Part 1 of Romania’s No Good Very Bad Day
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 113. This episode we start off with a mea culpa. On March 17th a user by the name of Stepz57, gotta love iTunes names, left a review in which he called me out on an error. During several episodes I believe I have been using the possesive form of Victoria Cross, saying Victoria’s Cross as in the cross that Victoria owns. This is of course incorrect and it is just the Victoria Cross. I don’t know where I picked up this issue but it has been present since the beginning. It was all a huge mistake, and I will try and do better with that in the future. Also this week, I had the pleasure of attending the United States National World War 1 Centennial Commemoration on April 6th, which is the day that I am recording this. It was held at the National WW1 Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, which as I have mentioned before is about a 3 hour drive from where I live. I enjoyed the ceremony quite a bit, it did a good job of showcasing the effect of the war on America, how the country came to be involved, the handwringing that occurred during the first few months of 1917 as an answer was sought for the “should we or shouldn’t we” question, and finally the problems within American society like discrimination, segregation, and racism that were all too prevalent in 1917 America and how groups affected by it tried to rise above the hate in service of their country. It is now available online for anybody to watch, beware that it is a 4 hour and 30 minute marathon, but there are some hefty stretches of downtime that can be skipped. Also I would like to reiterate that the museum in Kansas City gets my highest recommendation and that I should be once again attending the Symposium there in November, my trip there last year has greatly influenced my episodes later in 2017 and I hope that this years will do the same. I know it is early to consider such things, but early bird registration is open and if anybody plans to attend let me know, the first drink is on me.
As we bring it back to today’s episode though, this is the third episode on the Romanian campaign, or as I like to call it, the first part in a two part episode called Romania’s No Good Very Bad Time. Last episode the Romanians had invaded Transylvania, advanced around 100 kilometers from all sides and then did, precisely, nothing. While they waited the Germans, Austrians, Bulgarians, and even some Turkish troops to prepared their counterstroke which would fall upon them in two forms. The first would be a strike by Mackenson and the Bulgarians from the south. This would target the Dobruja which was the area along the Black Sea coast between the Danube and the sea. This had been taken from Bulgaria during the first Balkan War, was full of ethnic Bulgarians, and was absolutely number one on their list of demands after the war was over. This attack would be completely unexpected by the Romanians, who believed that the Bulgarians would be occupied by the Allied forces at Salonika. They also believed that they would have far more Russian help than they did. While neither of these would be accurate it should have resulted in what was about to happen in Dobruja and it would all start with the siege of the fortress city of Turtakai. When this attack was initially successful it would cause the Romanians to massively overcorrect, pulling troops away from their lines in Transylvania to send them south. This would perfectly set them up for the Austrian and German attack as the dominoes in the Romanian war plan would begin to fall. The second half of the episode will discuss the attacks of Falkenhayn’s 9th army against those weakened lines.
We start with the attacks in the south. Mackenson planned to use the Bulgarian 3rd Army to attack into Dobruja with its 2 and a half divisions, one cavalry division, and some German detachments. These troops not have been drastically better than the Romanians that they faced except for the fact that they were bolstered by certain bits of German assistance. The Germans would do this multiple times throughout the war with their allies, they would come in and bring a commander and instead of then giving a bunch of infantry they would instead provide support troops. This meant that these units had German aircraft, communications, transportation, machine guns, heavy artillery, items of this sort that they were able to provide in great numbers to turn what would have been units without a lot of punching power into some real heavy hitters. These items were also what made the German divisions so much more potent than say a typical Romanian or Russian division and by providing them as support for their allies they were able to give them an edge over their enemies. In this case that enemy would be the Romanian 3rd Army which was responsible for defending the entire southern front, most of which was anchored on the Danube. To do this they had 3 infantry divisions and some cavalry however almost all of them were considered to be second class. They had received cast off units and equipment with much of the infantry being of the lowest readiness level, which meant very little training and desperately few officers. Those in Dobruja also found themselves in an area which was heavily Bulgarian in terms of ethnicity, this meant that the area probably felt more like enemy territory than friendly territory. Their commander would be General Aslan, who was considered one of the best Romanian Generals, however in this case he would not acquit himself very well. These troops also expected Russian help, however it would not arrive in time to assist them in the initial attacks, it would only arrive later.
The centerpiece of the Romanian defense of Dobruja rested on the fortress city of Turtukai which lay on the Danube just a few kilometers from the border. This city had been built up over the years and had been heavily improved as a fortified zone in the years before the war with the help of Belgian engineers who brought their experience from the creation of Liege, Antwerp, and Mauberge fortified cities. Around the city there were 15 main centers of resistance with both primary and secondary lines of resistance. However the same mistakes would be made in the defense as were made in 1914 at the Belgian fortifications, namely that while the fortifications were quite strong there was not enough thought given to the role of mobile defense forces in between the structures. There was also not enough Romanian heavy artillery available which made the entire complex vulnerable to bombardment. It had been shown, however, that under some pretty rough conditions motivated and properly led troops could hold these kinds of positions for surprisingly long periods of time. In this case neither of these facts would be true and the troops were both poorly led and low on morale. On the other side of the attack were the Bulgarians, many of which had lived in this area, or just across the border, before 1913 when they had emigrated to Bulgaria so as not to live in the newly Romanian territories. Going back into Dobruja to try and liberate it from the Romanians probably felt like a liberation of their homeland to these men, which is probably the best motivator that I can think of for soldiers. They were led by many officers who had fought on the Serbian and Macedonian front, some of which had also served in the Balkan wars before 1914. This combination of morale and leadership would bring the Bulgarians to success.
On the morning of September 2nd the Bulgarian and German forces approached the advanced outposts around the city. The defenders unwisely decided that the best course of action was to quickly give up these positions and retreat to the primary line of defenses. This would give the attackers the next few days to prepare for their assault on that line of defenses. The assualt would begin on September 5th and in some areas the Romanians performed surprisingly well, there were even a few cases in which the Bulgarian attacks suffered over 50 percent casualties. However, these areas were few and far between and for the most part the Romanian defenders melted away from the sustained artillery barrage and the Bulgarian infantry attack. It took less than a day and the Romanians were already pushed out of all but 2 of the 15 forts in the priamry line and they felt back to the second line which was an older and far more primitive line of fortifications. The original orders from the Romanian high command was that the city should be held at all costs, to the last man, and they hoped that they would have time to speed reinforcements south before the city was captured completely. This would have allowed the Romanians to launch counterattacks to hopefully recapture anything positions that had been lost, but this was just not how it was going to work out. The Bulgarians would attack the next day, at which point the Romanian army simply evaporated. One officer would recall that “The confusion was indescribable, In deafening noise troops ran desperately across fields while wagons, two or three abreast, jammed the roads racing at the full speed of the horses.” Just a few hours after the attack began 25,000 men were captured along with countless pieces of artillery and other equipment, none of which the Romanians could replace. The fall of the city would accomplish far more than the Germans and Bulgarians could have hoped for. It caused 3 generals to be removed from their Romanian commands, and even if these generals had not done well, this just increased the amount of confusion in the Romanian ranks. To go along with this change in command the Romanians also decided to bring troops from the north, which would greatly weaken their defenses there, and they would be greatly missed when the Austro-German attacks began there.
To replace Aslan as commander of the third army was Alexandru Averescu. Averescu had been in command of the 1st Army its attack in the north but he was now brought south to try and contain the Bulgarian advance. He was a strong advocate for a halt of the advances in the north which would allow all effort to instead be focused on attacking south, and he would find himself in command of that exact action. Overall this was not a bad idea in theory, and in fact if it was what the Romanians had done when the war started it may have succeeded. They could have easily just defended the mountain passes in the north and launched all of their men south, but they didn’t. Now they were trying to reorient the focus of their entire army while a war was on, and this was no easy task. For the southern attack to be successful it had to have a few things go right, first of all it had to be launched before the Bulgarians were able to continue their attack, the further they moved into the country the worse. It also had to be launched before the counterattack in the north could materialize from the Germans and Austrians. The Romanians believed they had time to launch their attack before either of these two things happened, they were wrong. While the Romanians were still getting ready to attack the Bulgarians would continue their advance into Dobruga pushing both the Romanian and Russian defenders, and also several thousand fleeing refugees, in front of them. The advance had begun to slow though, not due to the defenders but instead due to the fact that the Bulgarians had already accomplished most of their goals. Their objective in the war was to take back the areas of Dobruja they had lost in the Balkan wars, and by late September they had done that. Because of this the desire of the Bulgarian commanders to continue forward was reduced. It did not help that Mackenson found the Turkish troops under his command both poorly supplied and trained, meaning they were far less useful than hoped. These two facts combined meant that Mackenson’s advance closed in the last week of September, he would later claim that if he had had a single intact German division his results would have been very different. At the end of September though, the Bulgarians and Mackenson would be more concerned with the Romanian attack led by Averescu.
Averescu presented detailed plans for this attack on September 17th. The goal was to launch a two pronged attack into Dobroga, with one prong coming from the north and another from the east and across the Danube south of Bucharest. To launch this attack would be a total of 15 divisions, the largest force that would be put under the command of a single Romanian army for the entire war. The preparations for the assault were impressive, here is Glenn E. Torry from his book The Romanian Battlefront in World War 1 “In less than two weeks, under the prodding of Averescu and the commission, impressive preparations were completed: ten kilometers of roads constructed; 250 boats and other pontoon materials delivered via railroad and horse cart from the Danube delta; telephone and telegraph lines (some double) installed, along with equipment to lay an underwater cable; and additional heavy shore artillery, mines, and barricades assembled near the crossing point.” The question would be whether or not these preparations would be enough. The operation would come to be called the Flamanda Maneuver because it would cross the Danube near the town of Flamanda.
The attack would begin shortly after Averescu asked for final confirmation of his plans from Romanian high command on September 30th, with the start time pinned for 10 Pm that night. It was at this time that the divisions that would be first across the river, namely the 10th division, began moving to its crossing points. Just 5 hours later the first units would be across the river. Once on the other side they began to spread out and enlarge the beachhead to allow more units to cross. The Bulgarians were shocked and very concerned when they learned about what was happening. While they did not expect the Romanians to attack in this manner Mackenson remined mostly unconcerned. There was a German Infantry division just 48 hours away and already moving in that direction via train and Mackenson believed that this and other forces in the area would be able to keep the Romanians bottled up in their bridgehead. He would end up being correct because, while it started so well, the invasion would quickly began to unravel. The infantry who had moved across the river had only carried 2 days of food with them and this meant that establishing a firm supply line was critical both to keep those units supplied and to bring more men over to expand the invasion. These supplies would come across, at least initially, on a pontoon bridge that would be thrown across the river. However the very next day the bridge, still under construction, came under fire from German aircraft. These attacks would stop after nightfall, and the bridge would be completed in the dark, however it did represent a delay, and a delay that would be more costly due to weather. Overnight a powerful weather system would move through the area, causing high winds and waves which would damage the bridge. On the next day the attacks on the bridge would resume, only this time it would come in the form of Austro-Hungarian river boats who moved up the river to within a few hundred meters of the bridge. From this location they would fire on the bridge and those trying to move across it with machine guns before dropping some floating mines before leaving the area. The damage to the bridge caused by all of these problems was bad enough, but it also badly eroded. With the entire operation at risk due to the bridge problems there were two options, the Romanians could continue the attack with the troops available and what little they could get across or they could just give up and pull back. Initially they hoped to find a middle ground by reducing the plans for an attack to just the hope of holding onto the bridgehead for possible future operations. However, on October 3rd, with the disaster unfolding in Transylvania that we will discuss next week Averescu was told to bring everybody back across the river and to send 2 divisions north as soon as possible. The fact that they pulled the plug early on the operation meant that casualties were light, and only a small amount of artillery and supplies had to be left south of the Danube. In some ways, and this is weird to say, this was the best possible outcome for the Romanians. If the bridge had been intact for a few days, thousands of troops may have been across the river, if at that point he bridge would have been destroyed they may have all found themselves killed or captured by the enemy. So overall, the fantasically named Flamanda Maneuver turned into mostly just a waste of time, and not much else.
We now shift back to Transylvania and the Romanian troops which we discussed last episode who had crossed the Carpathians in the opening days of the war. In this area the Romanians had done little except for advance away from their supply depots in Romania to then take up positions in Transylvania. After this was accomplished many of the troops were sent to the south to reinforce the front there. This teed those that remained for the German and Austrian counterstroke which is what we will discuss for the rest of this episode. Almost without exception, things are about to go very very bad for the Romanians, although not as bad as they could have gone. Let’s talk about why that was.
We have discussed that Falkenhayn would play a critical role in the attacks against Romania and it would start with the battle of Sibiu. Sibiu was in the middle of the Romanian 1st Army front, but it was a vulnerable position due to the fact that after the Romanians had moved through the various mountain passes they had not done a great job of connecting all of their units together. This meant that for the units at Sibiu there 50 kilometers or more of open air on either of their flanks. The only saving grace was that these areas were very rugged terrain, which the Romanians were counting on to prevent any enemy movement through them. Fortunately for Falkenhayn and the Germans they had the Alpine Corps which was made up of Germany’s top mountain troops. These men trained for this exact scenario, moving quickly through mountainous terrain to give them an advantage over an enemy who either could not match this movement or did not expect it to be possible. Falkenhayn sent them forward to recon the route that would be used to maybe get behind the Romanian forces to see if they would be able to quickly move through the terrain. They decided that they could execute the movement however they would not be able to take any vehicles or any heavy equipment. This was seen as an acceptable sacrifice and Falkenhayn sent them forward with the goals of both getting around behind the Romanians and then preventing their retreat through the mountain pass. If they were able to do these two things it is likely that the Romanian forces at Sibiu would be completely destroyed. As the mountain troops moved around the flanks the main force of the 9th army launched a frontal assault against the positions at Sibiu. The plan was for both of these attacks to fall at complementary times, for the frontal attack to throw the Romanians into retreat only for the troops to then run directly into the Alpine blocking forces. Neither of these would end up happening. The frontal assault would actually be a failure on the first day, with the Romanians able to launch some pretty nasty counterattacks. These counterattacks were costly, but they allowed the Romanians to hold onto their lines mostly intact for the first day. As for the passes, the mountain troops were unable to close the pass completely, however they were able to get into some good positions that would allow them to interdict, but not prevent, movement through the area. On the next day the front attacks were renewed, and the Romanian positions were reduced but not broken. Then finally on the third day things began to change. Even though the Alpine troops had not been able to close down the pass, a rumor began to circulate through the Romanian troops that they had been able to occupy the pass. These troops knew, just as we know today, how absolutely screwed they would have been if the pass was blocked and so panic began to spread, at which point the retreat began.
As all of the troops moved towards the pass they were first met by the Alpine Corps who tried to slow them down. They did everything that they could but there was only so much they could do against the masses of troops that were pushing through the pass. By the early afternoon on the 29th, with no signs of the retreat slowing and some Romanian units beginning to launch counter attacks against them the Alpine troops were forced to retreat, they were out of ammunition anyway. Overall, the retreat was a success. Most of the men and artillery were able to move back into the passes and were on their way to Romanian territory. It was however the beginning of the end for the Romanian occupation of Transylvania. After taking care of the troops at Sibiue Falkenhayn was able to shift his attention to the east where the next set of Romanian troops were waiting. Here again he would try to prevent the troops from reaching the mountain passes, and here again he failed. All along the front the Romanian troops began to retreat. By October 9th the 2nd Army had fully retreated back into the mountains and by the 11th all of the Romanian troops had moved back into the mountains. It had only been 40 days since they had triumphantly advanced and already they had been expelled. Averescu was sent north to try and combat the rampant defeatism that was sweeping through the Romanian lines, however it was more than just the army that was panicking. In Bucharest plans were put in place to begin the loading of all government documents for evacuation to Moldovia, which was not exactly a great show of confidence in the army. Next episode, we will find out if they should have had confidence in the army, spoilers, the government was right to be concerned.