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Chapter Forty: The Road to London




London/Maidstone/Dover


United Kingdom, Timeline B
General Leblanc knew, without false modesty, that he was the most capable general France had, particularly when it came to the new style of warfare. He had been involved with absorbing the lessons of the alternate world from the moment that the Charles de Gaulle had arrived, and he had been developing the tactics that could be adapted to the French Army.
He also knew that he had been very lucky not to be sacked over losing the battles in Poland. No one, not even the crew of the Charles de Gaulle, could have known that the Russians had ships of their own – but they should at least have expected it. At least, they should have considered the possibility…but they hadn’t. They’d been blinded by the Russians being careful – and paranoid; they’d completely missed on the clues that they had seen, until it was too late.
He smiled suddenly as he stared down at a map of Britain. It hadn’t destroyed his career – and if he was honest with himself he would have to admit that it was because of the Emperor’s collapse that he remained in his post. Instead, he’d been appointed to command the invasion force for England, at least the southern force. Technically, he was the commander of both forces, but he fully expected that communications problems would prevent him from exercising full control.
Still…
He looked down at the display from the Charles de Gaulle and smiled, feeling like a God. The jury-rigged device was prone to sudden seizures – they called it a ‘crash’ – and it was nowhere near as capable as the unit on the carrier itself, but it was so much better than anything they’d had before that everyone was delighted. After carefully expanding the production of small radios, they could track each and every one of their aircraft in the sky – and could safely assume that anything without such a transmitter was a British aircraft.
“My General, the scouts have located the front lines of the British defences,” his aide said, holding a radio. Tactical communications, General Leblanc was certain, could and would be intercepted by the British, but it would take them time to act on the new information. He watched as the aide sketched out the line on the map; it was decision-making time.
“I see,” he mused, almost wishing that some other general had been appointed. One formidable British line had been established near Maidstone, running around London to defend the capital city itself. A second line ran between their positions and Southampton, which was using its heavy weapons to hammer any French ship that got too close.
“We have been urged to move by His Highness, the Crown Prince,” the aide reminded him. Hardly any of the three days General Leblanc had spent bringing supplies onto British soil had passed without the Crown Prince urging him onwards to glory. He scowled; if their logistics failed them, which was a possibility with the George Washington heading to Britain with most of the Royal North American Navy with it, then they would be heading onwards to bloody defeat.
“Oddly enough, I know that,” he snapped. So far, the British had refused to counterattack; something he’d hoped for, and then prayed for. They could have broken a British counterattack and then counter-counterattacked. The thought of the thousands of British soldiers impaling themselves on his guns was appealing. Instead…
He glared down at the map. It was perhaps a promising sign, the British refusal to counterattack, or perhaps it was a sign that the British expected to regain control of the seas. With the devastation inflicted on Kent and the surrounding counties, there would be no hope of living off the land; the refugees had already fled from the French lines.
He smiled suddenly. The British were not Russians, or Arabs, or even Prussians. He’d executed two men for rape and one more for pillaging, but he had a grim suspicion that he would have to order large-scale pillaging…if the French Navy lost control of the seas.
“We’ll have to attack London,” he said, and started to move units around the map in his mind. “Perhaps if we order three battalions of infantry, including the anti-tank units, to deploy as a holding force, they can prevent any counterattack from Southampton.”
He smiled. These days, no one would dream of launching an attack without land ironclads leading the way. “In the meantime, have our combined arms units” – another idea borrowed from the new knowledge of war – “moved up to prepare to launch the main offensive.”
“It will be done, My General,” the aide said. “What about the artillery? The aircraft?”
General Leblanc allowed himself a moment to think. Without the aircraft from the Charles de Gaulle, they would have to rely on their own aircraft, which were enthusiastic, but nowhere near as tactical as the Charles de Gaulle’s aircraft. He considered, briefly, asking Contre-Admiral François Videzun for the use of some of the Charles de Gaulle’s aircraft, but he knew that Videzun would not agree. With the George Washington heading their way, each and every one of those aircraft would be needed.
“A ten-minute bombardment,” he said finally. A thought struck him. “Twenty minutes before we launch the attack, I think that we should bombard Southampton’s defences, in the standard manner.”
“To try to convince them that Southampton is the target?” The aide said. “My General, how much can they do to prepare for our attack in twenty minutes?”
General Leblanc smiled darkly. “They can get into their defensive positions,” he said. “At the same time, the troops from London will be moving into their own positions, either to support Southampton or to attack us directly. They’ll be out in the open…”
He let his voice trail off suggestively. “And then they’ll be slaughtered,” the aide said. “My General, it shall be done!”
He bounced off, every bit as enthusiastic as General Leblanc had been, before seeing war for the first time. He shrugged and snapped his fingers; the aircraft liaison officer ran up to him and saluted at once.
“Have the aircraft squadrons prepared for a major aerial attack,” he said. The aircraft liaison officer bowed; he was Italian and clearly delighted at his job. “Fighters are to cover us and attack their fighters; bombers are to hammer their airfields and targets designated by me.”
“Yes, My General,” the aircraft liaison officer said. “I’ll see to it at once.”
“See that you do,” General Leblanc said, returning to the map. It wouldn’t be long before the attack could go in…and then the British would find out what war truly was like in the brave new world.
***

Thirty miles to the east, Colonel Sir Benjamin Phillips was reminded, for reasons he didn’t fully understand, of the War of the Worlds. The novel, of course; none of the films had come close to catching the magic of the story. This Britain, he was starting to understand, had more in common with Victorian Britain – a joke since Victoria had never come to the throne in Timeline B – than it had to his own Britain. One advantage was that it had a far better railway system; the railways actually did run on time.


The disadvantage, however, was that the farmers and workers in the occupied regions were almost unarmed, which meant that what resistance there was to the French was limited. He didn’t fully understand it, not in this world where invasion was clearly a realistic possibility, but he cursed it – even though many farmers were also members of the Militia.
“It won’t be long now,” General Sir Douglas Highlander said, as he peered into the British hedgerows, looking towards territory occupied by the French. For the last couple of days, as the defence line was being assembled and built, smoke had been rising from the occupied zone, but now the skies were clear. Unrealistically clear – which suggested that the French or the remaining local inhabitants were putting the fires out.
“I guess not,” Sir Benjamin said. He paused and smiled as encouragingly as he could as a new section of troops from the Militia arrived, looking grim and tired. He recognised their rank badges; they were from Cambridge. There were nearly ten regular divisions and fifteen militia divisions in the line…and he knew that they might not be enough.
“There,” Highlander said, as a green flare flashed in the sky ahead of them. He blew a whistle as loud as he could, the sign for ‘get down,’ and drove into a trench. Sir Benjamin followed him, seconds before the first hail of shells crashed near them. Explosions and secondary explosions shattered the peace of the dawn, blasting through the men who hadn’t ducked fast enough. A runner, trying desperately to reach the commanding officers, was cut down and thrown into one of the trenches; Sir Benjamin crawled to him and took the message from his dead hands.
“They’re about to attack Southampton,” he screamed, trying to make himself heard. It wasn’t likely, he knew, that they would be able to move any forces from London – and he was fairly certain that they shouldn’t do anything hasty until they knew for sure what was happening. “General…”
“Fuck that,” Highlander said. “I don’t believe it, not with the shells they’re pouring on us here.”
Sir Benjamin nodded. He rather agreed with his commander, even as the first aircraft roared overhead, heading towards London. Anti-aircraft guns opened fire on them, trying to wipe them from the sky, but none of them succeeded in hitting anything. The hail of shellfire was becoming almost normal, almost tolerable…and then it stopped altogether. The silence was deafening.
“We’re alive,” he said, stunned. It had never been anything like that bad on the New Spain Front; he’d never felt the sheer power of the weapons he'd unleashed. “I don’t believe it.”
Highlander shook his head. “Stay down,” he advised, then shouted for people to stand by to run to their defence positions. “They might be hoping that we’ll think it’s over and come out, or…”
Sir Benjamin blinked. “Or?”
“Or they might be launching an attack,” Highlander said. He peered into the distance. “Ah.”
“Ah is never good,” Sir Benjamin said, as Highlander started to bark orders. In the distance, the distinctive shape of French tanks could be seen, accompanied by infantry wearing a brilliant green. Robin Hood, Sir Benjamin thought, rudely. “What are they?”
“The Irish Bastards,” Highlander said. He scowled. “They are renowned for their savagery and for their hatred of us British, particularly the English.” He cursed once, hard. “They must be sure of victory,” he said. “The sort of atrocities those bastards commit would give us the legal right – indeed the duty – to execute the lot of them.”
***

Sergeant Killarney had never been to Ireland, even in the days of peace. Like his fellow Irish Bastards, he was descended from a tribe composed of survivors from the Global War and the women they’d married. He’d imbibed hatred of the English along with his mother’s milk, even though he’d never met a real Irishman. Ironically, he resembled a Frenchman more than an Irishman; his mother and her mother had been French.


He stepped back as the land ironclad moved onwards, feeling that hatred burning in his breast. The men of the small Irish Colony were raised to consider the English as their eternal enemy, something that had kept them out of most of the fighting. The regiment had lost two men for raping an Englishwomen – and they had their anger to burn off.
“There,” he snarled, as tiny puffs of smoke could be seen. The English weren’t wasting bullets by firing at the land ironclads; they were firing at his men! He threw himself to the ground as a bullet cracked over his head, then crawled forward behind the ironclad, which was pouring machine gun fire into the British position.
“Die, you bastard,” he shouted, as they reached the edge of the trench. The scene was bad enough to make even him slow down for a moment; the ironclad had utterly ripped the British defenders apart. The ironclad itself seemed to be…struck; the side of the trench had crumbled under its weight. Even as he watched, the ironclad fell forward, into the trench.
“Bastards,” he screamed, as several other ironclads met the same fate. The British had taken one hell of a risk – or perhaps it was the effect of the shellfire; the rear side of the trenches had been weakened, just enough to make it crumble when an ironclad moved across it.
“Working crew, now,” a French captain snapped. Killarney knew better than to disobey, he joined the captain in assisting three of the five ironclads out of the hole, before helping them to…
A missile streaked past him and struck the ironclad, which exploded. Killarney threw himself to the ground as the British launched a counterattack, throwing a horde of green-garbed soldiers of their own into the mix. The savage battle destroyed the ironclads…and then the British withdrew in good order.
“After them,” Killarney howled, and the Bastards leapt to obey. The French captain shouted at them, but they gloried in their reputation as ungovernable; they ignored him and chased the British.
“They can’t go far,” one of his men snapped, and then Killarney – too late – saw the trap. The British had built a second line of defences, and he and his men had just run directly into the trap. A hail of machine gun fire cut Killarney and his men down before they could run for their lives.
***

Sir Benjamin watched grimly as two fighters fought it out in the air. Finally, one fighter emerged the winner, hitting his opponent hard enough to make their plane fall apart and fall out of the sky. The explosion as it hit the enemy lines was spectacular; perhaps it had landed directly on something important.


“They’re pushing through,” Highlander said grimly. After three hours of brutal fighting, the French were finally starting to gain an advantage, using their tanks ruthlessly. Sir Benjamin wondered coldly who had introduced them to the concept of combining their weapons; simply by keeping infantry near the tanks they had managed to checkmate the bazooka teams. They were taking losses, but not enough to force them to withdraw.
An explosion, not too far away, underscored his words. “What the hell do we do?” Sir Benjamin demanded. “They’ll chase us down if we start to run!”
“We need a rear-guard,” Highlander said. He scowled; I have avoided committing the tanks, but they’re going to be no good in London and…”
“You think we’ll be fighting in London?” Sir Benjamin demanded. “Won’t they just surround the city?”
“They’ll have to have some kind of plan to take London,” Highlander snapped. “You’re the commander of the defences and the New Model Army…”
“Most of which is crossing the bloody Atlantic Ocean in a fleet of transports,” Sir Benjamin said. “Sir…”
“I’ve made up my mind,” Highlander said firmly. “You’re needed; the only commanding officer the New Model Army ever has had. I’m…an old warhorse who is no longer needed.”
Sir Benjamin opened his mouth to protest. “Shut up,” Highlander said, before he could speak. “Here are your orders.”
He held Sir Benjamin’s eyes, forcing him to back down. “You are to take all, but the 23rd Infantry, the 2nd English Armoured and the 45th Militia,” he said. “You are to fall back to London and hold the city as long as you can.”
Sir Benjamin shuddered. The French would have learned none of the lessons that had had to be learned by the British and Americans during the War on Terror. Even so, the fighting would be savage…and ruthless. London would be almost certainly destroyed before the Washington and its fleet could arrive to save them all.
Assuming it can, of course, he thought bitterly, and shivered.
“It has been an honour to serve with you,” Highlander said. His staff, loyal to their commander, had been transmitting his last orders before Sir Benjamin could have said anything. He felt like crying; he was about to do the one thing that British officers hated – running from the battlefield.
Go,” Highlander snapped. “That’s a direct order!”
Sir Benjamin held out a hand, which Highlander shook, and turned and ran towards the retreating infantry units. There wouldn’t be much time before the French, concentrating on trying to destroy the British army, hammered at Highlander’s position…and took it. By that time, the rest of the army had to be well on its way.
***

The sudden appearance of the armoured counterattack had shocked General Leblanc, who had become convinced – or allowed himself to believe – that there were no British land ironclads about, perhaps none on Britain itself. In the suddenly savage fighting around Maidstone, he lost several of his own land ironclads…and that most precious of items – time.


“My General, the British are making a last stand,” his aide said. “We can crush them now.”
General Leblanc peered into the distance, just in time to see an anti-tank rocket turn a land ironclad into an inferno, cooking the crew inside, and shuddered. “Have the artillery locked on that position,” he snapped, mentally thanking God for some of the new techniques for calculating shelling trajectories. “Kill them all!”
The aide blinked. “But, My General; we have to demand their surrender first. The laws of war…”
“To blazes with the laws of war,” General Leblanc snapped, and hoped that no British man had heard that comment. “Don’t you see? That’s not their army in that position; that’s a rear-guard force! By the time we get past it, they’ll have escaped with the main army, withdrawing it into London!”
He glared at the British position, which suddenly became wrapped in a series of explosions. The gunners had clearly had a light lit under them; they were firing with a rapidity that he’d only seen among the best teams. The entire British position was wreathed in fire…and there was no sign of a surrender. Twice, the infantry and the land ironclads mounted attacks that were repulsed…and finally, the French had to kill every man at his post.
Poor brave stupid bastards, General Leblanc thought, and smiled suddenly. The road to London lay open ahead of him.
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