An American in Vienna on the Outbreak of the First World War: Jane Abbott’s Diary

Leaflet, 1914

While her physician husband studied, Jane Abbott spent much of the summer of 1914 absorbing the art and culture of Vienna. Typical Americans abroad, they were eager to absorb all that Europe had to offer. However, their stay was to be cut short by an event which, when its repercussions finally ended, was to cost almost 20 million lives.

On 15 April 1914, Jane Abbott and her husband, Dr. Donald Putnam Abbott, travelled from New York to Europe aboard the steam ship Kaiser Franz Joseph I. A graduate of the Rush Medical College in Chicago, Donald intended to study in Vienna as part of his medical training. Several other American doctors, such as Dr. Russell M. Wilder, accompanied by his wife and infant son, were also studying in Vienna in the spring and summer of that year. In many respects the Abbotts were typical well-to-do tourists. They socialized with other Americans and met local people. In spite of Donald’s busy schedule at hospitals and clinics, the Abbotts attended public lectures and concerts, visited art galleries and historical monuments, and dined out in cafés. On 2 June 1914, they went to a floral show at the Prater (a park outside the city centre with an amusement pavilion and race courses). The city was in a festive mood that day: flowers festooned carriages and automobiles and men and women were dressed in period costumes. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, his wife Sophie, and their daughter threw flowers to the crowds.

00001482-2.jpg Jane Abbott faithfully recorded the elegant fête on 2 June in her diary, which covers the period from 15 May to 17 September 1914. Her writing takes on a somber tone on 28 June 1914, the day of the assassination of the Archduke and his wife in Sarajevo. Donald had left Vienna with his colleagues for a few days and Jane, left to her own devices, met a friend, Mrs. Lewis. They had a pleasant stroll from the Rathhauspark to the Volksgarten, near the town hall. “Boys and men were selling ‘extras’ before we left the Rathhouse, but I could only make out the word tod [death].” Jane mistakenly thinks that the newspaper headline refers to an aviation accident. When she returns to her hotel, she is informed of the grim news. Fraülein Amalie, an acquaintance, has mixed emotions about the assassinations. The Archduke was not loved either by the Emperor or the Austrian people, she informs Jane. Yet it is a genuine tragedy for the royal family. “How terrible for his children, two sons and a daughter,” Jane writes. The account of the assassination heard by Jane and her husband on that day was only partly accurate. On 2 July 1914, Jane and Donald witness the return of the bodies to Vienna:

Stood packed in like sardines for at least an hour before they passed, train from Trieste came about ten. A mass of people along the route. Mounted police cavalry soldiers on foot, and the two hearses, each hearse drawn by eight horses, each horse mounted by a soldier in red artillery trousers. There was no sound of the steps of horses. We were told there would be straw or hay put down, but that was not done. It seems as if the horses must have had something done to their shoes. The march of the soldiers, a long easy swinging gait impressed me. No flowers, no music, uncovered head, and silence. A terrible, terrible thing to happen in a civilized world. The heart of the whole world bleeds for the agonized children.

This account varies with versions in circulation today which report that the streets were empty and minimum attention shown to the couple.

The true impact of the assassinations was felt a few weeks later. On 25 July 1914, groups of men, including the Minister of War, are stationed in front of the palace in quiet discussion. A policeman informs the Abbotts that Austria has given Serbia an ultimatum to turn over the assassins by 6:00 p.m. In the evening, the newspapers announce that Serbia did not reply to Austria. Crowds gather in the streets. “War is at hand,” Jane sadly notes. “It affects every family in Austria, for every male is a soldier.” A week later in early August, there are camps of soldiers throughout Vienna: “... a grouping of six horses were harnessed to a machine gun, with one rider for every two horses. Three officers mounted the seat on the carriage and they dashed up and down.” When Don pulled out a map to ascertain directions, the Abbotts were severely questioned by a soldier and their identity cards were checked. The Abbotts were told not to speak English, and feared that they would be detained as spies. They contacted the American Embassy for advice. It was a very stressful time for all of the Americans. “A whole continent fighting!” Jane comments on 22 August. “News has come of a terrible battle between French and Germans at Metz, the latter victorious. A grim attempt at humour in the newspaper reported that the ‘Austrian War Office positively refuses to receive any more declarations of war.’” At the end of August 1914 the Abbotts escaped from Vienna. They took the train to Berlin, Hamburg, and Amsterdam, and then finished their travels in England before returning home to the safety of the United States in late September 1914.

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