Es Geloybte Aretz - a Finished Germanwank

29 June 1906, Skierniewice

Sergeant Kreisky hit the dirt before the sound consciously registered. It was one of the things you learned in a hurry. Everyone who was left of the Kocziuszko Brigade had acquired the facility to instinctively gauge by ear whether an incoming artillery round was headed for them, or elsewhere. This one sounded – strange. Scrambling to a crouching position behind the improvised berm, the sergeant looked up towards the forward position where the Jews were building one of their funny contraptions.

The Jews had been one of the big surprises in this war. They seemed to be everywhere on this front, and like the Koczuiszko volunteers, they kept better discipline than most National Army units. Not that that was saying much, he admitted to himself. Keeping a few hundred Chicago Polacks in line was beyond the capacity of mere mortals. But they fought harder and smarter than many of the men he had seen during his extended holiday. And so did the kikes, he had to give them that. Always tinkering with captured equipment or broken guns, too. Right now, while he wasn't entirely sure what they were trying to do, scuttlebutt had it they would poison the Russians. Or at least, that was what they had been doing before the shell burst on top of their trench. On top! Damn, that wasn't supposed to be possible! .

More rounds came in with the same kind of howling sound, and right on, they burst between their positions. A rifle pit behind a berm of fir trunks took a direct hit. Kreisky swallowed as he saw pieces of wood and flesh flying through the air. They were not supposed to be able to do that! He almost caught himself whining that it wasn't fair, but of course he had learned that “fair” didn't exactly apply here. Kreisky might not have the stomach for viciousness other rebels had, but after he had seen the things hanging from trees that had been comrades, he had embraced the unofficial motto of the Jewish Brigade: No Cossack Left Alive. If the Russians had found a new way of making their lives miserable, well, they'd need to find a counter. And quick.

Then, as though the gunners had been playing around for the opening minute or two, the rain of shells thickened. Earth and debris fell on his as he tried to hug as closely to the ground as humanly possible. It seemed an eternity before he dared look out again. The shells were still falling, though not as fiercely any more. A few of the forward firing positions had been hit. One went up in a huge burst of whitish-green smoke that fountained skyward. And then – oh. fuck – there were the Russians. Kreisky levelled his rifle and began firing, but the erratic bursts of shellfire made him return to cover. The bastards had learned, too. No longer advancing in line, lying down and jumping up on command, they loped forward crouched, in small clumps. Under normal circumstances it would still have been suicidal, but a look over his shoulder told the sergeant, these were not normal circumstances. Few of the defenders were firing. The machine gun position on the hill was silent. Now, fighters from the forward line were running to the back, heedless of the risk of shell bursts. Some were wearing cotton gauze bandages on their faces, or the silly-looking Draeger breathing machines they had come with.

Kreisky remembered that he had responsibilities. He stood up and began looking around for his men. Nobody within sight. One of the fleeing figures brushed past, shouting something incomprehensible in a panicked voice. The sergeant's feet began running of their own accord. Later, he recalled with some pride that he still clutched his Mauser rifle. The last picture he saw looking back was the shell-pocked field and the cloud of white smoke now enveloping their forward trenches, and an irresistible wave of Russian infantry heading towards them.

The first line of skirmishers was running flat out now. Lieutenant Karpov could see enemy troops running, throwing away their rifles and packs. Almost nobody was shooting at them any more. He drew his revolver and shouted encouragement to his men who were now getting up from the dirt, breaking into a triumphant run bayonets levelled, only occasionally pausing to shoot. The high-angle artillery fire had worked. What a trick! The colonel said that the Japanese had still fought creditably after being subjected to this kind of shooting, but the Polish rebels – well, they weren't soldiers. His body singing with excitement, Karpov fired his revolver at the enemy and was gratified to see a man fall. Then, the world turned into a nightmare. Ahead of him, soldiers were coughing, retching and clawing at their eyes. The smoke drifting over the field from the burning trenches – only, it was not smoke. It was some kind of hellish fume that crept along the ground to envelop line after line of troops, cutting off the advance guard. Karpov tried to shout, but as he breathed in, he was racked by a coughing fit that left him stumbling. His eyes were burning, his lungs were on fire, and every breath he took made the pain worse. Terrified, he tried to turn and run, but could not see the direction he had come in. the sheath of his sabre tangled between his legs, and Lieutenant Karpov fell to the ground, coughing and gasping with ever weakening breaths.

“Clever.”, Captain Poniatovsky remarked. Sergeant Kreisky spat out in affirmation. The fierce burning sensation in his throat and eyes was slowly abating, but he didn't trust his voice completely yet. Chlorine was awful stuff. Of course they had gone through it after it had dispersed, finishing off the Russian wounded and collecting prisoners. Kreisky did not see the point of prisoners, but the captain had insisted. The Russians had had a trick of their own, as he now saw. Men from the Lodz battalion were manhandling field guns from deep pits into which their tails had been sunk to point the barrel upwards. That was how they had done it! With a sinking sensation in his stomach, Kreisky realised that they could not get horses to move across the chlorine-saturated fields between their position and the abandoned Russian battery. That meant the precious captured guns had to be dragged by – infantrymen. And weren't they just lucky.

29 June 1906, Warsaw

Marching through the city felt surreal. The broad boulevards seemed bare, their trees gone – in many places, even the stumps had been dug out. On the sidewalks, a seemingly limitless army of gaunt, hollow-eyed beggars cheered riotously. Flowers rained down on the column of the 58th infantry all the way from the train station to the bivouac site. The voices merged into an almost continuous roar of joy and relief. Feldwebel Halltauer looked around at the crowds: old men, women, children, most of them dressed shabbily and looking hungry – no, starving. He had seen hungry looks and shabby dress. This was worse. And there were so many of them – the city seemed crowded far beyond its capacity. Even along the main streets, he could see shanties and improvised homes made in warehouses, offices and government buildings.

A young woman ran from the crowd to drape a wreath of flowers over Halltauer's rifle and press a kiss on his lips. She said something – no doubt something patriotic and heartfelt, though the sergeant could not understand enough Polish to make it out. Some of the men laughed.

“Eyes forward!” Halltauer bristled. “Silence in the ranks!” They obeyed commendably swiftly, for reservists. He would have to watch them in the coming days, though. There were too many young women around, and the expressions on their faces, their hunger, fierce joy and desperate gratitude indicated that there would be trouble. He hoped the officers would get the troops to the front quickly.

29 June 1906, Moscow

Emperor Nicholas rolled up the last of his maps and handed them to his aide. General Sukhomlinov had given him a most satisfying report of his armies' progress. The victories had been stunning. Königsberg was now fully invested, with no sign of effective German resistance. The Army of the Niemen was moving into Masuren meeting almost no enemy forces. Meanwhile, the Army of the Bug had met the Austrians in battle and been victorious, moving onto Przemysl, while troops from Wolhynia were moving on Lemberg. The Serbs would put additional pressure on the Austrians' ability to resist the attack, and the Germans were still in chaos. The inability of young Wilhelm to provide proper leadership was striking. An alliance of a boy and a decrepit old man, that was what he was facing! And soon, the world would understand that fact and France would join the attack.

Minister Goremykin entered, summoned by an imperial page. This was another advantage of the Kremlin, Nicholas thought: Everybody was close at hand. You had all the ministers within the grounds and no need to send gallopers through the streets every time you wanted to speak with one. The old Czars had been on to something, and Peter had been a fool to give it up. Even the rooms here were more fit to the dignity of a czar – a little father, close to his subjects, not remote in mirrored halls, but surrounded by them. Goremykin bowed deeply, with visible effort. Nicholas rose to help him up. “Come, my friend.”, he said graciously, “Be seated. I wish to discuss our diplomatic efforts with you.”

The first minister bowed his head respectfully. “Sire, the time is well chosen.”, he said. “Germany is struggling, Austria is fighting for her life, and Serbia and Montenegro have gallantly joined our cause. Now, you can make peace with honour.”

“Indeed.” The Czar nodded contentedly. “I will ask you to approach the governments in Vienna and Berlin with our terms. Leniency, of course. As we said, this is not a war we are fighting to gain German land, but in the cause of our Slavic brothers and the honour of Russia. Eastern Galicia to Russia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to be a separate state under a Serbian prince. We want nothing but honourable treatment from Germany, no territory. Maybe the Memel strip, but even that would be symbolic more than anything.”

Goremykin's face fell. “Your Majesty!”, he said, careful to modulate his voice to indicate surprise rather than the terror he felt. “These are harsh terms. I do not think Berlin will agree to them. Vienna certainly cannot.”

Nicholas shook his head quietly, as though explaining patiently to a child: “Of course they can. The terms are better than anything they will get once the French join the war. Better than what they would have to agree to once we hold these lands. Austria-Hungary will break apart under the strain, and they know. The Hungarians will not expend blood and treasure to defend Austrian interest. And Germany has a French bayonet at the back of her neck. Berlin will readily ensure safety for herself by abandoning a useless ally.”

“A white peace, Your Majesty, would surely be acceptable.” the first minister tried one final time. “The Serbs can be rewarded at a different time. The Bosnian question could be settled at a conference...”

Nicholas interrupted him with a gesture. “Oh, I am sick of conferences. Dubrovin was right. The only thing the Western powers understand is might. There is no point in trying to talk nicely to them. My commanders have requested permission to attack the enemy wherever they find him weak, and I have given it. I was a fool to constrain them into a limited plan. Oh, we did not know our power. Send this message. Goremykin. If they will not have these terms, they must take harsher ones when we have demonstrated our might in full.”

29 June 1906, Schouwen

They could still see the fires and flashes out at sea. Black smears of smoke showed harshly against the red light of dusk. Captain Gerard Oosterhuis looked out over the darkening water tiredly.

“We need to go back out.” he said, his voice toneless. On the beach below the lighthouse, sailors huddled under blankets, wet, cold and miserable. Some of them were injured - he had tried to look away from the terrible wreckage that scalding steam and shell fragments could make of human flesh. But even the uninjured ones were beaten, tired, freezing, beyond exhausted. And they, of course, had been lucky.

Out on the western shore of Schouwen, they had been able to see the battle unfold in the late afternoon hours, on the approach to Rotterdam. Some folk had come from Vlissingen to watch. Oosterhuis' son had even made a tidy sum renting out his father's telescope. From all accounts – the captain had not watched – Russian cruisers had attacked the convoy from the north. The confrontation had lacked finesse, he had overheard some disappointed connoisseurs saying. The Germans had positioned themselves before the merchant ships and concentrated their fire on the attackers to shield their charges, while the Russians had bulled through, trying to do as much damage to the convoy as they could before it reached the safety of Dutch waters and the Rhine estuary. When the shells crashed into the freighters, Oosterhuis had called on his neighbours and taken their fishing boats out to sea to pick up survivors.

“All right, captain.” He hadn't been speaking to him in particular, but Willem van Kol took it upon himself to answer. Technically, he wasn't his subordinate. Willem owned his own fishing boat, and Oosterhuis was not much active at sea any more. But everyone in the village deferred to 'the captain'. “Let's go, then. It's getting dark.”

In the distance, a golden-red column of fire rose. The sound did not reach them for many seconds. Van Kol took off his cap and crossed himself. “Poor bastards.” he muttered. “At least it was over quickly.”

Oosterhuis strained to locate the explosion. “We won't have a chance to get to them.” he concluded, sadly. “Must have been a warship. Probably Russian.” He hoped, at least, that it was Russian. His personal sympathies aside, shelling merchant sailors on unarmed ships stuck in his craw. Many of his men felt likewise. They had cheered the first blasts of the German cruisers' guns, and doubly so after news reached them that a boat of theirs had gone down rescuing survivors. The men who had died in that explosion would have much explaining to do to their Creator.

Van Kok waved to his men and headed down to the jetty. Almost mechanically, Oosterhuis followed. A woman pressed a mug of hot tea into his hands along the route, for which he was profoundly grateful. As they stepped on to the wooden deck of the fishing boat and set the mainsail, each one felt the exhaustion in his bones. One more trip would be possible before nightfall. After that – the sea would wash ashore anyone not lucky enough to be picked up. He would have to keep his son away from the beach for a few days.

30 June 1906, Berlin

“We have it, Sire!” Von Neurath was beaming. His behaviour might not be all that would be expected of a junior member of the diplomatic service when coming face to face with his emperor, but in view of the news he carried, that could be forgiven. Tension visibly fell from Wilhelm's body as he heard the words. General von der Goltz sighed with relief. Chancellor von Gerlach let out a long breath. Then, the emperor pulled himself upright in his chair and gestured impatiently. “Well, man, don't stand there. Sit down, tell us the details. What do the French get?”

Legation Secretary von Neurath stepped forward uncertainly. This was decidedly not what he had been trained for. Sometimes, though, you had to take the plunge. His sergeant had told him back in his days as a one-year volunteer: when in doubt, go forward. He sat down opposite his emperor and opened his mouth.

“Erm... Secretary von Bülow has ... Your Majesty, I am charged with...”

Wilhelm interrupted him: “Do we keep Metz?”

The young diplomat looked shocked. “Of course, Your Majesty. The instructions regarding territorial concessions were clear. The French never mentioned Moresnet again, and Alsace-Lorraine was not subject to negotiation at all.”

Von der Goltz stifled a grin and muttered: “See, you can speak in whole sentences if you try.”

The emperor shot him an angry glance. He wasn't above intimidating guests, but he didn't like others doing it for him. “So”, he asked, “what are the details of the deal?”

Von Neurath had visibly thawed. He began explaining fluently: “I am sure Your Majesty has already been apprised of the broad outline. The key part is an understanding that Germany will not pursue any territorial interests of its own in Morocco or support other powers in pursuing them. That means Spain, basically. In return, France will assume a firm neutrality in our conflict with Russia.”

“And gobble up Morocco.”, Wilhelm remarked. “Nice pay for doing nothing!”

“Yes, Your Majesty. I'm afraid that is the projected outcome. However,” the courier continued, “there is the matter of assurances. That was the greatest sticking point. The agreement stipulates that France will demobilise over the course of the next three weeks, beginning at noon, on the second of July. We will withdraw our own forces from the western border in turn, also beginning on that day. By the fifteenth. both powers will have withdrawn their troops from within one hundred kilometres of the border, barring small details to maintain fortresses.”

Von der Goltz looked up. “All forces? 100 kilometres will leave Alsace-Lorraine defenseless. All our fortifications are rendered useless. If France attacks, they could go all the way to the Rhine with just a division or two.”

“Believe me, general, they fear the same thing. Bear in minds, our army will remain mobilised. In the end, we found a formula everyone could agree on, though it is going to be hard for everyone to swallow. Both sides will appoint members of a military commission – I have the details here, including lists of the number of officers, rank and seniority, vehicles to be provided and so forth. The members of this commission will have the authority to inspect fortifications, barracks and depots within 150km of the border, and within 50 kilometres of the Belgian border as well. Always officers of equal rank, German and French.”

“Why would we want to inspect the Belgian border?”, Wilhelm asked.

“We do not, Your Majesty. Though we will, now. The French do, however. They are concerned that an invasion through Belgium would still be possible.”

Wilhelm nodded. It was how diplomacy worked: The French wanted a concession from Germany, so they had to make that concession in return, whether it made sense or not. Europe could be a lot like a playground.

“The other matter concerns their Italian frontier. Italy's territorial claims in Liguria worry Paris. An agreement was reached, however, in which the Italian government will declare a friendly neutrality towards Germany and Austria-Hungary in this war. This will, of course, be done in response to a request by Your Majesty to that end. Honour will be served, and Italy will have done us a greater service than her troops could have done in a war against France.”

Von Gerlach tilted his head. “And what do the Italians get? Other than staying out of the war, of course.”

The diplomat smiled. “The French are operating on the assumption that we want the Italians as our allies, and that they are eager to join us, so they regard this as a great concession. Hence the touchy point of a formal request. In return, they will recognise Italy's claims in Libya.”

Wilhelm sucked his teeth. With a frown, General von der Goltz said: “The sultan won't like that.”

“I'm afraid it would be unavoidable, sooner or later.”, Chancellor von Gerlach pointed out. “And with French and British recognition, we will not have to take a stance on the matter. The Italians have been pushing us for a while now.”

The emperor nodded again. “All right. It's a dirty thing to do, but I don't see how else we can get out of it. The Turks can't defend it, anyway. Anything else?”

Legation Secretary von Neurath shuffled through his notes. “Nothing of major import, though there are some points... the French government insists that German naval forces will at all times respect the neutrality of French shipping in international waters. And they want access to our trade. Basically, an assurance that we will not abrogate existing economic agreements due to wartime measures.”

“I assume someone has done the maths?”, Wilhelm asked.

“I was assured this will be possible, Sire.”, von Neurath answered. “In fact, given the amount of iron ore imported, it may be beneficial.”

“All right. What is the catch?”

Von Neurath looked puzzled. Wilhelm rephrased his question. “There must be something there that sends it all back to the drawing board.

“Well”, the diplomat explained, “Prime Minister Clemenceau insisted that the published version of the agreement must state unambiguously that it was reached in response to a German request. That was a point he would not budge on.”

The emperor smiled. “The wonders of French politics, I guess. We might as well agree, since it's true. And then?”

“Lavassor gets handed over, Your Majesty.” Von Neurath looked worried. This was the part to which he found it impossible to anticipate his emperor's response. Wilhelm's face clouded.

“Released?”, he asked.

“No, Sire. A release is not possible after he was found legally insane. Initially, the French demanded an imperial pardon, but under the circumstances... and it would be illegal, anyway. You cannot pardon asylum inmates.”

“Now I am curious what solution von Bülow came up with.”, Chancellor von Gerlach stated, his eyes twinkling. A lawyer by training, he relished creative reasoning.

Von Neurath cleared his throat nervously. “According to the agreement, Monsieur Lavassor is to be remanded to the custody of the French government for transfer to an appropriate institution of mental health on compassionate grounds. Apparently, his family has petitioned the government intercede on their behalf since they cannot afford to travel to Germany, and the food and climate disagree with him.”

Von der Goltz chuckled coldly. That could have come from IIIb. The emperor rose from his chair, steadying himself on his desk with one hand, and smiled brightly. “Secretary von Neurath”, he said in a formal tone, “thank you. This is the best news I have had in a long time, and it is doubly welcome in dark times. Please, return to Paris as quickly as you can. I am sure your train will be accommodated along the routes easily. Instructions to that end will be sent. We will telegraph ahead, of course, but you may carry the agreement signed by my hand, in case any uncertainty remains in Paris. And when you arrive, you may tell von Bülow from me that today is the day that he has won this war for us.”

He turned to the chancellor. “This leaves just one question, then. Red or black.”

“Black.”, Von Gerlach said decisively. “I do not think anything less will do.”

Wilhelm beamed agreement. “Yes, of course. The order of the black eagle. That's what it was created for. And now, gentlemen:” He took up his pen and signed the agreement that von Neurath held out to him. Then, he scribbled off a few lines to von Bülow and laid the paper on top of the pile. “I believe we could use some champagne. French.”
30 June 1906, Danzig

What the imagination could not suggest emerging from a sealed first-class railway carriage – a secretive conspirator, a mysterious beauty, or dark dealings.. For Hauptmann Franz Bergschmidt, who approached the unannounced railcar that had come in as part of a scheduled troop train, the surprise turned out to be an irate Lieutenant-General. Georg von Braunschweig, of course, felt he was justified in his anger. Having made his way to Germany at considerable expense, he found the railway lines clogged and even his rank unable to secure quick passage, though it did make the waiting more comfortable. After a near-intolerable three days, he had finally reached his Corps headquarters – or almost. Right now, the train was standing on a stretch of track outside the station, and no answer could be had why. Quickly donning his uniform jacket and cap, he stepped out of the compartment, certain in his ability to intimidate railway officials, at least. And then he came face to face with the Russians.

There were ten or twelve of them, all wearing long green greatcoats and flat caps. Walking along the rail line, they carried heavy baskets. His heart beating in his throat, the general dashed over to the other side of the train only to barrel into Hauptmann Bergschmidt. Their meeting was not an auspicious one.

“What are those Russians doing here!?”, the general demanded to know almost instantly. The captain struggled to maintain his balance and saluted, looking dazed.

“Sir, what Russians?”, he asked. “We have had no report of enemy troops...”

“Those!”, von Braunschweig shouted, gesturing at the gap between the railcars. “I saw Russian soldiers on the other side of the train!”

The landwehr captain smiled with relief. “Oh, them, Sir. They are prisoners of war.”

The shock and surprise on the general's face clearly called for more explanation. He tried again: “The 71st brigade sent them back after they beat the Russians at the border. We've not been able to clear railway space, so we're keeping them here to do odd jobs. It's not like they are enough to be a problem.”

That made half sense. The papers had written something about successful advances at the Polish border, though of course they had not mentioned units. Well, his men being involved in the only victories the German army had to offer so far was a good thing. The railhead at Danzig was the very image of orderly confusion, with trains backed up every way and troops resting on every piece of open ground in view. There had to be something going on here – more than just shuttling forces east. So, XVII Corps had had a change of orders, and he hadn't know. Damn.

“Captain, which way to the nearest cab?” he asked when he had taken in the scenery.

Bergschmidt looked apologetic. “Sir, we've requisitioned most everything on wheels to take troops and supplies to stations further south and relieve the congestion. I'm not sure I can find you a cab, but there should be a horse at the station. There's a cavalry guard.”

“Good!”, von Braunschweig said. “I have to see Mackensen immediately. Set his head straight.”

The look of anguish on his guide's face gave the general pause. “What is it, man?”

“Sir, General Mackensen is not here. He's in field headquarters, I don't know exactly where. In Poland.”

“Poland?” Von Braunschweig's hopes faded. “Oh, what the hell. Show me to headquarters. I'll sleep a night in a bed, and then I can finds out where my deputy has gone. Find someone to take care of my luggage, will you, captain?”

Bergschmidt waved to the line of Russian POWs. Some days just were like modern art. You didn't need to understand them.

30 June 1906, Skierniewice

Lieutenant Colonel Wilckens was getting jaded when it came to cheering and enthusiasm after having routed through Warsaw, but the reception in Skiernewice was something new – not necessarily in a good way. He did not believe in leading from the rear, so he had been on the first train in, preceded only by one of the gun-bristling Polish contraptions they used to ensure their lines were clear. There were not many civilians left in the town, though it looked to have been prosperous before it had been turned into an armed camp. Those that had stayed waved red-and-white flags and cheered the way crowds did at the first sight of German soldiers throughout Poland, but they were a clear minority. The fighting men – calling the soldiers would be a stretch – provided the bulk of the welcome. It involved alcohol – Wilckens was willing to look the other way for the time being – copious feu-du-joie and generous gifts of souvenirs of war. Captain von Bölckow of his staff had already collected a cossack whip, an officers' sabre and a lovely, only slightly bloodstained Astrakhan cap that must have graced a particularly fashionable Russian officer before his untimely demise. Wilckens had been to maneuvers abroad. He had watched spahis and zouaves, cossacks and Gurkhas and just about all the colourful units that cigarette manufacturers made lithographed pictures of in action. There was simply no comparison. The Polish fighters scared him. They would never make it into any lovely four-colour collecting card.

Walking out to the command post on the outskirts – Wilckens was an infantry officer by conviction and did not believe in carrying staff horses if the railcar could hold much more useful 40 riflemen instead – did nothing to alleviate his unease. The battlefield smelled. He was used to the smell of cordite smoke, horses, and churned mud. This was different – a mixture of putrefaction, smoke, and, of all things, laundry. His briefing had included a bit about how the Poles were thinking of using chlorine here, so maybe that was it. The whole environment was disconcerting. The men he met did not help, either. Dressing in leather jackets or greatcoats despite the summer warmth indicated they were indeed real soldiers and understood that being warm now did not mean you would be wherever you found yourself trying to sleep that night. Their collections of weapons were disconcertingly eclectic. Most of them had at least one blade – a bayonet or sabre, or a cossack hanger, and one of them what was clearly a butcher knife. Another one had sharpened the side of a sawed-off spade that looked positively medieval, but must be terrifyingly effective. Many carried revolvers or pistols stuck in their belts to augment their rifles. Near the command post, a group of them was fitting detonators to dynamite sticks which they handed out to particularly dirty and ragged specimens.

The command post sported three flags. The red-and-white Polish banner was expected. The red flag sporting a grinning death's head with a fur cap less so. The third one – blue, with a white star of David and some Hebrew characters - he could not quite place. Below the flagpoles, arranged like stones in an orderly row around a flowerbed, an array of skulls grinned at him. The battle had not been going for quite three weeks. Someone had to have taken the time to boil and deflesh these. Wilckens shuddered.

As they entered, a short, wiry man in a fantasy uniform jumped to his feet, clicked his heels and saluted with perfect form. Wilckens returned the gesture and introduced himself. “I am Lieutenant Colonel Wilckens of the Silesian Infantry Regiment No. 154. Is there anyone here who speaks German?”

“Welcome, Sir!”, the wiry officer said. “I am brevet Lieutenant Colonel Lewin of the Polish National Army, formerly of the Grenadier Regiment No 5. I can translate for you, though a fair number of the fellows here can speak some German themselves.”

There had not been any official confirmation, of course, but he had heard of German officers who had gone over to the Poles entirely. Wilckens disapproved. “All right. Thank you, lieutenant colonel. You have certainly created something – interesting here.”

Lewin grinned in a distinctly un-officerly way. The man could not possibly have held a commission. Battlefield promotion, no doubt. “Well, sir, let me introduce you to the rest of our command.” He walked around the outbuilding where he had been seated into the wine cellar of what must have been a substantial manor house before Russian gunners went to work on it. A group of men stood around a table. The tallest, of almost royal bearing, stepped forward and preempted an introduction by saying in accented German: “Welcome, sir. I never thought I would be so glad to see a German, to be honest. Brianski, general in charge of the defense of Skiernewice.”

Wilckens saluted. He had heard of Brianski, of course. Everyone had. He looked like the pictures in the newspapers, too, which was somewhat remarkable in its own right. Stepping aside, he indicated his staff, first pointing to a gangly, bearded man wearing a dark blue uniform coat and a flat felt hat. “Colonel Rabinovicz of the Jewish Brigade. His unit has been defending this town from the beginning of the battle. And here”, he turned to a stocky fellow wearing a soft cloth cap and a leather jacket, a revolver holstered at his side, “is Lieutenant Colonel – is it Lieutenant Colonel now – Grynszpan of the Lodz Bundist brigade. This”, a nod at a short, moustachioed man in a finely tailored riding coat, “is Colonel Rodko of the Second Volunteer Cavalry.”

Wilckens shook his head in wonderment. Everybody here looked like some character out of a Buffalo Bill show, but these people had just fought one of the most impressive defensive actions in modern military history. The lieutenant colonel smiled and decided to pretend everything was normal. Until the Germans had real troops on the ground, this was still their war. “Pleasure to meet you, gentlemen.”

“Well, lieutenant colonel”, Brianski asked, “what is the plan? I'm sure you have one.” Germans always did.

“The idea right now, Sir, is to stabilise the front. We are bringing up troops by train and road as fast as we can. The 154th infantry, the 7th grenadiers and 41st field artillery are destined for this section of the front, though right now, we are entraining reserve elements now. More will come as they are taken out of western deployment. The 5th Jäger are right behind us. Their train should be here already. Once we have enough men and guns in place, we want to take your troops out of the line for rest and training. With the troops from the west becoming available, I think we will be able to go on the offensive fairly soon.”

General Brianski frowned. “I think that would be missing an opportunity.”, he said. “We inflicted a serious defeat on the Russians yesterday, at great cost to us, but much more to them. Their lines here”, he pointed at the map, “had given completely. We captured nine artillery pieces and destroyed five more. The only reason we could not roll up their position completely is that we didn't have enough men. I don't think they have recovered yet. How many men will be here by tonight?”

Wilckens hadn't expected this, but it was an exhilarating change of pace. Scary though they might look, these Polish franc-tireurs had drive. He did a quick mental calculation. “Warsaw's the bottleneck, but Skierniewice is fairly high on the list. Two battalions of infantry, one battery of field artillery, if everything works out as planned.”

Rabinovicz looked disappointed. “That little?”

“We are funnelling troops for the entire front through just one railway line right now.”, Wilckens explained. “They need men in Warsaw and Lodz, too.”

The Jewish colonel shook his head. “Not as much as we do here. Lodz isn't under pressure. Could you divert troops from there?”

“I guess.” Wilckens was a little overwhelmed by the intensity of it all. He had imagined this encounter to go differently. “I can despatch my adjutant to the junction and have troops rerouted. But I am not sure the general staff will uphold the order.”

Brianski smiled. “It doesn't matter.”, he said. “If we have the extra troops today, what they say tomorrow won't matter a bit. Either we've won, or we're dead. Either way, no need to care. How many men, in that case?”

A quick mental calculation – Wilckens found that it still didn't sound like overwhelmingly much. “Two or three extra battalions, a mounted Jäger unit and another half battery. Do you have that kind of capacity at the station?”

Grynszpan shook his head. “We'll enlist civilian help. And some of your wounded can pitch in, too. I'll get my men to open some warehouse space so your troops can bivouac. How many days' supplies do you carry, lieutenant colonel?”

“Five days' food, plus enough for tonight. I'm not sure about the troops for Lodz, they may be bringing more.”

“Excellent!” You could see the plan take shape behind Brianski's eyes. All tiredness fell away from Wilckens' body as if by magic. Damn, this Polack was a leader! In the dark ages, men like that had become kings on the strength of their charisma alone.

“I'd say we go through the centre.”, Rabinovicz pointed. “We can array the troops before dawn, here and here, and the cavalry on the right flank. We know the Russians are neglecting their defense in depth. They are used to having superiority in horsemen.”

Wilckens worried about that. He had no cavalry worth mentioning. “How many horse do they have?”

“About half a regiment, but half of them aren't battleworthy at the moment.” Grynszpan explained. “They sent in cossacks to stop us hauling away their guns. Rode right into the line of fire. Horses don't like chlorine much, either.”

“And altogether?” Wilckens was increasingly becoming convinced this crazy idea could work. True, it wasn't what any manual said, but these were men who had defended a Polish town against a superior Russian force for weeks. They knew something about fighting that Wilckens hadn't learned in his twenty-year career yet.

“Technically, it's Skugarevsky’s 10th Corps.”, Rabinovicz explained. He seemed to be the go-to guy for data here. “But in the meantime, they've taken serious casualties. As far as we know, they never had their full complement of cavalry, and threw away much of what they had in two stupid attacks. Their infantry also took bad casualties, but one regiment is still in reserve as far as we can tell. We have people behind their lines. The rest are deployed in the trenches.”

“What about artillery?”

“I'm not sure they have that much left. We bagged about a third of their artillery park yesterday. But until recently, they never used it that well anyway.”

“The key”, Brianski explained, “will be morale. We have about two thousand men still able to march here. If you can really bring in another 4-500, we have a real chance. There are still more Russians out there, but they're tired and scared. A dawn attack with fresh troops will finish them off. With any luck, we can even capture Skugarevsky.”

“Is he that important”, Wilckens asked.

“He's the best damned Russian general I've fought yet. In just a week, he killed or wounded over half my men and almost destroyed my defensive perimeter. I put out a reward of a thousand gold rubles on his head. Five hundred extra if it's still attached on delivery.”

For a brief, queasy moment, Lieutenant Colonel Wilckens thought back to the skulls around the flagpole. This was a different kind of war than they taught at the Kriegsschule in Kassel.

2 July 1906, Berlin

“No, Your Majesty. Right now, there is nothing to worry about. I've slept a full night for the first time in weeks.” General von der Goltz radiated confidence.

Rathenau looked less sure of himself. Yes, the withdrawal of forces from the French border had gone smoothly, and the right-wing press was not screaming too shrilly. But the Russian armies in East Prussia were still advancing, though slowly. Austria-Hungary was losing territory daily. The latest report had it that Przemysl was already under threat, and the Austrians were not sure they could protect the railway lines south. Their chief of staff, Hötzendorf, was young, new to the job, and out of his depth. German bond yields had dropped on the news of the agreement with France, but not as far as he had hoped, and despite the formal request having come from Berlin, a lot of people in the press were saying very unkind things about Italy. There were still no ships coming into Hamburg and Bremen, and doing anything seemed to take ages. Even with a receptive ear on Wilhelm's part, everyone seemed to be marking time, waiting for someone else to be ready or in place. It was quite irritating.

“So, when do we get Königsberg back?”, the emperor asked.

“It could be a few weeks, depending on how smart the Russians are. If they do what we expect them to do, they'll try to take the city before our forces are ready to attack them. In that case, it'll be fairly quick. Unfortunately, if they are smart they'll put up defenses against us and wait out the attack before throwing their troops against the forts. This will take longer, especially because General von Bülow is still unwilling to attack them.”

“Why is it taking so long?”, Rathenau asked. “I know that operations need preparing, but it has been days.”

Von der Goltz glowered at him. “Two things. First: moving troops takes time. An army corps takes five days to get from Saxony to West Prussia, assuming the railway lines are clear and there is enough rolling stock. We are putting the Guards Corps there together with IV and XI Corps in place for the attack. And second, the lines are not clear because we are simultaneously reinforcing XVII Corps. The point is, though, that for the first time we are facing the enemy on equal terms, with mobilised forces and functioning command. I can promise you that two or three weeks from now, the Russians will be very sorry.”

“I certainly hope so.”, Wilhelm remarked. “Their peace offer was beyond insulting.”

The public response to having it published in the press had been overwhelmingly negative. The Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung had even started a competition in which readers could suggest their own peace terms to send back to Czar Nicholas.

Admiral von Koester cleared his throat. “I wish I could say as much, Sire,” he began, “but the situation at sea remains unsatisfying. The Russians battlefleet has shelled the Baltic coast twice, though in both cases they withdrew once the Kiel squadron sortied. We cannot afford a fast pursuit for fear of mines and torpedoes, so they have so far been able to avoid battle. As long as the canal remains closed, we are also inferior in numbers.”

The emperor nodded. “I know. We need to be careful not to lose more battleships. What was this thing about new torpedo boats?”

The admiral was visibly relieved to get away from an embarrassing topic. “When the Russians surprised us at Königsberg, their navy landed troops on the Frische Nehrung and shelled Pillau. The torpedo boat squadron from Königsberg took heavy damage when they broke through to Danzig, much of it not from the cruisers, but from the Russian large torpedo boats. We were surprised how dangerous they are.”

“You write they carry guns.”

“4-inch, and more than one. It was a nasty surprise to see how well they use them. The Russians are deploying boats on the French pattern, Torpilleurs de haute-mer, but it's what the English call a destroyer.” Von Koester looked dejected. “We don't have anything comparable. I am sorry to say it looks like our torpedo boat strategy was wrong.”

Wilhelm stared grimly at the papers in front of him. “Our” strategy had been his, too, though the admiral was far too cautious to point it out. “We'll build those. What can we do until then?”

“Stay together in groups, hope, try to be better. It's not impossible. Our new models are faster than the large Russian boats, and our sailors are better than theirs. And of course, there isn't very much large torpedo boats are actually good at doing other than escort duty and fighting other torpedo boats.” Von Koester changed the subject. “There are some good news, however. We now think the Heligoland squadron has sustained serious damage to two cruisers. Convoy 2 stands a good chance of passing unmolested. if we have to assemble a third one two weeks from now, we will have Dessauer and Wrangel back from the USA to escort them in. After that, our numerical superiority in the North Sea will be absolute.”

Von der Goltz grunted approvingly. “Thank the Lord for small mercies, admiral. Listening to the Flottenverein you'd think all enemy ships would be burning wrecks on the first day of the war.”

Rathenau now spoke up. “I'm glad to hear that the military side is improving.”, he said. “I am still concerned about sustaining the war, though. Our bonds are not healthy. Issuing new debt abroad would be ruinous at this point. And the Reichstag may be severely underestimating the cost of the war. I suggest we need to put this matter into capable hands.”

“Yours?” Von der Goltz looked on mockingly.

Wilhelm intervened calmingly. “I think this is too great a task to leave to one person. A committee on the war economy may be called for.”

3 July 1906, Warsaw

It had taken less than a week to change the mood of the city completely. The tense atmosphere of the siege, with whispered updates on the Russians' progress and the dizzying spiral of food prices, had given way first to jubilant celebration, they to a kind of relaxed, purposeful puzzlement. People were planning for the future. People were convinced there would be one. Of course, they still had precious little. Most inhabitants were still living crammed into any available space like sardines. Bread prices, having dropped precipitously as carefully hoarded grain came on the market, were inching up again – every load of flour that came in meant one load of troops left in Germany, after all. Many girls who happily threw themselves at their saviours in the first explosion of joy were now considering the material benefits of the relationship. Some people had already started grumbling about the behaviour of the Germans – admittedly, with reason, but remarkably early, given the sound of Russian artillery had been audible in town until two days ago.

General Pilsudski, of course, was thrilled. The quotidian concerns of survival had largely passed him by, and with politics his primary consideration, he had much to be glad of. the German officers in town effectively considered him a head of state, he found. If that was not good news, he didn't know what would be. Time, then, to be statesmanlike. His informal walk with his intelligence chief was just the kind of thing real rulers did.

“It's not that I am ungrateful, Feliks”, he pointed out to Feliks Dzerzhinski, “but it is really quite unbecoming. I could see it when we were under siege. Things have changed, though. The world will be watching us.”

Dzerzhinski looked at him mockingly. “And would Your Highness prefer me to use velvet gloves, or will white cotton ones do?”, he asked. “Damn, Josef, I've explained this to you before. This revolution needs me now more than ever, not less! If you fire me, you give up the last bit of real power you have!”

Pilsudski looked at him uncomprehendingly. “We won. There is no reason why we should not embrace repentant enemies now.”

“You haven't won. You've gained respite. Look, while you were the go-to guy for the German aid, everybody had to salute and say 'yes, Sir'. As of yesterday, you aren't. There is a Kommandantur in town. And the Dmowskis and Grynszpans of this world may not have noticed yet, but they will. And then, where is your Poland? What will you do if Dmowski offers the Germans a better deal? Cheap grain from aristocratic estates, in return for their propping up his reactionary crew? If you want your Poland, then you need my security service.”

“True.” Pilsudski looked crestfallen. He was used to calculating military risks and political effects, but treason among comrades was something he did not easily contemplate. “But at least limit yourself to necessary brutality. Your headquarters can turn a man's stomach, Feliks. Reporters will be in town soon.”

Dzerzhinski laughed harshly. “That stuff? Josef, it'll all be out of there. We don't need it any more. But please, don't think I'll let any journalist into my organisation. It's bad enough the world knows it exists.”

Pilsudski sighed with relief. “Oh, thank heavens. If you continued treating prisoners like that...”

“Traitors, Josef.”, Feliks reminded his friend. “I fully intend to continue treating traitors as they deserve. Those tools were just to scare the impressionable. The Okhrana taught me a lot about pain, Josef, more than they ever did you or your aristocratic comrades. You don't need any tools to get what you want out of a prisoner, just time and imagination. The equipment only sets the atmosphere. A lot of those fat grain merchants led us to all their hoards before we even touched their smooth, pink skin. Don't say that was not necessary! You fed your army.”

“Yes, but we aren't starving any more. We need to convince the Germans by other means.” Pilsudski was feeling out his depth. The intensity of his intelligence chief worried him. True, they pursued the same goal, but their natures could not have been more different. Pilsudski's heart was blazing for a free, brotherly, Socialist Poland with a warm, generous flame. Dzerzhinski burned for the cause of revolution and the downfall of the Czar with a cold, electric fire of terrifying ferocity. “I need to be an ally they can trust and respect.”

Dzerzhinski smiled grimly. “Well, Josef. How about you tell them you have instructed your security service to stop hurting traitors and spies and see if they appreciate that. Or maybe, you can tell them instead that the Austrian liaison officer at their general staff, Redl, is a Russian spy. I think that might get you farther.” The spymaster stepped into the entrance of his office. “Remember, Josef: I genuinely like you. But if you, or anyone else, ever endanger what we are fighting for, I cannot put that above my mission. You have seen that what I do is useful. It will be more useful still. Do not doubt that.”

The heavy door closed with a disappointingly workmanlike click. A leaden thud would have been more fitting, but somehow unlike Dzerzhinski. That man lived and breathed the twentieth century, and Pilsudski increasingly felt unsure that there was any room in that era for men like himself.
3 July 1906, East of Chersanov, Galicia

You could still smell the smoke miles away. Many towns in Poland and Austria-Hungary had suffered from the war, but few, Colonel Ostyakin thought, to the same extent as those in his path. That in itself was a surprise for him – he had never expected to set foot on enemy soil in this war. His regiment was a reserve unit, and his duty initially to secure communications in the rear of the army. But orders to advance wherever possible meant just that. The fact that they were doing so south into Galicia rather than west into Silesia just bore witness to the remaining sanity of his general. Ostyakin considered that a miracle, too. After all, he had to deal with the druzhinas of the Patriotic Union on a daily basis.

These men, the colonel thought, had to be the worst idea since – he could not really thing of a good example, to be honest. When they had been sent to the front, the papers had been full of praise for the patriotic spirit of these Russian fighting men who had volunteered to do auxiliary duties to free up soldiers for the front, and risk their lives in combat with the dastardly Polish franc-tireurs. Even then, the colonel had wondered whether their main appeal did not lie in the extent to which they were funded through donations by wealthy industrialists and noblemen. Now that they were here, some even under his command, he had found that they were less of a latter-day Ilya Muromets and more like the Czar's own bashi-bouzouks.

The worst part was that it proved almost impossible to rein them in, even when it was advisable. Ostyakin appreciated the value of creating terror, making civilians move out of the way and in the path of the advancing enemy. But there were limits to both its usefulness and its acceptability. The problem was that while he had tactical command over their units, he had no authority to discipline them. That was the job of their own leadership, and as far as he could see, they were doing it poorly, if at all. There were stories around the mess of what could happen to line officers who punished PU men, and most of them were not nice. Ostyakin had intervened a few times in especially egregious cases, but in the end it was easier to turn a blind eye. How were you supposed to explain to your men they couldn't help themselves to a bit of silverware if the PU next door were ransacking the house and ravishing the maid?

And then, of course, there was the issue of combat value. The druzhinas didn't have any. They came apart under pressure. That limited their options.

“Krakow is defended”, he pointed out. “Not heavily, but even if we used all our forces against it, we would need to set up a staging area and pull them south first. We can keep heading south and try to grab territory for an encirclement, but that would require the forces on the eastern flank to be doing as well as us.”

“Krakow can wait.”, the general said curtly. He was glad not to be the one to say it, but the PU troops would have been destroyed trying to take the city. “Going south is out of the question, too. We haven't enough men to force a crossing of the Vistula. Any suggestions?”

Basmachkin, the PU leader, was the first to speak up. The colonel found it hard to personally dislike him, cultured and well-spoken as he was. The general apparently relied on his advice a lot. “Oswiecim is a fortified town holding a large camp of Polish and Jewish rebels about a day's march west. I'd say it makes a good target. Shows the rabble we are serious, denies them the use of a strategic railway junction, and enough of them will run to get underfoot. If we loop around north, they may also go to Krakow, weakening its defenses.”

It all sounded so reasonable. Even Ostyakin was taken in for a moment, and he knew Basmachkin well enough to see his real motivation was killing the refugees. The man was unreasonable.

“Sir”, he objected, “that's taking us close to the German border. There are large enemy forces at Kattowitz and Königshütte.”

Of course that was a hollow argument. The Germans hadn't crossed their border yet except into friendly territory. They were too occupied with defending East Prussia.

“A good point, colonel.” the verdict came. “We will advance on Oswiecim from the east. Let the refugees worry the Germans. The second wave will take Krakow soon enough.”

3 July 1906, Berlin

“Two requests for the same thing.” Wilhelm was hesitant. “Can we spare the troops?”

The papers on his desk were starkly clear: The Polish National Army Council requested German assistance to protect refugee camps and rear echelon assets in Galicia, where Russian troops were now invading and, by all accounts, behaving like Tartars, and the Austro-Hungarian government requested assistance in the same theatre, failing which it would have to consider abandoning all territory north of the Carpathians. The Poles could have been ignored more easily – they depended on Germany for everything anyway. But Vienna's call for assistance was worrying in its intensity. Apparently, their defenses were simply overwhelmed by the Russian advance. Hötzendorf did not have the planning department that Schlieffen had had, and even the Germans had faced chaos in the early weeks.

“Not everything they ask for.”, General von der Goltz answered. Not even with the men from the French border. But we can certainly create a new army from forces not committed right now, if the need arose. In fact, it would solve one immediate problem: we cannot move troops to the front fast enough. The Polish railways can't take the volume.”

“Would you advise we do it?”, the emperor asked.

“With caution.” Von der Goltz looked thoughtful. “There are two problems I see. The first is the nature of the Russian attacks. We know they are committing two armies in the move against Lemberg and Przemysl, and a third in reserve. But now, the Austrians are concerned about a thrust towards Krakow. That's what they want us to stop. From everything we know, the Russian troops in southern Poland are mostly second-line, garrison infantry and auxiliaries, with just a leavening of cossack cavalry and rifles. If that turns out not to be true, we might end up sending inadequate troops into a death trap.”

The idea of feeding corps after corps into a prepared meat grinder was terrifying. The rail connections were adequate, especially if they used the Austrian lines through Bohemia, but it would still take two weeks to get a large enough force into position to square off against a Russian army. But of course, if there were no first-line troops engaged, they would cede the field to the enemy for those two weeks, allowing them to conquer territory and destroy strategic resources.

“Can we break off an engagement if casualties go too high?”

The general shrugged. “It should be possible. A quick advance to punch through their cavalry screen, see what's there. If the enemy is too strong, we can fall back on Silesia. But the humiliation would be intense. Is it politically worthwhile?”

“We may have to.” The emperor stroked his chin. “What if there isn't a Russian army?”

“The Bavarian corps will go through them like prunes through a short grandmother. If our intelligence is correct, the enemy is running risks that are completely insane.”

“What is the other concern, general?”, the emperor finally asked.

“A report from the Warsaw Kommandantur. It's unconfirmed at this point, but the Poles think that the Austrian liaison officer Redl is a traitor. And of course, any assistance for the Austrian front would be coordinated through him.”

“Oh, shit.” Wilhelm was not often given to profanity, but like most Prussian officers, he used it to underscore statements. “What do you suggest we do?”

Von der Goltz grunted. “Feed him disinformation. See if the enemy reacts. The exploit the channel, if we can. This situation would be an opportunity, but the risk is considerable. That is why I came to ask your permission.”

“You want to tell Redl we will not be attacking?” Wilhelm was surprised.

“Nothing that transparent, I'm afraid. We have the troops, a refusal would look suspicious. No, I am planning to tell him we will move I and III Bavarian and XVIII corps through Bohemia, but that it will take three weeks if they can give us good rail connections. If that information gets to the Russians, they will most likely invest Krakow and try to prepare for an attack from that direction. Meanwhile, we will begin our exploratory attack moving parts of IV and XIX corps to reinforce the rest of VI in Silesia. If only we hadn't moved that garrison north, we could move in today.”

Wilhelm shrugged. “It had to be done. We needed them in West Prussia then, and we didn't know the French would be reasonable. The plan sounds goods. How long until the attack?”

“Probably a few days. We can equip part of the troops from the depots in Silesia. And if everything does work out as we hope, it will give the Russians a salutary shock.”

4 July 1906, Portsmouth

The table was set beautifully, snowy-white napery and fine bone china. Fred Jane kept a hospitable house for anyone whose conversation was of interest to him. With many more vessels now in Portsmouth thanks to the tense situation in the North Sea, this number included far more naval officers than would even usually be the case. Today's guest, Captain Jellicoe, happily tucked into excellent cake and suffered the questions of his enthusiastic host.

“So, you would not say the Germans are showing lack of spirit?”

Jellicoe gravely shook his head. “Some would say so, but not I. This is not the kind of war that would have been fought in our youth, Mr. Jane.”

“Indeed? The ships do not look much changed. I've heard officers say it's the men that are.”

“No, Mr Jane.” Jellicoe was becoming impatient. “It is the weapons that have changed the war. The Russians have deployed the entire arsenal of modern sea warfare against the Germans, and done so very effectively. But you cannot fault the Germans' actions. They were struck a cowardly blow, and then a foolhardy one.”

“Heligoland is still in Russian hands.”, Jane pointed out. “Against a squadron of battleships.”

The captain sighed. “It is secured with mines, some anchored, some electrically activated. And its shore battery is comprised of 12-inch guns, the largest we have in service today. These will destroy almost any ship if used with skill and determination. It is senseless to risk a battleship against such dangers. The Japanese off Port Arthur showed the world what mines and torpedoes can do.”

“And they allow the Russian fleet to shell their coast with impunity. What of that?”

“Hardly.” Jellicoe gestured over the tablecloth. “The Russians only once ventured past Danzig. That was when their battlefleet tried to force the Fehmarn straits. The Germans sortied from Kiel, and the two almost met, but it was the Russians that turned tail. German guns on Fehmarn saw them off, the same as Russian ones on Heligoland drove away the much smaller Wilhelmshaven squadron. And the Germans pursued, until they observed Russian minelayers. Under the same circumstances, the Royal Navy, too, would have disengaged. The danger of losing capital ships is too great.”

Jane looked dejected. “So modern sea war is a series of flights and feints? It sounds quite dispiriting, captain, if you forgive me for saying so.”

“Oh, hardly.. Look over the water, and you will see the real war.” Jellicoe gestured towards the window. In the afternoon sunlight, ships lay anchored, waiting. The sleek, low hull of the cruiser Blücher hovered just outside territorial waters. “If the Russians can stop these ships, they will do real damage. And if they cannot, then anything they do on Heligoland is irrelevant. The Germans have already destroyed one cruiser there, and no doubt more will follow it. As long as the Germans can protect their shipping, they are winning. And no doubt they will retake Heligoland soon enough and reopen the Elbe and Weser. I am curious how, myself, though.”

Now, the host was all ears. “How would you do it, captain?”

Jellicoe pondered the question. “It's a hard nut to crack. The first approach was not a bad one – they didn't lack for courage there. I would have tried the same, go in with big ships and shell the harbour into submission. Of course we have been training for that kind of thing, I don't think the Germans have. And even so, with the mines, I doubt we would have succeeded. A second try might be the way to go. Minesweeping boats ahead, a flotilla of destroyers to keep the torpedo boats at bay, and battleships to take out the coastal guns.”

He paused, briefly stroking his chin. “Failing that – and I don't think they can deploy that force until the Kiel Canal is cleared – I would consider a surprise attack. A landing force under cover of darkness, brought in on small boats, with capital ships behind the horizon.”

“A kind of cutting-out action?”

Jellicoe laughed. “We have such lovely antiquated terms. It would be hopeless while the cruisers are in harbour. They could shell any landing force into surrendering. But I doubt these ships will stay a problem for long. The Germans will be able to blockade Heligoland in their turn soon.”

“What about the Baltic?” Jane changed the subject. “The Russians are still interdicting German shipping from Sweden, aren't they?”

“Yes, but not all of it. Anything west of Fehmarn is beyond their reach. The Germans ship much of their imports through Göteborg and Kiel or Lübeck, those ports are open.” After a brief pause, the captain continued: “There will be a battle soon. The Russians know they must offer it before the Germans clear the canal or be driven onto the defensive, and the Germans are seeking it already. I think Nebogatov is hoping to lure one or two capital ships into minefields or torpedo fire beforehand to improve his odds.”

“How do you see the odds, then? If you're a betting man?”

“The Russians are clever and unscrupulous. They have that going for them. But the Germans, for all their being timid, have the better fleet. In a fair fight, my money is on the Germans. But it won't be one.”

4 July 1906, New York

Przemysl Under Siege!

150,000 men trapped! Giant artillery pieces in action!

The Imperial Russian government today announced that its armies had invested the Austrian fortress of Przemysl in the greatest siege operation of the modern era. The Austrian garrison of 150,000 men faces a besieging army of over 400,000 Russians in its desperate effort to hold the city until a relief can be mounted. The Russian command has promised its suzerain Nicholas II to bring the garrison to its knees before the summer is out. If occupied, this stronghold would permit Russian troops to occupy all of Galicia north of the Carpathian mountains as well as giving them a sally port for attacks into Bohemia and Silesia.

Caught unprepared by the Russian attack, Austria-Hungary has been fighting to stem the advance of the enemy into its territory since the war began, and this latest blow to its prestige and military power will not go unnoticed in many quarters. Presently, the build-up of forces held in readiness at the Serbian border continues, while that belligerent power is mobilising. Both armies are expected to clash soon. Meanwhile, Romania and Bulgaria have both declared mobilisations and may soon join the battle on their respective sides. The Romanian crown is obligated by treaty to aid Austria-Hungary, though the present situation makes it a chancy undertaking and the mobilisation of its army may indicate no more than a readiness to defend itself from encroachment. Bulgaria may well choose to intervene on the Russian side. The Balkans are once again true to their reputation as the cockpit of Europe.

(New York Herald)

06 July 1906, Berlin

“I told you, it means nothing. He does not think he owes us a thing.” August Bebel could be hard to bear when he was convinced he was right, and convinced he was. The newspaper clipping announcing the formation of a committee on the economic conduct of the war had demonstrated to his credulous colleagues once again the true nature of the ruling classes. Gratitude was an alien concept to crowned heads.

“I cannot believe that.” Paul Singer was still shocked. The announcement was as brief and bald as it was provocative. Rathenau, Stinnes and General Groener would head the new Kommission für Kriegswirtschaft! Other candidates to be announced as they were nominated. Industrialists all, and Stinnes the worst of the lot.

“Well, intentional or not, it's a frightening thing. We will have to talk to the comrades. I'm sure the workers of the Ruhr will be furious when they hear of it.” Eduard Bernstein seemed calmer than Bebel, but no less angry. Singer added bitterly: “This is the worst possible idea. I cannot think of a better way of demonstrating that nothing has really changed. What next, bring back the Socialist laws for the duration?”

Silence followed. Bernstein looked out of the window thoughtfully. “Does the emperor know what he is doing?”, he idly asked.

“What do you mean?” Bebel replied impatiently.

“Look at the way the committee is set up. We have Groener – an expert on logistics. Rathenau – a well-regarded industrial manager. Stinnes – likewise, and a representative of the German industry that is not Krupp-AEG.” Bernstein presented his thought tentatively. “If you lived in Sanssouci and only ever met grand-bourgeois and nobility, wouldn't these be the people you'd consult in economic matters?”

“You mean, he just asked the people he knew.” Bebel considered that for a moment. “Makes sense, actually. He has a way of tapping his inner circle for important jobs. Quite annoying”

Singer spoke up. “Well, either way, we have to register our protest. I think we should do it through the Reichstag. Labour must have a seat on the War Economy Committee.”

Bebel nodded, but then raised his hand momentarily. “One thing: I think it might be better if we did not air this in public. There are too many who would call us unpatriotic. I suspect that Wilhelm would see one of us, if he came as a representative of the Reichstag faction. If he still says no, we can go and butt heads.”

The other men nodded. “Who, though?” Bernstein asked.

Bebel smiled. “Paul”, he said, turning to Singer, “you have the manners of the upper crust, don't you? Go and talk to His Majesty about this. You're better at being conciliatory than I am.”

Singer shook his head. “Why would he listen to a red Yid?”

“That's never stopped him before.”, Bernstein pointed out. “Look, I can come along if you want me to. Or take David. He's an expert on finance.”

Paul Singer rose, sighing heavily. “All right. I think taking along a delegation will make sense. I'll have you and David, and Ebert. He has the background on community businesses. Maybe we can get somewhere on this, after all.”

6 July 1906, Oswiecim

Franz Hedrich had long ago found that his horsemanship was unequal to that of the Second Silesian Uhlans. The weight of his camera dragged on his shoulder, and despite the summer sunshine, he felt chilled whenever the wind caught his sweat-soaked shirt. Leutnant Doberitz, of course, assiduously overlooked the discomfort of the journalist. He had said beforehand that he could spare no man to protect or help him, and on those terms had allowed him to come along .On second thoughts, Hedrich was no longer sure that had been such a good idea. They had crossed into Austria without meeting anyone except for occasional refugees, who kept pointing them up the railway line to where “the Russians” were. No useful information could be had, though they made good subjects for photography. If nothing else, the reporter figured, the Berliner Illustrirte would run a few of those pictures.

They crested yet another hill, and experience had taught Hedrich that this would expose them to the wind again. He fumbled to button shut his jacket when he noticed that the head of their column had stalled. Leutnant Doberitz rode forward, dismounted and unpacked his field glasses. He quickly got out of the saddle and followed, tying his horse to a tree. Below the hill lay Oswiecim, and they could see that there was fighting going on. Someone had built hasty trenches and rifle pits north of the town, and houses in the outskirts were burning. To the south, towards the Vistula bridge, a random agglomeration of huts, tents and shacks teeming with humanity – the Polish camp they had heard about. On the whole, it did not look like a huge battle, not even like the ones in the paintings from the war of 1870. Russian troops were trying to get into the town, and Austrians were trying to stop them. The lieutenant turned to his guest. “You are lucky today, Mr. Hedrich. We shall have a battle.”

The reporter swallowed. “Indeed? Charming.”

“Now, if you would do me the kindness and stay behind the crest of the hill for now. Once our reinforcements are here, we will give the Russians a nasty surprise.” He called for the sergeant. “Leave the lances. This is carbine work. And have the men eat and drink. It could be a late supper tonight.”

The waiting seemed to take ages, though his watch assured him that hardly 90 minutes had passed until the cavalry vanguard had assembled. The commanding colonel approved Doberitz's plan not to wait for their infantry or guns, and, camera at the ready, heart beating fir to burst, Franz Hedrich followed the advance of VI Corps into what would be known as the Battle of Auschwitz.the first minutes were majestic: German cavalry crested the hill, spread out into a wide arc over the fields and began its descent on the unwary Russians. On one flank, a mounted force in Russian green met the German wing and a quick, chaotic melee ensued. Hedrich was not sure who had the better of it in the first minutes – the Russians displayed impressive horsemanship, he thought – but numbers told, and the inexorable forward march of the uhlans continued over a field strewn with green and blue corpses and dead and wounded horses. A group of dismounted men led prisoners to the rear. By now, the trenches in front of the town were coming alive, and flashes of riflery signalled the presence of defenders. The front rank of the cavalry advance broke into a canter, then a gallop. Men and horses fell at a terrifying rate as they closed the last metres, then they were in among the foe, sabres flashing. Even through his telescope, Hedrich could not make out more than the bare outline of the fight. The cavalry moved along the edge of the town. Russian troops abandoning their position to disappear amid the houses. Units formed up, dismounted and unslung their carbines. The sound of gunshots and clarion calls drifted up to the hilltop position where the officers watched. On the road behind them, the tramp of infantry boots announced the arrival of more reinforcements. Mounted field artillery clattered past and unlimbered on the reverse slope, looking for targets.

Hedrich decided there would be nothing to see here. Colonel von Marckow did not believe in journalists in a war zone anyway, and no senior officer would give an interview in his presence. Instead, he gingerly got back on his horse – favouring his sore rump – and cautiously made his way down the field path that the prisoners and wounded used. Auschwitz was a mess. The town had probably not been beautiful before – just a dinky little railway junction on the Austrian border – but the street fighting had stomped on whatever charms it might have possessed. Houses had burned out, some were still on fire, and the streets littered with anything that could provide cover. Crossroads and large buildings now had uhlan sentries guarding them, in one case manning one of the murderous Russian Madsen machine guns you read about so much. There were occasional dead bodies bizarrely draped over windowsills or doorsteps, or lying in the gutter. Almost all of them were Russian, and those were invariably missing their weaponry. Their green uniform jackets looked unfamiliar.

As the street opened out onto a small square, Franz Hedrich almost stumbled over a heap of Russian bodies. They lay tumbled against a wall, one over the other. He looked closer. Apparently, these men wore civilian clothes under their uniform jackets and bandoliers, and armbands rather than patches identified their units. They also seemed altogether too variable to make convincing soldiers to Hedrich, who was used to the lean, fit young regulars he had accompanied to war. Some of them were middle-aged, scrawny or overweight, with bushy beards that he was sure not even the Russian army allowed. Nearby, a soldier in the blue uniform of the Austrian army stood sentry. He noticed Hedrich and unslung his rifle. “Who goes there?!”

“Friend! I'm a German war correspondent.” Hedrich waved his camera – a gesture he found worked better than digging around for his accreditation papers. The man grinned.

“Lovely work today.”, he said in heavily accented German. “I thought we were done for before you came over the hill. Never been so glad to see damned uhlans in my life!”He proffered a cigarette. Hedrich took it, puffed and coughed.

“Harsh.” he commented. “What happened here?”

The sentry shrugged. “Patriotic Union. They're Russian war volunteers, nasty bastards.”

Hedrich shuddered. So he had been right. These were the Czar's vaunted butchers. “What happened to them?”

“They don't surrender.” the soldier answered flatly. “Says so on their flag. So they don't.”

The reply confused him for a moment. Then the realisation hit Hedrich. “You shot them?”

“Not me. The uhlans shot them before they moved on.” Seeing the disgust on the reporter's face, he shook his head. “It's better than what the Poles and Jews would do to them, Sir. After what they did to the villagers round here, who could blame them.”

Now Hedrich was all ears. “Poles and Jews? I though the National Army was in Warsaw?”

The Austrian grinned. “If you don't mind, Sir, I can show you something. We have our own Jewish militia here. Not much for spit and polish, but they fought like wildcats. Come along, I'll get you to meet them.”

07 July 1906, Natangen

The drums and trumpets were still sounding in his ears as Lieutenant Colonel von Prittwitz watched his troops move forward. Ranks of cavalry, pennons snapping in the breeze, unfolded into the rolling plain. Under a brilliant summer sky, the Gardes du Corps cuirassier regiment was spearheading the advance on Königsberg. After days of waiting in the staging area, they were finally ready to strike the decisive counterblow, and it was only proper that Prussia's finest regiments should have the honour.

A patrol came cantering up to the command. The enemy had to be expecting them, of course. Prittwitz expected to fight his way through field fortifications before the day was out. Once the report was in, they would know what to expect. It was almost a pity, he thought, that the days of the cavalry charge were all but numbered.

A galloper came towards the wing, reined in his horse, saluted and reported. “Orders from General von Vietinghoff, Sir. The Russians are meeting us with cavalry. Our scouts are reporting the Chevalier Guards and Zessarevitch's Ataman regiment ahead. The troops will advance with lances carried and engage enemy cavalry as they meet them.”

Prittwitz's heart quickened. This was the day, the clash of titans. He would never have believed that the Russian generals had the sense of honour. But then, they were cavalrymen. They understood how to test a man's courage. Quickly, he issued orders and watched as the squadrons fanned into open order, lances upright. Along the edge of the forest about two kilometres away, Russian horsemen appeared. Yes, this was going to be the day. The lance shaft quivered in his hand like a living thing, the sabre purposefully slapped his thigh as von Prittwitz guided his horse towards the enemy.

07 July 1906, Nasielsk

The taste of victory was sweet, General Mackensen now knew. But like almost everything in this war, it involved paperwork. The Russian general Litvinov had been kind enough to leave behind a fully equipped office with files, at least, but that did not make it better. If there was a general officer temperamentally less suited to staff work in the imperial forces, Mackensen had yet to meet him. To make his day worse, the Russians had kept their files badly, and of course, all of it was in Russian. Several officers and NCOs were already going through the piles to sort anything that might be important, but ultimately, it would be Mackensen who would have to draw up the report. Sighing, he stepped outside for a breath of fresh air.

In the park opposite the improvised headquarters, cavalrymen of his Death's Head Hussars were doing cavalrymanly things: smoking, relaxing, shooting the breeze. They were dirty and tired from a long advance and a gruelling night attack, but today, they were enjoying the fruit of their efforts. The enemy was beaten and driven out. Nasielsk was theirs. The general envied them their simple pleasures. A commanding officer's work was never done.

On the steps of the church across the park, Russian prisoners milled about. The crowd kept growing as soldiers brought in more. Mackensen wondered if he would be able to transport them north on the railway, once it was repaired, or failing that, how long the captured supplies would feed them. Housing, at least, would not be a major concern as most of the citizens of Nasielsk had abandoned their homes once war came to town. With the weather continuing friendly, he could even put them under canvas. If he had enough tents, of course. That was another thing.

Major Thomamüller came up to him. Mackensen felt a smile rising to his lips. The man was a treasure. There wasn't a soldierly bone in his body, it was a wonder that he had ever passed training, but he had a head for organisation. If you wanted to know where things were, Thomamüller was your man. They kept him with field headquarters despite the fact that the rigours of campaigning did not agree with him, and had discovered that the major was cheerfully game as well as useful. Right now, he was carrying a sheaf of paper he attached to a board with a steel spring. That was a clever idea, too. The general figured that it would be a good idea to build these things and distribute them to army clerks.

“General, we have telegraph connection again!”, Thomamüller reported. That was good news. The engineers were working hard on the railway line, too, but that would take longer.

“Thank you, major. Anything else?”

“Well, we have a handle on supplies. The Russians abandoned nineteen field guns – the artillerymen say they are damaged, but repairable – and about 6,000 rounds of ammunition, together with a store of gunpowder. None of it seems to be wired for demolition like we initially feared. Two of the warehouses near the station are full of victuals, mostly tinned beef, flour and groats. There is also a store of vodka, the remains of which the quartermaster has placed under armed guard.” The officers shared a brief smile. The tiredness of a fair number of the hussars might come from here. “We have about 400 cases of rifle and machine gun ammunition so far, no doubt there is more to be recovered from the defenses, and about a thousand crated rifles along with the ones we took off the prisoners. Twenty-two Maxim machine guns and forty Madsen ones. We haven't gone through the stores of boots, uniforms and blankets yet, but there are a lot. Or were, maybe. I'm told a lot of the infantrymen prefer Russian boots to ours.”

Mackensen shrugged indulgently. Let them. He certainly had no love for the calf-high, constricting leather boots that the army insisted were appropriate footwear for marching long distances. “What about the horses?”, he asked.

Thomamüller shook his head apologetically. “The cavalry lines were outside the town. A good number of them retreated, taking their horses with them, and opened the corrals holding the reserves. Details from the hussars and mounted artillery are out trying to catch as many as they can, but this is horse country. A stray animal is liable to find a home soon. We don't expect to recover more than one or two hundred. We have the foot artillery train draft horses, though, 180 of them.”

The general nodded. The artillerymen had been a tough proposition. They had tried to sight their mortars on the attacking column and, when that failed, had blown up the guns before holing up in the grammar school and fighting to the bitter end. Not ten of them had surrendered, and those only when German field artillery had reduced the building to rubble. If all the Russians had fought like that – Litvinov would be dining in Danzig tonight. Mackensen looked over the papers that Thomamüller presented him, again nodded his thanks and scribbled a quick note.

“Send this to Army Inspection.” he said. “I'll draft a full report tonight.”

Nasielsk taken in night assault morning of 7 July. German forces in possession of HQ Russian Army of the Narev. Captured 19 field guns, war stores, taken in excess of 8,000 prisoners. Whereabouts of remaining units of enemy Army unknown. Ditto of General Litvinov. Cavalry patrols have secured area out to 15km, no resistance encountered. Expecting to link up with Polish Army and V Corps at Neogeorgievsk tomorrow.

08 July 1906, Lodz

Germans. Even if they tried to be nice, they could be so damned overwhelming. Yossel Rabinovicz had not felt so much out of his depth in months. With a heavy sigh, he kicked away his boots and stretched out on the bed, a book in his hands. For the first time since he had left Radun, he knew that he would be undisturbed. It felt like an unheard-of luxury.

To think that the Germans had started making preparations for this the moment they reached Lodz still boggled his mind. While he and his men had still been advancing, driving back the Russians thirty kilometres from Skierniewice, someone had not only decided that they would go to Lodz after they were done, they had cleared out a barracks building, brought in equipment and supplies, detailed a staff of advisers and civilian workers, and even taken the time to assign quarters. Bright, comfortingly non-Cyrillic letters in fresh white paint on his door said “Oberstleutnant Josef Rabinowitz”. He would have to get used to wearing that name and the expectations that came with it, but it felt manageable. The Germans seemed to regard it as important. One of the advisers had even apologised to him for the quarters. true, they were not as luxurious as some he had had in the course of the war – he had once spent four nights in the villa of a textile magnate while they were contesting the suburbs of Lodz, and left it a burning wreck – but they were his. For the first time since the yeshivah, he wasn't sitting on packed bags. The luxury that this new life afforded him was almost unimaginable for someone hardened by a year in the chaos of civil war. (Had it only been a year? Yes, pretty much.) He could close his door and be undisturbed. He could tell his adjutant – he had an adjutant now – to filter any callers. He could go down to the Kasino anytime he felt like it to get something to eat and drink. True, it was nothing fancy, most days just meat and potatoes, sausage and bread, pea soup or tinned sardines. But it was there, reliably. Nobody had to rustle up something. And if he did not feel like going, he could send his batman. They had gotten him one of those, too. You couldn't be a proper Oberstleutnant without one, it seemed.

The Germans had surprised him in many more ways. During the attack, they had been frighteningly effective and scarily profligate. Scarcity of everything had conditioned him to carefully husband his men, ammunition and arms. The first time the Saxons had left behind a damaged field gun, he had almost been unable to believe his eyes. Artillery had been the most precious of resources to him, but they had driven their guns forward recklessly and poured shells into the Russian positions like they grew on trees. Their infantry took stupid risks, too. His troops would never have stormed a line of rifle pits frontally. He figured it was different if you had stretcher bearers and real hospitals behind the lines, but it still did not really look like a good idea. It had worked, though. The German attack had been aggressive, coordinated and skilful. Whatever he had learned about defending, he had soon realised he knew very little about attacking. By the lights of the National Army rebels, they would have tried to pry loose individual positions, sneak up on them at night or rush a poorly guarded command post. The Germans had rolled up the entire position and kept hounding the Russians for three days. then they had decided to 'stabilise the front', dug in and waited for their supply train to catch up. It was an alien world.

He also was still unsure whether the decision to put his troops into barracks was good news or not. It seemed the Germans shared his estimation of the NA in general. In the Jewish Militia, they had always tried to keep high standards of discipline, but compared to what they saw now, he grimly recalled Lewin's words about making them better franc-tireurs. And they were better than most others. In the chaotic defensive actions of the spring, armed men had been grabbed left and right without regard for units or chains of command. Untangling this monumental ball of yarn would take time. The men of the Jewish Brigade were still trickling in, including many nobody had seen before. Some had volunteered out of the refugee camps and been sent to the Warsaw defenses directly. Others had guarded synagogues or shtetls on their own initiative and decided they were going to join up with the men they had taken as their example. Much to Yossel's surprise, the Brigade was famous.

Fame did not excuse them from hard work, though. The Lodz Kommandantur had arranged for extended rest and recreation, which, in fact, meant mostly drill. Every man had been issued with a pack, a blanket and shelter half, armband, and a pair of boots. The boots were awful. There was ammunition for the rifle range and machine guns to practice with. And there was drill: assembling and disassembling weapons, target shooting, rapid fire, advancing in loose order, entrenching, and classes. The officers spent much of their time studying German command protocol and logistics, and most read up on tactics in their spare time. And there were a lot of Germans passing through to pay their respects. Rabinovicz had figured out soon enough that they were poaching his men. Yiddish-speakers served as guides and interpreters for German units, and literate NCOs who could figure out how to read German instruction manuals were seconded to training other NA units. Shloimo Ferber – or Brigadegeneral Salomon Ferber, as his door read – was already beginning to worry. Nobody was quite sure what their role in the war would be. Maybe the Germans would just use them as rear echelon units or police. His advisers were being evasive on that.

Rabinovicz stretched himself and buried his nose in his book. Whatever the future would bring, he was resolved to be prepared.
09 July 1906, The Southern North Sea

Bridge of Izumrud

The attack was under way. Izumrud, Bayan, Bromobey and Almaz were running at full steam towards the line of ships on the horizon, the torpedo boat squadron spread out on their flanks. If the information from Britain was correct, the Germans had brought back two more cruisers, Dessauer and Wrangel recalled from America. That made this an uneven contest, but not an impossible one. Admiral Essen had given orders to target the cruisers this time around, both to avoid further diplomatic embarrassment and because they could not hope to hold Heligoland for long. With France not in the war, their best option was to cause as much damage to the German fleet as possible before they withdrew. The admiralty did not yet agree, but they would, and until then, every warship sunk or damaged counted. Next time, if they hurt the Germans enough now, they might call out battleships to escort the convoy, and for that prize, they could risk trying to mine Wilhelmshaven and throwing away all their torpedo boats.

Along the line of cargo vessels, guns began flashing. The first shots went wide. Zig-zagging at unpredictable intervals, the Russians returned fire. Admiral Essen looked at the unfolding scenario, trying to make out the silhouettes of the enemy ships. The lead ship, heading towards them, but not firing, was a light cruiser, maybe the Rostock or Lübeck. He could not distinguish the others clearly. With the sun now already setting, this could become a problem.

Bridge of Bayan

Captain Kolchak trained his binoculars on the German line. It was still hard to tell, but the two rear vessels had the three stacks and lookout masts of German armoured cruisers. These were likely to be Dessauer and Wrangel. Without position lights, they would soon be all but impossible to hit. Impatiently, the captain turned to the helmsman. “Stay on a straight course. They don't shoot well enough to worry us.” Thinking for a brief moment, he looked out over the water to the west. The sea stretched empty, except for a few distant plumes of smoke. “We need to use the remaining daylight. Prepare signal to torpedo boats: attack at full speed all enemy cruisers in sight.”

Bridge of Izumrud

Admiral Essen looked at the German line with increasing concern. The two heavy cruisers at the end made tempting targets for the torpedo squadron – maybe too tempting. Were they trying to lure them away, split his forces? What were the ships in the centre doing? What ships were these, anyway? The Germans had twin-stack cruisers, didn't they? The shells were falling closer now, and Bromobey and Izumrud were falling behind. Bayan had begun running flat out for the end of the German line. Damn that Kolchak! He was too eager to attack. “Signal Bayan to keep station!”

Bridge of Bayan

“Captain, Izumrud is signalling. We are to stay on station, I think.” The yeoman was balancing his heavy telescope precariously as he tried to make out the flashes through the gunsmoke.

“You think?” Kolchak asked sharply. “Yeoman, I expect a clear report. Request a signal repeat.”

Cursing, the captain turned to face the battle again. Five more minutes and they would run the line, toe to toe with the enemy. The torpedo boats would be in among them. If only the admiral's nerves did not give! It was too late to break off now! Izumrud fired again, and this time one of the shells connected on a German cruiser. The ones in the centre of the line were turning, heading towards the rear but still not firing. And yes, Izumrud and Bromobey also headed to the rear of the line. There would be the necessary concentration of force.

Bridge of Izumrud

“They are Dutch!” The message down the speaking tube confirmed Admiral Essen's worst fears. He had sent up an ensign to identify the vessels now joining Wrangel and Dessauer at the point of convergence. They could not be British, that he had been sure of, but the longer he had looked at them the clearer had it become they were not Hansestadt-class German cruisers, either. Of course! He cursed himself for not considering the possibility earlier. These were Holland-class! “Disengage!”, he shouted to the signal yeoman. “Signal to break off the engagement!”

Once again, the response was a query to repeat. Damn Kolchak. Damn him! The message flashed out again. Bayan's guns roared once more, shrouding the ship in smoke. Then, finally, he acknowledged. The right wing began to turn away. Guns on the German line flashed their reply, throwing up waterspouts around them. At full speed, Essen calculated, they would be out of range of all but the large cruiser's main guns in a few minutes. It would take particular bad look to get their ships crippled. It was frustrating, but what could you do? Then the lookout reported again. “Torpedo wakes! The torpedo boats have engaged!”

Cursing, the admiral raced to the bridge's aft rail. The wait seemed like an eternity. Then, with the perfect aim that the fleet always displayed when they were doing something wrong, a huge explosion rocked the lead twin-funnel cruiser. Essen covered his eyes with his hand. Damn, damn, damn Kolchak!

10 July 1906, Moscow

The Czar's face was pale and haggard, his handsome eyes shaded and sunken. Admiral Nebogatov had heard that Nicholas II was given to emotional reactions to news of the war, but being confronted with the physical evidence came as a shock. He bowed, surreptitiously averting his eyes. Coming up, he noticed Dr Dubrovin looking at him carefully.

“Admiral”, the Czar said mildly, “I am sorry that I had to call you here. Sadly, your ambitious scheme has failed.”

Nebogatov had been around the admiralty long enough to know how quickly 'our plan' could become 'your plan' when things went wrong. He bowed his head. “Sire, the French decision not to enter the war has rendered our positions partly untenable. We are considering options under the circumstances.”

“What would those 'options' be, admiral? A retreat?” Every general officer in the Russian forces had learned to fear the deceptively calm voice of Dubrovin. He was present at far too many meetings. Nebogatov bristled.

“Doctor, if this becomes necessary, we must consider it. As things stand at this point, though, I do not believe it is indicated.” Nicholas said nothing, but smiled encouragingly. The admiral continued. “The first consideration must be to maximise the use we can get out of Heligoland while we hold it. I have received a full report by Admiral Essen on yesterday's action and agree with him that conventional cruiser warfare is out of the question. The risk of alienating Britain is too great. However, there remains the possibility of confronting the German fleet, especially if the encounter takes place on our terms, with the use of mines and torpedoes. Following that action, the remaining ships could be withdrawn to Arkhangelsk. The supplies on the colliers are sufficient yet.”

Now, the emperor spoke. “Admiral, your scheme seems to have merit. Understand, though, that you must ensure the greatest precision in targeting. The Dutch government has expelled our ambassador and no doubt will declare war on us over yesterday's error, no matter what we say.” He raised his hand in preemptive protest. “I know, admiral. The Dutch are not a serious opponent on land or sea. But consider that they will reinforce a powerful enemy. No more such errors may be countenanced.”

“Yes, Sire.” Nebogatov was glad. No matter what, the Czar still had a degree of confidence in his judgement. “As regards the squadron in East Africa, I am afraid they will have to stay in place. At this point, none of our enemies has a comparable force in the region. Its mobility is severely limited by the inability to recoal, though. We are planning to send colliers from Vladivostok in order to restore strategic mobility, but until then, the ships are best used to suppress coastal defenses and reinforce the Siberian Rifles in land operations against Daressalaam. We believe that the supplies and forces we have in place will be sufficient to take and hold the coast of the colony until peace negotiations begin. It may be possible to move the capital ships to Europe later in the year, if we can obtain the required coal. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this will be possible before the Germans clear the Kiel canal.”

The emperor nodded. “Admiral, this is my primary concern. We have had word from a highly placed source that the Austrian navy will place a battleship squadron of three vessels at the disposal of the Germans. HAPAG colliers are being put in place in the Mediterranean. No matter what your successes in the North Sea may still be, we must insist that you move with renewed alacrity to restore the honour of Russian arms. The German Baltic squadron must be destroyed before it can be reinforced.”

Nebogatov looked up. There was Dubrovin, smiling contentedly. The man was a menace. Did he have any understanding at what risk he put the nation's maritime power? Honour of Russian arms indeed. He would need to step up his efforts to draw out the German battlefleet and attrite its strength. Right now, he had a small margin of superiority. It might be enough – but what if it wasn't?

“Of course, Your Majesty.”, he said. “We are already hard at work seeking to confront the enemy. More pressure will be exerted.”

“I have no doubt of the skill and courage of you and your men, admiral.”, the Czar said, closing the interview. “I will pray for your victory nightly.”

Dubrovin still smiled.

13 July 1906, Wilhelmshaven

The maps looked untidy to the untrained eye, a welter of pencil marks and lines drawn this way and that. To Prince Albert and Admiral von Koester, they were the answer to their prayers. Obermaat Adolf Petersen had brought back the last reports, and he, at last, seemed confident they had not missed anything.

“You are certain about these approaches?”, Admiral von Koester asked him. The sailor had a cool Frisian unflappability about him that allowed him to stand the scrutiny of his supreme commanders with ease.

“Yes, Sir. I was there with a leadline yesterday night. There are no tethered mines there. Electrically triggered ones, maybe, but nothing else. I doubt there is anything, really. It's too shallow for large warships.”

The prince looked up at him. “Thank you, Mr Petersen. You can go now. Your service to the fatherland will not be forgotten.”

14 July 1906, Villa Hügel, Essen


Dear _________

Following recent events, it has become necessary to cancel the planned Zionist Conference in Lemberg. It remains our hope that the city's rich Jewish cultural life will be revived following the end of the present war and we will be able to meet there once again.

It has, however, in the meantime been decided to hold a conference this year from 20 to 24 October in London. I would be grateful if you found the time to attend. If any difficulty in obtaining travel funds or accommodation should exist, please let me know and I will be happy to assist.

Details of the conference schedule and lectures will follow as they develop. For obvious reasons, this year's event will be abridged, and we will not permit votes on fundamental questions due to the enforced absence of so many members from belligerent countries. We hope, however, to be able to contribute to the relief of the Jewish population in the war and the improvement of their political situation.


Walther Krupp von Rathenau

15 July 1906, Ulyassutai, Mongolia

Victory, Ensign Vichovsky was learning, could be an ugly thing. Especially if you had limited influence over your allies. Bogd Khan's Mongol tribesmen had welcomed their Russian friends with open arms when it came to handing out magazine rifles. They had tolerated their attempts to train them in modern cavalry tactics, though he saw in the field later that some things had rubbed off. But they had never warmed to the thought of civilised warfare. It was not the kind of thing descendants of Genghis Khan would, he surmised. But it was unpleasant to see. Looting the governor's residence, he supposed, was permissible. But some of the things they did to the Chinese inhabitants could make a stronger stomach than the young ensign's turn.

As he walked across the courtyard strewn with splintered furniture, torn-up paper and objects whose exact provenance he did not care to investigate more closely, Vichosky was accosted by a gang of Mongol fighters dragging captives. The men looked like they had been beaten within an inch of their lives, and one of their captors was chuckling as he sharpened a wooden stake. That was another idea Vichovski wished they could cure Bogd Khan's men of. His interpreter came up and explained: “Is victory celebration. They ask you to join. The leader says they have drink, women, in house of Chinese merchant. First, they'll kill these enemies.”

Vichovski shuddered. This was not at all like officer school. Pitying, he looked at the prisoners and froze. That man, the one bleeding from his nose and mouth, was not Chinese. Angrily, he stepped forward. “Where does this prisoner come from?”, he demanded.

The interpreter exchanged curt words with the Mongol leader and responded: “They captured him in Chinese army, fighting.”

Damn. But you couldn't let savages get away with killing white men like that. And it would be bad for the reputation of Russian arms if it ever came out. He turned to the captive and said in French: “What is your name?”

The man seemed too groggy to respond at first. After repeating the question, though, Vichoski got a reaction. He looked up, trying to focus, and slurred: “Rutherford Williams, military observer with the Beiyang Army. I'm a British officer.”

Unconsciously, the ensign stepped between him and his tormentors. Turning to the interpreter, he rifled through his pockets and said: “I'll buy him off them. How much?”

Another quick exchange of Mongolian, then the answer: “Five gold rubles. Gold.”

Vichoski grimaced. “Two.” He pulled the coins from his wallet. “It's what I have.”

“Two, and your coat.” The leader was obviously eager to conclude negotiations and begin the fun. Vichovski could see the terror in the eyes of the Chinese prisoners.

“Two.” Without waiting for the answer, he handed over the coins and guided Williams away. The Mongols nodded, content with their price, and turned to forcing the second of their captives to the ground. The ensign quickened his pace, but the screams followed him for a long distance.

“You'll be all right now.”, he reassured the Briton. “First, you will see the regimental surgeon., Then, I will take you to the captain, and we will make every effort to see you get home.”

17 July 1906, Speichersdorf, south of Königsberg

“No resistance.” Feldwebel Koch looked around himself as though he still found it hard to believe. Over the past week, there had not been a day without someone trying to kill him. He had often overheard derogatory remarks about the Russians from comrades before the war, but you didn't hear them much any more. They were bastards, but they were tough bastards. Very tough bastards. He still had vivid memories of their advance across the plains of Natangen, covered the bodies of horses and men, slashed, stabbed and crushed into bloody pieces of flesh. The bright summer sunshine and blue sky feathered with occasional clouds over the flower-strewn meadows and ripening grain had made a perverse contrast to the bloodied bundles in colourful cloth and metal. That morning's encounter had destroyed two of their finest regiments in the course of less than an hour. That they counted it a victory would make little consolation to the survivors who had been assembled to charge Russian infantry at the forest's edge afterwards. He would have been surprised to hear that a hundred men of the garde du corps were still alive. General Vietinghoff had disappeared with the last attack, presumably dead somewhere in the underbrush, rather than face the shame of reporting his men's mutiny. Nobody talked much of it, but everybody in the army knew that the commanding officer of the Leibgardehusaren had refused to throw more men at the front. What had come of it – scuttlebutt had it that he had been shot, arrested, or given the iron cross for his deed. The infantry had other things to worry about. It just was so like the guards cavalry division to get themselves killed on the first day and leave the real work to the foot soldiers.

“What does it look like, feldwebel?” Leutnant von Bargen asked.

“There was a Russian position here for sure. They've broken the windows in every house and put up earthworks. Looks like there's been fighting, too. But there's nobody in sight. I got within fifty metres of the red barn to the west, and nothing. Just some ration tins and stuff lying around.”

Remembering the long, anxious crawl, the sergeant felt a momentary, reflexive urge to brush the dust off his uniform. He resisted it. Everybody in their unit was dirty. Many had gone to the length of rubbing their buttons in the dust to take away the shine. Anything that made you harder to see was good, and the Russians had the advantage with their green coats.

“Let's go.”, the lieutenant commanded. The platoon of Guards Grenadiers rose slowly from the hollows and bushes they had sought shelter in. At least the weather was fine. The idea of doing this in pouring rain or frost did not bear contemplating. Slowly, watchfully and as quietly as could be managed, twelve men moved forward. the rest stayed under cover at the edge of the undergrowth, ready to provide covering fire, repel counterattacks, or report their comrades' sad demise to command. The village of Speichersdorf seemed abandoned. Not a soul moved. A stray pig that had somehow escaped the appetites of both the fleeing inhabitants and the Russian invaders came close to a sticky end before its identity was recognised. In one of the stables, cows lay dead, probably abandoned and died of thirst. Flies were buzzing over the ghostly scenery.

Suddenly, Leutnant von Bargen noticed movement. He waved at his men and crouched down behind an upended cart. it would not protect him from bullets, but it would at least shield him from view. Feldwebel Koch had ordered some men into the house to the right, their rifles now poking out through the windows. He was a good man for tactical thinking, von Bargen repeated to himself. He'd have made a decent officer if fate had allowed, actually.

Across the square, a figure moved behind a picket fence. Another man was crouching down behind a low garden wall, trying hard to be inconspicuous. The lieutenant risked poking his head around the side of the cart to look through his field glasses. The distance was risible, but he had found that trick useful more than once. A few moments of helpless fumbling elapsed before he could focus on the man behind the fence. He was wearing dark blue and clearly had a pickelhaube hidden under an improvised wraparound made from dirty linen. They were Germans!

“Who goes there!” he bellowed in his best drill voice. The man across the square seemed shocked, but not badly enough to get up. A beginners' mistake, but they were all beginners at playing this game for keeps.

“Grenadierregiment Nr 3!” came the answer. “Advance and be recognised!”

Well, that was an impasse. He'd been about to say the same thing. But leadership was expected of an officer, so there he was. “Gardegrenadierregiment Nr 1!” he replied, rising to his feet. “Leutnant von Bargen.”

The man on the other side looked at him for a while as he walked forward, feeling terribly naked. Then, he rose and shouldered his rifle. To the lieutenant's shock, six more men appeared from behind fences and windowsills. He would never have seen them before the bullets started flying.

“Welcome, lieutenant!”, the rifleman shouted, loud enough for the men in the house to hear. “We'd been expecting you earlier. I'm Korporal Lagarde.”

18 July 1906, Wilhelmshaven

From a distance, the fire of the massive coastal guns sounded like a thunderstorm, rumbling and flashing just beyond view. For all the sound and fury, though, they were quite ineffective. The batteries on Rüstersiel had been designed for a different time. While the shells made impressive splashes in the water, the Russian cruisers maneuvered out of range with impunity, their modern guns throwing shells into the city. Of course if you were to ask, they were trying to hit the naval yard, but every crash made Admiral von Koester wince. These were homes and businesses of the good burghers of the town, and soon enough, their representatives would be here, demanding to know how a foreign enemy could do this without the mighty German fleet stopping him. There were moments when the admiral himself asked that question. Sea warfare had become a lot more complicated since his days as a junior lieutenant.

“Captain Hipper, Captain Spee, I want to put a stop to this as quickly as you possibly can.”, the admiral said. “What I am looking for is ideas.”

The captains looked at each other. It was not a straightforward matter. The Russians had sent minelaying craft into the estuary under cover of night, and there were torpedo boats out there – not many any more, they had lost enough in the past battles, but even a single one that caught a warship in narrow waters without maneuvering room was bad news. A simple sortie – even when the tides allowed – would cost them dearly.

“I suggest we wait out the high tide, then sweep the Jadebusen and sortie the cruiser squadron.”, Hipper said. Koester grunted. He had considered it, but that left the Russians with two or three more hours to shell the town before, and a chance to play hob with the minesweeping boats. On the other hand, once the battle started, the outcome would not really be in doubt. They were four armoured cruisers against two, supported by more light cruisers, more torpedo boats, and the Dutch fleet to the south, positioned to guard the Channel entrance and the approaches to Rotterdam. The official battle plan was to push the Russians south into the waiting army of the allies, but even a running pursuit north would do serious damage. If the Russians were dumb enough to hang around and not bugger off back to their minefields around Heligoland once the tide ran out.

Spee seemed to have read the admiral's mind. “Even if the enemy runs, we could take the opportunity to push guardboats further out and leave ships under steam anchoring in the Jadebusen. They would be ready for pursuit once the Russians come back.”

“If they come back, captain.” Koester was unconvinced. “The plan is not bad, but I want something that brings us to grips with them now. They have been yanking our chain for almost a month. I don't want them strategically deterred, I want them sunk!”

“A torpedo boat sortie...” Hipper sounded doubtful. The small craft could risk minefields more readily, but that was largely because they were disposable. And once they got out among the foe, they would still be punching out of their weight against the guns of two armoured cruisers. One lucky hit could change the game, but there was no guarantee one would get lucky. And torpedo boats, while cheaper, were neither free nor in infinite supply.

Spee looked up questioningly. “What if we towed the battleships out?”, he asked.

“Sortie the battlefleet? Why?” The admiral asked incredulously. Risking the most precious asset that Wilhelmshaven held to a chance mine or torpedo hit might make sense if there was a chance of victory, but the Russian cruisers could easily outrun Bayern, not to mention Sachsen which was still being repaired.

“Not immediately.” Spee explained. “Of course we first sweep the exit, but I don't think the Russians got that far. Their mines are liable to be further out. Once we have the battleships in the Jadebusen – under tow, that should take maybe 45 minutes - we can use their guns to keep the Russians at a distance. They easily outrange everything in our forts. The minesweepers can get top work at leisure and the cruisers safely sortie. I doubt the Russians will stick around, but if they do, this could be a bad day for them. And we'll have done something.”

“What about drift mines?” Hipper asked, sounding anxious. The shock of losing Friedrich Barbarossa still sat deep.

Spee shrugged. “It's a risk we have to take. I'm convinced that even if the Russians released some, the boats and tugs would spot them before they became a problem. We'll issue rifles to the crew to blow them up.”

Koester stroked his chin. “It's certainly better than sitting here doing nothing. And if the Russians stay around in the hope of launching a torpedo attack at night, the cruisers can go toe-to-toe. They'll be able to pass by the battleships once the Jade is cleared.” He picked up a pen. “Ready the orders, captain. We'll give it a try.”

Night of 18-19 July 1906, North of Heligoland

Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck thought he knew what being seasick meant. After all, he had spent weeks cooped up in a tiny cabin as the China-bound troopships made their way through the Indian Ocean. The misery that a small sailing boat on the choppy waters of the North Sea could inflict, though, was a different world of seasick. A different universe of seasick. And the sailors handling the flotilla of commandeered fishing smacks and crab boats seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. Ever since they had transferred the brave and increasingly green-faced men of the Seebatallion from wobbly and cramped torpedo boats to their tiny, unspeakably foul and sardine-packed boats, they were showing off their disgusting comfort with the situation, chatting, smoking and chomping down on the sandwiches a well-meaning but clueless admiralty had generously distributed on embarkation. They were still miles away from Heligoland, spread out over a large area of water and completely vulnerable. Even the boats that were armed carried nothing more threatening than a machine gun mounted temporarily on their rail. The operation depended completely on their camouflage and the assumption that the Russians would not dare fire on fishing boats coming in from the west. If they were wrong – well, if they were wrong, chances were the Russians would sink a British herring smack in the next few weeks and that would take care of the Heligoland problem. Not that any of them would be around to enjoy it. The red rock of the island loomed large against the eastern horizon, already lightening up with an unconscionably early dawn. The Russians would still be sleeping. With luck, their guards would be snoozing at their posts, even before the distraction to the south started. Without luck – Admiral von Koester had said that you could dodge medium artillery for quite a while if you had to. You simply steered for the last shell burst. Enemy gunners would overcorrect nine times out of ten. Of course, the man had cautioned him, that was easier in powered vessels. With a sailing boat, prayer was recommended. Lettow-Vorbeck was beginning to feel devout as well as nauseous.

Night of 18-19 July 1906, the North Sea

“Due south?” The question hung in the air for a moment. Everybody on the bridge of Izumrud knew that south was where the Dutch navy was patrolling. They could probably break through any kind of resistance that enemy could mount – outrun any battleship and outfight the cruisers – but that would leave them in the Channel, cut off from their base and vulnerable to pursuit. Still, they could not stay off Wilhelmshaven. The German cruiser squadron was coming out to fight them The German admiral had been so damned methodical, towing battleships into firing position, clearing the channel, sortieing torpedo boats and then, finally, the big beasts. It was dispiriting to see. A whole day of action, over a hundred shells expended, and nothing to show for it. Not even a minesweeper sunk.

“The darkness helps us.”, Captain Kolchak explained to the officer of the watch. “The Germans will expect us to move north, back to Heligoland, so that is where they will head. If we go south, then loop back to Wilhelmshaven, we can get there before the next high tide. The cruisers will be out, and if the battleships are still in the estuary, we can go for a torpedo attack.” His face set, the jaw clenched hard. “If we can sink one, or even cripple them, everything we did here will have been worthwhile.”

The helmsman stood ramrod-straight, looking fixedly out of the window into the blackness ahead. His face showed the struggle to betray no emotion. This was not the war he had trained for.

Morning of 19 July 1906, Heligoland

If Lettow-Vorbeck had not come to the operation with the experience of fighting in China, he would have given it up for lost before daybreak. They had trained hard for the past weeks, practising getting in and out of small boats in the surf, climbing up rope ladders with their rifles and packs, and fighting in small units in open order. Skilled soldiers and navy volunteers had scaled the sides of buildings again and again, securing ropes to the roof to haul up machine guns and ammunition crates. Going up the cliffs of Heligoland was a clear, straightforward plan of the kind that, in retrospect, required an insane amount of detail to go right. The colonel gritted his teeth as a soldier slipped and fell, his high-pitched scream echoing from the rocks. The advance climbers had already reached the top, secured rope ladders and set up a perimeter. When he had come up himself, the first scouting parties were moving out, rifles slung and hangers drawn. They looked almost comically piratical with their dark blue naval trousers and blackened faces, but it made them hard to spot in the predawn twilight.

Down at the foot of the cliffs, men were milling about. A few were still vomiting, shivering miserably in the surf. Boats crowded the beach, sailors frantically gesturing to clear their path to shore or back out to sea. The men of the Seebatallion jostled around the few available ladders for their ascent. A sergeant was trying to coax a man up one rope ladder, the soldier frozen in unreasoning terror. Another crate slipped its rope sling and crashed to the rocks below, by good fortune missing the men hauling on the pulley. The Russians had to hear this din – didn't they?

A patrolman came loping back, ducking low instinctively, despite no shots having been fired yet. “Two Russian sentries neutralised, Sir.”, he reported. “We are ready to attack the lighthouse, but if we do it now, we'll alert everyone.”

“Wait.”, Lettow-Vorbeck agreed. “If we can be in position to take the northern mole before they realise we are here, it will be all the better. I never thought we would go unnoticed this long.”

A rifle shot rang out. Well, so much for that idea. Many men hit the ground, unslinging their rifles and looking around for the enemy. Small groups moved forward, crouching as they ran. More shots were fired, and a trumpet signal sounded distantly to the south. “Move! Attack!”, the colonel shouted, and his bugler relayed the signal to the men. No bullet laid him low. The source of the rifle fire was still uncertain, but the intensity was increasing. Then, naval guns boomed out from the southern harbour and a vast white cloud of seabirds rose into the iron grey twilight. Their diversion was here. They needed to get the men up the cliff, and NOW!

Morning of 19 July, off Heligoland

Kapitänleutnant Paulsen would have jumped into the air and kicked his heels together if he hadn't felt that would have impaired the dignity of command. For once, the brass had been right. The Russians were running short on coal. Only two of the five torpedo boats and none of the fleet transports had steam up. And the chart of the minefields had proved accurate enough, too. At least with regard to where it showed no mines. He was not about to try find the ones marked.

One of the vessels under steam fired its bow gun and moved toward them, on a curved course that spoke more clearly than any warning buoy of the presence of mines somewhere in the direct approach. His own crew replied with the 5cm gun, pointlessly at this range. Even if they hit, they would have to be extremely lucky to do serious damage. But if they got close enough on the end run, before the 30cm shore guns came into play, they could fire off a few torpedoes at the fleet transport, and wouldn't that put a crimp in the Russian admiral's day?

In the rising dawn, he could make out activity on the shore: soldiers and sailors running to their stations, klaxons hooting, searchlights flashing to life. There was no sign of fighting on the island itself, but of course they wouldn't be able to see it from here. And maybe the Russians would be distracted badly enough for the Seebatallion to have a chance. One kilometre left until they were in position to shoot their spread.

The shore gun thundered to life, raising an enormous waterspout aft and about 200 metres far. Then, one of the medium turrets on Admiral Apraxin opened up. Paulsen cursed vitriolically. Well, the orders had been to get their attention, and had they ever done that. He waved to the helmsman to turn. “Let's go! No point getting blown to bits here. And ready the mines!” Aft on the torpedo boats, men stood by improvised minelaying racks. They would work both for discouraging pursuit and distracting the attention of the enemy. Then they could go home to Cuxhaven. As the vessel leaned into a quick turn, the aft torpedo tube fired off a long shot. Oh well, it might do some good.

19 July, Jadebusen off Wilhelmshaven

When he had first heard it called a 'wall of fire', Lieutenant Karasov had not taken the phrase terribly literally. In exercises, the Russian battlefleet had rarely been allowed enough practice ammunition to do more than blast off a few puffs of smoke, even if the gunners had been alert. The Germans, though, meant business. And they were heading right into it. By now, the grey hulls of the battleships were almost obscured by the flame and smoke of their quick-firing guns and the spray from their impacts in the churning water ahead. The young officer's left hand closed hard around a small pewter cross, blessed at St Saviour in Moscow long ago. The hard corners digging into his flesh felt like an anchor in reality as he stared fixedly forward. On the starboard bow, their lead boat Bodry was caught by one of the 15cm shells. The blow seemed to stop it cold, lifting the bow out of the water and shattering the forward funnel. A cloud of smoke and steam rose, flames bursting from the stricken craft. There was nothing anyone could do to help now. Aft, the Bezuprechny following them now helplessly swerved to starboard, black smoke trailing from its aft beck. There was no chance of escape in these waters, not with the rudder damaged. It was up to the two survivors. Karasov felt the thud of the engine, driven past its capacity, hammering through the floor. Soon - just moments – NOW! The boat lurched sideways, the torpedoes launching. Bubble wakes passing them from aft showed that their companion had made it far enough, too. Karasov fixed his gaze on the target while the helmsman eased the boat into a port turn, away from the merciless fire of the German battlefleet. One missed – two – then, an explosion rocked the leftmost ship. A hit, right on the bow! For one brief moment, the bridge crew watched the column of water rise and collapse, the enormous hull of the Sachsen rocking from the blow. The shell that took them amidships came without warning. Lieutenant Karasov died a happy man.

19 July 1906, Heligoland

The battle had hung in the balance all morning. Russian sailors had met the Seebatallion on the upland and fought them to a standstill by sunrise, despite being outnumbered and outgunned. When more of the crew of the Apraxin and the colliers brought up Maxim guns, the Germans were even forced back towards the north lighthouse before they could bring their mountain guns into play. The Russian torpedo boats, having driven off the impertinent attack from the Cuxhaven flotilla in the morning, split, two clearing the harbour of German mines, the others shelling the northern tip of the island and any boats they still found in the vicinity.

Then, Hipper's cruiser squadron had steamed up from the south, and their heavy guns had quickly ended the bombardment. Decisively placing his ships off the northern tip, thus forcing the Russian shore guns to fire blind at a high angle, Hipper in turn proceeded to blast the south harbour. The Russians resisted for almost an hour under the pounding, but in the end, they broke and ran. When the Seebatallion reached the southern shore, they were just in time to see the blast that tore apart the shore battery. Then, the flag on Apraxin fell. Hipper's cruisers circled around, carefully negotiating their way around the minefields until they lay off the southern harbour, covering the transports with their guns. It was over.

19 July 1906, Berlin

“August!” General von Falkenhayn jumped to his feet in surprise at the sight of his visitor. He had heard, vaguely, that August von Mackensen would be in town; recalled briefly from his command to report to the general staff and receive whatever decoration the emperor had selected, along with the adulation of the people. He had not realised it was today, and never expected him to take the time to call by.

“Erich! I couldn't pass through without checking on you.” Mackensen replied, shaking the proffered hand of the general. “How has the war been treating you?”

Falkenhayn shrugged. “It's a lot of work, but not much actually happening. I already regret taking the promotion, you know. I could have had a corps on the Polish front.” His Heeresamt für Wehrtechnik und Forschung, still in its infant stage and struggling with bureaucratic feuds as much as with the subject matter, made for dry, unexciting days compared to the burden of actual command.

“I'm sure you are doing a world of good. Can you tell me about the new weapons you will be sending us? How are the Geschützwagen performing” Mackensen seemed genuinely curious. There was no pity in his voice for a friend left with the rear echelon.

Falkenhayn relented. “I can tell you, August. But this stays between us. The Russians are formidably good spies. Right, first, the G-Wagen” He pulled out a binder and flipped through a few pages before he found the drawing he wanted. “This is what we're building now. I've commissioned Mr Büdinger and his staff and put them to work in Jüterbog, and they've produced some useful designs. It's rather a strange shape, but you can see how the treads go around the sides of the body and the engine is behind. The armour is thick enough to stop anything but a direct hit from a field gun. We shipped the first twelve to Königsberg for the attack, and it looks like they performed all right. Nothing to write home about, though.”

Mackensen frowned. He had taken a liking to these metal monsters. “Really? I would have thought the Russians would turn and run the moment they see one. That's a Nordenfeldt 1-pounder, isn't it?”

A resigned nod confirmed his guess. “37mm calibre, no explosive shells. I would have loved to put a bigger gun in there, but this is what we have right now. The next generation is supposed to get British 1.5-pounders, or some anti-torpedo boat guns the navy can spare. But that's not the problem. We'll be making a few improvements here, fit a machine gun in the turret, too, instead of on top. The problem is that they don't go faster than a slow walk, and lose their treads when the driver so much as sneezes.”

Mackensen's face fell. That was not exactly how he had imagined it. Everybody in the general staff had read “The Land Ironclads” when it came out. Reality, it seemed, favoured the infantryman rather than the machine rider. At least yet.

“The concept proved true, though.”, Falkenhayn continued. “We lost almost all of our G-Wagen in the first two days, to mechanical failure. But the armoured trucks acquitted themselves admirably. They cannot go beyond roads, but a good deal of the fighting took place in towns and villages around Königsberg, and there they worked marvels. If we ever build ones that can go off the road, you can retire your horses, August.”

The cavalry general laughed. “I'll be thrilled to ride in one of them just as soon as they get as fast as my warhorse. And the G-Wagens will be improved, no doubt.”

“Not before next year,” Falkenhayn admitted with regret. “We have more pressing projects, anyway. The biggest ideas rarely turn out to be the effective ones, it seems. We haven't managed to get any use out of aeroplanes yet, for example. The damn things are too fickle to even consider taking into the field. The airship we deployed to Königsberg was grounded for half the battle, though it did good reconnaissance work when it could fly. We'll try dropping grenades from it one of these days, for what that's worth. But the big changes seem to come from smaller things. You know the Madsen guns, for example?”

“Know and hate.” Mackensen said with a shudder. “Why on earth don't we have any of those?”

“We will. We looked at a few designs, but in the end what matters is that we can make them reliably, now. Krupp has purchased a license. We're also working on improving the field howitzers. That Russian high-angle fire is fiendishly effective. And apparently, the men love Nogi mortars. Those are strictly outside my jurisdiction, though. We have a few designs for improved ones.”

“And other things, I am sure.”, Mackensen prompted. “I've heard that the Poles used poison gas in Lodz.”

“Skiernewice, actually.”, Falkenhayn looked businesslike. “It wasn't terribly effective. We are looking into gases, but I'm afraid they are very unreliable and tricky to deploy. We may not see them in our lifetime.”

“I wouldn't mind that one bit.” Mackensen stretched his long legs and looked out of the window. “Would you believe it, there was someone from the Daily Telegraph to interview me. The English are calling me 'Mad Mackensen'.”

Both men smiled. They had, of course, seen the Punch cartoon of Wilhelm holding the leash of a particularly fierce-looking bulldog, a pack of pickelhaube-wearing dachshunds crouching in the corner, with the unimaginative subtitle 'Mad? Then I wish he would bite some of that lot.' With his trademark hussar's cap and bristling moustache, the general was on his way to becoming a star.

20 July 1906, Berlin

Berlin is now more than ever a fascinating place, though not one for people of a gentle or quiet disposition. The city has changed immeasurably since my last visit, but mainly for the better. To begin with, I have been able to attend a Galadiner at the imperial palace and must say that there is no comparison to six years ago. The theatre is still much the same – stuffy and pompous, though grand, with actors whose talents are wasted on the balderdash they are paid lavishly to perform. Of course, hardly anyone looks at the stage. There are too many things to talk about. Now that the good people of Berlin have become convinced that the Russian armies will not occupy the city anytime soon, everyone is talking about the emperor. Rumour has it that he is to marry soon, after the unfortunate affair with his brother. Some have said they pity the poor girl, and have told me in confidence who is the prospective bride, and I can tell you with absolute certainty now that it is to be Elisabeth Marie of Austria, Alexandra Victoria of Sonderburg-Glücksburg, Sophia Charlotte of Oldenburg and Princess Beatrice, unless it is to be Cecilie of Mecklenburg or Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, of course. I expect His Majesty's conversion to Mohammedanism to be announced presently.

Personally, I find little to pity in the prospect, of course, though you must admit that Wilhelm III is hardly an Adonis. An enervated fellow, like so many Germans from their cities and universities, where too much of his development has gone towards the brain and too little to the body. I have never once seen him on horseback, and it is said he dislikes all vigorous exercise except, one is told, of the kind that takes place beyond public view. That he is fond of this I have on good authority from Countess von Reventlow, his close friend and frequent visitor (try saying this with a straight face and you may be admitted to the corps of pages. It is said to feature on their admission test). Her conversational and other skills, I can assure you, are beyond doubt, and she is a remarkable young lady in many regards that go beyond the capabilities of her mouth. Her frankness in private conversation astounds me, but I suppose I should have expected as much from so practical a race as the Germans. Sadly, she does not much attend official events, despite the fact that she recently received the Hausorden and Luisenorden for her bravery in interposing herself between the emperor and his would-be assassin. Her arm is still in a cast, having been broken, and she suffers occasional pain from it. I am certain official Berlin would profit much from her presence on such occasions.


Four days ago – it feels more than that, with everything that has been going on – they wore the church bells of Berlin thin with ringing victory. It was an awe-inspiring sight to see the people in the street dancing and singing, cheering and drinking. First it was Mackensen's drive to Nasielsk, then the relief of Königsberg, and the recapture of Heligoland. It was a week that will not soon be forgotten. The confidence of the people in their emperor and his new chief of staff is boundless. Wherever old Von der Goltz shows himself, he is cheered and thronged by well-wishers. Yet this admiration appears a selective one, for the people of Berlin are wary in who they embrace. A common soldier – and you can hardly walk a hundred yards without spotting one – will not want for good cheer, and if an officer in the plain garments of the general staff or the line infantry should show himself, admiring eyes will follow. Not so, though, for the men of the guards and the richly attired heavy cavalry. Indeed, it has lately become perilous to walk the streets of the capital too gaudily uniformed. The popular suspicion of such men is that they are indolent and cowardly, preferring to be decorative toy soldiers to risking their lives in the field. Many a guards officer of those still in the city has changed from the parade dress that was de rigueur before the war to plain field service order. the palace guards are no longer grenadiers in their tall brass hats, but civilian police now that the entire division is at the front. It takes a lot of the picturesque away from Berlin's streets, but it is easier on the eye. And I must admit that the plain tunic of the Prussian service is cut to flatter a handsome man, fetching in an immediate was that a cuirass and helmet cannot match. Spartan, the wags say, is the new fashion in Berlin, though few can use the word without a surreptitious snigger, given the scandal that engulfed the poor young Kuno von Moltke. He is back in service, one hears, recalled to command a reserve corps on the Dutch and Belgian border. A sad end for a good man. But in Prussia, they never throw anything away that is still useful, not arms, not clothes, and not officers. It has even been put about – no doubt deliberately, given how the palace is intent on that image – that the emperor has vowed not to wear parade dress while the war is being fought, encouraging officers to emulate him in his frugality. Countess von Reventlow has confided in me that he does, in fact, loathe any form of armour and prefers plain regimentals.


A thing that struck me particularly about the court gala was how relatively subdued it all was. The ladies were wearing their best, which is rather less than in London, but very far from provincial, of course, but the gentlemen were mostly in plain regimentals or tailcoats. And the dinner – oh, dear me, the dinner was quite a shock. They served plain vegetable soup, followed by a course of meats, ham, roast beef, beef braised in the Hungarian manner, and veal stuffed with a mushroom forcemeat, then poultry, chickens, ducks and quail, and finally, a very plain course of puddings and cakes. It was announced that His Majesty had ordered the palace to economise, providing any savings for the support of wounded soldiers and their families. But oh, my, how some people cursed and grumbled. Wilhelm, of course, tucked in quite happily. His tastes are simple, it is said, and he dislikes protocol. That is one more thing you would find refreshing: The entire protocol of the court has been simplified, to the point that I actually got to speak to the emperor without having to wait in some line or other, despite being a mere American-born of no particular pedigree. And would you believe he had heard of my son? He chatted to me about his exploits in the war and said he should like to invite him for maneuvers, or, if he preferred, as a war correspondent. I am sure Winston would love that if his duties ever allow it.


Letter by Jennie Cornwallis-West

22 July 1906, The North Atlantic, 62°3' N, 3°12'22”E

Captain John Green happily stretched out his long legs under the table in his cabin. Watchgoing was beginning to be hard on him, but he was not yet ready to capitulate and order a seat brought to the bridge the way some admirals did. It would not do. It was called 'standing watch' for a reason, and the men needed to see their captain up there, especially on the long stretches of boring duty. HMS Essex was patrolling the northern exit of the North Sea, looking for any sign of Russian ships straggling out or returning to their hunting grounds in the Heligoland Bight. Lookout duty was both mind-numbingly dull and terrifyingly tense, especially at night. Belligerent ships usually ran without lights, so encounters could be sudden and frightening. True, the Russians were not at war with Britain, but he would not have bet much on their ability to distinguish Essex from a German cruiser of similar weight at night. His own lookout – two experienced seamen and an ensign with a night glass – had nearly panicked during a tense chance meeting at night with SMS Wrangel, Roon and Bremen steaming north.

A knock on the door, careful, but not timid – Green was gratified to note the men were mindful of disturbing him, but not fearful. On his summons, Lieutenant Paige entered.

“Wireless message from the fleet, Sir.”, he reported. “It looks like we can stop looking for the Russian cruisers.”

“Oh?” The captain looked at him quizzically.

“The Russian press reports that Izumrud and Bromobey have entered Arkhangel.” The lieutenant held out the signaller's form. “With Bayan and Almaz interned in the Sognefjord and Aurora presumably sunk, that's all major vessels accounted for. We may be missing the odd torpedo boat, but it's likely that those the Germans didn't sink were scuttled.”

Green nodded. “I see. Well, that means we can go home, lieutenant. I'll look forward to seeing Portsmouth again.”

“So will I, Sir.”, Paige agreed. “Good to see the Germans finally won this one.”

The captain raised an eyebrow. “Won? I wouldn't mind going down to such a defeat myself.”

“But Sir, the Germans captured the flag and the admiral.” Lieutenant Paige sounded surprised.

“At a cost.” The captain counted on his fingers. “One battleship sunk, one in dry dock, one with serious fire damage still to be repaired, two German cruisers badly mauled, and nearly four weeks having the run of the enemy's coast. It reads like something out of the Napoleonic wars, something Sidney Smith or Lord Cochrane would have done. Certainly worth sacrificing three cruisers for.”

“Admiral Essen surrendered, though.” Paige protested weakly.

“Lieutenant, I trust you have the brains to look past epaulets to see the real brains behind this operation. Essen was a brave man, but unimaginative. The man that needs watching is Captain Kolchak. He led the landing operation, the mining of the Heligoland approaches, and the attack on Wilhelmshaven. Have you read up on him?”

The question startled the subaltern “Sir?”

“He is in the Russian naval gazette. Quite impressive, a polar explorer and expert on mine and torpedo warfare. A rather junior cruiser captain, though. there was no way he could be given a squadron, so they gave it to Essen on the understanding Kolchak would be listened to, I suppose. It has been known to happen in our service. I would hate to face this man at sea. look at how he drew out the fleet at Wilhelmshaven, then gave them the slip in the dark, looped around and torpedoed the battleships as a farewell. With a little luck or poorer German gunnery, he could have sunk another one that day. And his run to Norway must make an epic tale. He stripped the interned ships of their coal and supplies and left them to steam into Sognefjord with skeleton crews while he took his squadron to meet colliers on the high seas. They must have run on bunker sweepings and floorboards towards the end, always looking over their shoulders and avoiding the main sea lanes.”

“But that was insanely dangerous.”, the lieutenant noted. “With all the men and supplies crowding the decks, they could not have fought the ships.”

Green sighed silently. Paige would one day make someone a fine first officer or harbour commander. He would never make a fighting captain. “Taking extreme risks is what cruiser captains do. Yes, if the Germans had found him, his decks would have become slaughterhouses. No doubt he would have gone down fighting, though he prefers to do his battles inshore, where he can use shallows, tides and mines to his advantage. But the point is, they didn't, and he judged them accurately. He cannot help the strategic error of his government. Kolchak has brought back two cruisers to Russia, and he will be rewarded handsomely for it unless I am much mistaken. Watch this man, Paige. We will hear his name again.”
24 July 1906, Moscow

“Here!” General Sukhomlinov's finger landed heavily on a point somewhere in Western Galicia. “Tarnow. This is where we are going to hold them.”

Grand Prince Nikolai nodded meditatively. The events of the past two weeks had rattled him more than he cared to admit. Nicholas II, presiding the meeting of the unofficial war council, furrowed his brow.

“It is very close to Przemysl, general.. Is there no possibility of stopping them further west?”

Sukhomlinov shook his head and demonstrated. “We do not reliably control the railway lines west of it. There are also no northward connections, at least none that the Germans could not threaten. The territory north of the Vistula is unsafe. Tarnow is the best railhead we control, Your Majesty. The enemy can be met west of it, and it will take the Germans a long time to break down the defenses, if they can do it at all. our supply lines are short, theirs are long.”

“If the land north of the Vistula is German-held, are we not open to a flanking attack?” Nicholas asked.

“No, Sire. The land is thinly settled and has few troops in it.” Sukhomlinov traced the railway line that snaked northeast from Königshütte. “There is no connection the Germans could use to move large numbers of troops and supplies. If they tried to march an army through there, we would know about much earlier than it could threaten us. And we still hold Annopol and Ivangorod.”

“And they do not have the forces.”, Nikolai added. “The Germans just moved three Bavarian corps into Bohemia because that was all they had on hand. Their central army is still losing itself in Poland, and in the north, we are tying up their best forces with our thrust against East Prussia. If we can hold them in place and secure our southern flank against the Austrians, we can have Przemysl. that will secure possession of Galicia down to the Dniestr. And the Austrians are unlikely to spare more forces than they have. Their losses were heavy, and they lack a trained reserve. We need not expect major offensives until late autumn. Maybe next spring. Our sources indicate they are recruiting untrained volunteers, boys and unfit men.”

Nicholas nodded happily. “Thank you, Nikolai. Thank you, general. I trust you to hold the flank while the brave Army of the Bug overwhelms the defenses of Przemysl. I assume casualties will be heavy?”

Sukhomlinov looked at his emperor sadly. “Yes, Sire. A siege cannot be brought to a fast conclusion cheaply. We are grateful to the heroic ardour of the Patriotic Union volunteers that have lightened the burden on our regular army formations.”

A momentary shadow flitted over Nicholas' handsome face. “Ah, loyal Dubrovin. I must tell him this. And I will pray for the souls of the men who defend Russia's soil and honour with their lives.” He paused. “How do the other fronts stand? We must reward Captain Kolchak lavishly, Nikolai.”

The Grand Prince nodded. “Indeed, we must. A man like him is worth his weight in gold in a war.”

“The battle in the North Sea and Baltic is better explained by the admiralty, Sire.” Sukhomlinov evaded. “In East Prussia, we have stabilised the front and are holding the Germans north and east of Königsberg. The German defenses on the Angerapp can be used to stiffen our defense of the southern gains. The German army in Poland is still unable to move against our troops in Lomsa, Ivangorod or Annopol. We are working to strengthen these fortresses before they have concentrated enough forces. In the south, we must and will have Przemysl. With this in hand, they cannot dislodge us from Galicia without deploying massive forces. Autumn can then bring peace on our terms. If it does not, we will be able to thrust against Romania and the Bukovina.”

“What about the Romanians?” Nicholas asked, “What of the Bulgarians? Are they going to be a problem?”

Sukhomlinov shook his head and raised his teacup. “A nuisance. The Bulgarians should have joined us, but they were afraid. It is too late now. They cannot hope to gain much from rushing to our side today, so we must not expect them to.”

“We must reward Serbia all the more.”, Nicholas said. “She stood by us from the beginning.”

“Yes, Sire.” Sukhomlinov said quietly. He was noted for his silence on political matters. “Romania has not dared launch any attacks. they are mobilised now, at least close enough, but they rightly suspect our troops are massed further from the border. We have had desultory fighting and a few probing attacks into Bessarabia. Nuisances. If there is no peace soon, we will take Moldova, move into the Bukovina and threaten Hungary. Then, Vienna will have to give in. It will put such strain on their union otherwise they cannot hope to survive. And then, we will be able to concentrate on Germany. Next year, unless they see reason, we will be able to thrust through Poland into Silesia.”

Nicholas nodded gravely. This was how they would win. Germany might match them in one theatre or the other, but it could not match their strategic depth. It could not match their enormous armies and their ability to strike at every front. They just had to have the patience to wear down the enemy. Not give up, as they had with Japan. Stay in the fight. Czar Nicholas II resolved to be steadfast in the face of the coming test.

25 July 1906, West of Tarnow

The civilian man cannot hope to comprehend the ferocious joy that the life of the warrior is. I was so blind to this myself, wilfully blind and gormless. But once you have tasted the fire, felt the rhythm of battle course through your body, how can you not with a joyful heart abandon the grey drudgery and tawdry rewards of what passes for civilised life today? It seems hardly credible that just a few short weeks ago I reckoned sleeping in a tent and eating cold rations a hardship. Today, it already has become to me so much the pattern of my life that heated rooms, beds and dinners are but a shred of distant memory. None of these tinsel comforts have anything approaching the reality of my experience here. Nobody cares for the distinction of reservist and regular, we are all soldiers, and every officer a warrior king. Like the mighty thanes of the heroic age, we live only to do battle. The struggle for victory and survival so defines everything we do that I shudder to think what may become of us if the war should end soon. It does not feel like a limitation, or a foreshortening. Our entire being exists, like that of a desert anchorite does for mystic union, for the sublime moment when we meet death, bayonet to bayonet.

Our artillery is digging in. Everybody is shooting high-angle these days, tails sunk into ditches and barrels pointing high. It is always strange to see the guns so ungainly, so helpless, but it works. And any infantryman appreciates what these tired, muddy men serving them do for us. We would not break the enemy half as often if their shells were not there to aid us, and the man who faults the gunners’ courage has never stood counterbattery fire. The Russian has dug in deep, and the men we face are now no longer willing to readily give us an inch of ground. Everything we have faced so far pales before this amazing display of stolid courage. Every man is willing, even seems eager to lay down his life for his Czar, and to make us pay ion red blood for every inch of red soil. Today, we are resting to recover and regroup. Tomorrow, we will take on their trenches and force them into retreat once more. And the day after that, for those who live, will hold another test of battle.

To Przemysl, our command has raised the cry. The army will go. Warriors all, we will go where our lords lead us, and retainers all, they will lead us where our king sends. Przemysl, Paris, Lemberg, Moscow or Milan, it matters not a whit. The men shedding their blood at this mighty fortress are like us, joyous in having realised their ultimate purpose in life. Some days, I envy the dead, for they need not face the prospect of this elation EVER ENDING. How can any real man live as a drudge after having gone through this? How can I return to my Latin class, day in, day out to instil the lifeless ablative into generations of soft youths who know nothing of this, and will not believe it if I spoke of it with a thousand bronze tongues? Dulce et decorum est, et fortasse facilior.

(Diary of Hauptmann der Reserve Gebhard Himmler, recovered with his personal effects after his death in the assault on Russian positions at Tarnow)

27 July 1906, Cuxhaven

The room was sparse and cheerless, though it was an improvement on the tents and shacks they had been housed in for the past few days. Ever since the surrender of Heligoland had led them into captivity, Seaman Novikov-Priboy and his comrades had struggled to stolidly accept whatever fate the enemy had designated for them. Bearing the hardship of imprisonment was easy enough, but the strain of expectation was gaining on them by the day. Living under canvas, in improvised accommodation set up in the meadows around the sleepy port town of Cuxhaven, had even proved rather pleasant once the men adjusted to the solid ground under their feet. The guards were surprisingly tolerant of their charges gathering grass to sleep on, and making themselves huts and woven capes to stave off the wind. In the summer sunshine, with ample food provided, this was almost like a holiday outing. Autumn would be terrible, but surely the Germans would not just leave them here. Would they?

It was the pervasive uncertainty that wore away at even the most stoic of men. The guards did not speak Russian, and with their officers separated, housed somewhere in Wilhelmshaven, the few of them that spoke any German or English – many German navy men spoke English – could find out little more than that there were some kind of plans. When their captors had begun to call out individuals for interrogation, nervousness had spread. Petty officers had come back with tales of pointed questions regarding the timing of their attack and talk of war crimes. It was a disconcerting prospect to face, being punished for the crimes of the imperial government. Novikov-Priboy knew only too well how many these were. When they called him out, he followed the sailor guard apprehensively. They sat him down on a bench in the stables of a nearby farmhouse they had converted to process prisoners and left him. Nobody had threatened or even touched him, but the whole procedure was still unnerving. Men were led into and out of the building, typewriters clattered in adjoining rooms – well, stable boxes, really – and all around him, something purposeful and efficient was going on and this enormous machine would suck him in, do something to him and spit him out again when it saw fit. The experience was unnerving. As a Russian prisoner, he would no doubt have been stripped of his few precious possessions – the watch, the tobacco, the bag of books and notes, and his few rubles – possibly even beaten. With luck, some kind-hearted soul would have shared his vodka and rations, commiserated and talked. He would have spent long stretches in limbo. But this would have been a common experience. The Germans were different. He noted that wherever he met them, they were doing things. Often at a leisurely enough pace, true – they did not seem to be working themselves to death. But you did not find forgotten men who were loafing, waiting for someone to remember to give them something to do. Before the war, he would have envied them. Now, he was terrified of the idea that his country had chosen to go to war with such people. Whatever he might think of the Czar, he was still a Russian patriot. Internationalism, he had found, ran skin deep with most Socialists.

“Your turn, sailor!” The voice that roused him from his anxious pondering belonged to a red-faced petty officer – Oberbootsmann, if he remembered the briefing on enemy ranks correctly. He did not look like a sailor. Shore personnel. A paper pusher or workshop guy who probably drew this duty because he spoke Russian. And he probably hated being dragged from a comfortable desk or workbench to talk to bedraggled prisoners. Novikov-Priboy knew he would.

A small desk had been wedged into the stable box that probably had held a draft horse a few days ago. Behind it sat an army man, no, an army officer. That was something of a surprise. Prisoner handling was not usually a highly skilled job. You fed them, you locked them up for the night, and you shot them if they ran away. It didn’t take a genius. The officer looked up, piercing blue eyes through steel-rimmed glasses. He said something in German. The navy man translated for him.

“You are petty officer Alexey Novikov-Priboy? Quartermaster duty on Admiral General Apraxin?”

“Yes.” There was no point dissimulating. They were bound to have taken along the files from Admiral Essen’s headquarters. And anyway, what would they do to him? All he had done was keep track of ration tins and paint pots. The officer made a note with his pencil and looked up again.

“You were captured on the fleet tender Tcherkez. Was that your duty station?”

“Yes.” What was the point to that?

“Were you part of the landing party that captured the island of Heligoland? Did you take part in any actions against civilians while ashore, or were you in any way associated with planning the operation?” The questions came quickly, but the tone they were asked in suggested that this was a ritual more than any real attempt to investigate. If they were really trying to punish the men who had shot that poor fishermen… well, he hadn’t.

“No. I was ashore only two times. I never left the port facilities.”

More rapid scribbling. The officer laid down the form he had been filling in and picked up a file. After a quick leafing, he found whatever it was that interested him. Once again, he spoke his rapid-fire German, the sailor translating. “Petty Officer Novikov-Priboy, it says here your mother is Polish. Is that accurate?”

That took him off guard. Surely, that wasn’t in his files? Where the hell were they getting this information? Could the Germans be keeping tabs on every member of the enemy forces? Surely not. “Yes, Sir.” He confirmed, his voice wavering.

“Don’t worry.” the translator interjected in a low voice. “You’re lucky.”

“Very well.” His interrogator pushed back his glasses with a passing flick of his finger and focused again on the prisoner. “That means, petty officer, you have a choice. You may, if you wish, volunteer to join the Polish National Army. They have no navy that I know of, but they can use experienced quartermasters. What do you say?”

Sudden hope and patriotic indignation struggled inside his soul for a moment, and his face must have betrayed as much. The officer made a quick note on the sheet atop the folder.

“I think not, Sir.” Novikov-Priboy finally said.

“Are you sure? They might make you an officer. Oh well, it does you honour, I suppose.” The officer leafed through the folder again. “That will mean you remain a prisoner of war, for now. You may still change your mind about this. Now, your other choice is that you have been slated for an exchange under cartel. It will mean leaving your comrades. Will you do this?”

Exchange? Novikov-Priboy was shocked enough he almost had to sit down. He held himself upright against the wall. “Sir? To Russia?”

Once more, staccato German followed by a thickly accented translation: “We have negotiated prisoner exchanges. You will go via Sweden, on neutral ships. You will be required to swear that you make no escape attempts en route and not return to combat duty against Germany, though. Other than that, you will be free to return to duty.”

Novikov-Priboy felt a smile spread over his face he was powerless to stop. He would have made a terrible poker player: “Yes, Sir. Gladly.”

He knew he would have no choice in his future assignments, but his duty station in the bowels of a battleship meant that he would hardly survive to be captured if his ship were defeated at sea. And you could always argue that supply management was hardly combat duty. Right now, he would go home!

The officer made another note in the binder, shut it and nodded to the guard. “Be ready for departure. You will be called on in the next few days.” The sailor informed Novikov-Priboy. Stepping out of the cramped cubicle, the prisoner could not resist trying to catch a glimpse of the papers on the desk. The German army loved paperwork even more than the imperial navy. He was not entirely sure whether he could trust his ability to read Latin script – especially not the funny shaped one the Germans used. But he didn’t know what “III b Politische Abteilung” meant anyway.

28 July 1906, Pzremysl

The silence was deafening. Up to now, Colonel Andrashko had always though that this was more of a cliché, but now he understood the meaning behind this expression. After heavy guns and riflery had played the continuous background music to your life for weeks, their absence made you feel as though you had lost your sense of hearing. He found himself forever straining to catch the stray sounds that might betray danger, and shocked at how loud ordinary things suddenly seemed. Back in the mess area – and what luxury an honest-to-goodness mess area was to have, somewhere with benches and tables where hot food could be eaten sitting down instead of wolfing cold tinned ration huddles in some slit trench – they had collectively hit the ground when a hapless cook had dropped a large metal pot. Adjusting to this strange new world where danger did not hide behind every rock would take some doing.

Opposite their positions, among what once had been the proud ramparts of Przemysl, Austrian soldiers no doubt were making the same profound discovery. Andrashko shuddered at the sight of the mangled, shell-torn heaps of rubble and grotesque relics of masonry. He had lost many good men among them, more than he had ever hoped to. His regiment had been in four of the seven assaults, including the one that had taken down Fort 13 and opened the way to the inner ring. Yesterday's glorious attack on Fort XXa had been the dubious honour of other troops. His own was simply too depleted. Even with the reservists coming in, they would need rest and recovery before they would be up to anything. But the continued silence ever since the Austrian officer had called for negotiations was encouraging. There had been two previous lulls, but in both cases the guns had opened up against after mere hours. Now, they had been quiet since morning, and the afternoon was quickly approaching.

A cheer drifted up from the artillery positions. Someone knew something! The colonel waved to his orderly, instructing him to find out the source of this rejoicing. His dignity as an officer did not allow him to come running. Then, he walked over to a good observation post – a place that a man approached at risk to life and limb a day before – and took out his field glasses. Indeed: The Austrians in Fort XX were forming up. They looked ready to vacate the position. If they were, then surely so would the rest of the garrison. Przemysl had surrendered!

The orderly came jogging up the hillside, a paper in hand. “The Austrians have surrendered, Sir!”, he reported breathlessly. The hastily printed sheet, what passed for a newspaper among the literate men in the siege lines, carried General Litvinov's words: On this day, the Army of the Bug won the battle and the war for the Czar! With Przemysl lost, the Austrians could not hope to regain Galicia before winter. They would come to the table. Andrashko was deeply glad to hear that this would likely be the last time he had had to send his men into the fire.

30 July 1906, Berlin

“So, we are screwed, then. Options?” General von der Goltz shifted his meaty frame in the chair and glared at the maps and folders littering the table. The assembled luminaries – his unofficial war council – looked nervous. Von der Goltz was not known for shooting the messenger, but getting bad news did nothing to improve his mood.

“I do not see why we cannot just push through!” Colonel Heye suggested. “By all accounts we have, the Russians are being badly weakened.”

Von der Goltz's new adjutant Lieutenant Colonel von Seeckt sighed in a manner that was just short of inaudible. Colonel Groener objected. “We've been through this. The Kriegswirtschaftskommission has pointed out only too clearly, even if we could sustain the casualty figures – which we cannot – we would run out of ammunition. The battles at Königsberg and Tarnow are consuming shells at almost twice replacement rate. Stinnes thinks that we can raise production dramatically, but not immediately. It will take time. And until then, we need to reduce our expenditure of ammunition, and, if I may say so, of men.”

The assembled officers nodded sadly. The intensity of fighting had come as a shock to all of them. In the first weeks, they had put it down to facing fully mobilised troops with hastily assembled forces. Then, they chalked it up to siege operations. By now, even the hardiest admirer of Blücher's vision had to admit, though, that advancing into a battle like the ones they had been experiencing was like walking into a bandsaw. Regiments came back as battalions, battalions as companies. Officers were paying a particularly steep price, with many a company led by a trusted Feldwebel. On many stretches of the front, desperate commanders had ordered their men to dig trenches and hold them until specifically ordered to advance. Most of Poland was frozen into this kind of stalemate, with attacks on either side bloodily repulsed by the other.

“Trained men,” General von der Goltz rebuked him quietly, “may be less important than we all thought. The Russians are defending stretches of the front with their volunteer auxiliaries. If we could hope to match them in this field, we might be able to go forward. But the ammunition issue is crucial. I am afraid, Colonel Heye, that any offensive operations we do undertake before it is solved must be chosen wisely.”

“That means forgoing the chance to win the war this year.”, Admiral von Koester remarked calmly.

The “Big Push” had been their hope for victory. With the Russian offensive running out of steam and Germany's frontline troops finally deployed to advance east, the idea of hitting them hard on a broad front, pushing them out of East Prussia and Poland, into the Baltics and Ukraine, had looked like a possibility. After such a defeat, the Czar would have to make peace. But with every casualty report, every quartermaster's account and appropriations bill, this vision receded ever further out of reach.

“Yes.” Von der Goltz's voice was level, but you could see the jaw muscles clench under his jowls. “We have to be realistic. In order to win the war, we will need to deploy much more force than anyone expected. That means having to increase industrial production, training reserves and volunteers, and buying more material from abroad. At least we have the sea lanes open again.”

Von Koester smiled more smugly than he had any business doing. From the end of the table, Major General Moritz von Lynckner bristled at the suggestion. “We are just giving the Russians more time to consolidate their gains! Now that we know how hard defensive lines are to force, the last thing we must do is leave them the leisure to build more. We have millions of eager volunteers flocking to the colours. Forcing the breakthrough now is imperative!”

“Infanticide!” Falkenhayn snorted derisively. “Untrained volunteers with inadequate artillery support and short of transport or munitions? It will be a worse slaughter than Port Arthur.”

Lynckner glared at the man. He had never quite accepted that the head of the Wehrtechnische Abteilung had his place at the table. He resented all intrusions by those not from the refined atmosphere of the general staff, even the head of the navy. Of course, the emperor even brought his civilian advisers here, something that von der Goltz had the good taste not to do. But Falkenhayn with his toys was almost as bad.

“The Japanese won at Port Arthur. As did the Russians at Przemysl, in spite of great losses. Laying down his life for his country is not something an soldier has any business being afraid of.”

“Throwing away the lives of his men uselessly is something a leader should be afraid of.” Falkenhayn replied, “You cannot defeat the Russians by attrition. No power in Europe has enough men! Dammit, we need those troops next spring, trained and armed, not dead this autumn.”

Smiling indulgently, the chief intervened before the debate became too heated. “Indeed, General Falkenhayn. Speaking of which, how are the armaments coming?”

The general so addressed nodded quick thanks before turning to his reports. “Production capacity is at a premium,” he pointed out, tactfully omitting to mention that the need to turn out badly needed conventional supplies crowded out a lot of his gear. “but we have already begun manufacturing Madsen machine guns under license. The Danish company is also supplying us directly, but they have a standing contract with the Russians – an odd situation. With the delays in turning out regular howitzers, we think that the Nogi mortar model 06 will be welcome everywhere, and it can be made quickly. A larger and more accurate version is not going to be available before winter, unfortunately.”

“What about gas?”, Seeckt asked.

“Probably a dead end.” Falkenhayn admitted ruefully. “The Poles were simply lucky that it worked. If the attack hadn't come the moment they were ready to deploy it, the cloud would not have reached the Russian trenches in sufficient concentration. We are working on it, but don't expect miracles.”

“Everybody expects miracles from you.” von der Goltz stated gruffly. “And His Majesty expects a victory. A real victory, not a holding action gone right. Which takes us back to the first question: what do we do?”

“Limited theatre focus.” Von Seeckt spoke more readily than officers of his rank were supposed to, but he enjoyed the protection of von der Goltz. Heye and Lynckner nodded. Groener looked unconvinced. After a brief pause, Seeckt continued. “This is in almost any respect the exact opposite of 1870. We cannot hope for a military victory because the spaces we will be moving into are too vast. A retreat from Moscow would destroy us, even without our Borodino. But a political victory through inflicting military losses and economic costs should be possible. The price will be higher than the Japanese had to pay, but so will the gains if it works.”

The chief nodded, his eyes fiery behind the round glasses. “Thank you, lieutenant colonel. Indeed, focus, focused military action while holding the rest of the front. We will have the forces for a major offensive soon, and stretching the war now costs the Russians more than it does us. Until then, we will hold the line in Poland. The Dniestr is defensible, and the Austro-Hungarian military can be relied on to hold it until we are ready to come to their aid. Or they push out the Russians themselves.”

A chuckle round the table indicated the prevailing opinion on that possibility.

“Our primary objective will be East Prussia. If possible, Courland and Ingermanland beyond. It will be a hard-fought battle, close to our own main supply lines and those of the enemy. But this is what our troops are trained for, and it plays to our strengths and their weaknesses.” A quick sweep over the map delineated the confines of the cockpit.

“What about the Austrians?” Lynckner asked. “We must expect them to fight somewhere!”

“Serbia.”, von der Goltz retorted curtly. While the bulk of their forces will have their hands full stopping the Russians from crossing the Dniestr, their southern Army will take the time to remove that threat from their flanks. If the Russians attack to aid them, all the better: let them bleed.”

He pulled another map from under the stack and tracked the projected advance. “Of course there need to be troops detailed to the Romanian's aid, too, in case the Russians attack there. And then the great question of the year will be, what does the Sultan do? If Turkey joins us, that could absorb a significant portion of our spare officer corps. But damned, would that be a coup!”

Everyone nodded. Of course, diplomatic efforts were ongoing. The Turks kept their cards close to their chest, but it seemed as though the sultan was worried by the fervour of the war party. Constantinople might well be where the course of the war would be decided.

“Sir?” General von Falkenhayn spoke up. “One thing I would ask you to consider: Ivangorod.”

Von der Goltz looked at the map. “What of it?”

“Possession of this fortress ensure the Russians interior lines in the defense of Poland in the north and south. If we could take it, we would control the Vistula and instead of being forced to defend a Polish salient, we would be able to force the enemy to use long supply routes moving his own forces between fronts.”

Several men around the table murmured assent.

“Obviously.”, von der Goltz remarked. “But do we stand a realistic chance of taking it without bleeding like the Russians did before Przemysl?”

“Not now, I suppose.” Falkenhayn admitted. “But come September or October, we may. Ivangorod was badly damaged in the Polish uprising, and unless I am greatly mistaken, the Russians can't have done much to restore its defensibility.”

The chief scratched his chin thoughtfully. “An autumn offensive?” he pondered aloud. “That could go badly wrong.”

Falkenhayn cast down his eyes.

“But if it works... Keep it in mind. Until then, nobody talks of this. To anyone. Walls have ears.”

02 August 1906, Berlin

“This is beyond insane.” Emperor Wilhelm carefully laid the document he had held in his hand on the desk, as though he was afraid it might bite him.

“But not insane enough to be completely incredible.” Prince Albert smiled wickedly. “I know how you feel. When I first saw it, I wanted whoever had authorised even drafting it to spend the rest of his career cleaning heads. But it does sound convincing enough for the Russians to believe. And our security is pretty good.”

“It had better be. If anyone other than the Austrian gets their hands on this, it's going to get ugly quickly.”

The scheme laid out in the packet of orders now resting on the emperor's overloaded desk was as daring as it was ruthless. Admiral von Koester had called it “something the British would do”, and not in a good way. To gain naval superiority in the Baltic, the Wilhelmshaven battleship squadron (minus Sachsen, which still needed repairs) would meet the Austro-Hungarian squadron consisting of Erzherzog Friedrich, Erzherzog Karl and Babenberg in the Elbe estuary. On the appointed day – 24 August, to give all concerned plenty of time to get into position - they would leave Cuxhaven and steam north to force the Belt. At the same time, the Kiel squadron would take position off Copenhagen and the Danish government would be faced with a German ultimatum to allow them passage. If any attempt was made to impede them, the fleet had Nelsonian instructions. The scenario was bold, vicious, and a nightmare to the Russians who would go from an edge in numbers to almost 2:3 inferiority.

Wilhelm looked doubtful. “You are sure that if we pass this on to the Austrian attache, the Russians will learn of it? It is an awful risk to have it going around like that. Imagine a French spy got hold of it.”

“Imagine a Danish one did.” Albert added gravely. “It is a serious risk. Who would believe we didn't mean it? But as I said, our secrecy is pretty good. What concerns me is the Austrian one, but we could always deny it and expose Redl as a Russian spy if it came to that.”

“It would still have a serious diplomatic cost.” The struggle behind Wilhelm's face was obvious for all to see. On the one hand, he was by nature a cautious politician, not given to overreach. On the other hand, this was exactly the kind of scheme that appealed to him. If the Russians swallowed the story – and the schedule attached – it would force them to seek battle soon, close to German waters while daylight was long and fog rare. Von Koester was confident that his ships would then be able to do enough damage to the enemy that they would, at the very least, dominate the Western Baltic uncontested, even bottle the Russians in the Gulf of Finland. If, on the other hand, they kept up their probing and retreating pattern, the risk of losing more irreplaceable battleships to bad luck grew, and the prospect of spending the entire war at a stalemate that benefited the enemy was unappealing.

“Who knows of this?” the emperor finally asked.

“Only you and me,” Albert counted, “von Koester, Roeder in IIIb – if he knows, then so does von der Goltz – the head of naval intelligence and the lieutenant who suggested the idea in the first place. We had him draw up the orders by hand so no office staff were involved.”

Wilhelm nodded. “Good. What if we do nothing? The Austrian ships will be in the Baltic soon anyway.”

Admiral von Koester cleared his throat. “They may not be able to stay as long as we would prefer.” he said. “If Turkey enters the war, they may be needed to keep the Russians at bay in the Black Sea. In fact, Vienna is reluctant to let them go as it is. Protecting the Romanian coast is their responsibility, too. So far, the Russians were content to shell a few places, but that may change. Our time window is very narrow, and clearing the canal may still take until September.”

“When they would not risk a battle.” Wilhelm added. Of course not. Once the Austrian squadron was in the Baltic, the Russians could withdraw into their ports and wait. The only real hope for a decisive engagement was if they could be motivated to fight now.

“All right.” he decided, ”We'll try it. Nobody else learns of this. I want it treated in absolute secrecy. Someone needs to draw up dispatches to discuss with the Austrian attache. And I want to talk to the man who came up with the idea.”

“Lieutenant Tegtmeyer.” von Koester volunteered. “He'll be absolutely thrilled. Of course if this goes badly, he'll spend the rest of the war cleaning heads.”

Wilhelm smiled. “But if it goes right, we have to give him some kind of reward. I can't very well give a secret agent a medal, though. How do you usually do that?”

Albert and von Koester looked puzzled. Well, the emperor thought, that was another thing he would have to think of.

06 August 1906, Königsberg

Korporal Lagarde was a content man. First of all, he was alive, which was more than you could say for depressingly many of the men he had marched out with at the beginning of the war. Second, he was in exactly the situation he had dreamed of ever since the Russians had crashed into them for the first time weeks ago: he slept under a roof (of sorts), his stomach was full, his clothes dry and clean, and nobody was shooting at him. It might be far from paradise by pre-war lights, but by the standards of a fighting soldier, it was pretty good.

Of course, Königsberg was pretty badly beaten up. His company was housed in half a school building now, the other half having been shattered by Russian (or maybe German) artillery in the days of fighting that preceded its liberation. Running water was still out, but they had a working pump in the yard and made do. And in many other regards, things were looking up enormously. The supply train was finally catching up with the troops in a coherent fashion, so instead of occasional deliveries of bread, bacon, pease or sides of fresh pork, they had regular rations even at the front, and here in the rear, they even got fresh bread, butter, coffee and pipe tobacco. The latter was an especial luxury that the corporal greatly appreciated. He loathed cigarettes.

And then, there was rest. They had taken his regiment out of the line to rest, re-equip themselves, and absorb replacements. The process involved not only new uniforms, but also copious hot food and long stretches of nothing to do. Lagarde rose from the improvised bench in what used to be the school common room and stretched himself, admiring the reflection in the glass of the few remaining windows. The new uniform was wonderful! The jacket was warm and roomy, not tight across the shoulders like the old one, and the colour was much flatter and darker. The trousers, too, were much more comfortable, and no longer white. There were no puttees, and while the buttons were still metal, they had little cloth covers and at least there was no shine to them, even if the covers came off. Of course he knew that these had been made in the days before the war – the issue of new field grey battle dress had been announced in 1905, but nobody had gotten round to producing enough. Now, the extant stockpiles went to the frontline troops, which Lagarde strongly approved of. Too many good things went to rear-echelon formations as things stood. He was in no hurry to go back to polished brass buttons, white trousers and decorative cuffs. Admittedly, he had kept his pickelhaube – a good deal of the men had lost theirs, accidentally or purposefully, and nobody was giving anyone a hard time over wearing fatigue caps, but the corporal liked his. It emphasised his personal air of authority, and it went well with his new Iron Cross second class.

In front of the school building, the new field kitchen wagon was smoking away. That thing was a miracle of technology! Every man in Laggard’s company had hated the idea of cooking rations, even if it was on maneuvers where you had the time. In the field, they had often not bothered. You could eat bacon and dehydrated pease soup cold, though in the latter case it was an ordeal. Other than that, you lived on bread. In the early days, nobody had had the time to do any cooking, and now everybody knew better than to make smoke where Russian riflemen could see. Instead, the men had resigned themselves to the prospect of living on cold rations and hoping for enough corned beef in tins. And now, there was THIS: A grey-sided iron machine on wheels that could boil water for coffee in one kettle, stew soup or cabbage and meat in the other, and bake bread or buns in a box on the side while sweating supply troops shovelled firewood into its depths. Hansi Koepke, an Alsatian rifleman, turned out to be adept at using it, so there was more and better fare than what your average supply NCO served up. Serving 200 men from it would be dodgy, but what company had anywhere near that strength any more? Theirs could make do just fine. And again, apparently there would be more of those.

In fact, there seemed to be a steady stream of new ideas that had been held up by all kinds of peacetime constraints. Lagarde himself had been given command of a Madsen gun, a machine that he had often envied the enemy's forces. His own was no Russian capture – there were a few in the army, one in his own regiment – but a Krupp-made copy, firing standard German rifle ammunition. Some men in the company had trained with Nogi mortars, metal tubes that could be used to throw small shells at the enemy at a high angle. Everyone was also getting more instruction in throwing hand grenades, now that they had seen first-hand what good use the Russians made of them when fighting house-to-house. To Lagarde, the importance of technology had always seemed obvious, and now it seemed that the establishment was catching up with the twentieth century. Going by the things he had been reading in his spare time, and judging by the things you heard around the latrine, they were going to have all kinds of goodies now: armoured machine-gun trucks, reconnaissance airships, bigger versions of Nogi mortars and more, bigger guns. He was all for it! As far as he was concerned, the Guards could keep their Prince Eitel Friedrich and the cavalry their Mackensen. His hero was called Falkenhayn, the man who gave them the tools to win this war! In his mind, he was already developing a future dedicated to these things. He loved machinery with the kind of passion other young men developed for football, cycling or cigarette pictures. On some nights, he stayed up late reading the manual for the Madsen MG and taking apart the delicate mechanism. He had no dependents and held a Realschule degree, which made him a positive intellectual in his unit and explained his NCO status. At home, his father was saving up most of his pay for him. With all the new equipment coming in, the army would need people to man, maintain, repair and teach the use of these machines. If he played his cards right, there could be a promotion in it for him, and with a Feldwebel's pay to salt away, he could hope to go to a proper engineering school. Oh, yes, Korporal Lagarde was going places.
10 August 1906, St Petersburg

The gaslight in the admiralty's tearoom was flickering, throwing erratic shadows over the table and the sketches that admiral Nebogatov had thrown into a confused heap in utter frustration. The crumpled telegram from Moscow lay on the edge of the table, discarded with the minimum of care that would allow it to be retrieved and burned in the marble fireplace before the officers retired for the night. In matters like this, secrecy was of much greater importance than in things of the kind the government habitually labelled confidential. By what Nebogatov had been given to understand, a highly placed secret agent in Berlin had secured German plans that indicated a strong battle squadron of German and Austrian ships would force its way into the Baltic by August 24th. How they thought they would be able to accomplish this, or why they would think it could be done with impunity, was beyond the admiral, but that it would present him with a terrible problem was obvious. His Majesty himself had appended orders to the telegram that the Baltic Fleet was to seek battle and sink or damage as many German capital ships as possible before this day. And that, as with so many things decided over the polished tables in the Kremlin that Nicholas II still preferred to the palaces in the capital, was easier said than done.

Nebogatov was a chess player by temperament, a planner who cautiously maneuvered his pieces, always mindful of the second, third and fourth layer of possibilities implied by any decision. Unfortunately, the Baltic made a poor chessboard. It was like playing with half the squares forbidden and players randomly hiding blasting caps under some of the others. He missed Kolchak. This was a fight after the temperament of his erstwhile – too briefly – adjutant. Kolchak would understand these things instinctively – the use of sand bars and currents, the laying of mines under cover of darkness and fog. His aggression and ambition would serve him well here. But he was in Arkhangelsk, overseeing the repairs of the cruiser squadron that was now rightfully his in name as well as fact. Nebogatov would need to square this circle alone.

The German ships remained formidable, even at a numerical disadvantage. The admiral understood exactly how their advantages stacked up in superior logistics, superior gunnery, superior discipline and the proximity of a friendly coast. Luckily, the Germans were nowhere near as proficient with mines as they themselves were, otherwise they could not have dared approach them in their lair. Even so, the easy route of simply steaming up to Kiel and daring them to come out was impossible. The German guns across the Fehmarnbelt would take too heavy a toll. The greatest advantage lay in the schedule of German operations that their man in Berlin had provided. If he could come out to shell a coastal city or two – ideally, with half the battlefleet on a southern route, visible, the other half hidden behind the horizon to the north – he might be able to draw out a part of the Kiel battlefleet. Even destroying two or three of the German battleships, especially the newest ones, the fearsome Hessen, Mecklenburg and Baden, would count as a victory to make him a hero. And if it only was the older ones, that, too, would do. With the reserves standing out to sea, he would minimise the risk of being caught against a hostile shore and keep his own line of retreat open if things went badly. Yes, this would be doable. It would take training and effort, but he trusted his men to carry it through. They had met the Germans several times, and even sunk their coast defense ships Siegfried and Hagen. Morale in the Baltic Fleet had never been better. Now, let the vaunted Borodinos prove their mettle. With God on their side and a bit of luck…

11 August 1906, Kazan

Nobody looked forward to a visit by the blue-coated Gendarmerie officers who provided the strategic brains – such as they were - of the Okhrana. Sergeant Shternmiler certainly had no fond memories of the last time one of them had announced he would be posted from St Petersburg – where, as far as he could tell, things had gone pear-shaped after he had left – to the arse end of the Empire for no reason other than that his name wasn't Smirnov. It didn't help that the captain coming to visit him this time actually was called Smirnov. It just made for another reminder of the bitter fact that now, in order to advance you not only needed brains and connections, you also needed the right ethnicity. It was one thing not to promote Ingushes or Tartars to command positions, but there was nothing to be ashamed of in being descended from Germans. The Czar himself was - though you had to watch out where you said that kind of thing aloud these days.

Captain Smirnov himself turned out to be an amiable kind of fellow, sufficiently alert to ask smart questions. It occurred to Shternmiler that he would make a good interrogator. Presumably, that was why they had him do staff work. The old Okhrana wasn't much in demand any more. If you could trust what you heard, things had become a good deal – cruder.

“And how have you been integrating the assistance provided by the Patriotic Union, sergeant? I hear that you were not too keen on them.” That was the kind of question that had teeth.

“We have found an accommodation, Sir.”, Shternmiler asserted noncommittally. “My main concern has always been that being too closely bound up with the organisation would distract from vital clandestine operations. As a fellow service member you surely realise that the training required for such work is not common among volunteers. But they are admirably civic-minded in discouraging open expressions of disloyalty.”

Smirnov smiled. In other words, pass the problem on to the municipal police and let them handle the thugs. Moscow had been right – Shternmiler was good. The man was wasted on a dinky provincial town like this. “Have you had many problems with this kind of thing?” he asked cautiously.

“Not more than you would expect. A lot of it was pure contagion, though. The peasants around here actually do love the Czar, mostly. There have been a few instances of tense relations with large landowners. Some of them need to be reminded that the government does not back every kind of conduct just because you have a noble title, Sir. Regrettably.”

The captain nodded thoughtfully. That was not something many men in the service would have said. Not in so many words. “And the cityfolk?”, he asked.

Shternmiler cleared his throat and took a sip of hot tea. “The peasants and the industrial workers are still largely the same people here. You just need to look at them, with their smocks and beards. It's not like in Petersburg. And a good number of them have found a home in the Patriotic Union and other national organisations. The decision by the government to pay families of drafted reservists has also helped.” He paused for a moment. That much was true, at least. They hadn't had any problems in the countryside after the cossacks had moved through, and he had been able to limit reprisals to the most troublesome spots. A lot of the fines were paid from the cash and valuables the farmers had extorted from citydwellers back when they had controlled the food supply to urban markets, which meant they came out even. And now that ambitious men could get positions in the PU and there was money in the village economies, not too many would be inclined to rebel. As long as the war did not last too long, and their sons and husbands came home again, at least. He sipped another time and continued. “I am concerned over the relations with non-Russians, though. We have a lot of Tartars here, and so far there weren't any big problems. But now, a fair number of Russians are behaving quite provocatively.”

“You are concerned over the pride of a few black Tartars?” Smirnov asked, failing to keep the surprise out of his voice. Shternmiler winced. Maybe he really was in a better position to understand these things.

“These black Tartars can cause trouble, Sir. The way it looks to me, we have succeeded rather better than expected at rallying the Russian people around the patriotic cause, but in the process we are jeopardising relations with some of the non-Russian peoples of the Empire.”

Smirnov nodded. He preferred not to say anything, instead taking a thick envelope from his briefcase and changing the subject. “You will no longer need to concern yourself with Tartars, at least, sergeant. The high command has decided your skills are to valuable to waste here. We need men of your calibre to organise our efforts against the Poles and Germans.”

A broad smile spread over Shternmiler's face. So they had remembered... no more doubts about his loyalty. Finally!

“You are to report to headquarters in Lublin to work with Major Rezov. He is an expert in intelligence work, but has requested help from someone with experience in counterintelligence.” Captain Smirnov paused briefly. “I need not point out that this is an appointment of considerable responsibility that would, under any normal circumstances, be given to a more senior officer. You will coordinate operations with PU security details and military police.”

Shternmiler straightened himself, looking more military than he had in a long time. “Sir, I am fully aware. You can rely on me.”

“I have no doubt of that, sergeant. And, given the circumstances, I have been authorised to offer you a major's commission in the Patriotic Union Auxiliaries. Admittedly, it's not the gendarmerie, but I am sure...”

The sergeant looked pained. What was this supposed to mean? Not that he had expected to be made a real officer, but the offer of epaulets in this playground army was almost insulting. His opinion of the armed wing of the PU had no further to fall since he had spent many unhappy weeks trying to train and discipline them.

“I am sorry, Sir.” Shternmiler tried to keep his voice level. “I am an Okhrana officer, and I love my service. Leaving it, even for advancement, is out of the question,. If that disqualifies me for the position...” He left the sentence hanging.

“Certainly not.”, Smirnov hurried to assure him. “Are you quite sure, though? The pay is comparable, and the ranks are recognised by the army.”

The brief silence signalled Shternmiler's choice eloquently.

“Very well.”, the captain continued. “I suppose it does you credit. I am not sure I would willingly leave the Gendarmerie even for greener pastures.”

He handed over the envelope, smiling thinly.

13 August 1906, Peking

… At this point, the fate of General Yuan Shikai remains uncertain, but the repeated defeats inflicted on the Beiyang Army in Mongolia have undermined his standing to the point that he has been banished from the court by order of the Guangxu Emperor. It has added to the prestige of the German nation in no small measure that, whereas the mostly British-trained Beiyang forces are now suffering badly in the face of Mongol rebels, the German-trained Wuchang army succeeded to well in Tibet the previous year. Nonetheless, these reverses have placed the Chinese government in a difficult position and the response by Your Majesty's government needs to be carefully considered.

The considerable dearth of trained men, war material and finances all militate against the Chinese government assuming a fully belligerent stance against Russia, despite the obvious provocation it has given. Nonetheless, this remains a distinct possibility and I believe the Dowager Empress may be amenable to such a move if she could be promised adequate support in her efforts to that end. The lesson of the war of 1904/05 have not been lost on the Chinese army, and the defeats against a force that the Japanese have so comprehensively trounced is felt acutely among the politically active.

Whether a promise of German subsidies – perhaps achieved as easily as a waiver of the outstanding reparations payable from the Boxer rebellion – alone would be enough to impel the decision is impossible to say, but remains unlikely. A promise of military support, especially in the form of officers and NCOs to train and lead troops, seems the more promising approach. Given the constraints of our own war effort, it appears wisest to provide funds to purchase material from other sources. The Government of the United States may well be amenable to providing privileged access to its markets. Its friendly attitude towards China and its desire to create in it a regional counterweight to Japan are well understood in this city. Similarly, Japanese industry may be interested in supplying its war production surplus to the Chinese in return for moneys that the government stands in great need of to service its bond issues. How and whether these could be reconciled remains to be seen.

I continue to consider the suggestions made by ambassador von Hintze to interfere with China's internal affairs by supporting factions inimical to Dowager Empress Cixi as extremely unwise. Whatever her political disadvantages, her grasp of power continues to be firm and none of her opponents offer more than theoretical constructs for a distant future. If China is to join the ranks of modern powers, it must be under the rule of the Guangxu Emperor. No German diplomat should be permitted to correspond with her enemies openly, and I consider von Hintze's known association with Kang Youwei a severe liability.

(despatch by Ambassador von Rex)

14 August 1906, Barents Sea

“An amazing sight, isn't it, captain?” Ensign Friedrich Zentbauer looked up at the reddish-blue sky dotted with feathery clouds. The sun was barely touching the northern horizon, and the midnight scene was still bathed in its cool, distant light. From horizon to horizon, as sea of whitecaps gleaming mercury-bright spread unbroken. To their south, in the shadow, lay the brooding, mist-shrouded Russian shore.

Korvettenkapitän Albert Hopman, leaning on the rail on SMS Bremen's windward side of the bridge, nodded indulgently for a moment. The polar midnight sun was a wonder to behold, and if you were young and impressionable, like Zentbauer was, you could be forgiven for marvelling at the works of the Lord. But young naval officers would require a dose of realism if they were to be prepared for their duties. He cleared his throat: “Indeed, ensign. Few are privileged to see these sights.” The briefest of pauses. “And I believe we will see more of them. Maybe more than we would wish. How do you fancy patrolling the Barents Sea in October?”

The ensign shuddered instinctively. By then, the sky would be shrouded in perpetual darkness and temperatures plummet. “You think it will be this long?”

“Yes, I do, ensign. I am quite convinced.” Hopman drew a deep breath and turned to explain. “We are here in force right now. Kolchak's cruisers would be mad to dare challenge us, with their machines and gun barrels still worn out. But they have a port to retreat to, and batteries to hide under. We have to stay out here, recoal from colliers and patrol. Right now, that's not so bad, but give it another two months, nothing but pea soup and canned meat for the men, machine parts wearing out, tempers fraying, and the weather worsening. All it takes is a moment's inattention, and one of their torpedo boats could even the odds of the fight. If I was Kolchak, it's exactly what I would do.”

The young man looked crestfallen, but also, Hopman noted, thoughtful. “Could he be provoked to come out?”

The captain shrugged under his heavy watchcoat. Up here, you needed it even in summer. “We couldn't, and our position was a lot better. I doubt it. These are special waters, Zentbauer. Nobody has much experience fighting here, but the Russians understand them better than anyone else. And Kolchak – well, he's called Poliyarni by his men. He knows everything there is to know. If I was a betting man, I wouldn't give us great odds.”

Zentbauer blanched and stared at the water, contemplating its icy vastness. “Surely, we outnumber them...”

“Oh, I don't mean that he will sink us. Why should he? I suspect he will simply try to give us the slip and head into the Atlantic to play havoc with merchant shipping. If he takes along colliers, he can have the range, and I am sure there are French or American shipowners who will supply him for the right kind of money.” The captain drew a cigarette case from his breast pocket and lit up. That was an advantage of the long light hours: no blackout protocol. The smoking light was on all hours. It wasn't like anything could hide here. “Either way, though: we'll all learn a few valuable lessons. Like how to de-ice standing rigging in a gale. Once you've done that, shells aren't scary.”

16 August 1906, Moscow

Champagne sparkled in the glass, its smooth curve frosted by condensation. Mikhail Romanov, now General Mikhail Romanov, commander of the northern front headquartered in Memel, was enjoying the amenities of life at the Kremlin palace. Coming back to the de facto capital was hardly a problem, with his staff of experienced generals providing the actual leadership and command. He had long resigned to the fact that no member of the imperial family would be much more than decorative in any military role. As a junior officer, he had not faced any greater dangers than a bad tumble on cross-country rides. As a general – well, at least he was listened to. Not always obeyed, but listened to with due deference. Maybe he could hope for as much here. A silent servant offered canapes, fine caviar, iced, on freshly buttered toast. The skill that went into ensuring the bread was crisp and warm, the caviar cold, was something he appreciated more now that he had seen logistics in action. You needed the palace kitchen team to get it done reliably.

Around him, a select company of officers, nobles, and their ladies milled around the hall, epaulets and helmets gleaming, jewels dazzling. At the high window nearest the entrance, Nikolai Nikolaevich in his splendid, if subdued uniform was talking with two generals and his adjutant, that – Brusilov, that careerist. By the buffet, Grand Prince Sergei was seated in his wheelchair, glowering at the men walking by briskly. He had never recovered from the injuries the red assassins had inflicted on him. He would speak with him later. Today, Mikhail had a more important target in mind. Steeling his resolve with a final gulp of fine champagne, he walked over to his brother, Nicholas, Emperor of all Russians, saluted, and waited until the courtiers, dismissed with a wave of the imperial hand, stepped out of immediate earshot. He had no illusions about being overheard, but at least they would not be blatant about it, and most of their conversation consisted of dull platitudes anyway.

“Atrocities?” Nicholas looked up with a mixture of surprise and sadness. Mikhail held his gaze. This was the conversation he had come to have.

“Yes. We have not had much of it on the northern front. But I have heard rumours, and I have read reports, and yes, I am concerned. The way the Patriotic Union troops are behaving may have its justification in a war against Turks or Caucasians, but not against a European power.”

The emperor's gaze flicked down momentarily. “Mikhail, you must understand that this is not a war as you and I have been taught to fight. The enemy has mustered the dregs of the people against us, criminals, rebels and revolutionaries. We cannot limit ourselves to the mannerly exercise of regular warfare any more. Not do so and emerge victorious. Or do you disagree with punishing treason?“

That was the kind of question you heard more and more often these days. It carried implications – terrifying to others, at times, but insulting to an imperial prince. “Brother, I would see any traitor hanging from the nearest tree and you know it. We are talking of hanging civilians, looting homes, rapes and torture. It is worse than the Bulgarian massacres!”

“Trivialities.” Nicholas shook his head and stroked his beard during a short pause. “Irrelevant trivialities. You do not understand. We are fighting a war of historic significance. Terror is a weapon, Mikhail. Inspiring fear in the enemy can be worth many regiments. I do not like it any more than you do, but at the end of the day, these sacrifices are necessary. We will split the Austrians along their ethnic divides. This is a war of peoples, and peoples must be taught who their friends and who their enemies are. The learning is hard, but their memories are long. No Jew or Pole will ever forget the might and will of Russia.”

“Might and will!” Mikhail had spoken louder than he had intended. A few heads turned. He quickly lowered his voice again. “It is a display of our barbarity that will earn us the disapproval of the civilised world and the hatred of our subjects.”

Nicholas shook his head again, vigorously this time. “No, Mikhail, You do not understand. It is all right, I did not understand at first. The world has changed, Mikhail. What has behaving honourably earned us? Humiliation and defeat. The Poles will always hate us, so they must fear us. And so must the Western powers. Do you think the Germans will respect our borders for love or admiration? Strength is what they respect. We must show the world the price of tangling with Russia.”

Mikhail nodded, understanding, but not convinced. “Strength, very well, but we have regiments for that. We can inflict defeat without devastating the land. We have taken the enemy's greatest fortresses. What more is needed?”

“The world has changed, Mikhail. I said it already. We are no longer facing a Europe of kings and leaders that we can make agreements with. There are no more Bismarcks, no more Fredericks. Today, it is the peoples that fight, and peoples do not understand such lessons. To teach a people, you must give the lesson with blood and iron. That is what we are doing, Mikhail – teaching the Jew and Pole and Austrian to fear us, and the Czech and Slovak and Ruthenian to hope.” He paused looking in his brother's eyes with sad, quiet determination. “Trust me, Mikhail, It is for the best.“
18 August 1906, Washington

Between the sweltering heat and the deadening stiffness of society conventions, Washington was a cross to bear for a man of President Roosevelt's tastes, especially at the height of summer. Congress could – and happily did – recess, but a president's work was never done. While the world was tumbling crazily at the edge of the abyss of general war, someone had to man the bridge, even if it meant enormous discomfort and a prodigious consumption of iced beverages. Those, at least, were in plentiful supply nowadays.

“Have some lemonade, Mr. Tower.”, the president invited his guest. “It is quite the thing in this climate.”

The former ambassador helped himself, a generous portion of ice clinking in his glass. Then, his alert eyes focused on the president and he quietly asked: “What is it you wished to discuss with me?”

Roosevelt smiled genially at Secretary of State Root and Secretary of War Taft. “I told them you were smart. See? Yes, Mr Tower, we require your expertise in matters of European policy.”

Charlemagne Tower nodded sadly. “Yes, Mr. President. I supposed you would. You are not too disappointed with my choice, I hope?” The distinguished scholar and diplomat had given up his position as ambassador to Germany after only two years to return to a professorial life in Philadelphia.

“No, Mr Towers.” Roosevelt waved away the suggestion. “We have discussed this. You did the honourable thing: No man who so loves Russia could be expected to serve in a country so inimical to her. But today, your experience of both countries will be needful. We are still at a loss how to approach the situation, and would much appreciate your advice. For example, there is this:”

He placed a small printed leaflet on the table, sliding it across. Tower picked it up and read:

“Nikolaus der Friedensfürst erließ heut das Gebot,

Daß seine Kosaken schlügen alle Juden tot,

Und des Volkes Los sei nun die Knute und die Not,

In seinem Königreich Polen!

Hurra, Hurra,ein End der Tyrannei!

Hurra, Hurra, der Krieg ist bald vorbei!

Und aus Russlands Kerker werden alle Völker frei,

Auf unsrem Marsche durch Polen!


He paused, adjusting his glasses. “It is obviously a take on “Marching through Georgia. Not a translation. Roughly, it says that Nicholas ordered Jews to be murdered and Poles oppressed, but now the German troops are marching in and bringing them liberty. Not good poetry, if I may say so.”

Root nodded. “Indeed,” Roosevelt agreed, “but the question is what we are to make of this. That song is not all that popular. I am surprised they knew it, I must say. “

“Not in this city, for sure.” Professor Towers interjected. “But quite popular in much of the country, and much of the world. Do not forget, Mr President, many Germans have family in this country. And the Germans were always staunch Abolitionists and union men. America has a stronger hold on the German imagination than in many other European countries. And the quality of this – piece is in keeping with the execrable Western romances and American dance music they sell over there, if I may say so.”

The president stroked his chin. “I see. Who would have thought? But all this talk of freedom here surprises me.”

Tower nodded. “This is not an official document, Sir. It may say 'Soldatengesangsbuch' on the cover, but it is a private product, printed by Dietz. He also publishes a famous Social Democratic paper, usually to higher standards than this. But it is altogether not unusual to hear Germans talk of freedom.”

Elihu Root looked up. “When the police so allows, I suppose?”

“No, Mr Secretary.” Tower bristled. “I think the perception of Germany in this country is no less distorted than that the Germans have of us. You would think it ridiculous to believe they expect us to live in log cabins and walk the streets armed with silver-studded rifles for fear of Red Indian attacks; but I assure you; they are not the meek subjects of a military despot we imagine them to be, either. Germany has a parliament, and manhood suffrage. They have a free press, and free political parties. There has not been real censorship since 1890. We may have different standards in this country, but as far as most of them are concerned, the Germans are free. Yes, the government is often heavy-handed, and there is a political police, but in truth, the worst that can happen to a Socialist in Prussia is probably considerably better than what a Republican can expect in Mississippi.”

A shuddering murmur ran around the table, proof that the comparison had hit home.

“I thought you were opposed to the Germans, Professor?”, Taft asked.

“Opposed? Mr Secretary, there can be little doubt who is the justified party in this war. I bear the Germans no ill will, at least not in any great measure. I love Russia too much to be a disinterested party in this conflict, but that is not the same thing.” Tower looked saddened and sipped his lemonade to cover his momentarily faltering voice.

“Love Russia – how?” Taft looked puzzled. “Surely you cannot believe that they are free, too.”

The scholar almost banged down his glass. “Do not insult my intelligence, Mr Secretary. I love Russia. I cannot in good conscience extend the same amity towards its rulers. Emperor Nicholas is a tyrant, a fool and a criminal, and if this war were to lead to his abdication, it would do Russia a power of good.”

Roosevelt interceded to smooth ruffled feathers. “So, Mr Tower, you would advise us to take Germany's side in this battle? Diplomatically, of course. I hardly envision the US Army joining the fray.”

Tower smiled, gratified to see the vaunted Taft suffer a small reverse. “Mr President, I believe we should do so, cautiously. Germany will come to depend on this country's assistance in no small measure. We should give it, but not at no cost.”

General Chaffee, who had been silent until now, spoke up: “We will hardly have the time for long negotiations. The Germans will finish off the war before the winter, no matter what the Russians do to their Czar.”

Taft looked doubtful, but held his peace as Tower once more spoke up. “I'm afraid I disagree, general. Both Germany and Russia are preparing to fight a conflict much like our Civil War. Without Russian grain, Germany is already beginning to depend on our exports, and with the war dragging on, she will need other items, too. Boots, uniforms, munitions, food, all of it will be in short supply soon. Especially if they find they have to feed the people of Poland, too.”

Chaffee shook his head gravely. You could see the old soldier was tired. “The Russians got in a sucker punch. It does not reflect their army's abilities. Now that the Germans have their army ready, they will stomp on them hard.”

“I am certain people said much the same when McClellan marched on Richmond, general.”, Tower countered. “I agree, of course. The Russian army cannot match the German one for quality. None in the world can. But for motivation and depth – it just might. You need to take a look at what is happening in Russia today, general. Mr President, this is not the same country it was when I left my ambassadorial position in 1902. You may have noticed that Nicholas is referred to universally as Czar.”

Roosevelt shrugged. “So?”

“His formal title is Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias. His father was always punctilious about this matter, and whenever Nicholas does something different from his father, we need to pay attention to it. He styles himself Czar, not emperor, in conscious emulation of the old Russian Czardom. This is not something even Alexander III dared. It's a slap in the face of all non-Russian subjects, but it also is a powerful signal to the Russian people to rally around their ruler.

His adviser, Alexander Dubrovin, has written about the conception of a national Russian state united under the divinely appointed absolute rule of the benevolent Czar. The book is called 'Principles of Integralism', and I believe it has been translated. When you look at Russia today, you must understand that this is what they are trying to become: A state with an absolute claim to the loyalty of its citizens. A state all of whose resources are at its ruler's disposal. A state that functions like a single body, a hundred million men guided by a single brain.”

Roosevelt looked worried. “What could stop that kind of power?”

“Well,” Tower hastened to add, “it's not a very good brain. No, this is the ideal, of course. Not the reality. But we would do well not to underestimate the forces that Russia will be able to mobilise in her defense. It will be a long war, and though I believe the Germans will win it, victory will come at a high price. Germany will not forget her friends in this battle, nor her enemies.”

Root spoke up now: “That is all very well, but we can hardly do anything much. And a solidly pro-German stance would jeopardise our relations with France. Let us not forget this.”

“I won't.” Roosevelt was curt, the brain under his massive skull visibly engaging with these new concepts. “But the French can hardly object to a thoroughgoing neutrality, can they? And we will enforce peace in our hemisphere. That much, I think, we can do.”

Taft smiled. An American-enforced peace in the Western Atlantic would only help the Germans. The Russians largely depended on French shipping, and they had more than enough naval power in the Caribbean to protect their merchant fleet. The Germans, massive though their shipping was, relied on the goodwill of Britain to secure its sea lanes and were vulnerable to cruiser warfare. At the same time, it cost Washington nothing and primed the public for the ambitious naval armaments programme that was coming, all the while generating business for American industry and farming.

The president spoke again: “To tell you the truth, I would prefer to have as little to do with all of this as possible. It distracts from the important work we have to do at home. But maybe there are lessons to be learned from the war. For our army, for the navy we are going to build, and for the liberty we are sworn to defend. Gentlemen, wherever our sympathies may lie, let us not forget that this is our sacred duty: to preserve freedom in this nation, and beyond her borders, freedom in Europe, freedom even for the people of Russia. Where this may be had, we must seize at the opportunity. In the meantime, we should consider this country at peace and render assistance to all who stand in honest need of it. Thank you, Professor Tower.”

21 August 1906, the Western Baltic

Bridge of Imperator Aleksander III

It was late. The sun was still high in the sky, glinting off the silvery-grey waters of the Baltic, but Admiral Nebogatov was acutely feeling the passage of each minute until the evening. Spread out over the wide expanse of the Baltic, just past Bornholm, the greatest armada Russia had ever sent forth to do battle was steaming west, seeking out the enemy. Between his battle line and the hostile coast lay a screen of destroyers, nimble, speedy ships zig-zagging back and forth on their patrol paths. To the north, almost out of sight, but still in wireless contact, stood Felkerzam's cruiser squadron, the heavy hitters in the main line, the light ones scouting ahead. The approach in double columns used their numerical superiority to the best advantage: whichever line the Germans first turned to, the other could attack at its leisure. If the enemy admiral headed straight for the battleships, the faster cruisers could even cross his T before engaging the tail end of his line. For the battleships to pull off something comparable, they would have to leave behind the slower, older craft that the admiralty had insisted they take to ensure a crushing weight of numbers against the fearsome foe. Nebogatov thought he just might do that. Losing old coast defense ships would not trouble anyone unduly if he returned with a victory. If not – he would be past caring personally, at least.

Ensign Arpaev stepped up to the bridge rail and strained to look out over the wide expanse of sea ahead. He had made the young man his unofficial adjutant and apprentice, sensing the quick intelligence he had before seen with men like Kolchak.

“There they are.” the ensign whispered, staring fixedly at the black smudges of smoke that grew on the horizon. It was his first action, the first time he would see a gun fired in anger. What a way to lose his virginity, the greatest naval battle since Navarino!

“They are coming slowly.” Nebogatov said quietly. “I think they may be having second thoughts about this.” He was still concerned over the time. If the Germans managed to drag out the battle too long, they might be able to slip away at night. He could not risk the Fehmarnbelt in the dark.

“What if they turn back?” Arpaev asked, concern audible in his voice.

“They won't. If they run, we will enter the Lübeck bight and mine it, shell the port and city. Then we will force the Fehmarnbelt and shell Kiel. They have to defend themselves, or lose their own coast. They will come.” Nebogatov sounded more confident than he felt. Of course, the German admiral – would it be the boy wonder Ingenohl? - could decide to turn and run once he saw how many ships were arrayed against him. Their intelligence reports had indicated that he would be missing battleships at this point. Yes, it would be a humiliation, but Germans were pragmatic. If he did run to the shelter of his coastal batteries, what could they do? Wave their dicks about, flatten a few towns and go home, that was what. And nothing would be decided. Still, there was hope,. The wind was favourable, it was even entirely possible that they might miss the cruiser squadron until they committed to the attack.

“They will come.”

Bridge of SMS Mecklenburg

“Signal from Heinrich I!” the lookout reported. Admiral von Ingenohl ended his nervous pacing and cocked his head to listen. What a time to develop engine trouble! The ship, initially fourth in the battle line, now last, had had them running at a stately eight knots for hours while the engine crew was frantically racing to repair the damage. Time was short – the sun was already lower than he would have liked, and at the enemy's back.

“Engine reported fully operational again!” Triumph sounded in the voice of the lieutenant up in the masthead. Very well, here it went. If the boys in naval intelligence were as smart as they thought they were, they would be meeting the whole Russian battlefleet today. Ingenohl still felt unsure whether trusting people who never left their desks in Berlin to go to sea was a good idea, but what alternative was there? If it didn't work out, today would be another probing attack, with the Russians pulling back the moment they provoked a response.

“Signal to fleet: Form up into battle line. Full speed ahead!”!

Bridge of Dmitri Donskoi

The Germans had made a mistake! Admiral Felkerzam was ecstatic. When the battle line had emerged from the haze at frightful speed, he had briefly despaired. The count revealed that there were no battleships missing. The Germans were here in full strength. But then - he had not thought that they were capable of such stupidity. It was, to be honest, a fairly elementary error, an easy one to make. He figured that their admiral had first been apprised of the main battle line approaching to the south and headed for it, then received a report of the cruiser squadron to the north that his lookout mistakenly identified as battleships. For a few precious minutes, the Kiel squadron had headed northeast, towards Felkerzam's squadron and away from Nebogatov's. The old fox had immediately spotted his opportunity and turned hard north at full speed: Now, they had the Germans between them. The cruisers were still running below their top speed, but faster than the enemy's line. No matter what the German admiral did, Felkerzam would be between him and his line of retreat. Meanwhile, Nebogatov's ships were accelerating to pass in front of the enemy before they would turn in a wide arc to port, enveloping their forward ships. He would bring the concentrated fire of his modern battleships to bear on the head of the German line while the cruisers could attack the tail. Felkerzam's pulse raced. They would write history books about today. The maneuver was Nelsonian in its daring!

Imperator Aleksander III

“We have them.” Admiral Nebogatov mentally recapitulated the course of the battle. Only a few more kilometres until they had the range. They could try already, but he had ordered the men to wait so the first few salvoes – when the gunners still had their senses about them and the tubes were cool and accurate – would strike true. On the port bow, the German battle line steamed towards them, frightening steel colossi belching black smoke. They, too, were holding their fire. And there were too many of them. As he had half expected, the intelligence had been wrong. There were seven battleships – seven to his nine, but less of a margin than he would have been comfortable with. The slow coast defense ships could come up for the killing blows, but they would not be involved in the initial clash. The cruisers, on the other hand – they would be useful. The Germans had fewer cruisers than he did, three to five heavy ones. That would count. He gritted his teeth and walked to the hatchway that led down to the armoured battlebridge.

“Ensign!” Arpaev stepped up and saluted smartly. “Orders for wireless and flag signal. We have received a watchword from His Majesty for today's action. In the clear, to all ships: Toujours l'audace!”

Bridge of SMS Mecklenburg

“What about the torpedo boats?” Admiral Ingenohl's voice was strained. The realisation of his momentous error had hit him a few minutes ago, and now, as the battle began to unfold, he was hammering out his desperate counter-strategy. If it worked, the resulting action was likely to turn into a confused melee where they would need all the support they could get.

“The fleet torpedo boats are moving up through the line. Firing one spread of torpedoes may disrupt the Russians enough to slow them down. The flotillas from Stettin and Rostock have orders to meet off Cape Arkona to support us. No time of arrival yet.” The second lieutenant traced the lines on the map with a half-hearted gesture before saluting and returning to his observation post. Hundreds of eyes on the German fleet were glued to the advancing Russians ships.

Ingenohl could not blame them. Most of his men – almost all of them, really – had never been in a real battle. The desultory exchanges of ranging shots with the Russians over the past months hardly counted. His fingers closing around the handhold, knuckles white, Ingenohl forced himself not to look out through the tiny viewports as the torpedo boats passed between the battleships and discharged their weapons. “Torpedoes in the water!” Lieutenant Peters reported. “Headed for the Russian line!” Seconds ticked by. The admiral counted heartbeats, quietly, trying to calm himself. Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five...

“No hits! Russian line has slowed down, gaps are opening.”

Maybe that was the chance they needed. If not … if not, they still had the option of turning onto a parallel path. Turning in succession would put each ship in the Russians' field of fire for a perilous moment, but it would prevent them from crossing the T and give his gunners the chance to engage with the enemy directly, at a longer range than Nebogatov preferred.

“Russian line is still advancing.”

Well, that was that. Ingenohl tried to keep his voice steady as he turned to his flag captain. “At the prearranged position, turn to port in succession. New course north by west. All ships to open fire after they execute the turn.”

Very well. Surprised, the admiral noticed how his fingernails had dug into his palm. He forced his grip to loosen and began humming to himself. Two minutes – no, less now. Der Gott, der Eisen wachsen ließ, der wollte keine Knechte...

Imperator Aleksander III

“Merciful heavens...” Ensign Arpaev stood glued to the viewport, watching the approaching silhouette of the lead German ship slow and lengthen. For precious seconds, his brain refused to process what was happening. They wouldn't. They couldn't! “The German fleet is turning in succession! The Germans are turning!”

“Good Lord!” Admiral Nebogatov blanched. Damn, damn, damn. Trust those Germans to do something clever! It still put them at a disadvantage, though, but he had to act quickly. Act now. They were vulnerable while they turned. The main guns bore. At this range, he would not have liked to trust to the aim of his crews, but what choice did he have? And a stationary position was easier to hit than a moving ship. Thank the Saviour for small mercies.

“Captain, order all ships to fire on the German vessels as they approach the turning point. Rapid fire at will.”

SMS Karl der Große

The shells struck like blows from a giant's sledgehammer. They had had a precious second's warning when the lookout reported the muzzle flashes on the Russian line, but nobody could possibly have been prepared for the inferno of noise, fire, black smoke and white water that engulfed their vessel. Captain Souchon found the chart table torn from his grip and tumbled in a heap with his signalling lieutenant and adjutant. Lights flickered as the ship listed with a deafening groan of strained metal, then slowly righted itself. The Ensign Bauer was the first to his feet, oblivious to the cuts and bruises he had sustained.

“We're afloat!” he shouted in his best Berlin accent.

“Ensign, report properly!” Souchon barked. It was silly, but attention to detail kept the mind focused, he figured. Hesitantly, as if unwilling to trust his legs, the captain pulled himself up. No smoke was pouring into the viewports. No crash of rending metal told of the hull tearing itself apart. Things could be worse.

“Sorry, Sir.” Ensign Bauer looked admiringly at his captain. This would be a story for the papers. Well, it would be if the Russians kept up their lousy aim.”The ship looks intact, Sir. The turrets are in place, no fire, no visible holing.”

The signaller was back on his feet now, shouting into speaking tubes at the top of his lungs. A sailor nimbly climbed up the hatchway. Souchon still marvelled at how quiet everything was.

“Answering rudder!” the helmsman shouted. He had remained standing throughout the ordeal! The captain felt uncertain how, but determined to find out once they got back home. If they got back home. No, dammit, when!

The sailor clambered back down. “No damage or fire on deck, Sir. Looks like we lost the forward capstan winch and the maintop. All turrets still in place.”

“Engines are running, guns ready to fire!” the signaller sang out.

Damn. It looked like they were going to get through this. The Russians HAD hit them, and their ship had shrugged it off. Another few hundred meters till they were on the new course, and they would return fire.

“Incoming!” Ensign Bauer yelled at the top of his voice. This time, the ship's foghorn blasted a warning a heartbeat before the second salvo came in. Again, blinding yellow flashes cast insane shadows through the viewport as the world disappeared in a cascade of rushing water and clanging splinters. The ship pitched madly forward, tortured metal screaming to the heavens. Souchon gripped the handholds fiercely determined not to fall again.

Forward Turret, Retvizan

“Hit! HIT!” Gunner Lebedev joined in the cheer as the gunlayer reported the fall of shot. Amid the choking fumes and deafening clangour, powder-blackened men stripped to the waist manhandled the huge shells to the breeches as the loaders swabbed them out. The crazy pitching of the vessel, still reeling from the recoil of its main armament, caused men to stagger. With hundreds of kilos of metal and explosive moving about, their sure-footedness was everything that stood between them and loss of life and limb. Lebedev could not help himself. He peered out past the barrel to see the enemy in the distance, a grey ship grimly forcing its way forward through the waves. It was hard to see at this distance, but it looked dispiritingly – intact.

“Aryonov, what do you see?” he shouted to the observer. The man bent down to answer, his face pale under the soot smears. “We hit them. We hit them three fucking times, and they just kept going!” His voice took on a panicky note. “The shells just burst and they shrugged it off. Lebedev, shoot better!”

Shoot better? What the fuck was that supposed to mean? He had hit the damned ship, hadn't he? “Correct two degrees left, on the uproll!” the gunlayer shouted out. The breech blocks clanged shut with the eerie quiet of well-machined metal.

Aryonov pressed his eye to the telescope. It was impossible. They had plastered the lead ship of the German line with shell, not just them, but the whole forward section of their line, Retvizan, Slava, Aleksander III, Borodino and Oryol. Nobody had shot as well as they, of course. And there was no effect. No damned effect! He remembered training with silhouettes and felt fairly sure that this was SMS Karl der Große, now missing its main mast and part of its aft funnel. The Germans were now fully on the new course, and Retvizan's target would shift to the second ship in line. He strained to see, turrets turning, guns rising... shit. “Brace!”
Bridge of SMS Mecklenburg

“We did it!” Admiral Ingenohl turned to his captain and flag lieutenant, a tense smile, almost a grin pulling back the corners of his mouth. The German line was now on a converging course with the Russian, north by west, and all guns thundering. The sun was now perilously close to the horizon, but for all that it annoyed his gunlayers, it silhouetted the enemy nicely, and with every metre of gap that closed, they were getting more accurate hits. This was working!

“Report?” he called to his captain. The man looked harried.

“The Russians are still firing, mostly. It looks at least one ship has stopped. Or they may have temporarily stopped. They are surprisingly ineffective. We have fire on Wilhelm I, one gun turret lost on Otto der Große. Otherwise, all is fine. We can't say much about the cruiser battle.”

The other battle was raging off to the northwest, where the German cruiser squadron had interposed itself between the Russians and the German battleships. The only thing they could do was hope it would turn out all right. If the Russian cruisers came back to attack their flank, that would be inconvenient.

“Explosion!” the ensign at the viewport shouted out with almost boyish glee. “One of the Russian ships has blown up!” A muted cheer rose from the Mecklenburg's crew. This WAS working.

“Sir!” the first lieutenant looked up from the chart table, ruler in hand. “On this course, we have an hour until we make landfall at Falsterbo. Fifteen minutes more until we enter Swedish waters.”

Ingenohl grunted angrily. That was what you got for fighting in such confined waters. “Can we loop around the front of the Russian line or force them off to the east?” he shouted.

“They are too fast to overtake, Sir.”, the captain pointed out. “Going on a more easterly course might work. But if they don't follow suit, this is going to be one big game of chicken.”

That was a nice way of putting it. With the lines converging on a vanishing point somewhere in Southern Sweden, they could not keep going forward. At some point, they had to turn either east or west, and the first to do so would expose bow or stern to the other's flank, with all the unpleasant consequences that would have for bringing their guns to bear.

“Signal: Change course to northeast by north.” Ingenohl ordered. “Let's see who blinks first.”

T12, off Jasmund, Rügen

“Captain, we have orders!” Lieutenant von Bargen protested. “The rendezvous point is Kap Arkona.”

Korvettenkapitän Eschenburg shook his head impatiently. “Lieutenant, the orders are nonsense. Assembling at Arkona will do no good. The battle lines could only have gone three ways:_ north, east, or west. They did not go east. Otherwise they would be here now. If they went west, we will not be able to do anything when we reach Arkona. So assume they headed north, which means we will not find them off Arkona but near Bornholm or the Swedish coast. Which. Is. Where. We. Will Go.” He found it hard to contain his voice enough not to be audible through the skylight that connected his cramped cabin to the deck. Officers did not argue in front of the men.

“Sir, they'll put us in front of a firing squad.” von Bargen pointed out. Eschenburg almost laughed. They were heading out into the dusk to engage a superior battlefleet accompanied by destroyers armed with 10-cm main guns, and here was his lieutenant worrying about getting shot.

“Don't worry, lieutenant. I will tell everyone you objected., If you wish, I will make an entry in the log right now.” He theatrically raised the black, leather-bound volume and reached for the pen. Von Bargen deflated.

“Sir, I wish to make a formal protest against this unwarranted disobedience to explicit orders from Admiral Ingenohl.” he said. His voice sounded strained.

“Oh, dammit, von Bargen. They made us officers because we have good brains, not good ears. If they wanted that, they'd let German shepherds captain ships.” A moment's silence stretched between them. “All right. So noted.” He scribbled a few hasty words. “Now, get on deck. Signal to flotilla: New course north by northeast, full speed ahead.”

SMS Karl der Große, south of Trelleborg

“Three miles to Swedish waters!” Captain Souchon stared out at the Russian lines as though willing it to break by pushing with his eyes. Less than a kilometer now separated the ships, and all guns were firing. Two Russian vessels had already fallen behind, burning and listing. His own stern turret was knocked out, and the smoke pouring from the jagged holes in the funnels made manning the central battery hell. He could only imagine what things were like on the other side. The enemy fire was becoming mercifully inaccurate now, even with the 10-cm batteries bearing. On the eastern horizon, the sinking sun painted the clouds brilliant red and pink. Soon, it would be dark. The idea of fighting by searchlights held no appeal at all. Still no signal from SMS Mecklenburg. Either Ingenohl knew something he didn't, or he had no nerves at all.

“Signal on the Russian flagship!” the lookout sang out. “It's coded!”

“Obviously.”. Not even Russians would be that dumb. They had to have rigged some kind of improvised mast, after what German shells had done to Imperator Aleksander III. And it meant that the Russians were going to do – something. “Helm, ready to turn!” Souchon ordered. “Lookout, I want any signal on Mecklenburg read the moment it goes up!”

Another salvo roared out, flame stabbing at the sky. Huge waterspouts rose around the enemy's lead ship – Retvizan, as far as he knew. Missed! Captain Souchon wondered if they would get another chance before the line broke up.

Bridge of Imperator Aleksander III

It was over. Admiral Nebogatov climbed up the narrow ladder out onto the main bridge of his flagship to see for himself. Aft, already far behind the course they had traced, lay Navarin and Pavel Perny, pouring columns black smoke into the red sky. His own proud ship was a vision of hell, the funnels full of gaping holes, the mainmast broken off like a twig. The walls that had surrounded the main bridge had all but disappeared, reduced to sharp-edged fragments of jagged metal. His last signal still flew: turn in line to starboard, new course east by southeast. For all the good it did, it could have been a cuneiform inscription. His ships had scattered, turning in the general direction east in a random mass. Oryol, he heard, had ploughed under one of the fleet torpedo boats. With the iron bonds of the battleline broken, panic seemed to have gripped his captain.

The German fire slackened as the enemy ships once again performed the maneuver that had won them the battle: turn in succession. Mere metres from Swedish waters, the battlefleet of Kaiser Wilhelm displayed flawless seamanship for anyone who cared to watch. The respite would be short. Soon, they would be in among the fleeing Russian ships and the slaughter would begin. Stifling a sob, the admiral climbed back to the battle bridge.

“Captain,” he ordered, his voice trembling. “signal the torpedo boats to interpose themselves between the battlefleet and the enemy. Fire at any German ship in range.”

That would buy some time. The Germans were cautious by nature, and Heligoland had taught them to fear torpedoes and mines. It would not be enough by itself, but with dusk rapidly turning to night, even an hour would allow the battleships to disappear into the darkness and limp back to Kronstadt. All it would take was delaying the Germans. So far, they had lost two ships. The fleets were at parity, assuming the enemy would not still lose one or two of their own. The battle was lost, but the war could be salvaged.

He cleared his throat. “Next signal to battlefleet: General retreat. Form line, make best speed for Kronstadt.” Ensign Arpaev stared at him from his round, shining blue eyes. A bloodied bandage covered his forehead, and his hand was wrapped in a wet rag.

“Sir?”, he asked, timidly.

“I am sorry.” Nebogatov whispered. “I am sorry. Poor boy. Go below, so you may live.”

Arpaev shook his head, biting his lip. “I have my duty station, Sir.” he said.

Nebogatov sighed. “Captain! Set a new course to put us between the German line and our battlefleet. We must delay them long enough to let the fleet escape. Do you hear, captain? Even if it is from the last gun, keep firing!”

Bridge of SMS Mecklenburg

“Too dangerous!” Admiral Ingenohl closed his fist around the brass ruler so hard it pierced his skin. The pain went unnoticed. “The Russian fleet is getting away from us and we cannot chase after them! My God, why? Where are our torpedo boats?!”

The grease pencil scribbles on the chart showed his predicament in stark lines: The Russian battleships were running past Bornholm's southern tip – all but one. Imperator Aleksander III, surrounded by a swarm of minelayers and torpedo boats Their own auxiliary vessels were now steaming up, but even with their support there was only so much you could do. The Russian destroyers were as good as their battleships had proved wanting. To clear their way the German ships had now turned onto a course almost due south, blasting at the Aleksander III and her vessels with their main guns.

“The bastards!”, the gunnery officer shouted, overcome with the pent-up emotion of the battle. Seeing the great battleship zig-zagging like a torpedo boat dodging Nordenfeldt was an amazing sight, but all the while, their targets were disappearing and the sun was almost gone now. SMS Hessen and SMS Otto der Große – recognisable from its missing funnel and crooked mast – began firing after them at maximum elevation. Ingenohl turned to his signaller. “Tell them to stop that! Games of chance are forbidden in the fleet.”

A first line of torpedo boats now closed in to tangle with the Russian destroyers, white wakes fanning out in front of them. It was a grand thing to find young men so willing to die for their country, Ingenohl thought. None of them could expect to survive. And in death, they were thwarting his plans.

SMS T 12, south of Bornholm

Ensign Jaspers felt less and less confident of the prophetic gifts of Captain Eschenburg. Running up the coast of Rügen in bright daylight, his reasoning had sounded absolutely convincing. Now, with night falling around them and cold spray soaking him to the bone, he wondered whether it would not have been wiser to protest. If they came back empty-handed, it would be a black mark against all of their careers, even if they survived their courts-martial. For the past hour, they had been heading towards the distant flashes and smoke of battle without more than a rough idea of the direction. The night glass pressed to his eye, the young man shivered miserably. Behind him, the wakes of the Schwerin Torpedo Boat Flotilla were glowing phosphorescent in the last light.

Ahead – he trained the glass, vainly trying to steady himself against the wildly swaying mast – a ship was burning, brightly like a torch. A big ship, by the looks of it. Its guns were still firing. There was their battle! He felt the engine power up through the structure of the mast, throbbing like the heartbeat of a runner. What was the captain thinking, down on the bridge? This was his redemption! Was he relieved? Or had he simply known all along? Finding out the identity of the burning vessel looked an impossible task; but what? There, ahead in the gloom, were shapes moving: Ships, big ships, running without position lights. Trembling, Jaspers trained his glass on them. It was all but impossible to make them out. Their wakes glowed ivory in the reflection of the fire. The fire... The ensign shifted the glass to silhouette one of the vessels against the bright patch of horizon. The turrets – those funnels – he remembered the funnels!

“Captain!”, he shouted down the speaking tube, too excited to make a proper report. “Russian battleships ahead! It's a Borodino-class vessel!”

Mere moments later, the stern-mounted, hooded signalling light flashed orders to the flotilla. With a roar of their engines, the sleek, black boats fanned out, each lookout straining their eyes to the utmost, selecting their targets. This, Captain Eschenburg though, this was what torpedo boats had been created for.

Darkness now enveloped them almost completely. The last rays of the sun reflected off the eastern sky. Captain Eschenburg felt as though he had to muffle the engine, fearful that the crews on the Russian ships would hear their approach. The lookout seemed to share his sense of foreboding, almost whispering his reports down the speaking tube. Then, a brilliant flash lit up the horizon. The thunderous roar of the explosion reached them many seconds later. The fleet lay before them captured in that moment as though frozen on photographic plates. Less than three kilometres now! Mere minutes! Eschenburg felt his pulse throbbing. He was not a patient man, waiting came hard to him. Time stretched into eternities as he waited tensely for searchlights to flare into life, guns to flash, 10-cm shells to tear through the thin hulls and frail bodies of his flotilla.

Silence. The first shot needed to be exactly on target. In no maneuver had he had the luxury to come this close! As their night vision returned, they could almost make out the dark, looming shapes of the enemy ships in the dark, pitch black against the slightly lesser darkness that the remaining light of the battle tentatively illuminated. Unable to stand the tension, the captain ran out to the launcher. “Ready” he shouted out, his voice subdued in the irrational fear of being heard across the rapidly shortening expanse of water. “ready... ready... NOW!”

The thump of the launching charge sounded unbearably loud to everyone on board. Turning into the starboard loop they had practiced hundreds of times, the bridge crew tried to follow the silvery wake with their eyes. The helmsman turned back into a target run, read to fire the second tube over the port bow. They would keep the third in readiness if any targets presented themselves. Nobody expected to have the time to reload. Once more, the muffled bang and splash as the torpedoes launched, the flotilla still operating in concert. Training and payoff, Eschenburg thought.

A blinding cone of light stabbed into the darkness, scattered back by the white wakes of the boats and the glistening upperworks. They had been discovered. Too late. Too late! As they turned their sterns to the Russian battlefleet where searchlights flashed and klaxons hooted now, the first explosion reached them. It was not a cheer that rose from the deck of T 12 – nothing that orderly or human. It was a bloodthirsty howl of triumph like it might have echoed from the rocky walls of the Neanderthal valley when primeval man had speared a mammoth.

Guns flashed and roared along the line of ships now cast into sharp relief against the night sky. The wounded behemoth was taking his revenge, but it did not matter now. Now did not matter. What mattered was twenty, thirty seconds ago when they had launched their missiles. The second spread struck, more explosions raising huge waterspouts to the sky. Eschenburg laughed maniacally, shaking his fist against the sky. “Port!” he shouted at the helmsman, “Hard to port! We can catch them a third time if they run!”

White columns of water rose off to their left. T 10 went up in a brilliant flash of steam and golden fire. “Head for the impacts!” the captain pointed, still laughing like a madman. “They overcorrect! For the impacts!” Not until minutes later did anyone find the time to look aft, where the crews of Slava, Oslyabya and Retvizan fought desperately to keep their stricken ships afloat.

23 August 1906, Kiel

There were words to describe such things, Rudyard Kipling thought: words like celebration, durbar, jamboree, jubilee. They paled against the visceral reality of this day. The entire city, from the church to the naval yards, was draped in flags and patriotic bunting. The sirens of Laboe and the guns of the coastal forts announced the return of the conquering heroes long before the ships made their way up the Förde to their home anchorage. The streets were thronged with jubilant crowds, many having made their way here by train or on foot. The news of the fleet's triumph in the Battle of Rügen had exploded across headlines throughout the country in the late evening, with prayer services and impromptu fireworks laid on that night. Kipling, waiting in Hamburg, had managed to snare one of the last train tickets and endured the sardine-packed ride to spend the night on a couch in the lobby of a cheap seaside hotel, a luxury for which the owner charged him the paltry sum of five marks. Now, finally, the moment he had waited for was here.

The big ships came first, led by SMS Mecklenburg and SMS Karl der Große. Kipling was shocked at their appearance, scarred and pockmarked, their upperworks reduced to twisted fragments as though wiped away by the fist of an impatient giant. Smoke poured from the stumps of funnels and shell holes. Flags waved from improvised masts and staffs, lines rigged from anywhere they could be. The crews manned the rails, many visibly injured, with bandages and crutches. On some of the hulls, whole sections of armour plating had been torn off. If this had not been enough to awe the onlookers, next came the greatest attraction: the captures. The cruiser Admiral Makarov and the battleships Slava and Retvizan entered the Förde under tow, flying the German ensign over the Russian. The papers had written the breathtaking story how, trying to escape into the night, the battleships were caught by a German torpedo boat flotilla. The details remained hazy, though there was a small measure of hope that the captain leading the attack, one Eschenburg, might be available for interview. He was among the few survivors that Ingenohl's men had rescued from the wreckage of their boats, shot to pieces by the vengeful Russian battlefleet before it abandoned its comrades to their fate.

Down in the city centre, near the trade port, not in the closed-off confines of the naval yard, the mayor had had a podium erected. Kipling found it impossible to get near, but finally made his way up on a balcony by dint of his press credentials and a strategically placed two-mark coin, to catch a glimpse of the emperor and Prince Albert. The two had come here on their own initiative, the people said, Albert from his headquarters in Wilhelmshaven, Wilhelm by express train from Berlin. The emperor received Admiral Ingenohl seated – testament to the continuing pain his injuries caused him – to present him with the order of the black eagle. Then, by order of His Highness, the crews of the fleet were relieved by men from the navy yard, marched through the streets of the town past jubilant crowds, and released on 24 hours liberty. If anyone in Kiel slept tonight, it would be a miracle.

Wedged into the corner of a poky restaurant whose owner was busy alternately overcharging visitors and plying sailors with free drinks, he finally found a moment's respite to consolidate his notes into something approaching an article. “Today,” he wrote with a momentary shudder of realisation, “geography has changed. From this day onward, the Baltic has ceased to be a sea in any sense we understand the term. It is now a lake in the German Empire.“

23 August 1906, Kaijunga on Lake Tanganyika, Deutsch-Ostafrika

German officers, Capitaine Francois Deventer of the Force Publique had gained the impression, came in two varieties: whipcord-lean and ascetic, or heavy-set and bull-necked. General Ludendorff definitely belonged to the latter type. He looked like a Greek statue of Heracles carved from a block of solid lard. Deventer saluted politely, the representative of a state technically no longer in existence, but still functioning, meeting the representative of a belligerent power on a mission of peace. His position was awkward in so many ways it just was not funny any more.

“You know our situation.” Ludendorff bluntly stated in heavily accented, but flawless French: “The way to the sea is blocked. The Russians are holding the ports. As a military man, you therefore understand the significance of the railway to Lake Tanganyika. We need to be assured of a friendly reception at the ports on your shore.”

Well, that was one thing Deventer could promise with a clear conscience. With the formal transfer of sovereignty as per the Congo Treaty, he was technically an agent of the British government pro tempore – pro very much tempore, if rumour could be believed. They were infighting in London over whether the Colonial Office or the Rhodesians would be running the Kasongo, and with years to pass before they actually could build their precious railway, his corner of Africa could well remain unchanged for years to come, bar the occasional official passing through. But surely, London would be happy to aid their unfortunate neighbours. Deventer was convinced that being supportive would be a good way to ingratiate himself with his new – employers, he supposed. Surely, they had to be paying him. King Leopold certainly was not – in fact, salaries had in some cases stopped months before the formal transfer of sovereignty. It looked wise to adjust to new realities.

“General, I can assure you that no civilian ship from German East Africa will find any obstacles in its path. We are neighbours and, if you will permit the word, comrades. White men in Africa owe each other a consideration that goes beyond the common courtesy of politics.” It was a nice little speech, even if he said so himself. “But you understand that there are rules we have to adhere to. Neutrality, you see.”

Ludendorff smiled thinly. Of course he understood. The poor man could not find his position comfortable, being, as he was, a Belgian in the employ of a notoriously fickle monarch, newly subject to British orders, but uncomfortably close to the French garrisons now being set up along the Kongo river. “Certainly. You understand we are not talking of contraband of any kind. But there are goods that are needful for the civilian administration and control of any territory, and we trust we will be able to import those through – you are now British Kasongoland, are you not? - without undue difficulty.” He put a slight emphasis on 'British'. “Tinned foods, fit for white men, clothes, boots, quinine, medical supplies, liquor, tobacco. Payment can be made promptly. And we will need to use your postal and telegraph services, on official business.”

Pondering the list, Deventer slowly nodded. “The telegraph lines do not begin until French territory, so you must be aware than any communication will still take more than a week to reach the coast. Three or four, sometimes, in this kind of weather. Bringing goods here takes – oh, months. We have some things for sale, of course, but our stocks are limited. What there is, you are welcome to bid for. And as a gesture of goodwill, I think it should be possible to provide your men with quinine from official Force Publique stores. We have a nice stockpile in the Kasongo.“

“Thank you, captain.” Ludendorff was gratified at the ease with which this went. “You will most likely find that German companies will be rather – eager to supply us speedily with what we order. I will have my orderly draw up a list of goods and some telegraphic reports for despatch.” He reflected on the situation for a moment. “You would not happen to have laid in stores for railway building already?” he then asked.

“Regrettably, no. The British have big plans, but as of now, all we have is an old theodolite and some measuring chains. I am not sure how quickly we will be able to bring such things up the Kongo, either. I suspect the plan is to carry them up the rails from Rhodesia as they build them.”

That was a pity. Not unexpected – Ludendorff was happy to get the cooperation he did. But having even a few rails, bolts, switches and telegraph wires would have been nice. Though things being what they were, they would not likely keep the use of the railway for long, anyway. Ludendorff still marvelled at the fact he still had it. Solf had surprised him there. He had half expected the man to have surrendered and opted to sit out the war in comfortable captivity on a Russian cruiser. Instead, on hearing of the Russian landing, he had effectively packed up the government in Daressalam, collected as much specie as he could (many businesspeople had been more than happy to exchange gold and silver for drafts made out to the Imperial government), loaded every scrap of war stocks on railcars and headed inland. He even detailed some railwaymen and volunteers to disassemble the rails after them. There hadn't been enough time to carry them all, but even so they had gained enough to patch up the line from Kilimatinde – his temporary headquarters – and Lake Tanganyika. The Russians, meanwhile, had reached Mpapua, but if their intelligence could be trusted they still hadn't gotten the railway back into working condition.

“Well, captain,. I am grateful for what you can do for us. We will also try to contact the Portuguese authorities, of course. And when all of this is over, I look forward to inviting you to my new headquarters for a good German dinner. Right now, we are unfortunately short of proper supplies, but you are welcome to stay for the evening.”

Deventer shuddered at the thought. “Thank you, general, but I must be back at my post. You know what the blacks are up to when you're not watching them.”

Ludendorff watched the steamer head out for the opposite bank, wiping the sweat off his brow and marvelling at the helpfulness he was getting from the local authorities. If the French down the Kongo did not prove too obstreperous, he had his supply line. He would still need to conserve ammunition and guns, but that was not an insurmountable problem. And the Russians would be facing a lot more problems now than they possibly could have expected. Supplying a force their size in Africa was not something he would have relished trying. With unseasoned troops – he would be surprised if half the men would still be in fighting shape come autumn. Well, if you could call it an autumn. Too bad Solf had not packed the ice machine when he abandoned the capital.
27 August 1906, Warsaw

“Well, gentlemen. Comrades. Here you are.” It was not the reception that the men had expected, but then, what you expected from Feliks Dzerzhinski was hardly what you were going to get under the best of circumstances. And given the circumstances you could face him under, these had to count among the best. A group of about a hundred new graduates of his improvised secret police school were seated in a cramped auditorium – it most likely had once served as a classroom for natural sciences – to be inducted into the National Security Service. Dressed in their trademark leather jackets and jodhpurs, revolvers at their belts, they looked up at the man few of them had had more than a few cursory words from, but all of them looked up to.

“I wil not detain you long. All of you have an important task to attend to. But before you go out to do battle, I must impress on you once more the vital importance of what you are doing. DO NOT EVER FORGET that you are the vanguard of the revolution. You are the steel in its backbone and the mind to its strength, the few who fight not just with your hearts and your bodies, but also with your brains. That you are equal to the task is not a question. We have accepted and trained you. You shall not be found wanting in skill or intelligence. But the true test of an agent is not one of brains or of brawn. It is one of will. All of you will face this test, and all of you will face it alone.”

A murmur rippled through the ranks of the assembled men. It was not that they hadn't heard this before, but “Iron Feliks” (or, as the agency jargon had it, balls-of-steel Feliks) spoke with an intensity few of their instructors could muster. He looked strikingly young – but then, everybody here was. Thirty was old, and the director would not be celebrating his thirtieth birthday for a while yet. Most of his footsoldiers were younger.

“Let me talk to you about an incident earlier this year. You all recall it. A trainload of grain and meat passed through Warsaw on its way to the front. The train was detained at a station, where the hungry populace assembled. Old men and women, mothers with their young children, babes in arms, starving under the merciless siege the Czar had laid around our capital. Hollow-eyed and tearful, they begged the soldiers guarding the station for a handful of wheat, a scrap of bread. The children cried from the cramps in their empty stomachs. You remember such scenes. You, too, have seen them. And the sergeant in charge of the guard detail stood aside and opened one of the railcars. The security men accompanying the train ordered the soldiers to stop the crowd, but the troops lowered their rifles and let them stream by. What a story, isn't it? There was a reporter from Berlin there, too, to capture the scene. And you remember what happened next?”

Everybody did. Dzerzhinski let the pause hover in the air before he brought his palm down hard on the lectern. “Agent Shtern drew his revolver and fired into the crowd. Two aimed shots, killing the foremost civilians. Agent Murkovski pointed his gun at the sergeant's head and forced him to reclose the railcar. Then, he took charge of the locomotive to remove the train while Shtern kept the crowd at a distance. He shot two more people that day, through the head. A young mother, and a man of sixty-eight years.”

A brief whisper rose, then subsided. A hundred pairs of eyes were glued to the speaker.

“You may have heard it said that this was not a day the security service was proud of. Well, what do you think of that?” He sought eye contact with one man in the audience, then another. “I will tell you today that this was a day the security service should be proud of! Agents Shtern and Murkowski were both promoted and are serving today in positions of the highest importance. Why? Because they understood what the exigencies of the moment required and had the courage, the will and the sang-froid to do it. If the troops on the frontline had not received that food, they could not have held. The Russians would have been in Warsaw. Poland would have been lost. And all that stood between the revolution and Czarist gallows were two men, young men, your age, with their revolvers. Think on that. THINK! Each of them had six bullets. The crowd could have rushed them. The soldiers could have turned on them. They didn't, but they could not know that. So they used their brains to devise the best strategy to resolve the situation and carried it through regardless of the cost to themselves or others.”

Many of the audience now looked visibly uncomfortable. Others' eyes positively glowed with admiration. Dzerzhinski continued.

“As you go out today, such a test awaits you. Each and every one of you will face it, sooner or later. And all of you must face it and pass it, as Shtern and Murkowski did. This is what security agents do. If you look to test your physical courage and prove your nobility, the infantry is hiring.”

One of the men in the back row began to rise. Derzhinski looked over to him. He faltered.

“It's all right.” the director said. “This work is not for everyone. I won't keep you.”

The man hesitated, but finally stood and walked out. Nobody dared speak for almost a full minute.

“Let noone say,” Dzerzhinski finally said into the silence, “that this man was a coward. He had the intelligence to understand what his limitations were and the courage to take the consequences. As to the rest of you, I hope you will one day prove yourselves equally well. Some of you will work for security details guarding government agencies or military installations. Of you, the highest order of integrity and vigilance will be expected. Your duty is to protect these things with your lives, even when all others abandon their posts. Some of you will be going out into field intelligence units where you will match your wits against a cruel and cunning enemy. And some will be posted as new liaison to military units. Your task will be the hardest, for you will safeguard the loyalty of fellow patriots and revolutionaries and steel their resolve when hope is gone and hot courage fleeting. Men you may look up to, men your superior in age, rank, experience and deeds of valour. Men of proven courage and patriotism. All of this, you must count for naught. Do not think yourself presumptuous in questioning the loyalty of such men: in the game of shadows, nothing can be taken for granted. Do not think your posting as indicating the unit you come to is untrustworthy. All units in the National Army are given security liaisons. But whatever their record, do not think them above questioning. Look out carefully, and report back to me. Me! Never forget that your loyalty is to the service, the revolution, and Poland. Not your comrades, your unit or your general. More is expected of you. Great sums of money will pass through your hands, and not a penny will go missing. The most private secrets of people will come to your knowledge, and the world not learn a word. And not one of you will be taken alive by the enemy. That is your charge. Be equal to it!”

31 August 1906, Berlin

… I think I have found a very nice apartment, too. I know you worry about moving, but Luise can come along, and it is really not that far to Berlin, so Adolf can visit whenever he has time off from university. And you really do not need to concern yourself about the money. I have spoken to our banker again, and the rent for the pharmacy, together with the honorary pension and the increased pay for my promotion, will go a lot farther than we thought. You can keep the house so you can return to Karlsruhe whenever you like, or rent it out. I would rather not sell it, though. You probably will not want to stay in Berlin beyond a few years, it is such a crowded and hectic place. But the children will love it. There is a very good Jewish Töchterschule here, I have already spoken to the principal and Luise will be welcome. And Adolf can probably get an internship at the Charite once he has graduated and finished his military service. You cannot imagine just how much easier everything has become now. Just remember you must sign yourself Countess von Rosen now. The rest will come easily enough. Everybody is being most welcoming, even the people at court I never thought would.

My duties at the Zeughaus are easy enough, and I do suppose they were created mostly so as to allow me to be in Berlin. I have been told twice, in no uncertain terms, I shall not be allowed near the front. But on days when there is not too much work – and I have a very competent subordinate who can handle most of the day-to-day paperwork – I have been taken to visit units, speak before patriotic clubs and do all manner of decorative things. It can be stressful, all the travel, but it is remarkably comfortable, with hotel rooms and first-class tickets. And the most remarkable part is that I have met a number of the most extraordinary people. You are married to someone quite famous now, it seems.

The day after tomorrow, if you can already be in Berlin, I will be speaking at a meeting of the Centralverein. I believe you should meet these people, too,. They are the most fascinating crowds, and their cause is a good one. To be honest, I never much thought of what it meant to be Jewish in Germany other than that it could be a problem at times, but in fact, there is a whole political dimension to it. You should read some of the things they printed. Professor Löwenfeld – only, now he is working for the general staff translating captured Russian documents – is most active in that area. But he is too busy. It is all secret, of course, but I suppose it has to do with the papers that were taken off the Russian battleships that surrendered at Rügen. Instead, we will have an officer of the Polish National Army's Jewish Brigade speaking. Would you believe it, Josef Rabinowitz himself will be there, and also Leutnant Berenstein who won the Pour Le Merite at Rügen. One of only two Jewish navy officers in sea service, and to think it was his torpedo that crippled the Slava! I feel humbled in such company. These are true heroes, not just like me, cast into the role by blind chance. They will be collecting donations for the Jewish units in Poland, which have become quite a cause celebre in Berlin circles.

And never be concerned of your wardrobe, dear. The Berlin chic for this autumn is all for austere simplicity. Fripperies are frowned upon, and the milliners and jewellers are already despairing of surviving the war. You will fit in quite nicely this year. And next season, if things should change, we can get you things made. Really, you will need to get used to our new circumstances.

(Letter by Oberstleutnant Graf Hermann von Rosen to his wife)

03 September 1906, Berlin, Charlottenburg Palace

“I need you, Walther! You have to help me with this.” Emperor Wilhelm III was not used to begging, but there were occasions where it was indicated – indeed, necessary. The reports and submissions from the war economy council certainly qualified. It was not just the language or the concepts; he could deal with a field he had limited knowledge of. It was the sheer daunting complexity of it all.

“Your Majesty, I cannot be on the council. We have discussed the matter in the past: one representative of the military, one from capital, one from small business, one from agriculture, one from labour. Add another person, and the tie-breaking vote becomes blunted. Also, I think I would be unacceptable to too many people.” Rathenau shrugged. “At any rate, they are doing a good job. It is half a miracle we were able to keep our troops in ammunition over the last month, and we've also found a solution for the unskilled labour issue.”

Indeed, they had, and it had been a tense day in the Reichstag. First, the government had stood firm on deferments – over the protest of just about anyone, they had enforced a ban on skilled labourers in war-critical industries serving as soldiers. Last-minute orders had pulled miners, machinists and railwaymen from troop trains and barracks, and rumour had it many had complained bitterly. Then, they had had to address the shortage of unskilled labour that drove up wages, especially in the countryside. A blanket issue of work permits to all Polish refugees in the Reich would do it – the conservatives had screamed! Well, all of them but the Junkers. They knew what the prospects for their estates looked like without men for the harvest. And always the wage issue! Now, the SPD representative had proposed a general rationing scheme to prevent the allocation of food by price. The farmers' representative was furious. Meanwhile, Groener was talking about the need to suspend domestic gold circulation in favour of foreign payments. Someone was hammering out a plan for using war bonds as loan collateral through savings banks. And they did this while keeping the machines going and sorting out the myriad little problems that always cropped up. Or not, as it were. Sometimes, things went wrong, too.

Wilhelm shook his head. “It is too much. I can't keep track of it all. Without you to advise me...”

“You have good economists. There is Stinnes.”

“You know Stinnes doesn't have half your brains, Walther.”, the emperor protested. “And I don't need an economist. I need someone who can explain this to me, someone who understands the whole picture and knows how to make these things work. That is you.”

Rathenau shrugged resignedly. “You can always call on me, of course. I cannot always be in Berlin, but...”

“I need you to make decisions. I trust you. Remember, you are one of my consuls. I'm thinking of a cabinet position: minister of armaments, or something like that.”

Shocked, Rathenau stared at his emperor. “You cannot raise a Jew to cabinet rank, Wilhelm.”

“I can raise anyone I want to my cabinet. It's in the constitution. And I need it to be you.” Wilhelm's remaining eye almost burned with the intensity of his hope. “I don't care about conflicts of interest: make your millions. Just make it work. I'll back you to the hilt. Sit in with Groener. I know you two get along. Bang heads together. Win me this war!”

08 September 1906, south of Belgrade

“Slavic brothers!” Goran Jurin spat out through gritted teeth as he stared out over the mountainside, “take heart.” The words, repeated until they emptied of meaning, felt bitter. “Slavic brothers, the enemy will falter!” The officer who had held that speech four days ago was dead. Goran had seen him ripped apart by a stray shell from the Austrian river monitors. “Slavic brothers, fertilise our soil with their blood!” Well, that was bunk. You fertilised soil with shit, not blood. Goran was a farmer. He knew about that kind of thing. Of course, there was a lot more shit than blood in your body, and what with the shells left over, fertilising wasn't a bad description for what they were doing. Though he doubted anything much would grow here after the Austrians were done.

Down in the valley among the charred tree stumps and ruins of farmhouses, isolated figures moved. Carefully, Goran raised his rifle and took aim. At this range, he had few illusions about his ability to make the bullet tell. Even if he had been as good a marksman as his sergeant had intended to make him, his Berdan rifle's accuracy left much to be desired. But it made them keep their heads down, and you could get lucky. Anything that kept the bastards from coming closer was fine by him. The howl of shells interrupted him. Biting back a curse, he dropped behind his improvised breastwork and pressed his hands against his ears. It did not help much when the slope to his left erupted in a series of shattering blasts, but the motion was mostly reflexive, anyway. Days of fighting had left his ears ravaged. Many of his comrades had lost hearing altogether. Stones, clods of earth and pieces of trees and – things that had not been trees – rained down on them. Fuck the river monitors and their fucking big guns! Without them, the battle would have looked different. They had done everything right, fighting bravely and fiercely, but what did that help against 120mm shells? Whenever the Austrians got stuck, they had sent back runners, and predictably, the rain of fire had come in. Here, they were at the extreme end of their range and had to do without fire support – mostly. But they were still advancing, still pressing on. Three days ago, the Serbian army had finally abandoned the last smoking remnants of Belgrade, and now, they were out in the countryside. Goran Jurin found it did not make things simpler. Grumbling, he rose to his knew to peer over the top of the treetrunks covering his position. The Austrians had stopped. Someone by the roads was pointing out positions to a mounted man. He would be real sorry, real soon. A column of infantry was fanning out at the other end of the valley, outside of rifle range. There would be an assault. Those things became expensive quickly, for both sides. But maybe, it would fail. In his experience, they did about two thirds of the time. And with a little more luck, they would stop trying for the whole night, and maybe there would be time to sleep. And food. Though both might be too much to hope for.

09 September 1906, Moscow

“Cheering throngs crowd the streets as our troops advance into Moldova, welcoming them with flowers and gifts of food. The Romanian troops who had long occupied these Slavic lands were caught off guard by the unexpected direction and force of the hammer blow our armies struck them, and are streaming south in disorderly retreat. Our correspondent with the Irkutsk Rifles reports hardly any resistance being met as the valiant men of Russia march on the enemy (article on page 6).

Meanwhile, ships of the Black Sea Fleet have met the Romanian forces off Constantsa and, after a brief, victorious engagement, sunk the enemy cruiser Elisabeta and torpedo boats Sborul and Naluca. Harbour fortifications and naval installations were reduced by heavy bombardment, and the remaining torpedo boat Smeul surrendered by the base commander. Landing parties were able to destroy or render useless large quantities of coal and other warlike stores.

The punishment of faithless Romania continues apace, as King Carol learns the cost of collusion with German aggression and subversion. Indeed, it must now no longer be considered beyond possible that Russian and Serbian troops might join hands either in conquered Romania or Bulgaria, a country whose government may not much longer continue its shameful vacillation. Thus would close a ring of Slavic iron around the Austria-Hungary.

With Galatz now surrendered and the railway bridges of the Sereth secured, it can only be a matter of time until the subject peoples of the Hungarian crown can share the happy experience of their Moldovan cousins in the blah, blah, blah.”

Count Witte laid down the paper. “What do you say, colonel?”

Anton Ivanovich Denikin set down his teacup and smiled sourly. His long spell in Japanese captivity and an interminable return journey on the trans-Siberian railway had left him stranded in Moscow while men of his class were off fighting the war. To a soldier of different mettle, the chance to network in the de-facto capital might have been welcome, but Denikin loathed the enforced inactivity. The only solace could be found in conversations with intelligent, patriotic men. However much he might disagree with Witte, a retiree from the state railroads and former politician, he could find it in him to admire the man's integrity and love of country. Also, they both shared a similar fate, ambitious men forced into uncomfortable waiting positions by the forces of history that shook the world around them. The least they could do was share tea and opinions – especially since Witte was paying. Senior railway officials made much better money than army officers.

“You mean other than 'Why am I not there'? I would say luck. Or good planning and luck, but mostly luck. They even admit as much, where they talk of an unexpected direction and all that.”

Denikin sipped his tea again. They served it very hot in this restaurant. Of course, the food was good and – to Witte's guest – free. “If I am any judge of the situation, the Romanians expected us to force the Danube and move on Bucarest and Ploeshti. It's where they have the old Turkish defenses, and probably the majority of their forces. Crossing the Pruth and striking through Moldova only makes sense in the context of the war against Austria. Anyway, I hope there is a second move south, because otherwise the Romanians will eventually come to their senses and hit us in our flank. If I was in charge down there, I'd do it now, before the Bulgarian king figures out there is land in it for him. Why? Do you not trust the wisdom of this great organ of the popular press?”

It was Witte's turn to grimace. Instead of saying anything, he gestured at the masthead and shrugged. It was the Russkaya Pravda, and if you read only that, you could be forgiven for thinking the country still had a Baltic Fleet worth speaking of. Only they would make three battleships sinking an elderly cruiser sound like a glorious victory. “So, what is your opinion of the campaign plan laid out here? Through Romania and Bulgaria to aid the valiant Serb.”

“If we can get Bulgaria into the war, we won't need Romania. Though having the Danube to ship materiel would be convenient. If not, Romania might not be much of a gain. The Austrians will almost certainly move troops into Walachia when we get there, and they can close off the stream more easily. I have more hope for an offensive into Hungary. Budapest will change its tune about war burdens, and they might even seek a separate peace once they figure out it's their ... territory on the chopping block.” The colonel scratched his cheek. “It'd need to be done fast enough.”

“You're worried about winter?”, Witte asked.

“Everybody is. But I'm mostly worried about Germany. We have them on the back foot now. Who would ever have thought a war could be fought on so many fronts simultaneously? But soon enough, they'll push our troops out of East Prussia, and then the real fighting starts.” Denikin sounded almost eager. If he had any doubts of the ultimate outcome, he did not let it show. Then again, he was a professional soldier. Peacetime meant lean years for his kind. A battlefield promotion could be had in a lost war as much as in a victorious one. Witte decided not to press the issue.

11 September 1906, near Rendsburg

“All clear, Sir.” Captain Spee nodded acknowledgement to the signaller. This was it. He took a deep breath and straightened his back. The engineers had said everything was cleared. The boats had taken soundings. If the Russians had been able to hide any nasty surprises in the wreckage at the bottom, he would have to find out the hard way.

“Take us forward. One-eighth ahead.”

The throb of the engine changed pitch. SMS Bayern inched ahead through the canal, towards the high bridge that the Russian saboteurs had nearly brought down three months ago – was it only three months? It felt like more. The launches ahead waved green flags. Of course. They had taken soundings for days on end, down the middle of the canal, down the sides, across … nothing could possibly go wrong. Slowly, as if undecided, the grey bulk of the battleship passed under the bridge. A crowd of well-wishers, small, but cheerful, waved from the shore. They had those paper flags – you saw them everywhere these days. Silly things. Spee looked aft to check their progress when the lookout reported. “Past the bridge, Sir. We are back in the regular canal.”

The captain let out a heavy sigh, noticing in passing he hadn't been the only one holding his breath. Of course logically, there could not have been any danger. But the Russian facility with mines had taken on legendary proportions in the navy. Nobody would really have been surprised if there had been explosives hiding deep in the bed of the canal, underneath the remains of the Donbas. Well, there hadn't been. Behind them, the site of the explosion was passed by the next in line, SMS Roon. Sachsen was still in dry dock – would be for a while. Along the banks, ragged, muddy breaks in the ruler-straight sides, mud churned up by heavy machinery and improvised rail bore witness to the frenzied work of clearing the tangle the blown-up Donbas had left. Damn, the Russians were too good with explosives.

14 September 1906, Berlin

“Are you really, completely sure?” Her concern was audible in Fanny von Reventlow's voice. It had taken her a great deal of courage to confront Wilhelm on this matter, and she would not take no for an answer now.

“Fanny, please. I have no other options.” Wilhelm was trying to soothe his lover's worries, but the edge to his voice told her that he was beginning to become impatient. “I've already reduced the dosage. Some days, I even get by without any morphine, except to sleep. But I must be able to concentrate. The pain distracts me.”

She lowered her eyes momentarily, but stubbornly persisted. The suffering of the past months had brought them closer – she knew she could presume much with him. “I realise that. Wilhelm, I don't want you to suffer. That is not it. But I saw what the habit can do to morphinists when I lived in Munich, and I am worried.”

The emperor shrugged uncertainly and lowered himself into an armchair. “My doctors assure me there is no risk. Morphine, when taken in controlled doses, is as harmless as ephedrine or cocaine.” He shrugged again, as if to emphasise that he was only conveying received wisdom. “And my duties do not allow me to let up. There are few enough hours in the day when I am completely clear and focused. If I stopped taking pain medicine, I would lose entire days.”

Fanny sighed inwardly. Damn his stubborn Prussian pleasure in self-inflicted suffering! Damn the whole idiocy of taking satisfaction in overtaxing oneself! Berlin ate people – the best first. True, Wilhelm no longer worked the schedules he had before his injury, but there were few days when he was away from his paperwork before supper, and he still rose at six every morning. If she wasn't around to remind him to take occasional breaks – and nobody objected to her regular presence nowadays, which was a small mercy – he would work through noon and have sandwiches brought to his desk. She had tried to talk him into taking afternoon naps, but the strong coffee and ephedrine he took interfered with that. “You need to give yourself time to heal. If you work so much, you will not recover.”

“I can hardly ask the Russians to slow down the war.” He gestured feebly at the wall-mounted map of Europe that had taken over the back wall of his study. “The country...”

“The country needs a good emperor to reign for a long time, Wilhelm. You help nobody if you die and leave the crown to Eitel Friedrich!” She shrank back from her own rashness. Wilhelm recoiled as though she had struck him. A momentary silence stretched into seconds.

“You are right.”, he finally conceded. There were not many people he could say this to without a fight. “I will try. But all these things need attention.”

“You have people you can trust, Wilhelm.” she suggested, cautiously. There was nothing she feared quite as much as for Wilhelm to think of her as a schemer. She had never wanted power. Politics disgusted her. “There are many loyal men around you. They stood by you when you were incapacitated. Find those you can trust. They will be able to help you.”

15 September, Moscow

“Dead?” Nicholas II's hand became unsteady, the telegram escaping from his grasp.

“Yes, your Majesty.” The adjutant wore a solemn, unreadable face. Bringing bad news of any kind to the emperor was not a pleasant duty.

His majesty paled. A shadow flitted over the handsome features as a strangled sob escaped his throat. He sat down heavily. “Dimitri Feodorovich Trepov dead. How?”

A doctor who had accompanied the adjutant stepped forward and bowed, drawing the imperial attention. “I regret to say it was to be expected, Your Majesty. His Excellency Governor Trepov had been ill with escalating angina pectoris. It is rarely possible to make certain predictions, of course, but in such cases, one must expect the worst. And he has refused to spare himself.”

Nicholas nodded, tears now running freely. “Yes, yes doctor, you are right. He died for Russia. I will not forget his sacrifice. I have asked so much of him.” For a long, awkward minute, the two men stood watching while the emperor buried his face in his hands and wept, whispering prayers to himself. Then he dried his face on a handkerchief and looked up, composed again, though his voice still trembled.

“Thank you, doctor. Thank you, captain. Yours is no easy duty. Why, why does it please the Almighty to take away the men who were my staff and comfort in these dark hours? What comfort can I take from knowing that my dear Trepov is now with my father, whose faithful servant he always was? I will not find his like again on this earth.”

He grasped the hand of his adjutant. “Captain, this is a test of my soul. I am tried in the fire. But I will be worthy. Send for Prokurator Pobedonostsev, if he is well enough to travel. If not, I will come to him.”
18 September 1906, Nasielsk

Maps, files and hectic calculations littered every available surface in what had been the Russian field headquarters. Out of deference for his victory, Mackensen had been permitted to keep it even while General von Kluck was in town. Lieutenant Colonel Thomamüller – far from the only one to have come away from the daring advance on Litvinov's army with a newly elevated rank – quietly imposed some semblance of order on the papers that had begun taking over the left side of the billiards table. After some experience of his superior, he suspected that Mackensen was incapable of keeping quarters orderly. He moved into a place and spread layer after layer of accreting stuff until it forced him to relocate. It would go some ways towards explaining his peripatetic career. Luckily, he could afford the spacious lodgings his style required, and in war, you could leave the cleaning up to others anyway.

“Speed!” he was pontificating again, this time to von Kluck. “We are still stuck in Masuren because the terrain leaves us no room for speed or strength. We are winning in Samland because of strength. And we can win in Poland because of speed.” He wiped several sheets of notepaper off the map on the table, freeing a swathe of northern Poland. General von Kluck looked on with interest. Mackensen might be nothing more than a newly minted major general, and scandalously fresh for all that, but his success in the early days of the war made him a man worth listening to.

“Here!”, he stabbed at the map with his finger. “The Russians are in Lomza and Ivangorod. They hold the Angerapp line and south, here, they have troop concentrations on Lake Spirding, headquarters at Johannisburg, and as far west as Ortelsburg. If we stop staring at the idea of liberating Masuren like a rabbit at the snake, we have the chance to do something much, much bigger.”

General von Kluck lit a cheroot and waited, nodding encouragement. There might be something here. Mackensen's B2 pencil flew over the territory marking the positions.

“The foremost defensive works are at Pultusk, half a division, we think. Troops along the Narev up to Ostrolenka, reinforced from Lomza. They expect us to attack that way. And in Masuren, the Army of the Niemen is linked up. Reports have it they've built rails to the mouth of the Pissa, which allows them to take troops and supplies directly all the way to Johannisburg.”

The cavalryman paused for effect. Then, he slashed a broad arc across the page south past the lines he had drawn.

“Here. We can force a Narev crossing south of Pultusk and advance along the Bug. Russian troop concentrations are feeble, they cannot have much in the way of first-line forces there at all. The next major fortress is Brest-Litovsk, hundreds of kilometres away, and denuded of troops for the attack in the north. A fast blow, executed forcefully and decisively, can drive deep into enemy territory.”

The general wagged his head. “You expect to take Brest-Litovsk?” he said dubiously.

“Please, don't be silly.” Mackensen waved away the idea. “No, I hope to reach the railway bridge at Nur.”

Von Kluck's face brightened. That sounded like it might work. “If the line is intact, you could be reinforced through Warsaw, and...”

“Move south to cut off Ivangorod. It lies right along the southbound line to Siedlce. The Big would give us a defensible flank, but it is not unfordable. And if we can contest the southern bank of the Narev, the Russians lose their southern supply line.”

Von Kluck pulled a pencil from his pocket and began scribbling notes. “If they lose Lomza, they would have to withdraw to Bialystok.” he murmured. “And even if not, the salient would be defensible. It cuts Ivangorod away from their northern troop concentrations.” He paused. “Will it work, though? What would it take, in your opinion?”

Mackensen looked relieved. If von Kluck believed his plans were viable, he stood a chance. The general was considered a good judge of offensive tactics. “Speed is of the essence here.” he said. “If we allow the Russians the time to react, they can bring forces to bear from the north and south and crush us. But at the moment, they are quite weak in the area. I think that a fresh corps, with a good cavalry division for a spearhead, should be able to make it to the crossing.”

The general looked doubtful again,. Fresh corps were as rare as hen's teeth, and every general had specific ideas what he wanted to do with one. “I don't think...”

“Of course. I'm mostly talking in terms of numbers here. XVII Corps is still in fighting trim, but we'd need reinforcements for something like this. And we would need troops to consolidate our gains. Reservists should do for that.” Mackensen had no illusions about what was available. You fought the Russians with what you had, not with what you needed.

Von Kluck nodded. “It sounds reasonable to me. Certainly better than what I've heard elsewhere. I'll talk to Goltz and see what can be done. But you won't get everything you want.”

Mackensen shrugged. Did you ever?

20 September 1906, Moscow

“Of course I am concerned.” Grand Prince Sergei scowled at Prince Mikhail. The young man looked striking in his cuirassier uniform, newly added general's stars gleaming. Sergei's body, always slender, now looked almost emaciated, his cheeks hollow, eyes burning. The injuries he had sustained from careless policemen's bullets during the assassination attempt that killed Prince Lvov still caused him pain, and he had never fully recovered the use of his legs. His bitterness had become legendary. “But how else do you suppose to do this?”

Mikhail looked discomfited. He had hoped to gain some comfort and counsel from the older man. What was life experience supposed to be good for if not for that? “I don't know. But I wish I was, because I don't think the way we are doing it is going to work out well for us. The battle of Bornholm has destroyed the slightest chance that France will join us, and unless we are spectacularly successful, I don't see how we can hope to knock out Germany on our own.”

“Well, you're the general.” Sergei remarked acidly. As commander of the Moscow military district, he was an important man, but he resented his inability to serve at the front. He also made no secret of disdain for Mikhail, youthful and inexperienced, supposedly commanding the battle in East Prussia. “All I can tell you is that you had better shut your trap outside the Kremlin. If I heard that kind of talk from other people, I would be gravely concerned about their loyalty.”

Loyalty again! Everything these days seemed to be about loyalty. Mikhail bristled. “What's loyal about nodding to a bad idea?”

“If you have a better one, go and talk to Nicholas and Sukhomlinov at headquarters. I'm sure nobody'll be stopping you, of all people.” The grand prince snorted with derision. “It is easy to see the flaws in someone else's work, Mikhail. Sometimes even when they aren't there. But Nicholas is the emperor and autocrat, and this burden is his to bear. Ours, Mikhail, is to make it easier, bit harder. So if you have a good idea, out with it. Otherwise, shut up.”

The young general scowled. “Very well, uncle. I will return to my unit. Orders, you understand. The Germans are shelling Libau and Memel, so I am needed for what is no doubt a good reason I do not understand.”

He rose to his feet with energetic grace and saluted. His walk was forceful, heels clicking hard on the polished hardwood floor. Sergei shook his head and returned to studying the papers on his coffee table.

22 September 1906, Vienna

“The negotiations have been proceeding – amicably.” Maximilian von Baden flinched slightly. Emperor Franz Joseph smiled at him.

“Meaning she did not throw objects at you?”

The ambassador nodded.

“I have maybe indulged her too much. But she is precious to me, and I do not ask this of her with a light heart.” The emperor's expression betrayed his misgivings. He had been famously indulgent of Archduchess Elisabeth, the sole daughter of his erstwhile crown prince Rudolf. Her impulsive desire to marry beneath her station was probably the only thing he had ever forbidden her. Finding her a suitable groom – one that was acceptable to her – had proved hard. The suggestion of making it Emperor Wilhelm had been mooted before, but it was now being pursued with greater urgency.

“You do realise I must have every assurance she will be treated well. I will not have her made a Marie Antoinette.”, the old ruler continued, looking almost imploringly at his opposite.

Ambassador Maximilian von Baden nodded calmly. “Of course. We will draft an agreement to that effect. Of course she will have her own civil list, be free to travel, hold private audiences and salons. The etiquette of the Berlin court has changed a great deal. His Majesty the Emperor has also offered to transfer ownership of the estate at Oels to the new empress.”

Franz Joseph looked up in surprise. “Oels? I thought that estate was reserved for the use of the Crown Prince?”

“There have been changes.” Maximilian was suitably diplomatic. “The Hohenzollern estate has been restructured into a number of trusts and separate properties, and in the course of this it has been decided to shift the princes onto the imperial civil list. But of course, the empress would retain separate income and properties.” Both men smiled somewhat painfully. The recent events in Berlin, though not entirely understood, had not gone unnoticed in Vienna. And everybody knew that the almost unseemly haste to marry Wilhelm had much to do with the desire to have a new heir, as soon as biology permitted.

“I will, of course, consent to such arrangements. But you understand that the agreement of Elisabeth is indispensable. How has that been proceeding?”

“Of course.” The ambassador hastened to assure him. “I believe that will be possible. You have no doubt spoken to her?”

“I have. I will try to convince her, but I will not force her.” Franz Joseph was adamant on this point. “The words 'brood mare' and 'filthy libertine' were used, I believe. Has this been improving lately?”

Von Baden smiled. He had been concerned that Wilhelm's reputation for loose morals would be a problem for the emperor or the archduchess, but apparently, both had come around to viewing it with equanimity. Elisabeth's questions during their last interview had indicated that, if anything, she displayed a decided interest in the sexual mores of Berlin. Nobody harboured any delusions about her innocence in such matters. “I believe that this will not be as great a concern as it was initially thought to be.” he said.

27 September 1906, Nasielsk

“Poles?!” General Mackensen stared at the telegram uncomprehendingly. His eyes had not deceived him, There it was, directly from the great general staff in Berlin. It was phrased in stilted language, of course, but what it boiled down to was this: If he wanted to carry out his operation, he would not be given the German troops he had asked for. Not reservists. Not even Landsturm. He was offered the support of the Polish National Army instead. He snorted angrily.

“What else, now?” he grumbled as he kept reading. Colonel Thomamüller stood by quietly. No cavalry brigade – of course not. But they would allow to detach single regiments, the 11th Hussars, minus one battalion that stayed in the Rhine province, 8th Jäger and a regiment of Landwehr hussars would nicely complement the depleted ranks of his own horse. But no serious infantry. They couldn't spare trained troops, and wouldn't give him untrained. However, if he saw the opportunity to carry out the operation with the support of their allies, the Polish provisional government's army council had agreed to provide troops. Troops... Mackensen smiled sourly. What passed for troops in the National Army was not much to write home about. Still, he would have to take a look at the options. Right now, most Polish units were in the rear, so they'd be available.

“Colonel, I'll need to talk to the Army Council.” He picked up a telegram form and began scribbling. “If they are serious about providing me with support … I'll have the units that fought Skiernewice. That was an action worth remembering.”

“The Jews, Sir?” Thomamüller had the better grasp of Polish affairs for some reason. That man's brain was encyclopaedic.

“I'll take Chinamen and negroes if they can fight!” Mackensen replied. Yids, were they? Well, wasn't that a thing. He'd already heard about the Polish army and its fabulous fighting Jews. Now, He'd get a chance to see them up close. Wouldn't that be something...

29 September 1906, Paris

“I am rather fond of it, actually. It should serve our purposes admirably.” Georges Clemenceau quietly folded the briefing papers and returned them to the heavy manila envelope they had come in. Then, he ceremoniously pulled sealing wax and string from the drawer of his desk and proceeded to seal it. Emile Combes smiled. It was nice when a plan worked.

“Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?” Bienvenu-Martin looked doubtful. “I agree with the proposition in principle, but in this situation, it is not wise to endanger interior tranquillity. If this is anything, it is a declaration of war against the Ligueists.”

Briand and Combes were about to speak up when Clemenceau loudly cleared his throat. Silence fell, and the prime minister acidly remarked. “You mean unlike having troops march on Paris, attempt to overthrow the lawful government of the Republic, and terrorise French citizens? I have no intention of treating these people with kid gloves. They were the ones that declared war on the Republic – very well, the Republic shall defend itself.”

Combes nodded with the self-satisfied air of someone who knew he was getting his way. “Back in their day, they outlawed the Lodges. They even tried to make membership in the Masons a crime! We don't do any of this. Merely cutting the ties between the Republic and the Catholic Church – it is no more than what our law requires. If the fat prelates fear for the salaries they used to draw from the public purse, let them know we have worthier recipients to bestow these funds on. Our soldiers, scientists and explorers.”

Bienvenu-Martin looked doubtful. As minister of public instruction, the enforcement of this law would mainly devolve on him. Getting church and schools untangled would be one almighty mess. And there would be people longing for martyrdom. “All right. But even assuming this works out and we can get the prefects and police officers to do as they are told....”

“That will be no problem. There are good Republican men in the right seats.”, Clemenceau interjected

“...well, then. But the ruckus it will cause is still going to be enormous. It will all but monopolise public attention. And it will create huge rifts at a time when we need national unity. Why not wait until this crisis blows over?”

“Wait, wait, wait. If you had your way, we'd be waiting a hundred years from now. The time is never right for action, is it?” Combes was stepping over the line. The prime minister raised his hand to prevent further ruffling of feathers. He needed his cabinet intact.

“The disruption this will cause will aid, not hinder us. Do you think so little of Frenchmen that they might hesitate to defend the sacred soil of France because of family squabbles? No, if we were attacked, we would be safe. But while we are not – and I remain convinced we will not be – we must not allow the warmongers of the monarchist right to drag us into a conflict for their own gain. How better to do that than to give the public a worthier reason to be agitated? Let the clericalists squeal. The louder they do, the less we will hear the war drums.”

Combes rose in his seat. He had never been a happy supporter of the peace deal. “Clemenceau, with all due respect, but we should be ready for war. The opportunity to strike at Germany will not easily return.”

“What opportunity?” The prime minister waved his hand dismissively. “Joining the war only makes sense if Germany ends up losing it. If they do, they will be so weakened that we can retake Alsace-Lorraine at our leisure. If they win, though, fighting them would be madness. We risk too much facing Britain on the seas and Germany on land. And the British would come to their aid – they have to,. Even if the much-rumoured treaty does not exist, they cannot permit us to be this strong. We are not ready for this war.”

“Will we ever be?” Combes looked at Clemenceau doubtfully. “Must we always dissemble and distract our people from its true enemy? What to do if Germany returns victorious from the war with Russia – how would we keep them from taking anything they want from us?”

A heavy sigh escaped the prime minister. “Britain, Combes.” he explained. “If Germany wins this war, London cannot afford to support her a minute longer. They would be too afraid of the power she has become. So the nightmare coalition that has beset us for years is going to end, without our doing.”

“And how,” Bienvenu-Martin asked, “do we do battle with this giant that will then bestride Europe?”

Clemenceau shrugged. “Time will bring answers as well as questions. This is the war we might have hoped to fight in 1912 or 1914, not now. But I would call your attention to two things: Whatever territory Germany gains from the war will not be German. Its population will, come time, be as little inclined to suffer the emperor in Berlin as its overlord as the Czar in St Petersburg. And what the Germans did in Poland, can be done again. Secondly, Germany is in the process of shackling itself to a corpse. Austria-Hungary will collapse,. Regardless of how the war ends, and when it does, and Germany's power so bound up with its ruling dynasty, German blood and treasure must be poured out to hold its pieces together. When it does, we will be ready. Napoleon himself said that you should never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake, no? And meanwhile, we shall have Morocco, which is not bad pay for doing nothing. Morocco, gentlemen, and a Republic worthy of the name.”

30 Sept 1906, Königshütte

My dear Marie,

It has been too long since my last letter, and I do apologise for being remiss in keeping my promise to inform you of everything that is going on here. Things have become tense of late, and these developments have been absorbing too much of my time. I already wrote you about the labour migrants, and with harvest work being plentiful, a lot of the men and young women from our camp went off to find employment. Some have returned, others are even sending postal money orders from their current jobs, and things have improved enormously for many. The National Army has also been sending recruiters again, and hundreds of young men went off with the promise of warm clothes and a gun.

The authorities have become so much more helpful now that the war is going better, there is almost no comparison. You cannot imagine how easy it seems today to get things delivered here. I realise, of course, that this is a matter of policy, not of kind-heartedness, but I still would like to imagine that someone in power had the heart to help our poor charges, even if it was largely for propaganda purposes. We had Americans here several times now – the Quakers and Red Cross delegates that also supervise the relief effort to Poland – and they are promising us more food and clothing for the winter. An officer came with them the second time, a full colonel, and he promised them all kinds of logistical support that we were begging for all last winter and spring. It almost seems funny if it was not so sad that it should take hecatombs of dead young men before our own government decided to show a bit of decency towards these poor victims.


The strangest thing, though, is the attitude of the church. Until very recently, Pater Wishnewski was the very soul of courtesy. He and his staff – he had a small budget to pay people from, though mostly he spent it on relief – used to work with the party organisation. But two weeks ago, he came to me and informed me that he would be forced to end all cooperation. He did not sound happy, but apparently he had been given orders by the archbishop. The church is quite well-disciplined, I have to say, far more so that our own party. At any rate, I initially thought it would be a passing thing, something the archbishop remembered to do, though it did strike me as ungrateful. Socialists had led the revolution that gave him the freedom to live in his own nation, and now he would disavow them. But it is not like we are unused to people being ungrateful or spiteful towards our efforts. It did not end, though – it escalated. A few of my Polish party workers came to me to return their Ordner badges, explaining that they had to renounce their allegiance to the party or be excommunicate. Then, people reported they were turned away from the church distributions of food if they had been seen taking anything from the party. We saw several people taking notes on who accepted food and clothing from us, so this looks like a concerted campaign.

Last weekend, things became even worse. Three of our party workers were ordered to vacate a hut that had been built with church labour, and when they refused, they were beaten up and one was knifed. Nobody knew the men who had done it. We suspect they moved into the camp recently. Certainly, a lot of Catholic families were horrified. But Pater Wishnewski preached a very apologetic sermon saying why it was every good Christian's duty to oppose Socialism, and another priest from outside, a Redemptorist that was called Shulski or Schultz, people aren't sure, thundered brimstone and hellfire against me and everybody who so much as dared speak to me. The situation has been deteriorating ever since. Two nurses from our camp hospital were pelted with rocks and dirt and called whores by a crowd of men, and yesterday, a mob tried to break into the synagogue barracks, demanding it be turned over to Christian families. I called out the party, but we had to use batons to break up the crowd and there were injuries. I fear for what may happen next week-end. It is not that our organisation here is not robust, and if the confrontation ever came to a head, we would in all likelihood prevail. I have to admit to my shame that fear impels me to arm myself, and I am no longer the only comrade who carries a revolver. There has been violence already. But the mistrust and fear makes it harder and harder to work effectively with what little we have. The Catholics do not have more than us, though I hear tell wonders of the largesse they can distribute on the other side of the border. It was a mistake by the government to funnel aid through the church, I remember you saying that last year. How right you were.

Letter by Ludwig Kolaski to Marie Juchacz

01 October 1906, Berlin

Secretary von Ammersleben had become used to the idea of translating the mental world of his emperor to the dignitaries surrounding him. It was not always easy, but it was usually possible. Some days, though, he was not entirely sure whether it was more deplorable that so relatively few men in the capital shared His Majesty's literary tastes, or that some did.

Once again, he found that the most deplorable people were those with whom Wilhelm got along wonderfully. He had already spoken with Paul Singer several times and always spent more time in his company than was strictly necessary. It was not that von Ammersleben took issue with him being a commoner. A man could not help being born to a lowly estate. But for a man of his wealth and education not only to embrace his lack of a noble title (which, truth be told, could be helped easily enough), but to be a Social Democrat – that was more than he could fathom. And now, the two were seated in front of the fireplace in Charlottenburg again, discussing rationing plans. Or rather, that is what they had been doing. Singer had come up with these Red ideas that food should be rationed nationwide, early on, to prevent market distortions and ensure the proletariat could maintain their diet. Wilhelm might even approve, though he had few illusions about this actually happening. The best he could do would be introducing recommendations. And surely, they had to be finished with this wretched topic now. The secretary silently entered the room to pick up the emperor's notes, to be turned into documents for his perusal and signature. Wilhelm was seated at the edge of his chair, which was always a bad sign.

“You know H.G. Wells?” he was asking right now, his remaining eye bright.

Singer smiled deprecatingly. “Know him would be saying too much. We have met a few times, in the Fabian Society and at a conference last year.”

“Fabian Society?” Wilhelm was mildly confused.

“A society dedicated to social reform in the scientific manner, your Majesty. He is a member, and while I am not, our party is closely associated with them. Especially the more moderate wing.” Singer's smile never left his smug face. Damn the bastard! Ammersleben picked up the papers and left, straining to listen on his way out. “Wells is quite highly respected there, though he is too busy with his literary and teaching work to do much in the organisation.”

“He is not just there as a writer, then, is he?” The emperor was fascinated.

“Mr Wells is a biologist, and an authority on sociology and eugenics. If you have the time, you might consider reading his non-fiction writings.”

Closing the door could no longer be put off with any kind of good grace. Ammersleben shuddered at the thought that young Wilhelm might soon enough even meet this reprobate Socialist hack. But what could a loyal man do. He thumbed through the papers: A plan to solve critical skilled labour shortages by creating long-term employment contracts. With elected workers' representatives negotiating the terms! Well, it made some degree of sense. In peacetime, being able to hire and fire workers as you needed them was nice for employers, but now that the unemployed were in the army, skilled men were becoming footloose and would change jobs, bidding up wages and disrupting production. Still, it stuck in his craw. Thoughts on creating a commission to regulate food rationing for basic articles. That made sense, and it was the kind of thing Wilhelm considered with a passion. He had already had the entire palace staff go on rations and tossed out a lot of the pomp and circumstance that usually attended his life. And, merciful heavens, all manner of stuff regarding the role that red workers' clubs could play in the war. Inviting the heads of cooperatives... to the palace, no less! Dutifully, von Ammersleben sat down at his typewriter – another of those novelties the emperor liked. The things you did to win a war...

03 October 1906, Tokyo

.., Another development that will warrant attention are reports that the Chinese imperial government has approached the Japanese imperial government concerning the recruitment of its hunghutze auxiliaries in the past Russian war for use in Mongolia. The agreement drawn up by the military government in Port Arthur contains a considerable sweetener to encourage Zhang Zhuolin, the leader of this band of mercenary horsemen, to abandon his traditional stomping grounds and fight the enemies of the emperor. He is being offered promotion to brigadier general and a gratuity of a half-million tael, together with payments for his men. The Japanese in turn are reported to have offered the use of their railways to transport the men to the interior.

No doubt this arrangement will suit both Tokyo and Peking very well. The Japanese, who are now building up a local military government throughout Manchuria, will be glad to see the back of their erstwhile allies who have been notable through their lack of discipline and surfeit of rapaciousness. At the same time, the Chinese will receive not just troops trained in the horsemanship of the steppes, but also familiar with the use of modern weaponry and the fighting ways of the Russians. It is rumoured that contracts for the supply of ammunition worth several million tael are already being concluded to keep this fighting force battleworthy. The Japanese government is only too happy to have such leverage over Peking.

What remains a concern is the role, if any, of the military advisers to the Chinese forces. With the Beiyang army considered defunct and its general Yuan Shikai in disgrace, neither overall command nor the military force responsible have been designated. If this honour were to be conferred on the Wuchang army, its German adviser corps would almost certainly have to be expanded, entailing a commitment of experienced officers and non-commissioned men we may be ill able to afford. The British advisers that were attached to the Beiyang army in many cases have left the country, so a cooperation in this regard is unlikely to succeed. However, the embassy has been approached by the Japanese general staff with a proposal to second Japanese officers as advisers to the Chinese, which may indeed be the most desirable solution. …

(Telegram from Ambassador von Hintze to Berlin)

03 October 1906, Portsmouth

The public had long waited for this day, and the Spithead was full of pleasure steamers, yachts and boats flying gay bunting and bright flags. Thousands had travelled down from London to see the greatest warship of the modern world come out for her sea trials, among them not a few representatives of foreign nations. On a small yacht, conspicuously close to the naval anchorage, the French naval attache was observing events.

A muted cheer rose from the assembled craft when the ship came into view. It was a spectacle indeed – hard to believe that something this big could not only move, but move with remarkable speed. HMS Dreadnought rounded the head and laid her course into the Channel, passing by the spectators and accelerating smoothly until it outpaced even the fastest of the steamers running alongside. Cheers rose along the flotilla and the shoreline. Today, the greatest warship ever built would be facing her sea trial: through the Bay of Biscay and past Gibraltar, to Malta, then back home.

04 October 1906, Warsaw

“They wouldn't dare!” Josef Pilsudski stared at his security chief incredulously. Dzerzhinski's stony face did not show any reaction. He simply pointed at the sheet of paper filled with his handwritten notes again.

“They have.”, he snorted. “You don't even need to believe what my agents have found. Look at the facts! They are preaching against Socialism in churches throughout the country. Representatives of the Whites have retreated from the Army Council,. You have had units refusing to acknowledge orders from officers you commissioned. What do you think that signifies?”

Pilsudski groaned. “We always knew the church would be opposed to us. And it's only to be expected the aristocrats would put up a fight. But I had never thought they would be so – unreasonable.” The general threw up his hands and gestured towards the bookcases and filing cabinets filling the wall of his study. “We should have this out after the war is won. Not now!”

Dzerzhinski shook his head mildly. Pilsudski was a damned storybook leader – so incredibly naive! Just because he would not consider attacking an ally of convenience whenever the opportunity presented itself, he found it impossible to conceive that his enemies might. Such fucking heroism! And he thought of himself as a realist!

“Now is exactly the time they would do it.” He tried to keep his voice level as he explained. “And this, this is why.”

With a quick jerk of his hand, he threw a folded banknote on the desk. The print was fine, but unimaginative, bearing only the imperial eagle of Germany as a decoration. '20 Reichsmark', the bold black line read, 'Valid in the Polish military government districts' the finer print underneath.

“The Germans have been using these for a month now.” he pointed out. “I expected the blow to fall sooner.”

Pilsudski nodded. “It has been harder to enforce command authority now that the Council no longer controls the flow of supplies. But we don't have the structure to supply a real army, even still. We depend on the Germans to organise these things. And the commanders have agreed to subordinate their units to the Army Council. That was hard enough!”

“I was there.” Dzerzhinski pointed out drily. The fight over command authority had been epic. A fair number of officers, emboldened by events and the protection of German troops, had felt they could challenge Pilsudski's standing as the leader of the Polish National Army. Even with the support of the majority, they had had to make concessions to individual leaders, from the power to appoint their own officers to elevations in rank and pay. Already, the Kommandantur had hinted at its unwillingness to recognise National Army officer ranks subject to such inflation.

“But a few bruised primadonnas are not your concern. If the Army Council lets go of real power, it will fall apart, and the Germans will play us off against each other. That is what I came to discuss with you.”

Pilsudski looked unhappy. “What do you suggest? I've tried to make peace with my opponents. Many are patriots first, and will join hands. But the Germans hold much more power than any of us. If they really are intent on driving us apart...”

“The Germans are not our enemies.” Feliks countered. “Neither are they our friends. They are opportunists. If we are weak, they will consider us inconsequential. We must have something to offer them, and we must do it quickly. While they do not yet hold all the cards. While they still need what we have.”

He pointed at the crumpled German banknote. “You know how much people will give you for one of these? No, you wouldn't. These things are almost as good as gold.” There was very little of that in circulation. Much of the economy had reverted to barter, and though the National Army technically paid for its needs, the promissory notes they made out to their people would buy very little in the markets. By contrast, even a lowly German soldier's pay would buy – far more than it did back in Berlin, certainly. “It's even more if you can get your hands on real German money, not military currency. If we let this go on, we are going to be another Prussian province before the year is out.”

“Well, how do you propose we do that? We can hardly forbid the Germans to buy things, can we?” Pilsudski sounded desperate.

“We could, actually.” Dzerzhinski stroked his chin as though considering. “But not realistically. We do not want to, either. What we do want to do is make them use our money to do it. That is what we must do. It's quite simple, really: The Germans need troops, but above all, they need labour. Before long, as the country recovers, they will also need supplies, grain, milk, meat, cloth, industrial products. We must hasten to offer them this. The National Army courier service, the security service, and the army can provide these things. Print money, Josef. Print money, and use it to pay labourers. Let the Germans pay us in marks, use them to purchase what we need on the outside markets and meet the needs of our men. We can organise labour columns, clothe them from army slops and feed them on rations. The people need no more than that now. Later, when the country recovers, they can spend their money on whatever they want.”

“A currency!” The general waved dismissively. “What would make it better than the Confederate dollar? We have no gold in our bank.”

“We have power, Josef. We must not be afraid to use the control over the nation's resources for its good.” Feliks Dzerzhinski's eyes were burning as he laid out his scheme. “Let the army council pass a law limiting charitable food issues to mothers, children and the elderly. Let the able-bodied work. We will need every pair of hands before long. The Germans are already talking about re-gauging the entire railway network. We must clear the debris of battle, till the soil, restore the telegraph lines and build enough homes so our people will survive the winter. All of this can be paid for with German rations and German money if they pass through our hands. If they pass us by, they will only fatten sharp businessmen and idle landlords.”

Pilsudski listened, understanding dawning. It would make sense. The Army Council was the only authority in Poland that had outposts in most places, and thanks to Dzerzhinski's tireless efforts, they had a fairly good idea what their commanders were actually doing in their little fiefdoms. Using their system to recruit and direct labour units would be easier than for the Germans to set up their own system. And if the able-bodied were required to work, the recruitment pool would be deep enough. Certainly many would make for the border and better-paid employment in Germany, but that was none of their concern. They could capture the German currency coming into the country, and at the same time weaken the church that had managed so much of the flow of aid. He still could not see how their zloty could avoid disastrous inflation, and the Germans would capture most of the benefit of that. But it was a price worth paying if it helped keep the country in one piece.

“You are right.”, he finally said. “You are right. I'm getting used to that, almost. Let's try this. But we still need to deal with the people behind this attempt to split the Army Council.”

Dzerzhinski's eyes narrowed. He made a dismissive gesture. “Aristocrats. Reactionaries, Counterrevolutionary opportunistic lackeys of whatever power happens to hold the big whip. All they care about is keeping the little one firmly in their fat little paws. Let them not concern you overly much, Josef. If our scheme works, they can only look on impotently and rage at it.”
06 October 1906, Berlin

“Another two corps? What, do the Austrians think I shit soldiers?” Field Marshal von der Goltz glowered at the hapless liaison officer cringing in the corner of the staff conference room. There were good and bad times to make requests, but this was easily the worst.

“Sir, the Serbian campaign has stalled. They are in dire need of reinforcements to break through the defensive positions south of Belgrade, and cannot spare trained formations from the Galician front.” The major did not look entirely convinced by his arguments. The marshal's fist came down on the map table, ending that particular line of reasoning.

“Dammit! If Franz Joseph's boys can't lick a bunch of Balkan peasants out of gun range of the river, we aren't going to help save their asses this time! The Austrians got three Bavarian corps for Bohemia, first-line units they are using to sneak around the Russians' flank west of Przemysl, and we have the entire Vistula front covered with four Saxon landwehr corps. That is two armies we could well use in East Prussia. The answer is no. Phrase it diplomatically. Maybe you could make an offer of instructors.”

The man nodded timidly. Colonel Heye felt the need to add: “Maybe we could send them a general to run their campaign. By all accounts they aren't using our troops very well.”

Von der Goltz snapped a curt “Nonsense!” at the man. This had been a sore point from the first days. Austro-Hungarian officers often did not come up to the professional standards expected of their German counterparts, and some of the men in the Bavarian corps were not above letting them know. Staff meetings between Conrad von Hötzendorf and his nominally subordinate Germans were often tense affairs.

“Tell the Austrians we can't spare the men. If they don't believe me, let them do the maths.” Von der Goltz grunted angrily.

“Sir, I'm not sure they will believe that.” von Seeckt pointed out. “They shouldn't have access to the numbers.”

The OHL had kept a tight lid on casualty figures since August. Papers had stopped publishing lists, and relatives of dead and wounded were individually notified. They had even told journalists the reason they were not pressing the Russians harder in Samland and Masuren was lack of munitions – something that the Kriegswirtschaftskommission had taken care of admirably. In fact, it was lack of trained men. The front was eating troops at a terrifying rate. No matter what, the bleeding would simply not stop. Whenever you pushed at anything, the result was an endless stream of dead and wounded coming back.

“All right.”, the field marshal said. “Tell Hötzendorf that we can't spare him men. Tell him that the fighting in Prussia alone has cost us five hundred thousand. We have effectively lost our entire peacetime strength, in three and a half months! Tell him that. And if he can give us a solution, he can have my corps and my job.”

09 October 1906, Festung Peterwardein

Men, horses, carts, crates, barrels, bales and braying mules: Everything seemed to be streaming into Peterwardein in a chaotic flood that the men of the southern front command did their level best to channel and apportion to its destinations. Broken men and equipment flowed in the other direction, headed for the workshops and hospitals that would repair or recycle them. Colonel von Matyszak had not thought he would ever see a campaign of this magnitude. And they said this was a secondary theatre! He could see on the faces of the soldiers moving through town just how disconcerting the experience of being caught up in this maelstrom had to be. He, though, was expected to be its master – or at least, the master of a small part of it. And that was a Sisyphean task if he had ever seen one. Anyone who read the papers today understood the enormous demands that modern war made in terms of ammunition and fuel. What the colonel had not fully grasped was that this was true of everything he could possibly imagine.

Military cartography. If anyone had ever told him what kind of madhouse his quiet domain would become, he would have called him delusional. Matyszak was not a fighting man by temperament, given to the quiet pursuit of precision and the meticulous accumulation of factual data. So far, these qualities had served him well, but these days he felt that his hard-working men deserved a more aggressive, more influential and more assertive protector. He had never imagined that there would be a need to fight for pencils, paper or erasers. But ultimately, a cartography department without erasers would quickly be reduced to uselessness. Yesterday, his adjutant had raided the art supply closets of local schools after it was clear that no shop in town still sold any of these things. That would last for a while. But “a while” in this war always seemed to run out shorter than anyone expected. Telegrams to Vienna might help. Or not. And the way this war was being fought, everybody was clamouring for maps. He had men sitting two to a desk drawing and copying them.

Lost in his worries, he found himself walking amid a crowd of war volunteers, mostly fresh-faced youngsters. You saw more of them these days, too. The government had put out the call for men as soon as the war started, and after a mere three months of training, they were feeding them into the frontlines now. Here they were, dressed in their plain, shabby fatigues, looking bewildered. They had none of the quiet determination of Landwehr or Honved reservists, none of the professional hardness of regulars. Many of them must have come from their farms directly into the chaos of military life. Some could barely be eighteen – rumour had it that boys often lied about their age to enlist. It was a damned shame! The Germans refusing to help, sending these children to their deaths.

His eyes caught a flash of familiar movement; one of the men was making notes on a piece of paper. No, not notes. A drawing! A sketch of the fortress gate as seen from the railyard. The colonel looked over his shoulder for a pensive moment, critically appraising the speed and skill of the young draughtsman. Very young, he thought: maybe eighteen, maybe not. They could not have asked many questions. The technique was juvenile, uninspired, but he had an eye for detail. Almost obsessive exactitude of proportion and perspective. There was something useful there – too good to be used up for cannon fodder. He'd take this one. There were never enough good copyists around, and he was unwilling to burn up his men in 16-hour shifts if he could help it. Stepping cautiously, he walked around the stack of marching packs the soldier was leaning against. Looking up, the youth jumped to his feet and saluted as his eyes caught the insignia. Von Matyszak looked at him: lanky, bony, a long, narrow face just losing the last of its youthful chubbiness. He would have made a good 'starving misunderstood genius' in some romantic novel. But most likely, he was just hungry. They didn't feed them enough.

“I'm sorry, colonel.” he said, stumbling. “I didn't see you.”

“That's all right, soldier.” Matyszak calmed him. “I just happened to spot your drawing. That is nice work for a young man, very thorough. I could use someone who can draw.”

The young man's eyes lit up. “Sir?” he asked tentatively, his voice unsteady.

“It won't be frontline duty, mind.”, he said, trying to forestall any sudden attack of patriotic conscience. Young men's egos could be brittle. “But staff work is important. It's maps, mostly. Copying, updating, if you prove yourself, you can even be trained to draw them up. What do you think?”

“Yes, Sir. Of course! Anything I can do to help the war effort.” Pathetic gratitude crept into the voice. Matyszak smiled inwardly: Not every man who enlisted eagerly marched into fire with the same alacrity.

“Done, then. I'll speak to your commanding officer. What's your name?”

“Hitler, Sir. Private Adolf Hitler, second company, first battalion III Freiwilligenregiment.” Indeed, pathetically eager. He was clutching this appointment like a lifesaver. Well, motivation was important in a staff worker. Too many men slacked off once they were away from enemy fire, and Colonel von Matyszak would have none of that.

“Very well, Hitler. Come with me. Let's find your officer.”

09 October 1906, Altona

When he allowed himself to relax, his knees were still shaking. Major Redl had spent the last 24 hours in deepest terror, and though it looked as though he had managed to save his skin, he would probably take weeks to recover his past composure. And to think it had started so innocently!

Yesterday, he had lunched with a casual acquaintance, Captain von Schliten – a translator who produced Polish field orders and maps for the National Army. He had been a valuable contact before, having little concept of the importance of the information that crossed his desk. Today, he dropped a few inadvertent lines about villages on the upper Bug and Vistula and the way Mackensen was given everything he wanted by an adoring military command now. That meant the maps were destined for XVII Corps command. Redl had quickly made his excuses and left, hoping the shock did not show too readily. Just a week earlier, he had had documents on his desk intimating that XVII Corps would stay put in winter quarters. And that could mean only one thing: he was being used as a conduit for disinformation!

Writing a quick note to his handler Krugmüller, packing a bag with clothes, notes and money, and getting one of the last second-class tickets out of Berlin had happened in a fog of dizzying panic. He had tried to sleep on the train, of course, but his chances of relaxing were about the same as of growing wings and flying to safety. Even now, as he stepped into the cavernous neo-Romanesque hall of Altona's main train station, a first-class train ticket to Copenhagen in his wallet and the prospect of escape to neutral soil firmly in his sight, he found it hard to let down his guard. The poor-quality coffee he had downed with his undistinguished breakfast still burned in his throat. But there was the train, waiting. With enormous relief, he joined the passengers heading for the first-class carriages, safe under the roof from the dismal drizzle that soaked the second-class customers entering their compartments outside.

There was his compartment. Smiling, he nodded to the young man who opened the door for him, swinging the bag upwards as a hand closed around his wrist. He tried to spin around, but found himself hemmed in by two men who had walked up behind him. The youth who had opened the door now stood right in front of him, still smiling coldly.

“Major, you will need to come with us.”, he said quietly. “Please, do not try to do anything rash. Railway stations are dangerous places. Accidents happen.” Momentarily pulling his hand from his coat pocket, he gave Redl the briefest glimpse of a pistol.

With grim, quiet efficiency the four men walked through the station concourse. Throughout their journey from Altona back to Hamburg and onto the eastbound train for Danzig, his captor smiled, occasionally addressing Redl with inconsequential chatter. It was only when the door of the train compartment had closed behind them that the major dared speak.

“I assume you are from the German police?”, he volunteered.

Still that infuriating smile. “German police? No, Major Redl, though I do not doubt you would prefer that.” The young man now held the pistol pointed at him openly. “You will meet our superior soon enough, and I doubt you will be glad of it. Now, if you permit....”

One of the silent guards grasped Redl's arm. He felt a sting and a throbbing pain. As his consciousness began to dissolve, he heard the men exchange a few words in Polish.

12 October 1906, the Narev south of Pultusk

The water was cold. Shockingly cold, even after the early autumn drizzle that had slow-soaked the waiting men through much of the day. Chaim Weysbrot felt his stomach muscles involuntarily contract as the waves slapped against his middle. He cursed under his breath, hanging on to the rope he was slowly paying out to an unseen comrade ahead in the darkness. So, this was war.

His father had told him that if you fought any war, you had to be desperate, but if you went to fight anyone else's war, you had to be meshugge. Right now, Chaim felt inclined to agree. Why would a halfway sane Brooklyn boy pay good money for a steerage passage to Hamburg and a third-class ticket to the Polish border just so he could be pulling around pontoons up to his waist in freezing water and stinking muck? He could have that back home on the East River and get paid. As a bonus, you didn't have people shooting at you in New York, either. Well, most days you didn't. But he had to go running off to join the heroic Maccabee brigade the papers were full of.

Out in the haze ahead, the shape of a pontoon hove into sight. Chaim pulled hard, scrabbling for firm purchase in the muddy ground. If he had counted correctly, that made two more sections. The muffled clanging and muted German cursing ahead suggested that things were proceeding apace, if not smoothly. A pioneer korporal stuck out his hand and heaved Chaim up to the surface of the bridge. “Come up, kid! Make yourself useful, lay down the flooring.” Germans never seemed to change. Always busy, ordering people around. Always with the bristling moustaches and full of their own importance. But work kept you warm. Chaim balanced over to where a group of German and NA soldiers were fitting boards over the gap between the pontoons. A thump transmitted through the bridge told him that the final section was being put in place as he nailed down another plank. He found that working didn't keep you warm as much as it kept you less freezing. What would it be like when winter started in earnest?

A low cheer spread down the length of the pontoon chain. The sound of hooves on the decking reverberated impossibly loudly through the predawn twilight. Then, Private Weysbrod saw them, three abreast, mounted on their beautiful horses, proud as you please in their tall sheepskin caps and colourful coats: The National Army's second cavalry brigade. Tall, moustachioed men, sabres at their sides and carbines slung over their backs, each section leader carrying a lance with a red-and-white pennon. Back home, when his father had told him of a szlachciz, this was what he had imagined. Involuntarily, he stood straighter, looking up at the interminable line of passing horsemen. Next came the Germans, black-jacketed hussars in tall fur caps and Jäger in plain green on their small, tough horses bred for scouting. At the bridgehead, someone called out encouragement. “Get moving, boys! You have three days to get to the bridge!”

Mad Mackensen was over the Narev, and Grynszpan's crazies had helped build him the bridge! Well, that might end up something he would tell his grandchildren one day. If he got to have any.

14 October 1906, Mehlauken, northeast of Königsberg

“Seven metres down, your highness.” The voice of the colonel sounded strangely muffled between the walls of damp earth and planking. General Mikhail Romanov patted the coarse sacking and straw covering the benches that ran along the sides of the underground bunker. The engineer officers were proud of their inventiveness, but looking at the faces of the men who stood guard, the grand duke saw distaste and fear. He was not sure if he would be willing to spend any longer period of time down here himself.

“How many men fit in here?” he asked, gesturing with his hand to take in the low, stuffy chamber.

“Forty, your highness.”, the colonel explained.

Forty men, breathing, sweating, fidgeting. It would be a claustrophobic hell. And still, there looked to be no other way to safeguard their positions. That was the worst part. They had come in so proudly, attacking as they went, but now, the Memel command would count itself lucky if they could hold their front until winter froze it in place. And even if they built these things everywhere they could – the Lord knew it wasn't easy getting the men to do that – what were they to do in places where the water table didn't allow it? A look at the map suggested trouble. Samland was wet. Most of East Prussia was wet. You couldn't build trenches that deep here. Could they build them deep enough to withstand the kind of bombardment the Germans were throwing at them now?

“It can stand up to German artillery?” Mikhail felt the urge to get this tour over with quickly. His host smiled.

“Yes, your highness. We have used similar bunkers at the frontline, and they have withstood direct hits from the German's 21cm mortars.”

Mikhail nodded and abruptly turned to leave. As he hastened up the wooden steps that led to the trench, he felt his heartbeat sounding in his head. This was supposed to be war? What was the point? Would the build these lines from Angerapp to the coast and sit in them while the Germans shelled them? And then would the survivors shoot the attackers until they could in their turn go forward and be shot down? It made no sense, if both sides sought to minimise their casualties, it only meant both sides had to use more ammunition to kill the other. Stepping back into the light, he pulled the map from his coat pocket. There lay the trenches and bunkers, orderly and pretty, marked with numbers and flags. The Preobrazhenskoye regiment, a shadow of its proud self. The Putilovski, all but gone. The Pskov, cut in half in just one day. The Selenginsk regiment, a third of its men still with the colours. Hiding in holes might be the only thing these broken fighting forces were still good for. The general stifled a sob. Lord God, how he hated what he was doing.

15 October 1906, Berlin-Steglitz

Doctor Paul Hofmann cursed as he wiped away the spilled chemicals. He tended to get impatient much more quickly these days. It was easy to hate your job these days, when half your family asked why you weren't in uniform and the pretty girls looked at a civilian as though they had seen a louse. Oh, he could explain about the imperial orders, the automatic and mandatory deferments that covered research scientists along with machinists, engineers, miners, steelworkers, railwaymen and a host of other professions. He could even show them his papers, stamped with the three – THREE – vain attempts to volunteer for army service. But that would do nothing for the wounded pride and self-worth. He knew in his heart that he should not be here now. He should be at the front, treating the wounded, saving soldiers.

Carefully, he replaced the jar of compound 1410, moved the tray of prepared tumour cells onto his workbench, and began applying the material. The sharp smell of garlic assailed his nostrils. This stuff was no more pleasant than the last hundred-odd compounds they had used. Chuckling humourlessly, he wondered what his father would say now. He had been so proud to have his son working for Paul Ehrlich in the new cancer research institute. Doubtlessly, he had imagined more glamorous things than dissecting cancer-ridden rats and exposing tumours to a long list of poisonous substances. It was donkeywork. Cancer research in the middle of a war! At least the people in the infectious diseases wing were doing useful work that could save soldiers in the field.

Hofmann noticed the tingling stiffness a few minutes into the fifth preparat. Looking down, he tried to stretch his leg and recoiled at the sudden stab of pain. He rose and gingerly touched the spot where his trouser leg showed wetness. His eyes were tearing. Slowly, he walked to the window and opened it wide, sensing how short of breath he was becoming. The fresh air blasted his face, and he began to feel the pain in his mouth and nose, too. Something had gone wrong!

“Chemical spill!” he shouted to his seated colleagues, absorbed in their work. “Out! Clear the room!” The spot on his leg was throbbing now, and he felt his eyes swelling shut. A hand touched his arm as he stumbled, guiding him over to the shower where a welcome stream of cold water rushed over him. He peeled himself out of his soaked clothes, letting the water wash over his skin and through his mouth and nose. The pain began to subside.

The shock as he saw his leg nearly took Hofmann off his feet. Three lab assistants and Doctor Steinkopf were surrounding him, helping to hold him up. His skin was wrecked, blistered, seeping fluid. And the burning sensation was still there. Shivering, he told Steinkopf.

“Which compound was it?” the lab manager asked.

“Number 1410.”, Hofmann croaked. “chloroethyl sulfide”.

Steinkopf shook his head. Young researchers always were so damned cavalier about safety! “We'll try calcium hypochlorite first.” he said soothingly. “And you two, get stripped and check for burns!”

Hofmann struggled back to his feet. On the other side of the lab's glass door, rats were panicking in their cages. How much had he spilled? Not too much, he thought. But his right hand was raising angry red blisters where he had touched the cleaning rag. Water did nothing for this, apparently. He remembered something he had read about the Polish war and chlorine gas. Slowly, an idea began to form. Damn deferments and imperial commands, if he could make this work, he would have done a great service to the fatherland. As the pain began to take over his body, prostrate on the stretcher, an attendant treating the spreading wounds with white powder, he whispered to himself to commit the concept to memory. “Compound 1410. Bis-chlorethyl sulfide.”

18 October 1906, Kiel

“We cannot use them, then?” Albert did not sound surprised, just mildly annoyed. The engineer officer who had brought in the report breathed a silent sigh of relief.

“Certainly not Slava, Your Highness.” he explained. “In a way, it's a remarkable ship. If I had to come up with a design to demonstrate how not to build a battleship. I couldn't do much better.”

Admiral von Koester sighed. “And that was what we were terrified of, it seems. The mighty Borodino class... junk. What about Retvizan?”

“Retvizan is all right.”, the officer reported. “Very badly beaten up, but not a bad ship. We can refit her, if we want to, but it will take some time. And we are going to have to replace all the guns. The tubes are burned out, and we cannot use the captured ammunition.”

He forced his face to stay straight. It was still deeply shocking to a man of his sensibilities that the Russians should have fitted out their navy with such inferior tools. He could understand making economies, but Russia never economised on its fleet. They just bought poorly.

Albert looked across the table at Koester, Diederichs and Ingenohl. The young admiral had earned his seat – through luck as much as skill, Albert recognised. But officers needed luck. “So, what is it to be?” he asked.

Koester scratched his chin. “We need to concentrate on refitting our own ships. After that, we can think about the prizes. Under the current circumstances, even poor battleships might be better than none.”

Diederichs shook his head. “I can't see the value. We may keep Retvizan, but certainly not Slava. And the last thing we want is more battleships. But Your Highness, there was a suggestion of using them diplomatically?”

Albert puffed on his pipe and nodded. “Battleships, like other showy and expensive things, can make good gifts. But we have to be careful. Not everyone might feel ready to accept something so recently taken from the Russians. I say we refit Retvizan. What we do with her can remain open for now. How long on the other ships?”

The engineer shuffled his papers. “Sachsen is scheduled for refloating in two weeks. Mecklenburg will join Hessen and Baden off the Memel this week. Otto der Große and Wilhelm I will probably take somewhat longer, but inside of two months from now. The rest of the fleet is ready, barring paintjobs.”

Ingenohl sucked his teeth. “Just in time for the season to end. And we win a frozen sea of no utility.”

“Don't be so glum, Ingenohl!” Diederichs interjected. “We can still give the Russians a hard time for a good while, and next spring, they will learn to their cost what a strong enemy navy can do.”

“Indeed, gentlemen.” Albert looked around. “What can a strong enemy navy do? The plans I have seen are interesting, but what is your counsel?”

Koester looked grim. “Shell their ports, blockade their shipping. Sink any warship that ventures out. We should be able to dominate Libau, and next year, taking the Gulf of Finland will become a distinct possibility. Maybe even shell Kronstadt, like the British and French did in the Crimean War.”

Ingenohl shook his head. “With all due respect, Sir, I do not think the casualties we would take would be worth it. The Russians have already proven that they can handle mines well. I would hate to lose battleships trying to force a close blockade of Riga. We can already keep them bottle up in their ports and there is not going to be any appreciable Russian trade through the Baltic. So we should concentrate on overseas operations. A blow to free Ostafrika, or at least reinforce the Far East squadron so it can blockade Vladivostok. There are no more battleships in the Pacific province. We stand a chance.”

Albert listened, chewing on his pipe. He hated the idea of losing battleships for no purpose, but he hated the idea of letting a victory go unexploited even more. And they couldn't really spare that many cruisers. The Russian fleet had lost its big guns, but it still had more than enough of those damnable destroyers. Nothing short of a light cruiser reliably beat them, and they were already slipping out of Riga to bother merchant shipping again. Blohm & Voss had promised they would build ships to counter them, but the first wouldn't be finished before spring.

“What about the idea that Hipper forwarded.” he said. “Landing troops in the Aland islands? Opening a front in Finland could cause the Russians some headache.”

“Them and us.” Diederichs was insistent. “We would open up a supply line right past their ports. They could bleed us badly even with just torpedo boats. And if we miss a cruiser sortie, it will be a bloodbath among the transports. We would need to neutralise Riga and bottle up the Gulf. Landing on Ösel and Dagö would be unavoidable. I am not sure we would have the resources or trained troops. This is not an easy task.”

“Lettow-Vorbeck did it on Heligoland!”, Koester pointed out.

“But even the Alands would require far more men than that. The Seebattallion was just about enough to secure Heligoland. If the cruisers hadn't come to their aid, they might have lost just as easily. And the Russians will fight much harder for their own soil.” Ingenohl looked dispirited. “I would love to do this, but I don't think we can. Our navy is a defensive tool. We can't turn it around this quickly.”

“The Dutch may be able to lend us Marines. Their troops are good at that kind of thing.” Albert pointed out. “What about the other resources? Can we do it?”

Diederichs nodded cautiously. “We can muster the shipping and the sea power to secure them. But it will mean nothing to spare for overseas operations.”

Albert made a note. Well, so be it. He'd take the idea to Wilhelm. And maybe the Dutch would like a Russian battleship to play with? Retvizan could not be that bad. Either way, the fleet in Ostafrika wasn't going anywhere. The Dutch navy had already started shadowing it, and once their coal ran out, they would be vulnerable to torpedo attacks. They were an embarrassment, but not a problem.

20 October 1906, Goluchow, Province of Posen on the Russian border

The autumn winds were chasing grey clouds across the iron sky. Intermittent rain struck the panes of the great tower room windows overlooking the gardens, the immaculate lawns now dotted with the first brown leaves, flowers wilting. The year, Adam Prince Czartoryski knew, was coming to its end, and so was the fighting. Another year of war would follow as surely as spring followed winter, but soon enough, the fronts would freeze in place. Nobody could fight after November. That gave him time.

He placed a stack of letters in the top drawer of his Louis-quinze desk and locked it carefully before turning back to his visitor. Father Leczinski waited quietly, motionless, in his infuriatingly calm manner. If the man wasn't such a reliable ally, you could be afraid of him.

“So, Father, your news is most heartening. The support of His Holiness is invaluable to our cause.“

Leczinski raised his hand. “Support, your grace, is saying too much. We can assure you that the Holy See regards your efforts with favour and, in the event of their success, will be more than happy to provide its blessing. However, using the name and office of His Holiness in so overtly political a matter is out of the question.”

“Of course.” The prince nodded assent, Church politics were a delicate business. “But we are grateful enough for the succour you have given us. Opposition to Socialism, to democracy and liberalism are of the greatest assistance in our efforts.”

“Not to mention entirely in keeping with the view of His Holiness.”, the priest added quietly. “I have been charged in all discretion to provide you today with a copy of a document that will be sent to the bishops of the Polish Church in the coming week. It clarifies the uncompromising stance that the holy church must take in this matter. I hope your grace will be found in agreement with this.”

He handed over a few pages of foolscap paper, folded tightly, covered in frequently amended lines of Latin written in a clerkly, experienced hand. This must have been a working copy, the prince noted. Probably directly from the chancery of Pius X. Someone was going out of his way to help. He nodded gratefully.

“You may be assured of my gratitude and discretion, father. If there is anything I can do for you...”

Father Leczinski smiled mildly. “Your grace, what you are doing for the church and for Poland is by far the greatest service I can ask. I admit, I am myself greatly troubled of the association with France at this point, but of course I will defer to the superior wisdom of experienced political minds. Will you wish me to take messages to Paris on my return journey?”

“If you would, father? Your luggage should be safe.” Adam Czartoryski removed a small bundle of letters from a holder. “These are to various members of the exile government. Rest assured, they contain nothing incriminating, though their becoming public would be – embarrassing. I would ask you once more to assure, personally, your associates in Paris that a Christian government of Poland in the hands of the country's natural governing class would be a most willing and happy ally to the church's eldest daughter. We cannot allow Germany to dictate our future fate.”

The priest nodded gratefully. “I am gratified to hear this, your grace. Assuredly, history will vindicate your great courage in taking this stand.” He cleared his throat almost inaudibly. “Nonetheless, I must counsel caution. The current French government may well be willing to turn a blind eye to your activities, even support them. But it cannot be trusted to maintain its friendly stance. You must not become dependent on their generosity. Clemenceau is an enemy of the church and the nobility.”

21 October 1906, London

Suprisingly large and vocal crowds attended the opening today of the Zionist and Jewish Relief Conference held at London. The opening speeches by Walter Rothschild and distinguished German politician and industrialist Walter Krupp von Rathenau calling for an immediate and concerted action to aid Jews in the area of warfare between Germany and Russia financially as well as politically and militarily were met with both support and harsh criticism. As tumult filled the halls, men bearing placards outside chanted anti-Jewish slogans and called for the expulsion of all delegates from Britain. … It is to be expected that the pitch of passion that current political events have created in the Jewish question will continue to motivate lively exchanges both inside and outside the venue, and we can only advise readers wishing to travel through Central London undisturbed to avoid the immediate environs.

23 October 1906, Memel

“All of Masuren?” Grand Duke Mikhail was aghast. “How did we let this happen?”

General Ivanov unfolded the map. “Your Highness, we are still not sure, but it seems that a German column moved up the Narev to the railway crossing and overwhelmed the troops standing guard there. The German press is reporting that it was once again Mackensen. He had railway troops with him to reopen the line to Warsaw and they shipped up troops from the Kommandantur before we had the report of what was going on.”

Mikhail's lips tightened. “before we had the report...” he muttered darkly. It was always like that: Before they had the report, before they could react appropriately, before they could do anything! Fighting Germans turned out to be like struggling with angry hornets. You never knew where they would sting you next, and they were always gone when the counterblow fell. “Damn, why can't we do that kind of thing?”

“Your Highness...” General Ivanov broke off. The question had obviously been rhetorical. Both men knew the answer – logistics. The German victory on the Bug was predicated on being able to throw troops into a position once taken. A raid of this depth in itself was not that unusual. They had pulled off similar operations themselves. Cossacks had ranged as far as Elbing and Eylau in the first weeks of the war. They still regularly tried for German supply columns across the Narev and Vistula. But the Germans had not been content with taking the bridge and embarrassing the enemy, or even with blowing it up to delay operations by a few weeks. They had ridden hard, surprised the guards, and dug in. At that point, a textbook cavalry operation became a matter of moving troops into place faster than the other side. If the Russians had been able to mobilise enough of a force down the railway line from Bialystok, or down the river from Brest-Litovsk... but they hadn't. When the first scouting forays ascertained that the bridge had indeed fallen to the Germans, infantry and foot artillery was moving in. The first force had followed the raid up the river. By the time enough men had been assembled and instructed at Bialystok, the Germans had opened the railway line from Warsaw. For all he knew, the first trains had been set in motion before they even knew there would be someone waiting for them at the bridge. So when they had a brigade ready, the Germans had put in a division, and when a division would stand ready to march, the Germans would have moved in a corps. And you could understand all of that. It took a particular form of Russian soul for the supply officers in Bialystok to send out trains for three days without anyone bothering to inform them that the line that once connected them to Ivangorod now led straight into the jaws of the beast. Seven good trains with food, blankets, uniforms, ammunition, rifles, guns and the entire private library of General Nikolai Ruszky, the new garrison commander, complete with a year's supply of tobacco and Chinese tea. There were photos in the Berliner Illustrirte, apparently.

And that was that. Mikhail let his hand drop heavily on the map table. The red wedge that Mackensen had driven into their side pointed at Brest-Litovsk like a bloody dagger. And with this blow, their supply lines into western Masuren were cut. They would have to give up Allenstein, maybe even Johannisburg if that devil Mackensen was able to contest control of the upper Narev. If the Germans pushed hard, they could not hold Pultusk. They might lose Ostrolenka and the Pissa river. And that meant giving up Allenstein and half their gains in East Prussia. The Angerapp and Samland were defensible. Anything west and south – no more.

General Ivanov retraced the line that Mikhail had mentally drawn up. “They won't move against us immediately, Your Highness.” he said calmly.

“How do you know?” Mikhail growled, regretting it almost immediately. Ivanov had been his military mentor. Everything he knew about real war – which was little enough when you thought about it – he had learned from this avuncular, bearded gentleman. Ivanov merely smiled.

“The Germans are methodical. And they have to think of the Austrians. What they have done right now, very successfully, is cut off our central front supply corridor. Of course we see this in terms of a threat to the northern front, but I am convinced they view it as a prelude to an attack in the south. Ivangorod would give them the Vistula. It would harden their control of southwestern Poland, where we have still been raiding quite effectively, and give them a highway to move troops and supplies to the Galician front.“ His pipe stem landed hard on the fortress outlined in bright blue. “This is where they will attack, and soon. And it will cost them dearly. We have time yet to prepare, and we should.”

Mikhail scratched his chin. “It won't let us hold Masuren, no matter how much we try.” he protested.

“No.” Ivanov said. “But we can make it costly.”
24 October 1906, Tring

Resolved: That regardless of the position on the final location of a Jewish homeland, the Zionist movement recognises as worthy of its full approval and support the efforts of the Jewish people of Russia and Poland to achieve recognition as a people, independence in their political and juridical affairs, and the freedom to use their language and practice their faith. The Zionist movement supports unreservedly the creation of a Jewish homeland, ethnic enclave, or ethnic status in the territory of Russian Poland. Yes: 246, No: 125, Abstain: 112

“Well, that was a hard-fought battle. I hope it will make a difference after all.” Walther Krupp von Rathenau stretched his legs and lifted his glass. Emil Nordau returned his gesture across the room, resting in the generously upholstered armchair. They had done as much as they could. This, you could hope, would at least concentrate minds across the world on the plight of the Eastern Jews. There was, Rathenau thought, very much more that could be done.

27 October 1906, Kilimatinde

A merciless sun beating down on the parched landscape, blinding and fierce. Reddish dust settled on clothes and skin, gritted between the teeth and stuck to parched lips. And this was supposed to be autumn! Ensign Kirov waved at the native servant to bring up the parasol. At least the Germans had left them a decent supply of drinks and suitably trained domestics. Life in the tropics could be made bearable if you knew how, but the hangovers were bad. And this was the worst possible weather to be hungover in.

Passing the barracks gate, he gave a perfunctory salute to the red-faced guards that had replaced the German Askari. So far, they had seen very little of their putative enemy. The coastal towns had surrendered readily, leaving the Russian fleet in possession of considerable amounts of food and civilian goods, but sadly little coal and almost no cash. Moving inland was complicated by the fact that native porters were reluctant to accept payment in scrip or export goods, but in the end, they had managed to exchange sisal for cotton cloth with Sansibari traders and got their columns under way – until here. This was where the railway ended. The land beyond was where the Germans had run to, blowing up the bridges and tearing up the rails. Kirov and his men had laboured in the burning sun to restore the track at least to here, and many of them had fallen ill, now occupying cots in the generous hospital tent on the eastern edge of town, or shallow graves by the track. Africa was an unforgiving place.

A slow walking took him to the first guardpost, up by the railway line, without letting the throbbing in his temples get too bad. The corporal in charge saluted and reported no unusual events. A couple of natives had come in to sell things, including chombe beer, and it looked like the guards had taken a cut of the merchandise. Kirov walked on to the northern perimeter. You couldn't change soldiers.

A commotion by the guard tent set up on the roadside drew his attention. A native was scuffling with two Russian guardsmen – Siberian rifles, he thought – and jabbering in his native lingo. The ensign was careful not to quicken his pace too much. It did not become the dignity of a white officer, and you got so sweaty you had to change your uniform afterwards. Having everyone wear naval dress whites didn't help appreciably, though it had to be better than the fur caps the Siberians had boarded the ships with.

“All right,” he asked in as calm and authoritative a voice as he could muster, squinting to avoid the sun. “What's going on here?” The soldiers let go of the native, who rose to his feet with remarkable alacrity. He was a tall, black man wearing brass neckrings and a red loincloth. Kirov dimly recalled lectures on the local tribes. What would that make him, Ugogo? Agugu? Massai? He was not sure he recalled very much. Certainly, this man mattered. He had the bearing of someone used to being obeyed.

“The nigger pushed me!”, one of the guards complained loudly. Two others rushed in to confirm his story. Kirov nodded, gestured for silence, and waved for his interpreter. The man spoke German and a number of native dialects, which helped. Now all it took was for Seaman Kaltenborn to translate into Russian for the ensign. A clunky system, but you could make it work. The African interpreter spent a few moments exchanging words with the native, then explained that he and his sister had come to Kilimatinde to go to market, and that the Germans had never demanded tolls while the Russians apparently did. Kirov was annoyed. Fleecing the locals was not part of their orders. Not that he couldn't see the men's point. And the sister, carrying a heavy basket with metal objects, was certainly a sight to see. She did not quite match the general idea of a savage girl, bare breast and grass skirt, but the cloth she had wrapped herself in left little enough to the imagination. You could understand detaining her a bit, and maybe negotiating toll. The men had been lacking company for a long time.

A bugle sounded in the middle distance. Kirov blinked into the bright glare of the sun and turned to his interpreter. “Tell him he does not need to pay toll, but that he must never touch white men in anger. And if it happens again...”

A broad smile spread over the native's face and he rummaged through his sister's basket. Kirov waved away the offer of baksheesh. The clanging of wood and metal alerted him to the fact that the table in the guard tent had keeled over. One of the men had fallen – no surprise. The heat made his own head buzz. And the insects. It sounded like angry hornets passing overhead, he thought, distracted for another moment as he shook his head to order his thoughts. More black faces showed up outside the tent, from the grass beside the road. Tall, lean black men. Armed black men. Some wore khaki, but most were dressed in native wraps and held their rifles with the casual negligence he had become accustomed to from the local porters, You couldn't get the damn niggers to take pride in a job! The way they were toting those rifles ... Kirov shook his head again and turned back to the interpreter. “Who are they?” he asked, trying to make sense of the events unfolding before his eyes. The man whose bribe he had rejected rose back to his feet, pulling a revolver from the metalware basket. He wasn't supposed to have that, was he? Then, the first of the newcomers reached the guard tent and grabbed the rifle of a soldier. The man shouted in protest and looked to his officer for help. Damn, the headache! Kirov wondered how anyone managed to think clearly in this heat. His hand went for his sabre as he shouted an indignant command to stop. Hard, quick hands grabbed his wrist and disarmed him. One of the khaki-clad Africans stood in front of him, shouting something in German. His interpreter looked panicked. “He is asking for your surrender, Sir. They are ... German Askari. Apparently.”

Kirov nodded weakly. At least it would get him out of the heat. Gunfire crackled and blazed up the street he had come as armed men streamed past. The revolver-toting native moved over a chair so the ensign could sit. It was one hell of a way to fight war, Kirov thought as the reality of the situation dawned on him.

29 October 1906, Paris

“Czernowitz and Sniatyn. And now Kolomea.” Prime Minister Clemencau drew his finger across the latest headline screaming 'Russian Victory in Austria! Romanians Struggle to Hold. Advance to Kolomea'. He nodded to General Foch. “Maybe we have underestimated them? The opposition press is certainly impressed.”

The general sipped his tea and gently shook his head. “I wish this meant more, but in fact, it does not. Whatever victory they can gain against the Austrians are immaterial. And truth be told, these are not impressive victories.”

Clemenceau shot him a questioning glance. “The conservative papers think differently.”

“The conservative papers get their news through the Russkaya Pravda.” Foch snorted dismissively. “These Russian advances, you notice, all follow river lines. Even where they secured river crossings, they have not used the opportunity to move in deeper. Nobody with even the slightest understanding of the situation expected the Austrians to be able to hold their border against a concerted Russian attack in the first place, but to be honest, I am surprised they haven't gotten farther. The numbers favour them massively.”

Clemenceau toyed with his moustache. True, when you considered the Russians had thrown an estimated four million men at their enemies by now... “You have a point there. But still … how do you say this will develop? We are still refusing to join the war.”

“Good. Because the Russians are going to lose it.” Foch brought his cup down with a harsh click and straightened his back.

“I am glad to hear you think so, too.” the prime minister said. “This has been a war to teach prophets humility, though. Would you have foreseen the way it went?”

Foch shook his head and smiled at the turn of phrase. Teach prophets humility – indeed. He was sure the demigods of Berlin were every bit as shocked as the military minds of the etat major.

“No, Sir, I must admit, I have been caught on the wrong foot more than once by events. Have you looked at the work of Jean Bloch, though? He predicted much of what has come about very precisely.”

“Predicted? Interesting.” Clemenceau scribbled a note. “What about his take on defensive strength?”

That was Clemenceau's new big idea: Instead of having to rely on expensively trained regulars to break the German armies in headlong, dangerous offensives into heavily defended territory, the army could rely on technology and the patriotic resolve of its reserves to stop an attacker in his tracks.

“I think he overestimates it.” Foch explained cautiously. It wasn't that he did not dare contradict the prime minister, but he felt less and less sure this himself. Would he be willing to lead a regiment against the kind of trench they were building up in Prussia? “But we certainly will need to reassess our infantry tactics in view of what we are learning.”

Clemenceau nodded. “That is all good for us, then. And the casualties. Would you have thought it possible?”

Foch shook his head.

“The left-wing press is playing up the value of keeping us out of the war, of course. And to be honest,” Clemenceau was not above a measure of vanity, “I believe history will bear out my decision. France's position will be improved relative to Germany's both in her ability to mount an effective defense and in her demographic strength. While Germany loses treasure and men, we increase.”

Foch smiled quietly. Clemenceau could be mildly annoying, but he was right. And, sly bastard that he was, he had arranged for things to work out best for his country. Such a man could be forgiven his inordinate proclivity to praise his genius. “So all that remains for us is to avoid a direct involvement, and pray for a long war.”

“More than pray, general.”, Clemenceau said, smiling knowingly. “You may remain innocent of such matters, as a military man, but rest assured there are things the government can do to make matters uncomfortable for Germany. They may win, but they will find the taste of victory turn to ashes in their mouth.”

02 November 1906, Ivangorod, Gorshakov bastion

Soft and reasonably dry earth. Grigori Ivanov did not expect terribly much from life, and today, he hade already received a small gift from fate. He patted down the crumbling siding of the trench he had made his position in and spread a ground cloth over it. Resting on this would be far more comfortable than crouching in the mud while rain ran down your neck. He could not understand how much his comrades complained about the weather, the food, the beds and the trenches. As far as he was concerned, things were just fine. They weren't sleeping in the rain, it wasn't freezing yet, the food was plentiful and hot, and ever since the Germans had stopped and dug in opposite Ivangorod, they hadn't even had to march very far. You had it a lot worse where he came from.

Of course it helped that the officers were increasingly willing to leave him alone. Ivanov made a poor infantryman, but he was a good hunter, and those skills came in handy these days. With troops on both sides hiding in holes, a man who had the patience to wait out a target and the marksmanship to hit it was valuable. Grisha enjoyed being valuable. People left him alone. With a slight push of his shoulder into the soft dirt, he levered himself up into aiming position, the rifle resting on the side of a dirt mound he had thrown up as few days back. It did not look so new now. Across the field, German troops were moving in the trenches. His range only allowed him to pick at those in forward positions. Even if he carefully selected his ammunition – the bullets imported from Belgium were good, the ones from Tula arsenal better – at some point you just ended up relying on hope. He squinted over the iron sights to see if he had the target area covered. There were a few firing steps in the forward trench that German soldiers were not always careful to walk around, and on one place, a connecting trench was open to view from where he stood. They'd fix that tomorrow, but it would cost them first.

The Germans looked busy today, Grisha thought. More of them than usual showed their heads above the parapet. He was tempted to squeeze off a round or two, but decided to hold off. It was bad style, and more likely than not he wouldn't hit anyone. Some of them were bound to be clever buggers raising hats on sticks anyway. You picked your target by knowing where it would be found, not by randomly banging away at likely-looking things. From the way he could see infantrymen crowding into the forward positions, he expected a good bag. Maybe they would even try an assault? They couldn't be so stupid. But then, officers could be plenty stupid in Grisha's experience. If they started running at the Gorshakov, the troops in the forward trenches, the machine gun nests and the guns and riflemen on the walls would all have a clear field of fire. That wouldn't even be a challenge.

In the section of rearward trench he had spied out a few days ago, men and officers were shuttling back and forth. He wondered if he should try for an officer. At the range, hitting an individual person was iffy, but his line of sight was better than he had had in almost a week, and he decided he would give it a try. Gently, he withdrew a wad of chewing tobacco from his breast pocket and bit off a piece. You couldn't drink and hunt, and smoking could give you away, so Grisha took his pleasure where he could. Next, he pulled back the bolt and inserted the first clip into his rifle with delicate fingers. It was superstition more than anything, but just before shooting, Grisha didn't like to jolt around the weapon. He felt it worked better that way. A runner passed through the trench – just a moment too soon. A group of men was carelessly moving through the forward position, and someone else let fly from the Gorshakov. They were busy over there. Had been all week!

Now it was time. Grisha pushed the wad of tobacco into his cheek, sighted the rifle on the sweet spot and waited for the next German to show his face. A soldier in dark blue – a common soldier – appeared. Grisha sighed inwardly and refrained from pulling the trigger. He adjusted his position by a fraction of a centimetre and squinted. Just then, the sky tore in half and the world ended.

03 November 1906, Ivangorod

The blast of a 21cm mortar firing always felt like a physical blow inside the gun pit they used to protect themselves from counterbattery fire. Oberleutnant Bermann did not dare remove his hands from his ears until the pressure wave had passed over him completely. Some of his men were all but deaf already, no matter how much cottonwool or rolled-up rags they stuffed into their ears. Handling the kind of power they were dealing with came at a cost.

The loaders immediately moved forward to throw open the breech and manhandle in the next shell. The fortress-breaking monsters took four men to move them safely. The gun captain rechecked elevation and direction, cursed under his breath and ordered the men to readjust. Something was not going right, Bermann thought. But as long as they could fire, they would. The dark, brooding shape of the main fortress across the river was already shrouded in smoke and dust thrown up by the impacts of heavy artillery. Half a day's worth of concentrated fire had reduced the Gorshakov bastion to rubble, and now German flags were flying on the western bank of the Vistula. Well, figuratively, anyway. The area was in direct fire range of Russian rifles. He wouldn't willingly fly anything there.

With elevation corrected and the cartridge safely in place, Bermann checked the shot off his notes. That was the way they were fighting their guns now – like a game of battleships. B4, B5, B6, hit... Three more shots to be put into the southern gun emplacement, then switch fire to the centre again. Runners brought up new instructions from headquarters every now and then. He realised that the emperor wasn't paying him for thinking in the big league, but this felt almost too much like a cog in the machinery.

The next shot roared out, and while the lieutenant wasn't sure he heard it, he could clearly feel the groaning crackle of overtaxed wood under his feet. The bedding was giving way! Wasn't it just wonderful? After slaving for days getting the gun emplaced, they would have the opportunity to tear up the railway sleepers they had laid down in elaborate crisscross and do it all again. At least, until they were told to move forward one more. Maybe the underpinnings would hold out for another few shots, anyway. If they did, they could build the next one closer to the river.

The Oberleutnant was not given to deep philosophical thought, but the past few weeks had him wondering. The problem of this war seemed to be how to dislodge an enemy from field fortifications without suffering disproportionate casualties, and until yesterday, it had looked like they had provided the answer. Taking the Gorshakov by infantry assault, Port Arthur-style, would have bled entire divisions white and taken weeks. Blasting the defenders with heavy guns and then storming in while they were still in shock worked much better. They hadn't list a thousand men in the attack, and the Russians had had at least three times that many surrendering.. His colonel was already talking of a new kind of warfare, an artillery war. But as far as Bermann could see, they had spent almost two months getting their guns and ammunition into place, and firing off millions of marks in shells had ultimately gotten them control of one of the fortress's forward bastions. The river that the infantrymen so vocally complained about being in their way forward also protected them from Russian counterattack, which was good, because the defenses at the sharp end of the battle were quite pitiful compared with what they had just churned into bloody muck. If this was what it took to bash in one fortified position, how much would it take to batter their way all the way back into Russia? Oberleutnant Bermann wasn't sure there were enough shells in all of Germany.

06 November 1906, Berlin


Effective as of 1 December 1906, the states of the Empire will introduce rationing systems for a number of war-critical materials as well as basic foodstuffs in order to ensure the efficient use and just distribution of these resources. This system will affect the householders of Prussia in several respects.

1 Issue of ration books: Every person is issued an individual ration book through the authority they are registered at. Military personnel are issued ration books through their units, railway staff through their departments. Civilians will receive theirs from the civil administration. Each ration book is valid for one month and entitles the holder to purchase certain quantities of regulated articles. RATION BOOKS ARE NOT VOUCHERS. The articles purchased must be paid for.

For the period of December 1906, the following classifications of ration books will be issued:

Class 1 – regular consumer

Class 1a – expectant mother and mother of small children

Class 1b – sick and elderly

Class 2 – hard labourer

Class 2a – miner or steelworker

Class 2b – soldiers, police and firemen

Class 3a – child 0-4

Class 3b – child 5-10

Class 3c – child 11-16

Class 4 supplement A – commercial traveller

Class 4 supplement B – railway and transport worker

Class 4 supplement C – farm worker

Class 4 supplement D – itinerant artisan

Class 5 – head of household

Class 5a – farmer (head of household)

Class 5b – head of institution

Individuals issued wrong or incomplete ration books must report the matter to the responsible authorities.

2 Use of ration books. The following items will be subject to rationing on a per-capita basis:

Meat (beef, pork, mutton, veal, lamb)

Fish (all sea fish and preserved fish)

Bread and grain products (wheat, rye, oats, barley, buckwheat, rice)

Fats and oils


Milk and dairy products

Alcohol (domestically produced beer, wine, fruit wine, sparkling wine, distilled liquor)



Coffee and tea


The following items will be subject to rationing on a per-household basis:

Cloth and thread

Kerosene and gasoline


Paper and paper products (unprinted)

Leather goods

Other articles may be rationed as the exigencies of war require.

As of 1 December 1906, no rationed articles may be sold unless the sale is registered through an authorised retailer and the required ration coupon collected. Consumers may register with authorised retailers and deposit ration coupons in advance to ensure an adequate supply of critical goods at specific outlets. Registered customers will be served preferentially. Unrationed goods may be sold freely. ALL UNREGISTERED SALE OF RATIONED GOODS IS A CRIME.

Ration coupons must be used in all transactions. Retailers must sign or stamp the inner column of the ration book to confirm the sale and retain the coupon cut from the outer column to account for goods sold. Ration coupons unused at the end of the rationing period automatically become invalid. Exceptional permission to substitute rationed articles for others may be given as the need arises.

The controls of certain war-critical materials may mean that items of civilian use are unavailable to civilian buyers for the duration. Applications for exceptional purchase permits may be submitted to the Korpsbereich if there is an immediate and pressing need for such items. Extant stocks of controlled materials in private hands may be sold off. THE UNAUTHORISED SALE OF CONTROLLED MATERIALS ACQUIRED FROM THE WHOLESALE MARKET IS A CRIME.

3 Price controls: There are no price controls in force for the rationing period of December 1906. Where required, the Korpsbereichskommando may institute price controls on certain items throughout its area for all or part of a rationing period. These controls will apply to both private and commercial transactions.

The governments of the constituent states of the Empire may institute statewide price controls on certain items as and when required. These, too, will apply to both commercial and private transactions. ALL VIOLATION OF PRICE CONTROLS IS A CRIME.

(placard posted in post offices, railway stations, government buildings and retail outlets throughout Prussia)


Deposit your coupons with your cooperative store!

We assure:

-purchase of rationed goods in large quantities, at affordable prices

-resale at lowest markups

-strictest quality control throughout

-large stocks kept for guaranteed immediate availability

Do not feed the war profiteer: Strengthen your class!

(poster in shops of the Einkaufsgenossenschaft Produktion and affiliated outlets)
09 November 1906, Ivangorod citadel

You could smell the coming of winter over the harsh note of cordite smoke and the stench of mud, rubble and human flesh. General Nikolai Ruszky looked out over the citadel of Ivangorod and smiled. Despite appearances, things were going better for him than he had anticipated.

Around him, the citadel lay in ruins. Some walls remained standing, of course, but hardly anything above ground level had remained unmarked by the relentless bombardment. But after three ineffective assaults, the Germans had stopped. Despite everything, he had expected they would. German soldiers were expensive; you couldn't throw them away like that. And his own men were learning to hold out under their brutal fire much better than he had expected them to. Ivangorod had huge underground bunkers, and the fieldworks around it had added to their capacity. In theory, it was easy: you stayed down and waited until the shelling stopped, then you came out and shot whoever was near. In practice, not everyone had the discipline that took. Ruszky was proud of his men.

“Shelling's stopped again,.” he said in his gruff voice, making sure the men around could overhear. “If this goes on, we'll have more trouble from the roaches than the Prussians.” A suppressed chuckle told him that the word would pass around. Good! If he could teach the soldiers not to be afraid of the Germans, he could beat them. It all depended on – well, too many things for comfort, He needed to hold his last supply line open. The enemy was across the Vistula north and south, but not too close to his outer works. He was not yet under siege, just under attack, and though the rail links were cut, the Wieprz river remained in Russian hands. He needed to keep morale up and desertion down. He had to stop the lower levels of the citadel from flooding. And he had to make sure that no surprise attack broke into his defenses. The rest was up to the weather. Eventually, he figured the Germans were going to take Ivangorod., It was, all told, an old fortress and her guns not up to the demands of modern warfare. But he could not imagine they were having an easy time transporting the ammunition and supplies for their artillery here. Bringing in enough men for an assault would take time. If it took enough time... General Ruszky drew another deep breath. There was a frosty edge to the wind. If he held out until the snow fell, he could last the winter. Failing that, he would sell high. 65,000 men in the fortress, he figured, half of them truly battleworthy. It was a damned pity about the Siberian rifle regiment the Germans had overrun in the Gorshakov bastion. But still, 65,000, by now probably 55,000 left. Each of them could hold a rifle. Each of them might take two or three Germans with him going out. That would be 150,000 men – men the Kaiser couldn't afford to lose.

11 November 1906, Berlin

“Petitions.” Secretary von Ammersleben strategically placed a pile on the edge of the desk. His Majesty still was unable to deal with everything that needed attention, but he insisted on at least being given the opportunity. It was left to his staff to provide it in such a way as to ensure he did not take it. A nice, tightly packed pile of petitions, folded so as to show no handwriting or envelopes, would usually remain untouched. Today, von Ammersleben thought, was a good day. The emperor had not called for any morphine, and though his face looked strained, there was no evidence of pain. Going through the day without his injection was something to be encouraged. And then, just as he turned with silent efficiency to leave the room, his expensive shoes making no sound on the polished parquet floor, the secretary's sleeve brushed the leaning tower of paper and sent it spilling across the desk. Not such a good day after all. Wilhelm flashed him a quick smile.

“What's this?” he asked, picking up a picture that had slid out of one of the binders. It could hardly be called artistic – a simple black-and-white steel engraving of the emperor's face in semi-profile, just far enough turned to hide the ruin of his battered eyesocket. The elongated nose, bright eye and soft officer's cap left no doubt about the identity. Wilhelm unfolded the accompanying papers. “A lese-majeste case?” he remarked, slightly surprised. “I thought we weren't doing these any more?”

Von Ammersleben shrugged imperceptibly. “I will consult the petition office. Just a moment, Your Majesty.”, he said and disappeared with the dignified efficiency he wished he had been able to muster moments before. Wilhelm was already scanning the file. The picture was not artful, but it was flattering. Wilhelm looked out over a forbidding steppe at a host of horsemen looming over the horizon, an infantryman to his left, a worker to his right, with a sailor, a farmer and a young woman in an apron in the background, all looking in the same direction. He looked up at the official entering.

“The prosecutor really decided to call for prison time for this?”, he asked.

“Yes, Sire.” the man said, commendably quickly taking in which file the emperor had picked out. If you worked for Wilhelm, you learned to be efficient. “Itr was the matter of using Your Majesty's face that moved the decision. It was felt that the text implied Your Majesty was distant from the people prior to the war.”

Wilhelm mulled the idea. “'Dem Volke die Hand und dem Feinde die Stirn'”, he read aloud. “That's catchy. I rather like it, actually.” He thumbed the sheets. “A Social Democrat paper published this?”

“Der Wahre Jakob commissioned it, Sire.” the official explained. “But it was used as a poster. That is why the editor could not be charged.”

“Good thing, too. This nonsense ends now.” Wilhelm scribbled a note. “Imperial pardon. Also, see that this gets to the veterans' clubs. That's a good picture. We can use it.” After a moment's consideration, he added: “And note down the name of the prosecutor.”

He kept shuffling more petitions, occasionally firing off quick questions or instructions. “Captain von Freihardt.” he read out aloud with a note of surprise. “I heard that name before. Remind me....”

A moment's embarrassed silence followed before the official cleared his throat. “Your Majesty may recall him receiving the pour le merite for bravery recently....” he explained.

Recognition dawned. Yes, that had been quite a story. The emperor scanned the file. “And we are giving him a dishonourable discharge now, apparently. For … unnatural vices.”

The man from the petitions department squirmed visibly. “Your Majesty, I am sorry. We would not have submitted this to you at all, except that it is traditional for all petitions by soldiers to be forwarded.”

“He's a poofter, I take it?”

“Apparently, yes. He is a … homosexual. A pervert.”

Wilhelm sighed. They lost good people that way. He had liked Kuno von Moltke. Not that you couldn't see the point, but... von Freihardt spent quite some time explaining how he was careful never to involve fellow officers or soldiers in his perversion. He had a sense of responsibility, apparently. And brass balls the size of melons, if the reports from the Natangen front were true. They weren't giving away the pour le merite cheap. About half the recipients got it posthumously.

“I will talk to Field Marshal von der Goltz about this matter.” he said. And because it was late in the day and he found it irresistible to poke fun at the stiff formality of his officials, he rather unkindly added: “We really should not deprive ourselves of a man of this quality at this time, no matter where he likes to stick his dick.”

Von Ammersleben flinched.

13 November 1906, Warsaw

“Insanity!” Roman Dmovski stared at the assembled generals of the Army Council in uncomprehending fury. “This is insanity! You are selling Poland to foreign powers. Josef I cannot believe you would do such a thing. Even you!”

Pilsudski gasped. He had steeled himself for the confrontation, but he had hardly expected such ferocity. Damn, what was he supposed to do? Didn't people understand?

“Roman, this is going too far.” he tried to keep his voice level.

“So?” Dmovski bristled. “Will you have me arrested and questioned by your hangman Dzerzhinski? I'm sure he would find something to accuse me of.”

Pilsudski shook his head vehemently. “You know that we need him.”

“You need him. You and your red comrades. I'm sure the Germans are only too happy to have him, too. Poland – Poland needs her courage, her faith and her treasure.”

“Those cowardly clerics, Roman? They knew to shut up nicely when the Russians ran the show, but now you are only too happy to claim the victories we paid in our blood.” Pilsudski could not contain his rage any longer. “Our blood, Roman. I don't recall seeing many a priest in the trenches. I won't have my country freed from one aristocratic oppressor to hand it over to another. I will not!”

A derisive snort met his words. “So you'll hand it over to the Germans, will you? Give up the richest lands, abandon millions of Poles to oppression, and sell our youth into debt bondage? I won't go along with it.”

Pilsudski slammed his hand on the table, sending papers fluttering. “Well, then, your high-and-mightyship, enlighten us. What is your solution? The Germans are running the country, like it or not, and if you are thinking of trying to oppose that … if you really think you can … “ He did not finish. It was hardly necessary. Everyone in the room had encountered the German war machine, its relentless efficiency and peremptory demands. If you stood in the path of the Czar, he would crush you, or miss, but he'd crush someone. The Germans, though – they didn't miss. They weren't much for crushing, either. But you would be sorry if you crossed them. Sometimes they reminded him of that Jewish kid, Rabinovicz. Cold as fish, completely ready to do anything it took to get where they wanted to be.

Dmovski took a deep breath. He looked crestfallen. “You could at least have negotiated with the emperor, not the Kommandantur. We aren't tradesmen.”

Pilsudski sighed. “Do you honestly think he would have given us a better deal? At least we can haggle with the Kommandantur. We got more out of them than we thought we would, you know.”

“You mean when you aren't selling the country's railways...”

Brigadier General Kukiel interrupted, his high-pitched voice strangely out of place among the assembled warleaders. “We did not! The Germans even agreed to pay for the use of the lines.”

“After billing us for the materials for their repair.” Alexander Prystor pointed out archly. Nobody at the table liked the agreements that were being drawn up. “Not to mention paying our labourers in scrip. You know they can just keep printing as many of these Polenmark bills as they want, right?”

“No, they can't.“ Pilsudski was no economist, but he was getting tired of having to explain things again and again. “They will pay the Army Council for these services in Reichsmark. We're exchanging all military administration money for new zloty just as soon as they are printed, and that will end that sorry chapter. Look, I know it's not a profitable deal, but it will give us a currency. And we don't have the gold reserves or credit to doi it any other way.”

Dmovski shook his head. “A currency based on foreign paper, paid for with the labour of our people. What shall I tell my compatriots this is, if not slavery?”

“It's called a proletarian existence, Roman.” Pilsudski said. “But unlike real proletarians, Poland must sell her labour in order to retain her means of production. What do you think would happen if the Germans built up a railway network here? A war industry? Do you really think these assets would just be handed over to us after the war? This way, we keep our railways, our industry and land in our hands.”

“A proletarian country! What you propose is a colony, Josef!”

Pilsudski rose. “ What I propose, Roman, is giving desperate people work so they can eat. What I propose is giving us the wherewithal to win our liberty and determine our fate! You and I, we don't need to worry about such things, but people out there need to eat. If we cannot feed them, they will go work for the Germans, or anyone else who can. And then, we will be a colony!”

For a moment, the two men stared at each other. Then, Pilsudski dropped back into his chair heavily and sighed.

“I do wish I could get better terms. The Germans will pay us a subsidy in cash and kind for our army. They will pay for the use of our railways and ports, and civilian labour for their forces. And they will accept mark-denominated bonds in payment for war stocks and supplies. That is what I can get. We will live through the first year and grow our crops. Then, we can feed our people again from our own soil and can think of more development. But even if we have to pay off our debt to Germany for generations, it will for once be the debt of our nation, our own country. I will happily toil the rest of my life for that. What about you?”

Roman Dmovski grunted in frustration. That was the crux of it. Still, he was not quite ready to give up. “Granted, we may not get better, but we are mortgaging the future of Poland and giving away her ancestral lands without even asking the assent ofd the nation. You are ready to do it, yes, so am I, but what about our men? The mothers whose children we are selling into debt bondage?”

“The assent of the nation? Roman, please, what do you want us to do, elect a Parliament? We agreed that every fighting Pole has a voice in the Army Council. That has to be good enough.” A murmur of support rose from the seated officers. They did not like their legitimacy questioned.

“Maybe elections would not be the worst choice.” Dmovski said. “At least some kind of legitimacy for this decision. We were supposed to take a unified stance in the Council, but this – this is going too far, It's politics.”

“This is going too far?” Pilsudski raised his voice again. “What about the damned preaching against us? What about the clergy denying our families food and shelter? What about the landowners grabbing peasant plots while fathers and brothers are in the army?” The susurration of voices reached a higher pitch as arguments for and against were beginning to fly between the council members. “YOU started this!”

A sinking feeling spread through Pilsudski's stomach. That was not how it was supposed to work. They were a council of leaders, an assembly of warriors, not a schoolyard brawl. 'You started it'? Someone would run crying to Berlin to tell on him next.

Dmovski stood ramrod-straight. “Josef – General Pilsudski. You may not believe me, but I assure you I and my associates had nothing – nothing to do with this. Question my wisdom if you will, my honesty if you must, but do not question my loyalty.”

He turned and walked out before the answer could be given. In passing, he turned to Marian Kukiel to pointedly advise him: “If the general needs to speak to me, you know where my offices are. Maybe he can send you, or the secret police rightaway. I'll be waiting.”

Berlin, 20 November 1906

Professor Brückner was distinctly uncomfortable. The room was too hot, too dry, and too stuffy, and the audience quite – critical,. Not that he was unused to fielding critical questions, but you did not get to lecture the emperor every day.

“No, your Majesty. That is truly a misconception.” he gently corrected. “The Slavic peoples have less in common, if anything, than the Germanic or Romance speaking ones. Pan-Slavism is a Russian pipe dream. No serious politician in St Petersburg ever considered it more than an unwieldy ideal.”

Emperor Wilhelm III looked at him. The way he focused that one eye – the flickering energy in it, owed, the professor was told, to the stimulants he used to counteract the morphine, the relentless, searching look was almost physically disconcerting. Brückner felt that it truly did call to mind Oðinn. Naturally, the popular press insisted on calling him Wotan, but there you were. Journalists rarely were half as well educated as one might wish.

“The Russian press insists that the Slavic peoples of Austria are happy to be liberated. You'd say they are not?”

Alexander Brückner shook his head. “Some few may be, Your Majesty. It is not always easy living as a linguistic minority. Not all Poles or Danes in Germany are happy, either.” He paused briefly. “But in the main, what I see here is opportunism. Napoleon found Germans who spoke French and cheered the emperor, too. A Bohemian, Catholic Czech has more in common with his German neighbour than with an Orthodox Russian, and the likelihood is that he knows this. My opinion is that the Russians are gaining what support they have from promises of giving the conquered peoples their own states, at the expense of the German Austrians and Hungary.”

Wilhelm nodded slowly. “And what would you recommend we do about that, professor?” he asked.

Brückner recoiled slightly. Why did everyone always want political advice from him? The Polenpartei wanted him, the Zentrum had asked him to speak for them, and now the emperor wanted his opinion on a matter of policy. You couldn't say no to the emperor.

“Your Majesty, I am a philologist. The middle ages are more my field. But if you are looking for advice from me, I would counsel you to remember that the Slavic peoples of Central Europe, much though we tend to see them as a whole, are different, and are as proud of their identities as any European nations. Anyone who will talk to you of the Slavic bloc, a mass of Slavic peoples united in purpose or subject to a single leader, is ignorant of reality. Germans and Slavs are not racial enemies, and the Slavs are no more part of the Asiatic horde than the Finns or the Hungarians. The sooner more Germans realise that the peoples of Central Europe are proud European nations, the better.”

“And yet they don't really like us all that much, do they?” Wilhelm asked, more mischievously than doubtingly.

The professor shrugged and rubbed his aching eyes. “A yoke remains a yoke, Majesty. The Austrian one is bearable, and the Prussian has become lighter of late, but you cannot expect gratitude from those who walk under it. Still, I am sure most people recognise the Russian promises for the broken reed they are. You will certainly not find a Pole today who will willingly serve the Czar.”

“I would think not.” Wilhelm said, more to himself than anyone. His gave wandered into the middle distance, and for a few seconds, both men sat silent. The emperor finally spoke: “Professor, a Polish nation free from Russia would surely be glad of German protection. As would others, no doubt?”

Brückner nodded. “Of course, your Majesty. But it is not that simple. Central Europe is a conglomerate of languages and nations. Create a Poland large enough to encompass all Poles and you contain within it resentful captive peoples, Ukranians, Balts, Kashubians, Jews and, of course, Germans. Such a country might well rely on German protection to oppress its own subjects as fiercely as the Czar did them. Any effort to make Poles of them is liable to fail.”

“Might we, then, produce clear borders? If we do win this war as decisively as my generals tell me we can, we will need to do something about the Poles.” Wilhelm looked dubious now. The task of moving about so many millions of people seemed insurmountable.

“Perhaps, Majesty.” Brückner looked no more confident saying it. “Or there might be another way of squaring this circle. The Austrians had this idea of a federal state, comprised of different peoples. It may not be all that popular, but if the alternative is Russian servitude or homelessness, it may be what people choose.”

Wilhelm rubbed his temples and picked up a cigarette. “That,” he said, “is a fascinating idea, professor. I will need to give it due consideration, but all told, it is probably preferable to the trouble and expense of redrawing all boundaries.”

22 November 1906, Memel

It was a strange-looking thing, Grand Duke Mikhail Romanov thought. Ungainly, heavy and bulky, like a big metal bottle strapped to a stretcher. The officer who had built it seemed inordinately proud of his baby, but not a lot of what he was saying made all that much sense to the general.

“And this is deigned to break through field fortifications...” he said, “How do you get it close enough?”

The captain who accompanied the artillery detail handling it smiled happily. “Two men can carry it, Sir. And the range is almost fifty metres. They do not need to go very close at all.”

Mikhail swallowed. Projecting a stream of burning liquid over fifty metres – that would be nasty. He was not sure what to think of a war where it earned you respect and promotion to burn and bury men alive. It certainly wasn't like what he had learned during his training.

“And it will clear entrenchments? You have seen some of the fortifications we are building. The Germans dig even deeper in many places.”

“Don't worry, Sir. The tank contains almost forty litres of fuel. It just sucks the air right out of the bunkers. Rips out a man's lungs if it hits just right.”

Charming! Mikhail smiled sourly. The captain was the soul of cheerfulness as he ordered the men forward for a demonstration. Two riflemen gripped the handles of the stretcherlike contraption and lifted the machine of the ground, grunting. A young NCO trotted alongside, looking out sharply for imaginary enemy soldiers as the team closed on the stand of trees that represented a German machine gun entrenchment.

“Range!” bellowed the captain. The carriers knelt down with parade-ground precision. The NCO picked up the nozzle and barked an order. One of the carriers adjusted the valve.

“Fire!” Mikhail watched in rapt horror as a yellow stream of flame edged with black arced towards the trees. He could feel his testicles withdraw into his body as the blast of hot air washed over him. The trees were burning brightly, standing in a puddle of flaming gasoline.

“You see, Sir, the Hygropyron will allow our troops to break through the strongest field entrenchments. If we had only had those things at Mukden...” The captain beamed with pride and pleasure. Trotting smartly, the fire team returned with the now empty weapon.

“Indeed, captain.” the grand duke said queasily. “It seems quite a potent weapon. I congratulate you on your ingenuity.”

“Oh, no, Sir!” the inventor pointed out modestly. “This weapon was invented long ago by the Orthodox emperors of Constantinople. I merely adapted it for modern warfare. Hence the name, hygropyron is what the ancients called it. Liquid fire! We are also making a small version for one man to carry.”

He was rewarded with a sour nod. “Wonderful. I am sure the Germans will appreciate such antiquarian erudition.”

The captain laughed. But then, people always laughed at Mikhail's jokes. It came with being a grand duke.

Königsberg, 22 November 1906

As per your request, I will try my best to explain the situation, but must point out that the Germans, while freely allowing access to observers to all parts of the front, are quite guarded of the deliberations of their staff. I can thus only engage in a measure of informed speculation. My impression, then, is this: There is inside the German general staff a doctrinal disagreement, you might call it, between the proponents of speed and those of force.

The proponents of speed – among whom we may count young General Mackensen to whom the German public has taken a not unwarranted, but somewhat disconcerting infatuation – favour a strategy of fast movement and deep penetration that seeks to threaten the enemy's lines of communication and undercut his ability to respond to such strikes, forcing him to cede territory. The advocates of power, by contrast, are devotees of the Clausewitzian dogma of the schwerpunkt, believing the key to victory lies in inflicting defeat on the main force of the enemy and concentrate their efforts in a decisive battle. General von Schlieffen was a well-known believer in such ideas, and rumour has it that the new commander von der Goltz, too, shares this position. This constellation of forces may account for the situation being as it is.

In short, then, the intent of the German high command is to break the Russian army in the battle over East Prussia, a titanic struggle on a narrow front at which their superior logistical and technological capability can be used to the fullest. As my latest reports indicate, I can personally attest to the extent to which this power is deployed and the destructive force it has unleashed driving the Russian armies from Prussian soil. Its success, though, has been doubtful. It recalls the early stages of Port Arthur rather than the later ones of Mukden and Kharbin in both the savagery of the fighting and its sanguinary toll on men and horses. The German authorities have ceased publishing aggregate casualty lists, but I believe an estimation of half a million losses, dead, wounded and prisoner, is not out of place over these past six months. Every day, ambulance parties recover men with the most shocking of wounds, and I frequently marvel at the skill of German army doctors in saving the poor wretches. Whether their sacrifice was not in vain will remain for history to judge – as of now, I shudder to think what toll the concerted application of heavy artillery, machine guns and riflery may take on the Russians opposing.

Yet this tremendous effort here means, too, that Germany's armies are fighting a holding action in other theatres. Mackensen's latest masterstroke, cutting off the Army of the Narev and forcing the Russians to abandon large areas of Masuren, was realised with a force that would be counted as small even by the standards of the Civil War. The assault on Ivangorod that is now written about in the papers daily has drawn maybe a quarter the strength in men and guns that the Königsberg front receives. It is, not least as a result, doubtful whether it will succeed before winter begins in earnest.

I admit it is easy to feel drawn to the school of speed, men made in the mould of our general Sherman, but we must consider that there are good arguments for the schwerpunkt strategy, not least logistical ones. Gains of territory, great though they may appear on the map, against Russia are at best pinprick wounds, and an army overextended will be cut down on its forced retreat almost regardless of its size. Avoiding a Napoleonic fate is thus foremost in the minds of many German generals, and explains their caution in committing to long-range incursions on their enemy's weak flank.

Another aspect is that the resources available for this war are, however great they may be, limited. Germany is a rich country, but its coffers are not bottomless. The cost of the war to date has been estimated at over fifteen billion marks, which represents a multiple of the state's entire peacetime budget, and already represents a figure several times raised by the Reichstag to match the ever-increasing expenditure. Germany's industry is still switching its productive capacity over to the provision of warlike stores, so we must assume that such expenditure will not only be sustained, but increased in the coming months. One cannot help but wonder how such sums are to be procured. There have been war loans, additional taxes on champagne, liquor, tobacco and beer, and a daily effort to place as many bonds on the London market as may be sold. The confiscation of Russian assets now under management has been mooted, as has the folly of a universal income tax. What will come of these is still in doubt.

This, though, brings us to yet another point that must be weighed in the balance when considering Germany's war efforts: the function of the Reichstag and government. There is in this Empire – to the benefit of its fighting men – no such thing as a Committee on the Conduct of the War, and the authority of the parliamentary representatives is a strictly budgetary one. The legislative power of the Reichstag is abridged by the near-dictatorial (and much resented) power of the Korpsbereiche, but not abridged entirely. And so there is a daily effort to sound the limits of their influence, often couched in an effort to provide the most outrageously patriotic things in anticipation of what the army may soon require. Such expensive gestures are well appreciated, and may yet serve the Reichstag well. As to the influence on its position following the war, that remains to be seen. I despair of understanding the ins and outs of the German constitution.

(report from Major Peyton March, military oberver, US Army)

Berlin, 24 November 1906

The Imperial and Royal Court announces the engagement of His Majesty Wilhelm III, German Emperor, by the Grace of God King of Prussia, Markgrave of Brandenburg, Burggraf of Nürnberg, Count of Hohenzollern, Sovereign and Supreme Duke of Silesia and the County of Glatz, Grand duke of the Lower Rhine and Posen, Duke of Saxony, Westfalia and Engern, Pomerania, Lüneburg, Holstein and Schleswig, Magdeburg, Bremen, Geldern, Cleve, Jülich and Berg, and of the Wends and Kashubians, of Krossen, Lauenburg and Mecklenburg, Landgrave of Hesse and Thuringia, Markgrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia, Prince of Orange, Prince of Rügen, of East Frisia, Paderborn and Pyrmont, of Halberstadt, Münster, Minden, Osnabrück, Hildesheim, of Verden, Kammin, Fulda, Nassau and Mörs, princely Count of Henneberg, Count of the Mark and Ravensberg, Hohenstein, Tecklenburg and Lingen, Mansfeld, Sigmaringen and Veringen, Lord von Frankfurt, to Her Imperial and Royal Highness Archduchess Elisabeth Marie of Austria.

The date of the wedding is to be set in the near future.
28 November 1906, the Alle front, East Prussia

They didn't call the army the 'school of the nation' for nothing. You kept learning new and fascinating things in all kinds of fields. The Physics lesson for today, apparently, was that there was a precarious stage in the thermodynamics of muck where it could be frozen enough to practically hurt when you touched it, but still soft enough to cling to you and suck the boots off your feet. And muck, Korporal Lagarde found, was something you couldn't avoid in a stationary battle like this. Every infantryman up and down the front was an expert on the soil of East Prussia by now.

Of course there were two sides to everything. The good side to the front being stuck was that nobody demanded they do fifty-kilometre route marches or live off iron rations. Now that the war was hitting its stride, the army was beginning to manage organisational aspects properly, too. There was hot food and plenty of coffee for the men in the trenches, for one thing. Not great coffee, but it was hot, it kept you awake, and they had plenty of sugar to go with it. That, and it made you need to piss, which was awkward. Latrine pits were a little ways behind the lines, and going too often got you questioning looks from rear-echelon 'leadership'. One of Lagarde's soldiers had decided to relieve himself in a section of trench, which the corporal had come down on like a ton of bricks. Some men got out of the trenches to use trees or the lee side of hills, which was reasonably safe here, though if you were unlucky, a Russian sniper could pick you off. It was a quiet section of the front, compared with up in Samland, but they were still fighting a war.

This morning, Lagarde decided he would take the risk. It was nice and misty, an advantage if you weren't standing guard, and he didn't feel like trudging all the way back and explaining to some officious duty officer – there always was one - why he wasn't with his men. And there was a low hill behind their position which would shield him from any Russian who wanted to try his marksmanship. Saluting the sergeant, he quietly slipped away past men finishing up the last remnants of their breakfast and looking out into the foggy valley separating the two armies.

Hell's gates opened about the moment he was getting ready to close his trouser front. Lagarde had hit the ground before his conscious mind had processed what was going on, and to his dismay found that his finely honed soldier's instincts had located a conspicuously warm wet patch of earth. But at least he was alive and unhurt, which was a lot better than what some comrades had suffered in similar circumstances. When you got down to it, the worst part about dying with your trousers around your ankles wasn't the indignity so much as, well, the dying. From his position, he could see little more than a column of fire and greasy black smoke rising over the hill. Explosions and rifle fire erupted all around, but the punctuating boom of the field guns was conspicuously absent. It looked like the Russians had mounted a raid as a morning surprise – late, as usual. Efficient armies put on these things in the pre-dawn hours, not after breakfast. But bad enough.

Crawling, then crouching, he headed for the cover of the nearest trench. A soldier came running his way, screaming in mindless panic. Before he could stop him, a bullet laid him low, reminding the corporal to stay down. More shots and screams sounded over the hill, and then a harsh, rushing noise of quickly burning fire. Lagarde cursed, picked up the dead man's rifle and moved forward. The position he had just left had turned into a Dantean horror. He could see men burning, rolling on the ground and beating at the flames clinging to their clothing. Others were huddled in corners, two mindlessly firing over the parapet into the general direction of the Russians without even bothering to aim. Whatever had hit them, it was bad. And Lagarde had no idea what it was. Still, he had a job to do. Shouting at the top of his lungs, he dragged and kicked the three men nearest him into a fighting party. The fourth, hiding under a firing step, was despatched to the rear as a runner to call for reinforcements. There was no point trying to make him do anything else, Lagarde figured, and this way he'd be useful. They headed off to the side, away from where the fire had fallen, a pitiful band of warriors crouched in terrified anticipation of another blast of flaming death. The corporal kicked an improvised firing step into the side of the trench, levered himself up and looked out over the line.

The Russians were there. Still a distance away, green-coated figures moving in the thinning mist, they were firing at equally shadowy dark blue ones. They must have taken out the forward guardposts. And sitting in a depression just to the left of their machine gun emplacement was a - contraption. Lagarde could not make it out clearly.

“Get into firing position!”, he ordered his men. “But don't shoot unless you're attacked. I'm going to have a look at that thing. Must be the firethrowing weapon.” Then he pulled himself over the top.

Crawling on his stomach, he managed to move into a half-collapsed hole on the forward slope, less than thirty metres away from the device. Four Russian soldiers stood around it, shouting something incomprehensible in the direction of their comrades. The machine itself just sat on the ground, like a huge wine bottle on a sledge. Lagarde figured that this cylinder contained the fuel. They used it to spray burning petroleum at people! One hell of a way to fight a war. A tug at his leg almost made him spin around. It was Koepke, the Alsatian.

“Dammit, Hansi, what are you doing here?” he snapped.

“Sorry corporal.” he replied, looking genuinely intimidated. “We have three more men we picked up running away. I wanted to let you know. We can try taking back the emplacement.”

Lagarde looked at the smoke still rising from the burning timbers. The Madsen gun would be useless now. “I'm more interested in that thing. But get the others here now. We can flank the Russians.”

As Koepke crawled back, Lagarde wondered whether this really was a good idea. The bastards in green were good with hand grenades. Bunching in one place made you a tempting target. But you had to try something. As the men arrived, one by one, the corporal looked at the scene unfolding. Five Russians came trotting out of the mist, carrying what looked like big milk cans. Maybe they were reloading the infernal machine? Lagarde waved at his small command.

“Everyone, target one Russian. On my command, shoot, and keep shooting.” He raised his hand, then realised the gesture was pointless and dangerous, No matter now. “Fire!”

Shots rang out, and three Russian soldiers fell like puppets whose strings had been cut. The corporal picked up his own rifle and joined the shooting, aiming for one of the bearers. The man fell, liquid leaking out of the container he carried. Then, to Lagarde's horror, he burst into flame. His comrade behind him recoiled, but turned away too late. The fire caught him, racing up his jacket where some of the fuel had spilled. Moments later, he was a screaming human torch. Then both men dropped in quick succession. Koepke looked up at the corporal. “Sorry. Couldn't watch it any more.” he said.

“Good shooting.” Lagarde answered, dazed. It took effort to drag his gaze away from the spectacle around the fire throwing machine. Its crew was dead, the officer cut down before he could reach the mechanism he had seemingly tried to destroy. There were infantrymen heading their way now, though, Russian grenadiers with their telltale bulging haversacks and fur caps. The corporal pointed “Get the bastards! Take the machine!”

He fired two rounds, then found his magazine empty. No clips on him, of course – he commanded a Madsen gun. What use did he have for rifle bullets? Damn! But two of the Russians were down, and the third had taken cover, lobbing an ineffectual grenade in their general direction. Still, they had to get their hands on that machine. If the Russians managed to use it again, they could do very serious damage.

“Oh, shit on it.” Lagarde spat through gritted teeth. “Charge!”

It was against all instincts they had developed over the past weeks, but the men, to their credit, rose to their feet and rushed forward, following their leader. Panting and cursing, they reached the cover – imaginary though it was – of the Russian machine. “Koepke!”, Lagarde shouted, “Give me bullets!”

A clip changed hands. Lagarde stared at his subordinate angrily. “More!”

“I only have two more, corporal.” the rifleman said apologetically. Well, of course! It wasn't as though anyone had expected they'd be fighting. The men had their regular ammunition pouches, but those were never enough. Time to pray. Fortunately, the Russians they could see were still too preoccupied with the German defenders in the trenches to heed what was going on around their contraption. Only a small detail of infantrymen turned their way, and a few aimed shots convinced those to keep their distance out of grenade range. A kingdom for a Nogi mortar, Lagarde thought. Something to give the bastards hell.

The volume of fire rose. Lagarde looked up, carefully turning his head to check what was going on behind. Something was moving around their entrenchment. Muzzle flashes blazed in the trench section they had vacated. Then, they heard the deep pock-pock-pock of a heavy machine gun. An MG unit had taken position behind the crest of the hill. Reinforcements were here! And that, Lagarde realised, posed a whole new problem. He rummaged through his pockets. Something to show that they were German ... as a machine gun commander, he was issued a little signal flag he was supposed to use to coordinate with other gunners. It was a ridiculous idea, but he kept it in his pack, and his pack, of course, was back at the entrenchment. So much for that. He looked at his men hugging the dirt.

“Müller!” he yelled. The soldier crawled closer. “Do you still have that patriotic neckerchief?”

Rifleman Müller was a stolid, conservative Prussian who loved decking himself out in patriotic gewgaws. His mother had mailed him a printed neckerchief in the national colours, with the portrait of the Mackensen printed in the middle. Lagarde remembered it adorning the wall of temporary quarters a while ago. The big man unbuttoned his collar. “Sure, corporal.” he nodded, handing it over. Maybe 80 by 80 centimetres – it would do. Lagarde tied knots in two corners and stuck his bayonet through them.

“Hope this works.” he muttered and jumped to his feet, the rifle with fixed bayonet raised to the sky. “Don't shoot!”

A bullet spanged off the machine, raising sparks.

“Don't shoot, you idiots! We're Germans!”

No further bullets came his way. Then, a head appeared over the parapet of the trench, hesitantly. Some poor sod had been volunteered to check them out.

“Germans!” Lagarde bellowed. “Third Grenadiers!”

The head disappeared. For a few seconds, nothing happened, and the corporal felt increasingly vulnerable and silly holding aloft his improvised flag. Maybe if he started singing the Deutschlandlied, the clouds would part and Prussian eagles drive away the enemy, or something. Then, about twenty men emerged from the trench and ran over to his position. He dropped immediately. One of the new arrivals landed heavily beside him.

“Looks like we have them on the run.” he said. “Feldwebel Sierich is the name. What the devil is this?”

Lagarde grinned maniacally. “A Russian machine that spits fire. Except now, it's ours.”

29 November 1906, Berlin

“This cannot go unchallenged!” Hans von Schwerin-Löwitz, seated by the side of the great fireplace, snifter in hand, was all but shaking with rage. “It is an unbelievable impertinence, and in time of war. Unbelievable!”

“That, I'm afraid, is the point.” Oskar Hergt replied, smoothing the crumpled pages of the paper the politician had tossed on the low coffee table. His expertise in fiscal administration brought this generally apolitical man to the meetings of the Conservative Party's inner circle. The degree of paralysis he saw at times dismayed him. “This would never be possible in peacetime. Who would sign off on such a monstrosity? Graduated income taxes … They are wrapping this in the guise of patriotism. Who would risk voting against money for the war?”

Schwerin-Löwitz shook his head. He looked defeated. Men around the room stared at the bill with impotent rage. Indeed, who would dare vote against money for the war? True, the first and second war bond issues had been oversubscribed, and after the Battle of Rügen, German bonds also gained some ground on the London market, though the government had had to offer painfully high interest rates before. But no amount of bond issues could cover the 20 billion marks that had already gone. It was an all but unimaginable amount of money spent or pledged for the war effort, and still far from enough. Any proposal, almost, would be welcome. Conservative groups and churches collected donations of jewelry and precious metals, and Socialists ran shared bond drives, where people without enough cash to sign the bonds pooled their resources, buying coupons towards the real thing. Schoolchildren apparently loved the idea. And still, twenty billion marks was simply an impossible sum to collect that way. Before the war, Hergt would have dismissed the idea that it could be collected at all as pure fantasy.

“Nonsense!”. That was Hugenberg. An unwanted man, but you could hardly show him the door. Not if you wanted to stay electable. “I say that we can and should vote against this affront. If we go down quietly, the Reds have won. It's what they want, to show that the conservative side in this country is defenseless and cowed. We are the party of true patriotism, and we will let the people know.”

“Yes.” Hergt looked up, hisa voice dripping with quiet disdain. It was good not to have to face the electorate when you squared off with a man like Hugenberg. “That would only require an alternative plan to find the money. What is it?”.

Hugenberg snorted. “We can start with all the millions that leave the country to pay for unnecessary imports, and all the money that the producers pay to keep their worker from going footloose. And then, there are always the regular taxes. They have served us well in other wars.”

A mutter of agreement filled the room. Hergt rolled his eyes. “Thank you, Mr Hugenberg. I am sure the matter will be presented to the Kriegswirtschaftskommission in these terms, and I look forward to their verdict. In the meantime, I do not believe I am required here. You called on me for counsel. It appears there is little demand for that.”

02 December 1906, Kutno

Stefan Rubik's tavern was a good place for soldiers. On evenings like this, it provided everything you needed to fight off the main enemies: cold, wet, and boredom. The owner's connections ensured that there was always enough firewood to keep the place toasty, and enough liquor to warm you from the inside. If you felt like a diversion, there were card games, magazines, and even a billiards table liberated from a nearby Russian officers' club. And there were women, both the serving staff – who were off limits – and others, who, for money or patriotism, would keep a lonely man company. Along the walls were the tables, partitioned off with shoulder-high wooden walls, for the men who preferred – or needed – not to talk. Rubik himself or his bartender would serve them the liquor they needed. No point having the girls annoy them.

Rubik was out today, and later, people would say that that was how the whole thing got started. If the boss had been there, he would have put a lid on it quickly. But for someone not as entirely at home among the hubbub of voices, the suppressed laughter, droning conversation and noisy bragging, it was hard to spot trouble immediately. When the bartender did, it was really too late.

“A wonder of the world!”, the voice, deliberately raised to be understandable to neighbouring tables, cut through the background noise. “A fighting Jew! I've heard they exist, and what do you know, right there you've got one, pretty as you please. Ain't it glorious, chaps?”

A trio of soldiers – cavalry troopers from the look of their coats and boots - raised their glasses in mocking salute to a young man seated in one of the corner cubicles. He wore a sergeant's pips on his collar and the black coat and white-and-blue armband of the Jewish Brigade, and to everyone's knowledge he was a stranger, quietly determined to drink away the evening in the fashion of so many soldiers who had seen more than they cared to remember when they closed their eyes at night. His face was unlined, boyish, but of course that meant nothing. Some of the volunteers that had defended the Warsaw outworks looked as though they were fourteen. The cavalry troopers seemed to find his youthful looks amusing, though.

“Come on! Tell us a bit about your war exploits, eh? Before you have to go home. Wouldn't want to be late for school tomorrow.” one of them crowed. The band erupted in raucous laughter, joined by several bystanders. An older man stood up and gently laid his hand on the jokester's shoulder.

“Come on, leave the Yid alone. What do you want, a fight? We're all patriots here.”

He was brushed aside like a fly. “I'm just asking young . . . What's your name, Zhydki?”

The sergeant stared fixedly at the glass in front of him. “Samuel Garski.” he said quietly. “Sergeant Samuel Garski is my name.”

“Right!” Another bellowing burst of laughter followed. “I was asking young Sergeant Garski here to tell us how he came by those pips. Must have been right heroic.”

The grimace that accompanied the words drew more laughter. Garski said nothing, staring at the glass fixedly as though willing the rest of the world to simply disappear. His hands were visibly clenching. The leader of the cavalry troopers, now certain of an audience, rose and walked over to him.

“Tell us!”, he demanded. “Come on, don't be shy. You wouldn't believe the evil rumour that those Jewish NCOs get promoted through pulling strings, right?”

A murmur went through the crowd. A lot of National Army soldiers were unhappy at the sight of so many Jewish noncommissioned men instructing them lately. This kid, it seemed, was one of that number, sent here to teach the local garrison whatever it was – handling machine guns, or digging trenches, or understanding German orders. It rankled with quite a few. Garski still sat in silence.

“Yeah,” one of the other cavalrymen added, “if you don't tell us, all these good men here might think you got promoted sucking on the Germans' teat. What with your spanking new uniform and all.”

“The way he looks, more like sucking on the Germans' cock.” the first trooper ventured.

Garski finally reacted. He took a folded banknote from his coat pocket, laid it on the table and rose, looking fixedly past his tormentors. “I will be leaving. Thank you very much.” he said quietly between clenched teeth. The older man who had tried to stop the whole thing had positioned himself by the door, beckoning for him to go. The bartender picked up a hardwood cudgel and said in as calming a manner as he could muster: “Look now, we don't want any trouble here.”

A heavy hand landed on Sergeant Garski's shoulder. “We aren't making trouble. But the Zhydki owes us an answer. Tell us, boy, where...”

The crack of splintering teeth and bone was audible through the room as the bottle in the young Jew's hand connected with the cavalryman's face. Garski had spun on his heel with frightening speed and now stood facing the other two, slowly stepping backwards. His left gripped the bottle by the neck, the right buried in his coat pocket. Two men who approached to disarm him flinched and melted back into the crowd as they saw his face.

“I'll be leaving now.” he said, gritting his teeth. “I don't want to cause any trouble.”

The stricken trooper sat up, holding both hands to his face. Blood was running between his fingers, and his scream was inarticulate, almost animal-like. His comrades stared at him in stunned horror. Then, he found his voice.

“Ge' 'e fui'ing Jew!” he yelled. “My face! Kill 'im!”

The two sprang forward. The shout of the bartender was drowned out by a suddeen shuffling of feet and rumble of furniture and patrons sought to distance themselves from the erupting fight. A yatagan flashed in the hand of the first man.

“Drop that knife!” the bartender ordered, stuck ineffectually behind the bar, but his voice was drowned out. The deafening blast of a shot filled the low-ceilinged room, followed quickly by a second. The revolver in Karski's hand was rock-steady. On the ground, barely three metres from him, the cavalrymen had collapsed. The first was clutching his stomach, whimpering. The second stared at him in uncomprehending rage.

“Drop the knife!” Karski ordered him. He received no answer, Instead, the man launched himself at him, the yatagan still in his bloodied fist. The sergeant stepped back, aimed, and shot one more time. His assailant's head whipped sideways, then fell forward, hiding the ruin the bullet had caused. Stunned silence fell over everyone. Then, patrons began to scramble for the door. The bartender recovered his voice, shouting for someone to fetch the German patrol and a doctor. Garski clicked the safety of his gun back on.

“I was at Skiernewice.” he said tonelessly. “Fuck you, goyim.”

Wilhelmshaven, 04 December 1906

For amateurs, Captain Doorn thought, this was not bad showing. Most of the men got into the boats handily, and the distance to the beach was covered in good style. He had seen a few that were greener around the nose than he would have been comfortable with in the Corps Mariniers, but you had to apply different standards to landlubbers. As the launch approached the shore, he looked out over the landing zone with his telescope. One of the boats was struggling in the swell – not surprising, given the strength of the wind. The Germans had picked a punishing day for their exercise. Sailors working the oars with all their strength – the captain knew what that was like. A sharp intake of breath marked his surprise as he watched one of the soldiers try to rise to his feet. Was the man panicking, or did he genuinely think he could help? Others tried to bring him down, but the damage was done. The boat slewed sideways as a knot of men was lifted off their feet and fell between the rowers. Oars tangled. For one brief moment, the thing hung in the balance. A second boat turned, trying to come to their comrades' rescue, but the second wave already had them turned parallel to the surf. They were upended before the others could reach them.

“We'd better get them out.” Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck ordered grudgingly. Doorn was sure that, had it been entirely up to him, he would have considered the swim to the shore in icy water adequate punishment. But realistically, you couldn't leave a man in water of this temperature. Death could find you all too quickly here.

“Well, captain, what do you think.” the hero of Heligoland asked, his teeth still on edge.

“It's not bad, colonel.” Doorn tried to be diplomatic. “But if you hope to be ready for the Alands by spring, you will need to put in a good deal more practice.”

Sailors in white trousers and blue peajackets were dragging sodden, miserable dark-blue soldiers up the beach now. Maneuver referees handed out blankets and coffee. A lot more practice, the Dutch Marine thought. Try doing this while someone was shooting at you.
Lodz, 04 December 1906

Not many men found paperwork relaxing, but Lieutenant-Colonel Rabinovitz was one of the few to whom rendering an organisation comprehensible through the written word was a meditative experience. He enjoyed completing the request forms and signing off reports for the Jewish Brigade, and his excellent memory for detail made him the bane of soldiers who mislaid equipment or funds. Most days, when he was not in planning sessions or drilling the new recruits that kept coming in, he was at his desk. Not least, it made the Germans wonderfully easy to get along with if you knew the way their own organisation ticked. He had found that at least half of the edge the German army had over his troops came from the fact that every man not only could read, but had clear written instructions what to do in a given situation. That might or might not be a good idea on the battlefield – he was in two minds about that – but it was an enormous advantage when you tried to get things done. No wonder they kept poaching his men for NCO slots elsewhere in the National Army, too. Written rules were the thing in the German army, and you wouldn't find anyone with a better understanding of rules than a yeshivah student.

Smiling, he folded the latest strength report into the appropriate binder and headed into Brigadier Ferber's office. The numbers of their little army were swelling daily. If they managed to keep losses manageable – and the new security liaison officers did wonders for keeping men from drifting back into civilian life if they found soldiering didn't agree with them – they would be looking at a springtime strength of around 25,000 trained men. Certainly time to think about a promotion for Ferber. Calling it a brigade had seemed almost presumptuous when they had been fighting their first battles, though at the time, men who led a hundred fighters had styled themselves colonels and generals. By now, with the enthusiasm of the early revolution displaced by methodical organisation, a lot of these had been shrunk back to size. Getting a promotion rather than a demotion would be hard, but given what they brought to the table, worth trying. As a general, Ferber would have a seat on the Army Council and negotiate with the Warsaw Kommandantur directly. It would make many things easier.

Ferber was in his front office, seated at the round table with Rabbi Landauer and a junior officer – Captain Szuriem, Rabinovitz realised. Recently promoted, a brave fellow, not always thoughtful, but thorough. The three looked extraordinarily glum.

“What's happened?”, Rabinovitz asked. Military protocol was kept to a minimum among the brigade's officers, doubly so those who had been with the unit from the beginning. Landauer sighed, adjusted his spectacles and slid a telegram form across the desk.

“One of our men was in a barroom fight.” the rabbi explained. “He shot two goyim. They are holding him under arrest in Kutno.”

“Shot?” Rabinovitz's face darkened. “What idiot shoots our own soldiers. Not Germans, I hope?”

“Thank heavens, no. National Army cavalry.” Ferber replied. “Apparently, they were looking for a fight, and he obliged them. Killed one outright, put the other two in hospital. The second has since died.” The brigadier's face hovered uneasily between anger and stubborn pride. A Yid holding his own against three armed goyim – it would have been unheard of before the war. Of course it was pretty much unheard of still. A lot of people would be thinking unpleasant thoughts.

“Was he from your company?” Rabinovitz asked Szuriem.

“No.” The captain shook his head firmly. “He's no longer under our command. Samuel Garski, used to be with your regiment. He transferred to the staff of General Kamensky as an interpreter.”

Rabinovitz remembered him vaguely: Garski, a tough kid, quiet, but by all accounts a very effective fighter. If they had decorations for gallantry, Garski would have gotten one. He hadn't seemed the type to start a brawl, but then, that didn't matter. It only took one idiot to start one, and apparently there had been three in the picture here. Or maybe four.

“How did we get notified about that?” he asked. “He's not under our command any more, is he?”

Rabbi Landauer gave an eloquent shrug. “He's a Yid. You're a Yid. He's our problem.”

“Well, shit.” The telegram was terse, but at least General Kamensky had had the decency to allow the prisoner might not be entirely to blame. Clearly, he wanted to be rid of the whole embarrassment. “What do we do?”

Ferber cleared his throat. “It's Kamensky's call, and obviously he is passing it to us. I say we take it. If Garski is guilty, I want to see him hang. But I want our boys to do it. Yids hanging a Yid is justice. Goyim hanging a Yid – it doesn't sit well with me. And if he's innocent, no goy court would clear him.”

Landauer wagged his head. “It's dangerous, Shloimo. Will you really risk fighting for a single man? You can't rely on anyone supporting you.”

The brigadier made a rude noise. “I can't count on that anyway. Yes, it's worth it. We have to make a stand somewhere, just as we had to with the Russians.”

“So you're taking Garski here?” Rabinovitz asked.

“Yes.” Ferber turned to Szuriem. “Captain, I want you to take – twenty men should be enough. Go to Kutno and transfer the prisoner to our custody at Lodz. I'll give you some chitty for General Kamensky, and you sign whatever form you have to. We are going to give him a trial.”

The captain saluted smartly. Landauer smiled a grim, determined smile.

07 December 1906, Ivangorod

Fresh air – if you could call it fresh – was a rare pleasure for the men defending the fortress. General Ruszky knew that he was indulging himself as he climbed up on the rampart overlooking the river to breathe free from the stench of unwashed humanity, coal fires and cordite smoke. The landscape around, as far as the eye could see, had been transformed into a nightmare vision worthy of Hieronymus Bosch, a battlefield of giants. A few tree stumps and remnants of walls remained, bare and blackened, between the trenches, craters and mounds, the improvised artillery emplacements and fresh graves. Fresh snow blanketed the wounds they had torn into the earth, its smooth white softness mercifully hiding the dirt and misery. Between the flakes falling ever more thickly, peace reigned. Even the German artillerymen had ceased firing for the moment. Ruszky knew well enough what it was like out in the gun pits, manhandling huge, frost-slick shells and charge baskets brittle with cold, numbed fingers slipping and painfully banging against the gun's stubborn bulk, the feeling in the hands gone, but a moment's inattention away from severed fingers and broken bones. He understood why they might not feel like keeping up the fire, even if the heroic efforts of the train troops could keep them in shells.

The harsh crack of an explosion shattered the quiet. Snow fountained up between the earthworks, marring the smooth white surface with clods of upturned earth and smoke. A Russian gun, from the sound and direction, one of the 76mm field pieces mounted in the outer defenses. Ruszky had half a mind to reprimand the men, but what was the point? It could not have lasted. The general picked up his field glasses and looked out over the siegeworks stretching all around. They had not had any messages or supplies for four days now – no doubt the Germans had cut off the river. He would have done the same. Behind him, footsteps sounded on the stairs, crunching softly on the new snow. His adjutant.

“Sir, you should come down. The Germans have snipers.”

Ruszky nodded, allowing himself one more deep breath of the crisp. Frosty air. It was positively crackling, as though saturated with tiny ice crystals. Another blast, and this time, a reply, the chattering of a machine gun. A pointless gesture. Still, the general followed the frantic gestures of his minder.

“I'm coming, Ivan.” he muttered. “Don't worry. You're not losing me today. Not that it would matter much now.”

The captain looked at him questioningly.

“The snows are here. It does not matter now how long the Germans still take to reduce this fortress. They won't go a mile further.”

A smile spread over his deeply lined face. General Janvier had come to their relief.

10 December 1906, Munich


105 grammes (6 Loth) of almonds are grated finely, with a little water. Then, 105 grammes (6 Loth) of butter are beaten with 6 Loth of sugar, and 6 egg yolks added gradually. You then fold in the almonds and 6 egg whites, beaten stiff, and finally 35 grammes (2 Loth) of flour and 35 grammes (2 Loth) of grated white bread. During this time, you melt 35 grammes (2 loth) of cocoa in a warm oven. Divide the dough into two parts and stir the cocoa into one half. Them you put two 15 cm (6 Zoll) metal rings on good waxed paper, fill each with half the dough, and bake the torte very slowly. It is very important that this dough is well stirred before the egg whites are folded in.

When the torte is done, first trim the top of the dark part smoothly and sprinkle it with Maraschino. Then, trim the white part and place it on top. Cover the top of the tarte with a round of 105 grammes (6 Loth) of almond marchpane, dyed with cochineal and rolled out thinly. Then make a frosting of 2 egg whites, 140 grammes of melted chocolate, and powdered sugar and, using a decorating bag, cover the sides of the cake in small, tight curls like a lamb's fur. You may add a small death's head made of water marchpane or sugar paste if you wish.

(C. Krackhardt's Conditorei-Receptensammlung, Supplement 1906)

11 December 1906, Mogilev

Someone like Valentina Grishina was not made to be happy. It was not just something she suspected, she knew, and so did everybody else. It was as near to a universal truth as you could come: Peasants were not put in this world to be happy. Peasant women were doubly unlikely to be. And the daughters of peasant fathers and peasant women were surely destined to labour and suffer the blows and whims of their elders until they, in turn, would become peasant women, raise children and work their fingers to the bone. That was the way of the world as she knew it. And yet, in defiance of all these things, Valentina Grishina was happy.

Admittedly, her standards were not high. Ever since she had left her home, she had not been burdened with excessive expectations of her future life. She had been determined not to stay with her uncle now that her brother and father were in the army and no longer had their eyes on him. With her aunt dead, he had been troublesome enough even while they were around. Beyond that, she had hoped that there would be work to be had in the factories. With that hope, an extra pair of straw boots and her few belongings in a bundle, she had made it here, fending off the attentions of fellow travellers and the blandishments of handsome strangers promising her the moon. The naivety of bourgeois teenage girls was a nonsurvival trait in her world, and she understood well enough that what they wanted was a youthful charm that would be gone in a few short years. Even had she wanted it, a career as a whore would not have held any great prospects. Country girls used up fast.

All of that explained why she had initially rebuffed the enquiries of Father Feodor when he had approached her. It was only natural – she would hardly trust another man asking if she needed anything. Being a priest didn't change things. She knew enough about priests not to want to be alone with one if she could help it. But something had made her wonder, and when he had come back to the third-class waiting room to distribute tea and bread, she had mustered the courage to strike up a conversation. No, she really had nowhere to go to, and yes, she was looking for work. It was a common enough story these days. And that was how she had found herself here.

It was a strange thing, Valentina thought: She had always known that it was not the amount of work she was expected to do that hurt her. It was the people she had to do it for. Her father had been all right, just occasionally demanding, sometimes rough. Her uncle – that had been a trial to test a saint. But Father Feodor and his staff were amazing. Valentina was used to the gruelling schedule of the peasant village. Rising early came naturally to her; following rules less so, but she knew how to rub along. And if you explained to her why you wanted her to do something, she was quite happy to do it. On the whole, she found that explaining had featured too little in her past life. Feodor's people believed in explanations. Resting on her cot, she smiled contentedly. Today had been good to her. Cooking tea and breakfast kasha, washing dishes and packing up sandwiches was hardly a hardship. She loved the modern kitchen they did it in. The afternoon shift sewing and fixing uniforms for the men was equally unchallenging: She knew how to mend clothes so they would last, and the needles and twine they had here were good, better than what villagers were used to buying. And there was the reading. Those who could read would take turns reading to the rest from the collection of books and magazines that Feodor regularly replenished. That was why they kept the sewing machines in the other room – the noise would interfere. But she had been promised she would learn to operate one of those, too. You had to have your letters properly before you could, though. Right now, it was spending her midday break over her reading exercises. She had progressed well enough that she could now read newspapers and books with something like ease. If this was not happiness, it would do until she could figure out what the real thing was.

The bell called to evening prayer. Valentina rose together with the other girls in her dormitory. She still had the peasant clothes she had come in, but her pressed, starched white apron with the metal badge on it made a visible sign of her new status. She belonged. The care and pride she dedicated to tying the apron strings and smoothing the cloth reflected that sense of community she had discovered here. Careful not to rush or giggle too much, the girls headed for assembly, seating themselves on the bare wooden benches in the unadorned, whitewashed room. Gaslights illuminated the faces of the crowd as Father Feodor entered, dressed in his black robe. Valentina looked at him again and marvelled that she had ever felt afraid of him. His long, black hair, parted in the middle in proper Russian fashion, and the carefully combed, luxuriant beard were quite handsome. She caught his eye for a moment and exchanged a smile, his brown eyes lighting up. Surely, he was younger than she had thought at first. He could not be much over thirty. The Patriotic Union badge on his collar, matching that on her apron, shone in the bright glare of the blue gas jets. Valentina Grishina felt a rush of excitement at her new life full of purpose, unexpected prospects and possibilities. He had talked to her about factory work, once she had learned to handle sewing machines, about the possibility to learn nursing, care for wounded soldiers and return to the villages as a teacher after the war. It was, he had said, a hard and demanding life, but one in which she could do much for Russia. And now, with a hundred voices joined in prayer for the victory of the motherland, led by Father Feodor's fine baritone, she knew that this was what she wanted. This was what had been missing from her existence. She would learn her numbers and master the sewing machine, and she would learn to use all the other machines they used at their Union post, read the books and study hard to be a nurse and a teacher. This was what her country needed her to do. A life of hard work did not scare her when she could have respect and purpose, and live it in the company of such people. In spite of all expectations, in the face of all probability and for the first time in as long as she could properly remember, Valentina Grishina was happy.

13 December 1906, south of Przemysl

An army of a million men. It was the kind of thing you wrote easily, but to imagine what it actually looked like taxed the imagination of most men. Colonel Andrashko still found it hard to encompass in his mind's eye the endless columns of men that were moving towards the enemy now in unison with his, dark serpents tracing their way through the white snow of country roads that had seen hardly any use since the invasion. He had been there for the fall of Przemysl, and had seen it transformed into an enormous depot of warlike stores and crossroads of what seemed the entire Russian Empire under arms. Grey railway troops and greatcoated European line troops, Siberian rifles with their towering fur hats, Union volunteers in green jackets and felt caps, cossacks on nimble mounts and cuirassiers on broad-chested steeds, Caucasians with their silver-plated daggers, slant-eyed Tartars wielding wicked-looking sabres and stolid peasant boys uncomplainingly trudging the mile-eating pace of Russian infantry in their straw-lined boots. Here was the push – the big push that would force Austria out of the war and ensure the Russian victory. Andrashko looked out over his own regiment's drawn-out column and shivered in the bitterly cold wind. It made sense. The Austrians were preoccupied fighting on the Serbian and Romanian front. The Germans were focused in the north. Neither enemy could match the Russians' expertise at winter warfare. A single thrust, carefully prepared, would cut the railway line and take them up the San and across the mountains to the southern flanks where the winter was gentler, and down into the rolling Hungarian plains where their cavalry would play havoc with the enemy's supply lines. As much as threatening to approach Budapest might be enough to tear apart the creaking structure of the monarchy and end the war. Andrashko would have felt safer in his convictions if he had not heard this before. The fall of Przemysl would end the war. Cutting off the Danube mouth would. The naval victory in the Baltic would. Ever since the thrust into West Prussia had failed to develop, Andrashko felt that the generals in Moscow were falling over their feet coming up with schemes that were supposed to ensure an ever more elusive victory. He was a sapper by trade, with an engineer’s eye for figures and a keen understanding that hard numbers were not negotiable. Yes, they had superior force, perhaps even the million that the papers wrote about (though he would be surprised if any of the regiments now marching into battle were close to their establishment strength). They had their rifles and bullets, guns and shells, boots, blankets, coats, ration tins and regulation cookpots. But at some point, all of these things would wear out. Winter warfare was hard on men and materiel. You always needed twice what you had estimated and rarely covered half the ground you had planned. If the weather turned at the wrong time, it wouldn't take a single enemy soldier to lose you half a regiment. At some point, all those carefully assembled stores would run out. By that time, he knew, they had to be across the mountains. They had to have another railway line to provision them. No commissariat in the world could keep them in equipment and food through the thinning, fragile web of road and rail that ran from Ukraine west to Galicia. If Andrashko had been a betting man, he would have eagerly calculated the odds to give. Had he been a more faithful man, he would have prayed. Practical as he was, he limited himself to the bleak mathematical exercise of calculating the number of days their supplies would take them. So-and-so many kilometres to the railway in Sanok, so many days' marching to the Tisza, and so-and-so many to Tokay, so much bread for each supply wagon, so many days each trip, so many tonnes of grain in their stores... A month, give or take, would see them in the passes, eight weeks in Hungary, or starving. The men were passing vodka flasks from hand to hand and singing, their breath steaming in the cold air. Was this how Napoleon's men had felt in the spring of 1812?

14 December 1906, Cologne

Among the clinking of silverware and gentle music, conversation could safely drift. Alfred Hugenberg enjoyed meeting his allies in the civilised atmosphere of fine restaurants. It allowed for a less constrained coming and going, and the accompaniment of fine foods provided comfort and enjoyment beyond the scope of the business at hand. Notwithstanding which, he was here for business today.

“The majority of Germans today, Mr von Trenck,” he explained to his guest, “are dangerously naïve in matters of race, or world politics. We are a well-meaning people, not disposed to hate as much or as fervently as we should, and our enemies may use that kindness to their advantage.”

Von Trenck, a Reichstag member and erstwhile supporter of the Christian Social Association, nodded assent. “Indeed, Mr Hugenberg, You are quite right. And you and Mr Claß hope to – educate them?”

“We do. Sadly, we have come late to this point. The poison of the Ullstein press runs deep in the veins of our nation's body. But there is yet hope. Mr Claß remains as the head of the Alldeutscher Verein as well as acting as the chairman of the Patria Verlagsgruppe, in which capacity he will be well placed to spread the word.” The doyen nodded to his colleague, raising his glass in salute. “Mr Kirdorf has assembled a number of financial backers for the Mutuum Bank, which will fund both the Patria and a number of other newspapers and magazines. In these dark times, it is of particular use to us to have access to funds, hard money that can be used to purchase the wherewithal to fight this war for the hearts and minds of our people.”

That much was true. Many local papers had been struggling before the war, and were doing even worse now, with competition for skilled labour so high and paper already being rationed. You could bring in supplies from abroad if you could pay in gold, as Ullstein's empire and Rathenau's Jews could. Having that kind of support on your own side helped.

“What I consider much more important, though,” Hugenberg continued, sipping the fine white fine that the Herrengarten served, “is access to the writings and art of our movement's minds. We can make these things available. You know how hard it has been for a small paper to pay for a steel engraving or photoreproduction. We have those. That is what will make our voice heard. A good picture, a poem to stir the heart, can be worth more than thousands of plodding articles.”

“And you would deploy these instruments in support of your own candidates?” von Trenck asked cautiously. High-minded intent was all fine and good, but in terms of politics, the power that Hugenberg was building looked frightening. Ullstein might be a Jewish democrat, but he was a businessman. Hugenberg was as bloody-minded as Rathenau, and a damned sight more focused.

“Mr von Trenck,” Hugenberg sounded almost offended. “there can be no talk of parties when the future of Germany is at stake. We will stand for what we believe in, and we will support those that share our beliefs. And it is our firm conviction – indeed, my fond hope – that the good men of the Christian Social movement, who have done so much to defend our people from foreign parasites and weakening influences – will embrace that support and consider our own positions on matters of foreign policy.”

Claß looked von Trenck in the eyes and spoke firmly, with a fierce passion lighting his face: “Germany is fighting a war for its future, and for the future of Europe. The question at issue is nothing less than the fate of the continent: Will it be ruled by the Slavic element, or the Germanic genius? The Russians understand this, but too many Germans do not. They think of this as a traditional conflict of nation states. To change this, and soon, is our first mission. The more thoroughly the people understand that we are fighting the Slav today as much as we have for many centuries, the greater the gains will be when peace comes. I do not need to tell you, Mr von Trenck, the biological predicament of the German people, locked within its cramped borders.”

The man nodded. It made sense. Truth be told, he had never cared much about foreign policy beyond the obvious, and these proposals made sense. Not to mention it would be good to know such a power on his side in coming elections. Ullstein's attack dogs were merciless. “I understand.” he said, “And though I remain concerned over the political implications of a close cooperation, I think I can go back to my colleagues with a lighter heart today. Thank you, gentlemen.”

Hugenberg beamed broadly. “Please, do not be concerned. We are all loyal Germans, and the last thing we should do is mistrust each other's motives. It is true, some of my colleagues have criticised me for my opposition to the government, but I am sure you appreciate the difference between a principled stand against naïve and short-sighted policies imposed on our youthful emperor, and genuine disloyalty.” He raised his glass. “To Germany, Sir.”

“To Germany.”

16 December 1906, Lodz

“You are not getting him.” Brigadier General Ferber's voice betrayed little of the emotional turmoil behind the studied facade of professionalism he hoped he was upholding.

“The Army Council insists on a trial at the highest level.” General Brianski protested. “The order was signed by Pilsudski himself.” He did not need to add that he – a decorated war hero and certainly needed more urgently elsewhere – had personally come to Lodz to see it carried out. Ferber was well aware of the fact, but if anything, it hardened his resolve.,

“That may be, Sir, but until I have clear and unequivocal universal rules for such a trial, I cannot in good conscience send one of my men with you. We can and will have a trial here.”

Brianski blinked. “Brigadier, these are clear orders. You cannot simply do as you please in a case of murder. It is a danger to the morale...”

Colonel Lewin cleared his throat noisily. Brianski looked around. “You wish to say something?”

The wiry German expatriate looked scornfully at Brianski's gold-edged epaulets. As a former NCO, he had little but contempt for senior officers meddling in the affairs of soldiers trying to fight a war. This went doubly for those trying to meddle with his affairs. With a curt nod, he pointed out: “First of all, Sir, this is actually not a direct order in that no authority to give it exists. I believe the army council reserves strategic command over the Polish National forces. This, however, is a matter of criminal law. If I may assist...”

He pulled a slim volume from his coat pocket and held it out to Brianski. The faded black lettering on the grey linen cover read: 'Militär-Strafgesetzbuch für das Deutsche Reich'.

“I have been doing some reading. It seems we don't actually have a proper criminal trial procedure. I suggest we use this until we do, it works. However, precedent as far as I can tell has been to try soldiers before their commanders. I've seen it done with deserters in the battle of Lodz and with thieves and rapists in the field. Nobody that I know of ever appealed to the Army Council.”

The general was taken aback. He looked at Ferber, who gave a brief shrug that might have been apologetic. “There you have it, Sir.” he said. “We have already made due preparations to hold the trial. I have also interviewed Garski and looked at what several witnesses said, and I must say it sounds like there was considerable provocation. A murder trial may be out of the question.”

Brianski changed tack. “Brigadier, you may not understand the issue at hand. It is not a matter of formalities. This trial has taken on an urgency and importance that make it unavoidable to ...”

“Urgency and importance?” Ferber was on the verge of losing his temper. “General, with all due respect, where is that urgency and importance when Christian soldiers loot Jewish homes? Where is that urgency when Jews are the victims? But all of a sudden it's a matter of state when a Yid shoots a goy! No, Sir, you cannot have Garski to make an example of. He is ours, and we will try him, fairly and openly. You may watch it if you wish.”

18 December 1906, Berlin

“You wrote of an offer?”, Rathenau asked, setting down his tea cup. A man like Max Warburg would not come down from Hamburg to discuss trivialities, he knew. The great banker sipped his tea and looked him in the eye, smiling.

“Indeed, Mr Rathenau. I am here on behalf of the Südwest-Mineralgesellschaft, and I have come to see you because I am convinced that you are the person who can help me navigate the complexities of the war economy management. It is a matter of rather – delicate considerations.” He gestured at the window. “This city is too full of people who do not understand the things they run, and I cannot risk running afoul of one of them. Can I hope for a sympathetic ear?”

Rathenau cocked his head. “This is about diamonds, isn't it?” The Südwest-Mineralgesellschaft mbH had become something of a legend in the German financial world after it had secured exclusive mining and trading concessions for Namaland. Nobody knew what their men did in the desert exactly, but the investment was on a scale – and connected with names – to suggest nothing short of a new Rand. Tight-lipped directors and compliant administrators did their share to magnify rumour. Now, he was about to become privy to what might be the best-kept secret in German business.

“Yes. You have read our first reports, no doubt?” Warburg referred to the pages of nothing-in-particular that the company had issued in response to demands for an explanation of what they did, and whether investors could get in on it.

Rathenau nodded.

“The situation is, shall we say, even more immediately rewarding than we expected. The diamond fields of Namaland are such that we have already realised considerable returns on our initial investment.” Warburg looked smug. “Or rather – and this is the point on which I wished to consult you – we will realise these gains once we are able to bring the stones to market. The quantity at this point should not be enough to adversely affect prices, but certainly more than the German market alone will be able to absorb, even if these were normal times.”

“I see.” A shadow of suspicion flitted over Rathenau's face. What exactly did Warburg want? “What kind of sum would we be talking about?”

Warburg pulled a tightly folded piece of paper from his breast pocket. “These numbers are, of course, preliminary.” he said, “but the latest reports from our agent in Lüderitz counts diamonds assayed at eight million marks. Next year, we expect to realise upwards of fifteen million, possibly as high as twenty if the estimates of our surveyors are to be trusted.”

The minister sucked his teeth. That was serious money. He could understand why it would be a problem for the German market to absorb it all. “You were thinking of selling the stones abroad?”

“London.” The banker raised his hand, hastening to dispel the doubts his words might have sown. “But please be assured, it is in no way my intention to shirk our patriotic duty. My primary concern is good business. Hence my proposal: I suggest that, if the Mineralgesellschaft was to obtain permission to export the diamonds directly, we would be willing to sell the stones themselves to the Imperial government. Or, to be precise, we would auction the physical diamonds in London and transfer the realised Sterling funds to the custody of the government in return for bonds to the equivalent amount in mark, payable to the society's account with the M.M. Warburg & Co. bank.”

Rathenau's eyes widened. “That is a very generous offer, Mr Warburg.” he said, momentarily at a loss for words. The suspension of gold conversion by the Reichsbank was already producing shortages of foreign currency funds to purchase imports. So far, it had been possible to rely on foreign holdings and payments for exported goods, but it was hard to see how this could last. Too many businessmen squirreled away their francs, Sterling or dollars, and it was increasingly difficult to justify producing for export when the army was clamouring for war supplies. A few million extra, in hard, useful currency, would be welcome. “I am sure you will find sympathetic ears in the war economy council. I will happily introduce the proposal myself, if you wish.”

He paused, sipping his tea, before he continued with the obvious question. “What would you expect in return?”

Warburg looked almost wounded. “I did not come here to dicker with you, Mr Rathenau. The Warburg family has a long record of patriotic commitment. However,” he paused for a quick breath, “it should be understood that the repayment of the bonds – and I will leave the matter of interest entirely at the government's discretion here – must be assured. The Mineralgesellschaft's founding capital has been used up and its credit utilised to the fullest extent. We are placing the future of our company entirely in the hands of the imperial government, in the secure confidence that victory shall accrue to German arms.”

“And that future concession negotiations with colonial authorities will be as bountiful as the first round, no doubt.” It was Rathenau's turn to explain himself. “No, Mr Warburg, do not worry. I understand your motives and, as you know, I share them. The future of my own business, too, lies in the hands of fate and the victory of our armies. Nonetheless, I can assure you here and now that your patriotism in dark hours will not be forgotten in a happier future. Thank you, with all my heart. I will bring your proposal to the council. You may expect the necessary permission to be granted within days.”

He checked himself, glancing out of the window at the lead-grey sky hovering over the capital. “Well, perhaps weeks. Berlin is not as accustomed to the dispatch that attends the dealings of world commerce. Government proceeds at a stately pace.”
18 December 1906, Moscow

Despite the brilliant winter sunshine outside, the splendid room was darkened by heavy drapes, matching the sombre mood of its occupant. Servants walked past the gilded doors on tiptoe, fearful of drawing the imperial ire. Word had passed down the corridors, “He hasn't come.” Prokurator Konstantin Pobedonostsev had sent word that his health did not allow him to travel. For most of the morning, Nicholas had read his letter over and over again, spending hours in tearful prayer. Lunch was returned untouched. With the empress in Gatchina, it took a brave man to disturb the supreme autocrat, and half an hour ago, a brave man had come. Alexander Ivanovich Dubrovin sat by Nicholas' side, speaking comfort and encouragement.

“I fear,” the Czar said, his voice trembling, handsome face ashen, “that I will be called to account for those lives before God, Alexander Ivanovich. I fear that the decision to go to war was premature. My own uncle has told me that I should make peace.”

A gentle touch to the hand told Nicholas that Dubrovin was now beside him, hands folded in supplication. The eyes of the Mother of God looked down benignly. “Your Majesty,”, he said softly, “Your worries are honourable, but unfounded. Were you a common man, your choice to send men to their deaths could weigh on your soul. As a monarch, though, your choices are not your own. You, your Majesty, are the extension of the Russian state, the Russian people, and Russia has an unlimited claim to the loyalty of all its people. Do they not die in a great cause? And gladly, your Majesty, they fight for their Czar and country, lay down their lives with a prayer on their lips. How could such men fail to find forgiveness before the throne of God? When your eyes do close on that fateful day, and may God grant it be long from now, their souls will meet you in heaven with joy and gratitude.”

The emperor's hand closed around Dubrovin's for a fleeting moment. He sighed. “You are right, Alexander Ivanovich. I so sorely miss the comforting words of Prokurator Pobedonostsev. With him, everything made sense. Oh,. That God has blessed me with your presence at least. Pray with me, Doctor. Pray with me.”

Obediently, Dubrovin folded his hands and knelt, his bench lower than that of his ruler, but side by side, in unaccustomed intimacy. The imperial voice was fervent, almost fearful in supplication. It occurred to Dubrovin that few men would ever be privileged to see and hear their emperor in a similar situation, uncertain, fearful, alone. The thought filled him with pride, but also with the humble determination to steel his resolve. God had placed him here for a purpose. Not, surely, to replace the great Pobedonostsev, that would be hubristic. But perhaps to humbly continue this small part of his great work. When they rose to take tea together, his mind had been made up.

“Your Majesty, all of the men wo tell you today to make peace are themselves to blame for the situation they find so threatening.” he said, his head still guardedly bowed over the tea glass. “They are wrong. They were wrong to counsel a quick war, and wronger yet to see defeat today. Your Majesty, victory is within reach. Never doubt that.”

Nicholas nodded, his eyes still glistening with tears. He was an intense man when you met him like this, burning with religious fervour, bowed down under the awesome responsibility of his rule. There was nothing frivolous about him. If there had ever been, the crisis and war had burned it away, leaving nothing but fierce devotion to duty. “But what of the navy, Alexander Ivanovich?” he asked, “what of our losses? Our soldiers are daily retreating in East Prussia. German ships rule the Baltic.”

“This is of no account, Your Majesty.” Dubrovin replied, his voice gentle, but firm. “Russia has no need of the seas. The German's triumph there is an empty bauble, a worthless achievement that has cost them men and materiel while gaining them nothing of value. What truly matters, Your Majesty, is the land war, and the land war is beyond Germany's capacity to win.”

He looked up, into his emperor's eyes, and continued, more certain that ever. “Your Majesty has been told of the work of Ivan Bloch, no doubt. Jean Bloch, he writes himself.”

The Czar nodded. “Nikolai spoke much of it. He is greatly fearful of the demands that a long war would make of the country.”

Dubrovin lowered his gaze again. “It pains me to say this, Your Majesty, but he is wrong. It is true, Bloch has foreseen the scope of a truly modern war, a war between peoples. But his prediction of the impact is wrong, He sees finances as an insurmountable obstacle and the industrial capacity as the key ability, but that is not so. This not just me saying this, Your Majesty. Your own chief of staff Sukhomlinov agrees. We have surmounted the cash nexus – all of Russia is at your command. For all we still use money to account for it, it is Your Majesty's word that commands the iron from the ground and the grain from the fields. Russia's vast empire encompasses everything she could need, at your command. It is the Germans that are suffering the trouble that Bloch predicted. Their bank has suspended gold convertibility, and as a result they cannot devote their full industrial capacity to the war. Germany's vaunted modern society has built itself a trap.”

Dubrovin's voice tripped. He paused briefly to catch his breath, carried away by the fervour of his conviction. Then he continued: “Germany cannot even feed herself, cannot produce herself the copper, the iron, the leather and wool she needs. All of these things must be imported, and to import them, they require cash, hard currency, gold. Germany, unlike Russia, has no gold, either. The state has gone begging to its people, calling on them to exchange gold for bonds. But the only way they can obtain enough of it is by selling products of their industry abroad. The very industry that so many here are groundlessly fearful of is busy making bathtubs and tramcars, toy boats and fabric dyes, while ours focuses relentlessly on meeting the needs of the army. With every month of war, the tension will rise. The Germans are already rationing food. Soon enough, they will not be able to import enough. They will face the choice of feeding the war or their people.”

“Their people?” Nicholas was awestruck at the certainty of his adviser. “Food is not that expensive, Alexander Ivanovich, even in Germany, is it?”

“They cannot feed themselves, Your Majesty.” Dubrovin explained. “Russia is a country that is true to the earth, whose people live on the land. Almost everyone in Russia understands how to feed themselves. They are used to hard labour and privation, and grateful for small things. The Germans are not like this. They are industrial workers, shopkeepers and artisans, men who live soft lives in big cities and know nothing of the bread they eat except where they go to buy it. What will they do if their money fails to buy them food? They will scream, and their Kaiser must heed them, because it is their labour that pays for his war effort. He must feed them, from what little the farms still produce, with the men at the front. Yes, the Germans have done this, they have sent their farmers to the front and kept their workers in the factories and mines. All it will help them is to learn that you cannot eat money. Their cash economy is already straining. They cannot last. Even if they do advance into Russia with their new industrial weapons – and I believe they cannot, regardless how many modern arms they churn out – they cannot sustain the effort. You win this war, Your Majesty, simply by not losing it. The mere act of enduring will earn your victory, because it is the one thing the enemy cannot do.”

The eyes of the two men met. Impulsively, Dubrovin reached out to hold the emperor's hand. “Perseverance, Your Majesty.” he whispered almost reverentially. “Perseverance.”

19 December 1906, Kadiköy, Ottoman Empire

It was remarkable how adversity could teach you gratitude for small things in life. A year ago, Moses Abramovich would have been happy, even elated, over a new piano for his daughter to play on, or an army contract for woollens. Now, not being cold and hungry all the time was enough. And it wasn't even that they were not cold or hungry sometimes. The wind that blew in over the Bosporus had a wintery edge, and frost crunched underfoot in the morning. But still, they were safe, there was food, two warm meals on most days, and shelter of sorts. Abramovich shared a German-made tent with his wife, son, daughter, and mother-in-law, huddling nights under American-supplied blankets and locally bartered sheepskins and spending as much as possible of the day in the few heated buildings that had gone up in the improvised camp. Thousands of tents stretched across fields and pastures, and there were still more people coming every day, carried out by the armada of chartered tramp steamers the Zionists had organised. The “Jewish navy”, they had jokingly called them.

Abramovich was still amazed that nobody had bothered them when they had embarked. The Russian authorities had searched their luggage and confiscated valuables, of course – it was what you would expect, and a fairly pointless gesture for the pitiful few rubles that Russia's Jews might have retained through a terrible year or pogroms and privation. But nobody had tried to stop them. In fact, nobody had done much to bother them since the terrible nights in Berdichev. The occasional curse or kick, or sometimes a kind word and some bread, but generally it seemed that Russia had simply decided to ignore the fact that Jews lived there. In the end, it had been foreign donors, the Rothschild and Rathenau, Warburg and Seligman, that had organised their transit to Turkey. And here they were. The Abramoviches were better off than most, in fact; After the pogrom, they had been able to stay with friends. Moses' wife had managed to hide some of her jewelry, and everyone had brought out some gold coin sewn into their belts and coats. It was not much, but it bought the occasional comfort while they were here and held out the hope of starting out again with something, once they reached their final destination. Miriam spoke wistfully of going to Salonika and trying to get back into the textile business. Young Ephraim was for buying tickets to New York. Right now, though, nobody would let them go anywhere.

His breath steaming, Moses Abramovich walked to the grandiosely named Zion Society Club. It was a wooden building, which was no bad thing in these climes, and it could be heated, which mattered. They held classes and debates there, and the occasional argument. A small library, a few sewing machines and typewriters, and a motley assortment of furniture was the foundation of their educational efforts while posters and banners on the walls proclaimed hope in bright red letters: “To Palestine, to Freedom”, “God Help Germany”, or “We Shall Prevail”. Personally, Abramovich was not sure Palestine held any great attraction. He had been there, on a business trip, while learning the trade from his uncle. If he had any choice in the matter, he would be happier to go to Saloniki, Alexandria, or Constantinople. Or even America, though his English was rudimentary. He idly wondered if the ongoing three-way negotiations between the Turkish authorities and the pro-Palestine and pro-America factions of the Zionist Society had produced any tangible results yet when he noticed a commotion by the door. Armed men had taken up position at the front entrance of the Club. Not Turkish gendarmes – he was used to their sight. Men in black coats carrying sabres. He looked more closely.

Someone had stuck posters on the wall, nice posters, with a printed picture of a rifleman fending off a Russian bear from a cowering mother and children. It didn't seem to make any sense. “Join the Makkabi Brigade” the text proclaimed. “All Jewish men of military age are called on to serve in defence of their compatriots in the Polish National Army's Jewish Brigade. Good pay and rations. Uniforms provided. Veterans to have citizenship in Poland.” He looked at the men. Rifles conspicuously absent, they still looked every inch the soldier, their white-and-blue armbands proclaiming them members of that vaunted band the Zionist papers couldn't shut up about. One of them was showing off a cossack sabre to a bunch of teenage boys. Moses turned and walked back to his tent. He would need to make sure that Ephraim didn't see this. The fool was fully capable of enlisting on the spot.

20 December 1906, Allenstein

Senior Lieutenant Nagata Tetsuzan had few illusions left about the gloriousness of warfare. Ever since Mukden, he had understood better and better just how horrible a trial it was. The more he saw of the way the Germans did it, though, the more he came to appreciate that they, too, seemed to understand this. It began with the uniforms. Back in Hamburg, and even on the way to the front, he had seen men in the old white-and-blue regimentals, with shining brass buttons and stiff collars. Here, though, you hardly ever saw any of this. The men were clad in a unitary dark greenish-blue that he himself much preferred to his own black. The uniforms had no visible buttons and soft, fold-down collars, and most of the soldiers chose to wear cloth caps instead of their decorative, but heavy and impractical pickelhaube. The spartan simplicity extended to officers, too. In his salad days on a visit to Lichtenfelde – was it only three years ago? - he had admired the Prussian guards officers with their shiny cuirasses, splendid sabres and flashy boots. Here, they wore blouses and greatcoats almost indistinguishable from those of their men, with jodhpurs and sidearm holsters often the only thing to set them apart. You had to come close to read their insignia, which made proper saluting protocol challenging. Everybody went about their duties in a calm and businesslike fashion. It looked like utter chaos, of course, but anyone who had been on a battlefield could appreciate the difference between the managed chaos of a successful operation and the absence of order and purpose that attended defeat and collapse. The Germans were not collapsing. Their morale, from everything he had seen, was high, though they said things about their officers and even their emperor that still shocked him. He would not have tolerated anything remotely like this in his company.

South and East of Allenstein, German units were getting into position to secure the gains made in the wake of Mackensen's Bug campaign. The fighting to the north would have interested him more, but apparently his hosts were keen to show off the way they were running things down here. There were certainly plenty of things to see. It seemed the Prussians could not abandon their infantry doctrine fast enough. Regiments went into the line with light artillery attached, men were lugging forward Nogi mortars – he remembered the wretched things from Port Arthur – and machine guns accompanied every unit. Every time a regiment rotated out of the line, his handler Leutnant Hagenah had explained, they were given a reorganisation. It was a Madsen gun for every Korporalschaft and a full-sized Maxim battery to each regiment, at least on frontline duty. With the number of men engaged, and even not counting losses, that meant the Germans had to have produced easily a thousand of these weapons in the few months since they had purchased the license. Now that was how you fought a modern war!

“You'll probably also want to look at the Russian fire-siphon.”, Lieutenant Hagenah said as they walked along the main street, dodging supply carts and staff messengers. Lieutenant Nagata nodded. He had been told wonders of the thing.

“Are you keeping it here?” he asked.

“No point lugging it back.” Hagenah shrugged. “The engineers say it's a simple design, nothing special about it. But it's a very impressive weapon. And if you wish, you can also meet the men who captured it.”

24 December 1906, Batotchina, northern Serbia

Colonel von Matyszak had never fully appreciated how evocative a flavour could be. The moment the tart, fruity white wine touched his tongue, it called forth memories of his life in Vienna; the wind in the leaves, the music, the drive out among the villages for new wine and carefree celebration. He already felt that this world was out of his reach, a distant memory ages ago and half a planet distant. Did people still dance? Did they gather grapes, press the new vintage? Were there men left to buy it, music to play? At least, the analytical part of his brain interjected, the Serbs had made a new vintage. Where else would the soldiers have gotten the bottles they were now sharing around the Christmas table?

Some of them looked as glum as he himself must, the colonel realised. It was not for want of creature comforts. There was hot food and tables to sit down at, with seating for everyone. For once, he had managed to secure nice quarters, a grammar school with proper heating and largely intact windows of the kind you didn't see too often in areas where, as common parlance had it, war had passed over. It was an apt simile, he thought: war seemed indeed to pass over an area with its giant armoured feet, stomping flat houses and fields, scarring the land with trench and crater, and then simply move on, leaving the hapless survivors to continue as best they could. Batotchina had been spared the worst, abandoned by its defenders and taken by an Austrian army more exhausted than vengeful. With the front now frozen to the south and the city smothered in snow, hiding the smears of soot and fresh graves, it was almost picturesque. You could call it peaceful if you overlooked the glares that locals gave you when they thought you didn't notice. Them, and the gallows for spies, saboteurs and hostages. But even a gallows smothered in deep snow could be picturesque rather than frightening.

Speeches were not von Matyszak's thing. He did not rate his way with words highly, and had no intention of embarrassing himself in front of his subordinates by trying Thucydidean eloquence. But there were other ways. Forcing a smile, he rose to his feet, a slightly dreamy expression on his face. The officers around his table looked on expectantly. Silence spread out across the room, taking in the enlisted men seated around the fringes. Finally, Matyszak raised his glass.

“Gentlemen, rise.”

They did. It involved a measure of noise and muttered curses, but he pretended not to notice. You could not expect the discipline of a cadet school here.

“We have drunk to the emperor and to the victory of his arms. It now remains to me to raise my glass in one last toast before we celebrate this high holiday. Gentlemen: To bathing holidays on the Adriatic. May we soon have them.”

Laughter rippled outwards. So far, so good. With a bellyful of warm food and enough to drink, you could look at life with a little more optimism. Then unto this: He called on his batman.


“Yes, Sir?” He was a good kid. The colonel had almost paternal feelings for him. Not exactly hard-working, it was true, if only by the exacting standards of a wartime headquarters, but dedicated, talented and pathetically eager to please. And a talented draughtsman. He was glad to have pulled this boy out of the line.

“I believe the sergeant has acquired slivovitz in some way or other. Go and fetch it. If we cannot celebrate the birth of Our Lord in good spirits, it will be a sorry day.”

Noisy agreement met this statement. Private Hitler rushed out, followed by several eager volunteers to help him carry in the bottles. The price of liquor on the black market was frightening, but the colonel knew that this was a good investment. They would all have to live close together for many months to come, and it would help if they had some good memories to share.

“Merry Christmas.” he shouted out as the soldiers returned with rattling crates of bottles.

27 December 1906, North of Sanok, Galicia

The cold was the worst. You could deal with the disorientation, and with time, you learned to sleep on your feet. That made you fuggy, but it was not like the situation required much in the way of thinking, anyway. But there was no escaping the cold. It permeated everything, creeping through the layers of clothing, left your hands numb and stiff, your head stuffy and every bone in your body aching. Fire would do little to warm you, even if you could risk making smoke. You hardly felt the heat in your frozen fingers. Some men had burned themselves very badly trying to thaw out their limbs. The frozen ground and deep snow offered little relief to for sitting or lying down. Food helped, especially if it was hot. Some of them men went through three days' rations in one up in the passes on the days the field kitchens did not deliver. Today, though, they had managed. A steaming hot vat of kasha rested on the ground among the men huddled in their trench.

“Slow.” Sergeant Ginskiy cautioned. “Be careful not to burn yourself.” It was a vicious thing: if you couldn't feel your lips any more, you could do real damage trying to eat boiling hot food. Patience came hard, but it felt good to tuck into the hot porridge, liquid though it was. That, too, seemed to be happening more now. The kasha was thinner, the soup was watery and the tea weaker. Even the vodka seemed not to warm you as thoroughly as it used to. Still, a frontline ration of a quarter litre per day was gratifying. It was supposed to be less than that, but the stuff was there, so they better use it. The sergeant had received a bottle to distribute, carefully measuring out the precious liquid to the men and making sure they drank at least half of it. Most saved up some, and leaders who knew their business let them, but you couldn't have soldiers running around with a litre of vodka. They could kill themselves that way. Of course, they would happily point out that alcohol poisoning was the last of their worries, and some days Ginskiy didn't know what to answer. Why not let a man die drunk and happy instead of bleeding out screaming?

Bugles sounded ahead. Was this a good time for an attack? When was ever a good time, with the damned Austrians so good and ready for them? Probably no worse than any other, except maybe at night. Ginskiy knew that he could trust his men in a night attack, but he was not so sure about other platoons. As they rose and readied their rifles, a company of Union men marched by. The sergeant crossed himself when the flag passed them. Poor devils – they were marching to their deaths as sure as the vodka had been understrength. PU men, greencoats, as they were called, were always the first at enemy entrenchments. They could be relied on for patriotic fervour. Of course, that also meant bad things for the real troops.

“Get ready.” the sergeant ordered quietly, rolling a cigarette. “Drink your vodka. We'll be going in second.”

After a depressingly short time, the bugles sounded again. A lieutenant walked by, ordering them forward, and as they trudged up the steep footpath, they could hear the charge. Huuraahs, muted by the distance and snow, the crackle of riflery and the abominable, arse-puckering tock-tock-tock of machine guns. Echoing through the wintery forest, they almost sounded like woodpeckers. Sergeant Ginskiy thought idly that if he ever returned to his home village, he would gladly dedicate the rest of his life to shooting woodpeckers. His dread of the sound would never leave him.

Ahead, the shouting died. Tock-tock-tock, tock-tock the demented woodpeckers continued. You could hear a man scream incoherently. The attackers must have gone to ground. That worked if your charge stalled, but it begged the question of how you were going to get back to the safety of your own lines. Ginskiy had spent a few uncomfortable nights in holes and behind logs waiting for the enemy's attention to wander. He wondered if they were going to be expected to extricate the Patriotic Union from their quandary. Unsure what to do, he looked about for the officer who had waved them forward. A figure lay face down by the side of the road, his fur cap rolled to one side, a blood-edged hole in his back. Well, wasn't that something...

“Sniper!” Everybody went to ground immediately, looking around for the unseen threat. A bullet buzzed overhead. Where had the muzzle flash been? Another – and there it was, on the forward slope, at the edge of the forest to their right. Ginskiy cursed and waved his men forward. “Left! To the treeline!” Another hornet buzz and a wet, cracking thud that told him he had lost someone. “Run!”

Panting hard, the sergeant ran up the slope and dropped behind the first rise he passed, under cover of a few bushes. The fire was quickening. One or two of his men were shooting back – there was Smirnov, the idiot, kneeling out in the open shooting at the Austrians emerging from the woods. Bullet after bullet thudded into the snow around him. The sonofabitch was drawing their fire! One of the shots finally hit, and he went down soundlessly. Ginskiy crossed himself before he started to return fire, hoping that poor Smirnov had caught a clean shot.

The howl of shells overhead drowned out the noise of their rifles, and dirt fountained up from the road at the bottom of the valley. The blast shook the snow from the trees all around, covering the world in a sudden daze of white powder. More shells, and more blasts. It rained stones and earth clods. Ginskiy looked up into the sudden silence, his ears ringing, to see a chain of riflemen emerge from the woods on the opposite slope. They were careless, walking and firing instead of taking cover, and several of them fell in the first seconds. But there were so damned many of them! A quick look to the other end of the valley told him that nobody was coming to their aid. At least, not immediately. A few lost figures in green coats were cowering behind rocks and trees on their slope, firing at the advancing foe. Ginskiy looked behind himself. Smirnov was dead, and so were Yakubov and Semskiy, their bodies down in the valley. Two were cowering behind cover, not shooting, probably wounded by the artillery strike. That left what, fifteen, plus the stragglers, maybe twenty against at least a hundred Austrians? Lord Jesus, what was the point?

On an impulse, Ginskiy rose to his feet, his right hand high in the air. His men stared, putting down their rifles. The firing from the opposite slope slowed, then stopped. Gingerly, step after step, the sergeant walked forward, his hand still in the air. What was the word you were supposed to say? “Kamerad!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs. An Austrian came to meet him, shouting broken Russian with an atrocious accent. Something about being cut off and outnumbered. About food and barracks. Ginskiy grunted. What did that matter? All he was doing was saving his men from a pointless death. The Austrian kept jabbering, shouting to his own men now.

He never saw the shot coming. The bullet took him like a hammer blow in the back, spun him around and threw him into the soft, inviting snow. The back! Fuck the bastard! One of the greencoats must have fired at him. Rifles crackled again, shooting, killing. Ginskiy tried to raise himself up on his hand and shout orders, tell his men to stop firing, but his voice was failing him. His breath came ragged and short. Someone was propping him up – Grishin, maybe? Good old Grishin. “It was the greencoat, sergeant.” he said. “I got him, but he hit Valenkov before.”

The Austrian was down in the valley now, talking to him. He had to be talking. His lips were moving, but all Sergeant Ginskiy could hear was a rushing sound that filled his ears.

“You'll be all right, sergeant.” he heard Grishin say. “You'll be all right. We're taking you to a field hospital.”

More of his men were here now, unarmed, hands raised. One of them had unrolled his pack, laying out the blanket to carry him. Transport of wounded hurt like hell, Ginskiy knew. “Anyone got vodka left?”
29 December 1906, Berlin

Field Marshal von der Goltz lazily lit his cigar, puffing out a generous cloud of blue smoke. Having civilian visitors allowed him a degree of latitude in these matters that military men often took amiss. He knew they talked of him having 'gone Turkish' behind his back and saw no reason to feed the rumour. In the armchair opposite him sat Professor Alexander Brückner, relishing his own fine Havana. He regarded the general quizzically.

“Thank you again for coming, Professor.” von der Goltz said. “I hope you will be able to help me.”

“Help you, Field Marshal?” Brückner asked. “I am hardly general staff material.”

A dismissive wave of the general's hand parted the curls of blue smoke. “Come on, professor. Berlin is full of staff officers, many of them aren't fit to fetch coffee. No, I need a genuine first-class

mind. His Majesty trusts you, that is enough for me to know.”

Brückner leaned forward. “What is this about, then? You already have half my department doing translation work.”

“I need you,” von der Goltz said conspiratorially, “to help me understand Russia, professor. Because I am at my wits' end.”

“Understand Russia?” That was a genuine surprise, and not an easy request to process. “I'm a classical Slavicist, not an expert on modern Russia. I know next to nothing of its armies, just what I read in the papers.”

Von der Goltz smiled indulgently, pulling on his cigar again. “Armies and numbers do not interest me much, Professor Brückner. I have men who keep count of such things. We have a reasonably good idea of that. No, I need to know what the Russians are thinking.”


“Yes, professor, thinking. Or how they are thinking, if you prefer. You see, when they were winning the war, fighting them was a mathematical exercise. I knew it could be done, so it was. But now that the tide is turning, I cannot see what they are doing. What they are hoping to gain, if nothing else.”

Brückner cleared his throat and took off his spectacles. “ I'm not sure they are hoping to gain anything, Field Marshal. They are defending themselves, if I read the papers correctly.”

The general shook his head. “If that's what they are doing, they are making a hash of it. They are acting like they are winning. In the Carpathians, they have been throwing untrained men at Austrian positions, wave after wave. The defenders were simply overwhelmed, initially. But the casualties were horrendous. Now, many people on my staff say I oughtn't worry about it because the Russians are basically barbarians, and can't be expected to act rationally. But I don't buy that. And that is where you come in. I need you to help me understand why the Russians are doing what they're doing. A look into their souls, not their mobilisation timetables.”

Professor Brückner nodded slowly. He had been mulling over the question himself. “All right, Field Marshal. I will do my best. Where shall we start?”

31 December 1906, Allenstein

Sergeant Lagarde looked at the reflection in the barroom mirror and found he liked what he saw. The stripes on his sleeves and collar still flashed when they caught the light, and his new cap felt soft and wonderfully comfortable. And the best part was that he was now officially on the headquarters staff! Let nobody say doing stupid shit didn't pay off sometimes. He had a bed with a real mattress in a room of his own, and he would get paid for fooling around with machinery! Taking apart the fire siphon he had helped bring in had just been the beginning. He had been thrilled to learn that the corps had a body of men whose primary job was to become proficient with new weapons and teach other soldiers how to use (or combat) them. If there had ever been a job in the army he coveted, this was it. And they had given it to him.

Vizefeldwebel Kröhl heartily slapped him on the shoulder. Well, he had reason to be happy. A promoted man had to get his new colleagues drunk, that was the tradition. It could cost you half a month's pay, more with the price of schnaps being what it was these days, but Lagarde was all right with that. He was an Etappensau now. Well, he'd have to live with that. Fighting on the front did wonders for your pride, but it wasn't exactly healthy.

Grinning from ear to ear, the newly minted sergeant raised his glass to his comrades. “Here's to 1907!” he shouted., “Happy New Year, everyone!”
Per Aspera - 1907

08 January 1906, Sanok, Galicia

The thunderous roar of Skoda howitzers still rolled over the mountains, a perpetual backdrop to the horror unfolding on the northern slopes. Sanok itself had been spared the worst, and you could still see the contours of the sleepy little town, dozing through a winter, under the outsize military machinery that had swallowed it up. Soldiers were marching, exercising, eating, waiting or sleeping in every available corner, in houses and public buildings, sheds, tents, and long rows of unused railcars standing on the branch lines that engineers had quickly laid down to speed up unloading. Amid this maelstrom in blue, Captain Shimanek could still barely believe that the effort had worked. At least, it seemed like that to him.

Three weeks ago, when his regiment had gone into action on the Carpathian front, everybody had been talking about the Russian steamroller, the irresistible force bearing down to crush them. The generals had scrambled to put together a defense, diverting troops on the way to Romania, throwing Honved and Landwehr into the meat grinder, pushing forward far beyond the limits of their logistical capacities. Shimanek recalled the gnawing hunger of the first days, when instead of food and fuel, every more disoriented troops were offloaded from the railcars and marched into the teeth of the bear. Huddling around meagre fires made from ammunition crates, broken-up fences, or abandoned carts, they had cursed their incompetent leaders waiting to be overrun. But they hadn't been. The first Russian prisoners that came in looked every bit as bad as their own wounded, dragging themselves forward on frostbitten feet, shivering in the merciless snow. Often enough, the victors relieved them of caps, boots and shawls, and Shimanek had been forced to stop a few incidents like that himself. But the real shock was their first advance.

The troops had told them about the Russian attacks, the headlong rush into the fire, regardless of casualties, that swamped the defender under a surging sea of riflemen. The story was as outlandish as it was terrifying, and he had half refused to believe it until he saw it happen. Russian soldiers running forward, with no fire discipline worth mentioning, no regard for their safety, bayonets fixed like a spectre from the Napoleonic era, had died in their hundreds before the trenches of his men. They had been followed – the first incautious counterattack had expensively administered that lesson – by a much more ably led and dangerous infantry, many in white overcoats that made them impossible to spot among the trees. But it still happened and, much more importantly, they had stood it – stood two days and two nights of this fighting, until the big guns came. Somehow, the artillerymen had dragged the siege mortars up on the mountains, and where their shells rained down on the Russian positions, the enemy crumbled. On the third day, a cautious foray around the Russian flank had met almost no resistance. Across the pass and down the valley they had marched, picking up straggling groups of surrendering enemies, starving, freezing and desperate. The captain was still not sure how much of the following days were real, and how much a strange dream. They met Russians, and defeated them. Prisoners were brought in, positions taken and advances measured in kilometres, almost as though they were in manoeuvres, in the happy days before the war had descended on them all. Of course it had ended, the ragtag army of Bohemian, Hungarian and Austrian reservists caught at the end of its logistical tether, unable to advance further than their food could travel. True to form, Shimanek thought, their generals were as timid in victory as they were profligate in defeat. But for all that, undeniably, there was a victory.

The regiment returning to Sanok today had shrunk, almost shrivelled. When a regular unit had replaced them in the line, they had numbered a little over a third of the men that had gone out. Some more had dropped out along the cold, steep road back, dragged and carried by their comrades until they could be passed on to ambulance companies. Those left over, gaunt, pale and bent, shuffled and hobbled down to the railyard, to the promise of warmth, food and rest. Still, Captain Shimanek could not help but purse his chapped and blistered lips as he passed the knots of gawking civilians by the pretty new church. He was whistling the Radetzkymarsch. There had never been a better time for it than today.

12 January 1907, Warsaw

Nobody had ever accused Felix Dzerzhinski of being a neat man in his personal habits, and his office certainly bore the marks of dedication to his task to the exclusion of minor concerns such as orderly stacking of papers or removing ash from the heavy brass tray he had liberated from a Russian officer's mess. Agent Josef Unszlicht was painfully aware that not many men ever got to even see this inner sanctum of the NSB. Most meetings with Balls of Steel (as he was known, if not to his face, then by now almost universally) took place in the austere, whitewashed outer office where the few repurposed pieces of furniture felt misplaced and uninviting. To be asked here was a high honour, Unszlicht knew, but also – perhaps more so – a sign of trouble to come. Not that he feared for his safety; If Dzerzhinski wanted to chew you out, he did it in public, and if he wanted you dead, you were. He did not toy with people. But being in the great man's confidence meant he had a special task for you. Those were rarely pleasant and never easy. Granted, Unszlicht had not joined the Socialist party's combat organisation to do the easy stuff, but still – he would have preferred to be elsewhere.

Dzerzhinski stood by the window as the guard opened the door and ushered Unszlicht into the smoky office. He turned and flashed a brief smile, gesturing at one of the heavy armchairs by a coffee table covered in papers.

„Unszlicht! Good to see you. I remember we met at Plock, before all this started...“

The agent nodded. Back then, he had though little enough of the fiery-eyed cold-hearted man that had spoken lovingly of destabilising the capitalist oppressors and liberating the proletariat. But in the end, Dzerzhinski had been right. Revolution was no tea party, and Unszlicht was honest enough to admit to himself that his bourgeois sensibilities had no place in the battle. „Yes, Sir.“

„Comrade. We were comrades before I was given this posting.“ Dzerzhinski sat down opposite him, smiling again. „One day, we'll have nobody called 'Sir' in this country, mark my words.“

A brief silence followed as papers were shuffled and a photo appeared in the chairman's hands. „Do you know him?“ he asked.

Unszlicht squinted in the poor light. „I know of him,.“ he said. „Garski. He's a Jewish NA soldier accused of murdering comrades in a bar fight, and they're trying him in Lodz. Caused a bit of a stir.“

„That's an understatement if I ever heard one.“ Dzerzhinski said, nodding. „People were about ready to lynch him until Ferber came up with that trial wheeze. That was smart.“

Indeed, it had been smart. The trial meant that there was time to discuss the merits of the case and for tempers to cool. Unfortunately, it also meant that people had something to talk about. The name Garski showed up in more and more reports, often in connection with violent attacks on Jews or people assumed to be Jews. Was that it?

„You are concerned about the repercussions?“ Unszlicht asked, hesitantly. „There have been some bad incidents already.“

Dzerzhinski shook his head. „Not particularly. I don't have to like it, but we have to be realistic. There's never been a time when soldiers didn't harass Jews, and it will take time for them to learn that they can bite back. This was always going to happen. But this Garski has provided us with an opportunity.“

„Opportunity, Si – comrade Dzerzhinski?“

„Yes, opportunity.“ Dzerzhinski lifted up a stack of Yiddish newspapers. „A cause celebre. There is no question that Garski is innocent. Trying him, and finding him so, will cause a good deal of upheaval, but it will make an important point: It doesn't matter what you are in this Poland, you will get justice. And those opposed to this are on the wrong side of history, reactionaries and fools.“

It was an uplifting vision. Unszlicht found himself involuntarily looking up. „Indeed, yes. But what am I to...“

„Security, Unszlicht. You understand underground work.“ Dzerzhinski laid down the papers carefully. „Imagine what would happen if someone were to just shoot Garski. Or drag him from his cell and hang him. What do you think?“

The agent paled. There were enough people in Lodz who might want to do this. The revenge that the Jewish Brigade might take was frightful to contemplate. Even if they bothered to distinguish guilty and innocent – there would be enough guilty parties to go around.

„You see the problem.“ Dzerzhinski stated baldly. „Now, I want you to go to Lodz and report to the local NSB office. You will be provided funds and agents. Your job is to ensure that no such thing happens. That is your sole concern at this point – anything else you may come across, corruption, hoarding, sabotage, is of no concern. Garski will live.“

Unszlicht nodded, absently touching the holster at his belt. Garski would live. Anyone trying funny business would answer to the revolutionary justice. He had never been more proud to serve his leader. Balls-of-Steel indeed!

"And in the meantime, take good note of those who oppose his trial. We will need their names for future reference."

15 January 1907, Dar-es-Salaam

In the hope that this reaches you at some point, I will try to make at least you understand what I am going through in these times. It is too dangerous to entrust to the telegraphs anything that might be of use to the enemy, or indeed, I suspect, anything at all, sometimes. For all that the French are supposed to be on our side, the authorities on Madagascar are as tardy in sending our messages as they are in sales of even the few things they will legally let us purchase when the fleet tenders go there. In many regards I believe the Germans are better served with their choice of allies – the British may be perfidious and self-interested, but they surely are more willing to bend the rules and run risks for their catspaws. If we ask the French for assistance, we get more than anything else a shrug and a half-murmured „rules forbid it.“ And for all the glowing reports you may be reading in the papers, I regret to say that all is not well in the Africa squadron.

Victorious, you have heard, our troops on land have been, but it is still for want of an enemy. We have daily heard reports of where the Germans are, mostly from men who are seeing ghosts in the heat haze. Kilimatinde is lost, Mpapua may already be for what we know, but these are, in truth, immaterial considerations. A few hundred kilometres inland or to the shore matters nothing in this land. Were my orders to permit, I should gladly withdraw to the coast and defend only the ports. What weighs against us that we still have not come to grips with the fighting force of the Germans, and we must fear it is daily becoming stronger. Solf is a fox, cunning and crafty, and he knows that time works against us. His bulldog, Ludendorff, knows no fear, and has a genius for war under these forbidding conditions, it seems. Meanwhile, we are in the unenviable position to defend our gains against a blow that may come from any direction. The locals are of little help, having long learned to hate and distrust all white men.

Our sick lists daily grow, now standing over 50% on some ships. On land, they are often worse still. And even the men officially classed healthy are often impaired. I myself find it hard to write, with headaches and intermittent fever weakening my body, yet I must complain least of all, in my well-ventilated cabin enjoying the luxury of iced drinks and fresh fruit daily. What shall I say of the men penned into the bowels of the ships moored motionless in the debilitating heat?

And though it was part of our plans from the beginning, it is perhaps the one thing that weighs heaviest on everyone's minds: We have no longer the means to escape our fate on this shore. The stocks of the fleet colliers have long been used up in patrolling. The French will not provide any, it being “against regulations“, and of course they are right, though craven. We have transferred all stocks from Peresvyet and Poltava to the cruisers. Bogatyr and Novik still patrol. Soon, we will have to transfer this duty to torpedo boats. English ships pass our anchorage daily, coming to and from Zanzibar, watching us, and no doubt reporting anything they see directly to the Germans. Just a week ago, Novik ran into a ship that we think was a Dutch cruiser out of Batavia, but dared not pursue. Not because the captain had any doubt of the outcome you understand – the Dutch colonial ships are poor things, undergunned and slow. For fear of running out of coal and being unable to return after sinking her. That is what my proud squadron has been reduced to. I would ask you to tell the world if I thought anyone in St Petersburg or Moscow cared a button for us. Yet even so, I wish for you to understand what we are going through and that, if I should follow Enkvist, it will be not for want of courage on our part.

(Letter by Admiral Vitgeft mailed via Lourenco Marques)

16 January 1907, Essen

“Two thousand?!” The incredulity in Dr Rausenberger's voice was clearly audible.

“Two thousand. In addition to the extant orders, of course.” Walther Krupp von Rathenau smiled sarcastically. “I trust it will not be a problem?”

Max Dreger, the managing director of the artillery division, and Friedrich Rautenberger, his technical director, sat stunned for a moment. Dreger finally found his voice.

“You must realise we are already running well above what we considered our capacity before the war began. The orders we agreed to fill are – barely realistic assuming the best. Four hundred 21-cm mortars is already difficult.”

Rosenberger agreed. “They are among the most difficult things we produce, in the same league as naval guns. You can't simply raise output like you could with field guns.”

“Well gentlemen...” Rathenau reached for the cigar box and offered it to his lieutenants. “That is pretty much what I told Colonel von Seeckt, and Marshal von der Goltz. The response was that, given nobody thought anything of asking soldiers to do the impossible, it was only fair to expect the same of us. Not that I can scientifically agree, but it's hard to argue with him.” He studied the end of his cohiba and expertly removed the end, offering the silvered cutter to Director Dreger.

Rausenberger cleared his throat. “I suppose an increase in production will be possible. But why do we suddenly need so many mortars?”

“The Austrian experience in the Carpathians, mostly, I believe.” Rathenau answered. “Though we've had calls for more heavy guns elsewhere before. The Skoda mortars were frightfully effective. If you read the papers you might well think they won the battle on their own. One rather excitable writer called it 'bringing down the wrath of heaven on the enemy'. Our generals want that, too.” He paused. “So, what are the problems? We can free up capacity by giving field gun orders to smaller companies.”

Dreger shook his head. “It probably won't be enough. The 21-cm mortar is a complicated machine. It takes highly skilled men to build, much more than the regular field gun, and the shortage of staff is already acute.”

Rathenau nodded. Everybody was having trouble finding skilled workers. Wage bills were ballooning, and some employers had begun poaching aggressively. Arms factories were already employing untrained workers, Poles, even women. That might work for things like shells and hand grenades and even Madsen guns, but there were limits. However... “What was the name of that engineer we sent to Detroit? Lentzer? Lentzen?”

Dreger looked nonplussed. “Detroit? You mean the study of the Ford works?”

“Yes. The principle behind the American production – I remember reading an abstract of his report. How to produce highly complex machinery using low-skilled labour.” Rathenau scribbled a note.

Rausenberger objected. “Guns are extremely delicate. You could not have untrained men produce them.”

“Maybe.” Rathenau shrugged. “But maybe you would say the same thing about cars. And the Americans can. Even if not, how about we produce machine guns and minenwerfer using fewer skilled men? The machinists we free up can go to make mortars.”

He handed the note to Dreger. “Send that engineer to me, and also the head of machine gun production. I should probably get some of my people from AEG to work on this, too.”

Dreger winced. Krupp and AEG might now be part of the same industrial empire, but that did not mean they always played well with each other. AEG men fitted poorly into the patrician Krupp culture. But what the boss said, went.

“Let's see if we can get this to work. What about materials?”

“We've had some problems with tungsten and chromium.” Dreger said. “But mostly, the prices are killing us. And if we really plan to produce two thousand mortars, we will have to get some of the steel from somewhere else.”

“That won't be a problem.” Rathenau waved breezily. “Money is not an object on this order. The highest authorities in the land are interested in its completion. Let's do our best.”

17 January 1907, Kagunga, Ostafrika

… To add to these matters, I am extremely concerned over General Ludendorff's actions with regard to their long-term repercussions. The man may well understand war as intimately as he claims, and I have known him as a genius for logistics, but he does not understand Africa. The fine balance of a native society with its elaborate taboos and complex custom is a valuable asset for colonial rule if it is harnessed properly, not an obstacle to be trampled down. His indiscriminate preferment of anyone willing to lend recruits to the cause, his careless favouritism towards his troops, all the way to overlooking the worst kind of predations on the civil population, and above all his readiness to issue promissory notes in payment of any and all services, are all most deleterious to the future operation of the colony and in combination, potentially ruinous. There are villages along the railway line in which the inhabitants, through the sale of millet and tchombe beer alone, have acquired such a wealth of government scrip that they can pay decades' worth of hearth tax. How we are ever to make inroads into a population that independent without resorting to naked force or rankest injustice is all but impossible to see.

The quality of the forces thus obtained is, of course, a matter for the military to judge. I am in no position to allow myself more than a casual judgement, but must state that I have been impressed especially by the newly raised 12. and 13. Company of Askari. Whether their discipline is more owed to the leadership of the general or the fact that most of them are dismissed veterans of the King's African Rifles remains for more knowledgeable men than me to judge. What I am to make of the so-called Rugaruga regiments, on the other hand, is a deeply troubling question. I admit to the impossibility of fighting a colonial war without reliance on local auxiliaries, but in the past, these have always been drawn from the tribes in the region and commanded by their own leaders. Ludendorff's decision to hire individual fighting men and pay them wages directly rather than to their headmen is a departure from tradition that is likely to have far-reaching repercussions. Aside from their proclivity to spend their pay on women and tchombe as they receive it - which, one must admit, is preferable to their taking these things by force of arms, as unpaid or poorly supervised troops are apt to do – creates inflationary pressures, driving up supply costs. More worryingly, those few that do not do this are already acquiring cash in quantities that will make the worst elements of the native populace – unattached, violent, rebellious young men, many of them of the notorious Mahehe and Massai – the natural leadership through much of the colony. Now that they have been taught to kill whites and equipped with modern rifles, I fear they may put their lessons to good use.

Letter by Governor Solf to Berlin

18 January 1907, Lublin

In Poland these days, the people distinguished areas by saying whether 'the war had passed through them' or not. It made sense, in a viscerally immediate fashion. The quality of living was a different one, even if you were shielded from the worst impact, in a town where buildings were gutted, crops destroyed and the civilians either fled or thoroughly intimidated. Lublin, Sergeant Shternmiler thought, might even merit a distinction of its own. The war had passed through many places, but here, he had stopped long enough to stomp the city flat. Very close to his quarters, a crater still yawned that had swallowed up a school building. A few hundred metres down the main road, the stump of a tower that had held Russian observers when Polish rebels had dynamited it was being turned into a makeshift memorial. In most streets, people lived in cellars. Little of what was aboveground had been left standing. What was still intact had been taken over by the army, and even so, good housing was in short supply. His own room on the second floor of a confiscated mansion had cardboard windowpanes and a hole in the floorboards where a shell fragment had passed through. He could only guess how less well connected men were boarded.

Of course, he did not spend too much time in that room anyway. When you were playing an opponent as wily and dangerous as the Polish NSB, you had to get up early and stay up late. Shternmiler had been utterly shocked to learn that while the Okhrana had ten agents for the entire Lublin military district, with thirty more military intelligence staff, the NSB seemed to be able to throw any amount of men and money at them. Enemy agents crossed the front with impunity, nobody knowing how, and announced their presence by blowing up bridges, assassinating officials, or burning supply depots before melting back into the snowy waste to the west. During his first week on duty, he had personally stopped a Polish charwoman from walking out of their headquarters with the contents of several wastepaper baskets, a trick that nobody on the staff seemed to have been aware of. Now, they used their discarded paper to heat the ovens. The body of the unfortunate woman had decorated a military gallows.

What had followed was a textbook example of everything clueless foreigners thought the Okhrana did. The knock on the door at midnight, savage beatings to extract names, rounding up entire families, carloads of prisoners shipped to Siberia or the hangman's tender mercies. It was crude, it was inefficient, but Shternmiler had to agree that it worked. They had caught a number of Polish agents, some of them apparently quite senior. One even had carried papers indicating he was one of the new crop of NSB agents, trained in Dzerzhinski's university for secret policemen. Of course with Dzerzhinski, you never knew whether the obvious was real or what he wanted you to think. But either way, the man had been a major loss to the Poles, stopped with a knapsack full of gold roubles, detonators and dynamite sticks. Pity he had blown his brains out before they could question him.

That was one of the things that Shternmiler had figured out quickly – gold roubles meant trouble. The Poles paid their organisation in specie. Almost nobody else did, though, so anyone trying to spend gold roubles would immediate attract suspicion. Whoever still had coin usually hoarded it. Only paper circulated. Quiet enquiries among merchants often brought up remarkable catches. And again, it was not something any of the gilded staff officers had thought of. If the mills of the military authorities could be trusted to grind their slow progress, the proposal should earn him his probationary commission – eventually. It was what Colonel Rygin had promised.

More importantly, it meant that people were finally ready to listen to Sergeant Shternmiler. Around the table in the draughty, gloomy dining hall, gilded gendarmerie in powder blue tunics and pompous Patriotic Union bosses – no matter their epaulets, the sergeant could not consider them 'officers' in any real sense – would take the time to consider his suggestions and digest his reports. Today, a small stack of banknotes lay before them.

“German occupation money.” Shternmiler explained. “Until now, we paid people across the front to provide it to our agents. You will notice the stamp saying “Nur zum Gebrauch in rückwärtigen Frontgebiet Warschau” - for use on the Warsaw front. You cannot get these in Germany, or in neutral countries.”

Colonel Rygin examined one of the notes. “These look very new.”

The usual haul of banknotes tended to be grubby, for all that they had been quite recently issued. German money in occupied Poland disappeared into the black market almost as quickly as specie, which meant it was transported creatively.

“Well,” Shternmiler pointed out, “They are new. I had them printed today.”

A murmur went around the table. Several voices were raised in indignation. Assassination, sabotage and torture were one thing, but counterfeiting money was quite another! Rygin gestured for silence.

“Why go through the trouble, Sergeant?” he asked. “We always had enough, didn't we?”

Shternmiler shook his head. “Not really. We lost valuable assets acquiring them. And since we have skilled staff, I obtained the necessary permissions and produced them. Even on closer inspection, they are not distinguishable from the original. It takes an expert to spot the differences.” He did not add that forging handbills, Socialist party papers and all manner of official documents had been bread-and-butter stuff to the old Okhrana. Those who knew, knew, and those who didn't had no need to.

“But,” he continued, “I think once we have this ability, we should use it to the full.”

He withdrew another wad of banknotes from his breast pocket and placed them on the table. “In occupied Poland, the currency problem is acute. Specie has all but disappeared, and Russian copper coinage is rare. Nobody accepts paper roubles any longer. Reichsmark circulates, but only in small amounts, and just like specie, is sucked into the black market almost immediately. The Polish Army Council has started printing its own paper assignats, the zloty, but these are practically worthless where acceptance is not forced at gunpoint. Which leaves the German issue as the most coveted money in circulation. These notes make the average German soldier a wealthy man indeed.”

Nods and harrumphs answered the explanation. The sergeant could plainly see that it had gone over the heads of more than one of the people present. Military intelligence indeed!

“Now, if we were to introduce large quantities of these notes into occupied Poland, it would offer three advantages. First, we can acquire assets rather than lose then. Second, we will undercut the effort of the army council to control all German paper money in their territory. And third, we will undermine the value of German paper issue, which will weaken the economy and strain relations between the Germans and their subjects.”

Colonel Rygin nodded thoughtfully. Lieutenant Sharapov took a deep breath to launch into predictable protest, but his commanding officer gestured for him to shut up. The young cavalry officer visibly deflated.

“It is a thought worth considering.”, the colonel said. “Remember, gentlemen, that we have been instructed specifically to take the gloves off on the intelligence front. We are to stop being nice. I will take the suggestion to headquarters, and we will see what we can do. Good thinking, Sergeant Shternmiler.”

Shternmiler nodded gratefully. Still, the words “stop being nice” hit home. He thought of the round-ups of suspects, the whips and batons in freezing underground cells and the cattle cars full of prisoners. What the hell was nice about that? He missed the old Okhrana more every day.

19 January 1907, Hamburg

Pride and intense satisfaction had been with Marie Juchacz ever since she had entered the imposing GEG building. She had, of course, read of it and even seen photographs before, but that was not the same thing as physically being inside it. Tall, bright windows, smooth brick walls and a dedication to practical lines made the warehouse an industrial palace, far more impressive in its way than many of the grand bourgeois houses that lined the streets of the city. And it had been built, entirely, by the working class, and for the working class. The association of consumer cooperatives that had funded it was supplied from here with the goods it provided to its members, and increasingly produced in its own factories. Today, though, its extensive floors were almost bare of goods. Several warehouses in the neighbourhood had been rented to handle the huge volume of business that the last year had brought. Instead of sacks, crates and barrels, the building housed desks and filing cabinets, maps and charts. It was here that the thousands of cooperative stores in Germany came together to pool their demand and manage their rationing points. And to Marie, it was an uplifting sight indeed. If the Parteihochschule in Berlin was the brains of the German proletariat, this was its beating heart. This was where the means of production and the gains of distribution were funnelled from the exploiting classes to the productive ones. Which made many aspects of the conference so very perversely funny.

The original point of the meeting was a similar pooling of resources for the movement's charitable and health operations. Marie Juchacz herself – a nurse and experienced in delivering active solidarity – had been frustrated often enough in her efforts to coordinate hundreds of often tiny and inefficient local organisations in providing assistance for the Polish refugees and now, the increasing number of families slipping into poverty as breadwinners were drafted, prices rose and all but war-critical production slowed to a crawl. They would change that. Tomorrow, the Allgemeiner Arbeiter-Wohlfahrtsverband Deutschlands would be created, after many tiring months of negotiating and shuffling positions and rank. She herself would be a beneficiary, with a salaried post on the governing committee coordinating refugee relief. But the meetings had brought to the attention of all present the fact that, instead of shunning the cooperative organisations as they had before the war, individual businesses and bourgeois families were beginning to seek them out. So far, it was mostly stories, but everyone had one to tell: Of small shopkeepers who tried to source things from the GEG after their own suppliers had left them high and dry, of middle-class housewives who despaired of getting enough precious rationed sugar, butter and coffee, and of well-heeled gentlemen who sent their servants to fill in membership cards to avail themselves of unadulterated sausages and preserves that more business-savvy butchers no longer provided. Some of the tales were amusing – of elegantly dressed women offering money to be given extra milk from the children's section, or butchers trying to secretly purchase real liver sausage of the kind that they no longer provided to their regular customers. Others – of domestic servants forced to pool their ration cards with their employers' families, wholesalers adulterating scarce rationed goods to have extra for the burgeoning black market, and desperate mothers reselling their children's milk allowance to pay for coal – were less so. It was the strangest thing – honesty beginning to pay dividends. A shop where everyone received what they paid for, proper weight for their ration coupons and no special items for special considerations was as rare as hen's teeth outside the co-op system, it seemed.

Of course that begged the question why the vaunted captains of industry and the almighty state authorities hadn't come up with the idea. The advertising effect would certainly be enormous. Even if the bourgeois element were to be kept out – and why would you want to? - thousands of new applications by working-class members were being processed. It looked like just one more of the thousandfold ways in which the war was changing their world. Just a year ago, Marie remembered being accompanied to work by her husband, or a helpful comrade from the party school. Respectable women – which her income classified her as – did not go to work alone. Today, nobody batted an eyelid at women conducting trams and driving omnibuses. Social Democratic dignitaries met not only the emperor – a strange enough turn of events – but even men like Stinnes and Field Marshal von der Goltz, who before the war would have liked nothing better than to clear the rabble out with the bayonet. What else would be coming?

Walking out through the echoing stairway onto the sludge-crusted street, turning up her collar against the harsh wind, Marie Juchacz noticed a number of handbills stuck to the wall. There was the usual advertising – margarine costing half the ration points of butter, membership discounts for co-ops, concerts of patriotic music and the new Bornholmer Marsch – but also two propaganda posters that genuinely stirred her. One showed the emperor, confidently striding into the future, flanked by working-class figures and soldiers, what the artist must imagine The People looked like. She wondered idly if he had ever seen a real factory girl, or knew what a diet poor in protein and essential minerals did to their figures. Still, “Dem Volke die Hand und dem Feinde die Stirn” was a nice slogan. The hand to the people and the face towards the enemy. Anyone could sign up to that.

The other one frightened her. It showed a solitary soldier, not in the usual parade-dress neatness or the pretend harmlessness of popular comedy. This man looked dangerous. His uniform was torn and dirty, the expensive four-colour lithograph print exaggerating the visceral impact of brown mud and reddish blood smears. A bloodied bandage covered his forehead, the soft-topped infantry cap pushed back. In the background, a comrade lay dead, half upright in a tangle of bushes, his face mercifully hidden, pickelhaube fallen to the ground. Fire and smoke obscured the vision beyond. “Nun aber gnade dir Gott!” the poster proclaimed.

Marie had seen, and often enough edited, coverage of the refugee camps, and knew first-hand how different the reality was from the sanitised version of disciplined, quietly suffering privation presented for the morning papers of the comfortable readership. What did that mean for the front if the authorities were willing to show this to the civilians? What kind of hell would their husbands and sons be coming back from?

22 January 1907, over Labiau, East Prussia

The low thrum of the heavy engines was almost soporific, a dangerous thing when the icy wind cut like a knife. Bernhard Lau shook off the momentary stupor and turned his attention to the vessel. To an outside observer, airships looked like majestic, whale-like creatures, serene and unconcerned by any of the trivial events that surrounded them as they floated through their native element. The first few minutes on a real airship quickly disabused anyone of that notion. Even when it worked – and often enough, it didn't, really – navigating one was a perpetual struggle against contrary and shifting air streams, up- and downdrafts threatening to shear the hull apart, and passengers refusing to stay put. Stretches of tense calm alternated with moments of sheer panic. The hull was practically an eggshell, ready to break at any moment for whatever reason – or none at all. The engines were finicky and hard to control. Flying this thing in the winter still qualified you for a place in the nearest insane asylum as far as he was concerned, and the epaulets they had stuck onto him didn't make things better. He didn't feel like Hauptmann Lau. At least, they could have had the damned decency to give him a navy commission.

In the forward gondola, Lieutenant Werner was taking photographs. Or trying to. It was hard to hear anything, but judging by the movement of his hands and the frantic blowing, he was having to remove ice from the lens again. Well, there was another thing to report back to headquarters once they got there: the camera didn't react well to frost. Its mechanism got stuck, too. Something for others to figure out.

Satisfied that the wind was steady and the hull would not tear apart just now, Lau looked out over the edge of the gondola. Underneath them, the city of Labiau stretched out like a miniature model, surrounded by snow-blown fields and the white ice of the Baltic. Along the quays lay ships, some merchant hulls and fishing boats, others with the long, predatory silhouettes of warships. Russian torpedo boat destroyers. For now, they were caught in the ice, all activity frozen in place for the winter, but soon enough the Baltic would thaw out and these sharks would return to their hunting. Lau had served in a gunboat. He understood their purpose well. Idly, he wondered if there might not be a way of dropping shells on them from a height while they were defenseless like that. Of course, LZ4 could hardly carry the weight of a full crew complement. Maybe if they left the observer behind and used a 20-cm shell instead of a trim weight?

Beneath them, antlike dark figures scurried over the white fields and streets. Some were running, perhaps panicking. Might they be thinking the same thing? Lau had nothing to drop on their heads. He'd do no more terribly things to them than take a few aerial photographs of the town's defenses, if he could get away with it. An ominous sputtering in the starboard engine drew his attention. Think about bombing later, he scolded himself. Getting this old scow home in one piece would do for now.

26 January 1907, Capetown

… Howe much longer can we accept without so much as a murmur of protest the swelling stream of Namaqua Hottentots that the German colonists are driving across our borders? How much greater expenditure in relief and transport must we be willing to shoulder for the enrichment of the German state? How many more unquiet nights must our settler families spend watching as armed bands of desperate Hottentots sneak through the night under the windows where their wives and daughters sleep? It is enough. The imperial government is fully within its rights, and must be hoped soon to finally choose to, say to Berlin that no matter what wars they fight in their piece of West Africa, their problems must be their own. Let them resettle the Namaqua, or let them lock them up if they prove recalcitrant, as we did with our own Hottentots. But it is not acceptable, and shall no longer be tolerated, that they merely drive them across the border into British territory and leave well enough alone.

It is reported today that the government of the Cape Colony has cabled a formal protest through to the consul in Walvis Bay. We can only hope that reasonable words will be heeded ere good neighbours must come to quarrel over such careless egotism. ...

(Cape Times)

29 January 1907, Paris

“Not a chance, apparently.” Clemenceau shook his head disapprovingly. “Ambassador Constans tried his best, but the Sublime Porte is not in a cooperative mood at this point.”

Minister of the Navy Thomson nodded. “To be honest, I expected as much. Do you believe the Germans or the British are behind it?”

“No.” Clemenceau replaced the telegram form in the envelope on his desk. “The request to allow torpedo boats to be delivered using the Straits was problematic under the best of circumstances. I must say I would have vetoed the idea if you had come to me first. Too inflammatory. Of course I will pound my desk and pontificate on the freedom of commerce and the dastardliness of the Turks not allowing Russian customers to obtain their wares, but seriously – that was daft.”

Thomson swallowed. “They are unarmed. Built in French yards, ordered before the war. I didn't see where the problem lay...”

The prime minister glanced at him with more than a little surprise. “I assumed it was the idea of the shipyard...?” he began

“It was, Sir.” Thomson reassured him. “It was just that I did not think it would be quite so – sensitive. The hulls are not warships,. The treaty does not apply. At any rate, it looks like the vessels can be shipped disassembled. There are sufficiently large cargo hulls available at Marseilles. So the Russians can get them delivered, and I rather suspect it won't matter too much that they are in pieces.”

Clemenceau chuckled. By all accounts, the Russians would have taken the torpedo boats to pieces and shipped them to the Baltic anyway. That was where the action was, and where the Germans sat across the Belt like a cork in a bottle. And nobody was delivering to Arkhangelsk. Then he turned over the folder and uncovered the next telegram. “The bigger problem is that the Turks are now well and truly pissed off. And we can thank our new friends in Rome for that.”

Thomson looked up. “The Italians? What did they do now?”

“Send an ultimatum. Well, technically nothing so crude, but really all but. Rome just notified the Sublime Porte that they intend to provide proper government and stability to Libya, and that they expect the Ottoman government to go along with that.”

The navy minister sucked his teeth. Of course they had known that this was going to happen. It had been part of the neutrality agreement hammered out between them, the Germans and the Italians. But now? “They surely can't be prepared to move already?”

“Well, that was what I was going to ask you.” Clemenceau said. “I doubt it, though. Everything indicates that they assume the Porte will go along with their demands peacefully. I'm not so sure, but either way, they'll have Libya. I just wish they'd have had the courtesy to tell us in advance.”

“What do we do?” Thomson asked.

“Nothing. There is no point alienating the Italians if we hope to get them to join our side. Quite the contrary, we will encourage and assist their little adventure, and take the opportunity to swallow up Morocco while we are at it. But this could become a problem. We know the Italians are negotiating for Greek co-belligerency if the balloon does go up. That could give the Ottomans the excuse and motivation to close the Straits for good.”

The navy minister swallowed. Closing the Straits meant choking off the Russian supply line. The French government could not possibly permit that to happen. But what could they do if the sultan was involved in a hot war with Italy and Greece? Nobody would forbid the Turks to mine the Sea of Marmara if it meant keeping out hostile warships.

“I suppose that means trying to mediate?”

“Unfortunately so.” Clemenceau sighed. “This would have been easier if we had had better preparation. But still, I hope we will be able to make it work.”

This would be so much easier if the Italians were their firm allies. But as long as Rome hadn't signed anything, dangling the prospect of a renversement des alliances gave them leverage, and it looked like they enjoyed making the French government dance. For now, they would play along. Libya for Italy, maybe some islands and territory in Thrace for the Greeks, if they went along, and salving the wounded pride of the Turks with money and promises. Sometimes, Clemenceau wondered if war with Germany and Britain wouldn't have been easier.
30 January 1907, Warsaw

The winter in Warsaw had a steely grip, far stronger than what Feldwebel Halltauer was used to from the hills of his native Saxony. For all the picturesque qualities the town took on – and the snow hiding the dirt, the squalor and few remaining scars of the street fighting - not many people willingly ventured out of doors if they could avoid it. That made seeing a throng of people in the street unusual in itself. Since their triumphal arrival in the city, things had settled down for the German army. Nobody cheered their marching columns much any more – not that anyone did much marching if they could help it. The Polish population was friendly enough, generally, but they had simply become a feature of normalcy. Here, something else was going on. Steadily apologising – the time German uniforms had gained you free passage everywhere was long gone - the sergeant pushed his way to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of the column marching down Petersburgskaya Street. It was a truly pitiful sight.

Up the main street came prisoners – line after line of Russian soldiers, shuffling through the cold, wet sludge that covered the cobblestones. They looked, quite simply, terrible. Emaciated, hollow-eyed faces, cheekbones almost poking out through the parchment-thin, pale skin, the checks covered in scraggly beards and grime, they stumbled almost with every step, many walking gingerly, some supported by their comrades. Their uniforms were dirty, ragged and often torn, few had greatcoats or caps, most covering themselves with one or two army blankets instead. The mounted Polish hussars guarding the column looked down on their tattered, filthy charges with the kind of disdain Halltauer had seen from good churchgoing burghers encountering drunk hoboes. Every now and then, they encouraged them to speed up with a jab of their riding crops, but most were content simply to herd them along at the halting pace of the walking wounded.

“Who are they?”, he asked a bystander in his best Polish.

“Russians from Ivangorod.” a nearby man explained. “Going to prison camps in Germany. Should have left them to us, could save the food.”

That made sense. If you could trust the papers, the garrison had held out until the supplies ran out, and surrendered only once starvation threatened to kill them. Thousands of wounded and dying men had been pulled from the remaining casemates by their German conquerors. Which had to mean – Halltauer realised with horror – that these were the healthy defenders, and they had been getting German rations for at least fourteen days now. At least he hoped they had. Surely the Poles must have fed them. There were no Germans in evidence, but guarding prisoner transports was one of the things you could easily trust the Polish National Army with. If you didn't mind a bit of wastage and loss, that was. He took another look at the shambling, freezing stick figures of men walking past and shuddered. Poles could be hard bastards. But by all accounts, the Russians had earned every bit of the payback.

How would German prisoners be faring in enemy hands, though?

02 February 1907, Helsingfors

It was almost possible to believe that war was something that happened to other people. The windows of the grand houses on Alexandersgatan were bright after sunset – which came cruelly early at this time of year – with the snow reflecting the light spilling out. Polite, well-dressed people greeted the officers in the street. Soldiers ambled about, mingling freely with the civilian populace. The navy ships still moored under the guns of Sveaborg fortress lay entombed in glittering ice. Captain Berezik felt nearly ready to fall back into his peacetime habits – but only nearly. Some corner of his mind would not quite let go of the memories of St Petersburg, of the street fighting, of the Finnish rebels fighting them on the coastal road. Even on a fine evening,. With the warmth of strong tea and fine cognac spreading through his belly as he strolled leisurely back to his billet, a remnant of the watchfulness and instinctive distrust that the battle had created was still with him. That was why he found himself on the ground in the gutter before he even consciously registered the shots. It was why he lived and Lieutenant Rigin did not.

The gunfire erupted suddenly, stunning and panicking the well-dressed crowd. Men in elegant hats and fur caps, ladies in fur-lined coats and soldiers in colourful uniforms scrambled to get away. Berezik, flat on the ground and partly shielded by a delivery van, carefully turned his head to see what was going on. The shooters were three young men, dressed in shabby coats and cloth caps. They looked like workers, which they most probably were – the poorer districts had never seemed quite as resigned to the restoration of order as the centre had been. Each of them brandished a revolver, firing at any Russian uniform they could see. They seemed to take the time to aim, which at least suggested they were not out to cause indiscriminate slaughter, but of course, the captain did not much care to be discriminately shot, either. He carefully wriggled forward deeper into cover, dragging his elegant coat through the sludge and horse dung. It had to happen on a social call, of course. If he had been on guard duty, he'd at least have his own revolver. What was he supposed to do with his parade togs? Threaten to dazzle them with his gilded portepee? The absurd thought of throwing his sabre like a dart briefly crossed his mind.

Another shot rang out, and someone was shooting back now. It had to be the Cathedral Square picket, coming down to save the day. Soldiers in their heavy green greatcoats, how Berezik loved the sight! A bearded sergeant was leading the charge, bayonets fixed, keeping his men's fire directed and carefully aimed. The attackers withdrew down Fabiansgatan, headed for the Esplanade where they might just manage to slip away into the crowd. Not today! Berezik rose to his feet, drew his sabre and shouted to the men: “After me! Let's get them!”

Revolver shots greeted them at the corner, but a single volley of rifle bullets ended the unequal confrontation. The attackers ran again, sheltering ineffectively behind a glazier's cart. They still kept up shooting. The Esplanade itself was empty now, except for more armed men coming to Berezik's assistance. Sailors from the Salutorget and soldiers from the Senate building and train station pickets were converging on the firefight, pinning down the unfortunate rebels. A few civilians were sheltering in doorways, but almost everyone on the scene now was in uniform, mostly armed and determined to pin down the enemy and make an arrest. Those had been the orders: catch any rebels you can to make an example. The navy detail were firing their rifles down the length of the street, being enormously unhelpful,. Berezik cursed.

“Corporal!”, he shouted to an unhappy-looking infantryman, “get over there and tell the damned sailors to stop firing! They're endangering our own men!”

The kid saluted and ran off at a crouch. Moments later, the shooting stopped. Berezik ordered his own men to keep firing. With the building behind the gunmen, they could keep them pinned while the troops from both sides of the street moved in. A few desultory shots warned him to still keep his head down, but he still loped forward, crossing half the road and dropping behind a bench. They would have to surrender now. Three revolvers against at least fifty rifles was no contest. Russian soldiers converged on the cart from all sides, and the captain was already trying to put together the Finnish words for “hands up” when his eyes met those of the gunman. He had his revolver in his right hand, just finished reloading, rising to his feet, and he was smiling. Scanning the Russian advance, he nodded to the officer and reached into the interior of the cart. Berezik grunted a curse, his legs dropping away under him reflexively before he completed the thought. He saw the flash and felt the searing wave of the explosion moments before the hail of scrap iron arrived.

04 February 1907, near Pultusk

Oberleutnant Franz Rottloff did not feel he was getting anywhere. Of course, that could describe better than half of his working days. Military intelligence was not a field to go into if you liked to have tangible results. In some ways, it was a bit like his peacetime occupation as a sales clerk for German export firms in Russia: you had to feel out the other party's negotiating position and guard your own. But the parallels only worked up to a certain point. He had certainly never expected he would put his old uniform back on (it was tight across the stomach), and if he had daydreamed about such things, he had not seen himself sit in a disused livery stable interrogating prisoners. It was very far from glorious work.

“Listen!” he told the captive sitting in front of him, “We already know what your unit patches mean: You are a sergeant with the Vyazemsky Regiment, and you lead a firethrowing unit. Gigropir you call them. Keeping quiet is stupid and pointless. Spare yourselves and me the aggravation and tell me what I need to know.”

An angry shake of the head was the only response. Rottloff gritted his teeth and gestured to his assistant. A steaming cup of tea was placed in his hand.

“I understand you feel it is the honourable thing to do, sergeant. But sooner or later, you will have to tell us your name, at least. Your name, your unit and function. Really, the sooner you do, the sooner we can end this. You surely must be cold and thirsty.” The lieutenant deliberately moved the cup so the prisoner could smell the steam. “Just a few pieces of information, to confirm what we know. Then we will ship you behind the front, to warm quarters. You'll have a bed and hot food. But I can't do anything for you until you help me.”

The Russian sergeant looked up. For the first time since the infantry picket had brought him in, his gaze crossed that of his interrogator directly. His initial disorientation had dissipated, and what met Rottloff's eyes was sullen defiance. His lips were still blue with cold and his hands red and raw, but it was plain to see the man would rather have frozen to death than accepted the tea the German officer had offered him. Rottloff sighed and nodded to the sentry at the door. The soldier saluted and left.

“I am sorry you feel that way. I really am. There is nothing more I can do for you, you understand.”

The Russian shook his head and snorted derisively. Rottloff sat down and sipped his tea, scribbling a few notes on the protocol. Moments later, the door opened again. The sentry ushered in two men in black leather jackets, caps pulled tightly over their ears and heavy revolvers in holsters on their belts. They saluted, and the leader pulled off his gloves. “You have someone for us, Herr Oberleutnant?” he said, in heavily accented German.

Rottloff nodded, his disgust plainly registering on his face. “Yes, Captain. A firethrower unit sergeant with the Vyazemsky regiment. We have to know the dispositions of these units.” He turned to the prisoner, switching to Russian: “I am sorry. You will now be turned over to the National Security Bureau of the Polish National Army Council. Captain Niermerszein will be interrogating you.”

The sergeant cringed as though he had been struck with a whip. “No!”, she stammered. “No. Please. My name is Sergeant Alexei Grigorievich Borisov, with the 115th infantry. I command a 40-litre gigropir. I...”

Rottloff shook his head sadly. “I'm afraid it is settled, sergeant.”

Niemerszein took the captive by the wrist and handcuffed him, pushing his towards the door. Rottloff did not return his parting salute. He turned to his assistant.

“Close the file. No result, passed into custody of Polish National Army.” he sighed heavily again, stroking his moustache. “And now, if you will excuse. I need to wash my hands.”

09 February 1907, Rastenburg forward field hospital

Another one. Doctor Hans Mehring looked up from the improvised sink he was scrubbing his hands in to see the bearers come in through the broad door. At least the wounded did not come flooding in like they had in the Königsberg battle. You still fought against impossible odds, but at least you didn't have to give up most of them before you started. And surgeons didn't really need sleep. You learned that much during your internship. He straightened himself, shook the hot water off his hands and walked over to the preparation area. That was another thing: they really should have another doctor out there. The wounded were often filthy and lousy from living in the cramped confines of dugouts and trenches, with little fresh water and no opportunity to wash or change for weeks. During periods of intense fighting, they sometimes spent days in shellholes or rifle pits, drinking snowmelt or the water that seeped into their pits, in the company of their dead. A more fastidious or squeamish man might have suffered an attack of nerves, but Mehring was neither. Still, he knew that it was impossible to get sterile again once you touched the wounded in pre-op. Even accidentally brushing your coat against one could make you the unwitting murderer of every man you operated on that day.

But there was no second doctor, and he went out. The stretcher bearers lowered their burden to the floorboard, groaning and stretching in their heavy coats and jackets. They would be given a brief respite, hot coffee and a bite to eat in the Wärmestube, before going out to risk their lives again. Doctor Mehring was glad to see them wearing white armbands marked with the red cross. Not every enemy unit respected those. The Russians on this stretch of the front apparently did. Gingerly, the surgeon stepped closer to the man lying on the stretcher, reads for whatever horror the war had produced today. The bearer turned aside the heavy blankets they had wrapped their charge in to prevent him from freezing. Doctor Mehring raised his eyebrows with surprise. This was remarkable.

“Did you prepare him for transport?” he asked the bearer.

Often, the wounded reached the forward hospital in a pitiful state after having been dragged and carried over broken ground for hours. Many were killed by blood loss or exhaustion after they made it here, others slipped away overdosed by well-meaning rescuers administering morphine too generously. This one looked like he would have been a good candidate for that: multiple splinter wounds, maybe from a hand grenade or one of those newfangled Nogi mortars. The face and upper body had been badly sliced up, the left arm torn to shreds. But this man had been in expert hands. A tourniquet cut off the blood flow to the wreck of his forearm, the arm itself secured by an improvised bandage. Safety pins held the flap of flesh that had been his left cheek in place. His mouth and nose had been cleared of blood and dirt, a rolled paper tube wedged between his lips and the bleeding, toothless gums. The fluttering eyelids betrayed consciousness, barely edged out by a generous dose of merciful analgesic. Mehring was not sure he could have done better under the circumstances.

“Yes, sir.” the stretcher bearer answered.

“You did well. What's your name?”

“Heesters, Sir. Private Karl Heesters, Westfalian Infantry Regiment No. 13.”

The doctor nodded. He decided to see if the man could be more useful yet. “Did you see any major wounds elsewhere on the body?”

“No, Sir.” The soldier shook his head. “Just cuts and tears. We don't bring in chest wounds, normally. Not when others are waiting.”

The doctor nodded. “Good. You probably saved him. I think he can keep his lower jaw – the hand, probably not.” He waved to his assistant. “Prepare him and put him under. I'll be in rightaway.” Then, he turned back to the tired, dirty soldier in front of him.

“Where did you learn to do that? Did you ever work in a hospital?”

The man shook his head. “No, Sir. I learned it in first aid classes.”

“With the Red Cross?” Mehring asked.

“No, the Red Cross doesn't teach the likes of us. I learned with the Arbeitersamariter, Sir. Prepare for accidents in factories and mines. May I go now? There are more wounded to bring in.”

Arbeitersamariter... Doctor Mehring tried to remember if he had ever heard about that group, It sounded familiar. The Social Democrats did all kinds of stuff, of course, but this made sense. It was a good thing to have people qualified in first aid when you were working with dangerous machinery. And it looked like this one, at least, knew very well what he was doing.

“Yes, Private Heesters, you can go. But once you are off duty, I want you to report to me at the field hospital. You did very well today. Have you been a stretcher bearer for long?”

“No, Sir.” Heesters was so damned tight-lipped! “Been in the infantry for most of the war.”

“You are wasted there. Anyone with your training needs to be saving lives.” Mehring started wondering. “Are there more of your comrades? Arbeitersamariter?”

“Yes, Sir. Must be a couple thousand of us. Lots of workers and miners did the first aid courses.”

Mehring nodded thoughtfully. That was something to remember. The army was wasting some valuable talent there to say the least. Most stretcher bearers were not medics, and could do very little for the men they rescued. And this man – well, most medics would have done a worse job, in Mehring's experience. The surgeon looked over his shoulder and watched the hospital staff lifting the unconscious man onto the operating table. He was needed.

“Get yourself some coffee, private. But don't forget to report back to me. You'll be very useful here.”

Heesters saluted, his face unreadable. Well, Mehring would have to get him to say a little more. These Arbeitersamariter sounded like a very valuable resource. He'd have to draw up some papers and plans – but he was sure that could be done. Meanwhile, there was work. There was always work.

12 February 1907, Lodz

Sergeant Budka felt that – warm and comfortable though they were – the new uniforms had their disadvantages. In the days of the rebellion, a man's clothes told you something about him. The plain belted shirts and sheepskin coats of the countryfolk contrasted with the tall boots, fur caps and colourful jackets the szlachta recruits wore; you knew what to expect from either kind. Citydwellers with their cloth caps and woollen coats were a different breed from fur-clad riflemen that could melt into the brush and forest. The gear they carried, too, spoke of people's stories – captured Russian arms and boots, or store-bought supplies from some gentlemen's outfitter in Warsaw or Lodz, a battered Nagant with notches carved into its stock or a Mauser, smooth and deadly, a rusty butcher knife or a gilt-handled sabre gave you the measure of the man. By contrast, the men that now came out of the National Army's camps and barracks after a long winter of training and drilling, reorganising and regularising lacked any such distinguishing marks. Most of them wore the same thing – blue jackets and grey trousers, grey greatcoats, uncomfortable black shoes and square caps. Most of it came from German warehouses, which made them look more like cheap knockoff versions of German troops than properly anything of their own kind. A man standing in front of you might be a raw recruit or a veteran of two years of fighting, but you would never know. It seemed wrong. Looking out over the crowd packed into the railway station's former third-class waiting room, he got a sense of the same disorientation. They largely looked the same – very few NA units had opted for locally supplied uniforms over German materiel – but they did not feel quite as though they belonged together. Most of his men stayed with their unit, and his impression was that the same was true for everyone else, too.

A young woman in a cotton-print dress wearing the red-and-white armband of the NA's civilian auxiliary corps was handing out hot coffee. That, too, was different from what Budka remembered. Housewives and girls had sometimes brought out pots of tea or coffee or – more welcome – bottles of vodka to the men as they passed down the road or waited in some square for orders that often enough took days to arrive. They had always come with smiles, faces radiating pride and gratitude. The server who was now ladling steaming brown liquid into the waiting tin cups of the uniformed crowd did not radiate anything. Her face was grey, hollow-cheeked, with dark rings under her eyes. She looked tired, stooping under the weight of the twelve-litre can she carried in her left. As it was so often these days, since the Germans had taken over: Things worked better, but they felt colder and less - real. Less human. The visceral quality had gone out of their world.

A rumble rose above the background murmur of the packed hall. Three men in black coats had entered through the door to the station concourse: Jewish troops. Some of Budka's men stared, one spitting out and cursing under his breath. That was another thing – nobody quite knew what to make of the Jewish soldiers. The trial of Garski was stirring emotions, men sometimes coming to blows over taking one side or the other. A Polish Dreyfus, they said. Budka himself was unsure what to think, or whose story to believe, but he knew that the whole affair was damned awkward. It didn't help that the Jewish soldiers kept to themselves so much. Then again, you couldn't blame them, could you? It wasn't like Christian men were falling over their feet to invite them. All told, Budka felt it might have been best if they had never joined the cause. What interest did they have in Poland, anyway?

The crowd surged and milled about. The bearded fellow who led the Jews in had unrolled several sheets of paper and tacked them to the board that stretched along the side of the hall. Voices were raised even before the trio had exited. Fragments of sentences bobbed above the hubbub: Acquittal! Treason! Collusion! The Jews had closed ranks and protected their own. Good on them, Budka figured. He'd be damned if he'd let some strangers string up one of his men without a fight. But the mood in the crowd differed; some men were cursing furiously, crossing themselves, shouting down others. The placard on the noticeboard was torn down, ripped up and trampled. One man jumped up on a bench and started waving a yatagan about. Damned Jews, damned troublemakers...

“Platoon, attention!” the sergeant shouted at best he could. “Didn't you fucking hear me?! Attention! Look THIS WAY!“

Three quick, far-reaching steps took him to the edge of the benches his men had occupied, and he grabbed two men by the shoulders and spun them around to face him. Others rose to their feet, kicking and shifting their packs around to get into a semblance of formation. Coffee cups were quickly drained after two or three, carefully set down on the benches and floor, toppled over to spill their contents over shoes, packs and trousers. Men cursed and lifted their packs out of the way of the brown rivulets. It sucked, but it was better than the alternative.

“Platoon at fucking ATTENTION! That means you, Brzerzinski!” Budka decided against using force, but the soldier so addressed flinched and stood ramrod-straight. Around them, other officers and NCOs were struggling to restore order. At the other side of the hall, a soldier had climbed on the bar where the civilian auxiliaries served their coffee and soup and started hectoring the men. He was impossible to understand at the distance, but it did not take much in the way of imagination to guess what he was saying. Some men were taking up the chorus of “Hang the Jew! Hang the Jew!”

“All right, platoon!” Budka was feeling queasy. He had his voice and his fists, but if they failed to impress, there was little enough he could do to keep them in line. Having a gun didn't matter – everybody had guns. He would have to rely on the discipline he and his colleagues had tried to inculcate over the winter. “You've heard the news, and that's that. We are marching out of here to the railyard. Up packs!”

The men grumbled and cursed, but they obeyed. Pushing and shoving in the press of uniformed men, they picked up their packs and rifles and took up marching order. Other groups in the hall were doing the same, with more or less success. Sergeant Budka placed himself at the head of his platoon.

“Forward march!” It was working. Leave them no time to think now! They could cool their tempers out in the snow, between the sidings. “Left, two, three, four, Left, two, three, four...”

They had to stop briefly as a lieutenant marched his men out through the gates ahead of them. The sergeant saluted briefly and took the opportunity to turn around. A group of men – two platoons or so, it looked – had lined up along the long wall of the hall on the orders of several leather-lunged NCOs. Groups of men had formed into knots or rough formations. His own did not look much like parade-ground ranks either, but they were holding up so far. Less fortunate officers were shouting at the backs of soldiers milling around the speaker. A door burst open, and men rushed into the room from behind the bar. NSB men! There was no mistaking the black leather jackets. Two of them tackled the speaker, dragging him off the bar. A roar of indignation rose from the crowd, but nothing else happened. Nothing would happen. Budka could see how the front rows of men pushed backward, recoiling from the security men as though from poisonous snakes. The other NSB agents were taking up position in front of the concourse doors. Five or six against at least three hundred – and they were just standing there, arms folded, legs apart. Sons of bitches they might be, but they had balls.

The gates were free. “Forward!” Budka ordered. His men followed, now no doubt glad to be leaving the scene. “Left, two, three, four, left, two, three, four...” Snow and sludge squished beneath their feet. The crisp, cold air hitting their faces helped. Budka was feverishly trying to think up what kind of speech he would give them once they were far enough away, but at least he did not have to worry about angry protests. Most of them seemed earnestly relieved to be away from the NSB. Well, at least they had that much sense.

13 February 1907, Berlin

NOTICE to all German citizens serving in Polish National Army Units:

All German citizens are liable for conscription in time of war. This applies to men currently resident in foreign countries unless they hold a specific exemption. All German citizens serving in the Polish National Army as volunteers are hereby required to report to the nearest German military authorities for induction.

Colonel von Seeckt sighed heavily. This was arrant nonsense. More, it was pernicious, corrosive nonsense. There could not be more than ten thousand German citizens serving in the NA, probably fewer than that. Most of them were Poles from Posen and Silesia. And the government had actively encouraged them to join before the war! But now that the right-wing press had taken up the cause, the powers that be felt something had to be done. It made no sense at all. The papers were fulminating about men dodging the draft anyway, but before they had usually made it about factory workers and miners. The authorities put the kibosh on that kind of talk when they pointed out that they were not even allowed to volunteer. The noise had died down a bit until about a month ago, when stories about Germans in Poland had surfaced. Now, they were seeing protesting letters to the editors and Reichstag members like there was no paper rationing.

“Why must the best of our nation lay down their lives in battle while others shirk their duties?”

“What wonder that Poles would not see the need to fight or suffer for something that we Germans can give them without any effort on their part!”

“Passport Germans can hardly be considered Germans if the love of their country burns so feebly in their heart they fail to rush to the colours in her hour of need.”

That was what they called them now: Passdeutsche. Passport Germans, as in: not real Germans. This was not something von Seeckt usually would quibble with. Many Polish inhabitants of Posen and Silesia might feel Prussian, but they had little enough love for Germany. What infuriated him was the patent nonsensicalness of this smear campaign. Reading the Kreuz-Zeitung or the execrable new Völkische Rundschau, you would think they were lounging about on some beach promenade in Poland waiting for news of victory to return home. The men these papers were talking about had spent many months, in some cases over a year, fighting the Russians while Germany was still at peace. They were out there in the trenches right alongside their German brethren, and it would add nothing of any value whatsoever to yank them out of their units and induct them into some German outfit just to send them back doing the same job.

Unfortunately, the high and mighty OHL did not agree. The papers were technically correct, which, as far German bureaucracy was concerned; was the best kind of correct, and Something Was To Be Done. Hence the ridiculous task on which he was now bent. He dipped his pen again and continued writing the draft.

Failure to register for induction by the First of May is punishable by loss of citizenship.

All enquiries in this matter may be addressed to the German military authorities in Poland.

Well, that was that. The Poles would laugh. The press would likely erupt into a cacophony of disagreement over whether this was too much or too little. And whatever were they to do with the odd men who did turn themselves in? They could hardly throw them in with raw recruits, after a year of combat experience, and after the smear job the patriotic press had done, they couldn't promote them to NCO, either. That was some valuable skills lost right there. It was one hell of a way to fight a war.

15 February 1907, Berlin

“So – a subsidy one million marks.” Brigadier Groener did not smile. The negotiations had been hard.

Felix Dzerzhinski looked up at the Prussian officer resplendent in his general staff uniform and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “In gold?” he asked.

“In gold.”

Dzerzhinski suppressed a smile of triumph. It was not what he had negotiated for, but it was more than he had expected to get. A million in gold would buy a lot of compliance, information, and equipment. And as an annual subsidy, if the war lasted that long it would come in handy to continue his service independent of the Army Council.

“You should be grateful. This is far more than we pay any other source.” Roeder looked almost indignant.

“I am giving you more than any other source, too.” the Polish intelligence chief said, his face dispassionate. “I gave you Redl, and his handler. The railway saboteurs and the Rotterdam consul's men. And he wasn't even on my turf. The maps of Ivangorod alone should be worth that money.”

The German officer said nothing. He knew that Dzerzhinski was right. Eventually, he began reiterating their contract. “One million in gold, payable in four instalments in Warsaw, no receipts. In return, we get your information and a liaison of five men with your headquarters.”

Dzerzhinski nodded. “And asking privileges. Believe me, I will be more than happy to provide them with any information that will harm Russia. Brigadier, it is a pleasure doing business with you.”
19 February 1907, Berlin

With the blinds drawn against the bright light of the short but intense winter day, the high-ceilinged room felt confined and stuffy. The air was stale, cold cigarette smoke pervading every piece of fabric and upholstery. Prince Albert, splendidly dressed in his admiral's uniform, seemed incongruous amid the clutter and chaos that spread through the twilight. He was still shocked to see the great office reduced to this state.

“I must talk to you.”, the prince opened the exchange. Wilhelm looked at him, a wary shadow flitting over his pale, hollow-cheeked face.

“I gathered as much. You did not come all the way from Kiel just to check on the flower gardens, did you?” It was a pale shadow of the banter they had so readily exchanged in the past. “Whose idea was it?”

Albert sighed. “Mine, Wilhelm.” He cast his eyes around the room. “though Rathenau is concerned about you as well. As is your friend the Countess Reventlow, who has been seeing far too little of you. As is Field Marshal von der Goltz, who has a good eye for men. As is your private secretary. Even if you are not willing to listen to me, that should give you pause.”

Wilhelm rubbed his temples, gingerly avoiding the vicinity of his left eyesocket. “And they needed to send you?”, he snapped. “Surely they could have told me themselves.”

“They were rather afraid to do so. You may have noticed, Wilhelm, that you tend to get angrier than usual lately. The people around you do not take the imperial anger lightly. It frightens them.”

Wilhelm waved his hand dismissively “It's not like I don't have reason enough. Sometimes I think I'm surrounded by idiots here! At least in the navy, you are dealing with professionals.” He gestured over the expanse of his desk. “You should see some of the things I have to deal with! It's enough to make a man weep.”

Albert sighed. “You should see some of the things I have to deal with. It was always thus. But letting it get to you is no help to anyone. You're not only burning up good men, you're burning up yourself. And you are harming the country.”

The emperor flinched. He gave Albert a wounded look, then bristled. “Please, uncle. Don't tell me how to do my duty. You have no idea...”

“Somebody has to.” Albert's voice was hard now. “Wilhelm, you can have my unquestioning obedience or my honest counsel, but not both. Choose!”

A moment of silence hung between them. Wilhelm's eyebrow twitched briefly. Then, he looked down. “All right, uncle. What did you come to say?”

Albert's face softened. The role of avuncular adviser suited him better than any confrontation with an angry suzerain.

“You are overworking yourself. And yes,” he raised his hand, “I am aware that von der Goltz puts in twice your hours. He is not recovering from a near-mortal injury. You still need to get your health back.” he paused and looked at the skin around the eyepatch, still red and puffed. “How bad is it?”

“Better.” Wilhelm touched the patch with his forefinger, careful not to exert too much pressure. “Most days I get along with two injections, in the morning and before bed. The pain is bearable then. I still need to take breaks, though.”

Albert nodded. That was worse than he had hoped, but better than he had feared. “What about the work? You can read, I suppose?”

“I get distracted and easily exhausted, but yes, I can read. Coffee and ephedrine help.“ The emperor shrugged again. “I try to manage as much as I can. It's not like I wouldn't prefer to do less. The war isn't going on holiday for me, though.”

First commands, Albert thought,. He had seen it, He had been there himself, briefly. Once you realised you were supposedly responsible for the enormity of an entire ship, you started seeing problems in every detail. And here, the command was an empire, with all 60-odd million squabbling, ill-disciplined inhabitants. It would kill a healthy man.

“Is there any reason you do not trust Field Marshal von der Goltz?” he asked. “Or Rathenau? Or Stinnes?”

“No.” Wilhelm was perplexed.

“Then let them do the jobs you appointed them to. They are eminently well qualified for them, and the less you call on them for long conversations, the more they will get done. You are the emperor. You should concern yourself with the greater questions, not be lost in detail. Get yourselves more qualified people to keep that kind of stuff away from you if you can. Meet more of your professors and experts, and decide the course. Others can plot the path through the channels.”

The emperor pondered this for a moment, it was hardly unwelcome advice. He enjoyed his few meetings with men like Naumann and Siemens. But getting any kind of picture on what was happening at the front took up so much of his time! If he did any less reading, he might lose touch completely. A thought began to form. Hadn't Professor Weber said something about statistics? The ability to produce reliable information from large amounts of data. Maybe it was a matter of having the right kind of reliable people...?

“I am wondering.”, he said quietly, “All those reports. I should maybe have them filtered for me. The less I read, the longer I can last.”

“Definitely.” Albert agreed. “There are sure to be enough trustworthy officers to give you their opinion.”

“I was more thinking along the lines of a – tabulating office, maybe? A census of the battlefronts, you could say. They have those machines in America... Hollerith, I think.” Wilhelm chewed on his lower lip. “And I should talk to Professor Tönnies. He should be able to help me.”

“By all means do that.” Albert said, “but also think about taking some time off. You have been working all winter. The fronts are frozen in place, the navies are icebound. If you are not going to rest now, when will you? Remember, you are getting married in April.”

21 February 1907 Warsaw

General Ferber had long dreamed of meeting the hero of the revolution face to face. In fact, he had become so infatuated with the idea that for a while, he had been in the habit of imagining the encounter with Pilsudski almost the way a debutante did her first suitor. He had certainly not imagined it anything like this., Calling it a negotiation would have been an understatement skirting lying territory.

“I am sorry, General Pilsudski, but nothing less than a separate command structure will be acceptable. And do not accuse me of insubordination, of not trusting you or not loving my country. Too many people have done that already, and you know it's not true. I love Poland, as much as anyone in my situation can. And I do trust you. But I can't hang the lives of my men and the safety of my people on that trust. I'll openly tell you I do not trust everyone on the Army Council.”

The great man was speechless. The audacity of the whole thing was breathtaking! Newly minted Major General Ferber, the latest full voting member of the Army Council, marched in and basically declared he was keeping his own private army! Not that others weren't doing much the same thing in practice, but the damned Zydki said so outright. He wanted it in writing! And Pilsudski was finding there was little enough he could do about it.

“That is impossible!” he finally replied. “Utterly unthinkable. Your men are part of the National Army. You must fight within its ranks. Think what people would conclude about your compatriots...”

“People?” Ferber replied acidly. His debating skills had never been the best at Radun, but he could hold his own against this man easily enough. “General, people already conclude the worst about Jews. They will not be swayed away from trying to insult us, rob us and kill us by a piece of cloth with the National Army insignia. They will be by the knowledge that we do not kill easily.” He tapped the blue-and-white armband he still wore on his uniform's sleeve, right below the red-and-white one that identified him as a Polish fighter. “We wear these. Do you know what it says, general? It says 'Jewish Self Defense Militia'. That's what we still call ourselves. That is why we are in this fight: because the Czar and his armies are killing our people, and we want to stop it. We will help your revolution and build your free Poland quite happily, but it won't be a country where Poles can now be free to torment my people the way the Russians did. It will be a country where we and you stand as equals.”

“General Ferber, I have always stood for equal treatment of all Polish citizens, but...”

“But you stand pretty much alone. I know what they say in the Army Council. Lublin and Skiernewice, and it still wasn't enough to convince them. That is why I need the ability to protect my men and my people. I'm not trying to undermine you. I'm supporting you! But I will not trust anyone except ourselves with our safety. Not after what has happened.”

Pilsudski made a conciliatory gesture. “Look, if this is about the Garski case … I have always supported your handling of the matter.”

“You have” Ferber acknowledged. “I never said you did not. It was the honourable thing to do. More than we are used to, from goyim. And still, after he's been acquitted in open trial, Garski languishes in his cell because of a judicial review. Do you think there would be a judicial review over one of your men? Do you think there would ever have been a trial if it hadn't been for us holding it?”

There was a moment of silence. Ferber was right, of course. The local NA commander would have hanged his prisoner without further ado. That really was the other problem – you couldn't deny that Ferber was right.

“What we are asking,” he finally continued, “is the ability to prevent another Garski trial. Our situation is unusual. You have many of our men as interpreters and instructors scattered over the entire army. We need to keep formal command over them. They stay on the books in our unit, we second them to others. If any problems occur, we have jurisdiction. That is all we require, but we must have it.”

Pilsudski shook his head. “I cannot allow it, General. The Jewish Brigades are part of the National Army. If your men form a separate fiefdom, I cannot justify this privilege before anyone else. I could not allow you to remain part of the force.”

“So, what would you do?” Ferber smiled grimly. “Fight us? The next kopek of pay we get will be the first. We owe little enough to the National Army, for all the fighting we've been doing for you. The Germans handle our supplies, the Germans decide our battle disposition, and they certainly appreciate us. I'm sure I could get them to make me a better offer than you could afford if I really meant to. We're 26,000 trained men and another three thousand or so all over the army. Most of our troops can read and write, and understand German. I'm pretty sure we would be useful to the Kommandantur. After all, we've been useful to you, too. And now that the Germans are taking away their volunteers, you need us more than ever.”

Pilsudski stifled a curse. That, of course, was correct. The Germans were recalling Poles who had been fighting in the NA to their own colours for whatever reason – not all of them trusted the assurance that all they would lose was their passport, and others went because it was what you did when your king called. It was not that he couldn't find someone who spoke passable German to talk to the liaisons. But the ability to read German instruction manuals and telegrams was rarer. The Jews, it turned out, usually could. They had him over a barrel.

“Damn you, Ferber. All right.” He finally grunted. “I'll give it to you. Your men stay with your unit, seconded to wherever they are fighting. I suppose you'll be laying claim to all the Jews we have elsewhere, too?”

“All six of them.” Ferber could not resist the barb. After the chaotic spring fighting, Jewish volunteers from all parts of the NA had flocked to Lodz to be formally inducted into the Jewish Self Defense Militia. Men he had never even heard of considered him their commander. It was extremely rare for a Jew to be fighting in a Polish unit and not wear the blue Star of David that marked the Brigades. “Thank you. I promise you, this will not matter for any practical purpose. But I need to be able to stand by my men. And now, if you need to address the Jews in your army, at least you know who to talk to.”

Pilsudski nodded sourly. “Anything else?”

Ferber grinned. “Well, I have been thinking about adjusting unit titles. By numbers, we surely qualify as a division.”

22 February 1907, Lodz

With a frontage of five men, the ten thousand marching out to the battlefront would take up a minimum of two kilometres. Of course that was unrealistic, because you had to keep them divided into companies with enough space between to maneuver, and it ignored the supply train and supporting arms. But even as a mental picture, it helped Yossel Rabinovich – or, as the sign on his door proclaimed since the latest promotion, Oberst Joseph Rabinowitz – to come to grips with just how large a fighting force the Jewish Brigades had grown into. He still found it hard to fathom the scale of the endeavour. Sometimes it helped simply to see everybody in one place – or as close as you could come, because you really could not see everybody from anywhere along the road they were taking. The only way to do that would be to stand on the roadside and watch the troops march by for a good hour. He did not have the time to spare, though it seemed a fair number of civilians did. It was a rousing spectacle indeed.

They had not let the winter months go to waste. At the head of their column flew their old flag, the flag they had brought back from Lublin and flown at Skiernewice, alongside the red-and-white of the National Army. The second, new regiment of their brigade had been given one that looked almost identical, save for the lovingly cared-for tears and blood spatters on the original, and each company flew its own pennon announcing in bright silver embroidery on blue ground “There Go Maccabees”. General Ferber's words had already taken on legendary status. With music playing and flags fluttering in the cold winter sunlight, the men were marching down the street southward in as good order as could be expected. Military pageantry was still alien to most of them, but they had trained hard. Rabinovich began to understand why Ferber and Lewin had been so adamant: This mattered. Every mile marched in step, under their banners, with their bayonets gleaming and their rifles shouldered, made the men more into soldiers, rooted pride in their hearts and made a habit of defiance. Two years ago, they had bowed before policemen and dodged the whip of the cossack, thanking him for the blow. Now, he could no longer imagine any of this motley crew of students, artisans, merchants, musicians, farmers and mechanics doing anything other than fight back.

The training helped, the uniforms helped, and the sense of discipline fostered over weary months of drill and instruction helped even more. In the beginning, Ferber had used money from their unit fund to pay Jewish tailors for making uniform coats. It was an act of charity more than anything, helping them eat in a world torn apart by war. By now, their needs kept a small industry of tailors and seamstresses, cobblers and washerwomen busy and fed. Every man had a blue uniform blouse and black coat, a pair of marching shoes (the German-issue boots were kept for parades) and a pack. Uniformity had become a matter of pride, and the men jealously guarded their privilege. You aped the style of the Brigades at your peril in the streets of Lodz, as many young men looking to impersonate warriors had learned. That, too, was half a miracle. Who had ever heard of Jews starting fights – or finishing them?

Rabinovich stepped to the side of the road to look out over the column as it passed through a shallow dale. The interminable snake of men and wagons stretched back to the last suburbs of Lodz still, civilians waving and cheering the muddy, weary rearguard. Progress along the sludge-covered streets was slow, and this was bound to get worse as the thaw ushered in the rasputitsa, the season of mud. But the German officers would not brook men who could walk travelling by train. The tenuous bondes of the railway network, strengthened by the weary labour of thousands of civilian corvee workers, were needed to feed the war its steady, gargantuan diet of munitions and supplies, weapons, equipment, food and fuel. Most of their luggage, their artillery train and headquarters were riding the rails to the forward staging area south of Ivangorod. The men would follow in long, weary marches. When the Germans said infantry, they meant it.

Another officer passed by. Captain Kantor, Rabinovich recalled, also on foot. They were technically entitled to mounts, but even if the NA had been able to furnish them, few of them had any horsemanship worth speaking of. A motorcar had been secured for the colonel. One of Grynszpan's contraptions followed it, a belching, armour-plated thing, a machine gun glowering at the world from its cyclopean turret. The rest of the officers would have to make do as best they could, some with requisitioned carts or cabs, others on foot, sharing the burdens and blisters of the footslogger. Rabinovich quietly thanked the heavens for his rapid promotion and started walking again. Slowly, but steadily, at an unhurried, mile-eating pace, the Jewish Brigade was headed to its appointed place in the battle line. At the end of that road lay the Russians. To his surprise, the colonel found that the thought did not the accustomed terror. Anticipation, yes. Worry maybe. But the cold, gut-wrenching fear that they all had learned from their earliest year, the unreasoning impulse to flinch from the presence of a Russian uniform – that was gone. He would be surprised if there was anyone in the whole brigade not looking forward to his first encounter with a cossack in eager anticipation of prestigious loot. Oh, the Russians would be in for a rough time.

25 February 1907, Berlin

The scent of magnolias hung in the air, tentative, but pervasive. It did not impose itself on your senses, but you would never fail to notice it. Ice clinked in the tall glasses as an attentive servant poured lemonade before disappearing through the white-painted door of the heated winter garden. Prince Adam Czartorysky leaned back into the rattan chair and enjoyed the view from the now frost-free windows over the garden still covered in patches of snow and out towards the Wannsee, its surface mottled with melting ice and sludge. These were indeed the days of miracle and wonder. His own country seat might boast an orangerie, but nothing like this. Emil Kirdorf, the host of this congenial meeting, lost few opportunities to show off his wealth and refinement, and the message was not lost on the prince: He was a big fish in a little pond, but a rather small one in this lake. There were men in Germany today who were powers in the land by virtue of their wealth and connections, men who could make events rather than be compelled by them. To them, he might be a desireable ally – a nobleman of ancient lineage and impeccable repute, a man of some influence in the Reichstag's Polish Party and a landowner whose voice carried weight ion the Herrenhaus and the Bund der Landwirte. But he would never be their equal in any sense, not by traditional lights, as a Pole and a Catholic, and not in the new world they were seeking to create. A lesser man might well have been intimdated – as the prince himself was not above doing to lawyers, businessmen and officials – but a Czartorysky would not allow such base impulses. He was amused, intrigued, and resolved to use these cocky parvenus as much as they were hoping to use him. As it happened, they might well arrive at a satisfactory agreement in the end. The Hugenbergs, Witthöfts and Kirdorfs of this world wanted a new Germany. Prince Czartorysky had little enough interest in that. Poland – a proud, a Catholic, noble and virtuous Poland - would do for him, and as far as his allies were concerned, that was very much his affair.

Emil Kirdorf finished thumbing through the volume of papers and laid them on the elegant table, carefully, precisely, but forcefully.

“I do not read much Polish,” he said, “but the pictures alone tell me quite enough. This would indeed be of great interest to Mr Hugenberg and his friends, and I believe we are in agreement as to what must be done here.your grace.”

He rubbed his fingers as though needing to clean them. After having even skimmed the reports, Czartorysky could not blame him. The things that the Polish revolutionaries were doing to their own people could make stronger stomachs turn. The prince smiled.

“I am glad you agree, Mr Kirdorf. Your assistance in spreading awareness of this sad state of affairs well beyond Polish circles will be invaluable. I have taken the liberty of having a large part of the articles translated into German...”

Kirdorf looked up. “By a trustworthy man, I hope?”

“My own secretary. Do not concern yourselves, sir, this material will not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Too many in Poland have risked their lives to bring it here.” Czartorysky gave his best reassuring smile. It was not like anyone who wanted to know could not simply go and find out. The NSB thugs were shootiong people in plain view, and their interrogation cellars were easy enough to get into, by any accounts. Get out, not so much. According to one of the reports, Dzerzhinski himself had said that they had neith the food nor the men to spare for prisons, but would happily let any traitor, saboteur and spy have two metres of Polish earth.

“How many people have seen this?” Kirdorf asked. “This is not just a matter os secrecy, after all. We must be sure it won't appear elsewhere if we hope to publish it strategically.”

Czartorysky scratched his chion. “I cannot speak to the individual reports, naturally. They were collected by priests and monastics and may have been read by their superiors and by couriers.”

Kirdorf waved the objection aside. “That's of no account. The whole file, though?”

“It comes from Warsaw, of course the compilers there have seen it. Naturally, I cannot divulge names. The fewer know, the safer. But the number is small. I have read it, as has my secretary and two other members of the Polenpartei. I can vouch for them.” The prince shifted in his seat momentarily. He was as accomplished at lying as any member of the Reichstag had to be, and not mentioning the copy that had been sent by courier to his allies at the Holy See was a natural impulse, but Kirdorf made him nervous. The man could see through equivocation too well. Still, if he had noticed anything, he left it unmentioned.

“And, of course, the courier, our young Mr Unschlitt.” He gestured towards the third chair, occupied by a nervous young man sipping his lemonade.

“Unszlicht, Sir.” Czartorysky corrected him gently. “Julian Unszlicht. He is one of the team that produced the compilation. A skilled writer, as well as courageous.”

The courier blushed, visibly uncomfortable under the scrutiny of two such powerful men, and following the German conversation with difficulty. The fourth member of their round, fat and jovial editor Hans Persche, took the opportunity to slap him on the knee. “Very good writing indeed. He has the makings of a proper journalist, that boy!”

Czartorysky nodded agreement. “It is all the greater pity that we mnay not mention his name. But surely after all of this has been fought through, he shall take his well-deserved place among the many sons of Poland who bravely battled her foes.”

“Unszlicht,” Kirdorf looked at the man's face, “that name sounds Jewish, I think.”

“I was, Sir.” he said, his German carrying the telltale Yiddish rhythm familiar to any inhabitant of Berlin. “I was baptised into the Christian faith by Archbishop Popiel himself, at my own request, and am now a Pole in every regard.” It almost sounded like a challenge.

“I am glad to hear that.” Kirdorf replied, smiling anemically, his face unreadable. Of course the Deutschnationale press, Hugenberg's and the many independent papers, generally agreed that Jews would always be Jews. But it would not be the first time that Kirdorf disagreed with the fervently held beliefs of his allies. “This is the time for all men of good faith to stand shoulder to shoulder in defense of Occidental culture.”

Unszlicht nodded grimly, his jaw set. The depredations of the godless Socialists and their terrible secret police needed to be stopped. The world had to know what kind of people the German emperor had made common cause with – unwittingly, perhaps, or unscrupulously. The sooner it was understood that Poland was at greater risk now of falling into a worse and more degrading slavery than the Czars had ever imposed, the better. “Indeed, Mr Kirdorf. Indeed. I fear it may already be late.”

“Do not worry.” the magnate said soothingly. “There are yet enough good men in Germany. Once her people understand the full truth about the Polish Socialistic cabal, they will demand the rightful powers be reinstated. We cannot tolerate red anarchy.” He turned to Czartorysky again. ”Which brings me to the next question. I am loth to ask, but – your work with the Polenpartei: How are you set up for funds?”

The prince looked uncomfortable. “As yet, I am doing all right. A lot of it depends on volunteer work, printing costs are all we have to bear. But you know how it is. I depend on my lands for income, and the government has not made things easy for us farmers.”

Kirdorf nodded in sympathy. Times had indeed not been good for the owners of the great estates east of the Elbe. With the collapse of the Russian grain exports in 1905, everyone had hoped for a return to the profitable days of yore, but things had simply gone from bad to worse. With labour costs high, workers running away to join the war industry, liquor production outlawed and the last customs duties on American wheat scrapped, it would be a lucky Junker to do more than stay afloat through the year. Some depended on sympathy loans from right-leaning industrialists, the kind of support the Prussian state had supplied in happier times. Czartorysky was determined not to join that sorry number.

“I will be happy to provide support for printing and distribution costs under these circumstances.” he said, elegantly circumnavigating that particular shoal. “You said you were producing a lot of material in Sweden?”

Czartorysky nodded. Not only did Stockholm printshops not have to deal with burdensome paper rationing, they were also unlikely to report details of their work to Korpsbereich censors. They had been embarrassed a few times by prying busybody officers asking pointed questions about their leaflets and books. There was nothing technically illegal about political publishing for distribution in Poland, but the less attention they attracted, the better. There were too many in Berlin who had been taken in by Pilsudski's pretty facade of a charismatic warleader.

“Well, I will instruct the GBAG office in Stockholm to make available...” he paused, calculating in his mind, “twenty thousand pounds Sterling for your allies' use. That should do, and you may conserve your own means, your greace. You have already done more for our cause than anyone had a right to ask of you.”

“Thank you.” Czartorysky was slightly taken aback. “That is … very generous. It will help greatly” Damn, but the chimney baron had to rub it in. He was a rich man by any account, but the operation he had run with his allies in the church and the 'white' NA units had always depended more on voluntarism and ingenuity than financial muscle. The church had money, of course, but nothing like such reserves of cash, and it had to support too many charities and rebuilding efforts at the same time. This was probably more than they had altogether spent on printing, travel and postage in the past year, in one fell swoop. The only thing that made the thought bearable – even sweet – was that Kirdorf had little idea who he was giving it to. Would he have been as ready to laud young Unszlicht if he had known of his brother's occupation with the NSB? Or as ready to trust the file if he had known it came directly from the archbishop's residence? For all his business experience, he was politically naïve, used to the orderly way they did things in Germany. Poland was different,. It might prove as much of an education to cocky Germans as it had to Czar Nicholas, come time. Adam Prince Czartorysky smiled gently, noncommittally, contentedly.