Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 259th installment in the series.
DECEMBER 6-7, 1916: FALL OF BUCHAREST, LLOYD GEORGE TO PM
Following the German Ninth Army’s storming of the southern Carpathian mountain passes in October-November 1916, outflanking the Romanian armies to the east, the country’s defeat was only a matter of time – and not much, as it turned out. Indeed Romania’s collapse came with remarkable speed as the dismal year closed out, yielding another big victory for the Central Powers and making the end of the war look further away than ever.
The autumn of 1916 saw the tides of war turn sharply against Romania, after it unwisely threw in its lot with the Allies in August: as General Falkenhayn’s Ninth Army poured in from the north, the Danube Army under August von Mackensen (commanding mostly Bulgarian and Turkish troops divided into two army detachments, East and West) attacked from the south, driving back the Bulgarian Third Army as well as belated reinforcements from the Russian Dobruja Army.
By early December the Central Powers were closing in on Bucharest, with Falkenhayn’s Ninth Army and Mackensen’s Danube Army converging on the Romanian capital from the west and south, respectively. The Romanian First Army launched one final, desperate counterattack in an attempt to cut the tightening noose at the Battle of the Argeș River from December 1-3, 1916, but were ultimately undone by the absence of reserves at the critical moment (as well as the Russians’ refusal to join the assault). This brave but futile effort barely delayed the advancing Central Powers forces at a cost of 60,000 Romanian casualties, including dead, wounded, and injured.
The approach of Mackensen’s Bulgarians to the outskirts of the Romanian capital replayed scenes now all too common from the war, with yet another panicked mass evacuation from a big European city, adding Bucharest to the list that already included Brussels, Antwerp, Warsaw, and Belgrade, among many others (top, German troops occupying Bucharest; below, German cavalry enter the city).
One eyewitness, Lady Kennard, a British noblewoman volunteering as a nurse with the Romanian Army, described the chaotic scene in Bucharest’s central station, where a train had been designated to evacuate foreign citizens to Jassy (Iași) in northeast Romania, with the unfortunate omission of an engine to pull it:
At the station we found a seething crowd and a strain standing, into which all Bucarest was trying to get… We found the station-master and told him that we were foreigners, and he led us through dark passages (by this time it was six o’clock) to a distant platform, where we found a long line of carriages, engineless, dark and locked. Apparently no notice had been received that foreigners and diplomats were really leaving.
An engine was finally located and the carriages unlocked, but their ordeal was just beginning. Kennard recalled conditions that, if not quite as bad as those experienced by troops in the battlefield, were still very trying by civilian standards:
The key arrived and we surged in, a seething mass of people, moving in waves. The doors were banged on the coat-tails of the last man in, and the train started before we had even formed a proper queue in the passage. Most of the women were offered seats, the rest of the passengers stood or lay on the floor amongst the baggage; there was no water, there was no light, there was no food… One man had bought a string of sausages during those last frantic minutes at the Bucarest station, and a Russian officer produced some bread and a little chocolate. This is all the food that fourteen peopled shared for twenty hours!
With the ragged Romanian First Army beating a hasty retreat to the northeast as well, on December 6, 1916 Bucharest fell to German troops after scattered fighting, beginning two years of occupation and hardship for its residents. Of course the situation was little better for those who fled, with thousands of civilian refugees starving or dying of disease amid the chaotic retreat. Worse, the survivors were crammed into the remaining unconquered provinces of the kingdom’s rural northeast, a backwards region with primitive infrastructure and inadequate housing.
Romania’s Queen Marie, who lost her infant son to disease just as the final retreat began, remembered the horror of these months:
Those who have never seen them have no notion of what Rumanian roads can become in winter, of how difficult is all circulation, how communication becomes an effort almost beyond human strength – and this winter was a winter of terrible snow and frost. Part of our army had to be quartered in small, miserable villages, cut off from everything, buried in snow, transports were almost impossible, untold of hardships had to be borne… Food was scarce, hardly any wood for heating, soap was a thing almost not to be found, linen was a luxury of better days – illness in every form broke out amongst the soldiers and many died before we could give sufficient aid!
As with any hastily improvised movement of masses of people, accidents happened – with gruesome results. Later in December Lady Kennard described the fate of a train full of refugees that plunged off the rails:
Last night we visited at sunset such a scene of horror as can never, and should never, be described. A train from Bucarest – the last to start… – collided and derailed… No one knows how many hundreds died there by the roadside, some in the flames of the engine’s exploded petrol tank, the greater number crushed into one huge formless mass of flesh and horse-hair, splintered bones and wood.
Kennard added that this was just the final horror endured by the hapless refugees:
The train had started from the capital three whole days before. Family groups clustered on the roofs of carriages… Many died prematurely from exposure, and the few survivors from the final tragedy told nightmare stories of children’s corpses brushed past the carriage windows when the train swept under bridges whose height no one had had the though to measure mentally before they braved the roof.
As Romania’s armies collapsed, Romanian and Allied officials scrambled to deny the country’s wealth of natural resources to the enemy – especially its supplies of petroleum, the largest in Europe (outside Russia’s Caucasus region), which were critical as a source of both fuel and industrial lubricants. Conscious of the growing food shortages afflicting the Central Powers, they also worked to destroy huge quantities of wheat and other grain.
The project of wrecking the Romanian oilfields was organized by a British engineer and member of Parliament, Colonel John Norton-Griffiths, who traveled to Romania and led a team of foreigners and locals in a desperate campaign of large-scale industrial sabotage. Using techniques like filling wells with cement and setting them on fire, Norton-Griffiths and his men managed to destroy 70 refineries and 800,000 tons of oil, or roughly 3.5 million barrels (below, oil wells burning). However with typical efficiency the Germans were able to return many of the wells to service within six months.
The wrecking campaign, unfolding amidst the chaos of a general retreat and mass refugee movements, certainly made for some spectacular scenes. Yvonne Fitzroy, volunteering with a group of Scottish nurses in Romania, recalled the sights as they fled a burning town in eastern Romania in her diary entry on December 8, 1916:
As soon as carriage was past, we got the door open again. The horizon was in a blaze, oil-tanks, granaries, strawstacks, everything burnable was set light to. It was very terrible and very beautiful. Peasants, men, women, and children were running alongside the train in a panic, trying to clamber into the already overcrowded trucks, others had given up the struggle, and collapsed by the side of the line, or had settled down into that familiar dogged tramp with the blazing sky behind them.
LLOYD GEORGE REPLACES ASQUITH
Meanwhile December 7, 1916 saw the Great War claim yet another political casualty, as British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who had presided over Britain’s entry into the conflict, resigned amid growing criticism of his handling of the war effort. He was replaced by David Lloyd, the Welsh Radical who had previously served as Secretary of State for War, and before that Minister of Munitions (below).
Lloyd George had first joined the government as Minister of Munitions in the spring of 1915, when Asquith was forced to reshuffle his cabinet and form a coalition government by the “shell crisis,” a scandal involving ammunition shortages in the early part of the war. Lloyd George’s energetic maneuvering subsequently helped depose Sir John French, replaced by Douglas Haig as commander of the British Expeditionary Force, and sideline Secretary of State Lord Kitchener (whom Lloyd George succeeded after his death in June 1916).
By now however the fiery Welshman had come to view Asquith himself as the main obstacle to the successful prosecution of the war – in large part because the Prime Minister was more given to plodding deliberation, preferring to adjudicate disputes between rival factions rather than take a position himself. This approach was reflected in the unwieldy War Committee, a special group intended to take executive control of the war effort, which had however ballooned from its original three members to sometimes over a dozen participants, and tended to defer more decisions than it made.
Beginning in November 1916 Lloyd George engineered the overthrow of Asquith with help from political allies including the Unionists (who advocated Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom) Bonar Law and Edward Carson, as well as Law’s ambitious young protégé Max Aitken. In the end it was a palace coup, revealed to a mostly unsuspecting public when On December 7, 1916, King George V asked Lloyd George to form a new government.
Lloyd George would see the British war effort through to the end, and played a major role in crafting the punitive Treaty of Versailles, which many historians believe set the stage for the Second World War. In the short term, however, his appointment was viewed as another indication that the war was destroying the old political order – and there was no end in sight. One ordinary soldier, Edwin Abbey, an American volunteering with the Canadian Army in France, wrote in a letter to his mother on December 10, 1916:
We have a tendency, I think, to be too optimistic and too comfortable and sure of things. That is especially so in England. As a matter of fact, though we shall win in the end, there is struggle and bitterness ahead for us all. I think the new English Premier will be a great advantage to us. Every one has been inspired with his ability to get ahead with things. The crying need everywhere to-day is for leaders, and they are pitifully few.