Broadly speaking, the historical impact of the First World War didn’t have much to with armies and battles. For all that fighting killed a lot of people, wrecked a lot of terrain and occasionally captured swathes of territory for one side or the other, its principal effect between 1914 and 1920 (and I’m being conservative about the dates) was to prolong and expand the conflict. That meant the extension and spread of ‘total war’, a new and terrible phenomenon that transformed and tested Europe’s biggest economies and societies – and only a fool, a liar or a media professional would even try to deny that total war was the prime catalyst for the profound changes wrought upon the planet by the First World War.
The economic, political and social stresses of total war would defeat Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Austria-Hungary and Germany before their failures were confirmed on the battlefield. Ability to survive the same stresses (and the radical, permanent changes they provoked) would enable Britain and France to end the War with battlefield victories, while the USA’s grand success would have little to do with military prowess and everything to do with industrial, socioeconomic and political adaptability, along with a transformed take on the world. Italy achieved almost nothing on the battlefields, was lucky to survive three years of total war as a functioning state, and fell apart almost as soon as the conflict was over.
But that’s the big picture of the big hitters. The First World War also wrapped its wider identity around plenty of smaller affairs, local conflicts that were continued or begun under the umbrella of the great alliances, and some of them were all about the fighting. Various colonial struggles involving the British Empire spring to mind, as does the Central Powers’ invasion of Serbia in late 1915, and today marks the centenary of a pivotal moment in another. The moment in question was the fall of Silistra, a port city on the Danube, to German and Bulgarian forces on 10 September 1916, a blow that shaped the brief but lively war between Romania and the Central Powers.
I talked about Romania’s decision to go to war against the Central Powers a couple of weeks back (27 August, 1916: Going, Going, Gone…). It was a calculated, greedy choice, and it quickly translated into military action because some strategists on all sides saw it as a potential turning point in the War on the Eastern Front.
On the Allied side, most (though not all) analysts expected Romania’s army to make a major regional contribution, distracting the Bulgarian and German forces deployed in front of Salonika, and posing a direct threat through Transylvania to Austria-Hungary (at the time still defending its heartlands against the last efforts of the Brusilov Offensive further north). This rosy viewpoint ignored several important factors. First, Romania was difficult to defend, menaced as it was by Bulgarian or Austro-Hungarian enemies on two sides. Secondly, the summer of 1916 had seen Germany assume effective strategic control over its enfeebled allies, increasing the likelihood of a coordinated attack on Romania from both sides; and thirdly the Romanian Army, its reputation sky high after a successful Second Balkan War, was in fact rubbish.
Limited peacetime conscription meant Romania’s army was big by regional standards, 860,000-strong after mobilisation in 1916, but rapid expansion had left it pitifully short of modern weapons. Half its 1,300 artillery pieces were obsolete, most were housed in fortresses, hardly any machine guns were available and some units were 40% short of rifles that were anyway of nineteenth-century vintage, as were the brightly-coloured uniforms worn by troops. Decked out as targets and ill-equipped, the same troops went into action with little training or competent leadership, thanks to an officer corps that was good at dressing up, getting wasted and duelling, but a hopeless shambles in military terms.
Military reality made little difference to an atmosphere of one-eyed, expansionist ambition in Bucharest. Dividing its forces into four armies – and ignoring British advice to attack south through Bulgaria, towards Salonika – the royal high command left one army to defend the Bulgarian frontier and sent the other three north, through difficult Carpathian Mountain passes, to invade Hungarian Transylvania. Some 400,000 Romanian troops crossed the Hungarian border along a 300km front on 28 August, a day after the declaration of war, and advanced into southeast Transylvania unopposed by 35,000 Austro-Hungarian defenders, but crippling supply problems and command ineptitude had halted progress by 10 September.
Meanwhile, as might have been expected by any Allied strategist not high on optimism, Germany had organised and launched an invasion of Romania by the Central Powers. One of the Eastern Front’s most experienced and successful commanders, General Mackensen, was put in charge of a Danube Army, made up of German, Austrian, Bulgarian and Ottoman units, to attack north into the Dobrudja, an ethnically Bulgarian region seized by Romania during the Balkan Wars and including all the country’s coastline. A diversionary attack struck the fortress of Tatrakan on 2 September, and took it four days later, while the main force advanced further east towards Silistra, only about 150km from Bucharest. When Silistra fell on 10 September, the entire Dobrudja region was opened up to Mackensen’s army.
Romania suddenly needed help, but its new allies were better at making promises than keeping them.
Any hope of direct Anglo-French support had evaporated with the failure of General Sarrail’s earlier attempt to move north from Salonika (14 August, 1916: Postcard From The Ledge), and though Sarrail’s multinational force did launch an even less ambitious attack into southern Serbia on 13 September, German and Bulgarian delaying tactics were enough to prevent any significant progress before November and it had no impact on events in the Dobrudja. Meanwhile the Russian high command, still busy pouring resources into breakthrough attempts in Galicia (4 June, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…), would only spare a token 50,000 men to provide limited support for the 70,000 or so Romanian troops facing Mackensen’s advance.
Having learned the true value of its alliances, the Romanian high command dithered for a few days before abandoning the invasion of Transylvania and, from 15 September, transferring more than half its northern force to the Bulgarian front, as the Army Group South, for an attack across the Danube. The Romanian pause for thought in Transylvania had meanwhile given enemy reinforcements time to reach the sector, in the form of the German Ninth Army and its new commander, none other than former Chief of Staff, General Falkenhayn. His combined German and Austrian force of around 200,000 men now outnumbered remaining Romanian units strung out along the Carpathians, and he launched a counteroffensive on 18 September.
So three weeks into a war that the Romanian government and most Allied strategists believed would break the deadlock on the Eastern Front, scattered Romanian armies had failed in one offensive and were in the process of regrouping for an attack into Bulgaria – but faced powerful invasions on two fronts with dangerously inferior numbers. Not stalemate, then, or attrition, but a war of rapid movement, pitting 20th-century German equipment, tactical nous and organisational skill against strictly19th-century Romanian forces led by a naive, effete elite.
Old-school stuff, all dash, derring-do and dunces – and worth a mention, partly as a reminder that not all First World War fighting conformed to the trench-bound heritage stereotype, and partly as a commemorative nod to a historically important campaign that is largely forgotten where I live. Oh, and as a set-up for another instalment in a few weeks, when Romania’s hubris really hits the fan.