The Tide Turns Against Romania

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 251st installment in the series. 

September 26-29, 1916: The Tide Turns Against Romania 

At first glance the entry of Romania into the First World War on the side of the Allies looked like another disaster for the Central Powers, capping a year of disappointments and setbacks including Verdun, the Brusilov Offensive, and the Somme. With an army 800,000 strong – on paper, at least – and promises of help from the Allies, it seemed like Romania’s declaration of war against Austria-Hungary could be the final nail in the coffin, sealing the fate of the Habsburg realm and with it Germany’s hopes for victory. 

This interval of Allied optimism proved short-lived, however. As the British, French and Russians soon discovered to their dismay, Romania only had enough weapons and equipment to field half a million troops, and its isolated position in Eastern Europe meant there was no way for the Allies to deliver supplies in the quantities necessary to make up the difference. Meanwhile by September 1916 the Russian Brusilov Offensive (whose stunning success over the summer helped convince Romania to join the Allies in the first place) had finally run out of steam, freeing up German and Austrian troops to fend off the Romanian offensive and then launch a counterattack. 

Click to enlarge

After crossing the Carpathian Mountains and briefly occupying Austria-Hungary’s Transylvanian borderlands in early September, the Romanian adventure came to a sudden, sobering end on September 16 with the arrival of Erich von Falkenhayn, until recently the German chief of the general staff, now the commander of the new hybrid Austro-German Ninth Army facing the Romanians in Transylvania. For Falkenhayn, cashiered from the top spot for the failure at Verdun, this field command was a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the German Army and public – and he did so in spectacular fashion. 

Assisting Falkenhayn was another near-legendary German commander, August von Mackensen, who took command of the German-Bulgarian Donauarmee or Danube Army along Romania’s southern border, further divided into eastern and western operational groups (including the Bulgarian Third Army in the east). Together Falkenhayn and Mackensen’s forces effectively encircled Romania, setting the stage for a crushing counteroffensive in the fall of 1916.

The first blow landed almost immediately, with Mackensen’s invasion of the disputed province of Dobruja between the lower Danube River and the Black Sea on September 3, 1916. In short order Mackensen’s hybrid German-Bulgarian forces captured the border town of Silistra, then pushed the unprepared Romanians back almost halfway to Constanta, Romania’s biggest port and a key supply hub. Although the hybrid Russo-Romanian Dobruja Army won a brief reprieve with their victory over the Bulgarian Third Army at the Battle of Cobadin from September 17-19, enforcing a temporary stalemate on the Danube front, they couldn’t prevent Mackensen from capturing the fortress of Turturkai on the Danube on September 26, along with 25,000 prisoners. 

Battle of Hermannstadt 

But all this was only a prelude to the debacle now unfolding to the northwest, where the Germans inflicted a shattering defeat on the Romanian First Army at the Battle of Hermannstadt from September 26-29, 1916. 

The dominant natural feature in this area was the towering Carpathian Mountains, which ran south and west along the Hungarian and Romanian frontiers, forming a natural border between them. In the opening days of their offensive the Romanians had crossed the mountains through a handful of passes to capture the Hungarian borderlands – but this superficial success had dire consequences, as the advance through the passes channeled the Romanian armies away from each other, separated by the intervening mountain ranges. Strung out on the far side of the Carpathians, the Romanian armies were unable to coordinate mutual support, leaving them all exposed to flank attacks and encirclement. 

Falkenhayn took advantage of these disjointed deployments to attack the Romanian armies and destroy them “in detail,” or one at a time, aided by Mackensen’s attacks in the south, which forced the Romanians to weaken their invasion force in Hungary. He first struck the Romanian First Army at Hermannstadt on September 26, in order to clear the enemy from the approaches to the key passes across the Carpathians, including the Turnu Roșu or Red Tower Pass south of Hermannstadt.

Falkenhayn’s Ninth Army included the famous Alpenkorps or Alpine Corps, composed of Prussian and Bavarian “hunters” or woodsmen who were used to mountain conditions and rough terrain. Taking advantage of their high mobility, Falkenhayn sent the Alpenkorps around the Romanian First Army to threaten its supply lines in the rear, while his main infantry force launched a frontal assault against it from the west. 

As German artillery pounded the Romanians from the front, pinning them down  the Alpenkorps crossed the Sibin Mountains (a branch of the Carpathians), slipped around the enemy force to the east and occupied the Red Tower Pass, severing Romanian communications across the Carpathians. Meanwhile Austro-German forces from the neighboring Austro-Hungarian First Army harried the Romanians even further east, making it impossible for the Romanian high command to send reinforcements to the First Army. 

Panicked by the prospect of being cut off and destroyed, the Romanian First Army commander, Ioan Culcer, had no choice but to order a hasty withdrawal, abandoning Hermannstadt and with it the central position in Transylvania. By September 29 the Romanians were in full retreat towards the mountain passes – which they would have to fight to clear (along with forces transferred from other spots, weakening the Romanians along the whole front). One German junior officer recalled the scenes of carnage that followed:

The Romanians repeatedly tried to break out of the encirclement. Upon reaching the pass and finding it blocked, and being exhausted after the strenuous march over the difficult mountain paths, the Romanians were taken over and completely destroyed by the Alpen Corps attacking from their rear. The losses in the Romanian units were terrible. The Alpen Corps had placed a tight grip on the road to the pass. The Romanians repeatedly attempted a breakthrough. German rifles and machine guns reaped a bloody harvest. Those not killed or wounded fell back into the witches cauldron below. The panic which befell the swarming masses was indescribable. Horses, wagons, and artillery still in complete harness ran into the Alt river and disappeared into the depths of the water. Cows and herds of swine were jammed into the narrow pass roads intermingled with troops. 

Worse, the defeat at Hermannstadt set in motion a chain reaction, as the Romanian Second Army had to move south to cover the First Army’s retreat, in order to avoid a collapse of the entire Romanian line. This was a portent of things to come. 

For ordinary German soldiers, the march south to the Carpathians was both exhilarating and intimidating, as it took them through some of the most primitive terrain in Europe, including dark, towering forests. The same junior officer recalled the eerie experience of marching with his unit, by night, through the Transylvanian foothills towards the famed Vulcan Pass, fated to be the scene of a pivotal German victory in October: 

A few minutes later the darkness of the forest had completely enveloped the soldiers. The smell of rot and mold was very strong. You could not see your hand in front of your face. They held on to the person in front either by his bayonet or webbing in order not to lose connection. The soldiers didn’t march on a defined mountain road, but a climbed a wildly overgrown mountain path which had been used by humans maybe once in ten years and then only by daylight…

See the previous installment or all entries.

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER