Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Berlin-Shandong Railway (via Moscow and Beijing)

This post was inspired by a tweet from The Alternate Historian.

After war games proved the effectiveness of defensive combat, including trenches to resist artillery bombardment, Generaloberst Helmuth von Moltke the Younger presented a new plan of battle against France to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Its predecessor, the Schlieffen Plan, had been devised in 1905 in which defensive lines would hold the anticipated French invasion into Alsace and Lorraine while an offensive force moved through Belgium to encircle the French army. In the years since the original plan, the Entente Cordiale between France and Britain had proven strong, and the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 meant that any war in Europe would likely have two fronts for Germany. Rather than attempting to beat France first, Germany’s leaders sought to hold the west and focus on conquest of the less-developed east.

War came in 1914, and von Moltke’s plan went into action. France launched its Plan XVII, racing into German territory with five armies on August 14. The First and Second Armies had retreated back to their original organizing groups by August 20, and the others followed suit within a week. As Germany recognized Belgian neutrality, Britain became divided on whether to support France. Finally Parliament declared war as treaties demanded and a token expeditionary force crossed the Channel while the navy began a blockade, beginning the long Battle of the North Sea as U-boats and British warships hunted one another.

With the bulk of its forces on the Eastern Front, the German armies quickly gained ground. The Russian army had been improved since the Russo-Japanese War, but it was no match for the largesse of the German forces, as shown at the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914 where the Russians felt ten times the casualties as the Germans. Within two years, German lines drew near to Moscow, and riots among the populace over food shortages and in the army over ammunition shortages only weakened things further. An attempt by the French and Russians to bring Romania into the war in 1916 as a new ally proved disastrous with defeat for them, too, just a year later. In 1917, a revolution declared a Russian republic. Feeling their ally was no longer able to fight and having seen terrible casualties with no gains for three years outside of seizing colonial land in Africa, France and Britain sued for peace in 1917. Germany continued pushing eastward, reinstalling the Russian monarchy with fourteen-year-old Tsar Alexander IV as a puppet.

Britain and France returned to their overseas empires, but Germany took up new interest overland in the vast Russian Empire. Existing railways across Siberia and along northeastern China technically connected Berlin to its colony at Kiautschou (Chinese: Jiaozhou), but it was a disconnected route since the Russian rail gauge was different. While Germany and China both used the 1,435 mm international standard gauge, Russian rails used the 5-foot (1,524 mm) gauge. This meant that cargo and passengers heading east from Germany would need to stop at the border, change trains, travel across Siberia, and stop to change trains again after Vladivostok. German officials were well aware of the problem: the gauge difference had slowed down the German advance since they were unable to link captured railways to move supplies forward more speedily.

Exerting pressure through the Tsar, Germany pushed for Russian rails to join the international standard. The first replaced-rail connected Berlin and Moscow, which had become the legislative capital of the nation while Alexander IV was kept in Petrograd. Rather than waiting for the route through Siberia to be replaced, German investors decided to build a new southern route. The line traveled south from Moscow to Astrakhan near where the Volga empties into the northern Caspian Sea. From there it ran east across Kazakhstan, through the Dzungarian pass, into the Gobi Desert, following much of the traditional Silk Road. From there, it linked with established railroads to Peking (Beijing) and the other 400 miles to Kiautschou.

The world marveled at how quickly the railroad was built, largely thanks to German press notices and patriotic films. Workers in the United States had built nearly 2,000 miles of rail with the Transcontinental Railroad in six years, while it took ten years to build the 5,800 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the Manchurian route with the Amur route completed in fifteen years later. At only 4,700 miles, the new route was considerably shorter (especially since it was another 830 miles to Peking from Vladivostok), allowing for speedy flow of goods and passengers between Europe and the Republic of China. The rail line was called a new axis upon which the world would spin.

Along with German economic influence came political influence. Germany quickly outpaced other European empires’ attempts at swaying opinion in Asia, and China soon became a close ally with Berlin. Britain maintained a few long-lease ports, using them as stepping stones to affirm an alliance with Japan to secure a counterbalance with Germany’s growing power. Analysts feared that the next war would be truly a World War, perhaps even drawing in nations from the Western Hemisphere such as the United States or Brazil.



In reality, von Moltke continued with the Schlieffen Plan, though he was criticized as being too timid about its execution. Railroads would indeed link Europe with China through Central Asia, although the Cold War limited much of the expansion until the 1990s. Since then, the “New Silk Road” has grown substantially, especially after China’s Belt and Road Action Plan announced in 2015.

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