Romania Joins Allies, Fall Of Falkenhayn

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 248th installment in the series. 

August 27-29, 1916: Romania Joins Allies, Fall Of Falkenhayn 

By the late summer of 1916, it looked like the tides of war had shifted decisively in favor of the Allies. The German offensive against Verdun had been thwarted and was now being slowly rolled back; the Allied offensive at the Somme was grinding forward, sucking in more and more German divisions (contributing to the failure at Verdun); the Italians had scored their biggest, or indeed only, victory to date at the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo; and most dramatically, the Russians had achieved a massive breakthrough on the Eastern Front with the Brusilov Offensive, shattering entire Austro-Hungarian armies and forcing the Germans to pull even more troops from the Western Front to shore up their beleaguered ally. 

Things were about to get even worse for the Central Powers – or so it seemed – as Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and launched an invasion of her erstwhile Triple Alliance partner on August 27, 1916. Like Italy and Serbia, Romania’s antagonism against the Habsburg realm was fueled by her nationalist aspirations to “redeem” its ethnic Romanian population by breaking up the Dual Monarchy and uniting them with a new, expanded Kingdom of Romania. After months of indecision, with the war apparently turning against the Central Powers Romania’s government – fearing they might miss out on the division of spoils – finally threw its lot in with the Allies in a secret military convention signed in July 1916. 

On August 28, 1916, Romanian Prime Minister Ion Bratianu delivered a declaration of war to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador, citing the Central Powers’ evident ambition to redraw the map of the Balkan Peninsula and Eastern Europe and Austria-Hungary’s long mistreatment of its ethnic Romanian population as justifications for this intervention: 

Today we are confronted by a situation de facto threatening great territorial transformations and political changes of a nature constituting a grave menace to the future of Rumania… For a period of thirty years the Rumanians of Austria-Hungary not only never saw a reform introduced, but, instead, were treated as an inferior race and condemned to suffer the oppression of a foreign element which constitutes only a minority amid the diverse nationalities constituting the Austro-Hungarian States… Rumania, from a desire to hasten the end of the conflict and to safeguard her racial interests, sees herself forced to enter into line by the side of those who are able to assure her realization of her national unity.  For these reasons Rumania considers herself, from this moment, in a state of war with Austria-Hungary.

On paper Romania was a formidable force, with an army of 800,000 men – but there was only enough equipment for about 550,000 of these, and many had received scarcely any training, while their officers had no experience with the grim realities of modern trench warfare. True, the Allies promised to supply Romania with weapons, ammunition and other necessities, but the only route left open to the isolated eastern Balkan nation lay through some of the most primitive parts of Europe, in what is now Moldova. Russia was also supposed to send an army to Romania’s aid, but by the time this improvised force made it to the combat zone the situation was already desperate; just as importantly, the Brusilov Offensive had finally ground to a halt, thanks in part to the arrival of German reinforcements. 

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On the other side, the Habsburg Army was indeed stretched to the breaking point, leaving Hungary’s vast Transylvanian hinterland more or less unprotected – but Austria-Hungary’s powerful partner Germany was hardly going to sit by and let her only ally be dismembered by a second-tier Balkan state. And Germany wasn’t the only one Romania had to worry about: Bulgaria was still nursing a major grudge over Romania’s “stab in the back” in the Second Balkan War of 1913, when the Romanians seized the Danube province of Dobruja while Bulgaria was embroiled in a disastrous struggle (admittedly, almost entirely her own fault) with Serbia, Greece, and Turkey.

Despite all this the Romanians made considerable progress at first, benefiting from Austria-Hungary’s inability to mount a concerted defense against the three invading Romanian armies (a fourth Romanian army stood guard against the Bulgarians in the south). The invaders received support from sympathetic Romanian peasants as well, and by September 1, 1916 they had occupied a number of key towns along the Hungarian frontier, including Kronstadt, Petroseni, Kezdiasarhely, Brasov, and Sibiu. But the Romanian honeymoon would be short-lived. 

The Fall of Falkenhayn 

On August 28-29, 1916, the First World War claimed yet another political casualty: this time it was the turn of the cold, imperious chief of the German general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn. 

A relatively junior officer when he was promoted to the top spot following Helmuth von Moltke’s nervous breakdown at the beginning of the war, Falkenhayn owed his quick ascent to the personal favor of Kaiser Wilhelm II, which also helped protect him from his growing army of critics in the senior echelons of the German Army – for a time. 

But by the second half of 1916 multiple mistakes and miscalculations were finally catching up with him. The most glaring was the debacle at Verdun, which Falkenhayn had planned to be a carefully calibrated battle of attrition to bleed France white – but which quickly spun out of control, as German field commanders pressed forward regardless of casualties, resulting in almost as many German losses as French. Falkenhayn also paid the price for failing to anticipate the size and intensity of the British onslaught at the Somme, and for discounting Russia’s continued war-making ability, demonstrated in the Brusilov Offensive. Romania’s decision to join the Allies was the last straw – the German Army needed new leadership.

Falkenhayn’s successor, announced on August 29, 1916, would be none other than Paul von Hindenburg, assisted as always by his brilliant younger aide de camp Erich Ludendorff, who had become national heroes with the victory at Tannenberg in August 1914 and earned more plaudits for the Central Powers’ victorious campaign on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1915. As “Easterners,” Hindenburg and Ludendorff believed that the Central Powers should try to achieve victory by knocking Russia out of the war, while assuming a defensive posture on the Western Front – foreshadowing another major change in German strategy in 1917. 

For his part Falkenhayn would have a successful “second act” as commander of the Central Powers counterattack against Romania, earning praise for his skillful handling of the hybrid force composed of German, Habsburg and Bulgarian armies (along with his subordinate August von Mackensen, who had previously orchestrated the successful assault on Serbia in the fall of 1915).

See the previous installment or all entries.

Can You Guess J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beast From Its Magical Power?

The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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