Falkenhayn - Countdown
The echoes of his own footsteps was the only sound that he could hear in the long narrow poorly illuminated concrete corridor. Despite the ominous surroundings here, in the deepest levels of the massive fortress, he was in a high spirits. Letters sortie, that had failed to catch the remnants of the British Grand Fleet, had made this operation even more necessary. It was finally obvious even to the OHL that Letters would not be content with the awards, medals and promotions that Kaiser Wilhelm had showered his fleet with after the action on the last of May. Letters intended to win the war by destroying the rest of the British fleet as soon as his ships were ready for action, that would fortunately require two to three months, enough time hopefully to force the entente to the negotiating table by other means.
The massive steel door separating the command centre from the outside world swung open and the bright light in the room beyond almost blinded him. The men around the huge table in the middle of the room turned towards him as he entered.
"Is everyone here?" Falkenhayn asked.
"Yes, we have been waiting for you sir." Crown Prince Wilhelm replied.
"Good then lets begin" Falkenhayn replied.
"Before we go into details there are still some issues I would like to adress sir." Wilhelm said.
"Go on your highness." Falkenhayn said warely.
"My main concern is that the Fifth army will basically have to attack with our present resources, apart from some minor units, a corps from the Sixth army and the special warfare formations we will receive no major reinforcements until the operation is well underway. That will make it hard to maintain the momentum of the attack." Wilhelm said.
"Im well aware of that hazard your highness." Falkenhayn replied "But it is the opinion of the OHL that surprise, both tactical, strategic and the use of our new special weapons will make it possible to take the objectives, a long build up will take to much time and risk detection by the enemy."
"With all due respect sir, I think the OHL's opinion is wrong on this issue, and my chief of staff agrees with me." the Crown Prince said.
Falkenhayns eyes narrowed.
"I happen to share the opinion of the OHL your highness, your... reservations have been noted." The temperature in the room seemed to drop when Falkenhayn said that.
"Very well sir, my second concern is that the two separate attacks will be unable to co-ordinate their efforts. The new special weapons require favourable weather conditions to be truly effective. Our attacks will be aimed in different directions, one aimed south from the Argonne area and the second aimed north-west from the St. Mihiel salient." Crown Prince Wilhelm continued, ignoring the tension in the room. "Favourable winds on either of those sectors will almost guarantee the opposite in the other operations area."
"This is naturally a concern but the operation does not depend on the new weapons exclusively, the Fifth army will have resources enough to take its objectives even if the new weapons are less effective than we anticipate, provided we achieve surprise." Falkenhayn replied. "But weather might no be that great a problem, we will be using both shells and canister and shells are less dependent on weather."
"There will be international protests against using gas shells, sir. Testing them in Russia is one thing, using them in such a large scale against France is something else." Wilhelm said reasonably.
"Let them protest, why should we bother about international opinion? Once we have won the war it will soon be forgotten, and if not..." Falkenhayn smiled, who would dare pick a fight with a triumphant Germany? Let baron Letters and von Jagow worry about diplomacy, we are soldiers we have a battle to fight and a war to win. Crown Prince Wilhelm was correct, Letters would be furious if this operation wrecked his precious 'Goodwill offensive'. Falkenhayn didn't find that prospect particularly distressing, quite the contrary in fact.
"Very well sir. There is the matter of recognisance, by not increasing our efforts until 72 hours before the operation begins we will not have time to adjust our forces should the situation change. I would suggest moving the recognisance phase forward by atleast 48 hours."
"We can't. If we do the French will have time to react and we must have surprise if this operation is to succeed. We simply don't have, and very likely never will have the resources for a more direct approach." Falkenhayn said, the Crown Prince still looked doubtful "It is no longer a matter of if this operation will be launched, the only thing that matters now is how it is to be carried out."
Crown Prince Wilhelm didn't respond immediately, of all the generals in the West he was the only one who might get away with refusing to carry out the attack order. The silence stretched out, two heartbeats, three, four...
"Yes sir." Wilhelm said finally.
The grey trooptrain slowed and stopped at its destination, a small town somewhere in France. Except for the regiments officers that was all the soldiers had been told about their destination. Carrying their heavy equipment the troops began assembling outside the train, individuals forming squads, squads forming sections, sections forming platoons and platoons forming companies. In a short time, shorter than any civilian would have thought possible, the entire Battalion was ready to move out.
"So corporal, where do you think we are?" Paul Dankel leaned forward and asked.
"I don't know any more than you do." Corporal Otto Beck whispered back "Now shut up."
The sounds of artillery could be heard with varying intensity in the south, some shell seemed to land in the forest south of the town.
"Verdun." private Wilhelm Kirst whispered to Dankel and nodded towards a smashed road-sign.
"Scheisse." private Ernest Jäger groaned "The biggest damn fortress in the world, we are lucky aren't we?"
As if in agreement with that sentiment several shells landed far closer than the previous ones had. The veterans in the battalion glanced around nervously well aware of their exposed position should the French guns actually reach this far behind the front-line. The new recruits seemed more fascinated by the first sounds of war. The battalion moved out heading south-west along a road parallelling an other set of tracks.
The sudden cry surprised Beck but he repeated it and it travelled down the battalion, it was to soon for a break and they were still far from the frontlines.
"Now what?" Jäger wondered.
"Are you in a hurry, Ernest?" Kirst asked "Im sure they will not begin until we arrive."
The battalion turned down a small forest road. As they left the main road Beck and his squad had a good view of men wearing strange outfits unloading large metal cylinders from a couple of railroad wagons.
"Yes, what is it?" came the irritated reply.
"I have the production schedules from Krupp that you wanted."
"Thank you, put them on my desk."
"Was there anything else?"
"Well admiral perhaps its time to call it a day, you haven't had more than four hours sleep a night since the fleet came back to port."
"Sleep? Yes I remember hearing about that, perhaps I should try it some day." von Rudburg replied. "but there is simply to much to do Stephan." he sighed heavily, closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair. "Right now the main threat to the fleet doesn't come from the British but from the OHL and they are proving to be more stubborn and harder to beat than the Grand fleet."
"How so sir?" Stephan asked, giving his commander the chance to blow off some steam.
"I get excuses instead of results, I have a 40 page document here somewhere explaining why its more important for skilled yard workers to dig trenches instead of building warships. I have to fight for every shell and every ton of coal." von Rudburg growled angrily.
"I thought his majesty himself had approved the demobilisation of those men?"
"He did but I have to keep whipping the army to get it done, and the day before yesterday half a dozen generals visited Krupp with a grand new production plan obviously designed on the principle 'crumbs to the fleet'." von Rudburg walked over to the window and looked out over the yard and one of the Helgolands being repaired under the sharp electric lights that turned night to day.
"Its ironic isn't it, Stephan?" von Rudburg said.
"What is sir?"
"I fought against the Nassaus and the Helgolands when I was at the ministry, I thought it was insane to build battleships that could, at most, use only two-thirds of their firepower against the enemy. I almost wrecked my career over them, and now my name will forever be linked to them. Rudberg and Ostfriesland at Skagerack." He was sure old Tirpitz had a good laugh over that one.
Admiral von Rudburg stood looking out over the brightly lit yards for a long time. He didn't notice his aide's discreet departure. He sighed and turned back to the desk where piles of paper waited patiently for him.
"You tried sir."
"Yes I did, and I failed." Crown Prince Wilhelm looked across the table at his chief of staff "I only hope we both are wrong and that Falkenhayn is right."
The other man nodded and turned to leave.
"Aren't you coming sir?"
"In a minute."
Crown Prince Wilhelm stood alone by the map over Verdun. The bold arrows
drawn on it pointing to the objectives to be taken didn't impress him
at all, this was a hasty endeavour with too little weight behind it. Why
couldn't Falkenhayn see this? Why was he insisting on pushing this operation
forward so rapidly? The answers Wilhelm thought of to those questions
were not very flattering for Falkenhayn. The Crown Prince left the command
room, even he had to obey the commander of the Imperial armies, for now