Prelude to Blitzkrieg: The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania

Prelude to Blitzkrieg: The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania

by Michael B. Barrett

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In contrast to the trench-war deadlock on the Western Front, combat in Romania and Transylvania in 1916 foreshadowed the lightning warfare of WWII. When Romania joined the Allies and invaded Transylvania without warning, the Germans responded by unleashing a campaign of bold, rapid infantry movements, with cavalry providing cover or pursuing the crushed foe.


In contrast to the trench-war deadlock on the Western Front, combat in Romania and Transylvania in 1916 foreshadowed the lightning warfare of WWII. When Romania joined the Allies and invaded Transylvania without warning, the Germans responded by unleashing a campaign of bold, rapid infantry movements, with cavalry providing cover or pursuing the crushed foe. Hitting where least expected and advancing before the Romanians could react—even bombing their capital from a Zeppelin soon after war was declared—the Germans and Austrians poured over the formidable Transylvanian Alps onto the plains of Walachia, rolling up the Romanian army from west to east, and driving the shattered remnants into Russia. Prelude to Blitzkrieg tells the story of this largely ignored campaign to determine why it did not devolve into the mud and misery of trench warfare, so ubiquitous elsewhere.

Editorial Reviews

Richard C. Hall
"Michael Barrett’s Prelude to Blitzkrieg is an important addition to First World War studies. Well researched and well written, Prelude to Blitzkrieg not only elucidates a thus far obscure First World War campaign, it also indicates the direction of tactics to come in the Second World War. Barrett effectively belies the traditional assumption that the First World War was slow and static and demonstrates that at least in the 1916 Romanian campaign it was a struggle of maneuver and speed. Utilizing sources from both sides of the conflict, Barrett skillfully covers the three main aspects of the Romanian campaign of 1916. These include the Romanian invasion of Transylvania, the Bulgarian-German-Ottoman invasion of Dobrogea, and the Austro-German invasion of Romania." —Richard C. Hall, author of Balkan Breakthrough: The Battle of Dobro Pole 1918

Graydon A. Tunstall
"Michael Barrett’s Prelude to Blitzkrieg presents detailed descriptions of the various battles during the Romanian campaigns in the First World War. It is a well-written, thoroughly researched contribution to WWI historiography. His portrayal of the interactions of all the participants is particularly interesting. A highly recommended read for military historians in general, WWI aficionados and those interested in the Eastern and Balkan fronts." —Graydon A. Tunstall, author of Blood on the Snow: The Carpathian Winter War of 1915

From the Publisher
"Michael Barrett's Prelude to Blitzkrieg presents detailed descriptions of the various battles during the Romanian campaigns in the First World War. It is a well-written, thoroughly researched contribution to WWI historiography. His portrayal of the interactions of all the participants is particularly interesting. A highly recommended read for military historians in general, WWI aficionados and those interested in the Eastern and Balkan fronts." —Graydon A. Tunstall, author of Blood on the Snow: The Carpathian Winter War of 1915—Graydon A. Tunstall, author of Blood on the Snow: The Carpathian Winter War of 1915

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Prelude to Blitzkrieg

The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania

By Michael B. Barrett

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Michael B. Barrett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00870-1


Romania Enters the War


At 3 PM, 27 August 1916, traffic ceased along the five hundred miles of the Austrian-Romanian border. The change took a while to register with the Austrian guards, because Romanian soldiers initially stopped the flow a dozen miles from their side of the border. The Austrians first noticed things were amiss when scheduled trains failed to appear. They duly reported this troubling development to their headquarters, suspecting and dreading what it probably meant. They did not have long to wait.

At 8:45 PM in Vienna, Ambassador Edgar Mavrocordato (1857–1934) handed Romania's declaration of war to Count Istvan Burian (1851–1922), the Austrian foreign minister. Mavrocordato knew its contents well; he had kept the document in his safe for several days after it had been hand delivered from Bucharest in a manner befitting a spy novel. Romanian statesmen had long realized that their cherished goal of liberating their kinsmen in Hungarian-ruled Transylvania could be achieved only if the Allies won the world conflict. After reneging on the late King Carol's pledge to support the Central Powers in the fateful days of July and August 1914, the Romanian government had waited for the opportune moment to enter the war, while its diplomats secured Allied promises to allow Bucharest to annex Romania irredenta, the Austro-Hungarian province of Transylvania. In the late summer of 1916, a combination of Allied military success with a concomitant teetering of the Central Powers and Allied pressure indicated to Romania that the moment when her intervention might tip the balance had arrived. The declaration of war minced no words: "Romania ... sees itself forced to place itself at the side of those who would be able to assure the realization of its national unity."

Officials in Vienna immediately relayed the news to the army field headquarters in Teschen, on the Eastern Front in Austrian Silesia. There, General August von Cramon (1861–1940), the German liaison officer, called his own nearby headquarters in Pless to pass on the bad news. The duty officer summoned the army chief of staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn (1861–1922), to the phone. "At 8:45 this evening," von Cramon reported, "the Romanian Ambassador to Vienna handed the Austro-Hungarian Government a declaration of war." "Impossible," cried von Falkenhayn. "It's a fact, Excellency," insisted von Cramon. Von Falkenhayn immediately called Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859–1941), who was equally stunned. The news "hit him like a bolt from the blue." He told General Mortiz von Lyncker (1853–1932), head of the Military Cabinet, that "this means the end of the war." Up to the moment of the declaration, the kaiser believed it impossible that Romania's King Ferdinand (1867–1927) – a German from the Catholic branch of his own Hohenzollern family and a sovereign who had pursued a policy of neutrality since Romania defected from its alliance obligations at the war's onset – would go over to the enemy. Although Romania's perfidy and disavowal of blood ties shocked the kaiser, von Falkenhayn was not totally taken aback. Romania's timing, more than her declaration of war, had taken him by surprise. Despite warning signs that Romania was gradually tilting toward the Entente, he had given credence to faulty intelligence from the German military attaché and ambassador in Bucharest and firmly believed that the invasion would not come before the completion of the fall harvest.

Von Falkenhayn had nonetheless hedged his bets and consulted with his Austrian counterpart, Colonel General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (1852–1925). The two army chiefs had met twice in July to discuss what actions to take in the event that Romania intervened. They faced limited options, given the crises on the other fronts of the war. About all they could do was to threaten Romania from Bulgaria, where a small German-Bulgarian army led by German Field Marshal August von Mackensen (1849–1945) blocked Allied forces in Thessalonica (Greece) from moving north. A thrust from Bulgaria would almost certainly force the Romanians to pull back some of their units invading Transylvania to defend the capital of Bucharest, dangerously close to the Bulgarian border along the Danube River. The diversion of enemy forces would slow the pace of their advance in Transylvania, permitting Austria and Germany to assemble sufficient units in northern Transylvania to drive the invaders back over the mountains onto the plains of Walachia. The Central Powers would pursue the retreating enemy and, reinforced by the German-Bulgarian army coming from Bulgaria, crush Romania in a concentric advance on Bucharest.

This ambitious plan remained almost entirely on paper. The prevailing wisdom was to avoid provoking the Romanians by reinforcing the border, a step von Falkenhayn found easy to implement because he had no spare divisions to send to the Balkans. The consequences of a Romanian declaration of war were far more serious for the Austrians, and Conrad did take some minor action. He moved his heavy bridging equipment and the Austrian navy's Danube Flotilla to river ports in Bulgaria, opposite Romania. He had already ordered the regional hinterland commanders in Transylvania to prepare for an invasion, telling them to consolidate second-line and militia units that were scattered here and there into coherent combat units. At the end of July, he dispatched two divisions to Transylvania, although both came from the Russian front and needed reconstitution and recuperation owing to crushing losses. These were the 51st and 61st Honved, or Hungarian, Infantry Troop Divisions, both in sad shape. The 61st went to Csik County north of Brasov (Kronstadt) in the Burzenland; the 51st went to Alba Julia (Karlsburg).

The Austrians formed twenty-three new infantry battalions from reserve units, foraging artillery and miscellaneous equipment from other fronts, and organized these into the 71st and 72nd Infantry Troop Divisions, located in Brasov, Sibiu (Hermannstadt), and Petrosani (Petroszeny). In one of the subordinate units of the 72nd Division, the 144th Infantry Brigade, coal miners from Petrosani were formed into several battalions. Hungarian state-of-siege laws allowed the conscription of people in many professions, including miners, on declaration of war. It is not certain if the miners ever received any military training, but on paper they existed as a unit and were already under martial law, waiting for orders to drop their picks and shovels and to move to the front.

Conrad did send one first-rate infantry regiment, the 82nd, from his 4th Army in Russia. The unit's members belonged to the Szekeler population of the Burzenland, a Magyar subgroup living in the southeast apex of Transylvania. Finally, as the signs from Romania grew more ominous, Conrad created an army headquarters, the 1st, to command this mélange of units, with its area of operations extending from the Danube border with Hungary to the Russian Front in the Bucovina. He placed Lieutenant General Artur Arz von Straussenburg (1857–1935) in charge on 7 August 1916.

Born in Sibiu, Arz proved a good choice. Good-humored, he was liked by both the Germans and his Austrian superiors. Possessed of an affable personality that successfully sought compromise, he had had assignments in the management and personnel branches of the general staff rather than taking the more customary route to general officer rank via the operations division. When the war broke out, he held the rank of major general and headed the administrative section of the War Ministry. Nevertheless, he asked for a field command in August 1914. He commanded an infantry division in the battle of Komorów, but the grim hand of Darwinist laws led to many changes at the top of the Austrian forces, and he took charge of the VI Corps by September 1914. He was still commanding the VI Corps when Conrad moved him to Transylvania in August 1916.

Political reasons as well as Arz's military talent were responsible for his selection. Arz was the first Austrian commander in the war to receive Prussia's coveted Pour le Mérite medal, which he earned for leading the VI Corps in the Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign as part of von Mackensen's 11th Army. The ability to work with von Mackensen was important, as Conrad anticipated that the field marshal would be in charge of all the troops in Siebenbürgen (the southern region of Transylvania bordering Romania) as well as of the Bulgarians and forces south of the Danube.

Arz reported to Conrad for guidance in early August, en route from Russia to Transylvania. He received precious little. The chief never mentioned that he had worked out a tentative plan with his German counterpart. Conrad simply told Arz that Romania's entry into the war was a certainty; she had virtually mobilized her forces and had some 400,000 soldiers on active service, and Arz could expect an invasion at any moment. Armed with that cheery news, Arz reported next to Hungarian Prime Minister Count Istvan Tisza (1861–1918), who also expressed his conviction that a Romanian invasion was imminent. That nation's mercurial prime minister, Ion I. C. Bratianu (1864–1927), had again declared Romania's neutrality, but Tisza scoffed, giving no credence whatsoever to that assertion.

Arz arrived in Cluj Napoca (Klausenburg) on 14 August. Awaiting him was Colonel Josef Huber (1864–1944), his chief of staff, who had traveled directly from Russia to Siebenbürgen, and he brought the general up to date. Huber knew that the High Command wanted the 1st Army to delay for as long as possible while withdrawing from the mountain border regions to prepared positions along the line of the Mures (Maros) and Tarnava (Kokel) Valleys. A lengthy withdrawal would give the Central Powers the time needed to send reinforcements for the next phase, throwing the Romanians from Transylvania. The alternative strategy of abandoning the eastern half of Transylvania and defending the province along the line of the two river valleys generated little enthusiasm because of the devastating impact it would have on the morale of both soldiers and civilians.

Arz's 1st Army had four weak divisions (about thirty to thirty-five battalions) and roughly a hundred pieces of artillery in thirteen batteries. Opposing him, noted Huber, the Romanians had 240 full-strength battalions, 12,000 cavalry, and 840 guns and howitzers. For the time being the 1st Army reported to Army Group Archduke Karl. The mission was to deter or delay a Romanian invasion along the Transylvanian border from the Danube to the Bucovina, where the Austrian 7th Army was engaged with the Russians – some 500 miles of frontier. Especially critical was keeping in contact with the 7th Army. If the Russians or Romanians broke that connection, they could roll up the entire southeast front. If the enemy pressure proved superior, a phased retreat to defensive positions prepared along the Mures-Tarnava (Maros-Kokel) Valleys was authorized.

The new 1st Army commander then issued his own guidelines, dividing the army's area of operations into four sectors. Major General Artur Fülöpp (1854–?) had responsibility from the extreme southern flank (the border on the Danube) to Sebes, east of the Szurduk Pass. Next in line heading east, with his headquarters in Talmaciu (Talmacs), was Brigadier General Edmund von Lober (1857–1930). The Red Tower Pass, with its key rail link to Walachia, lay in this area. Major General Erwin von Mattanovich (1861–1942) commanded the next sector, which ran east from Fagaras (Fogaras) past Brasov and the vital passes leading toward Bucharest, then north to the line of the Mures and Tarnava Valleys. Brasov was his headquarters. Brigadier General Konrad Grallert von Cebrow's (1865–1942) 61st Infantry Troop Division had the huge northern sector with four major passes (Tulghes, Bekas, Gyimes, and Uz), running from Odorheiu Secuiesc to Vatra Dornei in the triangle where Hungary, Austria, and Romania met. Once General Arz had moved his units into these areas, all he could do was to mark time. The Romanians did not keep him waiting long.

Shortly after Ambassador Mavrocordato delivered the declaration of war, reports from the border crossings between Romania and Austria indicated that trains entering Romania were being fired on. At the Gyimes Pass in the Wooded Carpathian range, a train came flying back in reverse at high speed, with holes in many places and two of the crew badly wounded. Soon, customhouses and guard posts all along the frontier came under attack. Romanian army units swept through major border crossings, firing at Austrians who resisted. Word came back from several of the Austrian border crossings indicating heavy casualties. Then, ominously, phone traffic ceased.

Two hundred miles to the south, on the Danube River, the war started a half-hour later, at 9:30 PM, with a torpedo fired from a well-concealed Romanian boat lying off Ramadan Island in the harbor of the city of Giurgiu. The torpedo streaked across the river, where vessels from the Austrian navy's Danube Flotilla were at anchor in the Bulgarian city of Rutschek. Aimed at the flagship Bosna, the shot missed, hitting instead a nearby barge loaded with fuel and coal, which exploded and burned. At first, the Austrian sailors suspected an attack, but when no further activity ensued, they concluded that the fire was a product of spontaneous combustion or carelessness. However, at 10:30 PM, the army headquarters sent a teletype stating that Romania had declared war. The flotilla commander gave orders to weigh anchor immediately.

All along the border, the pattern repeated itself. The Austro-Hungarian gendarmes and customs officials, older men armed only with rifles and pistols, were thrown off guard by the unexpected assault and the overwhelming numbers of the enemy. The second line of defense, army units cobbled together from recruits, coal miners, and the shattered remnants of units recovering from combat in Russia, occasionally bloodied the nose of the oncoming Romanians, slowing their advance, but in general, they fell back when the enemy mustered sufficient numbers and artillery. Ammunition shortages and the malfunctioning of captured Russian rifles with which some of the Austrians were armed added to the problem, as did significant desertions from ethnic Romanians in the Austro-Hungarian ranks. Each day saw the Romanians advance northward or westward. But each day also saw the pace slow a bit as the Romanians moved farther from their bases and the frictions of war mounted, while their enemies rallied to mount an increasingly effective defense.


The Romanian forces followed a detailed invasion plan, Plan Z. Officers on the Romanian general staff began work on a scheme for invading Hungary almost immediately after Romania's heady gains at the expense of Bulgaria in the Second Balkan War in 1913. A draft document had appeared by the summer of 1914, but Romania's wait-and-see attitude once World War I started allowed the staff to refine the plan, and Bulgaria's commitment to the Central Powers in September 1915 forced major revisions in it. Plan Z emerged as the final product. It called for Romania to occupy most of eastern Hungary, overrunning Transylvania and the Banat of Temesvar region and holding a strong, easily defended position from which she probably could not have been evicted, given the strains on the Central Powers in 1916. The brainchild of General Vasile Zottu (1853–1916), chief of the general staff, Plan Z addressed Romania's political goals.

The Romanian general staff knew that when Romania entered the war, she might have to fight on two fronts. Austria-Hungary lay to her west and north, and Bulgaria abutted most of Romania's entire southern border. In fact, German forces had spilled into Bulgaria after the Serbian campaign, and a combined German-Bulgarian army stood guard against the Entente Army of the Orient in northern Greece.

Recognizing these facts, Plan Z called for Romania to mobilize four armies for service in the field. The 1st, 2nd, and North Armies would cross the mountains and advance into Transylvania; the 3rd Army would safeguard the southern frontier with Bulgaria. The three armies in the north would consist of 420,000 soldiers, or 75 percent of Romania's field force of 563,000; 72,000 soldiers, or 15 percent, would have to hold off the Bulgarians if they entered the war.

The Romanians assumed that when they executed Plan Z, the Central Powers would be exhausted from the offensives the Allies had planned for 1916 in the west, south, and east, so that the unanticipated blow from Romania would devastate already low morale. Their estimates of the strength of Austro-Hungarian forces along the border proved wildly inaccurate. Within Transylvania the Romanians calculated that there were approximately 70,000 men in battalions or smaller units whose mission was to hold the frontier. The Austrians did not have half that number. The Romanians thought that stronger units, numbering some 100,000 men, could be mobilized to face them on the very edges of western Transylvania. The Central Powers eventually sent three times that number of soldiers to the region.

Focused on Transylvania, the Romanians weighted their campaign plan accordingly. After mobilization, three armies headed into Siebenbürgen. The Romanians recognized that the geography of the region would initially work against them. The mountains formed a formidable barrier that had to be crossed rapidly. Any delay here would mean that "the enemy will have time to raise his strength in order to stop us." The finite number of passes, and their modest roads, both defined and limited Romanian access to the Siebenbürgen region. To move large numbers of soldiers over the mountains, Romania had to utilize the crossings as efficiently as possible. The narrow roads in the passes and the requirement for speed meant that the Romanian battalions would have to march in lengthy columns with similar units bunched together, which facilitated rapid movement. In other words, the infantry would march together so as not to be slowed by the artillery or the plodding wagon trains of supplies. These columns could not be shifted into battle formations; thus smaller, combat-ready units would have to clear the passes of any resistance prior to the advance of the main body. The bulk of the Romanians would be at their most vulnerable when they emerged from the passes on the Hungarian side. The soldiers would be tired and without their critical artillery pieces and machine guns. Even if these weapons were scattered throughout the formations – which would be both unlikely and unwise, as such arrangements would tend to slow the advance – the weapons and ammunition would be packed for transport and not readily available. The units that were to clear the way over the mountains were of course expected to provide security for the main body, but by definition those units were small and would not have many heavy weapons, as speed would be essential to their success. If the vanguard units could sweep resistance aside and fan out in front of the passes on the Hungarian side, giving the infantry columns time to march over the mountains in an efficient manner before massing in tactical formations, the Romanians had a good chance of getting their forces across largely unscathed. If they were held up in the passes or attacked as the columns emerged, however, their situation would be precarious.


Excerpted from Prelude to Blitzkrieg by Michael B. Barrett. Copyright © 2013 Michael B. Barrett. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael B. Barrett was Professor of History at The Citadel for over thirty-five years, and is Brigadier General (ret.), U.S. Army Reserve. He is author of Operation Albion: The German Conquest of the Baltic Islands (IUP, 2008).

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