Romanians in the Austro-Hungarian Empire fought in the First World War since the beginning of the conflict. On the Galician Front, and later on the Italian Front, many Romanians were taken prisoners or deserted and were taken to war camps in Russia, Italy or France. The entry of Romania into the war, on the side of the Entente (1916) meant that Romanian prisoners from Austro-Hungarian territories (Transylvania, Banat, Bukovina) still in Russian camps had the chance now to join the Romanian army.
The idea of enlisting Romanian prisoners of war from Russian camps in the Romanian army was not a new one. In the spring of 1916, Octavian Codru Tăslăuanu, a former officer in the Austro-Hungarian army who deserted to Romania in the autumn of 1914, asked Nicolae Filipescu, who was visiting the court of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, to negotiate Romania’s entry into the war on the side of the Entente, and to discuss with the Russians about the possibility of integrating Romanian prisoners in the Romanian army.
In September 1916, General Alexandru Averescu put forward the same idea in a report to King Ferdinand, concerning the reorganization of the army. Meanwhile, leaders of the Transylvanian Romanians in Bucharest (Octavian Goga, Vasile Lucaciu) lobbied Romanian authorities, requesting the formation of volunteer detachments from the Romanian prisoners held in Russian camps.
In 1917, Romanian authorities tried to persuade the Russians, but they were unflinching in their refusal. The same initiative coming from the prisoners themselves was also turned down, despite the fact that the government in Petrograd supported the establishment of volunteer corps made up of ethnic Slavs from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Serb).
The establishment of the Corps of Romanian volunteers from Transylvania and Bukovina
Eventually, the Romanian War Ministry decided to set up by itself the Corps of Romanian volunteers from Transylvania and Bukovina, consisting of Romanian soldiers from the Austro-Hungarian army captured by the Russians. Their number was estimated in August 1916 to more than 120.000 soldiers. At the nominal command of the volunteer corps was General Constantin Coandă, the Romanian military attaché to the Russian High Command. The executive command of the corps was held by lieutenant-colonel Constantin Pietraru, charged by Romanian authorities to handle the recruitment of volunteers and their organization. Officially, the Corps of Romanian volunteers from Transylvania and Bukovina was established on March 16, 1917, with their headquarters in Kiev. After the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the new Petrograd government was much more accommodating to Romanian prisoners who wanted to enlist as volunteers to fight the Central Powers.
The Romanian prisoners from Transylvania and Bukovina who chose to join the Romanian army assembled in Darnița, near Kiev. The delegates of the Romanians taken prisoner in Russia met here in April, issuing a proclamation (the Darnița Declaration), by which the Romanian volunteers from Russia pledged to fight for the fulfilment of their ideal, “to unite the nation, the Romanian territory a part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy into One and inseparable Romania, free and independent”.
The first detachment was organized until the end of May and left for Romania at the beginning of June. Volunteers arrived in Iași on June 8, 1917, being received in an atmosphere of general enthusiasm.
“The first manifestation of hope in a Greater Romania, on the occasion of the incorporation of 300 officers and 1.500 soldiers from Bukovina and Transylvania in the Romanian army and their pledge of allegiance to the king, made prisoners by the Russians, who requested to serve Romania. […] These troops, dressed and armed by the Russians, present themselves well”, noted in his memoirs General Henri Mathias Berthelot, the head of the French military mission in Romania.
After a four-week training period, the volunteers were divided into four regiments. They took part in the Battle of Mărășești in the summer of 1917. On November 28, 1917, the Great General Headquarters of the Romanian army decided to reunite all the Romanian volunteers from the territories belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a separate corps: the Corps Command of the Romanian volunteers from Transylvania and Bukovina, with the headquarters in Hârlău. The commander of this unit was Colonel Marcel Olteanu.
In Russia, the activity of the Corps of Romanian volunteers from Transylvania and Bukovina ceased, as a result of major disturbances in the former Russian Empire. The pool of recruits was extended, allowing volunteers, refugees or prisoners from countries like Italy and the United States. With the Bolshevik takeover of power in Russia (November 7, 1917), the recruitment of Romanian prisoners became increasingly difficult, and would cease altogether at the beginning of 1918.
By March 1918, 396 officers and 9.721 Romanian soldiers were recruited from Russian war camps. Of these, 374 officers and 8.261 soldiers were sent to Romania, and the rest remained in Russia after February 7, 1918, to guard the deposits of the Romanian army.
The Corps of Romanian volunteers from Transylvania and Bukovina ceased its activity in May 1918, after Romania signed in Bucharest a separate peace with the Central Powers (May 7).
Major general (r) dr. Mihail E. Ionescu (coordinator), Românii în „Marele Război”. Anul 1917. Documente, impresii, mărturii [Romanians in the “Great War”. 1917. Documents, impressions, testimonies], Military Publishing House, Bucharest, 2018.
Glenn E. Torrey (ed.), Generalul Henri Berthelot. Memorii şi corespondenţă 1916–1919 [General Henri Berthelot. Memoirs and correspondence 1916-1919], Military Publishing House, Bucharest, 2012.
Translated by Laurențiu Dumitru Dologa