Act I Scene 7


Kohlmarkt. In front of the Café Pucher’s revolving door.

OLD BIACH[1] (very excited):    The simplest thing would be to throw five divisions straight at Russia, that would sort everything out.

PRIVY COUNSELLOR[2]:    Without a doubt. The thrust is the best parry. Just look at what the Germans have achieved. What panache! Their breakthrough in Belgium[3] was something else! That’s what we need –

CHUM:    Tell me what’s happening with your son?

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    Relieved of his post, one less worry. But the situation – the situation – it’s not going well at the top. We need something like that Belgian breakthrough – I tell you, a new spirit of aggression –

CHUM:    Bring us Belgium – we’ll break though it all right.

PROFESSOR:    What we need is a Bismark –

OLD BIACH:   How does the art of diplomacy help now, now the weapons are talking! Can we afford any checks? If we don’t break through now –

BEGRUDGER (wanting to go in):    Excuse me –

PROFESSOR:    It makes sense to me. But the strategic moment, in fast moving warfare it’s always a flanking attack –

COUTURIER:    You can rely on it, we’ve got them surrounded, Sophie Pollak[4] told me herself.

OLD BIACH:    Oh, she knows, do me a favour! I’d like to know how!

COUTURIER:    How? Well, hasn’t her husband enlisted in the medical reserve at the Horticultural Gardens?

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    I thought he had an exemption? Surrounded, that really would be excellent, you know it’s just like a very tight embrace.

OLD BIACH (with relish):    We’ll embrace them so tightly they’ll be gasping for breath! If I could only be there for an embrace like that.

COUTURIER:    Ernst Klein’s[5] there, really there, with the War Press Corps. Yesterday he wrote that they’re going to squeeze every last drop of blood out of the Serbs. He won’t let go till they do.

CHUM:    What a stroke of luck, actually being there. So what’s the deal with this War Press Corps[6], Professor? Do you have to be unfit for service to get in or can the able-bodied join as well?

BEGRUDGER:    Excuse me – (They make way.)

COUTURIER:    What’s able-bodied got to do with it? You get in if you can write, you don’t like shooting and you want someone else to do it instead.

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:     What does that mean? Why wouldn’t you want to do any shooting, out of pity?

COUTURIER:    No, just out of prudence. Pity’s not permitted in the army anyway, and if you’re in the War Press Corps it’s the next best thing to being in the army.

OLD BIACH:    It sounds like the perfect set-up, this War Press Corps! You can see it all. You get to be right up front by the battle front, so Klein’s in the thick of it, almost, he can see the battle, without being in any danger.

CHUM:    They always say none of the troops can really see anything on a modern battlefield. So a war correspondent actually gets to see much more than the guys who are directly in the firing line.

PROFESSOR:    At a pinch you can report from different fronts at once.

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:   It was Klein’s piece, that gripping article in the New Free Press; most of our wounded seem to have superficial injuries to the hands and feet, which says the Russians favour attacking on the flanks.

COUTURIER:    Well, he’s no Roda Roda! A lot of water will flow under the Dnieper Bridge[7] before Ernst Klein can write like Roda Roda!

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    What I find agreeable about Roda Roda is, above all, that he’s so very adventurous. He says he’s going to look at the fighting on the River Drina[8] and off he goes and just looks.  Adventurous, or what!

OLD BIACH:    There’s no mistaking a former officer – that old esprit de corps! Even though my own son has an exemption, he does still maintain a keen interest and he subscribes to all the military science journals.

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    I still can’t help myself – I am very pessimistic.

OLD BIACH:    What do you mean, pessimistic? What do you want, Lemberg is still in our hands!

CHUM:    So there!

PROFESSOR:    There are no grounds for pessimism. If the worst comes to the worst, if the decision to go to war were rescinded, the game is a draw.

COUTURIER:    I can tell you, and I know this from a real high-up in the ministry, it’s all practically in the bag. We come from the right, the Germans come from the left and we squeeze them till they’re gasping for breath.

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    Fine – but what about Serbia?

OLD BIACH (combative):    Serbia? Who cares? Serbia will be swept away!

PRIVY COUNSELLOR:    I don’t know – I still can’t help myself – today’s news – just read between the lines and then get a map – a simple glance will tell you – I mean even a mere layman – I can show you that Serbia –

OLD BIACH (irritated):    You can leave Serbia out of it as far as I’m concerned, Serbia is a secondary theatre of war. I’m fed up with all this. Let’s go in, I’m intrigued to know what the ministers are saying today – so gentlemen, I suggest we get a table right next to them. (They enter.)


[1] Der Alte Biach suggests a rehasher of what is clichéd, vacuous and banal, as long as it’s from the newspapers; there is no English equivalent as rich or specific: some thing like Old Saw, Old Chestnut.

[2] The nearest English equivalent of Hofrat, ‘palace advisor’; however the title was more extensively bestowed on civil servants and the great and the good. Though the German for ‘rat’ is Ratte, Hofrat doesn’t carry the ambiguity English would cheerfully give it; time enough for the ‘palace rats’ to desert the ship.

[3] Throughout August 1914 a number of offences, known as the Battle of the Frontiers, took place along the French, Belgian, German borders, following the German invasion of Belgium; according to the von Schlieffen Plan Germany would outflank the French defences. In the last offensive, at Mons, the British Expeditionary Force fought its first battle; after heavy casualties the British were compelled to retreat.

[4] Original meaning, ‘from Poland’. Unidentified or generic family with aristocratic connections; common name among Jews too. An Irma Pollak (1876-1932), operetta star, was noted for roles as a young ‘naïve’.

[5] Ernst Klein (1876-1951), writer, journalist with New Free Press.

[6] Das kaiserlich und königliche Kriegspressequartier (‘by appointment to the Emperor’), or KPV, was established in July 1914; it brought together not only journalists but writers, artists, photographers and eventually film-makers in order to keep news gathering and the arts under strict control and to ensure they were focussed on enthusiastically supporting, promoting, defending, even celebrating the war. The job offered salary, status and, naturally enough, exemption from conscription; it was a more subtle propaganda machine than this description suggests and it was embraced, certainly at first, by some surprising people.

[7] This seems to refer to the Nicholas Chain Bridge over the River Dnieper (Dnipro, Ukrainian) in Kiev, designed by an Irish engineer, Charles Blacker Vignoles, completed in 1853 ; the River Dnieper flows through Russia, Belorussia and Ukraine into the Black Sea; through all of what was then European Russia.

[8] The River Drina flows into the Sava and thence into the Danube; it formed most of the border between Serbia and Austro-Hungarian Bosnia and Hertzegovina; the scene of fierce fighting in September 1914.