The Romanian Campaign, 1916–1917 Part I

Falkenhayn and his staff of the German 9th Army during the Romanian Campaign, World War One, 1916. There are Hungarian hussars on the picture.

At the end of August 1916, Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary, and shortly afterwards found herself at war with all four Central Powers. Since 1914, men had been waiting for this. Romania awaited national unification, and coveted the tracts of Austria-Hungary inhabited by Romanians. So long as the Central Powers appeared invincible, Romania could not risk intervening against them. Her strategic situation was peculiarly vulnerable. But with the great run of Russian victories, her confidence rose. Moreover, by August 1916, the western Powers were prepared to guarantee much more territory than hitherto: the French, in particular, with an eye to the post-war situation, wanted to establish a greater Romania as a bulwark against Russia. On 17th August, a military convention was signed, providing for extensive Entente assistance, financial and military. The twenty or so Romanian divisions would, it was thought, decisively affect the eastern front as a whole. With 366 battalions of infantry, 106 squadrons of cavalry and 1,300 guns (half of them modern) the Romanian army could invade Hungary and turn the Central Powers’ lines to the north.

It is not altogether easy to see why men expected the intervention of small powers to be so decisive. No doubt it was an illusion that—like much else in this war—owed something to misreadings of Napoleonic history. The nationalistic vibrations of Madrid and Lisbon were thought to have shaken the French Empire at its foundations; the Peninsular War to have exposed the ‘soft underbelly’ of Napoleonic Europe. In reality, nationalism had been much less important than the heavy pounding to which the French armies had been subjected in Austria and Russia; and men also forgot that the Peninsular War involved an army that was, by the standards of the time, large and efficient. The Romanian army could not stand comparison. Of its 620,000 soldiers, a third would be taken up in supply-lines, and almost all were illiterate. The officers lacked experience, and were also inclined to panic. All foreigners noted the incidence of what was delicately known as ‘immoralité : indeed among the first prescriptions,, on mobilisation, was a decree that only officers above the rank of major had the right to use make-up. Langlois, not an unfriendly observer, thought the ‘soldat excellent, officier dépourvu de toute moralité militaire, Etat-major et commandement presque nuls’ . British observers felt that the operations of the Romanian army would make a public-school field-day look like the execution of the Schlieffen Plan; while the comments of Russians who had to fight side-by-side with the Romanians were often unprintable. As things turned out, it was the Russians, and not the Central Powers, who suffered from a Romanian ulcer. Almost a third of the Russian army had to be diverted to the south. This did not save Romania. On the contrary, the Central Powers conquered the country easily enough, and, in the next year and a half, removed far more from it than they could have done had it remained neutral: over a million tons of oil, over two million tons of grain, 200,000 tons of timber, 100,000 head of cattle, 200,000 goats and pigs, over and above the quantities requisitioned for maintenance of the armies of occupation. Romanian intervention, in other words, made possible the Germans’ continuation of the war into 1918.

The essential reason for this, as for the halting, overall, of Russian victories, was the Central Powers’ capacity to shift their reserves quickly. In Napoleonic days, sea-power had allowed the British to shift their troops faster than the French, who were dependent on horses. Now, railways gave much the same advantage over sea-power that sea-power had had before over horses. Provided the railways were properly-managed, they could shuttle troops within a few days from Italy to Volhynia, France to the Balkans. It had taken the Germans, in spring 1915, hardly more than a week to assemble their XI Army against the Russian lines at Gorlice, whereas it took the western Powers six weeks to assemble an equivalent force for their assault on the Dardanelles at the same time; and even the Turkish railways were such that the western Powers had to face a superiority to two-to-one within a few days of their landing at Gallipoli. In September 1916, the Central Powers sent 1,500 trains through Hungary—not far short of the number used by Austria-Hungary to mobilise against Russia two years before—and assembled a force equivalent to the entire Romanian army within three weeks of Romania’s intervention. In the First World War, it was the great profusion of reserves that counted for most. Contrary to legend, it was not so much the difficulty, or physical impossibility, of breaking through trench-lines that led to the war’s being such a protracted and bloody affair, but rather the fact that even a badly-defeated army could rely on reserves, moving in by railway. The conscription of whole generations, and particularly the enlarged capacity to supply millions of soldiers, meant that man-power was, to all intents and purposes, inexhaustible: even the total casualties of this war were a small proportion of the available man-power.

The basis of Brusilov’s great successes in June and July 1916 had been the Central Powers’ inadequate use of their reserves. To some degree, this was a consequence of Brusilov’s own methods: a broad-front, well-prepared, many-front offensive between Volhynia and Romania. Local reserves had been frittered away between the various points of attack. In the southern sector, on both sides of the river Dniester, the Central Powers had been particularly embarrassed by Brusilov’s methods. They left troops to cover the Romanian border, as well as troops to cover the Dniester flank of Südarmee, on which their Galician lines depended. Seven Austro-Hungarian divisions, and even a German force, the Karpatenkorps, had been pushed in to defend the Hungarian border and the southern Bukovina: a force contained, as things turned out, by little more than a Russian cavalry corps. The Russians had been able to win further great victories along the Dniester, which had forced a further diversion of German and Austro-Hungarian reserves and thus allowed the Russians in Volhynia to win successes in July. It was of course true that the Russian army, by following Brusilov’s methods, itself dispensed with reserves that might have followed up the victories it won. But the prizes were great enough: by the end of August, the Austro-Hungarian army had lost 614,000 men in the east, and the Germans, by their own account, 150,000.

More important, however, had been the confusion among the Central Powers’ leaders. Ludendorff would not help Falkenhayn, and Falkenhayn would not help Conrad, since each one had his priorities, of which even military disaster produced merely a re-statement. Falkenhayn’s priorities had been in the west: Verdun, then the Somme, preliminary bombardment for which had begun on 24th June. He resented any diversion of troops from France, and demanded that Conrad should give up his Italian offensive first. Conrad was reluctant to do this, because that offensive seemed to promise real success. In this way, only five divisions were sent from the west for most of June, and initially only two and a half from Italy. The divisions were also tired from fighting—in the case of the German divisions, tired from Verdun to the point of virtual uselessness in the field, as the fate of Marwitz’s offensive on the Stokhod showed. At the same time, both Conrad and Falkenhayn appealed to Ludendorff, commanding the greater part of the Germans’ eastern front. But Ludendorff also made out that he could not afford to part with troops, and in June sent only two under-strength divisions to help in Volhynia. He had good excuses. His troops faced twice their numbers, and although Kuropatkin and Evert seldom bothered to attack with any seriousness, the threat was always there. In any case, none of the men in Ludendorff’s headquartersfelt any sympathy with Falkenhayn. Hoffmann thought that ‘the Austrians’ defeat is no doubt deplorable, but that is no reason for us to tear our hair out’. On the contrary, since Falkenhayn had reduced Ludendorff’s sphere of responsibility, the business must be settled by him and Conrad. Maybe, too, Ludendorff secretly calculated that withholding reserves would so embarrass Falkenhayn and Conrad that they would have to let Ludendorff once more control most of the eastern front. Whatever the case, throughout June 1916 the Austro-Hungarian front acquired only a dozen reserve divisions, at that frittered away between the Dniester and the Stokhod. This had allowed Brusilov to win a further set of victories in July.

However, these conditions were not to be repeated. In the first place, the realisation—as distinct from the threat—of allied offensives allowed troops to be made free from the other fronts on a scale that few people had imagined possible. In the west, the Anglo-French offensive on the Somme was effectively contained by half the numbers of men and a third the number of guns that the attacking armies used. Similarly, the Russian offensive at Baranovitchi turned out to be a bungled, ineffective affair that cost the attacker 100,000 men for nothing in particular. On the Italian front, a renewed Isonzo offensive, though leading to the fall of Gorizia in August, did not prevent departure of another four Austro-Hungarian divisions for Russia in July, and more than that later on.

In any case, the divisions among the Central Powers’ leaders were overcome by establishment of an increasingly united command, dominated by Ludendorff. This was the outcome of a crisis inside Germany and Austria-Hungary that owed its existence to much more than military factors. Discontent inside Germany had been building up throughout 1916. Emergence of a large-scale left-wing opposition to the war—the creation of a dissident socialist group, the strikes of spring 1916—prompted demands for a military dictatorship that would at once win the war and control the working-class. The run-down, relative and absolute, of the comfortable middle-class world had now progressed so far, as inflation bit into ‘fixed incomes’, as to drive a large section of propertied Germany to desperate courses, in which the existing, relatively moderate leadership of men like Bethmann Hollweg and Falkenhayn had little place. There were demands for unlimited war-aims, for use of any and every weapon, however barbaric, that could win the war: hence the widespread campaign for resumption of unrestricted U- Boat warfare, the sinking of any ship neutral or not, within the ‘war-zone’ of British and French waters.

Characteristically, this situation drove Bethmann Hollweg and Falkenhayn further apart than ever, as each sought to sacrifice the other for his political life. Falkenhayn tried to pin the blame on Bethmann Hollweg, and picked up the cause of submarine-warfare. Bethmann Hollweg knew in his heart that this weapon would fail. It would provoke the United States into declaring war, and that would be the end of Germany. At the same time, the desperate temper of propertied Germany was now such that a demagogic campaign for U-Boat warfare could sweep Bethmann Hollweg away. He had to try for something equally popular, and hit on the scheme for putting Hindenburg and Ludendorff back in charge of the eastern front. These two men enjoyed a vast, and not wholly deserved, reputation: they were the men who produced newspaper-headlines, and public opinion resented the whittling-down of their power in 1915. By championing them, Bethmann Hollweg could pose as nationalist demagogue. At the same time, he appears to have had secret schemes. He knew, now, that Germany had little chance of winning the war. But to obtain peace, with the atmosphere as it was, would be impossible. It was not just that the Entente’s demands would be impossibly high; it was also that a large and powerful section of German public opinion demanded crushing victory, and resented any whisper to the effect that Germany’s gains could be renounced for the sake of a compromise-settlement. Bethmann Hollweg seems to have supposed that, by putting Ludendorff in Falkenhayn’s place, he could satisfy the nationalists; then he could smuggle peace in through the back door. In this roundabout way, Bethmann Hollweg came to support the ostensibly ‘jusqu’ au-boutiste’ generals, but for the sake of his private limited goals. The tone was altogether that ascribed to Low to Baldwin: ‘If I hadn’t told you I wouldn’t bring you here, you wouldn’t have come.’

Falkenhayn’s position really depended on his having the Kaiser’s confidence, and the confidence of military leaders whom the Kaiser respected. His victories in 1915 had strengthened his position; but defeat at Verdun, and the embarrassments of the summer of 1916, much weakened his hold on power. Above all, the eastern front showed that Falkenhayn’ methods had failed. His relations with the Austro-Hungarian high command were so bad that, in the decisive days of the Dniester collapse, not a single communication between Falkenhayn and Conrad von Hötzendorf was made for several days. Relations with Ludendorff were such that Ludendorff, with forty-four infantry divisions, would do nothing to help: he sent a few battalions in June, and two divisions early in July. The Verdun campaign had to be abandoned. It also became clear that matters in the east would not be settled until Ludendorff somehow got sufficient responsibility to make him part with reserves for the front south of the Pripyat: and from Falkenhayn’s viewpoint, the difficulty was to combine extension of Ludendorff’s responsibility with containment of Ludendorff’s power.

One obvious way was for Falkenhayn to promote schemes by which the whole of the eastern front—including the Austro-Hungarian army—would come under Hindenburg’s command, and then to stir up opposition from the Austro-Hungarians. This method was tried early in July. Ostensibly, it succeeded. Conrad von Hötzendorf produced a litany of grievances against the scheme: German command in the east would make the war one of ‘Germandom against Slavdom’, and would therefore offend the Slavs who made up half of the Austro-Hungarian army; German command would mean that the Habsburg dream of reigning in Poland would be rudely destroyed; it would prevent free movement of troops against the hated Italians; it would prevent a separate peace. Instead, schemes were promoted by which Archduke Friedrich, nominal commander of the Austro-Hungarian army, should nominally take over the whole of the eastern front, with Hindenburg as his chief of staff for the German part. This did not meet an enthusiastic response from Hindenburg. Falkenhayn seemed to have parried the threat: he had ostensibly promoted Hindenburg’s cause, and the Austro-Hungarians had turned out to be the obstacle. But his calculation went wrong. With the disasters of mid-July, indignation in Berlin, Vienna and Budapest rose beyond Falkenhayn’s barriers. Highly-placed Austro-Hungarians—including Andrássy—demanded establishment of a Hindenburg-front; Bethmann Hollweg also demanded it, as did the Kaiser. In the end, Austro-Hungarian resistance gave way. By the end of the month, after a meeting in Pless, a new system of command was adopted, by which Hindenburg ran the eastern front virtually as far as the Dniester. In theory, he accepted orders, as far as the Austro-Hungarian sector was concerned, from Conrad. In practice, this was as meaningless as it had been in the days of Mackensen. The only area still commanded by Conrad was the front of Archduke Karl’s Army Group, on the southern sector of the front; even it had a German chief of staff, Seekt; and an increasing proportion of its troops was German. Later on, the system was extended to take into account other allies. When Romania intervened, the German Kaiser became commander-in-chief of all of the Central Powers’ forces, a device to prevent the Bulgarians from making separate arrangements. At the same time, Falkenhayn was finally dismissed, and replaced by Hindenburg, whose place as Oberbefehlshaber Ost passed to Prince Leopold of Bavaria.

In this way, central control of reserves became increasingly possible, and in August there was little of the confusion that had marked June and July. In June, a dozen divisions, mostly tired, had been sent; but by mid-August the eastern front had received a transfusion equivalent to the entire Austro-Hungarian Galician army of 1914: thirty infantry and three and a half cavalry divisions, of which ten infantry and almost all of the cavalry divisions came from Ludendorff’s front once Ludendorff was made responsible. This transfusion matched what Brusilov was sent: three divisions to mid-June, fifteen more to mid-July, eight more to mid-August. When the Romanians intervened, the Central Powers’ system for pooling reserves worked equally well: the Romanian offensive was stopped in its tracks a mere fortnight after the declaration of war, as all four Central Powers mustered substantial forces against Romania almost at once.

At the same time, the Russians now abandoned the Brusilov method that had brought such remarkable results: they returned to the old system of attacking a narrow front in a predictable way with a huge phalanx. In the first half of July, repetition of Brusilov’s methods had brought, again, great successes. The Central Powers’ salient on the Styr had collapsed; there had been great advances along the Dniester; and even the German Südarmee had been forced back in Galicia. But the Brusilov method could succeed, in the first place, only if new troops were constantly fed to the front. But this would depend on the generosity of the other two army group commanders, who effectively controlled the reserves. As usual, the only way of achieving this turned out to be appointing them to command the offensive. Consequently, Evert was now put in charge of the northern part of Brusilov’s front, and was given responsibility for the offensive of III Army, the Guard Army and VIII Army against the Central Powers’ positions before Kowel. With this, the Brusilov offensive came to an end, since Evert had no faith in Brusilov’s methods. On the contrary, he, with Alexeyev’s blessing, returned to the ‘phalanx’ system: a vast attack on a very narrow front, with so much artillery mustered that nothing living would remain on the enemy side. III Army deployed eighty-six battalions against sixteen, and was to attack on only eight kilometres; the Guard Army deployed ninety-six battalions against twenty-eight and attacked on a front of fourteen kilometres.

Stavka could either renew the Kowel offensive or, particularly after Romania’s intervention, attempt some repetition of the Brusilov successes by attacking virtually everywhere along the line, if need be diverting substantial Russian forces towards the new Romanian front. In practice, Alexeyev opted for the renewal of the Kowel offensive, and continued to place most of the reserve troops with the three armies engaged in this. Later, when that offensive produced huge casualties for no significant return, and when Romania collapsed, this decision was made out to be criminal. It did, certainly, betray much want of imagination. On the other hand, from Stavka’s point of view, it seemed to make sense. The British and French were attacking on the Somme, and Russia must also mount some powerful offensive at a point where the Germans could not afford retreat. A proper offensive would also prevent the Germans from shifting troops against Romania. It was true that the Brusilov methods—a many-front offensive, with long fronts of attack at each of the points—had succeeded in June and July. But they needed extensive preparation, for which there was no time; and in any case the fact that they had succeeded against Austro-Hungarian soldiers damned them in professional soldiers’ eyes, for the Austro-Hungarian army was now thought to have reached such a state that it could be beaten by an army commanded by a rocking-horse: victories won against Austro-Hungarians proved nothing. Now that the Germans had arrived, something serious must be tried. The ‘phalanx’ levelled at Kowel was the only answer to this problem, or so Stavka supposed.

There was a further justification for renewal of the Kowel offensives, which gave them a prima facie case of unfortunate strength. In the offensive of late July, there had been respectable tactical successes. The two Guard Corps had lost heavily towards the end of July, but in doing so they had captured over fifty guns and some enemy bridgeheads on the Stokhod. If the troops could get over the Stokhod marshes into easier country beyond, then they might turn such tactical successes into a strategic victory—the more so as the Central Powers’ defence still depended to some degree on the soldiery of the Austro-Hungarian IV Army which, as Hoffmann said, resembled ‘a mouthful of hyper-sensitive teeth: every time the wind blows, there’s tooth-ache.9 In the fighting of late July, almost a whole Austro-Hungarian division had been captured—12,000 men—with only two guns: a sign that the forces were simply not fighting. Hell, Linsingen’s chief of staff, regarded the whole thing as ‘a powder-barrel’; and Marwitz himself thought that the Russians’ weight was now such that battles before Kowel ‘resemble conditions in the west’. Alexeyev opted for renewed attacks on Kowel, and neglected the chance of winning victory further south. To some degree, he even managed this with Brusilov’s consent.

Offensives against Kowel were mounted on 8th August and at more or less fortnightly intervals for the next three months. The Russian superiority, overall, was two-to-one at least: north of the Pripyat, 852,000 to 371,000 and south of it, 863,000 to 480,000. On the Kowel front, a great local superiority was built up: III Army, the Guard Army and VIII Army had, together, twenty-nine infantry and twelve cavalry divisions to twelve Austro-German infantry divisions. This, rather than the Romanian front, constituted Stavka’s main effort. It was a complete failure. Heavy artillery would be concentrated on a narrow front. But the shell was not particularly effective, since marshy country masked the explosion. The attacking troops had to stumble across marshy country, pitted with shell-holes, and found in the Stokhod marshes an impassable obstacle. Moreover, the tactics used were much like the strategy itself: theoretically the obvious answer, in practice calamitous. Troops advanced in ‘waves’, one after another, and were therefore very vulnerable to heavy rifle-fire, traversing machine-guns, high-explosive shell. The Guard—and especially the Semenovski and Preobrazhenski regiments—attacked seventeen times, with wild courage, and made none but trivial gains, So many Russian corpses lay stinking in no-man’s land that Marwitz, the German commander, was approached with a view to establishing a truce, so that they might be buried. He refused: there could be no better deterrent to future offensives than this forest of rotting corpses. But for Stavka, these tactics seemed to be the obvious answer. It was easy enough for men simply to walk forward from a trench, in a long line; and troops that followed them into the trench would walk forward similarly. Again, a long, thin target was seemingly less vulnerable to artillery-fire than the thick masses which had been the rule for attackers in 1914–15. But at bottom, these tactics reflected the commanders’ opinion of their men. Generals—who had found that it took ten years to make a ‘real’ soldier of the kind of volunteer they had found before the war—could not imagine that the raw recruits of 1916 could perform any manoeuvre but the simplest. If anything complicated were tried, the troops would break down into a useless mob, given to panic. It was easy to have the troops walk forward in a long line, dressing to the left, their officers in front and their sergeant-majors behind, ready to shoot any man who left his place. Commanders therefore neglected tactical innovations—in particular, the principle of fire-and-movement, by which small ‘packets’ of infantrymen, moving forward in bounds, diagonally, from shell-hole to shell-hole, could alternately offer each other cover. These principles were used, first, in the German army, mainly because it suffered from a severe crisis in man-power and had to think of some way by which lives could be saved. Other armies, with a longer ‘purse’, were saved the effort of thinking things out, or of applying doctrines the truth of which they half-suspected. Yet in 1918, the allied victory owed at least as much to tactical innovations as to improvements in weaponry, including tanks.

In these circumstances, the Kowel offensives turned into an expensive folly. The Germans were able to re-form their weak Austro-Hungarian partners, to the extent that the Austro-Hungarian IV Army became infiltrated, even at battalion level, with German troops. Its Austro-Hungarian command became a stage-prop, contemptuously shifted around by one German general after another. The method worked. Czech and Ruthene soldiery did not respond to Austro-Hungarian methods. But the arrival of competent German brigade-staffs, a battery or two of German artillery, and some Prussian sergeant-majors was generally enough to lend the Austro-Hungarian troops a fighting quality they had not shown hitherto—‘corset-staves’, in the current phrase. In August, there was an extension of this method to all parts of the eastern front, and on the Kowel sector there were no more easy Russian victories. Just the same, Alexeyev went ahead, into mid-October. When huge losses were recorded, the commanders reacted as they had always done: there must be more heavy guns, and then everything would be all right. Evert, indeed, learnt so little from Kowel that for 1917 he demanded sixty-seven infantry divisions for a further offensive, with ‘814,364’ rounds of heavy shell, to be used on a front of eighteen kilometres. As ever, when the old formulae failed, generals did not suppose that this was because the formulae were wrong, but because they had not been adequately applied. In the end, Russian soldiers were driven into attack by their own artillery: bombarding the front trenches in which they cowered.

The successes won by the Russian army in August were on parts of the front still subjected to the Brusilov method. XI, VII and IX Armies in eastern Galicia and the Bukovina ‘walked forward’, as before. XI and IX Armies in particular did this to great effect. Brody fell, and Halicz, in the south, as the multiple offensive on a broad front disrupted Austro-German reserves. It was the victories of IX Army that finally prompted Romania to intervene, since Lechitski’s drive almost brought the Russians into Hungary, and hence into occupation of lands coveted by the Romanians. Yet because so many Russian troops were now involved in the Kowel battles, there was almost nothing to back Lechitsky, whose victories were achieved with a mere eleven divisions of infantry (and five of cavalry). By the end of August, his drive had slackened, while the incurable tendency of Shcherbachev and Golovin, of VII Army, to apply French methods meant that Brusilov’s prescriptions were ignored, and the attacks against Südarmee turned into a minor version of Kowel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.