Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 254th installment in the series.
October 25, 1916: Germans Storm Romanian Passes
Following its invasion of Austria-Hungary in August 1916 the tides of war turned against Romania all too swiftly. With the arrival of the newly-formed German Ninth Army under Erich von Falkenhayn in late September, the combined forces of the Central Powers sent the Romanians reeling back to the mountain passes of the southern Carpathians (also known as the Transylvanian Alps). Meanwhile Bulgarian forces under the German commander August von Mackensen invaded Romania from the south, capturing the chief port, Constanta, by October 22.
Then in late October and November defeat turned to debacle, as Romanian defenses crumbled before the German onslaught, allowing the enemy to pour through the mountain passes into the plains of Wallachia. Although the Romanians managed to halt them temporarily here, this advance set the stage for them to outflank all the Romanian armies to the east, clearing the way for a drive on the capital, Bucharest, in late November. Remarkably all this happened in just a few weeks, and indeed the German storming of the Romanian passes is remembered as one of the most impressive military achievements of the war.
In the right circumstances these high, narrow valleys cutting the Carpathians – from west to east the Vulcan, Szurduk, and Turnu Roşu (Red Tower) – should have been nearly impenetrable, with primitive wagon roads or goat paths broken by rough terrain and dominated by strong defensive positions.
However circumstances were far from right for the Romanians, whose hasty retreat from Hungary left them little time to dig in, and who had scant experience with trench warfare to begin with. Their dire supply situation had hardly improved, due to continuing shortages as well as the general incompetence of Romanian logistics officers. Perhaps worst of all, they were facing elite mountain troops in the German Alpenkorps, supported by superior mountain artillery.
The result was a crushing defeat, although ordinary Romanian soldiers fought bravely and tenaciously, exacting a heavy toll on the attacking Germans (above, Romanian infantry on the march). From October 25-November 15, 1916, the Germans battered the divisions of the Romanian First Army, separated by mountain ranges and thus unable to come to each other’s aid, back through the passes amid rapidly worsening conditions. The Romanians could at least draw cold comfort (literally) from the fact that the harsh weather in the mountains affected the Germans as much as them. One German infantry officer, first lieutenant Erwin Rommel, recalled his company’s nighttime ascent into the Szurdok Pass:
It began to rain as we started to climb without benefit of a guide. The rain grew heavier as night began to fall and it was soon pitch black. The cold rain turned into a cloudburst and soaked us to the skin. Further progress on the steep and rocky slope was impossible, and we bivouacked on either side of the mule path at an altitude of about 4950 feet. In our soaked condition it was impossible to lie down and as it was still raining, all attempts to kindle a fire of dwarf pine failed. We crouched close together, wrapped in blankets and shelter halves and shivered from the cold.
Battling up the narrow passes, the Germans faced Romanian defenders taking cover in forests and behind ridges, from which they frequently attempted ambushes, sometimes with considerable success (below, Romanian soldiers dug in in the snow). However the Germans for their part enjoyed a major advantage in their mountain artillery, which could be brought up with relative speed to lay down withering fire across valleys and over hills.
Another German officer, captain Gerhard Friedrich Dose, remembered a battle where the German mountain artillery proved decisive, wiping out an entire enemy unit in dramatic fashion:
The undergrowth closed behind us as we hurried down the hill as fast as our equipment and the terrain would allow. We went toward where we thought our company was, down into the valley. Behind us someone started shooting but it soon stopped. The noise moved down into the valley. From a favorable position I could see the Romanians far below on the right wing of our front. They began to advance downwards the mountain… A short while later we recognized Romanians in the trees. They had put on German helmets and were firing from behind trees. The branches moving gave away their movements… Suddenly we heard a storm roar through the air, it steadily increased in volume… Rounds flew by and slammed with incredible power in the area of the mountain crest. The roar of the rocks and earth falling back to the ground sounded like galloping cavalry. It must have been a very heavy artillery gun doing the shooting. It was exactly what was needed to destroy the crest. We advanced further and further.
Of course, even relatively small engagements were fateful for the ordinary soldiers doing the fighting, and the prospect of being wounded was even more frightening given the primitive conditions and distance to the nearest casualty clearing stations, all of which meant wounded soldiers might die before they could receive medical care (below, an exhausted German soldier resting in the Red Tower Pass).
For the grievously wounded, who all too often found themselves left behind by comrades during chaotic battles in the passes, there was nothing to do but lie out in the open, exposed to the elements, and wait for the end. Hans Carossa, a medic in the Romanian Army Medical Corps, remembered stumbling across one man in his final moments, and doing what little he could for him:
A Roumanian stretched between two birch trunks lay across my path; I thought he was dead and was stepping over him, when I heard a groan and felt a feeble but perceptible tug at my cloak. Turning around, I looked down on the dying face of a man of about thirty; his eyes were closed, his mouth terribly twisted with pain. His fingers still clutched the fast hem of my cloak. Through a grey cape which covered his breast a slight vapour was rising. R. threw it back; under his torn ribs his lungs and heart lay exposed, the heart beating sluggishly. A number of silver and copper medals of saints, which he had been wearing on a black ribbon round his neck, were driven deep into his flesh, some of them much bent. We covered him up again. The man half-opened his eyes, his lips moved. Simply for the sake of doing something I filled my morphia syringe, and then I saw that this was what he seemed to want: he pushed the cloak aside and tried to stretch out his arm to me in readiness…
Wounded Romanian soldiers lucky enough to be evacuated to the rear for medical care endured conditions that were shocking even by the very low standards of the First World War. Casualty clearing stations were often open to the elements, while hospitals were often little more than hastily renovated sheds. Doctors and surgeons, many of them foreign volunteers, were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of casualties, which included thousands of victims of frostbite as the winter wore on. As in neighboring Serbia and the nearby Salonika front, disease was epidemic, with cholera, dysentery, and typhus killing thousands of soldiers and civilians alike.
In her diary Lady Kennard, an English noblewoman volunteering as a nurse with the Romanian Army, described the struggle to treat an unending flow of wounded amid mounting anxiety about their own circumstances in Bucharest (not assuaged by the belated arrival of an Allied military mission): “The arrival of a French command may still save the capital, but one doubts it, for the passes are obviously falling with incredible rapidity, and the wounded are coming in hundreds. We now have thirty-five cases in each of our wards, planned to hold fifteen. They are packed like herrings, poor wretches, and lying two in a bed.”
These men were lucky, as at least they had beds in a real hospital in the capital; the plight of wounded soldiers being treated out in the countryside, behind the front, was even worse. Yvonne Fitzroy, another British volunteer nurse serving on the southern front where the Romanians were fighting the Bulgarians, described conditions there in early October: “In the Russian Red Cross Hospital next door two and three men were shoved on a single mattress just as they came in, the dead and the living sometimes lying side by side for hours.”
And still the German invaders continued pounding through the northern passes, finally reaching the Wallachian plains by mid-November. Rommel recalled his company’s descent from the valley into more open country, where the fighting continued amid scattered peasant farmhouses and small villages, including a violent, confusing encounter on November 12, 1916:
The fog swirled hither and yon and the visibility varied between a hundred and three hundred feet. Shortly before the head of the column reached the south end of the village, it ran into a close column of advancing Rumanians. In a few seconds we were engaged in a violent fire fight at fifty yards range. Our opening volley was delivered from a standing position and then we hit the dirt and looked for cover from the heavy enemy fire.
The odds looked unfavorable for Rommel’s unit, to say the least, and the Germans were forced into a temporary retreat by fierce Romanian counterattacks, as often happened during this period:
The Rumanians outnumbered us at least ten to one. Rapid fire pinned them down, but a new enemy loomed on both flanks. He was creeping up behind bushes and hedges and firing as he approached. The advance guard was getting into a dangerous situation… I ordered the advance guard to hold the farmhouse for an additional five minutes, and then to retire on the right side of the road through the farms…
However Rommel’s famous levelheadedness, combined with German training and firepower, helped stem the Romanian tide, providing yet another example of the power of machine guns against even vastly superior numbers in the First World War:
Soon Rumanian skirmish lines reappeared in the south and approached our position. They were still over two thousand yards away, I have the signal to fire at will. This stopped the attack cold and we suffered no losses in the ensuing fire fight. The heavy machine guns had many excellent targets. As night fell the enemy retreated… We were sad about the losses in the company which totaled seventeen wounded and three dead… On the Rumanian side hundreds of dead covered the field including a Rumanian divisional commander.
Elsewhere, however, the Germans found themselves bogged down in heavy fighting near the southern mouths of the passes, made even more miserable by heavy winter storms. Dose recalled conditions in the eastern Predeal Pass in mid-November:
Our exhausted troops dug rifle pits and covered them with their shelters but the weight of the snow collapsed them again and again… Numerous soldiers had fingers and toes frozen… The wounded could only be brought down much later because there were so few people available for that purpose. Four people were required per litter. It took almost twelve hours to make the trip.
On the other side, in mid-November Kennard recorded worsening conditions in Bucharest, as thousands of wounded piled up outside the train station:
The men lay on the ground, which was covered with wooden boards. Some shared a mattress with four or five others, the rest lay without even a pillow to their heads… I passed the station, where a trainload of them had just come in. They lay out in the waste ground behind the building, in full sunlight, pitiful in their helplessness. They had no water and no food, just a few cigarettes, and I did not hear one single moan or complaints.
Even more alarming, as the Germans approached from the west Kennard was informed that she should be ready to evacuate the capital at any time: “It sounds impossible, but I was told to-day that we shall probably have to pack up and leave in forty-eight hours’ time, to spend the winter in – well, we don’t know where, but in the snow, anyway!” Later she recorded a social encounter which did little to allay her fears: “A Roumanian general came to tea and said: ‘We shall leave by night.’ I said: ‘Where to?’ He answered: ‘God knows!’ – which was encouraging!”
Meanwhile to the south Mackensen’s drive into Dobruja at the head of the Danube Army sent waves of refugees fleeing into the interior. In late October Fitzroy recorded the classic scenes – now all too familiar from previous mass retreats in Belgium, northern France, Poland and Serbia – of peasant families trudging along with all their belongings:
The whole country is in retreat… Behind we could see the shells exploding, and the sky was alight with the glow of burning villages. On our right a bigger glow showed the fate of Constanza, which fell to-day. The road was indescribably dilapidated, and crammed with refugees, troops, and transport… Ponies and oxens are harnessed into their little springless carts, all their household goods are packed inside, and they are followed by terrified flocks of sheep, pigs, and cattle. The peasants trudge along, going – one wonders where?
French Retake Fort Douaumont
Verdun was supposed to be the place of decision, where Germany would “bleed France white” and end the war. Instead it was simply a charnel house, where the initial German onslaught devolved into a bloody battle of mutual attrition, the attackers suffering almost as many casualties as the defenders.
At the beginning of September 1916 the new German chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg visited Verdun with his collaborator Erich Ludendorff; shocked at what they saw, they immediately called off the offensive. But the tide was already turning, as the French gradually pushed the Germans back a few meters at a time, paying a heavy price to liberate their ruined land. The most humiliating setback for the Germans so far came on October 24, 1916, when the French finally recaptured Fort Douaumont – the strategic key to the battlefield and the object of several earlier failed counter-attacks.
The French were aided by the delivery of two massive new howitzers, the 400-millimeter St. Chamond railway guns, so called because they were mounted on custom designed flatbeds pulled by steam engines – the only practical way to move the 140-ton behemoths. Although this obviously limited their deployment, with a range of ten miles the monstrous artillery pieces could easily drop 1,400-pound high explosive shells on German positions outside Verdun from specially built rail spurs well to the south.
The French offensive also benefited from a huge accumulation of other types of artillery drawn from all over the Western Front, plus a stockpile of 15,000 tons of shells. The French troops in the three frontline divisions had trained for weeks, rehearsing their assault on a full-size reproduction of the position. Last but not least the French commander in charge of the counter-attack, the artillery officer General Robert Nivelle, had new tactics – and a trick up his sleeve.
The counter-attack began on October in typical fashion on October 19, with a punishing bombardment by the “regular” French artillery, which as before seemed to make little impression on Fort Douaumont, but pulverized the German trenches blocking the approaches to the fort (above, the fort before the war; below, on October 10, 1916). As casualties mounted many German units sensibly withdrew to the protection of the fort itself, while the well-hidden German artillery held its fire, waiting for the French infantry attack before revealing its own positions.
On October 22, the French artillery suddenly stopped firing and a huge cheer went up from the French lines, indicating that the French infantry attack was imminent, and the German artillery finally unleashed its own bombardment against the French trenches, supposedly now full of assault troops – but no one was there. In a clever piece of deception, Nivelle had tricked the Germans into giving away the positions of their own artillery, allowing the French guns to target them before the French infantry went over the top (below, French infantry in a trench near Fort Douaumont).
After another day of shelling, during which the French managed to wipe out about half the German artillery positions around Fort Douamount, the Germans were still in firm possession of the fort itself – but now the hammer came down. On October 23 at 12:30 p.m. a massive explosion shook the center of the fort, as the first of the 400-mm shells plunged with remarkable precision into the bowels of the structure, killing 50 patients and medical staff in the infirmary. Ten minutes later brought another shuddering impact, followed by another, and another, as the two railway guns fired in tandem. The fort had finally been breached.
With fires burning inside the fort, the German commander had little choice but to order his men to withdraw on the evening of October 23, leaving it undefended – or rather, almost undefended. In a typical mix-up resulting from virtually nonexistent communication on the battlefield, that evening a German captain in charge of a signaling unit returned to the fort to find it abandoned. With the fires mostly extinguished, showing admirable initiative he hurriedly scraped together whatever troops he could find to hold the fort.
Thus only a handful of ill-equipped defenders were holding the fort when the French attacked on the morning of October 24, 1916, meaning that Fort Douaumont, one of the strongest fortifications in Europe, was hardly defended at all both when it fell to the Germans in February 1916, and then again when the French liberated it exactly eight months later. In fact, ironically the French faced much stiffer resistance from German defenders in trenches and bunkers outside the fort – but once again Nivelle’s tactics delivered a startling success.
Nivelle’s second innovation was the double creeping barrage, in which French artillery laid down a wall of fire just in front of the advancing infantry, shielding them from German counter-attacks, obliterating recently dug German trenches and fortifications, and forcing German defenders to take shelter in deep dugouts while the French advanced. The tactic was particularly effective because it was actually composed of two barrages advancing in sequence: the first by heavy artillery to take out major strongholds, followed by the second by field artillery, to keep German troops pinned down.
As the double creeping barrage scoured the fog-covered battlefield, three French divisions surged forward with a speed that took the demoralized and distraught German defenders by surprise. Taking thousands of prisoners, the French bypassed the few remaining German strongholds, leaving these to the five reserve divisions following close on their heels, while they raced ahead to the abandoned fort looming out of the clouds. One French officer recalled the dramatic scene:
Through my artillery glasses I could count the shell holes. They are all full of water. What a time our men must have had if they went through there! The landscape is not dead. Over there on the slopes of Douaumont earth-colored men are moving about. To the left and to the right they are marching in Indian [single] file. They are advancing, climbing, and gradually getting nearer their objective. As last there is one whose silhouette stands out upon the sky as clearly as if a shadow show. Others are going down a gorge. They are going to be seen. They will be mown down. Don’t show yourself like that. It is crazy… I want to shout. I must have shouted, but I did not hear the sound of my own voice in the noise of bursting shells… Douaumont is ours. The formidable Douaumont, which dominates with its mass, its observation points, the two shores of the Meuse, is again French.
Fort Douaumont, the strategic key to the entire Verdun battlefield, was once again in French hands – or rather, what was left of it. Another French officer described the battered fort, whose upper levels had been largely destroyed, but whose lower levels were still mostly intact, a tribute to superb French pre-war engineering (above, the roof of the fort today):
One can clearly make out the site of ditches whose sides and bottom are in shocking condition; the masonry has almost entirely collapsed, the slopes are destroyed, and the grating of the escarp no longer exist. The wire network is demolished. Some blocks of concrete are still to be found, with fragments of iron stakes, these having formed part of the battlements… All the basement rooms are in perfect condition, except the last one to the east, in which was a store of bombs that has been blown up.
The liberation of Fort Douaumont was hailed across France as the greatest French victory (or as some cynics may have observed, the only victory) since the Miracle on the Marne. In addition to decisively demonstrating the failure of the German offensive at Verdun, the victory had special personal meaning for some of the troops who took part. Masserigne Soumare, a Senegalese soldier in the French Army who took part in the battle, remembered that in a time of endemic racism their success helped change the attitudes of ordinary French people towards black Africans, and no one was prouder than the colonial troops’ white officers (above, Senegalese troops with a banner recognizing their service at Douaumont, a rare honor):
We felt very proud after the attack because the French had tried many times to retake the fort, but finally, we [were the ones] that took it… And when we were leaving the fort, our officers told us not to wash our uniforms even though they were very dirty and covered with mud. But we were told: “Don’t wash your uniforms. Cross the country as you are so that everyone who meets you will know that you made the attack on Fort Douaumont.” And we took the train [and traveled] for three days between Douaumont and St. Raphäel. And in every town we crossed, the French were clapping their hands and shouting: “Vive les tirailleurs sénégalais!”