The Mistake that Started World War One

Franz Ferdinand, ca. 1914

World War One was started quite by accident. Literally. Plans had been made and people were in position to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, but after a failed attempt, the other conspirators abandoned the idea and their posts. Sadly, for the world, a lucky chance allowed one individual, Gavrilo Princip, the opportunity to complete his mission, and set in motion one of the deadliest wars in world history.

The first blunder

It was a beautiful Sunday morning on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand had spent the last few days walking around the shops of the city, taking in the sites. Crowds of people followed him, always in awe. Never once did anybody take a shot or attempt to take the Archdukes life. On 28 June, a day of celebration in Sarajevo (it was the 525th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo were Serb defenders lost against the Ottoman invaders, but single Serb had slain a Sultan), the Archduke pick up his wife from the train station and were heading to the town hall to give a speech and talk with the mayor. But the plans of others would upset that schedule.

Six revolutionaries, part of the Young Bosnians, were recruited by the Black Hand to assassinate the Archduke. The six, knowing the direction of the motor parade carrying the Archduke, positioned themselves along the path. Some had grenades, most had guns and cyanide pills to get the job done. The motorcade passed their first two conspirators without incident, who later blamed the large crowd for not attacking the Archduke.

However, the next conspirator, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, tossed a hand grenade at the Archduke, but the driver increased his speed, and the grenade detonated harmlessly away from its intended target, wounding over a dozen people, including two people from the Archdukes motorcade. The attacker was quickly arrested, and the other conspirators on the route lost their opportunity to attack the Archduke due to the increased crowed size around their target, and the increased speed of the cars.

The second blunder: a wrong turn that lead to war

After the motorcade made it to the Town Hall, the other five conspirators went their own way, believing their mission had failed. The Archduke arrived at the Town Hall, where he was quite shaken. After the meeting, he and his party left, but at the very last second, the Archduke wanted to head to the hospital to visit the wounded individuals from the failed attack. The driver, who knew the routes he was to take, and alternatives in case of attack, got lost heading to the hospital. The driver made a wrong turn at Appel quay and Franz Joseph Street where fate gave a 19 year old another chance.

Stepping out of a café, Princip was shocked to see the Archduke right before him, the car stopped as the driver tried to correct his mistake. With the car paused for just a moment, Princip took matters into his own hands. Taking a breath, Princip pulled his pistol, hitting a person in the street as he passed and at a range of five feet, fired two shots, one hitting the Archduke in the neck, and the other hitting Princess Sofia in the stomach. The assassin was quickly brought down while the driver raced to the hospital. Upon seeing his unconscious wife, the Archduke cried out “Sophie dear! Don’t die! Stay alive for our children!” He then fell unconscious. Upon arriving at the hospital, both the Archduke and his wife were pronounced dead.

Aftermath and conclusion

Despite having survived one assassination attempt just an hour before, the Archduke was slain due to bad luck and a wrong turn. In the next few weeks, Austria-Hungry would seek retribution for the death of the Archduke, while Serbia looked to Russia and France for support. On July 28th, Austria-Hungry and Serbia were at war, and by August 4th, Britain, the last European power, declared war on Austria-Hungry and Germany, officially sealing the world in a bloody four year world war.

All the conspirators would be arrested and tried. The young revolutionaries would get sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years (due to their young age, they were ineligible for the death penalty). Other individuals who helped smuggle the weapons and assassins into the country, as well as members of the Black Hand, would also get tried, some higher up individuals would be sentenced to death. Princip would die in prison on 28 April 1918 from tuberculosis.

Had the driver of the Archdukes car made the correct turn, then Princip would never have gotten the chance to assassinate him and his wife, meaning Europe and the world would have been spared the devastating effects of World War 1. But a wrong turn, a second chance and two shots were the final catalyst the brought on the horrors of trench warfare, and allowed the introduction of Hitler and a second devastating World War.


  1. Duffy, Michael. “The Causes of World War One.” The First World War.
  2. Strachan, Hew. The First World War. London: Simon & Schuster, 2003.