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?

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