Remembering the outbreak of the First World War

On June 28th, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, the Duchess Sophie, were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist in Sarajevo in the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Virtually no one in Central Alberta had ever heard of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Duchess Sophie, knew where Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina were located, or had the slightest idea what Gavrilo Princip’s cause was about.

Hence, there was only small mention of the assassination in the local newspapers.

Initially, there was actually little upset over the death of the Archduke and Duchess in the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself. The Emperor, Franz Joseph, was not fond of his nephew. He had taken strong exception to Franz Ferdinand’s marriage to Countess Sophie Chotak. Sophie was a member of a noble family, but was not considered ‘royal’ enough to be a suitable spouse for a member of the Hapsburg royal family.

Hence, no senior member from any of the European royal families attended the funeral. No head of state was present either. As a symbol of what the Emperor and most of the Royal Family thought of the Duchess Sophie, her coffin was placed at much lower level than that of her husband.

Nevertheless, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in trouble.

The Empire was particularly concerned about the growing strength and influence of Serbia and its strong ally, the Russian Empire, in the Balkans. Austro-Hungary’s only dependable ally was Germany.

The senior officials of the Austro-Hungarian Empire decided to use the pretext of the Archduke’s assassination to put Serbia ‘in its place’ and to show the world that their empire was not as weak as it appeared to have become.

Hence, the summer was spent making threats and ultimatums.

Both Austro-Hungary and Serbia called on their allies to back them as the diplomatic brinkmanship moved inevitably towards war.

Meanwhile, Central Alberta enjoyed a reasonably warm and pleasant summer. However, the economy was still weak. The boost from the oil and gas boom that had followed the discoveries in the Turner Valley area was petering out.

The Pioneer Oil Company announced that it would still be proceeding with the drilling of a well south of Red Deer. However, the Land Titles Office reported that 1,396 of the filing tickets required for oil and gas leases had gone unclaimed, In contrast, back in June, these tickets had been selling for hundreds of dollars each.

While many businesses still faced slumps in sales, the weekly Red Deer Farmers’ Market, which had been reactivated in the spring of 1914, flourished. The Market was doing so well that City council considered turning it into a year-round event.

Then on July 28th, the Austro-Hungarian Empire finally declared war on Serbia. The chain of ‘dominoes’, created by the complex network of European military alliances quickly began to tumble towards a global war.

At 8 p.m. on the evening of Aug. 4th, 1914, word was received in Red Deer that Great Britain, and by extension, all of the British Empire, had declared war on Germany and its allies.

The City reacted with spontaneous demonstrations of excitement and patriotic fervour. The Red Deer Citizens Band led a kilometre–long parade to the new Armouries on the City Square (now City Hall Park). The speeches and rounds of patriotic songs continued for more than three hours.

Meanwhile, the London Times predicted that, “Europe is to be the scene of the most terrible war she has witnessed since the fall of the Roman Empire.” Tragically, the Times was far more accurate in predicting what was about to happen than the excited crowds back in Red Deer and across Alberta.