August 27, 1916. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. Traffic ceased along the border with Austria-Hungary as the roads that led to the frontier were being blocked off one by one from the Romanian side. The Austro-Hungarian border guards were rushing to report: something was happening beyond the border and they believed that Romanian troops were about to attack. At nine o’clock in the evening, the Romanian ambassador to Vienna, Eduard Mavrocordat, handed the declaration of war to the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, Count Burian István.
Following an ultimatum, Romania resolved to enter the First World War, “now or never”, on the side of the Entente, a decision that was met by most of its population with great enthusiasm. If the news was not unexpected for the Austro-Hungarians, the same cannot be said about Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany. When he heard the news that Romania entered the war, the Kaiser became extremely convinced that he had lost the war. However, he will have a change of mind in just a few weeks.
Overcome by the thought of liberating Transylvania, Romania entered in the tactical nightmare of a war waged on two fronts. For the country to withstand the onslaught, in July-August 1916, the General Staff finalized the Campaign Plan “Hypothesis Z”, which stated that Romania’s main desire was “the completion of the nation, the conquest of the territories inhabited by Romanians that are today an integral part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy”. The plan called for the deployment of military units on two fronts: in north and northwest against Austria-Hungary and in the south, in case Bulgaria, an ally of the Central Powers, decided to intervene in force.
Romania mobilized over 800.000 soldiers and officers, but the Romanian army had to fight on a very wide front, stretching over 1.500 km. And, as if this was not enough, Romania depended on an offensive of its allies on the Thessaloniki front, which would not be happening, but also on a collaboration- which was made difficult in the beginning- with Russian troops.
Germany declared war on Romania on August 28, the Ottomans following their example on August 30. Bulgaria instead bided its time, but eventually attacked Romania without a war declaration, issuing it later.
The Romanian army entered Transylvania by forcing their way through a number of passes. The three armies, with a total of about 400.000 soldiers, had the mission to occupy Transylvania, where the resistance of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers was estimated to be no more than 100.000.
The Romanian First Army, commanded by General Ioan Culcer, protected the left flank of the Carpathian front and consisted of three groups- Cerna, Jiu and Olt, that were separated by the mountains. They were to enter Transylvania and reunite there to make a common front. The Cerna Group, under the command of General Ioan Dragalina, was supposed to occupy Orșova and to brake trough the Cerna Gorge. Bombarded by Austrian monitors on the Danube, they secured the heights of the Cerna Valley and on September 4 they occupied Orșova. The Jiu Group crossed the Vulcan and Surduc passes towards Petroșani. Once that city was occupied, the Jiu Group was supposed to advance towards Haţeg and then Deva. Even though Petroșani was occupied on August 30, the offensive stopped at Merişor, 15 km north of Petroșani, on fortified positions. The Olt Group advanced on the Olt Valley towards Tălmaciu and Sibiu, where they had to occupy the heights around the city. When the Romanian troops took control of the entire area between the pass and the city, representatives from Sibiu came to surrender the city to avoid its destruction. However, the Romanian army did not occupy Sibiu.
The Second Army, commanded by General Alexander Averescu, covered the Carpathian Ark, on a 230-kilometer front and entered through five passes towards Brașov and Făgăraș. On August 29, the Romanians entered Braşov and, even though they encountered poor resistance, advanced slowly, being severely affected by the transfer of some of its units on the Danube front. On September 7, Averescu too was transferred to command troops in Dobruja. Averescu was replaced by Crăiniceanu, a weak field commander, who was asked to stop the offensive on September 8. Three days later, he was ordered to advance to the confluence of Olt-Homorod, reaching it on September 14 and occupied Făgăraș, despite enemy resistance, which was conducting a fighting retreat. On September 17, the offensive was stopped again. The next day two other divisions were transfered from the Second Army and sent to Dobruja, creating a dangerous breach of about 40 km between the Second Army and the First Army.
The Northern Army, commanded by General Constantin Prezan, was stationed in the Eastern Carpathians, on a 260-kilometer front between Vatra-Dornei and Oituz. It entered the eastern part of Transylvania by way of Miercurea Ciuc and Târgu Secuiesc, through the Ghimeș, Uzului, Oituz and Tulgheș passes, on the Bistricioara Valley. The Northern Army halted its advance on August 30, barely starting the second phase of their offensive on September 6. The towns of Toplița, Gheorgheni, Praid, Odorheiul Secuiesc, Miercurea Ciuc, Târgu Secuiesc were occupied. But the pause gave the Austro-Hungarians time to consolidate their positions and receive reinforcements. On September 8, the German general Curt von Morgen arrived in Târgu Mureș, intent on stopping the Romanians. He was not successful at first. Falkenhayn ordered Morgen to adopt defensive positions, the two armies in the south being the main target of the Germans. Morgen’s task was made easier by the order of the Romanian Great General Headquarters to stop the offensive in Transylvania because of the difficult situation on the Danube front. Prezan gave orders to the army to fortify itself and enter defensive positions, with only occasional skirmishes taking place.
The attack of the German-Bulgarian troops in southern Romania and their rapid advance in southern Dobruja managed to ruin the plans of the Romanian army. Some of the troops that entered Transylvania were withdrawn and sent on the Danube front. During this time, many powerful German and Austro-Hungarian divisions arrived in Transylvania.
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Translated by Laurențiu Dumitru Dologa