What If We Never Entered WWI?

The version of history that we get in school books always make it sound like everything that happened in war and peace was somehow inevitable and preordained. Anyone who’s had real experience in the intelligence community knows just how fragile our timeline really is and how just a few isolated incidents can change the course of history.

That’s the premise of David Kowalski’s debut novel The Company of the Dead. Set in an alternate version of 2012 where Germany and Japan are the dominant superpowers because the United States never entered WWI because a mysterious man traveled back in time and prevented the Titanic from sinking. No wreck of the Titanic, no U.S. involvement in the Great War.

Kowalski’s novel involves a group of people who want to restore history to its rightful order at the peril of their own deaths. The premise sounds a lot like Philip K. Dick’s classic The Man in the High Castle, which portrays a world where the U.S. stays out of WWII. We’ve got an excerpt from The Company of the Dead below and the book is out now.

April 21, 2012

New York City, Eastern Shogunate

Showered and dressed, John Jacob Lightholler sat at the dining room table of his hotel suite. He wore a dark blue woollen suit. A crumpled plain burgundy tie hung from his neck like an afterthought. He worried its frayed edge between his fingers.

Before him, smoothed out and spread across the table, lay the letter. A cigarette burned in an ashtray near one of its edges. He found himself staring at its glowing tip.

It had been over two hours since Kennedy and his men had left, yet little had changed—the breakfast tray remained, its contents long cold, and a newspaper that lay unopened on one of the cushioned chairs.

A question formed in his mind. Reverberated through his thoughts to be borne out in a single word.

Why?

He said it softly, as if questioning the meaning of the word itself. He said it and wondered how his life could unravel so quickly. From ship’s captain to Confederate lackey in the space of a morning.

Why would the King of England parcel me off to work for the Confederate Bureau of Intelligence?

He had served with the Royal Navy for ten solid years, and in that time he’d never been approached for Intelligence work, never been assigned any post that suggested he was being groomed for anything covert.

True, in the last few days, he’d been approached by a number of foreign dignitaries. He’d sat with the Russian Ambassador. He’d been invited to an audience with Hideyoshi; the titular Governor of the Prefecture of New York, the Shogun of the Japanese Empire’s eastern dominions and twin brother of Emperor Ryuichi.

Finally he’d been asked to attend a short-lived meeting with the German Foreign Minister, whom he’d met on the voyage. The Minister had been preparing to leave for Berlin to resume the Russian-Japanese Peace talks, scheduled to be held at the Reichstag.

For some reason each group had queried his opinion on how the Peace talks had gone. Lightholler had dismissed the Japanese incursion into Russian Manchuria as just another manifestation of the half-century old Cold War between the Empires of Japan and Germany. In the fifty years since Germany had secured the domination of Western Europe and North Afrika, and Japan had extended itself from the borders of China to the American West Coast and New York, both empires had bickered constantly.

But the King’s letter pre-dated those meetings.

Could it have something to do with the centennial voyage itself?

He thought back to the crossing, trying to summon up something anything that would be of value to the Confederates. He recalled a brief encounter with Morgan, the historian who’d accompanied Kennedy that morning.

It had been halfway through the Atlantic passage, on April 15. They had held a Memorial Service for those lost on the maiden voyage of 1912. The crowds were filtering out of the first class lounge at its conclusion, Lightholler had been one of the last to leave.

Wishing to avoid the other passengers, he’d made his way to the ship’s stern, where he spied another man by the railing. Darren Morgan. He remembered those pale blue eyes as the historian had caught his glance, and turned quickly away—a clumsy movement that failed to conceal what he’d been doing.

Morgan had been casting breadcrumbs into the ship’s wake.

Lightholler had walked up to him and nodded in greeting and Morgan responded with an embarrassed shrug.

“It’s just in case,” Morgan said. “Just in case we lose the way home.”

Only then did Lightholler perceive the alcohol on the man’s breath. They parted, and he had all but forgotten the incident.

Little else had happened that was out of the ordinary. E deck had been sealed off due to fire damage, prior to the ship leaving dry dock in Bremen. No one in, no one out. There were Johnson’s concerns about the displacement of the Titanic, but Kennedy had said it was the original ship that they were interested in. It made no sense.

Kennedy had issued a challenge, almost daring him to confirm the validity of the letter. Contact the White Star Line, he’d said. Contact the Foreign Office in London. It was as good a start as any.

Still, Lightholler sat by the telephone for long minutes before dialling the first number.

The Foreign Office in London confirmed that his assignment had indeed come directly from the Palace. No one he spoke to, however, could supply any details.

He contacted the London branch of the White Star Line only to be told that he’d been placed on leave of absence. Indefinitely. If he would be so kind as to come down to the Manhattan offices, there was some paperwork to be taken care of.

Lightholler slammed down the phone. So the letter was authentic, and the Titanic had been taken away from him, placed under the care of Fordham, his First Officer.

He could only think of one man to turn to, Rear-Admiral Lloyd. The officer who had organised his honourable discharge from the Royal Navy, and facilitated his assignment to the Titanic late last year.

He smoked another cigarette to calm his nerves before dialling the number that would connect him to the offices of the Admiralty. Discretion could go fuck itself.

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12 Comments

  1. The MAJ says:

    Please clarify this story. The Titanic was sunk by an ice berg no a German U Boat. In WWI, the LUSITANIA was sunk by the Germans and along with the reported “Zimmerman Telegram” in which Germany asked Mexico to join them and fight the Americans, we the two primary events enabling President Woodrow Wilson to convince congress to go to war. I am not seeing the Titanic connection in this article, can you clarify it?

    • Twidget at large says:

      Well it sounds like he’s substituting the Titanic for the Lusitania as it is a work of fiction, either that or he really didn’t do his research.

      • Tom says:

        I would agree with the latter, otherwise why the substitution? Keeping the ship’s name accurate to the events would make it no less fiction.

  2. AJMBLAZER says:

    Common guys, hard to figure out the plot of the story from this little blurb and the description of the book in the article. It’s alternative history fiction so lord knows what “may have changed” on the Titanic in 1912 in the book.

    For me I’m intrigued and will go find the book.

  3. PrahaPartizan says:

    It sounds to me that the fact the protagonist feels himself turned into a “Confederate lackey” might have more to do with this alternate history than the sinking of any particular ship.

  4. Michael says:

    What has always amazed me is how fast we mobilized for sending around 4 million troops overseas…April, ’17 to the armistice, Nov. ’18, around 19 months vs. the allies and Germany, over four long bloody years. I think we lost around 115,000, mostly disease. There are yards of books and some videos plus movies such as “All Quiet on the Western Front”, 1930, and a remake in ’79 with Ernest Borgnine and the kid in the Waltons as German soldiers as a tv special. Don’t miss “The Blue Max” with George Peppard as the 80 kill Baron von Richtofen!

    • David Parker says:

      George Peppard did not portray Baron von Richtofen. He portrayed a German peasant infantryman allowed to transfer from the trenches to the Luftwaffe and who became dedicated to proving himself the equal of the German nobility.
      Baron von Richtofen was a German baron. He was a gentleman caught up in the war, another of those manipulated into the mass murder of warfare by scheming flag waving bureaucrats. He is often portrayed as bloodthirsty and yet he attempted to shoot aircraft and not pilots. History is written by the victors.

  5. Mark Lane says:

    The real Captain of the Titanic was CHARLES Lightoller, not John. The real Lightoller was never a Regular Royal Navy officer, but a Reservist.
    British Monarchs do not exercise direct command as some Americans seem to believe, so he would not have received a letter from the King giving him some new assignment and the first Transatlantic Telephone cable was not laid until 1956.
    Or is this some future history? It seems pretty ridiculous either way!

  6. jim weber says:

    Peppard played a soldier turned flier named Stackhal and turned down an invitation to fly with von Richtofen. We had 118,000 dead with 56,000 KIA and 62,000 plus died from other causes.

  7. William Elwood CDR, says:

    Where to begin. This author has no concept of history as it was or as it could have been, The sinking of the Titanic never was, nor never will be a factor in the US entering WWI. As previously stated the sinking by a German U Boat of the Lusitania, was one of the proximal causes of the US entering WWI, and even if the US never entered WWI the absolute worse case, Britain would have sought peace with Germany, giving up part of Europe. Germany at that time was incapable of being able to invade Britain, (Even worse than when they could not execute Operation Sea Lion during WWII). The Japanese did not fight with Germany during WWI, but was on the allied side, (for which they aquired territories in the Pacific after the war). I’m sure the author came up with some neat trick to absolve Japan from the need to attack Pearl Harbor. The reality is that the ONLY reason that the US fought a two ocean war was because after the US declared war on Japan, after Pearl Harbor, was that on December 8 1941, Germany declared war on the US. Otherwise, we would not have gone to war against Germany. Hitler DID NOT want war with the US, in fact, he really didn’t want war with Britain!!! Had Germany not declared war on the US, we would only have fought in the Pacific in WWII, an interesting concept. If you want to come up with alternative history… at least use real history as a basis… I will never buy that book, and I recommend that no one ever does. We have enough problems with bad and inaccurate, or revisionist history being taught in the schools today.… I invite comment.

  8. Ezra says:

    Thank you for setting it straight, I could not agree more. The author should at least get the history straight up to the time of the alternate begins. Otherwise it is just an alternate world from the get go. Alternate histories are fun and we can probably learn from these exercises in what ifs but again it must be on a solid foundation.

  9. Joe Allison says:

    I just checked this book out on the Amazon web site and it sounds like a sci-fi time travel novel done more for entertainment than as a historical what if that would teach us anything. Maybe I’ll check it out some time just for fun…