The Romanian Campaign started with a bang for the Romanians.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 112. As always this episode is brought to you by the fine people who support this podcast over on Patreon at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar. By supporting this podcast you get access to special Patreon only episodes like those that we did on the development of the tank a few months ago. These are true deep dives into various topics for those who want to know more about things we just touch on during the main episodes. So head over to patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar to check it out. This is our second episode on the Romanian campaign. Last episode we looked at the run up to the war and the terms under which Romania entered on the side of the Entente. Today we will talk about what Romania planned to do with the army that it mobilized ty discussing their war plan, their mobilization procedures, and their attack into Hungary through the Transylvanian Alps. This adventure would initially go quite well, the morale of the Romanian troops would be at an all time high. The fact that they outnumbered the Austrian defenders by a good 10 to 1 was an important factor. When this first attack was launched the German and Austrian response had not yet come into play and that response will be the topic for the second half of our episode. During that half we will discuss the German reaction to the entry of Romania and then what they planned to do to counteract the Romanian attack.
Romania had some problems when it came to being in a war against both Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. Here is Norman Stone from The Eastern Front to explain “Romania was virtually indefensible. The richest part of the country, Wallachia, jutted out in a long tongue between Hungary and Bulgaria: neither the Carpathians—traversed by many passes—nor the Danube offered real obstacles to an invasion, yet the Romanians could not simply abandon Wallachia, since this would mean loss of their capital. Their army could be easily split up between different functions, each of them difficult to discharge, and the Romanian high command complicated this problem still more by failing to give constant priorities to the various strategic tasks. Half of the army was switched, bewilderingly, between one front and the other. Romania’s intervention could only matter if the initial offensive against Hungary won an immediate success.” The problems had their roots in geography. The Romanian front would be twice the length of the French front, and barely shorter than what the Russians were working with. For an army that was not even a million strong just defending it would have been difficult. Although the one benefit to defenders was that a good amount of the border was on the Carpathian mountains meaning that the passes were all that had to be defended, then the rest of it was on the Danube, again a good natural border to defend, however the Romanians would not be defending. Due to both public opinion and alliance commitments they had to attack and instead of just attack on one front, say into Transylvania, they were hoping to be able to do both. This was all outlined in a war plan that was called Hypothesis Z, which was distrubed to the various Romanian commanders in early August. In general the plan would have three armies, the 1st, 2nd, and North marching into Transylvania though the mountains. This represented roughly 370,000 men and was the bulk of Romania’s mobilized front line strength. In the south the 3rd Army would then attack in the Dobruga region and into Bulgarian. The southern army was considered secondary and as such was much worse supplied. In general its goal was to just keep Bulgarian troops out of Romania proper. This plan, with two different attacks would have been difficult for any army at this time to try and pull off, and the Romanians did not have the most efficient army. There was no consideration given in the plan for how the armies might be slowed, or what the enemy might do in when the war started. Because of this lack of contingency plans when things did begin to go wrong there was a frantic mishandling of the situation. There was also a core assumption that there would be a tangible amount of assistance from the Russians, both to the north in Bukovina and to the south against Bulgaria, however there were no details as to how this was going to work.
The one thing that did go relatively smoothly was mobilization. Before the war was even declared there had been large forces moved to the frontier as covering forces, all of these combined numbered about 200,000. This was about a third of the men who would be at the front after full mobilization but it made for faster timelines after war was declared since they did not have to be transported. There would have been a need to shuffle some of these units around since they were not always in the exactly right place to meet up with other units that they were supposed to be working with however to prevent this everybody was just told that units that were already on the frontier when war was declared would simply join whatever divisions were moving through their area. This greatly reduced the amount of units that had to be shuffled around, but it also meant that divisions were joined by units that they had never interacted with. Often commanders would not even know their own order of battle before they were at the border and ready to begin their advance. Some did not even learn of their command at all until 48 hours before the war was joined, then they did not know of their precisely part in the plan until just a few hours before it was supposed to start. This lack of information was all done to keep the plan secret, and this part of the plan worked perfectly, there would be almost universal surprise among the Austrian units that were being attacked. However, there was a downside to these measures, it completely neutered the generals ability to plan and coordinate their attack. This might have been an acceptable compromise if there was a very skilled General Staff that was truly great at coordinating and assisting everyone, but this was just not the case. What would become apparent was that most of the General Staff were incapable of managing the situation in front of them under the best of conditions and these were not going to be the best of conditions.
Regardless of what issues were in the future, during this episode we are going to focus on the attacks in the north and into Transylvania. These were done by the North Army, 2nd Army, and 1st Army in that order. Before we get started here I highly recommend that everybody seek out a map of Romania in 1916 before we go any further. I have put a link to one in the show notes. This is because, while modern day Romania is reasonable circular, just a big blob between the Dneister and Danube Rivers and the Black Sea this was not the case in 1916. At that point in history it was made up of Wallachia, Moldovia, and parts of Dobruja. This meant that the country was shaped like a foot. Having a mental picture is going to be critical to understanding why the three armies to be discussed today behaved in the ways that they did. The Northern Army had 3 and a half infantry and one and a half cavalry divisions, and I guess I should mention that it was technically called the 4th army but it was the furthest North Army and I like to call it that instead. Its actions would begin on the same night that war was declared when pre-positioned units seized control of the extremely critical passes through the mountains. These attacks gave the rest of the army time and space to concentrate while also not giving the Austrians time to properly man the passes. The next set of attacks would be launched after 10 days and during these attacks units would advance all the way onto the Hungarian plain. The defending Austrians were not only heavily outnumbered, with just 1 division in place which only had 6,000 men, they were also in the theatre to rest and recuperate. They had been heavily mauled on the Galacian front by the russians and were using the time manning the Romanian border to rest and absorb replacements. After the North Army had reached the Hungarian plain, they stopped, this second pause would last for 7 days as they got everything setup and ready for the second stage of the attack. During this time the Germans and Austrians had time to think about what their response would been and it would be at this moment that Ludendorff decided that the 1st and 2nd Armies, whose attacks we will cover shortly, were far more concerning and so he directed reinforcements into that area instead of against the North Army. This choice allowed the second phase of the attack to meet success and they quickly advanced an average of 60 kilometers into Hungarian territory which allowed them to both capture more territory but also to shorten their lines. On September 11th the attack stopped and the troops were told to dig in and fortify their positions with multiple lines of defense. Part of the reason that they had to stop was because an attack was supposed to be taking place by the Russian armies to the north, but this was happening. This meant that if the Romanians advanced any further their right flank would be in the air and painfully vulnerable to German counterattack. Because of this, they stopped, which is unfortunate because it allowed the Austrians to catch their breath and start bolstering their line to prevent further advances, even if the Romanians had wanted to.
The 2nd Army had four infantry and one cavalry division, which it had positioned on a massive 230 kilometer front. If we go back through to our mental image of a foot this army was positioned on the ankle of the foot, therefore once it go through the mountain passes the front that the 2nd Army had to occupy would begin to decrease rapidly. Just like the North Army it quickly sent units through the passes as soon as war was declared, at which point it paused briefly before continuing on its way. Instead of offering any resistance the Austrian commander in this area decided to withdraw behind the Olt river and this meant that the Romanians reached the river without experiencing much resistance. After reaching the river they continued their attack across it, continuing their advance for 3 days before a critical choice was made on the 18th. With the attack in Transylvania going so well the Romanian high command made the decision to transfer troops to the southern front. This meant that the 2nd Army would lose half of its strength with the 22nd and 21st divisions being sent south. The troops that were left fortified their positions and tried to connect with the Northern Army and the 1st Army to their West. The adventure of the 22nd and 21st Division will continue next episode, although it will be part of the troops that will spend more time during the first few weeks of the war in transit rather than in fighting. Overall the 2nd Army had penetrated 70 to 100 kilometers into Transylvania and had drastically reduced the length of the front in the process.
The final army was the 1st Army and it would be attacking from Western Wallachia and advancing almost straight to the north. It was spit into 3 different groups which would follow three different passes through the mountains which were named after the rivers that flowed through them. From West to East these were the Cerna, Jiu, and the Olt. In the west the Cerna group quickly advanced over the border, however they did not go far. This short movement was all that was planned, and was not due to resistance which was mostly non-existent. If this group advanced too far out of the mountains they risked being cut off since they would be separated from the rest of the 1st army. To their east the Jiu group went through two passes and reached the Hungarian town of Petroseni. This city would be the center of fighting for the next few weeks as units from both sides launched attacks and counter attacks with the area changing hands several times. The final group was the Olt group and they advanced all the way to the city of Sibiu. Once they reached the city they did not, however, take it. This is remarkable because when the Romanians were advancing the Austrian commander decided not to defend the city. Austro-Hungarian officials did not want to subject the city to street fighting since it was a historical city, and also because they probably would have just lost the fight anyway. Because of these two facts they evacuated the area, all the soldiers and governmental personnel would be gone before the Hungarians arrived. When they did arrive all that were left were some logistics troops trying to load the last of their supplies onto wagons for transit. The Romanians could have easily just walked into town, but they didn’t. The local commander did not want to enter the city without permission, fearing that he and his men would possible get tied down by resistance, even though it did not appear that any would be present. So instead of just walking in he kicked it up the chain of command and asked for permission, which was then granted, but then due to some kind of miscommunication or misunderstanding this permission never reached the front. For a week the Austrians just hung out on their side of the city being, in general, quite amazed that the Romanians were just sitting on their side instead of taking the city.
The reaction from the people inside Transylvania as the Romanians invaded was a tale of two different groups. On one side you have the ethnic Hungarians who feared retribution from the local Romanians and the army, this fear caused hundreds of thousands to become refugees as they tried to stay ahead of the advancing army. These fears would prove to be mostly unfounded because many Hungarians found that the life under Romanian rule was not drastically different than their life before the war. On the other side of the coin was the ethnic Romanians, and for them there was nothing but happiness. At every Romanian town and village that the army arrived at they were greeted as conquering heroes. The people gave them food, they helped guide the units through the areas, gave them intelligence on the Austrians, and men from the areas helped the soldiers build fortifications. There was also not an insignificant number of citizens of the empire who had fled to Romania in 1914 to prevent being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army. These men, often coming back in the Romanian army, it was like a homecoming. There was also a concerted effort put into trying to get those Romanians who had joined the Austro-Hungarian army to desert to come over to the other side. Overall, the advance into Transylvania was seen as a great success all around. However, now that Romania had made their move it was time for the German and Austrian response, but for that we have to start back at their reactions when Romania entered the war.
Neither the Germans or Austrians were taken completely by surprise when the Romanians entered the war. They knew that they had been negotiating with the Entente, and had known this fact for months. This was all due to the weakness of the Italian diplomatic encryption, which was being used by Romania to communicate with Britain and France. There were also reports by German agents in Bucharest that pointed towards war. The Germans knew about the fact that Romanian Army officers had all of their furloughs cancelled after August 4th, all army harvest furloughs had also been cancelled. These cancelled the annual leave of soldiers who were sent back home to help with the harvest, a practice of almost all armies in Europe before the war. They also knew that Bratianu wanted to bring Romania into the war. So, how did they know all of these things and still think that Romania would not come into the war in August 1916? Well, they believed that the Romanian king, now Ferdinand after his father had died, would ultimately prevent their entry against the Germans. He was of the same lineage as the Kaiser and they believed that family loyalties would cause him to overrule any attempts by the Romanian government to pursue a policy of war. This caused people like Falkenhayn to ignore all other evidence. So when news reached Berlin at 10:30PM on August 27th that Romania had declared war there was an initial feeling of shock, however they recovered quickly.
One reaction to all of the evidence of Romania possibly entering the war was the creation of a plan between the Germans, Austrians, Bulgarians, and Ottomans on what to do in case they did. All of them would meet in Budapest on August 3rd to discuss this plan. In attendance were Conrad, Falkenhayn, the Operational Chief of the Bulgarian Army General Nikola Zhekov, and Enver Pasha the Turkish war minister. The strategy that was devised was predicated on the fact that the opening invasion of Transylvania by the Romanian Army could not be prevented. With that fact in mind the strategy revolved around how to react to it. The first part was that the troops in Transylvania should offer as much resistance as possible until reinforced, however they had to make sure that they did not get completely destroyed, that would just leave gaping holes in the line so they were to fight a retreat. In the south the Bulgarians would very quickly launch an attack into Dobruja and for this task they would receive Turkish and German reinforcements. Finally there would be a crossing of the Danube into Wallachia at the same time as a counter attack in Transylvania was launched. This would be the plan of action, and would be precisely what happened. In July preparations had begun with the reinforcement of the Austrian border guards which up to that point had been the only people on the border. At first this was just some battalions of militia but in August these were reinforced by 3 divisions from the Eastern Front. These divisions were exhausted and beaten up but it was hoped that they would have time to organize and rest up before anything happened, they would not. All of these troops were put under the command of General von Straussenburg and when the attack came he had precisely 15 weakened battalions, four cavalry regiments, and 13 artillery batteries, this was all they had to defend a front of 600 kilometers.
The key to the entire plan was in the south though and it was there that the best chance of quick strike against the Romanians existed because of the Bulgarian Army. They had agreed to be put under the command of Mackenson who had led the combined armies so well in Serbia and since that time had been in the Balkans. He would initially have three and a half Bulgarian divisions, about half of a German division, and then two Turkish divisions. There were many more troops on the Macedonian Front, facing the Entente troops at Salonika but initially all of the troops there were needed. To free some of them up Mackenson launched an attack on the Macedonian front to shorten the lines, and this attack was launched on August 17th and resulted in success. In just a bit over a week several areas were captured and the first train of Bulgarian troops bound for Romania was already on a train north on August 22nd. Mackenson had put the planning for the attack against Romania in the hands of Colonel Hentsch. His plan was to attack as soon as possible into the Dobruja with the goal of capturing Turtukai and Sillstria on the Danube. This would allow for more troops on the Danube and increase the threat against Bucharest. It was assumed that this would cause some kind of reaction from the Romanians, although they had no way of knowing the panic that it would result in, which we will discuss next week.
These plans would begin shortly after the Romanian declaration of war. It would take some time to get going but by September there would be 22 trains per day arriving in Transylvania, 1500 in all. They would transfer divisions from all over Europe and in total 30 infantry and 3 and a half cavalry would find their way into Transylvania to prepare for the counter attack. Falkenhayn, recently dismissed as Chief of Staff, would be put in command of the 9th Army. He had many negative qualities as a leader, but one thing that could not be questioned in this case was his motivation. He was driven by the desire to prove himself, and he would. The German troops who were sent from the Western Front felt like they were in an entirely different war. Gone were the endless seas f mud and shell holes. The alpine meadows must have seemed like a dream come true. Unfortunately for the soldiers though, they were not there for sight-seeing and soon they would be unleashed, which we will discuss next episode.