Es Geloybte Aretz - a Finished Germanwank

Discussion in 'Finished Timelines and Scenarios' started by carlton_bach, Apr 28, 2018.

  1. carlton_bach Member

    Jan 18, 2004
    Altona, Occupied Denmark
    18 October 1907, Warsaw

    “I am as frustrated as you are, marshal, believe me.” General Mackensen sighed walrus-like under his moustache. “But I could have told you in advance that Berlin would deny any requests for additional troops. The fighting in the Baltics has drawn everything they have. This year, it could be St Petersburg.”

    “Which won't do anything.” Pilsudski morosely stirred his tea. “The Czar is in Moscow. The Russians have had enough time to build defensive lines so that even if you get there, the city will be empty - probably burning. And it won't happen this year.”

    Mackensen grunted assent. Tempting though the thought was, there were still undefeated Russian troops in the path, and the mud season was coming on fast. Of course they could try a winter offensive, fight a battle on the ice of Lake Peipus. This time, it might even work. But that kind of thing still favoured the Russians, and supplying an advancing army was hard enough in good weather. “Still, the northern arc offensive is on. You'll have to make do with what we have.”

    The field marshal nodded pensively. “I'm guessing we can, when it comes to that.” he said. “The National Army's been out of action for too long.”

    Mackensen looked up, his hussar's cap shifting precariously. “Feeling your oats?” he asked pointedly. “Half your units are still no better than armed rabble and Landsturm, and you want to march on Moscow?”

    “Not Moscow.” Pilsudski pointed out the obvious. “But you've seen the reports from the front. The opposition is weak. The Russians are barely holding on to their strongpoints. Poor quality troops, and spread thin. With the troops we have here...“

    “ can really land us in the pickle.” the German completed the sentence. “I'm not saying it's impossible, but one thing goes wrong and you're hanging out to dry. And the general who starts screaming for reinforcements when they're needed on the Narva isn't doing his career prospects any favours.”

    Pilsudski sighed. “At least admit you're interested, too. You've made your name defying the odds.”

    “Of course I'm interested.” Mackensen admitted. “Even tempted. Don't think I haven't done the maths. But we can't dare it this autumn. It's too late for large-scale operations, and the Russians have too many reserves down south. Next spring, though...”

    “If the war lasts that long.”

    “Oh?!” A wicked grin spread over the general's face. “That's what's ailing you, is it? Grab more Russian land while the grabbing is good?”

    Pilsudski bristled. “Polish land, general.” he said, perhaps too sharply. He might technically outrank his visitor, but in the real world a German general of cavalry beat a Polish field marshal any day. Not to mention everybody in Warsaw deferred to Mackensen. Even the Generaloberst basically took his suggestions as orders. He softened his tone. “The lands east of the Bug are historically Polish. I would be remiss in my patriotism if I didn't think of them as such.”

    Mackensen chuckled. “Touchy, marshal...” he said. “Don't worry. I don't begrudge you whatever pieces of hide you can get from the bear. But I can't risk exposing my troops to the risk of going off too early, or poorly prepared. We don't have the strategic depth. Now, I happen to have heard that the Austrians are planning a surprise for our Russian friends in early spring.”

    Pilsudski perked up. “An offensive? How early?”

    “Freezing early.” Mackensen said flatly. “They have no intention of being caught on the back foot again. Berlin is too afraid of being Napoleoned. Conrad feels it can be done as long as he keeps his rear areas safely under control, and I think he's right. Cavalry is underrated these days. Now, when the Austrian army is going full tilt for Kiev, the Russians will be busy enough. A forceful attack will punch right through.”

    “If the war isn't over by then.” Pilsudski interjected.

    “That's the risk you run in this business. But if you think we're supporting you going off half-cocked in mid-winter, forget about it.”

    19 October 1907 Kilimatinde

    Hot, dry wind rustled in the trees, rubbing parched leaves together. The railway station looked even more pathetic now that the impedimenta of war had disappeared and the ponderous machinery of government had decamped for the coast again. Governor Solf was seated behind a folding desk under an improvised awning, surrounded – at a respectful distance – by a crowd of locals come to see what the great man wanted. Occasionally sipping iced lemonade, he was methodically working through report after report by district assessors, tax officials and village headmen, despair registering ever more clearly on his drawn, deeply lined face. He had not expected things to be this bad so far inland.

    Villages burned and looted – that, sadly, was to be expected. Askari were bad enough, rugaruga were a plague on the land. The governor's objections had barely registered with the military command, and of course it was him, not Ludendorff, who had to pick up the pieces now. Police units were still busy hunting down the odd band of warriors who refused to go home. Meanwhile, headmen claimed tax and labour relief for the families of men who had been drafted as porters never to return. Others, warriors who had returned, had bought off the tax liabilities of decades in lump sum payments. It was the same story in town after town: aging headmen, tax collectors and imams found themselves unable to control the homecoming fighting men. Flush with cash, they bought up land, lent at interest, bought off taxes and generally threw their weight around. What even a few hundred shillings could do to the precariously balanced barter economy of a native village could be frightening. And of course, the men who had brought the cash as often as not also still owned their military rifles. That was not as big a problem for the colonial authorities as he had originally feared. Most rugaruga owed their new status to the government and anyway, they had seen what modern weapons and disciplined troops could do. But it posed a very large one for men whose traditional authority rested on the assembled villagers and their spears and clubs. A neighbour who could not be economically disciplined, who refused to be intimidated and rejected social convention – it would be bad enough in the leafy suburbs of Bremen. In the backwoods of Ostafrika, it was a recipe for societal collapse.

    Once again, the tale was the same: A veteran Askari, in this case, had ended up owning a third of the land in his village. It was one of those the government had freed from the beer tax as a reward for service in the war, and getting others drunk was his main source of revenue. People were in debt to him for tchombe beer and food, mortgaging their land and children. Meanwhile, the man acquired cattle and wives, laughed at the imam and had ejected the protesting headman from his home with a kick to the rear.

    The worst part was that they could not support the organs of government. There was no money. Tax revenues had deteriorated badly, and the government, desperate to withdraw cash from circulation to head off inflation, had allowed individuals and villages to buy off future payments years in advance. No funds were forthcoming from Germany, of course. They would need to pay off and disband another regiment of Askari at this rate, injecting yet more wealthy and footloose veterans into the ferment. Solf sighed and rubbed his temples, motioning the petitioner to leave.

    “There is nothing I can do as long as no laws are broken. Consider a suit for assault in the district court.” he said.

    Of course, in the long run there could be a silver lining to all of this. After all, even the most steel-livered veteran would tire of spending his days getting drunk and servicing his newly acquired wives. Cash reserves would not last forever, and it wasn't like a shilling reached as far as it used to even now. The men who were the biggest headache now had been in contact with civilised customs in the coastal provinces. Many would go into some kind of business to sustain their newly prosperous lifestyles. It was not how they had planned it, but if even a small part of them managed to remain wealthy, it could do wonders for the economy of a colony ravaged by rebellion, war and misgovernment. It would not be the same colony he had come to know and love – too much damage had been done to the social fabric. But it would be something. Except that future generations would harvest the fruit of those efforts. Solf would keep making bricks without straw until someone in Berlin got around to recalling him. He had no doubts that they would do that just as soon as they had their heads free to deal with the colonies again. After all, German arms had won a glorious victory, and everything that went wrong now had to be the fault of the civil administration.

    The petitioner bowed and left, radiating disappointment. Another old man humiliated. This new Africa the war had made was a young man's world.

    19 October 1907, New York

    “A corner in copper?” J.P. Morgan scratched his chin. “I suppose a man could make a killing these days. But he really tried that? I figured that would be out of his league.”

    “He did.” Elbert Gary shook his head as though despairing of the antics of an unruly child. “Heinze was trying for a takeover of Amalgamated Copper. It looks like that backfired on him.”

    “It does indeed.” Morgan absently rubbed his famous nose. “And how bad is this liable to get?”

    “Bad.” Gary locked eyes with the great banker and gave him a long, grave look. “Very bad.”

    Morgan began to speak, then paused. Investors were distinctly panicky. There had been tumultuous scenes this afternoon at the Mercantile National Bank, and stocks in a lot of companies were dropping. Someone had put about the rumour that several trusts would be forced to sell holdings to pay depositors. As far as he could see, there was no earthly reason why they should, but Morgan knew very well that once enough people heard the story, it would become true.

    Gary continued, his voice brittle. “It looks like Heinze overleveraged. He felt sure he would realise enormous sums, so he secured loans and capital under false pretenses. Several trusts and banks could be affected. New Amsterdam and Knickerbocker might fail in a matter of days.”

    A groan escaped Morgan's lips and he fumbled for a cigar, trying to assemble his thoughts. If it was that bad, the rot already went to the heart of the stock market. It could send banks tumbling left and right, destroy capital markets, burn up profits for years to come. And once the contagion spread, American bankers would not be welcome abroad, either. Something needed to be done.,

    “I'll call Schiff, Hill, Warburg and Carnegie. And – no, I'll invite everyone.” Morgan rose to his feet, giving the appearance of an unstoppable force. “We need to stop this. I should be grateful to you if you would stay, Mr Gary. We need to make plans.”

    17 October 1907, Paris

    A good reporter knew how to flatter his sources, how to make them comfortable and squeeze them for information. And he knew how to massage their ego by playing the ignorant, thirsting for the gift of their wisdom. Jean Bayrou understood his craft. The poor foreign office clerk stood little chance.

    “I was just wondering,” the journalist said, raising a glass of red wine over the cafe table, “if you could explain the Gruson issue to me. It is still rather confusing, The Russian government insists that the company must not receive payments?”

    Victor Repin, a very junior clerk flattered by the attention and already considerably relaxed, smiled and adjusted his spectacles before launching into his lecture: “It is, in fact, a matter of recognition of legal entities. The patent law question is very straightforward. You are aware that the Polish rebels have declared their country independent, of course. And that they are still fighting at the side of the Boche. Now,”

    He set down his glass and raised his finger to accentuate the explanation. “The Poles are producing weapons in factories in Warsaw and Lodz. German rifles, mostly, and Krupp machine guns. But they are also making field guns. German style ones, 77mm caliber. But...”

    “But?” Bayrou sounded convincingly vapid. This was not new to him, but it was still good to have it confirmed. “It is hard to see how this is a political problem.”

    “Oh, wait. We're getting to that. See, the German field gun uses a recoil recovery mechanism based on purely mechanical properties. Basically, a spring. Without this, the gun is almost useless on a modern battlefield, and that is the problem for the Poles. You see, they have all the tools to machine guns as finely as you could want, but they cannot make that kind of steel.”

    “It is difficult?” Bayrou asked, gesturing invitingly for the bottle. Repin picked up the glass again, inviting a refill.

    “Very. Not many foundries can make steel that good reliably. Krupp will not spare any – they need to for suspension springs in their armoured locomobiles and on warships. So instead … ” he sipped. “Good wine indeed, Monsieur Bayrou. Anyways, instead, they machine a hydraulic cylinder that serves much the same purpose. Much like the one we use, though I suppose theirs won't be as good.“

    “Ah.” The journalist smiled, faking dawning comprehension. “And the Russians wish us to forbid that.”

    “Not quite.” Repin explained, smiling generously, “The patent is held by the firm of Gruson. The Polish army actually contacted them on their own initiative and offered to pay royalties. Which is rather decent when you think of it. Don't want to give us any excuse to take offense, you see?” another sip of wine. “Anyhow, the Russian embassy gets wind of this, and their resident is over at the Quai d'Orsay to complain. He said that since Poland did not exist, no French company would be allowed to accept payments that were taken from funds stolen from the Russian government by bandits. Insisted that we put a stop to it. Gave us a bit of a headache, that one.”

    Bayrou nodded. “Complicated, isn't it?” he asked, sounding duly awed.

    “Complicated enough. But we've had instruction from the Prime Minister that French companies may accept payment from the Polish National Army Council. Looks like Clemenceau has had it with their squealing.”

    “I see.” Bayrou's pencil flitted across the notepad. “They've been causing problems?”

    “They're pushing us to go to war against Germany.” Repin smiled broadly. “That's not going to happen. Just isn't. Not under Clemenceau. And … “ he looked around conspiratorially, “...I shouldn't tell you this, but an attack on Germany will mean war with England. That's why. But mostly, I think, because the Russians have annoyed the great old man too much.”

    “Fascinating”, Bayrou muttered half to himself. “Won't they be causing us trouble in retaliation?”

    “Oh, they can't. All bluster and posturing. Russia depends on France.” Repin smiled knowingly. “We're paying their war at six-and-a-half per cent. And they daren't stop selling their bonds. You should get in on it.”

    Bayrou considered the advice. “What if they default?”

    “They can't.- That's the best part. They depend on us completely. Jewish bankers in England and America won't touch their bonds. Paris is the only liquid market.” The clerk drained his glass triumphantly. “Better interest than you'll get anywhere else as safe. Good long-term money, too. Russia's got railways, timber, coal, metals. I've invested.”

    “Good luck with that.” Bayrou said absently. His mind was already racing. If the government was willing to insult the Russia government to that degree... Clemenceau needed to be seen to support industry. And he had given up on Russia. That was good news. Bayrou had always felt queasy about that alliance. It left the question who would be with them against England now. Italy? That was hardly a fair swap. And he did not feel entirely sanguine about the prospects of Russian debt, either. You didn't need to be a genius to see that the country would have financial problems galore.

    21 October 1907, Upper Yenissei

    Spray and splash could hurt on exposed skin and the wind already had an edge like a knife. The bargemen handling the transport up the river were as slipshod as Ondrei Vokasec had expected. He cursed himself for picking a spot on the deck where he could see things. They were travelling with the Russian army, and the only thing you wanted to see if you had your wits around you was hot food and a dry bed. Neither could be taken for granted.

    “Right glorious view, though, isn't it?” Private Ripka needled him. He just couldn't keep his mouth shut.

    “Well, if you like big rivers... “

    “I'd much prefer the Vltava, thank you very much.” he said, sighing.

    “Well, we are headed west again.”

    Vokasec gestured vaguely upriver, toward the railhead in Kransnoyarsk. “Begs the question what the point of that exercise was. Taking us all the way out here only to send us back.”

    “Someone's got to watch Prince Mikhail, no?” Ripka suggested sourly. “He's going back home. Maybe the work here's done after all.”

    Vokasec snorted. “If you think a single one of the guys we ferried downriver is going to see Peking, you're a bigger fool that even you could be. No, Vaclav. They're sending home Mikhail because they know they're losing the war here. No member of the Czar's family can be seen to suffer such a glorious defeat.”

    “Lose?” Ripka asked. “Come on. What have you heard?”

    Vokasec always knew the latest scuttlebutt. He talked to people. After clearing his throat and spitting over the railing, he crept closer to his comrade and said in a low voice: “The cossack force in Kobdo was completely destroyed. A few stragglers made it back over the passes. Looks like the Chinese are learning from their mistakes.”

    “Well, that makes one.” Ripka commented drily.

    “Yeah. It's testimony to the Russian genius, though. I mean, anyone can lose a war against the Germans. That's easy. But losing a war against the chinks, that's taking defeat to a fine art!” The corporal shook his head and surreptitiously looked around to see if anyone was listening. The other men on the deck – Siberians, mostly, Kalmyks and Uzbeks and whatever else you called them – were unmoved. They wouldn't understands Czech, anyway. “I don't envy the poor sods left to stop them. From what you hear, the Chinese aren't big on mercy.”

    Both men looked out over the river again, relieved that their own path took them westward. Sure enough, if they ended up on the front fighting the Austrians and if they were taken prisoner, their fate wouldn't be much better. They were still traitors. That the Czech Legion technically owed allegiance to a Czech state proclaimed in the name of Nicholas II would not impress a k.u.k. military judge. But that was a lot of if. “So, where do you suppose we're going?” Ripka asked.

    Vokasec shrugged. There couldn't be anyone on the barge who didn't ask themselves the same question. The answer was, of course, the same as always: they'd know when they got there. They hadn't been issued tropical uniforms or snow shoes, so that limited things a bit. Somewhere between Persia, Wolhynia, the White Sea and Lake Baikal, as far as they could ascertain. “What do you think?”

    Ripka returned the shrug. “I've heard things are pretty hairy in the Caucasus. Maybe they can use some white troops down there.”

    The corporal nodded. He recalled the tense hours spent standing guard over disembarking troops, bayonets fixed. Even back then, he had wondered just how much the Russians thought they could rely on these men. If looks could kill, every last man in the Czech Legion would have dropped onto the Yenissei bank there and then. And they had pretty big knives. Rumour had it a fair few of them had used them on soldiers they met alone. As far as he was concerned, they were welcome to their savage mountains and all the goats in them, but the Czar had different ideas.

    “Well, fuck.”

    23 October 1907, Constantinople

    The new coat fitted wonderfully, Clavus thought. With its tall sheepskin collar and deep, capacious pockets, it seemed perfect for winter travel. Of course you would expect the people of the Caucasus to have mastered the art of making suitable clothing to their harsh climate. Gently slipping the last button through its loop – easy and smooth – he turned to say his farewells.

    „I wish you good luck, Mr Clavus.“ Friedrich Schrader said, placing a heavy hand on his shoulder. „Godspeed, and may heaven watch your steps.“

    “Thank you, Doctor.“ the agent said, an edge of sourness to his voice. He had hoped that Schrader would accompany him to the last, but in the end, he had refused. “May I hope to see you again come springtime – perhaps in Tblisi or Baku?“

    Schrader sighed. “That is out of my hands, I regret. You know that I cannot simply go where I please. I have my studies and my editorial duties.... and at any rate, I'm not much of a warrior. No, you shall go and set the place aflame. From what we hear, you're being quite successful, anyways.“

    “Oh, indeed.“ Clavus confirmed, flattered by the remark., “Indeed. If the war lasts until next spring, we shall make Nikolai howl yet. My biggest regret is, doctor, that we really could use your expertise. We have almost nobody and nothing in Transcaspia. Precious little, I regret to say, even in the Muslim parts of the mountains. Georgians, Armenians and Azeris, mostly. We could really use someone who speaks their languages and knows how to grease the right palms.“

    “That time may come.“ he promised, his licking his lips nervously, “If the Porte joins the war, the chances are they will send more aid and support than we can ever hope to their Muslim brethren.“

    Clavus shrugged. How likely was that? Now that the Ottomans had Austria and Germany cleaning up their northern flank for free and England guarding its coasts against French interference of necessity, the last thing they would want was a costly and risky war. “I shall pray for that, then.“ he said.

    “As should Berlin. Such things are often just a matter of incentives.“ Schrader cleaned out his pipe, carelessly dropping ash on the rain-slick cobbles. Much as his patriotic sentiment desired it, he was sure that an Ottoman declaration of war would bring disaster. He had come to know and despise Clavus for a cold-hearted bastard and was sure he would drop any ally as soon as he had outlived his usefulness with no more regrets than one might throw away a soiled handkerchief. Arming Azeris, Armenians and Georgians, Dagestanis and Chechens – what did he expect would happen? The moment the last Russian soldier had turned tail – or likely considerably before that time – all those hairy gentlemen out of foreign parts would be dyeing the rivers red with each other's blood. And it wasn't even that he had not explained the situation. The man simply did not care. As far as he was concerned, he was buying dead Russians at a much more favourable exchange rate than Krupp got on the Narva front. His only hope remained that the Porte managed their conquests well, and quickly sat on any petty tribal ambitions. He would have to stress that aspect in his report to Talat Pasha.

    24 October 1907, Hertonäs near Helsingfors

    Captain Doorn ducked out of the tiny hut he had made his quarters in, absently swatting at the daily diminishing cloud of mosquitoes that tried to bleed him as he passed. Major van Hoel was waiting by the tent they were using as a mess hall, now thoroughly filled with the smoke of pipes and cigarettes to keep away the plague of stinging insects that infested every square metre of this country. As far as Doorn was concerned, the Russians were welcome to it.

    “Anything new?” he asked in passing.

    Van Hoel grinned. “You could say that. Looks like we're going on a cruise.”

    “What did you hear?”

    “Van Heutsz is coming to take command.“ the Major explained. “The two divisions of our infantry in Schleswig-Holstein are already entrained for Danzig and Stettin. Looks like the Germans are getting serious about getting another lick in this year.”

    The captain sucked his teeth. Dutch infantry was good – in a pinch, it helped if the men you fought with understood you. On the other hand, they had had the same training as the German Seebattaillone which was practically none by the standards of the Mariniers. They'd be lucky if they wouldn't need to shepherd the poor kids. “Not Viborg, though?” he asked anxiously. Ever since the Swedes ran the show in Finland, they had insisted on a land-based strategy. Every now and then, they used to let their shiny navy steam up the shore to lob a few shells at Russian positions, but they'd stopped doing that after a near miss with a drifting sea mine. Going into the Gulf of Finland would be no fun at all, given what quantities of explosive the enemy had dumped all over it.

    “Nah, not Viborg.” Van Hoel paused, his grin widening.


    “St Petersburg!”

    Doorn stood thunderstruck. “Well, fuck me.,” he muttered.

    “Thanks, but no thanks.” The major chuckled. “Scuttlebutt has it that Prince Albert threw a brass ash tray at the admiral who told him it couldn't be done. Of course I don't know anything official, but the Kiel squadron is in the Gulf of Riga and the Swedish navy in the Alands. They brought every minesweeper they could find. If they're here for the fresh air, I'll eat my hat.”

    That made sense. Overwhelming superiority and a screen of sweepers would be the only way they could hope to pull that off. A cruiser or torpedo boat on the loose could go through a convoy of troopships like a hot knife through butter, and they wouldn't have the time to properly scout and blockade. Not if they wanted to make it ahead of the ice. “They'll be cutting it damned fine.” he remarked.

    “Damned fine indeed.” van Hoel agreed. “But I suppose that's their job. Navy guys, you know. Now I'm curious to know if they'll be landing us right outside the Neva bridges or if we'll have to walk.”

    Doorn shook his head irritably. “Oh, come off it. There's no way we can get past Kronstadt. They'll land us on the other side of the Narva so that we can spook the Russians and then the Germans break through.”

    The major scratched his nose. “You know, that's what I thought, too. And then I remembered the Germans have poison gas. If it works half as well as the papers say, they can simply blanket the fortress and we can put into port and pay our respects to the demoiselles at the Smolny Institute.”

    “Mh-hm.” Doorn agreed,. “And if it doesn't, we'll be getting a 28-cm welcome. No, thanks.”

    “Don't be a killjoy.” the major chided. “It's not like we get to decide that anyway. Come on, let's grab something to drink and get away from these mosquitoes.”

    26 October 1907, Berlin

    The 'Berlin pace' had taken over the corridors of the Stadtpalast with a vengeance. No matter how thoroughly the staff might wax the floors and how assiduously they insisted on the proper speed of opening doors, they achieved little more than a few bruised bottoms (on the part of ministerial officials and staff officers) and bloodied noses (on the lackeys unfortunate enough to be holding a door that someone important intended to pass through). The emperor might still be left unable to work long hours, but he insisted on working fast ones. Chairs around the heavy desk in the first-floor office were packed with important people smoking and interrupting one another. It was a protocol nightmare, but more often than not, it got results. Of sorts.

    “I still don't see why we can't just clean up the borders.” Wilhelm said, rolling his eye. “This sounds like a nightmare to administer. We'd needs hundreds of consular staff.”

    Prince Albert cleared his throat. “I'm a bit surprised to find you advocate a simple solution over a clever one, but I'm afraid in this case complicated and clever is what we'll need. Russia is not like Alsace. The peoples of the empire are dotted all over the place – much more like Austria. After the last war, we ended up with just a small piece of French-speaking territory. Here, you'd have whole countries like that.”

    The emperor envisioned the idea and shuddered. “Well, all right. What I mean is, why not create real borders? Move the Poles to Poland, the Balts to Lithuania, the Jews to – I don't know, Jewland...” he trailed off.

    “They would hate you for all eternity.” Professor Naumann said, encouraged by the informality of the gathering to drop the formal title. “If that kind of policy were adopted, it would also need to extends to the German populations, and the Jews. Everything else would be blatantly unfair and deeply resented.”

    “We can't do that.” Foreign Minister von Bülow pointed out unnecessarily. “Anyway, we're getting to a good compromise with the Poles in Baden-Baden. There's no reason to think we can't extend it to other countries.”

    “They're agreeing?” Albert asked.

    “Well, in principle. The Polish state will include protections for minorities – their own schools and universities, official language status, established churches, that kind of thing. The Jews even insist on their own military units, so we'll probably give them that, too.”

    “Is that a good idea?” Wilhelm asked dubiously.

    “Not good for the Polish army.” Albert answered. “But for us, probably. They'll make good auxiliaries, and that way, the risk of the Poles ever attacking us is smaller yet.”

    “I admit I still don't like the whole clientage idea.” Naumann said. “Everybody will be looking for a protector. Germany will look after the German speakers, and presumably the Jews, too, they have nobody else. The Swedes will look after the Finns and the Finns will look after the Estonians and the Austrians after the Ruthenians, and in the end, politics are going to be a matter of negotiations between protecting powers. It'll be like Bethlehem all over again.”

    Bülow sighed. “Yes, we may have to do something about that. I suppose we should simply go the whole way and make Germany guaranteeing power for all those arrangements. It'll mean a lot of work, though. Hundreds of staff would only be the beginning.”

    “Still, it's probably the best you can do.” Naumann pointed out. “The new states of Central Europe are going to be weak institutionally and militarily. Supporting them is going to be in our interest. And this way, we can defuse the potential for conflict early.”

    Albert nodded pensively. “The economics are worth it, I suppose.” he said.

    “Absolutely.” Naumann asserted. “The customs union alone will ensure a market for German industry worth as much as the Dominions are to Britain.”

    Wilhelm shrugged. “All right, I'm convinced. Pity, though. At least we can get rid of the Russians.”

    Everyone around the table nodded at that. One of the most important topics at Baden-Baden was the eastern border of the new Polish state, and the delegation had pretty wild ideas. Nobody was going to do anything to protect the Russians living in these parts. Certainly not the German government. Marshal von der Goltz had serenely pointed out that the more territory the new states took, the more the Czar would want revenge and the more they would need German protection in the future. Nobody had disagreed, so the plan was to take what they could get away with. The way the Russians were crumbling, it looked increasingly as though that would be a lot.

    Bülow turned the pages in his folder and looked up. “Well, Your Majesty, if we have settled this, there is one more thing.”


    “The matter of citizenship. These Germans living in Russia and the Baltics...” the foreign minister looked rather sheepish.

    “What about them?” Wilhelm asked.

    “Well, it's not entirely clear whether they can be considered citizens.” he said. “That is a question we will have to address.”

    Prince Albert chuckled. “You want us to write a new citizenship law in the middle of the war?” he asked.

    “Actually,” the emperor interrupted, “that might not be the worst idea. Let's discuss it – day after tomorrow. Unless something else happens.”

    27 October 1907, Batavia

    Our correspondent reports the departure from the naval port of HNLMS Konigin Wilhelmina, HNMLS Sumatra, HNLMS Groningen (formerly Pallada), HNLMS Drenthe (formerly Bogatyr), HNMLS Limburg (formerly Askold) and HNLMS Overijssel (formerly Novik) bound for Tsingtao. The vessels have been refitted and revictualled in Batavia after their surrender to the Dutch navy off the coast of German East Africa and will now meet up with the German China squadron consisting of SMS Sperber, SMS Habicht and the heavy cruiser SMS Dessauer. The Dutch admiralty has issued the following proclamation:

    Notice to Shipping

    Owing to the current state of war existing between the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Her Majesty's Government hereby declares the ports of the Russian Far East Province subject to blockade in accordance with the laws and usages of war at sea. Any neutral vessels attempting to enter the ports of Vladivostok or Nikolaevsk will be forced to turn back. Any Russian vessels found at sea will be engaged and captured or sunk.

    The intended close blockade would appear both feasible with the vessels thus available to the belligerent powers and potentially highly injurious to Russian trade. As of this date, no reaction has been had from the Japanese or Korean governments, nor from that of the United States of America, a power with a history of strong investment in open sea lanes in the Pacific Ocean. It would seem reasonable, however, to suppose that the specific nature of the proclamation, declaring a blockade of two named ports, is designed to mollify any concerns that President Roosevelt may have over the matter. With Russian naval strength in the Pacific reduced to torpedo boats and light cruisers, there is not to be expected a close contest of the seas in question. It is, however, telling of the mixed fortunes of the alliance today locked in battle with Russia that the prizes added to the Dutch fleet are becoming available for this duty towards the very end of the navigation season in northern waters.

    (Daily Telegraph)

    27 October 1907, Dorpat

    To know a German is to sing with him. This is as true in the United States, where singing clubs have sprung up in towns from the Erie to the Columbia wherever men of the Teuton race settled, as it is in the country of their origin, and it is found to be true among the armed men today administering the Kaiser's overdue chastisement on Russia. Though it may seem strange to the reader that this would be a subject worthy of a column telegraphed at considerable expense across the Atlantic, it must be noted that it represents one of the more notable differences between taking the field with the United States Army and doing so with that of Germany. Americans, any observer will note in a matter of mere minutes, are great talkers and given to impromptu oratory on whatever subject the occasion may demand. The German, on the other hand, is prone to express his feelings in song much more than speech. Having, over the course of an eventful life, shared many a campfire with a great variety of men from all races and callings, your correspondent can testify that the German soldier is capable of great harmony and artistic expression. His songs, though often less melodically elaborated than those of the Latin nations, are full of soul and deeply felt emotion. Some, it must be admitted, are maudlin or childish, and seem little suited to the grim reality of the battlefront, but a man may well need to remind himself of the tender moments in a safe, homely and less heroic life he has left behind as he steels himself to meet the foe, rifle in hand.

    Picture, then, a battalion in occupation of a village, advancing into Russian land. It is a sad sight to a civilian, about as far removed of the popular imagination of triumphant soldiery as is possible. The men are tired to the bone, weary of long marches and the constant fear of enemy action, their uniforms begrimed with mud and worn through on the knees and elbows, often patched and barely reminiscent of their original blue-grey colour. Subsisting on rations of black bread, bacon and pease soup, generous helpings of coffee and precious, jealously guarded tobacco, often fed late or not at all when the wagons are delayed by accident or stopped by an enemy – that happens, too, even far into German–held lands – they crowd into the pitiful shelter that the retreating Russians have left behind. Churches, barns and huts were burned or dynamited to deny them succour, and often they lay themselves to rest amid the blackened rubble of half-standing walls or under the sagging roofs of barns with their front blown off by artillery shells. If they are lucky, a hot meal of thick, hearty soup may be served from one of the mobile kitchens that travel with the troops, but if, for any reason, this is held up, a collection of small kettles hung over a smouldering fire made in a ditch may provide all the sustenance they receive. Thankfully, this far from the battlefront the danger of being seen is not as great, and the terror of the hidden sniper is lifted from everyone's shoulders. Often at night, though, the flash and rumble of artillery on the eastern horizon witnesses the proximity of the greater horror unfolding around them. The men now sitting around a low campfire, having made their beds on heaps of straw and leaves under what shelter from the cold and rain they may obtain among the general ruination, will share cups of hot coffee and – whenever it can be procured – of liquor, for the German soldier is partial to this and not as given as the American to raucous overindulgence. Many of them will have carried a musical instrument in addition to the heavy load they are burdened with – a knapsack holding their spare clothes and boots, a cooking pot and canteen, blanket and tent half, rifle and bayonet, additional bullets, often well over two hundred per man, and the cumbersome hand grenades that the German army issues. More often than not, in these days of modern war, also a short spade, sometimes of an ingenious folding design, additional magazines for the company Madsen guns, or a respirator mask to protect from the effect of toxic gases. And yet they will take on the added load not only of a Jew's harp or a flute, but of a fiddle, an accordion, or a guitar, an instrument today enjoying great popularity in their country. For many hours of dusk and darkness – for night falls early in these latitudes – they cluster together and sing, earnestly and intently, not in the spirit of celebration or as a passive entertainment, but to while away the time and keep their skills and voices in training. Few are the men who have not received practice in civilian life, for singing is a common pastime in Germany's schools and clubs, and I have heard voices around the watchfires under Russian skies that would have done honour to many a provincial opera house in the Western states.

    The government and its agents have, of course, realised the import of this passion and are eager to foster it. In many regiments, men who carry the music are excused from the distribution of additional loads, and there are publishers who produce, in cheap paperback, songbooks in patriotic modes to keep up the men's morale. Neither has it been unknown for officers lacking the common touch to order of their men renditions of fiery tunes, and it must be said the strains of the Watch on the Rhine sound out of place in the silent birch copses of the Narva valley. The wide expanse of the country renders the Ruf wie Donnerhall a small and entirely human thing, and most men understand instinctively the kind of music suited to this world. Their mood is little given to braggart chauvinism, at any rate. The morale is not poor, though many have become tired of fighting and cynical of their chances to come out of it alive, but what prevails is a quiet determination to see through the fight to its inevitable end rather than the officially requested victory crow, and many take unkindly to those who presume upon their dedication for their own ends.

    28 October 1907, Baden-Baden

    “How about Prince Wilhelm Hohenzollern?” Adenauer quipped. “We were lucky with his father in Spain, after all.”

    “You're not helping!” exclaimed Minister von Bülow and collapsed into a chaiselongue. “It's not even funny.” He sipped his brandy. “All, right, maybe a little. But the last thing we need is another candidate.”

    The young secretary gestured at the wall covered with notes and sketches. “Who'd have thought finding a king would be so hard? I didn't figure anyone would want the job.”

    There they were, lined up in an orderly fashion: The Radziwill and Italian Poniatovski, the French and German Czartorysky, the Welf and Wettin and Wittelsbach and Sigmaringen – someone had thought of them, after all – and the junior Habsburgs.

    “It's not like we can just give the crown to anyone. Poland is one of the oldest monarchies in Europe, not some imaginary state like Romania or Greece.” Bülow explained redundantly. It was in fact even harder than that because the Poles had made it clear they were in no mood to accept whatever candidate the Germans gave them to boot. That had disappointed a number of German houses. The Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen were still in the running, though it was unlikely they would be accepted. The Italian Sobiesky could hardly be taken seriously, for all their claims to ancient royal blood, but they had let it be known they were interested. The Poles all but insisted on a Polish house, which had given them hope. The French Czartorysky had been vetoed by Bülow and the German ones by Pilsudski. Truth be told, Adam Czartorysky, for all his merits, seemed a better fit for the throne in Moscow than in Warsaw going by his political views, but he seemed to have friends in Poland itself.

    “What of Karl Stephan, then?” Adenauer asked.

    “The Austrians would love it. But we can't just give Poland to the Habsburgs after we've paid such a price for it. And he has been saying stupid things about governing Cisleithania as king.” The minister shrugged. “We'll have to keep him in mind. As to the rest – I suppose time must tell. First, let's have a state.”

    “You'd leave the government in the hands of some – regency council?” Adenauer asked.

    Bülow shrugged. “Worked for us.”

    28 October 1907, Kronstadt

    Lieutenant Commander Alexei Mihailovich Shastny had learned hard lessons in suffering fools. His expertise had taken him to where he was now – commanding the minelaying flotilla that had been kept busy over the past few days rendering the approaches to the Gulf of Finland as inhospitable as possible to all enemy shipping. Mine warfare was not an exciting or romantic subject, but it required experience and technical skill, which explained why, with the surfeit of senior officers now assembled in Kronstadt lacking ships or fleets, a man of his seniority and connections would still command anything. The price was hardship of the kind that the officers of battleships or cruisers never knew, the hard, unceasing toil on tiny vessels, tossed by wind and wave, fingers stiff and frozen in the icy water and fierce gale, crowded in fetid decks and surrounded by loads of high explosive one error away from blowing you and everyone else on board to atoms. He loved it. But the long hours of the past week had shortened his fuse, or else he would not have criticised the Admiralty's orders as loudly as he had, or stormed out of the briefing as hurriedly to instruct his men. Lieutenants and ensigns, warrant and petty officers crowded around to hear the word from on high. Everybody was nervous, many terrified. The German navy had come to their shore, accompanied by their Swedish allies. Observers near Baltischport reported that SMS Heimdall and Odin were steaming in the second line, well away from the main body, no doubt carrying poison and death in their magazines as their sister ship had at Riga. For the last few days, nobody had slept more than three hours a night, working from well before dawn to long past dusk to prepare their feeble defenses. Wherever the blow would fall, the enemy could not ignore Kronstadt.

    “Orders!” he announced, more harshly than intended. His voice was quivering with barely suppressed rage. “The Admiralty of the Baltic Fleet has decided that the entire battlefleet is to prepare to sortie tomorrow. All ships to make full steam and meet the enemy with the aim to inflict maximal damage as early as possible. His Majesty is especially adamant all efforts be made to sink or destroy the Swedish vessel Rättvisan.”

    A murmur rose from the assembled men. Shock and anguish registered on many faces.

    “All vessels in the minelaying flotilla that can maintain a constant speed of twelve knots or above are to join the sortie. Transfer all remaining munitions onto those.”

    “Sir!” Lieutenant Shenyev objected. “We have all but expended our stock mining the approaches. And I don't think we can trust even the charts we made. A lot of the mines were set adrift as per orders. We would be the murderers of our own comrades!”

    “Shenyev, orders are orders.” Shastny interrupted. “Don't you think the admiral knows?” He had certainly pointed it out loudly enough. “The fleet is to blunt the enemy's thrust at sea. Prepare yourselves, and your vessels. Chaplain, if any men intend to receive last rites, please see to it.”

    He turned on his heel. This was insanity. He could not leave the men alone with these news. Any good officer knew that orders like these needed translating, the sailors shepherding into acceptance. But he could see no way to translate them. They would be sacrificed. Even if they managed to guide the battlefleet – or what remained of it, battlefleet was saying too much – through the poorly charted fields and swarms of drift mines they had laboured to lay for days on end, what would await them other than a holocaust at the hands of enemy gunners? As an officer, he could carry out his orders even if it meant death, even pointless death. But he found he did not have the heart to talk anyone into doing the same. He knew the risk – many sailors were unhappy, fearful of engaging the Germans again and angry with their commanders for leading their proud fleet to destruction. Morale was low, even among the officer corps. Many had resigned themselves to sitting out the war in port, expecting a peace to be signed almost daily, whatever the Russkaya Pravda might say. The commander knew he would need to cajole and plead with them, but he was tired. Tomorrow, he would go to die, but today, he could no longer be asked to lie. The door to the dockyard's office shut harshly behind him, separating him from the noisy throng outside.

    28 October 1907, Kassel

    The rain at this time of the year was nasty, a mockery of the soft spring showers you welcomed in April. Thin, almost mistlike sheets sank down from the leaden grey skies, coating faces with a chill wetness that cut to the bone and ineluctably soaking through every layer of clothing, creeping up sleeves and trouser legs, seeping down collars. Wachtmeister Becker would have preferred to sit out the weather in the comfortable fug of a neighbourhood pub, the kind of place where the clientele was friendly and policemen drank free, even if you couldn't get decent coffee or proper beer any more. But these days, you had to be out in the streets. There weren't a lot of officers to go around any longer. Even men like him, well into his fifties, with aching knees and thinning hair, were on patrol in the rougher parts of town again. Which had left him out in the evening twilight, bearing down on a crowd of people engaged in theft, assisted by a loyal throng of three policemen.

    “Stop!” Becker shouted, doing his best to recall his drill sergeant voice. “Stop immediately!”

    Some of the figures crowding around the railcar looked up and turned around. Others kept at it, shovelling coal into buckets and baskets to carry away. One of them – a middle-aged woman from the looks of it – flashed an obscene gesture his way before resuming er looting with a will.

    “Stop and disperse, in the name of the king!”

    No reaction. Becker straightened himself, rain now running down his face no longer protected by the brim of his helmet. “Sabres out!”, he ordered.

    The blades flashed dully. Several of the looters now stopped, staring at the policemen. This was not how it was supposed to go. Most of them were women and children, ragged, disreputable-looking creatures from the tenements and cellars around the railyard. They usually avoided the police as assiduously as they did soap.

    “You are ordered to disperse in the name of...”

    A lump of coal struck Becker's sabre, raised in a gesture of command, and knocked the wind out of him.

    “We're freezing!” one of the women shouted. “Bugger off and leave us alone!”

    Becker shook his head to clear his thought. This was resisting state authorities, article 113. He'd have to arrest them over it. Or arrest some of them. Certainly arrest someone. Cursing under his breath, he fumbled for his handcuffs when a second missile landed in front of his feet.

    “Coal for the people, not for the capitalists!” a boy was yelling. Had he thrown the lump? Becker wasn't sure, but he knew his men would back him up if he said so, and that was close to treason! He rushed forward.

    “Leave off!” a woman shouted. The boy darted back into the crowd, and a volley of coal and stones met the advancing policemen. Becker shielded his face and flinched. To his left, Kollath gave a pained shout, holding a hand to his face.

    “Coal for the people!” another shout went up, and more lumps rained down on them. Becker felt a sharp blow to his helmet. The strap gave way, and it clattered to the cobbles. As he turned to retrieve it, a sharp impact caught him in the hip. He looked up in shock. Kollath was bleeding, Mohlendorp shielding his head with his hands, all falling back. He tried one more time: “In the name of the king!”

    More coal rained down around them, another heavy lump spanging off his weapon's hilt. He could see people leaning out of windows, cheering and taking up the shout: “Coal for the people! Coal!” A girl ducked out of an alleyway carrying an empty bucket.

    “Get away!” He ordered his men, breaking into an undignified run. “To the station!”

    Defiant shouts and laughter rang behind them.

    29 October 1907, Gulf of Finland

    Bridge of SMS Karl der Große

    The signals that flashed through the morning mist failed to reassure Captain Souchon. “Waters in depth 5 miles cleared out to ten miles.”, the ensign read out from the code book. Things were going according to plan, so far. They had cheered when a hastily built mortar emplacement on the southern shore had gone up in the pre-dawn light. A raiding party of Swedish sailors, faces blackened and oars muffled, came rowing back to their squadron an hour later, worthy heirs to their Viking forefathers. In front of the main battlefleet, small ships were dancing the intricate ballet of minesweeping, trawlers in long rows pulling the heavy cables that cut anchors, requisitioned tugboats dragging the massive ploughs that – everyone hoped – would cut through the electric wires of passive charges. On board Bayern, Mecklenburg and Rättvisan, balloons had gone up in the hope of spotting drifting mines before they became a danger to the fleet. Observers in the freezing wind pressed spyglasses to their eyes trying to distinguish bits of driftwood and choppy whitecaps from lurking death., It was not a job he would want.

    “Flagship signals: Advance as ordered.” the lookout reported. Souchon grunted.

    “One quarter speed ahead!” he ordered.

    Ponderously, the battleship began moving. To the north, two more lines of warships resumed their advance, followed by a long tail of transports and support vessels. The captain waited tensely. Any minute now, he expected an explosion to tear through the deck, ripping his vessel in half. At this speed – and they could not dare go faster – they would take two days to reach Kronstadt, and many hours under its guns to close to a range from which they could hope to lay down accurate counterbattery fire. Even if Russian gunnery had not improved since the Battle of Rügen, this would be a costly proposition. If he was the Russian admiral, he'd anchor the battleships in the shadow of the island and plaster anything coming their way until the tubes wore out.

    Kronstadt dockyard

    The noise was still overwhelming. The energy latent in a tightly packed mass of people was enormous, far greater than they had thought possible. Kronstadt was boiling over like a kettle of milk unattended by a careless housewife. Chief Petty Officer Novikov was still in shock at how quickly the contagion had spread. By midnight, every man in the fleet had heard the orders to go to sea. At two in the morning, the stokers on several ships had put out the fires, locking themselves in the engine rooms to prevent anyone from raising steam. Some idiot ensign on Knyaz Suvorov had gone in shooting, and that had ended badly for him. The momentum of history had been pulling them along ever since. Sunrise found the naval fortress teeming with armed men, sailors and workers who Novikov and his comrades had let in to bolster the Party presence. At some level, they had expected something like this to happen – somewhere, eventually. That it was happening here and now still stunned them.

    “Where's the admiral?”

    Good question. Novikov shrugged, not sure who among the crowd of armed men had asked it. “We have to find him.”

    He had thought this would be easier. But at least there were party cadres here now, people who had some idea of what they were doing. “Find the admiral!” Novikov shouted at the top of his lungs. “Take all officers to the cathedral!”

    Others took up the call. Most of the mutineers were still running around aimlessly, gawking at the quarters that had been off limits, guzzling vodka or filling their pockets with the personal effects of the ruling class. But some were responsive. They were used to taking orders. He knew how it went: If you were confused and uncertain what to do with yourself, someone giving orders was a godsend. That was what vanguard party meant.

    “We have to hang them.” That was Trotsky. He had walked in with the first group of dockworkers, a revolver stuck in his pocket and a notebook in his hands. Novikov had never figured out how he had known.

    “Without a trial?”

    “Most of the men are soft.”, he said grimly. “We have to make sure they can't go back on today.”

    Novikov nodded. That made sense. “Find the officers!” he shouted again. “Take them to the cathedral!”

    A sailor came running down the dockyard road, hoping against hope to find someone to report to. He stopped in front of Novikov and Trotsky, assuming them to be some sort of authority. “Comrades!” he shouted. He must have picked it up from the party men.

    “What is it?”

    “The German fleet is coming.”

    Right. There was that. Novikov tilted his head nervously, trying to shake loose some clear thoughts. “Thank you. Come along, comrade. We need a steam launch.” he said. “And someone who speaks German.”

    “I do.” The young man beamed eagerly.

    “You do?”

    “I'm from Courland.” he reported. “I can translate for you.”

    Well, that settled that. Now he'd only have to figure out what he wanted to say and everything would be fine.

    Bridge of SMS Sachsen

    Admiral Ingenohl felt his whole body tense up with every metre the ship moved forward. Ahead, the boats of the mine clearing squadron carried out their intricate dance, at insane risk. They had lost nine boats in the course of the morning, blown to bits by unmoored mines, swamped, one pulled under by a stricken comrade. Every new blast struck him like a blow. The sea was roiling with the shockwaves of what had to have been hundreds of explosions, and even if the mines had originally been moored safely, this had to have dislodged some. Or some more. The first time you noticed these was when they opened up your hull like a sardine tin. Ahead, he could see the tiny figure of a navy sailor standing in the fantail of a tugboat, aiming his rifle at a bobbing shape in the water. Another column of white water rose to the sky. At this rate, they'd take till Christmas to clear their way to Kronstadt.

    “Explosion! Explosion in the north column!” The lookout sang out the next piece of bad news. Ingenohl rushed over to the port window, pressing the glass too his eyes. There it was, smoke and white foam still hanging over the low silhouette of a warship in the Swedish column. The hull settled heavily in the bubbling waters. Damn it!

    “Signal from Rättvisan: Manligheten is damaged, making water. Engines are out, Requests tug.”, the signaller read the rapid morse code flashing across.

    That made three. He hadn't lost three battleships in a day at Bornholm. Not at Heligoland. And now, the waters of the Gulf took them from his fleet almost contemptuously, striking at a defenseless prey. Kronstadt still lay ahead out of range. Not a single gun had been fired, but Bayern was limping home, listing, Heinrich I was under tow, no longer answering rudder, and now the Swedes had lost one of their coastal monitors. And the transports …. God, the transports!

    “If this goes on, we may have to reconsider our plans.” he said, desperately trying to sound calm. He flinched painfully as another cleared mine went up, tossing one of the tugboats around like a toy. After a few seconds, she righted herself and began turning to port.

    “Looks like the cable's parted, Sir.” Lieutenant Rader explained, needlessly. The boat was heading for the next buoy on the line. That would take more precious minutes. “All engines stop!”, the admiral ordered. Christ, what would be next?

    On board SS Roodborst

    “All right, let's go over this again.” Major van Hoel said. The assembled junior officers nodded obediently.

    “We're going ashore at Oranienbaum. Primary objective is securing the port facilities to unload more troops. Secondary is the railway line and any troop concentrations you may encounter.” He drew an imaginary line on the map. “Take out the cadet school – there shouldn't be many left in there, anyway. Then secure the town.”

    More nods. The ship swayed as the engine cut out again,. What were the Germans waiting for? This crawl was infuriating!

    “Remember, you have nobody coming after you. You can't leave the cleanup to the next guy along. Everybody unloading behind you is already headed for Peterhof and Gatchina. So make sure your men carry enough ammunition and grenades!”

    Captain Doorn caught his eye. “Sir?” he asked, “What about the German firethrowers?”

    “Anyone willing to carry one is welcome to them.” Van Hoel assured him. “But either way, make sure some of your men carry gasoline canisters. No shirking on those! Any house you get shot at from, throw one in the front door and a grenade after.”

    Doorn sucked his teeth. Carrying five litres of gasoline in an environment where bullets were flying was right below strapping himself to a pressurised cylinder of the stuff on the list of things he'd rather not do. He felt sure his men shared the sentiment.

    “Right, sir.” he said. “Everybody's going to be carrying a fair load, then.”

    “Can't be helped.” the major assured him. “I'd rather be tired and have a machine gun than be rested and need one I left behind, anyways.”

    That was a fair point.

    “And the second wave gets bicycles.”

    St Petersburg, Baltic Shore

    The sky was streaked with dark smudges across the red glow of the sunset. Colonel Victor Govoruchin stood looking out across the glittering sea, unable to tear his eyes away from the horror. Standing out black against the red sky, there lay Kronstadt, the mutinous fortress sheltering its traitor fleet at anchor. People were still passing back and forth, though they were doing their best to stop the traffic. Some officers of the Patriotic Union and the police had passed over and come back to report, and their stories were chilling. Chaos reigned still, the men disunited and uncertain what to do next, factions fighting over control, but all jittery and terrified, manning landward guns and looking for the Okhrana under every bed. The Reds had had their way, over some vocal protest, and hanged the admiral and all captains, though they had been forced to spare junior officers. Stories circulated of loyal sailors throwing themselves at the hangman, crying, threatening violence, in one case bodily absconding with a prisoner. There would be a bloody reckoning for this. Govoruchin remembered the gallows of 1906. They would seem like the milk of kindness compared to what was coming.

    Behind the island, still too far out to see in any detail, columns of black smoke betrayed the presence of the German fleet. They had crept up the Gulf slowly, but inexorably, losing ships, but never turning back. Now, they lay within range of Kronstadt, hove to and at anchor, behind a barrier of drift nets. They had spared the fortress, using their guns only shortly to plaster the beaches at Oranienbaum, where they had landed an advance party. No doubt these troops would be moving east along the coast tomorrow. The orange glow of fires raging through the coastal town showed that their handiwork was done for the day.

    Clattering through the streets, men of the Union's 1st 'Bogatyr' Brigade were bringing up field guns to position along the embankment. Volunteers had broken up the pavement to dig gun pits, slit trenches and ammunition dumps. Telegrams had assured them that the heavy guns of Schlüsselburg were on their way. Mortars, half finished, from the Putilov works joined them, dragged into place on rollers. If they were to lose the city, they would. But the enemy would not have it cheaply.

    On Board T 21

    Karl Frohme felt nauseous and terrified. Hustled out of his hotel room by a naval lieutenant by turns overbearing and deferential, he had spent the day rushed away from a tedious round of mediating wage negotiations onto a waiting express train that had taken him and his companion through the war-torn hellscapes of Königsberg and Insterburg, past guarded railyards and delayed supply trains to Memel, where he had been driven through the ruined city, horses in full career, to step aboard a torpedo boat All the while, Lieutenant Gebhart had tried his level best to fill him in, but it was only the hectically handwritten report and telegraphed dossiers he had been given on the ship that apprised him of the full gravity of the situation. The Russian Baltic fleet was in revolt!

    Squeezed into a tiny cabin opposite Gebhart, afraid to stand or shift for fear of being tossed about by the wildly pitching hull and unnerved by the thudding beat of the screw at full speed and the howl of the turbine – a terrifying noise even to experienced sailors unused to it – he tried to order his thoughts.

    “The man who contacted us is known to our intelligence services.” he said. “Alexander Novikov. A Bolshevik.” The deputy adjusted his glasses and looked up at the lieutenant. “From what I read here, this mutiny seems to be led by Bolsheviks. Are you sure you have the right man to negotiate with them?”

    Gebhart looked confused. “I'm sorry, Sir. I was given orders to … you were the nearest Socialist available of any political seniority. And they are Socialists so the admiralty thought.,..”

    “Well, lieutenant, I cannot promise you much here. You see, bolsheviks, that is, Lenininsts....” Frohme sighed heavily. What was the point in burdening this kid with the intricacies of party politics. “Let's just say we don't agree. I'll try my best to handle them, to be sure. Just don't expect any miracles.”

    “I don't, Sir.“ Gebhart seemed intimidated by the amount of jargon. In his world, a Socialist was something lurking in dark alleyways of port cities, and a Leninist might as well inhabit a distant island eating shipwrecked sailors. “But we need to start the talks immediately. You have a generous remit.”

    Frohme scanned the page of instructions wired from Berlin. Negotiating a surrender with military honours – they wouldn't – safe conduct, retaining guns, these people were thinking in military terms. The sailors at Kronstadt would not accept any of that. Novikov had written some half-baked stuff about neutralisation of a the free sailors' and workers' council as a revolutionary republic. In plain terms, he didn't want to be shot at, but how could you make a Berlin diplomat understand the situation on terms he was familiar with? Negotiate some kind of latter-day Tauroggen convention. Except with angry sailors instead of Prussian guards officers. But that, at least, he had some experience with. He swallowed hard, teeth clicking as the ship slammed into a particularly tall wave.

    Bridge of SMS Sachsen

    Night watch was tense, even behind the protective barriers of torpedo netting and outpost boats they had thrown up around the fleet. With so many civilian ships involved, there was no way they could forgo position lights. The sea was dotted with twinkling lanterns, some bobbing, some swaying majestically. Occasionally, morse code flickered between the vessels: requests to confirm orders, questions about things that had gone out days before. Merchanters … What could you do?

    Commander Back shrugged and turned away when he caught the flash in the corner of his eye. Seconds later, the rumble of the blast reached the bridge and sirens began blaring. Seachlights flashed on, sailors scrambling for battle stations, and a signaller shouted reports down, barely audible over the din: “SS Minnesota reports that SS Galveston has drifted into a mine. They say the screen is leaking!”

    Leaking? Well, fuck, that was no fun at all. “Request outpost boats to clarify!” Back ordered. “Lieutenant Schrader, prepare to man steam launches. It looks like we'll have to go looking for drift mines again.” He hoped that covered all angles. The admiral would be up in no time at all. The din of sirens and whistles subsided, and he felt half sure he could see the muzzle flashes of rifles on the northern line of merchanters. Shooting at imaginary mines, no doubt, and with debris and probably survivors in the water!

    “Signal to command north. … scratch that, all points! Cease fire immediately!” He would have to put men into that madness, and he'd much rather not lose them to the bullets of nervous merchant seamen or seasick footsoldiers.

    The signaller's mate stuck his head back through the hatch. “SS Minnesota reports mines spotted. The captain says he's taking evasive action!”

    WHAT?! Back felt sure he had screamed it. “Signal, now! All ships to hold position, no maneuvering, repeat, no maneuvering!” For God's sake, they were going to kill each other. He could see the order flashing out, a reply, or just chatter flitting back and forth. It was almost as though you could taste the fear spreading through the line of merchanters, screws churning reflecting white wakes as they made for a turn to port.

    Ingenohl reached the bridge. “Report!”

    “A transport caught a drift mine, Sir. One convoy captain claims our screen is not effective. I've sent request for clarification. No report from the sweepers yet. SS Galveston looks lost, I'm despatching boats to pick up survivors. SS Minnesota has signalled they are trying to evade mines, I've ordered them to cease fire and stop engines.” Back swallowed hard. “They're not obeying.”

    “Signal again!” Ingenohl ordered, straining to see anything. His eyes were still adjusting to the darkness, and the searchlights were spoiling everybody's night vision. “Tell them their cruiser escort are to fire on any ship that is still making way!”

    A steam whistle was blaring out a collision alert, some merchanter noticing – something – ahead in the night. The seas were so crowded with hulls you might as well be navigating the port of Hamburg in the middle of the night. Wakes were becoming distinguishable now, turning north and west. They had to get tangled with the torpedo netting soon.

    Another report from signals: “Sweeper group north reports two nets detached from buoys. No mines spotted. SS Katharina Laeisz has signalled claiming they saw a Russian minelayer inside the cordon and is requesting assistance. Signals from SS Minnesota – I think they are trying to assemble their section into marching order. TBZ 3 is trying to intercept. They....”

    The next explosion cut him short. Two columns of white water reflecting the searchlights were horribly visible to everyone. Some unlucky ship had found another mine.

    Ingenohl muttered a vile curse. “This has got to stop, now.” he said. “Order to all escorting ships,. Any transport making way will be boarded. Failing that, fired upon.”

    A third explosion from outside the cordon, where several merchanters were now running. Back thought he could see the stabbing flash of machine gun fire. They had put those on some of the transports to repel small craft and support landing operations. The crew must have figured they'd do against mines. Ingenohl squeezed the railing, knuckles white, his face bloodlessly pale. In the short intervals of silence when no sirens or whistles sounded, rifle shots and screams were drifting across the dark water.

    Oranienbaum, beachmaster's encampment

    Major van Hoel dropped heavily into a liberated armchair and looked out over the water. Mariniers and sailors were still bringing in men and equipment over the jetties now shrouded almost completely in darkness, barely illuminated by the ships' lights. Boats disgorged infantry along the beach, manhandling heavy packs and bicycles. This was more than a little dangerous – they might lose more men now than the Russian defenders had killed if just a few of those boats capsized or ran into each other. So far, things were going as planned. The din in the German fleet to the north-west had stopped, too. Whatever had happened there had been resolved without the big guns, so it couldn't have been the Russian fleet changing its mind.

    “How's it going?” Lieutenant Commander Meulenwart stepped up, a tattered sheaf of papers in his hands. Van Hoel shot him a lopsided grin. “We secured the cadet institute. Not much left of it, I regret to say.” He rubbed ineffectually at sootstains on his uniform. “Left a guardpost there and came back for resupply. The second wave is inland now, and....”

    He paused. On the horizon to the south, a green rocket went up, followed immediately by a second green, then red. The major smiled grimly. “Right, that's the railway line cut. The Germans are going to have fun on the Narva front about now, I'd guess.”

    30 October 1907, Gulf of Finland

    Wardroom of SMS Sachsen

    The admiral looked terrible, pale, sleep-deprived and shaken. Of course, Representative Frohme was not sure he looked any better himself after his night ride to Kronstadt. But he had come back with something tangible. That journey had been memorable in its own way, the steam launch picking its way between debris and the floating corpses of horses and – he thought – men littering the waters. Something very bad had happened at night, he was told. The sailors wouldn't say more.

    “Neutralisation?” Ingenohl asked when presented with the draft agreement, scribbled on the back of a Russian propaganda poster. “What does that even mean?”

    “I'm not entirely sure myself, legally speaking.” Frohme replied, “But basically, that the garrison and fleet at Kronstadt agree not to take any kind of action against us or interfere with our operations in any way.” He cleared his throat. “They are not going to ally themselves with Germany. And they are not willing to surrender. But this is as far as they are willing to go.”

    The admiral shook his head. What was the point of that? What good was a navy if it could choose to neutralise itself at the onset of danger? He wondered under what circumstances his own men might be willing to do the same. It was hard to see. “All right. How do we know if they change their mind?”

    Frohme nodded. He had considered the same. “They agreed to a two-day notice period if either party wishes to end this agreement. But more to the point, we will be able to anchor Heimdall and Odin in the roadstead. The presence of their guns should ensure compliance.”

    That was good. Ingenohl was still wary, but with that kind of leverage, he would consider treating the fortress as a neutral player. “Is there any way we can ensure no preparations are made for an attack?” he asked.

    Frohme pondered that. “The sailors' council had no objections to the presence of German sailors ashore, within measure.” he pointed out. “But I would advise against it.”

    “You think they would be in danger?”

    The representative thought back to his visit. Danger was probably not the correct term. Confusion, disorientation, maybe even demoralisation, perhaps. But misunderstandings could escalate in an atmosphere as fraught as the one prevailing in Kronstadt. Best not to stir the pot. “Possibly. They would certainly pose a problem, unless they spoke good Russian.”

    The admiral nodded. “Good, then. Thank you, Mr Frohme. I will trust the agreement you made and refrain from reducing the fortress. Let us put this fleet into the lion's den.”

    St Petersburg, railway line from Schlüsselburg

    The flask of tea was almost torn from Ensign Stoyanov's hand as the train slowed brutally. Cursing, he clung to the window handle and staggered, struggling to remain standing. What on earth was the engineer thinking? They had to get the guns to the city! Cursing as vitriolically as his youthful innocence permitted, the ensign made his way forward. The whistle shrilled, echoing from the buildings on both sides of the canal. Steam billowed from the locomotive, shrouding the throng of people coming towards them. Stoyanov bit his lip, but forced himself to go forward, climbing up the service ladder to get past the tender to the engineer's compartment.

    “Why have you stopped?” he shouted. “We must keep going!”

    The engineer shrugged and pointed forward. People were streaming past them now, pouring across the railway bridge ahead. Men, women and children carrying bundles or suitcases, some dragging handcarts, others pushing perambulators piled with boxes and sacks. They were already shouting and jostling as they struggled to cross. Someone fell over the side and disappeared into the cold water with a very final-sounding splash. They had met evacuees farther up the road already, but nothing like this. Stoyanov climbed off the locomotive and walked forward, revolver drawn, addressing the crowd.

    “Clear the bridge!” he ordered. “Clear the bridge for a military transport! We are bringing guns to defend the city!”

    Nobody reacted. People close to him seemed to purposely avoid his gaze, keeping their eyes focused on the ground, shuffling forward at a deliberate pace hoping somehow not to stand out, not to draw attention. Uncertain what to do, the ensign turned back to the train, barking orders. Six artillerymen disembarked and formed a chain across the rails, moving forward slowly, rifles held in front of them. Stoyanov walked alongside, ordering again “Clear the bridge! Clear the bridge!”

    For a moment, it seemed to work. People moved aside, stumbling down the sides of the embankment. The rumble of artillery from the shore already filled the air here, and every time another salvo thundered, the crowd's pace increased briefly. Behind them, the train advanced at walking speed. Slowly, the distance to the bridge closed.

    Then, a noise like tearing canvas filled the air. The impact was almost visceral, shredding nerves, an immediacy of terror the ensign had never expected to feel. Over the roofs of the houses ahead, a column of fire rose into the sky. The detonation arrived moments later, shattering windowpanes and eardrums. Screams rose, inaudible to the deafened soldier, as the crowd surged forward, abandoning any semblance of order. So this, Stoyanov thought with an odd detachment, was what 30-cm shells sounded like. The Germans had to be shooting well inside their maximum range if they were going for the field guns emplaced along the shore. He noticed that he was kneeling and found it nearly impossible to lever himself back to his feet, the knees refusing to obey his will. His men had taken cover, instinctively, with the certainty honed by service in the trenches of East Prussia, at the first sound of incoming fire. The ensign shook his head and walked into the stream of people, firing his revolver into the air.

    “In the name of the Czar, clear the bridge!” he yelled. An elderly man grabbed his arm, pulling down the gun, and shouted back. He could hardly make out the words: “Run, you idiot! The Germans are coming!”

    The second time the sky fell, a house near the canal opened up like a red flower, blown to pieces in a direct hit that came in through the roof. Stoyanov staggered back to the locomotive and gestured for the engineer to drive forward. The compartment was empty. Carefully, the young officer holstered his revolver and worked the steam whistle, warning the crowd ahead of his intentions. The guns had to come through! Heavy fortress artillery, useless now at Schlüsselburg, but it could still turn the tide of battle here. A wall of fire would prevent the German fleet from approaching the shore.

    There was no reaction. People were still pushing and jostling across, abandoning luggage and - bundles. He told himself they had to be bundles. He'd be driving over them. Which was the lever to engage the pistons? The first attempt got a response from the engine, and the slow advance resumed. He sounded his whistle again. Then, to drive home the point, he leaned out of the door, once more firing his pistol.

    “Clear the damned bridge!” he yelled. “Anyone blocking the bridge is a traitor to Russia!”

    People moved aside, pushing and shoving, jostling for space. Some fell, or jumped, into the canal. The locomotive shuddered as it crushed the flotsam of evacuation under its wheels. The steady stream from the other side of the bridge did not stop or even slow. Stoyanov was horrified. What were these people doing? Did they have no sense of self-preservation?

    With a sudden jolt, the engine stopped, steam blowing off in a giant plume. The engineer was back, working the emergency brake and shouting incoherently. Stoyanov grabbed his arm, trying to stop him. “Traitor!” he yelled, “Coward! The guns must get through!”

    He was not sure whether it was the artless, desperate swing the engineer aimed at his head that laid him low of the blast from the next impact. Sitting up outside the engine, its boiler bleeding steam and water, his tunic spattered with the man's blood and brains, Ensign Stoyanov stared helplessly at the unforgiving October sky. He was crying. People still ran past silently on all sides, stumbling over him. Her felt his hands shaking as he tried to unfold a handkerchief and clean himself up. Ahead, the German fleet continued its merciless bombardment. No guns would be reaching the defenders on this line.
    bigboi and Vornado like this.
  2. carlton_bach Member

    Jan 18, 2004
    Altona, Occupied Denmark
    01 November 1907, New York

    “All right, Mr Schiff.” Morgan conceded. “I think with the latest news from the war, we can grant your point.”

    Jacob Schiff nodded, a brief shadow of a smile flitting over his earnest features, He stood, smoothed his waistcoat, and announced to the assembled grandees of finance: “Gentlemen, it is agreed. We will accept bonds of the following nations in unlimited surety: The United States, Great Britain, France, the German Empire, Argentina and the Japanese Empire. Holders of these may apply for short-term loans at favourable rates.”

    The murmur that arose was tense, some voices clearly hostile. Still, nobody spoke up. They had fought the suggestion back and forth over the past week, trying to agree on the terms they would offer to financial firms as Wall Street tottered. In the end, even Morgan had had to resort to the closest thing to a tantrum many could recall. The great man rose to shake Schiff's hand.

    “Very well, then.” he said, “Mr Schiff, understand that I agreed to this not because of any political views, but on my judgment of your character. If a man of your qualities tells me that he trusts in a paper, then I will accept your judgement. But will you tell me,” he asked, lowering his voice, “why you fought so hard on this point?”

    Schiff stroked his beard and smiled conspiratorially. “I probably need not tell you that my house owns considerable quantities of Japanese and German bonds.” he explained, “But I did not do this solely for personal reasons, unlike some.” He cast about a searching look at others around the table. “I do not believe that the power of our wealth and possessions was given us without an attendant burden of responsibility. You know my position on the current conflict.”

    A drawn-out sigh sounded from the left side of the table. Morgan glowered. “I will have no disrespect,” he said sharply. “We are here because we regard each other highly. Even in disagreement.”

    Schiff nodded gratefully. “I will not bore you with a speech, gentlemen. Suffice it to say that no good man may today afford to assume a neutral position without prejudice to his moral character. We have struck a blow for the victory of liberty just as surely as the brave Dutchmen on the shores of St Petersburg.”

    03 November 1907, Moscow

    “So he is coming back?” Grand Prince Sergei forced himself upright with a grunt. The young staff lieutenant shivered in anticipation of a legendary dressing-down, but the eyes of the fearsome chief of internal affairs came to rest on the face of Duke Mikhail. Awkward, dressed in a slightly silly cuirassier uniform with generals' insignia, the young man looked out of place. Sergei waved at the adjutant. “Leave us.”

    The heavy door shut. Sergei points at a chair and forced a bitter smile. “Sit down, Mikhail. Turkestan seems to have done you good.”

    The duke blushed. “I was recalled almost immediately., My orders were not even carried out when....”

    “Oh, come off it.” the grand prince cut him off. “I'm not blaming you for losing the battle. It's not like the rest of us are doing any better, is it?” He pointed at the map mounted on the wall behind him. “Germans in St Petersburg. Romanians besieging Odessa. Austrians in Berdichev. Swedes in Joensuu, and if the Poles ever figure out how weak our central front is, they can just walk all the way to Smolensk! No, I'm not blaming you for getting out of the warfighting business while you had your honour intact. No general is coming out of this looking good. Did you know we're putting them on trial?”

    Mikhail looked up. “On trial? I'd heard of Yanushkevich...”

    “No doubt Alekseyev will follow. The state needs explanations for this disaster.” Sergei spat out, uncaring. His manners had deteriorated badly over the past year. “Except for the obvious.”

    Mikhail looked pained. Of course he knew the real reason for the defeats. Everyone with half a brain could see that the Russian military was finished, but the Union officers kept talking of the millions of fighting men, the patriotic spirit of sacrifice, the glorious victories that could be won if only they were allowed to do things their way. And the Czar believed them.

    “Once he is back with Dubrovin, things won't change.” Mikhail remarked tonelessly. He was almost shocked by his own bravery. Sergei looked up, eyes narrowing, and gave him a long, piercing look before he replied.

    “Indeed, I don't think we can expect any rational change in strategy for the coming months. He is praying for guidance to the Holy Mother of Kazan. Winter will give us a respite. But it is up to us what we do with it.” A long, uncomfortable pause followed. Then, the grand prince pulled open a drawer of his desk. Mikhail almost jumped at the bang of hardwood on metal.

    “Mikhail, I will request a reassignment for you.”, he said. “You have experience with savage and Muslim troops. We can use that in the Caucasus. You may have heard things there are not pleasant.”

    Bandits and rebels, punitive expeditions burning villages and putting families in camps, sniping at convoys, mass desertion... yes, he had heard. “But surely Nikolai...” he interjected.

    “We will need Nikolai in the capital.” Sergei said in a tone that brooked no opposition. “But I am certain you will be able to have thorough conversations on everything that concerns you before he departs. His second.-in-command, General Foma Nazarbekov, is competent and trustworthy. You can lean on him heavily.” His voice grew almost absent as he scribbled his notes. “Be sure to share your concerns with the Grand Prince Nikolai, Mikhail. He has been away from the capital for a long time and may be unaware.”

    05 November 1907, Warsaw

    Wet cold was seeping in through the rooftiles and rising through the floor. Two years ago, this kind of pokey garret would have housed the most desperately poor – girls surviving on piecework sewing or casual labourers. Today, having it for yourself already constituted modest luxury. With the city still crowded with refugees and so many of the jobs that paid real money attached to the kommandantur, you had to take what you could get. Eligiusz Niewiadomski finished wrapping a single lump of coal in layers of newsprint and opened the grate of his tiny stove. This would have to last him the evening. He dreaded the prospect of winter, when condensation from his breath would form icicles on the windowframe and the ink sometimes froze in the well. Carefully, he inserted the inadequate portion of fuel, placing it atop the glowing fragments already covering the grate, and returned to his work. Drawings, primitive black and white, suitable for steel engravings even at the hands of inept apprentices – but without the custom of the National League, he would have been left destitute. In a way, it was fitting. In peacetime, a man could glory in colour and luxuriant lithography, but war was a stark and unforgiving world, intolerant of nuance. They were living in an age of newsprint. What could not be rendered in cheap ink on rough paper was not worth concerning yourself over.

    With a deep sigh, the artist laid down his pen. He would finish the piece tomorrow. Some warmth, he thought, and then to bed, before darkness enveloped everything and forced him to waste precious candles. These were times when copious sleep became a coping mechanism. Rising with the laggard sun, he did the minimum possible of extraneous chores, concentrating on his work in the few daylight hours before returning to his bed with dusk. He moved the kettle to the centre of the stove and added another handful of the paper to the fire. At least it was worthy of the flame, that one. What the Reds and Jews were doing to the nation was a disgrace – a violation! Against his will, Niewiadomski felt his eyes drawn back to the words: A plan to establish the religions of the kingdom's peoples. His fingers closed around the offending page painfully, nails digging into the palm. Poland's people were of Poland's faith, not a jigsaw of sects and tribes. Even a man of the loftiest intellectual inspiration like him had to appreciate the importance of the Catholic faith for the nation and honour it for that reason alone. This rape would cripple the soul of the new state in the cradle, turn it into an artificial monstrosity, a Belgium, held together at best by the feeble ties of currency and administration and the convenience of powerful neighbours. And it was the work of that – creature – Landauer.

    The papers had left little doubt of that: Rabbi Landauer, the man whom Jewish votes and the lamentable performance of the National League in the elections had made Pilsudski's evil counsellor, was designing a new nation. A Poland fit to serve as the perfect host for his parasitic people. They would wield the whip for the Germans, just like they had for the pans, only on a much greater scale! And what was a Polish man to do? Niewiadomski shivered as he closed the grate. His eyes fell on the top drawer of his rickety desk. Quietly, as though afraid to be overheard, he opened it and withdrew his revolver. Everybody in the National League had one – they had handed them out like candy to children after the German deliveries had come through. His was still unused, bar a few practice rounds fired at straw bales in what passed for training those days. The weight and heft still surprised him. Carefully, he opened the cylinder and loaded and unloaded a cartridge. Toying with the action, he accustomed his finger to the unfamiliar resistance of the trigger, playing through the act of firing in his mind. In his mind's eye, he saw the avenging bullet strike down the assassin of his nation, and slowly, unbidden, though welcome, the resolution surfaced in Eligiusz Niewiadomski 's mind. Rabbi Landauer would die. He had the resources to pay for a ticket to Baden-Baden, and the connections to secure a travel permit. And he never need care what became of him – the revolution and war had taught him the fragility of life and the futility of trying to preserve it. What mattered was how you used it, and what better cause to lose it in? Niewiadomski added a second lump of coal to the fire and warmed his hands against the glow.

    07 November 1907, Oranienbaum

    “Another one?” Lieutenant Commander Meulenwart raised his eyebrows at the German NCO holding out his transport permit forms. Ever since they had moved inland, stuff came streaming back in ever increasing quantities. Mostly, it was improvised crates and boxes, some addressed to the families of line officers, others to regimental garrisons or military authorities. These were plastered with shipping labels identifying express freight to Berlin, which might just mean there was something useful in there.

    “I hope you can manage?” the Feldwebel asked.

    Meulenwart shrugged. “You may have to wait for a few days. This isn’t exactly a world-class port. But yes, we can manage. Unless we need to worry about the Russians breathing down your necks?”

    The NCO shook his head. “Not a chance.” He said, grinning. “The land army’s linked up. We hold the Baltic shore all the way here now. Got regiments at Gatchina and Zarskoye Selo.”

    Meulenwart nodded. It sounded good enough to him. Out in the bay – he felt more at home on the water anyway – the fleet lay at anchor, strung out in long lines. Lighters and steamboats plied between the vessels. Transports still moved in and out of Oranienbaum, but at much reduced frequency now. That made sense if they’d opened up the railway. He just wished they’d send in some real bread and fresh meat. Navy rations would keep you alive, but hardly happy, and the Russians had managed to destroy a lot of supplies before they bugged out.

    “What about Petersburg, anyway?” the Dutchman asked. “Ever get a good look in?”

    The NCO nodded. “You don’t want to.” He said curtly. “You really don’t.”

    “That bad?” It stood to reason. They had never managed to put troops ashore, though not for want of trying. Russian troops on the shore had slaughtered the landing parties. Ingenohl had moved the battlefleet past Kronstadt into the bay and fired into the city point blank for two days, without managing to silence the defenders. Away in Oranienbaum, they had seen the horror unfold from a distance – a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, as Van Hoel had pointed out in a moment of vodka-fuelled blasphemy. Some neighbourhoods had burned for days afterwards until the first snow had put them out. In the end, the navy had retreated, contenting itself with plastering any railway junctions and canal locks at the direction of balloon observers. It was best not to think too much about the fact that there were – had been? – two million-odd people living there.

    “Worse.” The German looked defensive and angry, memories stirred up that he would have preferred to keep submerged. Meulenwart noted the insignia of the Seebattallion III. He would have been on the boats. A quick sideways glance confirmed that his own personal store of loot was still in place, and he grasped the bottle from behind his desk. “Something to drink, maybe?”

    09 November 1907, West of Berdichev

    The weight of his carbine was wearing on his arm, but Wachtmeister Peschke was not going to sling it over his shoulder. He had learned that lesson painfully. Few things were as important in enemy territory as to have your weapon on hand. Shivering at the memories as much as at the cold, he reined in his horse and looked around carefully. The landscape was of depressing uniformity: low hills of browning grass interspersed with clumps of bare trees, stark black against the grey, cloudy sky, all of it dotted with patches of early snow and sewn together crudely with the footpaths and dirt roads the locals used for their panye wagons. A railway line ran north of here, but they had orders to stay away from it unless they were specifically detailed to interfere. Trains carried nasty surprises. Leutnant Vondrazek had earned himself a posthumous award for bravery trying to stop one that turned out to be carrying the machine-gun section of an infantry regiment. Officers seemed never to run out of bad ideas.

    They had penetrated far into the Russian lines, a regiment of cavalry. Who would have thought you could miss that many men? Apparently, you could. Out here, it was even easy. They might have a division of Cossacks camping over the next hill and never know until they blundered into their outriders. Behind him, his men were bunching up. Peschke turned and gestured to spread out. It still went against the instinct of many cavalrymen, but there were so many things they had had to unlearn in the past year that they passed it over with a shrug. There was no strength in compact formations. You just made yourself a bigger target. Close-order charges and all the countless hours of drill, practising the tight turns and wheeling-in-place without entangling their lances, all counted for nothing. There were no more lances. They had left the last of them behind in their last quarters on home soil, propping up improvised tents, together with their pretty blue coats with the gold braid and the red trousers. Now, every man in his outfit was dressed in bluish-grey, the tunic cut more tightly than was comfortable – at least for a reserve NCO, Peschke admitted to himself – and the long coat prone to snag on the saddlery. But these coats were warm, and that was what mattered. Bivouacking was already a pain, and it was barely November. Soon enough the mud would freeze, and they they’d be glad of every piece of clothing.

    A metallic glint in the distance caught the Wachtmeister’s eye and he tensed. That was how it started. Fighting here wasn’t like they had heard it was done up in the Baltic, up close and with overwhelming firepower. It took place over ranges that they had never even thought to practice in manoeuvers. One moment you were moving, a line of horsemen strung along a footpath or crossing some meadow, then there was the flash of rifle fire from some shrubbery – if you were lucky, you’d see it before someone was hit. If you were unlucky, there’d be a Nogi mortar, and the first thing you knew was the explosion that tore you to bits. Except that the Russians were piss-poor at aiming these things. Thank God for small mercies.

    Peschke raised his arm and the patrol froze. Men looked around for the enemy, rifles came up, muzzles scanning the horizon for unseen threats. The light had caught something metallic in the bushes, somewhere down that dirt path, maybe – he still found it hard to gauge distances without any human-made structures for reference – 500 or 600 metres out. A firefight at that range was nasty. They’d be shooting at each other for hours, unseen, and often, when they finally made it close enough, the enemy would be gone, having retreated to the next cover to repeat the game. It could go on all day, and the winner would be whoever was the first to bring up a machine gun. Those were game changers. How often had they envied the German cavalry their portable Madsen guns?

    There were no shots. Peschke decided to risk it, directing his horse into a slow walk towards the bushes, trying to keep the slight undulation of the ground between himself and whatever it was out there for as long as possible. A Jäger had told him how a Russian sniper had come up with the bright idea of tying a hand mirror to the branch of a birch tree. Dismount, scout, set up firing position – their parade-ground response had given him time to pick off two pack horses, a machine gunner, and the lieutenant before they’d figured out where he was shooting from. If he was walking into a trap like that… Peschke recalled the words of his captain: “Russians come in two kinds: Tough and dumb, or damned clever. And you always meet the kind you’d rather not.” Was that movement behind the tree? He raised his carbine and tried to focus on the spot, still at least 400 metres out. There was – something. Someone. He could see the dark outline against the patch of snow on the rise behind. Cursing, he decided it was time to start the dance and raised his right hand. Men dismounted, went to ground. He returned his hand to the trigger, sighted, and squeezed off a round before climbing out of the saddle. Damn, he felt stiff! They were all too old for this shit. Around him, rifle shots cracked out as his men began the quest to randomly locate the world’s unluckiest Russian.

    Still no return fire. The branches swayed – snow cascaded down. Was that one of their bullets? No, there was movement behind, horses, two horses galloping away. A Russian patrol, no doubt. Maybe out of Berdichev, maybe from some larger formation on the move to intercept them. Either way, it was time to get back and report the contact. Peschke waved over Frantisek.

    “Take Pausing with you and check the hideout.” He ordered. “See if there are any more and make sure they’re not following us home. Then rejoin. We are heading back the way we came.”

    Frantisek nodded and went his way. No salute. They were learning these things at a cost, but at least they were learning. He had good men under him, Peschke figured. But this was one hell of a way to fight a war.

    12 November 1907, Bologoye

    Fine, precise stitches, no less than four per centimetre. With the jacket 80 cm, long and each sleeve 65, and twenty lines going up the body, ten each sleeve, that made almost half a million stitches for each jacket. Half a million stitches in two seconds each, that made each of the damned things a week’s work. Of course, not everybody took two seconds to make a stitch. Katharina Gismar had practiced her needlecraft long and hard, as befitted the daughter of a professor and future wife of a proud paterfamilias. She could manage over a stitch a second on a good run, which gave her time enough to thread the needle and get a sip of tea every now and then. You needed tea. The huts they were working in were draughty and miserably cold. And she could not get away with being sloppy or slow like some of the other girls. She was the German girl, and the only reason they would tolerate her presence was because she was good at what she did. Not trusted enough to operate one of the rare sewing machines, but welcome as an extra pair of hands, at least.

    In the beginning, she had felt the silence in the building disconcerting. A large room full of young women, all quiet and hard at work, concentrating entirely on their labour, not a whisper or a giggle, just the voice of the reader presenting them a selection of news, novels, poetry and patriotic drivel. By now, it was an escape. Wherever else she turned, the noise of crowds engulfed her. Bologoye had not been intended as a receptacle for desperate humanity, exactly, but it was where the trains from Pskov stopped to let the line from Moscow to St Petersburg pass. If you came from Pskov – and they had to, the Germans were attacking it – it was where you got off. The Voluntary Associations of the Patriotic Union were doing their best to help, and she had to admit it was impressive, but it was still far from what she was accustomed to. She had made it there on foot, terrified out of her wits after her lonely trek across war-torn Livland, and in the end she had simply boarded one of the trains, convincing a guard to look the other way with a bribe. Showing her money was always a risky proposition. It could smooth many paths, but for a lone young woman to advertise the fact she carried gold on her person was tempting fate. That is why she was happy to have her place in the Union home for displaced girls. It was hard work – they believed in keeping their charges out of trouble by keeping them busy – but it had purpose. Every stitch, every turn, every move of her thin, strong fingers went into making the clothes and equipment that soldiers of the Empire would carry against the enemy. It pained her to see what they were making at times, though. Linen, dyed a splotchy brown and grey, held together with the kind of homespun thread that snagged, unravelled, and parted in places, stuffed with coarse cotton, often poorly cleaned, or with greasy, hard wool. Boots of woollen felt, stiff and warm, but no protection against pointy stones and liable to soak up water. The more nimble-fingered Russian girls also got to make the new caps, the bogatyrka, a pointy woollen hat with earflaps and a sunshield that was supposed to replace the old peaked cap. Katharina knew she could do this, and do it well, but she was nemetska, the German. Sewing bogatyrka caps was not for her. Sighing inwardly, she returned to her task.

    The flickering light of the kerosene lamps was hard on the eyes. She did not notice her error until she felt the steel of the needle slip under the skin and scrape bone. Frustrated, she looked down wordlessly at the blood dripping from her left hand for a brief moment before she carefully laid down the piece she was working on, rose from the table and walked over to the sink. This was just what happened. Her hands were already covered in countless little cuts and pricks, crisscrossing the pale skin with a random pattern of red and pink. She would need to wear gloves if she was to catch a suitable husband after the war. Working the pump handle with her right, Katharina rinsed out the wound and bandaged her finger. The pain would come in a minute or two, but if she was back at work then, it would not be too bad.

    Across the unpaved road in the kitchen, they were cooking kasha. Soupy, gluey buckwheat kasha for about nine hundred girls was more of a logistical than a culinary challenge, but these days, it was comforting to think that the power of the Patriotic Union ensured it would be there. Buying food was possible, somehow, but the price could be high. Many people living in the improvised shanties and clapboard huts that had sprung up along the railway line had brought valuables that the locals were more than happy to relieve them of. Those who had not would beg, steal, or barter. This was not a concern to her – yet. Katharina Gismar had brought through what of her family wealth she could.

    “Gismar!” She looked up, surprised and fearful. That was Valenka, the head of her barrack. The tall, blond woman was heading her way purposefully, followed by Father Ivan the Elder, a white-bearded priest who ran their establishment. What would she want? She had not given any reason for complaint, had she?

    “Katharina Gismar.” The matron repeated. “There is a message for you.”

    Father Ivan nodded at her, a brief smile flashing over his wrinkly face. He was a kind man who would treat her gently even though she was, naturally, a heretic and Lutheran, a stain that no amount of mass attendance could wash away. He held a note between his fingers. “Katharina,” he began, “the Maidens’ Aid Association of the Patriotic Union has sent word that your father has been found. You may join him.”

    The breath caught in her throat. Her father? They had not seen each other since the Okhrana had bundled him on an eastbound train, many weeks before the German army had crashed into her orderly dollhouse of a world that now seemed so far away.

    “They have? Where is he?” she asked, not even thinking to say ‘thank you’ first.

    “He was brought to a camp for refugees near Omsk.” The priest explained. “I have made enquiries, and you will be allowed to travel there and join him. The Union officials will make out a travel permit tomorrow morning, and finding a train to Moscow should not be a problem.”

    Trains to Moscow were all empty, except for the wounded. They delivered carloads of men and munitions to the front at St Petersburg and brought back the wrecks that the German invader had made of those who survived, mercifully. Or perhaps not mercifully at all. She recalled the smells and sounds of evacuation trains.

    “Thank you, father.” She said, attempting a curtsy. The gesture was unfamiliar to Father Ivan, of course – Russians didn’t curtsy, Katharina remembered. She chided herself. Such things mattered these days. Fortunately, the priest did not hold her error against her. Still smiling, he handed her a short, handwritten form and two stamped-metal chitties that would entitle her to an appointment with the post commander. She was going to see her father again!

    13 November 1907, Bialystok

    With the clopping of hooves and the rattling of gear echoing through the streets, the town was awake. General Mackensen stroked his moustache as he guided his horse out of the main barracks gate towards the railyard. Surely, not everyone who was lining the streets now actually lived here? They had fought over Bialystok, and it had been all but empty. Now, it was full of jubilant throngs. The real article, too: The Poles were jubilant throngs in a way that the carnival atmosphere of German parades never matched. Maybe it was because their patriotism was more acute, burning brighter unattenuated by age and institutional habit. Or perhaps it was that they had the right kind of foil? That last hypothesis struck him as depressingly plausible. There, at the head of his column – who still rode at the head of his column? – was General Brianski, preposterously youthful and improbably handsome. American tourists had come to Warsaw to get his autograph. Boys followed him starry-eyed hoping to catch a word. Maidens sighed longingly at his approach. It was altogether a pretty ridiculous showing, Mackensen thought jealously as he adjusted the tunic. It hitched up a bit over his belly when he was in the saddle.

    Along the main thoroughfares, horsemen were streaming out onto the roads southeast. You did not often have the opportunity to visualise what “two divisions of cavalry” really meant, but with Bialystok as the primary assembly point, here, you could. It was still not literally every man, of course. Some regiments had taken to the roads days ago, and a significant Polish force out of Warsaw was moving by road north of Brest-Litovsk. But it was still a rousing sight. He had slaved, begged, scrimped and bullied to put the force together, and now, a cruel few weeks before the depth of winter would freeze the fronts in place, he had it. Bluish-grey German Jäger zu Pferde and hussars of the reserve milled past horse artillery, all the old 77mm pieces, small, but fast, and Maxim guns on real carriages, not the steel sleds the infantry used. On the other side of the rails, splendid in their colourful overcoats and sheepskin caps, Polish volunteer hussars jostled their way through a cheering crowd. To their left, mounted on runty-looking ponies and dressed in black and surplus German blue-grey, came the National Army’s Mounted Rifle Brigade, hard-riding, tough as nails, mostly country boys with little in the way of military schooling, but a natural bond with their strong, scruffy mounts. He had specifically requested them and, of course, Grynszpan’s engineers, though they would follow on the rails. Jews and horses, Mackensen thought, don’t mix. No matter, he wouldn’t need them for a while now. Not unless the Russians pushed back harder than he thought they could.

    Brianski saw Mackensen approach and saluted, turning in the saddle with elegant grace. The German returned the salute and smiled grimly. The handsome prince might get the adulation of his compatriots, but if their plan worked, it would be Mackensen’s triumph. He had made the logistics happen, provided the marching schedules and secured the rolling stock. Brianski had wanted to saddle up and head east, twenty thousand men on twenty thousand horses. Brave, but ineffective, like so much of the National Army’s war. Now, at long last, they were equipped to deal the enemy a hard blow. If it went in deep enough - the railway line out of Minsk and the Pripyet crossings – it could cut the Russian front in half. That would be worth writing home about!

    14 November 1907, Gulf of Finland

    “Do you know anyone in Norway, Comrade Novikov?” Karl Frohme asked quietly, looking out over the line of warships that were now steaming west slowly. German minesweepers led the procession, followed by the ragbag survivors of Russia’s once proud Baltic Fleet. Almost beyond the horizon, visible, though far enough away to salvage the appearance of freedom, Ingenohl’s battleships were shadowing them. The Germans had a higher opinion of Russian sailors’ patriotism than their own negotiators held. Frohme had spoken to the men of Kronstadt. There was no risk any of them would turn their guns on the Kaiser’s navy. Most of them, at this point, were desperate for an escape – any escape – from an impossible situation. Those that still had fight in them were burning with desire to topple the Czar and slaughter his officers and greenjackets. Germans might as well have come from Mars, so little did they figure in this world view. Frohme found it astonishing.

    “Nobody.” The sailor shrugged, pensively chewing the stem of his pipe. Standing on the bridge of a battleship was a new experience for him. Before the mutiny, he had been a quartermaster’s mate second class, managing stores and keeping tabs on supplies in the bowels of the ship. His new, transient status – Chairman of the Sailors’ Council – allowed him to stand where only epauletted fools and oppressors had been permitted. It had stopped exciting him much earlier. He cleared his throat, looking north over the misty water towards the Finnish coast. The guns of Viborg were booming out a futile challenge. The fleet passed far outside their range.

    “I know a little German, a little English. I’m sure there will be a way I can live.” Norway. The idea still failed to register. They were taking the ships to Oslo to be interned, supposedly – this had been considered very important – of their own volition. The German navy merely allowed them passage as part of a temporary ceasefire negotiated between the admiral at sea and the men of the Baltic Fleet. Diplomacy could be confusing. In return for maintaining this fiction, though, the Norwegian government had agreed to take charge of their vessels and allow the men to melt away under their nominal guard. It was as good a solution as he would be offered, Novikov knew.

    “I am not a brave man, Comrade Frohme.” He said impulsively. “I will be content, more than content, to live out my life in some little corner of the world far away from here. Boredom will suit me.” Novikov gestured to the small group of steam launches and lighters making for the shore. There went heroes: Trotski’s intrepid revolutionaries, armed from the arsenals of the fortress and determined to take the fight to the Czar. The Germans were only too happy not to place any obstacles in their way.

    “I understand.” Frohme looked at the boats disappearing in their wake. Trotski frightened him. Himself a veteran of the Bismarck years, he understood that repression shaped its own opposition, In his youth, before he had become respectable and entered the Reichstag, he had had his own scrapes with the police and a small collection of scars bore eloquent witness to the fact that this had not always been friendly encounters. Frohme had gone ashore shortly after the mutiny. He had seen how the sailors had dealt with their officers, had talked to Trotski in his triumph. Life in Russia, he concluded, had to be an utter, unalloyed horror to have created such enemies. “I wish you luck. Him, too.”

    Novikov nodded. He had few hopes that the band of rebels would amount to anything much, but he had been surprised before. After the repression of the 1905 revolt, he had not expected another rising to be possible, and yet the sailors of the fleet had hoisted their admirals on the fortress walls like signal flags. Maybe Trotski would yet amount to more. He squelched the nagging voice at the back of his mind and sucked on his pipe. It was cold. “He will need it more.”

    15 November 1907, Paris

    Even the scale model was huge. Resting on the table in the middle of the room, it dwarfed the furniture and the men seated around it. Guns thrusting forth from six massive turrets seemed to project phallic defiance even in their miniature state, and overtopping it all was the tricolore flying from the main mast. “La France”, the gilt letters on the stand proclaimed the vessel’s proud name.

    “Unaffordable.” ´Minister of Finance Cochery harrumphed. “I still say this is financially untenable.”

    Prime Minister Clemenceau shook his head energetically. “No, minister. You are still seeing the short term only. Quite the contrary, it is so that France cannot afford not to build this ship, and more like her. It must be done now.”

    “Yes, you keep telling us.” Cochery retorted. “The last government spent millions after millions on its battleships, and now you are saying it was all for nothing and we are to spend even more millions on these… I smell a partisan hack!”

    “Sadly, it is true.” Navy Minister Thomson spoke up. “The new English ship has changed the game. We have had the opportunity to observe it in the Mediterranean, and there is no doubt it exceeds all expectations. No vessel in the French navy could keep the sea against it.”

    “If we are lost,” Aristide Briand interjected. He was here as one of the most influential opposition deputies who were not Ligueists and thus trusted by Clemenceau. “Then what is the point of building more ships for the Royal Navy to sink?”

    “Ah, but that is the point.” Clemenceau explained, smiling with quiet self-satisfaction. “This is where the English have defeated their own purpose. No ship in the French navy can stand against the Dreadnought. No ship in the world can. At this moment, the Dreadnought is in effect the only modern warship on the planet. And that leaves the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy over its rivals – moot.” With a sweeping gesture, he seemed to embrace the battleship model before him. “If another country had such a vessel today, it would be on par with vaunted England. By building a single ship!”

    “And we would build four now.” Pichon, the foreign minister, smiled contentedly. He had been involved in formulating the plan for the naval programme, and it filled him with joy to see foreign policy regain centre stage after a year of fighting over schools, churches, and the budget.

    “Initially.” Navy Minister Thomson explained. “The class must be used to gather experience, to iron out the kinks in the design just like the English are doing. But we can begin this race much, much closer to parity.”

    “But not at parity.” Raymond Poincare pointed out acidly. “That opportunity was lost.”

    “It was.” Clemenceau did not often concede a point to his opponents, but he was resolved to be gracious. “The timidity of the past government, the precariousness of our political situation and yes, the hesitation of myself and my own cabinet all contributed to this. But it is not too late to remedy.” He cleared his throat. “We need not challenge the Royal Navy to battle for world’s oceans. No, it will be enough if our own navy can defend our sea lanes and secure us from blockade. With ships like these – we can. France’s African Empire will be secure., Britain’s thin pink line always at risk. With that knowledge, London’s policy must be one of conciliation.”

    “Maybe.” Briand was doubtful. “But for all that we may have their flank in Africa, their German dog is at our door. We cannot gain the Lualaba River at the cost of the Moselle!”

    “That, Monsieur Briand, is a problem history will solve for us.” Clemenceau declared. “Germany, for all its victory, is a spent force militarily. Already, almost two million of its young men are dead or crippled. They have outlawed public funeral services for fear of riots at the bloodletting! No, Germany will be unable to threaten our border for a generation. And its friendship with England is going to cool rapidly once the young Kaiser learns how little of the dearly-bought fruits of victory London will be disposed to allow him to keep. And that, Monsieur Briand, Monsieur Poincare, is why we must have the new naval programme now. Not in four years or six, but now that Germany and Russia are paralysed and England vulnerable. You know that France cannot hope to overmatch her rivals in the number of her men or the amount of her resources. She must rely on her spirit and genius for victory. And here – is that genius at work.”

    He paused. The murmur around the table seemed to signal cautious approval. Minister Pichon spoke up: “Gentlemen, do not be deceived by the Socialist press into thinking that this is a plan for war. Quite the contrary. With a fleet in our ports that can rival the might of England, war is less likely, not more. Germany’s power to threaten our border is greatly reduced. No more the threat of an invader at our backs, no more the constant worry of how to manage, how to pay for an increased military establishment. This is the end of the debate over three-year conscription for at least a decade! Now, we can turn to securing France her future. West Africa shall be ours, incontestably. And one day when the broad expanses of North America sound to the tones of Shakespeare’s tongue and the great republics of South America to the language of Cervantes, Africa from the Atlas to the Niger shall speak, think, be French! It is not to take from England her own, but defend ours that we must have this power. But have it we must!”

    “And yet,” Cochery tried one last sally, “the money to pay for it. How shall we fund it? Our war in Morocco and the purchase of the Congo have taken up all the surplus.”

    “Our Congo and Morocco would be meaningless, food for the British lion, if we did not strain our resources to their adequate defense!” Clemenceau retorted, irritated. “And the time, Mr Minister, is propitious. France is at peace, her bonds favoured on markets domestic and foreign. We can afford to borrow against the future riches of our African Empire. And in so doing – raise the interest rates that Berlin must pay to fund its war.”

    Poincare smiled. There was a doubter won over. Clemenceau had been sure the financial argument would convince him.

    “There are many who would invest in safe government papers who will no longer buy Russian bonds. Would you? Even at the interest they offer. And should we see these Frenchmen, provident and hard-working, reduced to buying English gilts or German war bonds? Argentine debt?”

    “But what of the Russians?” That was Briand again. “Have you thrown them to the wolves already?”

    Clemenceau shrugged eloquently. “The Russian military convention was a dangerous folly pursued by the Ligueists and their dream of a monarchical France. Russia made an ally of convenience, but not of spirit. Though Frenchmen may deplore its eventual defeat to Germany, they can hardly mourn the odious regime of the Czar. We have had from the alliance what we could legitimately hope – the neutralisation of the German threat. And I think it is fair to say we have given the Russians what help we could. That they would lose this war was evident from the moment they decided to wage it. If the Czar has a gram of sense, he will come to the conference table while he still can.”

    He stepped around the model ship to the map mounted on the wall. “No, gentlemen, France must look to other allies, allies that share her true values and interests. We have Italy.”

    Pichon looked pained. Having prised Italy away from the Triple Alliance hardly counted as an achievement in his book.

    “A Latin country, bound to us by ties of blood and culture. A liberal state, with voting rights and the rule of law. And, I must stress this, bound to us by the proximity of our borders, both in Europe and Africa, more firmly than the obligations of gratitude.”

    That much, at least, was true. Italy not only depended on France to secure and protect her possession of Libya, she needed French coal for her railways and fleet, French steel for her ships and rails, and French capital for her colonial schemes. While French Africa stood, Libya was safe. The alliance was a natural one. And Paris, unlike London, might well agree to support future claims on Ottoman territory or – who knew what the future would bring? – even Austrian.

    “But no, I think of an alliance that, if ever it comes to pass, will make even England tremble in her boots. An alliance of republics. Today, still, the United States believe that they are safe from England’s envy and protected by her fleet, but for how much longer? The Japanese already have designs on the Western Pacific. London and Washington are at cross purposes in South America. They can paper over the cracks yet, but once Venezuela or Colombia default, or if their canal ever gets finished and London claims its piece like it did at Suez, once America learns that what it considers its backyard, the English claim as their watery realm – they must fall out. And with America seeking a strong ally, where better to look than in the country of La Fayette?”

    Silence greeted his pronouncement. Some of them men were shaking their heads, others scratching their beards. But to his gratification, nobody seemed to consider the notion entirely outlandish. Clemenceau continued. “Of course I do not mean for this to come about tomorrow. We must be patient in matters of policy. But we must also work towards these goals. One day, when the French flag flies over a peaceful, civilised Africa, when French warships lie at anchor in Casablanca, Dakar and Boma, the men of America will see how much we have in common, how our interests align and our goals are the same.”

    “And you would abandon Alsace-Lorraine for that dream?”

    Briand. Damn Briand! Clemenceau balled his fist before turning to answer.

    “Yes. Yes, with a heavy heart I would for a time at least. The matter is not finished – did we not fight the English for two centuries until Normandy and Gascony were French? But For now, we must look to the future. The future lies in Africa, the new France, over the sea, and on that sea, the road that carries our soldiers and settlers to bring our civilisation there. When the time comes that we must match our forces against Germany, the young blood of these new lands will stand in the blue line with the proven men of the France Metropolitaine, and then, the stolen provinces will be ours again. But until that time…”

    Quiet enveloped the room. He sought Poincare’s eye. That man was convinced. Cochery, too, seemed to have caught fire. Tomorrow’s vote would go well, then, regardless of Briand’s followers in the Chamber.

    “… until that time, sagacity, forbearance, and the will to take opportunities as they come.”

    Heaven help him, Pichon actually applauded!

    18 November 1907, Cologne

    The plans looked impressive, drawings of tall, airy, spacious homes, blocks of four and five stories with balconies and green courtyards, laundry houses, kitchens, playgrounds, even a football pitch. Mayor Max Wallraf still could not quite believe this was actually happening.

    “Doctor Bachem,” he said, unfolding the letter he had received from no less a luminary than the Minister for War Economy himself. “I have the honour to tell you that I can agree to your request.”

    Like any good Prussian official faced with an unknown situation, Wallraf had looked to guidance from on high. How often did you have a club of munitions workers wanting to buy building land? But the letter from Berlin, when it came, had been unequivocal. Not only was he to permit the sale and the building project – the land itself belonged to the archdiocese, but the project would need permission because it was classed as agricultural – he was to actively encourage similar developments, even make public land available for sale at favourable prices. His request, hesitant though he had been to write to Krupp von Rathenau after the Korpsbereich had told him to go bother someone else, seemed to have had an effect.

    “I am glad to hear that, Sir.” Bachem stroked his extensive beard and smiled. “My clients will be glad to hear this. And if I may say so, it was a wise decision. You must remember that Social Democrats are pursuing similar developments elsewhere. It is important not to be seen as uncaring in such matters.”

    Wallraf nodded. It made sense for the Christian labour unions to do this no doubt. Why wouldn’t it? But he had not thought that he, a servant of the Prussian king, would ever be called on to actively help them in it. But the superior wisdom of government had prevailed, and all government agencies were enjoined to permit, encourage and aid the purchase of land and undertaking of building projects to be commenced after the war by individuals and associations. Over the signature of Rathenau, that was as good as an order. And it made sense, seen with the cold, hard logic of economics. It took money out of circulation, which would cool prices and deflate the black market a bit. The state owned more than enough land and could afford to sell off parcels, even at low prices. And it stacked up a demand for labour when the soldiers would come home.

    “Rest assured I will be more than happy to assist you in future endeavours of this kind.”, the mayor promised. “The transaction itself is going smoothly?”

    “Not a hitch.” Doctor von Bachem said. “One third the purchase price of the land is already in a holding account with the bank, a quarter of the cost of building in the second. The money is being added to monthly now.”

    Wallraf nodded again. He recalled the first meeting with the group, what were they called, Genossenschaft Scholle und Heim? Old men, mainly, some youngish – a lot of skilled workers had deferments – and women with that strange, yellow cast to their skins you saw in the streets so often now. Munitions workers. They had looked tired and anxious, but proud. The very idea that people like this could put together the thousands of marks their purchase required had seemed ridiculous, but of course they were making good enough money in war production. Many of them had been saving all they could before the war, too. No, the more he thought about it, the more Wallraf had to admit to himself that these were not the shiftless, irresponsible mob he had expected. He stepped forward impulsively to shake the attorney’s hand. “Good luck, then, Dr. Bachem. I wish you every success!”

    Bachem returned his firm handshake, then cleared his throat, looked the mayor straight in the eye and opened his briefcase. “One more thing, Mr Mayor.” He said. “I have been asked to negotiate for the purchase of two pieces of municipal land by the Chemical Workers’ Building Cooperative. If this is a bad time….”
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  3. carlton_bach Member

    Jan 18, 2004
    Altona, Occupied Denmark
    19 November 1907, Vladikavkas

    “Don’t worry.” Grand Duke Mikhail brushed aside his uncle’s apologies. “In wartime, one must make some sacrifices.”

    He tore off a piece of the fresh flatbread and helped himself to a shashlyk, a long skewer of lamb and beef spiced heavily with red peppers. The table was sparse, just the skewers and some chicken, a dish of eggplant and local wine. Nikolai would, of course, have hot tea and chilled vodka for later. He always did. It might not compare well to the spreads that he would have sat down to in Moscow, or even at headquarters, but the view from the slopes of Mt Madychoch made up for it. Away at the edge of the forest, their servants were tending to the horses, awaiting the pleasure of their commanders. Just two cavalrymen and one cook, busying himself over a brazier of hot coals. In peacetime, this would have been laughable. But austerity had its uses. Grand Prince Nikolai swallowed a bite of chicken, warmed his fingers over the chafing dish, sipped his wine and nodded to Mikhail.

    “Well, then. I enjoy my picknicks up here. It’s a beautiful spot, usually only goatherds come here. Quite secluded.” His face became grave. “You know that you are inheriting a terrible mess here. But I don’t think you realise just how bad things are going to get. Mikhail,” he raised his hand, stopping him from interrupting, “you must understand that you cannot talk about these things to anyone here. You are in command. This is your burden, yours alone.”

    Surprise registered in Mikhail’s eyes. “Uncle, I… Not even General Nazarbekov?”

    Nikolai nodded gravely. “Nazarbekov is one of the best, most loyal men I know. Do not add to his worries. He is a professional soldier, he can draw his own conclusions. As commander, it is your responsibility to show the men you are in control. Your decisions are yours, and they must come with confidence. Everybody who sees you must come away convinced that victory is in your grasp. If your subordinates see you doubt, their own doubts will run away with them.”

    Mikhail put down the skewer, taking the time to wipe his mouth with his napkin before replying. “How long am I obligated to play theatre, then? If Nazarbekov can draw his own conclusions, he surely must have done so. I am sure he knows as well as you that we are losing the war.”

    “He may well.” The grand prince carefully picked up a branch and stuck it in the chafing dish. “I never asked him. And neither must you.” He withdrew the burning twig, checked his breast pocket for a cheroot, then thought better of it and blew out the flame. “You have read the reports. You know that we are already locking up thousands of people in concentration camps against the good behaviour of local recruits. You have no doubt seen the death rates. No?”

    Mikhail looked nonplussed.

    “It’s in the footnotes. Most important things are. I dread to think what will happen if the troops of our Savage Division learn how many of their mothers and sisters will not be coming back. And that is just one of the problems you will need to solve.”

    “The Turks... the Germans … I know.” Mikhail looked almost dejected now. “I think we can stop the arms shipments, though. We own the Black Sea. Increased naval patrols should be possible now that…”

    “…we no longer have to defend Odessa.” Nikolai completed the hanging sentence. “Yes, that should actually be possible. But remember that the rebels are not your primary concern. You need to be ready to defend the frontier if the Turks attack us in force.”

    “They won’t do that in winter!” Mikhail protested.

    “I think not.” Nikolai agreed. “In the end, it is your decision now. Use the time you have wisely. Nothing much moves in winter, so take the troops you have and by all means smoke out some traitors. But I must caution you: Expect that forces will be withdrawn from you. We desperately need men against the Germans. You must be parsimonious with everything.”

    “I know.” The youthful general adjusted his collar and sighed. “I know. I will keep the defences ready against an Ottoman invasion and give the Turk a bloody nose if he decides to breach our borders. If we are still at war in spring.”

    Mikhail left the thought unfinished. For a long time, neither man said anything. Finally, the grand prince took another sip of wine and carefully set down his glass again. “I fear we may be, Mikhail. But if we are, I will not be responsible for it.”

    Mikhail looked searchingly at his uncle’s face. The immaculately cut beard and deep, cold eyes betrayed nothing. Had there been a flicker of – understanding – between them for a moment? “You will resign your command unless peace is made?” he asked.

    Nikolai sat silent, looking out over the valley. “I may. Perhaps there will be no need for that. Russia cannot sustain this much longer. If we do not make peace soon, then God help her.”

    “You will tell Nicholas!” Mikhail half rose from his folding chair, pleading. “You must! He will listen to you.”

    “I will speak to him.” Nikolai promised. “I cannot say if he will listen. His ear has long been for others. But I will try to convince him. And failing that…” He shook his head sadly. “It goes ill for a country that has such need of heroes, Mikhail.” His hand sought that of his nephew. “Stay at your post. Your service will be needed. Do not worry, and do not interfere. I shall go serve Russia.”

    20 November 1907, railway between Bialystok and Grodno

    The vocabulary of the German infantryman was evocative, but limited. Appending the universal prefix transformed every quotidian noun into an unequivocal statement of opinion: Scheisskälte, Scheissverspätung, Scheisswaggon, Scheissofen, Scheisskrieg. Korporal Richting was a friend of eloquence, but he found that profanity could give you a visceral relief that sarcastic remarks did not match. His reaction to the sudden jolt with which the train began moving after another unscheduled half-hour stop was the same as everyone’s, once he had managed to find his feet again. Two men actually fell, one landing squarely on the card game three others were whiling away their time with.

    “Thanks, mate!” Heini Pepperkorn said, grinning as he picked himself up and collected his stakes from the heap of spilled cards and cigarettes. “My hand was lousy.”

    That got more laughter than it should have. Outside the confines of their boxcar, a drab, brownish landscape passed. Richting craned his neck to see out of the window. Building work on the line – of course. Changing gauges and adding tracks so that German trains could run on Russian rails in the numbers needed: it was what made the war run. The engine slowed to a snail’s pace, and of course the bucket of coals they had to fire their utterly inadequate little stove was already empty.

    “Hey, look!” That was Thalbach, pointing out the obvious. “The Polacks are fixing the railway. Work faster, you lazy buggers!”

    Someone opened the door, just enough so the curious could look out. It made little difference to the temperature anyway, so Richting did not interfere immediately. Outside, he could see the work gang: Pitiful figures, wrapped in whatever warm clothing they could find. Many of them had straw shoes, some were barefoot. Men in army coats were directing the work, but the great bulk of labourers were civilians. A chain of emaciated, tired men and women staggered along under the load of a rail. The riveters hammering bolts into place with their sledgehammers looked terminally exhausted. By the side of the embankment, more ragged figures stood or sat around a small fire, seemingly unable to move. He had seen men in that state last winter, in the trenches outside Ivangorod. Some of them had not lived to see the next day.

    “Hey, wanna see something funny?” Fritz Kohn was fumbling with his pack, undoing the straps of the breadbag. More men crowded the half-open door in anticipation of the promised entertainment. Kohn opened the bag, took out the heel of a bread loaf and tossed it out among the workers. A shout of recognition rose as the first man saw what was happening, and the heavy rail crashed to the ground, clanging. One of the riveters was first, clutching the hard bread to his chest and looking around defensively.

    “Here, watch them fight!” Kohn was not finished. “This is how you can make Polacks fight.” He pulled a flitch of bacon from his bag and tossed it out. It landed amid the crushed rock of the new track, and several of the ragged scarecrow figures immediately converged on the spot. A whistle shrilled as the Polish railway troops tried to stem the emerging chaos. More men were fumbling with their bags. Richting stepped in.

    “HALT!” Command voice worked. The men froze where they stood. “Put back your packs and get away from the door!” the corporal ordered, grabbing the door handle. He slammed it shut and pushed the bar into place before he turned to deal with the culprit.

    “Kohn, what the fuck did you think you were doing?”

    The young man wilted under the glare of his NCO, but he still mustered the will to argue in his defense. “I was just having some fun, corporal.”

    “Fun wasting rations?” Richting was not having it.

    “The bacon’s mine. I’m not eating it anyway, so I thought…”

    “No, you fucking didn’t. Think. That was a Scheissidee, Kohn! You better hope the feldwebel doesn’t come our way with pointed questions at the next stop. Now, dammit, listen up: When the Emperor gives you bread, butter, cheese or bacon to eat, you EAT IT! Because where you’re going, you’ll be fucking glad to have it damn soon. We do not waste food on my watch, none of us. IS THAT CLEAR!”

    The men mumbled apologetically, but they seemed suitably impressed. Richting felt unsure what else he could do. How did you explain to young men right out of training what it felt like when you were on the sixth day of three days’ rations? How did you make them understand the dilemma when you had to choose whether to eat your sausage, knowing your stomach would rebel at the saltiness, or to keep it and suffer the pangs of hunger today rather than tomorrow? They were stupid. They couldn’t help it. Richting mumbled something noncommittal and returned to his seat on the hard bench to open a book. He’d be the bugbear for days after this.

    21 November 1907, Berlin

    “Why?” The emperor was not given to emotional outbursts, but he could give his voice an edge if he was unsatisfied with an explanation. Lieutenant-Colonel Tappen, today’s reporting officer, already knew it well. Today, he had particularly painful news to bring to the imperial briefing.

    “Sire, I am sorry to say we simply cannot support the advance logistically.” he answered stiffly. “The weather, the distance and the complexity of being engaged at several fronts simultaneously forbid it. Please recall that the breakthrough was achieved in a secondary theatre.”

    Wilhelm adjusted his cap, scratched his forehead for a moment, then took it off. “Almost to Minsk? And the Austrians have given up Berdichev? That is not what you want to read in the papers, surely.” After the acute disappointment of failing to take St Petersburg, ‘almost there’ was becoming too much of a refrain.

    “No, your Majesty.” Tappen stood the accusing gaze of the solitary grey-blue eye well. “But the decision not to go for Minsk was made by General von Mackensen. I do not believe he expected to ever get as far as he did. His reports are clear that the onset of winter, the poor condition of the roads and the impossibility of obtaining sufficient supply and reinforcements made it impossible to consider taking the city. Many of his cavalrymen are already down to the last remount, and away from the railway line, he can barely feed his troops. And the artillery can’t keep up.”

    Tappen considered explaining the reality of moving guns. The Poles that made up the bulk of this attack had decided to leave behind all the heavy guns, knowing they would be dead weights clogging up scarce road space and killing draught horses, stuck up to the axles in viscous mud. But even a 77mm, or one of the refurbished Russian 76s with their ridiculously flimsy-looking carriages and their stupid elevation mechanism, would be a challenge. Hauling a gun through the mud, dragging it up hillsides, manhandling it through defiles – few people appreciated just how much of an artilleryman’s life was taken up by shifting heavy weights. Fortunately, Emperor Wilhelm nodded. It was a curt nod, but it indicated understanding.

    “And the Austrians, I assume, had much the same problem?” he asked.

    “Yes, your Majesty. The troops that took Berdichev were on a reconnaissance-in-force, a regiment-strength probe against local defences. When they noticed how little resistance there was, they called in reinforcements, but again, the situation did not allow. They took the surrender of Berdichev whose garrison had been badly depleted, but at least two Russian divisions were coming to dislodge them. There was no chance enough reinforcements would be there, with the Austrians limited to road transport.”

    “And there was nothing that could be done?” The emperor was persistent. Not a bearer of grudges, but prone to worrying at questions.

    “In both cases we had no railway link, Your Majesty.” The colonel explained. “The roads are bad enough in the dry season, but in late autumn and winter, they are practically impassable for any wheeled vehicle. And even with a railway, we normally need to rework the track and bring in the trains ourselves. That was a remarkable success, by the way: The Austrians managed to lay their hands on considerable Russian rolling stock at Berdichev and despatched the trains to Winniza. They now have a working rail link from Lemberg all the way to the fortified Bug crossings. So the foray has not brought us Berdichev, but it effectively secures all of Podolia. Just as Mackensen’s coup de main means that Brest-Litovsk is going to fall to us. Their supply line from Smolensk is now cut.”

    Wilhelm drew pencil lines on his map and chewed his lip for a moment. Then he looked directly at the officer in front of his desk: “Tappen, this needs to get better. We had them. We could have cut out a huge chunk of Russia this time! Why can we not support an advance?”

    “Sire, the amount of supplies needed is huge. The remounts for cavalry alone come to four or five horses per man, if the troops are to stay mobile. The artillery, even if we reduce it to light guns, and the ammunition wagons, all moving over very poor roads and in large numbers. In Russia, in this season, you cover twenty kilometres a day if you are lucky.”

    “What about motorcars?” Wilhelm asked.

    Tappen seemed taken aback. “To carry supplies?” he asked.

    “Supplies, troops, all of it. We have armoured lorries, don’t we? Can’t they be used to carry an advance like that?”

    “We don’t have a lot, Sire.” Tappen pointed out. “And they would require a supply of gasoline that is hard to transport in itself.” You could always rustle up some kind of fodder in a village, but try finding twenty litres of gasoline at the arse end of Wolhynia.

    “I want you to find out how this can be done.” The emperor scribbled a note in the margin of his briefing papers and specified: “Find out how many motor cars it would take and how they can be supplied. Falkenhayn’s office should be able to help. I want the next breakthrough to be properly supported. And look into the possibility of doing reconnaissance by airship, too. Cavalry scouts aren’t much faster than columns, and that’s not good enough.”

    “Sire.” That would be another night of very little sleep, Tappen realised. Or several. Sometimes it felt as though half the general staff was busy writing those reports for the emperor. He kept asking for the silliest of details: How many men did it take to land an airship? How many Madsen guns could a company of infantry use effectively? Did it make sense to use panye horses instead of Argentine and Australian imports due to the weather? How much bread could a field kitchen bake in a day? It never ended.

    “On to happier news, though.” the colonel suggested. “The Pacific Squadron has taken up position off Vladivostok. Russia now has only one entry point for imported supplies. And if the war continues, we are still confident the Turkish government will honour its commitment to join come spring, if we supply the requested war materials.”

    “If we supply…” Wilhelm scratched his chin. He was still unsure how much trust to place in the stability or the honest intent of the government of the Young Turks. If the Ottoman Empire joined the war, it would definitely turn the tide, close the Straits, divert Russian troops to the Caucasus front and perhaps even give them the chance to come to grips with the last of Russia’s active fleets. Five modern battleships beat everything the Turks and Romanians could muster, but the idea of sending a squadron through a friendly Dardanelles to put the fear of God into the enemy… But the price was great. Enver Pasha was holding out for equipment that would kit out two or three German divisions, equipment that would be direly missed on the northern front come spring. And all of this was done in secret, which meant he could always go back on his word. Assuming Russia was still in the war come spring. After a beating like this – the Czar’s stubborn refusal to make peace was imposing huge costs on the allies. The emperor snorted. “We will see. What about Turkestan?”

    “Not this year. The Chinese have secured all of Mongolia, with the help of the Japanese and deliveries of weapons, but the logistical challenges…” Tappen did not finish the sentence. The distances involved were simply insane. He reckoned it had to take at least twenty men in the rear echelon to keep one man at the front fighting. Probably more – they actually carried supplies on their goddamned shoulders! You could call it primitive, but an army like that, competently led and determined, was a terrifying thing, too. “But the Russians appear to be worried. A lot of native troops are going to Bokhara and points east, as far as we can determine.”

    The emperor nodded again. Once again, it would be next spring. Soon enough, all the fighting fronts would freeze solid, with the men huddling in deep bunkers and trying to keep warm. Sure they would fight, but there was no way you could have a real battle in the Russian winter. Come spring, the Swedes could go for the White Sea and come down on Schlüsselburg from the north. Come spring, the Chinese could push for Turkestan. Come spring, the Turks could raise hell in the Caucasus. Come spring, if the Reich still had credit and could keep buying the nitrates and metals, cotton and leather, horses, mules, rubber and grain it took to keep the war running.

    “All right, then. Thank you colonel. Dismissed.” Tappen saluted crisply, the emperor returned the gesture perfunctorily. “Do not forget to get me that report! And tell my secretary to come in, I need to talk with Minister Rathenau!”

    25 November 1907, Warsaw

    Russian bureaucracy had a certain atmosphere to it, an undefinable combination of colours, smells and sounds that was hard to entirely banish from a place once it had taken hold. The Bishop’s Palace, though now once again given to its original purpose, was a case in point. As Father Leczinski slowly walked the long, dimly lit corridors, the discoloured paint on the walls, the scent of long-scuffed wax on the floorboards and the aroma of poorly cured wood and old paper mingled to call up memories of days long past. A promising boy at a Junker school he had been. His father had hoped he would grow up to be an officer, or an engineer. But fate had intended differently, and Tadeusz Leczinski had taken the vow instead. Still, he felt certain his father, were he alive, would be as proud of his boy as he would of any gold-braided artillery officer. Certainly if he knew of the risks that he took, the travels and the secrets he was entrusted with.

    A young man in the habit of a Jesuit rose to meet him. He had to be an import, too. They had reinstated the order, but there could not possibly be priests already.

    “Welcome!” he said, eyeing the arrival. Commendable caution, Leczinski thought. You needed intelligent men at the entrance to see who was coming and going. “Can I help you?”

    “Yes, thank you.” Leczinski nestled with his breast pocket until he managed to withdraw his safe conduct and passport. “Leczinski is my name. I am here to meet the Redemptorist Superior.”

    The Jesuit scanned the papers, looked him over and nodded in satisfaction. “Certainly, Father Leczinski. I am Father Mayrich. Let me take you to the Superior’s offices. Shall I take your suitcase?”

    Leczinski shook his head, the grip on the precious piece of luggage tightening slightly. He felt the wobble caused by its hanging slightly out of alignment, the result of a layer of sovereigns stitched into the bottom lining. A few hundred pounds in specie could go very far in a place like Warsaw, but the true value lay in the letters, consignment notes, and instructions he was carrying. He had barely slept on the train up from Rome, spent a nervous two days in Vienna and finally cadged a cramped seat on a northbound service. Nothing would part him now.

    Father Mayrich led the way, up a stairway and down yet another corridor, until he reached a dark panelled door and knocked. A Redemptorist friar opened.

    “Father Leczinski to see the Superior.” The Jesuit announced and was about to withdraw when the hapless monk shook his head and informed him:

    “I am sorry, His Excellency is not in. What is it about?”

    Mayrick looked at Leczinski.

    “It is a matter of ... governance that I am bound to discretion over. When is His Excellency expected back?”

    The Redemptorist scratched his head. “I don’t think he left word. He has not shown up today. I suppose he may be occupied with something important. Would you like to leave a message for him, Father?”

    Leczinski felt his knees nearly buckle. “I’m sorry, but that is quite impossible. I must talk to the Provincial Superior in person at the earliest opportunity. May I …” he turned to Mayrich. “May I impose on your hospitality? You must have quarters for visitors. I will await his return.”

    “Of course, Father.” The Jesuit nodded, looking earnest. He gestured back down the corridor and gave Leczinski and his suitcase a long, speculative look as he walked by him. Turning to the Redemptorist secretary, he ordered: “At the xenodochium of St John’s. Send word immediately His Excellency is back!”

    “Dead?” Feliks Dzerzhinski gritted his teeth. “Dammit, Josef, how did that happen?”

    Agent Josef Unszlicht wilted under the gaze. “I don’t know. I suppose it was the chloroform. We nabbed him on the street because we couldn’t get into his office or his residence, so we had to transport him in a box. But it looks like we overdid it with the chloroform, or his heart gave out. It happens sometimes.”

    Dzerzhinski snorted. Well, it did happen sometimes. Secret policing wasn’t a known quantity thing, you made things up as you went along. Still, he would have liked to ask some questions, documents or no. Of course Unszlicht had secured those – he was a professional, after all. In the big scheme of things, it would make no difference. The Redemptorists would miss their head, and the ultramontane conspiracy its mastermind. “It does happen. You did well, Comrade Unszlicht.”

    He patted him on the shoulder and shook his hand. “Very well. I would not have trusted many men with so delicate a mission. Now on to dismantling this web of subversion and sabotage. You have begun reading the documents, I take it?”

    “Yes Si … comrade.”

    “Good. I will expect a full report tomorrow, and a list of names.”

    Unszlicht saluted. “Of course, comrade Dzerzhinski. What about the body?”

    Dzerzhinski looked up. That was not normally something he would be concerned with. Was Unszlicht feeling some romantic attachment to the church? A remnant of irrational, superstitious fear?

    “Dispose of it. Discreetly.”

    28 November 1907, Berlin

    Minutes of the Reichstag, 126th Session of 1907

    “The question here cannot be one of any limitations to the sacrifices the German people is willing to make in the conduct of the war. No true patriot hesitates to give all his worldly goods and every drop of his blood for the victory of the fatherland. Members of this house know this, many of you have sons serving in the King’s uniform today, and some from our own midst are fighting!”

    (Interjections: Hear, hear! Applause)

    “Germany will continue to bear whatever burden providence places upon her shoulders, happy to discharge her duty in this fateful hour. And it takes a Socialist to doubt that resolve in their harping on funeral bells. Yes, gentlemen, I am referring to the vote of the eighteenth, and you know full well its implications. And I am telling you now that Germans die for emperor and fatherland with a glad heart, no matter what you may think!”

    (Tumult. Interjection, right: Hear, hear, Interjection, left: For Shame! Lies!)

    “But the matter placed before us here is not one of sacrifices made for the fatherland. No, it is one of a subsidy – a significant subsidy to be paid to the government of a foreign country. Poland today exists solely on the sufferance of the German Empire and through the victories of our soldiers. It has no government, no territory, no borders, no existence in any true sense. To throw German wealth at this monstrosity serves no purpose, doubly not seeing that justly, it is the Poles that should be paying us, not the reverse. What purpose does it serve German interests to feed and clothe gangs of armed brigands while our own widows and orphans hunger?”

    (Interjection: Now you notice? Left)

    (Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau, DKP)

    “I would call to the attention of this house, gentlemen,. And to your known capacity for reasoned judgement the recent successes of Polish troops under the command of General Mackensen against the Russians under Rennenkampf. I would call to your attention the enormous efforts of the Polish army in refitting railroad lines to the standard gauge and extending the rail network from Germany’s borders to the Russian fighting front, the successful completion of over two thousand kilometres of rail in a year, gentlemen! In one year! I would remind the esteemed gentlemen of the Conservative party of all of this if I had the slightest hope that it would do any good.”

    (laughter. Protest on the right, applause on the left.)

    “So what I will tell you instead, gentlemen, is that this is a question in which you have no right nor justification to protest or interfere, by the very most sacred principles of your party. You have yourself said often enough that the Emperor’s will is the primary organising principle of the state, and that this house must invariably defer to it, not question or, horror, counteract it! I would ask you now what it is about this decision by His Majesty that has led you to question the all-highest will? What, but the inveterate anti-Polonism that has hindered our war effort at every step?”

    (tumult. Interjection: shame! Coward! Jesuitry!. Laughter and applause left.)

    (Paul Brandys, Polenpartei)

    “It is a dark day in Germany when members of a foreign people mock our own kind and the loyalty that they can by nature neither feel nor understand. It is in a dark hour that I must also recall to every German true to his people in this house the words of the Freiherr von Marwitz, that the choice of disobedience where obedience is contrary to honour is a virtue!”

    (interjection: hear, hear! On right)

    “Any man of German heart and German blood must know that true loyalty is shown not in blind, slavish obedience to oriental tyrants, but in the courageous act in the face of error in high, even in the all highest places. I say no more!”

    (Franz Behrens, Christsoziale)

    Vote: 226 in favour of subsidy bill, 112 against, Abstentions and absences: 59
    Vornado likes this.
  4. carlton_bach Member

    Jan 18, 2004
    Altona, Occupied Denmark
    30 November 1907, Pilgrimsrast, near Warmbad, Südwestafrika

    If Assessor Kulmbach were asked to describe life in Südwest in a single word, that word would be saddle-sore. Governing a colony of such enormous size and barrenness required near-superhuman endurance in travelling. There was a reason why his predecessor had been known (behind his back) as iron arse. Even if you were not terribly conscientious, you could not help racking up hundreds of kilometres in the saddle in very short time. And if you actually tried to stay abreast of your duties… Kulmbach winced. Sitting down to supper would be a nightmare today. Not that the pleasures of the table were much to write home about here. Native cooks managed decent bread these days, but nothing grew out here. Tinned food was extortionate, but unless you were going to limit yourself to tough, stringy beef, it was what you had. Sardines, the assessor recalled. It was mainly sardines shipped in cheaply from French Algeria.

    Stiffly dismounting, Kulmbach handed the reins of his horse to a native boy and headed for the post office. Leutnant Schenck von Hallendorf had nothing as exalted as a garrison or barracks here, so he had used the only stone structure there was. The assessor found that ironically telling: The civil authorities might expend many years of sweat and gold on things that the army took for granted, indeed, contemptuously appropriated at will. Surely, the postmaster would not be keen on sharing his quarters with a military officer – certainly not one as habituated to command as Hallendorf. Old family, Kulmbach recalled. Older than the Hohenzollern, if his late night boasts could be trusted. And bad luck: His father had pulled all manner of strings to get him posted to Südwest to get some combat experience just months before the real war started, and the army studiously ignored his pleas for a return to his old regiment. Well, these were the perils of military service. Kulmbach would shed few tears if he should ever meet a greying Hauptmann von Hallendorf on the street back home.

    The young officer met him halfway, khaki jacket and jodhpurs dusty and artfully dishevelled. Kulmbach shook his hand stiffly, still puffing from the exertions of travel, and entered the welcome shade of the veranda.

    “Well, Herr Leutnant, here I am. What was so important you had to send a native galloper to fetch me?”

    Von Hallendorf wordlessly gestured to the door. The assessor entered the gloomy, pleasantly cool interior of the postal station and proceeded to the sorting room, followed by the lieutenant. “In here, sir.” He said. His usually haughty voice seemed almost pleading. Something must have happened all right. As Kulmbach entered the sorting room, the sickly smell of a decomposing body assailed his nostrils. It was no longer unfamiliar – serving in Namaland meant you could hardly escape it – but for all that, deeply unwelcome. A dead man had been laid out on the large oak table that took up the middle of the room. Absently, the assessor noted that someone had had the presence of mind to lay out a rubberised tarpaulin underneath.

    A quick inspection confirmed his worst fears: It was a white man. The face was already discoloured, but the sandy beard and sparse, straight hair left no doubt about his race. He looked about 40, a short, stocky man dressed in plain, serviceable veldt clothes. A pair of steel-rimmed spectacles had been placed next to his head, laid out with a cheap watch and chain, a cigarette box, and a pocket glass. His shirt was stained dark brown where a bullet had entered the chest, leaving no doubt of the manner of his death.

    “Who is he?” Assessor Kulmbach asked, the breath catching in his throat. “And how did he end up here?”

    The lieutenant seemed to shrink visibly as he explained: “An Englishman.”

    Kulmbach blanched. Dealing with a murder among the settlers or the mining community would have been bad enough. An international incident was the last thing he needed. The South African authorities were not on the best of terms since the Nama had crossed the border.

    “English? How…”

    “He was encountered crossing the border illegally”, the young officer seemed to recover his composure as he slipped into the bastard legalese all Schutztruppe men were familiar with, “in the company of two coloured servants. On being challenged by patrol leader Feldwebel Kutako, he refused to comply with orders and resisted arrest. He was carrying a hunting rifle and fired two shots at the patrol before …”

    “I can imagine.” Kulmbach knew enough of the Herero Mounted Rifles to anticipate how such a confrontation would end. “What about the servants?”

    “They ran.” The leutnant sighed. “We are trying to find them, but I don’t hold out much hope. At least, not alive.”

    So much for witnesses. Well, that would have been too easy. “Do we know who he was?” Kulmbach asked.

    “He had papers on him.” Von Hallendorf pointed out. “A wallet with some money and papers issued by the South African government. Apparently, his name is James Frederick Watson and he comes from Bloemfontein. Quite a journey.”

    “I am prepared to bet he came a considerable way before, Leutnant.” The assessor pointed out. Surely there had not been too many people called Watson in the Oranje before the war. The Boer States were full of his kind, Englishmen looking to make their fortune some way or another. “And it is clear he was not disposed to respond well to a black man giving him orders.”

    Leutnant von Hallendorf blinked. Who would be? “But surely, the police forces…”

    “Things are a bit different in the Boer States, Leutnant.” Kulmbach explained. “Let’s just say this encounter would have gone very differently if you had been there to hail him. But we’ll have to work with what we have. You have the depositions of the patrolmen, I assume?”

    “Of course.” The Leutnant’s face lightened up. There was hope. “But will they matter? I suppose we can always hang Kutako and…”

    Kulmbach stared at him, horror registering in his eyes. “Have you taken leave of your senses, Leutnant?”

    The officer deflated visibly. “I just figured – when a nigger shoots a white man … “

    “Leutnant, these men are part of the German authorities. I don’t care if they’re white, black, or green, they are wearing the emperor’s uniform. Respect for that uniform is of absolute, paramount importance in running this colony. We will not withdraw our support or protection from any of them without good reason.” He wiped his brow, plastering thin strands of hair across his balding forehead. “I will report the matter to Lüderitz, and contact the British consul. As to the rest, that will be a matter for the government.”

    Von Hallendorf looked relieved to be rid of the responsibility.

    “Your worry, though, Herr Leutnant,” Kulmbach continued, “is a different one. Surely you realise that whatever drew Mr Watson here will bring others.”

    02 December 1907, Minsk, Imperial Field Heaquarters

    A glass of hot, sweet tea, a few slices of dark break, butter, and pickles; the emperor’s repast was as regular as it was frugal. Nicholas II ate automatically, much as he did anything these days. He barely registered the flavour. The morning, like every morning, had been spent reading the papers, receiving ministerial envoys, and taking eucharist. The afternoon was reserved for the daily strategic briefing and issuing orders, where required, to the army commanders. The Czar stopped chewing and placed the slice of bread back on his plate, his throat suddenly constricting with apprehension and shame. The burden of command was a heavy one to bear, and each time he walked into the briefing room with the enormous maps mounted on the wall, it took greater resolve to force himself. Each unrelenting piece of bad news wore him down. Each day, Russia’s hope of victory grew fainter as she bled her treasure, men and industry. The bite of bread tasted of ash and graveyard soil. Meticulously, Nicholas unfolded a napkin and spat out, folding the offending morsel in layers of plain, snowy linen before he placed it on the edge of his plate. He rose, walked to the iconostasis in the corner of his spare living room, and knelt in prayer, sobbing silently.

    General Ivanov found him still on his knees. Head bared, he saluted stiffly, making sure to click his heels so the emperor noticed. Nicholas looked up, his face careworn, but resolute.

    “General. Is it time already? Will you pray with me shortly before we must go?”

    Ivanov bowed his head, crossing himself before the Mother of God, before replying: “Of course, Your Majesty.”

    As Ivanov rose from the bench, meticulously observing the fraction of a second later than his sovereign, Nicholas asked: “General, what news have you got today that you did not have yesterday?”

    The general cleared his throat, pondering momentarily before replying. “Majesty, the fronts are freezing in place. We yet hold the southern bank of Lake Peipus down to Pskov, and no more German advance either in Byelorussia or in Ingermanland is expected. The Swedish are still attacking – they know their winter warfare better than the Germans – and are advancing on Alexandrovsk, but their forces are too weak to breach the isthmuses even if they were not content to capture worthless land to their north. Viborg holds, St Petersburg is defended vigorously, and the German advance on it shows no sign of resuming. The Austrians are held in Podolia, the Chinese in Mongolia.” He paused, waiting for questions that did not come.

    “Our primary concern remains supplies, but the ministry assures us that the winter and the good harvests will give us the respite we require. Nothing new has developed, Your Majesty. The staff will fill you in on the details, of course, if you….”

    Nicholas raised his hand. “Thank you, general. I do not think that will be necessary.” He shifted his stance, squarely looking Ivanov in the face. “Your leadership is invaluable, and will be entirely equal to the demands of the coming weeks. General Trishatny will support you ably, no doubt. The Grand Prince Nikolai Nikolaevich can take my place in overall command.”

    “Your Majesty?” Ivanov seemed stunned. He steadied himself against the narrow table that flanked the white-framed door. “What are you saying?”

    Nicholas bit his lip. “I made a grave mistake, general. I looked to the tradition of Peter the Great, trying to become a war leader to my armies when I should have been a spiritual father to my nation. The military command is much better placed in the hands of able soldiers. I will return to Moscow, and then make pilgrimage to St Yacov of Rostov to pray for guidance.”

    “Of course, Your Majesty. As you command.” Ivanov was at a loss for words. Ultimately, his reflexes as an organiser took over and he said the only thing that immediately came to mind. “I will order a guards detail for the imperial train. Will you require additional transport?”

    “No. General, I can travel simply. My court and country require the pomp and circumstance that surrounds me, not I. A bodyservant, a confessor and my good Dr Dubrovin as a spiritual counsel will be all I require. Detail the bodyguard accordingly.”

    General Ivanov saluted. The emperor rang for his servant to order suitcases. He knew in his heart that his path was right.

    04 December 1907, Berlin, Staatsministerium

    “Twelve thousand pistols…” General von Lynckner snorted derisively. “Forty thousand revolvers. Minister, are you trying to mock us?”

    He banged his glass hard on the baize table, sloshing some of the chilled lemonade – a rare treat wartime Berlin – over the irreplaceable fabric. Minister Krupp von Rathenau looked at him silently for a long few seconds before replying: “General, I have explained before that the capacity of domestic production has been shifted to rifles and machine guns. Even with the best will in the world, our supply of tools and machinists is finite. We did not expect the front to call for such numbers of handguns. And since we had just emptied most of our stocks to supply Polish insurgents…”

    “I can see that, minister. But then where is the money to purchase more abroad? Why have we not already placed an order in the USA? They make those things like sausages, don’t they?” Lynckner was not to be mollified.

    “Well, general, if we are to listen to military requisitions, everything is first priority…” Rathenau objected.

    “This is.” Field Marshal von der Goltz pulled on his cigar, producing an eerily accurate auditory impression of a walrus. “You cannot use rifles in trench fighting. If we are to sustain a spring offensive, we must equip our infantry with weapons that work.”

    Rathenau shrugged. He knew a fight he could not win. “Very well, then. But you do realise that we are talking about a volume of – easily two to three million dollars. We cannot just make that kind of money appear out of thin air. Some import permit will have to be waived. Are you sure there is no domestic resource?”

    Lynckner shook his head. “The Wehrtechnische Abteilung is working on something like a reciprocating Maxim pistol, but if anything it’s even more complicated. And they won’t be ready by spring. Not in numbers. We must have our American pistols.”

    “Cut grain imports.” Von der Goltz suggested curtly. He patted his stomach: “We can all of us stand to cut back anyway.”

    “General, the situation of the people has already deteriorated badly anyway.” Rathenau countered. “I do not know what you propose they should do if you cut their bread, and we do not have enough to feed all of them, let alone the people in the occupied areas.”

    “There are potatoes.” Assessor Scheibert pointed out unhelpfully. Rathenau found his encyclopaedic command of facts indispensable, but the man did not quite know when to shut up.

    “Potatoes?” The minister shook his head in irritation. “Consumers have already shown they refuse to countenance them in quantity. Even at a great price difference, they will buy bread over potatoes. The only option would be to reduce grain rations sharply. You know what that would mean for public morale.”

    “Bah. Morale!” Von der Goltz waved dismissively. “My men need weapons to defeat the enemy, and it is the duty of everybody at home to provide them. If you cannot produce them, then you can damned well eat potatoes so we can afford them!”

    Scheibert nodded “It might exacerbate coal shortages, but in principle, it would be doable.”

    “Coal shortage?” von Lynckner sniffed. “What has that got to do with anything?” Still, he looked worried. The German public had proved surprisingly willing to go without oranges, sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, white bread, sausage and bacon, but there were things they took unkindly to. Coal was the most acutely felt, especially now with the winter already shaping up to be fiercely cold.

    Scheibert smiled thinly. “General, bread, for all its expense and wastage, has a most desirable quality: It can be eaten cold. There is no need to cook it. Potatoes require cooking in the family, and the coal rations make that difficult unless you have the latest of economical equipment. And then there is the question of substitution: We would expect shortage of spirits and pig feed if more potatoes went for human consumption. That would have repercussions in the meat market. Unless we anticipate these developments in the rationing…”

    Von der Goltz waved him off. “You figure it out. It’s what you are good at. But if those pigs are eating food we need for the people, then they need to be turned into sausage today rather than tomorrow.”

    Scheibert nodded quietly. Rathenau sighed inwardly. “All right, the next point: Rubber requisitions. What on earth explains this expansion?”

    “Morgan masks.” Colonel Schmidt had been quiet for a long time, but the representative of the Wehrtechnische Abteilung had things to say every now and then. “We have finally got a mask design that works, and we need at least five hundred thousand of them.“

    Rathenau nodded. That made sense – gas warfare saved enormously in terms of blood and equipment in the big picture. Still, this purchase was big enough to make market prices. Better space it out. He made a quick note to that effect and wondered where to find the currency.

    “Really, a million should be the minimum!” Von der Goltz said, puffing his cigar. “And we have to have more guns, too. Large calibers are still very badly underrepresented.”

    Rathenau crumpled his paper as he locked eyes with the omnipotent head of the OHL. “Field marshal, you do realise I am not withholding things for my private enjoyment, do you?” he asked acidly.

    “Well, it comes out the same, doesn’t it?”

    “Hardly.” Rathenau hissed. “We are fighting to shore up our economy as things stand. Germany already owes more than she can ever hope to repay unless we get our hands on a reparation vastly greater than the French indemnity. Money in circulation exceeds safe limits by – we don’t even know how much. Unless we keep this under control you won’t have a country to fight for!”

    The field marshal shook his head and grunted. “Bah! Rathenau, you have no idea, no IDEA what pride of country can do! There is gold in Germany, find it! There is labour, there is capital, there are your values! The German people will work for generations in poverty if it means victory and safety today. It might even do their character good. We’ve gone fat and lazy.”

    “Field marshal, there is no more gold! The reserves are gone. All shipped to London as surety for war loans and to pay for war supplies. You can call for your war gear all you like, but I haven’t the money you demand! Nobody in Germany does!” He paused, his shoulders dropping. “You have to win the war with what we can afford. There is no more than that. If the Russians hold out longer than we can raise credit …”

    Von der Goltz looked as though he was struggling to swallow something distasteful. “We will, minister.” He said finally. “I’ll be damned if I let them get away with that kind of victory. But you know that means the gloves come off!”

    Rathenau nodded. They had discussed it all before. Close railways to civilian traffic, use gas shells to break fortified cities, squeeze the allies, throw green troops into the meat grinder, bleed the occupied lands to feed the advancing troops… if the Russians didn’t destroy everything in the first place. They were good at scorched earth tactics, far more ruthless than any German general. And still nobody had answered the question on everyone’s minds: How much of this punishment could Russia take? How much more could Germany keep inflicting?

    06 December 1907, Baden-Baden

    “… I am now fully convinced that the arrangements, unwieldy though they appear, are in principle functional. The citizenship laws we agreed on have already been forwarded to the army Council, so you must be aware of them. I can inform you that the German Reichstag has now passed their own version, the law regarding Citizenship of 03 December 1907. It makes a neat parallel to ours, in a way, though of course they have to account for federal states. But there, too, they give citizenship to people with German ancestry. I suppose that most people of German race who live in Poland will apply for a German passport, especially since they are still guaranteed the protection of Polish citizenship. Whether the Poles living in Germany will apply for Polish passports is a different question. I am told many fear they will be expelled once they do. The Lithuanians are likely to be offered a similar deal by their own future country, though that has yet to be formally declared. As regards the Ruthenians, they may have the worst of it. At least nobody intends to give them their citizenship as yet. Poland will grant them the rights of an established nationality, of course, but with their compatriots living in Russia, it may go badly for them.

    What you will come to hear soon is the final decision on established religion being linked to nationality. The conservatives got this through in return for swallowing the formal equality of the established four. From now on, Poland will have four sets of family law, each applying to its nations and judged in separate courts: Catholic law for Poles, Orthodox law for Ruthenians, Lutheran law for Germans and Lithuanians, and Jewish law for us. It is in view of this that I must ask you again to consider – I have said it before, and I am certain I am not alone in this plea – to accept the position of Grand Rabbi of Poland when it is offered you, as it will be. The Grand Rabbinate will be greatly influential in all manner of things, but above all, it is in this position you will be able to ensure the citizenship of our refugees coming from the Russian Empire. The Germans are unwilling to treat us as their own the way they do in Austria, and for their own statistics have classified Yiddish as an independent language. We must treat it as such, then, and ensure that all Eastern Jews shall have papers and safe residence in our country. Russia will not be a fit place to live for a generation, if ever again.

    Consider in this context also the position outlined with such eloquence by Nathan Birnbaum: Much as it pains me to say this, the current political situation does not allow for a protracted argument between proponents of Hebrew and those of Yiddish. I know you have always been neutral in this matter – as I have not – but I will concede defeat on the point. We must have a proper language, and it will be in your purview to create it.

    Letter by Max Nordau to Rabbi Landauer

    09 December 1907, Moscow

    The snow that blanketed the streets outside with a fine dusting of white powder had no power in the rooms of Testov’s restaurant. Steam rose into the evening air whenever anyone opened the door to step into the low-ceilinged main room, and the heat of the massive oven at its centre radiated through every corner. Guests in shirtsleeves sat around the narrow tables under brightly painted roofbeams eating with elaborately carved wooden spoons, some sweating copiously. Testov’s was not a place for those of weak digestions or slender purses.

    “Na sdorovye, babu-ji!” One of the businessmen around the table raised his glass to Count Witte. The champagne was ice cold, beads of perspiration forming on the fine crystal. Sipping from his own goblet, Witte acknowledged the playful salute. He had come to accept the name his youthful associates stuck him with, a kind of oracle for the leaders of the business community. It still rankled, sometimes, that he would be reduced to this, having been so close to real power, but these days, all the good burghers of the Moscow semtsvo could safely do was make money. That, at least, was something he understood and was still permitted. Nobody begrudged a canny entrepreneur the enjoyment of his success, at least not yet. And anyway, you did see some senior greenjackets at Testov’s. They liked the place – it had the kind of old Slavic atmosphere, colourful and primitive, that they went for. But with good champagne.

    “Drink up, Vanya!” Witte ordered. “And then we will need you to stop listening.”

    Prince Sviatopolk-Mirsky looked on sourly. He had asked rather pointedly whether Witte’s associates could be trusted, but having insisted on his own retinue of officers, he was hardly in a position to object. Instead, he raised his glass, sipped champagne, and turned his attention to the golden crust of the steaming kulebiaka pastry served to their company. It parted before the edge of his birchwood spoon, crisp and flaky, releasing the aroma of sturgeon, mushrooms and fresh herbs that the proprietor grew in steam-heated glass houses – at least rumour had it. No servants remained around the secluded corner partitioned off with curtains. Instead, the prince himself served out helpings to all, making sure to fairly distribute all layers of the filling. Many minutes were spent in silent culinary bliss. Working at the ministries, you did not often have the pleasure of eating like this.

    “So, your highness,” Witte finally opened the delicate dance, leaning over the table as a balalaika player began serenading the guests, drowning out all conversation. “You had a question to me. Please do not say it was solely a matter of dining your friends at my expense.”

    The prince gave him a baleful stare. “Count Witte, I assure you this is a matter of the greatest delicacy. Understand that I am not entirely happy discussing it in these surroundings, but….”

    But you did not really dare meet in secret places these days. You did not go on private visits for fear of who might be following, taking note, asking the servants, suborning the house staff. Some of the more active members of Moscow society had taken to hiring Caucasian valets because they were considered unlikely to betray them to the PU. Witte understood, nodding gravely.

    “You mentioned the position of the former semstvo?” he asked.

    “Indeed. Dear Count Witte, I understand that you have considerable influence among the business community. That is why I called on you to … enquire as to the position you and your friends might take towards certain changes in the political sphere. Primarily, the matter of armistice negotiations.”

    Witte nearly dropped his glass, but the smile never left his face and the glistening liquid barely wobbled in the crystal bowl. “An armistice?” He cleared his throat. “That is surely a matter for the leaders of the country to decide. We are their obedient servants and will do as we are bid. But if you would have my own opinion…”

    “Please.” Sviatopolk-Mirsky nodded encouragement.

    “… I believe the constraints that the war has placed on business far outweigh the possible gains to be made for anyone. The country’s wealth is in graver peril from a continued fight than an unjust peace. Not that I would make any claim to great political insight,” he lied. “But I have a sense of economic affairs. Now, your highness, you know the position of the business world on an armistice, but I must admit I am at a loss how this should come about, I am told that the government is resolved to drive the invader from every inch of Russian soil.”

    The prince gave him another sour smile. He did not relish being mocked, Witte noted, A deplorable weakness in a man of his status, not to have a sense of humour.

    “Let us say that if there were to be – changes – to that effect, those supporting it could count on not facing opposition from your quarter?”

    Witte did not answer. He smiled, raised his glass and nodded slowly. “Na sdorovye, your highness.”

    12 December 1907, West Hartford, Connecticut

    “Damn kike scabs.” John Cartwright pulled his collar up and stamped his feet against the cold. He watched sullenly as a long line of workers trooped into the Colt Manufacturing building. That was where he had been employed until a week ago! That was where they’d tried to strike for better wages, now that the big German order had come in. Well, that hadn’t exactly worked out like their organisers had said.

    “I know.” Melcker stood next to him, another former Colt machinist. “They say the Jews were brought into this because they want the Kaiser to win the war. Damn effective at organising if that’s true. You gotta give it to them.”

    “I still say they can’t make all the guns. Seriously, a hundred thousand pistols in a strange calibre? No way!” Cartwright stamped again, considered lighting a cigarette and, mindful of his limited tobacco supply, decided against it. “Who ever heard of nine millipedes!”

    “Millimetres.” Melcker was not sure if his comrade was joking, but he wasn’t going to risk laughing at him. Cartwright was quick to anger, especially when he was already stressed. “Nine millimetres. It’s what the Germans shoot.”

    “Anyway, the kikes can’t do it. They don’t even know the machines.”

    Melcker nodded. “They’ll have trouble enough. But I heard that they’re looking for experienced hands to train ‘em.”

    Cartwright stared at him. “Go begging to the boss? After all this?”

    “I dunno.” The big German shrugged. “I got kids to feed.”

    Cartwright spat out. “Damn Jew scabs.” He muttered. “I hope those pistols blow up.”

    15 December 1907, near Dünaburg

    “Shit, they look like raw meat!” Grenadier Pillauer shook his head. There were things you got used to seeing in a war like this: blisters and spots where the boot rubbed you bloody, rashes and itches, frostbite and shits and stinky breath. But he had rarely seen anyone’s feet in this state. The young man seated on the bench across from him grimaced with pain.

    “Been marching all the way from Dünamünde.” He explained.

    Pillauer pulled a tin of tallow from his pack and started spreading it generously over the bloody skin and ragged blisters. It didn’t help much, but you did what you could. He himself had been lucky enough to score a pair of Russian marching boots off a prisoner during the big breakthrough. Others had to make do with the monstrosities the German army issued, and these days, more and more Russian soldiers wore felt or straw boots that sucked even worse than knobelbecher.

    “You should wear footwraps.” Pillauer clucked. For all the sympathy he felt, the guy looked rather hapless with his socks chewed to bits. Dünamünde was not that far away – certainly not far enough to use up a pair of boots. And he hadn’t heard anything about troops being quick-marched. “They don’t rub you that bad, and you can get them in Russia.”

    His patient smiled apologetically and fumbled for a flat metal bottle in his back pocket, offering some to Pillauer. “Thanks.”, he said. “Looks like I’ll need to learn some more.”

    Pillauer knocked back a swig of the liquor – good Russian vodka, he noted gratefully, not the rotgut the German black market produced. The man didn’t look like he was a green recruit – he was wearing a Korporal’s pips - and anyway, they didn’t send them out until they’d had at least six months of training.

    “How long have you been in Russia?” he asked carefully.

    “Got moved up from the Polish front a month ago.” A lopsided smile and a grimace accompanied the attempt to pull on the ruin of a sock again. “But I’m pretty new to the infantry thing.”

    Pillauer gave him a questioning look.

    “They took our horses.” Pain registered on his face more clearly than it had at the touch of rough wool on his raw skin. “They made us a Kavallerie-Schützendivision. Not enough horses to mount the reserve cavalry, they said.”

    Pillauer nodded in sympathy. As a footslogger, he had little enough time for cavalrymen on principle, but he could understand how out of his depth they had to feel under these circumstances. What if some clever-dick staff officer decided to make him drag a gun, or crew a ship?

    “Welcome to the queen of battles.”

    19 December 1907, Goslawice, Western Poland

    There were parts of Poland that had been barely touched by the horrors of war and Socialism, Julian Unszlicht found to his relief. The inn that housed him for the night could just as easily be imagined a meeting point for brave hearts resisting foreign invaders under Kocziusko or in the days of the Vasa campaigns. For all he knew, it might have. The landlord, a hearty, patriotic man with a broad, beaming smile under his thick moustache, was more than happy to find a room for a weary traveller in the cause of God and country. He helped him carry his bag upstairs, never enquiring about the contents, and lit a roaring fire in the small oven that warmed the wood-panelled chamber to a toasty comfort banishing the cold from the journalist’s limbs still stiff from a long day’s travel through snow and wind. Carrying letters was becoming harder every month. Trains were increasingly watched and searched, and even the German customs would readily help NSB agents. It was a long trek to the border, but once he was inside Germany, the rails would be safe. A day or two would see him in Berlin, and Hugenberg would greatly appreciate the latest deliveries.

    Pulling the boots from his aching feet, Julian Unszlicht eyed the feather bed with its massive carven headboard and red-checkered curtains. That was the kind of wealth that generations of toil on the good earth of Poland could bring, he thought. The kind of wealth that a God-fearing and virtuous nation deserved. He carefully stacked the bowls and plates of his evening meal – served in his room at his insistence – to one side of the table. Rich, creamy porridge dripping with butter, a fried sausage, apples and onions cooked with pepper, cheese, and several slices of dark, moist bread had restored his ebbing strength, accompanied by a strong, gratifyingly smooth vodka. Julian Unszlicht wondered if, after the war, he might not settle down somewhere in the countryside and live like this. He had dreamed of being a novelist, and with the patronage of the archbishop, many things were possible. Certainly, the city life was not for him. Gently, he stroked the age-polished wood of the heavy table and laid out his rosary.

    A knock on the door made him turn. The landlord had spoken of another blanket. Summoning his most courteous smile despite the interruption, the young man rose to open the door – and froze.


    Outside stood a man dressed in a heavy sheepskin coat, his right hand buried in its deep pocket. A fur hat perched on his head, and the open front of the coat revealed a glimpse of a grey workshirt, jodhpurs and tall riding boots. Hard, intelligent eyes glinted behind steel-rimmed glasses.

    “Good evening, brother.” Agent Unszlicht said quietly. “May I come in?”

    Julian stepped aside, almost unthinking, but when his brother tried to close the door, he interposed his hand. “The landlord is pious man. If I shout for help, he will come.”, he pointed out.

    “That would be a shame.”, replied Josef. “He is a black marketeer, but he does not deserve to die. Think of his family.”

    Julian swallowed hard and released the door. Josef stepped over to the table and picked up the rosary with his left hand, inspecting the smooth rosewood and ivory. “Really?”, he asked. “Father would be greatly disappointed, you know?”

    “Leave him out of this!” Julian protested. “I’m sure you did not come here to discuss my conversion.”

    Josef nodded, dropping the rosary back on the table and turning his attention to the dishes. “Not really, no.“, he admitted. “You were quite difficult to track down. But you always liked your comforts, Julian. Sleeping rough in some hayloft is not your style.”

    Julian did not answer, but his face flushed with anger at the taunt. Josef picked up the heavy leather bag filled with papers, letters and photographs that lay stacked on the heavy, painted chest in the corner. “I will take this.” He announced.

    “No!” Julian spoke before thinking. No? What was he going to do? Debate for it? His shoulders slumped.

    “I am sorry it has come to this, brother.” Josef Unszlicht awkwardly maneuvered the strap of the bag over his head, never taking his eyes off his captive. “You will not believe me, of course, but I am.”

    Julian shook his head. “Sorry? For what? For being what you are? You knew what that was when you joined the NSB. If you ever wanted to be anything else than a spy and torturer, you should have thought of a different profession.”

    Josef sighed deeply. For a brief moment, his right arm relaxed. Julian considered moving towards the door, but the hand came up before he could take even the first step.

    “Don’t. You may not believe it, but I really do not want to harm the landlord or his family. Do not force me to silence witnesses.” The agent’s face hardened again. “You have cast your lot with the enemies of the people, and I cannot save you from the consequences. But this small bourgeois does not deserve to suffer for your choice.” He gestured to the boots. “Let’s go.”

    “Go where?” Julian’s eyes flickered from the threatening bulge in the pocket to the door, the window, the boots. “What are you going to do to me?!” Terror crept into his face.

    “The only thing I can still do for you, brother.” Josef waited while Julian pulled on his boots, struggling with the wet, stiff leather. “I will spare you the questioning. We know enough.”

    Quietly, they descended the creaking stairs to the common room and walked past a dozing guest slumped on the table. Julian considered escape, but his mind conjured up images of the landlord and his family: The jolly twinkle in the man’s kind eyes; the blond braids of his daughter, bringing up the dinner; the awkward smile of his young son, already trying his hand at a man’s chores chopping wood. He drew the latch and opened the front door, walking into the gathering dusk and drifting snow.

    “Over by the forest.” Josef said, gesturing in the direction of a cart path just barely visible under the snow. “You can take time to pray if you wish.”

    Julian Unszlicht’s fingers worked the rosary beads. He felt strangely calm. In the distance, a small copse of birch trees rose dark against the orange sky. He stepped forward, Josef following. His brother had picked up a shovel, he noticed. Always the methodical one, Josef.

    19 December 1907, Münster, Korpsbereichskommandantur

    Gäb es nur eine Krone,

    Wohlan, ich schenkte sie,

    Dem Siegesruhm zum Lohne,

    Der deutschen Artillerie.

    Sie hat den Ruhm, der nie vergeht,

    Der ewig in den Sternen steht

    Sich vor der ganzen Welt erworben!

    Kanonen leicht, Haubitzen schwer

    Batterie an Batterie!

    Sie ist die Königin im Heer,

    Die deutsche Artill’rie!

    Gäb es für Sieg und Sterben,

    Nur eine Melodie,

    Sie müßt’ gesungen werden,

    Der deutschen Artillerie!

    Mit deutschem Geist und deutscher Macht,

    Mit Mut und Arbeit, Tag und Nacht,

    Hat sie der Russen Heer geschlagen!

    Kanonen leicht, Haubitzen schwer,

    Batterie and Batterie!

    Sie ist die Königin im Heer,

    Die deutsche Artill’rie!

    Hauptmann Flechtner shook his head. The flimsy booklet on his desk, cheap smudgy print and fraying edges, had already left ink smears on his fingers. “Soldatenliederbuch” the title page said. Every publisher in the country had at least one out, and everybody who had ever felt the urge to rhyme wrote martial songs. And who was the poor bastard who had to read the lot? Exactly: Korpsbereich censor’s office. Leutnant Kosch stood sheepishly, a questioning look on his face.

    “I wasn’t sure if it was still acceptable, Sir.” He explained his decision to refer this up the chain of command. “It is rather – I’m not sure I appreciate this song, speaking as a cavalryman. It glorifies the artillery too much.”

    Flechtner shrugged. “So? Every arm thinks it’s the reason we have a military. And artillery’s fashionable these days, you may have noticed. All the dashing gunners…” He grunted, a noise artfully hovering between incomprehension and veiled disapproval. It was true, though: The big guns had cachet. Young men from boarding schools, even Ritterakademien, people whose parents in years past would have pulled strings and greased palms to secure placement with cuirassiers or uhlans, competed for gunnery training with the sons of the bourgeoisie from Realschulen. Recruiting posters and patriotic picture books increasingly featured barrel-chested, heavily bearded gunners over beribboned hussars or infantry flagbearers. Heavy beards were coming back into fashion – ironically, Flechtner considered, given that frontline troops were just now being ordered to shave them off. They interfered with the new gas masks.

    “It’s hardly over the line This gets a pass.”

    Kosch saluted. “Thank you, Sir.”

    “And don’t bother me again over shit like this, Leutnant.” Flechtner added. “We have important things to do.”

    22 December 1907, Baden-Baden

    In the end, the approach of Christmas might have been what motivated the delegates to come to a compromise. At least Dr Nordau had suggested as much, and Rabbi Landauer was not going to gainsay the man whose analytical faculties and social skills had won his admiration. Certainly, the hardened attitudes of the past weeks had increasingly melted away in the soft light of advent candles. Von Bülow had granted them the double confirmation – the chancellor of the Polish Kingdom would be nominated by the king, but confirmed by the Sejm. The Polish delegation had given in on ownership of estates. Polish land could be legally held by foreigners not resident in the country, but would be subject to absentee landlord surtaxes. Landauer was not entirely sure the framers of that particular solution had fully grasped what it would mean for landowning nobles – or the church - once the war was over, but he was hardly going to spell it out for their benefit. That young referendar, Adenauer, had formulated a compromise on the nationalities bill so eloquent that everybody was willing to sign it even though it effectively still contained the things they objected to. Already, the vaunted Endlösung der Nationalitätenfrage was being touted as a diplomatic triumph, for all the headaches it would necessarily create. But of course Landauer had gotten his victory: The Jews would be counted as their own nationality, and the Great Rabbinate of Warsaw would determine who was and wasn’t a Jew.

    And, of course, they had their king. Or would have him, once he received the crown from the hands of Archbishop Popiel and paraded in the streets of Warsaw. The aging emperor Franz Joseph had finally agreed to give permission to Archduke Charles Stephan to accept the throne, and the archduke himself had grudgingly relinquished his own ideas of rounding out his Poland with chunks of Cisleithania. Landauer himself was indifferent to the choice. He had heard only good things of the man, but as Nordau had pointed out, you hardly ever heard anything but good about members of royal families. It did not mean anything. But the events of the last few days had been reassuring. Archduke Stephen had personally come to Baden-Baden to see the members of the Polish delegation and requested – as he himself could not be seen entering his realm before he was formally recognised as its king – that Pilsudski meet him there. The hour or so that Landauer had spoken to him had left a good impression, and many others, including hardened Socialists, had come away similarly affected. And today, the future Stepan I of Poland would meet the man under whom – as he had joked during their meeting – he would be serving in the capacity of king. Pilsudski had been spirited into the hotel by night train to keep away the hordes of adoring well-wishers who would no doubt descend on them once his presence became known. Meeting the party in the lobby, the general in his dark green coat and four-cornered cap surrounded by leather-jacketed NSB bodyguards, had brought Landauer back to the realities of life on Poland, far from the splendour of the spa town he had spent the last few months in.

    Breakfast had been late, solemn and apprehensive, but as the two men emerged from the seclusion of the billiard room, the tension broke. Pilsudski and the archduke seemed to get along well, and the treaties were signed and sealed before lunch. With the reassuring weight of heavy paper in his despatch box, Landauer felt able to face life in Warsaw with its myriad new challenges. What did a Grand Rabbi do? He was the first one there had ever been. He’d need to figure it out.

    A jostling crowd awaited them outside the Villa Hamilton. Word had spread quickly, and hundreds, maybe thousands of people wanted to see the future king and prime minister of Poland. Pilsudski’s NSB guards hung back while German police cleared the path, far more gently than any Polish forces would have. Handing the heavy case to Nordau, the Grand Rabbi stepped forward standing tall. He owed this much to the cameras.

    Snow, stamped into greyish sludge by many feet, clung to the inadequate, worn-out boots on Eligiusz Niewiadomski’s feet. All around him, people jostled for a better view of the entrance. Craning his neck, he thought he could spot the telltale black coat and hat in the group of dignitaries walking his way. That had to be Landauer, walking just behind the man in the green coat … a sudden shock hit Niewiadomski. How did he come to be here? Pilsudski himself, the very man who had consigned Poland to generations in Egyptian bondage! Heart beating in his throat, he pulled his hand from his pocket, momentarily releasing the grip of his revolver, and wiped his brow. It was a sign! It had to be! Carefully avoiding the immediate proximity of the elderly police officers pushing aside the crowds, he headed for the other side of the street. They would pass there on their way to the Kurhaus.

    Relief and pride washed through Dr Nordau was he walked past the jubilant crowd, many waving little paper flags. He hefted the weighty despatch box in his arms and adjusted his pace so as not to pull past the Grand Rabbi. The strains of the Dombrovski March were drifting through the crisp winter air. Someone had mustered a brass band. He tried to imagine what it would be like when muscular young Jewish men would march to their own anthem – well, they’d need to write one first. He could try his hand at that. But of course there were so many more talented literary men and musicians…

    He caught the movement from the corner of his eye, unsure what had alerted him in the first place. A man in a brown overcoat and bowler hat was pushing through a gaggle of children lining the street, pulling something from his pocket. Nordau reacted before he had time to think, interposing himself between the assailant and Landauer, and raising the despatch box like a clumsy weapon. He could see the assassin – yes, that was a revolver in his hand – hesitate, his eyes flickering between Pilsudski, Landauer, and Nordau, and the doctor started to run, shouting a warning. Heads turned. Screams and shouts rose. He could see the flash of the first shot, feel the bullet strike the despatch box and tear out a shower of paper and leather fragments. Quickly, he pulled the box higher, ready to smash it into the attacker’s face, as the second shot connected with his midriff. The sound of tearing fabric and flesh seemed strange, mediated as it was through his bodily tissues. Nordau fell, but not before he had barrelled into the man and sent him sprawling. A rush of footsteps enveloped him, booted feet of German police and NSB agents, the polished shoes of diplomats and secretaries, all struggling to be useful, tangling, obscuring, barring his view. He could hear the crunch of fists on flesh and bone before a gruff German voice announced “Keinen Widerstand! Sie sind festgenommen!” No more shots rang out. The NSB had themselves under admirable control, and the attacker’s revolver, he could see, still lay where it had fallen, knocked away by the corner of the heavy leather case that had hit him.

    A gentle hand helped raise his torso into a half-sitting position. Nordau looked up. It was Archduke Karl Stephan, Rabbi Landauer by his side. Shock registered on their faces.

    “Are you all right?” Landauer asked, absurdly.

    Nordau wondered. He could feel a dull, numbing chill spread through his lower body. The bullet had hit him just below the navel, and though he dared not look, he knew the prognosis well enough. Even now, he felt his life ebb away as pain and blood loss raced for his consciousness. Would he black out while he still felt nothing? He sincerely hoped so. Saving him from bleeding to death would be no mercy when septic shock would kill him over agonising days.

    “Is everybody safe?” He finally asked in French. The archduke nodded, tears in his eyes.

    “Everybody is safe. The assassin has been arrested.” He took the doctor’s hand and squeezed it hard. “You will get the highest rewards for what you did today. Courage! The ambulance will be here soon!”

    Doctor Nordau shook his head weakly. What was the point? Slowly, quietly, with ebbing breath he formed the words that he had so rarely spoken in his secular life, but that he wanted the world to hear in this hour: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad.”

    25 December 1907, Stammlager Münster II

    “Who would do that to their own?” Doctor Schubert’s hands, now clean again, still trembled from shock as he tried to light his pipe. Oberstabsarzt Siebeck, the camp’s medical officer, shrugged in resignation.

    “It happens.” he said with the dull finality of a man who had seen it too many times. “You mustn’t forget who we’re dealing with here. Russian soldiers without the supervision of their officers – it’s like a zoo in here. Tonight was especially bad, but things like this aren’t unknown.”

    Doctor Schubert recalled the knock on the door, early on Christmas morning, the messenger from the camp requesting his attendance to deal with a medical emergency. He had not thought too much of it on the way, but the memory of the hospital barracks would haunt him for a long time. He had tended to the victims of industrial accidents, but he had never before seen human bodies so mauled. In the end, he doubted his presence had changed anything. Most would die. Some would probably wish they had. Controlling the tremor in his fingers well enough to place the pipe stem between his lips, Schubert sucked greedily at the aromatic smoke.

    “But surely this cannot be permitted. The guards must intervene.” He suggested. The oberstabsarzt shook his head sadly.

    “Doctor Schubert, do you realise how many men our camp holds? There are over twenty thousand Russians here, not counting the work details outside.” He sucked on his own pipe, pausing before he continued his explanation. “We have one hundred and thirty guards. Some days we are glad that we can post sentries on all the gates.”

    Schubert blinked. 130 guards for 20,000 prisoners? “I … had not been aware.” He conceded. “It seems like an extraordinary risk.”

    “It’s not as bad as you would think.” Siebeck pointed out. “The POWs don’t have anywhere to run to, so they stay put. There’s a lot you can do with work details, too. Behave well, we’ll post you to a farm. Be a problem, you go to the coal pits. But there is no way we can manage the internal affairs of the camp with a force that small.”

    “So you condone such – justice?”

    “Yes.” Siebeck poured himself a glass of schnaps from the stoneware bottle he kept in his bottom drawer and offered it to his colleague, who gladly accepted. Smooth and sharp, the herbal tang of a prewar digestive spirit did much to calm frayed nerves. It was a rare treat these days. “We have to let the prisoners police themselves. It works, as long as you keep the nationalities apart. Most of the time it does.”

    “But yesterday things went bad?” It was not a statement.

    “Very bad.” Siebeck pointed to the central building on the map behind his desk. “The commander set up a Christmas tree in front of the Kommandantur. Not a big deal, but he wanted to, I dunno, spread some cheer. He had beer brought in, for the guards and the trustees. And other prisoners, too, if they wanted it and there was some left.”

    “They got drunk?” Schubert was surprised, given the quality of wartime beer. The other man shook his head with a grim laugh.

    “Drunk? I have yet to see a Russian who can get drunk on beer. No, it was just a few men who accepted. The barracks commanders spread the word that the prisoners were not to join the celebrations. See, the Russians have a different Christmas. All about their using another calendar and things, and their elders are very keen they don’t fraternise.”

    The pipe almost fell from the doctor’s grip. “That’s what this was about? Celebrating Christmas? My God, they crushed that one man’s spine! What on earth…”

    “Apparently it’s a common punishment in their village courts, or something.” Siebeck’s face took on a mask of clinical detachment, like a traveller reporting from darkest Africa. “The barracks elders are all Russian, peasants mostly, don’t speak a word of German. They have their head filled with all that Integralist wool. But they are patriotic, and they understand discipline,. I mean, you can’t condemn them for loving their country, can you? You’d expect our boys not to let down the side over there, after all.”

    Schubert preferred not to think about conditions in Russian POW camps. He had seen enough of draughty barracks, double- and triple-shared bunks, pitifully inadequate ovens and ragged uniforms during his short stay here. Admittedly, the POWs had been on their best behaviour: respectful, obedient, diligent. There had been problems communicating – the Balts and Poles who spoke German had been sifted out for the Legions long ago – but nobody was being a problem. Still, he could never stop wondering which of these men had been part of the slaughter of last night. This had been no spontaneous outbreak of rage. They had systematically sought out their victims, marked men by their choice of joining a Christmas party of all things. Some had been beaten to a pulp, others had had their arms or legs broken, crushed under stones or twisted through window grilles. Someone had coordinated and ordered this! He wondered every time he saw a prisoner in the telltale green jackets that identified the bogatyr brigades of the Patriotic Union.

    “I suppose so.” He listlessly agreed.

    “At least they’re no trouble this way. More schnaps. Doctor? To Christmas.”
  5. carlton_bach Member

    Jan 18, 2004
    Altona, Occupied Denmark
    28 December 1907, east of Dvinsk

    Russians weren’t much for building houses, Felbwebel Sierich thought, but they damn sure knew how to build ovens. With winters like this, that was a good thing. Even better that they had found this one while it was still in one piece, a village where the retreating Russians had neglected to burn down every last building and their allies had not taken the opportunity to drive out the local populace in much the same way. Sometimes, Sierich felt as though he had travelled back in time into a world of bloodfeuds and lawlessness. No war was kind to civilians – he himself rarely enough felt disposed to nicely consider the feelings of the muzhiks whose homes he was quartered in – but the way the Lithuanian Legion went about pursuing vengeance was Montague-and-Capulet stuff. The East Prussian front had been tame by comparison.

    With a grunt of pain and satisfaction, the feldwebel pulled off his boots. Schirrmacher was cramming in more firewood, big, resiny logs of fast-burning pine that crackled, hissed and spat. The whitewashed clay oven heated so efficiently that the men were already sweating, taking off coats and tunics. For many, it was the first time in days. They had sent the farmer and his boy out to the stables while they made themselves comfortable, but Sierich had insisted on paying for the hospitality. Paper it might be, but it was money. Come spring, it might make a difference. He knew what being a poor farmer was like.

    “Vodka!” The shout went up around the rickety table by the window as Nadia came in. Sierich wasn’t sure if that was her name, but it was what everyone called her. Right now, the old farmer’s daughter was the only Russian allowed inside the house, but if you were going to do business with the locals, you had to pick someone to do business with, and you’d be nuts to let a Russian man near you while getting a drink. Too many stories were already making the rounds.

    Nadia came in slowly, carrying a heavy stoneware bottle. Immediately, Signewski and Hübecker stepped up to help, weighing the content and shouting with glee. Sierich fumbled for his wallet. He did not understand Russian – nobody in his platoon did – but sometimes, you could get along without it. A two-mark bill changed hands, quickly disappearing into the girl’s apron pocket. She did not meet his eyes. Impulsively, the feldwebel dug out a silver 50-pfennig piece and held it out to her. Uncertain, she reached out to take it and he smiled encouragingly. The briefest of smiles lit up her face, but she stepped back from him almost immediately. What must she think of him?

    Glasses and metal cups clinked as the men distributed the unexpected bounty. The girl busied herself over the pot of gruel that she had put on the stove, wary, but efficiently and competently. Sierich returned to his seat – appropriating one of the two stools was a perquisite of rank – and stretched out his aching legs. Hübecker started playing his harmonica, and a ragged chorus of voices rose in celebration.

    “Morgen marschieren wir,

    Zu dem Bauern ins Feldquartier,

    Eine Tasse Tee,

    Zucker und Kaffee,

    Eine Tasse Tee,

    Zucker und Kaffee,

    Und ein Gläschen Wein,

    Und ein Gläschen Wein!”

    The scream caught him unprepared. Sierich jumped to his feet, his heart beating in his ears. Reflexes honed in long months at the front took over as he tried to understand what was happening. Nadia was struggling, pointlessly, against Hübecker and Greiner who were – trying to stop her running away, he presumed. Signewski stood mute, looking like an idiot. Surely he had to have started this. Sierich opened his mouth, but before he could so much as begin chewing him out, the door flew open and a figure swaddled in layers of thick winter clothing barrelled into the back of Grenadier Greiner, sending him tumbling. The girl tore loose and fell immediately, shouting out in anger. The stranger – it had to be her brother, the damn kid – was holding something, swinging it. The axe connected heavily with Hübecker’s head, the crunch audible over the din. Sierich’s hand went to his sidearm, not the only or even the quickest. The boy swivelled, facing him, eyes burning with hatred. He was defending his sister’s honour, damn him, and they were not going to get out of this without killing him. With a shout in Russian, he advanced on the feldwebel. He was brave, you had to give him that.

    The shot from Sieboth’s rifle was deafening at close quarters, and the bullet went straight through the boy’s chest and the wooden wall into the gathering dusk. He collapsed, gasping and coughing. Sierich stared incredulously. Holy Shit!

    “Stand down!” he shouted, his ears still ringing. Several men had drawn, others were scrabbling for their rifles. Across the farmyard, a door slammed open and the farmer came running, a pitchfork in his right. Another shot took him in the stomach.

    “I said stand down, dammit!” Sierich was furious. He stepped out, straining to see what was going on. The cold air hit him in the face with unexpected force. Silence spread over the platoon, the men staring dumbfounded at the scene. The boy was lying on his back now, his weakening breath rattling. His father was rolled up on the ground, a keening moan escaping his lips. There was no trace of the girl. The feldwebel strained to hear if anything was happening, but no sounds betrayed anything other than wind in the trees. Well, fuck!

    “Sieboth!” he ordered, breaking the spell. “Put the poor man out of his misery. Nothing we can do for him.”

    The soldier drew breath to protest, but blanched at the look his sergeant gave him.

    “Greiner, Müller Zwo, fetch something we can use to carry poor Hübecker back to regimental command post. And put on your coats, everybody!”

    They would burn the house, he decided. The incident would be recorded as a franc-tireur attack. There was no point going through the paperwork of charging Signewski for being an idiot. He’d have to take care of that himself. Shrugging into his coat, forcing his swollen feet into the boots, Feldwebel Sierich wondered momentarily what would become of the girl. She had taken the opportunity to run out into the forest. Most likely, she’d freeze to death before the morning, And it was all so fucking unnecessary!

    “Hebing, Klawohn, prepare to fire the buildings! Everybody else, gear up! We’re marching back to HQ.”

    31 December 1907, Paris

    Darkness never truly fell in Paris. Thousands of electric lights shone through the winter night, reflected in the windows of the Elysee Palace as the great and powerful milled about the halls. The President was giving New Year’s festivities, and nobody who was anybody would turn down the opportunity to show off. Officers of every country under the sun, resplendent in gold braid, clanking sabres and spurs, sipped champagne with beautiful ladies in the finest dresses the city’s couturiers could provide while men in the more subdued civilian tailcoats of business and the diplomatic and political vocations fought to draw attention to their wit and brilliance. Georges Clemenceau surveyed the crowd, smiling with quiet satisfaction. The German ambassador was there, a lonely figure in his pre-war military finery sourly watching the triumph of the Erbfeind. Old ambassador Nelidov, his enormous beard drooping onto his narrow chest, was dozing, seated in a window nook. The venomous Purishkevich sat at his side, watching over his master’s sleep. Well, better this than having him hectoring everybody and his dog about the rightness of the Russian cause. General Foch was over in the ballroom, no doubt drawing admiring gazes from dozens of young ladies with an eye to social advancement. Clemenceau was more than happy to see him enjoy the fruits of his bravery. The man had a brilliant future ahead of him, he would see to that!

    Moving through the long axis of the room at a stately pace, nodding, smiling, acknowledging guests, the president caught the eye of the evening’s main attraction. Sultan Abdelaziz had come to Paris a few weeks ago, attired in oriental splendour, to sign the treaties and prostrate himself before the majesty of the Republic. They had showered him with honours, given him the grand cross of the Legion of Honour, and passed him from ball to dinner to outing, a caged lion to adorn their colonial menagerie. Next week, he would return home in the company of a French bodyguard to ensure his adoring subjects could be dissuaded from tearing him limb from limb. A studied smile passed between the men. The sultan knew what was expected of a good loser. His brother had not, and was now in guarded seclusion in a comfortable villa near Oran, an example for those who would challenge French might.

    At the edge of the milling crowd, the archbishop scowled at the prime minister’s approach. Clemenceau considered briefly whether to address a few words to him, but decided against it. He had inflicted enough suffering on the Holy Mother Church without needing to rub it in. At any rate this would be the last time a domestic clerical dignitary would be invited to such a function. A mere private association – as it was now – the church would have no further claim on the favour and resources of the state. There was no need to compound the humiliation – let him spend the last hours of the old year with what comfort the Ligueist deputies could provide.

    At the corner, the model of the new dreadnought battleship was drawing gazes. A naval officer was explaining some technical points to a gaggle of civilians, some of them deputies Clemenceau recognised. The British attache stood a little to the side, no doubt taking in every last word for a report to London. The Naval Law of December 1907 had rattled the old enemy. They must be drawing up their own plans, surely. He would find out soon enough. Tonight was not the time to worry. Not here. Surely he did not envy the general staff in Berlin their position. They were building a railway – a railway! – across Lake Peipus, he had heard. Simply feeding their troops in the wastes of Russia was more than their logistics could manage. Their money was burning up, their credit deteriorating, and no amount of snow and scrub their Swedish allies were taking from the Czar up in Kola Peninsula would make up for it. There, he thought, was another good argument for reading the history books, Napoleon had made it to Moscow at least. They had stopped at the gates of St Petersburg, burning the place out of sheer spite. You could call it a victory, but the bloodletting it had cost would ensure France a generation of parity with Germany at a two-year conscription status, and money for a navy worth having. With a connoisseur’s smile, he took a goblet of champagne from the tray of a passing servant and turned to the German military attache, Graf von Haldersleben. The old man – no young officers left on diplomatic duty in that country, not when the meat grinders were screaming for fresh victims – gave him a grudging nod, glaring behind heavy-lidded eyes. The prime minister beamed at him.

    “To 1908, Your Excellency.” He said, loud enough to be audible over the hum of conversation. “May the new year bring all of us success.”
    Vornado likes this.
  6. AvatarOfKhaine Eldar God of War

    May 22, 2017
    Craftworld Herefordshire
    Any chance for the remaining updates of this any time soon?

    Didn't the timeline end in 1908?
  7. carlton_bach Member

    Jan 18, 2004
    Altona, Occupied Denmark
    Give me time... I had to wrangle a birthday party, school reports, a class trip, an in-law visit, kids going to a sports championship, a conference paper, two short-term urgent translation jobs and the usual madness of two school kids, one baby, both parents working. 1908 is in the pipeline, corrections done up to February at this point.
    Athelstane likes this.
  8. AvatarOfKhaine Eldar God of War

    May 22, 2017
    Craftworld Herefordshire
    I didn't mean to rush, I was more confused than anything.