Romania and the Great War

Romania, a secret member of the Triple Alliance since 1883, rejected the request of its allies in August 1914 to join them in the war against Russia.  Deep seated hostility over the treatment of nearly three million ethnic Romanians in Hungary excluded fighting to defend Austria-Hungary. Instead, the Romanian government, dominated by Premier Ion I. C. Brătianu, planned to use the war to take a critical step toward the achievement of Romanian national unity, the annexation of Transylvania and other provinces of the Dual Monarchy.    During two years of calculated neutrality, while placating the Central Powers, Brătianu conducted intermittent negotiations with the Entente Powers for a treaty of alliance promising diplomatic and military support for these war aims. In the summer of 1916 when he realized his vacillation had exhausted their patience and when the situation on the battlefield, especially the Brusilov Offensive, appeared to offer a chance of military success, he closed the deal. On 28 August 1916 the Romanian Army invaded Transylvania.

Entering the war involved considerable risk for Romania.  The nation’s territory was already surrounded on three sides by the Central Powers.Its army, although more than half a million strong, was inadequately trained, poorly armed, and lacked the two years of battlefield experience possessed by its enemies.  Its war plan, based on political premises, called for an inflexible defense of the secondary front against Bulgaria at the expense of the primary offensive against Austria-Hungary.

Initially, three Romanian armies in the north crossed the Carpathians and easily penetrated the virtually undefended region of Transylvania. But to the south in Dobrogea, success by Bulgarian-German forces under the command of General August von Mackensen , especially their capture of Turtucaia (6 September), unnerved the Romanian High Command. The latter slowed and then aborted the successful operations in Transylvania before the strategically important line of the Mureş River was reached and transferred several divisions to the south. There an ill-advised counteroffensive was attempted but also quickly aborted.  This erratic behavior gave time for the German and Austrian commands to send powerful reinforcements into Transylvania. By the end of September, an offensive by a new German 9th Army led by General Erich von Falkenhayn had pushed the Romanian armies back to the Carpathian frontier.

The transfer of Romanian divisions back from the south and, especially, the sacrificial resistance by Romania’s peasant soldiers in the mountain passes, blocked the enemy advance into Wallachia during October and November.  Meanwhile, Mackensen’s German-Bulgarian forces, now aided by two Turkish divisions, were conquering the remainder of Dobrogea. The Russian expeditionary force sent to assist in its defense as promised in the treaty of alliance was below strength and ineffective in halting the enemy.  The same was true of the promised French-English supporting offensive launched against Bulgaria from Salonika. In the north, by the end of November, Falkenhayn had succeeded in penetrating the Carpathians. Assisted by an assault crossing of the Danube by Mackensen’s forces, the German 9th Army overran Wallachia, crushed a disorganized Romanian counterattack, and occupied Bucharest (6 December). The Romanian Army, suffering catastrophic losses, retreated eastward into Moldavia.

Only now, with the enemy advance threatening the left wing of its own front, did the Russian command respond decisively to repeated and frantic Romanian appeals for greater assistance.  Eventually, more than thirty Russian divisions were committed to stopping the enemy advance. Organized as the Russian 4th, 6th, and 9th Armies, they  took over all but a small portion of the frontlines which now ran along the Eastern Carpathians and the Siret River.  Less than 100,000 Romanian troops (manning only forty kilometers of a nearly 400 kilometer front) remained in the line. Having committed such a large number of forces, the Russian command naturally insisted on greater control of operations.  Although Romanian King Ferdinand was allowed to remain as titular commander of a reorganized Romanian Front, he accepted a Russian chief of staff.  The appearance of Russian forces, severe winter weather, and priorities elsewhere convinced the German command to suspend offensive operations until the summer of 1917.

The Romanian campaign of 1916 had serious consequences for all of the belligerent states.  Romania, itself, suffered over 200,000 military casualties and two thirds of the country fell under a harsh occupation regime. The Central Powers had to divert substantial forces needed on other fronts. Their casualties, too, were not insignificant. Dead and wounded for the Germans alone approached  60,000. Furthermore, this easy victory encouraged the German High Command to believe that the military situation has changed so significantly that the war could be prosecuted without restriction, including the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.The Allied Powers, on the other hand, experienced “buyer’s remorse”.  Instead of tilting the war in their favor, Romania’s entry into the war added new obligations.  Russia, upon whom much of the burden fell, was forced to defend a new front which previously had been shielded by a neutral Romania. The Romanian fiasco served as a catalyst in the growing discontent with the Tsar’s government.  The Western Allies regretted the promises made to Romania which now tied their hands in any future peace negotiations.

Under the shield of the Russian army and aided by the arrival of a large French military mission headed by General Henri Berthelot, the Romanian Army was rebuilt. Soldiers and officers were trained in new skills developed on the Western Front and rearmed with modern weapons, especially artillery. By summer,they stood on more equal ground with their enemies.  An important side effect was a remarkable elevation of morale from the depression accompanying the defeat of 1916. The renewed  Romanian army was eager to redeem itself by participating in the Russian offensive scheduled for the summer of 1917.  Plans were developed for two Romanian armies, with the cooperation of some Russian forces, to take the offensive against their Austro-German enemies. But the prospects of this operation were clouded by the consequences of the March Revolution in St, Petersburg. As elsewhere on the Eastern Front, disregard of discipline, pacifism, and fraternization with the enemy spread widely among Russian soldiers. Few were eager to attack and some even unwilling to defend.

Nevertheless, Russo-Romanian forces, led by the Romanian 2nd Army,  opened operations on 24 July 1917 with a vigorous attack on units of the Austrian 1st Army at Mărăşti. Their enemies were thrown into a headlong retreat.  However, the next day, before the new Romanian 1st Army was able to launch a complementary offensive against the German 9th Army, the Russian government under Alexander Kerensy ordered cessation of all offensive action. The Central Powers  reacted quickly, modifying their own operational plans and launching counteroffensives, first at Mărăşeşti on 6 August and then at Oituz on 8 August. They were confident they could exploit the vulnerability of the revolutionary Russian forces and the undervalued Romanians, occupy Moldavia, and force Romania out of the war. To their surprise, the Romanian forces, fighting with desperation to defend what remained of their homeland and insure its future, repulsed the Austro-German attacks in three weeks of heavy combat during August. Casualties were high on both sides,10,000 for the Germans and 17,000 for the Romanians at Mărăṣeṣti alone. At the beginning of September, the German command admitted defeat and transferred key units to other fronts. Among those units were the Alpine Corps and the Württemberg Mountain Battalion in whose combat future German tank commander Lt. Erwin Rommel had played an important role.

What the Central Powers had failed to do was accomplished by a second Russian Revolution.  Lenin’s seizure of power in November 1917 and subsequent opening of armistice negotiations at Brest-Litovsk forced the Romanians to seek an armistice also, at Focşani, on 9 December. Following these armistices, the Russian Army on the Romanian Front disintegrated.  Soldiers deserted the frontlines en mass and headed for home, creating chaos and endangering the rear areas of the Romanian army in both Moldavia and Bessarabia. To control the mounting disorder, the Romanians used direct military action, including the occupation and pacification of Bessarabia.

Despite having agreed to an armistice, the Romanian government hoped to avoid a separate peace which, legally at least, would release the Allied Powers from their promises contained in the treaty of alliance.  But the German High Command, anxious to free up troops for other fronts, answered their attempt to stall with an ultimatum and preparations to resume the war. Since holding the line after the departure of the Russian Army was impossible, the Romanians submitted to the onerous terms of the Peace of Bucharest (7 May 1918). Included were territorial losses, especially Dobrogea and the Carpathian passes; longtime concessions of Romanian natural resources; and sequential demobilization of their army.

As the war on other fronts turned against the Central Powers in the summer of 1918, the Romanian command slowed the demobilization process and initiated plans for reentering  the war.  After their enemies opened armistice negotiations [Bulgaria (29 September), Austria (4 November) and Germany (7 November)], the Romanian government  remobilized and declared war on Germany, just hours before the armistice of 11 November.

For Romania, like other small nations in Eastern Europe, the armistice did not end the war; it began a struggle to occupy and defend their desiderata.  By 6 November, the Romanian Army had occupied Bukovina. During December it advanced in Transylvania to the Mureş River, a demarcation line with Hungary established by the Allied Powers.  Although Allied political leaders attempted to restrain an additional Romanian advance, their military commanders encouraged it, especially after the appearance of Béla Kun’s Soviet Republic in Budapest in March 1919.  Facing little or no resistance, the Romanian Army continued until it reached a defensible position on the Tisza river, far beyond the territory promised in the treaty of 1916.  Here it halted for more than two months while the Allied governments debated what to do with Kun’s increasingly troublesome regime. For the Romanians, his boast that he intended to link up with Bolsheviks in the Ukraine was especially threatening.  Kun resolved the issue by ordering an attack on the Romanian Army on 20 July.  With widespread Allied approbation, the Romanian Army quickly defeated the Hungarian Red Army and then proceeded to occupy Budapest.  Following a short but controversial occupation, the Romanian Army withdrew gradually to the line outlined in the treaty of 1916.

The final settlement of the Paris Peace Conference awarded to Romania a frontier approximately 50 kilometers to the east of this line.  It also sanctioned Romania’s acquisition of Bukovina, Bessarabia, and half of the Banat. This settlement virtually doubled Romanian’s prewar territory and population, with attendant economic gains. However, it also brought with it dissatisfied minorities and hostile neighbors. In the Second World War, Bukovina and Bessarabia were lost, but what has remained to become contemporary Romania is a reasonable fulfillment of the aims for which the nation entered the First World War.


  • Torrey, Glenn E. The Romanian Battlefront in World War I. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012.
  • Cupṣa, Ion. Armata Română în Campaniile din anii 1916-1917. Bucharest: Editura Militară, 1967.
  • Rodney, William. Joe Boyle: King of the Klondike. Toronto: McGraw Hill-Ryerson, 1974.

Glenn E. Torrey, Emporia State University (USA)

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