Romania's Attempted Occupation of Transylvania

In summer 1916, the military reverses suffered by the monarchy incited the Bucharest government to enter the war. Vienna no longer harboured the illusion that Romania would feel bound by the old treaty of alliance to maintain a neutral stance. At the beginning of July, Tisza sent a memorandum to the monarch urging that substantial military forces be stationed on Transylvania's border to deter 'a Romanian threat that is very serious and might materialize at any moment.'[97]97. Galántai, Magyarország, p. 303. He sought help from Germany as well, and was willing, in exchange, to cede to that country the areas of Poland claimed by the monarchy. That same month, the German, Austro–Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Turkish general staffs agreed that if the necessity arose, they would launch a joint offensive to put Romania out of action.

Calculating that the Central Powers were heading for defeat, the Romanian government gave in to French pressures and the popular demand for territorial expansion. In a secret treaty, signed at Bucharest on 17 August 1916, Romania allied itself with the Entente. The Entente undertook to assist Romania by launching offensives in Salonika and Galicia, and by providing logistical support for a Romanian attack on the monarchy. In exchange for Bucharest's support — which they anticipated would have great military value — the Entente powers promised that Romania would gain a part of Bukovina; the entire Banat; historical Transylvania; and additional Hungarian territory extending to the Tisza River, excluding only the districts of Debrecen and Orosháza. 'Who knows whether the centuries will bring another moment as propitious as {3-739.} this one?' asked Prime Minister Brătianu rhetorically at a session of the crown council; he argued that Romania had to assume the risk of defeat, for, whatever the outcome, the great powers' endorsement of Romania's claim to Transylvania would serve the cause of national unification.[98]98. Quoted in V. Atanasiu et al., România în primul război mondial (Bucharest, 1979), p. 139. Politicians who favoured the Central Powers found themselves in the minority. On Sunday evening, August 27, Romania's declaration of war was delivered in Vienna. That night, the armies of King Ferdinand (who had succeeded King Charles I) advanced through the largely undefended passes of the Carpathian Mountains.

On the first day of the offensive, the Hungarian authorities took measures to evacuate the potential war zone south of the Maros River. Hungarian and Saxon townsfolk and the inhabitants of Székelyföld were instructed to pull back. Offices were transferred from Brassó to Földvár. Some two-thirds of the population of Nagyszeben moved out, and an even larger proportion left Csíkszereda, but the highways were also crowded with peasant carts and livestock. Over 200,000 people made the exodus. Refugees flooded into Enyed, Torda, and Kolozsvár, and then into the districts of Temesvár and Szeged was well. A large number of people sought temporary haven in Budapest; due to the congested traffic and the shortage of railway cars, it took them three to four days to reach the capital. Bishop Teutsch and other Saxon Church leaders took refuge in Budapest, as did almost all of the financial institutions, including the Romanian Albina bank. Most of the Zsil Valley's miners were evacuated to Tatabánya.

The Romanian attack induced great shock in Hungary, although no one doubted that it would be repulsed. The war had induced the government and opposition parties to put on a show of consensus, but Tisza now faced accusations in parliament that he had neglected the defence of Transylvania. Károlyi's opposition group charged that even Jászi bore some responsibility for the calamity. The harmony that had prevailed within ruling elite was {3-740.} permanently shattered. The invasion provoked discord within the Romanian nationalist movement as well. Although their party kept silent, it tacitly endorsed the solemn declarations of loyalty made by their leading figures. On September 5, Ştefan C. Pop assured parliament of his party's loyalty to the monarchy. Vaida-Voevod condemned the Romanian attack in the pages of Vienna's Reichspost. Transylvania's Romanians manifested less sympathy for the Romanian royal armies than had been expected by the governments in Budapest and Bucharest. On the Romanian side, disappointment led to some exaggeration. King Ferdinand noted that 'even Transylvania's Romanians received them as if they were enemies,' and the academic–politician Nicolae Iorga later recorded that 'when Romanian troops crossed the frontier in 1916, not one welcoming word came from the ranks' of the local Romanians.[99]99. N. Iorga, Supt trei regi (Bucharest, 1932), p. 288; Al. Marghiloman, Note politice (Bucharest, 1927), pp. 221-3. In fact, many Transylvanian Romanians were delighted at the invasion and hoped that the dawn of national unification had risen; but the majority did adopt a wait-and-see attitude. In a confidential report, the lord lieutenant of Szeben County voice some complaints about the intelligentsia but concluded that 'on the whole, we can be satisfied' with the behaviour of the Romanian population.[100]100. Report of 5 November 1916, OL, Miniszterelnökség, 1917, XVI 362 res. (1916 6922 res.) The cautious attitude of the Romanian citizenry could be attributed to uncertainty about the war's outcome, and also to fear of official sanctions: in Szeben County alone, nineteen people were detained in the first wave of internment.

According to the plan ('Ipoteza Z') drawn up by Romania's military strategists, the three army groups, with a strength of over 440,000, were to reach the Maros River within a few days, and then to proceed from two directions towards the Tisza plain. The Hungarians lacked the resources for a sustained defence; they could only muster 70,000 men, including the newly-assembled First Army, which was commanded by Field Marshal Arthur Arz, a Transylvanian Saxon, and had 34,000 regular troops, a thousand gendarmes, and 76 pieces of artillery. Yet the attacking forces made {3-741.} slow progress. The Romanians entered a deserted Brassó on August 30, then moved on to occupy most of Székelyföld; they also captured Petrozsény and Orsova, but stopped short of taking the equally deserted Nagyszeben. They failed to exploit their tactical and numerical advantage. Meanwhile, at the Bulgarian–Romanian border, General Mackensen's Bulgarian, German, and Turkish troops defeated the forces protecting Romania's rear. This counter-attack achieved its primary objective: in mid-September, the Romanian high command halted the Transylvanian offensive and deployed its troops in defensive positions.

The Central Powers set up a separate Transylvanian command at Nagyvárad, with Crown Prince Charles as commander-in-chief, and a German, Hans von Seeckt, as chief of staff. The headquarters was transferred to Kolozsvár in September, when the Austro–Hungarian First Army took up defensive positions at Marosvásárhely, while the German Ninth Army, which had been cobbled together out of German and Austro–Hungarian units hurriedly withdrawn from other fronts, was mustered for offensive operations on the southern reaches of the Maros River. Led by Erich von Falkenhayn (freshly dismissed from his post as chief of the German general staff), the Ninth Army inflicted defeat on the Romanian First Army at Nagyszeben on 26–28 September, and on the Romanian Second Army on 7–9 October, at Brassó. Arz's First Army also delivered punishing blows on the enemy southeast of Marosvásárhely. The Romanians began to pull back. Their talented commander, Alexandru Avarescu, would reflect bitterly that 'the offensive, which faced no difficulties, moved slowly, but when difficulties arose, the retreat was precipitous.'[101]101. Quoted in N. Iorga, Istoria românilor X (Intregitori) (Bucharest, 1939), p. 371. The retreating Romanians took hostages, and many members of the Romanian intelligentsia from the southern border districts went with them as well. Groups of municipal administrators from Fogaras and Szeben counties joined the withdrawal.

{3-742.} By the end of October, the Romanian forces had been expelled from Transylvania. From their new defensive positions in the Carpathians, the Romanians put up a spirited fight, and even launched a few counter-attacks. However, in mid-November, the armies of the Central Powers broke through the Romanian lines at Tîrgu Jiu and moved into the Oltenian plain. After shattering Romanian defences along the Arges, Mackensen crossed the Danube from the south, opening up the road to Bucharest. The city was occupied on 6 December.

In the course of their 1916 campaign, the Romanians suffered over 100,000 casualties, and 150,000 became prisoners of war. The government, along with many ordinary citizens, fled to Moldavia, where the army was reorganized with the help of a French military mission led by Henri Berthelot. In July 1917, the Romanian and Russian forces managed to halt Mackensen's advance in southern Moldavia. However, the Central Powers controlled two thirds of Romania, including the country's most important agricultural and oil-producing regions, where two years' worth of accumulated grain was stored. Deprived of its main source of military support by the bolshevik Revolution, Romania disregarded the Entente's demands and sued for peace. An armistice was followed, in spring 1918, by the conclusion of a separate peace with the Central Powers. The Bucharest Peace Treaty placed Romania's economy under German–Austro–Hungarian supervision and prescribed the demobilization of its army. Ironically, Romania, though vanquished, emerged from war with a net gain in territory. A strip of land, 2-10 kilometres deep, and with a population of 23,000, was — for strategic reasons — annexed by Hungary, and Romania also lost control over the Dobrudja. However, Romania was allowed to keep Bessarabia, which it had obtained from Soviet Russia in January 1918.

The monarchy paid a high price for the defeat of Romania. In the process, the Germans had taken effective control of the Central {3-743.} Powers' joint military operations, and the Habsburg empire became even more dependent on Germany.