Romania: A Fight for Territory in the First World War

At first reluctant to join in the fighting, Romania entered the First World War in 1916, uniting with the Allies against the Central Powers. In August 1916, Romania invaded Transylvania, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its backing on the side of the Allies can be attributed to their relationship with Russia and its belief that this would increase their chances of gaining territory. Something the Romanian Premier saw as essential to create Romanian unity.

The Battle of Transylvania (August – October 1916)

Being Romania’s first major wartime movement, this is possibly the most important and central to their part in the war, due to their reasoning behind it and the way it reshaped Romania by the end of the war. Its importance is partly in how it was used to negotiate Romania’s participation in the fighting. Having started off neutral, it claimed it would join the Allies if they recognised Transylvania was rightly a part of Romania. This was also the first time Romania made some territorial advances in the war, although this was short lived and in October they were pushed back to Brasov, a Transylvanian town close to Romania, therefore losing considerable gains in territory.

Battle of Turtacaia and Dobrich (September 1916).

The Battle of Turtacaia was the first offensive movement of the Central Powers against Romania, and a major loss for the latter. So its short lived victory over Transylvania was also blown over by the loss of Tutrakan by the Central Powers. The Romanians defending it were forced to surrender. Tutrakan, now in Bulgaria, was a Romanian fortress ideally situated due to its close proximity to the Danube. The loss of this territory was a major blow for Romania, and another incident which would shape their future landscape.

Where they had initially gained in territory from Austria-Hungary, they lost through being pushed back by the Central Powers from all sides. Its position as a country bordered only by Central Powers came back to haunt its decision to involve itself in the war. This was underlined when the Bulgaria’s field army took Dobrich, despite Romania outnumbering them. The battle lasted only two days and underlined Romania’s weakness as a military power.

The Battle of Bucharest

But Romania was not a completely weak component of the First World War. In fact, it was seen by the Central Powers and the Allies as an important country to consider. Seemingly one of their worst moments of the war would be the falling of the capital, Bucharest. But despite the Central Powers’ aims in defeating Romania and driving them out of the war, Romanian forces and civilians alike didn’t give up, and the Central Powers’ attempts to instil their own political agendas failed.

1917 and 1918

Things started to pick up for this minor Allied side in the summer of 1917 when they managed to hold back an attack against Austria-Hungary during the Second Battle of Oituz. This was an important victory, defeating one of the major Central Powers. However, an apparent determination to not leave the war was almost over by the end of 1917, and Romania ultimately signed an armistice. This was a consequence of the Russian Revolution, led by the Bolsheviks and Lenin, and also the difficulty in being surrounded completely by their enemies. Despite a very brief re-entering into the war (only one day before Germany signed their armistice on the 11th November 1918), this signalled the end of their part in the fighting of the First World War.

The Treaty of Versailles was kind to Romania, rewarding it with the territory it had entered the war for in the first place, the long desired Transylvania. It is still a part of Romania today, indicating the long-lasting impact of this post-war decision. The major Allied Powers who sat around a table in Versailles to decide Europe’s fate in 1919 had two major criteria for countries to be considered favourably in the Treaty. Firstly, that they were a significant part of the Allies’ victory and, secondly, the country should be a military power. Despite not really fitting these two major criteria, Romania’s pitch to the Allied powers was persuasive. They claimed they would be an essential component of helping the Allies move forward, as a buffer between them and the newly communist Russia. Romania managed to regain their territory lost to Bulgaria and massively extend their country as they were ‘given’ Transylvania.

Their part in the First World War cannot be ignored. Over 200,000 Romanian soldiers died during the war and their involvement reshaped the boundaries of the central European region. Perhaps this was achieved more so from their bid to the major Allied Powers who would create the Treaty of Versailles, but their involvement in the war put them in contention for these new territories. Furthermore, its proximity to Russia promised to be an important pawn to play in future of European diplomacy and war.

Below, the video shows how Romania’s boundaries developed during their participation in the war, and after.


The Origins of Hussar Cavalry

The term Hussar is most commonly known as the name of a certain type of light cavalry used primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries. But it is also used for a few quite different forms of cavalry in completely different periods and regions. I got to questioning where the link between them can be found, and ultimately what the origins of both the word and the people behind it were. I found that Hussars in some form could possibly be traced as far back to the 10th or 11th centuries, but the 15th century being a more certain and defined beginning, and the more modern form going right up until the beginning of World War 1

To trace the origins of the Hussar, it is necessary to go back quite a long way. Even then it is impossible to be sure of the exact roots of this form of cavalry. It is likely that they were derived from elements found in the light horsemen of Eastern Europe and Anatolia. Since the time of the Crusades the Turks had become renowned for the skill of their light horsemen, armed with various light weapons such as the lance, sword and shield, and bow. They would work in co-ordination to harry and harass the enemy, darting in and around them, showering them with arrows shot from the saddle even when riding at speed, and forming and re-forming quickly. They moved constantly, never waiting to be charged. Sometimes they deceive the enemy by retreating to make them believe they had been defeated while really drawing them into a more vulnerable position; over-confident, tired and cut off. Retreating armies would particularly fear these horsemen as they would easily chase and attack them, and constantly bait the European heavy cavalry to chase them fruitlessly.

It is believed that influence was taken from warriors such as these Turks by Eastern European armies in order to combat them with their own versatile light cavalry. Many would go from this point to look at the Hussars of Hungary and then Poland, but those Hussars come some time later and aren’t necessarily directly influenced. The mid point between these is the light cavalry of Medieval Serbia, primarily those serving in the Byzantine Empire.

It is at this point where we can start to see the origins of the word Hussar. However there are a few ways the etymology could be interpreted. One possibility is that the Hungarian term huszár comes from the word for the Serbian light cavalry units named gusar, a word meaning ‘raider’, and later coming to be more associated with pirates than cavalry due to its root being the Latin cursarius, which is also the root for the English word ‘corsair’. Another theory of the term is offered by Byzantine scholars, who say that the term originated in Roman military practice with the cursarii (singular cursarius). 10th century Byzantine military manuals mention chonsarioi, who were light cavalry recruited in the Balkans, commonly being Serbs. However, even the theory of the Serbian word becoming the Hungarian word is disputed. A recent premise is that the word originates from the Hunnic language because the word huszár can be found in Uyghur, which is believed to be Hunnish, and Hungary has earlier roots in Magyar people, related to the Huns.

Whichever way the term came about, it is generally agreed that the origin of the first Hungarian Hussars came from Serbian light cavalry. At the end of the 14th century the Ottoman Empire had conquered Serbia, and there was an Ottoman military frontier with the Hungarian Kingdom. At this time there were a lot of migrating Serbs, and with them came the Serbian cavalry, crossing into southern Hungary to become mercenaries. It was previously believed that these mercenaries simply integrated into Hungarian cavalry entirely, but in reality they seem to have had a much more influential role in the methods employed by the Hungarian armies. Whereas Hungary had traditional light cavalry and mounted archers in its military ancestry, by the 11th century they had already been replaced by a more Western type of heavy cavalry. Since that time they had relied upon ancillary units of other people, initially of the Pechenegs, and then the Cumans, until eventually by this point at the end of the 14th/beginning of the 15th century they had Serbian mercenaries fill the role.

Earliest known representation of a hussar engraved on a sabre scabbard chape from 1500.

As I said, these mercenaries went on to have a more significant role when compared with those before them. King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (1458-90) is credited as the creator of the first Hussars, incorporating the Serbian mercenaries they already had, and presumably filling the ranks with Hungarian troops as time went on. The Hussars were commonly known as Rac, Raci or Racowie, literally meaning ‘Serbians’ at the time (derived from Rascia or Rassia, a name coined for Serbia in the 12th century, derived ultimately from the name of the original centre of the Serbian state, the fortress of Ras). Initially, they fought in small bands, but were reorganised into larger, trained formations during the reign of Corvinus. The first hussar regiments comprised the light cavalry of the Black Army of Hungary. Under Corvinus’ command, the hussars took part in the war against the Ottoman Empire in 1485 and proved successful against Ottoman cavalry as well as against the Bohemians and Poles. After the king’s death, in 1490, hussars remained the preferred form of cavalry in Hungary.

The Habsburg Empire hired Hungarian hussars as mercenaries themselves to serve against the Ottomans and on various battlefields throughout Western Europe. Other countries such as well as Poles and Lithuanians and even The Holy Roman Empire employed hussars around this time.

Polish Hussars were a big part of the history of the hussars, and are possibly the center of the biggest changes in the line of development that hussars went through. The Polish hussars were transformed into heavier cavalry over time. They abandoned wooden shields and adopted plate armour. When Stefan Bathory, a Transylvanian-Hungarian prince, was elected king of Poland in 1576, he reorganised the Polish-Lithuanian hussars of his Royal Guard along Hungarian lines, making them a heavy formation, equipped with a long lance as their main weapon. By the reign of King Stefan Bathory, the hussars had replaced medieval Western style lancers in the Polish–Lithuanian army, and they now formed the bulk of the Polish cavalry. By the 1590s, most Polish–Lithuanian hussar units had been reformed along the same model. Due to Hungarian and Polish hussars being similar at this time, the Polish heavy hussars came with their own style, the Polish winged hussars. The people of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth recognized the winged hussars as husarskie anioły (hussar angels). The heavy hussars of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were still far more maneuverable than the heavily armoured lancers they had previously employed. These hussars proved vital to many Polish victories, significantly the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The Polish Winged Hussars proved to be the decisive factor in many battles, and often against overwhelming odds. Until the 18th century, they were considered some of the most elite cavalry in the world. Now being elite heavy cavalry, adorned in the most expensive armour and comprising mostly of nobles, hussars at this time were now a  long way from the ‘raiders’ they had originated from.

Example of Polish Winged Hussar armour. The Wings in this configuration are considered to be ceremonial, but they may have worn a single simpler wing on the back into battle.

Hussars outside the Polish Kingdom followed a different line of development, one which would soon become the norm. During the early decades of the 17th century, hussars in Hungary ceased to wear metal body armour; and by 1640, most were light cavalry again. It was hussars of this ‘light’ pattern, rather than the Polish heavy hussar, that were later to be copied across Europe. These light hussars were ideal for reconnaissance and raiding, and in battle they were used in such light cavalry roles as harassing enemy skirmishers, overrunning artillery positions, and pursuing fleeing troops, more in line with the traditional uses of hussars and their roots in the past. They were no longer armed with lances but now were armed with a curved sabre, one or two pistols carried in holsters at the front of the saddle and usually a carbine.

This model of hussar was copied all over the world, and eventually every major country had hussar regiments in their army. Bavaria raised its first hussar regiment in 1688 and a second one in about 1700. Prussia followed suit in 1721 when Frederick the Great used hussar units extensively during the War of the Austrian Succession.France established a number of hussar regiments from 1692 onward, recruiting originally from Hungary and Germany, then subsequently from German-speaking frontier regions within France itself. Russia relied on its native Cossacks to provide irregular light cavalry until 1741 when they formed their own hussars. Sweden had hussars from about 1756 and Denmark introduced them in 1762. Britain converted a number of light dragoon regiments to hussars in 1806–1807.

Hussars played a prominent role in many conflicts around the world, including the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, The Romanian Independence War of 1877, The Argentine Revolution in 1810, and many more up until the early 20th century. On the eve of World War I, there were still hussar regiments in the British (including Canadian), French, Spanish, German, Russian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Romanian and Austro-Hungarian armies. In most respects, they had now become regular light cavalry, recruited solely from their own countries and trained and equipped along the same lines as other classes of cavalry. But Hussars were still notable for their colourful and elaborate parade uniforms.

A defining feature of Hussars from around 1700 onwards was their distinctive appearance. Their colourful uniforms were inspired by the prevailing Hungarian fashions of the day. The main features of this uniform were the dolman, a short jacket with heavy horizontal gold braid on the breast and sleeves, and a matching pelisse which was a second over- jacket worn with one sleeve on and the other slung over the shoulder. European hussars traditionally wore long moustaches (but no beards) and long hair. the British hussars were the only moustachioed troops in the British Army, leading to them being taunted as being ‘foreigners’ at times.

Example of an 18th century hussar uniform.

Hussars had a reputation for being the dashing, if unruly, adventurers of the army. The traditional image of the hussar is of a reckless, hard-drinking, hard-swearing, womanising, moustachioed swashbuckler. General Lasalle, a typical showoff hussar officer, epitomized this attitude, the most famous quote of his is: “Any hussar who is not dead by the age of thirty is a blackguard.” He died at the Battle of Wagram at the age of 34. Less romantically, 18th century hussars were also known (and feared) for their poor treatment of local civilians. In addition to commandeering local food stocks for the army, hussars were known to also use the opportunity for personal looting and pillaging, unwittingly living up to the name of their origins.

After horse cavalry became obsolete, hussar units were generally converted to armoured units, though retaining their traditional titles. Hussar regiments still exist today and horses are sometimes used for ceremonial purposes.

WW1: How It Began on The Eastern Front

This being the first post of our WWI month I decided I should probably start us off somewhere at the beginning. Not wanting to follow the trend of the western front taking centre stage, I will focus on the beginning of the war in the East. Despite not getting much attention in our media, the Eastern front was where the war started, and where much of the fighting and casualties occurred. It is widely considered that the spark to start the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the First World War was truly underway when Austria-Hungary first invaded Serbia in retaliation.

But what was the reason for this beginning? Undoubtedly a great war was already likely to happen sooner or later in the ‘powder-keg’ that was Europe at the time. However, this series of events was the one that led to the start of the war in 1914. The trouble in the region seems to have started in the final years of the Ottoman Empire when Austria-Hungary caused the Bosnian crisis of 1908-9 by annexing the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina which was previously part of the Ottoman Empire since 1878. This angered the neighbouring Kingdom of Serbia and its ally the Russian Empire.Russian political manoeuvring in the region destabilised the peace further, and there was a standoff between Serbia and Austria-Hungary who both mobilized forces. Conflict was averted through negotiation, and Serbia was forced to back down and accept the annexation.

Moving on, the first Balkan War then began in 1912. This was a war fought against what remained of the Ottoman Empire by the Balkan League of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro. This war resulted in the states of the Balkan League enlarging their territorial holdings. Bulgaria, dissatisfied with its share of the spoils from the war turned on its former allies shortly after, starting a Second Balkan War. Bulgaria was unsuccessful and ended up having to give over large portions of its territory to its previous allies, as well as its other neighbours of Romania and the Ottoman Empire.

So, shortly after this, in 1914, we come to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. It was found that this assassination had been done by a small group of revolutionaries known as ‘young Bosnia’, and the man to pull the trigger himself was a Bosnian Serb. This may show a link to the previously mentioned Bosnian crisis, only 5 years prior to these events, which may have provoked revolutionary actions against Austria-Hungary such as this. However, behind the assassination it is believed that the Black Hand, a secret military society composed of members of the Serbian Army, organized the assassination, and used Young Bosnia in an attempt to keep from being directly involved. The guilt for the crime had settled loosely on Serbia in general and long-existing tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary had finally come to a peak. Austria-Hungary delivered the July Ultimatum to Serbia, a series of ten demands intentionally made unacceptable, intending to provoke a war. When Serbia agreed to only eight of the ten demands, Austria-Hungary declared war Serbia on 28 July 1914. Serbia also had to be wary of Bulgaria at this point, who showed intentions of supporting Austria-Hungary. Overall, it is clear that this assassination was not the only reason for the start of the war, Franz Ferdinand was not particularly popular, and his death did not cast his country into deepest mourning. Considering this, the assassination comes off as more of an excuse to start a war than a real reason, further proven by Austria-Hungary’s attitude in previous years and with the July Ultimatum.

Italian postcard represents Serbia fighting with Austria and Germany,
while Bulgaria tries to kill Serbia with a knife and Greece watches from the sideline

At this point the war had officially begun. But it didn’t truly begin on the Serbian front until the first fighting occurred on 12 August the when the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia began. Austro-Hungarian forces were met by stiff resistance from Serbian border guards and irregulars, but continued to move forward up until 15 August. The first Serbian counter-attack known as The Battle of Cer occurred when Serbian forces attacked Austro-Hungarian command outposts on the slopes of Cer Mountain. Austro-Hungarian forces were quickly overwhelmed by Serbian infantry, as they moved forward through the standing corn under cover of darkness and rain to engage at close range. The battle then escalated into a series of clashes fighting for control over several towns and villages near the mountain, especially Šabac. On 19 August, the morale of the Austro-Hungarians collapsed and thousands of soldiers retreated back into Austria-Hungary, many of them drowning in the Drina River as they fled in panic. The Serbian defenders re-entered Šabac on 24 August, marking the end of the battle of Cer. This event was the first Allied victory of The First World War and the first aerial dogfight took place during the battle. The Austro-Hungarian forces may have been in greater numbers and better equipped, but their troops of the first invasion force were largely made up of inexperienced and Czechs, with no experience of fighting in mountain terrain and untrusted by Austria-Hungary. The Serbs had plenty of experienced soldiers due to the recent Balkan wars. However Austro-Hungarian command also underestimated Serbian martial prowess. They tended to attribute Serbian successes in the Balkan Wars to Turkish numerical inferiority and poor readiness, rather than to Serbian tenacity and skill. This led to crippling overconfidence among Austro-Hungarian officers.

Map depicting the initial Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia, August 1914.

By this point, the dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia had already escalated into what is now known as World War I. Within a week, Austria-Hungary had to face a war with Russia, which had the largest army in the world at the time. Germany had moved against Russia, with France then backing Russia up, Germany quickly invaded Belgium, getting Britain involved. It all happened so fast!

The Shortest Lived State

Carpatho-Ukraine is currently seen as one of the shortest lived states, if not the shortest,  having been independent for only one day.  More commonly referred to as Carpathian Ruthenia, it is a small region of Eastern Europe that is currently mostly located in western Ukraine, and has smaller parts in Slovakia, Romania and Poland. It became an autonomous region of Czechoslovakia from 1938 to march 15, 1939 when it declared itself as an independent republic after. It was then returned back to Hungarian control by the next day on March 16 and remained that way until 1944.

To see why this region may have wanted the right to be recognized as an independent state we should look at its culture. The region is mostly populated by, and the origins of the Rusyn people who are also known as Ruthenes and many other variations of the name, they are an Eastern Slavic Ethnic minority and speak their own Slavic language of Rusyn. They are a mostly diasporic ethnic group who are split into two major groups; Pannonian Rusyns, who migrated to the area in and around Serbia, and Carpathian Rusyns who are the ones who stayed in the area of Ukraine and chose not to be known as Ukranian in the early 20th century. Carpatho-Rusyns are the group that is tied to Carpathian Ruthenia, and seeing as they have been unrecognized as an ethnic minority for the better part of the 20th century, it is clear to see why they wanted the independence of their own region.

The aim for Carpathian Ruthenia to achieve at least some level of independence started with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy after World War I, which briefly released their control over the region. Carpathian Ruthenia then became part of the new Hungarian state briefly in 1918-19. However Rusyn immigrants in America called on the American government for help in getting the region its independence, or at least autonomy under a different state. The US government gave them unification with Czechoslovakia as their only option, and Czechoslovak and Romanian forces took control of the area. This action caused Hungarian Communist sympathizers to accuse of war crimes and of the French controlling the whole situation for anti-communist reasons.

Unification with Czechoslovakia brought many changes to the region when it was made into a province of the state and named ‘Sub-Carpathian Rus’. The Czechoslovak government brought the very underdeveloped region up to national standards, sending thousands of teachers, police and other professionals into the region, along with building railways, roads, airports and schools. So for a time, it seemed that the region had chosen the right nation to join. However, it is still debated whether the choice was actually down to the Rusyns at all, or was really decided by the USA and Allies as part of their anti-communist plan at this time.

This situation did not last however. As part of the ‘Munich Agreement’ in November 1938, Nazi Germany had Czechoslovakia give up the southern part of Carpathian Rus, which was then given back to Hungary as part of Germany’s ‘First Vienna Award’. This did cause the remainder of the region to become fully autonomous under Czechoslovakia with a prime minister and autonomous government. But then, on March 15, the Nazis seized Czech lands. Following this Carpathian Ruthenia declared its independence as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. So for one day, this small independent nation existed between Hungary, Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The following day on March 16 1939, Hungary responded to this by immediately occupying and annexing the country, taking away its newly gained independence. From there, Carpathian Ruthenia once again, the region stayed under Hungarian control until the end of the Second World War when it was captured by the Red Army, and started being given back to Czechoslovakia. However, this work was obstructed so that the region could be given to Soviet Ukraine, eventually settling in its state, unwillingly incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1946. The region is currently a province within Ukraine today, officially known as ‘Zakarparria Oblast’.