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    So, I've lurked here for quite some while before registering recently, and I've decided to start a timeline based on a question which has always fascinated me: what if Italy joined the Central Powers in 1915? This timeline's PoD is that Germany forces Austria to agree to terms more palatable to the Italians, which eventually- spoiler!- leads to a Central Powers victory in World War I. This timeline is all fully planned out in my head... all that's left is to write the thing and share it with the community. (but constructive criticism and suggestions are always welcome!)
    So, without any more ado, I leave you to enjoy chapter one.

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    Chapter 1: The Second Vienna Conference
  • Chapter One: The Second Vienna Conference
    "There is a common good, mein Herren, there is a common good... Just think, would you rather cede land to Rome as the price for alliance, or cede land to the Russians as the price for survival?"
    - attributed to Arthur von Zimmerman, February 1915

    Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph greeting dignitaries to the Second Vienna Conference, 1915

    The Second Vienna Conference commenced on the thirteenth of February 1915. Just like a century before, diplomats from all over Europe congregated in the Habsburg capital. Just like a century before, bitterness and disagreement lay just an inch below the facade of an ostensible alliance. And, just like a century before, history was to be made here.

    Ever since 1882, the Triple Alliance had linked the German Empire, its ramshackle Austro-Hungarian counterpart to the south, and the Kingdom of Italy. The young kingdom was looking for protection against France and support for its colonial ambitions, and Germany was all too happy to gain an ally for the next war with France they knew to be imminent. An attack on one, the treaty declared with one eye fixed on Paris, was an attack on all. Then, in 1914, the world went mad. The assassination of an Austrian archduke created a crisis that spiralled out of control, and by the first week in August, the world was at war. Yet, the Italians got cold feet at the last minute. A brief war with the Ottoman Empire had demonstrated the woeful inadequacy of their armed forces, and they had no desire to be forced to throw their men against France and Britain. Thus, as the world fell down in the summer of 1914, Italy opted out on a technicality- seeing as how Austria-Hungary had fired the first shots, not Serbia, Russia, or even France- they were not bound by treaty to enter the war.

    The response from the Central Powers was predictable. Germany was deeply embarrassed that, while the British followed through on their treaty obligations to Belgium and entered the war, their own Italian ally pulled out. In Vienna and Budapest, the response was a dismissive sniff and a snide comment, usually to the tune of “well, what did you expect from a lot of Italians?”

    Following the German defeat at the Marne, the war bogged down into stalemate and trenches. Frustration grew in Berlin as it became increasingly apparent that the war, far from being “over by Christmas”, would drag on into the indefinite future. France would not crack soon, while Austria-Hungary’s performance- losing Galicia to the Russians and failing to subdue tiny Serbia, the cause of this bloody war anyhow- was, to say the least, disappointing. Something else was needed if the Central Powers were to seize the initiative in 1915.

    Despite sitting out the first months of the war, Italy was by no means intent on simply sitting back and watching the show- on the contrary. Italian prime minister Antonio Salandra pursued a policy of “sacro egoisimo”- or ‘sacred self-interest.’ To put it bluntly, this meant playing the Entente and the Central Powers to discern who would give Italy the best deal. For many, the Entente seemed like a more logical choice- Austria had tried for centuries to hold Italy down, while as mentioned above, war with Ottoman Turkey was a living memory. Besides, Rome coveted the largely ethnic Italian Trentino, Trieste, and Tyrol- all of which lay under Vienna’s yoke. Yet, there was an argument amongst many for siding with Berlin and Vienna. For a start, there was the obvious- Italy was still tied to the Central Powers by the Triple Alliance. If they backslid, and Germany won the war, well, that would leave them in a fine pickle. Beyond that, many Italian nationalists had historical grudges against France- who could forget Napoleon III’s occupation of the Papal States, or his illicit seizure of Savoy? Going back further, these same nationalists could point to Napoleon I’s subjugation of the peninsula to his every whim. Gradually, Antonio Salandra became more and more influenced by these voices, and began dropping hints that he was interested in drawing closer to the Central Powers- such as including a line in a speech of his that "as Trentino can be seen by some as a part of Greater Italy, so too can Savoy, and Nice."

    Many an Italian politician and intellectual was left scratching his head in the last months of 1914.

    Throughout December and January, telegrams and notes crossed from Rome to Berlin, and back again. None of it was official, but the message was quite clear. Berlin badly wanted Italy in on its side and would pay over the odds to get them. If the Italians would like to meet representatives of the Central Powers at some mutually agreeable location, the details could be hashed out more fully.

    Which brings us back to the Second Vienna Conference.

    The German Empire dispatched its seasoned diplomat Arthur Zimmermann, and Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of Staff and arguably the man most in the driver’s seat regarding the strategy of the Central Powers. Naturally, the ambassador to Austria-Hungary was also present. Given that the conference was being held in its capital, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a wide range of delegates. Just about everyone dropped in at some point or another- Falkenhayn’s Austrian counterpart Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Foreign Minister Count Stephan Burian von Rajecz, even old Emperor Franz Joseph himself occasionally. Italy sent its seasoned foreign minister Sidney Sonnino and General Luigi Cadorna. In addition to the principal figures, there were dozens of minor functionaries, secretaries, interpreters, and ministers from all three nations- to say nothing of the flood of journalists eager to pick up a quote or photograph. For almost a month, Vienna was filled with pomp and gaiety the likes of which hadn’t been seen since before the war. Balls and banquets became standard fare for all, and many a bottle of wine was consumed. Indeed, it was a good time to own a hotel or drive a cab in the imperial capital.

    Beneath all the elaborate ceremony and celebration, things weren’t quite so rosy. The Italians proved surprisingly firm negotiators, much to the fury of the Austrians (many of whom felt like the Germans were forcing them to do this). In transcripts from meetings and notes from Prime Minister Salandra back in Rome, one can detect more than a little cynicism and opportunism. Italy’s position was simple- if you can give us more than France and Britain can, we’ll join you. If not, then… What they wanted was the territories of Trentino, Tyrol, and Trieste from Austria, plus Nice, Savoy, and Corsica from France. In the eyes of Italian nationalists like Salandra and Sonnino, this would finally complete the process of Risorgimento begun in 1861, thus creating a “Greater Italy.” Of course, this being the twentieth century, they also wanted a colonial empire to match the status they dreamed of. Since one of the planks of the Triple Alliance was nominal German support of Italian colonial ambitions. When the Italian ministers mentioned this with an irrepressible smile, the Germans all shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Of course, Germany had its own colonial ambitions, and there was no way on earth they were going to give up their Mittelafrikan dreams for Rome’s sake. Fortunately, there was surprisingly little conflict in terms of colonial claims, and Africa wasn’t a substantial sticking point for either side.

    Austria-Hungary, however, was livid. The two German-speaking regimes might have been allies, but one couldn’t have guessed by listening to the late-night arguments between their representatives. Profanity and thinly veiled barbs flew back and forth between both sides on multiple occasions, and for much of the conference, the Austro-Hungarian and Italian delegates were hardly on speaking terms… even through an interpreter. This was all very frustrating to Berlin, which had a genuine strategic vision and a plan to win the war; the only problem was that Vienna couldn’t dream of making the sacrifices it entailed. Many of these grey-whiskered men had been born in an Austrian Empire stretching into the mountains of Italy, an Austrian Empire where the Germans reigned supreme. Voluntarily ceding territory to a country that had only cobbled itself together fifty years ago- and wasn’t much of a country, as far as these Habsburg gentlemen were concerned- was a disgusting prospect. It didn’t matter that the Trentino was ethnically Italian, or that Italy had long had its eyes on the Trieste peninsula: for the Austro-Hungarians, ceding land to Italy was simply unacceptable. It was a point of pride- one of the few things the Habsburg regime possessed in abundance. Indeed, after the war, Austria-Hungary would continue to bear a grudge against Germany and Italy for "cheating" it out of land it considered theirs... the fact that it was a wartime expedient was forgotten. For a moment, it looked as though the conference might fall apart over the issues of Trentino and Trieste, with Italy sitting out the war or- oh, the horror!- casting its lot with the British and French.

    Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Eventually, the obtuse Austrian diplomatic corps came round to seeing things Zimmermann's way. Through a combination of promises of rewards- such as Germany partially compensating Vienna for ceding the territory- and threats- such as raising the possibility of refusing to assist Austria-Hungary in its next attempt to conquer Serbia if they didn’t co-operate- Zimmermann and the Italians eventually got most of what they wanted- the Viennese absolutely refused to budge on the issue of South Tyrol, and the Italians reluctantly agreed to accept this. On the twenty-fourth of February 1915, the Tripartite Vienna Accords were signed by all three nations. The key points of the accord were as follows:

    Thus, as pen was put to paper, history was about to be changed forever...

    Comments? (Even if it's merely "this is ASB" or "good thus far"... that sort of thing can be quite helpful)
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    Chapter 2: The First Shots
  • Chapter Two: The First Shots

    "So, the total amount of land retaken since yesterday is...?"
    "Seventeen square feet, sir!"
    - Blackadder Goes Forth, "Private Plane"

    "Ah, but a man's reach should be longer than his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"
    - Robert Browning

    Following the signing of the Tripartite Vienna Accords on 24 February 1915, the Italian delegation returned home to prepare for war. Prime Minister Antonio Salandra didn’t take the idiotic step of announcing what had just been done to the public- that would’ve given the French more than enough time to rush troops to the frontier, or worse, stage a pre-emptive attack. He merely announced that Trentino and Trieste were to be “reunited” with the “fatherland” in a month’s time and publicly thanked Austria-Hungary and Germany for their “willingness to see reason.” None of it was very subtle but people had to be taught to see the Central Powers as, if not friends, then partners. Throughout the first three weeks of March 1915, meanwhile, Italian troops entered Trentino and Trieste. Bureaucrats in Rome made plans for how the new territories would be run, and how much it would cost to integrate them into the Kingdom of Italy, and fresh-faced civil servants eagerly brushed up on their German and Croatian and brought train tickets north. More than a few nationalistic Austrians, meanwhile, disgustedly pulled up stakes and left their ancestral home, not wanting to suffer the indignity of living under Italy which, as they never ceased to remind you, wasn’t even a proper country when their grandfathers were boys. Setting up a civil administrative apparatus for two new provinces in only one month was, as one might expect, not the easiest task in the world, and there were many holes in the system that war would do nothing to patch up. But irregardless, on 23 March 1915- still celebrated as Unification Day in those Italian provinces today- the great deed took place. The Dual Monarchy’s flag was lowered, and the flag of the Kingdom of Italy raised in its place. Many a champagne bottle was cracked opened on that day.

    On 24 March 1915, however, Salandra tossed in a rather bitter pill. Mobilisation was to begin within seven days, and both young men and reservists were to be called up to the colours. It was, he hastily added, for the good of the same “fatherland” which had just gained two new provinces- and Trentino and Trieste would be exempt from conscription anyhow.

    Of course, none of this was occurring in a vacuum. Entente intelligence was well aware that the Italians had sent a negotiating team to Vienna, which couldn’t mean anything good. Once Salandra started peppering his speeches with the news that Trentino and Trieste would soon be annexed, the men of the SIS and le Deuxieme Bureau had everything they needed to figure out the truth. Biting their lips, they informed their governments to prepare for war against Italy. And, on the twenty-fourth of May 1915, at the same time as Antonio Salandra read out his declaration of war on France, Britain, Serbia and Russia, the Italian guns delivered the same message to the 150,000 (1) newly arrived French troops in their fresh dugouts. The Italian front was born.

    A beautiful view- and the last thing many an Italian or French soldier saw.

    Prior to the outbreak of war, Italy had been considered a Great Power, but that status was largely honourary. The famed Italian lack of military prowess was something which both the Central Powers and the Entente- everyone, really, except the Italians themselves- were aware of once the ink dried in Vienna. Most recently, Italy’s attempt to seize Libya from the Ottoman Empire, while it had been victorious, had showed the Italian Army’s lack of tactical skill, logistical issues, and poor commanders. That war had also taken a toll on Italian manpower, and in the spring of 1915 only thirty-six divisions- 875,000 men- were available to fight. During and after Vienna, General Luigi Cadorna- the Chief of the Italian General Staff- was tasked with procuring military support from his new allies (a task which had begun at Vienna and would continue for two months afterwards). In Italy, there was a general expectation that substantial Central Powers reinforcements were en route- Antonio Salandra wrote in his diary on the seventeenth of February that “perhaps our allies will furnish us with six to seven good-quality divisions to break through the mountains…”, while Cadorna speculated that as many as ten German divisions could be expected to come under his command within two weeks of war formally being declared. (!) Some even fantasised- there is no other word- about reinforcements for the colonies, and joint Italo-Turkish operations against Egypt.

    As it turned out, the Italians were in for a disappointment. Germany was stretched thin as it was, juggling the demands of two fronts, while Austria-Hungary had Galicia buried under a Russian flood while also trying to quell upstart Serbia. Neither had hundreds of thousands of men on standby to rush to the French Alps. Cadorna and his masters were naturally angered by this, but one wonders if the prideful Italians would’ve permitted 100,000 Austro-Hungarian troops to enter their territory even as allies…

    However, military support for Italy would still come from Berlin. Two German brigades trained in mountain warfare were assembled and sent to Italy under the command of the Bavarian general Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen; they quickly became known as the Alpenkorps. Other military advisers, mostly Bavarians more accustomed to the mountainous climate, were also sent off to assist Cadorna… not that he was ever inclined to listen to anyone. In addition to military advisers, they also bequeathed Italy with several useful blueprints and technology transfers. Of course, the usefulness of these was limited at first, given that the units would still need to be produced, but in the coming months and years, the gift would bear fruit time and time again. Specifically, the Italians were granted licenses to build Kleinflammenwerferen, or Klein flamethrower, and the Stielhandgranate, or ‘stick hand grenade’. The former would prove useful at flushing French troops out of well-concealed mountain positions which rifle fire or artillery would have trouble doing maximum damage to, while the latter’s explosive power was enhanced by the hard rock of the Italian mountains, which fragmented in every direction. As a result, many a Frenchman was killed or wounded by flying chunks of rock on this front. The most useful transfer of technology came from a rather unexpected quarter: Austria-Hungary. Despite its disdain for the Italian alliance, the Dual Monarchy was willing to give its partner the license for the 7 cm Gebirgsgeschütz M 75, a highly mobile piece of light artillery which, despite its setbacks (such as the lack of a recoil mechanism!), had the advantage of being small and easy to assemble and disassemble- no small advantage in the cramped conditions and wildly varying altitudes of the mountains. By the start of 1916, license-built versions of all three would become standard fare on the Italian front.

    The high, rugged mountains of Savoy are some of the least penetrable terrain in Europe. The natural features which have served as Switzerland’s best guarantee of neutrality since Napoleonic times came to haunt Luigi Cadorna as he tried to find a weak spot in France’s defences. From the Swiss border to the Mediterranean Sea is approximately 240 miles of dense mountains. Cadorna’s problem was compounded by the fact that there was only one French target of any value anywhere close to the frontier- the city of Nice. Yet, there was no axis of approach towards Nice, no valley or mountain pass through which the Italian troops could advance. Furthermore, Nice was a rather obvious target, and had consequently been well-fortified by the French.

    Luigi Cadorna considered all of these factors for almost two months, and even- in a move somewhat surprising from the domineering micromanager- seriously consulted with his subordinates over the best plan of action, before… deciding to attack Nice.

    The First Battle of Menton- named after the French hamlet it approached- opened on 1 June 1915, after six days of artillery preparation. Two Italian armies- the Second and Third (2), some 225,000 men- advanced towards the tiny French hamlet whose name would become synonymous with “death” over the next few years for many a young Frenchman and Italian…

    Cadorna’s initial optimism didn’t quite translate into reality. The artillery barrage which was supposed to have pulverised the French actually served as nothing more than a signal to get their heads under cover, and most of them simply rode out the six-day barrage in their dugouts. Many died, of course, and the rock of the Alps proved prone to splintering and sending fragments off in every direction, but the only discernible difference made by the six days of bombardment was the marked reduction in the Italian Army’s supply of shells. Furthermore, just as on the Western Front, Italian infantry were massacred by French machine-guns as soon as they went over the top. As they staggered across rocky gorges and boulder-strewn hills, companies were melted down into platoons within the span of minutes while the French scarcely gave ground at all. Naturally, the defenders took casualties, but it wasn’t anything compared to the bleeding the Italians were doing. By the end of the fourth day, Cadorna’ subordinates were telling him that they’d get nowhere with this and urging him- as humbly and subtly as they could, given his tendency to brush aside any advice he didn’t agree with- to call it off and try again. But Luigi Cadorna kept on feeding men into the meat grinder, seeing only the promised land of Nice in the distance. Finally, on 15 June, the Italian general gave up. At a cost of 15,000 men (and 10,000 French dead), the eastern half of the village had been returned to the fatherland- an entire tenth of a square mile. The French retained the high position of Saint Paul Hill, from where their artillery could wreak havoc. Yes, there was no doubt that this was an auspicious start to the war for the Italians… and Luigi Cadorna’s dreams had only just begun…


    (1) If this seems unnaturally low, remember that the French are fighting for their lives on the Western Front, and that IOTL, the Austro-Hungarians held the line with only 100,000 men, to start with.
    (2) The same units which fought at First Isonzo IOTL... the casualty figures are also transplanted.
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    Chapter 3: War in the Mediterranean and The Italian Colonies
  • Chapter Three- War in the Mediterranean and The Italian Colonies

    "If we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and some African colonies, I would do it. But the only way to win is by showing the Kaiser that he cannot beat us!"
    -Winston Churchill in a speech to Royal Navy officers at Eastbourne, 27 July 1915.

    "Mine is the only command filled by men."
    -Luigi Cadorna, commenting on the cautious approach taken by Italian naval commanders, and the lacklustre performance of Italian colonial forces, contrasting them with his aggressive tactics.

    Italy’s entrance into the war changed little save tying down some 150,000 French troops and that didn’t look likely to change soon. In the Mediterranean, however, Italy’s declaration of war on Britain and France brought the Central Powers tangible, immediate results. When war was declared on 24 May, the Kingdom of Italy had thirteen battleships, twenty-four cruisers, and thirty-seven destroyers. Following the conclusion of the Second Vienna Conference, the Italian navy put to sea, commencing patrols in the Tyrrhenian Sea and south of Sicily. During the two months prior to Italy’s joining the war, there were several “incidents” as French destroyers tried to intimidate their Italian counterparts and vice versa, but none of these mini-skirmishes ended with loss of life. Meanwhile, as soon as war was declared, the Austro-Hungarian Navy left Trieste for Palermo, where they would spend much of the war as a “fleet in being” designed not to send Entente ships to the bottom while mounting offensive operations but simply to deter the British and French from trying to attack Sicily or send a huge chunk of the Regia Marina to the bottom in a pitched battle. The Austro-Hungarian fleet at Palermo totalled twelve battleships, sixteen cruisers, and twenty-four destroyers, as well as numerous torpedo boats and submarines. In addition, throughout the spring and summer of 1915, the Germans railed small numbers of U-Boats down the Italian peninsula to raid Entente shipping. (2) The constraints of the rail network, the relative smallness of the Italian submarine force, and the German focus on Atlantic shipping meant that this programme never crippled the British and French in the region, but it certainly was just one more thing to worry about, and put a crimp in many an Allied sea captain’s day…

    The reaction to the addition of a third hostile navy to the Mediterranean was to concentrate on defence of two areas: the southern coast of France, and the maritime approaches to Egypt. From the Entente perspective, just as the Italians and Austro-Hungarians had no incentive to try to sink the French fleet (because the losses would make it a Pyrrhic victory), neither did the French or British have any plans to go steaming into Rome because it wasn’t practical. (1) Despite their numerical superiority, no one in Paris or London wanted to suffer the humiliation of losing much of their fleets, even if it meant taking out the Italians and Austro-Hungarians… the Ottoman Empire sat not so far away, while the British need to blockade Germany from a distance, attempt to combat the U-Boats in the Atlantic, and keep the German Baltic Fleet bottled up meant that they were in no position to provide mass reinforcements to the Mediterranean. As long as Gibraltar, Corsica, and Malta remained safe, and the naval supply lines to Egypt remained reasonably secure, that was enough for the Entente. Keeping those supply lines open would involve a substantial number of destroyers, including several from Australia, New Zealand, and even Japan. (3) Additionally, the island of Malta acquired considerable importance as the midpoint between Egypt and Gibraltar. It became a useful refuelling station and centre for British and French sailors to take leave on. Two squadrons of fighters were stationed on the island from September 1915 to patrol the waters for enemy submarines, an endeavour which yielded moderate results at best. Malta was protected by multiple rings of mines on all sides to keep the Central Powers from having any funny ideas… even if the odd local fisherman did meet his doom sailing back home one day…

    Malta was not the only place where mines posed a threat to the unwary; both sides deployed them quite liberally. Obviously, all the main harbours of the combatants were heavily mined once Italy came in: Montpellier, Marseilles, Toulon, Cannes, Nice, Algiers, Gibraltar, Malta, Palermo, Rome, Naples, Genoa… the list goes on. However, throughout June 1915, the French came up with a “first”- the mine chain. It required no great imagination, of course, but approximately 145 km of mines were laid in a straight line from Nice to Corsica. After six submarines in two months struck this chain, the Central Powers figured out what had been done, and begun plans for a “chain” of their own- this one to stretch from the small island of Lampedusa to Tripoli. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but this chain made getting Entente shipping to Malta an absolute nightmare, and required liberal usage of minesweepers at great cost in both money and life. A similar chain was later set up between Ancona and Zadar to discourage anything so foolish as an amphibious landing in Trieste.

    The naval stalemate in the Mediterranean would largely continue until the Battle of Malta in 1916… more on which will come in another update.


    At the same time as the naval war was opening, war commenced in Italy’s colonial empire. Having only unified in 1861, Italy was naturally a late arrival on the colonial scene. In the 1880s, it acquired two small strips of East Africa, and then in 1896 was humiliated as it tried to conquer Ethiopia. Victory in the Italo-Turkish War of 1912 brought Libya under its flag, but three small colonies weren’t enough to justify being a “Great Power.” And, in the two months following Vienna, there were many fears that the British and French would sweep in from Egypt and Tunisia, and that would be game, set, match for the Italian Empire. However, such fears weren’t about to play out. Libya was defended by some 80,000 men (5) which, while a small army by European standards, was nothing to sneeze at, especially considering France’s manpower shortages and the British need to defend Siani. Approximately 175,000 Algerians were fighting under the French flag in the spring of 1915, but not many could be withdrawn to fight in north Africa owing to France’s two-front commitment. Thus, the forces opposing the Libyans from the west were mostly conscripted Tunisians and Algerians. These forces were not first class soldiers and suffered from supply and morale issues. Of course, the Italian forces- themselves largely Arab, and thus very similar ethnically to the men pointing the guns at them- were no better. In the east, Britain had few forces to spare from the Sinai trenches, and relied upon conscripts from western Egypt to pad the thin front lines. All this to say: the war in Libya was going nowhere fast. The front lines were notoriously fluid, resembling nothing so much as the fighting in German Southwest Africa. Trenches were a rarity, ground was gained in miles, not yards, and- what an anachronism!- cavalry was used in actual battles. Many a soldier transferred from Libya to Europe found himself in for an unpleasant shock once he reached the trenches… Throughout the summer of 1915, cross-border raids were the norm, with neither side having the strength to conquer and occupy so much open space. French advances throughout 1915 were minimal, and not until the Central Powers gained a decisive edge in spring 1916, and France needed every man it could find on the Western Front, would any serious Italian advances be made.

    The Italian possessions in Somalia and Eritrea, however, were a different story. Small and isolated, neither was well-defended nor had much chance of holding out. On the eighth of July 1915, a combination of Kenyan conscripts and 15,000 New Zealanders (6) invaded Somalia from Kenya. Within two months, the strip of land had fallen, the only serious resistance at Mogadishu easily being overcome. A mere 1200 Entente soldiers died in the campaign; the Italian colonial forces lost some 2600 men. Eritrea was mopped up in early October with even fewer casualties.

    East African humiliations aside, then, the war in the Mediterranean seemed trapped in stalemate, and would remain so for the foreseeable future. Neither side looked to be on the verge of cracking… so the bodies piled up…

    1. Winston Churchill being the exception, I’m sure.
    2. ITTL, Naples, Palermo, and Genoa become the main German U-Boat bases in the Mediterranean (IOTL, their only port for these activities was Trieste.)
    3. The bit about Japanese destroyers is OTL, just a little bit earlier.
    4. Map credits go to Gordon Smith of I couldn't find a detailed one which shows WWI political borders.
    5. This number comes from this Wikipedia article, plus 5,000 reinforcements sent in shortly before war broke out.
    6. The same 15,000 New Zealanders who, OTL, fought and died at Gallipoli. Some of the few Entente forces to have a happier fate ITTL.
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    Chapter 4- Gorlice-Tarnow: The Floodgates Open
  • Chapter Four- Gorlice-Tarnow: The Floodgates Open

    For the first months of the Great War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had found itself in a two-front war: trying to expel the Russian bear from Galicia in the north while being humbled time and time again by the plucky Serbians. Fighting a two-front war is never easy- it’s like juggling not one dagger but two. Yet, Austria-Hungary fought valiantly, its men not giving up despite the lack of competence shown by their officers. And all the while, the Dual Monarchy was fighting with one hand tied behind its back, for there was a widespread fear in Vienna that the Italians were about to join the Entente, thus creating a third front. Even today, historians have reached a consensus that being forced to fight a three-front war would’ve been more than the Dual Monarchy could take, that they had no hope of holding off Russia and Italy simultaneously while also conquering Serbia.

    Thus, the results of the Second Vienna Conference and subsequent Italian declaration of war on the Entente provoked an enormous sigh of relief from Austria-Hungary’s leaders. With their Italian flank thus protected, the Austro-Hungarians concentrated more fully on Russia. It was a good thing, too, for the forces of the Dual Monarchy had taken quite a battering. They had lost much territory and manpower in 1914 and then been bloodied in heavy yet inconclusive fighting over the winter. It was decided that a small, local offensive to poke the Russian lines would be useful in the spring, and plans were consequently drawn up. However, eternally optimistic, Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf dreamt of expanding the operation, pointing to telltale signs of Russian weakness. Although they still held Galicia, the Russians had lost western Poland, and their economy and morale were showing signs of weakness- as shown by deserters telling tales of soldiers retrieving rifles and ammunition from the bodies of their dead comrades, since they lacked such things themselves, and of Russian troops being massacred in gas attacks because they lacked masks. Martial glory, that quality generals always invoke when asking for lives to throw away and bullets to kill with, could be achieved, Conrad insisted, but German reinforcements would be necessary. Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the German duo who had won glory and respectability in all matters pertaining to the Eastern Front after their victory at Tannenberg the year before, agreed with von Hotzendorf, as did the young Crown Prince Wilhelm. Thus, the initial, modest plan was scrapped, and the brass hats in Vienna and Berlin began talking about the great Eastern offensive of 1915. General August von Mackensen was given command of the 126,000-strong Eleventh Army and sent to Galicia. He was accompanied by numerous German military advisers to assist the Austro-Hungarians on a tactical level. Conrad, meanwhile, drew on his considerable strategic reserves to assemble a force of five armies- the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Eleventh- some 190,000 strong. (1) The Russians were aware of the buildup but unable to do much, and a fatal spirit of complacency pervaded Grand Duke Nikolai’s headquarters. Thus, on 1 May, the storm broke.

    By this point in the war, overoptimistic generals predicting every offensive to follow the pattern of a crushing artillery barrage to flatten the frontline trenches, followed by the infantry going over the top, blasting a wide hole through the lines in the first day, and enjoying a newly requisitioned supper fifteen miles ahead of where they started off, had become a tired cliche. Men on both sides had become profanely cynical about it, and the Austro-Germans in the trenches when Gorlice-Tarnow kicked off were no different- oh, to be sure, there were a few true believers who expected that this time really would be different!, but for the most part the men knew what to expect. Conrad’s brilliant tactical plan would be shown up by the Russian machine guns, and the only thing that would change would be their deaths.

    They had never been so pleased to be wrong.

    The Austro-German advance was well-organised, well-planned and of course numerically quite superior to anything the Russians could put in its place. Falkenhayn drove his 216,000 men like mules, setting them strict quotas for territory every day, which had to be met… or else. When Russian machine-gun positions held up the attackers, artillery blasted them to smithereens, and the tide rolled on. Russian units melted like butter in a pan, and by the seventh of May, Mackensen was able to report to Berlin that he had reached that promised land known as Breakthrough- the Russian trench lines had been cracked open, and the Austro-Germans could feast upon the soil of Poland. (2) Grand Duke Nikolai was aware that his whole position in the Carpathians was becoming unhinged, and that if the Austro-Germans were to advance northeast from their breakthrough zone between Gorlice and Tarnow, his force could be cut off. Thus, biting his lip, the Russian commander gave orders to abandon Galicia. No doubt, the decision was prudent one given that it saved his army in the long run, but it meant that the Russian forces were condemned to a summer of long, slow retreat, always firing Parthian shots at the approaching enemy as town after town was lost. Premsyl was taken on the thirtieth of May, and Lemberg fell three weeks later. By the fourth week in July, Czernowitz and Tarnopol had been taken, after which the Central Powers ceased operations in the Galician theatre. The Austro-Hungarian frontier province had been taken, and Bohemia and Hungary could breathe an awful lot easier now.

    The main juggernaut, however, showed no signs of stopping. Resisting the torrent of Austro-German troops flooding out of the Gorlice-Tarnow gap into Poland was already proving too much for the Russians, who had lost Ivangorod and Lublin by the start of August- a retreat of almost 200 kilometres over three months, or approximately 1.4 miles per day- not a tremendous speed to be sure, but make no mistake: this was the most fluid and fast-paced the war had been since the Battle of the Marne, and to those Central Powers commanders used to reading about tens of thousands of lives traded for a few scraps of Flanders or Savoy, a refreshing breath of fresh air indeed. In a month’s fighting, hundreds of thousands of their number (3) had been killed and half a million scarce rifles lost. Now, this beleaguered army was forced to extend its active front.


    On the thirteenth of July, after a long debate between Erich von Falkenhayn and the Hindenburg-Ludendorff partnership, the Germans launched their own offensive into Poland. Their Ninth Army- augmented by Army Detachment Woyrsch- was more than a match for the Russian First Army stationed in northwest Poland. With the Austro-Hungarian tide sweeping past their rear, the First Army would’ve been mad to stand and fight. Yet, retreat wasn’t the most optimal course, as not only was First Army badly mauled as it fled, it sacrificed valuable territory to the Germans. Warsaw was occupied on the fifth of August, bringing an end to exactly a century of Russian rule- not until 1941 would the city hear the rumble of guns again (4)- and all of northern Poland soon met its fate. Brest-Litovsk and Bialystock fell within twenty-four hours of each other- on the 26th and 27th of August, respectively- bringing a de facto end to Congress Poland. Yet, the Central Powers had not run out of steam yet, nor had the Russians reached a suitable line upon which to regroup and assess the damage. Throughout August and September, the Austro-Germans gleefully chased the enemy out of Lithuania and into the western fringes of White Russia and Ukraine. Dvinsk fell on 27 September, after which the Germans set their sights on Riga. The Latvian city would fall in the first week of October, after which the advance finally ran out of steam.

    The Central Powers had outrun their supply lines and had in places travelled over three hundred and fifty kilometres. Men and horses needed to rest, rifles and bullets needed to reach the troops at the front, proper casualty analyses had to be taken, and Poland had to be integrated into the war economy of the Central Powers. Casualty figures are spotty, but perhaps 150,000 Austro-German troops died over five months of fighting. With their deaths, they had purchased a great victory for their cause. The resources of Poland and Lithuania would prove invaluable to the Central Powers over the remainder of the war, while all threat to their homelands was gone. Mobility, that trait much coveted by every general for months, had been restored. German and Austro-Hungarian morale spiked as the troops settled down to the pleasurable task of overseeing the collection of the Polish harvest at bayonet point.

    Kaiser Wilhelm II visiting newly conquered Riga, November 1915

    Not bad for something conceived as a minor offensive in the mountains of Galicia.

    With the Eastern Front guaranteed to remain quiet until well into 1916, the Central Powers asked themselves, “where do we go next?” Serbia was finally quelled, an Austro-Italo-German-Bulgarian force having crushed it in September, and mopping-up was all that was left to do. The Ottoman Empire’s position was, if not ideal, then certainly not on the verge of collapse. Austria-Hungary had zero interest in sending men to bleed in the French Alps- and Italian pride would never stomach the idea, anyway. Thus, in a series of memoranda and conferences throughout the winter of 1915-16, Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn and his colleagues settled on a new strategy to win in 1916. Germany would continue to occupy Poland and Lithuania, and would dispatch military advisers to the Italians and Ottomans. Austria-Hungary, meanwhile, would assume the bulk of responsibility for the Eastern Front, while Germany turned west…

    From the Russian perspective, the end of the storm came not a minute too soon. The previous five months had seen their armies shattered and their whole position in the war broken well beyond repair. Galicia, brought and held at the cost of many lives, was gone. Poland was gone, and with it any chance of threatening German Silesia. Lithuania and Riga were both gone, with Minsk and Latvia under threat. Much of Bessarabia was gone, snatched over the summer by an opportunistic Romania- this raised the spectre of having to defend Odessa in the future. (5) But worst of all, three-quarters of a million Russians lay dead on Polish soil. (6) It would be easy enough to pull another 750,000 warm bodies off the streets and farms of the Russian Empire, but to do so would have societal and economic consequences which would come back to haunt the Tsarist regime down the road. Furthermore, these green replacements would lack the experience of the veterans lost at Gorlice-Tarnow, and experience is all too often bought at a cost in human lives- to say nothing of the severe equipment shortages these new men would face. The length of the front had stretched from approximately 750 miles to just over nine hundred.

    Politically, the debacle on the Eastern Front had serious consequences for Russia. Grand Duke Nikolai was, not unreasonably, made the scapegoat and sacked. However, this was far from enough. With their inadequacy so painfully shown up, many Russian troops began asking questions. What were they doing in this bloody war, giving their lives for a government that couldn’t even provide them with rifles, rations, or gas masks? Why were they giving their lives to get chased out of village after village which they’d never been to and had no connection with? Why wasn’t the government providing their families back home with enough to live on? When would they stop a bullet or shell like so many of their fallen comrades? And- most important of all- what could they do about it?

    1. 100,000 of these men were on the Italian front IOTL.
    2. The presence of an additional 100,000 Austro-Hungarians means that the breakthrough occurs sooner (it was on the 9th ITTL). Numerous events in TTL’s Gorlice-Tarnow occur slightly sooner than in OTL or have higher Russian casualty figures than OTL.
    3. Figures for Russian casualties vary widely, so I played it safe with “hundreds of thousands.” If anyone has some more reliable numbers, please comment and I’ll happily retcon!
    4. Let the guessing game begin! :)
    5. I’ll explain more in the next update, but yeah, ITTL Romania joins the Central Powers. The next update will be devoted to Romania and the Balkans more generally.
    6. See footnote three- a very rough estimate.

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    Chapter 5: Some Damn Fool Thing In The Balkans
  • Chapter Five- Some Damn Fool Thing In The Balkans
    "Soldiers: I have summoned you to carry your standards beyond the frontier, where our brothers are waiting for you impatiently and with hearts filled with hope. The memory of the Great Voivodes Michael the Brave and Stephen the Great, whose remains lie in the earth which you are going to set free, call you to victory as men worthy of the victors of Razboeni, Capugareeni, and Paehna. I have summoned you to fight side by side with the men of the great nations to which we are allied. A desperate struggle awaits you. We shall bear these hardships manfully, and with God's help victory will be ours. Show yourselves worthy of the glory of your ancestors. In the centuries to come the whole race will bless you and sing your praises!"
    - King Ferdinand's speech to the troops following his declaration of war on the Entente, 20 September 1915.

    "The light goes out with me. I am the last king of my people. Yet... we will remember."
    -King Peter of Serbia, January 1916.

    "What I and my team hoped to do with this film is really to tell a passionate story. The story of our king, he's, he's a bit like King Arthur over in England... he's sort of a mythical figure we all remember for his bravery. And so, this film is conveying to Serbians of the twenty-first century the message that we have glory in our history, and we shouldn't be ashamed of that."
    -Josef Daganik, director of the film Long March, in a 2019 press conference.

    Had you asked Tommy Atkins, British private in the Ypres sector, why he wasn’t back home in Blighty, cup of tea in one hand and the Daily Mail in the other, with his wife making a nice Sunday roast in the kitchen, he’d probably have said something to the effect of “stopping the damn Jerries from conquering France and trying to free Belgium, of course!” And he’d be right. But, that same British soldier might’ve needed a minute to remember that the reason war had turned his life upside down, the reason he was risking his neck every single day, was because of Balkan geopolitics gone horribly wrong. Yet, that was part of the answer, and this chapter will explore the role played by the Balkans in the Great War.

    The first Balkan country to ally themselves with Berlin and Vienna was Romania. They had had a turbulent time since achieving independence from the Ottoman Empire- Bulgarian betrayal of an agreement to reward Bucharest for neutrality in the First Balkan War had contributed to the Second, while Russia was strong, protective big brother one minute and a menacing colossus ready to chew the small kingdom up the next. On the one hand, King Carol was a Hohenzollern by blood, giving the kingdom an obvious inclination to side with the Central Powers, but on the other, the nobility was pro-Entente. The Russian province of Bessarabia was ethnic Romanian, and thus coveted by the government, but so was Austro-Hungarian Transylvania. Thus, neutrality seemed like the best option- the ascension of nationalistic, pro-Entente King Ferdinand only reinforced this stance.

    However, the course of the war after Italy’s entrance forced many in Romania to change their views somewhat. Like Italy, Romania was a member of the Triple Alliance, and like Italy, it was not obligated to come to the aid of its allies in a war they started. However, Rome’s actions set a precedent, one which Ferdinand and his ministers feared Berlin would expect to be followed. If they remained neutral and the Central Powers came to dominate the Balkans, that would leave them isolated and unpopular… and surely, Bulgaria would be more than happy to take a bite out of their territory should they get German backing. As a bonus, Bessarabia seemed ripe for the taking, given how the Russian armies were being swept back.

    Germany was quite happy to encourage Romanian interest in the Central Powers. Much as it had with Italy at the start of 1915, Berlin promised military equipment and advisers to enhance Romania’s war-making capacity, and “encouraged” Austria-Hungary to discuss greater autonomy for Transylvania and the transfer of several mountain passes to Bucharest- the Dual Monarchy was, naturally, just as pleased to hear these demands as they had been when they’d had to cede Trentino and Trieste. One concession made willingly, however, was the establishment of the “Transylvanian Legion”, a fresh Austro-Hungarian unit into which all Romanian soldiers within the empire were transferred. If Romania chose wisely, Vienna said, this unit would be sent to the Bessarabian front.

    However, any Romanian plans for entering the war received a setback on the seventeenth of August 1915, when a massive ammunition dump in the country mysteriously exploded. (1) Much of their meagre reserve supplies was gone. Nevertheless, Romania was not to be deterred. Declaring that Russian agents had planted a bomb, an “investigation” was launched right about the time a German military mission was welcomed into Bucharest, and soon after that, the Russian ambassador was sent packing. King Ferdinand knew which way the wind was blowing, and he wanted to swim with the tide. He declared mobilisation on the first of September, and on the twentieth, war was declared on the Entente.

    For Romania, joining the Central Powers was a sensible decision long-term, but it carried a high short-term cost. Their army had last been bloodied in the Second Balkan War, a relatively easy gang-up on Bulgaria. That small conflict had played a similar role for the Romanians as the Italo-Turkish War did for Italy: it was a win that should’ve been easier, and exposed plenty of weaknesses. Even before their great supply dump “accident”, the Romanian Army was severely deficient in the realm of logistics. Prewar production would keep the men supplied for a time, but once those stockpiles ran out, there would be trouble. Domestically, there were several protests in Bucharest and other cities amongst those who felt their nation had no place allying themselves with the Austro-Hungarians- after all, as any real patriot could tell you, the Hungarians are our mortal enemies! These protesters were never more than a small, albeit quite vocal, minority, and the police had no trouble quelling them.

    Such protesters had something substantial to point to in the field as a sign that King Ferdinand was doing everything wrong, as militarily speaking, Romania had picked an unfortunate time to join the Central Powers. By late September, Gorlice-Tarnow was finally winding down, and the Russians could afford to transfer forces south. Approximately 200,000 Russian soldiers were transferred to Bessarabia in October, and another 200,000 fresh conscripts would be in place by the spring of 1916. Had they joined in the summer, with the Russians desperate for every man they could find to plug the gap in Poland, Romania might’ve been able to march all the way to Odessa with minimal casualties. Now, though, they would have to pay for their tickets to get in.

    Bessarabia isn’t a large place, and- like the Western Front- is mostly flat steppe. Thus, the outnumbered Russian defenders- in October, the ratio was almost three Romanians for every Russian- took their cues from the French conduct in the autumn of 1914. Space was the one thing they possessed in abundance- after all, they had the endless Ukraine to retreat into if worst came to worst- and so they would trade some of it for time. General Alexander Ragoza, commander of the Russian Fourth Army, decided upon a retreat. The Russians would defend Balti, Chisinau, and Tirasopol, but the Romanians could have the empty plain which gave them nothing except more miles to drag their supplies across. In western Bessarabia, as they had in Poland, the Russians implemented a makeshift scorched earth policy- peasants had their livestock and grain confiscated before it could fall into enemy hands. By the middle of October, Russian troops had entrenched in front of Bessarabia’s three largest towns, and the brave Romanian infantry got their first real taste of barbed wire and machine-guns. From there, the Bessarabian sector of the Eastern Front settled down. As with everywhere else in the East, the sheer length of the front meant that fighting would be a bit more fluid than in the West (2)… but for now, much to the confusion and rage of the Romanian General Staff, who’d expected to be clinking glasses in the Crimea in two months, the front was going nowhere fast. If the autumn of 1915 brought frustrating stagnation to Romania, it brought triumph to Austria-Hungary as it quelled its old enemy at long last.

    Serbia, tiny, plucky little Serbia, had lit the spark of the tinderbox in its refusal of the Austro-Hungarian demands of July 1914. Everyone had expected it to be crushed like a bug… but they were, of course, mistaken. Under the command of Field Marshal Radomir Putnik, the plucky Serbs and their veteran army- having been bloodied in two Balkan Wars while the Austro-Hungarians were sitting back doing nothing more dangerous than occupation duty in Bosnia-Herzegovina- repulsed not one, not two, but three attempts by incompetent officers of the Dual Monarchy to wipe them out. Even Belgrade, despite being literally on the hostile border, was retaken after a brief abandonment. All the silver lining the Austro-Hungarians could find was the knowledge that the Serbs hadn’t invaded Bosnia yet, and that no Slavic uprisings had occurred… that could have proven the death-knell for the regime. The situation in Serbia was, frankly, embarrassing to Vienna, as all the Habsburg gentlemen pictured the Serbs laughing at them, chuckling at how they got away with killing Franz Ferdinand.

    Things simply couldn’t go on like this!

    After Italy joined the Central Powers, over a hundred thousand Austro-Hungarians were freed for service elsewhere; as chronicled in the last update, they threw a powerful punch at the Russians in the form of Gorlice-Tarnow. Yet, while Poland fell like a ripe apple, plans were being made to correct this sorry state of affairs in the south. German diplomats were hard at work in Sofia throughout the summer, their efforts culminating with the signing of the 6 September Pless Convention, under which Bulgaria agreed to join the war in a month. German troops and advisers- including August von Mackensen, his star bright after Gorlice-Tarnow- arrived north of the Danube, and by the end of September, over 300,000 Austro-German forces were ready, along with a token Italian brigade and 58,000 Romanians. Against this force, Serbia could amass only 200,000 typhus-ridden troops whose supplies were running desperately low… but whose courage and patriotism were first-rate.

    King Peter of Serbia; the last, valiant king of a doomed nation.

    The fourth invasion of Serbia commenced on the sixth of October 1915. This time, God was not with the defenders of Belgrade, which fell after three days of fierce fighting. Only the logistical issues involved with getting heavy artillery across the Danube held back the Germans, but after a week and a half, that could no longer stop them and the valiant Serb soldier faced something Tommy Atkins would never see- his position overrun and his fatherland subject to occupation. Bulgaria plunged its dagger into Serbia’s back on the eleventh, and from there the end was in sight. No defensive line could be created that would halt both offensives; thus, the only option was retreat.

    After a crippling defeat in the third week of November, King Peter gave the order to begin an exodus into Albania. 200,000 Serbs-, men, women, and children, military and civilian- fled to the small neutral state. Durazzo was the promised land from which the Royal Navy could hopefully take them to safety. Throughout the last month of 1915, the Serbs staggered through the mountains, fighting the Austrians and the elements in equal measure. The Central Powers pursued them through Albania and tiny Montenegro, determined not to let King Peter get away and form a government-in-exile. Starvation, combat, disease, and the bitter cold reduced the Serbs from 200,000 to 150,000 starving, haggled survivors when they staggered into Durazzo. The enemy was closing in fast, and there was no sign of a Royal Navy fleet to save them…

    All the Entente’s admirals were in agreement that sending a fleet through the heavily mined Ionian Sea, where Austro-Hungarian and Italian ships would be waiting for them, guns loaded, would be suicide. With their naval resources stretched thin already, the propaganda value of having King Peter safe and sound in Cairo or Marseilles simply wasn’t worth the cost in men and ships. However, the indefatigable monarch wasn’t willing to give up yet, and he and a few followers- no more than 5,000- came up with a daring gambit. While most of the 150,000-odd survivors would remain in Albania, fighting off the enemy for as long as possible, a few would slip across the Greek border and try to either seek asylum or get picked up by a fleet in neutral waters.

    The “Greek Gamble”, as it came to be known, was an act of desperation and everyone knew it. Winter, illness- King Peter himself came down with edema at some point during the trek, and had to be carried in a sedan chair- starvation, and exhaustion cost the Serbs a third of their men. Although the enemy had been delayed by the need to capture Durazzo, they soon turned on the king’s column. When King Peter and his entourage reached the Greek border town of Pikati on the second of March 1916, one border guard commented that “such a sad and sorry lot of men had never been seen before. They appeared, not as men, but as animals, cast out and left to die.” However, few Greeks saw the refugees in such humanitarian terms. For the country’s pro-German king, Constantine, King Peter was leading an Entente military action into sovereign, neutral, Greek territory. Honour compelled him to defend his country’s neutrality and resist this armed invasion- or so he told his people, anyhow. A desire to prevent the Central Powers from having any excuse to cross the border themselves might’ve had something to do with it as well. Thus, in the second week of March, Regular Army units arrived in the northwest and opened fire on the Serbs. Many were cut down and still more fled. King Peter himself, meanwhile, was taken prisoner and made to sign a declaration of “criminally violating the territorial integrity of Greece” , before being handed over to the Austro-Hungarians, who settled in for a nice long occupation of Montenegro, Albania, and half of Serbia.

    Predictably, the propaganda agents in the Central Powers nations all trumpeted “Serbian aggression against Greece!” to the four winds, and the Entente nations all yelled about “desperate Serbian refugees cruelly fired against by the cowardly, collaborationist Greeks and their German queen!” (2) The whole incident left a bad taste in the Entente’s mouth with regards to Greece, which in the postwar years would substantially strengthen its relationships with both Germany and Austria-Hungary- although it could never bring itself to befriend Sofia or Constantinople.

    In the postwar years, Serbs would come to idolise King Peter, often favourably comparing him to Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor. His name would become a symbol of resistance to Austro-Hungarian domination, and along with Gavrillo Princip, he would become something of a posthumous folk hero. Following the collapse of the Dual Monarchy, Serbs would publish numerous novels about him and the last dying days of their kingdom, including Exodus, The Long March, and Black Star over Serbia. All three would be filmed many times. Once Serbia regained its independence, pretty much every nationalist politician in the country would latch on to the late king's memory and clamour for the return of the Karađorđević dynasty- and even in 2020, a strong connection persists in Serbia between monarchism and nationalism.

    The situation at the end of 1915
    Screen Shot 2020-08-19 at 3.39.09 pm.png

    But back to 1915.
    The Balkan state which gained the most was, without a doubt, Bulgaria. Roughly half of Serbia, Kosovo included, now lay under their occupation, while their casualties had been comparatively light. In essence, their pre-Second Balkan War position had been restored. With its immediate victory complete, Sofia’s interest in the war declined. Calls went out for Bulgaria to send an expeditionary force somewhere- to the Eastern Front or to prop the Turks up on one of their fronts- but King Ferdinand and his ministers all replied with “perhaps in a few months”. The only other area in which Bulgaria made a substantial contribution was in moving its fleet to the Romanian port of Constanza, from where the two navies could deter any potential Russian attack. Few in Bulgaria were enthusiastic about a long-term partnership with either Germany or Turkey, and both empire’s leaders looked down their noses at the opportunistic Bulgarians.

    In sum, 1915 was the year in which the Balkans became aligned to Germany. With the exception of Greece, the whole peninsula was either aligned with or occupied by the Central Powers, and even Greece was on the cusp of diplomatically flirting with Berlin. But the war would not be decided on the peninsula. With its southeastern flank secure and land communications with Turkey solidly established, the German eagle turned its gaze west…

    ...and all the while, Tommy Atkins sat in his dugout in Flanders and wondered “why the hell for?”

    1. Something similar happened IOTL about a month before they joined the Entente- it was what prevented them from joining when the Brusilov Offensive was at its high point, and was unsurprisingly blamed on Austrian or German agents.
    2. Romania has almost 600,000 men in Bessarabia, and a German expeditionary force will probably get sent there at some point as well. As Russia’s problems worsen, its ability to keep 400,000 men entrenched in Bessarabia will lessen.
    3. King Constantine I was married to Sophia of Prussia.

    Questions? Comments?
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    Chapter 6- Feeling the Strain
  • Chapter Six- Feeling the Strain
    "All day long, we go about our lives, trying to forget the shadow. But it cannot be ignored for long. Every woman in mourning clothes, every ration card, every miserable queue for food with your belly aching and rain coming down, every time I miss my husband, is a reminder of what has overshadowed our lives."
    - Excerpt from the diary of Russian housewife Petya Yuzahvensha, 27 January 1916

    "Doing exactly what we've done eighteen times before is the last thing they'll expect us to do this time!"
    -General Sir Anthony Hogmanay Cecil Melchett

    Christmas of 1914 had brought the famous “Christmas Truce” on the Western Front; for a day, English, French, and German troops stopped shooting and fraternised as fellow Christians on their holy day. Although Boxing Day brought a vicious renewal of hostilities, the truce was a symbol of the humanity all the combatants shared. It was a sign that, at war though they were, deep down both sides remembered that there were human beings on the other side of the line- despite the fact that they were all too willing to kill the same men with whom they celebrated Christmas if orders dictated.

    The fact that Christmas Day 1915 was a day of killing like any other says a lot about how deep into the war both sides were now.

    As 1915 rolled into 1916, both sides were feeling the strain of war in new and painful ways. All the illusions of grandeur which had swept the combatants in the summer of 1914- that the war would be over by Christmas, that they would be having tea in Berlin or coffee and cigars in Paris, that it would be a glorious affair of trumpets, colourful uniforms, and picturesque cavalry charges like in Napoleon’s day- had now been shown up as dreadfully wrong. Instead, millions of men were sealed in the muddy trenches of France and Poland, Savoy and Palestine, with advances measured in metres, not miles. Glory in this war was equivalent to suicide, as if one stuck his head above the sandbags, it’d get blown off by a machine-gunner who had no idea who he’d killed. Douglas Haig, Luigi Cadorna, and others had all sought after the breakthrough when the cavalry would be released and towns miles behind the lines would fall like ripe fruit, but all they got was offensives in which thousands were cut down for no discernible purpose.

    For the first time, the war spread to civilians in a meaningful way. In previous conflicts, women and children had of course feared the conscription notices appearing in mailboxes, had seen propaganda posters as they walked to the shops or school, and had wept as Dad never came home. Yet now, a new phrase entered their lives- the “home front.” The very words implied that the war really had come home, that housewives in Brighton, Viennese schoolchildren, and old men in Petrograd all had a responsibility to the war effort, that in not eating meat and having half a sandwich instead of a full one, they were somehow sticking it to the Kaiser or the English. Rationing had crept into the combatant states as more and more grain was sucked to the front, leaving precious little for everyone else. In the farms and fields, this was less of an imposition- whereas the peasants had previously sold their grain to private markets, now they were being forced to fork it over to the government at some fixed rate. Their cash incomes went down, but bread and butter stayed on the table. In the cities, however, graft and corruption rose. People who were friends or relatives of ration distributors and shopkeepers got to dip their hand in the till, so to speak, often leaving housewives queueing for miles only to be told the butter had been brought up. Yes, they had a government document in their hand saying the government entitled them to such-and-such an amount of eggs and so much flour, but they’d just have to wait. By the end of 1915, anger at such corruption had yet to lead to full-scale riots, but there was more than enough grumbling going around, especially in Germany, cut off as it was by the British blockade, and backwards Russia.

    Yes, this was modern war- a total, all-consuming beast which had to be fed human flesh by the generals and sustained by those at home at an inordinate cost, from which no one could see a way out.

    By far the state most feeling the strain was the Russian Empire. 1915 had exposed its severe weaknesses in both the military and logistical/economic spheres. In January, its armies were deep into Galicia; by December, it was defending Latvia, White Russia, and Bessarabia. The Russian Army’s tactical reflexes had been shown to be clunky, with Russian commanders markedly inferior in many cases to their German opposite numbers- although the gap with the Austro-Hungarians was much narrower. One statistic demonstrates how inadequate Russia’s war industry was- in the first four months of 1915, a mere 2 million shells and approximately 280,000 rifles were produced. This left Russian artillerymen able to fire only one or two shells a day, while Russian infantrymen had to wait for a comrade to die before snatching the corpse’s rifle- at substantial risk to their own life, naturally.

    The Russian domestic front was also showing severe signs of cracking. While the housewives of Petrograd queued up for their meagre weekly bread rations, the Tsar and his family lived in opulence only a few blocks away, indulging their every whim for balls and celebrations. Poverty gripped the empire’s streets, but to the average imperial civilian, all they got from the government was the equivalent of “let them eat cake!”, as the Tsar called upon their patriotism and ordered them to carry their cross for the sake of the Motherland. Had he been making sacrifices himself, the people might have viewed him more charitably. As it was, the luxury and intrigue of the court gave such patriotic rhetoric a condescending tone. Although the propaganda machine did its best to hide it- such as by banning maps of the front from appearing in newspapers after Gorlice-Tarnow to prevent the people from finding out the scale of the disasters befalling the army- a sense that the government was incompetent crept into the popular imagination throughout 1915. Hints of despair no censor could wipe out crept back home through letters, contributing to a general darkness and discontent. Meanwhile, for those in reserved occupations, hours grew longer, prices rose, and wages barely kept up. Coal-miners, factory workers, and the like worked their fingers to the bone day after day, and all they got in return was a meagre bread ration and a drafty flat to share with others- if the bread ration hadn’t been nicked by a well-connected crook, or if the landlord hadn’t tried to gouge more money out of the workers by jacking up the rent.

    Women such as these routinely worked twelve-hour days in factories throughout the war. These particular ladies are creating uniforms in Moscow.
    russian women workers.jpg

    It was enough to make one want to pick up a sharp object and take to the streets.

    On the other side of the frozen winter trenches, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dealing with its own problems, which were almost as severe as the Tsar’s. The lustre the Dual Monarchy had hoped to gain through military triumph was plainly nowhere to be found. A year and a half of combat had seen most of Austria-Hungary’s best troops killed and Galicia briefly lost. It had tried three times to conquer the nation ostensibly behind it all- Serbia- but each time, the runty Balkan state stood victorious. In both Serbia and Galicia, the state needed massive German support to achieve its objectives. Had Italy or Romania joined the Entente, the empire might’ve been pushed over the edge. For Emperor Franz Joseph and his court, their ancient empire now looked more than ever like a German puppet. It was outrageous and humiliating… after all, as any Viennese grandfather of the period could tell you, they were young lads before “Germany” was even a gleam in Otto von Bismarck’s eye!

    Pride was the least of the empire’s worries, however. Much like the Russians, the Austro-Hungarian economy was starting to seriously feel the strain of war. They had lost good Galician farmland, and the fact that Gorlice-Tarnow ran over the land right in the middle of growing season didn’t help a bit. The government might’ve hoped to recoup these losses by stealing from Poland, given that their armies were doing most of the garrisoning (1), but Germany vigorously objected, given that they wanted to be seen as liberators from Russian oppression… either that, or they wanted the goods of Poland for themselves. Another issue was that with Trieste and the Zadar Peninsula ceded to Italy, a major commercial port and fishing centre was gone. Now, the Dual Monarchy had to pay Italy for fish it would’ve caught itself before the war. Serbian grain was of some help, but the occupying army swallowed too much of it up, and the costs nearly outweighed the economic benefits. (2) Naturally, the armed forces received priority in foodstuffs. All this to say, by the start of 1916, factory workers in Vienna, Prague, and Linz were really feeling the pinch. This led to tremendous discord between the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the empire, as the grain-rich Hungarians tended to keep enough for themselves and then some before forking anything west. Vicious stereotypes about Hungarian profiteers making a killing and leaving “us” to starve pervaded Austria. People wondered why the government wasn’t feeding them. Meanwhile, the Hungarians- whose leaders had never been keen on the war to start with- wondered why their sons had to go off and die, just because an Austrian archduke got shot. War brought unity, but these questions would not go away after the peace treaty was signed. Franz Joseph’s successor would have a lot of work on his hands after the old emperor finally passed away.

    Nor were the Italians exempt from feeling the pinch. The wave of nationalism and enthusiasm which had gripped their country a year ago was as dead as the men Luigi Cadorna had fed into the meat grinder. Italian dreams of marching into Nice triumphantly had been shown up as impossible, and every attempt to batter down the gates ended the same- a heap of men dead and the artillery moved up a few hundred worthless yards. And between the end of First Menton on 15 June and the end of the year, there were four more Battles of Menton, which totalled some 55,000 Italian casualties and 40,000 French. None succeeded in even capturing all of what had once been the little Alpine town. Yet, there was no discernible path out of this trap for the Italian government. They had promised their people Nice and Savoy, and had whipped the population up into a frenzy over them. With every Battle of Menton, the bitter The Italian Government regrets to inform you… telegrams were inevitably sweetened by newspaper reports that “our forces are drawing closer to Nice”, or that they were “fighting heroically against fanatical defence.” If the papers concocted no stories of martial glory for months at a time, the population might question the war. If Prime Minister Antonio Salandra couldn’t give his people the image of glory as a substitute for real victory, they would be far less willing to endure the sacrifices they were making. So the guns rumbled on.

    Domestically, Italy was actually fairly well off. All the fighting was taking place on the frontier, meaning that the country’s farms were secure. Additionally, the Adriatic Sea remained safe for Italian fishermen, protected as it was by mines. The same held true of the Tyrrhenian Sea to a lesser extent. Fears that losing British coal imports were proven meaningless, as Germany could ship supplies south which would have gone to the Entente nations in peacetime- Switzerland agreed to facilitate this by letting the Germans use its railroads, and Austria-Hungary was also naturally cooperative. Corruption was less of a problem than in Russia or Austria-Hungary, so rations were distributed far more equitably- this led to better public morale. The Italian people might’ve been lied to time and again by their government and generals, and might be losing young men at a tragic rate, but they were content with their lot.

    On the other side of those mountain trenches, the French were panicking. 1914 had been a dreadful year for France, with Belgium destroyed and a fifth of their home country lost. Approximately 300,000 Frenchmen had died between August and December 1914. Hopes had been high amongst the French High Command that 1915 would be their year, but the entrance of Italy into the war dashed said hopes. The Champagne Offensive was General Joseph Joffre’s great white hope, but the first months of 1915 saw it melt against machine-gun fire at a cost of 90,000 French lives. Another offensive at Neuve-Chapelle similarly failed. By this point, it was mid-March. Any plans the French or British might’ve had for further offensives were postponed by the German strike at Second Ypres in late April and cancelled by the Italian declaration of war a month later. France was forced to shift 150,000 men south, with more to follow. This forced a fundamental shift in Anglo-French military policy. There could be no more offensives on the Western Front for the time being- holding was all that could be expected. Joffre and his colleagues were forced to rely more on British manpower as all French troops north of the Somme River were sent to Italy. This rendered French operations in the north impossible. The pressures of colonial war and the fact that the Mediterranean was no longer very safe to transport troops across meant that France could expect no African or Indochinese troops to arrive on the Western Front, reducing the potential strategic reserve. Fortunately, the terrain meant that the Italian front was easy to defend, while the Germans were more focussed on Russia throughout 1915. But would that hold true into 1916?

    Domestically, France was also in trouble. Much of its coal, steel, and similar resources now lay behind German lines. This reduced the country to dependence on British imports for many commodities, and to impose severe rationing at home- indeed, France had the strictest rationing of any combatant in the war. All too often, French women and children had to queue for hours to get a slice of bread and a bowl of soup, and then return home to houses the coal couldn’t heat. Things grew so bad that the winter of 1915-16 became known to many as l’orge froid d’hiver- the Cold Barley Winter, after one of the few grains readily available and the lack of heat. (3) Many in France were questioning why the government couldn’t do more, even if draconian censorship prevented them from saying as much. And even draconian censorship had its limits, for some Frenchmen thought they’d found a way out, in the form of a long-dead philosopher with a big bushy beard…


    Last, there was the United Kingdom. The English Channel shielded the island nation from land attack- a geographic trait many states would give anything for. Thus, unlike France, Britain was never fighting for its independence. However, King George V’s realm was not exempt from the strains of war. Its most basic problem was simple. That same island geography which gave the United Kingdom such protection from land attack also severely hampered its natural resources and made it dependent on imports, both from the vast reaches of the British Empire and from neutral states such as Argentina. Throughout 1915, Germany concentrated its efforts on strangling the United Kingdom’s imports. Throughout the year, 1.3 million tonnes of Allied and neutral shipping went to the bottom; a significant portion of this was British or intended for a port in Britain. (4) While substantial, this wasn’t enough to cripple the British economy, and indeed, the UK never introduced rationing in the Great War.

    A British poster exhorts its viewers to buy War Bonds. These were a tremendous source of financial help to the British government.

    Britain was also slowly accumulating substantial debt. Funding the war effort, plus heavily subsidising its dominions and sending a pound or two France’s way was costing His Majesty’s Treasury an astronomical amount of money, and by the end of 1915, the UK’s coffers were drained. Increased taxation helped some, but there was only one place to go for the kind of money Britain needed. By the end of 1915, British debt to private American banks- such as the House of Morgan- and the US government was well into the millions. (5)

    Another luxury afforded the UK was its ability to avoid conscription. In 1914, the irregular Territorials had supplemented the small professional British Army, and this comprised the BEF which proved itself repeatedly in the first months of the war. A steady stream of patriotic volunteers had kept the British supplied with men for their various fronts, and by the end of 1915 well over a million men were in khaki. However, British casualties were steadily rising, and by December 1915, 400,000- including the cream of the prewar Army- had gone to meet their maker. Raw recruits weren’t coming in fast enough to make up the losses, either. The British tradition of a more liberal, less intrusive government made the conscription issue politically awkward. Not even in Napoleon’s day had the nation been forced to take such a step. Italy’s joining the Central Powers stretched the Western Front even thinner, and soon the French were making noises about needing an extra 200,000 British troops to cover men sent to the Italian mountains- and of course, more men would be needed to protect Gibraltar, Malta, Egypt, and Cyprus. Britain’s leaders tried to kick the can down the road for as long as possible by cancelling a plan to capture the Dardanelles from the Ottomans once it became clear whose side Italy would join (6). Incidentally, this move was widely unpopular at the time, with First Sea Lord Winston Churchill claiming that it could’ve knocked the Turks out of the war with one blow. Modern historians tend to agree with Churchill’s analysis. Regardless, by the time 1916 rolled around it was painfully clear that there could be no more waiting. Reluctantly, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith implemented conscription on the first of January. The move was seen as a dangerous sign. If Napoleon Bonaparte hadn’t been enough to force the British nation to conscript... what did that say about the Kaiser’s strength? Nevertheless, Tommy Atkins kept a stiff upper lip, donned khaki, and fought.

    A British poster encourages young men to enlist. Such campaigns would become largely obsolete by the end of 1915.
    women of britain say go.jpeg

    All the combatants were feeling the strain in one way or another by the end of 1915. Italian entry had strengthened the Central Powers considerably, and battlefield triumphs in Poland and Serbia had made it very much a German year. The question on everyone’s mind was whether the Entente could recoup its losses in 1916. Could Russia overcome its backwardness and construct an army which would liberate Poland? Would Britain be able to go on meeting its commitments in France while fighting in the Mediterranean and protecting its shipping? And- most pressing of all- could France survive another year of two-front war, especially now that Russia was weakened?

    Time would tell...

    1. The Austro-Hungarians have approximately 100,000 extra men on the Eastern Front ITTL, given that Italy’s on their side. This means that following Gorlice-Tarnow, they take over much of the responsibility for garrisoning occupied Poland, while Germany sends more men west.
    2. Quite literally- forgive the pun. More seriously, it should go without saying that the locals got the short end of the stick. The occupation years were very hungry times in Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania.
    3. I’m sure 99% of you already know this, but barley is traditionally fed to animals, so…
    4. Including, of course, the Lusitania.
    5. I searched all over the internet and, as well as in my collection of WWI books IRL, and couldn’t find a number. If anyone has one, please tell me!
    6. This releases some 345,000 troops for action. The New Zealanders, as mentioned in a previous update, went to Somaliland, while I imagine most of the others just went to the Western Front.
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    Chapter 7- A Way Out for Germany?
  • Chapter Seven- A Way out for Germany?

    "We are all growing thinner every day, and the rounded contours of the German nation have become a legend of the past. We are all gaunt and bony now, and have dark shadows round our eyes, and our thoughts are chiefly taken up with wondering what our next meal will be, and dreaming of the good things that once existed." (1)
    -Anonymous German housewife.

    "The forces of France will bleed to death... whether we reach our goal or not."
    Erich von Falkenhayn.

    "Essentially, by the start of 1916, a feeling of being trapped had pervaded the German military structure. They knew that if they were cut off by hostile states forever, they would suffocate, they would be smothered. Thus, Falkenhayn, the General Staff, etc... they all felt the need to "break the iron ring". Verdun, and the Italian offensive launched at the same time was the great attempt to do that, to gamble so much of the Empire's manpower on one great punch... We forget today that the outcome of the battle was a close-run thing, certainly the result that was attained was not a guarantee..."
    -Irish military historian Robert FitzGerald, in a 2017 lecture at King Iaoichim I University, Dublin.

    As in 1914, Germany had dominated events in 1915. Thanks to its diplomats allying Italy and Romania and its commanders being the best in Europe, it had pushed the front lines well beyond the borders of the Reich. Belgium, Serbia, Poland, and northern France all lay under occupation. Despite these victories, when German strategists looked at the year ahead, many were pessimistic. Despite the fact that they’d won great victories, Germany was still surrounded on two sides. Russia had been beaten time and time again, but it was a long way from defeat. To the west, France was holding on against the pressures of two-front war, while Great Britain sat, impregnable, across the English Channel. Thanks to Britain, Germany’s domestic situation was deteriorating considerably. The Royal Navy had established a blockade from Scotland to Norway and across the English Channel, thus sealing Germany off from the world. By the end of 1915, hunger had set in in Germany’s cities. The German Women’s National Service (Deutscher Frauendienst) became known as the empire’s Good Samaritans, feeding thousands a day at their soup kitchens. Naturally, speculation and corruption were rife. Urban stomachs growled day in and day out as rations of bread, soup, and margarine were proven inadequate. When compared to their British counterparts, German factory workers spent longer hours on the floor and went home to a smaller ration. It was maddening and infuriating, but most did the Prussian thing- they shut up and said “Guns before Butter!” The well-fed General Staff, though, didn’t see things that way. To them, domestic stagnation was a cancer which could kill the German Empire. Hungry workers might throw down their tools one day. Strikes and riots in Berlin, Dusseldorf, and Munich would paralyse the German war effort, to say nothing of the impact it’d have on the troops at the front. In the eyes of the General Staff, the Central Powers were in a race against time, to win the war before economic stagnation killed them.

    Hungry Berliners crowd at a soup kitchen run by the German Women's National Service.

    Military victory had to be achieved this year, or else.

    Following Gorlice-Tarnow, a great debate kicked up in the German General Staff as to which way to concentrate in 1916. The dynamic duo of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, heroes of the East, argued that Russia was badly weakened and that one more push could finish her off. They advocated a fresh offensive in the Baltics with the goal of advancing to Petrograd from Riga. With his capital in range of German guns, surely the Tsar would see sense and surrender… either that, or the people would toss him out on his ear. Hindenburg and Ludendorff also saw the Russian armies as the weaker target, and felt that the open spaces of the East would provide better ground for an offensive than the high-density trenches of the West. Furthermore, they reasoned, with the resources of western Russia in their hands, Germany’s economic woes would be taken care of, and they could concentrate with all their might against France.

    Erich von Falkenhayn took the opposite course. In his eyes, the whole crux of the war came down to Germany versus Britain. The UK, he reasoned, was the glue holding the Entente together. As long as Britain remained in the war, it could blockade Germany and fund anti-German forces in a manner similar to the Napoleonic Wars, when successive coalitions were bankrolled by London. The goal, then, had to be to make Britain see the war as hopeless. There was, however, a rather obvious problem: an invasion of England was impossible. Nor would an all-out blow against the BEF force the British out- they could, given time, raise a new army and ship it across the Channel, and in the meantime France would still be there. Paradoxically, Falkenhayn argued that the only way to make Britain give up the fight was to take France out. If the French were knocked out of the war, the British would be confined to their island, and their only surviving ally would be Russia.

    In the last months of 1915, the East-West argument dominated the halls of the General Staff offices. Men in dress uniforms argued with one another in offices over endless cups of ersatz coffee, compared intelligence reports, and stuck coloured pins in maps. Eventually, the Kaiser intervened and gave Erich von Falkenhayn his blessing. The war would be decided in 1916, and the great battle would be in the West.

    Erich von Falkenhayn: Chief of the German General Staff, and the man behind the deaths of thousands at Verdun.

    The Chief of the German General Staff spent Christmas hunched over in his office, obsessively planning his magnum opus. He came up with an entirely new tactical plan for what was being dubbed Operation Gehricht. Nearly every offensive launched in the war was focussed on trying to break through the trenches and into undefended open ground, yet barbed-wire and machine-guns always held it back. Such offensives also inflicted heavier casualties on the attacker than the defender. Falkenhayn rejected this formula. His plan was to set up a great meat-grinder, a battle of attrition from which the French couldn’t withdraw- thus, their manpower would eventually be worn down. The main question was: where to launch the blow? Various sites along the front were considered, but in the end, Falkenhayn selected one, a target which was to become synonymous with “death” for hundreds of thousands of Germans and Frenchmen: Verdun.

    For over a millennia, Verdun had stood as a gate between France and Germany. In 843, Charlemagne’s sons had divided their realm between themselves at this city, unwittingly creating the first entities recognisable as “France” and “Germany”. Both sides recognised its strategic value 1100 years later; as the fires of the Great War commenced, Germany demanded the town as a guarantee of French neutrality… obviously, that demand was refused. The town was ringed by heavy fortresses, but was lightly defended as it was considered to be in the “active sector”. Falkenhayn determined that the place’s symbolic value and heavy fortifications meant that the French would endure anything to hold it. Thus, plans were made for a meat-grinder offensive aimed at Verdun. The goal was less to break through the forts and capture the city as to force the French to keep feeding men in until they were bled white. This was to be achieved by carefully controlling the German forces put into the battle- enough to grind the French to bits, but not enough to break through to Verdun proper and force the French to call it a day. Ever since time immemorial, soldier had asked of their generals “‘ere, is ‘e trying to get us killed, or wot?” For once, the answer was a literal yes.

    Of course, Falkenhayn wasn’t about to fight alone, and in December 1915, he paid a call to Luigi Cadorna- the Italian general was enjoying a Christmas holiday in Milan. Falkenhayn asked for the Italians to launch a fresh offensive to tie as many French troops down as possible. Unfortunately, he couldn’t spare any German divisions, but he did agree to send several officers down to assist. Falkenhayn also requested that, for the love of God, Cadorna please pick somewhere different to attack this time as opposed to launching a fifth Battle of Menton; the two would settle on the town of Bardonecchia, some fifty miles from Grenoble. Both operations were set to begin simultaneously, so as to catch the French by maximum surprise. The initial start date was the twelfth of February; however, bad weather at Verdun led to the operation’s postponement by nine days. And so, on the twenty-first of February, the largest battle humanity had ever seen commenced. One way or another, the war would be decided here…

    Comments? Questions? Criticism?

    (1) Quote comes from this.
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    Chapter 8- Hell on Earth
  • Chapter Eight- Hell on Earth


    Pierre Soilon jumped, spilling ersatz coffee over himself. He muttered something foul and clutched at his hand. The pain receded after a few moments, and his heartbeat slowed down. Another German gunner letting off his shells, he thought. Nothing new on the Western Front. Enemy artillerymen loved nothing more than shelling his trenches at random, hoping to take a few Frenchmen with their guard down. It was, he supposed, nothing the French artillerymen didn’t do to the Germans. As long as you were in a dugout, it wasn’t anything worth worrying about unless the roof caved in. Pierre shook his head. This was war, and it was the chance you took. Worrying about everything that could go wrong would drive a man mad… he’d seen it with his own eyes. Pierre took a sip of faux coffee and thought no more of it.


    Pierre muttered something foul and scowled. Didn’t that idiot have anything better to do? At least he was making a big target for himself. The more shots an enemy artilleryman let off, the more obvious he made his position. All that was left to do was to wait and ignore the irritating noise.


    “Alright”, muttered Pierre, “now he’s getting annoying. I swear, if our own guns don’t…”

    The world blew up.

    What seemed like a million German guns all opened fire at the same moment. The force of the eruption threw Pierre across the dugout as if he were a rag doll, the coffee cup smashing on the ground. The force of the blow winded him. Pierre couldn’t hear himself scream over the deafening explosions, explosions which made a volcanco seem like nothing. The ground shook as though this were an earthquake, and he had to crawl on his hands and knees to retrieve his helmet. Pierre crawled under the dugout’s meagre desk and grabbed the legs to steady himself. The rickety desk fell apart in short order, the legs flying every which way and the top coming down on Pierre’s head. He added another pain-filled curse to his screams and crawled to the centre of the room, screaming like a baby and hugging his legs. If the walls fell in, it’d be game over. This wasn’t how he wanted to go; he was only twenty-six years old! Every bit of dirt falling from the ceiling looked like the start of a cave-in that would, if he was lucky, kill him quickly. Pierre imagined himself buried alive, fighting a losing battle for breath, unable to move, paralysed in earth like an insect in amber. It had happened to comrades and friends- nothing said he couldn’t be next.

    Ave Maria, gratia plena, dominus tecum…” , he prayed silently, barely conscious of the screams he was emitting. The Latin surprised him, as he’d never been a religious man. It just went to show that there really were no atheists in foxholes. He didn’t notice the telltale stench of a man who’d fouled himself, either. All he did was sit in the dugout and scream, praying and hoping that when it was over, he’d still be alive.

    Pierre Soilon sat through nine hours of nonstop shelling.

    His first indication that it had stopped was the sound of screaming. Someone very close by was screaming his lungs out- but he was the only one in the dugout, he was sure of it. Such was his terror that it took him a minute to realise that he was the one screaming. And if he could hear his screams, then the artillery wasn’t deafening them out anymore. Which could only mean…

    Like some undead beast rising from its tomb, Pierre Soilon stood up and shook the dirt off, snatching his rifle from the ruins.

    “Up! Up! Out!” That was his sergeant, all right. Pierre dashed out into the main trench and was blinded by the sun- his eyes had become adjusted over the past nine hours to the darkness of the dugout. As far as the eye could see in either direction, dazed soldiers clutched their rifles while NCOs dashed to and fro, issuing orders and trying to establish control. Pierre’s heart was racing at a million miles an hour. The Germans had been known to pause their bombardments, and then to restart them as soldiers congregated in the trenches. He eyed the nearest dugout, ready to sprint back in.

    A battle-cry erupted not too far away, and the machine-gunners began their deadly work. Pierre knew what that meant, and a bolt of adrenaline shot through him. He ran up to a viewpoint and aimed his rifle at No-Man’s-Land. A series of grey dots appeared a few hundred yards away. He knew what they were, all right.

    The Germans were doing their utmost to take Verdun away from France, and it was up to Pierre Soilon to stop them. As he fired, loaded, and fired again, he wondered if he’d still be alive in an hour.

    A French poilu very much like Pierre Soilon, in the moments before the guns erupted at Verdun.

    "I am taking command. Inform your troops and keep up your courage!"
    Philippe Petain upon taking command, 26 February 1916.

    "Soldiers! For a month, you have valiantly defended our homeland, and the great city of Verdun! Now is the hour of decision. Now is the hour in which we must triumph. In the name of France, our mother, take the offensive once more and reap what you have sown in a month of fighting. Each of us must give his all, but victory must surely be in sight!"
    Philippe Petain's Order of the Day on 24 March 1916, the date of his ill-fated offensive at Verdun.

    At seven AM on the twenty-first of February 1916, fourteen hundred German guns opened fire on the French defenders of Verdun. Within sixty seconds, 250 miles away, thirteen hundred Italian guns began pounding the trenches outside Bardonecchia. When Joseph Joffre, the most senior general in France, got word of the simultaneous offensives, he is said to have downed a double whiskey despite the hour. But Joffre was the only military man in France with a bottle in his hand at that moment.

    The barrage at Verdun went on for nine hours. Men were pulverised in open trenches and buried alive in their dugouts, where they suffered lingering deaths. As with so many offensives before it, the opening stages of Gericht tore the strip of land separating the two armies up, reducing it to something resembling the surface of the moon. At a quarter to five PM, an initial wave of 150,000 Germans went over the top. Some 50 divisions would ultimately follow. The French had long considered Verdun an inconsequential quiet sector, and despite being aware of Germany’s plans to launch an offensive, lacked sufficient force to meet the blow. (1) Hastily organised infantry counterattacks lacking in artillery support didn’t help; they failed to throw back the Germans while wasting lives for no discernible purpose. Such foolishness took its toll, as within three days, an average of two out of every three front-line soldiers was dead. The survivors lacked emergency rations and ammunition, which only hastened the end. Four days after the start of the offensive, in what was a near-fatal embarrassment to Joffre’s career, the 24th Brandenburger Regiment had the signal honour of taking Fort Douaumont. The great fort was the largest defending the city, and had been expected to hold out for weeks, if not months. In fact, the behemoth of steel and guns was a paper tiger. Back in January, its commandant had refused to allow a security inspection, and the defences were ill-manned, to say the least. The Germans captured Douaumont when the fort’s defenders were in a dull training lecture instead of doing their duty. The Germans walked in without firing a shot and burst into the lecture hall, capturing everyone. When Falkenhayn heard the news, he is reported to have laughed and joked that German drill sergeants were on the watch even in their sleep, so such a debacle could never strike the Fatherland!

    Joseph Joffre was distinctly less than amused. His military instincts told him to cut his losses and withdraw, but politics- the one thing guaranteed to keep a soldier scratching his head- dictated otherwise. If he gave up after four days of unmitigated defeat, his aides whispered, the German propaganda machine would have a field day! French morale would plummet! Thus, Joffre resolved to do his utmost to win. On the 26th, he appointed Philippe Petain as commander of the Verdun sector. Petain was without a doubt a skilled commander, and he gave victory his every effort. For a start, he terminated the bloody infantry counterattacks which had characterised the first days of fighting. The new French commander believed that shelling the Germans from a safe distance would save French lives while draining the foe. Petain also instituted something which would become a legend in postwar France to rank alongside the taxis which allegedly saved Paris in the autumn of 1914: la Voie Sacree. The “Sacred Road”, as the French dubbed it, was the lifeline keeping French forces supplied. Before the war, it had been nothing more than a quaint country road over which two or three farmers would drag their goods to market every day. Now, thousands of horses and men took supplies to the troops at the front and brought the wounded back. (2) Petain earned well-deserved credit for this, but he is remembered more than anything as the man who failed at Verdun… as well as for his antics in postwar France. No doubt, he made mistakes, but dispassionate historians have reached a consensus that he was being forced to make bricks without straw. For Verdun was not the only front on which France was pressed… the Italians were attacking as well, after all.

    Luigi Cadorna was not Erich von Falkenhayn. Historians are unanimous in saying that he lacked the German general’s foresight and imagination. Likewise, the Italian Army was unquestionably inferior to the German. Men weren’t as well trained, equipment was shoddy, etcetera. Yet… none of that mattered. Although Cadorna didn’t realise it, he was nothing more than a diversion. Italy’s latest effort at Bardonnechia was doing nothing more than tying down some 150,000 French forces- plus another 75,000 holding the line elsewhere. (3) But that was enough. Italy’s young men were sacrificing themselves in droves as they crawled into machine-gun fire in the rocky Alpine hills, capturing a hundred yards of territory on a good day. But every bullet fired in the craggy Alps, and every Frenchman in the rocky trenches, was one not present at the real battle.

    The period 26 February- 6 March has earned a well-deserved place in First World War history as the “Black Week of the French Army.” The morale of the French soldiers completely collapsed during these eight days. There was no hiding the truth in the chaos of battle. Every poilu knew how Douaumont had fallen without a shot being fired, without honour, let alone glory. Of course, the French didn’t have long to ponder such things, as another feature of Verdun was its massive rate of shellfire- the highest in the history of warfare. Soldiers were blown apart by shells like mown grass, while gas shells grabbed their lungs and didn’t let go. A few days of this was enough to induce mental breakdowns in many Frenchmen. Some poilus burst into tears like children, while others tossed their rifles down and sat in the muck silently, too stunned to notice the shell whizzing in that would send them flying in all directions. Still others deliberately exposed themselves to gunfire, while some turned their rifles on themselves. Sometimes, supplies from the Sacred Road failed to reach troops, who died of dehydration and exhaustion after a few days.

    One of the hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen who died at Verdun.

    Hell would be a mild word to describe the conditions faced by the French defenders.

    All this encouraged Erich von Falkenhayn. His plan to bleed the French white appeared to be working. However, there was a problem: he wasn’t moving fast enough, and German troops were dying because of it. Before commencing the attack on the 21st, he had boasted that he’d be in Verdun in four days- so that’d be the 25th. As March approached, he was a long way away from the city. However, Falkenhayn was convinced by the reports of French conditions that he could still win, but he needed something else. He turned to the west bank of the Meuse River, hoping to catch the French off their guard there.

    Two small natural features dominated the area west of the Meuse: two small hills named Le Mort Homme and Cote 304. They offered several key advantages to Falkenhayn, and as such assumed outsize importance. If he could base artillery there, he could rain down even more hellfire on the defenders. Second, the two hills formed a “gate” through which German forces could pass, capturing the villages of Esnes, Montzeville, and Chattancourt, threatening the forts shielding Verdun from the west, and most importantly, forcing the French to extend their front by several miles. When Falkenhayn gave the go-ahead on 6 March, he had high hopes.

    A map showing the most important features at Verdun. (6)

    The Chief of the German General Staff was not to be disappointed. Petain knew of the potential importance of the west bank, so the German move didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. However, there was simply nothing he could do about it. All that could be spared from the hellish struggle from the east was a skeleton crew, and Petain could do nothing more than hope. But his hopes were soon dashed. After a week of combat, the ruins of both Cote 304 and Le Mort Homme had fallen, and the Germans exploited their local breakthrough. Esnes fell on the fourteenth, Chattancourt and Montzeville two days later. By now, Petain was desperate, and forced to transfer troops west to stop the onslaught. On the seventeenth, a German attack on Fort Bois Bourrus was barely halted at a terrific cost in French lives. This, however, came at a price. In the second week of March, the Germans gleefully captured Fort Vaux and Fort Tavannes, as well as the village of Fleury. This left them able to pour onto the Cotes-de-Meuse, which would put them within spitting distance of Verdun itself. Philippe Petain, never the most optimistic general, saw the writing on the wall, and on the 21st, he telephoned Joseph Joffre for permission to withdraw. The hero of the Marne, however, wasn’t having it. He had been made the scapegoat for the failures of 1915 and was taking a lot of flak (5) for what the politicians saw as a pointless slaughter at Verdun. In Joffre’s mind, victory had to come out of Verdun… otherwise, he would be out of a job.

    It is factors such as these which condemn men to their deaths in the thousands; it seems.

    On the twenty-third of March, Petain received orders from Joffre. He was to launch an immediate counterattack to keep the Cotes-de-Meuse in French hands and to advance towards Chattancourt. And no, before you ask, he wouldn’t be receiving any additional reinforcements. In his telegram, Joffre strongly implied that he would personally ruin Petain’s career if he didn’t achieve results. Upon receiving this news, Petain is said to have paraphrased Pierre Cambrone’s line at Waterloo, and said “les poilus mortent, mais ils n’abandonnent pas!” (7) However, like General Cambrone, it is equally likely that Petain said simply, ¨merde!”. For Joffre was asking the impossible. A month of defence had reduced the French soldiers to exhaustion and ruin. Petain was of the opinion- one which many postwar scholars share- that after another week or two of such fighting, the French would’ve buckled under the weight of the foe, and that would’ve likely been the end of the battle. As it was, an offensive was out of the question. But Petain was a soldier, and he couldn’t disobey a direct order from his superior. It pained his conscience to no end, but a few hours after receiving Joffre’s orders he issued orders which were to condemn still more Frenchmen to their deaths, and threw the exhausted defenders of Verdun forward one more time. All throughout the 24th of March, he paced up and down in his headquarters, trying to find out what was going on. He hadn’t expected greatness- indeed, news of any ground being taken would’ve been a pleasant surprise- but even he was surprised by the news he received.

    The French army at Verdun, from the Cotes-de-Meuse to Fort Bois Bourrus, had had enough. After a month of hell on earth, they would not be ordered forward like lambs to the slaughter. They were killing their superiors and declaring themselves in a state of mutiny.

    1. None of my WWI books IRL, nor anyone on the Internet, wants to give me a number for divisions or men for the start of the battle. If any of you have such information, please tell me and I’ll retcon!
    2. IOTL, it brought up almost 200,000 men… but they’re in Italy. Some 27,000 tonnes of supplies also reached the front IOTL; this number is lower here, but not by too much.
    3. Rough numbers. The point is that France has way fewer men to put into the Verdun meat grinder than OTL. This means that certain things devised by Petain, such as troop rotation, aren’t possible ITTL. This in turn means that French troops get worn out faster and their morale is much lower. This means, well, you’ll see…
    4. In marked contrast to OTL, where the French had far more manpower, and Petain put his freshest troops to the west.
    5. Although perhaps not quite as much as the men under his command.
    6. With credits to @NoMommsen for the map.
    7. The poilus die, but they do not surrender.


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    Chapter 9- The Fall of France
  • Chapter Nine- The Fall of France
    "Any unit refusing to fully take part in any attack, advocating peace talks with the enemy, or murdering its officers is to be treated as an enemy, and is to be attacked with all available military might. Furthermore, any soldier found expressing dissatisfaction or a lack of confidence in the war effort is to be reported at once, to prevent his views from spreading. I know that all of you save a small minority are loyal Frenchmen, and I deeply regret having to take this step..."
    Joseph Joffre's Order of the Day, 21 April 1916.

    "The further we penetrated into the enemy's rear... the easier the fighting."
    - Diary entry of Erwin Rommel, 1 April 1916, at the Battle of Bardonecchia.

    "Germans! After six hundred and sixty days of war, our struggle is at an end. Today, representatives of the French Government signed a document of surrender with representatives of our Empire, bringing an end to the fighting between our two nations as of six AM today. German people, rejoice! I hereby declare that the twenty-third of May shall be celebrated forevermore as a day of celebration of our great victory... "
    Excerpt from Kaiser Wilhelm II's speech to the crowds in Berlin from a window of the Reichstag, 24 May 1916.

    "This is a great day for our beloved nation. Today, we commemorate that triumph of sixty years past. Our achievement in the Erster Weltkrieg was tremendous and hard-fought, and we have worked hard, and paid much blood and sweat since to defend it. But we will never forget the triumph of our ancestors!"
    German Chancellor Heinz Kissinger, in his televised Victory Day speech, 1976.

    The Springtime Mutinies are widely seen as a turning point not just in the history of World War I, but in the history of the world. This was by no means the only possible outcome. Tact and thoughtfulness might’ve enabled the French to salvage something tangible from the wreckage of Verdun, but it was not to be. A combination of bad luck and worse decision-making meant that France went from having a battered army refusing to wipe itself out in the third week of March to having surrendered in the third week of May. This chapter will explore those last two months of the Western Front.

    As chronicled in the last chapter, by 23 March the French defenders of Verdun had been worn to the nub. A month of the most intense combat mankind had ever seen, without reprieve, had worn it down. The commander at Verdun, Philippe Petain, had advocated withdrawal, but his superior Joseph Joffre had ordered him to mount a last-ditch offensive. It was from that point that things went sour. Orders went out at approximately 1100 hours on the twenty-fourth to be ready to mount a counteroffensive in eighteen hours. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and when one Major Georges Metinier informed his men, they declared their refusal to go forward. The major, predictably, was angered and threatened to call up military police and have the recalcitrant men arrested for defeatism bordering on mutiny. It was the last mistake he’d ever make. A shot rang out from the French lines, and the major tumbled over dead. His men were reported to have cheered and kicked, stoned, and generally abused the corpse of their former commanding officer. Word travelled quickly that Petain was planning to have them go forward and get killed en masse, and that a little disobedience might be in order. By now, it was well into the afternoon, and word of Major Metinier’s murder had reached Petain. He was livid and ordered MPs in to punish the offending unit. However, the mutineers weren’t stupid. Having killed one of their officers, it made sense that MPs were en route, and they were ready. A platoon of thirty MPs advanced… and walked into gunfire. The mutineers weren’t about to go quietly. At 1600 hours, the captain of the MPs ordered a retreat and informed Petain. The mutineering unit elected to beat an unauthorised retreat to save their own necks and fled south to the town. The general was now at his wits end- the Germans were on the verge of breaking through as it was. He didn’t have any more resources to deal with this rubbish! Petain knew that he would regret it, but he sent Joffre a telegram asking permission to withdraw from Verdun, citing both the German advance and “certain instances of mutinous behaviour in the front lines.” He hoped that his commander would wake up and permit a general retreat. After all, Petain stressed, if the defenders didn’t pull out soon, there would be nothing left to salvage from amongst the great army sent to Verdun. The manpower implications of that would be catastrophic.

    Joffre was having none of it. Mutineers, he decreed, should be shot without trial. If that didn’t work, he specifically ordered Petain to use artillery to shell mutinous units. This telegram reached Petain’s HQ at around 1730 hours, just after one which informed him that Fort Bois Bourrus- the centrepiece of the French defences on the west bank of the Meuse- had fallen, and another saying that the Germans were only a kilometre away from the town itself. Petain’s response has not been recorded for posterity, but it was in all likelihood profane and not complimentary towards Joffre. There were absolutely no trustworthy units or MPs to throw at the mutinous units- every man with a gun had been sucked into the battle, trying in vain to plug the gaps created as the defences came undone. Unfortunately, Joffre had very specific instructions as to what to do in that case- to use artillery against mutineers. It wasn’t an order Petain could refuse to obey; mutiny was a crime punishable by death and the French still hadn’t fully run out of shells. Thus, biting his lip, his conscience panging, Petain contacted the artillery batteries at 2000 hours, issuing them with their orders. It’s a mark of how the French position had deteriorated that these artillery batteries were located inside Verdun itself. But Petain was out of luck. The gunners hadn’t had an easy time of it- they had gone through hell just like everyone else. Their sympathies were with their mutinous countrymen, and they weren’t going to kill them. They made it very plain that they would be more than happy to pull the lanyard against the Boches, but that if Petain wanted someone to kill patriotic French troops, he could find himself another artillery battery. (1) Now, Petain had really had it, and a few minutes before eleven, he sent a runner to the mutineers, who had attracted more men to their cause throughout the day. What would their terms be?

    It was far too late for such measures. Although dusk had brought a halt to the German advance, it was all too clear that Verdun would not hold. If the Germans didn’t capture the town the next day, on the 25th, it would only be because they hadn’t driven the French from its ruins. As a matter of fact, Verdun fell the next day. At ten AM on the twenty-fifth of March 1916, the Imperial German 39th Infantry Division marched into the sleepy French town, finding it deserted, as everything important had already been evacuated. The Germans spent the rest of the day advancing on the west bank of the Meuse and moving forces into the newly conquered town, while making plans for an advance deeper into France on the 26th. At noon, they forced the mayor of the town, at bayonet point, to run up the Imperial German flag in front of the town hall, before being taken into custody. Having achieved victory, the Kaiser’s armies paused to digest their accomplishment. Their own casualties had not been light; almost 175,000 Germans had been killed or wounded. Verdun, for which some 255,000 (2) Frenchmen had been killed or wounded, was lost. France’s greatest battle had been a failure. There was nothing more to be said.

    Once it became clear that he could not suppress the mutinies in time for the defences of Verdun to hold, Philippe Petain got out, fast. The French commander fled to Valmy and set up his headquarters there. No sooner had he settled in than he got the dreadful news. He is said to have replied, “Then it is all over. Two million of France’s sons have died for nothing. Joffre will have my neck… and the Kaiser will have Joffre’s.” Legend has it that the defeated French commander broke down and cried at his desk; others suggest that he pointed a pistol at himself and contemplated doing himself in. We shall never know, but both seem reasonable. His career was over (3) He was right on one point- Joffre would have his neck. Six hours after the German flag was run up over Verdun, messengers arrived at Valmy stripping Joffre of his command. He was transferred back to Paris effective immediately. On the 27th, Joffre himself arrived at Valmy and took personal command of the Verdun theatre- if that wasn’t a tragic misnomer by now. Military historians and the general public would remember him not as the man who undid his predecessor’s blunders, but as the man who doubled down on them.

    Like Petain, Erich von Falkenhayn had spent the past few days living at his desk, awaiting the next click of the telegraph receiver or ring of the telephone, staring at maps while downing cup after cup of coffee and occasionally having a bite to eat. In his memoirs, the German general freely reveals that those three days had been the most stressful of his career. “If something had gone wrong then”, he wrote, “I would have been done for. But more importantly, the Fatherland would have no place to go. The path forward for our millions of young men would have been treacherous.” It was a great relief, to say the least, when the telephone rang just after lunch on the 25th. The news was the best possible- the fabled city now flew the German tricolour. Falkenhayn is said to have responded by promoting the telephone operator on the spot, before sharing a bottle of champagne with his colleagues. More soberly, a month of intense combat had bled the French dry. The 255,000 lost men would prove very hard to replace, especially given the demands of the Italian front- a front on which the Central Powers were making progress.

    The Battle of Bardonecchia had thus far been classic Italian front- Cadorna’s exhortations to bravery and confident anticipation of a breakthrough had gone ignored as French machine-gunners mowed down their Italian foes. Despite fighting with one hand tied behind their back, the French had just held the line, and the Italians hadn’t gained more than a few hundred yards. Now, that was about to change. In the summer of 1916, as chronicled in chapter 2, the Germans had sent an elite unit known as the Alpenkorps to the Italian front- as the name suggests, it was a unit trained in mountainous warfare. The Alpenkorps had largely remained unbloodied, its commanders not wanting to waste trained men and specialised equipment in Cadorna’s latest breakthrough mirage. Now, though, with the French cracking in the north, the Germans threw themselves into Bardonecchia. General Oskar von Hutier, commander of the Alpenkorps, utilised freshly devised tactics to maximise his contribution. On 1 April, following an intense four-hour barrage which left the French rattled, the Germans went into the field. While their Italian allies continued the same piecemeal attacks which they’d used for a month, von Hutier’s men struck like the thrust of a rapier, hard and fast towards the French rear. Hutier’s men left exposed flanks and French strongpoints to the Italian cannon-fodder to mop up. They broke through within a day, and the thinly stretched French line crumbled as troops were moved to plug the gap… which finally opened the creaking floodgates, and Cadorna’s men jubilantly poured through. Logistics and walking speed were their only limiting factors, while panic-stricken French troops often refrained from firing Parthian shots in an attempt to get away quicker. There were cases of officers shooting or firing artillery at fleeing men… such officers rarely lasted very long. In the first ten days of April, the unthinkable happened- the Italo-Germans advanced almost a hundred miles. By the eleventh, the stunned French had retreated to the mountains in front of Grenoble. Considering the situation on the German front, there was no prospect of sending reinforcements down, and Joffre sacked the general commanding the Italian front. His replacement was Franchet d’Esperey- who would subsequently become known as “Desperate Frankie” for his panic-stricken, ineffectual response to the disaster on his front. As d’Esperey prepared to defend Grenoble, the worst possible thing happened- his men, like those at Verdun, threw down their arms. Enough, they declared, was enough.

    Oskar von Hutier, the German hero who broke through at Bardonecchia. His postwar career would take him far...

    The trouble dates back to Joseph Joffre’s response to the Verdun Mutinies. Although in the chaos of retreat from the meat-grinder, there was no way to tell who had done what during the mutinies, Joffre was determined to find out once he arrived at Valmy. Tribunals and courts-martial were established, with every unit’s members being grilled over about their conduct and the conduct of their comrades by military policemen. All this naturally wasted a great deal of manpower and man hours, and there were more than a few cases of soldiers literally being pulled off of machine-gun duty to be interrogated in the weeks after the retreat from Verdun. Forcing soldiers to recount everything their comrades had done, often in exhausting detail, demoralised them and kept them out of the trenches for long stretches, as well as severely damaging relations between individual soldiers. The executions of supposed mutineers didn’t much help France’s manpower troubles, either. The soldiers also unfairly blamed Joffre for the poor quality of rations, very infrequent leave, and general misery of trench life. All this to say, by the middle of April, French morale was shot. When rumours began swirling that d’Esperey was planning to go down swinging and launch a fresh offensive out of Grenoble, the men under his command refused. This time, the fire of mutiny spread. Troops all along the Italian front demanded peace, murdering their officers and in some cases, threatening mass desertion. There were clashes in Nice on the seventeenth (which, owing to its proximity to the front, was under martial law), when a food riot broke out and some soldiers sided with the rioters; fifty people were killed before order was restored. In Grenoble, a disaffected corporal tried unsuccessfully to assassinate d’Esperey. Nor was the rot limited to the Italian front. On the twentieth of April, the crew of the cruiser Edgar Quinet, sick and tired of being trapped in a seemingly endless patrol duty, their rations shrinking, and with little concrete knowledge but a dreadful sense that la patrie was in danger, mutinied, killing their captain. They sailed into Barcelona harbour and scuttled the ship in front of the horrified Spaniards, content to spend the rest of the war in Spanish internment. (4) On the Western Front, desertion rates massively increased, and many units declared their refusal to participate in any offensives. For an increasingly paranoid Joseph Joffre, all this proved his point: the military was infiltrated with enemy agents working to undermine the war. In his diary, the French commander-in-chief mused that had infiltrators not stabbed France in the back, Verdun would’ve held. (5) Thus, on 21 April 1916, he issued his infamous Order of the Day: Any unit refusing to fully take part in any attack, advocating peace talks with the enemy, or murdering its officers is to be treated as an enemy, and is to be attacked with all available military might. Just as France’s two fronts were disintegrating, its manpower bled well past the danger point, and a de facto purge environment was being established in the remaining units, Frenchmen were ordered to kill other Frenchmen. Genius.

    The result was predictable. While some French units did in fact attack their mutinous counterparts (including one clash just south of Valmy), the mutinies only snowballed. By the start of May, approximately 65% of France’s army was held to be “unreliable”. The British, meanwhile, were deeply embarrassed by their ally’s behaviour, and some in London advocated pulling the BEF out, so that no more British lives would be lost in this foolishness. Finally, on 2 May, the inevitable happened. Erich von Falkenhayn had one more punch to throw at the crumbling French Army. He aimed his latest offensive at Amiens, another major city which had thus far escaped capture. Two things recommended Amiens: it was a long way from Verdun, so the French would not likely be expecting an attack, and the mutinies had been particularly fierce in that area. Oskar von Hutier, hero of Bardonecchia, was transferred to the Western Front and collaborated with Falkenhayn in drawing up the attack plans. Fresh divisions arrived from the Balkans, including several Austro-Hungarian ones- marking their first appearance on the Western Front, and at 3 AM on the 2nd, a hurricane barrage on loyalist units heralded the start of the Kaiserschlacht.

    The Kaiser’s Battle, as it came to be known, followed a similar tactical plan to Bardonecchia. Certain skilled, veteran German units who had received crash courses in what were being dubbed “Hutier tactics” were given orders to prioritise speed and movement, although naturally they were not as effective as the Alpenkorps. The Kaiserschlacht’s armies moved like a knife slicing butter. French troops- even the “loyalists”- were all too happy to throw up their hands and sit out the rest of the war in a PoW camp, while mutinous units frequently defected en masse, apparently not troubled by feelings of guilt or a lack of patriotism. Some French troops attacked those retreating (6), while others put aside their differences in the last battle, but it all made little difference. The Germans occupied Amiens relatively easily on the sixth- making the Kaiserschlacht the quickest offensive in the First World War.

    A (badly made) map roughly showing the situation on the Western Front at the end of May 1916.
    Screen Shot 2020-09-02 at 2.12.27 pm.png

    The fall of Amiens spelled doom for Aristide Briand’s government. A vote of no confidence occurred two days after the city’s fall, with one minister declaring that “if that man remains leader, we in this very chamber will hear the rattle of guns outside our offices before the leaves fall from the trees!” Briand’s failure to win the war, his unconditional acceptance of Joseph Joffre’s handling of the mutinies, and the declining economic conditions within France all combined to show him the door. In his stead, Joseph Caillaux was given the top job. Caillaux- and his Radical Socialist Party- was known for his support of an end to the war. His acceptance speech was noticeably grim, with some newspapers reporting that he wept while delivering it. After a frugal lunch and attending an afternoon Mass, France’s new Prime Minister telephoned Joffre, informing him that he was sacked. The rest of the day, and the day after that, was spent with his cabinet, figuring out how to approach the Germans for a cease-fire. Caillaux wanted to ask openly and publicly, so as to hopefully quell the mutineers by giving into one of their key demands- there had been reports that they had reacted favourably to the news of his ascension, and he wanted to encourage them. However, his advisers persuaded him otherwise. If the Germans proposed unacceptable terms, a secret approach would allow the French to back away without losing face. Technically, they pointed out, to ask for peace without consulting Britain and Russia violated multiple agreements, something which Caillaux was forced to ignore- with France in the state it was, if London and Petrograd hadn’t seen which way the wind was blowing, they were fools. Besides, the cautious ministers added, asking too openly might invite an assassination attempt- in France in the spring of 1916, expecting the unexpected seemed prudent. Sighing, Caillaux agreed to a secretive approach to the armistice, not knowing what seeds of trouble he was sowing for the future…

    On 14 May, French diplomats Francois Georges-Picot and Paul Cambon boarded a cross-Channel ferry along with two secretaries. From Portsmouth, they travelled by rail- innocuously enough, second class- to Hull. They stayed the night and boarded a ship bound for neutral Denmark. Owing to the British blockade, crossing the North Sea took an entire week, during which Picot and Cambon prepared themselves for the meeting ahead. When they disembarked at the neutral Danish town of Esbjerg on the 21st, they went straight to the town hall. The four-man German delegation was already there: Matthias Erzberger, a foreign ministry official by the name of Count Alfred von Oberndorff, Major General Detlof von Winterfeld, representing the army, and Captain Ernst Vaslow, representing the navy.

    The Armistice which ended the Franco-German war amounted to little more than a French unconditional surrender. Over two days, the German delegates imposed the crushing terms they’d been sent from Berlin to procure, and the French tried in vain to stop them. A nominal Danish delegation was present to act as mediators, but they did little more than nudge the French and “encourage” them to accept Germany’s terms. The fact was that with much of her heartland under occupation, her army in revolt, and her politics less than stable, France held no cards. Two days later, at six PM on 23 May 1916, the Armistice was signed. The key points were:

    • All fighting between French and German troops is to cease within twelve hours. Any French unit which ignores this order, whether or not it is in a state of mutiny, will face combat from German forces.
    • The German Army will remain occupying the territory it now holds.
    • France is to pay for the occupation of said territory until the conclusion of a peace treaty; this will be applied retroactively to 2 August 1914.
    • 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, 1,700 aircraft (including all night bombers), 5,000 railway locomotives, 150,000 railway carriages and 5,000 road trucks are to be ceded to Germany. German officers will have the right to cross the lines to ensure that the handovers are completed.
    • All French minefields are to be identified and destroyed at French expense. German officers shall have the right to oversee these operations.
    • All French forces are to vacate German colonies.
    • All French ships in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea are to put into German or Italian ports to surrender prior to 1 June 1916.
    • All German prisoners-of-war are to be handed over within 30 days. German doctors are to be admitted to French military hospitals to assess German troops too badly wounded to be moved; these doctors shall hold decision-making authority in these cases.
    A secret clause of the Armistice not published forced the French to commit to "aiding" the Germans in evicting the British Expeditionary Force from their soil, should Berlin demand it.

    Given the lateness of the hour and secretive nature of the armistice, few knew what had happened on the 23rd. For the German people, 23 May was just another weary day, while some 1,200 German soldiers died on the 23rd, eight hundred of them within the twelve-hour period before fighting was to cease. Newspaper editors were the first to find out, with the result that few got much sleep on the night of May 23-24. Naturally, they celebrated and told their families, so sunup on the 24th brought rumours that the war was over. There was some confusion- had France surrendered? What about Britain, Russia, etc?- but the Kaiser's speech settled all questions. At nine AM, following a brief introduction by left-wing politician Phillipp Schiedemann, he addressed a massive crowd from the window of the Reichstag. Mass celebration all across the German Empire followed, with parades in every town. The Kaiser declared a school closure and bank holiday, while the hungry populace broke out their best clothes and celebrated as best they could on empty stomachs. Even today, Germans recognise 24 May as Tag des Sieges (Victory Day), a day of celebration and merriment. (In Italy, the analogous Giorno della Vittoria is the 25th, the day Grenoble fell; a Franco-Italian armistice was delayed for two more days). 128-point type blanketed the front of every German newspaper, triumphantly announcing “peace!”

    Phillip Schiedemann speaks to the crowd to introduce Kaiser Wilhelm II's speech.
    Phillip Schiedemann.jpg

    Picot and Cambon, meanwhile, were subject to one more humiliation from their enemies. The Germans took them back to Paris under armed guard in a private train, but one which stopped in all the major cities of western Germany, as well as in Brussels and Reims. The two unfortunate Frenchmen were subject to a tremendous deal of gloating (and more than a few rotten vegetables and eggs; one housewife in Cologne ruined a suit of Picot’s), and then were forced to see the crestfallen looks of not just the Belgians, but their own countrymen, condemned to occupation by the Boche for who-knew-how-long. In his diary, Cambone contemplated suicide; he used the word twenty times over a nine-day stretch, and would in fact hang himself in 1920. Being passed through the lines was a torture all its own. While the armed guards prevented physical harm from coming to the two Frenchmen, they did nothing about jeers, rude gestures, and a general sense of smug cockiness. After two years of fighting, the Germans had won, and they were going to make the most of it. The reaction from the French troops was in some ways worse. These men had given their all for two years and gone through hell, and it was all for nothing? All that fighting, gore, loneliness, and death, just to watch two sad men in suits being escorted by the enemy back to Paris after admitting defeat? Few could look Picot or Cambone in the eye. Like many civilians on their first visit to the front, the two diplomats were no doubt stunned by the torn-up nature of the landscape, the stenches of cordite, shit, sweat and death. But most of all, the impact of seeing the way men had gone through the meat grinder must’ve stayed with these poor, sorry diplomats for the rest of their days. The “thousand-yard-stare” of a man reliving a traumatic scene over and over in his mind could not have been easy for these polished diplomats to forget. But it was the face of a soldier who had given his all but failed. It was the face of confusion, of frustration, of not understanding why you couldn’t defend your homeland. It was the face of the French experience in the First World War.


    1. Or he could cross the lines and talk to Falkenhayn…
    2. IOTL, approximately 400,000 French casualties were incurred between February and December. Here, the battle only lasts a month, but the French troops are worked harder, so losses per capita are higher overall.
    3. At least, he thinks so. Hint: we will be hearing from Petain again before too long…
    4. Incidentally, they were later repatriated by Spain after the war, and unsurprisingly faced a court-martial; eleven were sentenced to death, the rest given dishonourable discharges and imprisoned.
    5. In this, his subordinate-turned-foe Petain and he will have quite a lot in common. More than that, I won’t say…
    6. Imagine the famous picture of a Russian soldier turning on his retreating comrade, but with French uniforms.


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    Chapter 10- Britain Quits
  • Chapter Ten- Britain Quits
    "If we can crush that little pocket that is Dunkirk, this war will be over. Now that their best sword has been knocked from their hand, the British are all too keen to surrender. I challenge Hindenburg or Ludendorff to do better."
    - Erich von Falkenhayn, 27 May 1916

    "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today."
    - Admiral John Jellicoe, 31 May 1916

    "The spirit of Trafalgar is broken!"
    Kaiser Wilhelm II in the wake of the Battle of Jutland

    "Well, I was a bit cheeky to this 'ere Jerry sergeant, and I said something rather rude to 'im. He gave me a good kick and took me to a cell, right? And the next day, in comes this other bloke, and we got chatting a bit later on, when the Germans wasn't looking. Imagine me surprise when I found out 'oo it was! Old Marshal Haig himself. He was a bit morose, didn't say much, you know. But I thought, I thought to meself, "blimey, this 'ere's the chap who sent me and me mates over the top time and again, and the Germans went and captured 'im like the rest of us?" At first, I thought it was a bit funny, but I didn't really say anything, didn't want to offend a ruddy Field Marshal, did I? But then I thought- wait a tick, wait a tick. If a big hat like Haig got captured- then blimey, we must really be losing 'ard. I didn't laugh so much after that."
    -Sergeant David Cross in a BBC television interview, 1976

    For Britain, the Springtime Mutinies spelled disaster. They had well over a million men stationed on French soil- all north of the Somme River- and Herbert Asquith feared for their safety. Towards the end of April, he made clear to Douglas Haig that if mutinous French troops attacked British forces, Haig was to fight back. However, neither Asquith nor Haig were as worried about a military attack from French mutineers as a propaganda one. Young Tommy Atkins wanted to be back in Blighty, cup of proper tea in hand, watching a local football match with the wife. There were a million Tommy Atkinses on the Western Front. Until now, the expectation had been that British troops could and would take anything, and Haig had felt that these men were his to experiment with, consequence-free. Now, though, that trust in the men from on high was shaken. Even while the French army disintegrated during April and the Kaiserschlacht, the British refrained from launching an offensive to pressure the Germans. The French High Command’s motto of “just one more offensive!” had pushed their army into chaos. Douglas Haig, murmured comments of the men under him notwithstanding, wasn’t stupid, and he would not make the same mistake. However, this left the BEF in rather a curious position. If they couldn’t be trusted to mount offensives, what were they doing? During the darkest days of the Kaiserschlacht, Haig sent some British troops down to the French sector, but this wasn’t particularly effective. These British troops were too few to effectively pad the lines, and ended up chewed up as cannon fodder… when word spread, it only made Asquith and Haig still more nervous.

    The Armistice of 23 May was a catastrophe for the British. Suddenly, over a million of their lads were stuck in an uncooperative foreign country, with a hostile army literally hundreds of yards away. When Asquith found out about the Armistice- he was informed by a rather breathless spy operating in Denmark only a few hours before Kaiser Wilhelm spoke from the Reichstag window- he was livid, and muttered, “those damn frogs deserve whatever comes to them!” He immediately rang Joseph Caillaux, but- in one of those great little moments of history- the French operator just so happened to accidentally put him through to a Parisian butcher’s shop. The British Prime Minister said some very foul words to the startled Frenchman and tried again. This time, in a first for the British during the war, he broke through to his target. Asquith resisted the urge to give Caillaux a piece of his mind and merely informed his French counterpart that his actions ran “in an opposite direction to the nature of our alliance.” The PM hoped to achieve something constructive- his goal was not to persuade Caillaux to resume hostilities (he knew a lost cause when he saw one), but to assist the BEF in getting across the Channel quickly and safely. In the back of his mind, Asquith must’ve known that there was no longer any chance for victory, but that didn’t diminish his obligation as a statesman to protect the lives of his country’s young men. Too much was at risk for things to fail, he impressed upon Caillaux…

    … and the British were about to see exactly what could go wrong.

    Now that a cease-fire with the French was in effect, Erich von Falkenhayn’s options multiplied. Close to a million men were on the Western Front, and with France all but defeated, they no longer needed to man the lines. While naturally keeping adequate troops to “pad” the lines in case hostilities resumed with the French, substantial German forces shifted to the British sector north of the Somme River. It was a mark of the ease with which Germany could operate in the West that they could imagine a new full-scale offensive only weeks after the Kaiserschlacht. In fact, preparations for a blow against the British had started even before the Armistice, as soon as the French Army began to crumble- this explains how a new offensive could be launched a mere two days after the cessation of hostilities with France. Thus, on the 26th of May, the British forces in Flanders felt the wrath of a new offensive. Falkenhayn had deputised tactical planning for the Third Battle of Ypres to Oskar von Hutier, who was rapidly becoming his protege. Third Ypres commenced at 4 AM on the 26th with a “hurricane barrage”, using several Austro-Hungarian Skoda howitzers. Some 35 German divisions from other sectors of the West, from Italy, and even from the Eastern Front, went over the top. Bardonecchia veterans practised the same Hutier-style assault tactics they’d performed on the Italian front, penetrating the thick British defences. In the skies, German ace Oswald Boelcke led several squadrons of fighters behind enemy lines, providing reconnaissance and strafing British troops. The response from Sir Henry Rawlinson, Haig’s deputy in the area, was slow. His front line under heavy shellfire and German columns stabbing into his rear, by one PM Rawlinson bit the bullet and ordered tactical retreats. He meant these as a tactical expedient to straighten his line, but once men started running it was awfully hard to get them to stop. German troops chased the British and Belgians across the muddy battlefield until nightfall, advancing as far as the Franco-Belgian border northwest of Poperinge. Fighting continued the next day, and it was now painfully clear that the Germans had broken through.

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    A cursory glance at a map will reveal the danger: from the Franco-Belgian border to Dunkirk is a mere 25 kilometres. It seemed inevitable that Dunkirk would become the scene of fighting in a day or two. Meanwhile, the shattering of their left flank left the rest of the BEF- several million men- dangerously exposed. If Dunkirk and Calais fell, the Germans would trap them and they would have to surrender en masse. Sir Douglas Haig was not blind to this. There was nothing he wanted to do more than halt the retreat and go back on the offensive, but the power displayed by the Germans on the first day of Third Ypres had left his forces winded. Furthermore, there was plenty of pressure from Whitehall; Asquith couldn’t let the flower of his country’s youth get cut off and trapped, and Haig knew that if the BEF south of Ypres became isolated, the war would be over- and with it his career. Thus, he saw only one option- retreat. (1) At a tense meeting with King Albert of Belgium in the small hours of the 26th, he explained the necessity. The King of the Belgians was furious, ranting about “British betrayal at the eleventh hour”, but was mollified when Haig promised to allow Belgian units to accompany the British. The sun poked its head above the trees only hours after King Albert and Haig met, signalling to both sides that the fighting was to continue. Now that the element of surprise had faded, the Anglo-Belgian defenders put up stiffer resistance. But the delay imposed on the Kaiser’s armies was a matter of hours, not days, and dozens of bodies, not hundreds. Dunkirk seemed doomed to fall the next day, and that would be checkmate for the BEF.

    A hop, skip, and a jump away in London, Prime Minister Asquith was now panicking. All of his nightmares about losing the Channel ports seemed to be coming true. Desperation filled the old man’s soul as he telephoned Joseph Caillaux at seven PM London time. He recognised that France had signed a cease-fire; his aim wasn’t to get the French to restart hostilities per se. (2) No, instead he wanted French permission to use Dunkirk, Calais, and other ports as evacuation centres, and for the French to assist the BEF in getting to said ports. Cautiously, the French PM agreed.

    His cooperation with the UK would prove short-lived.

    Early on the 27th, Joseph Caillaux’s telephone rang, with none other than Erich von Falkenhayn on the line. The German Chief of Staff had figured out what the French were up to, and he was livid. How dare they try to pull something like this? With classic furor Teutonicus, Falkenhayn raged that he was being generous not restarting hostilities to punish the French for their “insolence”- a prospect which must’ve made the room swim before Caillaux’s eyes. If the French didn’t shut down the Channel ports immediately, the German Army would bring further punishment down on their heads. Falkenhayn also hinted that German troops would soon be engaged in fresh military operations against the British on French soil, and that it would be unwise, to say the least, to complain. Damning les Boches in his mind, Calliaux agreed, and set off to telephone Robert Nievelle. These instructions baffled the French commander-in-chief. His men were refusing to fight the invaders occupying their homeland. They wanted to go home fast, and if they didn’t get their wish, things could go from bad to worse. And now, Nievelle asked incredulously, the Germans wanted French troops to fight the British? He was sorry, but there was nothing that could be done. Thus, Caillaux rang back Falkenhayn and informed him of the situation. He’d be willing to shut down the Channel ports to British craft and grant the Germans right of way, but there was no way he could supply troops. Surprisingly, Falkenhayn took Caillaux at his word, perhaps realising just how deep the malaise of mutiny had spread in the French Army. Meanwhile, Caillaux had a very awkward telephone call to make to No. 10 Downing Street.

    A few minutes later, Herbert Asquith literally threw down his telephone receiver and pounded the desk, epithets flying off his tongue. Caillaux, he thundered to his aides, was a collaborator! Why was he sealing British troops in the Channel ports if not to let the Germans come and wipe them out? Of course, he didn’t know about Falkenhayn’s harsh telephone call. Asquith ordered Sir Douglas Haig, himself now in Dunkirk, that his men were to return fire if the French attempted to prevent their entering the harbour, “or otherwise subjected them to armed harassment.” Just as all seemed lost, the First Lord of the Admiralty(3) stepped in. Winston Churchill had a grand plan- to rescue as many British troops from France as possible before the Germans closed in. Citing the need for “steadfastness, courage, and dynamism”, the First Sea Lord dubbed his scheme Operation Dynamo. At one PM on the 27th, Churchill proposed his scheme to Asquith; the Prime Minister didn’t need much coaxing to agree. Haig was informed an hour and a half later and told to congregate at Dunkirk. Getting there wouldn’t be an issue- the Germans had driven the British back to the coast, and the Royal Army was attempting to construct a redoubt between Dunkirk and Bray-Dunes. Haig issued the requisite orders, and within a few hours, Dunkirk was under British martial law- which caused more than a few raised eyebrows in Paris- and looked every inch like a British army camp. Seeing as how Dynamo had only officially commenced at half-past-two, and sailing through the mine-ridden English Channel at night was a good way to cut one’s life expectancy, no transports could reach the town in time for evacuations that day. Meanwhile, Falkenhayn sensed what Haig was up to, and turned the bulk of his army to besiege the small town; reserves shielded his flank from a potential relief attempt by the rest of the BEF.

    During the evening of the 27th, the Royal Navy assembled a fleet of troopships at Kent, ready for action the following day, while the defenders of Dunkirk fought valiantly throughout the night. By nine PM, the Germans had brought up a considerable amount of artillery, and spent much of the night firing registration shots. It was a long night for everyone on both sides, to put it mildly. But, as the old saying goes, the night is darkest before the dawn. At four-fifteen AM, the telephone in Haig’s headquarters (the Dunkirk public library) rang with good news- the first wave of transports was setting off from Deal, and should arrive at a quarter to seven. Haig pulled fifteen hundred men out of the line and marched them to the beach shortly before the transports arrived; that they were all British caused some grumbling amongst the Belgians. Small-arms fire rattled in the background as the men nervously stood on the beach. Then, just as the first rays of sun appeared over the village, the troopships steamed in slowly, naval flags fluttering in the breeze. Cheering, the exhausted men boarded. For them, the war was over. Their conviviality lasted mere moments, before one of their number struck a mine laid by the French. The explosion sent a hundred men flying in all directions before their very eyes; six survived. The troops shivered all the way home, and it wasn’t from the cold. An officer from Deal harbour telephoned Haig at ten AM with the good news that the men were now back on English soil, and that the transports would be back at one PM. All throughout the morning, British troops fought a delaying action on the perimeter of town, waiting for the transports to come take them off. Haig could hear the rattle of gunfire in his office, and no doubt fingered the pistol in his pocket for comfort. Not since the Boer War fourteen years earlier had the Field Marshal been close enough to the fighting to hear the rattle of small-arms. The troopships duly returned at one PM, carrying off another two thousand men. Fighting continued throughout the afternoon, with Anglo-Belgian forces doing their damndest to resist. One German soldier, remembering the battle decades later, joked that his platoon had “taken the kitchen, but needed another big push to capture the sitting-room!” (4) This was First World War combat par excellence- a machine-gun and a few strands of barbed wire could hold attackers up for a long while. The only difference was that instead of trenches, soldiers fought from houses and street barricades. For the British, there was a simple reason for such dogged resistance- if the harbour fell, there’d be no escape for any of them. But for many Belgians, the battle for Dunkirk had a more emotional aspect. Unlike the British, their homeland was under enemy occupation. Thus, they had many personal grievances the Tommies lacked. Since the Germans were obviously winning the war, they had no home to return to. If they were to die and be buried on foreign soil, their lives destroyed, they were bloody well going to take a few Germans with them. Yet, history has remained silent on the subject of these poor lads. The Belgian contribution to the Battle of Dunkirk was only publicly commemorated for the first time in 1995, when the government of the Grand Duchy of Flanders (5) erected a monument in Dunkerque Harbour.

    German forces rush to engage the British in Dunkirk's High Street. Three more cautious comrades can be seen in the rear.

    The troopships returned one last time at six-thirty PM on the 28th. Another few thousand British lined up on the beach, eager to head home. The last evacuation would not go as smoothly as hoped, however. As haggard British troops lined up at the harbour to board, they heard a buzzing overhead. Two massive balloons, escorted by black aeroplanes, flew overhead, casting a shadow as they flew in front of the sun. As the horrified British soldiers watched, the airplanes zipped down, their machine-guns blazing away. Men threw themselves to the sand, praying that they wouldn’t get hit, while bolder ones stood and shot at the planes; German gunners rewarded such bravery with death. Terrifying as it was, the aerial assault wasn’t the main German aim. While the men were distracted, the two Zeppelins released their bombs, which came crashing down on the harbour. The force of the explosion hurled cowering British troops into the sea and blasted apart the harbour arm. The SS Dieppe, waiting to pick up troops, was hit and rapidly ran aground as the German raiders returned home. Now, the harbour was blocked by the Dieppe’s ruins. Even moving the wreck to repair the harbour arm looked to be a difficult undertaking. Since troopships and destroyers have to remain in a certain depth of water, and since one couldn’t expect the British troops to swim en masse to them, that left everyone in a right pickle. Henceforth, British troops would have to evacuate from the open beaches… which were too shallow for transports and destroyers. Meanwhile, the Germans were still closing in, and it was going to be a long night for Sir Douglas Haig...

    When the day’s Dynamo evacuees reached Deal, it must’ve seemed to many that if this was an example of the British soldier, then the Empire’s days were numbered. All were parched and famished, and many had been sick on the rough Channel crossing. Most were missing some piece of equipment, while- despite Haig’s wishes- the evacuees had not left as coherent units. They had left the vast majority of their heavy equipment such as artillery behind, and it would later fall into German hands. It was a ragtag bunch of men who staggered to their barracks, where Army nurses greeted them with a bowl of soup and a cup of tea. The worst part of it all was that they were the lucky ones. Across the Channel, the defenders of Dunkirk had no reprieve, despite the slackening pace of German attacks. Firefights, hunger, and above all, stress kept many up all night, including Sir Douglas Haig. A mounting sense of desperation filled the British commander as he realised that he and the men he commanded might not make it home. Haig dropped off at around one in the morning, but an hour later, a pistol shot woke him. Leaping up, gun already in hand, he nearly tripped over his adjutant’s body; the man had killed himself.

    Meanwhile, across the Channel, ace schemer Churchill had yet to give up. He had a cunning plan which might just make the evacuation work and save thousands of lives… and of course, his own career. When Asquith summoned him a few hours after the Zeppelin bombing to account for himself, Churchill proposed that individual fishing-boats and pleasure-craft be used to ferry men home. Asquith was dubious, but at least his First Lord of the Admiralty had a plan, and it was better than nothing. The next day, the 29th, the Prime Minister issued an order commandeering all such craft. The whole day was spent requisitioning and preparing captains for their task, during which over a thousand British troops died in the streets of Dunkirk. When the “Little Ships”, as they quickly became known, set out from the various port towns of southern England- Eastbourne, Hastings, Dover, Folkestone, Deal, Margate, et al.- many must’ve known that if this failed, then it would be game over for the war.

    They would soon be proved right.

    The Little Ships numbered about 800, and ranged from fourteen feet to forty. Their captains, mostly veterans of Imperial wars too old to fight, awoke in the small hours of 30 May, knocked back a cup of tea, and took their young sons or their friends down to the harbour before sunup. They’d removed all personal items the day before to make room for government-supplied bandages, life rafts, and above all, men. All that was left to do was set off. A handful of Royal Navy destroyers were present to escort the Little Ships and steer them clear of mines. At first, everything seemed excellent- few captains got lost, no one struck a mine, and by noon the Little Ships had come as far as they could go- since Dunkirk beach had numerous submerged rocks, the evacuating British had to wade through a hundred yards of waist-deep water to board. However, the Germans were aware of Churchill’s ploy and their long-range guns shelled the beach as the first Little Ships pulled in. Almost a hundred British troops were killed or wounded. Haig ordered the British guns to concentrate their fire on said artillery, with the result that the afternoon was spent in a substantial artillery duel. A lack of artillery and the fact that they were shipping out much of their manpower forced the British to substantially contract their position. The Field Marshal felt that was a reasonable price to pay, and many agreed with him. By one PM, the Little Ships were full and ready to go.

    This photo was taken by a Dutch correspondent shortly after twelve on Dunkirk beach; exhausted British troops wait to be taken off.

    Then the trouble started.

    As mentioned above, the Germans were not blind to the Little Ships’ manoeuvre. Their lunchtime barrage had been an attempt to instill fear and kill troops, but its purpose was also to test for the presence of the Little Ships- the German commander calculated that the British wouldn’t return heavy fire unless their precious vessels had arrived. As soon as the extent of the British counter bombardment became apparent, the German commander telephoned Erich von Falkenhayn with the news. Falkenhayn then issued a coded order to the U-boats moved to the English Channel to interfere with Dynamo- their quarry would be along soon. (6) At approximately one-thirty PM, as the Little Ships headed back to Deal, the weight of a dozen or more men making them noticeably lower in the water, the submarines struck. The handful of Royal Navy destroyers were the first targets, and three were torpedoed in ten minutes; the advantage of the element of surprise. The survivors fought back with depth charges, but the numbers weren’t on their side. In their haste to flee northeast, several panic-stricken Little Ship captains sailed into mines, only furthering chaos. It was like a turkey hunt for the German captains, who merrily let loose with torpedoes and machine-guns. Out of some 800 Little Ships carrying roughly 13,000 men, a mere 562 made it back to England, while only 8,700 evacuees survived to stand in the pub again.

    From his headquarters in Dunkirk’s small library, Sir Douglas Haig knew he was trapped, and declared to his men that “With our backs to the wall, each one of us must fight on to the end.” The men fought valiantly, making the Germans pay in blood for every metre they advanced towards the beach. However, they were only delaying the inevitable, and at ten AM on the thirty-first, German troops burst into Haig’s headquarters. The Field Marshal killed one and wounded another before being taken prisoner. Six hours later, the Germans burst onto Dunkirk beach. Despite a full day of evacuation, over ten thousand British troops were still on the beach, and they fought surprisingly well. The Germans spent the rest of the day subduing the beach, fighting not ceasing until well past dusk, when the surviving Tommies threw up their hands. All told, nearly 20,000 British troops stepped into captivity on 31 May, Sir Douglas Haig included. Falkenhayn was now free to turn all his energy on the British forces stretching from Flanders to the Somme River…

    As for Winston Churchill, he found out about the Little Ships Massacre roughly two hours after the fact. His response was both quintessential and the target of much scorn from his plethora of enemies. Hands shaking, he removed his glasses and downed a glass of scotch in one go, before uttering one of his famous quotes. “Wars have never been won by evacuations, it is true, but seldom have wars been lost by them. As with so much, we British are first in this.” Such a pithy quote gives no hint of the fate to befall the First Lord of the Admiralty. Once Herbert Asquith found out about the fiasco, he summoned Churchill to Whitehall and gave him a thorough dressing-down. An understandably furious Asquith, who was after all fearful for his own job, placed responsibility for the deaths of five thousand Britons at sea the previous day squarely on Churchill’s head. Asquith would subsequently develop this attack in his memoirs; in the two chapters Churchill devoted in his to the last week of the Great War, he spent a voluminous ten pages fiercely defending himself. All throughout the 1920s, both men would appear in court time and time again, suing the other for libel. But here on a rainy spring day in 1916, Asquith pounded the table and stripped Churchill of his post, calling him incompetent and a disgrace to the history of the Royal Navy. By all accounts, Churchill fought back, calling the Prime Minister a scoundrel, a damn fool for leading the country into an unwinnable war, and if popular rumour is to be believed, several less printable adjectives. According to one of Asquith’s bodyguards, the argument grew so heated that they almost had to eject Churchill from No. 10 by force.

    Bitter drama in London aside, if the UK thought it had suffered enough, it hadn’t seen the worst yet…

    The day after the Little Ships Massacre, another whammy hit the British Empire off the Danish coast. The German High Seas Fleet, which had henceforth remained cooped up in Baltic ports, set out on the 31st. One can find the roots of the battle in the morning of 31 May, when the High Seas Fleet left harbour. Within hours, the UK’s code-breakers knew what had happened, and the Admiralty gave the go-ahead for the Royal Navy to hunt down and destroy the Germans. Sir David Beatty led his naval contingent into the North Sea to intercept Admiral Franz Hipper and lead him towards Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet, which would crush the Germans… surely.

    At 2:20 PM, one of Beatty’s ships detected several German torpedo boats, engaging them eight minutes later. Hipper moved south, hoping that the British would chase him and run into Admiral Reinhard Scheer. Together, he hoped, they could defeat Beatty and achieve their purpose. The two fleets grappled with each other as they steamed southeast, the first shots being fired at twelve minutes to four. The Royal Navy was soon in for an unpleasant discovery; years of attempting to build as many ships as possible had led to armour being somewhat neglected. German shells could easily cut through the steel plating and make for the highly explosive ammunition magazine, with predictable results. Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion was severely damaged, and only a chance flood in the magazine saved her from a fatal fireball. HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary weren’t so lucky- both were torn apart by fire, and out of 2,294 sailors on both ships, eleven survived. However, things were soon about to turn around. At approximately four PM, Beatty realised he was being led into the jaws of Scheer’s fleet and turned around, putting everything he had into the flight north. Now, the roles were reversed: Beatty led Hipper and Scheer towards Jellicoe while trading fire with them. The moment everyone had been waiting for came at approximately six PM, when both British fleets clashed with both German ones. This was only the third time in history that two fully metal battleship fleets had clashed (the other two both being in the Russo-Japanese War), and one would have to go back to Nelson’s day to find a naval battle of such scope. HMS Defence took a ferocious pounding, while the somewhat misnamed battleship HMS Invincible was sent flying in all directions barely half an hour into the fighting. A whopping 1,026 Royal Navy sailors died with the latter. Making the most of their numerical advantage, the British lobbed shells at the Germans at an unmatchable rate. Shortly before seven PM, Jellicoe’s dreadnoughts “crossed the T”- that is, they moved into a sideways position vis-à-vis the Germans, turning the fury of their side guns on them. Not wanting to become one with the Indefatigable, Queen Mary, Defence, and Invincible (among others), Scheer decided it was high time to call it a day. The High Seas Fleet looped to the southwest, intending to reach Wilhelmshaven. Newly confident now that he’d got them on the run, Jellicoe opted to cut them off and turned his fleet due south. Before too long, the Royal Navy and High Seas Fleet were trading shots once more. Aware that the foe outgunned him, Scheer opted to save his battleships- not only were they more useful in combat, but the Kaiser would censure him had he lost the prestige-winning heavy ships. The German battlecruisers took egregious damage, and many a German sailor died so Scheer could get away. By now, it was dusk, meaning Jellicoe’s chances of bringing a successful pursuit off were nil. Aboard SMS Friedrich der Grosse, Scheer weighed his options. Clearly, despite inflicting serious losses on the enemy, he had failed in his primary objective- to isolate and sink a substantial portion of the Grand Fleet. His own losses had been nearly as heavy as those of the British, with many of his battlecruisers limping like wounded pack animals, totally dependent on the herd for survival. If he couldn’t use darkness as his cloak to return to safety, things might turn very ugly in the morning. Scheer opted to take the fastest route home via Horn’s Reef. This was fortunate, as Jellicoe had expected action further north, with the result that Horn’s Reef was guarded by little more than a destroyer flotilla. When the two collided at approximately 11:20 PM, the cautious British refrained from attacking for fear that the approaching ships might be friendly. Scheer didn’t waste the element of surprise, and inflicted heavy casualties on the British. As earlier in the day, the Royal Navy shot itself in the foot by not maintaining effective communication with Jellicoe, thus leaving the destroyers to duke it out with the High Seas Fleet. The end result was predictable: at 2 AM on 1 June, having lost the pre-dreadnought SMS Pommern and a crippled battlecruiser, the remnants of the High Seas Fleet pulled away. When he finally found out, Jellicoe wasn’t worried, confident that he would be able to intercept and destroy Scheer that day. It was not to be. A little after lunchtime, an exhausted Scheer dropped anchor at Wilhelmshaven, ending the Battle of Jutland. Both sides had given it all they had, and both sides had suffered tremendously. The High Seas Fleet had lost a battlecruiser, a pre-dreadnought, four light cruisers, five destroyers, and 2,551 lives, while the Royal Navy had lost three battlecruisers, three armoured cruisers, eight destroyers, and 6,094 lives.

    Battleships advancing under heavy fire at Jutland.

    The legacy of Jutland is hard to pin down. Certainly, the British achieved a tactical victory- given their numerical superiority, such a thing was to be expected. What is more controversial is the battle’s long-term strategic impact. In a typical bit of hyperbole, Kaiser Wilhelm exclaimed that “the spirit of Trafalgar is broken!”, but one can dismiss that as nationalist bluster. The Royal Navy had been damaged, but it was still the strongest fleet in the world, certainly stronger than the Kaiserliche Marine. A second sortie would surely have failed… and this is where discussion of Jutland’s strategic implications hit a wall. Considering that the Anglo-German war had but a week left, we shall never know how the naval war might’ve developed had hostilities stretched on into 1917. One guess was made in the 2003 work Year Three on the High Seas, a counterfactual history by Swedish naval historian G.E. Larsen. Larsen’s thesis was that the Royal Navy blockade could’ve held indefinitely, and that Britain could’ve starved Germany into submission by mid-1917 without setting a boot in France. The author remains sceptical; his views are that German access to French ports could’ve circumvented the blockade perfectly fine, and that the Kaiser could’ve pushed for such a thing. What is certain is that following the Dynamo debacle, news of a bloody naval battle was not what the British public nor the British government wanted to hear, and it pushed many towards a pro-peace stance. At any rate, speculation aside, the events of 5 June would persuade the British that peace had to be made.

    Sir Herbert Kitchener was a deeply respected figure in Great Britain. He had been the senior commander of the BEF for the first two years of the war, outranking Sir John French. Despite losing his post at the end of 1915, his name still carried a great deal of gravitas. Disgusted by the deadlock in the West, he had taken an interest in the Eastern Front as a means of galvanising the Entente war effort. The collapse of France had only heightened his interest in the Tsar’s potential, and he was en route to Arkhangelsk to meet prominent Russian officials. Britain had a policy of funneling borrowed American money to Petrograd, and Kitchener would likely have discussed the possibility of another massive loan. However, the weather turned foul, and before too long, a force-9 gale was tossing his ship about like a bath toy. Unsurprisingly, she struck a mine, sending the British hero to a watery grave. That same day, hundreds of miles to the south, another disaster struck the Royal Navy. Patrolling halfway between Malta and Marseilles, Italian submarine skipper Luigi Rizzo encountered the dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth, and no destroyers were in sight. Scarcely believing his good luck, Rizzo sent two torpedoes into the Queen Elizabeth’s hull, and watched with great satisfaction as the behemoth slipped below the waterline. The battleship was too far from land for any boats to come by, and thus those who didn’t initially drown succumbed to exhaustion.

    London found out about the twin losses at roughly the same time, creating much confusion. Kitchener was dead? Had he been torpedoed, had he struck a mine, or what? But those reports must be wrong- he wasn’t anywhere near the Queen Elizabeth. It took some time to figure out that the loss of Kitchener and the loss of the dreadnought were coincidences, but by the end of the day, Asquith was aware of the day’s damage. His task was to figure out a way to present this to the public. Those living in Kent were already amply aware of how bad things were- if they hadn’t seen the Dynamo evacuees firsthand, someone they knew had. Elsewhere, morale wasn’t as bad, but there was still a dreadful sense that things were going wrong. With Russia tottering, the French knocked out of the war, tens of thousands of young men sitting behind German barbed wire, many more totally isolated and in mortal danger, not one but three embarrassments at sea, the capture of Earl Haig, and the death of Lord Kitchener, (all of which save the first had occurred within a month) the appetite of many, proletarian and politician alike, for yet more conflict was nil. From Asquith’s perspective, if he tried to send the Dynamo evacuees across the Channel again, either they’d get sunk or mutiny; both seemed just as likely and as disastrous. What would be worse was the spectre of riots breaking out over why the UK continued to put its blood and money into a war which was clearly lost. If that happened… well, Asquith had no desire to see revolution on his streets. Cognisant that no British arms could alter the situation on the Continent, and aware that his government’s life expectancy could be measured in weeks if not days, on 7 June, Herbert Asquith sent a telegram to Sir Mansfield Findlay, the British ambassador in Oslo. Would the Norwegian government be interested in brokering an armistice with the British?

    Sir Findlay telegraphed back on the eighth that King Haakon VII’s government would be interested in such a thing. Asquith was relieved, as the Norwegians had demonstrated pro-Entente sympathies in the past, and it was hoped that they might influence things Britain’s way. Later that day, Sir Findlay added that the German ambassador to Norway had received information from his government; the Kaiser and his associates were interested in a cease-fire as well. Sagging his shoulders with relief, Asquith telephoned Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. He was to pack his bags and brush up on his Norwegian; a ticket from Glasgow to Oslo had already been booked.

    Although Grey arrived in Oslo on the evening of the twelfth, the late hour meant that negotiations didn’t commence until the next morning. His opposite number was Arthur Zimmermann, he who had won over Italy some twenty months previous. The Germans treated Grey with more respect than Picot and Cambrone had been and gave British interests more consideration. The reason was simple: the UK had been beaten, but it hadn’t been crushed. Germany couldn’t hope to eliminate its warmaking capacity the way it had with France. Ultimately, the armistice signed on the thirteenth of June 1916, while still representing a British capitulation, was not as crushing as the one imposed France. The highlights were:

    • All fighting between British and German troops is to cease within twelve hours
    • No combat at sea is to take place; if attacked, either side may defend itself
    • The U-boat campaign against British shipping is to cease as soon as submarine commanders can be informed, while the Royal Navy units involved in the “distant” blockade of Germany are to enter port no later than 1 July.
    • The remaining British units in France are to be disarmed and provided with transportation home at the expense of the UK Government. Germany shall have until 13 August to ensure that all British servicemen are repatriated.
    • All prisoners and captured equipment are to be retained for the moment and returned within thirty days of the signing of a peace treaty, this includes wounded men in stable condition.
    The last point caused a great deal of controversy when announced publicly. Asquith was deeply uncomfortable with consigning thousands upon thousands of his men- including Earl Haig, for heaven’s sake!- to humiliating captivity, and consoled himself with the knowledge that a peace treaty would soon be signed. From the German perspective, keeping thousands of British prisoners would give them a valuable bargaining chip when a proper peace treaty was signed. Meanwhile, they prepared for a week of speeches, parades, and alcohol, while Falkenhayn dreamt of a war-winning campaign in the East. Asquith, who would be forced out of office and replaced by David Lloyd George seven days later, prepared to face the furious press and the furious opposition in Parliament. From his cushy exile in Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill shook his fist at the Government and called Asquith a thousand names. Earl Haig grit his teeth and ate his sauerkraut with the other men, while the dispossessed King of the Belgians sank into depression. And over in Petrograd, Tsar Nicholas began sweating.

    Germany had won in the West, and its place in the sun seemed tantalisingly close…

    1. A little out-of-character, I know, but necessary to let the chapter run properly.
    2. He knows a lost cause when he sees one!
    3. No Gallipoli means that Churchill is First Sea Lord for longer ITTL.
    4. Obviously, IOTL this joke was used at Stalingrad.
    5. All will be revealed in time. ;)
    6. These were the same U-boats which the British nearly bumped into at the start of the Battle of Jutland IOTL.
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    Chapter 11- Russian Disintegration
  • Chapter Eleven: Russian Disintegration
    "I tell you, my good man, it is nothing to worry about! Last year, we lost Poland, and we are still on our feet. I have every confidence that Cousin Willy will soon come to his senses."
    -Tsar Nicholas II, upon hearing of the new German offensive.

    "Breaking through the mountains of Italy was exhilarating, to be sure. And having the honour of leading my men in the Kaiserschlacht was a moment I shall proudly remember for the rest of my days. But speaking as a tactician, my service in the Oststorm of that last summer was the most fruitful time of my career up to that point. It was in the Baltics that the skeleton of the Strumtruppenkorps was laid down. We have been building upon that foundation for ten years now."
    - Oskar von Hutier, in a 1926 interview for the Deutsche Zeitung.

    "Ever since donning
    feldgrau in that golden summer of 1914, I had known that I was serving the German people, and there was nothing better than that. But as my platoon trooped through the Baltic plains that hot summer, watching the Russians flee before us... I had never known such happiness."
    Corporal Adolf Hitler, Imperial German Army.

    The Anglo-German armistice left Russia standing alone, with the Central Powers eager to knock her down. After all, no major action had occurred in the East since last September. That both sides had been content to remain quiet throughout the tumultuous first half of 1916 indicated Russian weakness- surely a stronger Russia would’ve tried to divert Germans from Verdun or the Kaiserschlacht?

    Fighting three nations on a nine-hundred-mile front had left Russia badly overextended. 1914 had brought not a triumphant march to Berlin, but disaster in East Prussia and a bloody advance in Galicia. 1915 had seen the Gorlice-Tarnow debacle and Romanian betrayal. And of course, the day-to-day fighting of trench warfare had taken its toll. By the summer of 1916, five million men and nearly all of the prewar professional soldiers were dead. Russia’s massive population helped contain the damage, but each new conscription class barely covered casualties. Losses were disproportionately high amongst officers, and by 1916, the rank and file outnumbered their superiors by 250:1. One major explanation for the lack of officers was outdated notions of chivalry and a desire to lead from the front; many heroic bayonet charges had ended with a German machine-gun bullet. The price for the gallantry of these men was that Russia's masses were led predominantly by men promoted from the ranks. Such men lacked the education and skill of professionals, many were illiterate, and few understood much about battlefield tactics on a large scale. All too often, they simply threw men forward into machine-gun fire, further exacerbating the country’s manpower problems. In terms of equipment, the Russian Army was the worst off of any major combatant. Monthly rifle production was less than a third of what it ought to have been, while rations and uniforms weren’t as plentiful as they ought to have been. Increasingly, hungry Russian troops turned to plundering from the locals, which did little to endear them to anyone. Some officers tried to put a stop to the practice, but more shrugged and took a leg of unofficial chicken for themselves.

    All this to say, when Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff looked east, they saw a land of opportunity- the chance for them to strike the final, war-winning blow and to even the score with Falkenhayn.

    The Warsaw Conference of 15 June saw Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf meet to discuss a plan for a war-winning offensive in the East. Hindenburg and Ludendorff envisaged a strike using German troops in the centre of the front aimed at Minsk, while the Austro-Hungarians put all their weight into western Ukraine. It was expected that the Romanians would attempt something in Bessarabia, as well. However, transferring troops from the West would take time, and the warm summer months- prime campaign season!- was ticking away. There was a general feeling that they could end the war in 1916, and that not to do so would be a shame costing good German lives. It was then that Kaiser Wilhelm came up with a typically grandiose scheme which he was sure would terrify the Russians.

    As mentioned in the previous chapter, the Kaiser had a penchant for sea battles, finding in them the excitement sorely lacking in trench warfare. He was convinced that it was Jutland above all which had persuaded Asquith to surrender, and hoped to replicate the achievement with Russia. Following the Anglo-German ceasefire, he ordered Admiral Scheer to move the High Seas Fleet to Danzig, whence it was to patrol the eastern Baltic for any Russian ships. Personally, Admiral Scheer was lukewarm about the idea; his ships had taken a beating at Jutland, and he didn’t have overwhelming material superiority. If his luck ran out, things could go very wrong, he gently impressed on his sovereign. Wilhelm would have none of it. Scheer would seek a glorious battle of decision, and he would win it, or else the Kaiser would find a new admiral of the High Seas Fleet. Thus, Scheer put to sea on the twenty-third of June. Russian intelligence, for once, was up to scratch, and Vice-Admiral A.I. Nepenin activated battle alert shortly before three PM. Not only that, he detected Scheer first, a few miles west of the small Baltic island of Saaremaa. The battleship Petropavlovsk opened fire at 7:20 PM, and before long the entire Baltic Fleet was pounding away. Furious at being caught off-guard, Scheer steamed southwest, hoping to strain the Russian coal supplies. As at Jutland, both sides pounded at each other during the chase, during which the Germans lost the torpedo boat G.38, but damaged the Russian torpedo boats Gavriil and Orfei. Tellingly, the German warships weren’t in one big column; instead they moved in clusters of three or four. This not only gave them more mobility than the line of Russian ships stretching for miles, it enabled them to concentrate fire better. After half an hour, Scheer abruptly halted the retreat and turned his ships around so the broadside guns were able to pound the tar out of the Russians. The firepower thus unleashed had devastating effects on Nepenin’s fleet, crippling the leading battleship Imperator Pavel I in four minutes. While the Pavel I’s captain desperately beat a retreat to safety, the other Russian ships clumsily tried to rearrange their formation- not a simple thing to do in a line stretching for well over a mile. Captains at the back were blind to what was going on, and too many were hesitant to advance into heavy gunfire.

    Vice-Admiral Nepenin, the man who led the bulk of the Russian Baltic Fleet to a watery grave.

    While Vice-Admiral Nepenin desperately tried to rearrange his fleet, the German ships- grouped in packets of three and four for this precise reason- moved around the flank of the long Russian column. Nepenin had committed a serious blunder which Scheer was now trying to exploit. Assuming that the Germans would amass their fleet in a long column, he’d put his battleships up front, close together- the hope being that they could concentrate their fire on the first target they saw and the density of firepower thus created could blast it to smithereens. However, Nepenin had assumed that it would be his ships, not Scheer’s, who could deploy their broadsides first. Thus, the top-heaviness of his fleet had none of the effects he’d hoped for, while presenting as daring a German commander as Scheer an opportunity. Packets of German ships now began blasting away at the “neck” of the Russian column, cutting the battleships off from the light cruisers and torpedo boats. Now, Scheer set about slaying his encircled enemy. From 8:15 to 8:40 PM, the dreadnoughts slugged it out like dinosaurs fighting over a kill. Both sides took horrible losses, but after twenty minutes, the German advantage in quality made itself felt. His flagship having suffered grievous damage, Nepenin gave the order to retreat at 8:40. Given that German warships surrounded him, escape would not be a simple task. A breakthrough by force would be needed. Thus, the Russian vice-admiral gave the order to concentrate all fire on the German SMS Nassau, which was blocking the northeast route home. One may pity the crew of the Nassau, the first German dreadnought ever, who took seven and a half minutes of blisteringly heavy fire before a shell hit the armour protecting the magazine. A great fireball consumed her at 8:48 PM, killing all but seven of her crew. However, destroying the Nassau and opening up a route home was a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one. For every moment the Russians spent on pounding the Nassau was a moment the rest of the German fleet could fire at will with minimal opposition. The Slava and Tsarevich were both destroyed, with virtually all the other battleships suffering grievous damage. Cognisant that he too had suffered, Scheer was content to let the rest of the Baltic Fleet’s battleships limp home and turned on the terrified smaller Russian ships. Only the cloak of darkness falling over the blood-filled waters- making the Germans wary of hitting one another by mistake- let some of the Russian cruisers and torpedo boats flee. (1) When Vice-Admiral Nepenin dropped anchor at Petrograd shortly after lunch on the 24th, he brought back five battleships, ten cruisers, and fourteen torpedo boats, all of which were badly in need of repair. When a servant woke Tsar Nicholas up from his afternoon nap with news of the debacle, he quipped, “Well, we shall have to get our fish from elsewhere, eh? Never mind. Now don’t disturb me, I need my beauty sleep!”

    Unfortunately, the Central Powers would interrupt more of his naps in the weeks to come.

    The Battle of Saaremaa had kept both sides distracted long enough for Hindenburg and Ludendorff to scrounge up the forces they needed for their big push. It wasn’t easy- Falkenhayn, who was after all their nominal superior, had no intention of seeing his best men bloodied for the sake of his rivals- but by the start of July, he had moved some 25 divisions from west to east. Amongst these was a division commanded by Oskar von Hutier, comprised of men who’d fought at Bardonecchia, during the Kaiserschlacht, and at Third Ypres. This elite division had spent the past weeks polishing up on what was fast becoming dubbed Hutierkrieg (2). Their commander, boasting to his men that they would take the Russians by storm, soon began referring to them as Sturmtruppen- the name stuck, and even today, the Sturmtruppenkorps is the most prestigious branch of the Imperial German military, and the one which sees combat more than any other. (3). Now, it was about to get its baptism of fire, placed in the front line just outside occupied Riga. And, on the tenth of July 1916, following a hurricane barrage, they were the first to leap over the top and into the Russian lines. Close to six hundred thousand of their countrymen followed suit.

    All across the Eastern Front, 10 July brought a great Central Powers advance. In the north, the Germans focussed their attention on the unoccupied northern Baltics. Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff hoped to advance to the gates of Petrograd and scare Tsar Nicholas into making peace. The Sturmtruppen cut around the still-Russian town of Dvinsk, isolating it as they moved north. Slower units encircled the town and its four-division garrison, choking it for ten days before the Russian commander threw up his hands. Elsewhere, the advance was even more rapid, with the Kaiser’s armies penetrating into Latvia at a rate of three miles a day- a phenomenal speed by Great War standards. Although the German Army of 1916 still relied upon hooves and human feet- motorised transport still a long way in the future- this consistent advance took them far, and by the second week of August, they were across the Estonian border. Russian numerical superiority wasn’t enough to halt the German attacks- when half the men against you have no gun, they scarcely count. Harried day after day by the Germans, ill-fed, lacking rifles, and drying out in the baking July sun, many Russians threw their hands up, content to sit the rest of the war out in a PoW camp. Many of the Russian defenders were ethnic Balts fighting on their homeland; to them, the advancing Germans more often than not represented liberators from two centuries of oppressive Russian rule. Desertions to the German ranks became common amongst these men. However, there was no mass desertion a la francaise. Generally, Russian troops obeyed orders and fought for hours at a time, or gave their lives in futile counterattacks. Not that it did them much good; Rival (Tallinn) (4) on the Baltic fell on the seventh of September, after which the Germans triumphantly settled into quarters. Two months of fighting had carried them to within two hundred miles of Petrograd, and there was a feeling amongst the men that they could enjoy Christmas dinner in the Tsar’s palace.

    To the south, Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf awaited his moment of glory. Despite being the most senior officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army, he hadn’t had many in the war- other men had won the successes of Gorlice-Tarnow and the Serbian campaign. (5) Now, he had the bulk of the Austro-Hungarian Army at his command, and he was bloody well going to make the most of it. While France fell to pieces and England tried to pull her men home, five and a half million men (6) of every nationality had mustered under the Imperial banner in Galicia. Aside from men on internal security duties and holding down Serbia, every soldier in the Dual Monarchy was crammed into these trenches, waiting for the whistle to blow. Even if not all loved their country- more than a few Hungarians pondered why they were shipping their harvests to Vienna year after year- they weren’t about to desert at the eleventh hour. Austria-Hungary’s equipment situation was imperfect, but every man had a rifle when he went over the top. The Dual Monarchy had been through a tremendous deal, and it was about to reap what it had been sowing ever since those bullets went into Franz Ferdinand two years ago.

    A rough map of the situation before and after the Oststorm, just prior to the September Revolution.

    Conrad’s men were stretched out on a front from the Pripet Marshes to the Romanian border, close to four hundred miles. That was no accident; since they were theirs was the largest Central Powers army on the Eastern Front, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had assigned them most of the front, so as to let their own forces concentrate in one area. For that matter, second-rate Austro-Hungarian troops were mostly responsible for garrisoning conquered lands and cities. Conrad took advantage of his crushing numerical superiority by launching an offensive on a very wide front- from the Pripet Marshes to the Romanian border. It was an ambitious goal, but with 5.5 million men, it seemed plausible. (7) Thus, the Dual Monarchy’s men leapt out of the trenches in the small hours of the tenth.

    Despite Conrad’s optimism, his men were not the Sturmtruppen, and the first day of Austro-Hungarian operations didn’t go as smoothly as planned. Too often, unskilled officers who might or might not have shared a common language with the men ran out of ideas as soon as they came across a machine-gun, relying on human-wave tactics to overrun the Russians. While these operations worked, they weren’t particularly effective, and by the end of the first day, 13,000 Austro-Hungarians had been killed all across the front for an average gain of a mile. When the Austro-Hungarian generalissimo heard these statistics in the commandeered mansion in Lemberg serving as headquarters, he shrugged and declared that “the little Russians will get tired eventually. All our men need to do is keep their spirits up and be brave.”

    Inspiring words if ever there were any.

    However, there was a grain of truth in what Conrad said. Alexei Brusilov knew that he was fighting on a front from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and that the Central Powers outnumbered him by more than 2:1. (8) Russia lacked a substantial strategic reserve, meaning that any Central Powers breakthrough could roam nearly at will behind the lines. Thus, it was better to give ground than have the line pulled taut and snap. On 13 July, Brusilov pulled out of Rovno, having stripped it bare first, and elsewhere made plans to abandon the strip of Galicia still flying the Russian flag. Russian arms had more success to the north, where the Pripet Marshes provided a safe northern flank. Forced to ford river after river and wade through endless swamp, Austro-Hungarian troops didn’t harry the Russians very hard in the north, and Conrad is said to have sarcastically questioned whether there was even a war on there. As the baking summer of 1916 ground on, though, Brusilov found it increasingly hard to defy the laws of attrition. Despite having made strides in that area since taking command in the area, the Russian commander found that logistics- always his country’s Achilles heel- were biting his men. Once July turned into August, ammunition started drying up, while gunners had to start rationing their shells. Without endless ammunition, machine-gunners couldn’t do their deadly work, meaning that more and more Austro-Hungarian human wave attacks got through. Men with rifle trouble couldn’t get replacements, while the supply of rations to the front became erratic, forcing soldiers to leave the frontlines to plunder. Clearly, this wasn’t an army that could stop 5.5 million men. Thus, biting the bullet, Brusilov pulled back. While he had intended only for a minor withdrawal, few men wanted to stop running once they started, and the Austro-Hungarian advance began picking up steam. Naturally, Conrad took all the credit, boasting that his aggressive tactics and skill would carry his men to the Dnieper! Rovno fell on the first of September, while the Russian-occupied sliver of Galicia fell days later. By the middle of the month, the Russian Seventh and Ninth Armies had taken a severe mauling and were retreating into western Ukraine. Conrad’s greatest venture had been a surprising success.

    From left to right: Romanian Field marshal Constantin Prezan, overwhelmed Russian general Alexei Brusilov, and Austro-Hungarian supremo Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf. Both Prezan and Brusilov date from around the time of the Oststorm.
    Screen Shot 2020-09-12 at 7.37.52 pm.png

    South of the Austro-Hungarians, the small Romanian Army was making its presence felt. They had efficiently replaced their losses since joining the war, and had approximately 650,000 men under arms in the summer of 1916. Since their offensive against Russia in the autumn of 1915 which brought them into the war, Bucharest had refrained from serious offensives, and thus the Bessarabian front had bogged down like the West. But when received a summons to meet Hindenburg and Ludendorff in June, Romanian Field Marshal Constantin Prezan knew he would soon send his men over the top once more. Thus, the Romanians clambered out of their trenches on 10 July into the machine-gun fire. Like their Austro-Hungarian counterparts, they lacked the sophistication of the German Army, and thus the attack saw heavy casualties amongst the attackers for little gain. None of Bessarabia’s major towns fell in the first month of fighting, and it was only the pressing demand for forces elsewhere which enabled General Prezan to advance. The fact remained that compared to Germany and Austria-Hungary, Romania wasn’t such a threat to the Russians. Hindenburg and Conrad could menace Petrograd and push into western Ukraine; the most Romania could hope to do was steal fifteen thousand square miles of worthless dust. Thus, the Russian Ninth Army came last for supplies and reinforcements. King Ferdinand’s boasts to the contrary, it was logistics and manpower which enabled the Romanian Army to gain the upper hand in Bessarabia. Nor was their advance as rapid as a more modern army’s would’ve been- they hadn’t yet conquered all of the province by the middle of September. However, on 14 September 1916, every Central Powers soldier on the Eastern Front received some shocking news.

    Revolution had come to Petrograd, and the Tsar looked to be in danger of losing his throne.

    1. Naval warfare isn’t my speciality. If this whole battle is too implausible, please say so and tell me what’s wrong with it.
    2. From now on, I will be using this term to describe the infiltration tactics practised at OTL Riga and Caporetto, as well as TTL’s Bardonecchia.
    3. It is viewed by TTL’s Germans in the same way OTL Americans view the Marine Corps.
    4. Many thanks to @Snowstalker for pointing this one out!
    5. That said, there’s a flip side- like Cadorna, he isn’t seen as a bumbling idiot ITTL, either.
    6. IOTL, Wikipedia says that there were 7.8 million by October of 1917. If the Dual Monarchy has a total of six and a half million by the summer of 1916, with friendly Italy and Romania, if a million are used for internal security/occupying Serbia and other areas, that gives us 5.5 million for the East. A rough number, but I hope the point is clear.
    7. Remember that Brusilov launched his offensive with only a million and a half.
    8. Some very, very rough calculations have given me 6.675 million Central Powers troops altogether against 3,200,000 Russians. If these numbers are too far from the truth, please tell me and I’ll retcon! Really, please- they were the result of 2 hours of searching and some educated guesses and I don’t trust them a bit!
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    Chapter 12- The September Revolution
  • Chapter Twelve- The September Revolution

    The Russian Revolution began with a loaf of bread.

    7 September 1916 started off like any other for the inhabitants of Petrograd. Light snow fell from an iron-grey sky while newspapers yelled about an imminent counterstroke to drive the Germans back to their border. Weary labourers ignored the lies in the paper as they trudged off for another grueling day, while women darted off to the ration queues. And it is one of these women who shall be the focus of our story.

    Elenya Veroshenka shivered as the wind tugged at her skirt. She held a wicker basket in one hand and a wad of rubles in the other. The queue to get in the shops stretched on and on, and she pulled out a pen and paper to pass the time. Dear Andrei, she wrote, hope you are well, wherever you are. Censorship prevented her brother from giving his location. Things are not as bad as they might be- we still have enough to eat and enough coal. Elenya shook her head at the bare-faced lie. Half a loaf of bread and a little wilted cabbage wasn’t enough, and she had run out of coal last Tuesday. But she didn’t want to worry her younger brother. Mother, Father, and little Pyotr send their love. You do not need to worry at all. I was relieved to hear that you made it out of that battle in one piece. I do hope you are doing all right, not too cold at nights- if only I had a spare coat I could give you! Every day, I light a candle for your sake. Dear Andrei, I look forward to when this war is over, and you can come back home to be with us again. But grumbling will do us no good. Lots of love, Elenya.

    Elenya tucked her letter away as she reached the front of the queue. Simeon’s general store was nice and warm, and she wanted to savour the heat for as long as possible.

    “Come on in there, come on in. No use letting the heat out.” Simeon, a tall, weedy man too old for the Army, wagged a finger at Elenya. “Now then, let’s see that ration card. Can’t do too much without it, can I?” Chuckling unpleasantly, Simeon handed her a wrapped loaf. It looked like a rock, hardly worth the exorbitant cost- but it was better than starving. “See you again, my girl.” Elenya nibbled a corner of the bread, but spat it out immediately.

    “Sawdust! There’s got to be sawdust in this!” Simeon melted under her glare. “Well, well, there is a war on, don’t you know?” He shrugged. “And my overhead is going up- you can’t get things any more. And I had to make things stretch. What would you have done, eh?”

    Anger bubbled inside Elenya. “Charging those prices for… for this? You don’t get it, do you? Some of us have to work, not just sit in the shop counting change. It isn’t so easy for us. Perhaps I ought to find another baker.” Elenya furiously drummed her fingers on the counter. She knew that was unlikely, but it might scare the penny-pinching shopkeeper. “You’re a cheat!”

    “Come on”, yelled the woman in the queue behind Elenya, “bring out the good things! We know you have them.” Simeon turned red. “I… I don’t know what any of you mean! Really!”

    “Don’t you? You mean to say you eat sawdust with your bread? How did you stay so healthy? My brother’s at the front, fighting and suffering for Russia, while you are a war profiteer, nothing else!”

    “How dare you?” Simeon pounded the table, red-faced. “I am as loyal a Russian as you- why, I fought in Manchuria in 1904, and…” Elenya hurled her loaf of black bread at him. Simeon howled and fell to the ground, clutching his nose.

    “Come on! Let’s see what he’s really got!” She and a few others smashed the door to the stockroom. There were dozens of good, white loaves there, and plenty of good potatoes and cabbage. The warm, silky bread tasted like a slice of heaven, and Elenya joyfully stashed three loaves and pounds of potatoes in her bag. “Help! Help!”, Simeon cried. “Thievery!”

    Damn, Elenya thought, making herself scarce. However, a panic-stricken woman running out of a greengrocer with a bag full of good food was deeply suspicious. People scattered in every direction, trying to make way with their ill-gotten gains. Thumping footsteps behind her set her heart racing...

    “Hold it right there!” Elenya ignored the policeman and ran even faster, desperately trying to turn a corner and get home. “Hold it, I said, damn you!” She heard a click and looked over her shoulder in fear. An explosive bang, a moment of searing pain and then… nothing.


    "Clearly, the people of our great empire have spoken. I have judged that my presence as Emperor is no longer advantageous to Russia, and in this time of national exertion, we cannot afford even the slightest conflict or deviation if it can be prevented. Therefore, I announce my abdication as Tsar of All the Russias. My brother, the Grand Duke Michael, is to succeed me. May God bless him, and may this be the start of a long and glorious future for the Russian people."
    Tsar Nicholas II's Act of Abdication, 15 September 1916.

    "Down with the oppressive regime of Nicholas! Long live the workers! As leader of the Central Worker's Group, I hereby declare the freedom of the people of Petrograd!"
    Julius Martov, 15 September 1916.

    "Today, we remember Elenya Veroshenka's death as the beginning of a long struggle in Russia, on our path towards a new, more peaceful place in the world. It has been a century since Tsar Nicholas' regime was overthrown, and the Motherland has come a long way since then. And I have every confidence that we will go even further in the next century."
    Russian president Dimitry Ershonogov in a speech before laying a wreath on the spot where Elenya Veroshenka was killed, on 7 September 2016. He would make a much grander speech on Revolution Day a week later.

    Russian police killed four elderly ladies on 7 September. This earned them a mild reprimand from their superiors, and they expected nothing serious to come of it. Elenya Veroshenka’s funeral took place at a local Orthodox church on the ninth, and everyone hoped it would be a low-profile affair.

    They were soon to have their hopes dashed.

    Elenya’s funeral drew some 200 people, over ten times the number expected. Plenty of Petrograders, unhappy at their conditions, wanted to pay their respects. Her brother Andrei was home on compassionate leave, and after the funeral muttered to a few friends that he’d “like to get the bastard who killed my sister.” He had an Army knife with him and went off searching for the policeman with a few others. That night, they found the man and threw his body in a ditch. The police brutally searched for the murderer, arresting and killing innocents, but Andrei was nowhere to be found. The crackdown brought plenty of grumbling amongst the workers of Petrograd. A second, larger protest took place on the tenth in front of the mayor’s mansion, with almost four thousand people yelling about everything from Elenya’s murder to the economic conditions, while the capital’s factory workers staged strikes in solidarity. As Vladimir Lenin was later to quip, the people of Petrograd were a tinderbox, and Elenya Veroshenka’s murder lit the fuse. The mayor was understandably panicked and called out the town garrison. Clashes began at 11:20 and lasted for the better part of an hour- sixty civilians died and a further 220 were wounded. By now, the Tsar was fully aware of what was going on, but he was unconcerned. The people loved their emperor; this was just the work of a few radicals. In a week’s time, the whole thing would blow over.

    Of course, things didn’t play out that way.

    When word got out of what had happened in Petrograd, widespread unrest broke out in other Russian cities. Everyone was hungry, tired, grieving for their lost loved ones, and more than a few had sharp questions. If the Army could butcher old ladies and brutally massacre peaceful demonstrators, why couldn’t it win the war? If the Tsar’s government was so bloody wonderful, why were bread and coal so expensive? Seizing upon the moment to demand better conditions, workers in Moscow went on strike, and before too long, a general strike paralysed the Russian Empire’s second city. The Muscovite police and Army garrison had no more political sense than their counterparts in the capital, and attempts to get the workers back by force quickly turned into bloody riots… and the pattern repeated itself in Kiev, Smolensk, and even distant Vladivostok.

    Tsar Nicholas’ regime was coming apart.

    The Tsar had always lived in his own world, willfully blinding himself to twentieth-century politics. When he looked back on his family’s history, Nicholas saw three hundred years of absolute monarchy, and that it was 1916 was irrelevant. Nicholas believed that his family’s mission from God to rule could never change. Autocracy was nothing new in Russia, but most of Nicholas’ predecessors knew enough to not be too reactionary. But in the Tsar’s golden cocoon, not only was he invincible, so was Russia. The Russo-Japanese War had resulted from Japanese treachery, while he pinned the humiliating peace on the failure of his diplomats. Nicholas honestly believed that the 1905 revolution had come about by accident and despised the fact that the revolutionaries had forced him to establish a parliament- God’s agent needed no one’s approval to rule! Nicholas also believed in the bottom of his heart that the people loved him. He viewed the Russian populace with a kind of affectionate condescension, comparing the relationship to a father’s love for his small children. Thus, when he met with his advisers on 13 September, he scoffed at the idea that Russia was in real trouble. Prime Minister Boris Sturmer (1) told Nicholas that the police and Army couldn’t crush the protests and bring an end to the strikes everywhere, and thus Nicholas would have to make concessions. He advised the Tsar that publicly addressing the protesters would be enough to douse the fire, buying time for anti-corruption measures to be put in place. He should try officers accused of violent suppression of protests and take steps to increase the well-being of the populace. Sturmer knew that the Tsar had a tendency to listen to whichever minister had his ear at the moment, and hoped that if he could persuade his sovereign to address the people, this locking himself into a course of reform. Nicholas was almost convinced… before Sturmer suggested that an armistice might strengthen the Russian state.

    Tsar Nicholas blew his stack. He was not, under any circumstances, going to surrender to the Germans! He was Supreme Commander of the Russian army, and for him to conclude a cease-fire would be a betrayal of the millions of his countrymen who died in service to the Motherland. And besides, Sturmer was of German descent! There was only one reason a man with a German surname was telling the Russian tsar to conclude a peace- because he was a traitor! The Tsar flat-out called his Prime Minister an enemy agent, before sacking him on the spot. He retired to his quarters to compose a speech and let it be known that he would address the protestors from a balcony of the Winter Palace at three PM.

    He was about to shoot himself in the foot in the worst way imaginable.

    Petrograd proletarians: a fraction of the crowd gathered to hear Tsar Nicholas' speech of 14 September.

    A great crowd of Petrograders from all walks of life- some 100,000- gathered to hear their sovereign speak in the mid-afternoon of 14 September. Many of them genuinely revered him and expected him to play the role of the benevolent ruler addressing his people’s grievances. Instead, he arrived sixteen minutes late, with his wife and court favourite Grigori Rasputin on either side. If the people looked up to the Tsar, they hated the people he was literally surrounding himself with. His wife Alexandra Feodorovna was not only a German, she had become infamous for living on the high hog at the people’s expense, diverting much money into balls and banquets… and remaining in communication with her relatives in Hesse, if popular rumour was to be believed. The people whispered that Rasputin was a practitioner of black magic and an enemy agent, who had the emperor under his control through devilish means. In reality, he was a Siberian mystic and con artist whose ability to heal the sickly Crown Prince endeared him to Nicholas… but the people didn’t know that. If the Tsar harmed his cause by keeping poor company, he wrecked it the moment he opened his mouth.

    “Loyal subjects of Petrograd!

    For two long years, our beloved Motherland has been at war. German and Austrian aggression threatens our very existence, and the imperialists in Berlin and Vienna seek to reduce our glorious state to nothingness. Aided by their puppets in Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Romania, they have caused our allies to seek peace. I harbour no ill-will against the French or British for their decision and wish them the very best. Yet, as God chose my illustrious ancestor Ivan three hundred years ago, so He has called me to lead you, my children. Thus, we shall fight on to victory.

    Now, it has been brought to my notice that some of you are imperfectly satisfied with the conditions in our fair city. Let me say this to you: every morsel of bread you do not eat, every lump of coal you do not throw on the fire, is being given to the men at the front, who risk their lives day after day for your Tsar. So, take pride in your sufferings, hold your head up with every privation. Never let your loyalty to orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality waver! Do not be like the godless warmongers in Berlin or the traitors running rampant in our streets. My courtiers on either side of me stand firm in our commitment to glory, and I expect you to do the same. Never will I concede on the moral nature of my government, nor will I ever toss a scrap to the forces of anarchy and chaos. Together, subjects, we shall hold our heads high and push through to the glorious end, in the name of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality, God, and the Tsar!”

    A brass band struck up ‘God Save the Tsar’, and the people listened in stunned silence for a few seconds. Then they started yelling. They’d hoped for their sovereign to address their woes and promise concrete action, and instead they got a lot of condescending, patronising rubbish. With a hundred thousand men booing him and yelling inflammatory things, the Tsar panicked and ordered his men to break the crowd up… the first bullet flew five seconds later. Once people thought the guards were trying to massacre them, they fought back. Bricks and gunshots pummeled the soldiers, who fought back with bayonets. Now, there was a full-scale battle raging just outside the Winter Palace, with the enraged mob hell-bent on breaking in. More workers were streaming in from the city, and the Petrograd garrison was setting up barricades in the streets. Meanwhile, the remnants of the royal family fled with Rasputin to the road leading to the imperial estate at Tsarskoe Selo.

    The September Revolution of 1916 was well and truly on.

    Nicholas reached Tsarskoe Selo at close to six PM. He correctly gambled that the guards on his estate would be reliable. They let him in and gave him some horrible news: the Petrograd garrison was mutinying. Men were throwing down their arms and siding with the rioters, and it looked as though the insurgents in the city would soon crush the loyalists. Nicholas’ brother Grand Duke Michael was fighting back to little avail. But worst of all, the men added in hushed whispers, no one could guarantee the reliability of the Tsarskoe Selo garrison. Bitter over the loss of his throne, and fearful for his safety and that of his family… the wonder is not that he didn’t sleep a wink, but that he didn’t commit suicide. His brother Michael reached the estate at five AM, having lost the battle for Petrograd and fled in the night. The two had a heart-to-heart, brotherly chat as soon as they met. Events of the past day had convinced the liberal Grand Duke that the only way this could end well was if Nicholas abdicated. Nicholas loathed hearing this, but the situation was a great deal clearer now than it had been the previous day. Nicholas knew that while his political career was dead in the water, his son might still rule one day… and when that day came, he would naturally lean on his father for advice…. And besides, losing one’s head to the mob wasn’t how Nicholas wanted to go. Thus, on 15 September 1916 at six AM, Nicholas II handwrote an act of abdication while eating a bowl of kasha for breakfast- it’s preserved in the Moscow National Museum to this day, complete with a century-old stain. He went to inform Alexei of what he had done; the boy was receiving treatment from Rasputin and. Tsar Michael II (2) then headed back to the capital, naively determined to work out a peaceful ending to this mess now that he was in power.

    A photograph of Tsar Michael II taken shortly before the outbreak of the Great War

    He was far too late.

    With the help of some mutinous army units, the workers had seized control of most of Petrograd by midday. In the Winter Palace, everyone was trying to figure out what to do next. None of them knew about Nicholas’ abdication, nor of the whereabouts of the royal family. There were also disturbing reports that mutinies were tearing through the Army. Rumours- thankfully ficticious- swirled that the Germans would arrive in days. The Central Worker’s Group, a left-wing labour organisation from before the war, had assumed broad control over the uprising. This left Julius Martov, the CWG’s leader, as the most powerful man in the city. At nine AM, while Tsar Michael was racing to the capital, Martov met with Prince Georgi Lvov, a senior figure in the Duma. The meeting was a frosty one, as Martov held most of the cards, yet couldn’t afford to split with Lvov. As a Menshevik, he believed in a broad, progressive front for change, and genuinely wanted Lvov and the empire’s bourgeois-liberals on board. However, Lvov was a liberal, not a radical, and feared some of Julius Martov’s allies. Thus, the seeds of discord were sewn from the very beginning. However, the two established a modus vivendi, and settled on two key points: the need to seek an armistice with the enemy (3), and the need to strengthen their position and prevent the Tsar- who they still thought was Nicholas, not Michael- from crushing them. They agreed to send one of their number for a cease-fire as soon as possible. No sooner had they agreed on this then a breathless messenger burst in- Grand Duke Michael was on the road to Petrograd! No one knew that he was at the head of but a few men; both Martov and Lvov assumed he was leading a counterrevolutionary army. Trustworthy army units went to beat off what they assumed to be a massive attack… they were pleasantly surprised to find Michael with just a handful of Tsarskoe Selo guards accompanying him. When the two bumped into each other at ten in the morning, the terrified Tsar fled back to Tsarskoe Selo on horseback, his retinue fighting a delaying action.

    When he reached the estate a little after lunchtime, the Tsar told Nicholas and his family what had happened. The mad revolutionaries had tried to kill him; surely, they would be here any minute! Tsar Michael announced his intention to flee south to the town of Veliky Novgorod, which had avoided revolutionary action. From there, he hoped to broadcast to the troops that he was alive and in power, and to send envoys to the Central Powers requesting a peace treaty; there, at least, he had more sense than his brother. Nicholas was unhappy about this, but agreed to come, fearful for his life. At a quarter to ten, Tsar Michael, Nicholas, his son Alexei and his four daughters, climbed into the back of a wagon, travelling disguised as peasants; Nicholas reluctantly shaved his beard before setting off. The party was delayed, however. The Tsar wanted to leave a decoy for when the revolutionaries inevitably reached the hunting grounds, and since he didn’t want to condemn his innocent nieces or nephew to the mob, he settled on Rasputin (whom he despised anyhow). Nicholas was furious, telling his brother that “to kill Rasputin is to kill my son!”, but Tsar Michael was adamant. Two guards tied the “healer” to a chair and gagged him. At one PM, the royal party set off for Veliky Novgorod. Twenty minutes later, the small force sent to repel Tsar Michael’s “assault on Petrograd” arrived at the deserted estate. They looted it thoroughly and found Rasputin. He had his gag removed, but was not freed from the chair. It wasn’t every day that the revolutionaries captured one of Nicholas’ right-hand men, and they were going to torture every scrap of information they could out of him. Rasputin, coward that he was, told everything. Nicholas had abdicated, leaving his brother as Tsar, and they were heading off to rally support at Veliky Novgorod. Judging by the number of men they had, Rasputin said, they wouldn’t stand a chance. The revolutionaries thanked Rasputin for his time and blew his brains out. One of them found a telephone in the estate and contacted Julius Martov, telling him everything.

    The Tsarist party reached Veliky Novgorod shortly after three. The loyalist commander of the city had imposed martial law, and Tsar Michael safely revealed his identity; the commander didn’t believe him until Nicholas confirmed that it was true. After changing his clothes, Michael strode confidently to the town hall; Nicholas and the children went to the finest hotel room in town. The Tsar stated that he wanted to work with Prince Lvov in reforming Russia and hoped only for peace. He offered an amnesty to anyone willing to lay down their arms and accept him as a constitutional monarch, and promised an end to the war. (4) News of this reached Petrograd by the end of the day, and Lvov was forced to consider. He and the new Tsar were both liberals, and both wanted an end to the war. Tsar Michael hadn’t mentioned Julius Martov in his speech, but it seemed a safe bet that he wasn’t a closet Menshevik. If it were up to him, Prince Lvov would be all too happy to betray Martov and walk down the liberal path, subservient to the Tsar. The trouble was that that would mean getting rid of Julius Martov and the Central Worker’s Group, and that if he tried and failed, they would kill him. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, Lvov chose caution. At six-forty PM, he met with Julius Martov and informed him that he’d received correspondence from Michael… now Tsar Michael. He was going as a “representative of the people” to speak with the Tsarists, hoping to avoid further bloodshed. Martov was deeply suspicious, but eventually gave his consent. Thus, Prince Lvov set off for Veliky Novgorod at eight PM, and arrived two hours later, accompanied by a platoon of bodyguards. When he arrived, soldiers disarmed his guards and led him into an audience with Tsar Michael. The Russian emperor, who twenty-four hours ago had been nothing more than a grand duke watching his brother give an awful speech, seemed sorrowful as he met Prince Lvov. The danger to Russia, he emphasised, was too great for infighting. If Lvov would defect to the government side, the Tsar would happily become a constitutional monarch with Lvov as prime minister. Speaking from his heart, Tsar Michael said that he would be not only willing but eager to make peace and hold a constitutional convention. Lvov accepted after a bit of vacillating. Julius Martov offered Marxist revolution, while Tsar Michael offered a Russia built around liberal, bourgeois values and a cushy job for him personally. Plus, the Tsar’s men with guns were right there, while Martov’s weren’t. It was close to midnight, but the two men got to work drafting a proclamation to the troops, calling on them to remain loyal. Veliky Novgorod’s printers were woken up at two AM and told to produce as many copies as humanly possible within two hours. At four AM, officers woke the- understandably terrified- postmaster, ordering him to send these leaflets to the front as fast as possible.

    The September Revolution hadn’t affected the front too much. In the inevitable chaos of retreat, the common foot soldier scarcely knew which town his battalion was coming up on next, let alone the blow-by-blow details of regime change in Petrograd. In the days following the murder of Elenya Veroshenka, some of the men had a vague sense that things were wrong in the capital, but few made much of it. Censorship kept the news of 14 and 15 September well away from the men at the front… not that they would’ve made much sense of it, considering that the principal actors were operating in a confused mess more often than not! (4) As for the generals, they knew well that Nicholas’ regime was on its last legs. Privately, many of them were sympathetic to the goal of modernisation, considering Nicholas an incompetent buffoon. They were informed at their headquarters that Nicholas was fleeing Petrograd a few hours after the fact, but by the end of 15 September, they had no idea that he had abdicated, nor did many of them have the faintest bloody idea who this “Julius Martov” chap was. Thus, when they received orders from a “Tsar Michael II” in Veliky Novgorod to expect a cease-fire in a few days, many generals shook their heads and downed a glass of vodka. Slowly, it became apparent that they weren’t dreaming, and after a few telephone calls, they gradually figured things out piece by piece. Nicholas must’ve abdicated- or worse, been killed- if his brother was now Tsar… but why was the message coming from Veliky Novgorod? And why did it have Prince Lvov’s signature on it? If the new emperor wasn’t sending messages of this importance from the capital, especially considering that there had been major disturbances there… then Petrograd must be out of his control. And of course, they had to figure all this out while trying to push back the Germans. Nevertheless, everyone kept a reasonably cool head. The men were informed that Nicholas had abdicated in favour of his brother, but the generals deliberately left the details vague- there was no mention of a potential armistice, or that the message had come from Veliky Novgorod.

    In Petrograd, Julius Martov was furious. He should have known that that bourgeois scum (amongst other epithets) Prince Lvov was no good! Now that he was united with Tsar Michael, he could cause real damage. Martov didn’t know how many men the Tsar had at his disposal, but it was certainly more than the handful of revolutionary troops and armed workers in Petrograd. He couldn’t count of help from insurgents elsewhere- not only were they too far away, they had their own leaders. Thus, it was essential for him to use everything in Petrograd he could. At eleven AM on the 16th, Martov declared that the “treasonous Lvov seeks only to collaborate with the Tsar to crush your freedoms!” He announced the establishment of the Petrograd Worker’s Army and told them to be ready for battle.

    Emblem used by the ill-fated, short-lived Petrograd Worker's Army.
    Petrograd Worker's Army emblem.png

    Sticking a fancy title on the garrison of Petrograd and some armed rabble wouldn’t do anything for their fighting ability; they were as coarse and untrained as men could get. Meanwhile, Tsar Michael and Prince Lvov were cobbling together whatever loyalist units they could find; since nothing could be spared from the front, men were mostly scraped up from garrisons. These were of course Imperial Russian troops, with all the associated supply and command problems, but the enemy was in no better shape. After a week, on 23 September, the march on Petrograd began. While some units of the Petrograd Worker’s Army fought furiously, most saw which way the wind was blowing. Many were disgruntled factory workers who had no problem chucking bricks at Nicholas after… that condescending excuse for a speech, but who would not throw their lives away for Julius Martov’s sake, especially not when the new Tsar looked to be a reasonably liberal man. Martov slipped away for Norway via Finland- itself simmering on the edge of rebellion- and by the end of the 24th, Petrograd was under Tsar Michael’s control, bringing an end to the September Revolution. Elsewhere, the uprisings fizzled out. Escorted by his armed guards, the Tsar entered the Winter Palace first thing in the morning on 25 September. Looters had thoroughly ransacked the place, carrying off priceless artifacts and reducing it to a shell of its former glory. However, just as he was walking into his old bedchamber, the Tsar heard a great crash, then another, then another. That could mean only one thing…

    ...the Germans were shelling Petrograd.

    This only highlighted the emergency facing Michael’s regime. Literally as soon as the shelling stopped, he met with the man he had picked for Foreign Minister during his time in Veliky Novgorod: Pavel Milyukov. Tsar Michael instructed Milyukov to contact the Central Powers and arrange for a cease-fire as soon as possible. Prince Lvov- whose election to the Prime Ministership would come in due course- concurred with his sovereign, and Milyukov was sending cables to the Russian embassy in Sweden by ten AM. By the end of the day, he had received good news: the Germans were amiable to a cease-fire. When he asked how soon they could be there, the ambassador in Stockholm rang back- he could have peace in three days if the Tsar wanted it. An hour later, he was on the express train to Stockholm with his interpreter, briefcase full of diplomatic documents in hand.

    None other than Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff were waiting for him at the German embassy two days later. Naturally, both were in an arrogant mood, gloating that Michael would inevitably do an even worse job than Nicholas. Consummate diplomat that he was, Milyukov took it all in stride. Hindenburg and Ludendorff naturally did most of the talking, speaking for the Austro-Hungarians and Romanians, who were also present. The Central Powers would keep all the land they’d conquered, and the Russian army would have to demobilise immediately. This would leave them defenceless should the Germans decide they wanted more land. The rest of Bessarabia was to come under immediate Romanian occupation. As for the Russian Navy, the remnants of the Baltic Fleet were to put into Konigsberg, Danzig, and Stettin, while the Black Sea Fleet was to sail to Constantinople. Biting his lip, Miyukov signed the Stockholm Armistice, ending the Great War at eleven-thirty AM on 28 September 1916. The last man to die in the fighting was German private Theodor Krafft, killed in Estonia seven minutes before Milyukov signed.

    It had only been three weeks since Elenya Veroshenka’s death.

    While the German populace celebrated wildly, Tsar Michael set about trying to consolidate his regime. The events of the past few weeks had shown that he was vulnerable to attacks from the left, but there were also furious nationalists to worry about. If the general in charge of Petrograd tried to get revenge for losing the war, there were plenty of ways he could go about it. Of course, if Michael’s regime couldn’t appease the workers, they could topple him as they had his brother. (5) The new Tsar would also have to appease liberal burgeious elements as personified by Prince Lvov, and that would most likely require a constitutional convention… which the masses might try to get their foot in the door for. Inflation was running rampant and the country was just one poor harvest away from famine. Michael also knew that Russia would remember him as the idiot who signed away Russia’s western provinces, but he much preferred that to being the idiot who saw German boots marching in Petrograd.


    1. His being of German descent didn’t endear him to the Tsar.
    2. Henceforth, “the Tsar” refers to Michael. I know that OTL, he refused to take power until a new constitution was established. Here, he agrees to take power, since Russia’s in even more dire straits than OTL’s February 1917. It bends plausibility a little, I know, but I think it’s necessary for the update to flow smoothly.
    3. Right now, the Russian military situation is roughly analogous to what it was following the Kerensky Offensive IOTL, except there haven’t been widespread mutinies. Thus, the need to end the war is a lot more pressing for everyone.
    4. The men are too busy fighting for their lives to set up soldier’s committees right now.
    5. Now living in a much less fancy townhouse in Petrograd under armed protection.
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    Chapter 13- Peace In The End
  • Chapter Thirteen- Peace In The End
    "We have a tremendous cause for celebration! To peace, unity, and glory for the people of our Empire!"
    -Kaiser Wilhelm II, in a toast at the Friedenstanz

    "I must never set foot in Reims again, nor in Amiens, nor in Alsace-Lorraine. I go further, do not mention those names to me, let me pretend they do not exist! For I have failed in my most basic duty as a leader; to protect my people. If the men of those lands spit at my portrait every day, I do not blame them; it is too good for me."

    -A diary entry of Joseph Caillaux, 28 October 1916

    "I have confidence that our two states can work together and go forth. We don't want you to be our mortal foe and I am sure you feel the same about us. Let us be reasonable and we can have peace for fifty years, or a hundred."
    -Alleged quote from Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, appearing in volume two of Sir Edward Grey's memoirs Homeland Slipping.

    "One hundred years ago today, the Russians capitulated and signed the articles of their defeat. It was our nation's greatest hour, and we have fought ferociously to defend what it meant- the heroes of this city know that all too well. May our children's children's children reflect in a hundred years that we defended the Treaty of Dresden well!"
    - Kaiser Gustav I, in a speech in Konigsberg, 11 November 2016

    By October 1916, Germany appeared to be on top of the world. Its armies stretched from Amiens to Estonia, and Europe was subjugated, allied, or frightened into neutrality. Given the chaos France was in (1), a further advance in the West would overwhelm the few loyal French troops left in the trenches. The September Revolution had placed a weak Tsar at the top of an unstable Russia, and much of eastern Europe lay under the German heel. German U-boats remained on the prowl in the Atlantic, ready to restart their campaign against British shipping at any moment, while David Lloyd George’s government in London was sitting on the head of a pin. Thus, historians tend to overlook one essential fact of the Great War.

    The German Empire was nearly as eager for peace as the Entente.

    The reasons for this are many, but the war had not been easy for the Kaiser’s regime. Close to 1.3 million of its young men were never coming home, while it had spent an exorbitant (2) amount of money on the conflict. Although things had improved somewhat since the lifting of the British blockade in the summer, the economy was still very much on a war footing, with low standards of living the norm- and Germany was the lucky one. Austria-Hungary was looking increasingly shaky as Emperor Franz Joseph edged closer to death, while Ottoman Turkey’s economy was crumbling. Germany’s smaller allies- Romania, Bulgaria, Italy- were having a hard time of it as well. Plus, Falkenhayn was pragmatic enough to realise that there was only so much he could get out of the war. Marching down the Champs-Élysées or into the Ukraine would be glorious, but it wouldn’t improve Germany’s strategic situation at all. Germany could never truly defeat Britain, and the more of France and Russia they occupied, the greater their postwar commitments would be.

    Falkenhayn shared a working lunch with Kaiser Wilhelm four days after the Stockholm Armistice and informed his sovereign that Germany had extracted all it could from the war. Naturally, the Kaiser was no more pleased to hear this than Falkenhayn was to tell him, but he came round after a little whining. Since there were active ceasefires in both East and West, what difference would formal peace make? Kaiser Wilhelm reluctantly agreed and telephoned Arthur Zimmermann. The Foreign Minister had sat on the shelf for much of the war, and was eager to get back to his craft. He came up with rather a clever idea: namely, that the Central Powers would be better off if they negotiated as one. Of course, Germany would dominate its partners, but a facade of unity might well intimidate the defeated parties… plus, it would give Zimmermann more prestige, as he’d be the senior diplomat in the room. Throughout the night of 2 October, the German Foreign Minister was on the phone to the capitals of his allies, working out the details. When he drifted off at close to four AM, he had a plan for the negotiations. The Kaiser signed off on them the next day, and Zimmermann spent 3 October planning for the peace conference to end the war.

    In Paris, Joseph Calliaux received the invitation- if that word, with the implication that it may freely be turned down, may be used here- grimly. His country’s hour of execution had come at last, and he had no choice but to be in at the death. Caillaux announced the next day that he would go to Germany to seek a formal peace, to a wave of stunned silence. Had it really come to that, the people asked themselves? The next few days crawled past on hands and knees, with angry letters flooding his mansion. Most people, however, were apathetic. They had known France had lost the war for six months, but it had never seemed real until now. In the great cities, far from the rumble of guns, life had gone on more or less as before. The mutinies at the front and the fate of the BEF might almost have happened in a foreign country, for all they affected the people. France had been suffering for two years and the changes had been bearable. Now, though, the Germans were about to sink their teeth into la belle Nation in a way they’d never done before. When Calliaux looked out the window, the faces he saw were those of betrayed men who lived in fear of what the next weeks would bring. Bitter looks were the least of Caillaux’s worries- if one of those men wanted to take revenge, well, it wasn’t as though there weren’t plenty of loose guns floating around France. Thus, getting to Germany was almost a relief. He and his foreign minister Justin de Selves (3) boarded a special armoured train on the ninth, with a small army of bodyguards and secretaries. As they passed through the countryside, these polished Parisian gentlemen got a look at what war had done to their country. Women, children, and old men toiled the fields, while towns and cities seemed half empty. People seemed like nothing more than skin and bones, with heavy bags under their eyes. And that was just the beginning. Once the Prime Minister’s train approached the frontline, it seemed to be transported to another planet. Craters filled with rainwater and dead bodies pockmarked the landscape, while not a tree was left in sight. Humiliatingly, when Caillaux’s train rolled to a halt at Abbeville, the party was loaded into an armoured car for protection against disgruntled French troops. Thus protected, Caillaux crossed the lines.

    Several weeks after the Armistice, Falkenhayn had appointed Karl von Bulow as military governor of occupied France. He had issued orders some days previously that a French armoured car bearing a white flag would be coming through, and under no circumstances was anyone to harm it. Thus, Caillaux was unharmed as he set foot in occupied land. Bulow, who spoke no French, escorted Caillaux’s party through the trenches. Caillaux wrote in his memoirs that walking through the French lines was the hardest thing he’d ever done. Few of the men had guns, but they could easily have lynched him had it not been for the German escort. Their eyes were full of pain, betrayal, and disbelief. How could their leader be walking with German troops to sign a peace treaty, a peace treaty which would invalidate all their sufferings? None of them so much as said a word to Caillaux, let alone tried to harm him; their contemptuous silence was far worse. The French PM would’ve been hard-pressed to damage his image more. Passing through the German trenches was almost a relief- crassness and gloating were easier to handle than such disappointment. The German victory had left them in a holiday mood. Prussian discipline ensured that nothing got out of hand, but Caillaux caught a few comments that would’ve sent a soldier to a minesweeping unit had an officer been the target; Von Bulow seemed curiously deaf to those. Once they reached the rear trenches, the Germans blindfolded Caillaux’s party on the spurious grounds of security- after all, there was still technically a war on as no peace treaty was in effect. The French had their blindfolds removed once they passed the trenches, and a group of horses waited to take them to Doullens, where a train would take them to Dresden. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough horses for everyone… so the French had to walk while the guards rode. Caillaux was near fainting when he staggered into Doullens at seven PM. Unfortunately, von Bulow said, the next train to Germany wouldn’t be leaving until tomorrow morning, but not to worry, he would find a place for the French delegation to stay. Thus, Caillaux passed the night of 9-10 October in a dingy bed-and-breakfast without heat. A squad of German troops woke everyone up at four AM, marching them to the station. Von Bulow shook Caillaux’s hand and presented him with third-class tickets to Dresden aboard an old locomotive. The train seemed to stop at every pokey town on the route. As he passed through his occupied homeland, Joseph Caillaux saw the same long faces of beaten, broken men on the platforms. Just as painful was knowing the German flags flying over French and Belgian towns would remain forever. Most of the passengers getting on were demobbed German soldiers in a rowdy mood who laughed themselves silly at the sight of these Frenchmen crawling in to surrender. It didn’t help that they were drunk most of the time. While Caillaux wasn’t physically harmed, his lack of a private berth meant that he had no privacy, and by the end of the journey his suit had several beer-stains. Once the train reached Germany proper, word began to spread of who was coming through, and curious civilians came to gloat on the platform, in some cases rapping on Caillaux’s window as if he were a zoo animal behind glass! All told, the train took four days to reach Dresden, where von Bethmann-Hollweg had decided to hold the peace conference. When they stepped off the platform on 14 October to be greeted by their German minder, the French wanted nothing more than clean clothes, decent food, and a good night’s sleep.

    While the French were enjoying Imperial German hospitality, the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Abdiel steamed across the North Sea. The German Foreign Ministry had reached out to the British once more via the neutral Norwegians, inviting them to the Dresden Conference. Naturally, David Lloyd George- who’d replaced Asquith following the ceasefire- jumped at the chance. Britain was not in as precarious a state as France, but conditions on the home island were still poor. The lifting of the U-boat menace meant that Argentine beef and grain were getting through, so starvation wasn’t an issue, and the spates of left-wing violence France was seeing hadn’t crossed the Channel. However, disorder was still on the rise all across the UK. Ireland was under martial law following an aborted uprising in the spring and looked to rise again at any moment, while Britain’s cities were deteriorating. With the signing of the armistice, war orders had dried up, resulting in mass layoffs. Now, there were plenty of men in reserved occupations freshly out of a job, roaming around the UK’s biggest cities- the biggest surprise about the crime rate was that it wasn’t higher. Worse, the Dynamo evacuees were getting restless. The remnants of the BEF had spent the past months in camps in the southeast, being forced to do field training and makework. Now that the war was over, many of those men were pondering what the hell they were doing in the Army- after all, they had lives of their own to get back to. Desertion rates went up as some of these men tried to sneak home, and there were many instances of such men getting into fights with civilians and shoplifting. This wasn’t anywhere near as bad as in France- where mutinous gangs of soldiers roamed the countryside like bandits- but it wasn’t exactly domestic tranquility, either. The UK was also drowning in debt: it had burned through all of its collateral in the US and elsewhere, and desperately needed to reduce expenditure to start paying the Americans back. Thus, Lloyd George was all too willing to go to Dresden and pay the price. However, he didn’t want to leave London himself, fearing that to do so would alienate the public when his government was already on shaky footing. Thus, Foreign Secretary Edward Grey (a holdover from Asquith’s government) was the one on board HMS Abdiel.

    Grey set foot on German soil on the afternoon of the eleventh, and unlike Caillaux, was given a room in a fine hotel and a first-class berth on the express to Dresden. When he and his entourage arrived at the city two days later, the mayor greeted them at the platform and took them to the Taschenbergpalais, an eighteenth-century mansion which had served as a guesthouse in the past. While the French negotiators were being insulted on hard train seats, the British diplomats were enjoying a German. The reason for this better treatment became clear on the morning of the fourteenth, a few hours before Caillaux and his entourage stepped off the train. Grey was getting dressed when received a note from Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, requesting his presence at a meeting at the Dresden city hall. When Grey arrived, he found only the German chancellor and an interpreter present. Records of this meeting are sparse- both Grey and Bethmann-Hollweg glossed over it in their memoirs, and their accounts differed wildly, while the secretary kept mum. Nevertheless, the gist was clear. Bethmann-Hollweg clarified that the Germans would “respect key British interests” in the forthcoming negotiations. He spoke of Australian annexation of Kaiser Wilhelmsland and South African annexation of Namibia. More importantly, the Chancellor informed Grey that the Belgians would receive diplomatic representation at the conference and that Germany would not pursue reparations from the UK. In exchange for these concessions, Bethmann-Hollweg said he expected Grey not to make a fuss over German plans for the Continent. France would be left intact, but he made no other promises. The pleasantly surprised Foreign Secretary expressed his gratitude but queried why he was being informed of this in a secretive preliminary meeting. Bethmann-Hollweg smiled unpleasantly and said that there were differences in his government. The Kaiser and Falkenhayn might take it amiss if Germany was too conciliatory, and he would be very grateful if Grey refrained from mentioning this meeting.

    With Europe in the palm of his hand, why did the German Chancellor back down in front of the British?

    The answer is that Bethmann-Hollweg was a realist. After becoming chancellor in 1909, he had attempted to halt the Anglo-German battleship race; Admiral Tirpitz had overruled him, and the Kaiser had shut the project down. He had coordinated a joint response with Grey during the Balkan Wars four years previously and had advocated partitioning the Portuguese empire between London and Berlin. All this to say, Bethmann-Hollweg knew that Germany could never crush Britain the way it had France, and he saw no point in needlessly antagonising London. The reason for the secrecy of the meeting was that Bethmann-Hollweg knew the Kaiser differed strongly with him, and he wanted to cover his tracks.

    Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the man behind the compromise with Britain at Dresden.

    The Taschenbergpalais, where the Treaty of Dresden was signed. Today, it is a museum dedicated to the end of the Great War.

    Grey returned to his room at the same time Caillaux’s train pulled in, and everyone prepared for the intense negotiations of the following day. First, however, the Germans had organised a grand celebration in the Taschenbergpalais’ ballroom- they were calling it the Friedenstanz, the Peace Ball. The Entente diplomats attended, but largely stayed at their tables, Caillaux and de Salves knocking back scotch. King Albert of the Belgians and his interpreter joined them to commiserate, the king nursing a gin and tonic. The only one to skip the event was Grey, who went out for a long walk, trying to plan a strategy for the next day. But for the Central Powers, this was a night of celebration, vindication for all they’d been through since the summer of 1914. The victors forgot all differences tonight, with Hungarians and Romanians amicably chatting, toasts made “to the unity of our two great peoples, the Austrians and Hungarians!”, and to “peace and progress!” Erich von Falkenhayn even consented to have a photograph taken with Hindenburg and Ludendorff, all three men in dress uniform, clutching champagne in crystal glasses. The Dresden Philharmonic played patriotic tunes and sprightly waltzes, and the Kaiser twirled around with his wife. Kaiser Wilhelm was all smiles, always having a glass of champagne in his left hand (4) and holding a beautiful woman’s hand with his right. The festivities lasted well into the small hours, when everyone trickled up to their rooms in their twos and threes.

    There was work to do tomorrow.

    As 15 October dawned, nearly everyone was exhausted and hung over; few had got to bed before three while copious amounts of alcohol had been consumed the night before. Out of a desire to sleep in and enjoy lunch, the Kaiser ordered negotiations not to begin until one PM. The Germans had turned the lobby of the Taschenbergpalais into a vast conference hall, with desks all along the perimeter and a massive map of Europe and another of Africa pinned to tables in the centre. The Kaiser, Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg, Foreign Minister Arthur von Zimmermann, and Erich von Falkenhayn represented the Germans; the latter had talked Kaiser Wilhelm into excluding Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Austria-Hungary had sent Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold and Count Ottokar Czernin. However, the Hungarian nobility had had something to say about this, as both men came from the Austrian half of the empire. This was a partnership of equals, they insisted, and they absolutely had to have Hungarian interests voiced at the conference. Thus, Baron Gyula Bornemisza (5) went to make up the third member of the Austro-Hungarian delegation. Respective foreign ministers- Sidney Sonnino for the Italians (6), Vasil Radoslavov for the Bulgarians, the Romanian Emanoil Porumbaru, and the hulking Ottoman Turk Halil Mentese represented the other Central Powers. This naturally gave the Germans the loudest voice, and few proposals were made without the green light from the Kaiser. King Albert was the sole Belgian representative, while the French had Caillaux and Justin de Selves. As with all such events, multitudes of foreign correspondents, secretaries, and interpreters stood at the back. Photographs of the historic event show the three defeated men slouching in their chairs, glum looks on their faces like bored schoolboys, national lapels in their suit jackets.

    At one PM sharp, the Kaiser loudly declared that “the Conference is now in session!” He then launched into a monologue about French “strategic aggression” and how Germany would make France pay for its crimes. One American reporter noted that the German monarch kept squinting and cringing, which would seem to show that last night had left him hung over. Perhaps it was this hangover that contributed to the viciousness with which he operated that day, as he announced that the first subject of the conference would be Belgium.

    The Germans had surprised King Albert by inviting him; he had assumed that the Germans planned to wipe Belgium off the map, and why would they need his presence for that except to torment him? Wearily, he stood up and greeted the delegation. Germany, the king charged, had violated two international agreements with its occupation of Belgium: the 1839 pact recognising his nation’s independence and neutrality, and the provisions of the Hague Convention relating to the rights of neutrals in war. King Albert knew he was probably wasting his breath, but with the eyes of history upon him, he felt the need to put his country’s version of events on record before the colossus to the east wiped it off the map. All the while, Edward Grey must’ve been suppressing a smile considering what Bethmann-Hollweg had told him the previous day. Arthur Zimmermann replied with a demand for the Belgian Congo; no one contested this. Grey felt King Albert’s eyes boring into him, pleading with him to say something, but he kept still. If only he could play his cards right in the next few moments… Zimmermann then demanded that the Belgian frontiers be “adjusted westward to balance German strategic needs with the identification of the people of Belgium and adjacent regions.” By the account of one American journalist, King Albert’s face lit up at these words, while Caillaux frowned and shook his head. Zimmermann strode to the map of Europe and sketched out his proposed frontiers- the western border was moved to include the French departments of Nord and Pas de Calais, while the eastern border was the Meuse River. Edward Grey stated that Britain would agree to such Belgian borders; Caillaux kept mum. Against all odds, King Albert left the Dresden Conference with a country, albeit one shackled to Germany. By this point, it was five PM, and Kaiser Wilhelm had a dinner cruise booked on the Elbe. The Central Powers representatives enjoyed themselves that night while the Entente stayed up planning for the next day.

    When the conference resumed the next day, the layout had changed. The German diplomats had decided they disliked having everyone in the same conference hall, and that dealing with the British and French individually would be more effective. Henceforth, the halls of the Taschenbergpalais and the Dresden city hall (both were used for accommodations and offices) were full of life, as diplomats scurried back and forth to put their heads together. This led to a certain amount of confusion, but the overall effect was to further the gap between the British and French positions and keep them in the dark about where the other stood.

    When it came to Britain, there was a certain amount of ambivalence about how hard to push against them. Obviously, they hadn’t been defeated as badly as France, and they had the Channel to shield them, which limited Germany’s leverage. However, despite the prewar naval arms race and odd bellicose statement by Kaiser Wilhelm, there was a certain amount of respect for Britain prevailing in top circles that many hoped could be brought back to life now that the war was done. Although his empire had beaten the British, the Kaiser wanted to be their ally, not their mortal foe; thus, compromise was the order of the day. As a concession, Germany hung the Irish independence cause out to dry by keeping mum; Irish nationalists furiously queried why this had been done. Once the Emerald Isle achieved independence, many would harbour bitterness towards Berlin because of it. As per Bethmann-Hollweg’s promises to Grey, the Germans offered to cede Kaiser Wilhelmsland and Namibia- this raised a few eyebrows, but with Mittelafrika about to fall into their laps, everyone was willing to let go of a few scraps. Kaiser Wilhelmsland would subsequently be annexed into Australian Papua, while Namibia came under South African administration. Bethmann-Hollweg’s other promise- that Germany would not seek British reparations- was also followed through. It was also agreed to have all captured British troops- including Earl Haig himself- back in the UK by the start of 1917.

    A bigger issue was the balance between the Royal Navy and High Seas Fleet. Victory at Coronel and in the Baltic aside, the German Navy had not performed well during the war, and the British blockade had sapped her economy. Fuelled by these memories and Kaiser Wilhelm’s fondness for the navy, no one was willing to walk away without guarantees that such a thing could never happen again. However, for Grey as for all Britons, the Royal Navy was an unbeaten source of pride, and it couldn’t be given up- after all, what if in the next war, the Kaiser tried to invade Britain? Deadlock ensued, and it looked for a horrible moment that the conference would fall apart. As a first step, Grey promised to exempt Germany from the Two-Power Standard, and dropped hints that the policy would be scrapped in the coming years. Cognisant that dreadnought battleships had not been the war-winning titans everyone had assumed, he telephoned Lloyd George and the Admiralty. A short while later, he had a concession which sounded excellent on paper but was in fact meaningless: Britain would be willing to scrap the 16:10 battleship ratio, and instead go with a 12:12 ratio, thus giving Germany at least nominal equality. Thrilled, the Kaiser intervened and proposed a naval conference to establish a “new order on the waves”. While Grey had no authority to say yes to such a thing, the peace conference was back on track and a naval modus vivendi was taking shape between Berlin and London.

    The only British losses came in the colonial sphere. In the wake of their victory at Kut al-Amara back in February, the Ottoman Turks had rushed reinforcements to Mesopotamia and had advanced all the way to Kuwait by the time a ceasefire came into effect. (7) The island of Cyprus was also the subject of negotiation. Ethnic violence between Greeks and Turks had been ongoing for several months, with the British administration struggling to keep a lid on its Turkish population (who were, naturally, being bankrolled by Constantinople). The negotiators worked out whereby the British agreed to hold a plebiscite in 1917 to determine the island’s future. As for the Arab Revolt, Grey washed his hands of the whole affair; Hejaz came back under Turkish rule. The Ottomans had not performed brilliantly in the war and knew that they were lucky to be getting away with what they had. Similarly, once the armistice had neutralised the French fleet, the Regia Marina had left port, and had encircled Malta since early June. Now, the Italians wanted the island. Britain resented having to give it up, but was soothed when the Italians offered to purchase it- to the cash-strapped British, ten million lires was worth losing some power-projection capacity in the Mediterranean. Germany had also rashly promised Italy the whole of Somalia and a portion of British East Africa at the Second Vienna Congress; now, they had to make good. That was one reason why Bethmann-Hollweg had privately signed away Kaiser-Wilhelmsland and Namibia; he’d hoped the UK would see them as compensation for Kenya and Uganda. However, the Foreign Secretary put his foot down. Considering British troops occupied Italian East Africa, the Italian delegation was in no position to push for more; Grey was being generous handing back what he’d taken. After threatening to walk out if he didn’t get his way, Sidney Sonnino was taken aside by Zimmermann. Germany couldn’t work miracles, he said, and the Italians could kiss Germany’s friendship goodbye if they fell out of line now. Reluctantly, Sonnino agreed, but a feeling of being cheated by the Germans would sour relations between Rome and Berlin for years to come. However, Grey signed away British Somaliland for the paltry sum of a million pounds, and agreed to cede some disputed territory on the Egyptian-Libyan border. Ironically, the Germans didn’t annex a single scrap of British territory anywhere on the globe.


    The French, meanwhile, got it square in the face.

    Zimmermann started off by demanding that the Franco-German border be “systematically re-evaluated and codified”; code for the Germans keeping the territory they’d occupied. This stemmed not from a desire to bring imperialism to Europe, as a century of French revisionist historians have claimed, but from specific strategic goals. The area under occupation contained approximately forty percent of France’s coal and sixty percent of its iron and steel; denying these resources to France would hamper the growth of French industry postwar. Additionally, the Germans remembered all too well the pain inflicted on them by the British blockade. When the next war came- for everyone anticipated that there would be one- possession of these resources would be a boon to the German economy, not to mention the obvious benefits which would come from stationing German troops a hundred kilometres from Paris. Caillaux loathed having to do it, but with German troops occupying the territory in question, there was little he could do. Thus, tens of thousands of square miles of France, much of which had been French since the Hundred Years War, passed under German military rule. Practically, not much changed, as Karl von Bulow’s military government continued to rule the vast territory from Reims. The Germans made vague promises about holding plebiscites in the area under direct martial law, but they planned to dangle this promise over France’s head as leverage for decades. The border between German Lorraine (now reunited) and von Bulow’s military district would later be set at the Meuse River, and this constitutes the western border of the German Empire even today. As for Belfort, the small chunk of land was annexed into German Alsace. At a stroke of a pen, Kaiser Wilhelm had added millions of unwilling subjects to his empire. These Frenchmen, however, were left stateless- the signing of the treaty invalidated their French citizenship and German citizenship was not forthcoming. It was promised, however, that anyone born inside this zone would have the right to apply for German citizenship. This was not done out of magnanimity, but a hope that the next generation would see themselves as Germans first and French second. There would be much bitterness amongst German troops expecting to be sent home, who were forced to remain on garrison duty in France well into the 1920s; unfortunately, such men took their frustrations out on the locals. Meanwhile, the Italians gained Nice, Savoy, and Corsica, as had been promised at Vienna. Running parallel with Berlin’s territorial claims against France was its demand for reparations. The goal was less to cover Germany’s expenditure on the war and more to de-fang France- if they were putting money in the Kaiser’s pocket, they couldn’t invest in the military. Germany’s leading economists had delivered a paper to Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg ahead of time, and he simply read out the prepared figure: some 65 billion francs, to be paid in specie. (8) That, however, was just the beginning. As stipulated in the 23 May armistice, France was made to pay for the German and Italian occupations in the West, retroactively dated to 2 August 1914. An initial bill of several billion francs was presented, and up to a fifth of France’s GDP was sucked up by this demand over the next several decades. France was also, humiliatingly, forced to admit to waging a policy of “strategic aggression” and to admit war guilt.

    German extractions from France were no less odious on the colonial front. Ubangi-Chari and Chad, the two French colonies to the north of the Congo, became part of Mittelafrika. French Gabon, lying between the Congo and Kamerun, met the same fate. Although it was a long way away, the Germans also insisted on a 99-year lease on the city of Dakar in West Africa- this would enable them to monitor French activities in their remaining colony. The treaty also forced France to terminate her protectorate over Morocco, although this resulted not in independence, but in German assumption of the protectorate. The Italians also gained French Djibouti and Tunisia, plus the solving of a Libyan-Algerian border dispute in Italy’s favour. As he signed the treaty, Caillaux is said to have pondered out loud what history would make of this, to which the Kaiser replied that “history will remember your people as suited only for cheesemaking!” The Treaty of Dresden was signed at 2:30 PM on 20 October 1916, bringing an end to the Great War.

    Dresden marked France’s retreat from Great Power status. It had suffered two defeats and lost almost a fourth of its territory since 1870. Half its colonial empire and the better part of its natural resources were gone. The crippling German reparations all but guaranteed the collapse of the franc, while the left-wing violence the country had been experiencing was bound to escalate. Losing so much of the country’s natural resources would be a death-knell to French industry. Much of the population lay under foreign rule, a massive failing- and, to be cynical, a massive tax loss- on the government’s part. But worst of all, the French spirit was a casualty of the war. Frenchmen had fought the Germans three times in a century, and each time they had been crushed. Being French, it seemed, was no longer something to be proud of, and the people would take their frustrations out on their leaders in the days to come. Like Aristide Briand in the wake of Verdun, Caillaux knew that his government’s days were numbered. As he headed back to his capital through neutral Switzerland he must’ve wondered how on earth France would ever crawl back from this.

    Britain was in a better state. The Royal Navy, though battered, lived on. Brittania would continue to rule the waves for the foreseeable future. Even with the new German empire in Africa, the British Empire and her dominions was still the largest in the world. Unlike France, the new status quo impinged no vital British interests, nor did it defile British honour. As 1916 rolled towards 1917, there was no reason Britain couldn’t recover from this defeat and live in peace with Germany. The nightmare Britain was about to walk into and the collapse of the British Empire both had their roots in the Treaty of Dresden, but the country’s leaders could’ve averted them.

    Now, it was time to turn to Russia. Tsar Michael’s regime had been in power for but a month, and already he was feeling the strain. Every segment of Russian society- reactionary nobles who wanted him to emulate Nicholas, peasants advocating for their interests, the generals, and his bourgeois, semi-liberal base- was pulling on him in a different direction. Nationalist revolts were ablaze- literally- all over the country. Ever since the September Revolution, Muslim Azeris and Chechens had been fighting the Imperial Army, hoping for Ottoman backing and eventual independence. Most of Finland was in the hands of insurgents, while rebel groups roamed western Ukraine, hoping the Austro-Hungarians would advance to liberate them. The Tsar wanted nothing more than to call his constitutional convention and get to work building a stable regime, and concluding a peace with honour seemed like the best way to do that, even if it meant jettisoning some peripheral territory. Thus, he expressed a wish to meet with the Central Powers at a place of their choosing. A delighted Kaiser Wilhelm ordered that the peace treaty be signed in Konigsberg. Thus, as soon as the ink was dry on the Treaty of Dresden, the diplomats caught a special train to the ancient Prussian city. Prince Georgi Lvov- the Tsar’s bourgeois right-hand man- and Foreign Minister Pavel Milyukov were duly dispatched there, shamefaced.

    The proceedings at Konigsberg began on 1 November, and as with France, there was little in the way of real negotiation. As painful as it was for the two Russians, they knew that this was the best way to ensure the survival of their regime, and thus accepted the demands imposed by Germany with good grace. Russia was forced to accept the frontline as of 14 September as the new international border, and to recognise any government established by the Central Powers in this territory. Romania was rewarded for its participation with Bessarabia. All signatories also confirmed Finnish independence. There had been some debate over this amongst the Central Powers (few Italians or Turks cared much about Finland), but Germany’s desire for an additional friendly state in the Baltic is understandable enough. Plus, an independent Finland would place Petrograd uncomfortably close to a foreign border… As with Ireland, by not mentioning the Ukrainian rebels, Germany hung them out to dry, and like in Ireland, much bitterness would be felt towards Berlin once Ukraine did gain independence. This dismayed Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, who coveted the Ukraine’s vast array of natural resources for Germany. However, others questioned the wisdom of extending German responsibility beyond the Dnieper. The Army had to be downsized; a sizeable chunk of the young conscripts had to get home and back to what they were doing before the war, else there would be economic implications. Placing Ukraine in the German orbit would raise the number of Germans tied down in the east to almost a million; the economic and social consequences of that- to say nothing of the financial cost- would outweigh the gains from another satellite. Thus, Ukraine was let go. In the Caucasus, the Ottomans were in a weak negotiating position- they had failed to dislodge Russian armies from their territory, and the Russians had unearthed evidence of the Armenian Genocide. Thus, all the Ottomans could secure was a revision to the 1914 border. Constantinople was in no position to support the South Caucasus rebels, who were left to be crushed by the Russian Army. Russia also consented to Romanian annexation of Bessarabia and the dismemberment of Serbia. Thus, the Treaty of Konigsberg was signed on 11 November 1916, ending the last front of the Great War. Germany now had its place in the sun, and a bright new day was dawning...


    (1) I’ll discuss it more fully in the relevant update, but France has some *fun* (at least from my perspective as a writer! ;) ) times ahead…

    (2) Can’t find a specific number- please PM me or comment if you can.

    (3) A Caillaux loyalist sacked in 1912, one of the first people the new government installed.

    (4) Specifically his left hand, never his right.

    (5) IOTL, the Foreign Minister of the short-lived “counterrevolutionary” Hungarian government of 1919.

    (6) ITTL, Sonnino will have a better reputation than OTL, thanks to Vienna and Dresden.

    (7) EDIT: See chapter 36 (will be along in a few days from this footnote) for a better explanation)
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    Chapter 14- Japan: The Victorious Entente Nation?
  • Chapter Fourteen- Japan: The Victorious Entente Nation?

    "As Germany has her place in the sun, so too is the sun of Nippon rising. We will never stop until we shine as bright as the Germans do now!"
    Japanese Prime Minister Terauchi Masatake, 1 August 1917.

    "People of Vietnam! Our nation has suffered for nearly forty years under the cruel, exploitative rule of French imperialists and their lackeys, but no more! Now that the hated French have been put in their place, the Vietnamese nation has stood up once more! I thank our Japanese friends for this and call upon my people to act in a spirit of brotherhood with our Japanese allies..."
    -Vietnamese Emperor Ham Nghi, shortly after the expulsion of the French.

    "Without a doubt, the seeds of the Great Pacific War were sewn with the Japanese takeover of Indochina in the summer of 1917. Once Japanese expansionists did it once, they assumed they could repeat the formula time and again to become the greatest power in the Pacific. Millions died because of it."
    Irish military historian Robert FitzGerald, The Great War Of Civilisation Volume Three: Aftermath (1998)

    Japanese participation in the Great War had been minimal and, to be frank, entirely self-interested. Under the terms of a 1902 treaty with Britain, Tokyo declared war on Germany in the first weeks of conflict. Japan’s first objective was to seize the German concession of Qingdao in China and some isolated Pacific islands- this was, the government swore up and down, to help the Entente, and not to further Japanese imperialist expansion. Aside from forcing a few isolated German garrisons to surrender, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) saw no combat in the Great War. As for the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), its pressure helped to track down German ships on the open seas, and its contribution of destroyers to the Mediterranean enabled Tokyo to say that it was helping its British ally. However, geographical distance gave the Japanese a luxury no one, not even Britain, enjoyed: the ability to put as much or as little into the war as it chose. Since Japanese participation in the war after the first few months was passive, it suffered less than a thousand casualties altogether. Thus, as events tilted in Berlin’s favour, Japan was in an ideal position: its contributions to the war effort were enough that no one could accuse it of slacking, yet its casualties numbered well under a thousand and war barely affected the economy.

    As France began cracking at Verdun, Tokyo’s strategists came to believe that the war would soon be over, and that the status quo in the Pacific would soon change. While they doubted that the German presence would increase, they weren’t fools, and it was plain that Britain and France, with fresh problems closer to home, wouldn’t be able to afford prewar levels of strength in the Pacific. It was time, they said, to take notice of how exposed Indochina was, and to think about a separate white peace. Ironically, these hawks who were talking about land-grabs in Asia were the same ones who had pressed for war with Germany two years ago; not that hypocrisy didn’t make their position wrong. Idle Army units underwent training in Taiwan just in case the empire needed them close to home, while Tokyo recalled naval units to home waters. However, not much changed throughout the summer of 1916. If Japan wanted to plunge its dagger into the Entente’s back, there wasn’t much more it could do to prepare. While France and Britain were being humbled at Dresden, Japan’s attention was fixed on a cabinet crisis. Count Terauchi Masatake ascended to the prime ministership after several weeks of governmental confusion, and he clearly intended to do things differently. Unlike his aged predecessor, Terauchi had a bold vision and agreed with the hawks in his cabinet. He also enjoyed the simultaneous positions of Minister of Finance and Foreign Minister, enabling him to evade bureaucracy and cautious colleagues.


    Count Terauchi Masatake, the man who expanded Japanese power into Indochina.

    Several weeks after the Treaty of Dresden, the Japanese prime minister went to Bangkok to confer with Siamese foreign minister Devawongse Varoprakar. For decades, Britain and France had maintained much-hated spheres of influence in the ancient kingdom. The Siamese government made the same calculations as the Japanese, and they guessed that if it came to a crisis, they could force the French to withdraw. When Varoprakar told Prime Minister Terauchi (1) this, the latter man agreed. He promised to covertly send IJA officers and weapons to Bangkok to assist the Siamese should they force the French out. He returned twice throughout December, culminating with the signing of the Japanese-Siamese Pact on Christmas Day. The treaty committed Japan to upholding “Siamese territorial integrity, including attempts by foreign states to exploit Siamese territory irrespective of whether it is under the de jure control of the Bangkok Government.” What this meant in real terms was that not only would Japan seek to eliminate Anglo-French influence in Siam, they would also nod approvingly if Siam pressed a claim on ethnic Siamese regions in French Indochina. Siamese ministers asked British and French envoys to “take home leave”, while forcing their pro-Entente counterparts to clean out their desks. Throughout the winter of 1916-17, French merchants faced a great deal of hostility in their section of Siam- ground glass in the bread, rocks chucked through their stores, petty acts of harassment like that. Paris was too consumed with chaos to send a proper diplomatic response to Bangkok, and thus the campaign continued. Across the border, the ethnic Siamese living in French Cambodia also became restless, with a popular jingle “send them off to the Kaiser’s table, hurrah, hurrah/ So us brothers, we can live together, hurrah, hurrah” spreading. And all the while, Japan looked on approvingly from afar.

    While Tokyo had been strengthening its relations with Bangkok, it had also taken the obvious step of signing a white peace with the Central Powers. It was on the other end of the world from Berlin and occupied no German territory save for a few isolated islands. Kaiser Wilhelm’s bluster about the “yellow peril” notwithstanding, few Germans viewed Japan as a serious competitor. To reclaim its Pacific territories, Berlin would’ve had to send the High Seas Fleet- which, granted, could’ve defeated the IJN in open battle- thousands of miles away, which would eliminate its naval presence in home waters. With Mittelafrika and Eastern Europe under their boot, Germany no longer needed to worry about a few tiny colonies. Thus, Germany recieved Japan’s peace feelers warmly enough and dispatched Foreign Minister Zimmermann to neutral Portuguese Macau. (2) Zimmermann was astute enough to realise that Germany had enough on its plate as it was, and that its power-projecting capacity in the Pacific was dead. Thus, the Pacific islands had no real value anymore. The Kaiser pitched a fit about the latter, but in the afterglow of Dresden, he calmed down quickly. Qingdao was a bigger issue, as it was Germany’s only gate to the riches of China. Without a treaty port, German merchants would be at a disadvantage. Yet, the Japanese occupied the city and refused to give it up. However, both sides reached a compromise whereby German merchants would be granted all of their prewar rights- and Japanese citizenship if they desired it- and German ships could dock freely at the port in exchange for Japan possessing it. Despite this, German economic activity in Shandong decreased by some eighty-five percent between the end of the Great War and the start of the Pacific War. At any rate, Japan had made peace with Germany, clearing the way for further expansion.

    As with the rest of France’s colonial empire, the Indochinese contribution to the Great War had been immense. While few Indochinese had seen combat (3), the French had conscripted thousands into labour units. These men had spent the war clearing bodies away from battlefields and lugging up supplies. Just like in the metropole, taxes skyrocketed and women put in long hours in the factories. Yet, requests for more autonomy had gone unanswered, and people were grumbling. The French had lorded it over them for decades and made them sacrifice for a losing, hopeless war- after all, your average Vietnamese or Laotian had never heard of Alsace-Lorraine or Verdun. Now, with the far-off master defeated, many in Indochina- Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians- saw a common goal in front of them: independence. Following the Armistice of 23 May, violence spread across Indochina, with attacks on Army barracks and such increasing. Given that colonies elsewhere were also experiencing the same unrest, and that the French Army was in revolt, Paris had few troops to spare for Indochina. Thus, the few Frenchmen in the remote colony spent the summer of 1916 patrolling the jungle for bandits, constantly worried about their families back home, their living standards dipping. Many really didn’t give a monkey’s about this godforsaken corner of the world In Saigon, nationalist leaders whispered about the possibility of a coup d’état against the puppet emperor Khai Dinh. The largest outbreak of violence came in spring 1917, and the Vietnamese government refers to it today as Revolutionary Martyr’s Day. On 30 March 1917, an inmate in the Thai Nguyen Penitentiary by the name of Luong Ngoc Quyen assassinated the commander in charge of the brigade in the prison, and some 150 guards joined the rebellion, liberating the inmates and bringing the town of Thai Nguyen under the control of the insurgents. The French pulled in troops from the countryside, but that only fanned the flames, as bandits now had less opposition than ever. Although the French crushed Quyen’s revolt within ten days, that came at a price: bandits had free rein. Bombs were thrown in Hanoi and Saigon, and no Frenchman dared venture into the countryside. Most ethnic Vietnamese troops turned their guns on their erstwhile French comrades, roughly halving the number of troops available to defend the status quo. By the middle of April, the low-level insurgency which had been ongoing for nearly a year had blossomed into a full-scale revolt across Vietnam. Emperor Khai Dinh proved himself a French puppet by issuing an edict on the eighteenth calling for “lawful obedience to the laws of my empire and fealty to our French allies.” A terrorist incinerated him three days later. The fall of the emperor left the four-year-old Bao Dai as Emperor of Vietnam; in practice, the ceremonial throne was vacant. Jean-François dit Eugène Charles, Governor-General of French Indochina (5) saw the writing on the wall and sent a frantic message to France: either send four good-quality, reliable French divisions to Indochina immediately, or expect the colony to be lost within a year. Since it’s doubtful that four spare good-quality, reliable French divisions actually existed at that moment, no response was forthcoming; dit Eugène Charles would have to make bricks without straw. On the tenth of May, a fresh wrench was thrown into the works: news came that the Kingdom of Siam had formally declared war on France. Siamese troops were storming over the border, and no one seemed to be in a position to stop them.

    A map showing the annexations following the Franco-Siamese War of 1917

    On the morning of 10 May, Siamese forces announced the “nationalisation” of the French sphere of influence in their country. Those Frenchmen who hadn’t fled were subject to arrest, and the Siamese government nationalised all French assets. That was just the tip of the iceberg, however, as the several-thousand-strong Siamese Royal Army crossed the border into French Cambodia. Given that Siam was a small Asian nation browbeaten by colonialists, its army was small and backwards, and the French Army of 1914 (never mind the Germans!) would have massacred it. However, French Indochina in the spring of 1917 was chaotic enough that the Siamese stood a real chance. Similarly, the Siamese Navy was scarcely existent, but the Treaty of Dresden had mandated that France hand over her ships in the region; thus, the two sides were on naval parity. Siamese troops advanced into Cambodia, trapping French troops between themselves and armed Cambodian nationalists. Ironically, the latter were just as hostile to the Siamese as the French were, as Cambodians had no desire for their rivals to the west to dominate them. This was warfare as it had been before the Great War: there were scarcely any machine-guns, only a handful of aeroplanes, and both sides frequently used cavalry in combat! Anachronisms did little to save the French, however, and by the end of the month the Siamese had penetrated deep into Cambodia and made gains on the Laotian frontier. However, on 1 June, a Cambodian envoy crossed the lines with a white flag. The Kingdom of Cambodia had just declared independence from France and received Japanese recognition; he wanted to be taken to Bangkok to ensure that no fighting ensued between the two sovereign nations.

    For Japan, everything was going perfectly. With French rule in Indochina dissolving- thanks to Japanese money and guns, of course- and their new Siamese ally making strides, it was high time to step in and ensure that everything turned out the way it was supposed to. Three IJA divisions and a group of Japanese “envoys” arrived in rebel-held Phnom Penh on the 28th, offering recognition if Prince Sisowath Monivong would take the throne- his father having fled during rioting in the city. The prince agreed, and on the 29th proclaimed an end to the French protectorate, calling on Cambodians everywhere to “stand up fearlessly for our native land!” He also thanked the Japanese for their help in the revolt and invited them to stay in his country as “our honoured, invited guests”- this may have had something to do with the IJA soldiers standing next to him, bayonets fixed, as he gave his speech. Japan then stepped in to establish the Siamese-Cambodian border, which awarded Bangkok all the territory it had taken from the French. Much anger and several acrimonious border disputes would result from this, but the Japanese stamped each out before they got started.

    Japanese artillerymen shelling French-held Saigon before moving in.

    A similar situation played out in Vietnam, where the crumbling French colonial regime tried desperately to cling on, rebel groups shared a common end but diverging means (and were more than a little hostile to one another), and Emperor Bao Dai sat in the palace playing with his toys. Teraguchi stepped into this mess to capitalise on French weakness. On 5 June, residents of Haiphong and Vung Tau awoke to find Japanese warships off the coast. IJA men disembarked and occupied the towns. In places, the Vietnamese welcomed the Japanese as potential liberators; elsewhere the locals treated them as just another set of hostile invaders. Well-equipped, well-disciplined IJA forces pushed through to Saigon in four days. The colonial capital remained under tenacious French control, although the population was teetering on the edge of revolt. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Jean-François dit Eugène Charles ordered a surrender to protect French lives. The governor-general and his aides were captured, later to be ransomed for a hefty sum. IJA troops burst into the royal palace, breaking into Bao Dai’s bedchamber during an arithmetic lesson. They shot the poor teacher dead, and the terrified, wailing prince leapt onto his bed. However, the soldiers weren’t about to execute the child ruler. Instead, he was taken to another room in the palace where a small, moustached man was waiting. This was Ham Nghi, who had ruled as a child puppet for a few months nearly thirty years ago before being exiled to Algeria. As Indochina slowly descended into chaos, Ham Nghi had slipped back home and contacted the Japanese. If they would help restore him to the throne, he promised to align his regime to them. The Japanese soldiers made a terrified Bao Dai sign an act of abdication (being only four, he didn’t really understand what he was doing), and hailed Ham Nghi as Emperor of Dai Nam. The next day, the new emperor issued a proclamation to his people, calling on them to accept his rule and act “in a spirit of brotherhood with our Japanese allies.” He formally invited the Japanese to maintain a presence in Vietnam, and Japanese troops went into action against the French holdouts. By the middle of June, the Empire of Vietnam was a reasonably stable state, but one thoroughly under the Japanese heel. To the west, the Laotian king agreed to accept Japanese “protection”, as he saw that France could no longer defend him, and that it was better to swim with the tide than against it.

    Ham Nghi, Emperor of Vietnam (1917-1943)

    Japan had pulled off a brilliant coup de main. In just a few months, it had seized one of France’s most prized colonies with barely a peep from the international community. To be sure, the French now loathed the Japanese almost as much as they hated the Germans, but with the Kaiser standing on France’s neck and the French state starting to unravel, Paris’ opinion counted for nothing. Tokyo had intimidated Britain, yet with Germany on the rise, London couldn’t afford to ditch the alliance with Japan. The best part was that the three new Indochinese nations were fully independent on paper, with global international recognition (6)- thus, Japan could claim credit for fostering “national self-determination.” This enabled the Japanese to portray themselves as having liberated the peoples of Indochina, and some in India and Indonesia began to think Tokyo represented their interests. Thus, both Japanese grand strategy and the Japanese propaganda machine profited from the seizure of Indochina. As Prime Minister Terauchi Masatake put it in his speech to the Indochinese ambassadors to Tokyo: “As Germany has her place in the sun, so too is the sun of Nippon rising. We will never stop until we shine as bright as the Germans do now!”


    1. Japanese names are written “backwards” to a Westerner, no?
    2. ITTL, Portugal sees which way the wind’s blowing and refrains from joining the Entente.
    3. IOTL, almost all the Vietnamese troops who fought did so in 1917 and 1918.
    4. This happened in August IOTL, but the generally weaker state of French colonial rule (and the need for a coherently flowing chapter on my part) moves it up a little.
    5. ITTL, he keeps his job for longer, since Paris figures it wouldn’t be wise to have a leadership transition at the same moment the colony is undergoing turmoil. Fun fact: he was appointed on the day of the Armistice- 23 May.
    6. Except for France, which dragged its feet until the mid-1920s.
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    Chapter 15- The US 1916 Election
  • Chapter Fifteen- The 1916 US Election
    "I tell you, if the perfidious British do not honour their end of the deal, this country will see its worst panic in years. And I, the generous president acting in his people's interest, will be blamed. But if the economy can hold out till the eighth, I shall be saved. It all comes down to twenty-four hours, I tell you..."
    -President Woodrow Wilson, in a private remark shortly before the election.

    "For most of the night, I felt I was doomed. I contemplated going back to my practice in New York, or to retiring and writing my memoirs. Just another failed Presidential candidate! But at the eleventh hour, the Lord delivered California, Oregon, and Washington into my lap. And I was saved."
    -Charles Evans Hughes commenting on his close-run victory in the 1916 election in his memoirs The Twenty-Ninth Torchbearer.

    The French army mutinies, the September Revolution, the treaties of Dresden and Konigsberg, and the Japanese land grab in Indochina shook the world. Germans cheered, Britons mourned, Frenchmen kept their heads down, and Japanese gloated. Yet, for the United States of America, the tumultuous events of 1916 might’ve been an entertaining football match in the papers- it was all very interesting, but nothing to really get excited over.

    America was an ocean away from the events of the Great War. Individual Americans had signed up for the French Foreign Legion and similar units, while some had offered their medical services behind the lines. Aside from that, America had sat contentedly on the sidelines. Woodrow Wilson had declared that the United States was “too proud to fight”, which suited everyone fine. Isolationism had been the order of the day since George Washington, and your average Yank not only hadn’t ever heard of Verdun before the fighting started, he couldn’t have cared less about it. Irish Americans loathed the British Empire with passionate fury, while the descendants of German immigrants in the Dakotas unabashedly rooted for the Central Powers. On the other hand, Americans of British, Russian, and French descent threw their support behind the Entente. Getting the disparate peoples of the USA to line up on either side would’ve been an impossible task, and Wilson was grateful that he didn’t have to manage it.

    Despite its neutrality, the United States was a key player in the Great War- albeit one whose contributions are often overlooked. Without American financial aid, it is doubtful that the Entente could’ve held out as long as they did. After President Wilson had permitted loans to the belligerents, $2 billion had made its way into British pockets. Britain’s defeat threw American bankers into a fuss, as they wondered if they’d ever see that money again. Throughout the summer of 1916, they made clear to the British government that they would need their money back on the agreed-to schedule. However, Britain was in exactly the same predicament- they had loaned millions to the French and Russians. France was coming apart at the seams and Tsar Michael’s regime desperately trying to stay afloat, meaning London wouldn’t see a penny from either. To make matters worse, the pound was steadily devaluing as compared to the dollar. It wasn’t anything like the inflation the French were seeing (which would’ve been almost amusing if it weren’t true), but it would impact Britain’s ability to pay. And all this ignores the monumental amount being spent feeding and equipping the BEF. Before being turfed out of office, Herbert Asquith had commented that “Washington’s financiers may yet prove a bigger foe than the Kaiser is now”, and that summed up many people’s fears. After coming into power, David Lloyd George took one look at the UK’s books and said that he had no confidence in the UK’s ability to pay the debt back for years; the Chancellor of the Exchequer agreed with him.

    Members of the Anglo-French Financial Commission leaving a meeting on 24 October 1916, looking quite downcast.

    It was decided to call a session of the Anglo-French Financial Commission to explain the situation to the Americans. The Commission had been founded in 1915 to negotiate loans from the great American banker JP Morgan, and had secured half a billion dollars in September of that year. Now, it was time to pay the piper. They conferred on the 24th of October in London, where the ashen-faced French announced that they were flat broke. The reparations to Germany would keep them busy for the remainder of the century while driving the value of the franc into the ground- one commentator said that the franc’s value was already so low, “it was now pushing up daisies.” With the colonies veering on the edge of revolt (1) and the fabric of la Nation unravelling, paying off the debt to the Americans was literally the last thing they could afford. The British response was scarcely more encouraging. Most of the UK’s loans from the Americans had been backed up by collateral, so London was considering defaulting and letting the Americans take the collateral instead. With the British economy being harmed by demobilisation, old trading patterns a casualty of the war, and the pound steadily sinking, paying the Americans in cash seemed desperately unwise. When, after two days, the commission telephoned JP Morgan with the bad news, the American banker went ashen-faced and downed a double whiskey. This would be a setback for his firm, no two ways about it, but there was nothing he could do now. Morgan informed the Commission that he would be in touch with the President before going off to telephone Wilson.

    For President Wilson, the news couldn’t have come at a worse time. Election day would be along in less than two weeks, and the polls all favoured his opponent Charles Evans Hughes. If Wall Street started getting jittery now, it would be all over. Thus, after a confidential meeting with the Secretary of the Treasury, the President decided to keep the story out of the papers as much as possible. If he could just kick the can down the road for a month, he’d be fine. Wilson’s diary for the twenty-seventh of October says that “if the big boys on Wall Street lose their strength and falter before November the seventh, I am doomed. If they fall over dead on the eighth, I shall manage well enough.” It was a cynical attitude, but understandable. The President instructed Morgan to issue an ultimatum to the Commission in his name immediately: either commit to paying off all debt by the originally agreed dates, or he would treat them as having defaulted. The Commission replied within four hours: they were going to default and risk the consequences.

    The next day, Friday the 27th, President Wilson issued an executive order allowing JP Morgan to assume control over all British-and-French-held assets in the United States. Enterprises as diverse as railroads, shipping yards, coal mines, and factories now found themselves under new ownership. No one knew all the details in the first 24 hours, which meant that the stock market had a bad day. But worse was the fact that not all these companies wanted to come under Morgan’s ownership. The last few days in October saw “incidents”, where managers of Anglo-French companies, born in the motherland, became bitter over losing their positions to the greedy Americans, who hadn’t even fought in the war, and who hadn’t had to agonise over relatives back home overrun by les Boches. They gave vent to their anger by doing things like leaving equipment in an unfit state and laying off employees. Not every asset suffered such problems and, contrary to what many thought there was no widespread conspiracy involved, but the overall effect was to infuriate Morgan. In a livid telephone call to the Anglo-French Finance Commision on 1 November, he said that because of these acts of sabotage, he would only value the collateral at three-fourths its official value, as that was the most he could hope to get out of it. Britain and France were still on the hook for a quarter of their debts, and Morgan wouldn’t settle for anything less than cash. If they didn’t think he was serious, they were welcome to talk to President Wilson.

    When Wilson found out about the sabotage, he was livid. Britain and France, he thundered, were cheaters taking advantage of American goodwill! He vowed that never again would they see a penny of America’s money. However, he had more urgent things to worry about. The past four days had been volatile ones for the stock market, and the American public was coming to realise that something was wrong with the economy. For Wilson, the most important thing was to stave off substantial damage for another week, until the election. Therefore, he telephoned Morgan on the afternoon of the first with a cheery message: if the firm looked likely to collapse- God forbid- Wilson would prop them up. That done, he held an impromptu press conference where he declared his “total faith in the good health and prosperity of the American economy.” There was little more he could do.

    7 November 1916 was the big day. The stock market was topsy-turvy, but that had been true for the past week, and no one paid it too much heed. Workers took the morning off and trudged to the polls, while capitalists had their chauffeurs drive them. The day crawled by on hands and knees for the President, who spent most of it anxiously pacing his office, his wife Edith consoling him and bringing him cups of coffee. Wilson telephoned Wall Street four times that day, demanding to know how the stock market was doing. It was fine, replied the frustrated operator, no worse than before. But nothing could soothe the US President’s nerves. He sat at his desk all night, watching the results come in. The South was a foregone conclusion: it had been a Democratic bastion since before the Civil War, and Wilson was a southerner himself. However, Hughes slaughtered him in the Northeast, winning all of New England plus Pennsylvania and his home state of New York. Meanwhile, electors in West Virginia delivered seven of the state’s votes to Hughes and only one to Wilson. As the night rolled on, Hughes was leading Wilson by almost fifty electoral votes. It was essential that Wilson win ground in the Midwest if he wanted to walk away triumphant. Things started out on the right foot, with Ohio dropping 24 electoral votes into the President’s lap. To no one’s surprise, the Central Time states of the former Confederacy went Wilson’s way. He received an unexpected boost when Wisconsin and the Dakotas dropped into his lap after a hard-fought race. (2) Despite Hughes’ winning the rest of the Midwest, the Central Time states had come through for Wilson, who now held a six-point lead. With only fifty-five electoral votes left unclaimed, victory would clearly be razor-thin. As results from the Mountain Time states started coming in, Wilson was jubilant. Utah, Colorado, Montana, Arizona, and New Mexico all went his way, while Hughes gained a paltry seven votes from Idaho and Wyoming. With only four states left, it looked as though Wilson would be set for another four years. As Nevada swung his way, the US President pondered when his opponent would call to concede… surely, it couldn’t be long now? Edith was going to be so proud!

    Then the trouble started.

    The West Coast had always had a rather leery view of the Japanese. Japanese immigrants were very visible in society, and many whites distrusted them. Japanese belligerence in the Pacific frightened many, and there was a great deal of displeasure at the Wilson administration over agricultural policy and the struggling economy. Oregon was the first to drop into Hughes’ lap, narrowing the electoral college gap to seventeen votes. Wilson would have to win one of the two states, but surely that wouldn’t be too hard. Yet, before the President’s horrified eyes, reports drifting back from California and Washington declared that Hughes had a slim but substantial majority in both states. Finally, a little before two AM, both declared for the Republicans. Woodrow Wilson telephoned President-elect Charles Evans Hughes to concede; having lost 264-267. Congress also tilted steadily Republican (3), giving the GOP a majority in both houses.

    Charles Evans Hughes: the 29th President of the United States

    The bottom fell out of the economy six days later.

    On 11 November- the day the Treaty of Konigsberg was signed- President Wilson announced that since Britain and France had refused to commit to paying off their debts, he was issuing an executive order transferring some $500 million in federal money to cover JP Morgan’s losses. Everyone from economists to Constitutional lawyers howled about this, but Wilson was adamant- after all, it wasn’t as if popular opinion mattered much to him anymore. He left a nice little present for President-elect Hughes by withdrawing the money from funds earmarked for the 1917 budget, which would earn him plenty of scorn- the phrase “robbing Sam to pay Jack” (Uncle Sam to JP “Jack” Morgan) (4) would become commonly used in the Northeast in the 1920s. The news that the biggest bank in the US was in trouble triggered a panic on Wall Street, and starting on the 13th, investors began deserting Morgan. Ironically, the firm was in reasonably solid shape and could’ve weathered the storm, but the public didn’t know that. People began selling their Morgan stocks… and the rot spread from there. By Thanksgiving Day, the US economy had reverted to its meagre 1913 state- the collapse of the arms industry, which had made good money selling to the Entente, only exacerbated the problem. By the time the transfer of power came on 4 March 1917, Wilson’s popularity was in the lower forties, and historians rank him as one of the worst presidents of the United States.

    Charles Evans Hughes had a long and varied career. As Governor of New York State, he had implemented many progressive reforms while never fully throwing his weight behind the cause. During the Great War, he had advocated greater American military preparedness, and the German victory had dissapointed him. In his inaugural address, Hughes promised to fix the economy and, looking directly at Wilson, “to further the bonds of equality between the disparate peoples of our nation.” Hughes’ first step was to undo many of Wilson’s financial policies. While he lacked the desire- to say nothing of the authority- to gut the Sixteenth Amendment, he scaled back the powers of the Federal Reserve and cut back the money supply to produce deflation. These efforts were widely publicised, and the Secretary of the Treasury called on investors to calmly return to the stock market. President Hughes appointed Herbert Hoover as the chairman of a new Bureau of Foreign Reconstruction, something applauded by many Progressives. Hoover would subsequently direct relief operations in France and send supplies to the German-occupied parts of Western Europe; manfacturing such supplies in the United States helped revive the job market. Recovery was slow, but by 1919 the recession was over, with the Federal Reserve Bank’s powers gutted and federal income tax minimised. (5)

    Hughes also developed a reputation as hostile to big business, believing- not unjustly- that Woodrow Wilson’s grant to JP Morgan had stolen $500 million from his administration. He was determined to get the federal government’s money back without going down the path of raising federal taxes, which would’ve contradicted his own economic policy. Thus, his administration took JP Morgan to court in spring 1917. The sheer gall of this raised plenty of eyebrows and won Hughes much scorn, but he was oblivious. When it came to the federal government versus one of the biggest banks in the world, there was genuine debate as to who would win. The US government, represented by Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory (6) charged that Woodrow Wilson had violated American budgetary law by transferring money earmarked for another Administration without Hughes’ consent, and called for JP Morgan to return that $500 million to the US government. The bank retorted that it was none of the current Administration’s business what its predecessor had done, and that it had done nothing wrong in accepting that money. The case reached all the way to the Supreme Court, where it nearly tied- Chief Justice E.D. White was the deciding vote. As a Democrat and Confederate veteran, everyone expected White to back Wilson’s action. However, he was also a proponent of anti-trust laws and had never been keen on Morgan’s power. Thus, he ruled that yes, Wilson had violated the law in transferring $500 million which didn’t belong to him to Morgan, and that the bank was obligated to give it up. This earned both President Hughes and Chief Justice White the unending hatred of corporate power and Southern Democrats, and the two men became unlikely bedfellows. Woodrow Wilson, fearful that he might face charges, considered decamping for Canada or the Bahamas, but President Hughes decided not to go after his predecessor- he knew he had done well getting his way here and didn’t want to push it… plus, a US President prosecuting his predecessor would set an ominous precedent. United States v JP Morgan would become a standard weapon in the Progressive arsenal and help to set a precedent that no one was above legal power.

    Hughes was also committed to being the antithesis of Wilson with regards to racial matters. A New Yorker, he had a thoroughly Yankee view of race relations, and his time as a judge had seen him rule in favour of African-Americans time and again. The Southern Democrats in Congress, who still held enough power to make him work with them, hampered his efforts time and again. They loathed him for defeating Wilson in the election and implicitly attacking him in United States v JP Morgan, and they would never accept federal desegregation laws. Thus, much of what Hughes wanted to do would have to wait decades, but he was able to use his presidential power to accomplish some things. In the summer of 1917, fresh from his victory in United States v JP Morgan, Hughes signed executive orders integrating and forbidding racial discrimination in the military. This earned him the acclaim of Booker T. Washington and the NAACP, and even today Hughes is well-remembered for his civil rights stance. And he would have time to use his new, integrated military, as the United States was about to be thrown into a war…

    Mexico had been in turmoil for nearly seven years when President Hughes took office. After strongman Porforio Diaz was overthrown in 1911, chaos had followed until Venustiano Carranza had come up on top. By October 1915, Carranza had achieved American recognition and controlled much of Mexico. However, from his base in northern Chihuahua, the warlord Pancho Villa continued to hold out, and had made several incursions into American territory for supplies. This was unacceptable for Hughes, who ordered General John Pershing across the border to hunt down Villa and bring him to justice. Pershing’s mission was a failure- the warlord evaded capture, while President Carranza did not appreciate the unasked-for intervention and ordered the Americans out, before proclaiming a new, nationalist constitution in February 1917. The United States, hegemonic giant that it was, was not used to being treated this way, and a furious Hughes declared that America would not stand for this.

    A poster commemorating General "Blackjack" Pershing's Second Punitive Expedition of August 1917.

    During the Great War, as mentioned above, Hughes had advocated a much firmer American stance on the Entente side. He believed strongly that only military might could keep America a Great Power, and a snub from a small country such as Mexico would not be tolerated. In August 1917, he ordered Pershing to lead a second expedition into Chihuahua to bring back Pancho Villa, dead or alive. Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico all called up their National Guard units, just in case. Hughes didn’t want war with Carranza, but he had to defend American prestige at any cost. Pershing crossed the border on 2 August and immediately ran into central government troops. They declared that tracking down Villa was the responsibility of the Mexican government, not the United States, and offered to “escort” Pershing back to the US border. The American general informed the Mexican commander that his orders were to capture or kill Villa, and that nothing would stop him. Shots broke out a few moments later, and from that moment American and Mexican troops were locked in combat. By the end of the day, six Americans and thirteen Mexicans lay dead on the dry soil of Chihuahua, and no one knew what to do next. Pershing ordered his men to entrench and sent a message to the Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson (6). He received his response three days later: his orders hadn’t changed a bit. Everyone hoped Villa could be tracked down without antagonising Carranza, but Pershing was prepared to risk escalating the tension to complete his mission. National Guardsmen moved down to the border, and some units from New Mexico crossed to join Pershing in Chihuahua. Meanwhile, in Washington, Mexican ambassador Ignatio Bollinas paid a cool visit to Hughes. President Carranza had ordered him home and expelled the American legation in Mexico City. Mexico’s small army was mobilising, and if Pershing’s expedition “harmed so much as a lizard, stole so much as a bucket of water”, Bollinas said he could give no guarantees as to what would happen next.

    On 9 August 1917, Pershing received a tip-off that Pancho Villa was occupying the town of Los Lamentos to prepare for a raid into Texas. The American commander directed his men towards the town and was met with fire. In the chaos of battle, it took some time for the situation to become clear, but an envoy from Carranza’s army approached the American column shortly after ten AM. Villa was in fact in Los Lamentos, and central government troops were trying to capture him. If the Americans intervened, Mexican troops were under orders to ignore them. There was a risk that Mexican bullets would kill Yankee boys… but that had already happened once during this expedition. Worse was the prospect of Villa being captured and carted off to Mexico City. If that happened, Pershing would’ve failed in his mission. Dismissing the envoy, Pershing drew his sword and, like something out of a Western, led his men forward in a cavalry charge. The chaotic Battle of Los Lamentos lasted for less than an hour, and Pancho Villa died in the fighting. However, the Mexican central government troops were driven out of the city after suffering heavy casualties at American hands, and by the end of the day the Stars and Stripes flew over this tiny, impoverished village.

    The name of the town- “laments” in English- was awfully fitting. For this was the last straw for Venustiano Carranza. Yankees had encroached upon Mexican territory twice in eighteen months and killed good Mexican soldiers, and now their flag was flying over a town of his. National honour left him with but one choice.

    On 11 August 1917, Mexico declared war on the United States of America.

    1. Including Indochina. In retrospect, I ought to have posted this before chapter 14, as its events occur months before. Oh well, perhaps I’ll edit the threadmarks.
    2. Since Wilson plays up the “he kept us out of the war” card ITTL, German voters thank him for his neutrality by voting for him in ‘16, since he let the Fatherland win, more or less.
    3. Moreso than OTL.
    4. As opposed to “robbing Peter to pay Paul”
    5. I know next to nothing about economics. If this is really implausible, please tell me and I’ll retcon.
    6. Hughes decides to keep Gregory on ITTL.
    7. William Howard Taft’s Secretary of War IOTL; Hughes gives him the job back here.
    Last edited:
    Chapter 16- The King of Three Peoples
  • Chapter Sixteen- The King of Three Peoples
    “The Croatian nation has made its firm desire for territorial and legal representation commensurate with its sense of national identity known. As the imperial father, the great shared aspect of the lives of all my peoples, I would be derelict in my duty if I did not pay this fact proper heed… Now, speaking as King of Hungary and absolute master of the Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen I, Karl IV, do hereby recognise the declaration of independence of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia... I assume its historic royal mantle, in continuance with my predecessors, as King Karlo IV… May our heavenly Father bless this Kingdom and its people.”
    Emperor Karl I recognising Croatia-Slavonia

    "This is an insult! What claim does this emperor have, if he pays no heed to the fabric of our union? He is playing with fire and had best be careful..."
    -Istvan Tisza, upon hearing of Karl's desire to reform the empire regardless of Hungary's wishes.

    The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s roots dated back to the thirteenth century. It had experienced a painful transition to the modern age, which had culminated in alignment with Germany and compromise with the Hungarians. What felt like a lifetime ago, pride had led it to declare war on Serbia, throwing Europe into the fire. Yet, its planned revenge had gone awry; Serbian arms had repulsed the Dual Monarchy not once but twice, and Germans and Bulgarians had had to step in to ensure victory. Diplomatically, Austria-Hungary had been humiliated in its own capital city, forced to give up territory to the puny Italians. Galicia had spent several months under Russian occupation before German troops came in to pull their chestnuts out of the fire. While Germany’s Sturmtruppenkorps had achieved glory in the last weeks of the Eastern war, Austro-Hungarian forces had been thrown forward in diversionary attacks in western Ukraine, or worse still, wasted on garrison duty in Poland. And the Dual Monarchy’s only reward was occupation duty in half of Serbia. National consciousness in the empire’s minorities was at its highest since the revolutions of 1848, and the economy was tottering. The empire had only one real advantage; a steady hand rested on the rudder in the form of Emperor Franz Joseph. The octogenarian ruler had sat atop the throne since he was eighteen years old, and his court knew its business. True, his health was fading, but surely he’d just stick around for a little while when he was most needed… surely?

    Evidently not.

    Franz Joseph died on 7 November 1916, four days before the peace treaty with Russia. His successor Archduke Karl was a 29-year-old with plenty of idealism and little experience. What could go wrong?

    Emperor Karl I

    Karl was immediately confronted by the fallout of the war. Domestically, the Austro-Hungarians had suffered the most of any of the Central Powers. Before the war, the backbone of the empire had been the exchange between Austria and Hungary; Austrian industrial goods kept rural Hungary modernised, Hungarian grain kept the cities of the west fed. The war had fatally disrupted this symbiosis. For the past three years, Hungarian grain had gone primarily to the army and the remainder had mostly stayed at home, leaving Vienna hungry. (1) To Budapest, this was perfectly reasonable- they were making their own sacrifices and needed to look after their own people first. But from the perspective of Viennese bureaucrats, their Hungarian cousins were jealously hoarding resources the entire empire needed, forcing them to drift further under humiliating German control. Every time Vienna approached Budapest to resolve the issue, they were met with smooth oratory worth its weight in gold. Thus, relations between the two halves of the empire had become bitter by the time of Franz Joseph’s death. However, that was not the only ethnic problem facing the new Emperor. The other peoples of the empire- the Czechs, South Slavs, Poles, and Ukrainians (amongst others) had all fought and died for Vienna, and in the process had re-discovered themselves, in a way. Czechs had fought alongside Czechs, Ukrainians alongside Ukrainians, etc. They had survived by fighting alongside their countrymen, sharing a language and culture. Bonds had been formed that would never break, and these bonds were often stronger than loyalty to an unknown emperor.

    Beyond that, there was the fact that Serbia now lay under imperial military occupation. Slavic nationalism, one of the causes of the war, had been put on pause as the Croats and Bosnians went off to the front, but now it had received a shot in the arm. Although the old Black Hand had been hunted to extinction, successors had risen, and these had one advantage their predecessors had lacked: all of their operations were now conducted in the same country. For a Bosnian, say, to slip into Serbia, all he needed was the appropriate papers; Serbs had a harder time leaving their respective military districts, but it could be done. And if one of those Bosnians just so happened to be carrying a pistol or a bomb… Small wonder that officials in occupied Serbia all drew hazardous-duty pay. A growing South Slavic consciousness was awakening within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some postwar nationalists felt that change within the system was possible, others saw a war of independence as the only solution.

    All this to say: the empire’s framework was tottering.

    Fate gave Karl a unique opportunity to address these challenges. The Compromise of 1867 was to be renewed every ten years; managing this would be Karl’s first task as emperor. Like the late Franz Ferdinand, he held the liberal position that every nationality within the empire deserved greater representation. His coronation speech praised the empire’s quasi-independent Croatian polity (2)- the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia- and he clearly wanted to give it full equality. Imperial minorities had long held a unique identity as “Czech Habsburgs” or “Croatian Habsburgs”, identifying with their nationality within the larger imperial framework. Intellectuals in Prague and Zagreb put their pens at the service of Karl, hoping that he’d fulfill the dreams of their people. This line of thought fell into two categories.
    The trialists, as best exemplified by the late Franz Ferdinand, advocated creating a third Kingdom within the empire on the same terms as Hungary. As it had been in the empire the longest, Croatia was the centre of trialist vision. While no two ideas were identical, most trialists advocated removing Croatia-Slavonia from Hungarian influence and making it a truly equal part of the empire. The acquisitions of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 and Serbia and Montenegro in 1916 had only furthered trialist sentiment. Uniting these regions with Croatia-Slavonia under the Imperial banner could please both the empire and Slavic nationalists: the former would see its power extended south and hopefully a reduction in Pan-Slav terrorism; the latter would finally have a united state, fulfilling decades of aspiration. However, two problems ailed the trialist cause. As Magyar intellectuals pointed out, Croatia-Slavonia had belonged to Hungary for nine hundred years; the present ‘sub-kingdom’ was very much controlled by Budapest. Asking Hungary to relinquish control over the region would be to uproot one of Europe’s oldest borders. One satirist pointed out that more time had elapsed between Hungary’s acquisition of Croatia and the present than Hungary’s acquisition of Croatia and the fall of the Roman Empire. (3) There was another issue facing trialism which Hungarian pride had nothing to do with: Serbia. If the Empire now declared that it was going to make a place for Slavic nationalists the imperial system, surely the peoples of Serbia would want to join. After all, pan-Slavism had been one of the factors leading Gavrilo Princip to pull the trigger that fateful June day. If the Serbs were given co-equal status in the empire, wouldn’t that just be rewarding Princip’s actions? The irony that Franz Ferdinand himself had been a trialist was conveniently papered over, but these assaults harmed the cause.

    The second proposal for reorganising the empire was federalism. Federalists were a more diverse group than the mostly South Slavic trialists, both in terms of geography and ideology. Essentially, their theory revolved around taking each of the major ethnic groups of the empire and making them co-equals. Just as the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary existed under the same roof in personal union, so too would the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of Transylvania, and such. One significant advantage federalism enjoyed was that it wasn’t mutually exclusive with trialism. A South Slavic kingdom, proponents of federalism stressed time and time again, was possible under their system. The other, obvious, advantage was that all the minorities had a stake in its implementation, not just South Slavs; the flip side of this coin was that opponents of reform could still point to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia to attack federalism with. However, the idea was simply too radical. If trialism suffered from a dispute about Hungarian sovereignty in Croatia, the federalists had to discern the existence of whole nationalities. For example, the concept of a “Czech” identity was clearly defined and broadly accepted. But what about the Sudeten Germans? They lived side-by-side with Czechs yet had no cultural links with Prague; should they be hung out to dry? The Czech example was fairly clear-cut because everyone agreed that a ‘Czech’ identity existed- this wasn’t universally true. Did the Slovaks exist? While some identified as such, plenty of Slovak speakers considered themselves Hungarian subjects. Still others believed their fate lay with the Czechs rather than as an independent state. What was to be done in Galicia? While self-identifying Poles and Ukrainians lived there, fully matching a border to ethnicity would be impossible without population transfers. Furthermore, the great mass of the Polish and Ukrainian peoples lived outside imperial control. If Polish and Ukrainian nationalism received imperial recognition, might they not try to break away and unite with their brothers on the other side of the border? Added to this were conservative howls. Few in Budapest were eager to cede Slovakia, theirs since before Columbus discovered America, and few Viennese wanted to end four centuries of rule over Bohemia. Taken together, this left federalisation dead in the water.

    When the time came to renegotiate the Compromise, Karl knew what he wanted to achieve.

    The Compromise Session was scheduled for 1 May 1917. A genuine spirit of reform hung in the air that spring. With the war won and a new man on the throne, people of all races felt their aspirations to be within weeks of finally coming true. Some wanted autonomy for Transylvania, some wanted Bohemia to be elevated to the status of a co-equal kingdom, some wanted a separate Polish kingdom in Galicia in personal union with the King of Poland… the ideas went on and on. As Stefan Zweig wrote in his Die Welt von Morgen, “there seemed in those months a great spirit of civic pride and energy scarcely seen before or since…” Sudeten Germans and their Czech brethren united in a shared imperial spirit, bitter acrimonies in Transylvania died down, and even the Slav terrorists in Bosnia-Herzegovina quieted somewhat. Forgetting the nationalist rhetoric they’d spouted only weeks before, people now thought what difference does it make what language we speak, or if we are Catholic or Orthodox? We are all subjects of His Imperial Majesty, after all. The last days of April saw drinking and dancing in the streets, and a gaiety in the air not felt since long before the war. As the mythical first of May approached, everyone was happy and excited, with one exception.

    Hungary’s Prime Minister was not amused. Istvan Tisza saw his political mission as defending Hungary’s place in the system by any means necessary, even opposing the occupation of Serbia for fear of adding more Slavs into the empire. Karl’s rhetoric had already alienated Tisza from his new monarch, and he was determined that Hungary would walk away from the renegotiation with the prewar status quo- nothing more, nothing less.

    The first day of negotiations saw Karl hammer hard on trialism. He wanted Hungary to relinquish all its claims to Croatia-Slavonia and render the Croatian-Hungarian Settlement null and void. An inch of frost in his voice, Tisza replied that “perhaps His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty should remember that he is the king of two peoples, and that he is the monarch of Hungary in addition to Austria, and not of one state to be treated and divided according to whim.” Tisza had a liberal history on Croatia, but Hungary was an independent nation, and Karl had no more right to force it to cede territory than Tisza had to strip Bohemia from Vienna. Furthermore, he added, this meeting was supposed to have been over economic issues. The text of the 1867 Compromise specifically stated that economic matters were subject to a ten-year review, and made no mention of political ones. Karl’s protest that the Compromise text didn’t forbid discussion of politics at these sessions sounded hollow even to him. Debate over the legality of this consumed the entire first day, after which both sides frustratedly retreated to their luxury quarters.

    Austro-Hungarian internal divisions; Croatia-Slavonia was number 17, and would later be expanded to include 7, 4, 5, and 18 (Bosnia-Herzegovina)

    Emperor Karl saw his desire to do the right thing crumble in the face of cold hard facts. The nature of the 1867 Compromise meant that Hungary had to agree to all changes made, and Tisza’s obstinance could kill everything. Yet, Karl saw ruin in the current structure. If conservatives refused to grant minority rights, the tension in the empire would reach lethal levels. The fate of the union was at stake.

    Hungarian Prime Minister Istvan Tisza, the man who tried to walk a tightrope to save his country from war.

    Istvan Tisza saw the same issues. He may have been a Magyar nationalist, but he was also a patriot. If the 1867 Compromise collapsed, his people would be no freer than any of Austria’s subjects. Furthermore, he was a wily man who saw a way to turn this to his advantage. If he could get Karl to put his radical ideas on paper, Tisza could take that to the Budapest Parliament as a symbol of the new emperor’s madness. Negotiation would make him appear reasonable in front of his countrymen, and Karl would appear in the wrong. Thus, Istvan Tisza and his colleagues returned to the negotiating table on 2 May with a new strategy.

    The day opened with a conciliatory note at breakfast. Tisza requested that both sides abstain from discussing Croatia for the moment. They were here to discuss economics, not nationalities. If they failed, he reminded everyone, the union which they all so cherished (4) would die. Karl was visibly touched by this, and reached across the table to shake Tisza’s hand. “Thank you”, he said, “for doing what must be done and placing your fealty to the union above your fealty to your nation.” Tisza’s thoughts must have been dark and unprintable. With that out of the way, both sides moved on to Great War debt. Tisza proposed that “only those entities which were under His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty’s rule during the Great War be made to pay for its conduct.” This was a roundabout way of saying since no Croat state currently existed, debt should be proportioned between Austria and Hungary. This, in turn, set the default of the Croatian question to ‘no’. Reconciliation demanded that no one call out Tisza’s diplomatic sleight of hand. In the end, it was agreed that urban Austria would pay two-thirds of the debt and rural Hungary one-third. Conversation then moved onto equally non-controversial points. When the session adjourned on 4 May, a decade of Austro-Hungarian burden-sharing was set in stone. Both sides had set their differences aside to form a working agreement. Emperor Karl had proved that his raison d’etre wasn’t to parcel out the Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen to a dozen different ethnicities, while Istvan Tisza had proven less intractable than feared. Karl and Tisza had compromised on the Compromise...
    ...but no one was happy. Tisza still felt threatened by Karl’s liberal instincts, while the emperor still believed in reform. With the economic compromise finished, the nationalities debate was ready to rear its ugly head. Least satisfied of all, though, were the Croatians. They’d looked to Karl as their saviour, and he’d let them down. Protests began in the second week of May across Croatia-Slavonia. “King Karl, Serve your People!”, “Tisza Return to Vienna!”, and “Be the King of Three Peoples!” were the favoured chants. Several incidents of violence took place against Hungarians in Croatia, though fortunately these were few and far between. Croatian intellectuals castigated the emperor’s decision, but noted that Karl could change it easily. Pamphlets crisscrossed Croatia calling for trialism to be implemented. “What have the Croatian people fought for”, Viceroy Ivan Skerlecz asked, “if not that, having served our imperial father with great distinction, we might be awarded a territorial state for our nation?” Frederic Penfield, US ambassador to the Dual Monarchy, poured gasoline on the fire. “The United States is home to many thousands of Croatians, and on behalf of these people who are privileged to call both lands home, President Hughes calls for a peaceful resolution to the Croatian question which leaves that nationally conscious people with a proper homeland.”

    Istvan Tisza was livid. What was happening in Croatia, he thundered, was nothing less than armed rebellion. On 16 May, he declared the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia to be in rebellion. Hungarian troops crushed protests in Zagreb, Osijek, Rijeka, and Zadar. Tisza then composed a long letter to Karl, telling him that “Your Imperial Majesty’s territory as King of Hungary in the land of Croatia-Slavonia has been safeguarded.” Hungarian territorial integrity appeared to have won over Croat nationalism. However, Tisza couldn’t have predicted what Karl would do next.

    On 18 May 1917, Karl declared his intention to travel to Budapest. The “Croatian crisis”- his words- had gotten so out of hand that only by intervening as King of Hungary could he help measures. Tisza was deeply suspicious, but agreed, hoping that if Karl saw how deeply opposed the Hungarian people were to Croat independence, he’d finally drop the matter. Thus, all due pomp and ceremony greeted King Karl IV as he stepped off the train in Budapest, in the Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen. Like most conservatives, Istvan Tisza simply wanted to keep the status quo without any upset. He didn’t object to the semi-autonomous Croatia-Slavonia- in fact, he’d helped construct it- but his basic line was that Hungary could not be forced to do anything by Karl. It was that, and not Croatia itself, he found offensive. Thus, Karl began the negotiations in a very poor way. After exchanging pleasantries in Tisza’s office, he pulled out a three-by-six map of the empire’s eighteen crownlands. (5) Doubtless trying to soothe Tisza, he prefaced his argument by professing his “utmost respect” for Hungary’s territorial integrity. Nothing that was “truly Hungarian” would be touched. Karl’s proposal was twofold. On the one hand, Croatia-Slavonia would be granted co-equal status as the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia, with all the provisions of the Compromise of 1867. Second, joint rule over Bosnia-Herzegovina would be abolished; this would be given to Croatia-Slavonia. Karl emphasised that this would entail a concession from Austria, too. Finally, Serbia and Montenegro would pass from military rule to Croatia-Slavonia. Tisza sat agape at his monarch, at this young man for whom idealism seemed to outstrip reality, who sat atop half a millennium of history, before telling him that the Hungarian Parliament would never vote to approve such a thing. Nevertheless, Karl was determined to go ahead, and Tisza could not stop him.

    When Karl staggered out of the Hungarian Diet (Parliament) building at the end of 7 June, nursing his broken reputation, he could not claim he hadn’t been warned. Though the Croats had universally approved his programme, the Magyars had rejected it. Not a single member of either group had crossed the line. When he visited the emperor that night, Istvan Tisza was magnanimous. It was time for both to move forward for the sake of the union. This wasn’t enough for Karl, who still saw nothing but doom for his empire. He was determined to bypass the deadlock and implement trialism, come what may.

    This is where historians turn on Karl. He was aware of the history he was part of, and of the problems his state faced. His youth gave him a fresher perspective on the empire’s issues than the grey bureaucrats and politicians in the twin capitals- first of whom was Istvan Tisza. The young emperor’s goals were both prudent and moral, but unfortunately the time had not yet come. A consensus exists that Karl erred in placing his eminently reasonable goals above respect for the current institutions even though those institutions were obstacles to what needed doing. Istvan Tisza, a conservative who believed in the Compromise of 1867 and genuinely wanted to work with the emperor, was alienated by Karl’s distorted priorities. So were many others. Karl was a good man, but his idealism did lasting harm to the Habsburg Monarchy.
    Unbeknownst to anyone, Austria-Hungary was now on the path to war.

    The Croatian people were stunned to hear the news. They shouldn’t have been, of course- it was simply the nature of imperial politics- but they’d assumed that if he made the appropriate effort, Karl could achieve the desired outcome. Finding out that this wasn’t true was a terrible shock. Furthermore, the presence of Hungarian troops in the major cities was seen as an insult. There was only one thing for it, the Croatian people decided.

    9 June saw renewed protests against Hungarian rule. These were strongest in the major cities, where the Hungarian presence was most felt. The goal was unchanged: for Karl to use his imperial power to achieve trialism. “With the promise of a better future dangling before our eyes”, one historian wrote years ex post facto, “suddenly the status quo of the past fifty years seemed grossly inadequate.” The protests were about Hungarian colonisation, not imperial rule, as they went out of their way to emphasise. Croat nationalists simply wanted a governing share in the empire- independence from the Habsburg crown was unthinkable. The culmination came on the 18th, when at a hastily convened emergency session, the Parliament of Croatia-Slavonia declared its independence from the Kingdom of Hungary. The newly declared Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia’s first act was to telephone Karl and request his presence in Zagreb.

    This audacity caught the empire by surprise. Croatia and Hungary had been joined, as mentioned above, for nearly a thousand years. While Parliament expected that Karl’s trialism would lead him to accept their fait accompli, they also acknowledged the possibility that under Hungarian pressure, Karl would punish them for their iconoclasm. Istvan Tisza certainly hoped for the latter. Six hours after the declaration of sovereignty, Tisza declared Croatia-Slavonia in rebellion. Hungarian reinforcements attempted to arrest Parliament, but were beaten back by Croatian Home Guard units. Confusion reigned. News of the fighting was slow to spread throughout the empire- the inhabitants of Lemberg, for instance, only read about the Croat-Slavonic declaration of independence on the 21st. This was an issue in more substantial ways than newspaper sales. Conflicting and delayed intelligence reports were no basis for a stable strategy. Finally, after a week of confusion Karl stepped in. As “the master of all the nations of this empire”- he pondered every word like a footstep in a minefield- he would take it upon himself to mediate.
    A postwar conspiracy theory postulated that Istvan Tisza was planning to have Karl suffer an accident on his peace trip to Zagreb. The notion originated as an officially sanctioned rumour in the coming civil war, and was immensely popular amongst those who suffered because of the fighting. However, it is flatly untrue. By the middle of June, Tisza was coming to view himself as a foe of Karl’s, but he was a patriotic gentleman. Attempting a political assassination- much less the assassination of a sitting monarch- would have been unthinkable. The upcoming war would damage the Hungarian people’s image, and dispelling this falsehood helps to set right the score.

    That said, after what Karl did next one imagines Tisza may have fantasised about murder.

    When he entered Zagreb on 25 June 1917, Karl I of Austria-Hungary conferred with a Croatian Home Guard commander. The city was currently in Croat hands, but that could change at any moment. The colonel advised Karl to keep his presence secret. With the spectre of chaos hanging in the air like a toxin, some madman might well try and take a shot at him. The last thing Austria-Hungary needed was for another Gavrilo Princip to decapitate the empire. Karl stroked his chin for a moment before shaking his head. Croats and Hungarians alike needed to be reminded of their common fealty to him personally, and the only way they could do that was to see him speak unafraid. A colonel’s better judgement counted for very little against an emperor’s will, and part of the 25th Home Guard Regiment found themselves protecting the Zagreb parliament house. A message was sent to the Hungarian forces in the area that since Karl was negotiating in Zagreb, they were to refrain from moving in. (As an aside, the willingness of Croat troops to obey imperial authority gives the lie to Hungarian stories of “chaotic rebellion in Croatia.”) Six hours after getting off the train, a platoon of guards accompanied Karl onto the floor of the Croatian-Slavonian Parliament. There, in front of the men who’d voted for Croat independence two weeks previous, he extended recognition to the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia. “The Croatian nation has made its firm desire for territorial and legal representation commensurate with its sense of national identity known. As the imperial father, the great shared aspect of the lives of all my peoples, I would be derelict in my duty if I did not pay this fact proper heed… Now, speaking as King of Hungary and absolute master of the Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen I, Karl IV, do hereby recognise the declaration of independence of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia... I assume its historic royal mantle, in continuance with my predecessors, as King Karlo IV… May our heavenly Father bless this Kingdom and its people.”

    Istvan Tisza’s initial remarks are best left untranslated.

    His recognising Croatia-Slavonia’s independence is a fine example of how Karl’s idealism outstripped reality. The existing framework of Austria-Hungary meant that Budapest had to agree to any constitutional changes- Karl’s writ as “King of Hungary” only went so far. In simply declaring Croatia-Slavonia’s rule legitimate, he had shoved the traditional power structures of the empire aside, and that was deeply offensive to Istvan Tisza. “It was in that moment”, the Hungarian Prime Minister wrote years later, “that I realised that the emperor was not a man with whom I could work. It was not the Croat issue I objected to per se, but rather the utter disregard shown for our institutions. I would have been derelict in my duty if I allowed the great and noble Magyar race to accept the status of a colony.” Few men have stood at so painful a crossroads in their lives. The two things he loved most- Magyar nationalism on one hand, and the Austro-Hungarian union on the other- were now diametrically opposed. “It is well that so few men seek power in their lives”, he wrote in his diary on the 27th, “for this world would be a far darker place if all men were forced to make the decisions which confront me.”

    In his state of weakness, Tisza fell prey to a man whom the Twentieth Century has painted as a villain par excellence.

    Mihaly Karolyi lambasts Emperor Karl's reform policies to a crowd, June 1917

    Mihaly Karolyi had been born in 1875 to a wealthy Budapest family. (6) Much like Kaiser Wilhelm II, backlash against a physical defect had shaped his personality- just as the Kaiser had struggled to overcome his damaged left arm, so too did Karolyi face torment for having been born with a cleft palate. Psychologists have suggested that a desire to ‘prove himself’ against his handicap gave Karolyi an impulsive, adventurous personality- his early years of thrill-seeking, car-racing, and dabbling in radical politics (7) lend weight to this. Time dulled Karolyi’s appetite for the first two, but he was still a radical in 1914. Whereas most Hungarians viewed Magyar nationalism within a Habsburg context, Karolyi dreamt of an independent Hungary. When the time came to vote for war credits, Karolyi and his clique of supporters refused; in 1915 he dabbled in treason by talking about Hungarian secession from the union with Entente diplomats in Switzerland. One wonders what would’ve happened had he been caught. Karolyi was just as offended as Tisza about Karl’s actions in Croatia, but unlike the Prime Minister he was unencumbered by scruples.
    On 28 June 1917- three years to the day after Franz Ferdinand’s death had set the world ablaze- Karolyi paid a call to Istvan Tisza in the latter’s office. Mindful of the acrimony between the two (8), Karolyi was conciliatory. “Are you not offended by the same things as I, Prime Minister? Surely, in spite of our myriad differences we can agree on a love of these Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen?” Tisza stroked his beard. Fatigue and stress had weakened him over the past few days, and though the rational part of his brain protested, what Karolyi was saying sounded right. “Go on.” Playing the tired Prime Minister like a violin, Mihaly Karolyi explained. Karl was manifestly unfit to rule, he said. Clearly, Hungary’s historic rights counted for nothing under his rule. If something didn’t change, Karolyi said, soon Vienna- he went out of his way to mention the German capital- would strip the Burgenland, Slovakia, and Transylvania. Pulling a folded map from his breast pocket, Karolyi shaded in what would be left. “Is this what you want to be remembered for? Do you want generations of Magyars to remember you, Prime Minister, as the man who stood aside as half of Hungary was shorn away?” The unspoken answer hung in the air. “Prime Minister, I do wish I was not here. I do wish circumstance had not made this necessary. Yet the world is as we find it, not as we wish it. You know what needs doing.”

    Tisza turned very pale. “I… I cannot!” Tears formed beneath his spectacles. Smiling, Karolyi left the coloured map on his desk. “Prime Minister.” He obsequiously left.
    Istvan Tisza now found himself trapped between Scylla and Charybidis. If he accepted Karl’s fait accompli, well, the map on his desk told him what the end-game would be. Yet from his tired perspective, the only way out was secession. If Hungary could exit the union, Karl’s writ would no more extend to Budapest than into British India. But Tisza had spent his whole life supporting that union; secession would be a betrayal of everything he’d ever worked for. But, declared the cynic in the back of his head, isn’t letting Karl ignore our rights within the union a betrayal as well? Tisza couldn’t tell the cynical voice no. He chewed the matter over all night, pacing his office like a caged animal, hardly noticing that he was chewing on his cigar. At four AM on the 29th, he reached his decision. No matter what injustices Karl had committed against the system, Tisza could not stomach secession. He called for an emergency session of the Hungarian Diet to discuss the crisis the next day. Pens, not swords, would see Hungary through this.

    When the Hungarian Diet convened at nine AM on 30 June, there was a very visible symbol of the crisis. The seats belonging to Croatia-Slavonia’s MPs were all vacant; those men were seated in Zagreb, in what Tisza considered an illegal assembly. Only the steel and cordite of the Croat Home Guard kept them there. Tisza realised what was at stake. This was not just about refusing to recognise Croatia-Slavonia- what happened here would decide the future of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The proceedings opened with a vote on whether or not to recognise Croatia-Slavonia’s internal secession. In what is surely one of the more memorable scenes from the grey, stiff world of 20th century parliamentary politics, the chorus of boos lasted for a full fifteen minutes, and several gentlemen were warned for the use of ‘un-Parliamentary language’. One man went so far as to throw his bowler hat across the room. Once everyone had worked that out of their system, Tisza thought he was on safe ground. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise insisted that Budapest confirm all changes made to the system; Budapest had refused to do so. He could take this to Emperor Karl and insist on Hungarian troops reoccupying Croatia-Slavonia, and that would hopefully be the end of that. A few formalities later, Parliament adjourned.
    Tisza’s letter to Karl on 5 July was polite yet curt. The Hungarian parliament had rejected his changes to the system, thus they were illegitimate. Croatia-Slavonia was not an equal kingdom within the empire; it was a region in revolt against Hungary. Hungarian troops would be entering the province to restore order. Moments after sending the letter off, Prime Minister Tisza declared Croatia-Slavonia to be in revolt and sent troops in. Tisza knew he was playing with fire by marching up the escalation ladder, but he had no choice. If Tisza acquiesced to what he saw as a rebellion, his government would collapse and his nation disrespected. By the end of the week, three Hungarian divisions were sitting in Zagreb, and the Parliament of Croatia-Slavonia were sitting in prison, awaiting trial for treason.
    This was unacceptable for Karl. In his eyes, Croatia-Slavonia was as legitimate a part of the empire as Austria or Hungary. He, the King of Hungary, had declared it so! It was Istvan Tisza, in mounting an unprovoked attack on another imperial kingdom, who was the traitor. Though he prayed for a peaceful outcome, Karl saw war clouds on the horizon. Shortly after reading Tisza’s letter- which he described as “unverschämt”, “impertinent”- he conferred with his military supremo Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf (9). There was a very real chance, the emperor said, that the present crisis could spill over into war, and von Hotzendorf needed to be ready for that. In the meantime, he was dispatching forces to Croatia-Slavonia. The goal wasn’t to provoke a war with Hungary, but rather to prove how serious Karl was about protecting Croatia-Slavonia. Marching up the escalation ladder was risky, but preferable to accepting a snub from Tisza.

    The first shots of the Austro-Hungarian Civil War were fired four days later though they wouldn’t be recognised as such for another week. Karlovac was a middle-sized town in northwestern Croatia under the control of a Home Guard regiment; another regiment of Austrian soldiers was stationed there. The regiment’s colonel had been thoroughly briefed on rules of engagement; while these men were to announce their presence to the Hungarians and make clear that they’d fight back if threatened, they were not to fire first under any circumstances. At eleven AM, with Hungarian and Croat forces clashing, the colonel announced his presence to his Hungarian opposite number. “In the name of our shared ruler and the lives of the men under us”, he said, “we ask that you withdraw.” A brief interlude followed, during which the Hungarian commander telephoned his superiors. Fifteen minutes later, the silence was broken by an artillery shell. One trigger-happy gunner had thought he heard something and pre-empted an attack which existed only in his mind. The shell exploded dead on target, though, and seven Austrians were killed. Rules of engagement went out the window as the Austrian battery commander observed a simple rule: if fired upon, fire back. Within moments, a full-fledged firestorm had erupted, with both commanders powerless to control events. Half an hour later, Karlovac lay in Hungarian hands, at a cost of 180 men and all hopes of peace dead.
    The reactions of Karl and Istvan Tisza to the battle were nearly identical. Both, receiving jaded reports from commanders, believed the other to have struck first unjustly. Both realised that what was going on in Croatia looked more like a war and less like a political crisis every day. Finally, both recognised that in killing one another’s men they had crossed the Rubicon. Neither side wanted war, but neither were willing to back down now. Even approaching the other would’ve been too much- both sides knew exactly how the other would react to their demands. So the drama carried on, whipping through the last few scenes en route to the inevitable yet fatal conclusion.

    8 July 1917 saw another terse missive cross from Vienna to Budapest. In it, Emperor Karl and the Austrian parliament had a simple message. If Hungarian forces did not evacuate the “Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia” within forty-eight hours, he would declare Hungary in rebellion.

    Istvan Tisza wept when he read the ultimatum, for it took away the last of his room to manoeuvre. It was as much a fact that in two days time, he would have gravely wounded his career as it was that in that same period, the sun would rise in the east and set in the west twice. If he pulled all forces out of Croatia, the nationalists would slaughter him while Hungarian prestige would suffer. The folded map Karolyi had given him told him what the end-game would be. Yet, being declared a rebel would undo his entire life’s work. All he’d advocated for ever since this crisis began was for a return to the 1914 status quo. Now, he was faced with a war of rebellion or an end to his political career.

    That night, Istvan Tisza chose to die for Hungary so that others wouldn’t have to.

    Parliament reconvened on 9 July 1917. This time, the fevered energy was replaced by a grim hush. Even though Karl’s ultimatum hadn’t been published, people knew something was very wrong. The same fearful energy which had hung over Europe three years ago had returned. War hung in their air like a stench. Voice quaking, Istvan Tisza read out Karl’s ultimatum before announcing that he would be pulling troops from Croatia. Rhetorically asking if the delegates wanted to go to war with “our own king, with our Austrian and yes, I shall say it, with our Croat” brothers, he declared dishonour the “penultimate calamity this nation can suffer- only war exceeds it.” Publicly wiping tears from his spectacles, Tisza requested the delegates vote to ratify Karl’s proposal and accept Croatia-Slavonia.

    The only sound was the chirping of a bird stuck in the rafters.

    The hall exploded with boos. “Traitor!” and “Sell-Out!” were some of the favoured insults, as well as several which have yet to make it into phrasebooks and probably never shall. The idea that Istvan Tisza, the godfather of Hungarian politics for the past fourteen years, could suddenly abandon the nation was staggering. These men hadn’t thought it through as well as the Prime Minister. They saw Karl as a madman whose liberalising instincts posed a mortal threat to their way of life. Tisza was supposed to be their champion, the man who fought to keep historic Hungary under Magyar rule. Now he seemed to have deserted them. A cry from one of the opposition benches was heard three times, and echoed all across the hall till it formed a tsunami ready to sweep Istvan Tisza off of his feet and into the dustbin of history. “Vote of No Confidence!” Istvan Tisza could do nothing as the formalities commenced and men who’d been his allies thirty minutes ago voted him out of office. His government, and the National Party of Work, were no more.

    Mihaly Karolyi now ascended the podium. Tisza was nothing less than a traitor to the nation! He had tried to reason with him, Karolyi said, but Tisza had refused to see reason. Now, “Emperor Karl of Austria” posed a mortal threat to Hungarian territorial integrity, and had “attacked Hungarian soldiers maintaining order in Croatia.” Only granting him the reins of state could save Hungary from “foreign humiliation.” Referring to his King as the ruler of a foreign nation and Austria as a foreign country, as well as his falsification of the Battle of Karlovac, made Karolyi’s positions clear. His government, Karolyi promised, would defend Hungary’s territorial integrity to the death! He received a standing ovation as even National Party of Work parliamentarians cheered him and voted in an ‘emergency government.’ King Karol IV’s ratification was not sought after. “So this is how Hungary dies”, Tisza muttered. “With thunderous applause.”

    On 13 July 1917, Prime Minister Karolyi declared the independence of the Hungarian Republic, with a claim to the country’s 1914 borders. When Emperor Karl heard the news, he is said to have got down on his knees and crossed himself three times. “God preserve me”, he said, “for I have failed to keep my realm together. It could have ended so perfectly, but no.” Prominent Hungarians across the empire were informed that they would be protected, and that Emperor Karl wanted to talk to Karolyi. Their reactions varied from startled at Karolyi’s audacity and fully cooperative (even if they couldn’t contact Budapest), to cheekily asking if they could present their credentials as ambassadors of the Hungarian Republic to Vienna. Istvan Tisza, meanwhile, knew that Karolyi couldn’t win and wanted no part of his treason. The former Prime Minister fled Hungary for Romania; he would subsequently sail with his family to the United States. Heartbroken at the fracturing of his empire, Karl went to the Cathedral of Saint Stephen and prayed for four hours that God would grant him the wisdom to keep the empire intact.
    Time would tell if He would answer Karl’s petition...


    1. Yes, dreadful pun.
    2. This. And his mentioning them in the speech was OTL.
    3. For the record, it happened in 1102.
    4. Actually, many of them didn’t cherish it very much, but that’s neither here nor there.
    5. This map, except nicer-looking
    6. Technically, Budapest hadn’t been formed yet- “Buda” and “Pest” were still two separate things and Karolyi was born in Pest.
    7. All OTL. The really interesting bit is this: Sigmund Freud lived in Austria-Hungary during this time period, and I’ll bet in TTL he becomes famous for writing a paper on how Karolyi’s cleft palate shaped his ‘unconscious’ and thus led to the Austro-Hungarian Civil War! (oops, spoiler!)
    8. Basically, in OTL Tisza was very turned off by Karolyi’s radicalism, and Karolyi had walked away from Tisza’s National Party of Work. Also: Tisza was a duellist, and he and Karolyi had traded shots on the field of honour in 1913! So yeah, this meeting must’ve been just a tad awkward…
    9. Described by some as the greatest Entente asset of the war. ;)
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