4. The enthusiastic initiative against an under-strength opponent. First phase for the Battle of Transylvania
Romania entered the conflict as soon as the official declaration of war was delivered to Austro-Hungary on the 27th of August 1916.
What ensued for the next couple of months came to be called the Battle for Transylvania(27 Aug-25 Oct 1916). It began as an enthusiastic offensive across the Eastern and Southern Carpathians, with the Second Army as the main group and the First and Fourth on its flanks, with the general aim of controlling the Mureș river. The plan was that the natural border of the river would both become a good defensive position in case of a counter-offensive and will also contract the front line by roughly 500 km, turning the front line from an (inverse) "L" shape (which was very long, thus hard to operate on) into a roughly straight (diagonal) one.
The first half of the month was greatly successful and was met with joy by the local press and public. However what was failed to be mentioned was the fact that the defenders, caught unprepared with focuses on the western front, were comprised of just the first Austro-Hungarian Army, a week force by comparison that was easily pushed back.
During the first part of the offensive, until the 13th of September, the three armies managed to advance roughly 100 km into Transylvania and capture key areas and towns like, Brașov, Orșova or Miercura Ciuc and pushing the front up to the Olt and Mureș rivers.
In the first two weeks of the campaign the Romanian troops met week resistance based on the unable and surprised Austro-hungarian 1st army. It was initially formed of 30 batallions of infantry and landstrum (a militia-like group, made up of recruits), with 8 cavalry squadrons and 8 artillery batteries: a meager force. However during the 2 first weeks of the offensive, the Central Powers were able to bring from other fronts up to 11 infantry and 3 cavalry divisions matching the number of the Romanian force.Geographical map of Romania with the outline of the front line at the height of the push at the end of August 1916. The locations are in german; Kronstadt=Brașov, Hermanstadt(just on the line)=Sibiu. You can also see the Mureș river which would have been the desired goal of the advance.
- mountain areas -> ?
- river valley -> ?
5. The reality of war: the disaster at the Battle of Turtucaia/Tutrakan
Between the 1st and 6th of September 1916 took place the Battle of Turtucaia in the southern Romanian front. It came to be the most bitter Romanian military defeat in history. At the end of the 6 days of fighting, from about 39 000 Romanian troops present during the action, 28 500 were taken prisoners, about 7000 were dead or wounded and only around 3500 were able to escape. On the Central Powers side, the Bulgarians suffered most of the casualties; from an estimate of 9000 killed, wounded or missing, only around 40 were German.
Turtucaia represented a fortified stronghold on the right bank of the Danube which was gained along with the 2 Bulgarian provinces after the Second Balkan War of 1913. Dubbed as "the Romanian Verdun" it had the same characteristics as a fortified redoubt of the time. With the centre around the village of Turtucaia it had 2 concentrical lines of defence anchored by the natural barrier of the Danube. The first one at roughly 3-4 km away from Turtucaia was made up of trenches and ditches with firing nests, with much of the structure unfinished or deteriorated. To the front, the primary line of defence was at around 8-10 km radius from Turtucaia and had 15 centres of resistance which were bunker-like shelters that could hold up to 70 men, with a raise of 60 cm above the ground and reinforced rooftops. They were connected with a web of trenches with barbed wire and machine gun positions.
Much of the artillery was concentrated around Turtucaia with some mounted on the river monitors that were to support the defence. Unfortunately much of these were obsolete based on modern standards with low firing speed and functioning only from fixed positions. "For command purposes the entire area of the fortress was divided into three sectors: I (west), II (south) and III (east), also named after local villages - Staro Selo, Daidur, and Antimovo. Each of them had its own commander" of different groups of the 17th infantry division, of the Romanian 3rd army.
The opposing force was the bulgarian-turkish-german army assembled under field marshal Mackensen with the purpose of striking a rapid blow to the Russian-Romanian force around Danube and Black Sea coast, in order to to give the in-process build-up of forces on the Carpathian front under Falkenhein sufficient time to prepare for a counter-offensive. The initial plan of Mackensen was a parallel assault on both Turtucaia and Silistra along the front line, but it was opposed by the Bulgarian Gral Stefan Toshev who presented a plan that focused on Turtucaia. As this relied on better intelligence of the front, the Bulgarian Gral's plan was approved by Mackensen with minor modifications.
The operation began on September the 1st with the Bulgarian-German troops passing the border and pushing back the guard patrols. The next 3 days, following the plan, the Central Power's troops maneuver to encircle the Turtucaia stronghold, at first attacking on the entire front and then moving its left and right flank up towards the Danube with reinforcements on the right in order to suppress an eventual relief operations from the Silistra direction. In fact on the 3rd of September the head of the 3rd Romanian army and the front sends orders to 2 Russian divisions at Silistra to support the defence, but the order is received late and not executed. On the 4th the Bulgarian-German army attacks the western sector I as a decoy to allow the main build-up of troops in Sector II which was were the main offence was planned. The commandment at Turtucaia starts to receive seom reinforcements from the other side of the Danube. On the 5th the main push is ordered against the southern centres of resistance of the main defence line with attacks against posts 4 up to 9. These are all successful and the Romanian troops withdraw to the secondary positions, In sector III in the east, even though the enemy conquers only the 11'th centre of resistance, there is a general retreat towards the secondary defences. On the 6th of September, the Romanians try 2 counter-attacks. One in sector I with the aim to recover centres 2-4 and the forest in the area and another one in Sector III, supported by the river monitors and some of the troops arrived from Silistra. Both of them fail, with the one in Sector III briefly managing to secure a connection for some of the troops to retreat. The command of the stronghold fleas the area before the enemy arrives in Turtucaia and the colonel left in command offers unconditional surrender soon after.
After the battle, gen Toshev remarked that "even women could have held the attack for 4-5 days" at Turtucaia, marking the swift and hard blow inflicted by him and his men to the Romanian army. It was indeed a grave defeat for the Romanian side, a result not only because of poor equipment and local defence outline, but mostly due to inapt command of the field officers that failed to finish defence preparations and failed to follow battle orders in some cases. The use of reserves was badly managed; they were committed to battle without a build-up that would make their action sustainable, but as they arrived. Big army groups retreated without exchanging fire with the enemy or entering skirmishes. The commander of the initial 17th division that was the main group of defence, actually fled the field before the battle was done, leaving behind his troops and to an inferior officer the task of surrendering.
"The scale of the defeat forced Romania to detach several divisions from its armies in Transylvania, greatly reducing the impetus of the advance there. On 7 September that advance was restricted by the Romanian high command, and on 15 September it was halted altogether, even before the armies had linked up on a defensible front. Major changes were made in the command structure of the forces operating against the Bulgarian Third Army. Command of the Romanian Third Army was taken over by General Averescu, and the Russo-Romanian forces in Dobrudja were reorganized as the Army of Dobrudja under General Zayonchkovski."Schematic depiction of the state of the fort and troop manuevers during the engagement.
The general location of the operations can be seen on the map from the previous section. Both Turtucaia (Turtukai) and Silistra (Silistria) are just below the Danube.
- Siege -> Turtucaia
- stronghold fort -> Ziggurat
- swift and decisive victory -> Conquer 500
6. Start of Central Powers counter-offensive. Second phase of the Battle for Transylvania
After halting the advance with the reinforced 1st Austro-Hungarian army and the newly formed German 9th army under former German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, the Central Powers prepared for a counter-offensive. By the 18th of September the Romanian troop superiority was matched and the offence halted. This was also due to troop maneuvers of the Romanian army intended at filling the gap left in the South with the defeat and loss of Turtucaia.
At first the plan was for a double push, with the northern 1st Austro-Hungarian army in the direction of Trotuș-Oituz with the goal of reaching Siret valley to disable Russian reinforcement of the area. The second counter-offensive, held by the German 9th army with the objective of cutting through the most accessible defence line of the Southern Carpatians with the goal of reaching the capital, Bucharest.
Isolated the groups of the 3 Romanian armies which entered Transylvania seemed as the best plan for the counter-offensive. Falkenhein decided to focus on one them and try to disable it. The best suited for this tactic was the group on the valley of river Olt which was located around the town of Sibiu and was the most isolated one with a large mountain area that blocked connection with the western Jiu group.
Falkenhein suspended the fights with the Jiu group which had already been pushed back to the original position of the border. He ordered all the filed commanders to suspend operations, dig for defence and send all available army groups towards a build-up in the Sibiu area.