Having just finished an alternate history, Clash of Eagles, I decided to read another one. Since I’d just been to the National World War One Museum the day before — and this was on the review pile, I picked this one. (I heartily recommend the museum, by the way, it looks at the whole war and not just the American involvement.)
The publisher was giving this one away free on Amazon, so I picked it up on July 28, 2014 — one hundred years to the day after the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia.
Below is the short review. I’ll be taking a more in depth look at each of them in future installments of my World War One in Fantastical Fiction series. Yes, that includes “On the Cheap”. (And just when I was beginning to think it was wrong for my grandpa to deny his grandmother was Irish.)
Review: Wars to End All Wars: Alternate Tales from the Trenches, ed. N. E. White, 2014.
From the moment when Gavrilo Princep stares into the eyes of Archduke Ferdinand to a distant future where the war is a memory only for some, these stories take a look at altered and distorted versions of the Great War. Sometimes lurid, sometimes comical, sometimes thoughtful and mysterious, they are never the solid alternate histories the title implies. They use, to quote editor White, “speculative-fictional elements” to look at World War One.
The one story with nothing to recommend it is the appropriately titled “On the Cheap” by Dan Bieger. This piece of Irish blarney casts a fey named Sergeant Cork in an Alvin York role. And the punning names don’t stop there. We get a Jimmy Choice (James Joyce) and V. A. Yates (W. B. Yeats).
The character of Gavrilo Princep is the focus of “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” by Igor Ljubuncic. Events take a different turn in Europe when Gavrilo doesn’t pull the trigger on his Browning pistol. But, while Ljubuncic gives us a European conflagration of a plausibly different configuration, he doesn’t provide any justification for his Princep who seems, from what little I know of his life, a different man than the one known to history.
Elizabeth Moon’s “Tradition” (reprinted from the Harry Turtledove and Roland Green anthology Alternate Generals) almost works as alternate history. The August 1914 hunt for the German battle cruiser Goeben, as it tries to evade the British Mediterranean Fleet, takes a different and quite plausible course here – if you accept a different admiral in the place of the one filled by history’s Admiral Troubridge. But Moon gives no plausible explanation for that substitution. However, her afterward lays out just a few of the consequences of her imagined events. A historically informed reader can come up with quite a few more.
Two stories take a lurid and quite implausible – in terms of quite fantastic science or the introduction of monsters – look at the horror of trench warfare on the Western Front: “Wormhole” by Lee Swift and “Jawohl” by Wilson Geiger. Both use German veterans of Verdun as their protagonists. The first manages to say something about a brotherhood of man existing even in war. The second is familiar and unsurprising but still fun.
G. L. Lathian’s “One Man’s War” is really about two men, both German soldiers. One is the narrator, Lutz Bergmann and the other Adolf Hitler. (You didn’t really think we’d get through a whole collection of alternate World War One stories without the Austrian corporal showing up, did you?) It’s engrossing as a secret history, but Lutz’s final revelation is not surprising, and the story hints at an intriguing alternate history completely omitted except for the phrase “the millions of crosses and unmarked graves scattered across the world.”
“The Foundation” by Andrew Leon Hudson alludes to World War One so obliquely and mystically that I don’t think it would really work outside the context of this anthology. But it grew on me the more I thought about it. Its plot concerns a construction crew for the Empire (which seems to be inhabited by a lot of people with Germanic names) building a foundation for a huge monument in the unpopulated “Westerly Fields”. For me, it came to be less about World War One than the nagging lack of historical memory that someone in a totalitarian regime might feel.