A shot rang at Sarajevo killing the Archduke Francis Ferdinand which led all of us immediately to realise that this shot most probably will mean war…

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

The shot that rang out at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 plunged Europe into one of the most devastating wars in its history. In this episode, some of the people who lived through the First World War explain what they witnessed in the days leading up to its outbreak. Henley Claxton was a 16 year-old sailor in Britain’s Royal Navy when war broke out in August 1914. He remembers the naval arms race between Britain and Germany in the early 1900s.

There was rivalry between you, between fleets. Better than now. Going back to the years before I ever joined the Navy, 1908, one of the slogans were, politically: ‘We want eight and we won’t wait’. It was either the Liberals or the Conservatives screaming out for dreadnoughts. ‘Cos Germany was piling them in and the slogan was: ‘We want eight and we won’t wait’. They wanted eight dreadnoughts, which I think we eventually had.

Walter Rappolt, who lived in Hamburg, explains the competition between Germany and Britain.

As far as the relationship between Germany and England was concerned we always had the impression that England was trying to prevent the full development of Germany and was very anxious that Germany didn’t have colonies and so on, and didn’t have a large fleet. We had the feeling towards 1914 that England was envying Germany’s successes in industry and so on and that England wouldn’t allow Germany to enlarge the fleet very much.

Royal Navy officer Neville Harvey was at the Kiel Regatta – a German sailing event – in June 1914. He describes the German and British attitudes to war.

Everybody, both sides, said ‘Never can we fight the British,’ and we would say, ‘never can we fight the Germans’. And of course that was all my eye and Betty Martin, because everyone knew that there was going to be a war, I mean even the government knew it, dammit.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife photographed shortly before their assassination during their official visit to Sarajevo, 28 June 1914.
© IWM (Q 114772)

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo. This set off a chain of events that led to war. Germany’s emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was at the Kiel Regatta when the assassination took place. Neville Harvey didn’t immediately realise it would mean war.

Nobody thought it was going to come just then. Well, these festivities lasted until the Sunday, and Sunday night we heard that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was the heir to the throne of Austria, had been murdered with his wife down in Bosnia. I don’t think then anyone had an impression that it would lead immediately to war. The Kaiser left on the Monday morning and whistled back to Berlin. We fired a royal salute of 21 guns at three minute intervals at midday as a funereal salute to the archduke. And we left on Tuesday morning; nobody thinking there was going to be a war immediately.

G Lagus, a schoolboy in Prague in the summer of 1914, sensed exactly what was going to happen, particularly because of the uneasy atmosphere in Austria-Hungary.

I was sitting for matriculation aged 17 in Prague, when a shot rang at Sarajevo killing the Archduke Francis Ferdinand. We were lucky all of us in our form to have a master who taught us modern history who, in all his lectures – not with so many words but always implying – that one day, under some pretext, the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy will go to war with Serbia, which of course led all of us immediately to realise that this shot most probably will mean war. Austria at that time had many nationalities, some of them agreeing with the composition and the attitude of the monarchy of Vienna especially, where everything was centralised. But many of them, all the Slavs, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Serbs, those in Herzegovina, and later the Poles, were absolutely dissatisfied with the role which they played as nationalities in the state.

In Germany, too, the significance was clear, as Walter Rappolt explains.

'The assassination of the Austrian archduke took place on the day of the German Derby. Hamburg had the German Derby. It was the first time that my parents took me to the races, and a short while before the Derby the music broke off; we didn’t know the reason. A little later we got to know of the assassination at Sarajevo. And after we came home I do recall that my father had a conversation with the director of the Hamburg-Amerika line, who lived next door to us, and say what would that all mean, and they were both – as far as I remember – both very pessimistic.

Ethel McCann was visiting Germany when the assassination took place. She remembers the problems that this meant for her.

I was with friends at the Bayreuth Festival – the Wagner Festival. We had news of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, and the next thing we knew war was declared on Serbia. They commandeered all cars in Bayreuth and we had to get home the best way we could. We were packed in the corridors like sardines and when we went through the various stations, soldiers were all lined up there waiting to go to the front. I got into Austria where I had friends and found that it was almost impossible to get to England because of the troops going to France. So I stayed with my friends and for nine weeks I’d no word from home at all and they’d no word from me.

Events moved quickly after the assassination. Through a complex web of alliances, Russia, France and Great Britain entered into war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Here, an anonymous Belgian soldier describes how Britain and France were drawn into the conflict.

Belgium was a neutral country. The neutrality was guaranteed by the Germans, by the French and by the English. So the expectation of all of us was that we simply would have to guard the frontiers so as had happened in the war of 1870 between France and Germany.  But now, after a couple of days of being in the Army, we found out that it was not so. That it was the Germans who kept not their word and attacked our country and that it was only England and France left at that moment who would keep their word and fight for us.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

Related content

Recruits wait for their pay in the churchyard of St. Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, August 1914.
© IWM (Q 53234)
First World War

Voices of the First World War: Joining Up

Episode 3: When war broke out in August 1914, Britain’s regular army numbered only 250,000. A recruitment campaign was immediately launched to swell the ranks. Hear about the effects of the recruiting drive on young men of Britain to join the army.

1st Battalion, Irish Guards prepare to leave Wellington Barracks, Westminster, London, following the outbreak of the First World War, 6 August 1914. © IWM (Q 66157)
1st Battalion, Irish Guards prepare to leave Wellington Barracks, Westminster, London, following the outbreak of the First World War, 6 August 1914. © IWM (Q 66157)
First World War

Voices of the First World War: Outbreak – 4 August 1914

Episode 2: After weeks of speculation and mounting tension, Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Hear how people reacted to this news in episode two.

German infantry crossing the Place Charles Rogier in Brussels as civilians look on following the invasion of Belgium, August 1914.
IWM (Q 88431)
First World War

How The World Went To War In 1914

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian-backed terrorist.