"... have to reduce their commitment of troops to the campaign in France for the duration of the current crisis." Prime Minister Viviani finished reading the telegram from the London embassy.
"Well now you have as much information as I have. The question is, what do we do now?" said President Poincare to the stunned ministers. Only Prime Minister Viviani and himself had read the preliminary report from the French naval attaché in London regarding what appeared to be a major disaster at the battle of Jutland. Now they all knew and the reaction was about what he had expected, shock.
Even after Dogger Bank the invincibility of the Royal Navy was never really questioned by the French. That the Germans could succeed in less than three decades with something that French kings, presidents and emperors had attempted unsuccessfully for centuries was simply incomprehensible. The belief in the invincibility of the British Royal Navy had been deeply rooted in the country that had tried harder than any other over the centuries to defeat the British fleet.
"How certain are we regarding the accuracy of this message?" the minister of war, Millerand wanted to know. "What are the British saying about the battle?"
"There has been nothing official regarding the outcome of the battle so far, in fact if our attaché hadn't been at the Admiralty yesterday we would not even have had that." Viviani replied and nodded towards the papers at the table. "The Germans, however have proclaimed that their fleet under a Vice-Admiral von Letters, the same one that defeated the British at Dogger Bank earlier this year, have won the greatest naval victory in history." Viviani hesitated, not quite believing what he himself was about to say, "Berlin claims that the High Seas Fleet have sunk over a dozen dreadnoughts and dreadnought style cruisers in an engagement on the evening of the 31'st of May. However I must point out that this is not confirmed yet."
"If it's still not confirmed, perhaps it's not quite as bad as that. It wouldn't be the first time Berlin makes bombastic proclamations." Foreign Minister Delcasse said.
"Actually it might be even worse. The Germans also claims that all their dreadnoughts have returned safely to their bases. And there is more..." Viviani said and took out some documents from his briefcase. "Before coming here I received two disturbing reports from our intelligence service." He paused and handed out copies to the men around the table. "One is from Rosyth where the Grand Fleet battle cruisers are stationed normally, none of those ships have returned from the battle so far."
"That doesn't necessarily mean all those ships were all lost." Millerand said "They might have returned to other bases. How recent is this information?"
"It's from noon today, at least thirty-six hours after the fighting ended." Viviani replied. "In my opinion we have to assume the worst until we hear something to the contrary from London. If the British are truly beaten as badly as the Germans claims, then it would seem that we will have to carry the burden of the land war to a higher degree than what we expected only a few days ago. The British will pour vast resources into rebuilding their shattered fleet. That will mean a reduced effort against the German army here in France." He added, when the ministers started to object to that bit of information, "There are already hints of that, if I may direct your attention to the second intelligence report. Those are intercepted telegrams, taken one by one they don't say much but together they are indications that the British intend to withdraw from the Gallipoli campaign, probably since they no longer can afford to maintain such a large fleet and army in what has become a secondary operations theatre."
"What!" Foreign Minister Delcasse growled angrily. "It was their idea to go there in the first place and now they want out?"
"So we will bleed while the British sit on their isle doing nothing?" Joffre murmured.
"But there have not been anything formally decided yet?" Millerand asked.
"No." Viviani replied "But we have intercepted several messages recalling both warships and army units intended reinforce the area. This is being done unilaterally without consulting or even informing us."
"We should attack," Joffre murmured, "and break through the German lines before it's too late. Now while we still have the British here to assist us."
Everyone ignored him; they had heard it all before. Joffre looked around at the ministers and felt nothing but contempt for them, if they had listened to him the Germans would have been driven from the soil of France a long time ago. Containment, defensive strategy, remote blockade, bah! They thought it was possible to fight a war without losses. The only way to be rid of the Hun was to chase him out of his holes at the point of a bayonet. Now the Germans would strike first instead. Damn all civilians, and ministers in particular!
"Perhaps we could offer naval assistance to the Royal Navy. We have several new super Dreadnoughts under construction and nearing completion..." suggested Millerand, before he was interrupted.
"Absolutely not!" Foreign Minister Delcasse objected. "The fleet is probably the only thing that keep the Italians neutral and the sea lanes in the Mediterranean open." He swept the room with his glance and continued. "There have been some ominous rumblings from Rome lately; this will make things worse, much worse. I'm not sure we can keep the Italians neutral without substantial concessions in the colonies. Then there is the matter of our forces in the colonies, they are stretched so thin that the Italians could march in virtually unopposed if they wanted to."
Before anyone could respond to that statement Joffre stood up.
"Yes, Marshal?" Poincare inquired.
"The trouble with the Italians and the weakness of the English are minor concerns, ministers. The Germans are coming for us next and, if we don't stop them, everything else, the Royal Navy, the Italians and whatever else won't matter." Joffre voice was calm, despite his message. "We had an advantage, now..." The soldier seemed to shrug, but without actually moving his shoulders.
For a moment, the threat was so real, so imminent, so palpable, that several ministers glanced around nervously as if they expected the Kaiser and his troops to kick in the door at any moment. Joffre could sense the fear in the room. The disaster at sea had shaken the government's confidence in a victory for the Entente.
"Why would they come for us?" Millerand protested. "Would it not make more sense to keep pressuring the Russians and English?"
Joffre thought the question sounded more like a whine, but he answered anyway.
"They will come because they can't win quickly in the east and they despise the Russians anyway. Their fleet will require months for repair before it can sortie in strength again. I know the enemy; I know Falkenhayn. He will be eager to prove to the world that Marne was an accident and in order to win the war, personally, he have to defeat us so he will come west and try to complete what Moltke started. Operations at sea or in the East will mean that Letters and Hindenburg will gain glory and Falkenhayn doesn't want that."
Silence greeted that statement. The ministers didn't want to think about a new general German offensive, not after they barely had survived the first one.
"I have preparations to make, I hope you will excuse me ministers. I have stopped them once before and I will have to do so again." Joffre said and left some very nervous ministers to return to his staff. Damn all politicians anyway, useless creatures, now they had surrendered the initiative to the Germans and he had to save them yet again.
"Where will you attack us, Falkenhayn?" Joffre whispered to himself contemplating the front lines. "North of Somme at the joint between the French and British armies would be the logical choice but its to obvious..."
"Excuse me?" His driver asked interrupting his chain of thoughts. "I can't hear you. Did you want anything, Marshal?"
"No. Just thinking aloud." Joffre answered. The steel clad hills of one of Frances great fortress cities momentarily flashed through his thoughts but he dismissed it. "We would never be that fortunate," he murmured.
The waging of war was a contest of wills. Moltke hadn't had the nerve for war; he had flinched at the crucial moment at Marne. Would Falkenhayn have?
Even doctors and nurses tried to stand at attention as the old warrior walked, or perhaps stalked would be a better description, purposefully through the corridors of the crowded hospital. The triumphant fleet had returned from Skaggerak with thousands of casualties, those that could be moved were distributed to hospitals all over northern Germany. Those that couldn't be safely moved were kept here, and one room in particular was the goal of the Grand Admiral's determined steps. The guard outside Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer's room came to attention when Tirpitz approached him.
"Is he awake?" Tirpitz asked.
"Yes, sir. At least, I think so. They served dinner some twenty minutes ago sir."
"Good," said Tirpitz and entered Scheer's room.
Scheer looked very pale and weak, but he tried to sit up when he recognized who his visitor was.
"How are you?" Tirpitz asked and sat in a chair hastily provided by a nurse.
"Better, sir, better." Scheer answered. "And yourself, sir?"
"I'm somewhat tired. I have spent the last days in debriefings and planning sessions. I probably haven't slept more than six hours since His Majesty summoned me here from Berlin," Tirpitz replied with a weary smile. "Baron Letters said you probably wouldn't be able to have visitors; they told him you were too sick to see anyone yesterday."
"Letters is probably the last person I want to see right now," Scheer replied.
Tirpitz' smile disappeared.
"Then you haven't had any reports on the outcome of the battle?" Tirpitz asked, somewhat surprised.
"I have heard it went better than expected," Scheer replied. Since it was generally expected by everyone except Letters that an all-out engagement would end in disaster, it was a monumental understatement.
"Leave us," Tirpitz ordered the guard and nurses. "Why did I find this request for an urgent meeting waiting for me this morning, admiral?" Tirpitz asked when they were alone and took out a document from his briefcase.
"The reason is that I refuse to have anything more to do with Letters. He is a loose cannon. He deliberately picked a fight with the entire Grand Fleet despite knowing damn well that the approved naval strategy dictated that we should not commit to a full scale fleet battle until we had achieved numerical parity." Scheer's anger was only slightly muted by his weakened state.
"I no longer have confidence in him," the prostrate vice-admiral continued. "His recklessness could easily have lead to disaster and it might still if he is not removed from the First Scouting Group." Scheer paused briefly. "I had hoped he could be transferred from the fleet, the ministry perhaps? I'm sure His Majesty would love to have Letters available in Berlin."
Tirpitz looked uncomfortable and hesitated before answering.
"His Majesty confirmed Letters as commander of the High Seas Fleet yesterday and the promotion of von Rudburg this morning," Tirpitz told Scheer. "You are probably not aware of just how great a victory Letters won?"
"Letters? In command of the fleet?" Scheer sounded somewhat confused, not quite believing he had heard Tirpitz correctly. "No that mustn't happen. I'll resign before I accept that!"
"I'm afraid that His Majesty would accept your resignation without hesitation, admiral. His Majesty has fully endorsed Vice-Admiral Letters' actions; there is no way he can be removed from the fleet now." Tirpitz saw the look of disbelief on Scheer's face and continued.
"Admiral, the emperor has decided to promote Letters. If you return to active duty in the High Seas Fleet, it will most likely be with Letters as your commanding officer."
Scheer paled even more as Tirpitz spoke.
"You can't be serious, sir!" Scheer managed to say.
"Yes I am, I had wanted to wait until you were stronger to inform you but... My Lord Baron Letters led the High Seas Fleet to the greatest naval victory ever. We have not released the complete casualty estimates for the Royal Navy yet, but we believe they lost at least five Battlecruisers and nine Dreadnoughts, six of them Super-Dreadnoughts."
Tirpitz hadn't thought Scheer could get any paler than he already was but now he seriously considered calling for a doctor. Tirpitz could understand Scheer's shock. The ill admiral had spent eight months explaining why the High Seas Fleet couldn't do what Baron Letters had just done. His credibility with the Kaiser had dropped to zero, or less. Kaiser Wilhelm hadn't even asked about the health of the now former-commander of the High Seas Fleet.
"Perhaps I should resign," Scheer said, his thoughts racing. Why hadn't he supported Falkenhayn when the Field Marshall had tried to beach Letters?
"That's your decision, Reinhard." Tirpitz told him and got up to leave.
"But Germany needs every man it can get, Tirpitz added, "and resigning now would be to abandon our nation in its hour of need."
"Germany seems to have done quite well without me," Scheer murmured resentfully within his empty room.
He spent hours following Tirpitz's departure remembering every heated debate and argument he had had with Letters in the months following Dogger Bank. He couldn't see where he had erred. Indeed, every argument that Letters had put forward had been picked apart with cold logic. There simply was no way that Letters should have been able to defeat the full might of the Grand fleet. Even the Kaiser had reluctantly agreed with him, hadn't he? How had Letters done it? What in God's Name could he possibly have overlooked?
Those questions would continue to haunt him as the former commander of the High Seas Fleet fell into a troubled sleep.
"There is no reason to rush into war with the Entente," said Prime Minister Salandra. "The war will not be over if we wait until tomorrow. The situation is very unstable at the moment and any decision would be hasty."
"That's not true, Prime Minister," Foreign Minister Sonnino replied. "The Germans have defeated the British every time their forces have been equal, and the Russians every time they have met regardless of the odds, and there is no indication that either situation will change." He looked at the people around the table. "We have a golden opportunity here, the Habsburg has offered us much of what we wanted in the north. The Entente have promised more, but I doubt they will be able to make good on their promises."
"True!" said count Zupelli. "If the Entente lose we will have gained nothing, or worse. The Habsburg proposal will guarantee that we will achieve most of our goals in the north and we might also gain greatly both in the Balkans and North Africa, if we are victorious. In addition to this, we will restore some goodwill with the Germans."
"Yes that is true!" Sonnino said enthusiastically. "We could make great gains all around the Mediterranean. Combined with the Habsburgs, we will have naval superiority. Our inferiority in that area was your original argument for not entering the war, Prime Minister, but that is no longer a valid reason. For the first time ever, we have a chance to break the British domination over the Mediterranean. Our potential gains are immense, we mustn't miss this opportunity"
"The army is ready for war, but additional time to prepare would be valuable. If our enemy is going to be France and England rather than Habsburg, we have to make significant changes to our war plans," said the chief of staff count Cardona. "Practically all our planning this last year has been directed against the Habsburgs. I also believe that the navy would need some time to adjust to the new situation."
"I'm not saying that we should sit this war out, only that we should not act too quickly. Remember that we have an even better offer from the Entente, and we could probably get even more," said Salandra. "We can give the situation some time to develop without risking the loss of this opportunity. I think we should use that time."
"Yes, I agree," said Count Cardona. "This is not a decision to be made in haste. Must I remind you that not long ago we sat in this room and discussed the imminent collapse of the Donau-monarchy and look at how the situation has changed."
"True, but, with the recent gains for the alliance, the motivation for Habsburg to make concessions will decrease. If the current trend were to continue, the war could be over in months so our time is not unlimited," said foreign minister Baron Sonnino. "We have a window of opportunity but we have to decide, or else..."
The men around the table nodded, some reluctantly. Salandra cursed silently; he had committed himself to the Entente and now the tide had turned. He could not afford to crush the pro-German faction within his own interventionists if he wanted to remain in office. It had become a matter of damage control until the fortunes of war had a chance to turn yet again. He would survive this day but his hawks were determined to strike down the wrong prey.
---- Rome, later on June 3, 1915
"Hey! You forgot your newspaper!" A rather scruffy looking fellow shouted after a well-dressed older gentleman and waved a newspaper.
"Ah, thank you, sir," he responded and retrieved his paper.
It was a long way back, over half an hour walk but that was for a purpose. When he finally reached the British embassy, he was quite sure he hadn't been followed. The guard at the gate opened it and let him through without delay. He went upstairs to the ambassador's office.
"Well, Major?" the ambassador asked.
The major opened the paper, searched for the small marks that would give reveal the information he wanted. It was in code but he could translate it immediately. It was only one word. An answer to a question he had asked his agent yesterday.
"It says, 'No,' Mr. Ambassador. The Italians will not join the war against us, at least not immediately. Prime Minister Salandra has survived the initial shock of our defeat, but his position is very vulnerable. The Germans have been in contact both with Giolitti and with elements within Salandra's own interventionist faction, so the Italian situation is still highly unstable."
"One more loss..." the ambassador whispered.
"In that case we would most likely have Italy join our enemies, Mr. Ambassador." After a brief pause he continued, "Perhaps we would benefit more from switching our support to Giolitti's anti war faction. It would reduce the risk of Italy becoming an active participant in the war."
"I can't understand it, Major! How could the Germans build a fleet capable of challenging us in less than twenty years? It took the Royal Navy centuries to become what it is..." Or what it was, the ambassador added to himself. "I just can't understand it."
There were only a few officers waiting at the station this morning. They were waiting for their commander in chief, Field Marshal Falkenhayn. There was a sense of excitement in the air. It was five days after Baron Letters' victory at Skaggerak, already becoming known as Die Kaiserschlacht. Now it would be their turn to strike their enemies. Some of that excitement disappeared when Falkenhayn stepped off the train.
"Your Highness," Falkenhayn greeted the crown prince.
Falkenhayn looked old and tired, far from the energetic commander they had expected to come and summon them to battle.
"Field Marshal. Welcome to Metz." Wilhelm replied. "I have a car just outside to take us to headquarters."
"Good, let's go then, we don't have much time. I have to go to Berlin tomorrow. Your father has planned a huge parade and award ceremony to reward the High Seas Fleet officers and crew. My presence is required and so is yours. My aide has brought your invitation." Falkenhayn sighed heavily as he sat down in the car seat.
"Are you well sir?" Asked the Crown Prince as he closed the car door.
"Yes, Your Highness. I am only tired. I had to prepare for this meeting on the train. I have spent the last two days trying to convince His Majesty that the invasion of Ireland, that some ... lady had talked to him about, wasn't really a good idea at the moment."
"Ireland!" Exclaimed the Crown Prince, somewhat in disbelief and shock.
"Yes, Ireland. Tirpitz and I had to promise to investigate the possibility though. I assume you have examined the plan I sent you?"
"Yes, I and my staff have and, in our opinion, we are taking too big a risk. If these poison gasses don't work, the Fifth Army will suffer dreadful losses. We also doubt that we will have the element of surprise that the plan calls for. These weapons were tested months ago in the East and our enemies must be developing countermeasures for them." When Falkenhayn didn't answer, the Crown Prince continued. "The defenders will have heavy artillery support from the forts and the terrain isn't really suited for gas weapons; they tend to leave the high ground unexposed."
"I know all this, but there are several reasons why we have to strike here, Your Highness. The most important one might be purely symbolic. We have defeated the Russians in Poland and the British at sea, the only major enemy that haven't been defeated and who remains defiant is France. If my plan is successful, we will have inflicted not only a major military defeat but also a political and moral one on the French. We can then negotiate an advantageous peace treaty from a position of strength against all our enemies. This is the only place where we can win decisively in the near future." Before Letters or Hindenburg scores the decisive victory, Falkenhayn added quietly to himself.
"Yes. That is another thing I disagree with. This war will not be over in the near future even if we win a major victory here. It will be long even if Letters continues to win at sea." Disagreeing with one's superior was one benefit of being a Hohenzollern; even field marshals were future subordinates. "We don't have the reserves for a major offensive; we must win in the East so that we can concentrate our full strength on France. Then we will have the opportunity to decisively defeat the French."
"Perhaps, Your Highness, but we can weaken the French resolve to fight by succeeding in this operation. That's why I have picked this symbolic place. Victory here might lead to a negotiated peace on our terms," replied Falkenhayn. It would also be his last chance to win before Letters' next sortie in strength and Hindenburg's next offensive against the Russians. It would have to be here. One strike south through Argonne and another Northwest from St. Mihele each supported with the new gas weapons. It would have to be here, now, or else... He didn't say that. He didn't even want to think about that.
Crown Prince Wilhelm didn't answer; he didn't like this plan one bit. Attacking Verdun would most likely end in disaster and strengthen their enemies' morale rather than weakening it and, despite the victories at sea, the British didn't seem eager to surrender or even negotiate. The Russians were not eager to negotiate either, despite what had to be one of the greatest military disasters in history developing in Poland. Perhaps Falkenhayn was right, but Crown Prince Wilhelm didn't think so. They sat in silence the rest of the way to the Fifth Army headquarters. Field Marshal Falkenhayn asleep and Crown Prince Wilhelm troubled.
"STOP!" the policeman roared, with a voice that seemed more at home on the exercise field than on the streets of London.
Several surprised youths turned and rocks fell from their hands when they saw his uniform.
"Unless you have business inside I suggest you disperse," he told them.
"Why are you protecting the German swine?" someone in the rear of the crowd shouted.
"Because they are all for the Hun, that's why! Their boss is the king and he is a damned German too!" someone else in the rear replied.
"What was that?" the police officer roared back but none dared answer and everyone in the street did their best to look innocent. This was the third time old Feldmann was targeted by the mob, partly for his German sounding name but mostly for being rich the police officer suspected.
He glanced at the headlines in the newsstand across the street wondering what had started the trouble this time, not that the mob had needed much excuse after the disaster at Jutland.
That really wasn't news anymore; the Zeppelins always seemed to bomb hospitals, churches and schools. The one beside it however was shocking.
He could not believe it! All of Fisher's old enemies seemed to taste the kill; the attacks on him had been ruthless but to accuse him of treason... It had to be a mistake. The crowd sensed his distraction and someone threw a rock at Feldmann, several more were hurled at the store windows and the sound of breaking glass snapped him back to reality. Most of the crowd was already running and the rock throwers were probably running faster than anyone else. He checked the unconscious old man, he probably would be all right at least until the next time the brave rabble wanted German blood. If they wanted to fight that badly, there was plenty of action in France for them but, of course, those Germans could defend themselves.
The victory parade of the High Seas Fleet was a huge military spectacle even by the standards of the German Empire. Twenty-four special trains had transported most of the crews of the High Seas Fleet to Berlin and special invitations had been sent to their families. Most of the restaurants and hotels in Berlin had been reserved for the heroes of 'Die Kaiserschlacht', as the battle was rapidly becoming known as.
Falkenhayn was quite disgusted by the whole affair. The price tag for this event would surely be staggering and that money could be better spent actually fighting the war. Crown Prince Wilhelm wasn't enthusiastic either, operations in France were set to begin in hours and he didn't want to be separated from his command at this time.
Thousands of troops had been recalled to Berlin from other duties to help keep order, there were double rows of the Guards on either side of Unter den Linden to separate the cheering civilians from their latest set of war heroes. Even the socialists, who normally didn't have anything good to say about any part of the military had turned out in great numbers and were at least pretending to be enthusiastic about the spectacle.
The men of the High Seas Fleet would march down Unter den Linden in battle order starting with the First Scouting group and its screen. After them the main body screen under von Hoban would follow and finally the battle fleet. Ahead of each crew marched a detachment from the Guards carrying the ship's battle flag and a standard with its name. The standards were decorated with ribbons in various colours, red for a solo kill, yellow for a shared kill and black if the ship had been lost in the battle. There were not many men marching behind the black marked standards. When each crew reached the imperial palace, the Kaiser would personally pin the various medals, rank insignias and other awards on the most deserving members of each crew. The crews were then to be dismissed to enjoy a two-day leave in the imperial capitol. Certain officers and a few enlisted who had performed exceptionally in the battle, and their families, were invited to a great victory celebration in the palace.
Falkenhayn was desperately bored by the entire spectacle that promised to drag on for hours. He spent most of his time discussing the upcoming Verdun campaign with the Crown Prince seated next to him. He had seen thousands of parades and most of them better than the one the sailors of the High Seas Fleet were putting up. He had however never seen such enthusiasm among the spectators. Every cheer seemed like an insult and every medal awarded a nail in the coffin of his career, after all the victories that the army had achieved had been under Hindenburg´s command, what had he, Falkenhayn, really accomplished? The Kaiser and the citizens of Berlin seemed delighted by the spectacle though, the cheering never seemed to stop, and the double rows of guards were having difficulty keeping the crowds back. What will they think tomorrow, when they wake up and discover that the war isn't over? Falkenhayn wondered as the crews of the fleet marched past the imperial palace.
This seemed more like a Roman triumph from antiquity than anything else he could think of. The only thing missing, he thought was a slave whispering in Letters ear 'Remember thou art mortal.' Someone really needed to tell Baron Letters and Kaiser Wilhelm that. Where were Letters by the way? He hadn't been with the crew of Derfflinger and there had been other gaps in the ranks as well. Half the commanders of the first scouting group seemed to be missing. Captains Theodore and Nik were present, Falkenhayn recognised them from numerous pictures published after Dogger Bank, but Stang was missing. And there was something else, as well that he couldn't quite put his finger on.
Falkenhayn cast a glance at Kaiser Wilhelm, he didn't seem to think anything was wrong with the parade, or the absent commanders, perhaps they were simply delayed. There were many black ribbons in the next section of the parade; the main body screen had taken horrible losses but not enough to explain the gaps in the ranks that he was seeing here. Captain Lantz were here to receive his 'Pour le mérite' for his already famous charge into the midst of the British torpedo boats. But where was von Hoban? Despite the warm summer day Falkenhayn shivered, something was definitely not as it should be here.
Falkenhayn looked more carefully at his sovereign. Kaiser Wilhelm looked immensely pleased, no, smug would be a better description. A sense of dread filled Falkenhayn, he knew exactly where Letters and his missing commanders were this day and it wasn't anywhere near Berlin.
"Where is the man of the hour?" Crown Prince Wilhelm wondered, also noticing Letters' absence in the parade.
"I don't know your highness." Falkenhayn replied absently, his thoughts elsewhere. Would he be denied the opportunity to prove himself after all?