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Fighting for Respect

Christopher Liliana Adochitei
Romania During WWI

Recommended Reading

The Romanian Battlefront in World War I

Eastern Front 1914-1917

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Romania and its allies during World War I
Romania and its allies during World War I
by Liliana Adochitei

With the beginning of WW1, Romania came under pressure from both sides of the conflict to join them. The Entente countries (France, Great Britain, Russia) demanded that Romania join their side against the Central powers (Austria-Hungary and Germany), and promised to recognise Romanian claims to territory held by Austria-Hungary in a post-war settlement. At the same time, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany demanded that King Carol I of Romania comply with the 1883 Treaty between the countries, which stipulated that if one of the countries were attacked the other one would offer their unconditional support.

Meeting from July 21 to August 3, 1919, the Crown Council of Sinaia determined that neutrality was the only appropriate option for Romania, as it was a small country located in the sphere of influences of two warring empires (Austria-Hungary and Russia). Romania’s situation was further complicated by the fact that it held territorial claims against both the Empires surrounding it. Consequently, neutrality was considered the best option at the start of the war, although both the Romanian politicians and the population in general, expected that Romania would likely be compelled to enter the war at some stage.

Romania harboured a powerful hostility towards the Central Powers at the outset of the war. Relations with Austria-Hungary had been extremely tense since the 1912-13 Balkan Wars, when Austria-Hungary had supported Bulgaria in those conflicts in order to attempt to draw that country into their sphere of influence. Both Berlin and Vienna were well aware of the coldness displayed by Romania towards Austria-Hungary, as shown in a telegraphic note sent by the German Minister in Bucharest, Herr Waldthansen, in December 1913, informing his superiors in Berlin that because of the (Austro-) Hungarian attitude towards the Romanians in Transylvania, it was unlikely Romania would support the Central Powers in any new war in Europe. Count Czernin, the Austro-Hungarian minister in Bucharest offered similar assessments in his communications home. In early 1914, Czernin specifically noted that there was a hostile atmosphere towards Austria-Hungary in Romania and that the Romanian press led a campaign for freedom in Transylvania and Bukovina. On the other hand, the Romanian Minister in Germany, Beldiman, informed his government of how concerned German politicians were about the hostility shown in Romania. In a report dated March 1914, he informed King Carol I about a meeting between Wilhelm II and Count Tisza discussing the situation for Romanians in Transylvania and the importance of keeping Romania as an ally for the Central Powers. At one point, political circles in Berlin and Vienna even considered granting additional rights to Romanians in Transylvania if this would help keep Romania as an ally, but Hungary vehemently opposed such concessions.

Central Powers or Entente?

During the period of neutrality, the Romanian political scene was dominated by an animated discussion about the different armies involved in the war and which one would be most beneficial for Romania to side with. The debate was not confined within Romania’s borders. The following appeared in an article in the newspaper “Le Temps” on December 10th 1914:

The Romanian people were definitely on our side. National momentum gained such proportions that the Government and the Crown had to follow its direction. The Kingdom’s neutrality was the first step. Today everybody is talking about intervention. Romania does not want to leave to others the duty to free Romanian brothers who are calling out from beyond the Hungarian border. It feels driven by the superior interest that emerges from the fight in which European freedom is at stake. It understands the need to act. It is going to act.

It is true that public opinion in Romania was firmly in favour of conquering Transylvania, but politicians remained divided into two main camps. One (led by P.P.Carp, C. Stere) advocated joining the Central Powers, whereas the other (led by Ion I.C. Bratianu, Take Ionescu, Nicolae Filipescu, N. Iorga etc) advocated joining the Entente.

Upon the death of King Carol I on October 10th 1914, the full responsibility for foreign policy landed on the table of Prime Minister Ion. I.C. Bratianu. Despite the fact that he and his supporters tended to support the Entente, neither he nor King Ferdinand rushed to change the country’s formal neutrality. Upon his appointment as Head of Government in January 1914, Bratianu declared that “We have great interests for our nation and interests for the kingdom. Even though in our soul they reside in the order which I have mentioned before, in the rational order the kingdom's interests dominate the others, as the kingdom is the essential guarantee of existence for the entire nation, because it constitutes the axis of the complete development of our nation". From Bratianu’s point of view, the achievement of the national ideal involved the discovery of ways which would not endanger the safety of the Kingdom, and for that it was necessary to know what the exact effect of the different options would be on the country.

While relations between Romania and the Central Powers remained openly strained, there appears to have been growing sentiments towards overt ties with the Entente forces. As Constantin Kiritescu notes in his book, Istoria războiului pentru întregirea României:

Daily, senior leaders were forced to make statements both to Germanophile politicians and to Central Powers ministers, that nothing was decided and that everything the public said was nothing but fancy rumors. The King and Bratianu are - along with two or three of their closest collaborators - the only people who know the whole secret, which they seek to save from indiscretions by firmly denying the truth up to the last moment; it was unknown to the members of the government, even to the nominal holder of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The reason for this secret was that with the Central Powers unaware of the truth, our army could go over the Carpathians simultaneous with the declaration of coming out of neutrality.

In September 1914, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, S.D. Sazanov, and Romania’s Minister to St.Petersburg, C. Diamandy, signed a secret agreement, by which Russia assumed the obligation to defend Romania’s territorial integrity and recognized its claims to Romanian territory held by Austria-Hungary. There was a condition, however; Romania would maintain its neutral status in the current war between the Central Powers and the Entente.

After the start of the war in 1914, both the major alliances had spared no effort in trying to attract Romania to their side. The Central Powers were aware that the best scenario for them would be to have Romania remain neutral, whereas the Entente countries wanted Romania to actively engage in the war and attack Austria-Hungary, thereby forcing the Germans to divert forces from France to support their weakened allies to the south.

After two years of relative patience in dealing with Prime Minister Bratianu’s deliberate delaying tactics, the Entente powers delivered an ultimatum to Romania to “act now or never”. As Kiriţescu mentions in his book:

The final drafting of the conventions with Entente powers had been finalized by Bratianu, with the collaboration of Duca and Diamandy, and they were signed on 4/17 August 1916, at 11:00 in the morning, not at Bratianu's house, but at Vintila Bratianu's house in Taranilor Street, to confuse the espionage organization. Those who were summoned walked to the location on a tropical heat. The street was deserted. Around the desk in the office of Vintilă Brătianu gathered a total of five people: Ion and Vintila Bratianu, Duca, Diamandy and the Russian Minister, Poklevski, who brought in his briefcase the five copies of the Treaties, which had already been signed by Saint-Aulaire, Barklay and Fasciotti; and for more safety, they were written by hand by each of the ministers.

Thus, the entry of Romania into the war was preceded by the signing of a military convention and a political treaty with the Entente countries. According to the Convention, Romania committed to attack Austria-Hungary, and the allies committed to help Romania, in the form of an offensive action in Thessaloniki, as well as direct support on the Austrian front. Moreover, Russia promised two divisions of infantry and one of cavalry, to assist the Romanian army on the Dobruja front. In addition to the tactical support, the Entente countries assured the leading political circles in Romania that they would send equipment, specialists and ammunition to Romania. The political Treaty stipulated that Romania would have to declare war on Austria-Hungary, and the Entente pledged to guarantee the territorial integrity of Romania, as well as the claims to the territories under Austro-Hungarian occupation.

Within the framework of the Crown Council, convened on 14 August 1916, Prime Minister Brătianu declared firmly: "We will declare war on Austria-Hungary, not others". At the same time, the head of Government justified this decision by citing claims to Romanian territories “under Austro-Hungarian occupation”.

Romania and its allies, Great Britain and France

Although the decision about which side to join had not been easy, the Romanians in the end opted to join the Entente. The final decision had been prompted by the stronger political relations with France and Great Britain, but economic ties and opportunities with France and Great Britain also played a big part. There was even a personal card to be played: it was not without significance that Queen Maria of Romania was a blood relative (cousin) of King George of Great Britain, and in her correspondence with her cousin she often pleaded for his support for Romanian territorial claims on Austro-Hungary. She also loved England with all her heart, and several times stated that she would die from grief if Romania would enter the war against her beloved England. Her influence on her husband was significant. According to her belief, which she expressed in a meeting with Czernin, “the last battle is always England’s.”

In 1916, the British Government sent Colonel Thompson and afterwards Sir Samuel Hoare as Military Attachés to Romania. The latter noticed the mistrust and suspicion among Romanians with respect to Russia and encouraged the Romanian Government not to cede the territorial demands against Russia, ensuring that they would have the protection and support of Great Britain.

During the German offensive at Verdun on the Western Front, there was an urgent need for a diversion to draw German strength away from the front by bringing Romania in on the Entente side as quickly as possible. Some indication of the urgency of the matter is captured in a note from French President Poincare to Tsar Nicholas of Russia dated August 5, 1916: “Romanian involvement,” Poincare wrote, “would be very important at this time, it could definitively break the balance in our favour.” Such was the urgency that France pressured Russia to agree with the territorial claims of Romania towards Russia.

Romanian soldiers fought with obsolete weapons and without military equipment

In the summer of 1916, the Romanian authorities mobilised 813,758 enlisted men and troops and 19,843 officers and students. There were also a further 420,870 reserves that could be called up.

The General Headquarters chose to conduct an offensive on the north-northwest front, against the Central Powers, where the First, Second and Northern Armies operated with a total of 420,324 soldiers. The Northern Army was deployed in the area between Dorna and Vrancea. From Vrancea to Câmpulung-Muscel, the Second Army manned the front, whereas the First Army would fight in the Arges River springs, Cerna and Calafat.

On the Southern Front, the Third Army with 142,523 soldiers operated. This army was further divided into three corps and attacked in the Olt and Arges areas, with bridgeheads established at Turtucaia, Silistra and Bazargic. One of the corps from the Third army was supposed to fight on the Dobruja front together with a corps from Russia.

Despite achieving initial victories in the attack accross the frontier at Transylvania, the gains could not be consolidated due to lack of equipment and deficiencies in training of the Romanian army. In November 1914, the Prime Minister Bratianu had been informed by Col. Rudeanu, Head of Armaments in the Ministry of Defence, that the Romanian army was facing severe shortages in equipment and ammunition. Rudeanu’s general assessment was not promising:

If we enter the war with the munitions that we now have, in about two weeks of fighting, part of our artillery will be forced to cease fire; another part after three weeks and after a month and a half, our entire artillery will no longer be able to fight due to lack of ammunition. After about a month of war, one-third of our infantry will be forced to stop fighting. The other two-thirds, lacking artillery support, will no longer be able to resist much longer. Our army will head for defeat

An inventory of weapons available to Romania forces in 1914 made it clear that Romanian arms were inadequate compared with arms available to other countries involved in the war. Rudeanu describes Romania’s plight in brutal detail:

We have 434,000 guns, of three different systems, some of them very old, model 1879, with slow-firing. Taking into account the need to keep as a backup stock about 100,000, we have 334,000 guns left to arm 43 divisions of about 12,000 men each. That would correspond to an army of 516,000 soldiers, even though, judging by the size of Romania‘s population, we could have more than 600,000. …Our field artillery include a total of 1,231 cannons, of which only 787 modern, with quick firing, the rest being old cannons. Mountain artillery is greatly reduced, 52 pieces of which 36 very old, md.1863. Heavy field artillery is quasi non-existent.

There is no indication that the dire situation of 1914 was improved significantly by the time Romanian entered the war.

Further to the problems with equipment, there were severe problems with the training level of Romanian soldiers. In his report to King Ferdinand, on 27th August 1916, General Avrescu, commander of the Third Army, noted:

Of the 54 battalions, only 10 are constituted from the young regiments (1-40), 20 are from the reserve regiments, 19 are from the 4th battalions, gathered from all corners of the country and 5 militia battalions. …The reserve battalions are the only troops that, well placed, can fight alongside the first, without any bad influence; the 4th battalions and the militia battalions, not only that they are useless in a bloody battle, but they are an element of panic, with all its consequences. …Weak elements should be grouped in special units and taken to training camps, where by means of a methodical and intensive activity to turn them into army troops, at the same time equipping them with artillery materials adequate for the present battle field requirements.

Not even the personal equipment of each soldier was up to acceptable standards. In her memoirs, Queen Maria mentions how inappropriately the soldiers were dressed, in comparison with the Russian allies. "Oh! How ragged and weak they were, with their grimy sometimes almost black faces, with their sharp, seeing eyes that had witnessed all kinds of horrible deeds and the atrocious death. Besides that, they seemed frozen; their clothing being totally insufficient for the terrible cold from our country ", the queen wrote in her diary. To supplement the clothing and footwear necessary for the army, but also to supply the troops on the front lines with food, an appeal was made to the population.

This general unpreparedness for war had relatively rapid consequences. At the end of September 1916 the Romanian government started preparations for the relocation of its headquarters to Iasi, and on December 6 Romania’s capital, Bucharest, was occupied by German cavalry.

Romanian oil - vital to the German war machine

From the economic point of view, relations between Romania, France and England dated from the second half of the nineteenth century, when massive foreign capital from these countries flowed into the Romanian economy. The greatest interest was expressed for the exploitation of crude oil, Romania being renowned for its petroleum resources. In 1913, British capital investment in petroleum exploitation was 23.64% (ownership), whereas German capital ownership stood at 27.35%.

Romania's entry into the war in August 1916 caused a shock to the German economy because it was losing the "vital resources and Romanian oil", the Romanian economy being one of the main suppliers to Germany of grain and petroleum products. "So we can live, we need to defeat Romania", General Ludendorff noted in his diary.

After Romania entered the war and after the initial victories, the Romanian army was forced to retreat to Moldavia. Prior to the evacuation, the Romanian Army HQ ordered the destruction of all petroleum resources in the regions threatened by occupation by German and Austro-Hungarian forces. The decision was heavily influenced by Sir George Barclay, the British government representative in Romania at the time, who promised that Great Britain would pay compensation to Romania for the destroyed facilities and resources. The destruction of reserves and war supplies began on the morning of 6 December 1916 and was led by the British majors Clifford and Thomson. They set fire to over 1,000 wells and drilling rigs, tanks with a capacity of more than 150,000 cubic metres were dynamited, 1,500 drilling rigs were locked, and over 70 refineries were destroyed, as well as the oil pipelines from Constanta port. Also, over 830,000 tonnes of petrol and kerosene were burnt, the damage being estimated at 600 million lei in gold.

Even so, the rapid arrival of the occupation troops under the command of General Morgen ensured the planned destruction could not be completed. Despite efforts to deny the oil resources to the enemy, the Germans seized 4,000 wagons of oil, 50,000 wagons of petrol, 65,000 tonnes of mineral oils and all the tanks filled with 95,000 tons of petroleum products existing in the port of Constanta. More, through sustained efforts the German military administration succeeded, in a short time, in rebuilding and repairing most of the damage done. With equipment brought from Germany, they started unlocking the drilling rigs and rebuilding refineries.

Great victories for a small army

While Romanian petroleum products were taken to Germany and its Central Power allies, Romania was suffering terribly because of lack of these products. In Moldavia there were no sources of petroleum except those in Bacau county, which did not cover the requirements at the time. In 1917, Moldavia came under threat by Mackensen's offensive armies, which intended to deprive the Romanian army of its last reserves of petrol and coal. However, in the summer of 1917, in a series of battles at Mărăști, Oituz and Mărășești, Romanian forces stood their ground and prevented the German and Austro-Hungarian armies from reaching the oil fields in Moldavia.

The heroism displayed by the Romanian soldiers was noticed by the Entente powers, and Romanian soldiers received praise for their courageous victories. French General Franchet d’Esperay wrote to Romanian authorities in these glowing terms:

I bow before the glorious martyrs and please accept my warm congratulations for the knowledge and energy carried out by commandment and headquarters, as well as the high value of the troops.

Not to be outdone, English Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote the following to I.I.C. Batianu:

I wish to express on behalf of the British Government our deep admiration for the heroic courage and momentum that the Romanian people have proven during a year of almost unmatched adversities. The resistance so precious for the common cause - which this army is using to fight against the enemy in very harsh conditions - gives a great example of the strength that freedom can instil to a liberal people.

The English and French press also commented extensively on the successes achieved by the Romanian army at the gates of Moldavia. Comments in "Revue des Deux Mondes", if not typical then at least indicative, convey a sense of what the Romanians, with some support from Russian forces, achieved:

The Russo-Romanian army attacked the valleys of Trotus, Susita, Putna, covering 60 km, and managed to push back the enemy lines for about 20 km; but the events that occurred on the Nistru River slowed down and halted the advance, if not, even putting it in danger.

Facing a large and well equipped enemy army, Romanians mobilised faultlessly and managed to annihilate the enemies‘plans to destroy their country, because resisting meant in fact keeping the Romanian state united. The Romanian victories on the Eastern front were instrumental in causing the collapse of one of the most powerful offensives of the Central Powers against Russia.

The Campaigns between 1916-1918 necessitated huge expenses from the Romanian state. On the other hand, the damages caused by having a war on Romanian territory, the economic exploitation of the areas under foreign occupation culminated with considerable material losses, estimated at 72 billion lei in gold, of which only 13 billion were accepted by the Commission for repairs after the war.

* * *

Copyright © 2014 Liliana Adochitei

Written by Liliana Adochitei. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Liliana Adochitei at:

About the author:
Liliana Adochitei is a history teacher and a PhD candidate at the University of Suceava, Romania.

Published online: 04/15/2014.

* * *


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Alexandru Averescu, Notiţe zilnice din război [Daily Notes of war], an edition supervised by Eftimie Ardeleanu and Adrian Pandea, Bucharest, Editura Militară, 1992.

H. Brestoiu, Impact la paralela 45, Iași, Editura Junimea, 1986.

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V. Rudeanu, Memorii din timp de pace şi război [Memory peace time and war], an edition supervised by Dumitru Preda and Vasile Alexandrescu, Bucharest, Editura Militară, 1989.

E. Răcilă, Contribuții privind lupta românilor pentru apărarea patriei în Primul Război Mondial 1916-1918 [Contributions to fight the Romans for homeland defense in World War 1916-1918], , Bucharest, Editura Științifică și Enciclopedică, 1981.

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