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Prelude to Blitzkrieg: The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania

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In contrast to the trench-war deadlock on the Western Front, combat in Romania and Transylvania in 1916 foreshadowed the lightning warfare of WWII. When Romania joined the Allies and invaded Transylvania without warning, the Germans responded by unleashing a campaign of bold, rapid infantry movements, with cavalry providing cover or pursuing the crushed foe. Hitting where least expected and advancing before the Romanians could react—even bombing their capital from a Zeppelin soon after war was declared—the Germans and Austrians poured over the formidable Transylvanian Alps onto the plains of Walachia, rolling up the Romanian army from west to east, and driving the shattered remnants into Russia. Prelude to Blitzkrieg tells the story of this largely ignored campaign to determine why it did not devolve into the mud and misery of trench warfare, so ubiquitous elsewhere.

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1 Romania Enters the War

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At 3 PM, 27 August 1916, traffic ceased along the five hundred miles of the Austrian-Romanian border. The change took a while to register with the Austrian guards, because Romanian soldiers initially stopped the flow a dozen miles from their side of the border. The Austrians first noticed things were amiss when scheduled trains failed to appear. They duly reported this troubling development to their headquarters, suspecting and dreading what it probably meant. They did not have long to wait.

At 8:45 PM in Vienna, Ambassador Edgar Mavrocordato (1857–1934) handed Romania’s declaration of war to Count Istvan Burian (1851–1922), the Austrian foreign minister. Mavrocordato knew its contents well; he had kept the document in his safe for several days after it had been hand delivered from Bucharest in a manner befitting a spy novel. Romanian statesmen had long realized that their cherished goal of liberating their kinsmen in Hungarian-ruled Transylvania could be achieved only if the Allies won the world conflict. After reneging on the late King Carol’s pledge to support the Central Powers in the fateful days of July and August 1914, the Romanian government had waited for the opportune moment to enter the war, while its diplomats secured Allied promises to allow Bucharest to annex Romania irredenta, the Austro-Hungarian province of Transylvania. In the late summer of 1916, a combination of Allied military success with a concomitant teetering of the Central Powers and Allied pressure indicated to Romania that the moment when her intervention might tip the balance had arrived. The declaration of war minced no words: “Romania … sees itself forced to place itself at the side of those who would be able to assure the realization of its national unity.”1

 

2 The Central Powers Respond

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The Romanian invasion proved too much for the kaiser, who sacked von Falkenhayn, replacing him with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) and Lieutenant General Erich Ludendorff (1865–1937). After taking over the headquarters of the German High Command at Pless in Silesia on 29 August 1916, Hindenburg sent Ludendorff to the Austrian army headquarters at nearby Teschen to discuss the situation with the Austrian chief of staff, General Conrad von Hötzendorf.

Ludendorff discovered that von Falkenhayn had been at Teschen the day before, going over the crisis with Conrad, reviewing the plans they had made in July. Both chiefs had decided that Arz would have to hold on as best he could in Transylvania until reinforcements arrived. Meanwhile, along the Bulgarian border von Mackensen’s small German-Bulgarian force would stage a feint, threatening Bucharest – which would slow or even stop the Romanian advance in Hungary. Allegedly the two left the decision of where to attack, toward Bucharest or the Dobrogea, with von Mackensen.1 Ludendorff had already decided that the first priority of the new OHL was to establish its authority by regaining the initiative on the Eastern Front, so he was not adverse to taking bold action. Conrad wanted to minimize losses in Transylvania by having von Mackensen cross the Danube and advance at once on Bucharest. Ludendorff instead convinced him that von Mackensen’s army was too weak to head for the enemy capital. Ludendorff argued that if the marshal marched east into the Dobrogea region, the Central Powers could accomplish the same goal – namely, forcing the Romanians to withdraw troops from Transylvania to stop him, which would buy time for the OHL and AOK to send forces to that beleaguered area.2 Reluctantly, Conrad agreed, and von Mackensen received orders to head into the Dobrogea. At the moment, however, stopping the Romanians in Transylvania had top priority, and with the Austrian 1st Army already in the region, it was given that mission. Conrad and Ludendorff agreed to assemble a second army to pursue the Romanians back over the Transylvanian Alps toward Bucharest. The Germans indicated they would provide the army headquarters for this mission.3

 

3 The First Dobrogea Campaign

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Late in the afternoon of 1 September, the commander of the 3rd Bulgarian Army, General Stefan Toshev (1859–1924), advised his superior, German Field Marshal von Mackensen, that his men could not commence crossing the Romanian frontier at midnight as ordered. Just the day before, von Mackensen had gone over everything with Toshev in the latter’s headquarters at Gorne Orechevita, outlining his plans in great detail and emphasizing that success would come only by hitting the Romanians and the Russians in the Dobrogea region before they started to move. The Bulgarian had indicated his understanding. His army, consisting of the 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions, fifty-five artillery batteries, a regiment from the 6th Division, and a cavalry division, totaled almost 100,000 soldiers, or 95 percent of von Mackensen’s forces. The field marshal had only one German battalion, the 1st Battalion of Infantry Regiment 21 (also called the von Borcke Battalion).

Toshev had considerable combat experience. He had served first in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878, then in the Bulgarian-Serbian War of 1885. In the First Balkan War he had led the 1st Infantry (Sofia) Division, whose success resulted in his securing command of the 5th Army against the Serbs in the Second Balkan War. Von Mackensen wanted Toshev to attack the two Romanian bridgehead fortresses of Turtucaia and Silistria simultaneously, but Toshev and his staff, alarmed by intelligence that exaggerated the size of the garrison at Turtucaia, argued in favor of taking the fortresses one by one – starting with Turtucaia, the closest. Reluctantly, von Mackensen agreed, but he left the meeting with the impression that although his subordinate was a highly educated, honorable man, he was “a faint-hearted soldier,” an impression confirmed the next day when Toshev wanted to postpone the advance.1

 

4 Clearing Transylvania

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The officers of the 9th German Army assembled in the swaying dining car of their troop train, racing east across Hungary. Von Falkenhayn, their newly assigned commander, wanted to talk to them about what they were likely to face when they reached their as yet unknown destination in the province of Transylvania. Very few of the officers knew the general personally, but everyone knew him by reputation. For two years he had led the German forces as chief of staff of the Prussian Army, but the Romanian entry into the war had led to his summary dismissal, making him the first German casualty of the campaign, and his command of the army now heading for the Romanian Front begged for an explanation. Speculation about his resurrection undoubtedly fueled many a whispered conversation among the officers and soldiers in the train’s compartments.

When the train arrived in Oppeln, in Silesia, on 15 September, von Falkenhayn, coming from Berlin, joined the group of 37 officers and 240 soldiers. Accompanying the general were the three key assistants he had been allowed to pick: Colonel Hans Hesse (1865–1938), chief of staff; Major Rudolf Frantz, operations officer (1873–?); and Lieutenant Colonel Huebner, quartermaster.1

 

5 The Second Dobrogea Campaign

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Field marshal von mackensen had just walked out of the command post of the Bulgarian 1st Division at Adamclisi when he received the electrifying news that a substantial Romanian force had crossed the Danube near Rjahovo. Earlier that morning he had been at the front in Polucci, where he had seen for the first time the so-called wonder of German engineering, the King Carol Bridge at Cernavoda. The marshal had no time for sight-seeing, however. He had come to supervise preparations for the resumption of his advance across the Cernavoda-Constanta railroad, where it had stalled on 18 September. Bulgarian Crown Prince Boris, serving as von Mackensen’s interpreter and liaison to his Bulgarian allies, personally apprised him of the river crossing, and von Mackensen admitted that initially he did not know what to think of it. Was it a large undertaking of operational significance or just a boldly conceived demonstration? The first represented a serious threat and demanded immediate action; the second would be a nuisance, a situation to be handled in a timely manner, but not something that would prevent his continued movement to the north. What was not in doubt was his belief that, as senior commander in the region, he must adopt the attitude that the crossing was a bluff. Otherwise, the Bulgarians would take the first view and insist on calling off the impending advance.1

 

6 Stalemate in the Mountains

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In one of the rooms in Marienburg Castle, in Feldiora, Generals von Falkenhayn and Goldbach stood at a table, talking and occasionally pointing to a map on the table. Accompanying Goldbach, the commander of the Austrian 71st Division, was Major Rudolf Kiszling, his division’s general staff officer (chief of staff). In the distance, the sounds of battle echoed: artillery, machine-gun, and small-arms firing. The noise came from Brasov, a few miles to the south, where sporadic gunfire met the German units entering the city. Beyond the city, larger battles raged as the Austrians and Germans snaked into the mountains, hoping to cut off the fleeing Romanians before they got to the security of the fortified areas on their side of the border. In the likely event that von Falkenhayn’s exhausted soldiers could not rout the Romanians from their prepared positions, the 9th Army would have to launch a breakout campaign. Von Falkenhayn wanted to discuss this course of action with Goldbach. Before the war, the Austrian had served as chief of staff of the XII Army Corps, garrisoned in Sibiu. Because he knew the area well, the Austrian High Command had sent him back to Transylvania.1

 

7 Moldavia: The Forgotten Front

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In early September the Russians attacked the Austrian 7th Army and the German South Army north of Transylvania, in the Austrian province called the Bucovina. The South Army had been set up by the Germans a year before to stiffen the Austrians. It was a joint army, with more Austrian than German divisions. Both of these Central Power armies came under the control of Army Front Archduke Karl.1 Fortunately for the Central Powers, the Russians neither weighted their offensive nor coordinated it with the Romanian invasion of Transylvania in late August. Instead, the Russians waited ten days after the Romanians attacked before beginning to move. They also diffused their strength by striking at three locations. At the end of the first week in September, they attacked at the Kirlibaba Pass, the key to the vital Borsa highway approach to the Maramures region of what was then northeastern Hungary, and on the left flank of the 7th Army at the Tatar Pass, farther north in Galicia. In addition, west of the 7th Army, the Russians pressed the South Army, which defended the passes leading into northern Hungary.

 

8 The Drive across Walachia

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The soldiers of the 26th Prussian Infantry Regiment with their artillery started marching south toward Romania at 5 AM. The regiment belonged to the 109th Division. The division’s gunners had spent the freezing night bivouacked in the open, just to the east of the Lainici Monastery, the only spot in the Szurduk Pass wide enough to accommodate the horse park for the artillery. The infantry had slept bunched near the end of the pass. At 4 AM the night watch roused everyone, and they started south an hour later. The mounted artillerymen soon overtook the infantry. Confident in their preparation and objectives, the soldiers were singing marching songs as they trudged south. The practice proved infectious; once the following regiments and divisions got under way, they picked up the singing.1

A few miles to the east, separated by a ridge several hundred feet high, were the division’s other two regiments, the 376th and the 2nd Grenadier Guard Regiment. They had gotten under way at the same time. Their mission was to break from the mountains east of Bumbesti and fall on the flank and rear of the Romanian forces blocking the exit from the pass, while the 26th Regiment pushed through from the inside, catching the Romanian defenders in a crossfire. Along the roadway west of Lainici Monastery, the 152nd Regiment (known as the German Order Regiment, in honor of its Teutonic Knight forebears) of the 41st Infantry Division stood poised to punch through the Romanian lines west of Bumbesti. To keep the Romanians in the dark about the main thrust, a regiment from von Kneussl’s 11th Bavarian Division would descend from the snow-covered Vulkan Pass six miles to the west, marching on the village of Schela. The remainder of the Bavarian division was at the northern mouth of the Szurduk Pass, ready to enter once the operation began and the 41st and 109th divisions moved south, making room in the packed defile.2 West of the Vulkan Pass, the Württemberg Mountain Battalion would attack. The battalion had infiltrated to the edge of the Romanian lines, taking the enemy position at Gruba Mare on 7 November. The Romanians tried hard to retake the summit the next day, but Hungarian mountain artillery attached to the Württemberg battalion drove them off, the officer in charge muttering, “Mother Mary, please make this one a direct hit!” with every round fired at the charging Romanians.3

 

9 The Fall of Bucharest and the End of the 1916 Campaign

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Bucharest had no real military value, but its capture would have immense political repercussions. After the blows dealt in the spring of 1916 at Verdun and in the summer by the Russian Brusilov offensive, taking the city would show the Entente and the world that the Central Powers were still in the picture. Von Mackensen had moved up his heavy artillery for bombarding the forts around the city, and the various divisions had made plans to storm their sectors. To escape the clutches of the Central Powers, the Romanian army had left the city in full retreat east, where it met Russian reinforcements. Von Mackensen had sent the 9th Army in pursuit while he planned to take care of the enemy’s capital.

The Romanians declared it an open city as their enemies pressed in. The decision to abandon the capital had been made long before the outcome of the battle at its edge. Meeting at Peris on 24 November, the day following von Mackensen’s crossing of the Danube, cabinet ministers approved moving the cabinet agencies to the provincial capital of Moldavia, Iasi, the second city of Romania. The fighting on the Arges River determined the date of departure, and late in the afternoon of 3 December, officials raced about posting placards announcing “that in the interest of defending the country and of organizing resistance forces, the government is forced to leave the capital and to move to Iasi.”1 Most government agencies and officials were already there.

 

10 Conclusion

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The germans viewed the romanian campaign as an extraordinary triumph and vindication of the annihilation strategy espoused by the new occupants in Pless. Armies from the Central Powers had neutralized Romania in just over four months. The Romanian capital had fallen. The entire province of Walachia was occupied, as was the Dobrogea. The Romanian army was shattered. Although the French military mission under Berthelot had started a thorough training and reconstitution program, only the massive presence of the Russians allowed Romania to remain in the war.

The major awards for the victory went to von Hindenburg and von Mackensen, leaving von Falkenhayn slighted and resentful.1 Von Hindenburg received the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross on 3 December for his direction of the campaign, and the same decoration went to von Mackensen for taking Bucharest.2 Von Falkenhayn did not begrudge the hussar field marshal his medal, admitting that the crossing of the Danube was a nice piece of work. However, he was upset that the OHL and von Hindenburg had received credit for directing the campaign. The 9th Army, he believed, had borne the brunt of the fighting for the duration of the campaign. It had cleared Siebenbürgen, crossed a major mountain range and several major rivers, taken the enemy capital, and destroyed three enemy armies. The main role of the OHL, as von Falkenhayn’s biographer Hans von Zwehl pointed out, was to provide the 9th Army with the means to win – which it did. All the critical choices were made by von Falkenhayn and his staff. He normally made his decisions after briefings by his operations officer and chief of staff. In the daily telephone and telegraph traffic between the staff of the 9th Army and the operations and quartermaster sections of the OHL, von Zwehl claimed, the officers in Pless became aware of the intent of the 9th Army and wrote directives that reflected what von Falkenhayn had already decided to do. This led to an oft-expressed frustration among the staff of the 9th Army: “thus arise historical forgeries; the phone conversations are neither recorded nor placed in the files, only the published orders. The latter can give the impression that the OHL made the decisions.”3 Von Falkenhayn thought that his army had accomplished a great deal: “It is really not an exaggeration, if one were to say that this lengthy forced march [across Walachia] is one of the greatest achievements in military history.”4

 

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