« La Roumanie marche !…. » Romania enters the war – as seen from a French perspective

28 août 1916

Schluchtmatt, Alsace


Ce bruit vient de se glisser comme un murmure dans les lignes. Un ravitailleur l’a rapporté de Gérardmer… Puis un agent de liaison de la brigade, essoufflé, ruisselant de sueur et de pluie, jette en passant devant mon poste… « La Roumanie marche !…. » Alors le bruit prend de la consistance. De ruisseau qu’il était il devient torrent. Il se précipite des hauteurs de France dans les vallées d’Alsace. Il envahit les batteries, puis les postes de commandement, puis les tranchées, jusqu’aux postes d’écoute : « Ohé ! Les gars !…. Ça y est, la Roumanie marche !…. » Aussitôt une pancarte énorme est dressée au-dessus de la tranchée et annonce brutalement à l’ennemi cette nouvelle si grave pour lui. Je téléphone à Gaschney, à la brigade : on me confirme la nouvelle, qui vient d’être lancée par la tour Eiffel. La T.S.F. des postes d’artillerie l’a saisie au vol… Alors la joie est unanime, bruyante, délirante. Le plus abruti des troupiers en saisit l’importance. On ne saura jamais l’impatience avec laquelle dans notre solitude des tranchées nous attendions cette déclaration de guerre. Peut-être ne produira-t-elle pas l’effet attendu ?…. Peu importe, c’est une chance de plus de succès et, surtout, c’est une possibilité d’abréger la durée de la guerre.
Et ce soir dans toutes les popotes on débouche du champagne à la santé des Roumains. »

Bedel, Maurice. Journal de guerre (CONTEMPO.) (French Edition) (pp. 426-427). Tallandier. Kindle Edition.

The reaction of French soldiers to Romania’s entry into the war on the Allied side in August 1916, as captured so well by Maurice Bedel in this extract from his Journal de guerre, seems completely at odds with how the events of Romania’s brief role as a fighting partner in the Allied Coalition appear to be consistently portrayed in English-language accounts of the war. The reasons behind it are complex, but there are a few things worthy of consideration.

Romania entered the war whilst the 1916 battle of the Somme was in full flow, with Germany’s recent attempts to destroy France’s fighting forces in the attritional fighting at Verdun seemingly foiled and Russia having conducted a successful offensive in June 1916 that still, at this time, in contrast to the reality on the ground, suggested the Russian armies might, after all, make an effective contribution to the Allied cause. Romania’s subsequent swift defeat is, in popular accounts at least, dismissed as almost inevitable and even of little relevance.

For France, however, Romania had held, and despite its subsequent defeat, continued to hold, a much greater significance. One very important but obvious factor (and yet easily overlooked from an island off mainland Europe or from places far away in other continents), was that events, and the war, in Eastern Europe had a greater immediacy for the French. France after all occupied the other side of the European land mass from Romania. This, in turn, helped to fuel the French politico-military view that drove the push after the failure of the British-led efforts to storm the Dardanelles and the Gallipoli disaster, for the joint Allied effort to switch to a French-inspired and -led campaign in Southeast Europe from Salonika.

Romania as a nation had only existed since 1861 and had been tied to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy by a secret treaty aimed at safeguarding the country against any act of aggression by Russia. The outbreak of war in 1914 split the country with the King, Carol I, in favour of honouring this treaty, but the government strongly in favour of siding with the Allies. The government’s view prevailed, the king abdicated, to be replaced by his son, Ferdinand I. Romania’s entry into the war was the culmination of French-led diplomacy that also saw France promise to provide equipment for the Romanian Army and a mission militaire was established under général Henri Berthelot – a substantial and experienced military commander. The promise of equipment was not honoured, however, until after the army was defeated and had been driven into exile in Russia. Only then did French equipment like the Mle.15 caisque Adrian (below) start to flow as part of the Romanian Army’s re-organisation. The results of this reorganisation were seen in August 1917 in a successful counterattack at Mărăşti and in the later battle of Mărăşeşti.

Romania steel helmet, Model 1915 Adrian type – National World War I Museum – Kansas City, MO.

The Romanian forces’ situation became more complicated still with Russia’s collapse and the rise of the Bolshevik revolutionary forces. Romania, surrounded by the Central Powers, had little choice but to sign an armistice in December 1917, followed by a peace treaty on 7 May 1918. The French were forced to withdraw their military presence and Berthelot went back to the Western Front, where he played a key and very successful part in the Second Battle of the Marne in July 1918.

Berthelot was back to lead an Army of the Danube in October 1918 advancing through defeated Bulgaria and aiming to draw Romania back into the war. This did, indeed, happen. On 10 November 1918, one day before the fighting stopped.

After the war, Romanian troops, like those of other European states or nascent states, were seen as a key part of the bulwark against the Bolshevik revolutionaries and France continued to maintain a strong military presence in support of Romanian forces in the complex situation in Eastern Europe, with French forces only being withdrawn from Odessa in April 1919. (For more on this, read Robert Gerwath’s excellent The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (2016)).

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