Romania 1917-18

In 1917 the war for Romania was lost. They had run out of resources and were fighting nearly alone three Empires and one Kingdom. Their only ally, the Russians, turned against them, and now not only that they had a garrison of German troops, but also needed to fight the Russians in their country, what was left of it…Moldova. The situation was bad, the Russians had more soldiers in Moldova had people.

But most of the Russian soldiers accepted to surrender, were sent back to Russia in trains. Yet still, some of them just did not want to go back. And so, the Romanian army had more work to do.

One of the engagements was the Battle of Galati. On 12 January 1918 at Pechea northwest of Galați, a delegation of the Russian 13th Division came to the 4th Romanian Division headquarters to announce that the next day, Russian troops would leave the front and cross the Prut River to Moldova. General Shcherbachev ordered his troops to remain in the position, but was told that the Russians soldiers no longer recognized him as their commander and would leave for Russian soil. If Romanian troops resisted the move, the Russian soldiers promised to destroy everything in their path. There were 12,000 Russian soldiers in total. The Romanian archives speak for no more than 500 soldiers in all Romanian detachments facing them.

On January 19, 1917 the Russian 9th Division swept through a small Romanian detachment at Şenderni and arrived at Movileni where they set-up artillery. A Russian delegation went to Galați and asked Niculescu-Rizea allowing Russian troops to pass through the city, to then head to Moldova. Niculescu-Rizea replied that his orders were to stop that action. The Russians gave him ultimatum. If they were not allowed to pass by 3 in the afternoon they would begin shelling Galați.

For 15 hours the Russian batteries near Movileni opened fire. Bombs fell in the city center, but they caused minimal damage because the Russians were firing at random. The archives do not note any casualties among the civilian population. The greater danger that night for the population was the attempt by the 10th Division to burn the city by filling cars with gasoline and driving flaming vehicles into buildings. During January 20, Romanian batteries returned the Russian fire from their positions at Movileni.

On January 22, the Romanians counterattacked. The Romanian 8th Brigade, arrived from Fântânele and surprised the Russian troops stationed in the bog north of Movileni. The Romanian ships on the Danube, batteries on the south bank bombarded, and two Romanian airplanes dropped bombs on the Russians.

The 500 Romanian soldiers led a bayonet charge up the Tighina Hill which sent the Russians on the run. A handful of soldiers created panic among Russians, so much so that two regiments, the 33rd and 35th, almost 3,000 soldiers, ran south and surrendered to the Germans.

The Kagul Mutiny

Remoteness did present difficulties. The commanders of the Romanian Front held up the news of the February revolution for fear of its local consequences. On 4 March 1917, an NCO who had been overheard discussing the February events with a soldier was arrested and sentenced to death by a court martial. Such desperate measures could not, however, do more than delay the inevitable. By the end of the month, committees had been set up and in early April truly revolutionary events were under way. On 1 April soldiers of the 188th Infantry Division arrested their chief-of-staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Senkevich. On the 7 April, at Kimpolung (Cimpulung Moldovenesc), General Miller, the commander of the 26th Army Corps, was accused of counterrevolutionary activities, namely trying to suppress Army Order Number One and failing to recognize the authority of the soviet. When General Miller tried to order soldiers with red flags out of the inspection parade on that day the troops turned on him, beat him, arrested him and had him sent to Petrograd under armed guard. The report on the incident sent by the commander of the Ninth Army described the meeting of soldiers that had taken this decision as “a wild, undisciplined, mindless crowd”, although in fact, its relatively measured action suggests that it was far from being a straightforward mob and was already on the road to taking more mature decisions. The very fact that they sent the arrested commander to Petrograd is eloquent evidence that they believed their actions to be more legitimate than those of the general and that the new authorities would back them. Significantly, the chairman of the meeting was not a soldier but a veterinary doctor, showing that, at crucial moments, officers of intelligentsia background might well come to the fore.

Be that as it may, the scene was set for a long, difficult and bitter set of confrontations in the area throughout the spring and summer. The desire to see a start made on active peace negotiations spread among the soldiers, and arrests of officers grew in late April and May. In the second half of May the growing tensions in the Sixth Army reached a peak as preparations were undertaken for the June offensive. They burst into open revolt at Kagul on the eastern bank of the Prut between Galati and Kishinev. The initial spark was provided by complaints about rotation of forces in the line and the re-forming of supposedly unreliable units. Various corps and regiments refused to obey orders and began to extend their demands into calls for peace and redistribution of land, to which end they formed links with the local peasantry. Livestock was seized from landowners and there were numerous other illegal acts not specified in the reports. Many more units were wavering. According to the report of the front commander to the War Ministry the main issues at the heart of the revolt of the 163rd Infantry Division were the lack of confidence felt by soldiers in their officers, the immediate conclusion of peace, lack of confidence in the Soviet of soldiers’ and workers’ deputies (presumably the Petrograd Soviet) and in the Provisional Government and finally the holding of weapons and ammunition “which might come in handy in the rear”.

Only the formation of a strike force including elite and ethnically non-Russian cavalry, artillery, aviators and armoured units enabled the authorities to regain control, without having to open fire. Four officers who had led the revolt and 222 soldiers were arrested. The most important were sentenced to twelve years hard labour. The incident was a microcosm of the main revolutionary forces of the moment: initially military based complaints spilling over into broader politicization that was only brought under control by playing off ethnic rivalries and using Muslim troops to suppress Russian rebels and Romanian peasants. Above all, the event showed not only that a minority of officers might be an essential part of mutinous forces but that a spontaneously “Bolshevik” programme of peace, land and lack of faith in the Provisional Government and the Soviet right wing, could be generated by troops far away from any serious direct Bolshevik influence and at an early stage of the revolution.

The suppression of the mutiny in Kagul was by no means the end of turbulence on the Romanian Front. The situation became more and more alarming from the point of view of both the authorities and the troops. For the commanders, nominally headed by the King of Romania, and the army’s hosts, the presence of rebellious Russian armies, who supported local social-democrats and peasants, played on the Romanian landowning elite’s inherent fears of a peasant uprising. In addition, the emergence of increasingly assertive Jews among the troops provoked the strongly anti-semitic reflexes of the Roma nian rulers. On 1 May, a speech, made in French to help get the message across to the upper classes at whom it was aimed, by a Jewish Under-Officer named Giller denounced the misdeeds of the Romanian ruling class, called for the deposition of the king and the release of political prisoners. The incensed Romanian authorities called for the withdrawal of all Jews from army units operating within Romanian territory.

Not surprisingly, Romania was already becoming a focus for extreme rightwing Russian forces who began to see it as a possible platform from which counter-revolution could be launched into Russia itself. One of the worst pogroms had taken place in 1903 in Kishinev, Moldova, a slice of ethnically Romanian territory incorporated in the Russian Empire. As 1917 progressed, the Black Hundreds, the reactionary mystic Badmaev and the “Holy Rus’” organization all gravitated to the Romanian monarchy as a focus of support. This polarization, pre-figuring what Kornilov was to do on a national scale, created a corresponding radicalization on the part of the popular movement. The Soviet right, composed of Mensheviks and SRs, which dominated this area, became alarmed at the growth of the counter-revolution and condemned the reactionary policies of the Romanian oligarchy. Such declarations were not, however, enough to satisfy the grass roots and a gap began to open up between the Soviet leaders and the popular revolution. The troops continued to take action themselves. In late June Russian troops surrounded the jails and released political prisoners on their own initiative. They also increasingly encouraged and even joined in with peasant expropriations of great landowners. Where this not infrequently degenerated into simple looting, the elected soldiers’ committees strove hard to return the offenders to the path of revolutionary discipline.

Overall, one could almost conclude that the centre followed the periphery as far as the Romanian Front went. It experienced a deep, radical, self-generating revolution that, in many respects, was the precursor of events in Petrograd and which owed little to outside tutelage. This was also the case on the Caucasus Front that also exhibited its own sources of revolutionary energy from the very beginning.