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  • James Houser

December 6, 1916 - The Capture of Bucharest & Romania's WWI

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

December 6, 1916. If you come at the king, you best not miss. After two years, the King of Romania has finally decided to join the Allies in World War I. Instead of the quick victory that he wanted, the Romanian armies have fallen apart like a Jenga tower at the slightest push, and on this date German forces enter the Romanian capital of Bucharest. We’re at the bottom of the barrel: the most incompetent military of World War I.

In late summer of 1916, the Central Powers were beset on all sides by major Allied operations on a colossal scale. World War I had reached its pinnacle of brutality, slaughter and horror. On the Western Front, the French were slogging it out with the Germans at the nightmare of Verdun, and at the Somme the British Expeditionary Force was undergoing its trial by fire through rivers of blood. The only great naval battle of the war, the Battle of Jutland, was fought out during the summer as the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet tried to break the British blockade.

Most troubling of all, the Russians – who had, up to this point in the Great War, experienced mostly failure as a military power – had somehow developed a new method of warfare. General Alexei Brusilov’s offensive in July 1916 had ruptured the Eastern Front, dealing a body blow to the Austro-Hungarian Army and forcing Germany to divert precious resources from Verdun and the Somme to strengthen their crumbling ally. For the Germans, 1916 was crisis after crisis, with little hope of victory on any front. Worse still, the British blockade was beginning to take a serious toll on the German population, and food was about to run terribly short. The “turnip winter” of 1916, when most of Germany’s citizens were forced to subsist on roots and scavenging, would dig deep scars into their national psyche.

I say all of this to make one fact clear: Germany was stretched to the breaking point in 1916. The Austro-Hungarians were nearly useless, and Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire were holding their battlefronts down, but could do little more than that. Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany was basically having to carry the war effort and support all its allies in the meantime, and was nearly tearing apart under the strain. It really seemed like yet another crisis might be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It was at this critical moment that Romania joined the Allies, and the Germans freaked out. But they really shouldn’t have, as it turned out. Because Romania would fail so utterly, so completely, so tragically that its entry into World War I would end up being a net NEGATIVE for the Allied cause. Imagine joining a war, and you fail so badly that you not only don’t contribute to your own side but you end up hurting them by the sheer scale of your failure. That is what Romania did to the Allies.

Romania had sat out the first two years of World War I, basically because they had no dog in this fight. King Carol I was friendly with the Central Powers, while his people leaned towards the Allies. If Romania had a major foreign policy goal, though, it was the acquisition of Transylvania – the missing “third sister” of Romania’s ethnic homelands. The other two were Wallachia – southern Romania, including Bucharest – and Moldavia, the eastern part of the country bordering Russia. These two were already unified in the Kingdom of Romania, but Transylvania was still owned by Austria-Hungary. Though nationalists in Romania wanted their homelands reunified, Carol I was not eager to pick a fight with the Central Powers, especially since his country was isolated and not exactly a heavy hitter.

In 1914, though, Carol died and his nephew Ferdinand I took the throne. Ferdinand was much more aligned with the Allies and the nationalist faction of Romania, and had his eyes on the 2.8 million Romanian residents of Transylvania. Austria-Hungary had performed badly in 1914, and the liberation of Transylvania might be attainable. But always there was Germany, the great land power of Europe, lurking in the background. Especially in 1914 and 1915, the Central Powers were on the upswing, especially against Russia, in Romania was very hesitant to enter the war. It just looked like a bad bet all around. Ferdinand WANTED to join the Allies and take Transylvania back, especially since he would probably never get a better opportunity, but he had to wait for the right moment.

The right moment seemed to have come in August 1916, when Brusilov’s Russian offensive had driven back the Central Powers forces in Ukraine north of the Romanian border. The immense losses of territory and manpower suffered by the Austrians helped to change King Ferdinand’s mind. Now, here, was the perfect time to attack the Central Powers, to join the Allied cause, and reunify Romania. This was the moment for their nation to come together! Romania was encouraged by British money, French military advisors, Russian arms, and even an ultimatum saying that Romania had to declare war “now or never” if they wanted Allied help in the future. It was time for Romania to join the Allies, and with their added pressure on the Central Powers, they might even turn the tide of the war.

On the Central Powers side, Romania’s possible entry into the conflict was dreaded. With almost every German and Austrian division committed somewhere, there were very few troops left for a crisis of this scale, especially as Verdun, the Somme, and the Brusilov Offensive continued to sap their increasingly limited manpower. The economies of both countries were falling apart, there were signs of civilian discontent, and another crisis might do them in. Even with these stormclouds gathering, the German Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn happily told his Kaiser there was nothing to worry about: there was no WAY that Romania would enter the war. It would be a disaster for them!

Falkenhayn was wrong about the first part, but was right about the second; that didn’t save his career. On August 27, 1916, Romania declared war on the Central Powers and invaded Transylvania. Only two days later, Falkenhayn was fired. His failed prediction of Romania’s continued neutrality was only the last straw, and the real issue was his failure to win the Battle of Verdun as well as his political rivalry with the men who succeeding him. Falkenhayn’s relief paved the way for the duumvirate of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the two German generals who had been the most successful on the Eastern Front, to rise to supreme power in Germany.

Hindenburg took Falkenhayn’s place as Chief of the General Staff, while Ludendorff became his hyper-competent sidekick. In practice, these two men would run a military dictatorship of Germany for the remainder of the war. One of their first actions was to give Falkenhayn a new job. As a cruel irony, and as a way of reminding him of the reason for his firing, they appointed him to command the invasion of Romania.

For all the hopes the Allies placed on Romania, and for all the fears the Central Powers had of its possible impact on the war, the Romanian entry into World War I would stand as one of the most terrible foreign policy decisions in human history. It should have been obvious to any observer that Romania, with a badly trained, poorly led, and ill-equipped army with no industrial base to speak of, wasn’t much of a threat to anyone. Even besides its military power, Romania was in an atrocious strategic position, hemmed in on three sides by the Bulgarians to the south and by the Austro-Hungarians to the north and west. They were also some distance from any Allied support, the Russians having very little resources to contribute and Britain and France having no direct rail or sea link to their new ally. In short, they were isolated, weak and almost surrounded – but made the decision to go to war anyway. It would be a costly gambit.

On August 27, Romania stormed over the border into Transylvania with three field armies. Its standing force of almost 400,000 men vastly outnumbered the small Austro-Hungarian forces on the border, which fell back stubbornly. The invading Romanians were greeted by wild cheering from their ethnic brethren, and they were touched by victory disease. Within a few weeks, the Romanians had occupied much of Transylvania and basked in their wonderful accomplishment.

But appearances were deceiving. The Romanian attack had only succeeded because nothing stood in its way. The Romanian Army was untrained and disorganized, so badly armed that many of its divisions didn’t have a single machine gun, with an officer corps so strange and disconnected from military reality that an order had been passed permitting only its senior officers to wear makeup – because that was apparently a problem. It didn’t help things that the Romanian officer corps, a bunch of pampered nobles, treated their soldiers like dirt. The Romanians moved forward with excruciating slowness, hoping for support from the Russians – who had never promised such support, and were alarmed at the startling ineptitude of the Romanian army.

As events would prove, the Romanian military was probably the least competent of ANY power in World War I, and in a conflict that also included the staggering stupidity of Austria-Hungary and freaking Italy, that was pretty damn bad. This was compounded by Romania’s horrible timing, entering the war too late to receive real help from the other Allies and at the very point that Brusilov’s Russian offensive was beginning to stall out. This is like a junior varsity player stumbling into an NFL game. It doesn’t matter if his side is winning or not, because he has just called attention to himself and he is going to get HAMMERED. And get hammered the Romanians did.

See, while the Central Powers had *feared* the emergence of Romania, that didn’t mean they hadn’t *prepared* for it. There were plans sitting on desks in Berlin and Vienna, just in case Romania did decide to blow its top and attack, and when Romania did so those folders got opened and armies swung into motion. It helped that the battles at the Somme and Verdun were in relatively quiet periods, giving the Germans precious breathing space to economize and strip out units wherever they could.

There was still a sizeable German and Bulgarian force keeping an eye on the Allied armies hanging out in Greece, which had been there since the conquest of Serbia. As soon as its general, August von Mackensen, bopped the Allies on the nose to stop them from trying anything, he began to divert troops north to the southern border of Romania. Soon German and Austrian armies were streaming in Romania’s direction from across Europe. These weren’t HUGE armies mind you – the Central Powers did not just have a huge army sitting around doing nothing, or they would have used it by now. No, this was a cobbled-together emergency force from five different fronts that would be patched together to fight the Romanians, and it would be more than enough.

As September wore on, the Romanians continued to celebrate their “victory” in Transylvania by – doing nothing. Not preparing for a counterattack, not digging trenches, not continuing the advance, just doing jack and shit in that order. While the Romanian soldiers were busy getting drunk and hitting on Transylvanian girls, Falkenhayn and Mackensen were forming their plans. Falkenhayn would take command of the German 9th Army, which would form up in Transylvania to confront the main Romanian force, while Mackensen’s Danube Army of Bulgarian and German troops would strike the poorly defended southern front. Between them, they would squeeze Romania like a kid squeezing a bug between his fingers.

The German campaign in Romania has been called many things, including a “proto-blitzkrieg.” Falkenhayn urged his troops to exercise “speed and relentless attack,” finding and exploiting Romanian weaknesses. Among the many young officers who learned his method of warfare in Romania was Captain Erwin Rommel, an infantry officer leading mountain troops into Transylvania. Indeed, the German attack on Romania was a masterpiece of improvised operational art, a strategic coup of the highest order that would be looked at later as a formative moment for World War II’s blitzkrieg tactics – but let’s not get carried away. Again, it was like the NFL versus junior varsity: yeah, you’re winning, but look at the competition.

The first signs of trouble came when Mackensen sent a small German force to threaten a major Romanian fortress on the Danube. The commander of Turtukai, whose force was much larger than the German unit, proudly proclaimed that “This will be our Verdun.” As soon as the smaller German force attacked, though, 80% of the Romanian garrison surrendered and the rest fled. Three Romanian divisions had evaporated, and the Germans had barely said “Boo.” Mackensen shrugged and crossed the Danube into Romanian territory. Alright, this is going to be cake.

As Falkenhayn and Mackensen’s German, Austro-Hungarian, and Bulgarian troops advanced, they just steamrollered the Romanians. Even the Ottomans got in on the action by sending two divisions, giving Romania the dubious distinction of being the only country to be conquered by all four Central Powers. The Romanian units fell apart at the barest gesture. Russia had to send troops south to keep the Romanians from completely falling apart, and their officers were disgusted by what they saw. Romanian units, in their panic and ineptitude, attempted one some occasions to surrender to the unamused Russians. When the Russian commander was ordered to defend Romania, he replied that trying to get the Romanians to fight was like trying to get a donkey to dance.

At the same time, Falkenhayn was smashing through Transylvania with alarming speed and rapidity, especially by Great War standards. He forced the Romanians back to their border, where they fell back to defend the passes over the Carpathians. Winter was approaching, and in Eastern Europe the snows are particularly bitter and ruthless; Falkenhayn knew that he had to strike quickly and breach the mountain passes, or he would be unable to link up with Mackensen and complete the destruction of Romania before year’s end. If Romania was not overrun, it could manage to recover and Russian troops could keep it alive for another terrible year. It would remain a thorn in the side of the Central Powers if this occurred. Falkenhayn drove his troops on, hoping to gain victory before the snows came.

The Germans moved out, with Rommel’s company of mountain troops penetrating deep into the Romanian interior. The Romanian supply system, or what passed for one, had utterly collapsed and their units were out of ammunition. Just ahead of the winter snows, Falkenhayn forced his way through four mountain passes against a lackluster Romanian resistance. Advancing with mounting excitement through the first flurries of snow, the Imperial German troops struck out into the plain of Wallachia from the north just as Mackensen’s veterans were crossing the Danube to the south.

The Romanian commander tried and failed to divide his forces and strike simultaneously at both German-led armies, but his plan was far too complicated for the broken instrument he wielded. The Allied powers tried their best to intervene and save Romania, but even if they’d had the resources to spare, they had no way of delivering them in time. The British, French and Serbians tried to launch a breakout on the Greek front but were stopped dead at the Battle of Monastir. The Russians had already committed troops, but these were not enough to stop the complete breakdown of the Romanian Army.

The Russian problem, though, was much greater than it appeared. The Russian high command was suddenly aware that Romania’s imminent collapse would pose a major threat to Russia itself, since Romania had a long border with Russia that would now need to be defended. Brusilov, who had been having some success with his new major attack in Ukraine, had to call off his massive offensive and divert troops south to shore up the disintegrating Romanian Front. This would prevent a German invasion of Russia from the south, but at the cost of cancelling Brusilov’s successful attack – maybe Russia’s last chance at a major victory in World War I. Romania’s failure was already more of a disaster than a boon to the Allies, and it would only get worse.

As December dawned, Falkenhayn’s and Mackensen’s armies finally joined hands in a massive victory at the Battle of Arges. On December 6, Falkenhayn’s cavalry forces entered the Romanian capital of Bucharest, a worthy capstone to an energetic and decisive campaign of conquest. The remnants of the Romanian army fled to the Russian defenses arrayed to the north, where they continued to hold a sliver of Romanian territory along the border of Moldavia.

It was a disaster on a scale that has rarely been seen in modern history. The Romanian Army had lost 310,000 men in the four months since they had declared war, almost three quarters of their entire field army, and half of those had been taken prisoner – a measure of the utter absence of morale with which they had STARTED the war. On top of that, they had lost almost their whole country. While the oil wells at Ploiesti had been sabotaged by British engineers before the evacuation, this precious resource – the only major source of oil in Europe – was soon up and running again.

The Central Powers had only lost about 60,000 men, but they had gained far more. With their economies on the brink of collapse, the capture of Romania’s mineral and material resources provided a shot in the arm to Germany and Austria-Hungary. They had been on the precipice in August 1916, but by capturing Romania almost intact and with little loss they essentially gained an extra life. For the remainder of the war, the Central Powers mercilessly exploited occupied Romania, gaining two million tons of grain, one million tons of oil, and countless other resources from the conquered state. The Romanian resources went a long way towards keeping Germany in the war.

So Romania’s entry into World War I wasn’t just a disaster for them – their army was destroyed and their country overrun – but also for the Allies as a whole. Russia now had to defend two hundred miles of frontline that they hadn’t had to worry about a few months ago, and had to nursemaid the remnants of an army that was unmotivated *at best.* Just as tellingly, the German exploitation of Romanian resources saved its economy and civilian morale from total collapse just as the British blockade was beginning to have its greatest effect. Finally, after a year of disappointments and failures and long casualty lists, the 1916 victory in Romania gave the Central Powers a major morale boost when they most needed it. Yeah, the Somme and Verdun and the Brusilov Offensive sucked, but by God we can still beat up this junior varsity kid when we need to.

Romania’s army continued to serve alongside the Russians, but when Russia collapsed into revolution in 1918, Romania was forced to sign a truce with the Central Powers in May 1918. King Ferdinand held out hope, though, and when the Central Powers began to fall apart under Allied pressure in the last weeks of the war, the Romanians grandly “re-entered” World War I literally a day before the Armistice of November 11. And after all that, they DID manage to get Transylvania after the war, forming the general boundary of Romania that we all vaguely remember from 10th Grade geography.

Romania had done no good for the Allies – had, in fact, actively hurt them – but in the end they still got what they wanted out of the war, after one of the most miserable military performances in modern times. Goes to show it’s not what you know, but who you know.

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