Romania in World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special
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Romania in World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

October 4, 2019

Romania joined the First World War in August
1916, and you may well be wondering just what that country was doing while the rest of Europe
was at war during the preceding years, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War
special episode about Romania prior to its entry in World War One. The three regions of Wallachia, Transylvania,
and Moldavia have a long history of foreign occupation going back to the Roman era. These territories, that formed the modern
state of Romania, have sometimes been independent, but were more often fought over or occupied
by more powerful nations. On January 24th, 1859, after a unionist campaign,
Alexandru Ioan Cuza ascended to the thrones of both Wallachia and Moldova, effectively
uniting them as Romania as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire. He introduced sweeping reforms designed to
modernize Romania and drag it into the 19th century, but this brought him into conflict
with the landed aristocracy, and he was forced to abdicate in 1866. Political chaos ensued until the throne was
offered Prince Karl (Carol) of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a Prussian prince with Bonaparte family ties. He accepted and Romania became a hereditary
constitutional monarchy, though still nominally under Ottoman control. In 1877 when the Russo-Turkish War began,
Karl saw opportunity for Romania to break that control. Romania gave the Russians permission to cross
Romania to attack the Ottoman forces. The Russian offensive stalled in Bulgaria,
though, and the Tsar asked Carol for men and assistance, which he provided. Eventually the Turks sued for peace, and the
resulting Congress of Berlin redrew the map of the Balkans, among other things creating
an independent Romania. This new free nation instantly came into conflict
with Russia, however, as Russia demanded Southern Bessarabia, which had passed back and forth
between the Russians and the Ottomans over the years, and offered Romania impoverished
Dobrogea, which had last been under Romanian control in the 1400s. This forced exchange inflamed public opinion
in Romania, and culminated in the signing, in 1883, of a secret treaty that bound Romania
to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, and the construction of defensive
works aimed at stopping a future Russian invasion. That treaty was sort of a double-edged sword
for Romania, though, since it also stopped Romania from any sort of intervention into
Austro-Hungarian affairs, most particularly those in Transylvania, which was 54% ethnic
Romanian and only 30% Hungarian, but ruled by the Hungarian minority. In fact, in 1892 when the Romanian National
Party of Transylvania petitioned Emperor Franz Josef for equal rights and treatment, the
petition was sent unopened from Vienna to Budapest and the signatories were all arrested
and sentenced to prison terms of up to five years. If we fast forward to 1912, we see that Romania
was by then something of a rising star. It was still mostly agricultural, but industrialization
of the Prahova valley had spurred new growth, and Romania had an economic surplus of around
5% of its GDP. Now, Romania did not fight in the First Balkan
War of 1912, but had only really remained neutral because Russia had organized a deal
between Bulgaria and Romania offering Romania the fortress town of Silistra for remaining
neutral. After the war, Bulgaria refused to go through
with the deal, and this – as you may imagine – royally upset Romania, who threatened to
take Silistra by force, but were stopped by Russian diplomatic intervention. Bulgarian relations with Russia cooled off
now because of all of this and the Bulgarian-Russian alliance was cancelled June 9th, 1913. A week later, Bulgaria launched a surprise
attack on Serbia and Greece without declaring war. The goal was to grab as much land as possible
before the Great Powers could end the conflict, and so the entire Bulgarian army was committed
to the invasion, despite the threat of a possible Romanian invasion from behind. Well, on the 28th, Romania got assurances
from Austria-Hungary that the latter would not intervene if Romania went into Bulgaria;
the Romanian army mobilized June 3rd, and on June 10th invaded a totally undefended
Bulgaria. Romania invaded with 330,000 men, and Bulgaria
had an army of close to twice that, but all were engaged in fighting Serbia and Greece. By the 22nd, the Romanians had linked up with
the Serbs at the Bulgarian rear, and this, coupled with an Ottoman advance into Bulgaria,
forced Bulgaria to sue for peace. The Peace talks concluded with the Treaty
of Bucharest in August, which stripped Bulgaria of much of the territory they’d gained in
the First Balkan War. Romania got not only Silistra, but also the
whole of Southern Dobrogea, but the campaign highlighted the shortcomings of the Romanian
army, particularly the lack of equipment and ammunition, the quality of the officers, the
disorganization of supply lines, and the inefficiency of the medical corps. Combat casualties had been virtually zero,
but 6,000 Romanian soldiers had died of cholera during the brief campaign. It’s nice to recognize your shortcomings,
but most of the same problems would still beset Romania in World War One. The Second Balkan War had brought Russia and
Romania closer together, with the Tsar even making a state visit and a planned royal wedding
between the future Romanian King Carol II, King Carol’s grand nephew, and Russian Grand
Duchess Olga Nikolaevna. This fell through because the prospective
spouses detested each other. Another effect of that war was to turn Bulgaria
into a retributionist state, seeking revenge on Serbia and Romania, which would help propel
Bulgaria into joining the Central Powers. So the First World War began and what would
Romania do? King Carol revealed the existence of the secret
treaty and proposed to join the Central Powers in the war, but the treaty was a defensive
one and Romania was not actually required to go to war since Austria-Hungary was the
aggressor. Remember, the King was of Prussian origin
too, and a cousin to the Kaiser. Public opinion however, was staunchly Francophile,
and that included most of the Crown Council, who opted for armed neutrality as a compromise
between the king and the government, who wanted to join the Entente. And then on October 10th, 1914, King Carol
died with no male heir. He was succeeded by his nephew, who became
King Ferdinand I. Unlike his uncle, who never forgot his Germanic
roots, Ferdinand declared instantly that he would follow his country over his family,
and would reign as a true Romanian. His wife was the very British Princess Marie
of Edinburgh, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, but also daughter to the Russian Grand Duchess
Maria Alexandrovna, who strongly – and kind of obviously – urged joining the Entente. One thing to realize here, was that the Romanian
army was not only under equipped in terms of guns and ammunition, but since it hadn’t
joined any side of the war it had real problems getting weaponry from abroad and Romania didn’t
have a big weapons manufacturing industry. Still, Romania did eventually join the war,
as we’ve talked about in our regular Thursday episodes. Prime Minister Ion Bratianu carefully negotiated
the Romanian entry into the war, because the last thing he wanted was a repeat of the 1870s,
when Romania had to cede land to Russia, so the treaty formally bound the Allies to recognize
Romania’s right to annex Austro-Hungarian territory that was inhabited by Romanians. This was a pretty good precaution because
earlier in the summer of 1916 the Allies had signed treaties that would prevent Romanian
from participating in any postwar peace conference as an equal. In fact, Russia didn’t really want Romania
to join the war because a neutral Romania guarded Russia’s southern flank, but an
active Romania would mean putting that security in the hands of an unproven army. All this posturing delayed the Romanian entry
into the war by two months until August 1916, which was pretty unfortunate timing, since
the Russian army was in a bit of disarray after the enormously costly success of the
Brusilov Offensive over the summer. The Romanian Battle Plan was called the Z
Hypothesis, and it was to comprise a strategic offensive into Transylvania with a strategic
defense on the southern front. The offensive was to proceed for 30 days at
which point there would be a decisive battle with Austria-Hungary. Now, I’ll go into all the battles in the
weekly episodes, but I have to say here that this was a very optimistic plan. It assumed that an offensive could repulse
the Austrians before they could get German assistance, and also that the German, Bulgarian,
and Ottoman forces south of the Danube were too weak to pose a threat to the Southern
Front. Well, as we’ve seen each and every time
a new country enters the war, it’s with a blind optimism and faith in its army that
usually borders on fantasy, and sometimes crosses those borders.

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  1. Two mistakes: First, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna was not born in 1893 and did not die in 1953. She was born in 1895 and died in 1918, along with entire Russian Imperial family. Second, the Romanian Prime-minister in 1916 was Ion I.C. Brătianu (1864-1927), the son of Ion C. Brătianu (1821-1891). The photo is ok, the name and date are wrong.

  2. Thank you so much! I grew up in Romanian in the '70s and all the history I was taught in school was pure propaganda – had to unlearn all the lies I was told and re-learn the true historic facts. Awesome program – thanks again!

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