Es Geloybte Aretz - a Finished Germanwank

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.
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….”
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
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.”
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.”
Any chance for the remaining updates of this any time soon?

Didn't the timeline end in 1908?

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.

Quem Vult Perdere Fortuna - 1908

02 January 1908, Moscow

The definition of ‘office’, Prince Vladimir Meshersky thought, was a flexible one. He himself had no fewer than four – one private, one as editor of the Grazhdanin, one as vice-chairman of the Patriotic Union, and one as secretary of the Moscow rayon society for medical aid. None compared even remotely to the splendour, the rich colours and textures and cavernous depth of the room that Grand Prince Nikolai Nikolaevich had invited him to. Tall doors opened and closed by obsequious valets, a tiled stove that radiated warmth and comfort, deep armchairs and a vast expanse of desk – the Kremlin knew all about overawing people. Even a man like Meshersky had to fight the impulse to defer.

The actual conversation turned out to be pleasant, even uplifting. The future of Russia was a topic on which the prince was more than happy to discourse for hours, and Nikolai gave him a flattering amount of his time. Yes, the Patriotic Union would need to play an important part in the country. Everybody knew that the government’s civil service would, for the time being, remain incapable of reaching the people at the level they had to be addressed in order to create a Russian identity. Peasants and workers were afraid of officials with their rank tables and uniforms. The church, especially the monks and minor clergy that swelled the ranks of the Union, on the other hand, were approachable. And it was impossible for the state to find young men and women who would be willing to go out into the villages and share the privations of the common folk, teaching them to read and write, making them aware of their roots. The Union could. Its volunteer programme had already provided not just hundreds of thousands of fighting men – many of them by now better educated and more reliable than regular line troops – but also nurses, teachers, artisans and agronomists. That, Meshersky thought with not inconsiderable pride, was his contribution. Dubrovin had never cared too much about organisational stuff, and Trishatny was too much into playing at soldiers, as though the imperial officer corps were not far more qualified to actually use the forces the Union provided.

“And, Your Highness, we are still only at the beginning. Our Inigo de Loyola is still alive, our organisation still growing and maturing. Come time, we will be able to give Russia and the Holy Church its own Society of Jesus.”

“Jesus?” Nikolai looked up, puzzled. “You mean like a Jesuit order?”

“Indeed.” This was Meshersky’s own favourite analogy. “A society of learned men, trained in all the disciplines a modern state requires, to go out and teach the brightest and best. In the future, Russia will be able to rely on a body of men in whose souls a burning love for the Czar and the church has been kindled from early childhood, men whose training is equal to those of any university graduate, but whose loyalty and devotion is absolute. If our contribution in the early years of the war was, perhaps, haphazard, in years to come it will be invaluable. From the smallest village school hut to the grandest institute, we will give the Russian people an education, and the Czar a people imbued with a conscious, active, an immediate love for their father. ”

The prince sank back into his armchair, relishing the moment. Nikolai nodded slowly.

“Men whose loyalty is entirely to the imperial crown, with no personal considerations or ambitions.” Nikolai gave Prince Meshersky a quizzical look. The prince, recalling his own, often public, differences with Dubrovin, had the decency to blush.

“Indeed, Your Highness.” He said assiduously. “The crown of the Monomakh above us all. Just as the Jesuits in their heyday served the glory of St Peter’s chair, so shall we submit ourselves to the cause of Holy Russia.”

Nikolai scratched his beard and fixed Meshersky with his gaze. “Holy Russia is greater than any single man, even the greatest. I am glad you have not forgotten that.”

Prince Meshersky nodded, nonplussed.

05 January 1908, Berlin

General von Lynckner shuffled his papers nervously under the imperial gaze. That eye could be very unnerving. “So it appears out strategic position was based on a misreading of the situation.”

“The word you’re looking for is ‘fucked up’, general.” Marshal von der Goltz commented genially.

Lynckner gave him a baleful stare.

“Come on, might as well say it. We fucked up. All of us did. That’s why we are in this situation. We’ve let the Russian win the war by losing the battles, and all of it because we were too fucking fascinated by map reading and neglected the raw, hard numbers.” Von der Goltz deftly decapitated a cigar and gestured for the others to follow his example. “What’s the point in trying to duck the blame. More than enough to go around. No, gentlemen, we might as well face up and get to grips with what we do next.”

Uncomfortable silence spread around the table. Glittering with awards and decorations, the heads of the Great General Staff shifted in their seats like schoolboys during vocabulary tests. Minister of Munitions Krupp von Rathenau, the only civilian in their exalted group, sighed almost inaudibly.

“Marshal,” he spoke up, “I gather this means we would require a different economic policy to continue the war?”

Von der Goltz nodded. “You brought the plans, I assume? We will need A or D.”

Rathenau sucked his teeth. He had spent many days driving his department to distraction over the scenarios that the General Staff required. A was the original expectation, continuing to supply the army with everything it needed to drive on to a quick victory. D was the opposite: The assumption that the German army would continue to be unable to inflict decisive defeat, that Russian resistance, while weakened, would continue indefinitely. Von der Goltz had said expressly to consider it unrealistic.

“Your Majesty,” he nodded to the emperor seated at the head of the table, “Marshal, Gentlemen: I assume you understand that our primary problem is one of currency. We have no way of continuing the current level of expenditure on imports. The level of foreign debt is already unprecedented, and timely repayment will almost certainly depend on our ability to obtain either a significant indemnity from the Russian state, or large territorial concessions with access to resources that can be marketed immediately. I was asked to provide an estimate for the timeframe within which we will be able to continue the current level of expenditure to support offensives on the scale of last year. I regret to say that, assuming interest rates developing as they have, at most that timeframe is six months.”

Chairs scraped as several staff officers jumped to their feet, registering dismay in a hubbub of angry voices. Rathenau looked imploringly to Marshal von der Goltz who sat, puffing his cigar. Accusing fingers stabbed at the minister’s chest. Then, a hard slap imposed silence. Emperor Wilhelm stood, facing the assembled company.

“Gentlemen, calm! I will not tolerate such behaviour. We are thinkers, not brawlers!” He rubbed his remaining eye, his face registering shock despite the best efforts to conceal it.

“Six months from now?” he asked, turning to Rathenau.

“Six months of sustained offensive operations, Your Majesty.” The minister confirmed. “However, the coming three months will make that impossible. I expect losses to be reduced, which should allow us to operate for a full summer season of campaigning. That is, however, assuming that the Morgan trust continues to consider our bonds safe collateral, and that London does not close its trading floor. And it would expose us to enormous levels of debt.”

The emperor looked around the table. “Can we win the war in a summer, then?” he asked.

“Perhaps.” Von der Goltz had answered, looking thoughtful. “Probably. But we should be prepared for the alternative outcome. The nightmare of ’71 writ large. Minister Krupp von Rathenau has also been requested to prepare calculations for an indefinite continuation.”

Rathenau nodded. “That is possible.” He stated. “Though of course the continuation of a war is primarily a matter of political will, not economic consideration. The Empire, unlike Russia, does not have near infinite reserves of manpower or natural resources, but what we have is sufficient, if used wisely, to allow us to stand a contest of stamina. We can rely on domestic production for most of our war materiel, with the primary exception of nitrates and steel additives. Imports of these can be financed through exports of industrial goods. Iron ore can be had through Sweden, rubber through the Dutch colonies. Our allies have already assured us they will accept payment in bonds. We confidently expect agricultural production in Poland and the Baltics to increase enough to supplement national food needs. So it will be possible to sustain operations, though not at the level we are seeing. It would exclude the possibility of large-scale offensives.”

“In the worst case,” Von der Goltz explained, “we envision the creation of a new ‘wild land’. If Russia does not relent, we will have to create a military frontier across her territory within a hundred kilometres of which no human habitation will be tolerated. This will be defensible indefinitely.” He shrugged. “If it comes to that. Needless to say, I would prefer we kick Nicholas’ teeth in for good.”

“Once St Petersburg is ours,” Lynckner opined, “we will control the railway line to Moscow and the be able to roll through the entire north of the country. They must give up then.”

Wilhelm shot him a withering glance. “Indeed, general. Just as they must when we took Riga, and Brest, and Ivangorod, and Odessa, and Helsingfors. The problem seems to be they don’t know that.“

General Groener nodded quietly. The entire war had been defined by these kinds of disappointments. By any reasonable standard, the Russians had to have surrendered at least a year ago. They’d had a good run, but it was clear they were going to lose. A growing number of staff officers were coming over to von der Goltz’s view that this was a new kind of war – an integral war, as he called it. A war between peoples. He spoke up.

“It would be best to consider the successes on the central and southern front as a template.”

Lynckner frowned. “Successes against thin lines of second-rate troops.”

“Indeed. If our experience in the Baltic has shown us anything, it is that offensive operations against the enemy’s centre of gravity are costly. In a Clausewitzian war, the destruction of their military force would ensure victory, but that is simply no longer the case. While they can bring in more men on the inner line, they have the ability to make advancing more expensive than we can afford. That is why we must focus on the areas that are less well defended. General Mackensen was able to secure advances with a corps of cavalry that an army group bled white in East Prussia for.”

Wilhelm looked up with interest. “What of the infrastructure problems, General? It was said that the Russians could dominate the empty lands through their preponderance in cavalry, wasn’t it?”

Groener blinked. “We used to think that this benefited them more than us, Sire. But it turns out that is not the case. We have the advantage in creating infrastructure and moving material. Machine guns and gas negate the advantage of horsemen in most situations, with armoured trains and lorries to secure our lines of communication. We thought that a German army needed railway networks to advance, but it turns out this obsession helped the Russians more than us. If we strike them where both are at a logistical disadvantage, their weakness is greater than ours.”

Von der Goltz nodded. “Your Majesty, that will also address the issue of manpower inferiority we are suffering most from.”

Wilhelm nodded, thinking. It was ironic. For all the talk of the interchangeability of anonymous industrial workers by romantic friends of the patrimonial order, it had turned out that a peasant society like Russia’s was far more fungible that way. A muzhik at the plough could be replaced with any two women or four children from his village when he was needed to carry a rifle. A shift leader down the mine or a machinist making railcars was a rare and precious commodity by comparison. Even if they had wanted to, the economic implications of losing such men precluded drafting them.

“Very well. The question remains what to do.” The emperor looked over the map lining the conference room’s wall, stuck with pins and pencilled lines. “What is your suggestion?”

Von der Goltz cut off all possible debate with a bland statement. “Strike south.”

“South?” The faces of several officer registered disapproval, but none spoke up.

“South. We are effectively trapped in the north, limited to a narrow front that allows the enemy to concentrate his forces and bring to bear the greatest weight of his industrial production. Taking St Petersburg would be possible, but it would almost certainly cost us a quarter million men. Then we would hold a railhead to a single line to Moscow that can be defended at many junctions, and destroyed on retreat, with no good way of resupplying our advancing troops. By contrast, if we advance through Poland to Moscow and Kiev, we can rely on the rail network we have been building up while the enemy has very little to oppose us. Operating in tandem with the Austrians, Romanians and Ottomans – we all hope – we should be able not only to cut off Russia from her seaports of supply, but also to take away land that she will sorely miss for its grain, its timber, coal, iron and beef. I am still convinced that such a blow will bring down Russian resistance, but if it does not, then at least we will have secured the riches to repay our debt and a basis for a defensible frontier while we bleed the bastards.”

06 January 1908, Kasalinsk, Russian Turkestan

“German bastards.” Corporal Ondrei Vokasec said to nobody in particular, caught up in his paper. They didn’t get very much reading material out here, and Vokasec was the kind to dive into the Russkaya Pravda if nothing else was at hand. His Russian had gone from halting to passable over the past year, making him unofficial reader of the Czech Legion’s 1st Regiment, II Battalion, A Company.

“Huh?” Vaclav Ripka, puffing on a treasured cigarette, turned to look at him. He was not sure whether the remark had been inspired by anything or just intended as a general statement of indisputable fact.

“Here!” Vokasec tapped the page. “Gang of German soldiers tried to ravish a peasant girl up in Dvina Province. Her brother – still a boy - got at them with an axe and took down six of the bastards, but they killed him and her father. She almost froze to death before a cavalry patrol rescued her.”

Ripka nodded. “That’s pretty fucked up. Makes you sick to think they’re winning the war, doesn’t it?”

“Says who?” Vokasec bristled. It had been his idea to volunteer for the Czar’s foreign fighters back when it had looked like Austria was going to lose. He still felt more invested in his choice than he should have. “Next spring, the Kaiser’s going to have to give up. He can’t face the power of Russia. Minister Sukhomlinov said it to the Pravda, twenty million bayonets in the field.”

The private stretched on his cot, drew languidly at his cigarette and blew out smoke. “That’s something. I’ll believe it, too. Twenty million bayonets, three million rifles, sixty machine guns and three mortars, right?”

Vokasec gave him a baleful glance. “I’d have to report you for saying shit like that, you know?” he threatened.

“But you won’t, because I’m the only guy you can have an intelligent conversation with, right?” Ripka retorted. “Anyway, it’s not like the Russians don’t know. Have you seen the way they shepherd the new recruits? You’d think they were headed for the katorga, not the front.”

“That’s because they’re savages!” the corporal said angrily. “We’re in the middle of darkest Asia, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Ripka shrugged. It made little difference as far as he was concerned. If you’d spent as much time as the Caucasians did fighting each other, you came to learn a thing or two about war. When people like that required armed guards and locked barracks on their way to face the Germans, that meant something.

“See here?!” Vokasec stabbed at the second page. “The Pacific fleet drove off another attack by Dutch and German cruisers, sinking two! The Germans can’t keep up these losses. That’s how the Czar has a chance of winning, in the end. Even after all this, they still have parity in battleships!”

Ripka stubbed out the end of his cigarette and carefully returned the remainder to his tobacco pouch. “True.” He conceded morosely. “Just as soon as they put the Black Sea fleet on wheels and drag it to Petersburg, they’ll drive the enemy from the seas.”

Vokasec’s head disappeared behind the paper again with a grunt of wounded pride. He pretended not to hear Ripka’s next remark.

“Maybe they want us to help with the pulling?”


“That’s why they’re sending us west, maybe?”, the private insisted.

“West?” Vokasec sounded shocked.

“A cook told me they’ve been baking hardtack the last few days. Looks like someone’s headed out on the rails, and the savages don’t get bread rations.” Ripka couldn’t resist a barb. “So I guess we’ll be just in time for the great triumph through Berlin, maybe?”

“Bah!” Corporal Vokasec sounded dismissive, but his face had gone pale. With a snort of disgust, he beckoned to the rows of dirty tents in the barbed wire enclosure to the west of their barracks - the native detention facility. “At least we’ll get away from the stench.”

09 January 1908, Paris

Secretary Francois Barsac was resigned to spending much of his life angry. Shepherding junior employees at the finance ministry would do this to a man who was of choleric temper from the start. But he was hard pressed to recall having been this angry before. Attache Purishkevich’s smug, provocative smile did nothing to help.

“Mr secretary, I assure you I will give the matter my full attention, as will the ambassador once he is fully recovered from his current – indisposition.” He said. The diplomatic phrases rattled off with studied indifference, but you could hear the joy he took in turning the tables on the French government. “However, you will understand that neither I nor his Excellency are authorised to make any promises on behalf of the Imperial government.”

Barsac bristled. “Be that as it may, this scandalous behaviour has to stop. Your government has already done more than enough damage, and we expect to be reassured that…”

“Monsieur Barsac.” Purishkevich interrupted. “The Imperial government of Russia does not owe any explanations to your office, the Credit Lyonnais, or the House of Rothschild.” He almost spat out the last name. “If His Majesty sees fit to suspend payment of interest on bonds for the duration on some bonds to alleviate the current crisis, then he is entirely within his rights to do so. I would remind you that the Imperial government has been conscientious in ensuring prompt payment in the past, and that it fully intends to honour its commitments as soon as circumstances allow. Indeed, I will point out that interest payments on bonds of recent issuance are still being made.”

“That,” Barsac finally managed to get a word in, “is no consolation to the holders of your country’s obligations – people who entrusted you with their savings. You will find, I am sure, that in the courts of France, the rights of a Russian Emperor weigh no more heavily than those of any citizen of the Republic!” He breathed heavily. “I am, however, instructed to request the presence of Ambassador Nelidov for a meeting with the Prime Minister, and I trust the matter may then be resolved.”

Purishkevich blinked slowly. “As I was telling you, Monsieur Barsac, His Excellency is indisposed. I am certain he will attend to his duties as soon as his health allows.” The bastard was enjoying this. “In the meantime, I would ask for your patience and discretion, not least in view of the fact that a considerable sum in bonds is due to mature in February. It would not do to create undue apprehension, surely.”

09 January 1908, Moscow

“Who authorised this?” Grand Prince Sergey’s face was ashen pale.

Secretary Popov looked through the file on the desk. “His Majesty the Czar himself expressed the wish that….”

“God damn this!” Sergey thumped his desk and winced as pain shot up his back. “You know what I mean! Who gave him this idea, and why was I not consulted?”

Popov bowed his head, speaking in a slow, calming voice. “Would you have agreed, Your Highness?”

“Of course not!” The grand prince rested his heavy head on his hands. He had spent two days out of the office, feverish and sweating with the cold, and somehow, the world as he knew it was ending. “Popov, I know. I want you to find out where this came from. If it was that Brasov…. Or Dubrovin … I swear I will strangle Dubrovin with my own hands!”

Popov nodded acquiescence and adjusted a stack of papers on his master’s desk to prevent them from toppling over. “May I enquire what it is that he has done?”

Sergey grunted. “He’s lost us the war, that’s what he’s done.” With a pained groan, Sergey lifted himself to his feet and grabbed his crutches. “Lost, you hear?! The idiot has repudiated our bonds!”

Popov nodded again. “I will find out how this has come about, but I assure you this is entirely a foreign office matter and did not go through Interior or Finance channels.”

“Find out.” The grand prince raised himself on his crutches and hobbled towards the door. “And get my carriage. I need speak to Grand Duke Nikolai and Prince Sviatopolk-Mirsky.”

“Your Highness, what of the other….”

“FUCK the other things!” Lackeys at the door scurried away at the outburst. “Find out who did this, Popov! And have a train made ready! I’m going to Rostov. This nonsense ends here!”

10 January 1908, near Polozk

It was cold. Cold, in a way that even Feldwebel Lorsch, whose childhood had been spent in West Prussia, did not associate with the word. This was not the cold of their homeland, the nipping frost that you would run from, heading to congregate in whatever heated rooms you could find, or combat with spirits. This cold crept through walls and doors, through layers of fabric and flesh, all the way to the bone. Neither roaring ovens nor what amounts of vodka could be requisitioned from the locals ever amended it. It froze your joints stiff, ate at your insides, slowed down your thinking, your vision, your self. Keeping warm became a struggle, every gust of wind your enemy, every scrap of food and fuel treasure. The men of the Infanterie-Regiment No 129 did not go short of rations – and Lorsch knew that this was far from the norm these days. But a body just needed more fuel in this weather than he would in more hospitable climes. Light duties were just about bearable, but standing guard or patrolling would leave you with a ravenous hunger that your allotted fare never came close to sating. Most men went through the days with a gnawing sense of emptiness in their stomachs.

Of course, cold alone would not be enough. Fate so loved the German soldier that no matter how low and desperate his condition, the military genius of his officers would devise a way of exacerbating it. And what better way of doing this than leaving the entire regiment to share the miseries normally suffered only by guard posts? Visiting general’s inspection. Even men who would, under different circumstances, have been thrilled to catch a glimpse of ‘Mad’ Mackensen were grumbling after a half hour exposed to the wind on the open expanse of the square. Hauptmann von Bredow had allowed – and only after the NCOs had interceded in desperation – that the men would to parade in non-regulation headgear. Under flat cloth caps, you’d lose ears. But no amount of pleading had secured the right to wear captured Russian greatcoats or looted civilian furs. Prussian coats were good for what they were, but nowhere near up to protecting you.

The sound of hooves on frozen ground announced the arrival of their visitor: General Mackensen, surrounded by his staff and the regimental command, came down the main road onto the barracks square where the men stood to attention. Bayonets flashed as rifles rippled to parade present with enough precision that even a pre-war NCO would have tolerated it. Dressed in his black hussar’s coat and cap, collar turned up, the great general passed their front, approaching the colours fluttering in the icy east wind. Lorsch surreptitiously cleared his throat before raising his command voice: “Company, three cheers for General Mackensen Hip Hip…”


The sound struck him like an electric shock. Who had said that? He could not make out voices. Impossible to turn and see. He braced for the second cheer to find that more and more men took up the call.


The Feldwebel balled his fist to keep his hands from trembling uncontrollably.


The colonel’s face was beet red between his helmet and the heavy scarf. Lorsch knew that he was as good as finished. Then, to his horror, he heard the men of 3 Company take up the shout. Mackensen stared – there was no better way of describing it. Moustache bristling, eyes wide open. He rode along the front, obviously unsure what – if anything – he was to make of this. Another chorus of protesting voices rose to the blue sky. Well, the feldwebel thought, at least he’d have company in the cell block.

13 January 1908, Berlin


Observers and representatives of international aid organisations have often reported on the filth and squalor that appears to be the universal conditions of prisoners of war in Russian hands. Now, photographic evidence of the suffering our men are subjected to by the tyranny of the Czar was provided by victorious Swedish troops in their winter advance across Kola. In a camp of ramshackle wooden huts near Sorotskaya, soldiers of the Crown Prince’s Hussar Regiment discovered over 2,000 German, Swedish and Austrian prisoners being forced to labour on the construction of a railway line to the port of Murmansk. Herded into crowded barracks with inadequate heating, poorly clad and fed on a scant diet of often rotten potatoes, foul cabbage soup and gruel, the agony of their imprisonment is engraved on the faces of the captives who will now be nursed back to health and returned to their homes and loved ones as quickly as weather conditions allow. The mortal remains of over 200 men were also found buried within the camp, and witnesses report that more bodies may be found at locations further south along the railway line.

(Continued on page 3)

Police Strike Blow against Black-Market Gang

The Berlin police succeeded at breaking a ring of black marketeers in a raid on several businesses in Zehlendorf and Potsdam. The group of unscrupulous war profiteers systematically removed goods from warehouses which they then declared destroyed through spoilage, leaving legal retailers undersupplied. The raided premises were found to hold almost 15 tons of sugar, casks of butter, potted meats, sausage, eggs and large quantities of alcoholic beverages which were sold to hotels, restaurants and private consumers without deducting ration points. It is of particular interest to the Kriminalpolizei unit investigating rationing violations that in at least one case, a list of customer addresses appears to have been recovered undestroyed. …

Save Our Trees!

The continuing crisis of the capital’s public parks and gardens has found attentions at the highest levels of government, with the Prussian Minister of the Interior issuing a decree forbidding the removal of wood in any quantity from these venues. Anyone found in possession of such wood, or carrying tools designed to facilitate its theft, will be punished in accordance with the law protecting forestry and embankment trees. The citizens of Berlin are called upon to exercise vigilance in protection of the trees and bushes adorning our fair city!


Potato Herrings – a treat for the daily dinner table

Kale – the underappreciated vegetable

How to produce potato starch from peelings

Build your own cooking box to save on fuel

Newsprint-wrapped coal – make one lump last all night!

(Berliner Illustrirte)

17 January 1908, Erzerum

“Poor bastards.” Hakop Manashian shook his head as the column tramped by. Flags flying, music playing, heads held high, the soldiers of the Empire went to war, marching in torn boots, their greatcoats sodden with the freezing rain. “Poor bastards.” He shrugged more tightly into his sheepskin coat in sympathy and dragged on his cigarette.

“What, you feel sorry for them?”

Hakop turned around to his nephew with a weary sigh. How could you explain these things to young men? They were all hot blood and spunk. “Listen, Dikran. I know how you feel about the Turks, but these are men. I’ve spent days on the road in the rain, and nights sleeping in snowdrifts. You wouldn’t wish this on a dog!”

Dikran Manashian kept his eyes glued on the passing column, his lips tight. “I wish they’d go out and get themselves killed by the Russians!” he said, though he kept his voice low.

“Do you really want to exchange the Sultan for the Czar that badly? It’d be a high price to pay for a new yoke.” Hakop stubbed out his cigarette.

“A Christian ruler, uncle.” Dikran would not give up easily. It wasn’t in him. A good trait in a student, his uncle reflected, but a poor one in a younger relative. More deference would have been nice.

“What, and you think that will make a difference on your tax bill? The soldiers who steal your bread to say a Christian prayer over it?” He snorted. “You’re a young fool, Dikran, and we need to get you married.”

Dikran bristled, but recalled his manners and shut his mouth. Eventually, he lamely pointed out: “Well, if they go and get themselves beaten, at least it will have been General Nazarbekian that did it. The Russians have Armenian generals!”

Hakop did not answer. Instead, he looked at the men passing by up the road to the fortress. Their feet were bloody and their lips blue, but their eyes were on fire. They marched as proudly as fighting cocks. Yildirim Division, he had heard. The Russians might find them harder to deal with than his fool of a nephew believed.

18 January 1908, New York

The telegram form in Gary Elbert’s hands fluttered as he faced the wrath of the gods of finance, assembled in the corporeal form of an irate J.P. Morgan.

“Ceased entirely?” The great man’s moustache quivered. His face was redder than his secretary had seen it in many months. Not since the Knickerbocker crash had Wall Street faced such peril.

“Yes, Sir.” Elbert confirmed. “It was announced just after the closing of the Paris bourse and telegraphed in first thing. The Russian government is ceasing all disbursements – no interest payments, no redemptions of due bonds.”

“Dear God!” Morgan shook his head heavily and pulled out his handkerchief to wipe beads of perspiration off his forehead. “This could be worse than the Panama company.” He hesitated. Would another intervention work? Could the great men of Wall Street maintain confidence in the soundness of their banks? The blow had not come unexpected, but it would still destroy thousands upon thousands of small investors, severely damage the credit of many French banks, and suck money out of the market everywhere the damned things had been sold. And everywhere else, eventually.

“I think we will need to get together with some of my friends in London over this.” He finally admitted. “Make arrangements accordingly.”

“Yes, Sir.” Elbert bowed his head reflexively. “Anything else to be done in the meantime?”

“Pray for a long, hard war.” Morgan said. “And a harder peace. If the public loses trust in German paper…”

“So we should buy German bonds to prevent that?”

Morgan groaned. Of course Elbert was right, damn him! They would have to not only keep accepting German bonds, they would have to buy them up. Bring down the interest rate. Make them appear safe. That bastard Schiff had to be rubbing his hands with glee!

“Yes. Allocate ten million for starters, but if word gets out early, I’ll personally skin the man responsible!”
20 January 1908, the Dvina Front

It was over. Another fight, another pointless clash in the dark, the driving snow and biting frost that was the Russian winter. Another Russian defeat. Oberst Derflinger surveyed the wreckage that his guns had left behind. Frozen ground was awful to fight on, leaving exposed infantry little chance to dig in. Shells burst on impact, turning into a deadly hail of splinters scything across the snow horizontally. The craters were shallow, snow all around them blown into weird, contorted shapes. Pieces of – wood – were scattered as dark shapes on the white surface. It had to be wood. What must have been a bunker was left smouldering.

Everybody made a big deal of gas, but they did not even have gas in this section of the front. Just artillery – finally enough of it. Derflinger had watched the shift over the past year. The enemy’s capabilities degraded, they were increasingly unable to put up counterbattery fire. By now, in addition to their woefully inaccurate 70mm field guns, the Russian army relied more and more on light mortars and rocket launchers, weapons that were a holy terror to the frontline infantrymen, but no threat to the heavy artillery behind. Without the steady attrition of artillery duels, new guns added to the weight of his battery. It was not enough – what artilleryman ever had enough guns – but it meant Derflinger could give the infantry fire support worth having. When the unfortunate Russians had decided to launch a dawn attack, the commanding general had ordered a countercharge. Confident in the ability of the machine gunners to deal with the attackers, Derflinger’s heavies – 10cm howitzers, 15cm and even two coveted 23cm Skoda mortars - had hammered their trenches and rear area until ammunition stocks began to look dangerously low. By now, the advancing infantry was several kilometres beyond the enemy’s front, going to ground for a miserable night in the bitter cold. It was unlikely the salient would be defended. They had good positions, and there was nothing strategically valuable ahead of them. As far as Derflinger could tell, there was nothing at all ahead of them – a few birches, many square kilometres of snow, and Russians. They already had more of those than they knew what to do with.

Leutnant Aumann joined him trudging through the churned snow and glass-hard ground. His young face registered shock and dismay, and Derflinger wondered how well his own façade was holding up. Over there lay a rifle, a fur cap, a straw boot. Smudges of black and red on the white snow. The colonel felt his lip tremble. By all accounts the Russians had fought bravely – with suicidal courage, in fact. The men would come up, bayonets fixed, running into machine guns, climbing over brushwood and wire. Even in retreat, they tenaciously clung to every piece of cover, making the infantry pay dearly for every metre of ground. How could any men fight so hard, so fiercely, for a cause that anyone could see was lost? Today’s fighting had cost the division maybe a hundred men killed, twice that number wounded. The Russians had lost – what? A regiment at least. More yet would still die, fleeing into the freezing night with inadequate clothing and no food. Walking over to the remnants of the command bunker, Derflinger’s boot stirred about in the fragments of a book, a cross prominently embossed on the cheap linen and cardboard cover. Behind, charred pieces of an icon stuck out of the earth. The iconostasis, buried under the collapsed roof of the ground floor level, identified the position as a field chapel.

Seated in the lee of a shallow hill, securing the positions he and his comrades had bought so dearly today, Grenadier Franz Romig struggled to light his pipe. A gunner had found tobacco to share for an impromptu celebration before the night drove them back underground.

“What’s with the colonel?” the artilleryman asked, indicating the old man with a jerk of his head. Romig looked more closely. Tears were glistening on the cheeks under the peaked cap, the glasses fogged. Surely, he was sobbing? Romig shrugged.

“Never mind.” He pronounced sagely. “Officers do strange things.”

What was the point of that, anyway, he wondered. Officers had it all wrong. In Romig’s world, notions of chivalry and valour had no place. If you had the rank to live behind the front, you could think of it as a sporting contest of opposing minds and wills. As far as the grenadier was concerned, Russians dying in droves was just fine. If they didn’t want to, they should just call it a day and go home. He couldn’t wait for the day they’d get their Morgan masks and put the lot of them under gas.

26 January 1908, Berezovka Camp, Irkutsk Military District

Some pain never went away. It reminded you of what you had lost. The dull ache in his left leg still recalled the shrapnel that had torn into it in the dark, confused terror of a Bessarabian night assault. The metal, together with the flesh, bone and sinew it had ripsawed its way through, lay buried in the earth of the battlefield, thousands of miles away, but its ghost remained with its owner, forever completing the spiritual body of a younger man in the worn-down frame of an older, long-suffering one. Saints had worn chains and hair shirts for their sins, the colonel told himself, and he would wear his pain for those of his government.

Across the desk from him, splendidly attired in a dark green uniform coat and silver epaulets, sat one of those, and far from the least. Major Grigoriev of the Patriotic Union Auxiliary was no unusual person in these days of dearth and confusion – helpful, in his way, at a time when a man with experience running operations was worth his weight in gold, he was sufficiently clever to complement the skills of a staff officer and sufficiently cold-hearted to see to the needs of a government eager to refashion itself into a pitiless martial automaton without losing a night’s sleep. Colonel Andrashko had hated him from the moment he walked into the office, and nothing the man had said had changed his attitude in the least.

“I take it the prisoners under your command were assigned vegetable plots?`” he asked.

The colonel nodded “They requested it. It gives them something to do. They can’t get a lot of the food they are accustomed to, and since the rations are not very generous to start with…”

“Well, that will have to stop.” Grigoriev interrupted. “The ground will be converted to potatoes. It is high time we saw to it that the useless mouths contributed to their keep instead of sucking dry the motherland’s reserves. Out here, you have more than enough land, there is no reason why the camp should stand in need of any supplies, really.” He adjusted his spectacles. “Of course we will continue to provide the recalculated basic ration…”

Andrashko cleared his throat.

“You wanted to say something?” Grigoriev studied the man coldly: A frontline officer, rough-edged and battered, with a face lined deeply by grief and heavy drinking. His unruly beard framed a broad peasant face, the rheumy eyes retreating deep into their sockets under heavy pouches. The scuffed and threadbare uniform tunic bore the order of St George third class as its sole decoration. Grigoriev knew that this man was not corrupt – nobody who skimmed off what he could running a POW camp would dress like this, not even at the arse end of Siberia. But he was obviously at the end of his usefulness, washed up, relegated to nursemaid for a few thousand complaining Germans and a guard detail of drunkards and cowards.

“Those rations are a black joke.” Andrashko said. “It would be more merciful to cut the prisoners’ throats and be done with it.”

“These rations are based on the templates for feeding Russian soldiers, as is customary. We will not…”

“What kind of rations are those, major?” Andrashko asked, his voice dripping contempt. “Summer fare for a garrison of gardeners? Four kopeks would not feed an artillery mule, and with the supplies you are giving me!”

Major Grigoriev shook his head patiently. The tantrums of foolishly sentimental men were something the champions of news Russia had to bear with equanimity. Not everybody had the clear vision and genius this role required. “Colonel,” he pointed out, “you were not posted to this duty to make decisions but to implement them. Surely you understand that much.”

“Major, you can go home and inform your superiors that I intend to supply the men under my care as well as the conventions of war require. If I have to requisition such supplies, well, then I will have to. But I will not be party to an atrocity.”

Grigoriev stood, now looking down at the seated colonel. “Colonel Andrashko, you understand that under the circumstances, insubordination would have dire consequences. Extremely so!”

“What are you going to do, cashier me?”

The major bristled. Threats usually worked. “These are extraordinary times requiring extraordinary measures, colonel. The Czar shall brook no disobedience, and Russia avenges treason to the last generation! Do we understand each other?”

The room fell silent for a moment. Colonel Andsrashko’s head fell forward, his shoulders began to shake. Briefly, Grigroriev basked in the glow of victory. Then, he realised the camp commander was laughing, a hoarse, bitter sound. Andrashko reached for the bell on his desk and rang for his aide.

“Major,” he finally said, “What would you propose to take away from me? My wife lies in her grave these twelve years, and my sons are buried in Austrian soil. What do you think a man like me would still value above his honour?” He turned to the sergeant entering the room. “Grishka, disarm this man. Then turn out a guard detail and arrest his escort.”

The major stared uncomprehendingly. “I have armed men with me! They will not permit…”

“Major Grigoriev!” Steel crept into the colonel’s voice, “Please, order your greenjackets to resist! These shitstains in uniform have disgraced Russia’s arms for too long.” He turned to the sergeant. “You may fire at the slightest provocation, Grishka.”

The sergeant stepped forward, hands held out to Grigoriev. “Your sabre and revolver, sir.”

01 February 1908, Berlin

“But … why now?” Chancellor von Gerlach had enough on his plate without adding the headache of major legislation. The development of diplomatic relations with the new Kingdom of Poland, the creation of states in Finland and the Baltic, war funding, organising the home front, and ensuring people were fed adequately would tax the powers of a political Hercules. The chancellor did not feel he answered to that description on the best of days.

“Because, your excellency,” the emperor replied, “the people need to see this being done now.”

Wilhelm pointed to a stack of documents sitting on a corner table. “I have seen petitions coming across my desk every day: War widows losing homes and farms, crippled soldiers refused treatment by doctors and hounded by debt collectors, families turned out onto the streets by landlords raising rents. And now the insurance scandal…”

In the early days of the war, a number of insurers had offered to prolong or even sell life insurance policies for family fathers going to the front. The War Economy Ministry was still trying to parse the details – many cases appeared to have been motivated by patriotism and optimistic hopes of a quick victory – but the economics were so patently absurd that some shady business had to be going on. Like the health and unemployment policies unscrupulous vendors had flogged to working-class families before the Bismarck reforms, the profit depended on policyholders being unable to pay. The first court cases were making their way through the system now, and the press was beginning to pay attention despite the best efforts of the government to dissuade them from covering the matter.

“Of course, Your Majesty.” The chancellor quickly nodded. Whatever his strengths as a creator of consensus, von Gerlach was no Bismarck who would confront his monarch with strident demands. “The undertaking is of considerable magnitude, though. It will take many years of preparation.”

“We do not have that kind of time.” Wilhelm interrupted. “Anyways, experts are already working on it. We do not need to pass the laws this year, not all of them. But we must have something being done. A pension insurance for widows and orphans, at the very least. Also, health insurance for them. I know, I know….” He raised his hands to forestall objections. “It will be expensive. Everything is expensive! But if we cannot find a solution to this, we might end up in a red revolution, and imagine what that will cost!”

Von Gerlach nodded. He was uncomfortable facing the erratic, burgeoning energy of his young emperor, or the frightening command of facts he marshalled thanks to his coterie of professors and civil servants. Bismarck, he felt sure, would never have allowed himself to be sidelined by the General Staff and War Economy Ministry. But of course, he was no Bismarck, and had precious few friends among the senior minds of the Prussian bureaucracy.

“It will be seen to. Your Majesty also mentioned the matter of an … accommodation with the owners of some of these insurance providers?”

That was putting things diplomatically. Wilhelm shifted in his chair, looking annoyed. “Indeed, I did. We already have civil judgements against two insurances that are owned by the archdiocese of Cologne. This is a matter of concern to you as much as me, no doubt “

“Of course, Your Majesty.” The chancellor conceded the point. “The damage to the Church and to the Zentrum party could be considerable if this were to be exploited publicly.”

The position of the Zentrum was better than it had been, but it was still vulnerable on that count. Many journalists of the right recalled the Kulturkampf and had little love for all things Catholic, and the Socialist press liked nothing better than to hammer the church. Hugenberg’s papers had already raised a stink over the prelates supposedly battening on pennies scrimped and saved by starving war widows.

“Then put the thumbscrews on.” The emperor ordered. “I can protect the church from the consequences of the stupidity of a few bishops, but they will have to agree to help in return.”

“Help how?” Von Gerlach felt a shiver run down his spine. For all the imperial protection and support he enjoyed, his instincts were still those of a minority representative. Being pushed around by Prussian officials was not something you took lying down if you could help it., Of course, this official was the emperor, which added another layer of difficulty, but the principle stood.

“I have discussed the matter with the minister of war economy, and our greatest immediate concern at this point is to take money out of circulation. Prices are unstable enough as things are. The government of Prussia and the princes of the Reich have taken the lead by selling land on very favourable terms to developing companies and cooperatives.”

Von Gerlach knew the story: People would club together and save, all in the hope of buying land, building homes and eventually, someday, living in one of them. During the war, purchasing land had become easier. Especially the Hohenzollern family sold off holdings, making a buyers’ market. And for the first time, working class incomes were high enough to make this a realistic aspiration for industrial workers. “I know, Sire. And you wish for the dioceses to join in the sale of lands?”

“I do.” Wilhelm said flatly. “Obviously, Minister Krupp von Rathenau can’t be seen to be leaning on bishops. I trust your own party’s contacts will make this easier. The church owns much excellent land in and around cities. And I am aware that it has already done much. It must do more yet.”

“More yet?” the chancellor bristled. “I cannot think why anyone would question the patriotism of …”

“Nobody is questioning anyone’s patriotism, excellency.” The emperor fixed his chancellor with a hard stare of his remaining eye. “But this is a time of unprecedented crisis. One way or another, the war will soon be over. To ensure the survival of the German economy, we need to take billions out of circulation before inflation turns the Mark into a Confederate dollar. This has never been done before, and to do it, we cannot spare anyone’s special interests. The wealthy have not exactly been exemplars of patriotic conduct, I regret to say, and I refuse to spare them while men who gave their lives and health suffer.” He turned to pick up a thick folder and handed it over the desk. “Here are some suggestions. I trust you will be able to produce draft legislation soon enough. And do remind the bishops that the church has no choice in this matter. It is not the question of whether they alienate these lands, but how. Is that understood?”

Chancellor von Gerlach nodded, flushing. He lowered his eyes.

“If it is any consolation, rest assured that the Lutheran churches will be in no different position. To the extent that they still have such holdings.” The emperor turned, picking up the next file. It was time to go.

04 February 1908, Berlin

Foreign Minister von Bülow handled the papers gingerly, as though he recoiled at the thought of touching them. Across the table, Ambassador Lascelles nodded gratefully as he signed them. This was not an easy task for him.

“Thank you.” He simply said. “I know this cannot have been easy.”

Bülow nodded curtly. “Indeed not. I shudder at the thought of this making it into the press.”

Lascelles averted his eyes. At least the man had the dignity of feeling shame for what he had done. “Naturally.” He said, tight-lipped. “You understand that there was no alternative that His Majesty’s government could see.”

Von Bülow nodded stiffly. “I am sure His Majesty’s government deplores this act of robbery as much as it did the last one.” With a stifled sigh, he slid the papers across the table. “There you are, then. Südwest’s diamonds are open to English miners. Be sure to have enough waystations on the border, though. We cannot provide supplies to rescue them if they get lost.”

Lascelles swallowed drily. “Your Excellency, the monopsony remains with the…”

“Oh, please!” Bülow waved the argument aside. “You know there is no way we can enforce it. Would you sell your stones for marks in Swakopmund if you could get sterling in Cape Province? You’re all but getting the mines presented on a silver platter. Do not pretend we are equitable partners here.”

“If you require any help with the enforcement of border transits…”

“Your Excellency, no offense intended, but given how it turned out the last time, I do not think it wise to accept this offer. Your diggers will have to live with being policed by negroes.” Von Bülow rose stiffly and nodded. “Good day, sir. I trust London will be happy with today’s agreement.”

Wilhelmshaven, 07 February 1908

“Well then, it looks like you are going to try out the Jeune Ecole’s theories, admiral.” Prince Albert looked out over the Jadebusen, the grey, ice-studded waters crowded with warships, smoke plumes striping across the leaden sky. Admiral Souchon, splendid in his new uniform and still slightly awed by the weight of responsibility that had been thrust upon his shoulders, saluted.

“What a man may do, I shall, your Highness!” he said.

Albert raised his eyebrows. “You are not going to overawe the Russians by rhetoric, admiral. Nor by daring. I trust you will not put your precious ships at risk trying to be heroic.”

Souchon flinched and lowered his eyes momentarily. He felt stupid. Public speaking and social occasions had never been his strong suit. “Of course not, your highness.“ he said.

Albert smiled more warmly. “You have nothing left to prove, admiral. Not after your command at Rügen and St Petersburg. Now, I will need your calm, reasoning mind.”

The admiral nodded, again gazing admiringly over his new command. The cup of Ingenohl’s glory was already overfull, the man still nominally in command of the Baltic, but during icebound season being lionised in London society. It was rumoured at the Marineamt that the victor of Rügen had cursed his medals and promotion after he had learned of the new flotilla. With the enemy holding no more ports, his further war would be a quiet one, having his fleet occasionally shell positions in the few places where the Russian army still stood within gun range of the shore. Meanwhile, the impending entry of the sultan into the war had given rise to careful strategic planning. The French government had let it be known that they would look unkindly upon the presence of a German battlefleet in the Mediterranean, and the emperor had chosen not to provoke them. Instead of the triumphal passage of the united fleet through the Dardanelles – a chancy proposition, most likely overwhelming the capacities of Turkey’s ports and opening up the precious ships to great risk in foreign waters facing a still battle-ready Russian enemy – the force now heading for the orient’s shore was composed of every small unit that could be spared and would stand the journey. Souchon himself, the newest admiral in the fleet, flew his flag in SMS Yorck, the largest vessel under his command. The cruisers Ziethen, Rostock, Danzig and Hamburg were part of it, but its hard core were the twelve spanking new, turbine driven torpedo-boat destroyers that stood out among the torpedo boat squadrons like wolves among a pack of beagles. He knew he stood no chance of actually destroying the Russian Black Sea fleet like Ingenohl had the Baltic, but that was not his mission. The Black Sea was not a vital front, and nobody would thank him for wasting resources on a crushing victory of no greater strategic consequence. No, he would use his nimble, flexible tools to render the enemy’s great battleships useless. They might dominate the sea where their cannon could reach – but he would deny them the benefit of it. Soon enough, they would fear to venture near the Turkish coast, and their merchant keels would cower in their home ports.

“I will not disappoint, your highness. Thank you again for the confidence you have shown in me!”

Albert nodded graciously. Souchon was his creature, and even more so, his nephew’s: A young man, a believer in modern technology and hard numbers. Many more senior officers had wanted the post, even when it emerged that no battleships would make the cruise, but the emperor trusted Souchon’s brain and his courage. The prince’s eyes followed him as he climbed into his motor launch and slowly, methodically picked his path among the floating ice to his flagship. The Russian Admiral Alexeyev was supposed to be a traditionalist, a man of tight discipline and exacting drill. Albert wondered momentarily whether this confrontation would end the old way of fighting at sea for good, just as the great battles in Natangen and Samland had finished the war of cavalry squadrons and rifle lines. Maybe the future of the navy was the oil-smeared, stubble-chinned torpedo-boatman, just like the army’s was the muddy, savage frontschwein. He was glad to have seen the old days, in that case.

Munich, 09 February 1908

Deep carpets had muffled the sounds of their steps right up to the moment that Hauptmann Kerendorff entered the hall, flanked by his companions. The hard clack of boot-heels on polished hardwood echoed from the walls, filling the space otherwise shrouded in mystical silence. No sound from the outside penetrated the heavy red and black drapes covering the tall windows, the long room lit only by a row of braziers whose flickering flames cast dancing shadows over the high, vaulted ceiling. Turning noiselessly in their brass hinges, the massive double door closed with a soft, very final click. Kerendorff advanced seven paces, standing - as his comrade had instructed – directly over the symbol of the ring and hammer inlaid in the parquet. A hand landed heavily on his shoulder, a brief, reassuring squeeze from Major von Zeltern signalling he was doing well so far. Through the eyeholes of his black hood, Kerendorff could see masked men seated along a table at the opposite end of the hall. Tall candles burned behind them, and the fresco on the wall featured Valkyries and warriors, with the ring and hammer at the centre descending from the heavens. Somebody had dropped serious money on this, he figured.

The central figure rose, holding up a silvered hammer in his right hand. “Silence!” he ordered. The only sound now reaching the Hauptmann’s ears was the crackling of flames and the soft creaking of leather as he shifted his weight in his boots. He could hear the blood moving through his veins.

“The Femegericht is in session.” He announced, his booming bass voice a touch to wheezy to be stage-quality, a trifle too coloured by the lilting vowels of Bavarian for the harsh, Wagnerian tone he was obviously aiming for. “Brothers, Helgi, Egil, Heil! Who have you brought before us?”

The men flanking Kerendorff stirred. Von Zeltern spoke: “Drichten, Heil! We bring before court a good man, strong and honest, who would join his blood to ours and wear the mask of night in the service of the secret Germany.”

Despite everything, Kerendorff could not help himself thinking how silly all of this was. You did not need masks and candles, rituals and stage props to fight the good fight. It took determination, a weapon and the courage to use it, he’d learned that on the Russian front. Still, for all their being fat, soft, play-acting civilians, these men had their priorities right. He heard the bass voice of the lawspeaker again: “Is this man of good German blood, untainted to the third generation?”

“Drichten, he is.” Von Zeltern replied.

“Is he of good German faith, willing to defend his people’s blood, soil and honour against treason, falsehood and degeneracy?”

“Drichten, he is.”

“Is he willing to risk his blood and life, his goods and family, honour and name in the service of the secret Germany?”

“Drichten, he is!”

All the men along the table now stood, looking directly at Kerendorff. For all his undoubted physical courage proven in the face of cossack and franc-tireur, he had to force himself not to flinch. The whole silly stage set worked. Two masked men wearing long cloaks stepped forward, took the hammer from the lawspeaker’s hand and carried it forward, holding it out directly in front of Kerendorff. The leader spoke loudly now: “Then swear!”

The hauptmann laid his hand on the cool metal of the hammerhead and spoke the formula he had memorised: “I swear to be true to my German blood and realm, to defend Germany’s honour and might, and to flinch at no word or deed that I may be called upon in her holy cause. I swear to loyally serve the Femegericht, to bring to its knowledge all I learn, keep its secrets, abide by its judgements, and execute its sentences. I swear to be true to my drichten as a thane should, in day and night, in war and peace, with mouth and pen, with hand and heart, with revolver and bomb. May Hel consume my soul if I am untrue to this holy oath!”

The words echoed for a brief moment after he had spoken them into the hushed silence. The lawspeaker nodded as his hammer was returned to him and he laid it across the table. “Welcome in our company!” he pronounced. “Brother Thorfinn, our youngest, but not our least if what Egil has told us is true!”

Everybody stepped into the centre of the room to greet the newest member. The solemnity of the occasion began to fray as the hammer cracked down on the table, commanding silence. “Let us now take mead and meat together,” the leader ordered, “and speak of weighty matters! Germany is sick, in need of the surgeon’s knife if she is to recover.”

Hauptmann Kerendorff – Brother Thorfinn – wondered how well one could eat and drink with a velvet mask obscuring most of the face. But then, he had not come for food and liquor. He had come to join the fight for the soul of Germany against fat profiteers and craven Red shirkers. If he could get a good meal or two – and the Femegericht seemed to have some wealthy members – that was fine by him. He’d play their games.

Novocherkassk, 12 February 1907

“Looks like we’re enlisted in a crusade, then.” Ondrei Vokasec looked up from the leaflet he had been handed and met the eyes of his comrade and worst critic, Vaclav Ripka. The wiry kid – he had to be over twenty-one by now, but Ondrei still thought of him as a kid – had only contempt for the works of propaganda that the Russian army supplied them with. It did not help that they were usually aimed squarely at Russians – Orthodox brothers, men of the true faith and the Russian earth – which jarred badly with the staunch Catholicism and fierce nationalism of the Czech Legion’s fighting men. Still, Sergeant Vokasec was the designated reader. He held up the poster for all to see: a crude two-colour picture of a turbaned savage tearing at the dress of a helpless (and delightfully deshabillé) maiden. `Crush the Infidel Turk!` the headline exhorted.

“Gentlemen:” The sergeant cleared his throat and cast a nervous look across the room. Dressed in his green tunic and red-striped trousers, Lieutenant (Union Auxiliary) Gennadiy Skirov returned a cold look. The man was insufferable, arrogant, manipulative and detestable in every way. But he had taken over the duty of schooling the men in their patriotic duties with a vengeance. He would certainly note any failure to present the material he distributed with satisfactory fervour. Vokasec continued:

“Treacherously, armed by German capital and paid with Jewish gold, the savage hordes of Turkey have stabbed Russia’s armies in the back. Today, the brave men of the Czar’s armies are defending the fortresses of Batum and Kars. Tomorrow, the armies under the command of Grand Duke Mikhail will drive them from the ground of Holy Russia and administer the punishment due such cowardly attack! Go forward, men of Russia, and carry your weapons in the holy cause of Christ against the infidel savages that have too long been allowed to taunt our might! Avenge the killed farmers and ravished maidens of our people!” He stumbled over the still unfamiliar words, and the translation was rougher than he had hoped. Still, Skirov seemed satisfied with his delivery.

After pinning the poster to the barracks wall, Sergeant Vokasec looked around the half-circle of his men. Many faces were impassive, tired, past caring what was expected of them next. Others looked disdainful of such cheap manipulation. Some registered hope, the expectation – at least momentarily – to escape the fate that hung so heavily over everybody’s heads.

After making sure that their Russian handler was gone, Ripka finally spoke up: “Good news then. We’ll be fighting the one army that the Russians have a prayer of actually beating.” He fumbled for the last cigarette in his breast pocket. “Dibs on the harem girls when we get to Constantinople!”

Warsaw, 15 February 1908

Soap and perfumes, alcohol and morphine, carbolic acid and bandages, powder, rouge and hair dye: He had never expected it to be so easy. Stabsgefreiter Ivan Budnikovsky left the premises of his – what was it, a shop? An office? A place of thriving business, certainly – with the pockets of his uniform coat bulging with occupation scrip and bills, the map case he carried around town heavy with coin and fine liquor. A lot of things got lost in the cracks of the German military machine. If you were in the right place, you could catch a fair amount of it, and turn it into money. He was. Ever since volunteering for service, he had counted himself lucky. Trained in his father’s Hamburg bandage shop, he was assigned to the Warsaw district’s military hospital where his duties were mostly clerical. So and so many thousand metres of cotton cloth, so and so many thousand half-litre bottles of chloroform, so and so many bottles of morphine, check the incoming, record the outgoing, discard the spoiled… He quickly discovered that many things the hospital had no use for still met ready demand outside the compound. Off-duty German troops were a common sight on the streets of Warsaw, and enough of them were happy to engage in a bit of barter. He had his network put together soon.

But Ivan Budnikovsky was not going to settle for a mere profitable side business. That was not what his father had brought him up to do. From nothing to a prospering business in the great city of Hamburg was a hardscrabble road for a Russian Polish immigrant. Acumen bred true in such families. Ivan was going to make his father proud – and rich, if he could. A shop in Warsaw was easily enough arranged for through a Polish front man – a distant relative, it turned out – and he had found, to his great surprise, that the things that sold best were not the necessities of medicine he provided from the rejects and perished stocks of the hospital, but the fripperies of civilian vanity, the perfumes and cosmetics, little pink pills and discreet augmentations that the wealthy were unwilling to forgo even for the duration of a world-shaking war. The same was true, it turned out, in Germany, were the French demilitarisation treaty continued to allow imports from Paris into the country. Paying for them was a problem – not many Poles had specie, and occupation scrip, though ridiculously valuable in Poland, could not be brought across the border. But there were enough things an enterprising man could purchase inside Poland that could be brought across, and found buyers in Germany: Vodka and ham, sausages and butter, jewelry, silverware, watches and eggs all crossed with the returning consignments, the space purchased for a small consideration from German comrades who did not have enough to send home in their Feldpost packages. Already, he had a second shop in Lodz and a third in Plock was set up by a friend, invalided out of the service and unwilling to return to Germany where little more than the pitiful wage of a shop assistant awaited him. All of this cost money, but money was easy. If you had what people wanted, you could name your price. Getting the scarce resources that made your business viable was much harder. Glass for a shop window, a lock for a back door – enterprising neighbours had made off with too much stock to forgo this – and curtain fabric were all the result of hours of negotiation with fellow entrepreneurs. This was important: You had to cultivate your connections and make sure the shops remained attractive when competition sprang up. He was in it for the long haul. Poland was going to be a gold mine for people who understood business, and Ivan Budnikovsky was determined to get his share when the pie was divided, after peace returned. He had his eye on premises in the inner city, a pretty shop with a spacious flat above, that would become available once mandatory quartering ended. His father was already building up the contacts with suppliers in France and the Netherlands who could procure the exotic luxuries that would be the hallmark of the newly rich. And soon, the Poles would be paying in hard mark, money he could simply wire to his account with the Dresdner Bank that had just set up shop in Warsaw.

Through the cold of the encroaching winter night, fresh snow crunching underfoot, Stabsgefreiter Ivan Budnikovsky made his way home to the sleeping quarters of the hospital. Life was good, and opportunity beckoned.

South of Moscow, 18 February 1908

Shouting, banging fists on the table, the occasional launch of a tea glass punctuated the conversation. Alternating tearful collapses and outbursts of rage interrupted it. Three times, the Czar dove headlong into fervent prayer. They had gotten nowhere until Grand Prince Nikolai had physically pushed the empress out and barred the door. That excluded not just the distraction of her imperial presence, but also the servants bearing food and drink. Limited to tea from the samovar and a bottle of iced champagne, Czar Nicholas eventually turned to the latter. Grand Prince Sergei watched him, the noble profile outlined against the light entering through the train’s window, a crystal goblet frosted with tiny droplets of perspiration in his hand. The image evoked a younger man, a happier age. Had it only been these three years? Careworn, haggard, his eyes ringed and his brow deeply lined, Nicholas looked like an old man. It took every bit of fortitude the grand prince could muster to tear into him as he did, assisted by the far less scrupulous Sergei.

“Russia needs peace!” he repeated, now sitting across the table, his face inches from the emperor’s. “You know that the war cannot be won. You have known for a year that it cannot be won! If you want to save your country, you must make peace, now, while you still can!”

Nicholas sobbed, shaking his head. “I cannot!” he weakly replied. “I cannot. What have all these men died for? What have we sacrificed everything for, if we give it up now? God has trusted me with the crown of the Monomakh – how can I suffer to see its glory diminished?”

In the corner, Sergei snorted derisively. Nicholas flinched. Grand Pince Nikolai laid a comforting hand on his shoulder, gently stopping him from turning away, and fixed his gaze. “Nicholas, think of the people who will not die! The men who will return to their homes and families, the millions who will rebuild Russia greater than ever.” He forced back his own tears at the thought. “You cannot allow all of it to be destroyed! That cannot be God’s will! It cannot be yours!”

Nikolai rose, looking down at the Czar who cradled his face in his hands. “Make a peace with the Germans, Nicholas! I will do it for you. Send me out, and I will go to London and Paris for intermediaries! I will negotiate, threaten, bribe and charm to save what can be saved. I will take the blame and go into exile if I must! Make peace, I will be at your right hand and Sergei at your left! We will make Russia great again, for your son, for your dynasty!”

“I dare not!” Nicholas raised himself up, hands splayed on the table. His tea toppled over, spilling across the documents and maps.

The grand prince stepped directly in front of the table. His left grasped the czar’s wrist, his right drew the heavy service revolver he wore as part of his general’s uniform. His voice was hard and brittle. “Dare not? You were placed on the throne to do your duty! Just as all of us were in our places. Your duty, Nicholas!” He raised the gun, holding it up for the Czar to see, and rested the muzzle against his own temple. “Perhaps we truly cannot make peace, Nicholas. Perhaps God intends this to be the end of Holy Russia. But if he does, I refuse to be the agent of its destruction! I will no longer see this madness continue!”

Shock and disbelief registered on the emperor’s features. He grasped the gun, trying to wrest it from the grand prince’s hand, but after months of monkish seclusion and fasting, his strength failed him. Nikolai pulled his wrist free and lowered the revolver.

“Leave me.” Nicholas ordered weakly. “I must think.”

In the smoking room of the saloon car, the grand princes settled into the armchairs fixed to the floor, staring at each other. They were exhausted and terrified, though neither was willing to allow it to show. If today would not be enough – then what would? Sergei’s hand shivered as he poured the cognac. It always did, since his injury. That was why he would do these things. Nikolai was uncertain whether his own would be any steadier this day.

The connecting door opened. Two heads turned to face Czar Nicholas, pale and shaken, but now visibly determined. He approached the two, sat down opposite them and looked them in the eye imploringly, as though in terror of his own conviction.

“I am … I must thank you.” He began, his voice shaky. “I have sought guidance in prayer, and I understand that you are the only men in Russia who are honest with me. I am grateful to you for this. And you are right.”

Nikolai and Sergei exchanged a furtive, triumphant glance. They HAD made it, after all.

“I was presumptuous, trying to force the hand of providence. Did not the Lord himself say in the desert, thou shalt not try God? You were right, and I was wrong, my advisers were wrong. No.” He checked himself, his features softening. “No. Do not blame them. They are good men who told me what I asked to hear. Do not condemn my good Dubrovin, Trishatny and Sukhomlinov. It was my folly that led them on.”

Nicholas sat up, his eyes now dry and clear. He looked directly at Grand Prince Nikolai and took a deep breath. “Russia must have peace. She deserves a ruler who is wise and just, not weak and foolish. Nikolai Nikolaevich, I cannot be that ruler. I will abdicate, today. Before we reach Moscow I will sign the decree. You must now govern in the stead of my son.” His voice cracked.

Nikolai sat stupefied. The snifter in his hand sank, its descent checked at the last second, drops of fine cognac staining the immaculate uniform trousers. “Abdicate?” he gasped.

“I will retreat to a monastery. Do not” Nicholas raised his hand in protest. “Do not try to stop me. It is the life I am best suited to. I will pray for God’s mercy on Russia and atone for my hubris. But you, Nikolai, Sergei, I will leave with a heavy burden. Govern in the stead of my son, whom I am leaving such a poor and troubled legacy. Preserve Russia as best you may. I will give you all the powers. Here!” He drew out a paper, a sheet of official imperial stationery on which the decree had been written out, hastily, in his own hand.

Sergei shook his head as though to clear his thoughts, levered himself to his feet into precarious balance, and shouted for the valet. Immediately, the door opened and a pale, shaken servant appeared. Listening? Sergei was unsurprised. Everybody spied on everyone these days.

“Call for His Majesty’s personal secretary!” the grand prince ordered. “The seal of state and every general officer or councillor you can find. And have the train stop at the next station. We need to send telegrams!”

Saratovsky station, Moscow, 18 February 1908

Lines of men in grey greatcoats filled the square as far as Mikhail Petrov could see. He was freezing, stamping his feet impatiently. Why had they been ordered out here, when the day could have been so much more pleasantly spent in heated barracks rooms for once? The entire Preobrazhensky, Ismailovsky and Semenovsky regiments had been called out, an unusual thing to do. Scuttlebutt had it that no regiments would ever be assembled in one place because people would see how badly understrength they were. That was certainly true, but as a soldier, he knew all about it anyway. At the edge of the square, now hidden by the gloom of descending night and occasional flurries of dusty snow, he could see the horsemen of the Life Guards Combined Cossack Regiment. They looked splendid, as always, in their colourful uniforms, but their numbers had shrunk so badly that the Czarevich Ataman regiment had been folded into them. Kalanchyovskaya Square held most of the military might concentrated in Moscow today. It annoyed Petrov – why would the Czar need thousands of men to see him from the station to the Kremlin when even in peacetime, a company of horse had been enough? - but it also worried him. Why would the Czar need them?

The imperial train was pulling into the station now. Did it seem to travel faster than usual? Petrov was not sure. He hadn’t been in the Guards for that long and didn’t know all that much about formal occasions. Certainly, there were no flags or flowers attached to the engine, no cheering throngs lining the track. But that did not always need to happen anyway. Sometimes, even a Czar just travelled from A to B. A chain of carriages moved across the square, lining up in front of the station entrance. Men climbed out of the nondescript ones following in the imperial vehicles’ wake; Petrov could glimpse black civilian coats and the powder blue of the imperial gendarmerie. Okhrana. A major walked along the lines of the regiment, passing out orders in the quiet, focused voice officers used when they didn’t want the world to hear what they had to say.

“Nobody is to be allowed near the imperial family!” The officer giving out their order was a lieutenant colonel. Petrov was not sure if he actually was from his regiment, but it was the third time in almost two years of service anyone of such high rank had actually addressed him, so it did not really matter. When the exalted gave orders, you obeyed. A scuffle seemed to break out near Kazanskaya station, and sergeants moved files of soldiers to block access. Petrov could see bayonets. He surreptitiously touched the Blessed Virgin’s medal he was wearing under his shirt and felt the weight of his bandolier. Live rounds. They had drawn live rounds when they had turned out, forty each man.

The first carriages moved out after a bare few minutes, accompanied towards the Kremlin by double files of mounted Cossack guards. Petrov had not seen who was in them, but they were setting off at a good clip, and he couldn’t see many cheering throngs, no awaiting organising committee, no icons and flags. This was an odd day indeed.

Kremlin, Moscow, 19 February 1908

Even a sergeant of the Ismailovsky regiment could be so entirely helpless as to cut a pathetic figure, whiskers and all. This one – a trusted NCO charged with guarding the imperial quarters – stood listlessly as a valet ushered him and his companion into the antechamber of the Grand Prince Nikolai’s apartments. A triumphant smile played around Dr Dubrovin’s lips as the interior door opened and the uniformed figure of the grand duke, followed by Count Fredrikhs, appeared.

“I bear you no ill will, sergeant.” He reassuringly patted the guardsman’s arm. “Surely, your orders were merely poorly phrased.”

The count, long responsible for managing the affairs of the court, almost flinched as Dubrovin’s gaze met his. He stopped, instinctively bringing the bulk of the grand prince’s figure between himself and the doctor’s venomous glare. Nikolai strode on, positioning himself straight in front of the visitor. He looked at Dubrovin as he might at the droppings of his prize hounds.

“Your Highness,” the doctor began, “I have come to minister to His Majesty’s needs. Certainly, I am already awaited anxiously. If you will…”

“I will not, doctor.”

Dubrovin checked himself, looked up in surprise. “Is there a problem, Your Highness?” he said coolly. “I recall being instructed by His Majesty himself to place myself at the imperial person’s disposal within a day of his arrival. I am not one to lightly disregard the imperial wish.”

The grand prince fixed him with a baleful stare. “Dr Dubrovin, as you may already be aware – or perhaps not – Czar Nicholas has chosen to dedicate himself entirely to the service of God and taken holy orders. Your counsel will no longer be required.”

Dubrovin blinked. “That is impossible,” he protested. “It is entirely unthinkable! I demand to be allowed…”

“One does NOT!” the grand prince’s heavy hand shot out, striking aside Dubrovin’s gesticulating right that had come perilously close to making contact with the gold braid on his shoulder. “One does not make demands of a Grand Prince of the House of Romanov. You forget yourself!”

He took a small step backwards as Count Fredrikhs emerged from his shadow. The respective positions were cleared up now. He could work with that.

“Sergeant,” Nikolai continued, addressing the NCO still standing sheepishly on the polished parquet, “Dr Dubrovin was in the palace as a personal guest of the former emperor. He enjoys no visiting rights and is to be allowed only into areas open to the public. Do not worry,” he turned to the dumbstruck Dubrovin, “your personal effects will be forwarded to you. Do not forget to leave a forwarding address – I am certain the Okhrana would like a word with you once they are done handling more pressing matters.”

Minsk, 19 February 1908

Fifteen minutes. It had taken rather less than fifteen minutes for the vaunted bogatyr brigades to fall apart. And it had all seemed so straightforward earlier in the day, when the messages were posted throughout the city: The Czar abdicated, young Alexei heir. A plot by the enemies of Russia, that much had been clear. General Trishatny had called out the Patriotic Union volunteers, almost nine thousand in the city alone, and moved them on Stavka, to seize the telegraphs and send out orders. Marching up the main street, in line fifteen abreast, blessed flags with the images of saints flying overhead, their unstoppable wave had crested the railway line and met the immovable object. Their courage unwavering, hard and brittle, the volunteers had charged the waiting regulars, into the teeth of machine guns and artillery. Boris Brasol had no way of saying with any certainty how many dead had carpeted the square by the time it was over. Trishatny, wounded and pale, had handed over his sabre, only to be handcuffed like a common criminal. A mere handful of loyal men had retreated in good order back to the Patriotic Union barracks, where Women’s Auxiliaries had met them with hot food, bandages and exhortations to fight on for the Czar. Shortly after midday, the first regulars had shown up, gone to ground and started sniping. By three o’clock, they had brought up field guns.

Another rending crash made the desk in the ground floor office bounce and screech across the cheap pine floorboards. Glass fragments fell to the ground from the torn remnants of window frames, noiselessly like snowflakes. Boris Brasol felt his hands quiver uncontrollably. He had never expected combat to be so – loud. The noise assailed him like a physical attack, rending his nerves, shattering his confidence, making him unable to arrive at any clear thought. Out there, the enemy were waiting for him. The barracks buildings were on fire, thick black smoke obscuring his view across a yard that was already littered with green-jacketed dead. Fumbling, he pushed home the last cartridges into the cylinder of his service revolver and approached the window.

“I’m not surrendering!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. His voice seemed ridiculously high and reedy, completely inadequate to the chorus of steel-tipped rifle and brass-mouthed gun. “In the name of the Czar, I am fighting! Soldiers of Russia, remember your oath!”

Rifle shots rang out, bullets pockmarking the brick wall, scattering fragments into the room. The dead body of a volunteer rifleman draped over the windowsill jerked obscenely as a bullet struck it. Brasol fired – bang, one, bang, two. He heard something heavy and metallic clatter across the floor and turned. His body dropped to the ground before his mind had the chance to take in the scene. The blast picked him up and tossed him against the far wall. His vision blurred, and darkness descended.

When he opened his eyes, Boris Brasol was unsure how long he had been unconscious. With a supreme effort, he forced himself to sit up and look around. Pieces of wallpaper were still alight. The cordite smoke was barely clearing. He heard – felt – steps in the corridor, the weight transmitted through the floorboards. The partition wall was thin, mere pineboard and plaster. Grunting with the effort, Brasol lifted his revolver and fired, two, three times. A scream and a heavy fall from the other side told him his shots had been true. Fingers slick with blood and sweat fumbled for more cartridges, came up empty. More steps outside, more screams, muffled as though through cottonwool plugs. They were carrying away the wounded. Outside, the sun was going down. No more firing could be heard. They would come bursting in through the door with bayonets now. Or throw more grenades through the window. How many shots had he fired? Boris Brasol felt his mind slipping. Was there one more round or two? Or none? He would not chance a miscount. With a sigh, he dragged the flag bearing the image of Saint George closer to himself, bunching in tightly to his chest as the first steps vibrated through the floorboards again. Slowly, he brought the revolver’s muzzle up to his mouth. He could taste the acrid smoke.

“Long live the Czar!” he shouted. A bullet came crashing through the door, heavy boots following as the lock gave way. Brasol pulled the trigger.

Suhl, 20 February 1908

It was a nasty little thing, a weapon that looked as though it had been bolted together from workshop scraps by a second-year apprentice. Its stock was flat, carved crudely from a board, and the stubby handles stuck out at an odd angle. General Roeder gave it a dubious look.

”And this is for trench fighting?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir.” Theodor Bergmann stepped forward to demonstrate the weapon. “You are aware, of course, that there have been numerous instances of assault troops sawing off Madsen guns for fighting in confined trenches or fortresses, which is not advisable.”

Roeder nodded. ‘Not advisable’ was a mild way to put it: Even if, by a miracle, the armourer managed to keep the barrel stable, shortened Madsens tended to overheat, kicked like a mule, and were wildly inaccurate.

“The main point is, at any rate, that the engagement ranges we have in trench fighting do not really require rifle rounds. Once we had established that, we could work on a solution.” Bergmann clicked an oddly shaped drum magazine into place, pointed the gun downrange, and held it up for inspection.

“Twenty 9mm pistol rounds, easily changeable magazines. The weapon is held steady in both hands and fired either from the hip or the shoulder.” Bergmann pointed at the safety. “Observe!”

He flicked off the catch and aimed at the first in a row of paper targets lined up against hay bales on the opposite wall. A burst of rapid fire obliterated it. The general nodded, visibly impressed.

“Very nice, Mr Bergmann.” He said, smiling. “I am impressed. May I?”

The weapon weighed surprisingly heavily in his hands. Roeder cautiously shifted his grip, trying to get the balance right. It seemed to point quite easily. The magazine still bothered him, in a way he found it difficult to put into words. It seemed an unnecessarily pat way of doing things. Overcomplicated. Arms manufacturers always made things too complicated.

“I am taking the safety off now.” he announced, clamping the stock between his right elbow and torso. The burst was satisfyingly noisy and surprisingly easy to control, once you got used to the way the gun bucked. Yes, the Maschinenpistole 08 seemed like a good idea, at least in principle. It might need some refining, but he had feared much worse. The frontline troops would doubtlessly welcome it.

Brussels, 22 February 1908

A more active man that Count von Wallwitz might have deplored his inability to serve the emperor in uniform, sabre in hand, more readily. A more intellectually inclined one might equally have longed for greater stimulation, higher purposes to put his mental faculties to. Yet in view of the exigencies of wartime austerity at home and the very real dangers attending frontline service, the count would take real coffee, iced cakes and proper cuisine as sufficient consolation for his enforced idleness. Nothing ever happened in Belgium.

At least, so far nothing had ever happened in Belgium. The invitation to attend to the foreign minister came as a surprise. Viscount Davignon usually found enough opportunities to communicate the humdrum matters of policy that needed discussing, Buttons polished, in his finest pre-war uniform coat, Count von Wallwitz made his way into the minister’s office where he was immediately welcomed with a friendly handshake and ushered into the private study. He had, Davignon revealed, been contacted by the ambassador for the Russian Empire. The Czar’s government wished for the Belgian king to mediate peace negotiations.

Von Wallwitz stroked his chin, trying to hide the shock. This was it. This was history, and it was happening to him. Carefully, he met the eyes of the Belgian minister and stated the obvious: “Well, it won’t come cheap.”
23 February, off Sevastopol

Power was real, a palpable, tangible, visible thing. Senior Lieutenant Fedorov knew what it meant. As a graduate of an engineering school, a naval officer, and a Russian patriot, he understood power better than most people. He could sense it in the thrumming of the mainstay, feel it rumbling through the decking as ten thousand horsepower pushed the Knyaz Potemkin forward, and see it in the line of grey steel colossi now stretching out from the port to the southeast. Rostislav and Georgi Pobedonostets led, with the flag in Tria Sviatitelia just before Potemkin, Dvenadsat Apostolov and Evstafi. Almost lost over the horizon already, a screen of cruisers and torpedo boats was visible only from the columns of black smoke the ships trailed.

This was power, wrath, chastisement. This was the might that would bring home to the Turk that you mocked Russia at your own peril. Soon, shells would rain down on Trabzon, on Sinope and, God willing, the sultan’s pitiful excuse for a navy. If the Turks came out to fight, the Black Sea fleet might even chance forcing the Bosporus and shelling Constantinople herself, though mines and coastal artillery made that a chancy bet. The French papers had written that the Turks had called on the emperor for Ingenohl and his battleships and gotten Souchon, an untried upstart captain, and a motley command of cruisers and gunboats instead. They would have to keep watch for mines and maintain a tight screen, that was it. Nothing in these waters could hope to rival the power that slept in their terrible 30-cm guns.

Berlin, 25 February 1908

A quick stroke of the pen completed the signature on the chaotic sheaf of handwritten notes, turning it into the records of all-highest will: Wilhelm I.R. With a satisfied sigh, the emperor leaned back and rubbed his eye. Moscow had asked on what terms peace could be had: Now, the Russian ambassador to Belgium would have his answer. Wilhelm hoped he would be sitting down when he read it. Collecting the demands of the various allied powers had felt more like putting together a shopping list, but everybody on the council agreed that it would be easier to go back from maximal demands than to expand reasonable ones. Von Bülow had actively encouraged territorial claims to make sure the newly created countries would not be able to switch sides in any future conflict with Russia. And anyway, the Russians had given up these lands when they had removed their population. In the end, it had come down to almost comical exercises in pushing markers around maps and trying to reconcile conflicting claims. Poles and Lithuanians both wanted Vilna. They’d give that to the Lithuanians, the Poles could have Pinsk and Kovel, clean boundaries in the north along the Viliya and south along the Pripyet. The swamp in the east would have to wait to be mapped out. Courland, Livonia, and Estonia all the way to Lake Peipus – the Estonians also wanted Pskov, but they’d have to give that up in the negotiations. Sweden would not get Ösel and Dagö – what on earth had bitten the ambassador? – but they could have the Kvarken and Aland islands. The Finns could help themselves to everything east of their border as far as the emperor was concerned, or however much would stick in the negotiations. The Russians would take unkindly to the idea, but Germany insisted on the fiction that these were belligerent countries with a seat at the table.

The Austrians were being very reasonable. They had not taken much of Serbia and almost none of Montenegro – just the tiniest strip overlooking Cattaro – and they would be content with creating a new state of Ruthenia from their conquests in Wolhynia and Podolia up to the Bug. Romania would have Bessarabia – if there really was oil there, so much the better. The sultan, too, made moderate demands, Kars, Batumi and the strip between, and the Chinese never got around to formulating actual demands, but indicated they would be content once the Russians actually observed their borders thank you very much. Germany, of course, righteously made no demands at all. Aside from thirty billion gold marks in reparations, of course. Rathenau had insisted they had to have at least that, though von Bülow had been equally determined that the figure was unrealistic. It certainly did not come close to the full cost of the war – a fact that had stunned the dignitaries around the imperial table into momentary silence once it had sunk in. Austria-Hungary, the Netherlands and Sweden would also take their pound of flesh once their finance ministers were done calculating.

Which left – Wilhelm knew – one more question. The Russians were eager to negotiate in secret. Rathenau opposed the idea, arguing that it only helped them hold together. Once news of their peace feelers were out, the will to resist would collapse. Von Bülow and Ballestrem were more concerned about Germany’s own war loans. Red Reichstag members were already holding forth in support of peace today, a treaty with no annexations or reparations. There was no telling how the people – or the troops – would react to the news that Russia was suing for peace if the negotiations failed. They might, given the demands made by Berlin. Somewhere at the back of his mind, Wilhelm wondered if that was not the point. For all the military ineptitude, the Russian government had usually been quite deft at that kind of underhanded stuff.

Still, that did not need to be decided right now. Wilhelm nodded, placed the pen back in its holder and announced: “Very well, gentlemen. Now, Mr von Bülow, another matter: I believe the suggestion that I should visit Poland is a good one. I will go as soon as the empress has given birth, so it is time to make preparations.”

The foreign minister nodded. “Of course, Sire. You have considered my proposal?”

“Yes.” Wilhelm agreed. “By all means. Observe all the formalities. It won’t hurt to show the world at least we already consider Poland a real country.”

28 February 1908, Kalamita Bay northwest of Sevastopol

Well, Korvettenkapitän Tegtmeyer thought, there was a certain justice to these things. For a year or more, he had spent his days in a cramped office in Wilhelmshaven while his academy comrades were out winning medals and promotions against the Russian menace. It was half a miracle he’d been given his rank with so little sea time, good intelligence work or no. In the end, Souchon had picked him for his staff. He’d be a ‘Turk’ – not the worst company, either. Von der Goltz had cut his teeth in Turkish service, after all. With the limited size of the German vessels, the headquarters would most likely have been ashore, and Tegtmeyer had been looking forward to the prospect after rediscovering just how cramped and miserable small warships could be. Quarters in Constantinople, days spent poring over maps and evenings in the bazaars … but no, he had to come up with an idea.

They’d had to do something. After Captain Schmidt had spent a fruitless twenty hours looking for the Russian fleet in the approaches to the Bosporus while they turned about and shelled Sinop at leisure, the German defenders risked looking like idiots. They knew that their elusive targets lacked the coal to stay out much longer, but a direct attack was too risky. These, Tegtmeyer had learned, were not the hapless clowns they had mocked so happily before the war. The Russian navy had improved its discipline and seamanship enormously. Three attacks, two at night and one at dawn, had been blunted by torpedo boat screens and cruiser escorts before they ever got near the main battlefleet. Then Schmidt had screwed up his grand strategic blow. What was left was low cunning. Souchon did not object to playing dirty if it worked. So Tegtmeyer had shot off his mouth about mining the approaches to Sevastopol ahead of the returning fleet, and here he was.

Ahead in the chilly darkness ran four TBZs and six torpedo boats – all the oil burners they had. No coal-burning ship could come close enough inshore during the day without the smoke being noticed. Still, the final approach in pitch darkness, trusting entirely to the navigational skill of the young officers commanding their small vessels, was nerve-racking. Ahead, the lights of Sevastopol had finally given them a fixed point of orientation. Line athwart, the torpedo boats were sowing their deadly cargo, their lookouts’ eyes riveted in the darkness trying to spot the approach of any patrolling vessel. The engine noise, the clang and screech of metal and the splash of mines hitting the water seemed unnaturally loud to Tegtmeyer. Surely, the Russians had to have noticed? But of course, they could not have. The darkness would swallow up any sound in a few hundred metres. Carefully, trying to guess their position by dead reckoning, the commander marked the position of the first line of mines on his chart. They would sweep back to drop a second and third, using the ordnance carried by the TBZs, as well as set loose some drifters before disappearing into the night. By his reckoning, they had two more hours if they wanted to be hull down from Crimea by sunrise. This really would be a job for submersibles, Tegtmeyer figured. If they could be fitted to take minelaying apparatus, that is. But the tension of approaching an enemy harbour all but defenceless under cover of night was almost unbearable. Better to do so invisibly underwater.

On the forecastle, a sailor cursed. The spark of a cigarette, hidden by the shield of the forward 10cm gun, was quickly extinguished. Damn, what a fucking idiot! The smoking lamp was very empathetically out on all weather decks! Some guys needed their smokes so badly they’d risk everybody’s lives. They could only hope nobody had spotted the pinpoint of light from the shore, or they’d be meeting the coast defense squadron before long. A TBZ could outrun a gunboat, sure, but nothing could outrun a 21-cm shell. Tegtmeyer stepped down from the bridge to speak to the warrant officer in charge. He’d need to make an example today.

01 March 1908, Moscow

“Are we sure that this is genuine?” Grand Prince Nikolai sent a questioning look to Sergei. It was not that he distrusted him – the two had divided up the government of Russia between themselves, so distrust was not an option. It just sounded too good to be true. The German demands for territory, for recognition of their ridiculous puppet states, and for reparations were outrageous. He had discussed them only with the members of the regency council, and all had agreed that it would be impossible to accept – but equally, that they were hardly in a position to refuse. And now, there was this.

“It comes directly from the ministry of war economy.” Sergei said confidently. “From Rathenau’s desk. The source is highly placed and has only delivered good information so far. I see no reason to think it is anything but genuine.”

Nikolai felt a smile of relief spread over his face. So the Germans had been playing poker after all! Six months, that was what their own financial wizard said they could still afford. Six months of war, and they would be bankrupt.

“That changes everything, then.” Nikolai tried not to laugh with delight. So Nicholas and his damnfool Union advisers had been half right after all! “How do we best use it, then?”

“Play for time.” Sergei sat uncomfortable, shifting his growing bulk in the velvet armchair. Nikolai could see the momentary flicker of pain that betrayed the true state of his health. “The last thing we want is for the Germans to be let off the hook. Make them hear the clock tick. Let them understand we can hold out longer than they. Hell, if we can, we should attack them, just to drive home the point.”

Nikolai shook his head. “Not a chance, unfortunately. We can hold the line, but after the experience of last year – we cannot spare the forces that would be needed to push back the German army.”

“I thought so.” Grand Prince Sergei picked up a pencil and idly toyed with it, trying to take his mind off the sensation in his lower back. “What about striking their allies?”

“Maybe the Austrians – maybe.” Nikolai was cautious. “We can definitely beat the Turks. The Chinese front is mainly a problem of logistics – we can’t get the men and supplies there. Neither can they. But attacking the Austrians would be very risky. The Germans can move reinforcements in easily, and our own forces in the south are stretched thin. Mostly unbloodied reserves behind the front.”

Sergei nodded. “Beating the Turks would make sense anyways. If we push for a separate peace with Germany and grab Ottoman territory, the Kaiser will need to think whether the sultan’s hide is worth that much to him. If he helps, that puts German troops at the end of a long tether, in harm’s way. And if he doesn’t, Germany’s allies might wonder if they are next to be abandoned and push for peace sooner rather than later.” He flashed a quiet, wolfish smile.

“It will all depend on holding out.” Nikolai scratched his chin. How much could the troops still hold out? The situation was dire, but not desperate. They still had food and clothing for the men, and weapons enough to put up a fight. Not what he’d have wished, not what they had had at the start of the war, but enough to make do. There would be no more nonsense about sacrifices for the holy soil of the motherland, either. The troops would exact their price in German blood and retreat to the next prepared line. They could do this as long as they had men, trees, shovels and bullets. He did not anticipate running out of any of them.

“No.” Sergei said soothingly. “It will depend on looking as though we can. First, we make a counter-offer. The Germans should understand that we want peace, otherwise they might think our proposal was a ruse of some sort. But they must understand we will not take peace at any price. Then, we haggle. Take our time. That way, the pressure is on the Kaiser to relent.”

“I hope to God it will work.” Nikolai said, his smile more confident, but still wavering.

Sergei grunted assent. “Oh it will. Even if the Germans are wrong about the six months, it will. Emperor Wilhelm spends so much of his time around industrialists, he’s come to think like one. He will feel the precious sterling running from his veins with every passing day. We will have our peace from him.”

03 March 1908, Warsaw

It was unusual for visitors to be admitted to the offices of Jacob Ganetsky. The Minister of War Production was a busy man, busier than usual in these days of rapid – and often bewildering – political change. Poland might want a Sejm instead of an Army Council and a king instead of whatever Pilsudski had been, but she needed bullets, cavalry horses, boots, railway sleepers, telegraph wire and all the thousands of other things that the Office of War Production provided. It was the kind of labour that could break a man, or inspire him to greatness. Ganetsky embraced the historic challenge of turning Poland’s primitive, semi-feudal economy into full-fledged war communism with ardent passion. It was rare to see him home before midnight – or at all, given he had a bed in his office. And he hardly ever wasted time with visitors. Usually, they would petition him to relent on some decree or other, reverse a decision, reduce a quota, release some relative or other from corvee duties – things for which there were proper channels. No need to bother him. The heavy door of the former music room rarely opened except to admit clerks bearing files, usually young women who walked silently and spoke in hushed voices. Ganetsky did not believe in employing men who were more use fighting.

The steps that passed through the corridor now were very far from gentle. Ganetsky rose to investigate, half standing when the doors were flung open and five men entered. All young, clean-shaven and hard-faced, they wore leather jackets and tall boots. Everybody in Poland recognised the unofficial uniform of the NSB. Revolvers at their belts, they scanned the room with alert eyes. Ganetsky jumped to his feet.

“What on earth….” He began. Then, the fifth man stepped forward. Ganetsky recognised Felix Dzerzhinski and stopped dead.

“Good evening, Jacob.” Dzerzhinski said quietly. He rarely shouted, but his voice now had a hollowness that frightened even the veteran revolutionary minister.

“What do you want?” Ganetsky tried to take an unobtrusive look down the corridor. Where were the guards? The building was secured by men from the corvee administration command – camp guards and enforcers of revolutionary discipline. They were nowhere in evidence.

Dzerzhinski straightened himself and began, with stiff formality: “Jacob Ganetsky, royal minister for war production, …” That part was true – they had given him a royal commission. What an idea!

“Oh, stop it!” Ganetsky waved dismissively. “You’ve come to arrest me, haven’t you? You’ve become the lapdog of the ruling class!”

Dzerzhinski’s brow furrowed. He pursed his lips in disgust before speaking again. “You are under arrest on the order of the king. The charge is corruption.”

The young minister laughed bitterly. “Corruption? That, from you? Who was coddling black marketeers all these months? Who was feeding his men with German gold? Felix, this is a joke! At least be honest with me!”

Dzerzhinski shook his head. “Jacob, I warned you. I guess everybody did. The time is not ready. Things are going to change, and we must move with them if we hope to hold on to our gains. This is it.”

“This is – it?” Ganetsky gestured at the men who had taken up position around him, unobtrusively, but unmistakably. “This is where you replace me with some lackey national economist and hand over the blood of the proletariat to the pans and factory owners? Damn you, Felix, how does it end?”

The police chief struggled to speak clearly. “You will be placed under arrest and charged. There will be a trial, you will be found guilty and dismissed from your post. And that will be it. Unless…”

Ganetsky looked up. “Unless?”

“Unless you wish to – make a different end.” Dzerzhinski looked around the room. “I know this is hard for you. I will leave you alone for a few minutes if you wish. My men will guard the door, of course. If you want to spare yourself the humiliation of the trial…” He gestured at the holster that hung from the coat rack. Ganetsky fixed him with a venomous stare.

“Fuck you, Felix.” He said quietly. “I’m not blowing my brains out like some fat bourgeois swine you caught with its snout in the trough. Go ahead, arrest me!”

Dzerzhinski nodded to his men. As Ganetsky’s eyes sought his, he looked away.

05 March 1908, near Omsk

The steady drip-drip-drip of water running off the sagging roof was welcome despite the damp that began clinging to everything in the hut. It presaged the coming of spring, the end of the brutal frost that had held them in its claws since Katharina Gismar had arrived. Winters in Livland were cold, but never like this. No matter how many layers of clothing you put on, the cold found a way inside. She had spent her first days in a haze, stiff, aching and dull. Even now, as she fed the small brick and clay oven in the corner of their single room, she could barely feel the warmth it radiated, though she knew it was what kept them alive. Her father would have died without it. As it was, he just about clung on. The nearly empty rattle of the fuel box told her that she would need new firewood soon, which meant dealing with the peasantry. That was a prospect she dreaded.

It was not the greed. Katharina was used to people taking advantage of those the war had made homeless, selling shelter, food, fuel, even water for hard cash. After seeing how many Russia peasants lived, she could even understand their attitude. Here was a camp full of people who were, by comparison, unimaginably rich, suddenly dependent on their help. It was the constant fear that someone would find out how much they actually had hidden away. With just her and her father – an old man broken in body and spirit by his deportation – there was no way they could defend their treasure against intruders, camp guards, even fellow inmates. War had loosened the ties that bound them together to the point you could not risk trusting anyone too much.

Still, by all accounts life was getting easier. The new commander – a proper army man, no greenjacket, and thus susceptible to generous donations raised by the camp elders – had allowed them to set up vegetable plots and potato fields, and permitted them to leave camp on their own recognisance, for days at a time, even for trips to Omsk, if you could find transport. Some of the men even took on work, though they had to come back to the camp regularly. Enough of them were skilled, in great demand in a world denuded of labour. One of them – Henning Dorn, that was the name, she recalled – was practically a celebrity, the only typewriter repairman left in the entire oblast. Military officers and civil administrators sent for him on a regular basis. They would have put him in uniform if it had not been for General Order #457, which forbade all members of ‘disloyal nations’ to enlist. Well, not everyone. Just those that had been deported. Cynically, it made sense. Not one man in a hundred had supported the Kaiser before, Katharina knew. They had all sent off their sons and brothers to the colours, cheering as the troops marched off to the war. Now, talk in the camp was about hope for a German victory that would free them.

Katharina herself was not certain that the government in distant Berlin was any more interested in their plight than that in Moscow, but if it would end this madness and allow them to return home, that would be good enough for her. Just three days ago, they had organised a kind of festivity in honour of the birth of Crown Prince Friedrich Albert. What an idea, a bevy of bearded, middle-aged dignitaries in their too-wide trousers and muddy overcoats holding an impromptu speech in the snow to welcome into the world the son of an emperor at war with their own! The Russian commander had accepted this without comment. Once again, Katharina caught herself thinking that way and bristled. Colonel Gerasimov was the commander. Not the Russian commander, just the commander. Everybody here was Russian. Except, obviously, that some of them had stopped believing that. She was not sure how long she would be able to keep up the effort before she, too, would slip into the habit of thinking of ‘the Russians’ as the enemy. With a heavy sigh, she set up the kettle and carefully measured out the precious fragments of tea from the newsprint twist wedged between their two plates. There was no more sugar, and she was not going to risk buying some off a village market woman. Maybe next time the typewriters needed repairing in Omsk, she could ask Henning to bring her some. They still got their ration cards, after all, and he was always happy to do her favours.

08 March 1908, over Pargolovo

Hauptmann Wehner could have done without the eyes of the general at his back. Controlling an airship was not easy at the best of times, and LZ 10 was a whale. They’d stuck six engines on her, all straining mightily, but she still handled like a garbage scow. Sure, it was good to have the capacity to actually carry bombs, but Wehner was still not sure if he could trust this monster to hold together under stress. And with General von Richthofen breathing down his neck, he was not sure his nerves would, either. Talk about blue blood! Ferrying 200 years of Prussian military tradition along with 2 tons of high explosive across enemy-held territory was not liable to take his minds off the dangers. Still, it would not so to appear worried. Wehner had got the Pour le Merite for his part in that ridiculous ‘aerial battle’ last year, the last thing he wanted to be was known as a worrywart.

“Over there….” Generals had a way of pointing out the obvious. Through patches of snow and deceptively green fields that no doubt actually consisted of waist-high, gluey mud, the black ribbon of the railway ran towards the cluster of buildings and tents beside a long lake that was Pargolovo railyard. All these men would be headed out to Viborg to kill Swedes, and all their food and ammunition would be coming along these rails. The navy was doing its damnedest to plaster the coastal line, but up here, they were still the only option. Time to find out if the vaunted Bombardierluftschiff was up to snuff, then!

Von Richthofen stepped forward abruptly, leaning over the edge of the gondola. Wehner could hear the trimsman curse under his breath. Shifting that weight should not affect an airship their size at all, but everybody had trained on smaller craft where walking carefully was ingrained habit. Below, the town was coming closer at a remarkable clip. A train inched along the westbound line, and for a moment Wehner considered the chance of hitting it. Nonsense, of course. At their altitude, they’d be lucky to get their bombs within a hundred metres of a train-sized target under the best of conditions, and the machine guns would make an annoyance at best. They had two honest-to-God water-cooled Maxims mounted on the gondola, presumably on the principle that if you were going to build this thing heavy, you might as well go all the way. In theory, they were to be used for defending against Russian aeroplanes, but nobody had seen another one since the raid on Gatchina. Wehner figured they worked better to frighten gunners on the ground. Artillery could reach them up here, and discouraging them from figuring this out in time was high on the list of good ideas airshipmen subscribed to.

“I think they are shooting at us!” The general pointed down. Individual riflemen, not something Wehner worried about much. Even if one of them got lucky, the bullet would have so little energy left it would, at best, make a hole in the gasbag. They could patch that once they got home.

“Shouldn’t we be shooting back?”

Wehner shook his head, biting back a caustic remark. Cavalrymen! “Sir, we’d just be wasting ammunition. The best thing to do is climb. With your permission…”

Bags of ballast dropped from the massive frame and the zeppelin rose ponderously. Richthofen blanched. “Are you sure this is safe? We are going to get much lighter still….”

Wehner, already bending over the bombsight, waved dismissively. “Trust me, Sir.,” he replied. “I’m an engineer.”

The outskirts of Pargolovo now drifted into the sights. Wehner checked the altimeter again, adjusting his instruments and wondering whether the general did not have a point. Along the ribbon of the rails, machine guns opened up. The Russians were serious about defending this place, given how few of those they had these days. Some of the muzzle flashes looked uncomfortably big, too. Time to get things done. There was the railway depot, and hope sprang eternal…

“Bombs away on my mark!” Wehner ordered. “One…two…NOW!”

The mechanism opened with a grinding, metallic clang, and LZ 10 jumped, creaking and groaning. The floor tilted upwards. Wehner just about managed to hold on to the handrail while the general slid tailwards, shouting in indignation. One of the bombs was stuck! Yelling angry commands, the lieutenant waved the trimsman to correct, certain that it would not be enough. The trim weight was meant to correct differences in fuel tanks and passenger distribution, not cancel out a 200-kilogram bomb swinging from its cradle. And the damned Russians just had to pick this time to get their aim right! He could see the aft trimsman desperately struggling with a wrench, trying to loosen the bomb and finally resorting to a savage kick. That worked. Still rising rapidly – too rapidly – the huge airship righted itself, the frame groaning under the strain. Fragments whizzed around them, tearing into the straining fabric over wooden ribs now beginning to give.

“Vent!” Wehner ordered. He had to level off if he was going to get his ship home. The trimsmen yanked at the valve cords. Hydrogen gas hissed into the air, their ascent slowing – too little. Another shell burst, close to the rear starboard engine. At that rate, they could set alight the gas! The lieutenant cursed at the thought, then froze at the look of utter horror registering on General von Richthofen’s face. Fire blossomed from the top of the ship, yellow and orange flame rising to the sky. They could feel the sickening lurch as their rise stopped, and the deck began to drop under their feet.

11 March 1908, Moscow

“With all due respect, your highness, it is simply insane!” Count Witte, railway minister designate and trusted confidant of the Grand Prince himself, stood still and took a long breath. Let nobody said that those who asked for his opinion did not get it. Even princes of the House of Romanov. Now to see what happened next…

Silence hung in the air for the briefest of moments. Grand Prince Sergey slowly nodded, his heavy beard resting against the broad chest of his powder blue uniform. He licked his lips before answering, more quietly than was his habit: “Yes.”

Witte’s surprise must have registered on his face. The grand prince gave him a momentary smile no doubt meant to be reassuring.

“You are quite right, my dear count. This is pure insanity. No rational man would do anything other than make peace now.” With a pained grunt, Sergey levered himself up in his armchair. “But politics is not rational, Count Witte.”

The count turned from Sergey to Grand Prince Nikolai, the man who had originally invited him to the Kremlin. No support there: the supreme commander’s face was locked in that infuriating mask of stolid Slavic melancholy he affected when called upon to do anything he disagreed with.

“The hardest part about riding a tiger,” he finally pointed out, his pipe punctuating the sentence with stabs into empty air, “is getting off. Easy to say we should never have mounted in the first place. It’s still a fierce and powerful beast, but we must be damned careful not to end up on the menu when we dismount.”

“But the damage!” Witte would not give up soon. “The Germans will take a heavy price if they feel they are being fooled. There was, I take it, a peace offer…”

“Bah!” Sergey waved the idea away. “Impossible demands. Money we cannot possibly pay in a hundred years. They know this is the opening move, and in the end there will be a settlement. But we cannot be seen to give in now, or the demands just go up and up. If we surrender unconditionally, Russia will fall apart. THAT is why, Count Witte. That is why we must stay in this fight for just one or two more months. Until we have an offer we can live with, a victory or two against the Turks. Something to show the people.”

Witte felt his heart beat faster. Not in a hundred years…. How much had Berlin demanded? He recalled the heady days June two years ago, when the capital’s cafes and clubs were bubbling with plans to dismember the German Empire, to expand Russian Poland, take Galicia, a land corridor to Serbia, take over the Danube commission. Were people in Germany entertaining similar thoughts about Russia?

“We will lose territory,” Nikolai said, “but I had rather lose land than the future of the country. Land can be retaken. If we lose Russia, we lose everything.”

Witte nodded. “I understand, your highness.” He conceded. “But the fact is we may not be able to stay in the fight, for all that. The railway capacity is practically destroyed. We have no credit, and the gold reserves are … “

“Safely stored.” Sergey interrupted. “You need not concern yourself over that. It was taken out of St Petersburg well in advance of the German attack and is no longer stored in Moscow.” It did not need saying what that was to defend against. If a serious rebellion broke out, it would be in the heart of the Empire, among the soldiers and workers. They had to have moved it under heavy guard, away from the front, a garrison city, obviously, but not a large one… Witte checked himself. That was not his concern. Speculate too much and you might end up knowing something you weren’t supposed to. Russian government was a dangerous place for a smart man. You could end up accidentally privy to the worst kind of secret.

“What we need from you is a good idea what our railways can do.” Nikolai said. “Realistically. There are too many yes-men around. The plan is to limit out reliance on them anyway, defending in place with what we have. But we need to move troops and supplies to the Ottoman front and the Caucasus to put the lid on the savage rebellion. How much can we move?”

Witte swallowed hard. Well, they hadn’t reacted too badly to the truth before. What was the worst they could do, anyway?

“Practically nothing, with any certainty.” The count paused, seeing the two nod gravely. He went on to explain. “We’ve been running the railroads on a war footing for two years. Too many people were called on to do work they were unqualified for. Some lines had signalmen and station porters driving engines. The equipment is worn out, the rolling stock falling apart. You can still send trains – but you cannot be sure when and how they will arrive. I am sorry, but that is how things are.”

Grand Duke Nikolai nodded. “Thank you.” He walked over to the wide table covered in maps and files. “I assume you have some figures for us? Numbers of engines, railcars, coal stocks…”

“To the extent they can be trusted, Your Highness.” Witte cautioned. “It will take some time to verify…”

“Yes, yes. Of course.” Nikolai was showing his Russian soul again. That was just how things were, you had to accept these things. “But we need some idea. You know the business. Tell us what you can. Troops to the Vladikavkas, to Batumi, to Saratov.”

Count Witte nodded and untied the blue tape on his heavy file. He was the railway man. For all the good it might do, this was what he did.

14 March 1908, Rabat

It would be saying too much to claim that the sheer pride in being part of national greatness was enough to make you forget every discomfort. It was hot, intensely hot, and the metal of the unshielded trumpet was already uncomfortable to touch. Still, all told it had been worth it. Andre Grelaud smiled fondly as he watched the massive guns pivot out, overlooking the harbour. They had been a right bitch to move, sappers, marines and legionnaires dragging at their harnesses in one great, stinking, sweating mass. It was a better, more accurate image of French power and glory than any he’d seen on cigarette pictures. How they had cursed, grimaced, screamed in frustration. How the Arabs had jeered every time the iron colossi slipped and ground to a halt. But here they were, put in place by hard muscles and harder wills, indomitable men who did not know the meaning of ‘impossible’. The bay was theirs. No enemy would dare approach the charmed circle drawn invisibly by the glowering 30-cm muzzles. Every single shell they had lugged up the coastal path, every single cartridge chafing their backs raw, was now a potent threat to the foes of the Republic.

Up went the flag. Drums rattled. Grelaud raised his instrument, cursing the heat radiating from the mouthpiece now touching his tense lips. Sweat was already running down his face and neck, tickling his collar, soaking his shirt. The general was speaking to dignitaries and officers, his back turned to the troops, inaudible to them, but what was he going to say? He hadn’t been there pulling on the ropes. He hadn’t made his way through powder smoke and blood, He hadn’t picked his path through the rocky passes of the Atlas mountains or stormed the native redoubts. He wasn’t part of the France that had taken Morocco. Not truly part of it. Out in the bay, the ships came alive, flags fluttering, belching smoke. Jeanne d’Arc in the lead, then Gueydon, the flag in Charlemagne, followed by Iena and Charles Martel, Gloire, Conde and Dupleix bringing up the rear. Only a visit now, but soon enough the facilities now growing down by the harbour would give the navy a permanent home on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Magazines would brim with warlike stores, a dry dock be ready to repair and refit even armoured cruisers, bars and brothels await the sailors starved for alcohol and sex. They had made this happen, Grelaud told himself. This was the future. Who knew, maybe he’d retire to a little place here, too. Selling booze to navy men seemed an easy way to make money. The weather sucked, but no worse than it did in Algeria, and all the good places there were already taken. His enlistment would be up in 1910. The Coloniale was happy to take long-timers, but would he really want to spend another five years lugging a gun through the wilderness?

Speeches finished. The tricolore unfolded over the gun emplacement, and the big guns of Charlemagne greeted it. Slowly, with carefully studied steps, the artillerists went to return the salute. The noise was earth-shaking. The twentieth century had arrived in Rabat, and nobody would forget it in a hurry. Up went the baton, and the band began. By personal request, it was reputed, of the Prime Minister, canny bastard that he was:

La victoire en chantant

Nous ouvre la barrière.
La Liberté guide nos pas.
Et du Nord au Midi
La trompette guerrière
A sonné l'heure des combats.
Tremblez ennemis de la France
Rois ivres de sang et d'orgueil.
Le Peuple souverain s'avance,
Tyrans descendez au cercueil.

La République nous appelle
Sachons vaincre ou sachons périr
Un Français doit vivre pour elle
Pour elle un Français doit mourir.

Grelaud felt his lips blister. He didn’t much care. Nothing a few litres of ordinaire wouldn’t cure come evening.

16 March 1908, Riga

Doctor Harriman had heard of ‘Russian winters’ and feared the worst, but the reality of what awaited him was almost disappointing. Heading down the slippery, dripping gangway to the quay, the last remnants of drifting ice scratching the sides of the S.S. Buffalo, he shrugged tighter into his heavy coat. This was not a howling wilderness of snow he had expected, idly speculating whether it would be much worse than the snowstorms they had upstate. This was a panorama of drab, pathetic suffering. Houses looked out over the grey sea from boarded-up windows walls streaked with coal smoke, melting sludge clinging to the eaves. Stevedores were busy unloading, wrapped up against the cold in shabby coats and ragged caps, staggering under the load of crates and sacks. Even the soldiers guarding everything blended into the cheerless scene, dressed in muddy bluish grey, flat cloth caps stuck on their short-cropped hair, their faces harried, eyes restlessly moving from side to side.

Mr Baldwin, the consul’s secretary, met the Relief Committee delegation, his own coat looking more threadbare than would have been acceptable back in New York. Taken on foot through the winding streets of the old city to the temporary headquarters, people began swarming them, begging for food, money, cigarettes. Guards cleared the street, shouting in German, Polish and Latvian. Finally, the door closed behind them and they were seated around a polished oak table in a low-ceilinged room inadequately heated by a single tiled stove in the corner. The files and charts the local staff spread out told a story of unmitigated horror.

“This is – accurate?” Harriman gasped.

“A conservative estimate.” Baldwin explained, his voice tired. “We do not have good data on much of the interior, but we assume that things are worse. We may already have lost a hundred thousand to starvation and disease, and that is among those who stayed behind. On the Russian side of the front – well, I am glad I’m not there.”

Harriman shuddered, This winter had been worse, with so much of the conquered land difficult to access and the German railways reserved almost entirely for the army’s needs. Still, he had had barely any conception of how bad things had become. They would need – he calculated in his head – two million dollars’ worth of wheat at the very least, milk, meat, sugar, everything. Now that the sea lanes were open, they could bring it here. If he telegraphed today, if the committee was quick, the ships could be unloading in three weeks’ time. But getting it from the ports inland…

“What transport options are there?” Harriman asked. Baldwin opened a folder with a heavy sigh. His eyes promised little.

19 March 1908, Berlin

“What ARE the Russians after?!” Emperor Wilhelm’s temper was feared with some justification, and Minister von Bülow, though not a timid man, momentarily shrank from the outburst.

“We aren’t sure, Sire.” He admitted. Referring ministers and civil servants had learned quickly that it did no good to pretend otherwise. His Majesty wanted facts, accurate, summarised and easily digested. “It serves no apparent purpose for them to string us along like this. First they approach us with a peace offer, then they haggle over every condition… it is as though they expect to slow us down. But if they wanted to do that, why negotiate in secret? If they were aiming for troop morale, they would shout to high heavens that the war will be over tomorrow. No, Sire, we believe it may reflect genuine indecision in their government.”

“Indecision?” The emperor looked up. “Whether or not to make peace?”

“Unlikely.” Von Bülow allowed himself a satisfied smile. “Nobody can have any illusions about the ultimate outcome of the war. But perhaps about the price they are willing to accept. We are not certain even who is part of the new inner circle, but it appears that the Patriotic Union still plays a significant role. Their leadership is likely to oppose any settlement they deem to humiliating rather forcefully. If the regents do not feel able to confront them . . . they might simply feel that they can get more favourable terms if they keep hammering away. It’s not unknown to work, in diplomacy.”

Wilhelm shook his head. “We need to disabuse them of that notion, and fast!” he said. “Every week wasted will increase the price, tell them that!”

“We did.” Von Bülow pointed out. “I am not sure the Russians believe it. At least, not at the bottom of their hearts. They seem to think that the cost of the war will wear us down. As they yet may, I suppose.”

The emperor winced. “Not that soon. Rathenau assures me we can fight the summer campaign. It will be costly, but I am resolved to make it costlier yet for the Russians. The most expensive summer in living memory. But we have to do something to show them we mean business before the offensives start. Any suggestions?”

“Publicity.” Von Bülow stroked his beard. “Right now, the negotiations officially do not exist. That serves us, it keeps the Socialists quiet, but it helps the Russians more. As far as the world is concerned, they are still in the fight. I would suggest sending a high-level delegation to Brussels. Make it official. Moscow can decide if they want to admit it, or disavow the whole thing. If they do that, we have lost little – they have to come back to the table after we beat them badly enough. But if they stay, they’ll lose face and position.”

Wilhelm considered the idea. The Social Democrats were restive anyway. They had been since the first derisory peace offer had leaked to the Danish press. Rathenau did not think they would support the war effort much longer, but the rest of the Reichstag was firmly on board so it did not matter too much. On the other hand – announcing to the world that the enemy had asked for terms… it was tempting. Though if the Russians really decided to publicly disavow the fact, everybody in Berlin would look like idiots. Well, it wasn’t as though they didn’t do that on a regular basis anyway. “Do it!”


“We will announce the beginning of negotiations. Send a secretary of state to Brussels, or go yourself, if you want. It’s time to call the damned bluff. And we will make a public proclamation: Let me see… calling on the Russian government to prevent the needless effusion of blood in the continuation of a hopeless war. Announcing we will use every means at our disposal – every means, you understand – to end it quickly and decisively. That they cannot hope for better than is on the table now. You know what to write, I’ll put my IR under it and the world can marvel at our greatness.”

Von Bülow nodded. It was risky, but it was time someone in Berlin did something risky. Running the war along safe lines plainly wasn’t delivering what they had hoped. And the ‘all means at our disposal’ line would make it clear enough to everybody what to expect once the mud dried up. People were squeamish about gas, but it worked.

23 March 1908, SMS Heimdall off Viborg

“Well, ain’t that a shame after we came all the way here…” Gunner’s Mate Melling wiped his brow despite the cold blasts that came in through the turret door, now open to relieve the stuffy, sweaty atmosphere inside. Squinting through the gunport, he could just about make out the coastline on the larboard bow.

“Speak for yourself!” The relief in the voice of Korporal Treptow was audible. His muddy greyish army uniform stood out among the service blues of the navy men. It was all he could do to steady his hands against the shell lift that would not bring up liquid death today. Training was all well and good, but a 28-cm shell full of Stoff 1410 still had a terrifying quality beyond all reason. One false move and you were dead. Eventually – they had been shown pictures of Captain Maass and his rescue party.

It was still hard to believe. After a winter’s bitter siege, nothing had indicated that the Russian commander was about to give up. Treptow had read the papers, and unlike the sailors around him, he knew from personal experience what it meant for the Swedish army to have “tightened the siege works to within a few kilometres of the fortress”. Trenches in the frozen mud and granite of the Finnish coast must be a special kind of hell. And now, just in time for the ice to open up and the fleet to do its bit, they’d gone and given up. It made sense, of course. They knew what 1410 did. Riga had surrendered without a shot fired. And they had to know they weren’t going to get any help; a mere few hours before the combined fleet had left Stockholm they had had the news that Finnish troops had taken Schlüsselburg. But it still made an unsatisfying denouement to their voyage. Strung out along the bay, flags flying, smoke rising skyward, lay the naval might of two great powers: Sachsen, Bayern, Karl der Große, Rättvisan, Tapperheten, Vasa, even Manligheten, patched up after her bad luck in the Petersburg campaign, heavy cruisers and escorts, the minesweepers without which no capital ship left home these days – aligned as though for a fleet review, and just in time for the capitulation ceremony. Somewhere ashore, a Swedish general was having the best day of his life.

A commotion aft turned heads. Sailors made their way forward, abandoning battle stations, one man waving a piece of paper. Melling and Treptow stepped out into the chill wind to hear the news and were nearly bowled over by the impetus.

“It’s over!” A Swedish army paper waved into their faces. “It’s over! The Czar’s talking peace terms!”

Melling grabbed the sheet and read out, his face screwed up in concentration. Coming from Flensburg, he spoke Danish, which was practically the same thing, but translating in his head took a while. Diplomatic meetings in Brussels … Russian negotiators led by Prince Sviatoslav-Mirsky … sealed trains through Persia … that was bound to be complicated … terms to include freedom for Finland, Poland, the Baltic duchies … His Majesty the king confident in the ability of his army to carry the final advance … every man needed to stay vigilant and courageous blah, blah, blah.

It was over. Treptow felt his knees give. He’d been in uniform since the mobilisation posters had gone up that summer, first in the field guns, then the foot artillery, and now the Gaswaffe. Now, he’d be able to go home, richer by an iron cross and some memories he’d rather bury as deeply as the Russians they’d dragged out of their gassed trenches in Kurland. Home – he felt a momentary stab of fear. Things had to have changed. He’d spent his last Fronturlaub with his uncle in Stettin, not in his home village. Would the place still look the same?

The cheers that rose through the ship called him back from his daydreaming. Gunners tumbled out of the turret, waving madly at the men on other vessels. One climbed atop the turret and danced, another enfolded Melling in a bear hug. Shouting and whistling across the water told them that the message was spreading. Signals went up in Bayern, saying God knew what, but presumably to do with discipline and the fact that the fleet was turning into an impromptu street party. The corporal shook his head. It wasn’t quite over yet. Even the Swedish paper had said as much. But Ivan had finally admitted he’d had enough, and that had to count for something.

26 March 1908, Lodz

The picture was not too bad, all told. A cowering Turk, easily recognisable by his baggy pants and fez, raised his arms in supplication at the Russian soldier about to bayonet him. The white-skinned corpse of a young woman in front of an orthodox cross on the wall told the viewer that the punishment was deserved. You almost didn’t need to read the article, though Moisei Uritski always did. It was good to learn how they did things in Russia. Sometimes you could learn something useful. More often, you learned how not to do things, but that was worth something, too. This was an example in unsuccessful sugarcoating: If you could believe the writer, the Turks had suffered enormous casualties in their advance on Batumi and were being handily beaten by the armies of Prince Mikhail. The victorious troops would soon carry the orthodox banners to Kars and beyond, which sounded wonderful until you realised that Kars was a Russian fortress that they were supposed to still own – indeed, that was still being defended as far as he knew. The second column talked at length about the terrible damage done to the oil stores at Batumi by the enemy, apparently shelled with no regard for civilian lives or property in their typical savage manner. It was a good way of raising the reader’s ire, but it begged the question why the vaunted Black Sea Fleet could not prevent a ragtag band of German tin cans from blasting away at Russian ports. Ever since German mines had claimed Tria Svitatelia and crippled Potemkin, the precious battlefleet had been bottled up in port. It left the question: Were the Russian authorities underestimating their readership’s intelligence, or was Uritski overestimating it?

He was about to spike the latest copy of the Russkaya Pravda and return to his editorial when the door opened and Mikhail Liber walked in. They kept things informal at the Folkstsaytung, so the editor didn’t have a front office clerk. Or a front office. Uritski liked seeing people come to him with their ideas.

“Moisei,” he began, “I’ve just had an offer from a friendly fellow in jodhpurs.”

Uritski blinked. What did the NSB want? They were good about protecting the Jewish Corps and its civilian infrastructure in ways the soldiers couldn’t, and he appreciated them for it, despite their being utter bastards. Would the bill be called in now?

“Tell me about it,”

Liber laid down a cheap book on the desk. Paperbound and printed in obvious haste, the volume made up in heft what it lacked in elegance. It had to be a good four hundred pages of ratty wartime paper, obviously made quickly and shoddily in large numbers. Who got that kind of allotment?

“They want us to start helping them with their publications. And this is completely under the table, right. If we do it, it was our idea.” Liber sighed. He did not need to specify the things that might happen if they didn’t.

Uritski picked up the book. “A Mirror of Priests.” He read the clumsy Polish, thumbing through the pages. The origins of the priesthood … holy garbage … they were talking about relics … a very nasty dedication to Pius IX … some pretty salacious stuff about what happened to young girls in confessionals … written by one Corvin. “Where does this come from?”

“Germany.” Liber pointed to the imprint. “It was written a good fifty years ago in Prussia. But the translation is fairly new. Strong stuff for people not exactly used to anticlericalism.”

“And I can see why the NSB likes it.” Uritski smiled grimly. “I like it, too. Especially the part about the monks. But I don’t think we can risk printing that. The goyim would burn down our paper”

“Well, that’s the good part.” Liber reassured him. “We don’t need to do it officially. No imprint needed. No names mentioned. We can get extra paper allotted and pass the stuff through our usual channels off the account books.”

Uritski scratched his chin. Off the books meant no taxes. People would pay for this stuff – it was practically pornographic. And the extra paper would mean more work for the print shops, which meant more capacity once the rationing ended.

“All right.” He conceded, not entirely convinced. Denial would not be terribly plausible, Nobody outside of Lodz printed in Yiddish. “But who is going to believe this … these fairy tales?”

Liber sighed. “Moisei, please.” He explained patiently. “People are happy to believe if you tell them what they want to hear. Christian blood in matzes? This is practically academic writing compared to the dreck the church presses put out unofficially.” He hesitated for a moment. “It wouldn’t hurt to publicise the fact the author’s German, actually. Maybe we can call him a professor or something, Nobody’ll check.”

“Point taken.” Uritski nodded. “We’ll need someone to translate this. I think maybe Pinski. How long will 400 pages take him, I wonder? Best get him started on excerpts for pamphlets. And we need to get our hands on a German original. I’m not printing THIS on my machines.”

Mikhail Liber smiled in grim agreement. Lying and dissembling were one thing, but sloppy writing was unacceptable. A newsman had to have standards.

30 March 1908, Berlin-Wedding

The banners still proclaimed the proud words that Liebknecht had spoken in the Reichstag: Kein Arbeiterblut für den Junkerkrieg! Deutscher Arbeiter, wahre deiner Söhne Leben! Out here, it was probably no surprise that they had survived the day. In other parts of Berlin, their fate had been less kind. Paul Singer sighed as he left the building, as far as he knew for the last time. He had enjoyed sparring with men like Lebedour and Liebknecht in his time, but this was a rift they could not heal. There was little comfort in the realisation that the outcome - 78 Social Democratic votes for the 12th war bond issue, only 26 against - had been a shock for the other side as well. If they had hoped to sway the party, they had failed. But they had succeeded at splitting it. You could not go back after what had been said.

Lebedour shook his hand. You had to give the man his due, he had character. Too many old comrades were only too willing to burn their bridges. Noske had refused to even speak to Liebknecht after the vote. But it did not change the fact that they would not see each other again for a long time.

“I hope you know what you are doing.” Singer said, genuine concern in his voice. Lebedour looked grimly determined. That Luxemburg woman by his side – he had seen them together a lot lately – managed an encouraging smile.

“We hope you do. There is time to come to your senses, you know.” She could not resist the parting shot.

Singer shook his head with a heavy sigh. “We will not agree on that point, what’s the point discussing it?” he sighed. “You are putting the country and the party in grave peril.”

She snorted. “Peril? That’s what the boys at the front are in. We are watching them die in their thousands for the dream of a Junker state!”

He did not answer. What was the point? They would not agree. Even Alexandra Kollontai had been unable to shift her steely determination. “Good luck, then.” The old man said and climbed into the waiting carriage. Two young men rode with him, two more on the footboards outside – not servants, veteran comrades on Fronturlaub. That too, disturbed him. He had always been able to walk the streets in safety, never worried about any physical threats. Prison, yes – he had done his stint of Festungshaft, like every party leader in his generation – but not violent assault. Over the last week, there had been attacks on five members of the Reichstag alone. Dittmann was in hospital with a fractured jaw. Things had changed too much to go back to peaceful days.

“Time to go.” Leber, the youngster riding on the left footboard closed the door, keeping his eyes on the roads. Singer felt sorry for him. He was just back from Lake Peipus and really should be spending time with his family instead of running security for a party that should know better.

“Relax, Julius.” Singer said. “No Völkische in Wedding. They know better than to show themselves here.”

Leber nodded, unconvinced. The office had a lot of men hanging around conspicuously. If the locals did not feel safe, he saw no reason to. His right hand closing around the heft of the revolver in his pocket, he clung on as the carriage jolted into motion.
02 April 1908, between Kulja and Dzharkent

Major Jiang Jilie had had worse days in this war. It was not that the landscape had stopped actively trying to kill them, but inside an army camp, with real tents and enough food to keep the hunger at bay, secure supply routes at your rear and enemy country ahead, this was something you could bear with equanimity. There was even tea. It was no comparison to the hopeless floundering they had done in the advance into Mongolia. They had known hunger and terror then, surrounded by swarms of enemy horsemen. Now, the dust clouds on the horizon were thrown up by their allies, tribal princes falling over their feet to declare their eternal loyalty to the Emperor and the hunghutze. Jiang would have preferred otherwise, but he had to admit that General Zhang Zuolin knew his business better than Yuan Shikai ever had. The death of the Beiyang Army served as a reminder to them all that you had to go with the terrain, not against it. Today, of course, there was no more Beiyang or Wuchang army, only the Victorious Western Army they had cobbled together from the two and whatever odds and bits the government had found lying around. Jiang was fine with that, too. On the whole, he preferred to be with a winning outfit, even if the uniforms weren’t as spiffy, and the career options were much better. They’d given him a commission and several promotions for his battle experience – simply for surviving, as far as he could figure. Turning a ragtag band of Hebei peasants into riflemen was hard work, but it beat running away from cossacks on the grassland.

Today, they had crossed the border into Russia. Or possibly yesterday. He was not going to trust his skills with navigational equipment any more than that of his immediate superiors, but it had to be around here. Certainly, Dzharkent was not far now, and that was in Russia. The general had taken the opportunity to make a speech and have a ration of alcohol distributed, and the camp was in good spirits. Jiang Jilie took the chance to stretch his legs and read. Ever since German advisors had turned up in numbers, their access to books had become better. Granted, they were in German, but that was not an insurmountable problem. Jiang had already learned English, the difference was not that great. Other officers found it harder, but they had not gone through the school of civil service examinations. By comparison, learning barbarian languages was child’s play. And the Germans even used the same script as the English. They had another style of lettering, but the difference was trivial. Even reading lishu was more of a challenge. He wondered why the Germans thought this thorny, angular writing style suited them better than the clean, smooth lines of English type. The officers he had met did not strike him that way.

There was Hauptmann Mollenhauer, for example, a bespectacled gentleman who was much closer to Jiang’s own scholarly ideals than the idiotically athletic English ever had been. He spoke Chinese – of sorts – and was always happy to discuss obscure questions of military theory. If Germany had such men commanding their forces, it was no wonder they had such a record of victory. Sitting on a repurposed ammunition chest – British, for the old Beiyang rifles, they still had issues supplying their different gear – the German sipped his tea and stared thoughtfully at the maps and notes they had made.

“Limiting.” That was how Mollenhauer had put it. They could not risk going close to any of the Russian railheads or they would be swarmed by the enemy, so their operation would be a single push for Andijan and Ferghana. Jiang still felt unsure whether the effort would not have been better used for a move north against Kyakhta, but the government had chosen, and the realities of supply management meant that they would have faced a superior force defending the road to Lake Baikal. You could not risk that. Hunghutze were good – about as good as Cossacks - but not that good, and the old Beiyang and Wuchang veterans were an uncertain leavening among a mass of green recruits. It was not that the army was all that big – supplying a single man at the sharp end took enormous effort out here – but this fighting ate people like crazy. You could only hope it was doing the same thing to the Russians. They had been throwing poorly trained cavalry at them lately, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Caucasians. That could mean they were husbanding their better forces for a counteroffensive – or that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel. You had to hope it was the latter.

Jiang nodded and picked up his own cup. He was not concerned with these details. The main thing was that a Chinese army had reached the frontiers of the Empire and was defending them. For the first time in a century or more, the power of China matched its ambition. That was what mattered, at least to him. And it had been done through the army, vindicating his own choice to turn his back on the civil service to join the Beiyang as a lowly NCO and learn barbarian tongues. The Europeans understood how to fight wars. It was a skill you could learn, but you had to put your mind to it. China could absorb it easily enough if the people would only listen. It would have to wait until after the war, but come time, they would have to make them. Force was the only language the world understood. Once the true power of China was harnessed through a military organisation worthy of the name, they would listen.

06 April 1908, Berlin

“Today’s vote, sir.”

Walther Krupp von Rathenau looked up from his papers and met the worried gaze of the messenger. Herbert von Karlstein was a good man. If he was that concerned…

“What is it?”

“238 in favour, 39 against, 120 not voting.” Karlstein swallowed.

“That is not good.” Rathenau nodded, carefully reading the notice. Vote in the Reichstag, it said, on the Thirteenth War Loan. 120, the minister knew, was about the number of members in uniform by now. If anyone present had abstained, it couldn’t have been many. But 39 ‘no’ votes – that simply didn’t happen. The Völkische would huff and puff and make mighty threats, but they always voted the government line in the end. Nobody sane vetoed war loans. It had been bad enough last time. Scanning the list of names, he imagined the chaos in the chamber as people realised what was happening. Horrified leftists, gleeful conservatives, stunned Zentrum… The SPD’s rebellion had finally happened for real.

Ledebour, Liebknecht – that much stood to reason – Herzfeld, dammit! A Jew. The Völkische would latch onto his defection in no time. Another ten votes gone, and that after the debacle of the ‘White Peace Resolution’ the peace wing had introduced last week. They’d been laughed out of the building. Everybody had hoped that would be it. Apparently not.

Rathenau looked up at the ceiling for a moment before returning to the conversation. “That is not good at all.” He finally said.

“If this continues…” Karlstein began.

”It will continue.” The minister stated blandly. “Herr von Karlstein, please notify my undersecretaries of an immediate meeting tonight. I will not be returning to Essen.”

“Yes, Sir. Anything else?”

“Notify His Majesty that I request an audience at His earliest convenience.” Rathenau said, already shuffling through a stack of notes. “And get someone to work on the National Liberal caucus and the DKP. It is time to put together a shopping list.”

“Shopping list?”

“We may need to buy ourselves a new governing coalition. This could get expensive.”

09 April 1908, near Pinsk

There was thigh-deep mud, bootsucking mud, and not really mud at all. Franz Hedrich had learned as much on his way out to the front, and his two years as a war correspondent had taught him to appreciate the finer points of mud quite intimately. Today was dry – the stuff barely reached the sides of his thick, warm leather boot. It was the kind of weather that allowed wheeled traffic. Bad news for the enemy.

Gingerly stepping over the grass, clutching the two cameras dangling around his neck, Hedrich made his way to the road where the metal monsters waited. He had earned his spurs in the early days riding with the light cavalry, bringing home pictures from the battles in Galicia and Poland, and since then Franz Hedrich had seen, photographed and interviewed just about every kind of soldier there was. He’d slept in the gluey mud of trench dugouts in East Prussia, ridden his arse raw following advancing infantry into Podolia, nearly lost fingers to frostbite in the bitter nights outside of Ivangorod and dodged bullets with negro mortarmen in the chaos of Lithuania. He had even hitched rides on armoured trains, both the clanky contraptions that the Poles built in their ironworks at Lodz and the sleek steel beasts that Krupp turned out for the Heer. But in all his time, he had not seen anything like this. That was, after all, what had drawn him to this relatively quiet sector of the front held mainly by Polish auxiliaries. If he could trust his sources, the 22nd Supply Section had something to show, and he was determined to see it.

Strung out along the road, clustered forward of the wagon train, stood eight armoured lorries. Massive things with steel plate bolted on and machine guns poking over the drivers’ cabin from the open flatbed crowded with soldiers. Three had captured Russian ‘76 field guns hitched to them. At least that was not standard issue for supply units, even a reporter like Hedrich knew that much. Leutnant Maurer, the officer who had invited him, casually shook his hand and helped him onto the cargo bed of the lead lorry. Dressed in muddy field blue, his flat cloth cap askew and a pipe clenched between his teeth, he looked more like a pirate than a Prussian officer. “You’re in for something today, Mr Hedrich.” He promised. “And so is Ivan.”

Hedrich carefully stepped between the boots and rifle butts of the men already crammed onto the benches and sought out a seat as the engine rumbled into life. Jolting and creaking, the column of armoured lorries began to move out, their engines straining against the massive weight. Infantrymen fell in behind them, walking at an easy pace along the dirt tracks that led towards Ivanava. Their square caps and long 88 rifles identified them as Polish. In this part of the front, the Polish National Army provided almost all the raw manpower, and by all accounts they acquitted themselves well.

Trundling at a walking pace, the column moved towards its objective as the morning mist thinned. Maurer eagerly explained the action plan. Hedrich had never met an officer so keen on making the acquaintance of a newspaperman.

“These were originally designed to escort supply columns, but it turned out they weren’t very good at it. Always got stuck, too slow to pursue cavalry. Better off sticking a Maxim on a panye wagon, really. But we figured they had to be useful for attacking. Gave us fat, lazy reservists a chance at seeing some action!” He gestured around at the men crammed onto the cargo bed. ‘Fat’ was not the description Hedrich would have chosen, but they were certainly past their prime. To judge by their grins, they had made their officer’s description their own. Hedrich had served his enlistment term in the infantry and thought riding into battle on a lorry a definite improvement over marching.

“Now, ready!” The lieutenant barked out a series of orders. A flag appeared on the lead lorry, unfolding in the breeze as they left the cover of the last trees. Hedrich looked back at the vehicles now deploying into line abreast and saw more flags: the black, white and red of the national colours fluttered to their left, but the rest were an assemblage of red and black rags festooned with grinning deaths’ heads, skeletons, hourglasses and swords painted on crudely. Maurer shot him a conspiratorial wink, beaming with pride. The last lorries reached position in their line and all began the advance, engines straining against the dead weight of boilerplate and armed men. Looking out over the driver’s cabin, the reporter could make out people running between the houses on the outskirts of Ivanava. It was a pretty town, dominated by two lovely churches. The morning sun behind the horizon silhouetted them in black, the spires casting long shadows. Leutnant Maurer stood up and shouted out: “Ein Lied! Zwei, drei, vier….” The men burst into song with the boisterous enthusiasm that had frightened Hedrich from the moment he had stepped off the supply wagon.

Über die Heide wehen die Fahnen,

Wehen und gehen von Ort zu Ort!

Über die Heide schallet es weithin,

Schallet und hallet in einem fort:

Die Landsknecht’ kommen an,

Hab acht, du Bauersmann!

“Heinrich, the hut to the right!” The warning had barely been shouted out when the machine gun opened up. Hedrich jumped back, almost deafened. He had not thought anything could be this loud in contrast to the noise he was already engulfed in. Bullets pockmarked the walls, fountaining plaster, straw and glass fragments. A soldier emerged momentarily, hands raised over his head, before a final burst cut him down. “Onward!” Maurer gestured, his face set in a wide grin. The whiplash sound of rifle bullets snapped overhead. The bastard was enjoying himself!

Landsknechte bringen Tod und Verderben,

Sengen und Brennen die ganze Heid’

Wo sie gehaust ist Klagen und Trauer,

Allerorten Kummer und Leid!

Drum wahrt euch Hab und Gut

Vor Landsknechts’ Übermut!

The lorries slowed as they reached the town proper, threading their way into the main road. Men were standing on the cargo bed, firing rifles into the houses on either side of the road. The racket was indescribable. Hedrich barely remembered to work his camera. He could see infantrymen advance behind and alongside them, running at a half-crouch like men facing a rainstorm. Two had already fallen. The shelter of the huge lorries was inadequate to their protection. A bullet spanged off the armour plate in front, leaving a visible dent. To their left, a Polish rifleman turned off the road to kick in the door of a house, firing into the hall as he stepped in. A comrade tossed a grenade through the gable window.

“Polish doorknockers!” Maurer laughed jovially. A rending metallic rattle stopped him short as the truck slewed to a halt. From a house on the other side of the crossroads they had just reached, a Russian machine gunner had opened up. Their own MG 08 replied, forcing the enemy’s heads down.

“Gunners dismount!”

Four men in blue jumped off the lorry to their left, unhitched the 76 gun and turned it around to face the enemy, half concealed behind the bulk of the vehicle. It was a smart move, Hedrich had to acknowledge. Well thought out, and evidently much practiced. In what seemed a few seconds, they fired their first shell. It went wide, striking the outbuilding of the church behind. Suddenly aware of the new threat, the Russian gunner shifted his aim to the crew. Sparks flew from the gunshield. Rifles and machine guns blazed away at his position. The second shell crashed through the wall, blowing out windowpanes and pieces of plaster. A cheer went up as a squad of Polish infantry rose from their prone cover position and ran forward to throw something through the open window. The tearing crash of a hand grenade exploding was followed by a dull whooshing noise. Gasoline, Hedrich thought. These guys were nothing if not thorough. Flames licked up the façade in no time, and he thought he could see figures scrabbling to exit the house through the back. Rifle shots rang out as the footsoldiers spotted their quarry. The gunners hitched their weapon back to the lorry and remounted, grinning in the insanely cheerful way that the whole units seemed to have adopted.

“Church ahead!” Leutnant Maurer gestured expansively. Hedrich looked out to see the towers of white-painted building rise into the incongruously blue spring sky. It was almost as though someone had taken a postcard and stuck it right there in the middle of the dirty cowtown the war was just in the process of walking over. Maurer’s arm yanking him down broke the spell.

“Snipers!” the lieutenant shouted, Hedrich heard him as though through thick cottonwool padding. His ears might never be the same again. Once more, the machine gunner opened up, walking his bursts over the steeple while the lorries advanced at a crawl. The gunners jumped off, readying their pieces. Polish infantry was firing from every available cover now. Behind them, smoke billowed up from burning houses. Then, suddenly, the noise dissipated. A white flag was waving from the tower window. Men in green and grey were already rising, raising hands, throwing down their rifles. Maurer slapped Hedrich’s shoulder and let out a whoop of triumph.

“Let’s go!” he shouted. “Let’s find more of these bastards!”

The engine coughed and roared again, straining to reach a jogging pace. They were still flying the pirate flag, and the men started singing again. Along the road ahead, Russian civilians were running, dragging bundles and handcarts. Confused soldiers stared as they passed. Maurer let rip with a heavy burst at a brick house that two riflemen were still guarding, cutting down both Russians before they had a chance to take in the situation. This was a new kind of warfare, Hedrich thought. Speed and power combined in one package. The enemy had no real answer to it.

Fliehet all wenn die Landsknechte kommen,

Landsknechte schonen nicht Weib und Kind.

Viele schon haben ihr Leben gelassen.

Über die Heide klagt es der Wind,

im Land ist große Not,

im Land herrscht König Tod.

11 April 1908, Royal Castle, Warsaw

For anyone accustomed to the unrelenting drabness of Warsaw over the past two years, the Royal Castle had to come as a shock. King Karol – he was that now, Dzerzhinski reflected – had brought furniture and tableware, a retinue of Viennese servants, and spiffy uniforms for everyone who was already here. Today, you would see more polished hardwood, snowy linen and shiny brass on a short walk through the palace corridors than you would expect to find in all of Warsaw outside. In his brown jodhpurs and leather jacket, Dzerzhinski felt proudly out of place. Insisting that this was the official uniform of the security services had been petty, but the ability to show up for official occasions dressed like a labour union man gave him a quiet satisfaction. He did not like the new government of Poland much. Even Pilsudski looked too polished now, his uniform coat pressed, medals pinned to it. Meeting him was increasingly a chore.

“You’re not getting any more.” Dzerzhinski almost spat out the words. “Not one more. I’ve killed enough good men for you.”

The marshal blinked. “Feliks, I’ve never asked…”

“No, you never did, I suppose.” Dzerzhinski cut him off. “Noble, patriotic National Army, bravely fighting its battles, never asking where your bread and coats and bullets came from. People at home made them for you, Josef. They made sure that you had everything you needed so you could fight, at great sacrifice. You will not tell me to punish them for it.”

“People starved and froze in the camps, Feliks!”

Dzerzhinski barely checked a sneer. He turned to face his formal superior, looking him straight in the eye. “They went without so you would have enough.” He said slowly. “Someone had to bear the shortage. We made sure it was not your soldiers. And if I also made sure that the fat landlords and factory owners carried their share, will you blame me for that? Will you blame poor Jacob? They did their duty by you.”

Pilsudski shook his head mildly. He did not like arguing with the men who had fought the war with him, but sometimes, you had to. “They may have thought so, Feliks, but a crime is a crime. I cannot have people in my government – in the king’s government – with such a past. You must help me weed them out. If you protect them…”

“Are you threatening me?” The police chief took in the staircase with a quick glance. Nobody close enough to overhear, this was a good enough place.

“I am merely saying that I need your full cooperation in this.” Pilsudski said soothingly. “If you cannot give me that, I will have to give the task to someone else.”

Dzerzhinski snorted. “Josef, you’re a soldier. You barely manage logistics. You have no clue about this. Don’t tell me you are going to judge what is fair or right.” He raised his hand to cut off a reply. “And do not tell me the church press stories about starving children and mothers whoring for bread. Yes, that happened. And if it hadn’t, they’d be whoring for Russian bread now. We did what we did for our country. Do not tell me your precious army always paid for what it took!”

He took a deep breath to calm himself. Maybe it had been wrong to post NSB officers with the units. It had improved command and security – surprisingly many people had been willing to betray their responsibilities in the face of money – but it had given the uniformed soldiers the chance to fight with clean hands. If they needed to dispose of a problem, get vital information out of prisoner, find something on the black market, they asked the NSB. It was something his men would have to live with now.

“Josef, I am not an unreasonable man. You know as well as anyone that I am ready to make my peace with the new reality. But this is where I draw the line. Here is what will happen: We close the construction brigades and penal battalions. We do not need them anymore, now. The factory orders will convert to zloty. And nobody will speak of this again. Not ever.”

“Not good enough.” Pilsudski bristled. “What about the dead, the displaced, the people who lost their limbs on the rails? What of the dispossessions? There must be a reckoning!”

“Give them medals.” Dzerzhinski snapped. He surprised himself with his cleverness sometimes. That was a good idea, actually. “We’ve been giving out medals to everyone lately. Give them one. They served Poland as much as any soldier. Bury the dead with military honours, pin medals on the survivors and send them home. I promise you the men who ran the system will not say a word against it. We will all go home and no longer mention it. And the country will still have a security service.”

“With you to lead it?” the marshal asked acidly.

“With me to lead it.” Dzerzhinski confirmed. “Peace may be coming, but if you think you can do without a security service, you’re being naïve. I built the NSB. I will convert it to a peacetime footing. I will make it work for you and the king.”

Pilsudski nodded grimly. “The king wants you on a short leash.” He said.

Dzerzhinski shrugged. “We will survive it.” They did not shake hands when they parted.

14 April 1908, Washington DC

“Well, Mr President.” Francis Butler Loomis nodded to Theodore Roosevelt and raised his glass, “I suppose I am grateful for the opportunity to serve. But what exactly do you expect me to do in Brussels?”

Roosevelt smiled appreciatively. “Be present, above all.” He said. “These negotiations are turning into more of a circus daily. Envoys from all belligerent nations are meeting with the Russians, and diplomats from all European powers are hanging around the fringes hoping not to miss the opportunity to give things a shove in the right direction. It’s almost like the Congo Conference. I’d send Root, but I cannot spare him.“

Loomis nodded. This was not a job for a cabinet official, anyway. You couldn’t send anyone too senior, or the other powers would feel you had something up your sleeve. But you had to send someone senior enough to be credible in his own right. Not a lot of options there. “All right, then.” He took a sip of his brandy. “And what outcome would you prefer me to observe?”

The president stroked his moustache. “What is your preferred scenario, Mr Loomis?”

Was this supposed to be a test? No, Roosevelt didn’t do that once you’d proved yourself. He must genuinely be curious. Well, then: “Obviously, the first interest of the United States is the repayment in full of all loans outstanding to foreign powers. Which in practice means Germany. As a result, we need to see the Kaiser extract enough indemnity to service his nation’s debt. I’m sure the British will be along with us on that account.”

Roosevelt nodded. “Absolutely.” He said. “And if any American is stupid enough to still be owning Russian bonds, well, that level of foolishness deserves to be punished.”

Loomis wondered about that. Several New York trusts had, in fact, been caught with their pants down by that one. These had mostly been pre-war issues and none had held positions large enough to threaten their future – nothing like in France, where the Czar’s default had triggered a series of bank runs and the government was still frantically trying to stem the tide – but it was enough for them to pointedly not mention. Public confidence in finance was brittle. He was not sure whether peace was truly in America’s interest at this point. The economy could use a few more million-dollar orders from Berlin.

“I am also certain that the United States as a free republic will welcome the formation of free states for the once captive nations of Eastern Europe, even if they are monarchies.” The diplomat continued, swirling his snifter. However, I am not sure how willing she should be to witness the destruction of Russia that may well result from this punishment.”

Roosevelt snorted dismissively. “That is out of our hands.” He said. “If the regency is crazy enough to hold out for a better deal much longer, they will destroy their country. There is nothing we can do about that. But we must hope that the Russian people get their act together. This is a historic opportunity for them to prove their mettle.”

“They just failed quite spectacularly at that, didn’t they`?” Loomis pointed out.

“The war?” The president set down his glass and shook his head, fixing Loomis with a piercing gaze. “No. Anyone can lose a war against Germany. No shame attaches to that. Hell, I don’t want to consider how our boys would acquit themselves against Mad Mack. There’s a general for you, that man. No, the question is a different one.”

The president drew breath and stabbed his index finger on the table. “To date, Europe has learned to live under the shadow of a Russia that is powerful, but nobody has been able to say with certainty what the nature of that power is. Balanced between European and Asiatic, she was seen as half-savage herself, a ruler of wild peoples barely raised above the level of the Tartar. Some have said that like Turkey and China, Russia must by rights be counted among the Asiatic despoties, not the European powers.”

“Germans, no doubt.” Loomis remarked.

“Some of them. But the question legitimately stands: What has the Czardom that raises it above the level of the Son of Heaven or the sultan? To date, we have said their fleet, their army, their capital cities, their music and literature, but all of these things can be bought or forced from their civilised subject nations. Now, that will no longer be an option.” Roosevelt paused to consider. “The Russian government will lose much of its industrial might. Most of its civilised peoples will fall into the German ambit. And it will no doubt pay for the error of this war a good two or three decades.”

Loomis ran a mental calculation, If the sums on the table were anything like accurate … “More likely forty or fifty years, Mr President.”

“Well, then. What they are left with is not unpromising. A wide open land sparsely peopled by savage tribes, rich in resources for the daring to exploit, yet idle. Much like the early days of this very nation, in fact. That, Mr Loomis, is the test that history is posing the Russian. If they fall into barbarism and rule like the Tartars of old, they will never again rise above the level of the Chinese or Persians. In that case, we must consider that their land is, in fact, wasted on them and should by rights go to a more vigorous people in need of new frontiers. But if they acquit themselves as white men ought – well, they will yet make something of what they have left. And they will be welcome among the civilised nations of the world with no question.”

“So whatever the Germans choose to take...”

“What the Kaiser chooses to take, he shall take, Mr Loomis. If it can be done without prejudice to our country’s interests, by all means try to foster goodwill and secure a humane treatment of all the victims of this war. But do not think that sparing the Russian government a moment of pain is what you are expected to do. If this crucible forges them into a stronger nation, it is good. If it topples the autocracy, so much the better. But the United States has no pressing interest in either.”

15 April 1908, Vladikavkas

The paper had given its verdict, in hard numbers and smudged grease pencil across artfully drawn maps. Prince Mikhail might not like it, but he could no longer afford to ignore it. History might forgive him, but the decision did not come easily. And yet what hurt him most was how General Nazarbekov, whose people stood to lose everything, had turned himself into the voice of hard, cold military reason. He was infuriating, and right.

“There are no more reserves.” He pointed out. “Everything’s gone to fight the Austrians and Germans. The Ossetian Military Road is already wide open, the Turks just do not know it yet. We cannot defend Kutaisi without more troops, but if we draw them down, they will simply be bypassed.”

Mikhail nodded. Of course it was impossible. For a Russian army to be at a logistical disadvantage to an Ottoman one was unheard of, but it had happened: The Turks had their pick of attack routes. They could roll up the fortresses of the plains and march through Georgia and Azerbaijan all the way to Baku, turn left to Vladikavkas on the Georgian Military Road, or head up the Ossetian road straightaway. As long as they had not made that choice, Mikhail had to keep his reserves in hand. There simply was not enough to defend all the passes. “It does mean leaving ancient Christian lands to the infidel. There must be something to do!”

“Franc-tireurs.” Nazabekov stated flatly. “It is the only thing left. Of course we will allow everyone who wants to move behind the front to evacuate – the passes will be kept open as long as possible, and since we are not moving troops south, there will not be a problem.” He said it with his face unmoved. “Many young men want to stay behind. They already have militia rifles. It will not be pleasant, being a Turk in Armenia and Georgia.”

The prince nodded. True, that was something they could do, but it felt too inadequate. If only they could send more troops to the south! But he would need all his regular Russian forces to hold the Greater Caucasus passes, and the Caucasian units were leaking like a sieve. Entire Azeri and Chechen regiments were melting like spring snow, the men just diffusing into the landscape, drifting home or – worse – taking their skills and arms to the invading Ottomans. The penalties for the families of deserters did not seem to deter anyone any longer. Even Georgians and Armenians would likely pack up and leave if they were ordered to abandon their homelands to the Turk. It was the gallant thing do, Mikhail admitted to himself, but from the perspective of their commanding general it made them an incalculable quantity.

“That leaves the problem of tripwires.” Nazarbekov continued in his icy, detached way. “We have to leave troops in the foothills to tell us which pass the Turks will try to force.”

He did not need to point out what this required of the men so detached. But there was nothing to help it – they did not have enough troops to garrison all the defiles. They had to hope the enemy did not have enough to attack them all.

“It will have to be Russian line troops.” The general said. Local Christians would melt away to ambush Turks, and Muslims simply desert. But Mikhail could not spare any regulars. A thought resurfaced. There had been that troublesome bunch…

“The Czech Legion – are they still in our command?” he asked.

Nazarbekov nodded. “Still around Novocherkask. There was not enough rail capacity. We can move them up to the front faster, though.”

“Right then.” Mikhail decided. “Send them down the Ossetian Road. They have to be good for


17 April 1908, Taganrog

The station was full of soldiers. Guardsmen stood almost shoulder to shoulder, barring access to the platform and blocking the view of any accidental passers-by. The Ismailovsky Regiment had drawn on its last reserves to provide enough manpower for this operation, and Lieutenant-Colonel Kutekov had been in service long enough to appreciate how much that meant at a time when men, uniforms, rifles, machine guns and horses were all in short supply. The train now waiting along the platform under the walls of the old fortress was fully manned. Ten freight cars for the infantry – that made two hundred men – four for the machine gun sections, bristling with Maxim barrels in boiler-plated sponsons, two passenger cars for the officers and officials, and the ones in the middle. A second train would travel ahead of them, with soldiers to secure the route and supplies to ensure nobody went hungry on the long journey. It was an insane amount of effort to go through, but the country required it.

Ahead, Dr Shimenovski stepped out of the middle car, accompanied by a cadet, the commander of Taganrog fortress, and his secretary. He seemed content with what he had seen, nodding and signing off on the papers the young man held out.

“We may depart, colonel.” He indicated. “The cargo is complete.”

Nobody had ever mentioned it by name. Seventy tonnes of gold, ingots and coins, loaded into the train over the course of ten hours by hand-picked, reliable soldiers and counted by representatives of the finance ministry, the bank, and the military. This, it had been decided, was the only compromise the French would accept. Now, it would be the task of Kutekov and his detail to bring it across the country to Astrakhan and thence to Abushehr, where it would be taken on board a French vessel. On arrival in Paris, the banks would once again consider Russia a solvent partner,. Or so it was said – whether anyone would buy Russian debt again was uncertain. The regency council insisted on the transfer to secure its international standing as much as its fragile supply of war materials from neutral powers.

“Shall we go, then, Dr Shimenovski?” Kutekov suggested.

The official nodded, steadying his pince-nez. Rings under his eyes betrayed the fatigue of standing guard over the cargo for interminable hours.

“I could use some strong tea en route.” He pointed out.

A sentry opened the carriage door for the two men, saluting smartly. He, too, must have been on duty for a while. Kutekov closed and bolted the door from the inside, motioning him away.

“Tea will not be a problem.” The colonel pointed out. “We will not be living as well as in Moscow, but far better than we did at the front. Now, since we will be spending many days together – do you play cards?”

The train shuddered as it slowly gathered speed, making its way out of the station. Four days east, then the river steamers and the Caspian liner… the only secure link to friendly powers. Kutekov shook his head. This was not a place he wanted his mind to go. Carefully, he opened a cupboard and too up two tea glasses. The samovar in the corner was humming, unobtrusively served by an attentive batman. Hot, strong, black and sweet – a soldier’s tea. Shimenovski would have to get used to it.
18 April 1908, Lodz

“I must admit I had not thought the numbers would be so large.” General Rabinovicz rubbed the bridge of his nose. Rabbi Landauer knew the mannerism well – three years had left many a mark on the young man, but beneath the immaculate dark blue uniform, the sinewy muscle and brittle hardness, this was still the brainy, odd kid who had aced his every question and answer session.

“We are doing everything on a grand scale these days, I fear.” The old man explained patiently. “Good things and bad, in numbers that make the individual act seem to lose all meaning.”

“Still…” Rabinovicz thought of the girl from the cellar in Lublin. How was she doing these days? He had never checked.

Landauer nodded. “The good news remains that thousands of our people are coming out of Russia still. I had feared that it would end with the closing of the Black Sea, but wherever the fronts go, Jews come to them. If that is a burden, it is one I will happily bear.”

A burden it was. All along the frontline, puzzled soldiers found themselves confronted with ragged, joyful people who had often walked for weeks with no clearer goal than ‘westwards’ - to the safety of the new state, the Kingdom of Poland that had promised them shelter and protection. How word had spread he would never know. Even the exploits of legendary Moses Zorn and his gang of avenging angels never travelled half as fast or wide. But every day, new people arrived, pointed to the Grand Rabbinate in Lodz by every soldier and civilian in the country, needing shelter, food, care, support, comfort. The cost in money was great enough, but money was barely tight. Donors in America and England had deep pockets, and a dollar or pound could go a long way in a world of paper zloty and military scrip. It was that money did not buy what wasn’t there. You could get food enough, now that the winter was over, but shelter, living space, clothing, coal, household goods, all were simply not to be had. Improvisation could only take you so far. Even with receiving centres in several other cities, Lodz was bursting with starved, desperate, homeless Jews. And – the others.

For over a year he had heard stories of Russians who acted like Jews, who had sheltered Jews at the height of the Union pogroms or fled with them. Last autumn, the first had shown up in the Austro-Hungarian command, and had naturally gravitated towards Lodz. Which had landed the problem on Rabinovicz’s desk. Here was a man – now, several, almost a hundred, in fact – who wanted to volunteer for the Jewish Division, and he might have to turn them away. At least, according to the opinions of many. Rabinovicz was inclined to be pragmatic, but uncertain if he was not setting a dangerous precedent here.

“So, rebbe, have you come to a conclusion what we are to do with them?”

“The question is one of precedence.” Landauer explained. The general settled into his chair. He’d be taking the scenic route – this could be a while.

“Whether they are Jews by birth is a question we cannot answer with any certainty. Where are the records? But since they themselves admit they are not – why would they lie about it when they could so easily pass for Jews? No, much as I would wish to assume they are lying – or misinformed – I dare not.” Landauer looked in the direction of the window, where the sun was glinting off the windows of the Great Synagogue. Rabinovicz followed his gaze and nodded. There were some things a provincial rabbi might do, but the Grand Rabbinate of Poland could not be seen to tolerate.

“The question then is how we must regard their status with a view to giyur. Some would argue that their willingness to defend the Jewish people in itself would be enough to qualify them, but you know that it is not that easy. In fact, the more I look at the rules, the more I am convinced that a man of such qualities would need to be thought of as ger tzedek, a righteous gentile, out of kindness and regard for his soul. And I fear a large number of our more traditional brothers agree with me there, and no,”

Landauer raised his hand and Rabinovicz closed his mouth, the objection unspoken.

“I know you would be happier with a body of biddable, reasonable men. Men who would make pilgrimage to the Hamburg temple and discuss gemorah over cigars and port – no, that was Ferber.” He winked. “Anyways, that is not what I want, or will have. You can look down at our miracle rabbis and Chassidim, but these are the people who keep the faith alive in times of persecution. The flame burns bright in them. I must listen to them, and if only for the respect I have for their faith, I shall. I will take no facile quibbling over the letter of the laws here. They are not converts.”

Landauer paused.

“They are Jews.”

Rabinovicz’s eyes widened.

“What? How…”

“Precedence of law. The words in the Book of Ruth are specific: For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”

He had slipped into Hebrew, and as he cleared his throat, Rabinovicz thought he could see a tear in the old man’s eye.

“The error of the Gaonim is that they think of those words solely as words. But a man does not speak his will solely through the word. They have gone where we went, they lodge where we lodge, our people shall be their people, and they are now offering to die where we do and be buried side by side with the most pure-blooded Kohen among your riflemen. They have taken the oath of Ruth through their actions. No rabbi needed reject them thrice – the world sought to make them abandon their faith and yet they held true to it. We put too much store by ritual and memory, Yossel.”

Landauer rose.

“Too much store by the ways and wisdoms and errors of our little communities. That will have to change. Not with me – I am too old for it anyway. But there is more to being a Jew than shul and bris. We will need very wise men to figure it out in the years to come.” He cocked his head, almost mischievously. “Yossel, if you ever want to go back to yeshivah, I am sure…”

“No.” Rabinovicz shook his head firmly, hoping he was not too undiplomatic. “You knew a different man then, rebbe. I have my calling, and it is of this world.”

Landauer nodded. “A pity. Most years, we lost the best ones to banking and commerce. Now we lose them to the general staff and government, too. But it is well enough, we may need good generals more than good disputants. Will you abide by my judgement?”

“Happily, rebbe.” Rabinovicz rose to shake his hand. “You have made them Jews, I shall make them soldiers.”

Landauer smiled, but he could not resist correcting his erstwhile pupil. “I made them nothing. They made themselves Jews. Better ones than you or me, perhaps.”

20 April 1908, north of Vitebsk

Sometimes, something that became more frightful in reality assumed a less terrifying aspect in the process. Nagata Tetsuzan had become used to the sight of German gunners in the near demonic splendour of bristling beards and bare chests, looking for all the world like the denizens of hell familiar from Buddhist iconography. All of that had changed with the winter, especially in the new gas delivery units. In their buttoned-up, field blue tunics, faces clean-shaven and metal helmets on their heads, they looked younger, less threatening, more – Japanese. And all this transformation had come in the pursuit of ever more terrible ways of killing. The long sleeves and closed collars protected against splashes and sparks, and clean-shaven cheeks got as better seal on the new rubber Morgan masks.

Leutnant Hagenah led him over to the battery, carefully picking his way across the muddy field. Dawn was still half an hour away, but the preparations were already advanced. German infantry usually attacked in the early dark hours, but the officers had wanted to leave it until daylight for this. Captain Nagata was unsure whether that was because they did not entirely trust their new weapon, or because they wanted to see how well it worked. He suspected the latter. An artillery officer came forward to meet them. Being proudly shown around the gun emplacements felt eerily like being guest in someone’s home to Nagata. This Hauptmann Mandelkow was entirely too enamoured with the technical aspects of his trade.

“The thing is,” he explained, “that unlike the lacrymants we have been using, this is an actual weapon. We’ve had Russians stand and fight under tear gas, breathing through improvised masks. That won’t be possible any more now. The only other options we used to have were chlorine, which is really unsuited to artillery deployment, and Stoff 1410, which is very persistent and endangers our own troops.”

Nagata recalled the stories from Riga and Libau. Some areas were still not safe to walk. Modern war had well and truly grown up in the few years since he had stepped ashore in Korea a green and freshly graduated lieutenant. Perhaps he had really chosen the wrong profession.

“Phosgene is the best solution we have!” Mandelkow enthused. “It’s perfectly safe under Morgan masks, harmless in skin contact, but deadly if you breathe it. And Ivan doesn’t have masks.”

The gunners were readying. Hagenah beckoned his charge to come away from the battery, up the slope to the ridge where they would be farther away from the noise. Artillerymen often enough left the service practically deaf. Nagata wanted to avoid that fate if he could. Behind them, an eerie transformation was going on. Blackish-green rubber masks turned men into faceless automata, insectlike behind their bulging glass eyes and metal snouts. Hagenah and Nagata waited to put on their own, reasoning they would be safe enough away from the guns and far from the target area. They wanted to see.

The hill was neither tall nor prominent, but a dugout at the top afforded them a view of the trench system. The German positions were filling with infantry, moving like ants, indistinguishable in their masks and helmets. Further out, the Russian trenches were quiet. Nagata expected that they had to know something was coming, but with no attack having struck at dawn, they probably felt they had been spared for the day. The first roar of heavy guns on the reverse slope had to have come as a nasty shock.

Neither man had ever actually seen a heavy bombardment in daylight, so they did not know what to expect. The blasts and fountains of dirt looked less impressive than they had thought, but then, these were not explosive shells. Phosgene, they had learned, was invisible. That did not strike Nagata as a good feature. The point to gas, as far as he could tell, was to force the enemy to vacate his positions. Anything that told the Russians they were under gas attack early would be good. Here, they might not figure it out until the first victims succumbed. The white fog that the shell strikes raised dissipated quickly, blown away by the slight westerly wind the German attack depended on. Other than the occasional, forlorn attempt at counterbattery fire the Russians mounted, nothing much seemed to happen for a very long time. Hagenah unpacked a sandwich and offered to share, but Nagata did not feel hungry. His mind racing with a vain attempt to imagine what was happening in the trenches below, he could not imagine eating right now.

The infantry advanced shortly after noon, under cover of a rolling barrage. Nagata strained to see, but even through his treasured field glasses it was all but impossible to make out details. A file of G-Wagen were moving across the no-man’s-land to the north, their advance a crawl, but seemingly unopposed. You could see little in the way of shooting, and the Germans left few bodies behind as they entered the enemy defences. Recalling his own baptism of fire on the slopes of Port Arthur, Nagata breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed to have worked after all. Slowly, as though reluctant to give up their dominance, the big guns fell silent. Troops were moving across the no man’s land freely now, the men marching in file, probably following paths that pioneers had marked out to avoid craters, mines and other unpleasant surprises. Hagenah stretched his legs, packed up his map case and gestured to Nagata. “Shall we? If the Hauptmann was right, the gas will have dispersed by now.”

Nagata hesitated. It was not that he feared exposure – much. He had had enough scientific training to understand that small amounts of gas were rarely deadly and effective countermeasures would save you every time. He had a Morgan mask and even practised the drill the German infantry called “Neger machen”, the fifteen-second scramble into the tight, suffocating hood that could make the difference between life and death if the enemy ever managed to deploy gas of its own. But the captain remembered that throughout the attack, he had not seen large numbers of Russian soldiers retreating. He estimated several thousand people would have held a section of front this deep and well fortified. So far, there had been no prisoners brought in. Carefully making his way down the slope towards the communicating trenches that led to the front, Captain Nagata felt glad he had not eaten since last night.

21 April 1908, Metz

The sight of a mighty fortress like Metz, abandoned but for a skeleton crew of caretakers, struck an eerie note in Major Francois Buisson. True, in his younger days he had hoped one day to pass through these gates, but he had imagined the arrival at the head of a column of gunners, flush with victory over the boche. To come here as the guest of the German government, as part of a routine of mutual inspections, still felt wrong. Granted, he was old enough to have come to terms with his mortality and French enough to enjoy the finer things in life. He had no desire to risk life and limb for glory. But this was not how the stories he knew went. If things went on this way for much longer, he might end up as old as his comrade, Major Jean Lescat, at the same rank and pay. Lescat, unlike him, could afford not having a career. Even after the bottom had fallen out of Russian paper, he still enjoyed a significant rentier income that he augmented with his military pay, treating the service as a kind of diversion that made the boredom of life bearable. Buisson needed his pay to feed his family. He had spent years begging for a transfer to Morocco or Indochina, but they had little need for artillery experts there. Instead, he was here, touring the concrete monstrosities that lined the border of the captive provinces and occasionally showing German staff officers through the similarly empty casemates of French fortifications. You would come, look into every broom closet to see if the Germans hadn’t hidden a division of cavalry there, then go home to write your report and await the return visit. In the meantime, you got to taste the finest of German hospitality – with rationing in place, the boches got the better of that deal when they came over – and listen to landsers serenading their commanders. German singing was an acquired taste, and Buisson had never cared enough to bother doing so. Lescat burst out laughing.


Lescat shook his head. “Never mind.” He said, suppressing a chuckle. “Those troops are in trouble.”

Buisson raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“They were singing ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’” the older man explained patiently. “Today, among German soldiers, that is not a compliment. You only hear it sung mockingly. If you are on the Rhine frontier, you are either superannuated, invalided, or pulled strings. Kuno von Moltke, the general in charge, is a notorious homosexual.”

“Homosexual?” Buisson was willing to believe the worst of the Germans, but this surprised him. Surely, such a man would have been discharged.

“He was implicated in a big scandal just before the war. Apparently, the emperor protected him, but he still was posted from Berlin to a rear echelon position in Westfalia and only got to command the Rhine fortresses because everybody else was sent east.” Lescat smiled. “It’s one way to make a career, I guess.”

Buisson shuddered. “I see.” He gestured at the men hovering around the market square. “That explains this collection of scarecrows.”

Over the border, the fortress commanders took perverse pleasure in showing off to the German observers. Troops were always turned out immaculately, handsome young men drilled to perfection in their blue tunics and red trousers. The Germans rarely had anything like that to show. Still, Lescat shook his head.

“Look more closely, Buisson.” He indicated a knot of men. “You saw them at their gun position earlier. How did they do?”

Buisson struggled to recall. They had done – well, he supposed. Taken position quickly, with no orders given, shown off the pieces as required, handling every part of their equipment competently. He recalled that they had done so with guns of several calibres. Guardedly, he looked again. They wore loose, slovenly-looking uniforms, but the bodies underneath were hard and lean - younger than their faces suggested. Many had visible wounds. And they met the eyes of their officers with an insolence that would have worried him, coming from one of his own men.

“These are not bad fighting men.” Buisson admitted. “They put me in mind of the Foreign Legion, or the Coloniale.”

Lescat nodded. “I would put even money on a fair fight between them and my men back in Verdun.” He said flatly.

Buisson fell silent, stroking his moustache. The realisation that these troops had been sent away from the battlefront to recover their strength was sinking in. Whatever the war had done to Germany – and the press was falling over itself to analyse the collapse of the Mark, the loss of a generation of young men, and the debt that would cripple her economy for decades – it had turned her army into a terrifying thing. It made him appreciate the status quo even more. Fighting his way into Metz against men like these, men not only armed with gas shells, but accustomed to their use in the way his own gunners had never managed, sounded like a suicidal proposition. Meanwhile, the demilitarisation agreement had given him the chance to come to know the old enemy while allowing many of his colleagues to help carve out France’s future greatness in Africa. It did not look like such a bad idea at second glance.

22 April 1908, Novocherkassk

In the end, nobody could remember how it had started. Sergeant Ondrei Vokasec knew that feeling only too well. Some said it had been the meat rations, but as far as he knew, the food had been as good – or as bad – as ever. Mother Russia fed her soldiers gristly meat cooked in a watery kasha these days, but that was nothing new. Others claimed that the major had started it by announcing their marching orders in the most peremptory fashion, but that did not convince him, either. Russian officers could be arrogant arseholes. Actually, scratch Russian. There was no soldier in the world who did not learn this lesson on day two. Of course, it could have been a case of the straw that broke the camel’s back. The men had been angry enough, having spent the past four days bivouacked along a railway embankment waiting to be taken on a train any minute now, but not allowed inside the actual station building. Russian burghers, much like their peers anywhere, seemed to love soldiers in the abstract, but preferred real ones safely out of sight. Nights were miserably cold and wet, and the tea that Union service girls handed out seemed to bypass them more often than strictly necessary. If an officious busybody really had chosen to tell them that they wouldn’t waste good tea on people who’d be fed to the Turks soon enough, well, that might not be reason enough to bayonet him, but he could see the man’s point. Vaclav Ripka later claimed that the trouble had started when Russian police had cleared men out from their campfires to make room around the station. That actually made sense, though Vokasec hated to admit it. Either way, on a good day these things did not have to end in a full-fledged mutiny.

Mutiny. Sergeant Vokasec hated the word. It came with its own gaggle of comrades, words like court-martial, gallows, firing squad and unmarked grave. They were all of them marked men anyway, and to betray not one master, but two, had to be the height of folly. But now, the momentary elation of releasing long-contained anger spent, it was a too late for second thoughts. Vokasec would have to come up with an idea. It was always him, wasn’t it? Everybody else was happy to complain how his ideas were bad, but they all went along at the time. Gingerly stepping around a smear of blood on the floor tiles, the sergeant tried to think clearly. There was no way this would be forgotten. They had killed officers and Russian greenjackets, and even some guards troops that had been lounging around inside the train station – in the dry, warm, supplied with straw for bedding while the Czech Legion had been freezing outside, forbidden from returning to quarters, waiting for the train that never came. Men were even now lazing on the straw, dividing up the Russians’ tea and vodka. There would be no going back from this.

Could they get away? Maybe. From what he had seen of the Russians’ fighting spirit, the average soldier would just as soon be elsewhere. If there was a way to commandeer a train, they might make their way to the Persian border. It was a crazy plan, but experience had taught them that crazy schemes could pay off, and a united body of armed men could get away with many things. Vokasec hefted the comforting weight of the rifle in his hand. Every man had drawn a hundred rounds marching out. It could last for a while, especially if the Russians were as hard up for ammunition as it looked. They had had to wait two weeks for their delivery, and the Czechs, for all their poor reputation, were frontline troops. But it was a crazy idea.

What else was there? Negotiate? They were holding Novocherkassk railway station and railyard. He’d be surprised if there actually was a military force in town to match their numbers right now. Transporting troops anywhere seemed to take ages, so the command might be willing to make some kind of concessions to end the standoff. But what kind of concessions could those be? And what would they be worth once they found themselves among armed Russian troops again? They could not demand repatriation – the Austrians would hang the lot of them for traitors. But they could not safely stay in Russia, either. For a brief moment, Sergeant Vokasec thought of China. They needed instructors for their army, didn’t they?

“Ondrei!” Vokasec flinched and was about to reprimand Ripka for his unmilitary bearing, but he checked himself. It wasn’t as though a rank in the Czar’s army actually meant much now. If he was to be obeyed, it would have to be because the men wanted him as their leader.

“What is it?”

Ripka ‘s face was flushed, his eyes wide with shock, but he struggled to articulate himself over laughter. Whatever It was, it couldn’t be bad. “You know, that train the guards were hanging around? The one that’s parked on the outside platform?”

“The one I told you to check out? I hope you did.”

Ripka nodded with boyish eagerness. “We looked it through. You have to see this for yourself. Come on! Come along!”


“You’re never going to believe it, Ondrei. Just come along, all right? I’ll show you. This could be the solution to all our problems.”

Grunting, Ondrei Vokasec shouldered his rifle and walked after Ripka to see the miracle for himself. This had better be good.
22 April 1908, Briansk

It had been said often, and usually with a sneer of disdain, that Russian peasants and machines more complicated than scissors did not go well together. Valentina Grishina had never felt that this was particularly true, and it certainly did not apply to her. Her instructors had been gratified by her quick progress in mastering sewing machines, and on hospital duty, she had ended up operating the autoclaves that had a way of scalding the inattentive, especially when you ran them without enough cooldown time. But she was willing to believe that the workings of a Nagant rifle might just be the exception. Steam tables and gas stoves, sewing machines, operating lights, autoclaves and aerators had never presented any difficulty. She looked forward with excitement to the idea of one day learning how to run a telegraph, a typewriter, even a printing press. But these were machines that served life. The heavy, ungainly chunk of metal and wood in her hands had no purpose other than to injure and kill. She had seen too many times what it would do to living flesh to approach it innocently.

“Platoon, attention!”

Sergeant Skotov’s voice was hoarse, gravelly and weak. Choosing a man with no more usefulness on the frontline to train militia made sense, but given the severity of the injuries their NCO had brought home, Valentina was uncertain whether this was a stupid choice on the part of the authorities, or a particularly clever one. Skotov was a kind and understanding man who enjoyed talking about his children and had worked as a postman before being recalled into uniform. He had survived a bayonet to the leg in Poland and an Austrian bullet through his shoulder in Galicia, only to be put under gas by the Germans and muster out with his lung and vocal cords half burned away. No young man who saw him would be left with much in the way of illusions about the glory to be gained in battle.

But of course, Skotov was not training men.

“Chamber round!”

Bracing the rifle against her hip, Valentina pulled back the lever that now locked the firing pin in the ready position and opened the trapdoor to the magazine, allowing a cartridge to slide into the firing chamber. Releasing it to slide forward again sealed the lip of the cartridge against the barrel. It was as elegant as a Singer patent slipping the thread around the spool as the needle descended, but the act left her shivering. She would hardly have chosen to join one of the ‘Death Battalions’ of her own impulse, but her sense of duty was enough to move her when Father Feodor asked. Sending women to fight at this juncture, she figured, made sense. Men looked to victory, glory and advancement in war, if they went willingly. Most that she knew had not. But nobody understood the quiet nobility of sacrifice like Russian women. Had it not always been asked of them to give themselves up for the sake of others? Husbands and children, priests and landlords, church and mir all made demands on the body and spirit of women. To give what would be used up in two decades of drudgery in one moment to the nation was, if anything, an improvement. Going to die for the Czar was reason for pride – and die they would. Valentina Grishina had no illusions about that. They would sacrifice themselves so that the nation would be spared the worst, the invader reel back bloodied and shocked to make peace on terms that the Rodina could survive.


The rifle felt awkward and heavy as she raised it to her shoulder. They had spent many hours exercising and practising their fighting skills, but today was the first time they would shoot live rounds. One each. Fumbling, Valentina adjusted her stance, one foot perpendicular to the line of the barrel, the other following it. Aligned with her sights, the outline of a German soldier, leering murderously from under his pickelhaube, stared out from the target of cheap, painted pinewood boards. Skotov looked down the level line of barrels and nodded to himself.


Squeeze, not yank. She remembered. The mechanical resistance of the trigger gave way as the bolt shot forward, striking the cartridge, the entire operation proceeding before her inner eye with the smooth precision of a schematic print. Then, the explosion hit, slamming her backwards, staggering to keep her footing. Across the yard, the target disintegrated in a shower of splinters. Brick dust rose in clouds where the bullets struck the wall already pockmarked with old impacts. Valentina figured that this was an extravagant way of doing things. Surely, they did not train marksmanship this way routinely? But if not, what had they been shooting at here? She quickly suppressed the thought.

“Open chambers!”

The women presented their rifles, bolt drawn back, empty chambers forward. Skotov limped along the front, inspecting each before allowing them to fall out and pass on the guns to the second rank. Valentina’s shoulder ached fiercely, and her ears were still ringing. Some of her comrades almost looked dizzy. The power of their weapons amply demonstrated, they retired to side of the yard. Valentina vigorously shushed a gaggle of bourgeois girls who started chatting. Not everybody understood the attitude that this task required.

The blast of the second volley assailed their ears and another target was blown to pieces. Valentina was shocked to see the women staggering, stumbling, grimacing with pain. Had it been like that with her? Surely not. But no matter how much she told herself that her bullet had to have been among those that hit the target – real German soldiers would hardly stay obligingly still. Nor did they disappear in a cloud of splinters when hit, she supposed. How many would they take down for each of their own number? The Germans were short of young men, she had read in the papers. Even if they just managed to kill one for every ten of their comrades, it would make a difference. But would it be enough? And if it was not - what was she doing here? She had been useful at the hospital in Mogilev. She had done everything a qualified nurse did, working double shifts many days despite her night classes. Reading came easily to her now, and machines just made sense. She had felt in the right place. Here, she had to remind herself daily of the debt of gratitude she owed to the Czar and the Patriotic Union, otherwise she might well have decided to just walk away. Some girls had. They might be shot for deserters, but nobody believed it would really happen. They had seen the reality of the front as it approached Mogilev: the chaos, the confusion and masses of uniformed men surging back and forth. If you did not want to be found, you could easily slip into a different life. All it took was someone’s papers, or the gift to lie convincingly. Lissa had offered Valentina her own paybook when she had been ill with typhoid, sure she would not recover. It would have shown her as a trained nurse and resident of St Petersburg, removing the stigma of peasant birth. Valentina had declined – and Lissa had ended up still needing it anyway. But these things could be done. No PU post would ask too many awkward questions of a skilled nurse showing up at the door.

Valentina shook her head. That way lay treason and despair. And anyway, the Germans would surely not spare nurses or seamstresses. At least, she would have a rifle to defend herself when the time came.

22 April 1908, Vladikavkas

It had not occurred to General Nazarbekov that military defeat shared certain features with sickness. Staff offices were usually noisy places, with clicking heels, clattering spurs, typewriters and a lot of shouting. Over the last weeks, his had gone from noisy determination through even noisier panic to the current hospital atmosphere. The patient was dying, none of the doctors could think of anything to do, and thus they awaited the inevitable, curing symptoms as best they could. The Caucasus was safe: No enemy could hope to breach the passes. But anything beyond was lost. The question was merely how much more suffering would be required before this was acknowledged.

The general listlessly fingered the medal of the Order of St George he had placed on the desk. The Czar had sent it to with the gratitude of the nation to reward him for the Turkish defeat at Tblisi. Or maybe someone at the council table decided it would look good in the papers. Nazarbekov had had little to do with this; a group of Armenian and Georgian franc-tireurs had given the Turk a bloody nose. But it had made good reading, even if it would do little to help the people of Tblisi. The Ottoman army would have the city as soon as it turned its mind to it. But the story had cemented his standing as the saviour of the Caucasus Christians, and as devil incarnate in the eyes of the Ottomans.

Today, General Nazarbekov felt that it was simply becoming too much. He had been reading reports from his agents in the frontline regions daily, descriptions of retreat and horror, the small and savage wars that the local people inflicted on each other as the might of the Czar retreated and the Ottoman force made a shambles of their victorious advance. Nazarbekov had grown up mostly in the great metropoleis of the Empire, but he knew his ancestral homeland well enough to understand what would happen when the lid came off the stew of ancient hatreds and recent injuries. Georgians and Armenians, Azeris, Tartars, Ingushes, Chechens and whatever else, out for blood and revenge against the next village, the next valley, or an entire nation on general principle. The insane policy of privileging Christian over Mohammedan in recent years had not helped a bit. Now, the caliph’s army was conquering the Czar’s borderland, and any Muslim who could pick up a rifle was keen on settling scores.

A knock on the door announced Lieutenant Colonel Hakhverdov. The general motioned him to sit down.

“I have considered your request.” He opened the conversation abruptly. “You will understand I cannot formally agree to it. The army cannot spare any competent soldier at this time, and you are competent. Therefore…”

Hakhverdov stiffened. “General – not agree?! The Turks are slaughtering our people, and we do nothing! I understand that as commanding general, your duty takes precedence, but how can you think to prevent…” Nazarbekov raised his hand.

“Colonel, please listen to me. I cannot formally allow it. In order to release you, I would have to let you resign your commission. And if you did that, you would become liable for conscription, meaning nothing is gained. If you truly intend to put yourself at the disposal of the Armenian people – “

The younger man nodded. Nazarbekov returned the gesture.

“ – I will issue orders for an extended reconnaissance mission. Whatever may befall along the way falls outside the scope of what could rightly be foreseen. You wanted to take volunteers?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Pick them wisely.” It did not need saying that none of them was likely to return alive. Then again, that was not an uncommon state of affairs in the Russian army these days. “And choose your course well. I do not know that you can achieve much.”

Hakhverdov gave a resigned nod. “We can at least make sure the Turks learn that Armenian lives have a price.” Some had said that provoking the Turks with violence would merely exacerbate the slaughter, but neither man thought that there was much that could be exacerbated. The Armenians were considered rebels, traitors, practically Russian. Czarist propaganda had played into the hands of the Turkish press on that count.

“Good luck.” Impulsively, Nazarbekov stood and embraced Hakhverdov. “They will write a song about you one day.”

24 April 1908, Chernigov

Major Shternmiler still found it hard to adjust to the insignia of his new rank. Today had been the third time he had left his coat hanging because it had epaulets he didn’t recall rating. Still, the additional pay was appreciated – a rouble did not stretch anywhere near as far as it had before the war – and when General Rennenkampf had pinned a medal to his chest for his services in helping to organise the orderly retreat across the Dniepr, he had managed to refrain from pointing out they had had plenty of practice doing that sort of thing. Still, even after being raised to the rarefied environment of an army command staff, he was not a popular person to hang out with. Which made it all the more surprising to be sounded out, of all people, by General Mikhail Diterikhs. His files indicated the man was suspected of divided loyalties – Shternmiler doubted there was more substance to these allegations than his parentage. He did have a way of asking intelligent questions, that much was certain. But he also had a disconcerting habit of fishing for the kind of statements it was unwise to make these days.

“So, Major, in your opinion,” he started again, adding another spoonful of sugar to his tea, “how do we best thwart the Germans’ intentions? STAVKA’s latest order points out that the road to Moscow leads through Borodino. Where does that leave us?”

Shternmiler fiddled with his teaspoon to buy time. “I am not a historian, Sir.” He finally answered, deciding that honesty might indeed be the best policy here. He had spoken his mind bluntly enough in the past. If they had not wanted that, they wouldn’t have promoted him to Rennenkampf’s staff. “but I dread the day they start mentioning False Dimitri.”

“How so?” Diterikhs looked up with undisguised curiosity. The man seemed to genuinely be looking for a silver lining – and grasping at straws, sometimes.

“Sir, the historical analogies for our situation have gone from Alexander I and Ivan Grozniy to Alexander Nevsky to Kutusov and Peter the Great. The point being, I believe, that Russia can afford to lose its capital to an invader. Trading space for time.” So far, that was a reasonably accurate description of what came out of STAVKA these days. The question was: how would it be received? A good memory for what the authorities had said a year or two ago could be a serious liability.

“Well, the latest report indicates that intelligence estimates the Germans cannot possible stand another winter. You do not think that is accurate?”

Shternmiler’s shoulders hinted at a shrug. “It may well be. I’m not an expert on foreign intelligence. My field is security. But regardless, what the estimates neglect to mention is that if the Germans cannot hope to last another winter, we cannot survive another summer. That is of far greater concern to me.”

The general scratched his beard. “You would see our situation that negatively?” he asked. “Given the distance that it has taken the enemy two years to advance and the breadth of space still to cover before they even reach Moscow?”

The major shook his head. “General,” he explained, patiently and struggling not to make it sound too obvious, “when Kutuzov abandoned Moscow to Napoleon, he made a brave and wise choice. But it was predicated on the fact that he still had an effective army. The enemy could be forced from the country once the battle was rejoined. We, on the other hand, have seen our military capabilities degraded from the first day. The question is not how much space we can advantageously trade for time. Time is of no more use. The question is now, how much longer can we hope to hold any defensive points at all?”

The shock in the general’s eyes clinched it. This was no concerned grazhdanin trying to snoop out defeatists. There was genuine concern and fear here. Carefully setting down the glass on the dirty baize of what had until recently been a billiard table, Diterikhs looked Shternmiler directly in the eye. “How do you come to that conclusion?”

“No more ‘Uraah!’.” He replied. Seeing the puzzlement in his commander’s face, he explained: “I’ve been to the front numerous times, usually to find some way of countering the Germans’ dirty tricks. Propaganda leaflets, malicious rumours, beaming visions of saints on fog banks with cinematographic projectors, that sort of thing. I am not overly concerned over these things, to be honest. They work, but not very well. What has given us far greater trouble is the cumulative effect of shortages and defeats on morale. The men no longer believe they can win.”

Diterikhs frowned. He had seen troops fight well in hopeless situations. In fact, they seemed to bring out the best in the Russian soldier. He decided to make his point: “But at Ivangorod, nobody expected to win, and yet the men fought like lions.”

Shternmiler nodded and absently began rearranging the salt and pepper shaker on the table. The officers had been eating and working on the same tables for days now. “Yes, but at Ivangorod, they still had hope of an ultimate victory. The cause of the Czar and orthodoxy would triumph, even if they themselves faced a harsh trial of fate. Go out there now and ask the men about the cause of Czar and Christ – well, they wouldn’t confide in you. But you can hear it in the way they cheer. Unless the situation is radically different elsewhere, we no longer have an army that can be used to drive out the enemy. And I see no reason to think that it is. That is why all the talk of Suvorov and The Troubles frightens me.”

The general’s eyes narrowed. “You no longer think Russia can prevail?”

“On the contrary, I am scared that we are throwing away our last chance because of this ridiculous fear of disloyalty. Russia can win! But it cannot win by staying in the fight until the last soldier is bled to death on German barbed wire.” Shternmiler paused. “You realise that we no longer produce barbed wire, do you, Sir? STAVKA wrote that brushwood serves as well.”

Diterikhs nodded, slightly shamefaced. Good. The man had not yet lost all sense of responsibility. He felt bad about the things he had to tell his troops.

“It’s no longer the age of Boris Godunov.” The major continued. “You can’t drive out the invader with pitchforks and righteous ire. What we need to do is make peace and prepare for the next war. That is the part where the Union has it right. Russia can survive a painful peace and still be herself. Russia can afford to be patient. But if we continue to throw away the very instruments we will need to build our strength…”

“How…?” The general checked himself. There was no way this man was privy to the debates at headquarters. He had simply figured it out for himself. At the Kremlin, they were talking about nothing loftier than mitigating the consequences of defeat. Bleeding the Germans enough so they would understand the cost of overreach. Even that approach had its critics nowadays. Diterikhs decided that now was as good a time to run a risk as any. “Indeed. Major, you are a very perceptive man. Why did you never attend staff college?”

Shternmiler smiled sourly. Gold-braided fools would ask these questions, never understanding what obstacles a man from lower down the social scale faced on his way up. A major’s commission was an impossible prize for the likes of him, but to men like Diterikhs and Rennenkampf, it represented abject failure. “I never had the opportunity so far, Sir. Intelligence is not a field that gains many rewards.”

An understanding nod. “Well, major. I would like you to give me a better idea of what the situation at the front is like. Not on the map – in the heads of the men. Come to my office after the general meeting and I will have time for you. And I would appreciate regular reports on morale. Candid reports. No line officer will tell me the truth, they are too invested in their careers.”

“In writing, Sir?” Shternmiler’s tone spoke volumes. There was a myriad of things you could say, but would never dare put to paper. Not if you valued your career, your freedom, your life. Accusations of treason and defeatism were no longer thrown around blindly, but they were still a potent weapon in the political free-for-.all that had engulfed his country.

“In person.” Diterikhs allowed himself a warm smile. “Relax, major. I want you to tell me the truth. You are an intelligence officer, so I expect a pessimistic appraisal. But I must know the state of our defences. I cannot judge how to defend Kiev unless I understand what the troops will stand.”

“The troops will still defend, man to man.” Shternmiler said. “I doubt they can be made to advance. A gas attack or a G-Wagen force can easily panic them, but I don’t think that is likely this far south. Of course, the Germans have a history of trickery.”

The general nodded. “So the Austrian divisions we are facing would need German help to take the city.”

Shternmiler shook his head. “Shoes, Sir.” He said bitterly. “To take Kiev now, all the Austrians need is shoes. I pray nightly they do not figure it out.”

26 April 1908, east of Borisov

Russia had changed. It wasn’t just the weather, though the sun helped. A wide expanse of green grass and silvery birches, dotted with whitewashed villages and dark green clusters of trees, was a far cry from the endless frozen waste they had seemed trapped in since they broke out of the Baltic. It was pretty, Vicewachtmeister Kanngiesser had to admit. It had a certain postcard charm. You could imagine enjoying holidays here. Not that Kanngiesser would ever want to come back, but in principle, he could see the appeal. No, Russia had changed in much more concrete and practical ways. It had houses to be billeted in, food to requisition and people you had to deal with. It made a big difference from the hellscape of burned villages and ghost towns they had become used to. In fact, the place looked a lot like Eastern Poland had last spring. Back then, though, there had been good boots. The felt or plaited straw monstrosities that most Russian prisoners wore these days were not even worth stealing. Knobelbecher were bad, but they weren’t that bad.

It figured, though. The Vicewachtmeister stretched out on his bed of straw, looking into the square of the tiny village they had settled into for the night. The Russians were simply no longer able to keep up with destroying things. If that meant roofs to sleep under, kasha and mushrooms to eat, and the occasional bottle of vodka to liberate, that was fine by him. Kanngiesser’s men could use the relief. They had been through the wringer a few times since they’d ridden out of their barracks, every man mounted on a cavalry horse and certain they’d be facing the foe galloping into action, caissons clattering and harness jingling. Now, they were mostly walking. Even the foul-tempered., unseasoned Argentinian horses they’d come to hate last year were treasured as more and more guns now sported panye ponies. If that cut into their speed, it hadn’t mattered too much during the muddy season. Now – they just had to make do and walk as best they could. It was, they’d said more often than Kanngiesser cared to remember, one hell of a way to fight a war. Maybe next year they’d have lorries to drag the guns. But of course nobody had the least intention to still be fighting next year. The war had been going on too long as it was.

.Out here, with the horses stabled for the night and the wind rustling in the birches, a fire softly glowing, it felt oddly peaceful. Kanngiesser had checked the posts and settled his men in for the night, passing around the last of the spirits they had taken along from the last town they’d come through and listening to them gripe. Damn, why couldn’t the Russians see they were beat? What was the point risking your life if the only thing you got was more of the bastards coming out of the woodwork? The Austrians were about to grab Kiev, at least if the papers they got were good for anything other than arsewipes. The Chinese and Turks had beaten them, which just went to show they were hot stuff if you kicked them into proper shape first. And it looked like the only thing stopping everybody from going home was that the government was asking for more than the Czar would give them. Kanngiesser could see how that would annoy the emperor. His boys had bled for the victory. He’d lost three quarters of the original force, buried or invalided home. But still, Russia was a big place. Even a modest bite should be quite enough for any appetite. He had no desire to lose more of his comrades.

A shadow passing by the watchfire – Kanngiesser set aside his bottle. Wachtmeister Helwig was making his rounds, no doubt spreading cheer wherever he passed. That bastard was always more than happy to enforce every chickenshit order from clueless officers who thought themselves called upon to raise fucking morale. Perhaps he wouldn’t have minded so much if Helwig wasn’t a living reminder how Kanngiesser, despite his Iron Cross first class, despite his five years of service, despite his excellent marks on every test, was always second choice for promotion. They’d brought Helwig in from the god-damned lifeguard cavalry when old Wachtmeister Mehling’s head had intersected with the path of a Russian shrapnel fragment. Not the first clue about how to fight a gun, but big ideas of spit and polish. But you couldn’t have a Socialist in charge of the company. And sure enough he was passing around Division Field Order # 1243 – on singing German folk songs to maintain morale. A spirited rendition of the Wacht am Rhein died two fires over.

Very well – they could sing. Kanngiesser fumbled for the dog-eared songbook in his knapsack and beckoned his corporal: “Bernoth, die Klampfe! Es wird gesungen.”

Of all the things to take on a thousand-kilometre hike illegally, a guitar was not the first that came to mind, but by now none of the men in the battery wanted to miss it. Bernoth was a damned good player. He’d been with some youth group or other before being drafted, apparently.

“Page 27. Bernwardsturm.” Bernoth opened the page and shot him a questioning glance. Kanngiesser nodded firmly. The first chords were exhilarating, joyful, defiant. A manly song. Helwig came closer, smiling.

Die Glocken stürmten vom Bernwardsturm,

Der Regen durchrauschte die Straßen.

Und durch die Glocken und durch den Sturm,

Gellte des Urhorns blasen.

“Kanngiesser!” The voices fell.

“Yes, Wachtmeister?”

“This is not on the list of approved songs.” Helwig straightened himself, looking around the circle of men around the fire. “The order clearly states….”

Kanngiesser took a step forward, facing his superior directly. “The order calls for the songs of German folk memory and historical greatness. I think this song should qualify.”

“You think?” An unpleasant smirk. “I didn’t know you could do that. Best leave it to people who get paid for it, you hear?”

Kanngiesser turned to Bernoth. “Keep playing.” The music continued. Helwig’s eyes widened. “I don’t know what the fuck you are doing, but if you think you’ll get away with this…”

… Die Klingsburg hoch am Berge lag,

Sie zogen hinauf in Waffen,

Auframmte der Schmied mit einem Schlag

Das Tor, das er fronend geschaffen. …

Kanngiesser spat. “Get away? I’m getting away with as many of my men alive as I can. Right good men in a fight, too. Not that you’d know much about that.”

The Wachtmeister stared openly. “Are you drunk?”

Kanngiesser smiled grimly. “Not enough vodka in this shithole to get a man drunk, Herr Wachtmeister. Not that I would, being on duty. I’m just keeping up the morale of the men, as ordered.” He turned around. “Keep singing!”

For a brief moment, Helwig stood completely motionless. Corporal Bernoth launched into the next stanza, fingers flying over the fretboard. Kanngiesser balled his fists. If that lickspittle bastard was going to make a fight out of it, he’d break a few teeth.

Dem Ritter fuhr ein Schlag ins Gesicht,

Ein Spaten ihm zwischen die Rippen,

Er brachte das Schwert aus der Scheide nicht

Und nicht den Fluch von den Lippen.

“That song is not permitted!” Helwig’s voice trembled. “Stop it or….”

Kanngiesser laughed. He couldn’t help it. “Or what? You’ll have us sent to the Russian front?”

Helwig stared uncomprehendingly. “Kanngiesser, I am going to assume you are drunk. We will clear this matter up in the morning.”

Still laughing, eyes locked on the Wachtmeister’s retreating back, Kanngiesser joined his men in their song again. Maybe something would happen tomorrow, but probably not. And Helwig would know not to fuck with him one way or another.

Auf rauschte die Flamme mit aller Kraft

Brach Balken, Bogen und Bande,

Ja, gnade dir Gott, du Ritterschaft:

Der Bauer stund auf im Lande!

02 May 1908, Moscow

Life in the inner circle of power, Prince Meshersky found, could take its toll on a man quickly. It was not so much the sheer workload, though it turned out that a confidant of the regents was expected to be on call day and night, chained to that infernally new-fangled telephone. No, it was the uncertainty, the desperate realisation that you were called upon to support decisions whose ramifications you had no hope of understanding, to make choices without ever having the ability to think them through, even to find enough information to grasp the basics, and to go along with orders that you thought utterly wrong, never once saying a word to that effect. Simply existing so close to the beating heart of Russia’s power was a terrible strain. Being useful, making a positive difference, felt all but impossible. The prince prayed future generations might judge his deeds kindly. He himself had long given up hope. On some days, he felt like a blind man fumbling through a wardrobe: He had a reasonable idea of the goal, but lacked the ability to discern a viable path there, or even to say if anything he did took him nearer.

Today was the kind of day he usually ended in a hot bath, with tea and poetry books. Holding his own in the debates of the state council took a lot out of him. He had loathed Dubrovin, but had to admire the man’s strength having stood this for years. Though admittedly, the situation had not been anywhere near as bad then.

“No reserves?” It was the kind of thing you did not usually hear around these tables. That – Brusilov was his name, the general whom Grand Prince Nikolai had been using like the fire brigade for the last year - was blunt. A genius at logistics and strategy, apparently, the kind of man to counter German stars like Falkenhayn with, but unafraid to speak his mind even if it made powerful people uncomfortable.

“None we can rely on arriving.” The general said. “None we can trust will fight. Our strategic manoeuvrability is practically nullified. We cannot be sure that enough trains will run, and units that march out of position tend to bleed men badly. Our defences have been running on bunker sweepings, but there isn’t enough to replace what’s being used up now.”

Across the table, Count Witte nodded quietly. He’d been singing this song for months: surrender, minimise the cost now. Nikolai shot Brusilov a question look.

“You mean we can no longer fight?”

The general shook his head. “No, Sire, we can fight. But only retreating actions, and only as long as the will of the men holds out. The Germans at this point can take whatever they choose. We can only try to make them pay as high a price as we can, and as the troops will bear. That is my main concern.”

The grand duke shuddered. If the army revolted – it had taken a tremendous effort to control the mutinies in 1905. He had no illusions about the possibility of containing an outbreak now. Kronstadt had been bad enough.

“There are already reports of insubordination and the murder of officers.” Grand Prince Sergey thumped a heavy file on the table before him. “Officers write they cannot order their troops to go forward for fear of mutiny.” He lifted himself to a straighter siting position with his arms, grunting at the effort. “The Okhrana lacks the agents to contain them.”

“Prince Meshersky?” Nikolai turned to the head of the Patriotic Union.

His throat felt dry, so parched and constricted he feared he might not be able to speak. “I have been … apprised of similar events by Union agents.” He admitted. “Of a frequency and violence that containing them, were they to spread, appears beyond the capabilities of the volunteer brigades.”

What was left of them. He added mentally. Meshersky had always been a critic of Dubrovin’s style – all brute force and noise. The Union did not need an army or a police. It existed to support the army and police. He’d have to address these things in times to come.

Nikolai nodded, his eyes focusing on a Meissen china figurine that held down the corner of the situation map. Red arrows were closing on Kiev. “The price of peace would be horrific.” He said, half to himself.

“The price of continuing war would be worse.” Witte said baldly. “Take it from me as a businessman, Your Highness. It is always wiser to cut your losses than to go down with a sinking concern.”

Meshersky sat up. This was the time. “Your Highness, we have every reason to believe that whoever brings the Russian people peace will be beloved of the peasantry. His name will be blessed. The burden of war lies heavily on the villages. Lighten their load, return their sons to them, and the people will follow you into a new era.”

Nikolai shook his head. “The peasants might, but the army would never forgive it.”

“Your Highness, if it is necessary, it can always be claimed that the failure of one party necessitated the peace. The armed wing of the Union…”

“Oh, stuff it, Meshersky!” Grand Prince Sergey’s eyes shot fury. “Fall on your sword and leave us to sort out this shit, will you? The Union is your child, you raise it!”

Everyone’s eyes were on him now as the duke glowered at the assembled statesmen. The Czar was absent – it was well past his bedtime, and council meetings bored him.

“Look, Nikolai, I know that you can’t bear to sign your name to the peace treaty. The army needs a hero. Mikhail will need a hero.” A few eyes widened in shock. As far as everybody on this council was concerned, Czar Alexei would grow into his maturity and take over the affairs of state sometime in the 1920s. Everybody knew, at some level, just how unlikely that was, but nobody said it out loud. Nobody, that was, except Sergey when his black moods overtook him.

“What is your point?” Nikolai looked surprised.

“My point is that Mikhail loathes me and worships you. And he’s going to need someone around him who can stop him from making his stupid mistakes in public. Also…” he gestured at his swollen, withered legs, “… you’re still good for a couple of decades. So I will go and sign the peace treaty.”

A collective gasp of shock and – Meshersky felt – relief followed this announcement. General Brusilov murmured a prayer.

“You will do this?” Nikolai asked. He had been thinking of charging Witte with the task, but had felt he could not spare the calculating, incisive mind at his side.

“I will do that. And afterwards, I’ll disappear and spend my remaining years on the French Riviera, nursing my health and receiving private visitors.” The grand prince shifted his body in the chair and grunted. “And you can all say it was my idea. I’ll get you the best peace I can. Won’t be good, but better than what we’d get next month. Witte, you’re the railwayman. Get me a train. I’d prefer to meet the German generals in Smolensk before they own the place.”

03 May 1908, the defences of Kiev

Lieutenant Isanyev had not expected it would go like this. The war he had been training for, studying over many painstaking years of cadet school and academy, was not supposed to be so muddy. So dispiriting. So lonely. He looked over his shoulder, back towards the hilltop they had walked down from. A battery of heavy field guns was sited there, overlooking the valley, awaiting the coming of the Austrian foe. The major in command had shown him their stack – forty-four shrapnel shells and sixteen canister. Isanyev had never actually seen canister shell before, and the implications chilled him. Every gunner had a carbine and sabre on hand, as the major had explained, for afterward. From here, you would barely know the guns were there. The observer’s post was visible if you knew what to look for, everything else on the reverse slope like they taught in military school. It would be no protection against howitzers, once those came, but until then it was devastatingly effective. These guys were their life insurance. Isanyev assembled his men.

“Squad, listen! You’ve heard the orders. We fan out, teams of three. Keep your heads down!”

The men shuffled their feet, looking worried. Tired, hungry, dirty – many of them were wearing straw boots and blanket rolls for packs. Proper uniform jackets and peaked caps were rare these days, most men wearing linen blouses and pointy bogatyrka hats. Even the belts were made of webbing instead of proper leather. But these were chosen troops, he recalled, volunteers for the first line. Men who had stepped forward to keep the enemy out of Kiev, whatever the cost. Many were wearing silver-plated saints’ medals or Union pins. If this was the best they could do … they needed inspiring. Isanyev had spent many a tedious hour translating the speeches of commanders from Caesar, Livy and Plutarch, but this was the first time he had felt himself called upon to hold one.

“Right. You know what we are here to do. The Austrians are trying to take Kiev, and we are not going to let them have it! They will not get their dirty hands on St Sophia and St Vladimir! We will not have their horses stabled in our cathedrals!”

A murmur of agreement sounded. God, let him get this right! “The Little Father relies on your courage and fortitude to defend the holiest city in Russia. The invader stops here!”

Sergeant Deshnev, sensing his commander’s unease, stepped in with a growl. “We’re not going to let them have Kiev. Right boys?!”

The response was encouraging. Isanyev slung the rifle of his shoulder and hefted it in his right, striking a martial pose, though fearing he looked undignified. The Nagant was a coarse tool for coarse purposes, much like the machines he had seen at Tula arsenal: a device for punching holes in living flesh. It did not compare to the elegance of the sabre to which he had dedicated so much practice. But this was not the kind of war his father and grandfather had known.

“Right then. You know your instructions. Keep your heads down and don’t engage the first outrider you see. Give them time to filter in, then start hurting them. But if you spot anyone with a map case or a roll of wire, shoot him!“

Grumbling assent, the men split up and walked away, dissipating into the countryside. The Austrians were liable to come up in the next few days. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow. Isanyev would have to be ready for them.

04 May 1908, railway line to Astrakhan

A familiar shudder of brakes transmitted through the floorboards to the soles of Ondrej Vokasec’s feet told him that they were once again approaching some kind of obstacle. So far, they had been doing remarkably well. News of their cargo had to have spread, but no concerted efforts to catch them had been evident. Instead, local military outposts and garrisons had proved helpful, if clueless. They had managed to get coal and water, even provisions, from civilian railway depots and were waved through by soldiers directing the traffic bound for the Turkish front. One official had even wished them good luck in the nudge-wink manner of amateurish secrecy many upper-class Russian affected in affairs of state. Still every encounter with the authorities was unnerving. A few thousand heavily armed men might well be able to beat a path through organised resistance, but it would cost them. And at some point, the Russians had to get their act together, didn’t they?

Swinging from the footboard of the first carriage to the tender, Vokasec tried to see ahead of the swirling steam and smoke. Mounted men in green coats stood along the track. Infantrymen, too. It did not look good. He climbed forward into the engine compartment and ordered the driver to keep steam fully up. The train came to a slow halt. Time to face the music.

“Who is the senior officer here?” one of the riders shouted out. Vokasec took a closer look as he dismounted. Long coats, bushy beards, honking big knives stuck in their belts … oh, great, savages.

“Who wants to know?”

The mounted man drove his horse two steps forward. “Lieutenant Colonel Vorozhin of the Fifth Karachai Volunteer Regiment, assigned to prevent desertion and guard supply lines. Now, who is in command and what is your destination?”

Vokasec scanned the line of troops. There couldn’t be more than a few hundred, less than half of them mounted. Surely they had a field gun or two somewhere. They could take them, but it would cost them the train and alert everybody in the neighbourhood to the danger. Dammit!

“I am Sergeant Major Ondrej Vokasec of the Czech Legion, First Regiment, bound for Derbent for field duty on the Turkish front. Our commanding officer has travelled ahead. We are being expected.” Would anyone believe the story? Some had, or at least been uncaring enough not to bother thinking it through. But nobody would believe he, or any of his men, was a Russian officer. Movement caught from the corner of his eye told Vokasec that something was happening on the first and second railcars. Any second now, the machinegunner could open up. That would give them an edge.

“’Lost’ your officers, have you?” The lieutenant colonel looked at Vokasec with undisguised disdain. “Well, then, sergeant, you will be relieved to hear I am taking command of your unit until you are delivered to Vladikavkas. Now order your men out of the train. You can march back.”

The doors of the railcar opened before any order was given. Along the line of men, rifles came up as green-uniformed soldiers poured out of doors and windows and a glinting shower of small objects came down over the waiting troops, blinking in the sunlight. For the briefest of moments, everybody stood completely still, shocked at the surreality of it all. A rifleman broke the silence, shouting something in his native tongue and repeating in heavily accented Russian: “Money! Gold roubles!”

“Go! Move!” Vaclav Ripka shouted, shovelling coin from the heavy leather sack in his left. Vokasec understood and gestured for the driver to engage the engine as the Karachai troops jumped from the saddle, running forward to scrabble for gold with their foot. Lieutenant Colonel Vorozhin’s horse wheeled about in confusion, the officer yelling at the top of his lungs. The sergeant caught the footboard just in time. More coins rained down on the backs of the troops and gunners and riflemen ran down from the other side of the embankment for their share. Sure enough, there had been guns pointed at them.

“Stop!!” The colonel’s hand went for his belt. A shot rang out, or several – he would never know for sure. A Czech riflemen and two Karachai troopers lowered their weapons around the same time as Vorozhin slid from his saddle, the revolver dropping into the tall grass. Well, they’d have their hands full restoring discipline to that outfit.

“Keep us moving!” Vokasec ordered the driver. Ripka dropped into the engine compartment, grinning savagely.

“Good idea, that!” Vokasec praised him.

“Thanks. But I still think we’ve blown any chance of making it to Astrakhan by train now.”

Both nodded. This would draw attention one way or another. “I’ll talk to the men. It’s time we started chopping up the gold bars to make them portable. Have you had a look at the map?”

Ripka nodded. “I think our best chance is catching a boat to cross the sea. There’s shipping at Derbent, and fishing villages along the shore. We will need to get civilian clothes and mules – or camels, or whatever they use here. Have to split up the men.”

There was that. Well, they had gotten farther than he’d thought, and if they kept travelling in groups, they’d still be heavily armed enough to deter any casual robbers. Clothes and food for twenty might be negotiated for among the tribesmen. For a thousand, not so much. “I’ll miss you, Vaclav.”

“Me, too, Ondrej. See you in Tehran.”

05 May 1908, Berlin

Paul Singer felt the weight of responsibility heavy on his shoulders. His speech today would be seen as the position of the entire loyal faction of the Social Democrats – what the breakaway caucus called the ‘war faction’. It fell to him, not to a national leader like Bebel, Noske or Bernstein, because he was trusted in Berlin, but also, he conjectured, because the party’s undisputed leaders preferred not to be heard saying things they might later want to disavow. For an object lesson on the dangers of taking a firm stance before you knew where your party stood, you only needed to look at how the Conservatives had destroyed themselves over the last few months. You could not have the party’s chairman affirm his absolute loyalty in the all-highest judgement while delegate after delegate fulminated about the iniquities of the peace and the eternal shame of the imperial government giving away to its Slavic subject races land that German blood had bought. Hugenberg’s creatures were all over that, of course. Nobody in the SPD wanted to go through anything similar. Losing a good third of their delegates to the purported Independent Socialist Peace Party was bad enough. Displaying their disunity for months to come would not do. It had to be clear, unambiguous, but something that everybody in the caucus could agree to.

Of course, this would have been easier if the peace faction wasn’t intuitively right. Prolonging the war for the sake of bond yields they had called it. Last week, one speaker had asked what kind of monster would leave his son exposed to death and suffering one more day for the sake of 3.5% p.a. – how anyone among the capital-owning classes would not give up their entire bond holdings to have their children back safe and sound today. It was a good question. As far as he was concerned, they could have made peace months ago, on the strength of the Copenhagen offer. Sure, he knew that the result would have been recession and suffering, but was avoiding economic dislocation really worth tens of thousands of dead? And yet, here he was, going along once again with the voice of reason. Conventional wisdom gave cold comfort at times like these. Carefully, he withdrew a pen knife from its sheath and sharpened his pencil for yet another round of alterations to his notes. Wagons rumbled by outside as the city awoke to a clear, fine spring day. So few motor cars were among them now that gasoline was on ration – so few young men, now that they were killing them by the job lot. Even the tram drivers were women more often than not.

Not to lose sight of the ultimate goal . . . sporting metaphors did not look all that appealing. Maybe ‘finish the job’? This was not an easy speech. Some stuff wrote itself, you just needed the statistics. Here, even if you had all the victories and the list of kilometres and towns and villages taken, you had to counterpose the rows of dead and wounded. Rapid steps came up the corridor. Singer looked up.

“Paul! Victory!” Breathing hard, Wilhelm Blos burst through the door waving a telegram form. The man was obviously unused to running. Singer steadied him and led him to a chair.

“Calm down, Wilhelm. What is it?”

“Victory!” he said between gasps. “The Russians … have surrendered … armistice … tomorrow … noon.”

Paul Singer stood thunderstruck. “Are you sure?” he finally asked. The message that the Russian government had begun negotiations had been hailed as victory before, and it had not lessened the steady stream of telegrams from the army office. “We have to be sure!”

“Read it!” Blos thrust the sheet into Singer’s hand. “It’s from the General Staff. We just got it at the party HQ. I went to get it to you rightaway.”

Singer scanned the sparse lines of official prose. Representative of Russian government – meeting in Smolensk – agreed armistice on German terms – effective May 6th, noon, along entire front. He felt his hands shake uncontrollably. This was it. They had done it. By this time tomorrow, the telegrams would stop. Sons and fathers, husbands, brothers and uncles would be coming home. This was the end. Desperately steadying himself on the edge of the table, he fumbled for his manuscript.

“I’m going to have to rewrite my speech.” he said, dazed.

“I don’t think anyone will want to hear it.” Blos replied. “Anyway, you can do it on our way. Let’s go!”

Shrugging into his coat, a sheaf of papers thrust under one arm, Paul Singer raced down the stairs after his friend to the cab waiting outside. He had a private carriage, but there was no time. They had to be at the Reichstag. As the doors closed and the driver threaded his way into the slow traffic of workday Berlin, Singer heard the thin, piercing voice of the first paper boy rise over the clatter and hum. “Extrablatt! Waffenstillstand! Extrablatt!”

They might not make it there after all.

05 May 1908, Moscow

Tears, impotent rage and random destruction appealed viscerally, but they availed nothing. Prince Vladimir Meshersky forced his hand not to tremble as he raised his hand to point out the extent of disaster on the map that had covered his office wall since the fateful summer of 1906. A steady march of grease pencil smudges growing denser and fresher as they moved eastward told the story of utter failure. All of the men seated around his table today had to have felt the same. The temptation to end their pain, temporarily in a sea of alcohol and opium or finally with a bullet, must have been overwhelming to all of them. Markov had given in – they had found him in his drawing room, the treasured revolver that the Czar had given him fallen from his limp hand. That made Nemirovich the new editor of the Russkaya Pravda – the third in a year, since Dubrovin resigned. There was Trushanev, now at the helm of the Moskovskiye Vedomosti, and old Suvorin – they said, his heart nearly given out on hearing the news. Trufanov was here, too, a loose cannon if ever there was one, but they needed him to keep the monks in line. Everyone was apprehensive, angry, in shock and disbelief. And they had not even learned the full extent of it yet:

“As a condition of the armistice,” Meshersky informed them, “enemy troops will occupy fortresses with 100 kilometres of the front. The fleet will be confined to port, its ships supervised by inspecting officers, and all heavy field guns delivered to depots to be guarded by the enemy. All prisoners of war and interned enemy aliens will be returned to their respective homelands within three months. That is the whole of it, gentlemen. That is what we are facing.”

Trufanov pounded the table. Nemirovich tried to stand, but seemed wobbly. With a quick gesture, Meshersky cut them off. He was surprised to have that authority. Deference from people of this rank and such ego was not something he was used to.

“Gentlemen,. I know. I know what you want to say. The fact is, however much we all may want to, we cannot follow our instincts. The weakness of one man and the hubris of another have brought us to this juncture, and there is no avoiding the consequences of our defeat.”

Trushanev protested. “Hubris? Without him, none of us would be here!” Meshersky made a mental note. He had always been too much on the side of Dubrovin and Trishatny, the fools who thought the state had to serve the Union.

“Yes, hubris!” He let it sink in for a moment. “There is no doubt that Doctor Dubrovin was a genius, and to a strong Czar, he would have been a fitting servant. But his temperament did not match that of his ruler, and he failed to understand the need to limit himself in the interest of the state. That, gentlemen, is what we all must understand.”

The company fell silent. Meshersky did not usually threaten anyone, but his voice left no doubt he was deadly serious.

“Those who require immediate fulfilment of Divine purpose are fools. As the late great procurator said, they are blasphemous as well as vainglorious. Gentlemen, the purpose of God for Russia is glorious!” He paused. “As regards our persons, we have no way of knowing. Ours may be the stern and thankless duty of slow, patient rebuilding. The preparation of a vengeance taken by our sons or grandsons. This we know – to fail in our duty because our egos are hurt or our dreams of glory broken would be unforgiveable. This is what we must tell the nation.”

“We must tell them that we were betrayed, too!” Nemirovich interjected. “They must know that Russian valour and fighting spirit were never defeated openly!”

“Yes.” Meshersky agreed. “We must tell them how our enemies defeated us: through English guile, through red treachery, and through Jewish gold. But also, we must tell them that it was industry, not bravery, shells, not steel that forced us to retreat. We can gain an industrial base, but the German may never gain a Russian soul. That, too, we must teach them.”

He stood. The others followed suit. It was a strange sensation, uplifting amid the general despondency, almost sacred in its intensity. “Here and now, gentlemen!” he said, his voice trembling, “let us dedicate ourselves to rebuilding the might of Holy Russia! Let us dedicate ourselves to making such a power that when His Majesty comes of age, he will be the mightiest monarch of two continents. Nothing must be sacred, nothing greater, nothing stand in the way of this holy purpose! Do you swear with me?”

He felt tears streaming down his face as one after the other affirmed his support. The whole might of the Patriotic Union, her schools, her camps, her auxiliary corps and hospitals – all would be dedicated to this great project: to educate the people, to build the country, to make Russia great, pure and holy. In the time of Troubles, Polish troops had occupied Moscow to install false Dimitri. 200 years later, Russian governors had ruled in Warsaw. And if it took this long or longer to bend the neck of the Kaiser to defeat – they would.
06 May 1908, near Studianka

Until yesterday, Feldwebelleutnant Koch would have cursed the weather. Bright blue skies dotted with feathery clouds gave every sniper and gunner for miles the best possible view. There was no hiding in this light, and precious little in the way of cover in this landscape. Today, though, the question was becoming academic. Leaning against the damp brushwood that supported the side of his trench, he pulled out his watch to follow the agonisingly slow progress of the minute hand upwards. Just a little more. Just a few minutes now. Nobody do anything stupid… If they didn’t jinx this, they’d all be going home in one piece. He’d seen too many of his men go home on hospital stretchers or in a box.

11:58. Kolle was chewing out one of his men for firing off a round – good. The last thing they wanted now was to get into some last-second firefight because someone couldn’t hold it in. There’d be enough time to make a joyful noise later. A few seconds to go now. Across the field, he could make out movement. A bugle called out a long note. Others answered. The signal drifted across from the Russian trenches, and German hornists picked it up. Noon.

Mustering all his willpower, Koch stood up. It was crazy. Every nerve in his body screamed for him to get down, hug the earth, seek protection. You couldn’t just stand there. It had been years since anyone had felt comfortable standing, feeling the wind play over his face. Others followed suit. Green-clad figures appeared over the parapet of the opposing positions. He wondered idly if the Russians felt like him. Then, he gave his last order for the day.

“Company, unload rifles!”

The sudden noise of shots fired into the air, whopping and dancing men emptying the chambers of their Mausers, sometimes the entire magazine, hit him like a punch to the stomach. He forced himself to stay upright. This was like fireworks now: nobody was trying to hit you. They would need to get used to the thought that people were not trying to kill them again.

It felt like at least half an hour, but in reality the noise ebbed after less than a minute. NCOs checked the magazines and chambers of the men before motioning them over the top. This was not the time for an “I didn’t know it was loaded”. Slowly, like cave dwellers unaccustomed to light and firm, level ground, the men moved towards each other. Opposite Koch, a tall Russian with an enormous fur cap was coming closer, dragging his rifle along the ground. He was smiling, but his eyes were apprehensive, even fearful. As he closed within twenty metres, he called out: “Kamerad!”

“Kamerad!” Koch replied. Others took up the call. The Feldwebelleutnant fished a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket. The Russian – he was wearing no visible insignia, just those pitiful straw boots of theirs and a blanket roll over his greatcoat – raised a bottle in his right hand. Koch proffered the cigarettes. After a confused moment, the Russian soldier dropped his rifle and took one, then held out the bottle.

“Kamerad, Frieden!” he said solemnly.

Koch nodded affirmatively. “Ja, Frieden! Mir!” He took a sip of the vodka and noted with pleasant surprise that it was good stuff – strong, but smooth, with no sour mash note or chemical aftertaste. “Guter Vodka!” he smiled.

“Gute Zigarett.” The Russian replied. Koch handed him back the bottle and fumbled for matches, then lit the man’s cigarette and his own. The tobacco was undistinguished, but by all accounts the Russians were doing far worse in that regard. Up and down the line, men were sharing bottles, smoking, eating and smiling cautiously, as though they had not exercised the required muscles in a long time.

“Frieden!” Koch repeated and enveloped the Russian in a forceful hug. They held on for a few second before stepping back to look at each other. The last time Koch had been this close to a Russian soldier, his bayonet had already pierced the other man’s lungs. This would take some getting used to. The brittle smile still on his face, he gestured for the bottle and took a second swig.

06 May 1908, New York City

“Well, I suppose we all expected it. Though I would be lying if I said that we wouldn’t be happier to see the war go on for a few more months.” J.P. Morgan looked around the assembled grandees of the financial world. Their gatherings were becoming almost routine as news from the old world threatened to upset the economy again and again. It might be time to formalise them, Morgan thought.

“Better now than later.” Jacob Schiff opined. “This way, at least we can have a hope that German bonds remain firm.“

A few baleful glares met that announcement. Schiff had invested more heavily in German debt than anyone else around the table, and he stood to lose more if it went sour. But of course he had also seen to it early and comprehensively that the kaiser’s bonds were spread far and thick enough to give everybody an interest in maintaining their value. This wasn’t like Panama or Argentina – if Berlin defaulted, they were all going down. Smug bastard looked like the cat that got into the cream, too.

A quick gesture by Morgan cut off any attempt at interrupting. “True enough.” The great man agreed. “But more to the point, we must find a way to inject liquidity into manufacturing. Europe’s belligerent powers are cancelling orders right and left. I have it on good authority that the loss of German pistol business could bankrupt Colt before the year ends. We will see grain, livestock, horse and mule gluts all over the country. Chile could well cancel one or more of its new warships.” He sucked on his cigar to give everyone a moment to consider these facts. “We will need to make loans in unprecedented quantities.”

“On what sureties?”

Morgan shrugged. “The usual: treasuries, gilts, shares, German bonds, French debt – we can’t be picky at a time like this.” He cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, do not kid yourselves: we will have to bear losses from this policy. Potentially, quite severe ones, at least initially. I am asking you to share in these because the alternative – a complete loss of confidence in our economy – does not bear thinking about.”

“Indeed.” James Stillmann nodded assent. “We will all have to bite that bullet. But if we just open the money spigots, what is to stop that cash going for imports and second-hand loans abroad? If it all ends up in Mexico, Argentina and Germany, what good will it do us?”

Once again, Morgan shrugged. “I can’t see how we can do very much about that. Other than picking our loan recipients well, obviously. And as long as the loans perform well, it’ll end up enriching the United States one way or the other.” He rose, rubbing his forehead. “But we will need to find a way to organise these things better. Gentlemen, I invite your proposals.”

08 May 1908, Berlin

After days of riotous celebrations, the people of the capital were today treated to a spectacle designed to inspire greater thoughtfulness. After attending a service of thanks at Berlin Cathedral, Emperor Wilhelm III, accompanied by the Empress Elizabeth, the infant Crown Prince, Prince Albert of Prussia, and the principal architect of German victory Field Marshal von der Goltz, watched a military parade of the capital’s garrison and representatives from numerous units along Unter den Linden. The marchers were led by a contingent of men drawn from military hospitals around the city and its environs. Watching the tortuous progress of the legless, wheelchairbound and crippled, of men missing hands, arms, or pieces of their face, the halt leading their blind comrades to salute their supreme war leader, was a spectacle that the coldest heart could not pass over without a sentiment of pity and awe. Even the accustomed splendour of the Gardegrenadiere, for the first time since 1906 returned to their peacetime parade uniforms, did little to cheer the sombre mood. It is thought that the inspiration for this particular choice lay with the emperor himself, who intended to both set the tone for remembering the seriousness of the country’s purpose in the great war for its national survival and remind the city to consider those who sacrificed their lives and health for its victory. The emperor saluted the troops, wearing his customary plain general staff uniform and forage cap, before retiring to Charlottenburg palace for a celebratory supper. The court has announced that it will continue to observe the rationing regime until the conclusion of a formal peace treaty.

08 May 1908, Helsingfors

They were still ringing the bells. Every morning and afternoon, every day for three days now, the churches of the city had kept at it as long as the arm muscles of their sextons and whoever volunteered for the duty gave out. Every evening, there were bands playing across town, from the barracks where his regiment had been quartered since being taken out of the lines under Schlüsselburg down to Market Square and the Brunnpark. Everybody seemed to be in the streets, dressed in the faded finery of peacetime and happy to press food and drink on any soldier and sailor passing by. Part of him was amazed at the fact that despite having changed hands twice, fought over for weeks and having hosted the Swedish fleet and Finnish National Army for months, they still had seemingly unlimited quantities to give away. But then, he was just a sergeant and from Skane, and Finnish ladies were pretty and hospitable.

Down in the harbour, sailors from Rättvisan, Manligheden and Vasa were crowding the rails, eagerly awaiting shore leave. Sergeant Pärsson carefully adjusted his collar and straightened his tunic. The ribbons in gold and blue – for Bravery in the Field, silver – and black edged with white – the Iron Cross, second class – stood out on the greyish blue. Someone had to keep up the army’s side.

10 May 1908, the Caspian Sea, on board SS Sher Shah

Captain Joseph Spencer was a curious and adventurous man by nature. You could not make a living commanding a freighter crewed by Persians and Turks on the Caspian and stay sane otherwise. This was not like his native Gulf of Mexico. Not at all. It was thus in character for him to change course when a small native fishing boat hove in sight, the men on board flashing with a mirror and waving their coats to draw attention. These days, a lot of the boats plying the inland sea carried passengers rather than fishermen. War would do that.

The boat looked even more pitiful up close. Slowly, the Sher Shah drew near, its aging steam engine puffing and shuddering. Spencer came down to the main deck to join the welcome party – four husky Persian sailors with big knives and his machinist’s mate and second officer with their rifles. There were no pirates on the Caspian as far as he knew, but it paid to be careful anyway. The men now scrambling to climb up the rope ladder certainly looked odd. Loaded down with heavy bundles, dressed in colourful felt coats and riding boots, they looked nothing like seamen. Their leader, a tall young man with a Russian rifle slung over his shoulder, was the first one up. Spencer blinked: He could have stood a haircut and a shave, but this was no native. A white man in tribal disguise was interesting.

“Welcome aboard the SS Sher Shah, Sir!” he said in English. The reaction was an uncomprehending stare. A second man came up, as white as the first. They exchanged a few words that sounded Russian to the captain, and he turned to his second to translate, but only got a shrug.

“Ain’t Russian, Cap’n.” he said.

“We need ... captain … we must went to Persia. You help us?” That was the second fellow, speaking some horrible French. Spencer wasn’t exactly sure of his own command of that language, but he tried his best to phrase his own question: “Who are you and where are you from?”

“My name is Ripk… Riparian.” The blond man said, mangling the pronunciation something horrible.


They nodded. It figured: the Turks were going after any Armenian they could find after the bloody nose they had received in the war, and it wasn’t like the Czar’s army was in any shape to guard their Christian brethren. He’d heard tales to make your stomach turn. And if this guy was carrying a Russian rifle, well, maybe the Turks wanted him specially. Damn, but Azbekian was off the ship. Only guy to speak any Armenian, and he had to leave them just when they needed it. Well, it couldn’t be helped.

“Come on board, then. We are headed for Noushahr, we can take you there.”

Riparian smiled hugely. He didn’t look like a mountain man. More like a city boy, but tough, in good physical shape. Maybe he’d been in the war. Spencer smiled back and gestured towards the foc’sle. A sailor took charge of the rifle. Riparian fumbled with his belt and withdrew a couple of gold roubles.

“Thank you, captain! Thank you!”

Spencer shook his head. “Keep it. Keep it, you need it.” The poor devil would need all the cash he could lay his hands on, away from home. A lot of Armenians were stuck in Persia, out of money, working odd jobs or depending on the charity of their coreligionists. Riparian nodded his thanks and gestured to a rope. “Our … things. Please.”

Grunting, the sailors manhandled the heavy packs on board. They must have taken everything they owned, the poor fellows. Trusting their lives to a leaky scow like that… Some hot food and a bed to sleep in was what that called for. He’d have to put them ashore in Persia. No more he could do for them there. But that much, Spencer was resolved to do. Armenians were fellow Christians, and practically white men. You couldn’t watch them be slaughtered by Muslims. It wouldn’t do.

13 May 1908, camp near Omsk

It was no longer cold, but in this part of the world, not cold was still a long way from warm. The eaves of the sod hut were still dripping condensation over the pitiful green shoots of the plot of dense mud that was supposed to become a vegetable garden. Dry firewood was rarer than diamonds now, and the wet brush they burned most days smoked so badly that almost everyone in camp had developed a permanent cough. Katharina Gismar hoped that the weather would soon improve to the point that she could dispense with the fire. It was very bad for her father’s health, and they all needed some proper sunlight.

Grumbling an unladylike curse, she brought down her wooden hoe on a clump of weeds. Proper tools would have helped, but she could not risk revealing her wealth by buying them at the ridiculous prices the black market charged. And they had a proper spade. Occasionally, she’d even get some fresh greens from neighbours for lending it out. Between this and her newfound facility at plaiting straw for overshoes, she managed to get along reasonably well. If life was hard, it was hard for everyone. Farmers lived like this every day, she reminded herself. When the war was over, she would be able to go back to a house and a respectable existence. Grubbing for survival in the stingy, unyielding soil of Siberia was not her future. Most days, she was able to keep up her spirits that way, at least to a degree. Lately, though, it had become harder.

The question that weighed heaviest on everybody’s mind was what was going to happen to them. Colonel Gerasimov had gone away to Omsk to receive new orders a week ago, and nothing had happened since. No food rations had been distributed. People made do with what they had stowed away and what they could get from the local peasantry who held a regular market at the camp gates, but that was not going to last. Katharina felt her stomach rumble. She’d forgone breakfast – it was just gruel anyway, and her father needed it more. Supper would be some bread and whatever she could get at the market.

The weeds gave way grudgingly. Katharina pulled the last of the roots from the gluey soil and decided it was time to do something less depressing. Maybe she would run into Henning Dorn at the market, too. They were – if the situation had allowed for the idea, the word ‘courting’ might have seemed appropriate for the stage of their relationship. Henning was talking of going to Germany after the war, taking her along. Increasingly, she had to admit that this might be the only option. Could you just go back to a city you had been summarily evicted from, pretend that nothing had happened? Would they still be welcome, once the peace settlement made the Baltics independent?

Walking slowly, her back still aching from working the garden, basket clutched to her side, she made her way across the muddy central square to the twin guard towers that marked the gate. Something was happening. People clustered around, more moving in, unhindered by guards. Katharina strained to see. A soldier stood in front of the gate, looking helpless and apparently arguing with a man in a bluish-grey uniform coat and his escort of four – what were they? Gendarmes? She hadn’t seen those tunics before. The guards, apparently browbeaten, swung open the heavy timber gate and the strangers entered. They looked dangerous – wary, cautious, accustomed to violence and radiating authority.

Major Franz Eberhard felt out of his depth. A warehouse manager in civilian life, he had spent the war as a reactivated reserve officer serving in the commissariat, making sure the troops at the front received everything they needed, no matter how far forward they moved in the meantime. That kind of work he understood. Now, he was riding on Russian trains to visit POW camps and make arrangements for the orderly release and repatriation of the men. His next superior was thousands of kilometres away, telegraph services were patchy, railways unreliable, and he was surrounded by men who would have happily killed him just a week ago. His authority was entirely unclear – formally limited to making requests, but requests backed by the full might of the German and Allied armies. So far, it had worked. Now, he was walking up to another camp – one that he had only yesterday learned existed, one that held interned German civilians and that his orders said nothing about. He wasn’t even sure whether he had any right to be here. But then, nobody had yet told him he didn’t, so it was bound to be all right.

The place looked a lot like everything else he had seen. Fence posts stood askew, the wire between them strung haphazardly. Russian camps didn’t need elaborate defences. Sheer distance guarded the inmates more effectively than the few armed guards. The huts looked like the inmates had built them themselves, which was quite likely, given the overcrowding and poor quality of the barracks in many places. He had come expecting to find sadistic tyrants starving and beating defenceless captives, but so far, what he had found was more organisational failure than malice. The Russian government seemed genuinely incapable of supplying their prisoners adequately with anything – or, for that matter, their soldiers. Out at Camp 71, he’d found gardens tended jointly by the guards and inmates hoping to eke out their inadequate rations and a workshop to make farming tools for barter. Here, he did not know what to expect. People flocked to the gates to watch as he walked past the guard post, disappointed that there was no commanding officer to talk to. What could he tell them? What should he do? He gestured to Feldwebel Peemöller. His command voice had proved invaluable on several occasions.

“Attention all! This is the German Army Repatriation Command! According to the terms of the armistice, German nationals held in Russia will be repatriated as soon as practical. We will be arranging for rail transfers as soon as we are able.”

Stunned silence and a chorus of questions met this announcement. Yes, the war was over, Yes, this was how German officers dressed now. No, they had not brought any food. Yes, they would try to find some. Dammit, that was crazy. Eberhard turned to the nearest civilian.

“What’s your name?” he demanded of the young woman.

“Gismar, Sir. Katharina Gismar. From Wenden.” She looked – noble. Proud and slightly angry, wary, distanced. Not the swooning maiden in distress he had pictured, but not the openly hostile stares and fawning obsequiousness that Russians alternately met him with, either.

“Can you show me the way to the commander’s office? I need to make arrangements for repatriation. All foreign nationals held in Russia will be brought home eventually. Germans first.” He considered what she had said. Wenden – that was in Courland, wasn’t it? They’d be calling that Estland now – or Lettland? Who could keep all of that straight? “Are you German?”

She blinked, and for a moment seemed lost, hopeless and puzzled. “I’m not sure.” She said.

In the main square, some men were busy raising an improvised black, white and red flag. A tall, bearded fellow stood on a chair to impose some kind of order on the madness by trying to get everyone involved in a spirited rendition of the Deutschlandlied. Part of Major Eberhard wanted to join in the fun, but his eyes were held by the gaze of his young guide, a deep sadness spreading over her face.

“I am just not sure.”

16 May 1908, Orel

Life, as people said, went on. It had to be borne. There was, after all, not really an alternative. Valentina’s days were just as busy as they had been, more so than when she had carried a rifle. The world was full of sick people, and they were still trying to do too much with too little. True, the pace of it had slowed. There was no longer the steady stream of shattered, mangled bodies coming in from the front, the hundreds of young men pleading for relief from pain, reassurance that their disfigurements did not make them hideous, their injuries did not make them cripples, that they still had a future life. Still the horrors of war continued unrelentingly. The displaced, starving and sick, the victims of every disease that the next train brought to town, the men, women and children long overlooked now clamoured for their help. Bandages and ointments, cuts and sutures, disinfectants and analgesics determined the rhythm of the working day punctuated only by listless prayers and tasteless meals. Defeat, she had found, did not taste bitter. It was no searing pain, no burning shame that cried out to be avenged. Defeat was a thick, dark fog that sucked the purpose out of life. Defeat meant that nothing you did was worth anything.

Seated at dinner, watery soup and dense, cloying bread, she avoided the eyes of her comrades. Nobody wanted to talk. What did they have to talk about? Where they would go? Some of the girls no longer had homes to return to. Some would not be welcome in theirs. Those who did and were, felt guilty. Such, too, was the world. Movement at her side made Valentina turn. Father Grigori sat down next to her, looking serious.


“Father.” She bobbed her head in the approved fashion as he made the sign of the cross.

“I have matters to discuss with you.”

Valentina nodded. “Of course.” Bad things did not go away because you did not talk about them.

“You have been a great asset to our hospital in the short time you were here.” He said, trying to sound soothing. She knew that she would not be able to stay. “And I have read your personnel file. It was a remarkable career. Father Feodor thinks very highly of you.”

At the mention of the name, she felt a brief stab of regret. War parted so many lives. She had been happy in Mogilev, under his tutelage. “Thank you, Father.”

“Don’t thank me. It is not every day you see a girl achieve anything like this. When you came to the Union, you could barely read. A charity case, by all accounts. Now – you are doing the work of a nurse. You read, write, and have your numbers. Your leaving will be a great loss. But the hospital is being dissolved now that the war is over. I can no longer keep any of you here.”

Valentina nodded. She considered, momentarily, applying for a bed in the charity barracks. Go back to where she started out, before she became a volunteer. Grasp the tiniest sliver of the life she had had. It was pointless. Others would need the beds more than her – women with children, orphans, the sick. She would have to look for a factory job, as she had planned originally. Would there be factory jobs, now that the army no longer needed all the equipment?

“No doubt you long for your home. However - I took the liberty of corresponding with Father Feodor, and he agrees with me. I – we – think you should consider staying in the service of the Patriotic Union. Your work has been exemplary. Russia will need people like you in future years.”

Valentina gasped. “Stay? But you said the hospital . . . will I be transferred?”

Father Grigori shook his head. “The volunteer branch is dissolved. You are not a nurse, formally, and the Union does not have teaching hospitals. No, I regret I cannot offer you any work of that sort. But Father Feodor has made arrangements for you to join the Women’s Auxiliary Wing, if you wish. You would be sent to Typist and Telephonist School in Tver for a year, to learn your new trade. After that, you would work in the Union offices. It is not a promising career – maybe we will be able to find you a place in a nursing school later, if you want it, or a teachers’ college. But right now, we need people who understand how to make a country work. People who have faith and purpose. Will you accept?”

The room seemed to be spinning for a moment. This was what she had forbidden herself to pray for: her new home - her new purpose. Suddenly fearful it might all turn out to be an illusion, she grasped the edge of the table. “You said I would join the Union Auxiliary?” she asked.

“The Women’s Auxiliary Branch, yes.” Father Grigori explained. “The pay is not much, but you will be issued a uniform and found quarters. You earn more if you get promoted, but …” he shrugged apologetically, “…we are looking for people of dedication and faith. It is not a materially rewarding job.”

Valentina recalled having seen the uniforms before. They were green, with wide, pleated skirts and plain tunics, white cotton blouses and celluloid collar tabs. And leather shoes, she recalled. All the women of the Union Auxiliary she had ever met had been wearing proper leather shoes, not felt or straw boots. For the longest time, she had regarded them as some kind of vision from a different world. Now – she would be one of them.

“Of course, father.” She said. “I accept. Nothing would give me greater joy!”

Father Grigori nodded. “Feodor thought you would. I will instruct the office to prepare a travel warrant for you. Be ready to travel in a day or two. You can take one of the trains coming back from the front. I’ll find you a few reliable veterans to accompany.”

Valentina nodded gratefully, still dazed. Of course she would need someone to travel with. The country was no longer safe, with so many soldiers going home and so many displaced people on the road. But it felt almost inconsequential compared to the glorious opportunity she had been given. Russia would need her. It would be a new Russia, a country that was held together with telephone lines and railways, with accounts and registers and a modern administration. And she would be part of it!

18 May 1908, Warsaw

“Frau Juchacz, I do not think we can use your help.” Oberstabsarzt Dr Rehbein had agreed to listen to her talk out of politeness, mainly. Much of the time, you could not expect Socialists to bring anything useful for the army, though the medics that the Arbeitersamariter had trained for the force had come as a positive surprise. In this case – he wasn’t even sure she didn’t have a point. But the idea of sending young women out into Russia still did not sit right with him.

Marie Juchacz shook her head in irritation. She was used to explaining things to Prussian officers, several times and slowly, if necessary. Dr Rehbein had not struck her as such a case. “Doctor, you yourself have described the situation in the camps. Has it changed?”

“Not to my knowledge.” The Oberstabsarzt had compiled the report on Russian POW camps after the first messages from the repatriation officers came in. To have his status as an expert used against him rankled.

“Typhoid, malnutrition, dysentery and gangrene; German soldiers are still dying in a war that ended two weeks ago. How can you say you do not need every hand you can get? How can you justify not accepting our help to save these people?” She brought her hand down on the files she had brought. “I am offering you the services of five hundred nurses and trainees, free of charge, and ready to entrain right now. We can spare them. Our volunteer programme has all the labour you need – why do you insist on keeping us from where we can do the most good?”

Dr Rehbein shook his head irritably. This was very unbecoming. How did you tell this woman to go away and leave him to do his work? He had to arrange medical services for several hundred thousand people, after all. “Mrs Juchacz” – she was married, at least. You heard stories of those Red viragos… “Mrs Juchacz, this is still a military operation. We cannot simply take along civilians because they feel like coming along. To ensure the safety of women, deep in Russian territory and surrounded by soldiers….”

Marie Juchacz fixed him with a baleful eye. “Are you saying that your troops would represent a danger? Nurses of the Arbeiterwohlfahrt have worked in military hospitals throughout the country, and in Poland, in perfect safety. I find this argument unconvincing. As to the Russians, they will be surrounded by hundreds of German soldiers who will surely be ready to defend them, should be necessity arise.” She steepled her fingers and held his gaze. “I ask you once again: why are you refusing our help? We can save lives here.”

The doctor sighed. Five hundred nurses – that would be four or five to each of the camps, more if they only sent them to the German POWs. But really…

“Sir.” Offiziersstellvertreter Heesters leant forward to point to the map. “You may want to consider it for camps closer to the front, at least.”

Heesters didn’t usually say much, but if he spoke, it was usually worth your while to listen. Rehbein made a point of it, regardless of the difference in rank and upbringing. “You think so?”

“Well, even if we draw every available man from the Sanitätstruppe, we don’t expect to have more than one or two per transport. Most camps will have one doctor only. Trained nurses would help.” He traced the railway line on the map. “If the Russians decide to call off the armistice, we should be able to get them out again from the camps closer to us.”

Rehbein thought about that. “But those are mainly Austrian prisoners, aren’t they? The Russians divided their captive, and sent the Prussians farthest east.”

Heesters replied with an eloquent shrug. “I think so, Sir. But any man we can spare there will be available further east.”

Oh, damn it. The Oberstabsarzt sighed. “Mrs Juchacz, I will discuss the matter with the commanding general. Can you be reached for a reply at the address you gave?”

The damnable woman smiled sweetly. “Of course, Sir. I am quartered at the Metropol, with the Sanitätskommandantur. You can send a messenger if the telephone line is out again.”

She knew when she’d won an argument. It was becoming a habit lately.
21 May 1908, Sanssouci

Much of the furniture was still covered in tarps and dust had accumulated in the corners, but the emperor refused to countenance staying at the Stadtpalais any longer. There might not be a peace treaty yet, but the war was effectively over and it was as good a signal to send to the Berliners as any that he would return to his favourite residence. It meant more travel for the members of his government and expert advisers, but that, too, seemed like a good thing. Wilhelm did not believe in deciding things quickly. Spacing out consultations over days helped. It also cut down on the big groups, giving him time to meet with smaller groups of people. Today, it was just Rathenau, Bülow, Siemens, and Professors Brückner and Ratzel. Weber was still in Warsaw, a fact that the emperor much deplored. Brückner was a masterful explainer of all things Russian, but he did not understand politics.

“120 billion gold marks. They cannot possibly repay that sum.” He repeated his objection. “Why go through with the fiction?”

“To avoid another 1871.” Rathenau explained. “We cannot risk a situation where the Russian government repays its indemnity too soon. Our own economy has been badly damaged by the war. Perhaps irreparably – it is too early to tell. We must ensure that Russia cannot wage another war against us for at least a generation. That requires us to oblige them to pay a significant part of their disposable finances. It may be enough for us to recover from the ravages of war, too, but I am not sanguine about that prospect.”

The professor nodded, only half placated. “And the money that goes to the new states - I am not sure the legal framework stands up to scrutiny.”

“It doesn’t have to.” Ratzel objected. “It’s just an excuse. Of course they couldn’t claim any reparations otherwise. The Russians did most of the damage while these countries were part of Russia, and the Czar can do whatever he wants with his empire. But covering the individual losses of a population exchange should work.”

He shuddered at his own words. ‘Population exchange’ – nobody had tried anything on this scale before. Russia would have to take every Russian choosing to leave the new states of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ruthenia, and by all accounts the locals were making sure they would choose to do so. In return, those countries would take in their nationals – Finns and Karelians, Estonians, Letts, Lithuanians, Poles, Ruthenians, Swedes, Jews, and Germans. Any property left behind by either side would fall to the respective government, and discrepancies had to be compensated. That was the theory, at any rate. In practice, the Russian fisc would be made to pay. But the practicalities of actually moving so many people boggled the mind.

“The interest alone will take decades to service.” Rathenau agreed.

“About that…” Wilhelm had been pondering the issue for a while, and he figured that this was the time. “I think we can deal with lower rates on that count. Don’t you agree, minister?”

Finance Minister von Siemens nodded in surprise. “Of course, in theory. The interest rate was set largely in an arbitrary fashion. It is signally higher than what we pay in international markets, and the lion’s share of our debt is domestic, denominated in paper mark. Interest is going to be almost irrelevant for the coming years.”

Rathenau flinched. Prices were already increasing notably all over Berlin’s markets and shops. Soon, inflation would bite all over the country. There was no way they would be able to return the mark to a defensible gold standard for years, which left the state obligated to pay foreign bondholders a premium in rare hard currency while it left Germans who often had sunk large chunks of their life’s savings into war bonds holding rapidly depreciating paper. The current projection said that someone who had bought a fifteen-year war bond in 1907 would be lucky to get back two thirds of his money. The minister feared that this might, if anything, prove optimistic.

“Then we should do this.” The emperor said, looking at Siemens with a wicked smile. “I fully intend instead to enter a stipulation into the peace treaty that obligates Russia to honour all extant foreign debts with the exact same seniority as she must her war indemnity.”

A momentary silence was interrupted by Rathenau’s gleeful chuckle.

“All of them?” Siemens looked taken aback,. “That would amount to tens of billions. You know, your Majesty, that we cannot increase the annual amount payable at will. There are limits to what Russia is able to manage.”

“I am aware of that. However, you yourself said that we could not effectively expect Russian payments to do much for the economy, so the amount of money we receive would be secondary to the political impact of keeping Russia down.” Wilhelm picked up his teacup. “And I am convinced that this will serve our primary purpose just as well while also ensuring that the Franco-Russian alliance will stay dead for an appreciable period of time.”

Ratzel blinked. Indeed, it would mean exactly that. Russia would resent having to pay its French creditors every year after the country had refused to get involved in the fight. By all accounts, the repudiation of her debt had been as much about an ill-conceived sense of vengeance as about that stupid accident of losing a significant chunk of the country’s gold reserves. The only way France could get out of this would be if the French government waived the debt, and there was no way Paris could afford to do that.

“That would be – novel.” He agreed.

Siemens nodded. “It would certainly be doable.”

“And it would show the world that Germany stands for certain principles.” The emperor added. “Civilised countries pay their debts, and make sure others do, as well.”

Rathenau looked anxious. “Phrasing it like that may be unwise. We will have to inflict great pain on Russia. Adding humiliation could lead to too much bad blood in the future.”

“More than a million dead men?” Wilhelm asked. “They have made their bed, let them lie in it.”

Rathenau nodded, resigned. He would not get through, and maybe the emperor was right, after all. The German people needed to see that they had won. Having the Russian delegation come to Baden, quartered in the same rooms where Poland’s independence had been negotiated, was just the beginning.

“Are we agreed, then?” Wilhelm asked. Nods all around the table signalled assent.

“That leaves us with the next question: Vilna.” The emperor gestured to Professor Brückner, who unrolled a map. “We will give it to the Lithuanians. That means compensating the Poles. How far east will their border go in that case?”

Brückner pointed to shaded areas on the map. “We can expect them to be able to hold on to areas with Polish populations as low as 10%. Especially if the transferred people can be resettled there, or a significant number of secondary nationalities live there.”

“So we could give them Minsk and Bobruisk?” Wilhelm asked.

“In theory, yes.” Brückner agreed. “However, a border on the Beresina would be poorly defensible. And much of the land it encloses is swampy and of little value.”

Ratzel nodded. “If Poland has any sense, she won’t take the Pripyet swamps. They make an excellent glacis, but a poor bastion.”

Wilhelm shrugged. “I guess we can leave that choice to their delegation at the conference, then.” He smiled contentedly. That had been easier than he had thought. His eye didn’t even tingle, and the job already done. “Gentlemen, I believe we are finished.”

Rathenau was the first to rise. “I need not remind you, gentlemen,” he said in his most officious tone, “that anything discussed at this table must be kept in complete confidence. Now if you will excuse me, your Majesty.” He caught Wilhelm’s eye for the briefest of moments. “I have telegrams I must send.”

The emperor grinned.

24 May 1908, Paris

“Your Highness, you should not go.”

Count Witte’s pleading had taken on an almost desperate quality. Grand Prince Sergei Romanov grunted noncommittally and picked up another one of the reports that littered the table of his hotel suite.

“I should tuck in my tail and scarper, you mean?” he finally said.

Witte barely flinched. That man had grown a spine over the last months! Sergei approved of that kind of thing.

“The dignity of the Empire is at stake, Your Highness.”, the count explained. “As a diplomat, humiliation is part of my profession. For a prince of the imperial house to suffer thus would entail much greater loss of face.”

The grand prince shrugged, “The negotiations in Baden…”

“Your Highness.”

Sergei looked up. Witte had actually interrupted him! “Yes, Count Witte?”

“There will be no negotiations.” Count Witte held the prince’s gaze, visibly shaken. “The Germans know the state of our forces. They are calling us to Baden to sign our surrender in the same building that they created their sham kingdom of Poland. Nothing is subject to negotiation. You cannot be seen under such circumstances.”

The prince flipped through the narrow typescript pages the Army Office had prepared: Guns and munitions surrendered, roll calls unanswered, units dissolving through absenteeism, fortresses occupied by German troops in surety against a surreptitious offensive they had no way of carrying out had they wanted to. The Germans had to know, at least in broad outline, the state of their forces. A display of sheer strength of character from a member of the imperial family might overawe them, but would it be worth risking? He recalled the open stares of French hotel staff, the flinty glare of the well-dressed bourgeois his carriage passed by in the street. Russia’s standing in the world had suffered greatly – perhaps more than he could imagine. Slowly, he laid down the report on the polished inlay of the table.

“Very well, Count Witte.” He finally conceded. “I will take the issue under advisement.”

Witte nodded obediently, accepting the decision handed down by his lord. He had won.

“Will Your Highness wish to remain in Paris for the duration of the Baden Conference to be in easy reach of couriers?” he asked officiously.

“No.” Sergei shook his head almost violently, looking down at his now almost useless, swollen legs. “I will take up residence on the Riviera. You may telegraph any questions in code, I am sure. It does not appear our wishes will signify much at this point.”

Heligoland, 25 May 1908

The house had looked bigger during his last visit, Franz Schönauer thought. Back then, surrounded by its picturesque tiny garden with the carefully tended rose bush and rows of beans and carrots, it had struck him as the epitome of sailorly bliss – the kind of thing he would aspire to own in his old age. Things had changed since then. The left window – he was not sure if it was the living room or the master bedroom – still had its carefully painted frame filled with paper maché. The garden was now entirely given over to vegetables, the small area that he had taken tea with his shipmate turned into a potato bed. Most strikingly of all, half the roof was now covered with what had once been a cutter mainsail, donated to the family by a grateful nation in the face of two mightily pissed-off Pour Le Merite wearers. But Schönauer suspected that none of this was half as important as what had changed in his mind. When he had last been here, he had been a navy petty officer with small aspirations to a post-service career in the merchant navy or maybe the mid-level civil service. Since then, things had changed. He had fought in the storming of the Oberland, the Battle of Rügen and the Dagö Landings. He had piloted boats full of terrified, drenched soldiers through the rocks of the Finnish coast and seen St Petersburg burn. The new uniform of an Obersteuermann still felt tight and chafed in all the wrong places, but it had opened a new future to him. His pay was enough to live respectably now – if not by the standards of the proper officers, then certainly by those of his own family or those of his peers. And with the end of the war, he might decide to go into the merchant service after all, not as a glorified sailor, but as a proper officer. In a few years’ time, maybe as master of his own ship. Even as a boy, stuck in the hopelessly unnautical world of the Rhine valley, he had loved to read tales of adventure on the high seas, and when, a green sailor in the streets of Kiel, he had come face to face with these men for the first time – their rolling gait, their bearded, watch-chained respectability, the way they owned the room – it had felt a hopeless aspiration to ever come close. Now, he had a shot. Even his Plattdeutsch had come up to scratch after years boxed in with his shipmates.

Adolf Petersen walked beside him, shedding the proper deference a Bootsmann owed his betters with every step they came closer to his home. The old salt had not made the transition into officer territory, not through lack of merit, but because he had never been inclined much to reading and writing. With his retirement looming, he was thinking of joining the customs service. But today, he was bent on enjoying a hero’s welcome. The minute they had secured leave, he’d telegraphed ahead – an unthinkable luxury in past years – and bought tickets on the Cuxhaven steamer rather than try to go over with a friendly fisherman, as he had in the past. This was his hour, shoes polished, jacket brushed, buttons gleaming and cap ribbons waving in the breeze. His last assignment – SMS Grendel – shone in letters of mirror-bright brass. On their three-day journey from Kiel to here, they had paid for nothing but the ferry. Train travel was covered on leave tickets, of course, and otherwise, nobody would take their money. It was good to be a hero, better, probably, to be an early hero. Things would doubtlessly change once millions of footsloggers crowded the rails.

The midday sunlight played on the remaining windows of the cottage, and for a moment, Obersteuermann Schönauer felt unsure whether he had missed the figure in blue or whether it had really appeared out of thin air. Short, on the small side, dressed in wide working trousers and a jacket with shiny brass buttons, he – no, she – was walking out into the garden, then stood rooted in shock. Nele Petersen, dressed up as a postman!

“Adolf!” she shouted, her face brightening. “Franz! I thought you were coming later!”

Petersen grinned. “To think my cousin would ever become landlubber enough not to read her tidal calendar properly!” he shouted accusingly before enfolding her in a bear hug. “I brought you your suitor, all in one piece.”

Schönauer’s face went beet red. Still, with the smile he received, he was not going to fight hard against the prospect. Even in her telegraph boy costume, Nele was cute.

“Now, get dressed properly!” Adolf Petersen ordered her in his best bosun’s voice. “And tell everybody we have a guest.”

Berlin, 28 May 1908

“Enter!” The office of the great man was in every way a reflection of his public character: severe mahogany and black oak, heavy leather-bound volumes in bookcases along the walls and deep upholstered furniture. Minister of the War Economy Walther Krupp von Rathenau knew how to impress. Of course, Assessor Scheibert had experienced all of this before, but getting called into The Office was still uncommon enough to give you the shivers.

“You called for me, Sir?”

“Sit down, Mr Scheibert.” Rathenau looked frazzled, but oddly relaxed. Scheibert supposed this might be his peace face – the way he looked when he wasn’t trying to run the biggest war economy in the world. It was pleasant to see, but not entirely confidence-inspiring. The man looked too much like a smug, well-fed cat contemplating mice. Scheibert struggled into a chair, carefully shifting his stiff leg

“You have been working for us over a year now, and I have to say your service record is quite exemplary.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“And it is time to talk about your further career.”

“Career, Sir?” Scheibert was puzzled. “I’m not even confirmed for lifetime employment yet, and…”

“…and with the war ending, you will have to be lucky to get that, Scheibert.” Rathenau’s voice was hard. “You know what it’s going to be like. The Kriegswirtschaftsministerium is to be dissolved, we’ll be shedding staff effective as of today.”

They had all known that this was going to happen. Scheibert had preferred not to think about it, but this was not something he could ignore. Returning veterans would be clamouring for civil service jobs, and the state saw this as a good way to support some of the less horribly crippled. He had even helped develop the points system himself! Now, it might just come to bite him.

“I should request a retransfer to the Gewerbeamt, then?” he asked.

“If you want to.” Rathenau looked at him. “I don’t let a good man down, Scheibert. If you want it, I’ll see to it you get to keep your rank and seniority after the transfer. But you’ll be stuck. Probably forever. And you will be posted away from Berlin. I have no control over that, and the vons don’t like your kind.” He checked himself just in time, or he would have said “our kind”.

Scheibert swallowed. “Thank you, Sir.”

“The alternative is an appointment elsewhere.” The minister thumbed through a file on his desk. “And this position will be much better suited to a man of your abilities. However, it is a position of employment at His Majesty’s pleasure, without the safety of civil service status.”

The young assessor blinked. The only people employed at the emperor’s pleasure were court functionaries. Where was this going?

“I have an opening in mind for you at the Imperial Statistics Service. You would be in charge of the economics section. Are you interested?”

“Of course, Sir.” Scheibert was wary, but the last time Rathenau had descended from the clouds with a transfer offer, it had worked out fine for him. An assessor’s pay was enough to marry on. “However – what does this – Kaiserlicher Statistischer Berichtsdienst – actually do?”

Rathenau flashed a brief smile. “We aren’t quite sure yet.” He admitted. “It functions as an adjunct to the cabinet office, which means it is located at court, not in the ministries. The idea is that we need a place where people go through data to get answers to the questions that come up every day. His Majesty asks a lot of questions.”

“So it would be something like a reference library service?”

“More than that.” The minister flipped through his files to show long rows of tables, graphs and lists. “The ministries all generate a lot of data. You know that, you have worked with it. But data is almost useless unless you know what you are looking for and where to get it. That is what we will need: An office of experts for finding out facts from the data we have. People who can interpret figures.”

Scheibert nodded. “That does make eminent sense.” He admitted. “It will take a large staff, though.”

“Perhaps.” Rathenau shut the file with a snap. “Are you acquainted with Hollerith tabulating machines?”

“I’ve heard of them.”

“These will be important. Now, assuming you do want the job – this is not going to be easy.” The minister’s stare fixed his underling: “You will be working for the emperor almost directly. That gives you a lot of clout, but you will have to deliver. And His Majesty is not a respecter of bullshit, pardon my swearing.”

Scheibert straightened. “I think I can meet these expectations, Sir.”

“Good!” Rathenau smiled. “That is settled, then. I’ll mark your transfer for the fifteenth of next month. You are on furlough until then – use the time to read up on statistics and tabulating machines. Reading is something you’ll be doing a lot of in this job. Now, Scheibert – you need to understand that this is a very responsible position. Your reports will directly impact decisions made at the all-highest level. This is very important.”

“I see, Sir. Of course I will keep this in mind.”

“Of course you will.” Rathenau laid his index finger along his nose and studied the young man’s face. “Of course you will.” He paused. “Scheibert, I am considering you for this job because you are brave and you are smart, but not only. The army is full of brave dolts and the universities crammed with smart cowards. I am considering you because you are enough of both these things, and you are principled. Loyalty is the most important qualification for this appointment. Loyalty, Scheibert!”

“When I joined the service I swore a personal oath to His Majesty, Sir, and I intend to keep it!”

Rathenau waved dismissively. “Loyalty to the king of Prussia or the Emperor of Germany, what have you. Everybody is loyal to the man. This post needs men who are loyal to the Reich. You told off your superiors for poorly managing rationing, and when I hired you, you told me off for squeezing the poor. That gives me hope you will do fine.”

The young man looked puzzled.

“Tell the emperor what he wants to know, never what he wants to hear. Now, for the good side…” Rathenau fiddled with another stack of paper, grumbling that there had to be a better way of holding the together. “The position is budgeted from the civil list, so it is not bound by civil service grades. Your initial pay will be 6,000 Mk.”

Scheibert coughed.

“I understand that this is no longer what it would have been before the war. The stipend will be subject to regular raises in line with inflation and as the office expands. And you will be assigned quarters. You have a family?”

“A wife, Sir.”

“Tell her she will need to buy one or two court gowns. I will instruct a severance bonus to be transferred to you for that end.” He paused. “Make this work, Scheibert. It matters.”

Baden-Baden, 01 June 1908

“With the arrival of the Imperial Chinese delegation, the peace conference at Baden-Baden has officially begun. Negotiations are scheduled to first be carried out between the members of the victorious alliance to agree on joint peace terms to be presented to the Russian representatives. These will then be discussed between the belligerent parties. With peace already concluded with Serbia and Montenegro, Russia can expect little leniency. The accounts of returning prisoners of war and the memories of their troops’ conduct in occupied areas have ensured that this peace will become costly for the Czar.”

(Berliner Illustrirte)

Königshütte, 02 June 1908

“Another five trainloads are advised for tomorrow!” Leutnant Friedrich Hameling reported, then sighed and shook his head.

“Where on earth…? Oh, bugger. What can you do?” Oberst von Mergentheim shrugged. “Get telegrams out to Korpsbereich and instruct the posts in Liegnitz, Tarnowitz, Ratibor, Oppeln and Brieg to secure more space. We’ll be sending at least some of the trains right through.”

Hameling saluted. “Very well, Sir.” With the modicum of daring that a reserve commission could give a man whose livelihood did not depend on military advancement, he added: “They aren’t likely to find enough room there.”

“Like we will here?” The colonel gestured out of the office window. The station concourse was a mess: Bundles of rags, people sleeping above and between them, people bundled in rags, rags that looked like people. Solitary suitcases and battered steamer trunks rose above the mass like churches over the low roofs of a medieval town. Every public building in Königshütte, every school gymnasium, every portico, warehouse and locomotive shed looked like that. It had started with returning prisoners of war, and they were still coming through in their thousands, haggard, hollow-cheeked men in threadbare uniforms on their way home, if ‘home’ still existed. But the Russians had also imprisoned nobody knew how many thousands of civilians, Germans from Poland, the Baltics and the Volga, and Berlin had decided that they would not allow these people to become hostages in the hands of a hostile and desperate power. Which put them here.

Hameling raised his hands helplessly. What else were they to do? These were Germans – at least that was what everybody said. The lieutenant sometimes wondered just how German some of them were. People he could barely understand, ragged, dazed and terrified, surrounded by the trappings of a modernity that frightened them – they reminded him of a Völkerschau more than of compatriots. Some younger men were still wearing the tattered Russian military uniforms they had put on two years ago to attack a country they now claimed as their home. How willingly? Who could say? Korporal Eisenstedt had actually met a fellow yesterday who had faced him at the battle of Auschwitz in the early days of the war. In the meantime, both had been wounded and invalided out of frontline service, the German for a railway regiment, the Russian for an internment camp. They had taken it with better grace than Hameling thought he himself could.

“Telegram from Korpsbereich, Sir!” A young telegraphist entered the office just as Leutnant Hameling reached for the doorknob.

“What of it?” The officer took the paper and read. A smile spread over his face.

“What does it say?” the colonel asked.

“We are getting accommodation for the evacuees.” Hameling explained. “Berlin has decided to send home the Russian POWs early. That opens up the camps for our people.”

Von Mergentheim nodded slowly, chewing on his pipe stem. “Does it say when?”

“A week or two. According to corps command, they intend to start with the easternmost camps and move in evacuees as soon as the POWs are out.”

“Best get used to doing with less sleep then, eh?” the colonel pointed out with forced jollity.


Von Mergentheim rolled his eyes. “Leutnant, the OHL just decided to move a million people from Germany to Russia in a matter of weeks. Who do you think is going to do the scheduling? Acquire the provisions? Stock coal? We’re looking at an interesting month ahead.”

He gestured at the area map. The good news was that Silesia wanted neither for coal nor for food. With the American charities sending through what looked like all the grain in Kansas, there were also openings in eastbound traffic that could be reallocated. But it would still be hell on the scheduling. You couldn’t shunt a POW train onto sidings for a week like they’d been doing with goods trains, after all. And east of the border, a lot of the standard gauge lines the Poles had built were still single-track. Oh, this was going to be fun.

Derbent, 04 June 1908

The sun was already high, beating down mercilessly on the men assembled in the exercise yard, but none of them seemed to care. Friedrich Schrader felt the heat uncomfortably through his linen suit. Even after many years in the East, he had never become accustomed to it and he felt sure he never would. He longingly thought of misty, drizzly afternoons at Berlin university. After the war was over and the dust had settled, he might just go back. At least if he still could.

Officially, Schrader was here as the honorary consul of the German Empire, his travel expenses paid for by the Imperial Government to ensure that any German national caught up in the temporary occupation of the Russian fortresses beyond the Caucasus front would have recourse to diplomatic services. So far, the only German nationals he had met were members of the military advisory command under Oberstleutnant von Willenstein, who did not exactly need consular aid. What he needed was someone to keep an eye on him, and that was half the reason Schrader was here. The foreign office received regular reports on the man’s petty, inept predations and corrupt habits. The other half of Schrader’s duties was to help the Empire’s erstwhile allies inside Russia extricate themselves from the current course of events. It was hard to find an adequate word for what the Caucasus was like right now, but clusterfuck might serve as long as it did not need to go into print.

In the barracks yard, the ceremonial of victory unfolded. Two officers, splendidly attired in their dark blue tunics and red fezes, raised the crescent and star on a pole that, only a few days ago, had flown the Russian ensign. As the flag unfolded, a mob of auxiliaries raised an ear-splitting takbir, firing off rifles and flailing about swords. The friends and allies of the Emperor, Schrader thought, wincing with embarrassment: Chechens and Uzbeks, Azeris, Dzungarians, Kazakhs, Circassians, Turkomans, Dagestanis, Tartars and whatever else could bring a sabre to the game. A fair smattering of Kurds among them, no doubt, come up from the south to join in the fun. A country given over to men who, in any civilised nation, would be at hard labour or adorning gallows as the robbers and murderers they were. And the Russians, for all their indignant complaining, were doing no better with their gangs of Georgian and Armenian desperadoes. Surveying the throng, divided almost unnoticeably along ethnic lines by the slightest of difference in dress and accoutrement, all strong, aggressive men strutting like peacocks and sporting looted valuables about their bodies, the consul thought of the fall of the Roman Empire. Was this what the proud ancestors of the German nation had been like? The heavy, ostentatious jewellery of gold and garnet that so many museums proudly displayed would certainly fit the type.

A barked command interrupted his reverie. Across the parade ground, Turkish infantry stood to attention. Their tunics stained and torn, shirts mended and patched, they still had done their best at giving an impression of uniformity, lined up as though with a ruler, every man presenting his rifle. Yildirim division, he recalled. The heroes of Kars and Batumi, though going by casualty reports, not many of the young men lined up here could possibly have been there personally. Bitter satirical cartoons had already pointed out that the garment of honour that marked most of the proud conquerors was a winding sheet. Still, these were gallant fellows and hardy. Most of them came from towns and villages along the Mediterranean shore, volunteers from a country barely different from Liguria or the Cote d’Azur, as little habituated to violence as any Pomeranian conscript. Thrown into the barren, rocky madness of the Caucasus and its ancient enmities, they had acquitted themselves well. So had their new commander, Mustafa Kemal – another reason why Schrader was here. Brave and brilliant, irascible, ambitious and fanatically nationalist, the young man worried more than a few people. Schrader met him for tea about every other day, and wrote detailed reports about their conversations. One copy went to Berlin, the other by courier to Talat Pasha in Constantinople. Berlin knew of this, but not that his reports on the military advisors accompanied them. Which of these things, if any, made him a traitor, Schrader was no longer sure. He felt certain that if it was ever fully revealed, he would have few friends left. But this, too, was the way of the orient, he supposed.

His office, if that was the right word, was located in one of the wooden huts that the Russians had helpfully left around the barracks. “German Consul” had been painted over an elaborate sign whose Cyrillic lettering proclaimed this the address of the Patriotic Union Army Recreation and Morale Services. A gaunt, heavily bearded man in an old Tartar felt coat stood leaning against the doorframe. Schrader caught his eye.


The man nodded. “Ordzhonikidse is back.” He said with no preliminaries.

“How did it go?”

“As you’d expect.” Parvus looked tired, dejected and dirty. No surprise there. The Christian peoples of the Caucasus bore the Czar little love and might possibly be moved to rise up against the Russian yoke, but with the ancient enemy at the gates, ties of religion bound firmer than national pride or the revolutionary solidarity of the few genuine Socialists there.

“Do you need anything?” Schrader still had his emergency funds stashed under the bed, designed for such contingencies.

“A bath and a shave.”, Parvus replied. “And a ticket to Berlin. I’m done with this place.”

Berlin, 07 June 1908

The police has confirmed reports of isolated fights having broken out yesterday at the Hackesche Höfe as well as several markets in the city. The altercations were quickly suppressed by policemen who were called to the scene. The outbreak of anger was primarily aimed at the rise in prices for numerous articles of daily need that have been taken off the rationing books following the cessation of hostilities. The retail prices for newly non-rationed articles including butter, oils, sugar, coffee, cocoa and tea have reportedly risen by up to 240%.

(Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung)

Zurich, 12 June 1908

A breakfast table spread with croissants, strawberry jam, honey and a deep dish of yellow butter, accompanied by coffee with thick, rich cream and heaping spoonfuls of sugar; Szandor Ferenczi observed his awe and delight with amused detachment and a degree of shock. Had the last two years really left such a mark? He had considered himself a rational man, capable of making reasonable adjustments to the demands of life, but ever since his train had crossed the border into the promised land of culinary delights and peaceful bonhomie that was Switzerland, he had felt it hard to contain his emotions at trivialities. Surely, any Kávéház in pre-war Budapest or Viennese café during his student days had offered better fare? The prospect of nights spent in freshly laundered bedsheets, of unlimited sugar for the coffee that fuelled his late-night writing, of waiters that never asked for ration books should not affect him as much as it did. Nor, he wryly considered, should it affect his wallet to the degree that was evident. A doctor’s salary used to go much further, even before you accounted for the eye-watering exchange rate of the Franc. He was deeply glad that as a speaker, his fees and accommodation were paid for by the conference organisers.

“I can’t argue with your results.” That was Dr Baum, the German. A young man still, student of Oppenheim’s, not a Jew, he was careful to point out as though this was something that marked him out as unusual. Perhaps, in this company, it did. Ferenczi nodded, swallowing the last bite of divine flaky pastry. He took the time to consider a reply.

“But with my theories?” he asked, finally.

“I’m not an expert on psychology.” Baum stated diplomatically. “I don’t pretend to know how what we do affects the brain. But surely, you must be doing something right.”

Ferenczi suppressed a sigh. Brain. Everything was about meat with these Germans. Still, Baum was enjoyable company, and very smart. Smart enough, in fact, for the German army to have deferred putting him into uniform and allowed him to do his research.

“Not everything is about tissues. But I must say I was impressed with your approach, too.” The Hungarian conciliated. “It’s not what I had expected.”

Baum smiled wrily. “No electric shocks, you mean?”

Ferenczi hesitated. Was he that predictable? “I had read things about the Baumann method…”

“Baumann is a Salpetrierian.” The young physician said it like an insult. “And the German army is not all about corporal’s swagger sticks and boots. In fact, the Hohenzollern foundation is very interested in our project.”

He had presented case studies yesterday: Soldiers returned from the front with the tremors, the vacant stares, unreasoning terror and cruel paralyses they had all become familiar with over the past two years. Soldiers returned to duty, even to the frontline after treatment. Oppenheim’s researchers had experimented with various drugs, relaxants and narcotics, mainly, and recovery in sheltered circumstances under military discipline. The idea was to allow their nerves to recover and re-establish orderly patterns. Paralysed limbs and other physical symptoms were treated directly. Ferenczi suspected that care and attention did more for the men than the drugs did.

“What about setting their minds at rest for good, though?” he asked. “If they don’t address the root of the problem, they may need drugs forever.”

“Or not.” Baum was upbeat as he reached for another poppyseed roll. His appetite was prodigious. All the German and Austrian attendees had to be putting on pounds every day by the way they ate. “So far, it looks like most of them do fine without regular medication after the end of their treatment.” He scooped butter from the dish. “Just the occasional pill.”

Ferenczi nodded. He wasn’t entirely convinced, but if it worked, he’d take it. They didn’t have anywhere near enough qualified therapists to deal with the flood of cases. If the Germans were on to an approach that could be scaled more readily, it might be the way to alleviate problems while patients were waiting for therapy. Freud would hate it, but Freud wasn’t here.

Paris, 14 June 1908

“How has he taken it?” Jean Bayrou leaned back in the leather office chair, eying his confidant with undisguised curiosity. Since his erstwhile boss and friend Clemenceau had taken over as Prime Minister, he had not seen anywhere near enough of him. Even his post as associate editor of L’Aurore was not enough to compensate.

“Poorly.” Francois Panconcelli shook his head and dropped into a rattan chair that creaked ominously under his bulk. The young official was one of the charmed circle, men whom the prime minister consulted on his thoughts and decisionmaking processes. He had followed him from the paper, but retained closer ties with his erstwhile colleagues. Officially, Clemenceau did not know anything about the meetings. It was a practical arrangement as long as nobody presumed too much. “He called it ‘monstrously clever’.”

Bayrou smiled grimly. So would he. The news from Baden-Baden had sent a jolt through the Paris bourse that was reverberating throughout the country. Russian debt that had been all but worthless the previous day was, by fiat of the German government and the magic of an imposed peace treaty, once again being serviced. Rentiers and bankers throughout France were frantically clipping coupons, and the papers already carried stories about poor fellows who had used their bonds as firelighters or in outhouses, expecting never to recoup a centime. Some had sold at tiny percentages, often to speculators and in several cases to shadowy Swiss brokers who were thought to be tied to Rothschild and Krupp von Rathenau. Nobody knew anything for sure, but rumour had it that the secretive German cabal had made a fortune that way. The editor himself felt guiltily glad he had never got around to selling his investment.

“It was, though.” He said, pointing invitingly to a box of cheroots on the side table. “There is no way France can turn it down, but it poisons our relationship with Russia for a generation. Honestly, I doubt the alliance will ever be restored.”

Panconcelli sighed and lit his cheroot. “The prime minister certainly doesn’t think so.” He confirmed. “It is time for the Republic to seek alliances that stand it in better stead. Allies who do not disgrace French values. Russia was never a reliable friend or true partner to us.”

That much, of course, was true. Even in the days of Ligueist government, allying with the last autocrat of Europe had rubbed people the wrong way. Today, it was almost unimaginable. How much France had changed – barely three years of Radicals in power, and already it seemed implausible just how much hatred of Germany and of the Jews had been woven into the fabric of official French identity. People hardly ever spoke of the lost provinces, but of new lands and frontiers in Africa and global alliances to combat the old enemy. Some deputies had gone so far as to suggest that Berlin was a natural ally in that struggle – though that was still going too far for most.

“Who, then?” Bayrou threw up his hands hopelessly. That was the question, The Quai d’Orsay had been talking up the Latin League endlessly, as though it could be made into a real power by willing it so. Italy was with them now, as it should be, given the country would not even exist without French victories over Austria, but Italy was at best their Austria-Hungary. Spain – poor, prickly, inept, humiliated Spain, vacillating unpredictably between reformist zeal and nostalgic depression – would never be reliable. Even if the French were able to spare it humiliation at their hands, it would not, and Paris had never cared even to that extent. Portugal was owned by the English and Greece could barely be called a country. The Latin American countries were flattered to be asked, but never willing to commit to anything. That left… “Not the United States?”

“They think it could work.” Panconcelli nodded. “Clemenceau likes President Roosevelt. We’re both republics, we believe in uplifting savage peoples to civilisation, we have frontiers to conquer – and we are both constrained by British arrogance.”

“Fair enough,” the journalist assented, “but why would Roosevelt want to oppose the Empire? The Americans seem to be getting along fine with their cousins.”

“Except when they don’t.” Panconcelli waved cheroot like a pointer, “A lot of Americans are concerned about British bankers dominating their backyard. What good is their brand new navy if London can just buy up the bonds of whatever Latin American state they want and force them to their terms with cruisers? Their new colonial expansion also puts them head to head with Japan, Britain’s catspaw in the east. No, this could work!”

Bayrou thought about it. If it did … a global power consisting of Republics. It would require a concerted effort to build warships if they were being serious. Enough to seriously threaten the Royal Navy. But with Russians gold flowing again, the lower interest on French debt might just allow it.
Eastern Poland, 20 June 1908

Another day, another village. Sergeant Hans Mehling found it hard to see the difference anymore; They merged into a generalised impression of squalor, despondency and muck. It was better than frontline service, he had to admit. His language skills had earned him promotion, but it had meant he was always close to the Polish National Army’s officers. Polish army officers were crazy. But the relief that had accompanied his transfer to the registration commission had not lasted long. The prospect of spending months, saddle-sore and lousy, riding from one dinky village to another held little appeal. True, the people were famously hospitable. Mehling was an open-minded fellow and had nothing against Poles. He liked them, personally, and spoke Polish well enough to have founded a career on it. Out here, where tradition still ran strong, they would share everything they had with a guest. After the war, though, people out here had fuck-all, mostly.

True enough, no farmer worth his salt had literally nothing. Coming as representatives of the new order, armed and uniformed, Mehling and his comrades could always look forward to some butter, a few eggs, a sausage or some vodka being found to sweeten their stay. But it wasn’t much, and the contrast with the general poverty of the region made the NCO feel guilty accepting. He had little enough to offer the villagers in return. Instead of the things they would need – schools and doctors, telegraphs and railroads – he came bearing papers. Passports. Not that he felt sure most recipients understood what they were for, but they got that they would need them. Here was another one, doffing a ratty sheepskin cap and bowing.

“Name?” Sergeant Levandovski asked mechanically.

“Navitskiy.” The man said, his voice trembling. “Pavel Ilyich Navitski, Sir.”

The Polish sergeant looked up. Mandelbrot, absently twisting his beard, stared off into the middle distance. There were no Jews here – nothing to do for him, except occasionally help with interpreting. Mehling pulled out a form.

“What language do you speak?” Levandovski asked in Polish.

“Russian … and Polish, Sir.” He did not sound very comfortable in either tongue. The poor man was evidently uncertain what the uniformed trio wanted to hear.

“I mean at home.” The sergeant explained, but left no time to respond. “Religion?”


Mehling rolled his eyes. “Orthodox or Catholic?”

“Orthodox, Sir.”

Levandovski nodded and ticked ‘Catholic’. Everybody was Orthodox here, but people still divided into the kind of Orthodox that was really Catholic and the kind that wasn’t.

“You live in this village?”

Navitski nodded eagerly. “Yes, Sir. My father and grandfather before me, too. I own farm down main road on left. White house with dovecot!” He positively beamed with pride, relieved to be able to talk of something he understood.

“A landowner…” . Levandovski dipped his pen in the inkwell on the table and filled in the form. Navitski, Pawel. Citizenship: Polish, Nationality: Pole. Stamped with the official seal of the Polish Kingdom and the National Army, the precious document changed hands. “All right, next!”

Another peasant, this one wearing a ragged homespun blouse and felt cap.


“Shurim, Herr Laitnant. Ilya Shurim!” He looked hopeful. Levandovski threw Mehling a sidelong glance.

“You want him?” he asked in Polish.

“Not particularly. You?”

Mandelbrot shook his head. Levandovski sighed. “Your language?” he asked in German. A questioning look was the reply.

“Your language?” Mehling said in Polish. That triggered recognition.

“German.” The young man stated authoritatively, in what passed for Russian hereabouts. Levandovski sighed theatrically.

“Your religion?”

“Orthodox.” The Polish NCO nodded. That clinched it.

“Ilya Szuriem, citizenship: Polish, nationality: White Ruthenian. Next!”

Mogilev, 23 June 1908

Among the things Garrett E. Morgan had learned about the Germans during his service with them, what had surprised him most was how happily they cheated. It was not the overt business of swindling suckers, the great, Barnumesque bluster that he was accustomed to at home but a skill at prevarication, the art of concealing the truth without telling an outright lie. For example, a regimental column could advance in good order, at the brisk, mile-eating pace of Prussian infantry, if it had just detrained an hour or so from the city limits. Nobody marched overland like that. It was parade stuff, complete with music and fluttering flags. On the battlefield, it was worse than useless, but if you wanted to impress a defeated populace – it worked.

With the music ahead of them – only a small band, not the full complement – the fighting men came down the streets of Mogilev in close order, bayonets gleaming and hobnailed boots crashing down in unison. Taking over the city as part of the peace terms – control of rail hubs and fortresses inland of the armistice line - they had not had to fight their way in, so they had to impress the people in other ways. The last notes of the Königsberger Marsch drifted away into a clear blue sky. Garrett Morgan had never understood why so musical a people chose to use such monotonous and mind-numbing tunes to march to. Spotting an opening, he decided to improve things, at least along the stretch where the mule corps were marching. The Germans would rest a few moments between pieces to catch their breath. Time to get a word in edgewise.

“Harrison!” he shouted. That man had a good tenor, appreciated at campfires from here to East Prussia. A quick smile of recognition flashed and a sole voice began.

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”

More of the men joined in. They all knew the lines – everybody did.

“He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on.”

Now, everyone was singing, a full-throated shout of defiance and triumph. Some German soldiers also took up the refrain.

“Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

His truth is marching on

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,

They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:

His day is marching on.”

Few of the Germans could master the lines, but they happily joined in the chorus. That part they knew. They even had their own translated version, for a given value of translated. For a few wondrous minutes, the Russian civilians lining the streets were treated to a spectacle that seemed fallen out of its time. Even the marching band picked up the tune. This must have been what it felt like, going from Atlanta to Savannah back in the day.

The last stanza ended, and for a moment, only the tramp-tramp-tramp of heavy boots filled the air. Feldwebel Kohl turned around to smile at Morgan, raised his staff and barked a command. It took them a moment to recognise the tune. The Germans called it ‘Marsch durch Polen’, but enough men in the mule corps recalled its origin on the road with Sherman’s troops. They happily sang along the original lines. Let the Russians figure it out for themselves, if they wanted to.

Zeppelin Works, 29 June 1908

“It is impressive,” the count said, gesturing at the engines the engineering section had been testing. “What your men took from Gatchina, Your Highness, is a valuable addition to our work here.”

Prince Albert nodded acknowledgement. The navy had made sure everything from the aviation workshops got sent back to Germany, and though much of the result had come too late to affect the war effort, it had still been worthwhile.

“I still don’t understand why the Russians put these things in an aeroplane.” Emperor Wilhelm opined.

“A poor man’s solution.” Count Zeppelin pointed out. “Building the frame of a dirigible is very challenging. The performance is better by any measure, but if you can’t do it, an aeroplane is all you have left.”

Albert stroked his chin. “Not to mention with the structural advancements and the new engines, the damned things might finally outgrow their teething troubles.”

Wilhelm shook his head, but deferred to the expert. Count Zeppelin explained: “The problem is one of principle, Your Highness. Aerodynamic flight is a limited technology. The need to keep moving at speed requires powerful engines and large fuel reserves. The additional weight means more lifting surface must be added, which means you need still more engine power and gasoline. In the end, the expansion that an aeroplane must undergo to carry just one additional passenger is prohibitive.”

“That may be so,” Albert protested, “but the speed and manoeuvrability that a fully developed aeroplane is capable of would surely be valuable. Not to mention its lightness.”

Wilhelm smiled lopsidedly. “For some specific applications, certainly. I’ve no doubt the navy will get good use out of aeroplanes if they ever fulfil their potential. But they are obviously unsuited to land warfare. Their speed is consistently overestimated, for one thing.”

Count Zeppelin nodded. “Flying as fast as the engine would permit is not possible because the wings do not withstand the wind.” He explained. “These airframes are very fragile because they have to be so light. Aerostats benefit from the same square-cube law that is the bane of aerodynamic machines. With an airship, doubling the length increases lift eightfold. For an aeroplane, it multiplies weight by four. And any new invention that allows us to make lighter, stronger wings also allows for better hulls.”

He stepped over to point at the drawing of the latest model bombing ship. Sleek and smooth, the gondola drawn into the hull, the engines attached to side pods, it looked very different from the rickety machines of the early war. “For an aeroplane to carry a comparable load, it would need to be at least twenty metres in wingspan. There are no engines that would be able to lift such a beast, but even if there were, the airspeed it requires would make it worthless for bombing. We have learned from painful experience that targeting bombs accurately is very difficult. Even from a stationary airship, it requires great skill.”

“But wouldn’t a stationary aerostat be a target for enemy fliers?” Albert was unconvinced.

“They are quite robust.” Wilhelm noted. “The one we lost near St Petersburg went down because of a mechanical failure as far as we can tell. That put him in range of ground-based artillery. The new models can rise to several thousand metres!”

Albert nodded. “What if the aeroplane dropped a bomb from a low altitude, passing over the target?”

“The stress of manoeuvring would tear the frame apart.” Zeppelin replied authoritatively. “Not to mention it would expose itself to ground fire, even rifles. With far better engines and materials than we have now, it may be possible. But even then, why risk it? Except, perhaps, at sea. Airships cannot well be carried on ships, but aeroplanes may.”

“Or on airships!” the emperor interjected.

“Indeed, Your Majesty. Once the technology allows for sea-based aeroplanes, there is no reason to think it will not also allow for air-carried ones.” Count Zeppelin averred. “But all of this is still decades in the future, if it is to come at all.”

Wilhelm nodded enthusiastically, his good eye bright: “It must come, Herr Graf. It must! Germany’s position precludes it from ever being a first-rate naval power, but we must remain the paramount power in the air.”

Albert sighed. “Your plans for a separate service again?”

“Well, I can’t leave something this important in the hands of the separate states.” Wilhelm argued. “And you see that the navy will simply pursue its own purposes. No, if we are to expand our lead in this technology, we need a guiding hand to control the effort. An imperial air force – a Reichsluftmacht. Small at first, but I daresay it will grow great soon enough.”

Albert nodded resignedly. “Remember though: The war is over. Things cost money again. And you need to start paying greater attention to peacetime policy.”

“Spoilsport.” The emperor grumbled.

Berlin, July 2 1908

Sieg des Polentums!

What remains to be seen is whether anyone on Berlin has the courage to make the emperor understand the scale of the loss this peace treaty imposes on Germany and Germandom. It defies credibility that the supposedly wise heads of our foreign ministry, men who, we are assured, understand the business of international relations, concluded these terms in ignorance of their consequence. The only reasonable assumption is thus that they know and approve of what they did, and the degree to which the Reichstag and the ministries are already overrun with Jews, Catholics and Socialists leaves one to fear the worst.

It is not that one objects to the sacrifices the German people has been called on to make in the cause of its global significance. Sacrifices, made in the right cause, ennoble the maker and obligate futurity. A cost of two million lives of our best manhood lost or blighted, at a price of more than a hundred billion gold marks mortgaged to the future of our entire nation, would be worth embracing for the prospect of a true German Empire of two hundred million spanning the continent of Europe. For what the government has given us, it is too high. More than too high, it represents by all informed accounts nothing less than the suicide of the German nation, its departure from the ranks of world powers and ultimately, its descent into pointless mediocrity. This is the stakes, this is what we risk today unless the madness of humanitarian delusions is ended and Germany’s right to the fruit of its victories asserted. Failing to do this will mean offending against the iron law of nature that governs the history of all nations: that the stronger asserts his right. To allow the Jew and the Pole, the Finn and the Balt to appropriate our victory by trickery and deceit is a sin not only against common sense and good politics, it is a crime against untold future generations of our race who are robbed of the soil to grow and the space to expand the power that is their birthright. All decent German men should be appalled and ashamed that such a thing could happen.


Altona, 5 July 1908

The smell was not as bad as the trenches south of Lake Peipus had been, but that was all that could be said to recommend the experience. Generaloberst August von Mackensen, victor of the Central Front and hero of the fatherland, shuddered at the memories the low doorjamb, dank air and crowded interior evoked. He had chosen to spend a few days following his triumphant return visiting men invalided home from his army group, listening to their stories and helping where he could. As their commander, he felt he owed them this much at least.

“You see, Sir.” Major von Thaden, his guide on this visit, attentively held open the rickety door as the great man stooped to enter. “we often have entire families sharing one room.” Mackensen blinked to accustom his eyes to the sudden gloom. Yellowish light filtered in through the grimy panes of a small window high in the back wall that led to a back yard – no, really more like an airshaft. A narrow bed and a small table almost filled the room to capacity. The summer heat trapped the miasma of too many bodies and too little soap. In winter, with the small cast-iron oven in the corner going, it would probably be dank.

The man seated on the only chair stood to attention as best his wooden prosthesis permitted, saluting smartly. Mackensen smiled as he recalled the face. Iron Cross First, in the Bug campaign, a Gefreiter in the Saxon hussars. The general returned the salute.

“No need to get up, son.” he said with the avuncular smile he liked to use around other ranks. “This is where you live, then?”

“Yes, sir! Me, my wife and two children. Be three, soon, we hope.”

The general chuckled encouragingly. “Good man! And you have a job now?”

“Yes, sir. I drive a milk wagon. Deliveries every morning. My wife earns something, too. She’s kitchen help at a restaurant.”

Mackensen thumped the man’s shoulder in a gesture of comradely fellowship that was almost ruined by the lack of space to move. A small envelope changed hands. “If I can do anything for you, let me know. I don’t forget brave men” He was glad to escape the cramped confines of his host’s quarters.

“I think I can better understand now what the men mean when they speak of housing problems.” The general said when the two men left the courtyard for the waiting cab. “It has to be very unpleasant, having to live like this. I hope Gefreiter Seeven finds a proper home soon.”

Von Thaden stared at the general for a moment. “Sir….”


“Sir …” he explained hesitantly. “Gefreiter Seeven has found a home. This is what men are waiting months to rent. Those who cannot find one live in far less comfortable accommodation.”

Mackensen’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?” He stroked his moustache. “This hole is worse than the huts they give labourers in East Prussia. At the rents the men pay…”

The major shrugged. “Rents are set by the market, sir. There is a shortage of housing in every city, especially now that so many people come to work there. Some families who have a second bed rent it out to lodgers. Otherwise they’ll not make it. With wartime prices for food and clothes, they don’t have much room to maneuver.”

For a moment, the general said nothing. He took off his hussar’s cap and rubbed his eyebrows. Von Thaden wondered if he had overstepped some kind of invisible boundary, touched on something the great man preferred not to know too much about. Finally, he turned to his guide and spoke, his voice decisive and demanding. “We’ve got to do something about that.”


“You’re in the demobilisation command aren’t you?”

Von Thaden nodded. Another crippled officer, surplus to the requirements of a peacetime army, he was glad to have found at least a temporary berth. “Yes, Sir. Housing is something I … have made a study of.” He did not mention his own loss of innocence, the shock of coming face to face with the squalor of the Berlin slums.

“Then work with me.” Mackensen demanded. “These men won the war for the country! I’ll be damned if I let them rot in a place like that. They’re heroes, and they deserve a place fit for heroes!”

“What do you have in mind?” von Thaden enquired cautiously.

“I don’t know yet.” Mackensen shrugged. “Maybe a foundation for housing. Addressing this in laws, too. Build proper houses. There must be some rich men in this country who are willing to help. I’ll put my name to it, that has to count for something.”

Belgorod, 12 July 1908

There was proper tea with sugar again, rose jam, white bread, golden butter, even champagne, if you felt like it. Major Shternmiler could hardly understand why anyone would. There was, after all, little enough to celebrate, and vodka served better to deaden the pain of defeat. It worked faster, too. If you inclined that way, you might as well be efficient about it.

The quarters at Belgorod fortress were spacious and well-appointed, filled with the heavy, opulent furniture of the pre-war era that gave the impression of being built to last several lifetimes. Shternmiler, newly rating a major’s accommodation, complete with a sort of broom closet to house his personal servant, felt out of his depth. More painfully, he felt ashamed. Every time he closed the heavy doors and sank into his bed’s freshly ironed linen, he was painfully aware how much of this the men of his army were lacking. True, they were no longer under canvas, but the cramped quarters in the casemates and warehouses of the old fortress had little to recommend them over tents in the summer heat. To an officer who had gone through the rigours of cadet school, these privileges came as naturally as bravery and stupidity, but the major had made his career by a different route. He remembered his time as an NCO, seconded to the army. .

But the main problem was that the men were aware, and not just that – after all, they had always known – they resented the fact. Soldiers had always had little enough use for officers as a group. It helped to have been one of them to fully grasp this, but the childlike devotion so many of his comrades enthused about was mainly an act the men put on for their benefit. Lately, though, they had made select leaders feel this directly. A colonel had been spat on for forcing soldiers to step off the sidewalk, a lieutenant had come away from trying to stop a drinking bout with a black eye and a broken nose. This was not supposed to happen. Doubly, it was not supposed to go unpunished – but it would have to.

“I am sorry, general.” Shternmiler explained. “The risk of open mutiny is considerable at this point. We will need to take other measures before we can enforce formal discipline again.”

General Diterikhs scratched his chin. “You had said as much before.” He said. “I am still not happy with the idea. When do you see us back in a position to do that?”

Shternmiler shrugged helplessly. He was still not used to people in power actually listening to his opinion and sometimes scared by the trust they placed in it. “I’m not sure, Sir.” He answered. “But events in Tula suggest it would be wise to be cautious.”

The troops there had hanged several unpopular officers and NCOs from lampposts last week. News had been slow to leak out, but the intelligence had, of course, been informed. Nobody had seen anything, so the army had not been able to identify the perpetrators. You could practically taste the fear. Here, things had not yet deteriorated to that point, but they might not be long off, either.

“I can see that.” the general agreed. “But what do we do, in the meantime?”

Shternmiler bit his lip. “Time and desertion work in our favour here, sir.” He explained. “The most malcontent elements are effectively removing themselves. If some of them were allowed to learn that they were slated for punishment, that could serve to encourage them further.”

Diterikhs’s face registered disgust, but the major noted that he did not say no.

“Further, we need to ensure the reliability of the cadre.” he pointed out. “Appoint reliable NCOs to leadership positions and dismiss unreliable ones. Fortunately, demobilisation is now a valid tool, so we can send home whoever we like. And third, we need a force that can be trusted to enforce orders at gunpoint, if need be.”

“Ah, yes. Where do you propose to find one, though?” Diterikhs asked, exasperated.

“The Central Front command in Smolensk has tried using returned POWs for the purpose.” The major pointed out, unenthusiastically. “They say they are very satisfied with the performance, especially of the former Patriotic Union auxiliaries.”

Diterikhs recoiled as though a spider had emerged from his tea cup. “Union volunteers!?” He almost hissed the word.

“That is what the report said, Sir.”

The general sighed and poured himself another glass of tea. “Very well, Shternmiler. Get yourself a group of reliable officers and try it.”
Urumqi, 22 July 1908

Jiang Jilie, Major in the Ever Victorious Western Army, graduate of the Wuchang garrison’s training cadre, officer of the Glorious Guangxu Emperor and decorated war hero, had done a number of things in his time he felt in retrospect had been foolhardy, even ridiculously dangerous. He had led infantry to fight mounted rifles, had marched through the Tibetan passes in the onset of winter, engaged in bayonet fighting with a Cossack, ridden a horse without knowing the first thing about the animal, and turned a captured mountain gun on the enemy without ever having practiced how to use artillery before. Yet for all that, he felt sure that he had never done anything as dangerous as this. And it was all for some intruding official busybody. All his problems that did not stem from Russians and Mongols, it seemed, were down to civil servants these days. This one had chosen to pick on a man from Major Jiang’s company for wearing his hair improperly. During the war, many of the men had tied up their queues to prevent them from snagging on branches or being grabbed by enemies. Some had lost hair in accidents. More had hacked them short after vainly trying to comb out the snarls of month-long accumulations of sweat, dirt and blood. Nobody had had a problem with that in the field, but of course some officious idiot had to make a point. And so, here he stood. The major recalled his conversations with the German advisor Mollenhauer. Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders!

“It is against regulation and law!” the official said, his voice heavy with poisonous anger, “and I must hold you responsible, major. The man is under your command! Now, hand him over, or I will have to arrest you along with him.”

Major Jiang breathed in slowly. This was it. He locked eyes with his accuser and slowly, deliberately, pulled his bayonet from its sheath. Slowly, never taking his eyes off the man, he raised his left hand to his queue. The official’s eyes widened in shock. Jiang Jilie sawed angrily as the blade snagged on strands of hair. It should be sharper! After an endless four or five seconds, he brought forward his left, dropping the queue at his feet.

For a moment, there was stunned silence.

“Go on.” Major Jiang said in his best indoor voice. “Arrest me.”

For the briefest of moments, the beadles who had come along made a move to step forward, but the flash of bayonets convinced them otherwise. The major had not ordered his troops to protect him – not in so many words – but they had been through too much together not to. A second later, the first queue landed at the feet of a policeman. More of the men were sawing, slicing, ripping with their bayonets and pocket knives. The local government fled with an unintelligible shriek. Cheers rose behind Major Jiang. Incoherent at first, but soon coalescing into the familiar pattern: “Huangdi wansui! Wansui!” “Zhongguo wansui!”

Cheering a Manchu emperor in this act of defiance against his dynasty’s orders seemed incongruous, but Major Jiang would not allow his loyalty to be questioned. As he led the men back to their quarters, he joined the chant. “Zhongguo wansui!”

Let the general make of it what he would. They could hardly hang them all, could they?

Rovno, 27 July 1908

If you didn’t know any better, you might assume that a sudden shower of early winter snow was descending on the narrow, muddy streets of Rovno’s outskirts. Colonel Cohen was too familiar with this kind of snow shower to be fooled into believing a meteorological miracle, though. Too many of his friends and family had seen this too often. Quickening his pace – like most officers in the Jewish Corps, he was a habitual walker, uncomfortable around horses – the colonel rounded the corner into the square that had once fronted the main synagogue. The building no longer existed in any meaningful sense, though someone had saved the Torah rolls. Fine, snowy down feathers blew on the summer breeze and settled around his boots. He spoke loudly, to draw immediate attention:

“What’s going on now?”

A soldier stared in shock and disbelief at finding himself face to face with his commanding officer. Trying to stand to attention, he tugged at his bayonet lodged itself deeply in the feather bed he had just torn from a handcart in front of him. The blade snagged on the linen, fabric tearing wider while he tried to free it by deploying his boot to hold the bedding in place. He stumbled backwards as the weapon came loose, caught himself and saluted sheepishly.

“Searching the possessions of Russian squatters for stolen valuables, Sir!” he reported. His colleague came around the cart where he had been keeping an eye on the wretched family of Russians the two were harassing. With their scraggly beards and shorn heads, the two looked even younger than they doubtlessly were. They couldn’t be much over twenty – less than that, probably. Even trying to give the appearance of hardened warriors to the world, you half wanted to send them off to do their homework.

“Have you found anything, corporal?” Cohen asked pointedly.

“No, Sir. But we need to be thorough. Russians are allowed to repatriate, but not take any property of the Polish state or its communities. You hear rumours.”

Yes, you heard rumours. Of course you did. Rumours of a Russian muzhik trying to cross the border with hundreds of gold roubles sewn into his coat. Stories of women secreting diamond jewelry about their persons, of liturgical equipment stolen from churches and synagogues and smuggled across, of theft of almost anything that wasn’t nailed down. Some of it no doubt was true. The rest just encouraged the soldiers to brutalise their victims further. Cohen was little inclined to show the Russians mercy. He had seen too much of their handiwork in shtetls and synagogues from Lublin to here. But some things just – didn’t fly.

“Corporal, you shake a bed to see if it contains foreign objects.” he pointed out. “The bayonet is not required except when searching loose hay or forage.”

“Yes, Sir.”

The old man who had been standing motionless watching the destruction of his earthly possessions now walked forward, trying to kiss his hands in effusive gratitude. An elderly woman and two girls struggled to pull the remnants of the feather bed together and stow it on the already overloaded wagon, looking fearfully at the soldiers who had retreated, watching. Cohen took two steps backward, disgusted with the scene.

“All right!” he shouted in Russian “I didn’t do this for you! These were Jewish homes before the war. They’ll be Jewish homes again!”

Soldiers and a few of the civilians around the square raised their voices in assent.

“Take your possessions and go.”

It came out more harshly than he had intended. The old man looked up in shock and fell to his knees, trying to hug the colonel’s legs like he had no doubt been taught in his boyhood as a serf. The colonel pushed him away. As the man fell, Cohen spotted the glint of metal – a watch, hidden in the folds of the homespun shirt. He considered confiscating it, but felt revolted by the thought. He was a soldier, a fighter for his people, not some uniformed highway robber.

“Go!” he yelled. “Get out! Go home to Russia before I have you shot!”

Hastily, the two girls grabbed ropes and started to pull the wagon along the muddy road. The old man followed, still half-turned toward the officer, bowing in a pathetic display of servile gratitude. The soldiers cheered.

Berlin, 03 August 1908

“Income tax?” Rathenau asked, taken aback. “Is that really the hill you want to die on?”

“It is simply unacceptable!” minister von Siemens protested. “The middle classes of the empire have given everything for this victory. We cannot allow them to be bled dry at peace!”

Rathenau sighed. Of course this was going to happen. He had not expected it to come from an imperial appointee, but the Hugenberg press was going to carry the torch of righteous indignation, and a big chunk of the Zentrum might follow them this time.

“It is without alternative.” He countered. “It is this, or the death of our national economy.”

Professor Wagner, also seated at the table, nodded emphatically. He had been dragged out of retirement at the insistence of Max Weber, one of the emperor’s closest confidants, and his authority meant a lot in government circles.

“It is indeed.” The old man explained. “Simply, we will be facing a period of relative dearth. War production cannot immediately be retooled, and what our industries turn out will to a large extent need to go into export. Until Russia pays its indemnities, this is our sole reliable source of foreign currencies, and we will need it to service our foreign debt. If we allow the economy to find its natural balance, the results would be catastrophic.”

Siemens swallowed. “I … realise that.” he admitted. He had fought hard for an early return to the gold standard, but ultimately everyone had had to agree this was impossible. At least, it was impossible to have that and not face a revolution. “But surely, you must see that this is unjust in the extreme. People whose income is in cash….”

“…will be glad to be shielded from the worst ravages of inflation.”, Rathenau interrupted, unconvincingly. “And from the threat of red revolution.”

“We simply cannot do without the funds to manage the transition.” That was Professor Weber, immaculately attired and infuriatingly calm. “And we will have to accept a degree of controlled inflation. We can export it into the newly liberated states of Central Europe, at any rate. But someone must provide the money to employ all the men returning. Someone must channel the demand into productive directions.”

The plan that the government had come up with was impressive, on paper. Vast amounts of money had already been funnelled into real estate purchases and building projects. This would continue, fuelled by tax revenues that no longer were needed to buy shells, guns and warships. The resulting employment would ensure that farmers had buyers for their produce in the cities and that cash left circulation as it was sunk into institutional coffers. Raw materials would be purchased and finished products exported to the eastern periphery, by preference. A mark bought more in Poland than it did in America. But all of this meant that they were facing years, decades, of a currency unmoored from gold. Its magic would inflate away a big part of the country’s debt, but again the cost would be borne by Germany’s middle classes. If you had land, factories, or shipping interests, you would come out all right. If you lived by selling your labour, you’d at least have a job, and a chance of ending up in one of the new housing developments to boot. But if you were invested in bonds, pensions or rents, the government had halved your value in one fell swoop - and you would be lucky if it stayed at that. Passing the bill for all of this to the bourgeois sounded like some perfidious Socialist plot. Instead, it was being cooked up by the emperor’s cabal.

“I do not think it will be acceptable to the Reichstag.” Siemens stated flatly. “Not without some guarantees for the currency and significantly lower rates.”

Rathenau shrugged. “His Majesty commands it.” He sighed heavily. “Look, this is not what I would want. It’s not what anyone would have wanted. But if you look at the bright side for a minute, at least it provides us the opportunity to test the theory of money. If it works, the historical school are right. If we fail, the English are.”

Siemens shook his head. The war was over. They weren’t supposed to continue risking everything on gambles! This was not what peace was supposed to look like.

22 August 1908, Smolensk

Of all the days, it had to be a hot one. Hot, dusty and mercilessly sunny – the kind of light painters loved, if they could go back inside and have a drink of water afterwards. None of the men standing guard at the factory gate had had a drink of water since early in the morning. Out in the street, police posts turned back anyone wanting to go in. The Semenov Metalworks lacked the amenity of a well, and the mains water had not been working for a few days. Surely, the police bastards knew. Pyotr Nikonov was sure this was deliberate. They didn’t have the balls to go in and bust heads anymore, so they tried to starve them out. Well, fuck them! Nikonov swallowed drily and thought about sucking on a pebble. Peasants swore by it as a remedy for long, thirsty work, and this looked like it would be long and thirsty.

The red flags had gone up two weeks ago. Not that they had been the first, or even the most important place. Amid the chaos of demobilisation, anger and worry, you might have missed it, and if it had not been for Sergey and Misha, out of the army and wanting their old jobs back, they might not have done it at all. Turning them away had been what had made the mood among the staff boil over.

A flicker of movement caught Pyotr’s attention. The policemen stepped aside, and a group of men walked down the street. Greenjackets. The men at the gate stood straighter and hefted their weapons. It looked like a hot afternoon. Pyotr had seen the men of the Patriotic Union fight in ’05; they were tough guys when facing a weaker opponent, but they backed away from any show of strength. The strikers fanned out, the men in the front rank keeping their wrenches and steel poles in full view, four in the rear unslinging their rifles. Dmitry walked forward to meet them, hefting an impressive-looking hammer. The greenjacket leader neither slowed nor hesitated. Pyotr shivered despite the heat.

“That’s close enough!” Dmitry shouted, planting himself firmly in the path of the approaching officer. “What do you want?”

Pyotr saw the shot before he heard it. He had never seen anyone move this fast. The gun was out and the bullet fired before Dmitry even had a chance to raise his hands. The workers stood in shock as he stiffened, slowly toppled over and rolled into the dust of the street, blood spurting from a mortal wound in his head. Pyotr Nikonov muttered the briefest of prayers as his brain tried to formulate a reaction and flashes bloomed from among the Union auxiliaries now advancing at a run.

Not a single one of the riflemen got off a round.

28 August 1908, Nuremberg

“Doppelverdiener sind Schmarotzer” the poster proclaimed in bold, red print. “Jede Frau in Lohnarbeit stiehlt das Brot einer Familie!”

The knuckles on the hand gripping the pen were white. “No.” Helene Lange slowly said. It took all her considerable reserves of self-control not to shout. “No, this is not a trivial matter. It is not something we can pass over for now.”

Her host, Helene von Forster, looked pained. “You don’t understand,” she explained. “Our cooperation is valued here. The war has changed everything. We can make real progress if we don’t antagonise the government.”

“Not antagonise the government?” Lange laughed bitterly. “When has that ever got us anywhere?” She remembered too well the meeting with chancellor Eulenburg, the patronising smiles and pathetic excuses. Yes, the war had changed everything. It had shown the world, finally, that women could be trusted to stand on their own feet. Not many, millions of German women had stepped up and done their part, working in factories, delivering mail, running trams, keeping shop and managing homes while their fathers and husbands were in uniform. Nobody could send them off with a pat on the head now. And they had the gall to tell them to just swallow this nonsense?

“It may get us the suffrage!” von Forster pointed out. “Certainly a change to the association laws. The chancellor is not opposed, and if the Zentrum can be won, this can pass the Reichstag. It’s a small price.”

Helene Lange gestured at the heavy, ornate furniture and rich carpets that surrounded the two women. “A small price for you, perhaps. Many women need their income. They have nothing else. If we allow them to send us back to the kitchen for the fatherland, what is to become of those?”

“The laws only affect double earners.” Forster said. She did not sound entirely convinced herself. “Women whose husband is gainfully employed must free up their jobs for men returning from the war. It doesn’t affect widows or … unmarried women.” She had caught herself before using the word ‘spinster’, remembering Lange lived with her longtime companion, no husband, and no prospects of marriage.

“I have spoken to Socialist women. It will be a disaster for many working families. Wages often require wives to work along with their husbands. And anyway…” she paused, looking out of the window, and sighed. “Why is it always women must pay for the greed and stupidity of men?”

“Helene, the suffrage! It’s the one thing that can change everything! We cannot stop the law anyway, and if we oppose it, we will just look like greedy, unpatriotic harridans. But if we do as we are asked, we could win a great prize for the future.”

“I suppose so.” Lange shrugged. “It’s not like it would really make a difference, is it?” She thought of the women she had met in the last year of the war: Smart, dedicated, hard-working patriotic women, independent and competent, bright and eager. Tram conductors and lathe operators, telegraphists, teachers, clerks and grocers; one word, a stroke of the pen, and the state would send them back to their homes with no thanks and no compensation. No regard was paid to the income of the husband or the qualification of the wife. True, the law technically only affected the civil service, but its impact would be felt everywhere. She closed her eyes and willed the image away. “I’m not going to vote against it. The Association of Women’s Clubs will not oppose the law.” She conceded. “But you cannot make me like it. I won’t say a word in support.”

“You always said that motherliness is a woman’s greatest virtue, Helene.” Von Forster argued.

“I also said that a woman should have the right to live on her own.” Lange countered. She wondered what the Socialists would say. She had come to like that Luxemburg woman. Would she ever forgive her?

31 August 1908, Vilna

Security; Doctor Shimenovski had begun to appreciate just how serious the Germans were about it when he arrived in the city, but he had not fully understood the dedication to paranoia that the OHL embraced until the gold trains came in. Even in peacetime, he would have insisted on having the platforms guarded by soldiers and the trains accompanied by armed treasury agents. In war, he had had them run with armoured troop carriages to discourage curiosity. The Germans had simply evacuated the station and a perimeter of half a kilometre. It gave them room to work – they were remarkably efficient at counting and weighing their loot at tables set up along every platform, totting up subtotals in ledgers kept by frock-coated clerks and passing sacks and ingots into standard-gauge railcars. Even Shimenovski’s trained eye failed to spot a single light-fingered soldier among the hundreds moving around the hall with antlike industry. He might have been impressed, even moved to praise, under different circumstances. As it was, he watched in silent horror as the lifeblood of his country was drained.

“We have cleared train number four, six and nine.” Shimenovski looked up. A central bank clerk held out a sheaf of papers for his acknowledgement. “There are still two boxes of coinage unaccounted for from five. We are confident it was a miscount.”

Shimenovski leafed through the papers and countersigned. What was the point? If the Germans said they were owed more, they would get it. There was nothing he or anyone else could do. Russia had spent centuries accumulating its vast gold treasure, and now, it was going to be carted off to Berlin, leaving the Czar with nothing.

“Very well. Let me know when the problem is resolved. Three more trains tomorrow, and we can go home.” Home had been the bank vaults, really. A man in his position did not leave his post much – not without good reason. Now, he would be looking at empty rooms, pointlessly locked behind steel and brick. Would they still need him? Who would pay anyone to guard and account for empty air? Who would want that job? Shimenovski was not sure.

A Polish thug ran up to the clerk, papers in his hand. The leather jackets and riding boots were familiar from countless propaganda posters, but seeing the men of the NSB in the flesh never stopped being disconcerting. Dzerzhinski’s bloodhounds, every one of them armed with a heavy revolver and, if rumour was anything to go by, willing to use it at the slightest provocation. The Germans used them like guard dogs, to secure and intimidate. This time, though, news was good. They had located the missing boxes and everybody could go to their quarters now. German troops were already folding up tables and stacking chairs in the second-class waiting room. Another day, and this would be over. Russia would be broke, owing billions of roubles and not an ounce of gold. Worse, the Germans even laid claim to the 70-tonne shipment they had lost en route to the Persian Gulf. They still did not really know what had happened to that. Bitterly, Shimenovski reflected that this might save his job after all. They would need someone to find bullion to replace it, somewhere, somehow. Find it, and ship it to Berlin.

09 September 1908, Warsaw

The balcony of the royal palace was spacious, a table set with tea and cakes lent it a homely, inviting air, and the broad windows made it difficult for anyone to listen in unnoticed. King Karol Stepan still finding his feet in the unaccustomed reality of his new country, had taken to using it for private audiences. The studied informality suited the local style and served to distance him from the Viennese court. Franz Ferdinand, as far as he knew, never spoke to anyone with fewer than ten servants and clerks in attendance. An additional benefit was that the setting helped to reduce the bearers of fancy titles to common humanity. It helped if you were going to face a living legend, but the moment still took its toll on the young king’s nerve.

The Polish war had made three men into living legends. The first, predictably, was Pilsudski, the leader of the first heroic uprising. His moustache had set off a fashion among the male population, and the mere sound of his voice made every Polish male over the age of ten long to throw himself into battle for glory, country and king. The second, somewhat embarrassingly, was Brianski, the dashing general whose face had adorned as many propaganda posters as his exploits had filled newspapers. He had a knack for making men feel deeply inadequate and women long to rip off their underwear and throw themselves at his feet, and if rumour was to be believed, he was using the opportunities of his posting in Warsaw fully. The third was Felix Dzerzhinski. Inspiring was not the word that came to mind.

Up close – now that he finally had the opportunity to see him personally – the king found him a physically unexceptional specimen. Most of Poland’s military leaders were tall and fit, sporting men whose bodies were steeled by riding, hunting and gymnastics. Dzerzhinski looked like a clerk. His steel-rimmed glasses and quiet voice added to the impression of physical fragility. Karol Stepan looked at his lopsided face and shivered. They told stories about what the man had survived in the katorga.

“It is good that you could come, Mr Dzerzhinski.” The king said, trying not to make his discomfort too obvious..

“I was unavoidably detained on earlier occasions, Your Majesty.” Dzerzhinski replied, subservience tinged with just a hint of unyielding metal.

“No doubt you were. I am glad you found the opportunity to dress for the occasion.”

Dzerzhinski smopothed his shirt front and stood straighter, pretending to briefly admire his suit. “I would not dream of disappointing your Majesty.” He said flatly.

The king summoned his courage and locked eyes. “Give me one good reason why I should not dismiss you and dissolve your agency.”

Dzerzhinski shrugged. “Three, Majesty.” He counted off. “First, Wilhelm III. Do not be mistaken in the intentions of the German government. They support us because we are useful to their purposes. As soon as our interests no longer align with theirs in any way, they will make sure that we obey. You will need to be apprised of these developments early.”

“Very well”, Karol Stepan conceded, “though I take it your organisation itself is in the pay of the German general staff.”

“We cooperate by sharing information.” Dzerzhinski bristled. “They pay us for services rendered. The interests of Poland are not infringed upon in any way. And of course, if your Majesty desires and end to this cooperation, all that is required is an order to that effect. And the provision of commensurate funds from the state’s coffers. Now, two: Georges Clemenceau. That man may be the smartest politician alive in Europe today, and that is saying something! If he can do anything to weaken Poland, he will. Understand he bears us no malice, but that is neither here nor there. The interest of France requires it.”

The king sighed. Politics was a shark tank, what else was new? But of course, the NSB had served up enough spies lately to justify the most paranoid of fantasies.

“Third, Grand Prince Nikolai Romanov. You know he is already planning to take his revenge. No matter what else the future might bring, Russian enmity to Poland is as certain as the sunrise. These people do not play fair, your Majesty. They will use lies and propaganda, bribery and blackmail, subversion and assassination. That is why you need me.”

“So you say.” Karol Stepan retorted. Dzerzhinski’s smiled, relieved. He’d won. “So you say, but what of your conduct? Your agents tortured and murdered people…”

“Executed. If you are going to call them murderers, then you must also call what the Okhrana does murder. The NSB acts in the interests of the state.”

“But not within its laws?”

“There was a war. Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures.” Dzerzhinski bowed his head momentarily. “I would not countenance such acts in peacetime.”

“We all hope so.” The king raised a teacup to his lips to make time, collecting his thoughts. He might dislike the man, but what choice did he have? “You are a Socialist, are you not? Tell me, Mr Dzerzhinski: Why should a king trust a Socialist?”

“I do not expect you to trust me, your Majesty.” Dzerzhinski stated bluntly. “I fully expect you to submit my every step to the closest of scrutiny. But I will say that attacking your Majesty would be against my interests and my ideals. You may believe bad things of me, but understand that I love Poland. We may disagree on what our country should look like, but we serve her as best we can. More importantly – I hate the Romanov tyrant. That, you may trust in.”

Karol Stepan nodded slowly. “I will rein you in every chance I get. I will not tolerate any inhumanity.”

“Your Majesty, rest assured that the National Security Bureau will operate strictly within the law of the kingdom. Once such a law exists, that is.”

“You will end your vendetta against the church.”

Dzerzhinski bowed his head wordlessly.

“And you will apprise me of any threats to my person that you become aware of. Personally and immediately. I expect reliable men to be placed on this duty”

“Of course, Majesty.” Dzerzhinski promised. “Will the NSB be involved with guard duties as well?”

The king hesitated for the briefest of moment. Poland – was Poland. If he was to trust the man, he had to demonstrate it. Trajan and the barber: “Yes. Have a detail of agents report to the commander of the royal bodyguard tomorrow. We will discuss the duties of plainclothes branch.”

“Of course, your Majesty.”
18 September 1908, Belzec, Galicia

Captain Rasznik was surprised how quickly everything was getting back to feeling almost like peacetime again. He remembered the flowers, the bottles of liquor and packets of cigarettes that soldiers had received at almost every stop when they entrained for the front. Hotel rooms for officers had always had the best service, waiters would seat a man in uniform before regular customers at the best restaurants, and strangers donated ration points to complete their meals with rare delicacies like coffee and cream. As he trudged through the streets of Belzec, his batman following with the luggage that the station porter had flatly refused to carry beyond the concourse, this world felt stranger and more remote with every step on the rain-slick cobbles. The town was chilly, miserably wet and inhospitable, and the mood matched Rasznik’s own. As a lawyer in peacetime, he was used to doing things he disapproved of personally, but rarely had he felt so bad about carrying out an order.

Finally they reached the hotel and livery stable that helpful locals had described to him. The servant turned left to lug the heavy suitcase into the door while the captain walked towards the stables. His fingers instinctively sought the papers in his coat pocket. As he approached, a figure stepped from the shadows, rifle held casually, but clearly ready to use it. A franc-tireur, and judging by the heavy beard and long black coat, the kind that Rasznik was after. He stepped into the light that streamed from the upstairs window and asked: “I am looking to find the irregular troop commander Moses Zorn. My name is Captain Rasznik. Are these his quarters?”

“Why d’you want to know?” The sentry did not move. As a staff officer, Rasznik knew he was high on the list of things irregulars didn’t like. Probably right after Russians, come to think of it. It wasn’t exactly fair, but that was the way the world worked.

“I come from the military advocate general’s office in Vienna. They want to discuss accusations of atrocities by militiamen under his command.”

The guard gave him a hard stare. “Atrocities?”

Rasznik did not flinch, though his legs told him to run as he met the man’s gaze. What would it feel like, to have risked your life against a cruel and implacable enemy, to have fought for your people with next to nothing in the way of help, and then be told to submit to enquiry by men whose experience of hardship amounted to doing without kipferl and coffee on weekdays? He cleared his throat, let the papers slip back into his inside pocket, and explained:

“In fact, I have orders for the detention for questioning of senior officers in the unit. As soon as I find them, that is.”

His face remained unmoved. The guard did not budge, but his hand fell away from the rifle’s trigger. “Go on.”

“This may take a while.” The captain pointed out, still warily eying the man’s weapon. “See, it’s Friday evening. My orders are to first report to the local military authorities, but I don’t think the Kommandantur office is open now. So before I arrest Mr Zorn and his lieutenants, I will need to have my papers validated, which would be tomorrow. Except of course, tomorrow is Sabbath, isn’t it? I can’t in good conscience disturb a man of the Mosaic faith on the Sabbath day, so I might as well wait until … the day after is Sunday. No business at the Kommandantur that is not urgent. So, Monday morning it is. I will speak to the duty NCO, get the papers validated, find some troops after morning exercises and come back to arrest Mr Zorn, if that is convenient.”

Silence descended for a brief few seconds. Then, the sentry put his rifle at rest and blinked.

“Are you serious?” He asked. “Sir?”

“Those are my orders.” Rasznik confirmed. “You know, staff officers. We do things by the book. So, I trust you will relate the facts of the matter to your commanding officer without delay, and I look forward to seeing you on Monday morning for the arrest.” He turned without waiting for the man to acknowledge and slowly walked back towards the hotel. He wondered what his father, always the proper official, would say. Of course he had always told him to follow the rules when he was unsure what to do. That was what rules were there for, after all. But Captain Rasznik was less than convinced he had meant it that way. Then again, he had also always insisted that any man serving the Monarchy was due a measure of respect. If he couldn’t give that much consideration, what was the point of wearing the uniform? His thoughts turning to a decent cup of tea and an early night’s sleep, Captain Rasznik decided to let the matter rest until Monday. He had checked the train schedules, and services for Lodz in the Kingdom of Poland proper ran daily, three times. If not, the border was barely a day’s march.

The Bosporus, 21 September 1908

The fez still felt out of place, Souchon Pasha decided. On bridge duty, he always wore his peaked cap, anyway, so familiarity had not done anything to blunt the sense of oddness that the formal headgear of his new Ottoman rank inspired in him. It sat all wrong. Talat Pasha, standing next to him resplendent in an army uniform jacket covered almost completely in gold braid, tried hard not to notice the fidgeting of his ever-victorious admiral, recipient of the Order of Medjidieh and hero of the Empire as they awaited their hour of triumph.

To the spectators that lined the shores, the picture must have seemed incongruous. Ageing Ottoman warships, mast tops flying the sultan’s colours, their obsolete main guns carefully kept unloaded to prevent any mishaps when the time for the salute came, stood out to sea, surrounded by sleek German cruisers and destroyers, grey, fast and low in the water. The entire assemblage seemed designed to do anything but impress, especially spread out in the widening mouth of the Straits, and particularly in contrast with the approaching fleet. Steaming in line astern, battleships Rostislav, Georgi Pobedonostets, Potemkin, Dvenadsat Apostolov and Evstafi approached, attended by a swarm of secondary vessels – cruisers, torpedo boats, gunboats and tenders, keeping position behind the great beasts they served. They came at low speed – Potemkin still bore the scars of the German minefield that had claimed Tria Svitatelia and so badly shocked their admiral. Yet even so, they were infinitely more impressive than the fleet of the victors. An uninformed observer might conclude they were coming as triumphant claimants to free passage, realising the dream of generations of Czars. Certainly, nothing suggested their humiliation. Souchon had carefully avoided any suggestion of escorting the vessels to their anchorages. The comparison between his ragtag force and the Russians’ mighty fleet would have been too invidious.

Souchon Pasha shaded his eyes against the sun and strained to see whether everything went according to instructions. The ships had skeleton crews – not enough to man the guns in case someone decided to go out in a blaze of glory – and ran at low speed, with only one or two of their boilers fired. This was when they would turn to take position athwart of each other and drop anchor to lower the Russian flags and take on their new Ottoman crews.

“Are they slowing?” Talat Pasha asked worriedly.

Souchon looked again, then passed the question to his signaller. They seemed to be slowing, but it was hard to tell from this angle.

“Lookout reports:” the ensign stood ramrod straight, saluting, “the Russian ships are slowing, but not fast enough. Crew is on the deck. They seem to be waving – flags. Banners.”

“Banners?” Souchon gestured for a telescope. As soon as it was fitted to the mount, he waved the signaller away and peered through himself. Indeed, the men were on deck, crowding around some kind of banners. Icons, he decided. They were the icons and flags carried by their priests. Well, if he was Russian, he’d be praying, too. But praying wasn’t what they were supposed to do at all. The ships were already losing formation. Was the helmsman also on his knees? Carefully, he scanned the length of Rostislav, the lead ship. The mighty steel hull wallowed heavily, like a wounded whale. Water was already lapping at the lowest row of portholes.

“The bastards are scuttling.”

“What?” Talat Pasha stared at him in uncomprehending horror.

“They have opened the seacocks. The Russian ships are sinking. At least, the battleships are. It takes a while with a vessel this size.” Souchon felt a shiver run down his spine. To do that to your ship – your home, your pride, your family – took conviction. He was watching the end of a fleet that would rather die than suffer the disgrace of surrender. Millions of gold marks – the navy budget of years – sent to the bottom of the Black Sea. On the main deck, camera crews had set up to record the historic moment. He hoped they were getting good pictures.

Around the larboard side of the bridge, where Talat Pasha stood, a fierce debate in Turkish erupted. Men in navy uniforms and frock coats scrambled for the railing to see for themselves. Some of them had been scheduled to take command of the very ships they were now watching as they came to their slow, unavoidable end. The Russians began to lower boats now. Souchon felt unsure whether this was necessary – the coastal areas could be quite shallow here, and even a sunk battleship might still have most of its upperworks above water – but they certainly made a concerted effort. Looking at the chart, he realised they knew what they were doing. The battlefleet was on a course parallel to the shore, in deep water. Beyond recovery.

Every eye was glued to the leviathans slowly settling into the grey sea, but it was the small vessels – the torpedo boats and gunboats – that went down first. They filled much faster, and their shallow draught didn’t require any planning for their scuttling site. Russian flags still flying from masttops, the sleek hulls slid under the waves, water extinguishing the breath of their engines in white plumes rising like the fountains of broaching whales. Boats, rafts and pieces of debris dotted the surface. Potemkin was beginning to roll over sideways, exposing its wounded belly to the sun. Sailors crawled around on it like ants.

“Poor bastards.” The signaller said under his breath.

“Verdammte Scheisse” Souchon murmured.

Talat Pasha snapped at his aides. Signal flags went up on the mast of the flagship as he turned to Souchon. “Admiral” he said in French, his anger barely suppressed, “make for the port of Constantinople. There is nothing left for us to do here.”

“What about…?” Souchon gestured towards the sinking fleet.

“They have chosen their port of destination. Let them go ashore in it.”

Souchon scanned the coast. Fishermen were already rowing and sailing out in their small craft, converging on the boats and debris that marked the graveyard of Russia’s naval pride. Four hours to sunset, an hour’s rowing to reach them… it would not be enough for everyone. But they would get most ashore, the admiral decided. They would go to prison for breaching the terms of the armistice, of course. He could not help himself casting an admiring glance at them nonetheless.

“Officer of the watch: Signal the squadron to follow, lay a return course for Constantinople.“

Writing today’s despatches would be a night’s worth of work

Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, Lake Siverskoye, 26 September 1908

Evening came early now, and the massive walls of the cell already radiated the chill that presaged harsh winter conditions. Brother Nicholas perched o the stool by his narrow table, eating supper. A plate of black bread, a bowl of hot kasha – how he had longed for such fare in the days when zakuskiy boards overflowed and the palace chefs outdid each other with fancy French creations. He worked up an appetite during the day, chopping wood or drawing water. Hunger, he found, was indeed the best sauce for plain, wholesome fare, and his jaded palate accustomed itself to simple pleasures again. Indeed, though the abbot allowed him cheese or butter on alternate days by way of pittance, he had curbed his desires sufficiently to forgo the added pleasure regularly. Wiping his fingertips on the napkin, he meticulously picked up the crumbs that had fallen off the first half slice. Half his ration eaten – half remained. He would find the resolve today to send it back. Or better yet, to leave it on the table for the night untouched. His cell was still full of the rich odour, the bread freshly baked, the cheese just ripening. It would be a fitting penance.

Nicholas spent most of his days inside his cell. Barred from the refectory or the shared services, his days were given over to solitary reflection and prayer. A few hours outside spent in common labour, a Sunday service and the sessions with his confessor, that was the sum of his human contact. It suited him: he had much to atone for. His cell, sparse and austere, was the kind of environment that concentrated his mind on the task. Others had voiced concern over the mental toll of such confinement, but he knew that they were wrong. He was locked away from the distractions and seductions of the world, not from the things that truly mattered. Its heavy door and narrow window might physically restrain the cell’s occupant, but the iconostasis opened the gate of heaven to him. On his knees, he was free.

The world continued to intrude, of course. In his conversations with abbot and confessor, he learned of the consequences of his sin. The humiliation of Holy Russia, the destruction of the orthodox faith across so many of its ancient lands. The burden of his guilt could seem unsupportable on such days. Yet his God, he knew, was an awesome God, His forgiveness infinite for those who begged with genuine contrition. Begging came surprisingly easily to a man accustomed to command for so long, but never comfortable with it. The chill in his bones, the rumbling of his stomach at the memory of rose jam and caviar, these were a low price for peace of mind. Nicholas approached his atonement like he did anything in his life, with the quiet determination to do his duty, meticulously and diligently, as God had laid it before him. The Lord would not find him wanting ever again.

Steps in the corridor roused him from his contemplation. Someone was coming. Would they take away the plate? Half, he desired it, knowing the presence of food would exacerbate the pangs of hunger, yet half he dreaded being robbed of the opportunity to exercise his self-control. Involuntary suffering was no sacrifice. The heavy bar outside the oaken door – made, legend had it at the time of Ivan Grosny who had chosen this desolate place for his retirement – was withdrawn and three men entered. First was the cellarer, Brother Fyodor, a nervous, apologetic cast to his eyes as he took up the plate and bowl. He was followed by two guards officers. Nicholas recalled neither man. Their faces were dark, their beards heavy. Perhaps these were from Mikhail’s retinue of Caucasians, savage heathens bound to their leader by oaths of blood and salt. Understanding dawned. With a smile brightening his deeply lined face, Nicholas rose from the stool and stepped forward to meet God.

Berlin, 02 October 1908

The hall looked smaller than when Friedrich Maherero had first set foot inside it. Of course, he had then been almost a child, come at the hand of his father to see their great lord. The intervening years had given him many gifts: He stood before his emperor now a graduate of Lichtenfelde cadet school, a guards officer promoted to major in the last round of rewards, the bearer of an Iron Cross and Pour le Merite. The war had aged him – ‘seasoned’, many of his compatriots would say, but he had been there. He knew better. Emperor Wilhelm, too, bore his share of scars on both mind and body; young men too soon taken from their carefree world to shoulder responsibilities far too great for them.

The return to Berlin was bittersweet in more ways than one. Major Maherero had grown accustomed to the universe of frontline command, a world where rank counted for less than courage and his soldiers took him for a man. The capital was different: Too many of the stares that followed him were envious and hateful. Many a courtier thought it safe to half-whisper his insults in French, a language Maherero had decided to pretend he did not understand. Having no taste for duelling and no trust in German courts, he found it easier this way. And of course, today was the day he would be sent off. Generously, of course, but ultimately it made little enough difference.

“I am sorry to see you leave, Major.” Wilhelm said when his turn had come, and he surely meant it. The two had gotten along well enough, and the emperor was genuinely well disposed towards him. But staying was out of the question. Even if the money had been taken care of – and Wilhelm had offered that much – he could not stay away from home forever.

“Your Majesty, I regret nothing more than having to leave your service.” Maherero intoned, the words carefully scripted. “But my father recalls me to his side. My people need me.”

Wilhelm nodded. “The bond between a prince and his people are a sacred duty.” He said, and Maherero saw the jaws of several uniformed men drop at the word ‘Fürst’. He was serious about this durbar stuff after all. “You will, of course, wish to resign your commission, Major.”

Maherero clenched his jaw. “Of course.” He replied. It stood to reason. The German army would be happy with a black officer on the Russian front, but you couldn’t have that kind of thing in the colonies. It had all been agreed in advance: They would give him a reserve lieutenant-colonelcy to sweeten the deal on the understanding that it would never be activated. The heraldry office had even come up with a wheeze to get around the poorly defined status of colonial chiefdom, granting a patent of noble birth instead of a standard ennoblement. It did not change his notional status, and calling himself ‘von Maherero’ seemed vaguely silly, but it cemented the idea that his family ranked with the nobility of the Reich. Some wag had suggested a quote from Schiller as a device to accompany his new coat of arms: Der Mohr hat seine Schuldigkeit getan. It hit too close to home to be funny.

“And we will arrange for the grants you suggested.” That came as a surprise. Not the fact as such; Maherero had discussed it with the court officials at length. He had not expected Wilhelm to make it a public issue, though. “Ten of your people’s brightest will attend teachers’ colleges in Germany every year, and ten engineering schools. Let our African subjects see we are as generous in rewarding loyalty as we are zealous in punishing treachery.”

Applause rose. Wilhelm had become accomplished at deploying public gestures in a way that Maherero still found hard to reconcile with the clumsy, enthusiastic youth he remembered. He swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth and replied: “My thanks, Your Majesty, and the everlasting gratitude of my people will forever attach to your august name.”

He rose, beckoned by servants, and stepped away from the red carpet, his brief moment in the sun of ceremonial splendour over. Slowly walking towards the side tables where noblemen and officers shifted more or less inconspicuously to avoid having to acknowledge him, he was headed off by General von Falkenhayn before he could reach the refreshments.

“Sir!?” Maherero saluted crisply, dinging his index finger on the metal rim of the polished helmet. He had not worn proper regimental dress once in the fourteen months he had been with the guards.

“Major.” The general returned his salute, casting a pointed glance at several nearby worthies. “Have you met Mr. Morgan, the inventor of the army issue gas mask?”

“I have not had the pleasure.” Maherero replied. He had little enough interest in technology as such, but surely even geeking with the most machine-crazy people in the army would be more entertaining than spending an hour being studiously avoided by Berlin’s courtly set.

“We will have to remedy that. Come along. He has just received his civilian Verdienstorden and will be more than glad to see you before he returns to his home in America.”

Vitebsk, 05 October 1908

Dr Gadebusch’s uniform was well past what even the lenient standards of the medical service permitted, but one look at the face of his medical officer told Colonel Laue not to press the matter.

“Deaths?” he asked, his voice subdued with worry.

“Three more so far.” The doctor said. That made seven. “But there are ten more cases I don’t expect will live. With the rest – many of them will lose their eyesight. Some may be paralysed. I’m doing what I can.“

Laue took a deep breath before speaking. “Hauptmann Kühne,” he turned to the senior Feldgendarmerie officer present, “is there any way this could have been a genuine accident?”

The captain shrugged, his face showing abject resignation. “It is possible.” He conceded. “Methanol poisoning happens. The stuff on the black market here is often vile. According to what I hear from local hospitals, people die from drinking it almost daily. It could have been a bad batch.”

“Impossible!” Captain Händlmaier interjected. “I was told it was deliberately poisoned!”

Dr Gadebusch nodded. “From the symptoms, methanol poisoning alone does not explain it. We are trying to analyse the bottles the field police confiscated, but … facilities are limited. We must take care of the men first of all. I suspect the vodka was laced with rat poison. There are reports that the Patriotic Union did that kind of thing to their own people during the war.”

“Their own people?” the colonel enquired.

“Technical alcohol, Sir.” Hauptmann Kühne explained. “It is practically impossible to keep soldiers from drinking alcohol, even if it’s needed for other applications. Adding methanol or strychnine is an effective discouragement, I guess.”

“So, somebody sold technical alcohol to my men?”

“Or to the bar they were drinking at.” Kühne cautioned. “That’s what the owner claims, anyway. He says he had no idea anything was wrong, and that seems plausible enough. He called the ambulance once the first patron collapsed on him, after all.”

“So it was whoever sold it to him!” Händlmaier shouted. “Why isn’t the bastard in a cell yet?”

Kühne sighed. It was hard to make infantry officers understand how policing worked. “The proprietor gave us a name, but it’s probably not real. Black market business is done by gangs who use nicknames, and they are very hard to penetrate. Certainly, nobody is going to tell a German soldier asking after this guy where he is.”

“Stop asking nicely, then!” Händlmaier’s face flushed with frustrated anger. “I just lost a third of my company in peacetime! We have to find the culprits. I owe it to their families!”

Doctor Gadebusch raised his hand soothingly. “Herr Hauptmann, it is still likely that most will survive. We are seeing success with controlled doses of ethanol and strict seclusion. The strychnine dosage appears to have been low.”

The colonel nodded, resolving the matter in his head. “Very good, doctor.” He said. “Keep doing everything you can. As to the publican – what’s his name, Mikailovich?”

“It’s Yuri Mikhailovich Restov, Sir.” Kühne said. “A licensed distributor of distilled liquor. We haven’t had any problems beside the usual so far.”

“Right!” Colonel Laue waved away the interjection. “Hauptmann Kühne, you have three days to find the guilty party. Otherwise, I’ll hang him in cathedral square.”

The Feldgendarm bristled. “Sir, we have no evidence to sustain a verdict! Even if he is guilty of black marketeering, that is a civil offense,. He will have to be turned over to the Russian authorities.”

“Bah, Russian authorities?” Händlmaier waved dismissively. “They’ll give him a goddamned medal for poisoning us ‘cockroaches’! You know that’s what they call us, right!?”

“Gentlemen,” the colonel interrupted the dispute, “more than 80 German soldiers are in hospital. Many of them are dead, or will be very soon. The locals must see justice to be done. If you can find the guilty party, I will happily accept that, but if not – this Restov sold the stuff, he will have to face the music.” Kühne looked down. “But I am not unreasonable. What will you need to do your – Sherlock Homes thing?”

“More reliable interpreters.” Kühne explained. “We don’t have the equipment for anything fancy like dactyloscopy, but we can do oldfashioned police work if we talk to the locals.”

“Interpreters?” Colonel Laue rolled his eyes. Whoever had thought of putting epaulets on a lawyer? “What about a unicorn while you’re at it?” He sighed. “I can probably detail some of the Polish troops. Will that work?”

Kühne considered the idea. The Poles mostly spoke Russian, even the way the locals did, which was rather different from what he himself had learned in language school. And they scared people. Threatening recalcitrant officials with quartering Polish troops in their neighbourhood had turned out to be a good way of making them very cooperative very quickly.

“It should work, Sir. I will have to keep them on a short leash, but it should yield results.”

“Do as you see fit.” The colonel waved dismissively. “Nobody’s going to say boo if a few Russians get damaged. Right, dismissed. Thank you for your good work, doctor. And Kühne: Find the bastards! I want to see them hang!”

Berlin, 08 October 1908

Major Walter Nikolai had had a good war, all told. True, having served it out in the Berlin headquarters of military intelligence, he had lacked the promotion opportunities of field command. The major’s stripes had stubbornly remained in place throughout the years. Yet his duty had been important, and he had carried it out happily and with conviction. His office had ensured that the press would know what to print – and what not to. He had run campaigns and silenced critics, hounded disloyal scribblers and made an example of that despicable coward Lambszus, and in the end, his efforts had been worth it. True, there would have been so much more to be done had he but been granted the powers, the funds and men, but wasn’t that true everywhere? He had prevailed. Now, it remained to be seen how good his peace would be.

The advantage of serving in IIIb was that nobody disbanded your units after the war. Many a regiment of the reserve already faced this fate, and more would follow once the occupation ended and they handed over their conquests to the new vassal states. What did a man do who fell from the height of regimental command to enforced retirement in a few weeks? No, all told he was happy to have his desk, his files, his letters and his coffee. The coffee, he noted, already tasted a good deal better. Supposedly they made it entirely from Brazilian beans again. Not what they served when he met the directors of Mutuum Bank or the Hugenberg syndicate, but you could drink it with some enjoyment. Fondly recalling the pleasures of his conspiratorial efforts, the major reached for the bell that summoned his secretary when a knock on the door made him pause.

“Enter!” he barked, annoyed at the disturbance. Whatever it was, surely it could wait until the afternoon briefing?

A clashing of heels in the corridor announced the descent of divinity to the sphere of mortals: Field Marshal von der Goltz entered the office, motioned the hapless NCO to leave and closed the door. Nikolai jumped to his feet and snapped out a salute.

“Field marshal, Sir!”

Von der Goltz smiled. Hamlet, Major Nicolai’s brain supplied the apposite reference. Act I, Scene 5. You could return the avuncular good humour, and he would pull you limb from limb if it suited his purpose. Field marshals did not drop in on subordinate Sesselfurzer. What was going on?

“Sit down, major.” The words of his patron deity put the Nicolai at ease. He was not due a shellacking, at least. Obediently, he sat. Von der Goltz took the chair opposite, fished a cigar case from his pocket, and snapped it open. “I am here to congratulate you on your unit’s excellent work during the war.”

Nicolai accepted the proffered smoke with slightly quivering fingers. “Thank you, Sir.”

I was struck by the dedication of your command, the careful forethought, the exemplary planning … I have a bit of a background in intelligence myself, as you know.” The field marshal struck a match, lit two cigars, and struck. “Your efforts in cultivating the Völkische press have not gone unappreciated.”

Nicolai exploded into a coughing fit. How did he know? Surely, the documents he had handed over were always carefully concealed among his routine visits, the social rounds of a press relations officer? And yet, the hard, unmoving eyes that focused him from a cheery round face told him that the field marshal knew everything.

“I … Sir, I always acted in the interests of the fatherland!”

Von der Goltz nodded, motioning the man to calm himself. “I know, major. If I thought otherwise, you would not be here today.” He drew on his Turkish cigar and savoured the aroma. “Nonetheless, we must talk about this. The exigencies of war allow for things that are frowned upon by the more straight-laced conventions of peace, if you understand what I mean.”

Nicolai shivered. “I see. If there was anything that attracted your disapproval, I can only hope to find forgiveness for it – my intentions were pure.”

“Just one or two things that were – unwelcome at their time,” von der Goltz soothed him. “No, it is the future I wish to discuss with you.”

“If you require my resignation…”

“I require no such thing.” The field marshal interrupted him. “Stop being so thick, Nicolai! Do you like what is happening to Germany? Reds sitting in government? Bankers and stockbrokers running the show?”

Nicolai’s hopes rose. “Sir, I was always of the opinion that this needed putting a stop to. But I always assumed that … given the close association of … certain persons …” He stumbled. Opposition did not come easy if you were inured to obedience.

Von der Goltz cleared his throat. “Rathenau – he is all right, I suppose. Clever bugger. But I am worried about the future of this country, and I will need good men to help ensure that it doesn’t go off the rails in the coming years. You know what plans the Reds have for the peace. The Poles. Every damned runty bunch of foreigners in the Reich. There is enough work to do. Can I rely on you?”

Nicolai stood, instinctively. His face flushed with excitement, he nodded. “Of course, Sir! What will you need me to do?”

“Your contacts with the Hugenberg people will be useful, Nicolai.” The marshal explained. “I will need you to carry the occasional message off the record. Sometimes, papers without any custody chain will cross your desk bound for some press outlet or other. For the time being, that will be all. You will be required to keep a low profile otherwise – no political activities. What So Ever. Do we understand each other?”

“Perfectly, Sir.”

“Good. It should go without saying you will not leak anything of your own account from this day onwards.”

“Of course!” the major promised before it occurred to him that he had just fully incriminated himself. So much for the intellectual superiority of the intelligence officer!

“I look forward to working you, then. The country will need good men, Nicolai.”

The field marshal left, cooling cigar smoke hanging in the air as evidence of his august apparition in the lowly office. Nicolai shook his head and took a deep breath. To work, then!
Tver, 12 October 1908

Very little in a Russian village had proper right angles, but it was obvious that the future did. Valentina Grishina had never understood this even during her stay in Mogilev. Of course, then her life had been circumscribed by the demands of work and the confines of the Patriotic Union station. She supposed that Mogilev had streets like this, too: Palatial homes with windows from which electric light streamed at night, grand boulevards down which trams made their stately progress, and the overwhelming majesty of the church and the state represented in architecture. Perhaps she had merely not seen them. In Tver, on a peacetime schedule that allowed for a half-day off every other week and with real pay in her pocket, she was free to explore. The city was nothing short of amazing. The very idea of building its streets in a systematic grid – of numbering houses – of laying out a tram system with changing points in strategic locations – awed her. It was a world governed by people who used their minds, who thought of things in advance and applied their best judgement to set up their reality in a way that worked. And they made it all seem practically effortless. On her first half-day off, she had simply got on the tram and kept riding until her funds were exhausted and she felt thoroughly familiar with the strange beast. You just got on, paid your fare, and sat down, going wherever you wanted to be at your leisure. It had been almost as much a revelation to her as her first assignment in the hospital. This was what she craved. This was what she wanted for herself, for her country, for every girl and woman bent over under the crushing burden of labour, dragging plaited boots through the clinging, frozen mud. It was a prospect every bit as uplifting as the visions of Jesus the All-Ruler that were laid before the girls every Sunday, and far more tangible. God, she could serve, fear and love, much as she had once expected to do with a husband. Modernity, she could make!

Of course, making modernity was not easy, but then, in her world nothing ever was. It took thought, dedication, and perseverance, and it took the willingness to face down idiots. That had been hard for her in the beginning. Even now, lugging a bucket of calcium hypochlorite ahead of a gaggle of schoolchildren following her like ducklings, she was not entirely at ease with the responsibility she carried. She was supposed to instruct them, but how much about this did she really understand? Even at the hospital, she had never actually seen a germ. She had to trust the doctors who said they were there and pointed to drawings they had made. Anything this small had to be easy to miss. You’d take it on faith that disinfectants killed them, but how could you be sure? It felt like an overwhelming charge.

Today, it was the tram stations. Volunteer disinfecting crews were assigned their duties by the city’s health inspectorate, and it was taken for granted that every Union member would volunteer one day of the week. The women of the typist and telephonist school were usually assigned areas in the city centre. Valentina had gone along for one shift at the railyard, where the tracks were red with the bloody excretions dripping from third-class carriages some days and travellers slept in shifts, crowded into waiting rooms and locomotive sheds, as they waited for the chance to go to homes that often no longer existed. She was glad that militiamen took over those duties. Bright-eyed and earnest, the girls followed her instruction, wiping down seats and handrails, spreading disinfectant over anything that looked like a potential source of infection. With thousands of demobilised troops coming through town, it was a Sisyphean task, but sometimes, winning simply consisted of not losing too much. They had cases of cholera, typhoid fever, and a host of other diseases in Tver, but they didn’t have epidemic outbreaks. And if Valentina had anything to do with it, they wouldn’t. .

At the stop opposite theirs, two soldiers stood watching them. Demobilised men, she noted, carrying all their worldly goods in the thick blanket rolls and bulging haversacks hanging over their shoulders. Their grimy uniform blouses hung loose over their baggy trousers, greasy hair parted down the middle and beards already exceeding allowed lengths. Peasants, and obviously the worse for drink. One of them turned to unburden his stomach of a mix of army-issue kasha and cheap vodka. Valentina shouted at him to stop. The response was unprintable.

“Who do you think you are, bitch, giving me orders?!You think you’re a fucking officer, or what?” Valentina knew it was a bad idea the moment she walked across the street to confront the fellow, but now, what choice did she have? Everything in her upbringing told her to stay away from drunken men. Everybody knew soldiers were trouble. But she had a job to do, and the girls looked up to her. She couldn’t walk away with her tail tucked between her legs now, not in front of them. Behind the men, posters printed on bright red paper warned everyone of the mortal danger of contagion. Everyone who could read, anyway. She doubted these two belonged to that select club.

“The city is under a medical state of emergency!” she pointed out, “There are public latrines, and fouling the streets away from them is an offense that…”

“Right!” the man staggered forward, wiping vomit off his beard, “and you’ll see us there, pretty? Show us how to go potty, eh?”

Valentina slapped him. She had intended a dismissive kind of slap, the dainty reminder that boundaries had been overstepped that she’d seen her middle-class colleagues occasionally apply to young men being too forward, but many years of lifting heavy pots and pails told. The soldier fell over, landing gracelessly on his rump and scrabbling for purchase as his blanket roll help him half-upright like the carapace of a beetle flipped on its back. “Bitch!” he shouted indignantly.

“Now,” she frantically tried to remember everything she had learned about reading uniforms, “private, stand down!” The withering disdain she managed to put into her gaze seemed to work as much as her the practiced command tone she took with her girls “You will not use that kind of language in front of me. If I catch you breaking ordinances again, I can have you shot, and don’t imagine for one second I won’t! You are putting the lives of the entire city at risk. One unguarded spit can make you a murderer!”

The last part was a direct quote from the posters. It did not seem to have the effect on the soldier that it had had on her – hygiene was quickly becoming second nature to Valentina. The man scrambled to his feet, fixing her with an angry stare. Valentina felt the protective shell that the PU uniform had built around her body, thin and fragile. It was all she had to rely on now. She raised herself to her full height.

“The penalty for disobeying official orders is death by shooting! The life of the people is more valuable than the life of any one of us.”

For the briefest of moment, the outcome hung in the balance. Then, the soldier’s less inebriated comrade laid his hand on the other man’s arm and they turned away. “Bitch.” He mumbled again.

“We’ll need the bucket over here, girls.” Valentina beckoned. A dozen pairs of admiring eyes remained fixed on her. Almost half a minute elapsed before one of them picked it up and carried it across to the tram stop.

Modernity, she could make.

Königsberg, 18 October 1908

Hauptmann Delitsch, he considered, was not long for this world. Despite the pleasant reminiscence of boyhood dreams, he had never been a very believable character. The uniform tunic – blue, cut the oldfashioned way with brass buttons and red piping – did not work for the decidedly unmilitary body underneath, loose in the shoulders, tight across the stomach, and rumpled in mocking spite of the batman’s best efforts. His hands, white and long, the papillae of the fingertips outlined in encrusted ink that even hard brushing refused to dislodge, lacked the nervy strength of the swordsman or the powder burn callouses of the modern warfighter. You could be useful to the war effort behind a desk far enough from the front to never hear a shot fired in anger, but the fact you were in uniform doing it did not truly make you a soldier. Soon enough – no, not soon enough, but sometime soon – this ill-fitting disguise would open out like a chrysalis to release once again Privatdozent Doktor Delitsch, far more at home in his body when it was dressed in his old tailcoat that, truth be told, fit rather loosely these days, but where would you take the ration points to have a new one made, or a tailor to take in the old? Well, Delitsch considered, that would not be a concern for much longer. They were discharging tailors at a shocking rate.

Tailors, cooks, waiters, barbers, pedlars and all kinds of professions that Delitsch had never considered particularly military. Of course it made sense on second thought: Just about everyone in industrial employment had been deferred to produce war material. Miners, machinists or locksmiths were as rare as hen’s teeth in an infantry regiment. And farmhands, the backbone of the old Prussian army, were thinner on the ground than they had been. Not to mention less likely to get promoted to the kind of responsible positions that gained you extra points towards early discharge. A modern military needed literate, numerate men, soldiers who could reads maps and make a report without taking five minutes to clear their throats first. That was another of the lessons that the war had taught them all at a cost: The same men you wanted desperately in the army were also needed behind the lines. The kind of man too thick for factory work was good for very little in the field, too. It did not resolve easily, but the hauptmann nonetheless decided to give it a go. This was his job, after all. His files, the rows and columns of numbers whose dance he directed, could be used to answer all manner of questions if you knew how to ask. It was a useful ability in the war, but perhaps even more so now that they were drawing down their forces, depleting regiments to battalions to companies. Who to let go first? Who to give the coveted leave tickets? How to keep the machinery of the army running on a minimum of expense, to return the heroes home without the appearance of favouritism? Delitsch had been on the committee that designed the points system. He would be the first to admit it was complicated, though he did not quite understand why that would be an objection. Delitsch loved complicated things, and anyway, the time for simplicity was over. If you could not deal with complicated systems, the twentieth century was not for you! No, he did not regret making it complicated, but he sometimes felt a little sorry he had not smuggled in a passage or two speeding up the discharge of statisticians needed urgently in civilian employment. The kind of things that earned you preferment – months served in combat, decorations, promotions – were not earned at headquarters.

Until a week or two ago, Hauptmann Delitsch had not regarded this as a problem, but that was before he had started corresponding with some of his old students. Yes, he would very likely be able to return to his pre-war job at the university in Göttingen teaching mathematical statistics, but what prospect of a career would he have, with his research work interrupted for two solid years and so few professorships opening? The truly interesting opportunities, he had learned, came outside academia, in the new bureaucracies that were recruiting his star pupils now: The emperor’s personal statistical office, where they actually applied the things he read about as mathematical theory; The management of AEG/Krupp and the Stinnes works; The Reichsbankenverband, forged by necessity, but impossible to dissolve now; Even the Red co-ops needed statisticians and econometrists. Jobs were plentiful now, salaries enticing, especially compared with a lecturer’s paltry stipend ravaged by inflation. And here he was, stacking files, cross-checking the effects of their discharge policy, and generally being – well, useful, he supposed.

Sometimes he wondered whether they should not simply have gone the navy’s route and disbanded regiments the way they decommissioned ships. It could not be popular with the sailors who had to stay on, but the ones discharged seemed to be happy with it. And it would have seen him home, or maybe already settling into a new office somewhere in Berlin or Düsseldorf. Somewhere he did not have to wear epaulets and scratchy collar tabs, and the boss actually understood what he was doing. By the time he’d be back, he could count himself lucky to still get a university job. Or he might end up teaching maths at a Realgymnasium - now there was a special kind of hell. Better to take a job with an insurance company, in that case. One of those that still existed – a fair number had gone under in the war. There would be so much to do, now, to get society back on a peacetime footing. Some people thought you could just get everything back to how it was, but that wouldn’t do. Too many things had changed. No, dammit, they needed men like Delitsch. But he was out here, counting soldiers. It just didn’t make any sense.

Sanssouci, 20 October 1908

“The Virchow study was not methodologically flawed, Majesty.” Professor von Gruber explained, “The problem lay with its underlying premise.”

Wilhelm cocked his head. This was an interesting point. “Go on.” He encouraged.

“Virchow came to the conclusion that as German race did not exist based on his research. In this, of course, he was correct, but the question was phrased poorly. Race is a biological concept, not a political or cultural one. The German people – the community of those who speak German and live in a German culture - is not a race, but it has a distinct racial identity. It primarily consists of these:”

He unrolled a poster showing a set of images showing heads in profile and pointed to the top row.

“the Nordic, Falic and Dinaric races. These are the dominant subgroups of the Aryan races in northern Europe. The Falic race is typical of Central and Western Europe, wherever we find indigenous populations. A good exemplar of the type is Marshal von der Goltz – brachycephalic, fair, dark-haired and strong. The Dinaric race is Alpine, dominant from the central mountain chains well into the Balkans and Eastern Europe, where it mingles with the Slavic race proper. Finally, the Nordic race dominates in Scandinavia, northern Britain, the Baltic and North Sea littoral. A good type of this would be – with permission – Your Majesty yourself. All of these races are well defined and still exist in distinct populations. It is obviously impossible to construct a unitary racial identity in this situation.”

“Obviously.” The emperor nodded. “But what does that mean for citizenship law?”

“Very little, Your Majesty.” Doctor Schallmayer interjected. Gruber shot him a vicious look; expert to the legendary Sanssouci suppers, and still in uniform, a decorated veteran of the medical corps, it was impossible to voice his contempt more openly. Still, Gruber, in the full glory of his professorship, was not going to take this from a mere doctor in private practice, no matter what books he’d written.

“Certainly, it is important to guard against the intermingling of alien blood into the German people.” Gruber stated with finality. “All Aryan races are excellent stock, but the same is not true of everyone. Savage breeds true.”

Schallmayer gently shook his head. “Professor Gruber, with all due respect,” he interrupted, “but Mendel’s laws show that if such superior racial characteristics exist, they are dominant in character. Otherwise, they would have ceased to be expressed long ago.”

Gruber snorted. “If that is the case, then how do you explain the perpetual animalistic state of the African races? Surely, they have had time enough to intermingle with superior stock?”

“Herr Professor, the bloodletting of the centuries of enslavement alone militates against this.” Schallmayer countered. “But this is not the time to bore His Majesty with historical minutiae. The point is, any such concern is overblown. It is the hygiene of the race, not of races, that needs the attention of the state. Especially after Germany has lost so many valuable specimens of its prime manhood.”

Wilhelm wagged his head. “You mean, the improvement of the race – internally?” he asked.

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Schallmayer confirmed. “We know that there is broad variation in every race. Even among the Aryans, we find many congenital imbeciles and criminals, and there are negro geniuses.”

“Negro geniuses?” Gruber echoed. “Spoken like a true Socialist. What are those, men who can count higher than ten?”

Wilhelm’s disapproving glare silenced him. “Professor, you, too, must have read the reports from the front in Africa. Ludendorff was full of praise for the Askari.”

“Your Majesty,” Gruber protested, “nobody doubts that savages can make brave soldiers if they have good leaders, but their contribution to human civilisation is nil.”

“A lot like Mecklenburgers, then?” Walther Krupp zu Rathenau quipped.

“History provides examples to the contrary.” Schallmayer added “Shaka Zulu, Hannibal Barca, and dare I suggest, the Herero princes.”

The emperor nodded pensively. Friedrich Maherero had not exactly been Lichtenfelde’s most brilliant graduate, but considering most men who went there came from the finest cadet schools rather than some missionary Klippschule… And then, there were the Americans. Booker T Washington had struck him as the kind of first-rate mind who could cross swords with Max Weber. “I suppose we must allow for this. I have known negroes of remarkable personal quality. But what is it that you two do agree on, if it is not keeping out alien blood?”

Gruber nodded. “I freely admit, I do not share the sanguine view of Überfremdung my colleague here espouses,” he allowed, “but his work on racial hygiene is thoughtful and sound.”

“Any race can be elevated or destroyed, not from without, but from within itself.” Schallmayer explained. “Many ancient cultures understood this instinctively. The Spartans and the ancient Germans, like the Zulus under Cetwayo, exposed malformed infants to die. Among the Romans, it was unthinkable that a man of no martial virtue be granted a bride. These instincts are lost to us.”

“Do you deplore this?” Rathenau asked, more sharply than he had intended.

“At a personal level, no.“ Schallmayer replied. “Prehistory is often needlessly cruel. But at a societal level, it is necessary to consider the effect of abandoning these customs – and how to replace them with humane, scientific principles. Consider the ancient ban on mixed marriages: We can understand how this would come about, but racially, it is nonsensical. We can show that the great majority of German Jews are Falic, Dinaric and Mediterranean, of Aryan race. It was a matter of prejudice and vague feeling.”

Gruber looked pained, but bit back his retort, conscious of Rathenau’s presence. Damned, Schallmayer knew exactly what to say!

“But in the long term view, just as we can scientifically understand that the handful of Slavic, Turkic and Semitic specimens among us do not pose a racial threat to us – indeed, may improve the stock, given they are often among their people’s best – we can statistically show that the growing population of imbeciles and weaklings does.”

“Modern society is richer than our forebears’” Gruber explained. “People who, in times past, had at best the existence of a village idiot or a beggar to look forward to can now hope to found families, to raise children who inherit their parents’ poor qualities and spread them among the populace.”

“The impact of war exacerbates this.” Schallmayer interposed. “Haeckel got this wrong.- Statistically, the death toll falls heaviest on the strong, the brave and intelligent. In times past, when strong men could claim many wives, it might not have mattered so much, indeed, produced a positive selection mechanism. But today, it impoverishes a nation’s bloodlines as much as its treasury. We must counteract this loss for the sake of Germany’s future.”

“The emperor nodded. The graphs made sense: A steadily rising line of yellow – exponentially upwards, overtaking the red of healthy children until the entire country would be dedicated solely to keeping its idiots alive. You could not argue with maths. “So, there is a humane solution to this?”

“Indeed, Your Majesty.” Schallmayer shone with the confidence of a medical man. “It is possible today to allow an individual to live a full life – as full as it is possible under these conditions, at any rate – while ensuring through surgical sterilisation that they will not procreate.”

Wilhelm winced. “You can’t mean to castrate every idiot? I’d lose half the Reichstag!”

Laughter dutifully rippled around the table.

“Not castration, Majesty.” Gruber pointed out. “Surgical sterilisation is a minor procedure that rarely entails grave consequences. It does not impede performance, only its consequences. And there may soon be chemical methods that obviate even an operation. The first step would be to make it available, on a voluntary basis, to those for whom it is medically indicated. As things stand, it is banned as a contraceptive method.”

“In America,” Schallmayer added, “it has already been made mandatory in several states, and the results are quite satisfactory. Welfare authorities and the police obtain court orders for the sterilisation of criminals, alcoholics and the inferior. It is cheaper than putting them in prison – certainly cheaper than putting generations of their offspring behind bars.”

Rathenau nodded pensively. It sounded like a workable system. Something to be handled, perhaps, at the level of the Landgericht, given the gravity of these cases. “I do not think Zentrum will be on board with that.” he cautioned.

“The conservatives will!” Wilhelm said. “At least, enough of them.”

Voronezh, 22 October 1908

“The future of the motherland depends on science!” Nobody in the small audience doubted the words, but they fell flat on many of the men assembled in the main conference room of what had until very recently been a private riding school for the daughters of the bourgeoisie. “Voronezh Institute for Agricultural Chemistry”, the newly painted sign on the door proclaimed. Doctor Sergei Batorski, its equally newly minted director, was undeterred.

“Science will allow Russia to become a country to be reckoned with again. Science will build the industries and communications, science will take our peasantry from the dark ages into the future. And our task in this is important. We can ensure that the labour of every farmer produces a greater harvest! Ensure that our fields produce more and better crops, that we can feed our industrial workforce and our armies. I know you think this work less glorious than what you came from. I, too, was in uniform these past two years developing weapons and countering the infernal devices of the Germans. You all know that this is no longer a viable career.”

The sound this elicited was somewhere between a grumble and a sigh. It was the kind of noise officers dreaded hearing from their troops – short of outright mutiny, but only for want of hope. It made sense, too: These men were experts in chemical weaponry, some of the best Russia had. They had run army laboratories, commanded experimental units, or built protective equipment. But for all that, their efforts had been too little, too late. Batorski remembered the burning humiliation when German officers had carted off the content of his laboratory, handed over as part of the armistice terms. Not content with inflicting this wound, one of them had remarked jokingly that he was glad not to have faced a real opponent in the gas war. And worst of all, he’d been right. Nothing they could have done would have made the least bit of difference. The Germans outclassed them in every respect – they’d simply walked all over them.

“Think!” he exhorted: “The enemy did not defeat us because they were geniuses or supermen! They beat us because they had an advanced chemical industry, arms factories that could produce the needed equipment in quantity, and the ability to train men in its use quickly. This is what we, too, need! This is what our work can give the motherland.”

A few of the men stole furtive glances at each other. Russia was forbidden under the peace terms to develop a chemical warfare capacity. Of course, so was everybody else, supposedly, by the conventions of war. Not that it had stopped the kaiser’s men from murdering Russian soldiers in their trenches.

“Consider ourselves at war as we stand here – in the holy wars that know no truce between seed and harvest tide. We can develop the fertilisers that make the ground yield up more grain. We can make the pesticides that will stop disease and want dead in their tracks. We will develop the protection that ensures that medical workers and farmers can safely use them, and the deployment methods to apply them effectively on any scale.”

Doctor Yuri Shivago spoke up now. “You mean, against lice and aphids.”

“And mice and rats” Batorski confirmed. “Foxes, rabbits, hamsters, maybe even wolves. In the future, chemistry will allow farmers to protect their crops and herds far more effectively than the coarse methods we use today. Imagine, instead of spending months hunting down a pack of wolves, we might simply spray the forest, or cover it in a barrage of gas shells. We can stop migrating hordes of plague-bearing field hamsters by gassing them from aeroplanes. This is as important to protect Russia as the army.”

“Indeed.” The young man looked determined, his green PU uniform properly brushed and ironed stood out among the white coats and black civilian jackets. “The means to stop every pest. Even cockroaches.”

“Indeed, grazhdanin,” the director nodded with a smile. “Even cockroaches.”

Berlin, 24 October 1908

“A gentlemen’s club is an association of – well – gentlemen.” Hasso von Deweritz was nonplussed. It was obvious, wasn’t it? “Admissions need to apply certain standards.”

“Indeed, I see.” The terrifying presence of Field Marshal von der Goltz, was undiminished by his seeming to agree. There were greater men than von Deweritz in Berlin who would quake in their boots at an unannounced visit from the general staff’s demigod. His smiling affability hid steel, and the eyes behind the pince-nez were downright predatory. “I fully understand. It does say ‘Herrenclub’, after all.”

A servant brought in chilled champagne, allowing for a temporary respite in the conversation. The club’s president felt unsure where things were going. The field marshal smacked his lips in an appreciative, if undignified fashion and turned to General Mackensen seated to his left. “August, this is quite good. Better than what we get at the Wilhelmstrasse.”

Mackensen returned the smile and sipped. “Indeed. The Herrenclub is known for good taste in wine, horseflesh and tobacco, I have heard.”

Hasso von Deweritz nodded gratefully. “We try, Herr General. Our members have standards to uphold.”

“I was wondering about that.” Von der Goltz set down the glass and inspected the monogrammed napkin with a pretense of attention. “Colonel von Walcker must have fallen short in some regard.”

Mackensen was gratified to spot the glass in von Deweritz’s hand tremble momentarily.

“It is a policy of our association to only admit those of unquestioned nobility of birth. In the case of the colonel…” The defense was interrupted peremptorily by the cavalry general.

“Sir, how did you receive your title of nobility?”

“I… but … how does this relate….” Von Deweritz was visibly shaken. “I inherited it.”

“I see. And how did your ancestors come by it?” The trap was obvious, but nothing that could be said now would prevent it from closing around von Deweritz.

“Through valour and prowess in the emperor’s service. Herr General.”

Mackensen nodded, smiling. Von der Goltz interjected: “Then, sir, you now have the opportunity to admit a man who did precisely this himself. A man whose family tree does not yet resemble a potato plant.” That slur was current among bourgeois officers these days: Families whose best members were underground.

“I know von Walcker personally.” Mackensen pointed out. “He is a man of impeccable taste, significant personal wealth, and enough courage for an entire regimental staff, and then some. It would be a signal disappointment to me if the members of this club did not come to share this assessment.”

Von Deweritz smiled hopelessly, a desperate man: “Much as I regret, the modalities of adlection allow for member veto, and I believe there is no law to prevent them.”

The two demi-gods nodded sagely. “Indeed, there is none.” Von der Goltz confirmed. “Just as there is none to prevent the officers of the guards regiments to choose not to patronise certain clubs based on the estimate of their commanding officers. I am merely voicing a personal opinion.”

Mackensen now fixed his unfortunate victim with a ferocious stare: “An opinion I share, as you should know.” he said. “To be honest, I believe a great deal is going to have to change in this country. A great deal indeed. But I assume we can trust the sound judgement of men of quality in this matter.” He rose. “Good day, Herr von Deweritz. I am sure we will hear only good things from your club in the future.”

Moscow, 29 October

The carriage clattered to a halt on the cobbles outside the palace. Around the hall, the assembled guests straightened their ties and adjusted the fit of their jackets, preparing for the illustrious visitor Prince Meshersky was accompanying from the railway station. Boris Pasternak was in animated conversation with Mikhail Balakirev when his father approached to draw him aside.

“It is amazing!” the young man could barely curb his enthusiasm. “These words! Listen: ‘You cannot show me a Russian village miserable enough to shake my conviction and belief about Russia. I do not fear that the Russian People should ever starve, for God Himself nourishes it with his eternal love.’ He wrote this to a German critic. Or this, from his travel notes: ‘The German needs Socialism as a theory. To the Russian, it is a natural state. Even the nobility is so much a part of the people that their individualism is felt at most in a greater call to shared sacrifice. His pride of lineage is submission to the greater whole.’ How could he have such profound insight into Russian nature – a German? After just a brief visit!”

Balakirev smiled benignly. “Rilke is a genius.” He said. “That much is evident from his poetry. You must not forget that the state of Germany and its system, not the German people, is our foe. I have never held with the idea that there was something inherent to being German that made one less capable of greatness of the soul. You have read his works, I take it – you read German?”

“Fluently!” Boris confirmed before checking himself. Until recently, this was not something you wanted to advertise too prominently. Especially not in a position as precarious as that his family enjoyed. The patronage of the mighty could be fickle. “I mean, of course it is necessary for a musical education.”

The composer nodded. “Obviously. And you must have read…”

Leonid Pasternak interposed: “I am sorry.” He said, dragging his son into the second line of the welcoming committee.

“Stop playing the fool!” he hissed. “These people only accept us because of Tolstoy. Stand with your sister and look decorative! You can discuss your art theory with your fellow poets.”

Chastened, the young man stood still as the front door opened and the man himself entered. Rainer Maria Rilke, tired and thirsty from travelling, smiled on the company, his eyes lighting up at their adoration. Here was the genius – and more importantly, as Meshersky led him through the vestibule towards the zakusky tables set in the ballroom, the man who could explain Russia to the Germans.

Berlin, Stadtpalais 01 November 1908

The tools of his trade had changed considerably, Polizeipräsident Golz found. Early in his tenure, he had come to the Prince Regent with a sheaf of handwritten reports from the various departments and maybe a file or two from the most important individual cases. Today, a meeting in the all-highest presence (and there were many of those) required two reliable men to carry, unpack and display a plethora of charts, maps, tables and lists: Berlin and surrounding areas, on a scale of 1:20,000, covered in colourful dots and lines. List of violent crimes reported, arrests made, trials and sentences. Personnel files. Case reports on high-profile issues. City map charting political crime – yellow dots marking vandalism, blue for assault, the occasional green for confiscations of banned material and a solitary red spot where two Independent Socialists had broken a Social Democratic party functionary’s spine. Probably not intentionally as such, Golz reflected, but it would get them a long stay in prison anyway. It was bitterly ironic that these guys got to be called ‘Peace Socialists’. From all he had seen, peaceful was the last word you’d use to describe them. And it was sheer luck that no Völkische went down for murder this week. Luck or poor marksmanship.

“We still have too many men in frontline service.” The Polizeipräsident explained. “Even before the war, it was not easy keeping the peace in a city like Berlin. Crime will always be with us when so many people live side by side so closely and anonymously. But with the number of police so thinned, it is all but impossible.”

The emperor scratched his eyepatch. Golz still found the sight disconcerting, and he was far from alone. It gave their ruler a hard, almost piratical appearance that was at odds with his meticulously pressed uniform and studied informality. “More men will return,” he said, “but that is not the only reason, is it? We did not have this kind of crime surge during the war.”

Golz nodded. “It’s not, Your Majesty.” He agreed. “What makes the numbers even more alarming is that a good deal of crimes should have disappeared with the end of rationing. There is no more card fraud or trade in black-market commodities. This should be reflected in a drop in crime, and overall, we can see it. Fraud, regulatory, tax and customs offenses are down, though a lot of the cases are still working their way through the courts. But violent crime…” he hesitated.

The emperor nodded knowingly. Hard numbers could not be argued with. Berlin was becoming a frighteningly savage place, and it was not the only one, apparently. He could get reports of this level of detail only from within Prussia, but Cologne and Duisburg, Frankfurt, Altona and Breslau all showed similar developments and reading the papers alone suggested that things were little better in places like Hamburg, Dresden, Munich or Bremen.

“Youth crime?” he enquired. The press had been full of sensational coverage lately, now that wartime censorship had loosened and epic battles no longer provided fodder for the daily front page. Young hoodlums, many of them barely children, robbed people in the streets, broke into stores and homes, and generally terrified the right-thinking respectable readership. Some blamed the absence of their fathers, others the fact that so many mothers had gone to work during the war, the lack of prospects for poor young men, the return of cheap alcohol, the cramped and unhygienic living conditions, contemporary music, or the general absence of moral fibre in permissive modern society.

“For the bulk of the numbers, yes, Sire.” Golz phrased it cautiously. “But the greater number of the headline-grabbing cases are of a different calibre.”

One of his assistants handed him a file. “Last Friday, a bank robbery: The back door was opened with crowbars and a sledgehammer, a guard and three cashiers gunned down on sight. The robbers used explosives to open the safe. All paper money and stock certificates inside were destroyed, obviously, as was much of the bank’s interior. They escaped with several ten thousands marks in bullion before the police arrived in sufficient force. By all accounts, these men had a military bearing.”

Break in, kill everything that moves, blow up anything you can’t use, grab the rest and bugger off – that was how Sturmtruppen operated. A picture-book trench raid, except they’d done it to a bank in goddamn Zehlendorf! Nobody was going to say as much out loud, but the Kripo had bets running how many decorations for bravery they were going to find on the perpetrators, if they ever got them.

“The day before yesterday, a group of veterans got into a fight with some AEG workers in a pub in Wedding. It is the kind of altercation we see every day, except now two people are dead. And the same day, a doctor confronted a burglar in his front parlour and was shot for his trouble. Five bullets, as far as we know – the man survived, but his groom and cook are dead.”

“Shootings are an increasing problem, I take it.” The emperor enquired. “Perhaps something needs to be done to take guns away from these criminals?”

“With your permission, Majesty, That would be difficult.” A young Referendar from the interior ministry spoke up. “ He seemed half incredulous that he could do so, but Wilhelm insisted on informal conversational rules. “The law does not restrict the ownership of weapons as such. Crimes committed with firearms are already subject to steeper punishments, but it is hard to see how we could forbid law-abiding citizens to carry the means to defend themselves.”

The Polizeipräsident nodded. “Even if we were to tighten the limits on carrying weapons in public, it would still be difficult to enforce. Most crimes are committed with handguns. We cannot search everyone. There are simply not enough officers.”

“What about the sale?” Wilhelm asked.

“Around Berlin alone, there are several hundred businesses licensed to sell guns and ammunition.” Golz stated flatly. “And a lot of the guns on the street are imported privately and sold second-hand when their owners no longer need them.”

The emperor nodded. It was a diplomatic way of saying they mostly came in via Poland. They’d poured what, a hundred thousand cheap revolvers into the country? It was no wonder a lot of erstwhile rebel heroes now came to decide they’d prefer some hard cash to their proud mementoes. And that was not even counting the returning troops who brought back their own souvenirs. No need to buy them at the upscale outfitters frequented by the Potsdam set.

“In the end,” the Polizeipräsident continued, pointing to the next graph and hoping to return to safer waters, “it is down to personnel. We are short in every department.”

He traced the glaring gaps between establishment strength and actual figures across the sections: “Almost 60% patrol-going Schupos, and that figure is worse than it looks, with so many of the men we have being too old for the job. The Kriminalpolizei is 48% understrength. We are drawing down the fraud and war economy divisions to strengthen the fight against violent crime, but we really need more bodies.”

The emperor inspected the chart. “It should be possible to second some Feldgendarmerie and detail guards troopers for patrols.” He said. Golz winced. Soldiers were all right as far as they went, but they didn’t have a policeman’s way of thinking. They’d need some careful shepherding, or there’d be more blood in the streets. “About the lack of plainclothesmen…” He hesitated. “What about these units? They seem almost at full strength?”

Golz shrugged. “Sitte.” He said. “Vice squad. Red-light district, immoral publications, and 175er. With so many troops passing through…”

The emperor looked straight at his police chief. “Is there any good reason why these men are not at work catching criminals?” he asked.

“They…” Golz fumbled. Was there? Real policemen didn’t really like working with the Schwulendezernat. All of vice had a seedy reputation, and the 175er especially. But a real reason? It was a career trap, that was all. You didn’t get promoted away from there much. “Many of them are older, and not accustomed to violence. But no, I do not suppose…”

“Then why on earth do we have what, fifty, sixty officers sniffing for porn and poofters?! This nonsense stops here. We have more important matters to address!” Wilhelm’s face was flushed. “Really, I thought we had put a stop to this silliness over a year ago!”

“For serving soldiers, Your Majesty.” The Referendar pointed out. “And as a temporary measure. The police authorities needed to retain the capacity…”

“Twaddle!” the emperor growled. “Am I surrounded by idiots? Golz, you’re going to dissolve these units and put the men to proper work. I’ll have formal instructions drafted accordingly.”

“Yes, your Majesty.” He assented. He did not seem entirely displeased.

“This raises another question, if I may.” That was von Mergentheim, representing Bülow’s foreign office. An expert on occupation policy and everything East European, and the go-to man for law and the nitty-gritty bits of policy. “With the reduction in manpower for vice enforcement, it is hard to see how Germany would be able to credibly join the Anglo-American effort to control the trade in narcotics….”

Wilhelm fixed him with a baleful stare. “Is that still on the table?” he asked.

“Well, Your Majesty, the proposed treaty…”

“We aren’t signing that nonsense!” The emperor unthinkingly raised his right hand to the eyepatch and winced. If anyone knew how important the right kind of drugs could be, it was Wilhelm. And with millions of German men now coming to terms with newly acquired injuries, the problem was not limited to the august person alone. “Bunch of busybodies… Why are we even negotiating this? I need my police to fight criminals. We can’t afford to use them to make some old maiden aunts feel comfortable.”
Hamburg, 06 November 1908

The city is dark and grey today, the lead-coloured sky of the North Sea hanging low over the old continent’s greatest port. I have arrived from Berlin by rail to take ship to Harwich, leaving behind for good the country that I have come to know, admire, and to some measure love over the past two years. Germans are ever more easily mocked than understood - all the faults and foibles of their national character ensure as much. And yet despite all these weaknesses – and to no small degree for them – Germany was a truly impressive country even before the war. The plumed and gold-frogged splendour of Potsdam, the romance of the Rhine valley and the teeming hives of the Ruhr cities were in their way wonders of our world, much though their pretence invited the ridicule of older, more comfortably established nations. Yet a visitor who might chance to come to any of these places today would be confronted with a different picture entirely. The crucible of war has burned away all superfluities, leaving the country reduced to the bones and sinews, the bare mechanics of its society. It is altogether a sight both intriguing and terrifying.

The first thing that will strike an observer is the great incongruity between the opulence of the country’s traditional architecture and the sparse, austere life that now plays out among this scenery. Germans were never a voluble race, though their language is wordy and complex, but no current dictionary will do justice to the clipped, curt conversations we now hear on these streets daily. It is as though the empty air between them were the property of the post office and charged telegraph fees for every word. And yet what would be thought rude and dismissive in other nations more given to needless verbal elaboration becomes a sign of dedication to efficiency among the Germans. No unnecessary word or second is spent with the forms of the old world, so beloved of their forebears, yet seeming so distant from the reality of our day.

As with the language, so with the style of attire: Germans today have relinquished empty ostentation for a style of pure practicality in which every consideration is for the utility of the garment and little account ever taken of its fashionableness. Many, especially men, have eschewed the purchase of new clothing entirely, and their ageing, often mismatched dress lends them an almost Dickensian air of comical dignity. Germany, though, is no poor country, and new clothing is seen on civilians as much as new uniforms are on the Emperor’s soldiers. The impression of these is simplicity, the unadorned casualness of narrow lapels, plain shirts and unturned trousers, a hint of the military undress of the subaltern, too much busied with his duties to give more than passing thought to appearances. In women, the clean lines and lack of frippery appear far more jarring, their unconstricting, often uncorseted dresses and coats seeming negligent and even risqué by those accustomed to the carefully cultivated elegance of London or Paris. Yet the appearance even of the most masculine garb, the bloomer suits of postwomen and service dresses of tram conductresses, are never unbecoming in themselves.

The greatest change may be seen in the women of the country themselves, true Spartiates in their way, the mothers and wives of warriors who uncomplainingly took up management of the home fires as their menfolk went forth to do battle. Among them, the distinctions of class and estate are diminished, and the wives of workers and shopkeepers converse with those of doctors and counts with a familiarity that bespeaks dedication to a common cause. No longer the ‘Gnädige Frau’ to whom lesser mortals cast down their eyes – as the comradeship of the trenches levelled the boundaries of class among men who learned to respect each other in the storm of steel and fire, so did the shared privation of rationing and the need to fill the gaps left by millions of men drafted to war forge bonds between women who had nothing in common before.

This sense of unity may explain that most mystifying trait of our cousins – for none can doubt that Germans and Englishmen are of one stock – that deep dedication to collective action. To the Englishman or American, accustomed to standing on his own two feet and speaking his own mind wherever he may go, the way that Germans are drawn to organisation, association and cooperation seems as alien as the customs of the Chinese or the Zulu. And yet there is nothing cowed or servile about these men. Today, returning from that greatest of collective organisations, an army of ten million men or more, Germany’s people are keen to undertake in peace the great labour they began in war. This is no nation that shuns planning on a large scale: Entire countries are carved from the carcass of defeated Russia, great swathes of the country turned over to make homes for returning warriors, and grand public works created so as to ensure the rewards of victory are dispensed to all those who won it. A German worker, often secure in a lifelong loyalty to the great industrial combines of the country, a man of respectable standing among his peers and even his betters, will think nothing of laying aside savings for two decades in the certain expectation of living in a modest flat in one of the housing projects yet to begin building, knowing that the peculiar genius of his nation will ensure completion and that his children and grandchildren will enjoy the fruits of his labour as surely as they would were he to purchase an English cottage. The government, wisely aware of this, has done everything to foster such schemes, often including shared cooking and washing facilities built to the most modern standards. It is a way of living that few Englishmen will find suitable, but it may, come time, change Germany as much as the war has, and for the better.

(Rudyard Kipling, letter to his publisher)

Lodz, 9 November 1908

Lodz in November was not the kind of place you would go for your holiday. Florida or the Riviera suggested themselves, or maybe Saratoga Springs and Niagara if you were in the mood for snowy romance. Not that Chaim Weysbrod could have afforded any of these things on a sergeant’s pay. As a result, he figured he was effectively taking a holiday here.

Obviously it was one that involved a lot of duties, though these were on the light side. Nobody asked him to stand guard in the rain and wind or to lug bricks and saw lumber on the hundreds of construction sites where people finally got around to fixing the damage the war had done. More importantly, nobody was trying to kill him, expected him to do backbreaking work in freezing muck, or made him march twenty miles on an empty stomach. He had a real bed to sleep in, in a room of his own, three meals a day – light on the meat, not much worse than what he was used to growing up – and authority. The pay might not match what he could make in a New York factory, but his expenses were few and he did not relish the prospect of going to look for a job back home. He had changed since he’d volunteered for the Bundist Brigade on the strength of a few newspaper articles. Going back to being a good Jewboy tugging his forelock to managers and buyers looked less appealing by the day. Here, by contrast, he was a man others looked up to, a decorated combat veteran and senior NCO, and compared to the war years, what he actually asked to do was no burden at all.

Of course, there was one downside: People came to you with questions. Any time some poor footslogger was in over his head, it was ‘ask the serzhant’. And just now, as Weysbrod left his office for a short walk across the barracks yard to the NCO kasino for a well-deserved bit of liquid refreshment, one of them seemed to have decided to do just that. Long black greatcoat flapping, he was headed straight for him. Weysbrod turned and snapped out a cursory return to the guards corporal’s salute.

“Serzhant,” he reported in heavily accented Yiddish, “there’s two people at the gate. I have no idea what to do with them. You speak English, don’t you?”

“English?” Weysbrod was intrigued. “Of course. What do they want?”

“I don’t rightly know.”

The sergeant checked his gear – presentable, if no up to parade standards. His decorations were pinned, the boots reasonably clean, and he even had the captured cossack yataghan at his belt, a deviation from the standard that old-timers used to show off their status to those who joined up when uniforms and issue rifles were ubiquitous. It would do.

“Show me, then.”

The pair were unmissable. You saw a better style of dress on the streets again now that the great show of national solidarity was coming to an end, but nothing like this. The man wore a stylish overcoat, top hat, and a fur collar that would not be out of place on Fifth Avenue and the woman – young, bespectacled and far too plump and healthy-looking to be local - in her bright, obviously new walking-out dress looked as though she’d stepped right out of the pages of Sears Roebuck & Co.

“Ah, sir, good of you to come. Do you speak English” the man opened the conversation. The voice brought back a rush of memories to Weysbrod. None of the stilted Shakespearean diction German officers affected nor the broken, heavily accented mishmash you heard from the odd ranker. He was pure Manhattan, brimming with the confidence that wealth and success bought you.

“Yes, I do.” Carefully keeping his accent in check, he introduced himself. “Sergeant Weysbrod, No. 1 Engineer Regiment, First Jewish Self-Defense Division, Polish National Army. How can I help you?”

Smiles lit up the faces of his charges. “Wonderful, sergeant! A pleasure to meet you. David Applebaum is my name, Dr David Applebaum, Attorney-at-Law, and this is my wife Sarah.”

Weysbrod blinked, nonplussed. “Likewise pleased, Doctor Applebaum.” He said “Now, what can I do for you?”

“We were wondering if it was possible to tour the barracks.” Applebaum requested.


“Yes. You see, sergeant, we are on our honeymoon, an extended trip to Europe, and having read about your brave fighting men’s exploits in the papers, we were keen to see for ourselves. Would tomorrow be more convenient? We are here for a week.”

Weysbrod’s head shook momentarily, as if to dislodge an idea that would not fit. “I … suppose,” he began. “I suppose I could show you round the accommodation and the train depot.” He would need to clear the rest to make sure it didn’t violate security protocols. Did they even have security protocols? There had to be someone who could sign off on this.

“Thank you!” Applebaum beamed and grasped Weysbrod’s hand for a firm shake. “Thank you, sergeant! This means a lot to us. We were thrilled to read of what you did over here. You were at the front, weren’t you?” He indicated the ribbons on the sergeant’s tunic.

“Ah … yes, I was.” Weysbrod felt uneasy. “This is our own unit’s, an Iron Star – like the German Iron Cross, basically – and these are National Army: Bug Campaign, Bialystok Campaign and Northern Arc, and the Bronze Wreath.”

The lawyer was visibly elated. “Wonderful! Admirable! It is an honour to meet you, sergeant! A commander of brave men, no doubt, and oh, is that a Cossack blade you took in combat?” He pointed at the belt.

“Yes.” Weysbrod struggled to follow. “I got it at Bialystok.”

“May I?” Applebaum extended his hand. Weysbrod unclipped the scabbard and passed it to the visitor. The lawyer’s hand dropped visibly at the unexpected weight. “It is an amazing thing.” He said, running his fingers over the hilt. “Do you think any of these might be for sale? To show people at home …”

“David, don’t be crass!” Mrs Applebaum interrupted her husband, gently urging him to return the blade, “Sergeant Weysbrod won it in battle. I am sure he has trusted his life to this blade. Haven’t you?”

…blood-slick hands scrabbling for purchase on the bone hilt, blood pounding in your head as you desperately marshal the last remaining strength to push down, in, the savage sense of relief as the tip overcomes the resistance of the ribcage... “Occasionally.”

He clipped the scabbard back in place. “Incidentally, I believe General Ferber is here today. He may be happy to meet you, I will make enquiries.”

Ferber’s enthusiasm for all things American bordered on the embarrassing. Surely, if anyone would be willing to take over a couple of tourists from God’s Own Country, he might be it. “Now, if you would step over here, this is the officers’ wing…”

Buenos Aires, 14 November 1908

“Three million dollars.” Ramon Lorenzo Falcon was pleased with himself. “And this will include a license to produce and market the weapon throughout South America.”

Robert Van Elm smiled sourly. What else were they supposed to do? Losing the German army order had come close to breaking the back of Colt Firearms Manufacturing Co. A remaining stock of almost 120,000 pistols in an unsaleable calibre and an entire factory full of the machinery to make them and their ammunition had turned from a cunning investment into dead weight overnight – a millstone that threatened to sink the business. The Argentine offer was almost insulting – but it was enough to ensure they stayed afloat.

“Indeed, Mr Falcon.” He agreed. “However, only in the German calibre. This must be noted. The pistols may neither be modified to use any other cartridge, nor marketed in the United States or Canada.”

Falcon nodded his assent. This was no great concession to make. North Americans had illogical attachments to their traditions, and they did things their own way. The governments of Latin America, on the other hand, tended to follow the dictates of price and availability. The Colt pistol was a good one. Proof of its mettle on the battlefields of Russia added to its sales appeal. Nobody would mind that it ate the odd 9mm ammunition the Germans insisted on using.

“I will make arrangements to have the machinery shipped here. The money will be transferred through J P Morgan Bank, 50% in cash, 50% in two-year bonds. It was a pleasure doing business with you.”

Van Elm gritted his teeth. “Likewise.”

Berlin, 21 November 1908

“You understand, Sir, that your wealth insulates you from the worst impact of these events.” Representative von Trenck insisted. “It is obvious.”

Hugenberg nodded sagely, casting a sideways look at Hugo Stinnes. The great man seemed to agree. Inviting him to this dinner party had been a risk. As a member of the cabinet’s war economy council, he had publicly opposed many of the conservatives’ political ideas and occasionally even got into shouting matches with particularly forward members of the Völkische faction in the DKP. But Hugenberg remembered the economic stance Stinnes had espoused before the war, and he felt that there was enough common ground to be found here.

“Beginning with the trivial,” he carefully framed von Trenck’s excessive declamation, “it is becoming impossible for people of means to find reliable servants even in peacetime. Household books to that effect have not only continued to sell, demand is growing across the Reich. I agree that this is not a matter of great significance compared to some others, but it is keenly felt by many. The frustration of having to bid for the services of maids and charwomen who will openly compare the wages they can get in factories is corrosive to morale and social order.”

“Indeed.” Trenck added. “Families of high repute, doctors, lawyers and even military officers, have found themselves abandoned by their household staff practically overnight. There is no longer the least sign of worry over what characters they might be provided by their erstwhile masters. Indeed, nobody seems to care any longer! I have myself had a maid leave her service for a job at the tram company, and we have had to make do with a charwoman ever since!”

Hugenberg motioned him to temporary silence. “It is above all the impact on public morale we are concerned with.” He explained. “And it is no better in the factories. Workers blackmailing owners with overt threats of strike, unions muscling their way into negotiations that should be between individuals … I have little doubt that, though costly, this is manageable for a large corporation. For a small business, as most of Germany’s factories are, it is going to be ruinous if we allow it to go on. A man must be master in his own house!”

Stinnes nodded. That was a language he could understand. “Indeed. I have no objection to treating the workers fairly, even generously, but this Socialistic nonsense has gone too far. That much I agree with, gentlemen.”

Trenck and the white-bearded Karl Gamp nodded eager assent. “We are not opposed to the gifts that the government intends to distribute – as such.” Gamp explained carefully. “Indeed, this has been a highly contentious issue within the conservative party. It is our wing that favours a generous treatment of returning veterans and generally, a policy of reform that looks beyond the narrow bounds of Manchester liberalism. It was the German people that won this victory, and it is the entire German people that should rightly enjoy its fruit. Little enough this may prove to be.” He added sourly.

Stinnes sucked his teeth. He was not happy with the peace settlement. His own vision had included modest territorial gains and farther-reaching assurances of mining and logging rights rather than vague promises of future reparation payments that might or might not be made. Of course there was such a thing as loyalty – you stood by decisions made in the council even if you did not like them. He refrained from comment.

Georg Oertel raised his glass and spoke. He was a bit of an oddity in this circle – a man of modest origin and few means who had risen to his precarious status as a newspaperman via the teaching profession. For all that, he was regarded highly among his friends and enjoyed Hugenberg’s benevolent protection. You underestimated the brain inside his massive square skull at your peril. “It is our firm belief that conservatism means more than doing things the way we have always done them.” he explained. “The world is changing. Science has shown us truths our ancestors could not have dreamt of. Understood in the light of these truths, conservatism means to defend, to expand, to develop the useful values we inherited from our forebears and to discard the superannuated. This is what we mean, Mr Stinnes. We are not a club of junkers polishing their coats of arms in crumbling manor houses. We see a future in which the German people can be the mightiest, healthiest, richest, morally and genetically soundest in the world.”

Hugenberg smiled graciously. This was exactly what the man needed to hear. Oertel, he remembered, was suffering the very predicament – a fixed salary, with little prospect of an increase, in the face of rapidly rising prices and insolent servants – that von Trenck had deplored so loudly, but he never spoke of his personal discomfort. Everything with him was about the big picture.

Stinnes nodded, his face grimly determined. “I can see this, gentlemen. And what is more, I believe that I can support your endeavour. Be aware that this I not going to be an easy path.”

“We are.” Hugenberg ventured. “The issue of workers’ housing alone is enough to tear apart the party. But in the interest of the truth, in the service of the future, it is a risk worth taking. The cheeseparing of the past must end. It was always the policy of the wise and forward-looking leader to ensure the content and safety of his followers.”

“Alles für, nichts durch das Volk?” Stinnes asked, smiling thinly.

Oertel nodded. “True, to a point. We do not deny that the people should be heard, it is clear that giving the rabble the power to overrule authority is a recipe for disaster.”

“To that.” Hugenberg motioned, and the assembled luminaries raised their glasses. Dark port sparkled ruby-red in their cut-crystal goblets. “To the future.”

Osnabrück, 27 November 1908

Sleep came hard, even in the warm, soft, clean bed of his peaceful home. Feldwebelleutnant Koch had come to suspect that, in fact, it came harder there. He had had nightmares in the dark nights under Russian skies and suffered sweating terrors in barrack room bunks, but exhaustion and release from fear had usually allowed him to sleep eventually. Now, released from the iron bonds of duty, away from the comrades with whom he had lived through years of war, he spent many a night tormented by memories he had buried as deep as he could.

Readjustment, the doctor had called it. A few weeks of quiet, some laudanum to help with the insomnia, that was all. What really helped, Koch had found, was schnaps. He had never been a heavy drinker, but facing the alternative, he was determined to change that. A half-litre stoneware bottle, emptied with grim determination, lay on the nightstand, but the effect had been limited. Tossing, sweating, half moaning whispered words, Feldwebelleutnant Koch drifted into the fitful, restless sleep that had been his lot.

Karin Koch had been used to being afraid of her father in the dutiful manner that good girls were. “Wait until Papa hears about this!” were still words that could add worry to a guilty conscience. She had never feared him, not even when he came back from the war on his rare, short furloughs, an increasingly strange, lean, craggy man who smelled of tobacco, dirt and chemicals. Hard though it might be, she was determined not to start now. Woken by his sobbing, she gingerly approached the bedstead he had put in the living room to spare his wife’s sleep and gently laid a wet cloth on his forehead.

“It’ll be all right, Papa.” she whispered. “I’ll stay with you.” Hugging her stuffed toy rabbit, she sat down on the side of the bed and tried to grasp his hand. Her father groaned and half turned over. She could smell drink on his breath, hear terror in his voice. Impulsively, she flung her arms around him and pressed her face against his shoulder, holding on as she recalled him holding her some nights before the war, when she had been just out of kindergarten, a scared little girl. “It’s going to be all right.”

The darkness was rife with memories. Feldwebelleutnant Koch felt his shoulders and chest tense up, muscles pulling so tight with fear it hurt to breathe. Pitch blackness enveloped him, the suffocating, sweaty dark that brought him back to the terrified, tentative advance of night patrol, a darkness that offered no protection or concealment, that could explode into savage violence with no warning. Wrapped in an alcoholic fug, his conscious mind spun into its chemical cocoon, Koch felt himself returning again to the armpit of the night outside Gumbinnen, the desperate effort to stay quiet, pass unnoticed. His mind could never supply any sights, but the scents, the sounds and sudden violence of the assault remained indelibly inscribed into his memory. The blow, unprepared and unexpected, hands scrabbling for purchase on his ammunition belt, his rifle dropped out of reach, garlic and rotten breath in his face as the hard-packed earth came up to meet him. Russian obscenities – he had not then known what they meant. The arms had been scrawny, wiry, weaker than he remembered, the hair incongruously soft. The briefest of hesitations rose in his mind, suppressed by the rush of unreasoning terror. Feldwebelleutnant Koch closed his hands around the slender neck of his unseen assailant and squeezed.

Duisburg, 12 December 1908

Between the blaring of the brass instruments and the obligatory cheers – hurrah for the Emperor, the Reich, the building cooperative and the GDK – conversation was almost impossible. This was not necessarily a problem. The speeches had been made, everybody was everyone else’s best friend today, and even Social Democrat politicians shared a stage with capitalist mine operators and Prussian officials to laud the project. Karl Zevenich approved. Of course, as a Zentrum man and Raiffeisen banker, he would. This, he thought, was a beautiful example of what government, once freed from the pernicious doctrines of socialistic redistributionism and liberal property-worship, could do. Across from the awnings and their patriotic bunting, the milling crowd kept away with wooden hurdles, a column of men was now marching out onto a field of mud. They had a military bearing, spades shouldered and wheelbarrows aligned, and surely this was no accident. Veterans, accustomed to marching in close order. This was another detail he had noted down: There was no point starting building work in winter. It was slow and complicated, you had to deal with all kinds of problems you didn’t have in warmer seasons. Concrete and mortar didn’t set properly in the frost. Snow filled your foundation pits. But it was winter, and these men needed work now. It would cost a bit more to prepare the foundations and underground pipes, though if everything worked out halfway as planned, they would be ready to build the houses in spring that way, and might be finished in autumn. And some two hundred men would feed their families.

Zevenich had been involved with the planning almost from the start. His bank had provided part of the financing, encouraged by a government loan guarantee, and negotiated the land purchase. The city had parted with the acreage at a very good price, with payment spread out over thirty years to allow the cooperative to fund its building. They had raised loans for the materials – again making sure they were bought locally, and carefully calculated to be as economical as possible. It made for an odd combination. He had seen the plans: small apartments stacked four stories up, half-cellars with aboveground windows, flat roofs, right angles and unadorned brick walls. Open balconies ran along the side of the building connecting the doors to the flats. They made it possible for forty or fifty apartments to share a single stairwell which, once again, saved cost and optimised space usage. Nothing was left to fancy here. Yet at the same time the planners had been careful not to cut corners. In fact, it looked to Zevenich as though they had deliberately set things up to require more labour than strictly necessary. With hundreds of thousands of men coming back looking for work, that did not look like a bad idea, either. In the long run, they had plans for the area between the blocks, too: laundry lines and trees, sandboxes and swings for children, a few benches along neat paths, even a little chapel. All of that would be the responsibility of the first tenants, though.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Salmann, the Red party functionary, remarked. Zevenich nodded perfunctorily, but thought better of his easy dismissal. It might not be his idea of beauty, but he would go back to his suburban house tonight, with electric light, tiled stoves and big, bright windows overlooking a neat little garden. The people who would move in here came from a very different place. It would be like night and day to them. “Yes,”.he agreed, “yes, it is.”

It was. As he walked over to the tent where they were serving hot coffee – real coffee, he was gratified to find – he pondered the ramifications. They were doing this all over the country now: Workers cooperatives, savings banks, unions and charities were buying up land, mostly from the government and the church, reserving material and hiring workers to build housing. Some were hugely ambitious, modern experiments with collective kitchens and electric lights. Others tried to put industrial workers into cottages on allotment strips, complete with pigsties and rabbit hutches, to make them into part-time farmers. Someone from the employers’ association had suggested that having a bit of green to come home to meant the men didn’t really need holidays any more. He wondered how that would go down with the workers. At any rate, things were happening. Even if all it did was take money out of the economy, that would be useful, but really it looked like it would be doing so much more. Looking out over the building site where the crews now started to break ground, Zevenich surreptitiously fortified his coffee with a bit of brandy from his hip flask and smiled. Sometimes, it took a while for a good idea to catch on, but in the end, it had.

Hamburg, 24 December 1908

Darkness had fallen early, but the chill sleet and wind came as a welcome refreshment. Wilhelm Lamszus stepped out into the street still in awe at the reversal of his fortunes. A Christmas pardon, the letter had informed him, in the course of which His Majesty had seen fit to release those sentenced to prison over minor offenses against war economy laws was the reason he would be spending the holidays among friends, not in a dank and draughty cell over meagre rations. Celebrating the happy occasion with former colleagues, fellow writers, and a gaggle of artists, some young and distinctly admiring, he might have gone slightly overboard. His face felt flushed, and he had to admit that many months of enforced abstinence had eroded what tolerance for drink he might have possessed. Still he was not going to allow this to spoil the day. Nothing would. He had already been informed by his publisher that royalties for a French and English translation of his ‘Letters from East Prussia’ had freed him from immediate financial worries. It was strange how many people who, during the war, would have happily strung him from the nearest tree were now willing to soften their stance and admit that his book might have some merit. Patriotism, he suspected, was very much a seasonal plant.

Max Kerendorff stepped into the dark alley with the practised ease of a trench raider. The poor lighting and festive noises emerging from the many hostelries lining the streets of St Pauli made the effort almost superfluous. He could just as well have strolled down the middle of Reeperbahn singing the Deutschlandlied for all the drunken revellers cared. This was the place – favoured by the decadent and overstimulated artistic set, he knew from his briefing – and this was where they would take position and wait. Kerendorff nodded to his fellow and stepped into the shadows behind a rain barrel. Brother Skalagrimm – not his real name, but they were not ever supposed to know these – leaned casually against the corner of the alley to keep the other entrance in view. Then, their quarry walked right into their arms.

The smoking jacket hanging loosely on his frame, tie askew, his swinish face flushed with drink and dissipation, the man who stumbled into the street matched the description to a T. Still, Kerendorff decided to be sure. “Wilhelm Lamszus?” he asked, trying to sound as bohemian as he was capable of: “The writer Wilhelm Lamszus?”

“Who wants to know?” Lamszus sounded more alert than he looked. The response alone was enough to damn him. Skalagrimm stepped out to cover the entrance of the alley while Kerendorff withdrew his service revolver from the pocket of his coat and fired three shots. Lamszus crumpled and dropped, whimpering and clutching his stomach.

“Thorfinn, let’s Go!” Skalagrimm shouted to Kerendorff. Still holding the gun in his right, he was struggling to pull the sigil of the Femegericht from his pocket with the left as he saw the door open. A young woman dressed in some kind of loose robe came out, a cigarette holder dangling from the corner of her mouth.

“Wilhelm?!” she asked, incredulous.

“Thorfinn, dammit!” Brother Skalagrimm began to panic. The woman opened her mouth to scream. Kerendorff’s hand finally cleared the buttoned pocket flap and he threw the red paper printed with the ring and hammer of the Feme at the feet of the delinquent. Another shot rang out, and the woman fell hard.

“Skalagrimm!” Kerendorrff shouted. “Was that necessary?”

They turned the corner, running up the street until they could safely mingle with the thicker crowd that still filled the sidewalks of the Spielbudenplatz. Finally, Skalagrimm regained his breath enough to address his fellow warrior. “She could have identified you.” He said curtly. “There was nothing else to be done. Heil!”

He turned on this heel, melting into the crowd. Kerendorff stood by himself in the cold, wet night. He would never see Brother Skalagrimm again. His revolver would be deposited in the Elbe, down by Landungsbrücken, before he would take a cab to the main train station. The first train for Hanover would see him safely away long before the police would even think of screening travellers – if they ever did. It was almost too easy.

Sanssouci, 29 December

“At least it’s good to see we are not the craziest people around.” Walther Rathenau said flatly.

The report was unequivocal and shocking. Russia’s government, apparently finding that civil unrest, the continuing demobilisation of its army, the collapse of its industrial economy and the ongoing revolts of its peripheral subjects were not enough to keep it fully occupied, had decided on a cure for the paper rouble’s inflation. As of the First of May 1909, all old roubles not explicitly guaranteed in gold would be converted into new roubles at a rate of 1:14. The idea alone was enough to set economists’ heads spinning. More importantly, this was something that had to be done in secret. If word got out, the bottom would fall out of the money market. The savers and small businessmen of Russia would not take kindly to having their property thus diminished.

“Enviable, in a way,” remarked von Siemens, the finance minister. Germany had prescribed its economy a horrific regimen of high taxes, massive public investment, the selloff of state assets, and some downright evil manoeuvers delaying repayments of war bonds. People had given the Empire the shirt off their back, and Berlin turned around and told them they wouldn’t get it back anytime soon. All of it to stop the Mark from turning into a Confederate dollar, no more than that. Prices were still climbing daily, and all they could do was hope that their measures would eventually work. And the Russians could simply pull this.

“They don’t have much of a bourgeois class.” Ratzel said with an undignified shrug. “I suppose the government knows that their burghers need to stick by it. Everybody else hates them.”

Emperor Wilhelm nodded. “It must be helpful if your rich citizens can’t afford to alienate you.” He said acidly. “But it doesn’t answer the obvious question: Do we allow them to go ahead with it?”

“They don’t really need our permission….” Ratzel began.

“True.” Field Marshal von der Goltz interrupted him. “And if we make our disapproval of the plan public, it won’t matter one bit, will it?”

“That would be unwise.” Von Siemens insisted.

The emperor turned in his seat and fixed him with his single eye. It was a disconcerting experience, and Wilhelm had learned to use it to good effect. “Why exactly?”

“Russia is under tremendous strain,” the finance minister pointed out. “The very fact that they are willing to try something this drastic indicates the level of their desperation. The country is close to its crisis, and the risk is considerable that it could effectively collapse.”

That much was true. Nobody had expected the speed with which the Russian system of government collapsed once the army had been taken out. It was almost as though someone had removed the poles from a tent. The czar’s regency council still had options: They still had an army, for one thing, and their greenjacketed militias, the courts, the police and the tenuous strands of modernity that were woven across the land like a net. But their success was far from ensured, even if they pulled out all the stops. Which they apparently were willing to do, judging by some of the reports coming back.

“Sounds good to me.” Von der Goltz commented. “One less headache. France is bad enough on its own.”

Wilhelm scratched the bridge of his nose. This was one of those knotty questions he hated having to decide.

“Militarily, that may be true.” Rathenau said carefully, “though history suggests Russia has a way of recovering from deepest humiliations, and it does hold grudges. But economically, it is not something we can afford.”

Ratzel nodded. “We are already working on a schedule for the payment of the first tranche of the indemnity. Of course it will not be in gold. We stand to receive timber, copper, iron, tungsten, charcoal, oil, flax … all kinds of raw materials that our industry desperately needs. We cannot afford to buy them abroad, it would break the back of our economy. Not even with the Moscow gold shipment.”

Much of the gold had already been transferred to foreign creditors anyway, and the rest served as a meagre surety for the crushing burden of Berlin’s debt. If they were ever going to earn hard currency from exporting again, if they were to build all the homes, streets, railways, bridges and canals that the government promised, if they were going to service their debt at all, they needed the Russian indemnity. Siemens frowned, but he nodded assent.

“If Russia’s government collapses, so does our economy. I would say it may even be necessary for us to use troops to prop them up, should it come to that.”

The field marshal snorted. “What a world this is, where the greatest victory in a century must be thrown away over the appetites of fat bankers! The Germans I know would rather eat turnips for twenty years than suffer this indignity!”

Wilhelm knew that von der Goltz only turned to histrionics when he was losing an argument. The old warrior understood he could not stand against economic imperatives. What business needed, business must have.

“It may come to that yet, Doctor von Siemens.” He admitted. “For now, let them do what they can, and let us hope it is enough. We can worry about tomorrow when it comes.”
Friedrichshafen, 30 December 1908

The engine was enormous. Designed to turn a propeller almost four metres in diameter, it would be suspended in a gondola under the hull of the world’s largest airship, which was invariably the last one that the Zeppelin GmbH launched. Maybach had worked wonders. The army had brought him the prototypes from the Zhukovsky laboratories in Gatchina, but this was an order of magnitude above anything the Russians had had in mind. It was nothing short of a modern miracle. Claude Dornier turned to the NCO attached to the programme with which the Prussian army – soon enough, it wold be the newly minted Reichsluftmacht – supported their research and development work. He looked so young…

“I suppose we can give it a test run.” Dornier suggested. It was cold and wet, and the holidays beckoned, but that was not something a real engineer would allow to distract him from his true love. “What do you think, Herr Feldwebel?”

Hauptfeldwebel Lagarde blinked. “I … sorry, Mr Dornier. I was just thinking. Test run – of course. I can call out the team. But if you consider – we have had five of these delivered, and the LZ 12 will only take four. Would this not do admirably for a high-performance wind tunnel?”

Dornier stifled a laugh. Damn, if there was one man in this outfit even crazier than him… “Capital idea! We should try it.” He looked at the soldier’s face more closely. Young – about his own age – but marked with the elusive quality that came from having ‘seen the elephant’, something that his French citizenship had spared the engineer. Dornier knew that he had an instinctive way with machines. His math was up to scratch, too. He had been giving this some consideration before.

“Herr Feldwebel, have you given any thought about your career after discharge?”

Lagarde paused. It was a topic he contemplated with an odd mixture of wistful longing and secret dread. He might be free to do everything he wanted, but he doubted anything would be as rewarding, as interesting, and as much fun as his current work. “I suppose I might want to put in for a civil service position in some technical branch.“ he said guardedly. “Or maybe study something like that.”

“Yes.” Dornier felt hesitant. “I can see that that would be attractive. The thing is, I have consulted with the management, and we have decided that we would like to offer you a position on the staff once you are discharged. However… if you are interested…”

Lagarde’s heart skipped a beat. He struggled to retain his composure, succeeded, and answered calmly: “That would be an interesting offer. I still think that studying might get me farther.”

Dornier chuckled. “That was the point I was going to make: We would ask you to attend technical college. On the payroll, of course. Aviation is a young field, and we need everyone who understands anything if we are to make a success of it. Think about it!” The engineer unfolded a pocket yardstick to flesh out Lagarde’s idea. “128 cm… if we put it two metres off the ground, we should be able to make a wind tunnel large enough for 1:10 models and actual aeroplanes. What do you think?”

“Yes.” Hauptfeldwebel Lagarde said awkwardly. “Yes, on both counts. It would be a good idea. Now, regulating the airflow...”

Berlin, 01 January 1909

The party was all but over – festivities ended early in Berlin, earlier than ever now that the war had impressed its Spartan stamp on everything the capital did. Her Majesty had withdrawn to her own apartments an hour earlier, giving rise to speculation about an impending addition to the imperial family. In the imperial chambers of the Stadtpalais, the consular guard remained. Doors comfortably closed, a table set with port and tobacco between them, the big three relaxed as the early hours of the new year ticked by. Wilhelm recalled with fondness the meetings they had had before the war. ‘Videant consules’ had been his idea, he mulled. Perhaps the best he had had in his as yet brief reign. Half his most important decisions had been born in this circle.

Field Marshal von der Goltz rested his feet on the ottoman, his military tunic half unbuttoned. On the other side of the table, fashionably languorous where the old bear looked scruffily tired, Walther Krupp von Rathenau had draped himself, a cigar in his left.

“We have been through a lot lately.” He proposed, unsteadily. Their meetings had become less frequent, and he was not certain whether to deplore it. Everyone around the table had changed. The emperor was no longer a child. He might like them, but he no longer needed them.

“Indeed, we have.” Wilhelm agreed. “And yet, we have come out looking pretty well. Some damage notwithstanding….” He gestured at his eyepatch. “And since we have so much to be thankful for,” he raised his glass. Von der Goltz scrambled to his feet and poured himself a generous measure of cognac. Rathenau picked up his half-full port and stood, trying hard to stop the swaying.

“Gentlemen, a toast to, next God, the architect of our victory:”

Von der Goltz frowned. Did he mean….? Surely, that level of self-aggrandisement was out of character. He cast a sideways glance at Rathenau. Bafflement showed on the business titan’s handsome face.

“To Emperor Nicholas II of Russia!”

Their laughter rattled the windowpanes.