In the first days, the Romanian forces in Transylvania advanced quickly, coming up against only weak k.u.k. forces. They secured the exits of the Carpathian passes, occupied Braşov (Kronstadt) and Făgăraș (Fogaras) and came within a few kilometers of Sibiu (Hermannstadt) and Sighișoara (Schäßburg). The 9th Army, formed anew from German and Austro-Hungarian formations under the supreme command of the former German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, struck back at the end of September and forced the Romanians out of the occupied territories. Elite units, such as the Alpenkorps, which had already been deployed to Tyrol, Serbia and before Verdun, were present among the German troops. Falkenhayn took away this insight from the Romanian campaign for his memoirs, published in 1920: that the individual opposing soldiers acted bravely, but their leadership hitherto appeared to be hesitant, unsure and operating incoherently. The feared trespass of the Romanians in the direction of the Hungarian lowlands did not come to pass. The Romanian army leadership of 1919 did not want to repeat this error when they confronted the troops of the Hungarian Republic of Councils and advanced to Budapest. But now, in September 1916, the Romanians stumbled into a pincer movement: as early as the end of August, Mackensen’s army group, with Bulgarian, German and Turkish units, had begun an assault in Dobruja, which quickly led to the taking of important positions. The offense was aimed at the harbor city of Constanța and forced the Romanian high command to move forces to and fro. In November, Falkenhayn’s troops succeeded in breaking through the Carpathians into Wallachia along the rivers Jiu (Schil), Olt (Alt) and Argeş (Argisch) against, in places, bitter resistance. At the beginning of December 1916, the capital, Bucharest, fell. The Romanian court and the government fled to Jassy in north Romania. After a withdrawal that had high losses and was, in places, chaotic, Romanian and Russian formations were able to build up a new defense line in Moldavia. Around two thirds of the country was occupied by the Central Powers, the administration accepted, with Mackensen, a German governor. To hinder future use of the oil wells of Ploeşti, English detachments had lit fires.
The Romanian army had, up until then, suffered a loss of nearly 250 000 men to death, injury and imprisonment. Typhus, starvation and cold claimed further victims in the first months of the year of 1917. The mortality rate was also high among Romanian prisoners of war, it still exceeded, in the prisoner of war camps in Austria-Hungary and Germany together with Italians and Serbians, the mortality of the soldiers of the western powers and the tsar’s army. The soldiers of the Central Powers who had ended up in Romanian hands met a bitter fate. In June 1918, the main committee of the German Reichstag addressed their mortality rate, and the figures presented there by a representative of the foreign office experienced heavy criticism, both at the time, as underestimated, and also in the time to come. A documentary about the camp north of Jassy, Sipote, with a mortality rate of over 90 percent among the German prisoners, appeared in 1929 in Munich in its third edition.
In early 1917, there were feverish efforts to reform and augment the hard-hit Romanian army. The French military mission, which had been active since mid-October 1916, grew to include nearly 1200 instructors and other specialized workers – gunners, pilots, technicians and doctors. Its leader, Berthelot, acquired the role of inspector general with direct access to the king. The military mission also instructed on the waging of trench warfare. Weapons and munition came now, first and foremost, from France. They had to be transported through Russia, and in particular through Archangelsk and the new harbor Murmansk. Apart from that, Russia was only half-heartedly involved in the support of the Romanian army, its troops in Moldavia and Dobruja always served its own strategic policies. A Romania that was self-confident and richly remunerated by the Entente for a change of alliance did not lie in the interests of the traditional Russian Balkan policy, which, moreover, had to take into account Greater Romanian ambition toward Bessarabia. It was important to France to secure itself ongoing political and economic influence in the country, it also supported Greater Romania propaganda and the corresponding committees in the Entente countries and the neutral states. The influx of volunteers from the reservoir of Romanian-descended soldiers of the k.u.k. army, which were in Russian imprisonment, remained, to be sure, far short of hopes and propagandistic announcements. Berthelot thought, in May 1917, that ten Romanian divisions were, as far as morale and state of health went, ready for attack within a month. He assessed the state of the Russian troops in north Romania much more skeptically. They were effected by the revolutionary incidents in Petrograd, which also made an impression on the Romanian population. In April 1917, King Ferdinand promised, for the time after the war, comprehensive agriculture reforms in favour of small farmers and agricultural workers, who made up the greatest proportion of his soldiers, as well as reform of voting rights.
After the October revolution, the position of the Romanian army, still belligerent on a frozen front, which the Russian troops then left, became more and more precarious. One day after the beginning of armistice negotiations in Brest-Litowsk, the commander in chief of the Romanian and Russian troops in Romania petitioned the Central Powers for the negotiation of a ceasefire, which led to the signing of the Armistice of Focșani on December 9, 1917. With this, the battles were, largely, terminated. Romania followed, the path towards a peace treaty without the contracting parties of August 1916. After further maneuvering and waiting from Bratianu, an ultimatum from Mackensen on March 5, 1918 forced a pre-peace treaty in Buftea, which was followed by the Treaty of Bucharest on May 7, 1918. This was signed by a new Romanian prime minister, who saw the Central Powers as representatives of German-friendly politics and who had warned against the adventure of entering the war. This treaty, which provided for the surrender of large parts of Dobruja and various Carpathian passes, as well as the use of crude oil deposits by the Central Powers, was, however, never ratified, the king refused his signature. This made the return of Romania to the side of the victors of November 1918 and the reclamation of the surrendered territories with the seal of the Paris suburb contracts of 1919/20 easier.
As in all erstwhile warring nations, the memories of the Great War, the “Marele Război” were, in Romania, persistent, always present companions of the currents of foreign and internal politics in the period between the world wars. Relationships with Germany, France and the Soviet Union formed, in the course of this, a triangle. The neighbors in the west and the south, Hungary and Bulgaria, saw their borders with Romania as wounds that should not scar over. The dramatic changes in the years 1940/41 were already laid out in the decisions of 1919/20.
Hetzer, Gerhard: On the Romanian Campaign of the Central Powers 1916/17 (2015), URL: http://www.mwme.eu/essays/index.html
Dr Gerhard Hetzer is head of the Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv (Bavarian State Archives) in Munich.