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.

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