Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in 1914. It is considered to be the last flicker of the spirit of the Belle Epoque, and so many awful things could have been avoided if the Truce had turned into peace. This is a story of what the world might have looked like, if the Great War would just have been the Autumn Conflict of 1914.
I have often wondered what would or could have happened if the Christmas truce had ended not a few days later but instead would have been the beginning of the end of the war. I have finally put some thoughts to paper and came up with the following little piece of alternate history fiction. It is rather longer than my usual posts and essays, so click below.
The long Christmas
The deep blue sky stretched from horizon to horizon. No clouds promising rain and respite from the summer heat.
In his study the old gentleman sat at his desk, the scratching of his pen the only sound disturbing the early afternoon silence. He finished his diary entry, wiped his brow and drained a glass of water, refilling it from a jug next to the diary. The heatwave had been lingering over Louveviennes for a week now and he was getting to old for this kind of weather.
Perhaps he should ask his guest to take him to Paris later today. As if conjured by his thoughts, a car came into view, heading down the road towards the house. That should be him. The car stopped in front of the porch. First, his old friend got out on the right, while on the driver’s side a young man, maybe in his twenties, emerged. “Joseph!” the newcomer exclaimed. “Alexandre, I am happy you could find the time.” The two old men embraced.“And who is this fine young man you have brought along? I presume he is not just your driver.” “Monsieur Granauskas. He is a Lithuanian engineer.” Joseph narrowed his eyes. The youth looked vaguely familiar. Maybe one of those brash technocrats you read so much about these days. “Let’s go inside, I am sure Gustave has already prepared some refreshments.”
The salon was noticeably cooler than the rest of the house. A rather outlandish and expensive temperature control device had been set up in there, doctor’s orders. It had cost the old man nothing, though. Alexandre had made sure the Siemens Werke presented it as a gift. They sat around the mahogany table, the old man’s manservant having prepared lemonade and some light sandwiches. “So tell me. Alexandre, how was New York? I would have gone to the World Fair myself but my old bones are no longer fit for travel, I fear.” “To be honest, it was not much of an event, especially compared to the one five years ago. You may remember, Barcelona 1919, when we introduced the new Graf Zeppelin airliner?”
“How could anyone forget, that damn thing blotted out the sun.”
“This time, everybody focused on the zeppelins again, no one bothered taking a look at the Armstrong-Whitworth tide-powered generators.”
“Those are revolutionary. They will be a boon to the Baltic.” It was the first time the young man had said anything since they had sat down. “Alexandre, why don’t you tell my friend Joseph about your project.” “Oh, your friend’s name is Alexandre, too.” The old man smiled. “Monsieur Granauskas, you have a project involving those generators?” “Well, Marechal…” “Oh please, I’m retired. In my house my friends call me Joseph.”
“Of course…” a slightly embarrassed smile flashed across the young man’s face. “I have drafted a plan for installing a series of his generators along the Baltic coast. They will have to be modified, though. The tides we get are not as strong as in the Atlantic Ocean. With any luck, we should be able to set up the first ones next spring.”
“How are the independence talks coming along? The newspapers and the radio have not reported anything recently.”
“Well, Czar Nicholas is still opposed to the idea. The talks have bogged down. Some radical elements on both sides would prefer violence, either to suppress the independence movements or to expel the Russian elites. I personally prefer a federal solution, like the Austrians chose.”
“Which also led to the independence of Poland.” The older Alexandre added. “It was actually quite fortunate our troops had conquered the area. The Poles feared Russian troops would massacre them, if they made a bid for independence.” “I am still surprised your Kaiser agreed to it.”
“Yes, but what could he do. After The Accord… It was like a good disease. Nobody wanted to take up arms anymore, especially not against a crowd of singing old men, women and children. Hindenburg told me later what he told the Kaiser when he was ordered to take all necessary measures.”
“Oh, you never told me… What did he say?” Joseph’s eyes gleamed with curiosity.
Alexandre’s cheeks were already flushed and his shoulders were jerking with suppressed laughter. “I’m sorry, I cannot relate the tone of voice, but he said: That’s exactly what I will do, and you bloodthirsty bastard will not like it.” It was a few minutes before Joseph stopped laughing. “Oh my, the old general really said that?” He dabbed his eyes with a silken handkerchief. “Remind me to congratulate him, should we ever meet again.”
“Of course, but what else was there to say? I think Wilhelm II was the only one who did not understand what was going on. It is an irony of fate, his decision to send idle troops east to fight the Russians actually helped end the war there, too.” “I read a most interesting analysis of your Kaisers actions recently. The conclusion was, he wanted another great victory before the war ended.” “I agree, I think most German commanders would have. Instead he got peace on all sides. The Russians were only too willing to stop fighting. The poor devils‘ supply situation was dire. At least our troops had enough to eat and each one had a rifle…” his voice trailed off for a moment.
“Christmas 1914, who would have thought it…” “Yes, I still remember when my adjutant burst in and told me the English and your soldiers were singing songs together in no-mans-land.” “Seems like a different world now. I actually went to inspect what was going on. That’s when I first met Major Connolly, you remember him?”
“Oh yes, he was present that February in Strasbourg when we signed The Accord, wasn’t he? The tall fellow missing an ear.” “Yes, that was him.” “How is he?”
“Fine, I guess. Haven’t heard of him in a while, now. But I will see him next year. His son and the daughter of Hauptmann Schwanke, are getting married in spring.”
“Oh, do they? Wait a minute… Schwanke is the one who went on this exchange mission in 1915, just after hostilities ended, he was on your staff.” “Yes.” “Their children must have met…”
“… when they were children. We were actually joking about it. Connolly’s wife mentioned in several letters to my wife, the way James and Auguste disliked each other could only mean they were destined to get married later.” “Women’s intuition… Are you married, my young friend.”
“Engaged… It is complicated…”
Joseph sudied the young man’s face. Yes, it is him. “Your father does not approve, then.” The young man shook his head. “Next time you see him, tell him times change. If General Von Kluck and Marechal Joffre can sit together as friends and the German Empire and France exchange Lorraine as a token of friendship, the Czar should accept his heir marrying, I presume a commoner?”
The Czarevitch blushed.
“Well said and guessed, Joseph!” “It is only the truth, Alexandre. Now Highness…”
“Just Alexei, please, I am a simple engineer.”
“Now, now, Alexei.” Von Kluck cautioned “You are not just a simple engineer. You have heard Krupp and Siemens. You are one of the finest of your generation.” Alexei Nikolaevich kept starring at the table.
“Excuse my curiosity,” Joseph Joffre began after an awkward moment. “but do you have any idea why your father still clings to the past?”
“He believes in divine appointment and prays for fate to vindicate him eventually. He has surrounded himself with sycophants… People who tell him what he wants to hear. I fear another famine will bring everything crushing down. The Ukraine is producing enough grains to feed the empire, but the harvest is left to rot because we cannot transport it to where it is needed. Russia is stuck in the 18th century. Sometimes I wish Hindenburg had marched on St. Petersburg…”
“But you will be Czar one day.”
“Maybe. Peter Nikolaevich and his cronies will try to prevent it. They know I will send them all to Siberia or worse.“ Marechal Joffre frowned, the Czarevitch was right. Rather than loose their grip on the Russian Empire, Grand Duke Peter and and his cabal of occultists would do anything to replace Nicholas II with a puppet. A young Czar with radical ideas and no regard for noble birth must be their worst nightmare.
“So, what are you planning to do?”
“Wait for the right moment. I have already made arrangements. It will be risky. Does the name Gagik Ozanian mean anything to you?”
“The Silver Lion of Yerevan, of course! Oh…”
“Yes. As I said, it will be risky. They can reach St. Petersburg by submarine from Danzig in two days.”
“And the Kaiser has consented?” Joseph was stunned.
“The Kaiser knows nothing about it.” explained Von Kluck. “He has done nothing but play war games and make the occasional public appearance in recent years. His eldest son and Reichskanzler Von Falkenhayn are the de facto rulers.”
“And they support the plan?”
“They consider it the lesser evil.” Alexei explained. “The German Empire is well aware of the instability of Russia and they would rather have somebody in charge they know than some greedy nitwits or uncontrollable revolutionaries. There is no good or easy solution.”
“Yes, there isn’t. Did you promise the Armenians independence?”
“No, as I said, I prefer a federal solution. Besides, if I would grant the Armenians independence, the Georgians would want it, too. The Caucasus would fracture into a myriad of tiny independent nations. I have also made sure Ozanian will deploy non-Armenians in the operation. His two second-in-commands are a Georgian and a Tartar.”
“Ah, you want to send the message this palace revolution is for all the people of the Empire.”
“This is what I hope.”
“And if you fail?”
“If I fail I hope to take Peter and his cabal with me. Should they have the guts to fight. But I will be there when Ozanian strikes. It is the least I can do.”
„But your haemophilia, the slightest wound can kill you. This is too risky.”
“No, my old friend,” Von Kluck smiled confidently “it’s not.”
“Here.” Alexei produced a tiny syringe from his waistcoat and pushed it over the table to Marechal Joffre. It contained a slightly milky liquid. He took it and held it up to the light filtering in through the window. “Medication? A cure?” “A cure of sorts.” the Czarevitch explained. “It is a bit like insulin. I have to take it when I need it. It is still new and rather expensive. A team of researchers from the Pasteur Institute developed it.”
“Curiously enough,” Alexander Von Kluck remarked, “two of the researchers, Doctor Martin and Doctor Lagneaux, served as medics during the war, they met in the trenches. Imagine what would have happened had the war dragged on. They might both be dead now. Makes you wonder how many brilliant minds we saved by making peace in 1915.”
“I often think about this.” Joffre agreed. “Every time I see a Zeppelin above or enjoy the service of this device.” He turned towards the Siemens Temp 90 in the corner and contemplated its brushed metal shell for a moment. “Perhaps we averted another dark age.”
“Russia is still trapped in a dark age. Little has changed in decades. Nothing major since the serfs were freed.”
“Yes.” Joffre agreed. “But you are a young man with a goal and fire in your heart. You can change this.”
The old Marechal of France got up, went over to a cabinet and took out three tumblers. He placed them on the table and filled them with cognac. “A toast my friends! To dark times avoided and bright futures to be created!”
They raised their glasses.
I hope you enjoyed the story.
PS: I originally posted this piece three years ago, but the short story is now being turned into a proper novel (in German) in the wake of NaNoWriMo 2014.