Blazing away: the guns of Narromine

Blazing away: the guns of Narromine

In absolute silence, two men stood beside the Wollondilly River. It was barely light. The grazier touched his distinguished guest's shoulder and pointed. “On the surface of the murky water I saw only a narrow, black, moving line,” wrote the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. With the “greatest joy” he then fulfilled his “burning desire” to shoot a platypus.
Nanjing Night Net

West of Moss Vale with killing on his mind was the man whose assassination was to provoke World War I. Since leaving home in a mighty warship to tour the globe in late 1892, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary had shot his way across India, Ceylon and Java before turning the attention of his guns on New South Wales.

In the cavalcade of royal tours in the late 19th century, this one is forgotten: a 10-day visit by the man who had unexpectedly become heir to an empire on the suicide of his cousin at Mayerling. He was a hunter and collector. As he waited for his one big moment in history, he was living by the gun.

“With an utter absence of all ostentatious display,” reported The Daily Telegraph, “and with the unassuming quietness of a simple gentleman, his Imperial and Royal Highness Franz Ferdinand Charles Louis Joseph Marie d'Este, Archduke of Austria” – there followed a string of titles, ranks, regiments – “landed in Sydney yesterday.”

Not quite without display. His ship had come up the harbour with guns blazing in a ceremonial salute. The Lieutenant-Governor and the Lord Mayor had quickly come on board to grovel. But as no one had a clue what the 30-year-old archduke looked like – dead eyes, upturned moustache – he was able to get ashore unrecognised and tootle round the town with friends in a couple of hansom cabs. He spoke no English.

After a visit to the Australian Museum to inspect the marsupials he was about to slaughter, the archduke left by special train for Narromine. The killing began early. “Immediately after breakfast the party set out with 20 horsemen to drive the game,” this newspaper reported. “At the first drive his Imperial Highness succeeded in shooting, with great rapidity, five kangaroos, so that he very soon established himself in the estimation of those present as being a first class marksman.”

The carnage over the next few days in Narromine and Mullengudgery was terrible: more kangaroo, wallaby, duck, pelican, ibis, cranes, eagles, bush turkey – plentiful but shy – emu and several “lovely” parrots. The archduke was “absolutely delighted” to bag a pair of black swans. Travelling with the party was the royal taxidermist and photographer. “Specimen skins of all the animals and birds shot are preserved,” noted this paper, “with a view to their being ultimately stuffed.”

Franz Ferdinand was planning to publish his diary. The Australian chapters of My Journey Round The World record many pleasures and a few disappointments. Not all the horses were up to scratch. The habit of ringbarking trees was producing “desolate vistas”. His host at Narromine, Frank Mack, scared the pelicans. He deplored the hunting time wasted by the British habit of stopping for lunch.

It wasn't as bad as in India. “There was no Champagne or silver cutlery, nor a set table, but only an open fire on a grate and roasted mutton half raw, half burnt to eat. I used the time these culinary preparations required, to shoot some examples of bird species new to me.”

After touching homage from a poorly dressed young Austrian who appeared out of the crowd at Narromine station, the archduke returned to Sydney, endured a 2½ hour mass at St Mary's, inspected a meat works at Auburn – and found the product delicious – then headed to Moss Vale for more sport. Newspapers were complaining. “The archduke is giving Sydney the cold shoulder,” wrote the Illustrated Sydney News. “He seems to prefer the country and the kangaroos to the metropolis and the maids.”

Along the new front, casualties were high: “About 300 head including bears, rock wallabies, kangaroos, hares, duck, pademelons and platypus etc,” this paper's correspondent telegraphed to Sydney. “His Highness is an excellent shot, having with a bullet potted a magpie at about a hundred yards distance whilst standing in his carriage.”

Unreported was the koala shot on the way down to the river on that dawn platypus hunt. Koalas disappointed the archduke. He thought them like sloths: pathetic and lazy. They didn't flee. He shot several. The shooting went on before breakfast and after dinner. Following a “sumptuous” banquet in the bush to celebrate Queen Victoria's birthday, the archduke led a party to hunt possums for three hours by moonlight.

The killing had to end. After inspecting the Art Gallery of NSW, shopping for skins and specimens, watching demonstrations of shearing and boomerang throwing, holding a most successful afternoon dance on his warship and attending Randwick races and Fitzgerald's circus, the royal visitor steamed out of the harbour and the memory of NSW.

Franz Ferdinand had a long wait. Twenty years after his trip around the world, he was still doing the things heirs do when they're waiting for their mother or father or uncle to die. Shooting and touring. That took him on a goodwill visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Seven Serbian suicide terrorists were waiting. But only a single bomb was thrown at the archduke's motorcade, injuring one military aide. After an uneasy reception at the town hall, Franz Ferdinand decided to visit the injured man in hospital.

What followed was the most crucial accident in modern European history. No one had briefed the chauffeurs. After taking a wrong turn into the old city, they were ordered to stop. Standing by chance on the narrow footpath beside the open car was one of the terrorists who had lost his nerve earlier that morning. Gavril Princip leant forward and shot the royal couple with a Browning pistol.

A month later the world was at war. On memorials in Narromine and Moss Vale are recorded those districts' contribution to the 15 million slaughtered in the bloodiest and most pointless conflict in history.

With translations by Geesche Jacobsen