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).