Sarajevo, 1914. On a June morning, nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip drew a pistol from his pocket and fired the first shot of the First World War, killing the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Princip then launched a series of events that would transform the world forever.
Retracing Princip’s steps from the feudal frontier village of his birth to the city of Belgrade and ultimately Sarajevo, journalist and bestselling author Tim Butcher discovers details about the young assassin that have eluded historians for a century. Drawing on his own experiences in the Balkans covering the Bosnian War in the 1990s, Butcher also unravels the complexities and conflicts of this part of the world, showing how the events of that day in 1914 still have influence today.
“Devastating yet strangely exhilarating.” —Publishers Weekly
“Evocative and moving . . . [Butcher] reveals an intelligent and determined South Slav patriot who gave his life for the cause.” —Saul David, author of Military Blunders
“Well-researched history . . . indelible personal recollections of the Bosnian war . . . piquant vignettes of traversing rural Bosnia on foot . . . Consistently appetizing and highly controversial.” —Dervla Murphy, author of Full Tilt
“A great book . . . to be recommended to professional and amateur historians alike.” —General Sir David Richards, former chief of the British Defense Staff
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In other wars more people have died, more nations been involved and the world brought closer to annihilation, but somehow the First World War retains a dread aura all of its own. The guns fell silent all those years ago, but like a refrain that stays with the audience long after the music stops, the First World War has a returning power. So monumental was the suffering, so far-reaching the influence on history that the war still generates reward not just for writers, academics and artists, but for people simply learning about themselves, their bloodlines, their place. The Great War's power lies with the suspicion that its impact has yet to be fully understood.
I was born in Britain half a century after the fighting ended, yet the First World War has always been thereabouts, a background presence shaping me and my setting, a founding sequence in my make-up. Often it was so faint it was difficult to discern: the whittling of one's own self through the loss of a distant ancestor. Occasionally it spiked: in my teens sitting with my mother as she wept through the Festival of Remembrance televised each year from the Royal Albert Hall in London. But a war from a hundred years ago remains relevant enough to intrude on our todays through a sense that closure has perhaps yet to be reached. The moral clarity that framed the Second World War's struggle against Nazi totalitarianism, or the Cold War's friction between right and left, seems to evade the earlier conflict. The question, 'Was it right to go to war in 1914?' can be answered in many ways, through bullet points or lengthy treatises, but I wonder if any answer is totally convincing. This is what keeps the First World War so charged – the unease born of doubt as to whether the sacrifice was worthwhile. For me, this is what transforms so powerfully the words of Laurence Binyon, plain enough by themselves, but, when delivered on a raw November morning to a gathering of people wearing red paper poppies, they ache from what might have been: We Will Remember Them.
In the small Northamptonshire village where I grew up, the First World War was remembered in glass. Hellidon was too small to have shops, so the community revolved, as it had for centuries, around the church of St John the Baptist, a modest but stolid place of worship in keeping with the village's position at the middle of Middle England. Built of locally quarried ironstone, St John's was chilly-damp in winter, yet on summer nights the butterscotch masonry bled warmth from the day's baking in the sun. It was old enough to have known fighting; indeed, my childish imagination was fired by stories about the runnels that flute the stone arch in the portico. I was told they had been left by seventeenth-century noblemen sharpening their swords before battle in the Civil War.
As children, my friends and I would dare each other to climb the bell-tower, and for years I earned pocket money mowing the grass in the graveyard. At the village carol service one year I fought my first trembling battle with stage fright when I was called on to read the Advent message from the Archangel Gabriel. A box had to be placed in the pulpit so that I could see out as I wrestled with nerves and difficult words. The next generation of Butchers would themselves pass through St John's, with my firstborn niece being baptised there, while my own son would take snot-nosed delight in toddling up the lane to watch the bell-ringers at practice.
And each of these modest moments of a family's making were watched over by four figures immortalised in a stained-glass window that was set to catch the southern sun. Such windows are where biblical characters tend to be represented, but in the Hellidon village church a group of decidedly unbiblical-looking male faces have stared out since their unveiling in 1920. Against a setting of rich green foliage and red petals, daylight can give the figures an authentically holy glow. They wear the pure-silver armour of chivalrous medieval knights; indeed, one is helmeted, but the other three have the pasted-down, centre-parted hairstyles of early twentieth-century England. They are portraits of the menfolk of the village who gave their lives in the First World War: two brothers, William and James Hedges, Fred Wells and John Buchanan.
It was this window that first brought me to think about the war, although my early grasp was childlike. Mostly I was interested in the sword that the helmeted figure leans on and in the stirringly heroic words of the memorial's swirling epitaph: 'The Noble Army of Martyrs Praise Thee.' These were men from my village, from my side. They died for us in a foreign place, in a cause that simply must have been noble. Now, back to the sword.
Mine was not a military family, but as I grew older it was impossible to avoid the martial osmosis that steadily gives structure to the imagery of 1914–18: troops, trenches, bayonets, barbed wire, cannon, craters, monuments, memorials. St John's held a remembrance service each year, an event that was choreographed around the symbols of the Great War and had the power to transform some of our older neighbours. I knew them as keen gardeners or dog-walkers, but for one morning each year a medal ribbon on their breasts spoke of something much more thrilling – combat that, in some way too complex for my young mind to understand, was rooted in the First World War.
The conflict would crop up more and more in my reading as the stories of Biggles landed on my bookshelves and history teachers began to fill in my understanding, one that was initially framed in terms simplistic enough for a schoolboy to grasp: Us against Them, Good versus Evil. I was taught about a clash between Britain and Germany, one fought mostly from fortified holes in the ground separated by the ominously named 'no-man's-land', a killing zone so dangerous that men would use periscopes to look out over it. Afternoons were spent playing with friends as we built earthworks of our own, dens concealed in hedgerows, underground hideouts where we too could be heroes. When my science teacher showed us how to construct a home-made periscope, it was immediately deployed on our imaginary battlefield.
At the age of twelve, I went to Rugby, a school whose alumni, they never tired of telling us, included Rupert Brooke, among the most celebrated of war poets. The school was so proud of this particular son that his great work, 'The Soldier', was read to us on every possible public occasion. It summed up perfectly any adolescent framing of the war:
If I should die, think only this of me:
The lines captured the proud early idealism stirred by the war and soon made Brooke a favourite of the Establishment. He was writing in the first months of the war, when patriotism had about it a purity yet to be corrupted by jingoism, and in his verse there was no sense of questioning the war and the way it was conducted. He died less than a year into the conflict, in April 1915, aboard a hospital ship en route to Gallipoli, and although 'The Soldier' had only just been published, Winston Churchill, in his last days as First Lord of the Admiralty, put his name to a fulsome tribute published in The Times:
The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward into this, the hardest, the cruellest and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought.
As my schooling progressed it was the last part of this Churchillian flourish that I began to comprehend – the First World War's suicidal combination of medieval, muddy entrenchment tactics and modern, industrial-age weaponry. Entire units could be wiped out in a single engagement, dutiful infantrymen following orders not to run but to march, as they advanced against machine-gun fire; cohorts of chums churning through the slop, cringing, bleeding, drowning. Particularly haunting, for me, were the legions of soldiers who died without leaving a trace, their bodies atomised by high explosives, buried alive in artillery barrages. Could a war ever end for relatives troubled by the knowledge that the remains of a loved one had never been found? The epitaph on memorials that seeks to reassure us today, 'Known unto God', was composed by the author Rudyard Kipling, himself a father condemned to plough forlornly the post-war battlefields of the Western Front in search of his lost son, John. He never found him.
The more I read, the more I learned solemn reverence for the millions killed, disfigured and damaged, a feeling so powerful that it seeped through my young life. Hideouts that had been fun to escape to when I was younger lost their magic when I read of the vermin that infested the trenches in Flanders, the lice, the rotting corpses set into battlement walls, the gas, the shell-shocked men tormented by combat of a relentlessness never before endured. As my friends and I went through the teenage ritual of smoking cigarettes, we would lurk behind our figurative bike-shed at school and earnestly refuse a third light, a superstition we believed born of trench warfare. The myth went that on the Western Front an enemy sniper would catch sight of a match lighting the first cigarette, take aim on the second and pull the trigger on the third.
Like wreckage that floats to the surface from a colossal ocean liner that went down long ago, so links to the events of the First World War can still emerge years later. For me this happened in 1981, when my mother hung a photograph in our home. Following the death of my maternal grandmother, a sepia portrait of a young airman passed to my mother and she made sure it was put on display, prominently positioned at eye-level opposite the bottom of the stairs. From there the portrait watched over the toing and froing of my teenage years.
It showed Alyn Reginald James, my grandmother's older brother, as a young man in his early twenties wearing an infantry officer's uniform from the First World War. Uncle Alyn, as he is known to us later generations, leans casually on a cane, the very vision of dashing, the winged badge of the Royal Flying Corps visible on his breast. Before the Royal Air Force had even been founded, he was one of the first combat pilots – something that, to my young mind, marked him out with greatness, a magnificent man in his flying machine. He flew sorties against Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, one of the most exotic figures of the First World War. This was the stuff of childish fantasy, and for a long time that is what the portrait signified to me.
Researching this book, I found pictures of Uncle Alyn that I had not seen, fresh flotsam from the deep that still had the power to move my mother to silence. They included a pair of official photographs of his unit, No 62 Squadron, taken in the same sitting on a wintry morning in Britain, one very formal and the other smiling. In the serious one I struggled to recognise him among the glum expressions, Sam Browne belts, handlebar moustaches and medley of pre-RAF uniforms. But in the more casual picture his features stand out clearly, the same round cheeks hoisted above the wide smile I remember from the picture in Hellidon. Someone has captioned the smiling photograph with a title worthy of Biggles. It reads: 'The Cheery 62's'.
In the last image I found, he is now in France, standing alongside an informal group of airmen. The mood of the picture is different. It is cold. Several of the men have their hands in their pockets. One wears mittens. Uncle Alyn is smiling, but with not quite the same cheeky conviction as before. He stands on duckboards. The rich earth of Rupert Brooke has turned to the ruddy mud of the Western Front.
On 24 March 1918, days after this picture was taken, Uncle Alyn was lost while strafing German trenches. He was twenty-three. He has no known grave.
His parents had to endure months of uncertainty about whether he might have survived. He came down close to the Somme River during an intense German offensive and at a time when the British army was in pell-mell retreat. With thousands of casualties on both sides, the fate of a single enemy aircraft on land recently and bloodily fought over was hardly a priority for the advancing Germans. It would be months before British officialdom formally pronounced that Alyn was dead.
This is where the true power of the portrait lies: a means to earth the pain of a mother predeceased by a son, and of a sister who had lost an adored brother, an echo for those who came later of what might have been. Around the world, in picture frames, albums and scrapbooks, similar memorabilia contribute to this returning power of the Great War. As a young man I had thought of Alyn as extraordinary, someone who marked out our family in some special way. But I came to learn that, in essence, our family experience was no different from that endured by millions: a sense of loss still powerful enough to touch our contemporary world.
A few years ago my mother's brother was moved to make his own family pilgrimage to the battlefield where Alyn died. He wrote to me explaining that he wanted to see if it was possible to identify where his uncle might have been buried. 'By working out where he was probably shot down we searched a few cemeteries and did find the graves of two unidentified airmen which could easily have been Alyn and his observer. We liked to think so, anyway.'
As I matured, so did the sophistication of my understanding of the First World War. Like the trenches that started out as shell-scrapes but morphed into ever more complex military ecosystems with their own terminology – saps, berms, revetments and embrasures – so my mental imagery of the Great War began to fill out. I started to appreciate how its impact reached far beyond the battlefield, changing the course of the twentieth century. As my history teachers drilled into me, the First World War provided the preconditions for the Second World War and thereby the tension of the Cold War. The war of 1914–18 was Ground Zero for modern history, the end of an old order that had held sway for hundreds of years, the fiery forging of a new world.
Rupert Brooke's romantic imagery no longer felt so convincing when I learned more about the senseless stalemate of trench warfare, where lives were sacrificed on frontlines that scarcely moved in years. Generals who bloodily piled unsuccessful offensive onto unsuccessful offensive could be lampooned as 'donkeys leading lions'. The starker framing of war poets like Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas rang truer, and so I came to share in their bitterness about the way the war was run. I could get the joke when the futility of the sacrifice was satirised in films like Oh! What a Lovely War and television series like Blackadder Goes Forth.
A far-sighted teacher opened up a broader perspective when he persuaded me to read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a veteran of the fighting, but from the 'other side'. Germans were depicted as victims of fear and suffering, living and dying in flooded trenches, ordered to make suicidal stands by commanders aloof from reality. The novel hinted at the universality of the First World War's ongoing power, as there was none of the Nazi evil or communist megalomania that made it easy to compartmentalise later conflicts. In the First World War soldiers on all sides were barely discernible from each other, fodder caught in the same murderous morass, sharing the same attrition of bullet and barrage, disease and deprivation, torment and terror. Elsewhere I learned that Adolf Hitler's psychotic German nationalism was in part forged from his own experience of trench warfare and his fury at what he perceived as the betrayal of soldiers by politicians far away from the trenches. Blood might be spilled on the battlefield, but the Great War's impact was measured in the turmoil it created far beyond the frontline through strife, civil war and revolution that ousted regimes and realigned the social order. This the First World War achieved on an unparalleled scale.
In 1982 my family went on a package holiday to Yugoslavia, a country born out of this realignment, staying at a lake resort in the north, close to the modern border with Austria. The trip was memorable because it was the first time I flew (great excitement for a fourteen-year-old) and the first time I had a holiday romance (greater excitement still), but even there the First World War also barged its way in. Before that summer I had scarcely been aware of fighting beyond the Western Front, but in our lakeside hotel in the spa town of Bled we were just a short coach trip away from the Italian Front. This was where Italy led the Allied fight against Germany's great ally, Austria–Hungary, along a frontline that climbed high into the Julian Alps, one of the most brutal theatres of the First World War. Here soldiers had to endure not just artillery barrages and infantry clashes, but winter conditions in the remote mountains. In December 1916 avalanches alone killed as many as 10,000 soldiers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Trigger"
Copyright © 2014 Tim Butcher.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Note on Pronunciation xv
Chapter 1 Fresh Flotsam 1
Chapter 2 A Troublesome Teenager 21
Chapter 3 The Wild West 39
Chapter 4 Over Tent Mountain 71
Chapter 5 Fishing in a Minefield 99
Chapter 6 Rocking Bosnia 131
Chapter 7 The Fall of Gabriel 161
Chapter 8 Fin-de-siècle Chat Rooms 183
Chapter 9 A Mystical Journey 209
Chapter 10 Arming the Trigger 235
Chapter 11 An Assassin's Luck 263
Chapter 12 More Than One Shadow 285
List of Illustrations 299
Notes and Bibliography 303
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As a longtime student of WWI, I heard the Author of this book interviewed on NPR. My interest was piqued, since Gavrilo Princip is a pivotal figure in having brought about The Great War, but is generally skipped over a pretty much a historical footnote. The excellence of this book was, thus, highly unexpected. Well written, concise, and as comprehensive a work as I have ever seen concerning the political/cultural complexities prevalent in the Balkans from well before WWI through the present. An easy and interesting read, by an Author who has great personal knowledge of the area, did his homework, and dug deep into his own soul in order to convey his findings to the reader. Cannot recommend this book highly enough to any serious student of 19th and 20th Century history.