“Some Damned Silly Thing In The Balkans” *

It was on a fine June Sunday – 28 June 1914 – that the world was forever and profoundly changed by the nearly random luck of a tiny group of inept would-be terrorists and assassins in the small town of Sarajevo, in Austrian-controlled Bosnia.

The heir to the throne of the ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his morganatic wife Sophie were shot at close range by a young Bosnian, Gavorillo Princip. Princip, one of three assassins sent to kill the Archduke and his wife with bombs, was sitting in a cafe and moping over the failure of the plot: not one of the three assassins had been successful in their attempt to deploy their bombs. In two incidents, they succeeded only in wounding some bystanders when they hurled their distinctly inadequate bombs. (Adding insult to injury, Princip’s colleagues could not even commit suicide as they had planned because the “cyanide capsules” they swallowed were simply sugar!)

Astonishingly, after the failed bomb attempts, the Archduke and his wife continued on their motorcade to be received at Town Hall. Franz Ferdinand, unsurprisingly, scolded the mayor of Sarajevo for the reception the town had given him (Bombs! Of all the nerve!) and then decided to motor on to the hospital to visit those wounded in the failed attacks. This is where so much history hinges upon a trivial detail: the driver of the limousine made a wrong turn to the hospital in front of the very cafe where Princip was bemoaning his failure!

Princip, seeing the large car awkwardly trying to maneuver in the narrow old street, jumped up, pulled a pistol from his pocket, and fired twice at extremely close range, mortally wounding Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Princip was prevented from turning his weapon on himself by the intervention of an enraged mob, and he was immediately arrested.

Dragutin Dimitrijevic, chief of Serbian Intelligence, had sponsored the operation, and the Serbian Prime Minister had passively approved it, evidently hoping for Bosnia and Herzogovina to be united with Serbia after a revolt against Austria. It remains an open question as to why the Serbians sent three inept teenagers to do such a job, supplied them with feeble, inadequate bombs, and gave them useless poison pills. It appears as if Dimitrijevic intended to start a war with Austria. Whatever the reasoning behind the plot, war was indeed the result, war on a scale and of a horror unlike any previously known. Austria, after five weeks of dithering, declared war on Serbia, thus Russia declared war on Austria, Germany on Russia, France and England on Germany, The Ottoman Empire on France and England, and so on. The fire consumed the globe for four years, and millions upon millions died in horrible ways as the latest deadly technologies were tried.

To read accounts of and from that summer of 1914 is to have an eerie sense of having heard it all before: the blind optimism for battlefield glory, the patriotic zeal to “teach a lesson” to the other side, and the certainty that the whole thing would be over in short order; all of this seems uncannily like what Americans North and South were saying in the Spring and Summer of 1861, unaware of the horror that the American Civil War would unleash. Somehow, the Europeans of 1914 repeated the scenario as if reading from the same script. How could they have been so foolish? Had they never heard of the American Civil War? Or, as I suspect, did they make the assumption – repeated by generation after generation, all across the globe – that This time it will be different, because we know better!

A profoundly ironic view of things comes from the Archduke’s assassin. As he lay in prison dying of tuberculosis in 1918, Gavorillo Princip is recorded to have said “If I had known what was going to happen, I would never have done it.” Famous last words, eh?

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If any question why we died
Tell them, “Because our fathers lied.”

— Rudyard Kipling, who lost his son, referring to World War I

* The title comes from a notable statement made in 1890 by Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck: “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.”


Guns of August, Barbara W. Tuchman; Ballentine Books, 1994 ed.: ISBN: 034538623X


Tuchman’s history of the start of World War I was first published in 1962. It was re-issued in 1994 on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the start of that War. This book has been called the best history book ever written. Masterfully researched and documented, it is as scholarly as any such work need be, yet it retains a readability — and excitement — that makes it as entertaining as any fictional thriller. Even after the passage of 41 years, this book remains essential reading for those who wish to learn about World War I.

The First World War, John Keegan; Vintage, 2000: ISBN: 0375700455


I am of the opinion that anything by Keegan is worth reading (I’ve not been wrong yet, to my way of thinking.) This is a highly readable and complete account of World War I from start to finish. Perhaps the best one-volume coverage of that war we have.


On the 90th anniversary of the start of World War I, there was a remarkable amount of publishing activity. All the following are good, but these are not aimed at the casual reader.

Europe’s Last Summer : Who Started the Great War in 1914?, David Fromkin; Knopf, 2004: ISBN: 0375411569

In this minutely researched volume, Fromkin answers his title question. The result is the well-known tragedy of a war that many wanted, but from which none saw the ultimate outcome. I must confess that though this book was well-regarded in the review I read last August, I find it fairly tedious in its presentation. Scholarly, to be sure. But not an entertaining read.

Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy, David Stevenson; Basic Books, 2004: ISBN: 0465081843

This one-volume history of World War I is complete and as scholarly as can be, but at times the reading feels a bit too much like slogging along with those foot soldiers of the era, knee-deep in mud and growing ever wearier. Still, it is worth the effort, because Stevenson offers some fresh insights which offer a new perpective on the well-known truisms about World War I.

The First World War, Hew Strachan; Viking Adult, 2004: ISBN: 0670032956

Strachan’s one-volume distillation of his unfinished trilogy on World War I, this effort has many of the same virtues and limitations that I identify in Stevenson’s book: it is not popular history (whatever that might really be) and so it is not light reading. But it is likewise worth the effort.

The First World War: To Arms, Hew Strachan; Oxford University Press, 2003 ed.: ISBN: 0199261911

This is the first volume of a yet-to-be-completed trilogy about World War I. Strachan is a foremost authority on that war, and this book is a definitive account of the build-up to World War I. It is, however, so thorough and so comprehensive that it can be both daunting and — at times — almost tedious.

After A Horror, Help And Healing

On 24 June 1859, Solferino — the bloodiest, most horrific battle that Europe had seen or would see between 1813 and 1914 — was fought. Not even Waterloo compared in terms of the numbers of casulties incurred. Improbably fought in the incredibly beautiful area just south of Italy’s splendid Lake Garda, the Battle of Solferino was the largest gathering of troops upon the European continent since the Napoleonic Battle of Leipzig, at which some 500,000 troops clashed. Waterloo was far smaller: perhaps 170,000 troops fought there. Solferino, at which some 220,000 troops clashed, was the largest, deadliest battlefield conflict Europe would see until 1914 with the battle of the Marne, where some 2.5 million troops would be engaged, and unimaginably, more than 100,000 soldiers died.

The Battle of Solferino was a major part of the Risorgimento, the resurgance of Italy as a nation. Italy had been fragmented into numerous contending states since the Fall of Rome; by the mid 19th Century, there was widespread sentiment that Italy, too, along with other major European powers, should be a unified nation. However, major European powers had divided and conflicting interests in Italian unification. Austria-Hungary under the young Emperor Franz-Josef, had laid claim to Lombardo-Venetia (the provinces of Venice and Lombardy) and had no interest in reuniting these provinces with the proposed Italian State.

Conversely, the King of Sardinia – a small Island whose royal house became claimants to the throne of Italy – with the support of France in the person of Louis Napoleon, by this time known as Napoleon III, had determined the thwart any Austrian attempts to prevent Italian reunification. France wanted to humble Austria, and to gain influence with a newly unified Italy.

Solferino is not so much remembered today. Yet it is certainly notable in the fact that it is the last battle in human history at which the Kings of the combatant states led the battle: young Franz Josef of Austria determined to lead his troops, and so did Vittorio Emmanuale II of sardenia in conjunction with Napoleon III of France. The Battle of Solferino is, therefore, sometimes known as “The Battle of the Three Kings.”

In a world where battlefield deaths have been reckoned in the tens of thousands, Solferino’s toll of some 6,000 dead seems slight. The battle had a more grisly toll of perhaps 35,000 wounded or missing, but it is the aftermath of the battle which truly merits its mention.

One aspect of the fierce battle is that an observer from the United States Army, cavalryman Philip Kearny, later a famous Union General during the Civil War, took active part. Indeed, Kearny, who fought as an observer with the French General Staff, was described as “charging with the reins in his teeth and a sword in each hand,” (impossible, actually, as Kearny had lost an arm in the Mexican-American War in 1846) as he faced-down the Austrian forces. Kearny fought with such distinction that Napoleon III awarded him the Legion d’Honneur – France’s highest award – making Kearny the first American to receive the honor. (Kearny Street in San Francisco, however, is named for his uncle, General Stephen Kearny.)

The practical aftermath of solferino was that France gave up on intervening in Italian affairs, concludng a separate peace with Austria in which Austria ceded Lomabardy to “Italy” but retained control of Venetia, the mainland region around Venice. Another result was a deep-seated Italian mistrust of French political promises. The longest-reaching effect, perhaps, was the impact of the battle upon one observer, Henri Dunant, Swiss businessman.

Dunant was, apparently, only by chance near Solferino that fateful day, but he felt compelled to act. He immediately began to round up resources to care for the wounded and dying. Dunant possesed a persuasive manner and was able to impress local people – depsite their partisan status – to help the wounded. And so they did. Bit by bit, in the days following the battle, Dunant saw the relief of the grotesque sufferings of the wounded. In the wake of an overwhelmingly positive reponse to the good deeds Dunant coordinated at Solfrino, much of Europe cried for more of Dunant’s sort of work. Accordingly, Dunant decided to found an International society to provide aid and relief to the suffering in battle. His ideas formed the basis for the International Red Cross.

Dunant invested his time and fortune into the creation of the Red Cross, but he was marginalized in the effort in part because he was deemed too idealistic. As things developed, Dunant languished even as his ideas took root and flourished. It was not until much later, in 1901, that Dunant was truly and properly recognized for his achievements; he was the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize:

“There is no man who more deserves this honour, for it was you, forty years ago, who set on foot the international organization for the relief of the wounded on the battlefield. Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century would probably have never been undertaken.”

Of additional note for this battle must be this: this was the first large-scale armed conflict where the newly issued “Minie Balls” had an impact. The “Minie Ball” was not a musket “ball” at all: it was an immense innovation above its predecessors: a lead projectile that could hit its target! It was a recognizably modern bullet!!!

The Minie Ball dominated conflicts during the American Civil War, and excavations of Civil War battlefields yield hundreds of pounds of these projectiles every year. What made the Minie bullet so effective was that it was designed to easily “take” the rifling of a musket barrel which improved accuracy at least three-fold. Smooth-bore muskets indeed used spherical balls which traveled through the air rather like a pitcher’s knuckleball; after about 100 yards, hitting one’s target was pure chance. The Minie design allowed the bullet to develop spin as it traveled down the barrel of the musket. This tripled the projectile’s range and greatly improved its accuracy with inescapably devastating effect upon troops facing a volley of musket fire.

One reason for the horrific casualties at Solferino, and the even greater and more hideous casualty figures from Civil War battles is this vast improvement in firearm technology. Unfortunately, at Solferino, and throughout the American Civil War, generals and strategic planners who had grown up with smooth-bore muskets, and who had studied almost three hundred years of standard firearm practice never really digested the impact of this new technology. Even at the end of the Civil War, troops were sent to charge directly into massed musket fire with predictable, deadly results.

Unaccountably, as late as 1917, European generals were still applying Napoleonic tactical convention to the battlefield, while rates, range, and accuracy of firepower had increased vastly from the day of the Minie ball. Battlefield casualties in World War One were staggering as a result. At least there was a well-organized Red Cross to aid the wounded. One result of Solferino made a lasting and positive difference.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Are we doomed to it, Lord,
chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork,
helpless to halt its swing?

— Walter Miller, “A Canticle For Leibowitz”