Category Archives: Romania

6 AUGUST, 1917: Deep Breath, Shallow Victory

August’s reputation as a slow month, news wise, took a bit of a knock during the First World War, but in 1917 the conflict’s third birthday came and went in a relatively subdued atmosphere.  After a few months that had been militarily disappointing for pretty much everyone, and with very little fighting taking place on any of the major battlefronts, early August provided Europe at war with a brief breathing space – predictably filled by a flurry of political finger-pointing and manoeuvre on the home fronts.

In Russia, where the failure of July’s offensive on the Eastern Front had done nothing to stabilise political ferment at the centre, Alexandr Kerenski’s political career reached its summit on 6 August when he became prime minister, head of state in theory but in fact the head of a faction losing its fragile grip on authority in Petrograd. Further west, Italian politics appeared ready to collapse into chaos under the weight of extremism and social unrest in the wake of yet another military failure at the Isonzo, and the pressures of popular disappointment extended to the Belgian cabinet-in-exile at Le Havre, which had undergone a major reshuffle on 4 August.

Although the French Ribot government was still hanging onto power, it was under attack from all sides and fighting off scandals that would soon bring it down, and among the Allies in Europe only the British remained politically stable.  This was partly because the British were in middle of some serious fighting, though rain had stopped play around Ypres for the moment, and partly because the Lloyd George coalition’s shrewd combination of social awareness and organisational efficiency still enjoyed widespread popular support (despite a few outraged squawks at the recent return to the cabinet of disgraced former naval minister Winston Churchill).

Among the Central Powers, Bulgaria was starving while entrepreneurs made huge profits selling the harvest to Germany, fertile ground for socialism and republicanism to take root under the feet of a repressive royal regime, and the Habsburg Empire’s ongoing disintegration under separatist pressure claimed another political victim on 9 August, when Hungarian premier Count Esterhazy quit after less than two months in the job.  In the Anatolian heartlands of the Ottoman Empire, Enver Pasha remained the dominant figure in an authoritarian Young Turk regime, but the rest of the empire was falling apart, with Armenia descending into anarchy in the east, invasion and revolt overwhelming the south, and most surviving provinces operating as autonomous fiefdoms under regional governors.

Meanwhile Germany’s increasingly authoritarian Third Supreme Command was willing and able to ignore all opposition, but still paid lip service to a theoretically absolute monarch, hence the appointment, on 5 August, of the Kaiser-friendly Richard von Kühlmann to succeed Artur von Zimmermann as foreign minister.  A right-wing ex-diplomat who was intent on German territorial expansion, and would go on to preside over ruthless peace treaties with Russia and Romania, Kühlmann was less inclined to fantasy than the Ludendorff gang, and his efforts to dilute their madness through the ear of the monarch would make him a thorn in the Third Supreme Command’s side during a year in office.

Political headliners, August 1917: Count Esterhazy…
young Alex Kerenski…
old Alex Ribot…
and Richard von Kühlmann.

If most of Europe’s governments and generals were navel gazing, waiting for the weather to change or playing Canute against waves of rebellion , serious fighting was taking place on one front.  In Romania, on 6 August, the Battle of Marasesti got underway between the reconstituted Romanian Army and an international force under German command.  It was a relatively minor affair, and it had very little strategic impact, but it would carry on for almost a month and be the last major wartime action on Romanian soil, so it can be seen as more than excuse to take my first look at Romania in months.

Back in October 1916 two multinational armies, largely though not solely composed of Bulgarian and German troops, were poised to converge on Wallachia – the most economically useful Romanian region – while the Romanian royal government was cowering in Bucharest, planning its escape (29 October, 1916: Feeling Brave?). One army, led by former German Army chief of staff Falkenhayn, broke through into Wallacha from the Carpathian mountain passes in early November, and had reached the central plains to threaten Bucharest by the middle of the month. The other, led by German General Mackensen, made no attempt to advance north from its positions in the Dobrudja region, because a Russian army had arrived in the northeast of the country to block its path, but instead crossed the Danube into Wallachia on 23 November.  Brushing aside Romanian forces scattered in its way, it too moved on the capital.

Romanian c-in-c Averescu did make an attempt to fight back, gathering his remaining forces west of Bucharest for a counteroffensive on the River Arges at the start of December, but it barely slowed Falkenhayn down before collapsing.  About 70,000 surviving Romanian troops then retreated northeast into Moldovia, to be joined by the royal government, and Bucharest fell on 6 December, leaving German authorities free to begin the economic exploitation that had been the main reason for occupying Wallachia.

Agriculture was Wallachia’s principal economic activity, and the Central Powers were always on the lookout for food supplies, but as far as the German supreme command was concerned the Ploesti oilfields were the big economic prizes on offer.  That was because, while surface warships could get by on coal or kerosene, the planned all-out submarine campaign was going to need a lot of diesel fuel.

By the time the German ‘Economic Staff’ reached Romania at the end of 1916, German troops were already guarding the oilfields, but had found them heavily damaged by British agents. Their subsequent reduced output (along with falling output from diesel refineries in Habsburg Galicia) would leave the German Navy struggling for fuel to power the submarine war during the coming months, with severe implications for domestic diesel consumption (and therefore popular morale) in Romania, Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Mackensen had pursued the Romanian Army’s remnant into Moldovia in early December, but worsening weather and the arrival of Russian reinforcements persuaded him to abandon the effort late in the month, when the front stabilised along the River Sereth. Mackensen made two attempts to get across the river, but his attacks ceased after 20 January and fighting died down almost completely for the next five months.  During that time, King Ferdinand issued promises of post-War electoral and land reform that temporarily boosted his regime’s popular support in Moldovia, and with help from French aid it was able to partially rebuild the army.  By the summer, confidence was sufficiently high for the Romanian Army to be committed, along with Russian units, to an attack in support of the Russian July Offensive (1 July, 1917: The Last Straw).

The Russian-Romanian attack began, somewhat belatedly, on 22 July 1917, pushing southwest from Moldovia around the lower reaches of the Siret River.  After some early success, German and Austro-Hungarian reinforcements from the Galician front halted its progress, but although most Russian units quickly subsided into pacifist political activism the Romanian element maintained good order and held most of its ground until fighting died down on 1 August.

Mackensen launched the German Ninth Army into a renewed attack on Romanian positions around Marasesti from 6 August, but six days of heavy fighting failed to dislodge Romanian and remaining Russian units.  During the following week Romanian reinforcements helped hold off a series of German assaults that reached a climax on 19 August, while the Romanian Second Army restricted a subsidiary German advance to insignificant gains around the village of Oituz. Relatively minor German attacks, largely aimed at outflanking defenders, were contained during the next two weeks before Mackensen called off the offensive on 3 September.

You’ll be needing this – and a bit of time to work it out

Romanians view the Battle of Marasesti as the wartime Army’s finest hour.  It inflicted some 47,000 casualties on the Ninth Army at a cost of 27,000 Romanian losses (according to Romanian figures), and is seen as a victory that successfully defended the last vestiges of national integrity.  It was definitely the Romanian Army’s best performance of the War, a tribute to troops transformed from terrified peasants into disciplined defenders, but it was also its last performance and an ultimately pointless exercise .

The adventure that ended at Marasestri had left the Romanian Army and government more threatened than supported by the feral remains of Russian forces, so they now found themselves alone and surrounded by enemies.  Short of supplies and with political support slipping away, King Ferdinand’s government could only begin preparing the ground for an inevitable surrender to the Central Powers.  Mackensen had halted his attacks in September 1917, not because he was beaten, but because German forces had bigger fish to fry and could defeat Romania without wasting further resources.

That was the end of the fighting in Romania, but it was by no means the end of the country’s troubles.  I’ll be back there one day to talk about them, but in the meantime this has been a largely information-based, message-free post, and we can’t have that.  So how about we all remember that just because you’ve got your army together, and it looks in good shape, doesn’t always mean it’s smart to use it.  Got that, Kim?  Donald?

23 OCTOBER, 1916: Feeling Brave?

Today was the day, a century ago, that German and Bulgarian forces occupied Constanta, Romania’s most important Black Sea port and its principal trading link with the rest of the world. The capture came two days after Field Marshal Mackensen launched his renewed German-Bulgarian offensive from the south into the eastern Romanian region of Dobrudja, and the fact that the port was taken intact was a measure of how completely the attack had blown away Romanian defences. Romanian units simply fled, leaving Mackensen free to move northeast towards Moldavia and the Russian frontier, and threatening to cut off the capital, Bucharest, from the sea.

At this point, I recommend a quick look back at my last Romanian ramble (10 September, 1916: Fights Of Fancy), which left the campaign in mid-September. By that time the Romanian Army had spent three weeks attacking north into Transylvania and preparing an attack south into Bulgaria, but had achieved only the loss of its inflated fighting reputation and the chaotic scattering of its units. Meanwhile the Central Powers had manoeuvred multinational forces, under German control and using plenty of German equipment, into position for major counteroffensives on both fronts. Here’s the same old map, by way of giving that some context.

One Russian border, three belonging to the Central Powers – Romania was a hard place to defend in 1916.
One Russian border, three belonging to the Central Powers – Romania was a hard place to defend in 1916.

Mackensen’s army on the Bulgarian border couldn’t advance until the threat of a Romanian attack across the Danube had been eliminated, so General Falkenhayn’s northern force of some 200,000 men struck first. Its advance against outnumbered Romanian units strung out along the mountainous Transylvanian frontier region began on September 18, and the offensive got fully underway on 27 September with an attack in the centre of the 300km front, around the town of Hermannstadt.  Hermannstadt fell on 29 September, and surviving defenders fled for the hills, as did those driven back by the secondary attacks of another German army further east and an Austro-Hungarian army to the northeast.  By 14 October, all that was left of the Romanian invasion had retreated beyond the frontier where, joined by a few belated reinforcements sent from the south, they mounted delaying actions in an attempt to keep to Falkenhayn and Mackensen apart.

Once Mackensen’s army had captured Constanta with barely a fight, the Russians finally got serious about the potential threat it posed to their frontier and their Back Sea operations.  Russian naval units bombarded the port and, with the Brusilov Offensive finally at its ragged end, Stavka diverted an impressive 36 infantry and 11 cavalry divisions to a new ‘Army of the Danube’ on the Romanian front.  Transport problems meant most of them didn’t arrive until December, but the declaration of intent was enough to dissuade Mackensen from any serious incursion into Moldovia.

Russian manoeuvres (or anything the other Allies might attempt) couldn’t do anything much to stop the two armies converging on Bucharest and that part of the country most useful to Germany, the fertile Wallachian heartlands and the Ploesti oilfields. As October ended, Mackensen was poised for the kill, and the only thing preventing Falkenhayn from breaking through to the lowlands was the Romanian Army’s token resistance in the Carpathian Mountains.  For now Romanian King Ferdinand, his court and government – the architects of their country’s disastrous gamble on war – remained in the capital, well-dressed rats in a trap, but plans were already being laid for their flight to Iasi, safely behind Russian lines in Moldovia.

That was just an update, and I’ll come back to Romania for the next phase of its demise sometime in the next few weeks, but the ease with which Romanian forces were brushed aside in October 1916 does raise one general point worth making. We’re used to the idea that the developed powers of the early twentieth century enjoyed even greater technological superiority than they do today over what tends to be called the third world, but it’s easy to forget that in 1916 the third world started much closer to our doorstep.

Men from the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Russia, southern Italy, in fact from anywhere except those few wealthy countries or regions with largely literate populations, lived and fought in conditions and with assumptions closer to the 18th than the 20th century. These were conscripts or volunteers who, like the Romanians facing German units, had never before seen heavy artillery, gas, mortars and other state-of-the-art field weaponry, let alone fought against them.  Anyone tempted to look down from posterity’s smug heights on those who ran away, or to draw odious comparisons between the First World War’s brave and apparently not so brave, could do worse than wonder how modern conscripts of any nationality might behave against weapons from the Starship Enterprise.

Romanian troops in training – the kind of training that wasn't much use against heavy artillery.
Romanian troops in training – not the kind of training likely to be  much use against heavy artillery.

10 SEPTEMBER, 1916: Fights Of Fancy

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.

<img class="wp-image-1050 size-medium" src="http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-300×244.jpg" alt="I realise this is a complex (stolen) map of the Romanian campaign, and you'll have to figure some of the names out for yourselves – but it does make sense with a bit of effort. Honest. " width="300" height="244" srcset="http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-300×244.jpg 300w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-768×624.jpg 768w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-1024×832.jpg 1024w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949 have a peek at this website.jpg 1099w” sizes=”(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px” />

I realise this is a complex (stolen) map of the Romanian campaign, and you’ll have to figure some of the names out for yourselves – but it does make sense with a bit of effort. Honest.

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.

27 AUGUST, 1916: Growing, Growing, Gone…

It had been coming for some time, but a hundred years ago today the Kingdom of Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary, triggering a counter declaration from Germany.  Going to war would turn out to be very bad idea for Romania in the short term, and was arguably a mistake that has shaped the country’s subsequent history, so this seems a good moment to loose off a preliminary briefing about Romania’s First World War.

Formed from the former Ottoman provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia, Romania had existed as an independent nation since 1878.  In 1914, it was a constitutional monarchy along German (rather than British) lines, with an indirectly elected National Assembly that exerted little actual control over a Crown Council appointed by King Carol I, who was a relative of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The country’s participation in the Second Balkan War (6 September 1915: Caveat Emptor) had increased its size to almost 140,000 square kilometres, including the Dobrudja region taken from Bulgaria, and swollen its population to more than 7.5 million.

The Romanian economy was predominantly agricultural – though the Ploesti oilfields to the north of the country were becoming increasingly important – and largely dependent on commerce and capital investment from Germany and Austria-Hungary. Tied to both empires by a secret treaty of 1883, Romania enjoyed excellent relations with Germany, which had financed construction of some 5,000km of state railways by 1914, but Vienna was viewed as a hated enemy, accused of maltreating 3 million Romanians in Habsburg Transylvania.

Romania in 1914
Romania in 1914

The Transylvanian issue was King Carol’s excuse for ignoring the treaty and declaring Romania’s neutrality in August 1914. The country’s geographically pivotal position (in Eastern Front terms), and its inflated military reputation since the victory of 1913, meant it was considered a prize potential ally, but though both belligerent power blocs made offers of military and economic aid, only the Allies could offer Transylvania.  Popular pressure to join the Allies weakened the position of King Carol, whose personal preference for the Central Powers was never in doubt, and by the time he died in October he was losing influence to the prime minister, liberal Francophile Ion Bratianu.

The new king, Ferdinand I, took a more balanced view – as befitted a Germanic monarch with a British wife – and allowed Bratianu to pursue a deniable pro-Allied policy, aimed at extracting maximum territorial gain from prolonged negotiations.  By the summer of 1916, both Ferdinand and Bratianu were sufficiently impressed by the nearby successes of Russia’s Brusilov Offensive to agree that an Allied victory was just around the corner, and Romania duly declared war against the Central Powers on 27 August.

29iht-retrospective-roumania-blog480
The International Herald Tribune’s take… nothing to do with reality, and normal service for the press in 1916.

During the next two years Romania would become a battleground. Two-thirds of the country would be stripped of resources and infrastructure under enemy occupation, more than 200,000 Romanian soldiers would die, and an estimated 500,000 civilians would be killed by invasion, occupation or starvation.  In short, the First World War wrecked Romania,  and it made little difference that the country emerged from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference with its size almost doubled since 1914.  The calculated gamble on war that sprang from the bad seed of aggressive nationalism, and its obsession with territorial gain, had blasted a young nation from the path to sustained socioeconomic development, and it would be a very long time before Romania got back on the road.

I realise this has been so brief it’s almost terse, but I can’t spare the time for anything more detailed just now, because over in Germany there’s a totalitarian dictatorship brewing and it’s going to take some explaining. I will come back to the sad story of the Romanian campaign as it unfolds, but in the meantime log Romania as yet another victim of belief in war as a legitimate act of statecraft, a faith that had sustained empires for a century or more, but that has led nation after nation down the path to self-destruction in the mechanised age.