(Strasbourg) Some historians blame all the shooting on the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Serbs in Sarajevo. Others point to the Zabern Affair in the Alsace-Lorraine, which infuriated hawks in both France and Germany. Still other social scientists insist that the massacre began due to a longtime feud between royal cousins with massive armies at their disposal. This is all poppycock. World War I was ignited by a simple game of pool.
Although little has been written and even less documented with regards to this fascinating theory, this shall in no way detour us in our quest for the final truth. What we have already found out might put the more stodgy of historians into a tizzy, or worse.
Our flight to Stuttgart was uneventful and the entire entourage felt lightheaded as we deplaned amid yet another month-long harvest festival. We drove to the French frontier, stopping once to check metric tire pressure and once to freshen up.
According to locals interviewed in the German village of Lahr, in the Black Forest, the leaders of nine European countries met here in secret in January of 1914 in an attempt to iron out difficulties and avert a mortal conflict. While most of our sources are only descendants of actual eyewitnesses, they seemed honest enough and we decided to take their recollections to the bank.
After a week of cross examination we found that villagers from Rastatt to Schaffhausen were in agreement as to how that meeting went down. Most have claimed to have at least a shirt-tail relative in attendance at that Strasbourg pool hall on the night in question.
Anyway, it appears that Lloyd George arrived first, ordered a Watneys and sat in the corner, that, being the British thing to do. He was fortuitously joined by Hungarian Premier Count Tisza, who brought along his own cue stick. Soon Prussian boss Otto von Bismark, Austrian Premier Count Carl Sturgkh, Chief-of-Staff Paul von Hindenburg and King Constantine of Greece made their way through the door. Then Bismark bought a round for the house, much to the enjoyment of the curious assemblage.
Georges Clemenceau and Henri Petain were next to show up, fashionably late, yet somewhat miffed that they had missed a rare round purchased by the frugal German clique. Then, with a flair that only the Russian could muster, Czar Nicholas emerged from his royal Cossack coach, driven by miniature horses and a host of gelded Bolsheviks, captured outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg over the holidays. Accompanying him was his wife, Alexandra, who quickly grew bored with the mileau and beat feet for Lahr’s strip of trendy boutiques in search of cuckoo clocks and bittersweet German chocolates.
Soon everyone was seated with the noted exception of President Woodrow “League of Nations” Wilson and his military attache, General John “Black Jack” Pershing. Somehow, during the delay Count Tisza challenged Bismark to a friendly game of pool, which he won handily, running the table before the proud Bismark could even choose a stick. Bismark frowned and sat down, furious at his predicament. Several other players entered the foray at this juncture with Lloyd George soundly whipping Georges Clemenceau and Czar Nicholas destroying a brave eleventh hour bid by King Constantine.
Then, just as the tardy Americans passed through the back door something snapped. Bismark, still peeved over his loss to the Hungarian, claimed that he had put a quarter up on the table immediately following his defeat. Petain insisted that it was his quarter and told Bismark to sit back down and drink his beer. His tone was confrontational at best and Bismark blew up. He charged the smaller Frenchman, punching him about the head and torso. It took three men to pull the two apart.
The Americans, who most locals feel precipitated the fracas by their less than prompt advent, attempted to negotiate a peace but it was not meant to be.
Bismark called Tisza “an upstart, a roturier, a gypsy!” Tisza responded by accusing Bismark of “grandstanding” and added that his King Charles Spaniel was “grossly overweight, even fat!” This brought a chorus of laughter from the French and British contingents who were now ordering Long Island Ice Teas by the pitcher and spoiling for a fight. It appears that it was at this point that the alliances surfaced which would ultimately lead to a world war.
Both Bismark and Tisza glared angrily into the Anglo-Franco peanut gallery hanging onto the bar. Harsh words were exchanged for now it appeared that the Prussian and the Hungarian had buried the hatchet and were more offended by the ridicule now heaped upon them than by the bad blood that had only moments before passed between them.
Another swinging match ensued, this time with Czar Nicholas and von Hindenburg jumping in. Before it was ended Lloyd George was blind sided by a Hupmobile tire iron and most of the decorative glass in the place was shattered. Count Sturgkh suffered a slight concussion after a collision with a brass serving tray while Petain lost a tooth and retreated, as would become his mode of operation, into the nearest broom closet to await the outcome.
The police arrived at about ten and arrested everyone who had the bad judgment to remain on the scene. Most were subsequently bailed out of Lahr Municipal Jail by Alexandra, who had only recently returned from her shopping trip. The combatants were then told to get out of town on the next train. Damages were paid by President Wilson, setting a dangerous precedent which would not be fully understood until the end of the century.
Meanwhile, for most of the civilized world this sad episode dictated what was to come in Europe as the leaders of the world’s greatest nations chose to sacrifice millions of lives rather than swallow their pride over a simple game of pool.
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