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Romania Joins Allies, Fall Of Falkenhayn

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 248th installment in the series. 

August 27-29, 1916: Romania Joins Allies, Fall Of Falkenhayn 

By the late summer of 1916, it looked like the tides of war had shifted decisively in favor of the Allies. The German offensive against Verdun had been thwarted and was now being slowly rolled back; the Allied offensive at the Somme was grinding forward, sucking in more and more German divisions (contributing to the failure at Verdun); the Italians had scored their biggest, or indeed only, victory to date at the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo; and most dramatically, the Russians had achieved a massive breakthrough on the Eastern Front with the Brusilov Offensive, shattering entire Austro-Hungarian armies and forcing the Germans to pull even more troops from the Western Front to shore up their beleaguered ally. 

Things were about to get even worse for the Central Powers – or so it seemed – as Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and launched an invasion of her erstwhile Triple Alliance partner on August 27, 1916. Like Italy and Serbia, Romania’s antagonism against the Habsburg realm was fueled by her nationalist aspirations to “redeem” its ethnic Romanian population by breaking up the Dual Monarchy and uniting them with a new, expanded Kingdom of Romania. After months of indecision, with the war apparently turning against the Central Powers Romania’s government – fearing they might miss out on the division of spoils – finally threw its lot in with the Allies in a secret military convention signed in July 1916. 

On August 28, 1916, Romanian Prime Minister Ion Bratianu delivered a declaration of war to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador, citing the Central Powers’ evident ambition to redraw the map of the Balkan Peninsula and Eastern Europe and Austria-Hungary’s long mistreatment of its ethnic Romanian population as justifications for this intervention: 

Today we are confronted by a situation de facto threatening great territorial transformations and political changes of a nature constituting a grave menace to the future of Rumania… For a period of thirty years the Rumanians of Austria-Hungary not only never saw a reform introduced, but, instead, were treated as an inferior race and condemned to suffer the oppression of a foreign element which constitutes only a minority amid the diverse nationalities constituting the Austro-Hungarian States… Rumania, from a desire to hasten the end of the conflict and to safeguard her racial interests, sees herself forced to enter into line by the side of those who are able to assure her realization of her national unity.  For these reasons Rumania considers herself, from this moment, in a state of war with Austria-Hungary.

On paper Romania was a formidable force, with an army of 800,000 men – but there was only enough equipment for about 550,000 of these, and many had received scarcely any training, while their officers had no experience with the grim realities of modern trench warfare. True, the Allies promised to supply Romania with weapons, ammunition and other necessities, but the only route left open to the isolated eastern Balkan nation lay through some of the most primitive parts of Europe, in what is now Moldova. Russia was also supposed to send an army to Romania’s aid, but by the time this improvised force made it to the combat zone the situation was already desperate; just as importantly, the Brusilov Offensive had finally ground to a halt, thanks in part to the arrival of German reinforcements. 

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On the other side, the Habsburg Army was indeed stretched to the breaking point, leaving Hungary’s vast Transylvanian hinterland more or less unprotected – but Austria-Hungary’s powerful partner Germany was hardly going to sit by and let her only ally be dismembered by a second-tier Balkan state. And Germany wasn’t the only one Romania had to worry about: Bulgaria was still nursing a major grudge over Romania’s “stab in the back” in the Second Balkan War of 1913, when the Romanians seized the Danube province of Dobruja while Bulgaria was embroiled in a disastrous struggle (admittedly, almost entirely her own fault) with Serbia, Greece, and Turkey.

Despite all this the Romanians made considerable progress at first, benefiting from Austria-Hungary’s inability to mount a concerted defense against the three invading Romanian armies (a fourth Romanian army stood guard against the Bulgarians in the south). The invaders received support from sympathetic Romanian peasants as well, and by September 1, 1916 they had occupied a number of key towns along the Hungarian frontier, including Kronstadt, Petroseni, Kezdiasarhely, Brasov, and Sibiu. But the Romanian honeymoon would be short-lived. 

The Fall of Falkenhayn 

On August 28-29, 1916, the First World War claimed yet another political casualty: this time it was the turn of the cold, imperious chief of the German general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn. 

A relatively junior officer when he was promoted to the top spot following Helmuth von Moltke’s nervous breakdown at the beginning of the war, Falkenhayn owed his quick ascent to the personal favor of Kaiser Wilhelm II, which also helped protect him from his growing army of critics in the senior echelons of the German Army – for a time. 

But by the second half of 1916 multiple mistakes and miscalculations were finally catching up with him. The most glaring was the debacle at Verdun, which Falkenhayn had planned to be a carefully calibrated battle of attrition to bleed France white – but which quickly spun out of control, as German field commanders pressed forward regardless of casualties, resulting in almost as many German losses as French. Falkenhayn also paid the price for failing to anticipate the size and intensity of the British onslaught at the Somme, and for discounting Russia’s continued war-making ability, demonstrated in the Brusilov Offensive. Romania’s decision to join the Allies was the last straw – the German Army needed new leadership.

Falkenhayn’s successor, announced on August 29, 1916, would be none other than Paul von Hindenburg, assisted as always by his brilliant younger aide de camp Erich Ludendorff, who had become national heroes with the victory at Tannenberg in August 1914 and earned more plaudits for the Central Powers’ victorious campaign on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1915. As “Easterners,” Hindenburg and Ludendorff believed that the Central Powers should try to achieve victory by knocking Russia out of the war, while assuming a defensive posture on the Western Front – foreshadowing another major change in German strategy in 1917. 

For his part Falkenhayn would have a successful “second act” as commander of the Central Powers counterattack against Romania, earning praise for his skillful handling of the hybrid force composed of German, Habsburg and Bulgarian armies (along with his subordinate August von Mackensen, who had previously orchestrated the successful assault on Serbia in the fall of 1915).

See the previous installment or all entries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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