We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series. Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.
The Romanian ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was insistent on delivering his communique on August 27th, 1916. Entrusted with a diplomatic message directly from Romania’s Prime Minister Ion Bratianu, the ambassador was rushing to made sure it reached the correct authorities within the Dual Monarchy.
In a verbose note that covered Romania’s relatively short diplomatic history with the Habsburgs – the nation had at one point been a part of the Triple Alliance along with the Austrians, Germans and Italians – Bratianu recited a long list of perceived slights and concerns for the young Romanian nation. The Dual Monarchy had regarded the Romanians as “an inferior race” which had led to a “continual state of animosity,” at least according to Bratianu. For these reasons, and many, many others, the note concluded: “Rumania considers herself, from this moment, in a state of war with Austria-Hungary.”
The Romanian ambassador had done his job. Only the note was supposed to be delivered on August 28th, not the 27th – meant to arrive as Romanian troops were already crossing the Austro-Hungarian border.
Romania had surveyed the landscape of the Great War and decided to join the Entente in a grasp for territory and power. Within two days of their premature declaration of war, they found themselves surrounded and in conflict with every nation of the Central Powers.
Romania’s choice to go to war in the late summer of 1916 may have been cynically opportunistic, but the nation’s optimism seemed firmly grounded by the war’s recent turn of events.
The Austro-Hungarians had nearly been pushed out of the war by the Brusilov Offensive, which gutted most of the Dual Monarchy’s forces on the Eastern Front. The offensive had also cost Vienna their gains in Italy. Germany was bleeding out on the Western Front, losing nearly one million casualties between Verdun and the Somme. The Ottomans remained Europe’s “sick man” and Bulgaria was staring down 700,000 Entente troops at Salonika. A well-timed strike on behalf of the Entente could do more than just acquire the Romanian-majority Transylvania or weaken Bulgaria – it might prove the decisive blow to end the war.
That the fate of a global conflict between superpowers might be decided by a nation less than 40 years old with just over 7 million people appears overly generous through the lens of a century of analysis. But that was precisely the calculation of both the Entente and the Central Powers in the run-up to Romania’s entry into the war.
Lord Kitchener had dispatched a military attaché to Romania in 1915 with orders to conduct negotiations to bring the nation into the Entente camp. Romania boasted an army of 650-800,000 troops. Their oil fields would be a major wartime asset, and the nation could also court the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Romanians who were currently serving in the Austro-Hungarian army. The cost of Romania’s allegiance was relatively minor – 300 tons of supplies delivered daily and the Entente’s support of Romania’s territorial claims on Transylvania.
The Treaty of Bucharest that brought Romania into the war for the Entente had completely ignored the analysis of their own military attaché. Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Thomson, despite his orders, didn’t see the powerful regional ally that Kitchener had. Romania’s strategic position, so valued by the Entente, also meant that they were surrounded by hostile powers. Without Russian intervention, Romania could easily be defeated in a two-front war. The army was large, but under-staffed for officers. Romanian army doctrine had valued speed over power – the nation had little heavy artillery and while most soldiers had modern rifles, few had grenades. Almost none had even trained with explosives. Worst of all, Romania had very little military industry. If the Entente couldn’t supply the 300 daily tons they had agreed upon, Romanian industry could only supply their units the daily equivalent of two artillery shells and one bullet per soldier.
As over 400,000 men crossed into the Dual Monarchy on August 28th, the Entente had inherited a massive military liability.
If the Entente had over-estimated Romania’s potential impact on the war, Germany equally overreacted.
Newly appointed Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg wrote in his diary:
“It is certain that so relatively small a state as Rumania had never before been given a role so important, and, indeed, so decisive for the history of the world at so favorable a moment. Never before had two great Powers like Germany and Austria found themselves so much at the mercy of the military resources of a country which had scarcely one twentieth of the population of the two great states.”
Hindenburg appeared downright optimistic by comparison to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reaction. Told of Romania’s entry into the war, and its early advances against nonexistent Austro-Hungarian resistance, the Kaiser reportedly exclaimed “the war is lost!”
With their forces overextended and only the beleaguered Austro-Hungarian First Army opposing the Romanians, the Germans had little to initially counter the Romanian invasion. Eight divisions and an Alpine Corps was all that Germany could manage to spare, but they would be lead by the formerly most powerful general in the country – the recently demoted Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn. Falkenhayn had always opposed offensive actions on the Eastern Front, believing the key to winning the war lay in the West. Verdun had robbed him of what little credibility he had with the Kaiser, and now Falkenhayn was charged with saving not only his reputation, but the fate of a front he felt was a distraction.
Falkenhayn would eventually have other units at his command. Four more Austrian divisions, two Ottoman divisions and an entire Bulgarian army would be engaging the Romanians by the middle of September. Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Thomson’s assessment of Romania’s strategic weakness was starting to be realized only weeks into the campaign. While Romanian troops were pressing into Transylvania – the front contained three Romanian armies against the Austro-Hungarian First Army, plus the hodgepodge of divisions listed above – only one Romanian army sat on the Bulgarian border. Romania would have to defend the longest continuous front in the entire war – nearly 1,000 miles (the Russian front by comparison was only 620 miles long).
And Romania would have to defend that front without Entente help. Despite promises of Russian assistance, Brusilov could only spare a handful of divisions to support the Romanian attack. The agreement of 300 tons of supplies delivered each day was a pipe dream – the Allies had no direct route into Romania, other than through Russia, and the Tsar’s armies were barely getting their own supplies from the West.
By September 15th, 1916, facing pressure from the Bulgarians to their south, the Romanians halted their offensive in Transylvania. Three days later, the Central Powers would counterattack.
The Central Powers had succeeded in stopping the Romanian advance by borrowing troops they could ill-afford to lend. Erich von Falkenhayn now wanted to ensure those troops could return to their previous positions by snuffing out the Romanian front as quickly as it had developed.
Nearly 900,000 troops from all the Central Powers crashed into the Romanian line on September 18th, 1916. The Romanian gains in Transylvania were reversed in difficult mountain fighting by the Royal Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion, whose newly promoted First Lieutenant Erwin Rommel was gaining fame by teaching his troops flanking maneuvers designed to get behind their opponents. By the end of October, the Romanians had not only lost all of their gains, but were now defending their home soil on their southern front against Bulgaria.
The mountain passes which the Romanians had hoped to hold until winter, when snow cover would make them all but impassable, fell in early November. The constant pressure between the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian fronts had ground down Romanian troops. In a last ditch effort to save the war, the Romanians envisioned a major offensive using the remainder of their available reserves. While the Russians would help hold off the German/Austrian front, the Romanian reserves would strike to the south at the Bulgarian/German/Ottoman army on the doorstep of Bucharest. If successful, the numerical balance on the southern front would temporarily shift to the Romanians and perhaps even allow for the encirclement of the Central Power’s combined army.
The Russians refused to send more men – they didn’t really have troops to spare. And despite the danger of proceeding without Russian support, the Romanian offensive went ahead in late November. Within three days, the Romanian reserves were in full retreat. The oilfields at Ploiești were destroyed and Bucharest was occupied. What remained of the Romanian army escaped behind the Danube Delta. They had left behind most of their few heavy weapons, and 250,000 troops.
By the start of 1917, the Romanian State barely existed.
Clinging to a modest amount of territory bordering Russia at the mouth of the Danube, only the intervention of Russian forces kept the Romanian front alive. Unwilling to contribute men when the fate of the front had been in doubt, Tsarist Russia had finally yielded to Entente pressure to save the alliance’s new ally. One million Russian troops entered Romania, tying down the now 750,000 German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers on the front. The Russians resented coming to Romania’s aid, but the carrot and stick of Allied supplies forced their hand. The Russians had attempted to reach a compromise – moving the surviving Romanian forces into the Russian front in Ukraine. But the move was politically impossible. The Treat of Bucharest had promised the Romanians operational independence, especially from Russia. Russian troops could be placed under Romanian command, but not the other way around.
The rest of the Entente had attempted to come to Romania’s aid with a September offensive from their little-used Salonika positions. Anticipating an attack, the Bulgarians had struck first at Struma, having coordinated with the pro-German Greek King Constantine to have Greek forces surrender to the Central Powers. The Bulgarian offensive overlapped with the the Entente’s planned Monastir Offensive, and while the Central Power’s broader hopes – to bring Greece into the war on their side and/or possibly push the Entente out of Salonika – failed, the preemptive Bulgarian attack lessened the Entente’s gains. For the price of a little bit of Bulgarian real estate, the Entente lost more than twice the number of soldiers (130,000 to 61,000) and failed to relieve significant pressure off of Romania.
Over 1.8 million Allied troops now made up the Romanian front – and only 400,000 were actually Romanian. The Entente’s obsession with tertiary fronts had now created another one in Eastern Europe, using men from an ally already cracking under the pressure of enormous casualties. Instead of being a separate front, the Romanian battlefield was part and parcel of the Eastern Front, and entirely subject to the fortunes of their Russian neighbors.
The sun was setting on “Romania’s Day”, as the British war poster had heralded. Romania’s long, cold night was awaiting them.