarajevo, becoming lost in the city streets. He turned right at the Latin Bridge, onto Franz Joseph Street. Realizing his mistake, he stopped the car right outside of Schiller’s Delicatessen, which unintentionally stalled it. In a peculiar twist of events, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb nationalist and assassination-conspirator of the Black Hand, was standing right out front of the deli. He ran to Franz Ferdinand’s stalled-out limousine and shot the archduke and his wife at point-blank range, killing them both. Before he could commit suicide, Princip was seized and taken into custody. 


Nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip, assassin of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.


The Black Hand’s attempt to assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne succeeded, albeit in the strangest of ways. But little did the clandestine group suspect that soon all of Europe would be engulfed in a “war to end all wars.”


Choosing Sides: Europe Divided


The murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife produced widespread shock across Europe, and there was initially much sympathy for the Austrian position. Within two days of the assassination, Austria-Hungary and Germany advised Serbia that it should open an investigation, but Secretary General to the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Slavko Gruic, replied “Nothing had been done so far and the matter did not concern the Serbian Government.” An angry exchange followed between the Austrian and Serbian governments.

Behind the scenes, a special friendship and bond existed between Austria-Hungary and its stronger, more militaristic neighbor, Germany. Unofficially, Germany offered military and diplomatic advice to their Austrian cousins. And assured Austria that they would ally with them in the event a war erupted between Austria and Serbia.

After conducting a criminal investigation, Austria-Hungary issued a formal letter to the government of Serbia. The letter contained specific demands aimed at preventing the publication of propaganda that advocated the violent destruction of Austria-Hungary, removing the people behind this propaganda from the Serbian Military, arresting the people on Serbian soil who were involved in the assassination plot, and preventing the clandestine shipment of arms and explosives from Serbia to Austria-Hungary. Serbia agreed to most of the demands but would not accept that clause that suggested the government was involved in the assassination plot of Franz Ferdinand.

This letter became known as the July Ultimatum, and Austria-Hungary stated that if Serbia did not accept all of the demands in total within 48 hours it would recall its ambassador from Serbia. But much as Germany privately advised and built an alliance with Austria, Russia privately came to the aid of its smaller, Slavic nation, Serbia. And this Russian aid emboldened the Serbs.

The situation quickly escalated from a small conflict in the Balkans, to a looming war that would pit Austria-Hungary and Germany against Serbia and Russia. After receiving private assurance of Russian military support, Serbia mobilized its army. Austria-Hungary responded to Serbian mobilization by breaking diplomatic relations. This diplomatic crisis is known as the July Crisis.

By the end of July, Serbian reserve troops crossed onto the Austro-Hungarian side of the river at Temes-Kubin and Austro-Hungarian soldiers fired into the air to warn them off. The report of this incident was initially sketchy and reported to Emperor Franz-Joseph as “a considerable skirmish.” Austria-Hungary then declared war and mobilized the portion of its army that would face the already mobilized Serbian Army on July 28, 1914. This moment marked the start of World War I.


German propaganda poster from 1914 showing the four main parties of the Central Powers in order of importance: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria. The poster reads: “United Strength leads to the Victory.” Of the four nations, Germany was by far the strongest militarily and the primary opponent for the British and French.


Moreover, under the Secret Treaty of 1892 France was obliged to mobilize its army because its ally, Russia, had also mobilized. No longer an isolated conflict in the Balkans, a war erupted that pulled in most of Europe to its battlefields within days. With the crossing of German troops into initially neutral Belgium, England joined the war on the side of France, Russia, and Serbia. Thus, the two sides of the war became the Central Powers (predominately Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allies (Russia, Serbia, France, England, and in 1918, the United States). Because most of the combatant nations also had colonial territories around the world, troops from across the globe were sent to fight in Europe’s war over the next four-and- half-years. And European troops would discover themselves fighting a war in places as remote as German East Africa.


Map showing members of the Allies (green) and Central Powers (Yellow) in World War I. Note that some of the Allied nations dropped out/joined throughout the war. Russia, for example, dropped out in 1917, while the United States joined on the side of the Allies in 1917, but was militarily only significant in 1918.




The assassination of Franz Ferdinand did not cause World War I. Indeed, the middle-aged heir to the throne was disliked by many of his own inner circle, and even his grandfather, Emperor Franz Joseph, reportedly did not mourn the loss as personal, so much as the symbolic loss for Austria. Many historians cite the turning of the twentieth century in Europe as a moment filled with tension. Tension between increasingly powerful European nations. The root causes of World War I were hyper-nationalism, hyper-militarism, colonial rivalries, the rivalry between England and Germany as the dominant European power, and the alliances between European nations. All of these played vital roles in creating a war-mongering climate in Europe.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand acted as a final blow in a long series of tensions between European nations. It marked the tipping point that caused war to finally erupt. Although few heads of state, or military leaders predicted a long war. Perhaps only British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, had the foresight to see what the European war would become in 1914 when he wrote, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”