1.THE BALLERINA’S RUMP
The war and all its horrors were as yet unimaginable as Harold Delf Gillies and his wife wove their way through Covent Garden. Slender, with a beaklike nose and dark brown eyes that often glinted with mischief, the thirty-year-old surgeon had a habit of slouching that made him seem shorter than his five foot nine inches. The couple pushed on through the throng of stallholders and hawkers who were concluding their day’s business on the cobbled streets. In the spring of 1913, London was a far more commanding presence in the world than it would be on the cusp of the Second World War, twenty-six years later. With over seven million people living there, this bustling metropolis was larger than the municipalities of Paris, Vienna, and St. Petersburg put together, and it was home to more people than Britain and Ireland’s sixteen other largest cities combined.
London wasn’t just big. It was also wealthy. The city funneled ships into and out of the North Sea via the Thames as they exported and imported goods from all points of the compass. It was one of the busiest and most prosperous ports in the world, and a vast emporium of luxuries. Dockers unloaded regular shipments of Chinese tea, African ivory, Indian spices, and Jamaican rum. With this influx of goods came people from countless nations, some of whom decided to settle in the capital permanently. As a result, London was more cosmopolitan than ever before.
Londoners worked hard and played harder. There were 6,566 licensed premises that fueled the city’s favorite pastime—drinking—and ensured that the police force was kept busy. London boasted 5 football teams, 53 theaters, 51 music halls, and nearly 100 cinemas that would see weekly attendance triple by the end of the decade.
On that unseasonably warm spring evening, the Royal Opera House was staging its first performance of Verdi’s Aida for London’s more well-to-do music lovers. Gillies had been given tickets by his boss, Sir Milsom Rees, a laryngologist who specialized in illnesses and injuries of the larynx, or voice box. As medical consultant to the Royal Opera House, Rees was charged with tending to the throats of its famous singers. On this occasion, however, he was indisposed, so he sent his young protégé to deputize for him.
Three years earlier, Gillies had acquired his cushy position at Rees’s medical practice, situated in the fashionable district of Marylebone, largely by happenstance. When he interviewed for the job, he had just completed his clinical studies at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. During that time, he had shown a keen interest in otorhinolaryngology, a surgical subspecialty that deals more broadly with conditions of the head and neck. Those who work in this field more commonly refer to it as ENT (ear, nose, and throat). The chief physician, Walter Langdon-Brown, considered him to be one of the ablest in his class. But it wasn’t Gillies’s surgical skills that had landed him the job with Rees across town. Rather, it was his reputation as an excellent golfer that had caught the older doctor’s attention.
At the time, Gillies had just reached the fifth round of the English Amateur Championship. During the job interview, Rees brought out his own golf clubs for Gillies to inspect. As the laryngologist demonstrated his swing, Gillies grew impatient. “This is ridiculous. When is he going to talk about the job?” he wondered. As it turned out, they never did find a chance to discuss the terms of employment. A short way into the interview, a patient arrived, prompting Rees to rush a bewildered Gillies from his office. Just as he was closing the door, Rees briefly swung his attention back to his would-be employee and offhandedly remarked, “Oh, my dear fellow, I’d forgotten! Well, how would five hundred [pounds] a year suit you? Any private patients you pick up you can keep for yourself. All right?” Gillies—who had been making fifty pounds a year at the hospital—was elated at the prospect of making ten times as much money as an ENT specialist in Rees’s private practice. It was not the last time that admiration for Gillies’s sporting prowess would open the door to opportunity.
Gillies had always been a high achiever. He was a man for whom talent—be it athletic, artistic, or academic—was “mysteriously inherited rather than laboriously acquired,” as his early biographer Reginald Pound observed. The youngest of eight children, Harold Gillies was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on June 17, 1882. His grandfather John had immigrated there from the Scottish Isle of Bute in 1852, bringing his eldest son, Robert, along with him. Robert eventually set up business as a land surveyor, and it was in Dunedin that he met Emily Street, the woman who would become Harold’s mother. The two fell in love and married shortly thereafter.
Gillies spent the first few years of his childhood tottering around the cavernous rooms of a Victorian villa. His father, an amateur astronomer, had commissioned the construction of an observatory with a revolving dome on the roof of their ornate stone residence. Robert Gillies christened the family home “Transit House.” He chose the name in honor of the New Zealand astronomers who had made important observations of the 1874 transit of Venus when the planet passed across the face of the sun.
Gillies was a precocious child who loved to spend time roaming the expansive countryside around his home with his five older brothers, who would prop him up in the saddle of Brogo, the family mare, and bring him along on hunting and fishing expeditions. Early in life, Gillies fractured an elbow while sliding down the long banisters in the family home, which permanently restricted the range of motion of his right arm. It was a disability that later spurred him to invent an ergonomic needle-holder for use in the operating theater to compensate for his limited ability to rotate his hand.
Two days before his fourth birthday in June 1886, Gillies’s idyllic childhood was shattered. That morning, one of his brothers climbed the stairs to check on their father, who had complained of feeling unwell the previous evening. When he entered the bedroom, he found Robert Gillies alert and in good spirits. His father told him that he would soon join everyone for breakfast in the dining room downstairs. The boy hurried off to tell his family the welcome news.
The kitchen sprang to life as pots and pans were pulled from high shelves, and the kettle whistled at the end of the water’s slow boil. But as the minutes ticked by, Gillies’s brother grew increasingly concerned. After half an hour, he climbed the grand staircase once more. A shock awaited him in the bedroom. Lying motionless on the mattress was Robert Gillies, dead from a sudden aneurysm at the age of fifty.
Following her husband’s death, Gillies’s mother moved herself and her eight children to Auckland so that they could be closer to her own family. When Gillies was eight years old, he was sent to England to attend Lindley Lodge, a boys’ preparatory school near Rugby, in the heart of the country. Four years later, Gillies returned home to continue his education in New Zealand, but he wouldn’t remain there for long. In 1900, at the age of eighteen, he moved back to England in order to study medicine at Cambridge University. His decision to become a doctor came as a surprise to everyone. It was a career he purported to have chosen to differentiate himself from his brothers, who were lawyers. “I thought another profession should be represented in the family,” he joked.
At Cambridge, he gained a reputation for being something of a maverick after he spent his entire scholarship fund on a new motorcycle. He wasn’t afraid to challenge his professors and could often be found arguing with the anatomical demonstrator in the university’s dissection lab. Despite this lack of deference for authority, he was eminently likable and admired by teachers and classmates alike for “his happy temperament and his smile that broke into uproarious laughter.” His popularity won him a nickname, “Giles,” which stuck with him his entire life.
In spite of his rebellious spirit, Gillies had an orderly mind with an affinity for rules and boundaries—especially if he was the one setting them. For the duration of his studies, he lived in a Victorian terraced house with five other young men. As students are wont to do, they came and went as they pleased. Gillies noticed that not every housemate was present at mealtimes, so he devised a system to keep track of costs. Each person was required to mark down his attendance at meals in addition to the number of “units” he consumed, as well as the cost per unit. One of his fellow lodgers called it a “most original and ingenious scheme” that ensured equity and helped keep costs down for everyone. But his mates were less impressed when Gillies charged each of them interest on money that they owed him after he had settled a household debt. For Gillies, fairness was all.
It was during his studies that he developed a serious interest in golf, routinely swapping his pen for a hickory-shafted driver. He tried out for the university’s golf team on a whim after traveling to Sandwich for a party with some classmates. He had brought his golf clubs with him so that he could play a round on the famous course there, where a match between Cambridge and Oxford was going to be held a few days later. After the party was over, Gillies boarded a return train. At the last second, he had a change of heart. He grabbed his clubs and hopped off the carriage just as the locomotive began steaming out of the station. Shortly afterward, he was welcomed onto Cambridge University’s golf team.
Gillies spent an inordinate amount of time locked away in the bathroom, which must have raised a few eyebrows among his housemates. His daily ritual in the tiny room was to plant his feet on the same two patches of linoleum and practice his swing in front of the mirror. His friend Norman Jewson, who would later become a famous architect, was struck by Gillies’s “immense powers of concentration, and will power.” Those who knew him described his talent for golf as “supernatural.” In time, his patients would come to see his skill as a plastic surgeon in a similar light.
As the years passed and his studies progressed, Gillies began to display an aptitude for surgery—which was not surprising, given his obsessive attention to detail. He was driven in a way many young men of his social class were not, often sequestering himself in a library while his peers were out socializing. One friend remarked, “Whatever he decided to do he did.” His determination would serve him well in life.
This was never truer than when it came to matters of the heart. Although Gillies had vowed never to marry a nurse, he found himself suddenly and hopelessly in love with Kathleen Margaret Jackson, a nurse at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where Gillies had been working during his clinical studies. But there was a problem: another doctor was also courting her.
Never one to shy away from a little competition, Gillies redoubled his efforts. One evening, he hired a hansom cab and invited Kathleen out for a ride. Once in the buggy, Gillies had the cabbie drive them continuously through the streets until she accepted his proposal. The stern etiquette of the day required that nurses live on hospital grounds and remain unmarried, so Kathleen resigned from her job shortly after becoming engaged. The two were happily married six months later on November 9, 1911. By then, Gillies was ensconced in his lucrative position at Rees’s private medical practice.
It was with his wife, Kathleen, that Gillies was attending the performance of Aida in Covent Garden’s grandly porticoed opera house on that pleasant spring night. The couple had left their firstborn— a little boy named John who would become a POW during the Second World War when his Spitfire was shot down over France—in the care of family. As the curtain fell on the opera’s first act, a white-gloved attendant approached Gillies discreetly and requested his presence backstage. Given the habitually light duties of his boss on these occasions, Gillies expected to have to do little more than spray some sort of soothing balm into the overworked throat of a singer. Instead, he found one of the dancers injured and in a state of undress. Felyne Verbist, the Belgian prima ballerina, had sat on a pair of scissors, sustaining a deep puncture wound to her shapely backside. Gillies set to work bandaging the tender spot.
As he returned to his seat, he wondered how he would explain his prolonged absence—and the details of the “throat” case—to his young wife. Throughout the rest of the performance, he had trouble concentrating on anything “but the slight lump in the beautiful dancer’s costume where my rather rough-and-ready dressing bulged.”
It was an incident that Gillies would recount many times in later years, as if removing the pointed end of a pair of scissors from a ballerina’s buttock was the crowning glory of his career.
* * *
Felyne Verbist was performing in the very same production of Aida a year later on July 28, 1914, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, signaling the start of the First World War. A week later—as Britons flocked to the beach to enjoy one last bank holiday before the summer officially drew to a close—Britain declared war on Germany, plunging the nation into one of the deadliest conflicts in history. On that sweltering summer day, however, few people could have predicted the calamity that was about to engulf the nation. The outbreak of war came as a complete surprise to most.
The trouble had begun a month earlier. A Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip had shot the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, while they were visiting Sarajevo. The couple had traveled there to inspect the imperial armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908. Princip believed the territories belonged to Serbia and saw an opportunity to retaliate for the annexation by assassinating the presumptive heir to the imperial throne. Supplied with weapons by a Serbian terrorist organization called the Black Hand, Princip and five other conspirators met in Sarajevo with the intention of assassinating the archduke.
Ferdinand was not oblivious to the danger. Three years earlier, the Black Hand had tried to eliminate his uncle, the emperor Franz Josef. And the archduke had allegedly told a family member shortly before he died that he had foreseen his own murder. Nonetheless, Ferdinand must not have been overly concerned for his safety on that particular trip, since he announced his plans to visit Sarajevo two months in advance of traveling—giving any would-be assassins plenty of time to formulate a plan.
In retrospect, it would seem that all the parties involved had a date with destiny.
On the morning of June 28, the royal couple arrived by train. They were in high spirits, as it was their wedding anniversary. Indeed, that was one of the reasons the duchess insisted on being at her husband’s side on this official state visit. Their personal chauffeur—a chubby-cheeked, neatly mustachioed man named Leopold Lojka—had accompanied them on their journey. Lojka helped the archduke and duchess into a Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton convertible with a license plate that read A111 118—a spooky coincidence, given that Armistice Day would later fall on 11–11–18.
The luxurious car was the second in a six-vehicle motorcade that was to proceed to the city hall along a tree-lined boulevard known as Appel Quay, which skirted the Miljacka River. The previous day had been cool and rainy, but the sun had broken through the clouds to welcome the royal couple on their visit. Given the glorious weather, the cloth top of the convertible had been folded down to allow people to see the archduke and duchess as they were driven to their destination. Official security precautions were conspicuously absent despite warnings that a terrorist attack was likely.
Armed with semiautomatic pistols and explosives strapped around their waists, the assassins had scattered themselves along the parade route earlier that morning to give themselves the best chance of intercepting the archduke. If one failed, another stood in reserve. In addition to their weapons, they also carried with them paper packets of cyanide powder, in case their plan went awry. It wasn’t long before it did.
The first would-be assassin was a twenty-eight-year-old named Muhamed Mehmedbašic´. As the motorcade rolled past him at a stately pace, however, he lost his nerve. He later claimed that a nearby police officer had spooked him, and he worried that he might put the entire mission in jeopardy if he failed to hit his target. Minutes later, the car approached Nedeljko Cˇabrinovic´, a nineteen-year-old who had a compelling reason not to fear the long-term repercussions of his actions: he was dying of tuberculosis—a condition that was incurable in 1914.
Cˇabrinovic´ broke the detonator of a grenade against a lamppost and hurled it at the archduke’s car. Lojka spotted the bomb flying through the air and slammed his foot down on the accelerator. It’s unclear whether the bomb bounced off the folded roof of the convertible or the archduke himself batted it away. Regardless, the bomb exploded underneath the third car in the procession, injuring several members of the imperial entourage and sending shrapnel flying into the crowd of spectators lining the street.
As chaos broke out, Cˇabrinovic´ pushed his way through the crowd. He swallowed the cyanide powder as he fled, then jumped over the parapet into the Miljacka River to ensure a swift death. Unfortunately, the cyanide powder was of inferior quality; it seared his throat and stomach lining but didn’t kill him. To add insult to injury, the river had largely dried up in the summer heat, leaving Cˇabrinovic´ vomiting on the sandy riverbank. The failed assassin was soon accosted by a shopkeeper, an armed barber, and two police officers.
As an angry mob descended on Cˇabrinovic´, the archduke insisted on stopping the procession so he could check on his friends, who had sustained minor injuries in the explosion. After a short delay, he urged the motorcade forward: “Come on. That fellow is clearly insane; let us proceed with our programme.” The Gräf & Stift continued on through the streets of Sarajevo, but the remaining assassins along the parade route lost heart, enabling the motorcade to arrive safely at the city hall minutes later.
A splinter had cut Sophie’s cheek, but otherwise the royal couple was unharmed. The mayor, too nervous to improvise, began delivering an ill-timed speech. “All of the citizens of the capital city of Sarajevo find that their souls are filled with happiness,” he said to the archduke and his wife, “and they most enthusiastically greet Your Highness’s most illustrious visit with the most cordial of welcomes…” To this, the archduke exploded with anger, thundering away at the officials there to greet him: “I come here as your guest and you people greet me with bombs!” After a moment, Ferdinand collected his composure and delivered his own speech from prepared notes that were now splattered with the blood of an injured officer from the third car.
After the ceremonial exchanges, the archduke met with officials to discuss his schedule. It was then that Ferdinand decided to skip his afternoon engagements so that he and his wife could go straight to the hospital to visit those who had been wounded in the bombing. When a member of the archduke’s staff warned that this could be dangerous, Oskar Potiorek, the governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, barked, “Do you think Sarajevo is full of assassins?” Everyone’s patience was wearing thin.
Along with the governor, the archduke and duchess stepped back into the convertible. Lojka twisted the key in the ignition. In the confusion, nobody notified the drivers of the motorcade that they should take an alternative route to the hospital, and so the cars set off in the same direction that they had come. As a result, the first car turned onto Franz Joseph Street, which was on the original parade route leading to the National Museum that the archduke was scheduled to visit in the afternoon. Lojka followed. It was then that Potiorek realized the error. “This is the wrong way!” he shouted. “We are supposed to take the Appel Quay.” Lojka rolled to a stop in order to shift gears. Unbeknownst to him, he had unwittingly presented the archduke as a stationary target to the one man in the crowd who was still determined to kill him.
Gavrilo Princip—who, like Cˇabrinovic´, was also dying from tuberculosis and felt he had little to lose—could hardly believe his eyes. He took out his Browning Model 1910 semiautomatic pistol and took aim. Through good marksmanship or just dumb luck, he fatally wounded the royal couple. The first bullet passed through the door of the car, penetrating the duchess’s abdomen and rupturing a stomach artery. The second bullet tore through the archduke’s neck, severing his jugular vein. As the car sped off, the duchess fell into her husband’s lap. Potiorek could hear Ferdinand whispering, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die, stay alive for our children,” before he slipped into unconsciousness. Both were dead by eleven o’clock, just hours after they had arrived in Sarajevo.
A crowd descended on Princip, knocking the pistol from his hand as he raised it to his own temple. They kicked and clawed at him and probably would have killed him right then and there had police officers not managed to drag him away. Princip was later tried and sent to prison, where he wasted away from tuberculosis until he weighed less than ninety pounds. He died just weeks before the end of the global war that he had helped initiate.
The assassination was a catalyst of war, setting off a rapid chain of events that destabilized Europe due in part to a web of alliances that bound certain nations together. These alliances meant that if one country was attacked, the allied countries were obligated to defend it. On July 28—one month after the archduke was assassinated—Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The very next day, imperial forces began to shell the Serbian capital of Belgrade. This declaration of war forced Russia to mobilize its troops, since it was bound by a treaty to defend Serbia, which in turn led Germany—allied with Austro-Hungary under the Triple Alliance agreement of 1882—to declare war on Russia. One by one, the fragile bonds of peace holding together the great powers of Europe began to loosen, and nation after nation slid inexorably into what would become the horror of World War I.
* * *
The escalating tension on the European continent received limited coverage in the British press. Articles about the situation were often buried deep inside newspapers. A debate about whether boxing was an appropriate spectator sport for women was commanding significantly more public interest. Over two thousand articles appeared on the subject in British newspapers in July 1914 alone, with headlines such as “Women at Boxing Matches. Is Their Presence Unbecoming?” The controversy over the influence of American ragtime music on British youth received similar interest.
The attitude of Britain’s politicians toward events on the Continent was likewise dismissive. There was little enthusiasm in Parliament for a war in support of Serbia and her dictatorial ally, Tsarist Russia. Just eleven days before Britain entered the conflict, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith reassured his close friend Venetia Stanley that “happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.” Asquith—whose political party had come to power under the slogan “Peace, Retrenchment and Reform”—was more preoccupied with the looming threat of civil war in Ireland, where the prospect of home rule was dividing Nationalists and Unionists. The gathering storm in Europe seemed far away. By early August, however, it was clear that the coming conflict would not remain just another Balkan quarrel.
Copyright © 2022 by Lindsey Fitzharris