Archduke Franz Ferdinand – his assassination in 1914 started WW1, but he was also a keen hunter

Peter Assfalg

There is a story that is still told today by the hunters of Carinthia (the eastern Alps of southern Austria), lovers of the Pirsch (deerstalking). It is the tale of a legendary trophy, a great pale grey chamois, stuffed and shown in the Salzburg Haus der Natur (Museum). It is said that this beast was, like all white game, marked with the seal of invisibility, protected by the Salinge Frau (wild or white alpine woman), who lives on the slopes of the Austrian Alps.

This exceptional chamois was killed on August 27, 1913, by one of the most famous hunters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Archduke Franz Ferdinand von Osterreich-Este, born in Graz on December 18, 1863. But woe unto him who touched the Salinge Frau’s white game! Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie died less than a year later, courtesy of the bullets of Gavrilo Princip, at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, eerily consistent with the oral tradition among Austria’s huntsmen – that any hunter who killed such an animal “he or a member of his family shall die within a year.” According to the Austrian hunters, the implacable punishment of this transgressor of the Order of the Wild was the source of the original catastrophe of the century of extremes. The Great War was an ordeal atoning for a violated taboo, such is, at heart, the belief of the Tyrolean hunters.

According to the great-granddaughter of Archduke Ferdinand, Anita Hohenberg, he also had a keen sense of humour, citing the time he was being alerted to the proximity of the white chamois, took aim and killed it with one shot. “Bravo, your highness!” cried his followers. “Franzi, Franzi, why did you kill a white chamois? It will bring bad luck,” cried his wife Sophie. “Don’t worry,” the Archduke replied. “There is always a reason why one has to die one day.”

There is nothing inherently implausible in this legend ‑ or at least not in the idea that Archduke Ferdinand might have shot a rare animal without thinking twice about it. He was a committed, indiscriminate huntsman and a good shot, with as many as 100,000 trophies in his estate in Konopiste in the Czech Republic. You had to be careful walking down the halls to avoid becoming impaled by antlers.

Archduke Ferdinand was not the only member of the nobility of the day who hunted for sport. It was a popular pursuit, enjoyed widely by aristocrats and royalty, like Britain’s Lord Ripon, who shot pheasants, grouse, partridges, woodcock, snipe, wild duck, hares, rabbits and red deer.

The 1892-1893 world hunting tour

Franz Ferdinand is probably best remembered not for his life, but for the manner of his death. Were it not for the fact that he took a detour through the streets of Sarajevo and ran into Gavrilo Princip, the Archduke might have lived a life devoid of incident. Instead, the spilling of his noble blood led to World War One and the death of millions. Yet, long before that fateful summer day, Archduke Ferdinand had shed a lot of blood himself, not in the name of politics or conflict, but recreation. Archduke Ferdinand didn’t just like hunting – he loved it, and the man who died by the bullet lived by it too.

During his lifetime he lived in palaces and hunting lodges that were stuffed with the trophies of his kills, all sorts of exotic remains lining every wall of every room to bear testament to his hunting prowess. In fact, Archduke Ferdinand bagged so many beasts on his world tour that he dreamed of opening a museum to show them off.

When he set off on an educational trip around the world in December 1892, Archduke Ferdinand was armed and ready to hunt and had a journal in which to record every animal slain. The plan was for the emperor-to-be to engage in some diplomatic glad-handing, but when he disappeared into the sunset aboard the SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth from the Mediterranean port of Trieste, Archduke Ferdinand was thinking of the hunts ahead. His trip took him to destinations including Ceylon, India, Nepal, China, the Moluccas, Singapore, New Guinea, Japan, North America and Australia. His journal charts not just the diplomatic highs and lows of his travels, but also the rowdy celebrations of those on board the Elisabeth. They also detail each hunt, leaving a lasting testament to Archduke Ferdinand’s dedication to his hobby.

The Archduke left Vienna in December 1892 and two days later he was sailing out of Trieste aboard the pride of the Austrian Navy. Just a few days shy of his 29th birthday, Archduke Ferdinand was accompanied to the boat by his family, but they weren’t part of the tour party. Although his journal betrays a few pangs of anxiety about what was to come, the young man was determined to enjoy whatever the voyage threw at him. He was hungry for adventure.

Soon Archduke Ferdinand was shooting rays from the bridge of the ship, hungry for the kill, and when the party arrived in Ceylon, the hunting began in earnest. The visitors were received in fine style in Kandy and treated to a display of local traditions and a tour, which left the Archduke revelling in his new surroundings. That youthful excitement was truly breathless when he set off for his first hunting trip of the tour and the journals crackle with anticipation, laying bare the sheer passion he felt for his pastime.

Business-like reports on the planning of the tour give way to an excitable narrative detailing an elephant hunt, the culmination of a long-held ambition. Archduke Ferdinand succeeded in hunting two of the great creatures. Later that day he celebrated by shooting monkeys and birds. He describes his battle against a monitor lizard on Ceylon as follows: “I approached the lizard as Saint George approached the dragon.”

India was to prove a rich hunting ground. For days they tracked a tiger without success. Thick fog blighted the hunt, but the Archduke was determined. When he finally killed the tiger, he went on to assist a comrade with a second tiger and was overcome with joy. He waxed lyrical about, “the most beautiful hunting memory of my life,” offering “warm thanks to Saint Hubertus for such a successful hunt.”

When Archduke Ferdinand and his party hit Nepal, the pickings were rich as tigers, elephants, eagles and other trophies fell at their hands. The Prime Minister Bir Shumsher made available 1223 men and 415 animals, including 203 elephants, and by his own detailed account, Archduke Ferdinand made full use of these resources.

He and his entourage, including the British Resident, shot almost anything that moved, including 18 tigers. A typical entry reads: ‘At this moment I see a second tiger emerge from a tunnel of reeds, shouted “rok” and fired.’ Archduke Ferdinand noted: ‘The Nepalese distinguished themselves very positively from their Indian brethren for whom indecisiveness and noise seem to be indispensable ingredients of every hunt.’

Australia provided a smorgasbord of prey and Archduke Ferdinand made sport of our continent’s most iconic creatures. He killed emus, kangaroos, wallabies and a koala and its babe. Celebrations were great, the Archduke was in his element and all seemed right with the hunting world as he lapped up the adulation of his Australian guides.

The rifle, as Archduke Ferdinand put it so poetically, had to rest in Japan as both schedule and season were wrong for game hunting. Instead he enjoyed a cultural interlude and it is in the Japanese pages of the journal that the tourist in Archduke Ferdinand can be glimpsed. He had an enormous tattoo of a dragon inked on his arm.

From there it was more environmental angst in Canada and, of course, grizzly bear hunting. Particularly saddening is the Archduke’s excitement on discovering the trail of a “happy mother and its cub.” In fact, the bears escaped Archduke Ferdinand’s sights and, struck down by a cold, the great hunter had no choice but to admit defeat.

On arrival in Yellowstone Park, Archduke Ferdinand was delighted to note the richness of game but this was somewhat lessened by the fact he couldn’t shoot any of it due to a total ban on hunting. Upon meeting some German hunters on their way to a shoot, he discovered that their rifle barrels had been sealed by rangers, just in case. The Wild West, which the Archduke visited with only a small entourage, turned out to be the “disappointment of the tour.”

The long journey home to Europe began in October 1893. With Archduke Ferdinand’s hunting world tour finally at an end, he set off with the ship’s hold stuffed with trophies both living and dead.

All News