The Tide Turns Against Romania

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 251st installment in the series. 

September 26-29, 1916: The Tide Turns Against Romania 

At first glance the entry of Romania into the First World War on the side of the Allies looked like another disaster for the Central Powers, capping a year of disappointments and setbacks including Verdun, the Brusilov Offensive, and the Somme. With an army 800,000 strong – on paper, at least – and promises of help from the Allies, it seemed like Romania’s declaration of war against Austria-Hungary could be the final nail in the coffin, sealing the fate of the Habsburg realm and with it Germany’s hopes for victory. 

This interval of Allied optimism proved short-lived, however. As the British, French and Russians soon discovered to their dismay, Romania only had enough weapons and equipment to field half a million troops, and its isolated position in Eastern Europe meant there was no way for the Allies to deliver supplies in the quantities necessary to make up the difference. Meanwhile by September 1916 the Russian Brusilov Offensive (whose stunning success over the summer helped convince Romania to join the Allies in the first place) had finally run out of steam, freeing up German and Austrian troops to fend off the Romanian offensive and then launch a counterattack. 


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After crossing the Carpathian Mountains and briefly occupying Austria-Hungary’s Transylvanian borderlands in early September, the Romanian adventure came to a sudden, sobering end on September 16 with the arrival of Erich von Falkenhayn, until recently the German chief of the general staff, now the commander of the new hybrid Austro-German Ninth Army facing the Romanians in Transylvania. For Falkenhayn, cashiered from the top spot for the failure at Verdun, this field command was a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the German Army and public – and he did so in spectacular fashion. 

Assisting Falkenhayn was another near-legendary German commander, August von Mackensen, who took command of the German-Bulgarian Donauarmee or Danube Army along Romania’s southern border, further divided into eastern and western operational groups (including the Bulgarian Third Army in the east). Together Falkenhayn and Mackensen’s forces effectively encircled Romania, setting the stage for a crushing counteroffensive in the fall of 1916.

The first blow landed almost immediately, with Mackensen’s invasion of the disputed province of Dobruja between the lower Danube River and the Black Sea on September 3, 1916. In short order Mackensen’s hybrid German-Bulgarian forces captured the border town of Silistra, then pushed the unprepared Romanians back almost halfway to Constanta, Romania’s biggest port and a key supply hub. Although the hybrid Russo-Romanian Dobruja Army won a brief reprieve with their victory over the Bulgarian Third Army at the Battle of Cobadin from September 17-19, enforcing a temporary stalemate on the Danube front, they couldn’t prevent Mackensen from capturing the fortress of Turturkai on the Danube on September 26, along with 25,000 prisoners. 

Battle of Hermannstadt 

But all this was only a prelude to the debacle now unfolding to the northwest, where the Germans inflicted a shattering defeat on the Romanian First Army at the Battle of Hermannstadt from September 26-29, 1916. 

The dominant natural feature in this area was the towering Carpathian Mountains, which ran south and west along the Hungarian and Romanian frontiers, forming a natural border between them. In the opening days of their offensive the Romanians had crossed the mountains through a handful of passes to capture the Hungarian borderlands – but this superficial success had dire consequences, as the advance through the passes channeled the Romanian armies away from each other, separated by the intervening mountain ranges. Strung out on the far side of the Carpathians, the Romanian armies were unable to coordinate mutual support, leaving them all exposed to flank attacks and encirclement. 

Falkenhayn took advantage of these disjointed deployments to attack the Romanian armies and destroy them “in detail,” or one at a time, aided by Mackensen’s attacks in the south, which forced the Romanians to weaken their invasion force in Hungary. He first struck the Romanian First Army at Hermannstadt on September 26, in order to clear the enemy from the approaches to the key passes across the Carpathians, including the Turnu Roșu or Red Tower Pass south of Hermannstadt.

Falkenhayn’s Ninth Army included the famous Alpenkorps or Alpine Corps, composed of Prussian and Bavarian “hunters” or woodsmen who were used to mountain conditions and rough terrain. Taking advantage of their high mobility, Falkenhayn sent the Alpenkorps around the Romanian First Army to threaten its supply lines in the rear, while his main infantry force launched a frontal assault against it from the west. 

As German artillery pounded the Romanians from the front, pinning them down  the Alpenkorps crossed the Sibin Mountains (a branch of the Carpathians), slipped around the enemy force to the east and occupied the Red Tower Pass, severing Romanian communications across the Carpathians. Meanwhile Austro-German forces from the neighboring Austro-Hungarian First Army harried the Romanians even further east, making it impossible for the Romanian high command to send reinforcements to the First Army. 

Panicked by the prospect of being cut off and destroyed, the Romanian First Army commander, Ioan Culcer, had no choice but to order a hasty withdrawal, abandoning Hermannstadt and with it the central position in Transylvania. By September 29 the Romanians were in full retreat towards the mountain passes – which they would have to fight to clear (along with forces transferred from other spots, weakening the Romanians along the whole front). One German junior officer recalled the scenes of carnage that followed:

The Romanians repeatedly tried to break out of the encirclement. Upon reaching the pass and finding it blocked, and being exhausted after the strenuous march over the difficult mountain paths, the Romanians were taken over and completely destroyed by the Alpen Corps attacking from their rear. The losses in the Romanian units were terrible. The Alpen Corps had placed a tight grip on the road to the pass. The Romanians repeatedly attempted a breakthrough. German rifles and machine guns reaped a bloody harvest. Those not killed or wounded fell back into the witches cauldron below. The panic which befell the swarming masses was indescribable. Horses, wagons, and artillery still in complete harness ran into the Alt river and disappeared into the depths of the water. Cows and herds of swine were jammed into the narrow pass roads intermingled with troops. 

Worse, the defeat at Hermannstadt set in motion a chain reaction, as the Romanian Second Army had to move south to cover the First Army’s retreat, in order to avoid a collapse of the entire Romanian line. This was a portent of things to come. 

For ordinary German soldiers, the march south to the Carpathians was both exhilarating and intimidating, as it took them through some of the most primitive terrain in Europe, including dark, towering forests. The same junior officer recalled the eerie experience of marching with his unit, by night, through the Transylvanian foothills towards the famed Vulcan Pass, fated to be the scene of a pivotal German victory in October: 

A few minutes later the darkness of the forest had completely enveloped the soldiers. The smell of rot and mold was very strong. You could not see your hand in front of your face. They held on to the person in front either by his bayonet or webbing in order not to lose connection. The soldiers didn’t march on a defined mountain road, but a climbed a wildly overgrown mountain path which had been used by humans maybe once in ten years and then only by daylight…

See the previous installment or all entries.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

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- Keurig K-Café Single Coffee Maker $169 (save $30)

- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

- HP Neverstop Laser Printer $250 (save $30)

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- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

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- Swingline Desktop Hole Punch $7 (save $17)

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Selieve/Amazon

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Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

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NECA/Amazon

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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

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In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.