The Romanian campaign, end of 1916

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Marshal Joffre inspecting Romanian troops, 1916.

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Romanian Troops

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Transylvania, they would be so far from their supply-routes that catastrophe would intervene. In consequence, the Romanians did not even choose to occupy Hermannstadt, defended only by gendarmerie. They occupied the south-eastern tip of Transylvania, and waited to see what would happen.

The Central Powers’ plan was obvious enough. There would be an attack on the Romanians in Transylvania, combined with an attack along the Black Sea coast, into the Dobrogea—fertile lands, inhabited mainly by Bulgarians and stolen from Bulgaria in 1913, which the Bulgarians were keen to recover. The Romanians did not expect this attack. First, they thought that western Powers’ forces in Salonica would pin most of the Bulgarian army. This was not the case. The western Powers had enough on their hands to contain mosquitoes, let alone Bulgarians; in any case, their Greek allies were of such doubtful allegiance that an entire Greek army corps refused to fight at all, surrendered in toto and was interned in Silesia for the rest of the war. The attack from Salonica was a complete failure, and did not prevent Germans, Turks and Bulgarians from concentrating a substantial force against southern Romania. The Romanians had also expected Bulgaria to be deterred by the presence of a Russian force, Zayonchkovski’s, in the Dobrogea. In theory, the Bulgarians were Russophil; men even thought they might make peace once Romania entered the war on Russia’s side. This again was not the case. The Bulgarians hesitated about intervening; they even protested when German and Austro-Hungarian units stationed in Bulgaria took action against Romania (bombing Bucharest, for instance). But they decided in the end to declare war on Romania, a day or so after their allies. In this way, a joint offensive of all four Central Powers became possible. Moreover, the railways that fed reserves to Transylvania were superior to anything on the Romanian side. By the third week of September, the Central Powers’ forces had been stepped up to 200,000 men, half of them German. The Kowel offensive did almost nothing to prevent this.

The campaign opened with an unexpectedly successful feint attack by the Bulgarians and their allies in the Dobrogea. Mackensen, who commanded these forces, decided on a diversionary move against the Romanian fortress, Tutracǎia, on the Danube. A besieging force, actually smaller than the garrison, moved up. The fortress’s commander announced to an assemblage of foreign journalists that ‘Tutracǎia will be our Verdun’. It fell the next day, eighty per cent of the garrison surrendering, and the rest fleeing, their commander in the lead. By 8th September, Silistria also had fallen, this time without even spoken resistance. The Bulgarians and their allies crossed the border and invaded the Dobrogea. Here they were due to encounter Russian forces. But the collaboration of Russians and Romanians almost constituted an object-lesson in how not to run a multinational force. Zayonchkovski, though doing his best to maintain polite forms, complained again and again to Alexeyev that his task was impossible: to make the Romanian army fight a modern war was asking a donkey to perform a minuet. Ordinary Russian soldiers regarded their allies with the utmost contempt, not least when these allies surrendered to Russian units, mistaking them for Bulgarian ones. Russians sacked the countryside in a dress-rehearsal for the agrarian atrocities of 1917: estates laid to waste, wine-cellars ruthlessly plundered, beasts’ throats cut, drunken soldiery drowned or boiled to death in vats of burning spirit. Russian officers quoted an old tag on Romania—‘des hommes sans honneur, des femmes sans pudeur, des fleurs sans odeur, des titres sans valeur’. The Romanians, at their allies’ mercy, could only exaggerate the Central Powers’ strength in the hope that more Russian troops would somehow be sent to save them. But Alexeyev was adamant: he felt that Wallachia and the Dobrogea should be given up, and the Romanian army withdrawn into the Moldavian Mountains until it had absorbed the facts of modern war. A division was sent from Kuropatkin’s front in mid-September, and Lechitski was told to make better progress south of the Dniester. Otherwise, Russian help consisted mainly of renewed, futile attempts against the Kowel marches.

Threats to the Dobrogea compelled the Romanian high command to think again. On 15th September a crown council in Bucharest determined that wanderings in Transylvania should be suspended, to permit transfer of half of the army against Bulgaria. A ‘Southern Army Group’ of fifteen infantry divisions would be assembled under Averescu to cross the Danube into Bulgaria. Meanwhile, Zayonchkovski’s Russo-Romanian force (six and a half Romanian and three Russian divisions) would contribute an offensive against the Bulgarians who had arrived in the Dobrogea. A real enough superiority was gradually built up: 195 battalions, 55 squadrons and 169 batteries to 110, 28 and 72 on the Central Powers’ side. An attack was to be made between Zimnicea and Flǎmǎndǎ. It was a burlesque. Bridges were inadequate and broke down under the weight of guns and horses. Austro-Hungarian gunboats did much damage to the infantry as it tried to cross. Boats leaked. Such initial success as the crossings had was owing almost entirely to the deduction made by Kosch, German commander, from the Romanians’ behaviour that they were only there to defend Bucharest. By 3rd October, after a few hours’ action, the Flǎmǎndǎ enterprise had to be abandoned. In the Dobrogea, things took a similar course, with the complication that Romanians misunderstood Russian orders, and in any case were not keen on obeying them.

This strategic manoeuvre had been achieved at the cost of Romanian positions in Transylvania. Here, only ten divisions had been left—less than the Central Powers, with twelve. Moreover, the Romanians’ advance had been of the worst possible kind. It had brought them beyond their own lines of supply, but it had not brought them forward to any point where they could disrupt the arrival by rail of the Central Powers troops. By mid-September, a German IX Army had been established (as a grim joke under Falkenhayn’s command) to co-operate with the Austro-Hungarian I Army. The various Romanian groups stood in isolated blocks just north of the Carpathians: usually in utter ignorance as to each other’s whereabouts, and with no possibility of establishing rapid contact in battle. Falkenhayn drove against one of these isolated corps, at Hermannstadt, and pushed it back through the Turnu Roşu pass. The Romanian corps to its right, near Kronstadt, did not learn anything of this, and was itself driven back with much loss over the mountains. By 6th October, Transylvania was once more virtually completely in the hands of the Central Powers. Now Falkenhayn could cross the mountains into Wallachia, and join up with Mackensen’s forces on the Danube. To avoid this, the Romanians decided to take back from the Danube the troops they had sent in the second half of September—such that nearly half of the Romanian army spent the first six weeks of war travelling between one front and the other. In the short term, this succeeded. The passes into Wallachia were blocked, and throughout October Falkenhayn’s groups had a difficult time, pushing through the snow from one defence-position to another on their way through the mountains. From time to time, Conrad von Hötzendorf suggested more ambitious plans: a great offensive towards Bucharest, from the passes just to north-west of it. This plan, though subsequently praised by Liddell Hart, made too little sense on the ground for it to be adopted. Throughout October, the Central Powers’ action here was more important for the troops that it pinned than for the ground it gained.

On the other hand, on the southern front the Central Powers’ offensive achieved considerable results. An offensive into the Dobrogea was prepared, and launched, mainly with Bulgarian and Arab divisions, on 21st October. Zayonchkovski’s army had not been strengthened: on the contrary, his demands for help had met only sarcastic remarks. He complained that his force was ‘only the bone thrown to the Romanians to get them into this war’; he went on at length about the ‘repulsive impression as regards military matters’ that he had gained of his allies, and about their ‘utter misunderstanding of modern war, their appalling inclination to panic’. But Stavka merely answered that, since the Romanians were not in any position of numerical inferiority, there should be no complaints. Defence of the Dobrogea was another piece of burlesque. Bombardment struck Romanians on the right, who retired without informing Russians in the centre. The Russian centre fell back in confusion, and the race to retreat was then won by the Romanian left, which fled back along the Black Sea coast, pursued by Bulgarian cavalry over the sands. In no time, the railway-line between Cernavoda and Constanta, the Romanians’ main port, was broken. Constanta itself was not defended. Russians had ordered it to be destroyed, but the Romanians regarded it with too great pride to let this happen, and no doubt felt that their allies would make a thorough job of the destruction, if allowed to do so. They therefore surrendered the port, intact and with huge stocks of grain and oil, before the Russians could knock it about. The Russians naval detachment supposedly guarding it then sailed away, leaving the Romanian defenders to their fate. By the end of October, the Central Powers had captured more or less the whole of the Dobrogea, and threatened to cut off Bucharest from the sea.

Alexeyev now began to recognise that he would have to do something. The Kowel offensives had failed, and attacks in eastern Galicia were also dying down in failure; now the Central Powers had almost reached the Danube delta, and seemed to threaten southern Russia. Stavka first sent VIII Army to the Dniester, and then agreed to send another army, under Sakharov, to constitute, ‘Army of the Danube’ with a view to the defence of the delta and Gǎlǎti. Finally, IV Army was ear-marked for Romania. Throughout November, a great movement of Russian troops was under way—thirty-six infantry and eleven cavalry divisions. But the railway-lines, through Reni and Benderi, could take only 200 wagons a day, at a time when supply alone needed 433. The management of these lines was such that a French railway-expert suffered a nervous break-down when he was detailed to sort them out. It was not until mid-December that the Russian troops had arrived in full strength, and even then they were badly under-supplied. Early in November, what arrived could suffice only to prevent further Bulgarian progress along the Black Sea coast.

But this stability could not change things in Wallachia. The Russian troops could not reach Bucharest in time, nor indeed did Alexeyev particularly want them to, for he was concerned only to defend Moldavia and the approaches to southern Russia. A cavalry corps was sent, but it was exhausted in covering 400 miles, and even re-shoeing of the horses could take up to a week in Romanian conditions. Early in November, German troops penetrated the passes into the western part of Wallachia—Oltenia—and by mid-November had reached the plains. A cavalry corps moved east towards Bucharest, dislodging the defenders from the southern parts of other passes. On 23rd November the Germano-Bulgarian force crossed the Danube, and found the task easy enough, since the Romanians had now diverted most of their forces back to the Carpathian front: there were only eighteen battalions to forty, and forty-eight guns to 188 when the Germans crossed at Ruščuk. By 29th November the two armies of the Central Powers were threatening Bucharest.

There was a final episode of drama. The Romanians had now been sent a French military mission, under Berthelot, Joffre’s chief of staff during the battle of the Marne. Berthelot was full of fight; he wished to build up the Romanian army—so much so that Stavka found his talk dangerous, and requested his removal. He had visions of a Balkan Marne: a flank-attack on the Germans as they approached Bucharest, crossing the Arges River. In the first days of December, Berthelot built up a masse de manoeuvre: divisions scraped from the Danube and the Carpathians. Amid grandiose announcements of national heroism, illiterate peasantry were driven forward by stage-heroic staffs into an affair that only consumed what was left of the reserve-divisions. Apart from a minor embarrassment, the Germans barely noticed ‘the Romanian Marne’. Socec, who led one of the Romanian divisions, led his men in flight, was subjected to preliminary investigation for court-martial, and was then absolved when the dossier of his case was ‘stolen’ from the war ministry archives. As a background to all this, British military representatives prudently toured the oil-areas of Ploiesti, setting light to the wells. In clouds of smoke, the remnants of the Romanian divisions withdrew to the north, leaving Bucharest to Mackensen who entered it on 7th December. Of the twenty-three Romanian divisions, six had ‘disintegrated’, two had been ‘captured’, and the rest contained, together, 70,000 men. Mackensen plodded after them. But with the arrival of Russian troops, the Germans’ progress was slow. They were held up at Urziceni, and then, in a battle over Christmas, at Rîmnicu-Sǎrat. By early January, they were lodged on the Siret, border of Moldavia, and could not progress beyond bridgeheads.

Thereafter, the Romanian campaign died down. Both sides suffered from difficulties of supply that prevented them from undertaking further action. On the Central Powers’ side, the cold caused casualties of twenty-five per cent. Mud, lice, appalling roads, lack of railways, hovels made up the picture. The Central Powers also quarrelled bitterly over spoils: Bulgarians and Turks wrangled over the future of the Dobrogea, many Germans and Austro-Hungarians wished to restore Romania as an ally of the Central Powers. At the same time, Mackensen was told to send troops to other fronts. On the Russo-Romanian side, there was also little appetite for action. The Romanian army had been put to flight; it could count on a man-power reserve of less than 250,000 men, most of them quite untrained. The Russians, who now dominated the area completely, had no stomach for further offensive action. Their only action of any scale between early January and the Kerenski offensive of mid-summer was a stroke on the Baltic coast. Early in January they profited from withdrawal of German troops to stage a coup in Courland, against Mitau and Tukkum. They attacked by surprise, in an area of sand-dunes that masked the attackers’ activity; did not bombard in advance; did not attack in ‘waves’. In return for a few thousand casualties, they won a respectable success: thirty-six German guns and 8,000 prisoners. It was a symbol of the patterns prevailing on the eastern front. Minor attacks, launched by surprise, generally achieved far more impressive results than major ones preceded by heavy bombardment. The campaign of 1916 thus ended, fittingly enough, with a demonstration of Brusilov’s correctness.

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