Part 2 of Romania’s No Good Very Bad Day
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 115. This week I would like to thank listener Joshua and James for his donation to the show this week, if you would like to donate to keep this train a rolling you can find the link at historyofthegreatwar.com/donate. I would also like to thank the show’s newest Patreon subscriber Joe who now has access to special Patreon only episodes like the one released a year ago detailing the situation in neutral Spain during the war. You can find out more information about the Patreon campaign at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar. Also, on a programming note, this will be our last episode for several weeks as we will be moving the first week of May, my plan is to have the next episode out by May 7th when we travel to the Italian front to catch up on the action there. This week we are back to Romania and when we last left the theater Falkenhayn had advanced into the mountain passes over the Carpathians and in the south Mackenson had turned back the Romanian attack across the Danube. It was from these positions that the Germans, Austrians, and Bulgarians would plan to finish off the Romanians with an attack from both the north and the south with the two German generals meeting up in Wallachia. The Romanians still hoped for Russian help, but it would be slow in arriving because they made it clear that they would only assist in the defense of Moldovia which was the eastern half of Romania, in Wallachia, where the capital of Bucharest was located, they were on their own.
Before we get to the invasion of Wallachia, lets talk some more about what was happening in Dobrogea. Mackenson planned to push further into the region through an attack of two battle groups which contained mostly Bulgarians but also some German and Turkish troops. For the defense there would be a mixture of Romanians and Russians. The positions that these troops manned were abysmal and since retreating from the frontier they had done little to improve them, this fact meant that when the attack began with a bombardment it was disastrous. On the Romanian right the troops were shattered by the bombardment and quickly began to pull back from the front. In the center the Russians held momentarily but on Russian division gave way under the assaults of a Turkish division which put them in general retreat. On the Romanian left the situation was mostly the same. This resulted in the Germans quickly moving into Constanta, which was the Romania’s most important port. This port was the best method of accessing the Black Sea and it would end up being captured without a fight. The Russian leadership wanted it completely destroyed but the Romanians refused, as they would do many times when called upon to destroy pieces of their own country by their allies. Since they rejected the idea of destroying the city the enemy captured the port facilities, and everything that it had in it, intact. This included large stocks of oil and grain that had been on their way out of the country. This was by far the largest objective in Dobrogea as far as the Germans were concerned and with it captured Mackenson turned his eye to the other side of the Danube and the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Up to this point the attempts to defend Dobrogea had been a disaster for Romania, precise casualty numbers are hard to come by however it was most likely over 75,000. Almost 40,000 of that number were prisoners taken in the region between September 1st and October 15th. Not all was perfect in the Bulgarian, German, and Turkish coalition though. The Germans were controlling everything, including the railroads and infrastructure that had been captured, something that the Bulgarians believed was their right. There was also a growing unease among Bulgarian leadership due to the Turkish participation. Now that the Turkish troops were in the front lines and attacking visions of Ottoman occupation that had haunted centuries of Bulgarian history began to come to the surface. This would not greatly affect the outcome of the campaign, but I think it is an interesting insight into the mindset of the Bulgarians, even if they could not act on them due to German strength.
We now turn our eyes back northward. The Carpathians appear at first glance to be a highly defensible area, especially as the seasons turned from autumn and into winter. There were only about 15 passes that an enemy could use to attack through them, and the Germans and Austrians would only end up choosing 5 for their efforts. Even though there were only 15 passes all of them had to be manned by the Romanians since they did not know which would be chosen while the Germans and Austrians could concentrate their men into the exact area where they planned to attack. It did not help the Romanian effort that in the years before the war the permanent defenses in the mountains had been neglected into disrepair as the Romanians planned to advance beyond them anyway, so it did not seem worth using any of Romania’s very limited budget on improvements for them. When it came to how to enter Romania the Germans and the Austrians disagreed on the best route. The Austrians wanted to move directly east and into Moldavia, this would be the harder road but also more lucrative since it would push the Romanians back into Wallachia where they would be more vulnerable to the coming Bulgarian attack. Falkenhayn and the Germans were concerned that the road east would be too difficult and the troops would get bogged down in the passes and therefore he wanted the quick win of advancing into Wallachia from the north which would then combined the strengths of the northern and southern army groups. Initially Falkenhayn would be overruled resulting in the attack east being launched first, however it met with almost no success and instead just heavy casualties which resulted in the idea being abandoned. Even when all parties agreed to attack south there was still disagreement about which route to take. Falkenhayn eventually appealed directly to Ludendorff to get his plan approved which involved an attack through the Jiu pass. There would also be another attack by Austrian troops through the Brasov passes. These attacks would be launched near the end of the October, which meant that the mountains were transitioning from autumn and into winter. Snow as already falling at higher elevations on October 17th and by the end of the most there would be blizzards in some areas which were depositing over a meter of snow. This was not exactly ideal weather to attack or defend mountain passes in, and the troops would be dealing with weather issues for the entire campaign. Estimates vary on the effect of these conditions but some German casualty estimates put the casualties due to weather at up the 25%.
Falkenhayn would push through the Jiu pass where the Romanian defenders were having a rough time and would be in full retreat. Falkenhayn often found that the weather was as much of a problem as the Romanians and he had to push his men hard to continue through it. Falkenhayn was working against the clock in trying to get onto the Wallachian plain before the harshest of the winter weather descended on the mountains. On October 27th, with heavy rain falling on the Germans troops they seeming poised to finally completely breakthrough the Romanian lines when the Romanians counter attacked. The German troops were exhausted and had not had time to consolidate their positions. The Romanian attack was successful, with small groups of German troops isolated and surrounded. The German front was on the verge of collapsing with casualties of almost 4,000. This action caused both sides to suspend operations for the time being with the Germans reeling from the defeat and the Romanians celebrating their success. The respite from German attacks was temporary. Falkenhayn knew that he was running out of chances to try and fail to put the Romanians to flight and he therefore assembled all of his men for one more attack. The pause let him assemble 40 infantry battalions which would be attacking just 18 Romanian battalions. This overwhelming force would attack on November 12th. The hope was that the infantry would push through the Romanians and allow the 52 cavalry squadrons to them move through them to then have the run of Wallachia before the Romanians could react. Over the 2 day battle the Romanian resistance collapsed. They suffered heavy casualties before they did collapse, and in many ways fought better than they had any right to with some regiments suffering 75% casualties before they disintegrated. Overall there was just not a way for them to overcome the numerical disadvantage. The result was that the Austro-German Ninth army was now unleashed into the Romanian heartland of Wallachia, and because of that the entirety of the southern Carpathian defenses in the other passes were compromised.
Once through the passes the cavalry was unleashed and they moved south and into the heart of Wallachia. With the entire situation in disarray the Romanian high command, frantic to find a way to slow the advance and give themselves times to organize some kind of defenses told all of the troops in the Western parts of the country to resist until the very end. Their orders were to fight until they were in a situation of imminent capture and then to destroy all of their artillery and equipment to fight as partisans. These orders resulted in the deaths of 10,000 soldiers which included several Romanian generals. The Romanians hoped that this would buy them time to assemble a counterattacking force on the Olt river, which was the only natural barrier left between the attackers and the capital of Bucharest. The goal was to slow the enemy advance enough to allow winter to further move in, and to hopefully slow the Germans down, and maybe if they could delay long enough and wait for the weather to fully deteriorate they would be able to hold out until the Russians arrived, hopefully. However, as they assembled their troops the entire plan was completely negated by the enemy cavalry. They reached the river Old and were able to cross it on an intact bridge which the Romanian defenders tried, and subsequently failed, to destroy. This made the attempt to hold the enemy at the Olt a moot point and they would now have to come up with another plan.
Meanwhile in the south Mackenson was planning to cross the Danube at Sistov-Zimnicea. Preparations for this attack had been taking place for some time now with Bulgarian railroads upgrades, new roads built, and bridges strengthened to handle the increased traffic. All of this effort was made to make sure that supplies and men could be moved north with ease. The forces to complete the crossing were 5 divisions who had a few big advantages. First there was heavy seasonal fog which concealed many of their preparations and their actual crossings. Second, the Romanian forces were very thinly spread on the river since many troops had been sent to the Carpathians to try and help deal with the breakout there. Therefore the defenders of the Danube only had about half the number as were attacking them and on the night of November 22nd they would prove to not be strong enough to stop the crossing. In about 36 hours there was already a pontoon bridge across the river. The crossing was not greatly slowed by Romanian action and almost instantly Mackenson and his forces were just 60 kilometers from Bucharest. If the Romanian government was not panicking before, they were now.
All hopes moved to a possible counterattack against the forces of the 9th army in the West. There was a group of divisions, about 4 of them at least on paper, that had been put together for the Olt operation that were now searching for a purpose. The thought was that they could be launched against the 9th army to slow them down, hopefully stop them, and then maybe just maybe begin to push them back. Once this task was done they could then be turned south to deal with Mackenson. This would at least buy some time if nothing else, maybe enough for the Russians to finally show up, if they were ever going to. This counterattack was launched on December 1. Reports of a great success initially made their way through the Romanian military, however, while one German infantry division was surrounded by 3 Romanian divisions immediately after the attack was launched there were more German troops on the way to throw the attackers back. With the Austro-German counter attack the weaknesses of the Romanian units began to show. These units were compositions of many hard hit formation that had just been clumped together and a single company might contain units from five or more regiments. This action was necessary to get the numbers high enough to launch the attack but it was disastrous for cohesion. They were also exhausted and demoralized which did not help. These problems were bad enough when the counterattack started but by the time of the German reaction their numbers had been thinned even more, with some formations losing half of their men in the initial attack. Soon panic began to spread through the units and the situation went south. Many Romanian and allied leaders hoped that this attack would be the Romanian Marne where the German attackers would be thrown back at the gates of the capital, it wasn’t, and they weren’t.
Romanian leaders did not yet fully understand just how quickly and completely their forces had fallen apart. Because of this they had orders out to some units, some large units, stuck in place while enemy units roved around to their rear. The only hope was to order a retreat of all Romanian troops to the east of the capital, which meant that they were surrendering Bucharest into the hands of the enemy. However, it would also mean that it would not be destroyed. The decision to not defend the capital would save the city from the heavy bombardment of German artillery that would almost certainly destroy large sections of the city. The defense of the city probably would not have gained much in terms of time for the Romanians anyway since the troops there would have been rapidly surrounded while the rest of the Germans and Austrians moved on. However, the sacrifice of the capital did nothing for morale. On December 6th Mackenson arrived in an open automobile to accept the surrender of the city. German troops moved in, but were under strict orders to not plunder or damage the city. They mostly obeyed this order, however they did find ways to make sure they got new clothes and shoes from the shops in the city since even at this point in the war what they were receiving were not of the highest quality. The Germans more importantly captured many Romanian industrial centers intact as well, places like Ploiesti which was a center of Romanian oil production. The Romanians were hesitant to destroy such facilities, but the British liaisons were not. A British Lieutenant Colonel John Norton-Griffiths would go around trying to destroy as much of the Romanian industry as possible before it fell into German hands, and the Romanians were left powerless to stop him. It got to the point that even the French were telling the British to calm down and to “moderate” their campaign of destruction.
With the Romanians on the back foot, having just surrendered their capital and all that, the Austro-German forces gave chase. Falkenhayn was especially adamant that the pursuit should be pushed to the max. They were slowed not so much by Romanians as by the weather. A near constant rain meant that the roads became rivers of mud, it also made the rivers swollen and bridges more important, bridges that were often damaged or destroyed by the retreating Romanians. All that the Romanians could do was try to destroy the bridge and continuing their move east. However, not everybody could move fast enough and in the first week of December the 9th Army along captured 60,000 Romanian soldiers. Even those formations that technically evaded capture had their numbers drastically reduced during this period, with many Romanian divisions down to about 1,000 men. The Romanians were will pleading with the Russians for help, and they continued to get more desperate, here is part of the appeal they sent after the fall of the capital. “Our troops are very tired and will not be in condition to hold… against the German troops… better equipped… and with very high morale.… The situation is critical and it concerns not only our fate but also the fate of the entire war for Russia.” Even Alexeyev, long the opponent of sending any Russian forces to Romania new that it was time they did something. However, to do this they wanted some concessions from the Romanians, namely that the surviving Romanian forces would be folded into the Russian order of battle and Russian generals given full control over their actions. For the Romanians, even in their desperate state, this was still far and they resisted successfully. Instead the most that the Russians got was a Chief of Staff position with the Romanian General Staff. However, it would not be until mid-December that the Russians would arrive in force and when they did they found that the rail lines leading into Moldovia would not meet their needs. Their troops would need 400 train cars a day in supplies, the lines only supported about 200. Moldovia still needed to be defended, and even the Russians agreed to that since it was the best way to keep the Germans out of southern Russia, but it was not guaranteed, the entire Russian 4th army would attempt to assist the Romanians in doing it though.
The final two battles of the 1916 Romanian campaign would take place in late December. The first would occur near Ramnicu-Sarat. Here the Russian and Romanian troops had created a new line of resistance in the hills to the west of the city. They had been able to do this because of how much the advancing enemies had been slowed by the weather. However, after several days of artillery bombardment and the attack from Bavarian infantry the Russians chose to abandon the positions and move to the northeast. This abandoned what was left of Wallachia into German hands and it also made the Romanians question the Russian desire to defend Moldovia. The final battle of the year was at Focsani. This area was a critical communication path between Wallachia and Moldovia and the Romanians had fortified the city heavily in the years before the war as an anchor in a defensive line designed to keep enemies from traversing between Moldovia and Wallachia. There was just one problem, most of the fortifications had been built a time when the biggest through to Romania was not from the west but instead from a Russian invasion from the east and so the defenses faced the north, east, and south and not many were facing to the west which is where the enemies were approaching from in 1916. Because of this mistake the fortifications were not able to provide the required assistance to the defenders and the German and Austrian attack was successful, on January 7th they retreated across the Putna river, and the 9th Army decided that this was far enough and went over to the defensive for the winter. With that move to the defensive the attacks on Romania was over, for now. The Germans put further attacks on hiatus as they had other theaters to concern themselves, with the Austrians in a similar situation and for that reason for the next 6 months not much would happen for the armies in Romania.
Overall, the Romanian decision to enter the war had been a disaster. They had lost 310,000 men either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. They also have very little to rebuild from these casualties with because so much of their country was not in enemy hands. On the flip side the Austrians, Germans, and Bulgarians were now preparing to exploit Wallachia to its fullest potential. Over the course of the next year the following quantities of goods would be removed from Romania and sent primarily to Germany and Austria. A million tons of oils, 2 million tons of grain, roughly that same amount of other food products, 200,000 tons of timber, 100,000 head of cattle, 200,000 goats, and 200,000 pigs. That was just the amount exported as well and does not account for the amount requisitioned to feed the armies that were present in the country itself. The Germans had paid a heavy price for these resources, with casualties of around 60,000. However, without the massive infusion of material into the Central powers War machine it is unlikely that the societies, especially the Austrians, could have been able to last through 1917 and into 1918. They also got another benefit in the form of how they forced Russia to respond. The defense of the new Romanian front would take 36 infantry and 11 cavalry divisions which represented a quarter of the total number of troops available to the entire Russian Army. While the Central Powers would have still preferred that Romania remained neutral, they had certainly made the most of the situation.
The Romanians would stay in the war until May 1918, although negotiations for their exit would begin in early February. The destruction of what was left of the Russian army in 1917 both by enemy action and the revolutions meant that Romania’s position became simply untenable. However, negotiations were slower than expected due not to Romanian obstinacy but instead by internal bickering between the victorious countries. The Romanian King Ferdinand was realistic about the situation that his country was in and was generally accepting of any peace treaty that kept his country as a sovereign nation, even if they were under some level of control by another nation. At this point he and the other Romanian leaders were just concerned about the Russian revolution spilling across the border and into their country. However, on the other side of the table, first Bulgaria and the Ottomans both wanted Dobrogea while at the same time the Germans and Austrians were openly bickering about how would control Romania. Initially the Austrians were going to have it, with the Germans retaining a heavy say in how their economy was exploited, however when Hindenburg and Ludendorff found out about this agreement they simply refused to entertain it. They also vetoed another proposal that would trade German influence over Romania for Austrian influence over Poland. These disagreements created a rift between not just the Austrians and the Germans but also between the German military and political representatives. There are a few accounts of the two German groups openly arguing in front of the Austrians, which probably did nothing to move the German case forward. The German Secretary of State Kuhlmann was able to bring negotiations to a conclusion eventually with Romania being pretty much a vassal state of Germany, the Romanians also had to pay the full cost of all occupying forces, and also provide food and money for Romanian prisoners of war. This would all be in the treaty that was signed on May 7, 1918. While it ended as a victorious campaign for the central powers, it is illuminating that even in their moment of triumph there were deep rifts between the countries and also inside of them. These rifts would continue to widen as the war progressed, and then open into giant chasms upon its completion.