By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s Program Note. This day in August 97 years ago was a day of general European warfare. The great powers, the most civilized nations on earth, had, at last, done the unthinkable, allowing a regrettable incident to morph into mayhem.
For this story, I have selected one of the most famous songs of World War I, “It’s a long way to Tipperary” to be the musical accompaniment. Written by Jack Judge in 1912, it started life as a rousing music hall number, and you can almost hear the clinking of glasses as you listen. It’s got a catchy beat of course but the underlying message is sad, even tragic, for with each passing day, the way back to Tipperary got longer… and the list of those who would never go home again did, too. You’ll find this tune in any search engine. Try to get the version by celebrated tenor John McCormick (born 1884) It’s grand indeed. Once you’ve found it, play it a couple of times. And listen to the words… carefully… many men died with this song on their lips and in their hearts….
How had it happened…
Once a war begins, people cease to be very interested in how they got there… and focus instead on how to ensure that they go home again safe and sound. That is entirely understandable, but not what we want to know today. We want to know why, so that (we hope) we can avoid such travail and grief for ourselves.
The proximate cause of the war was the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I have two autographed pictures of this man, known to history solely for his assassination and death, when, had he lived and reigned he would have been known for more.
The photographs I am looking at as I write show him first in 1890 (age 27 ) and then later in a glorious silver presentation frame with his archducal coronet blazing in gold at the top looking supercilious, complacent, a tad silly, and not just for his outsized handlebar mustache either.
He looked like a man you wouldn’t want to cross… and insiders within the empire knew he was adamant about reforming the ramshackle imperium, bringing her antiquated systems and infrastructure up-to-date. He gave every impression that he meant not just to be emperor… but master. “Yes, Gustave, he means what he says,” they whispered over their snitzel, then went on with the national obsession, living well. This was Austria in 1914… where things were significant, but not important.
Franz Ferdinand has gone down to history as stern and unyielding. The Hungarians certainly thought so… and Hungarians (whose royal status had been upgraded in 1867) had a huge (entirely negative) influence in the empire. Franz Ferdinand meant to change all that, with a system he called “tri-alism”, aimed to elevate the Slavs in his empire to equal status with the Germans who founded it and the Hungarians. The Hungarians, especially the nobility of this most aristocratic of nations, were opposed… and not just mildly, either. In fact, had one heard that Franz Ferdinand had been shot your first reaction would have been to assume the deed was done by an Hungarian. There was certainly (suppressed) joy around the noble tables of Budapest when the news of his death became known… joy and (very subtle but heartfelt) toasts (in the very best tokay, Aszu Escenzia).
A man of cultivated taste and sensibility and a gnawing sense of injustice.
Though Franz Ferdinand’s public persona was grave, censorious, insistent, he was very different at home… for there he was a man in love, whose deep affection was equaled only by the burning rage he felt because his wife could not be accorded his imperial honors. She was Sophie Chotek von Chotkovato, a mere countess, hence beneath the contemptuous notice of the sublime Hapsburgs.
Franz Ferdinand was forced to sign a declaration prior to his marriage saying that while he retained his position in the succession… his wife, of such lowly rank, could not share it, neither would any issue by her be allowed to reign. And so out of his great love for his lady came an abiding, gnawing sense of injustice, rage, and dishonor. Growing exquisite roses, collecting exquisite furniture, the tastes of an accomplished aesthete, did not begin to heal his anger and mortification. The humiliation was as calculated as 650 years of Hapsburg rule and unbending protocol could make it… she could never walk into any imperial function on his arm; she had to walk instead where her rank as lady-in-waiting placed her… each slight an insult like acid… to be endured but could never be amended. He fumed… and whilst fuming sought ways to show her and the world how he felt about the woman he so loved… such an opportunity came in July, 1914. He was going to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in connection with his military duties. He brought Sophie along because she could share his rank there… and he was insistent that she should.
A young revolutionary, burning with youthful zeal and the righteousness of his cause, the cause of Slavic independence, gave Sophie equal treatment indeed, killing both her husband and herself at the same moment. Ironically he got his chance because the car carrying both made an erroneous stop just a few feet from Gavrilo Princip, one of the several terrorists placed in the crowd that fateful day. Even the novice that Princip was couldn’t miss… and didn’t. Another Balkan crisis, amidst an unending stream of Balkan crises,was underway. But “crisis” didn’t necessarily mean “war”. While this great question was being answered, Princip, in prison, probably tortured, became the third fatality. He was just 20 years old…
War did not have to come; a negotiated settlement was not only probable but virtually certain.
Patriotic Austrians were rightly outraged and aghast at the murder of their imperial heir. He might not be popular but the dynasty he represented was. Importantly those with political acuity saw an opening, to weaken the Slavs who wanted total independence from an empire not willing to concede the point. And so an ultimatum, reckoned to be the most severe one sovereign nation had ever sent to another, was drawn up in Vienna and sent to Serbia… an ultimatum which made it clear that each point was not negotiable and that any quibble, even the smallest, would result in an immediate invasion of Serbia and the most abject of terms, even worse than in the ultimatum.
Serbia, having no means ready to combat Austria-Hungary, capitulated… with one minor, even trivial exception. Here was the basis for peace and even the German Kaiser Wilhelm II knew it.
And yet war came. Why?
Because a militaristic coterie in Vienna (headed by Conrad von Hotzendorf, Chief of Staff) and one in Berlin (headed by the Kaiser and the court and army officials who kept this mercurial emperor on track), wanted this war, at this time, sure they could win it. They almost won their bet, too… only to be handed in due course ignominy and total defeat.
Along the way, the road to Tipperary became long and bloody indeed, inscribed as it was with the names of all who knew the poignant significance of its words. As for us, we must remember that we, too, have more than enough people amongst us with a penchant for war. Eternal vigilance is the price we pay to ensure we do not experience any more of the long roads than we already have.