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.

10 Facts About Ken Miles, the Race Car Driver at the Center of Ford v Ferrari

Raycrosthwaite Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Raycrosthwaite Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a car enthusiast who doesn't know the name Carroll Shelby, it wasn't until recently—with the release of Ford v Ferrari—that Shelby's teammate, Ken Miles, has been allowed to share the spotlight. The movie, which centers around the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mansa race that’s been the center of more than a few heated debates—has finally given Miles his due.

Director James Mangold said that the first cut of Ford v Ferrari was close to four hours long, but that he eventually had to cut it down to its final two-and-a-half-hour running time. Naturally, a lot of great material didn’t make it into the final cut, including some of the most interesting facts about Miles's life. Here are 10 fascinating facts that you won’t find in Ford v Ferrari.

1. Ken Miles started racing when he was just 11 years old.

Ken Miles was born on November 1, 1918 in Sutton Coldfield, England, a town located less than 10 miles north of Birmingham. At the ripe old age of 11, Miles started motorcycle racing on a 350 cc Triumph bike. A crash broke his nose and cost him three teeth—which led to him purchasing a larger motorcycle.

2. Ken Miles met his wife when he was a teenager.

When he was just 15 years old, Miles met a young woman named Mollie, then turned to a friend and said, “I’m going to marry that girl.” And he eventually did. The courtship was so all-consuming that at one point the headmaster of Miles's school called his parents and asked if there was something they could do about “this whole Mollie business.”

3. Ken Miles built his first car when he was 15 years old.

Miles was a busy teenager. When he was 15, he built an Austin 7 Special that he named “Nellie,” and some of the mechanical modifications he made on the car became signatures of his later vehicles. Mollie, who seemed to be a fan of the wooing, painted Nellie a British Racing Green. Miles sold Nellie during World War II, but continued to design cars after the war was over.

4. Ken Miles was a military man.

For seven years, Miles served in the British Territorial Army. His primary job was tank recovery, a job that required him to reclaim tanks and get them operational again. In 1944, he took part in the D-Day landings as part of a tank unit. Miles was also one of the first British soldiers at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, an experience he rarely talked about even though he was frequently photographed wearing his military coat.

5. Ken Miles loved American engines.

Christian Bale as Ken Miles in 'Ford v Ferrari' (2019)
Christian Bale as Ken Miles in James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari (2019).
Merrick Morton © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

During his military service, Miles found time to study and keep up with developments in engine technology. Separated from his racing friends, Miles had to work a little harder to share this love. In a letter to Motorsport Magazine, Miles went into the specifics about exactly what he loved about a new engine and how much potential he saw in it. He looked forward to designing his own supercharged version of the engine and installing it into a four-wheel drive vehicle.

6. Ken Miles understood how important physical fitness was for a driver before everyone else did.

Though physical fitness wasn’t as emphasized for drivers back then, Miles thought it was crucial, something we now know to be true. At five-foot-11-inches, Miles was a remarkably lean 147 pounds. Miles was an avid jogger who would carry two-pound weights in each hand.

7. Ken Miles once toilet-trained a cat—then was said to have done the same with a bobcat.

Miles once trained a cat to use the toilet. In addition to being a fun story he shared at parties, it was a fact that emphasized his stubbornness and his willingness to stick with a challenging assignment.

When Miles’s toilet-trained cat died, his friends sent him a wire telling him to go to the airport, where a new cat would be waiting for him. When he went to pick up the crate, Miles discovered that they’d sent him a bobcat. Carroll Shelby said in his biography that Miles was able to toilet train the bobcat as well (though Shelby was known for not letting the truth get in the way of a good story).

8. Ken Miles had a knack for sarcasm.

James T. Crow wrote an obituary for Ken Miles for Road & Track in which he wrote that Miles had "wit and charm like almost no one I’ve ever known. But if he could be elaborately polite, he also had a command of sarcasm that could make your teeth shrink." Crow’s obituary stands as one of the more complete reflections on who Miles was, and also observed that "It was said about [Miles] that he was his own worst enemy and this was undoubtedly true as he could have had almost anything he wanted if he could have been more tactful." Shelby at least was delighted by Miles’s total lack of tact.

9. Ken Miles saw himself as a mechanic first and a driver second.

Though he’s most remembered as a driver, Miles saw himself first and foremost as a mechanic. In A.J Baime’s book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, Miles is quoted as saying “I am a mechanic. That has been the direction of my entire vocational life. Driving is a hobby, a relaxation for me, like golfing is to others.” Miles was hired on as the test driver and competition director for Shelby-American, a position that allowed him to use his mechanical expertise as well as his uncanny driving capability.

10. Ken Miles’s death changed the racing world.

On August 17, 1966, Ken Miles died when the Ford J-car he had been testing for almost an entire day at California's Riverside International Raceway flipped, crashed, and caught on fire, then broke into pieces and ejected Miles, who was killed instantly. But the J-car had been specifically designed to avoid this type of accident, and the damage done to the vehicle made it impossible to determine an exact cause for the crash.

"We really don't know what caused it," Carroll Shelby said. "The car just disintegrated. We have nobody to take his place. Nobody. He was our baseline, our guiding point. He was the backbone of our program. There will never be another Ken Miles."

Though it wasn’t uncommon for race car drivers to die in the 1960s, what was uncommon was the reaction Miles’s friends and family had to his death. Shelby said that it broke his heart when they lost Ken, and Shelby-American withdrew from Le Mans racing after 1967.

If there was a silver lining to Miles's death, it was that additional safety precautions—including a steel tube rollover cage—were implemented into the J-car's design that saved the lives of multiple other drivers, including a young Mario Andretti when he was involved in a similar crash a year later.

Ken Miles's death was a tragedy, for his young son and wife, for his team, and for the entirety of racing. Thanks to Ford v Ferrari though, Ken Miles is finally receiving the attention and recognition that should have been his all along.

11 Fun Facts About Dolly Parton

Brendon Thorne, Getty Images
Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. You won't find Dolly Parton on a Dollywood roller coaster.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. Dolly Parton once entered a Dolly Parton look-alike contest—and lost.


Getty Images

Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. Dolly Parton spent a fortune to recreate her childhood home.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. Dolly Parton won't apologize for Rhinestone.


Getty Images

Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. Dolly Parton is Miley Cyrus's godmother ... sort of.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. Dolly Parton received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
Getty Images

In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBTQ members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted. "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. Dolly Parton started her own "library" to promote literacy, and has given away more than 100 million books.

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. There's a statue of Dolly Parton in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. The cloned sheep Dolly was named after Dolly Parton.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. Dolly Parton turned down an offer from Elvis Presley.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. In 2018, Dolly Parton earned two Guinness World Records.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

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