When the three grandsons of Queen Victoria stood side by side at the wedding of Kaiser Wilhelm's daughter to Prince Ernest August Duke of Cumberland, no one had any idea that a very real tragedy loomed silently on the horizon. The marriage was hailed as the end of the rift between the House of Hanover and the House of Hohenzollern and was described as a union akin to Romeo and Juliet, but with a happier ending. Instead, and unknowingly, the world was poised at the starting gate of a tragedy full of conflict and betrayal marking the day the cousins' worlds would begin to unravel. On that day, King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II, the three cousins who ruled half of the world's population, stood side by side staring up at the sky as a Zeppelin sailed majestically overhead. It would be the last time the cousins would ever meet again.
If you were a fly on the wall at the beautiful ceremony, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was like watching a charade. There was a pretence that they were all a loving family but somehow the atmosphere crackled with tension and everything seemed a little off kilter. If you had looked around, you would have seen nervous glances from 57-year-old Prince Louis of Battenberg, a citizen of Britain since he was 14 years old and married to Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Hesse. He was First Sea Lord in the British Navy but still a German prince and as such there had been many suspicious whispers regarding his loyalty if tension in Europe increased.
On the other side of the room, you would have seen Wilhelm talking earnestly to Nicholas who, as usual, was doing nothing but listening. No doubt he would have been telling Nicholas that Russia should never fight Germany and perhaps he would even have asked Nickolas what he would do if hostilities began. The reality was Nicholas wanted to be away from the whole event and back with his own family, who were not present at the wedding and still in Russia. He would have preferred to be hunting for mushrooms on the grounds of Tasarskoye Selo and looking after his little Alexis who had not yet recovered from a bleeding episode the previous winter. You would have seen all six of Wilhelm’s tall sons gathered around the drinks table since none of them were averse to getting drunk on any occasion. Talking to George would have been his youngest sister Beatrice and her three handsome boys; two afflicted with haemophilia who would never marry. Perhaps you would have noticed that everyone was smiling a little too widely as they danced, glancing just a little nervously around the room. It was almost as if the air fizzed with the unspoken word…war. One month later, on 28th June, the nightmare began.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie were visiting Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province when a grenade was thrown at their car. The bomb detonated behind them, hurting the occupants of the following car, but both Franz and his wife were safe. They were badly shaken by the time they arrived at the Governor’s residence but after a short rest, the couple insisted on seeing all those who had been injured by the bomb at the local hospital.
The decision to visit the hospital is one of those ‘if only’ situations in history. ‘If only’ they had continued on with their planned itinerary, they would not have been waylaid en route to the hospital. ‘If only’ the drivers had been informed that the itinerary had changed, they would not have had to back the car down the street onto a side street where Gavrilo Princip, aged 19 at the time and a member of an organisation called the Black Hand, was sitting at a café. As Princip watched the line of stalled cars in front of him, he seized the opportunity and walked calmly across the street and shot the royal couple through the window with a pistol given to him by a Serbian Army Colonel.
Princip’s first shot hit Sophie in the abdomen and his next hit Franz Ferdinand in the neck. Franz, still alive and bleeding profusely, leaned over his crying wife and uttered his dying words, ‘Don’t die darling, live for our children’ before sagging down unconscious. Despite several doctors’ frantic efforts, Sophie died from internal bleeding and Franz died shortly after being carried into the Town Hall.
Wilhelm was at the Kiel Regatta racing yachts when he heard the terrible news. He was entertaining a squadron of British battle cruisers and the town was full of fraternising German and British officers. When he heard that his closest friend Franz Ferdinand had been murdered, he was visibly shocked and distressed.
Nicholas was on his annual Baltic summer cruise and 9-year-old Alexis had fallen while jumping from a ladder and twisted his ankle. Being a haemophiliac, he was screaming with pain and his mother Alexandra was white with worry. They also had just heard that a madwoman had stabbed Rasputin and everyone on the boat, except Alexandra and Nicholas, was hoping that he would die. With everything else going on around them, news of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination barely registered with Nicholas and his family.
George was preoccupied as well. He had been having bitter arguments over the fate of Protestants in six northern counties in Ireland, which had threatened to fight if they were separated from Britain. Guns had been smuggled into the north and George was obsessed with what might happen if his army had to fire on British citizens.
Although everyone was shocked at the news, no one expected the assassination to escalate to all-out war. Certainly initially, there was rage and sympathy for Austria but everyone expected it to blow over. Even if the murder could be traced back to Serbia, the 19-year-old assassin had said he killed Franz Ferdinand because he was an enemy of the Southern Slavs.
The Austrian government, however, saw things differently. To them it was an opportunity not to be missed. As Serbia had doubled in size after the Balkan wars, it had constantly proclaimed itself leader of the Southern Slavs, which meant it was a threat to the Hapsburg Empire. Austria had asked Germany to help them crush Serbia on three separate occasions since 1913 and Wilhelm had refused every single time. With this new turn of events however, the Austrian army was quite enthusiastic for war, as were most of the German officers.
A week after the assassination, the Austrian ambassador came to Wilhelm with a confidential letter requesting their support to launch a quick war to punish Serbia while Europe was on its summer holidays. Germany’s only role was to make sure no other powers would feel tempted to get involved. It would be all over before anyone knew about it, they assured him.
Give Wilhelm his due: he hesitated. Even if it was for only a moment. Then he made a fateful decision. He told the ambassador that they could rely on German’s full support if Austria acted fast.
His decision must have come from a deep sense that Germany was trapped and had nowhere else to go to avenge his friend’s death. And like the army, he was obsessing about Russia as a future threat. He would have been well aware of the risk he was taking, even if the war was quick and localised. He knew that Russia was not ready for war and would think twice about it.
Convinced that the mere threat of war would be enough, Wilhelm set off the next day for his annual yachting trip along the Norwegian coast. The little boy with the damaged arm, who was put in a metal cage and stretched as a small child to strengthen his back, was taking his own personal revenge.
Unknowingly, with that one signature, he set the future horrific events into motion. It was a decision he would live to regret for the rest of his life.