The Tragedy of Roumania

By Stanley Washburn

[The Atlantic Monthly, December 1917]

More than a year has now elapsed since Roumania entered the war. What it meant for this little country to abandon neutrality is not generally realized. Here in America we knew that so long as the British fleet dominated the seas we were safe, and that we should have ample opportunity to prepare ourselves for the vicissitudes of war and to make the preparations that are now being undertaken and carried out by the administration of President Wilson. Canada and Australia likewise knew that they were in no danger of attack.

But the case of Roumania was far different. She knew with a terrible certainty, that the moment she entered the war she would be the target for attack on a frontier over twelve hundred kilometres long. The world criticized her for remaining neutral, and yet one wonders how many countries would have staked their national future as Roumania did when she entered the war. In a short fourteen months she has seen more than one half of her army destroyed, her fertile plains pass into the hands of her enemies, and her great oil industry almost wiped out. To-day her army, supported by Russians, is holding with difficulty hardly twenty per cent of what, before the war, was one of the most fertile and prosperous small kingdoms of Europe.

When America entered the war she assumed, in a large measure, the obligations to which the Allies were already committed. It seems of paramount importance under these circumstances that the case and the cause of Roumania be more thoroughly understood in this country. Other countries entered the war through necessities of various sorts. America committed herself to the conflict for a cause which even the cynical German propaganda, hard as it has tried, has been unable to distort into a selfish or commercial one. We are preparing to share in every way the sacrifices, both in blood and wealth, which our allies have been making these past three years. And as our reward we ask for no selfish or commercial rights, nor do we seek to acquire extension of territory or acquisition of privilege in any part of the world. We have entered the war solely because of wrongs committed in the past, and with the just determination that similar wrongs shall never again be perpetrated. No country and no people on this globe are more responsive to an obligation, and more determined to fulfill such an obligation when recognized, than are the American people.

For nearly two years prior to the entrance of Roumania into the war I had been attached to the Russian Imperial Staff in the field, as special correspondent of the London Times. I went to Roumania in September, 1916, directly from the staff of the then Tsar, with a request from the highest authority in Russia to the highest command in Roumania that every opportunity for studying the situation be given me. These letters gave me instant access to the King and Queen of Roumania, to the Roumanian General Staff, and to other persons of importance in the Roumanian administration. I remained in that country until late in the autumn, motoring more than five thousand kilometres, and touching the Roumanian front at many places. My opinion, then, of the Roumanian cause is based on first-hand evidence obtained at the time.

When I arrived in Roumania, in September, the army was still at the high tide of its advance in Transylvania and the world was lauding without stint the bravery and efficiency of Roumanian troops. Two days after my arrival I lunched with the King, and had the first of a series of interviews with him on the status of the case of Roumania. Inasmuch as without the consent of its sovereign the entrance of Roumania into the war would have been impossible, I should first present the King's view of her case as His Majesty, after several conversations, authorized me to present it.

The King himself, as all the world knows, is a Hohenzollern. His personal feelings must, therefore, in a measure, be affected by the fact that most of his relatives and friends are fighting on the German side. There is, however, not the slightest evidence to indicate that he has ever allowed the fact of his German blood to weigh against the true interests of Roumania. A conversation which illustrates the attitude of the King at this time is one which the Princess —-—, one of the most clever and best-informed women in Roumania, related to me in Bucharest. The day before the declaration of war the most pro-German of the Roumanian ministers, who had the name of being the leader of the pro-German party in the capital, spent several hours putting forth every effort to prevent the declaration of war by the King. The minister, making no headway, finally said, 'The Germans are sure to win. Your Majesty must realize that it is impossible to beat a Hohenzollern.' The King replied, 'I think it can be done, nevertheless.' To this the defender of the German cause answered, 'Can you show me a single case where a Hohenzollern has been beaten?' The King replied, 'I can. I am a Hohenzollern, and I have beaten my own blood instincts for the sake of Roumania.'

One beautiful autumn afternoon, at the royal shooting-box outside of Bucharest, the King talked freely about his motives and the cause of his people. We had finished luncheon and he had dismissed his suite. He and the Crown Prince and myself were left in the unpretentious study. Here, over a map-strewn table, it was the custom of the King to study the problems of the campaign. A tired, harassed-looking man of about sixty, clad in the blue uniform of the Hussars of his Guard, he paced the floor, and with deep emotion emphasized the case of his country and the motives which had induced Roumania to enter the war.

This earnest presentation of his opinion J placed in writing at that time, and the sentences quoted here were a part of the statement published in the London Times. So far as I know, this is the only occasion on which the King outlined in a definite way his personal view of the Roumanian case.

His Majesty began by laying stress on the necessity for interpreting Roumania truthfully to the world, now that her enemies were doing their utmost to misrepresent her; the necessity for understanding the genius of the people and the sacrifices and dangers which the country faced. He urged that Roumania had not been moved by mere policy or expediency, but that her action was based on the highest principles of nationality and national ideals.

'In Roumania as in Russia,' said the King, 'the tie of race and blood underlies all other considerations, and the appeal of our purest Roumanian blood which lies beyond the Transylvanian Alps has ever been the strongest influence in the public opinion of all Roumania, from the throne to the lowest peasant. Inasmuch as Hungary was the master that held millions of our blood in perpetual political bondage, Hungary has been our traditional enemy. The Bulgar, with his efficient and unquestionably courageous army, on a frontier difficult to defend, has logically become our southern menace, and as a latent threat has been accepted secondarily as a potential enemy.'

After stating that, although at the beginning of the war Roumanian sympathy had leaped instantly to France and England, the Roumanians had realized that, economically, the friendship of Germany was an asset in the development of Roumanian industries, the King added that, nevertheless, as the Great War progressed, there had developed in Roumania a moral issue in regard to the war. The frightfulness and lawlessness practiced by the Central Powers had a profound effect upon the Roumanian people, and the country began to feel the subtle force of enemy intrigue endeavoring to force her into war against her own real interests. Let us remember, when we would criticize Roumania for her early inactivity, that she was, in the words of her King, 'a small power with a small army surrounded by giants;' that she had a western frontier 1000 kilometres long—-greater than the English and French fronts combined—and a Bulgarian frontier, almost undefended and near her capital, stretching for other hundreds of kilometres on the south. With Russia in retreat, Roumania would have been instantly annihilated if she had acted. She had to wait till she could be reasonably sure of protecting herself and of being supported by her allies. She waited not a moment longer.

After pointing out the great risks which Roumania had run, as a small country, and the deterring effect of the fate of Serbia and Belgium, the King continued, 'Notwithstanding the savagery with which the enemy is attacking us and the cruelty with which our defenseless women and children are being massacred, this government will endeavor to prevent bitterness from dominating its actions in the way of reprisals on prisoners or defenseless non-combatants and to this end orders have been issued to our troops that, regardless of previous provocation, those who fall into our hands shall be treated with kindness; for it is not the common soldiers or the innocent people who must be held responsible for the policy adopted by the enemy governments.'

The interview ended with the King's assurance that Roumanians would not falter in their allegiance to England the just, to France, their brother in Latin blood, and to Russia, their immediate neighbor.

'With confidence in the justice of our cause, with faith in our allies, and with the knowledge that our people are capable of every fortitude, heroism, sacrifice, which may be demanded of them, we look forward soberly and seriously to the problems that confront us, but with the certainty that our sacrifices will not be in vain, and that ultimate victory must and will be the inevitable outcome. In the achievement of this result the people of Roumania, from the throne to the lowliest peasant, are willing to pay the price.'

When it is realized that these conversations took place in September and the first days of October, it must be clear, I think, that neither the King nor the Queen had ever felt that Roumania entered the war in absolute security, but that they always realized the danger of their situation and moved only because their faith in the Allies was such as to lead them to believe that they had at least a fair chance to cooperate with them without the certainty of destruction.

To emphasize further the fact that both realized this danger even before the war started, I would occasion some weeks later, when, the fear of the German invasion of Roumania was becoming a tangible one. During a conversation with the King and the Queen together, in regard to this menace, the Queen turned impulsively to the King and said, 'This is exactly what we have feared. We, at least, never imagined that Roumania was going to have an easy victory, and we have always felt the danger of our coming into the war.'

The King looked very tired and nervous, having spent all that day with the General Staff weighing news from the front which was increasingly adverse. 'Yes,' he said, as he pulled his beard, 'we were never misled as to what might happen.'

So much then for the psychology of the sovereigns of Roumania as I received it from their own lips.

Part II

Ever since the loss of Bucharest the world has been asking why Roumania entered the war. It seems to be the general opinion that her action at that time was unwarranted and that she had been betrayed. There has even been a widely circulated report that Germany, through the King, had intrigued to bring about this disaster. Again I have heard that the Russian High Command had purposely sacrificed Roumania. At this time, when much of the evidence is still unattainable, it is impossible for me to make absolutely authoritative statements, but immediately after leaving Roumania I spent three hours with General Brussiloff discussing the situation. A few days later I had the privilege of meeting the former Tsar at Kieff (to whom the Queen had given me a letter), and I know from his own lips his feeling in regard to Roumania. Subsequently, I was at the headquarters of the Russian High Command and there learned at first hand the extraordinary efforts that Alexieff was making to support Roumania. The British efforts to cooperate with Roumania and prevent disaster I knew thoroughly at that time.

I never saw the slightest evidence that either Russia or her allies had any intention whatsoever of disregarding their duties or their responsibilities to this little country. That there was lack of vision and foresight on all sides is quite apparent. But that there was bad faith on the part of any of the contracting parties I do not believe. It is probably true that the reactionary government in Petrograd was glad to see the Roumanian disaster, but it must be realized that this was a military situation primarily, and that ninety per cent of it in the first three months was in the hands, not of the Petrograd politicians but of the military authorities at the front. Brussiloff and Alexieff are men incapable of intrigue or bad faith. The Emperor, with whom I talked at Kieff, and the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlowna nearly wept at the misfortune of Roumania, and I am certain that the former Tsar was in no way a party to any breach of faith with this little ally.

I have said that there was not bad faith toward Roumania on the part of the Allies when they induced her to enter the war, and that there was not lack of intelligence on the part of Roumania when she followed their advice. In order to understand the point of view of the Allies it is necessary to have clearly in mind the military conditions existing in the whole theatre of operations during the six months prior to Roumanians fatal venture. In February the Germans had assembled a large portion of their mobile reserves for their effort against Verdun. The constant wastage of German human material continued almost without intermission into May, with spasmodic recurrences up to the present time. Hundreds of thousands of Germans were drawn from the visible supply of enemy manhood by these offensives. By early May the failure of the Verdun venture had probably become manifest to the German High Command, and there is evidence that they were commencing to conserve their troops for other purposes.

On the 5th of June there began in Galicia and Volhynia the great offensive of General Brussiloff which lasted, almost without intermission, on one or another part of his front, until October. By the middle of June this drive of the Russians began to divert German troops for the defense of Kovel. In July started the British-French offensive in the West.

With their reservoirs of men already greatly reduced by the Verdun attacks, the Germans, by the middle of July, were compelled to find supports to meet the continuous offensives on both the Eastern and Western fronts. I cannot estimate the number of troops required by them against the French and British, but I do know that between the 5th of June and the 30th of August a total of thirty divisions of enemy troops were diverted from other fronts against Brussiloff alone. This heavy diversion was the only thing that prevented the Russians from taking Kovel in July and forcing the entire German line in the East. So continuous and pressing were the Russian attacks that more than two months elapsed before the enemy could bring this offensive to a final stop on the Kovel sector. Enemy formations arriving were ground up in detail as fast as they came, and by the middle of July it was clear to us, who were on the fighting line in Volhynia, that the Germans were having extraordinary difficulties in filling their losses from day to day. In June their first supports came by army corps; in July they were coming by divisions; and early in August we checked the arrival of single regiments, while the Austrians were often so hard pressed that they sent isolated battalions to fill the holes in their lines.

In the mean time the Russians had cleared the Bukovina of the enemy. It was believed that Roumania could put in the field twenty-two divisions of excellent troops. The enemy losses in prisoners alone, up to the first of September, from Brussiloff's offensive, were above four hundred thousand and over four hundred guns. It seemed then that these extra twenty-two divisions thrown in by Roumania could meet but little resistance. In order that the Roumanian attempt to cooperate might be safeguarded in the highest degree, a coordinated plan of operations on the part of the Allies was agreed upon with Roumania. The allied force in Saloniki under General Sarrail was to commence a heavy offensive intended to pin down the Bulgarian and Turkish forces to the southern line, thus protecting the Roumanian line of the Danube. Brussiloff's left flank in Galicia was to start a drive through the Bukovina toward the Hungarian plain, thus relieving the Roumanians from any pressure on the north. A Russian force of fifty thousand men in the Dubrudja was to protect the Roumanian left.

This, in view of the apparent shortage of enemy reserves, seemed to protect the army of Roumania, on both flanks in its advance into Transylvania. In addition Roumania was to receive certain shipments of munitions of war daily from Russia. It was the opinion of the military advisers in Roumania that under no circumstances could the Germans divert against her within three months more than sixteen divisions, while some of the experts advising her placed the number as low as ten.

Now let us see what happened. For some reason, which I do not know, the offensive on the south was delayed, and when it did start it attained no important results nor did it detain sufficient enemy troops in that vicinity to relieve Roumania. On the contrary, heavy forces of Bulgars and Austrians immediately attacked the line of the Danube, taking the Roumanian stronghold of Turtekaia, with the bulk of the Roumanian heavy guns. In order to safeguard Bucharest, then threatened, the Roumanians were obliged to withdraw troops from their Transylvania advance, which up to this time had been highly successful. These withdrawals represented the difference between an offensive and a defensive, and the Transylvania campaign potentially failed when Bucharest was threatened from the south.

The Russian expedition in the Dobrudja, which was supported by a Roumanian division and a mixed division of Serbs and Slavs, partially recruited from prisoners captured by the Russians, failed to work in harmony, and the protection of the Roumanian left became, after the capture of Turtekaia, a negligible factor which ultimately collapsed entirely. Thus we see in the beginning that through no bad faith the southern assets on which Roumania depended proved to be of little or no value to her.

There still remained the Russian agreement to cooperate in Galicia and the Bukovina. I can speak of this situation with authority because I had been on the southwestern front almost without intermission since June, and know that there was every intent on the part of Brussiloff to carry out to the limit of his capacity his end of the programme. The success of this, however, was impaired by a situation, over which he had no control, which developed in Galicia in September. It must not be forgotten that all the Russian troops on the southwestern front had been fighting constantly for nearly three months. When I came through Galicia on my way to Roumania I found Brussiloff's four southern armies engaged in a tremendous action. Early in September they had made substantial advances in the direction of Lemberg, and were in sight of Halicz on the Dniester when they began to encounter terrific and sustained counter-attacks.

That the force of this may be understood I would mention the case of the army attacking Halicz. When I first went to the southwestern front in June, there were facing this army three Austrian divisions, three Austrian cavalry divisions and one German division. In September, at the very moment when Brussiloff was supposed to be heavily supporting Roumania, there were sent against this same army—on a slightly extended front—three Austrian divisions, two Austrian cavalry divisions, two Turkish divisions, and nine German divisions. The army on the extreme Russian left, whose duty it was to participate in the offensive in the Bukovina, had made important advances toward Lemberg from the south, and just at the time that Roumania entered the war it also was subjected to tremendous enemy counter-attacks. For several weeks it held its position only with the greatest difficulty and by diverting to itself most of the available reserves. Something more than one army corps did endeavor to cooperate with Roumania, but the situation I have described in Galicia made it impossible for sufficient supports to reach the Bukovina offensive to enable it to fulfill its mission.

Thus we see that after the first month of the campaign the cooperative factors which alone had justified Roumania's entering into the war had proved to be failures. The arrival of material from Russia was delayed because, after Turtekaia was taken, a new Russian corps was sent to the Dobrudja to stiffen up that front. The railroad communications were bad and immediately became congested by the movements of troops, thus interfering with the shipping of badly needed material. I have since heard the Russian reactionary government charged with purposely holding up these shipments; but I am inclined to believe that my explanation of the cause of the delays in the arrival of material is the correct one.

The greatest mistake on the part of the Allies was their estimate of the number of troops that the Germans could send to Roumania during the fall of 1916. As I have said, experts placed this number at from ten to sixteen divisions, but, to the best of my judgment, they sent, between the 1st of September and the 1st of January, not less than thirty. The German commitments to the Roumanian front came by express, and the Russian supports, because of the paucity of lines of communication, came by freight. The moment that it became evident what the Germans could do in the way of sending troops, Roumania was doomed.

The move of Alexieff and the Russian High Command in the middle of October, which is one of tangible record and not of opinion, should absolutely eliminate the charges of bad faith on the part of Russia, for he immediately appropriated for the support of Roumania between eight and ten army corps, which were instantly placed in motion, regardless of the adverse condition their absence caused on his own front. It is quite true that these troops arrived too late to save Bucharest; but that they came as quickly as possible, I can assert without reservation, for I was on the various lines of communication for nearly a month and found them blocked with these corps, which represented the cream of the Russian army, to make good the moral obligations of Russia to Roumania. In November I had a talk with Brussiloff, who authorized me to quote him as follows on the Roumanian situation: —

H.Q. — S.W.F. — Nov. 7.

Roumania is now feeling for the first time the pressure of war and the bitterness of defeat; but Roumania must realize that her defeats are but incidents in the greater campaign; for behind her stands great Russia, who will see to it that her brave little ally, who has come into the war for a just cause, does not ultimately suffer for daring to espouse this cause for which we are all fighting. I can speak with authority when I state that, from the Emperor down to the common soldier, there is a united sentiment in Russia that Roumania shall be protected, helped, and supported in every way possible. Roumanians must feel faith in Russia and the Russian people, and must also know that in the efforts we are making to save them sentiment is the dominant factor, and we are not doing it merely as a question of protecting our own selfish interest and our left flank.

It seems to me that the evidence I have submitted above clears the Allies, including Russia, of any wanton breach of faith toward Roumania, though the failure of their intention to relieve her certainly does not diminish their responsibility toward her in the future.

In the final analysis the determining factor in the ruin of Roumania was the failure of the Allies to foresee the number of troops the Germans could send against them. Their reasoning up to a certain point was accurate. In July, August, and for part of September it was, I believe, almost impossible for the Germans to send troops to Transylvania, which accounts for the rapidity of the Roumanian advance at the beginning of their operations. The fallacy in the Allied reasoning seems to me to have been that every one overlooked certain vital factors in the German situation. First, that she would ultimately support any threat against Hungary to the limit of her capacity, even if she had to evacuate Belgium to get troops for this purpose. For with Hungary out of the war it is a mate in five moves for the Central Empires. Second: the Allies failed to analyze correctly the troop situation on the eastern front, apparently failing to grasp one vital point. An army can defend itself in winter, with the heavy cold and snows of Russia sweeping the barren spaces, with perhaps sixty per cent of the number of troops required to hold those identical lines in summer. It should have been obvious that, when the cold weather set in in the north, the Germans would take advantage of this situation, and by going on the defensive in the north release the margin representing the difference in men required to hold their lines in summer and in winter. Possibly the same condition applies to the west, though I cannot speak with any authority on that subject. Apparently this obvious action of the Germans is exactly what happened. When their northern front had been combed, we find forces subtracted piecemeal from the north, reaching an aggregate of thirty divisions, or at least nearly fifteen divisions more than had been anticipated. The doom of Roumania was sealed.

What happened in the Russian effort to support Roumania is exactly what has occurred in nearly all the drives that I have been in during this war. An army once started in retreat in the face of superior forces can hold only when supported en bloc or when it reaches a fortified line. The Germans with all their cleverness and efficiency were not able to stop the Russian offensive of 1916 until they had fallen back on the fortified lines of the Stokhod in front of Kovel. In the Galician drive against the Russians in 1915, the armies of the Tsar were not able to hold until they reached the San River, on which they fought a series of rear-guard actions.

So it was in Roumania. The Russian corps arriving on the installment plan were swept away by the momentum of the advancing enemy, who could not be halted until the fortified line of the Sereth was reached.

Whether one blames the Allies for lack of vision or not, I think one must at least acquit Roumania of any responsibility for her own undoing. Her case as represented by the King seems a just and sufficient reason for her having entered the war. Her action during the war has been straightforward and direct, and I have never heard of any reason to believe that the King or the Roumanian High Command has ever looked back in the furrow since they made the decision to fight on the side of the Allies. They followed the advice given them as to their participation in the war. They have played the game to the limit of their resources and to-day stand in a position almost unparalleled in its pathos and acuteness. In front of them, as they struggle with courage and desperation for the small fragment of their kingdom that remains, are the formations of the Turks, Bulgars, Austrians, Hungarians, and Germans, with Mackensen striving to give them a death-blow. Behind them is Russia in chaos. German agitators and irresponsible revolutionists have striven in vain to destroy the morale of their army and shake their faith in their government and their sovereign. It is estimated that three million Roumanian refugees have taken shelter behind their lines. Their civil population, or that portion of it which remains, will this winter be destitute of almost every necessity of life.

This, then, is the case of Roumania, and if we and the other Allies have not a moral obligation to the King and Queen and the government of that little country, to support them in every way possible, then surely we have no obligation to any one.

Sentiment, however, is not the only factor in the Roumanian case. There is also the problem of sound policy. In spite of all her distress and her discouragements Roumania has been able to save from the wreckage, and to reconstruct, an army which it is said can muster between three and four hundred thousand men. These soldiers are well drilled by French officers, filled with enthusiasm and fighting daily, and are even now diverting enemy troops toward Roumania which would otherwise be available for fighting British, French, and American troops in the west. The Roumanians are the matrix of the Russian left flank, and if, through lack of support and the necessities of life, they go out of the war, the solidity of the Russian left is destroyed and the capture of Odessa probably foreordained. A few hundred million dollars would probably keep Roumania fighting for another year. It is a conservative estimate to state that it will take ten times that amount, and at least six months' delay, to place the equivalent number of trained American troops on any fighting front. It is, I think, obvious that from the point of view of sound military policy, as well as moral and ethical obligation, every American whose heart is in this war should be behind the President of the United States without reserve, in any effort he may make or recommend, in extending assistance to Roumania in this the hour of her greatest peril.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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