The shocking news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, heir presumptive to the throne, and his consort, the Archduchess, at Sarajevo, Herzegovina, on June 28, 1914, caused the most profound sensation and consternation throughout Europe. It produced a feeling of bewilderment and horror, not least in Malta. In the ensuing months there was a feeling of uncertainty in Europe.

As the political crisis continued to escalate rapidly, precautionary measures were undertaken in hand. As Malta was a British possession and the base of the large and powerful British Mediterranean Fleet, the island was enormously affected by the widespread crisis and the threat and fear of war.

In late May 1914, an Austro-Hungarian squadron, consisting of two of the latest type of dreadnoughts and a cruiser, under the command of Rear-Admiral Franz Löfler, returned the visit of the British Mediterranean Fleet in the Adriatic, visiting Trieste, Fiume and Pola, besides other ports.

In July 1914, Italian newspapers announced that an Italian squadron, consisting of the dreadnought battleships Leonardo Da Vinci, Giulio Cesare, Dante Alighieri and another warship, under Vice-Admiral D’Amero d’Aste, was going to visit Malta to return the visit paid by the British Mediterranean Fleet to Venice and other Italian ports. This visit to Malta, however, never materialised because of the war crisis in Europe.

Meanwhile, in July 1914, both Egypt and Gibraltar were having their garrisons increased by one battalion apiece. In the case of Malta, the garrison was not intended to be immediately increased as it was considered to be the strongest in the Mediterranean command. But it was envisaged that the Mediterranean Fleet, powerful as it then undoubtedly was, would be rendered more powerful later by the addition of a squadron of dreadnoughts.

Early in August, a despatch received in Malta from Portsmouth regarding British naval movements stated that the Admiralty and the War Office were making all the necessary arrangements so that the fleet could leave at a moment’s notice if required.

An official notice issued by the Imperial Royal Consulate of Austria-Hungary in Malta stated: “By command of His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, partial mobilisation has been declared. Therefore all Austrian and Hungarian subjects liable to serve in the army or navy are hereby required to call at the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Consulate in order to receive further instructions.”

An unusual situation occurred when some 1,500 Austro-Hungarians affected by the Austrian mobilisation were in Malta having arrived from New York. They were on their way to Austria to join their colours.

Meanwhile, local business firms were enjoined “that all letters and telegrams to Austro-Hungarian firms must be written in the language of that State in consequence of the conditions attendant upon the threatened war”.

The island was enormously affectedby the widespread crisis and the threat and fear of war

Several Austrian subjects residing in Malta left the island by the steamer Carola. The international political crisis continued to rapidly deteriorate. A contingent of 60 volunteers – it was the second batch of its kind – were enrolled into the Malta Royal Naval Reserve and embarked on the Osiris, bringing the number of Maltese naval reservists on that ship up to 90. More were taken in for deployment among the ships of the fleet.

Maltese officers in Malta who were on the Retired List were called out. There was great response from Maltese for service in the Royal Malta Artillery and other branches of His Majesty’s Services.

A proclamation was released ordering the King’s Own Malta Regiment of Militia and the Royal Engineers (Militia), Malta division, to be embodied for service in the Maltese islands. This step could be taken to have meant that the defence of the island was to be largely entrusted to its own people. Calls were made for regular soldiers and ex-Militia personnel to enrol in the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Own Malta Regiment of Militia as it was intended to bring it up to its full strength.

Several Maltese priests offered their services to the government without remuneration, while a number of civilian medical doctors and nurses were being engaged by government.

The following civil surgeons enrolled for duty with the Royal Army Medical Corp (RAMC R.P.Samut, A.Azzopardi, J.Ellul, P.Boffa, L.Frendo, B.Bonello, R.Balzan, G.Busuttil, S.Ellul Grech, E.Said, E.H.Ferro, G.C.Anastasi, E.Borg, A.Frendo, J.Inglott, A.Paris and M.Micallef Eynaud. Major J. Grech of the RAMC, who was serving at Narrington, was subsequently detailed at the front with the British Expeditionary Force and took charge of the Ambulance of the 5th Cavalry Brigade. Capt B.H.Dunbar Vella of the RAMC, who was stationed at Belfas, later took medical charge of a British infantry regiment in the 5th division.

Malta Command Order announced that the military hospitals at Cottonera and Valletta were closed, and that the following hospitals had been opened: General Hospital, Mtarfa; Non-dieted Hospital, Żabbar Gate; Non-dieted Hospital A Block, Floriana Barracks. All patients requiring more than very temporary hospital treatment were to be sent to Mtarfa. The method of treating other patients was to be communicated to the medical officers concerned.

A notice released by the Royal Consulate General of Italy in Malta stated: “By royal decree... all military of the first category of the classes 1889 and 1890 and those of the class of 1891 of Cavalry and Horse Artillery have been called under arms.”

Lloyd’s shipping agents were told to notify British shipping: “Admiralty advise abandon regular tracks and inform other British ships.”

Events seemed to have caught up with an alarming precipitation. Thus all wives then in Malta of men serving in the Mediterranean Fleet, including reservists and Maltese, were requested to send their names and addresses at once to R.N. Hospital Bighi.

The public was invited to attend special courses in first aid and home nursing, which were held under the auspices of the St John’s Ambulance Association. These courses were, in fact, “most numerously attended”. Those who passed the test were taken over for ambulance duties in the various hospitals.

The public was continuously warned against approaching military posts at night. Parish priests, especially in the villages, were requested to “avail themselves of the earliest opportunity afforded of explaining to their flocks, the terms of the Governor’s timely recommendations” and “the expediency of its careful observance”. This notice, it was further explained, was in no way to interfere with ordinary country traffic.

Government imposed strict censorship on letters, packets and messages received or despatched by post and telegraph in or from Malta. No military matter was to be discussed in communications, and communications intended for publication in the press elsewhere than in Malta had to be submitted to the Press Censor. Messages written in code, cipher or in any language other than English and French were not accepted for despatch.

Grand Harbour and Marsamxetto Harbour were under continuous surveillance. At night or during fog, Dockyard Creek and French Creek in Grand Harbour were closed to dagħjsas, boats and private vessels of any kind unless provided with a written pass. Vessels and boats were not allowed to go alongside any government ship, vessel or lighter.

Entrance to Grand Harbour was closed by a boom defence. Grand Harbour was, in fact, exclusively used for naval purposes while merchantmen were moved to Marsamxetto Harbour. This move and other measures indicated, no doubt, that the country was passing through a period of grave crisis.

Due to the scarcity and dearth of certain commodities like milk, sugar and meat, government took steps to avoid black market prices by issuing a proclamation governing the price of certain articles of food. Hefty penalties were inflicted for non-compliance with the regulations.

Developments were being followed with feverish anxiety in the island. A world conflagration was soon ablaze; Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, and on Austria-Hungary on August 12.

WWI declarations of war

• Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia – July 28
• Germany declares war on Russia – August 1
• Germany declares war on Belgium – August 4
• Germany declares war on France – August 4
• Great Britain declares war on Germany – August 4
• Austria declares war on Russia – August 6
• Montenegro declares war on Austria-Hungary – August 7
• France declares war on Austria-Hungary – August 10
• Great Britain declares war Austria-Hungary – August 12
• Montenegro declares war on Germany – August 13
• Japan declares war on Germany – August 23

The Austro-Hungarian steamer SS Carola in Grand Harbour.The Austro-Hungarian steamer SS Carola in Grand Harbour.

The incident of the Carola

In the summer of 1914, the Austro-Hungarian steamer Carola of the Adria Line was carrying out daily mail trips between Malta and Syracuse under the contract of the Maltese colonial government.

Britain declared war against Germany at 11pm on August 4, 1914, and at 6pm on August, 5, 1914, while the Carola was about to leave Marsamxett Harbour on her normal trip, she was not given permission to leave.

On the same day, the Austro-Hungarian steamer Zichy was seized off Malta by British destroyers and detained at Marsamxett Harbour near the Carola.

Belatedly, it was realised that Britain was not going to declare war against Austria-Hungary and the two ships were allowed to leave, which they did early in the morning on August 6, 1914. The Carola returned to Malta late on August 7, 1914.

Meanwhile, early on August 8, 1914, presumably due to a misunderstanding in inter-departmental communications, the Admiralty in London sent a telegram to the naval authorities in Malta informing them that war had broken out between Britain and Austria-Hungary. The Carola was promptly boarded and seized by British sailors while her captain and crew were taken ashore for internment.

Later on August 8, 1914, the Admiralty discovered their error and informed Malta that war, after all, had not yet been declared against Austria-Hungary. The Carola was promptly released from arrest with apologies and on August 9 and 10 she left for Messina. She never returned.

Britain declared war against Austria-Hungary on August 12, 1914.

Relevant artefacts and information can be seen at Heritage Malta’s National War Museum in Valletta.

Sign up to our free newsletters

Get the best updates straight to your inbox:
Please select at least one mailing list.

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing.