Before the World War broke out, Romania essentially consisted of three parts: Walachia, Moldavia and Dobruja. The first two regions had a more or less homogeneous population of Romanians, whereas Dobruja had an ethnically heterogeneous population with a significant amount of Muslims and a Romanian minority. In the meantime there were regions with large ethnic Romanian populations outside the boundaries of the Romanian Kingdom. These were Bessarabia, Southern Bukovina and Transylvania. Romanian nationalists were aiming to establish a Romanian state covering all these provinces where Romanian was the dominant language.
Although it sympathized with France, Britain, and Russia, Romania maintained armed neutrality during the first two years of the war. Both of the belligerent alliances tried to induce Romania to enter the war on their side, promising territorial gain in return. Central Powers offered Bukovina and Bessarabia, which would be carved out of tsarist Russia, while the Entente promised the region of Transylvania, which would be detached from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Romania finally joined the Entente as of August 17, 1916 and declared war against the Central Powers ten days later, with 750,000 men mobilized in the northern Carpathian Mountains and along its southern border.
Confident of a quick victory, Romanian troops crossed the Austro-Hungarian border and occupied one third of Transylvanian territory. As a result, they gained a position that would enable them to hit the Austro-Hungarian lines in the Carpathian Mountains from the rear. In the face of this development, the German High Command did not only plan to protect the integrity of Austro-Hungarian lands, but it also saw an opportunity which would enable Germany to annihilate Romania and gain a significant advantage in Eastern Europe.
The German plan was one of double encirclement, where the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army would stop the Romanians in the north, and the German Ninth Army, commanded by General Erich von Falkenhayn, would move towards the direction of Bucharest. Furthermore, a new Danube Army, which was to be composed of German, Bulgarian and Turkish units under the command of Field Marshall August von Mackensen, would move north, inside the Dobruja region.
The Road to Romania
The decision to deploy Turkish forces for a joint campaign in Romania was not taken overnight, and it took nobody by surprise, because the Ottoman High Command had already sent troops to Galicia. The units chosen for the Romanian campaign were the VI Corps, commanded by General Hilmi Pasha; 15th Division, commanded by Lt.Col. Hamdi Bey and the 25th Division, commanded by Col. Şükrü Ali Bey. They were ordered by Enver Pasha to prepare for this campaign even before the Romanian declaration of war.
Turkish units allocated for Romania gathered in Edirne and Bakırköy (in Istanbul). The 25th Division was to be entrained to Pravade, the 15th Division to Varna and eventually both would be transferred to the meeting point of the VI Corps at Dokuzağaç, which was right at the heart of Dobruja, 50 kilometers north of the border between Romania and Bulgaria.
Mackensen was planning to launch the offensive on September 1, 1916, but it was impossible for the Turkish units to reach the front in time, due to problems in logistics and the conditions of railroads in northern Bulgaria. The first Turkish unit to arrive was the 75th Regiment of the 25th Division that reached Pravade on September 4. The entrainment was completed in two weeks, and all of the Turkish units were ready for action on September 19.
The first major action of the Turkish forces in Romania took place on September 24, when the 25th Division, with the Bulgarian cavalry on its right flank and Bulgarian 6th Division on its left flank, was ordered to attack the town of Amuzaca. The offensive began with artillery fire at 9:15 am and by 3:00 pm the 75th Regiment had entered Amuzaca. Col. Şükrü Ali Bey cabled General Toshev, the Bulgarian commander, stating that they could move further to north; however this request was denied and the Turkish units were asked to establish a defensive position there. Meanwhile, the 74th Regiment suffered severe casualties in the face of Romanian counter- attack. For the entire 25th Division, the total casualty toll of the day was 415 dead, 2226 wounded and 893 wounded. It was a pyrrhic victory for the Turks.
Realizing that the hurried invasion of Transylvania was a mistake, because it made them vulnerable against Mackensen’s offensive, Romanians were planning to gain the upper hand again in Dobruja. They established the Southern Group of Armies under the command of General Averescu, and the awaited offensive began on October 1 in both Dobruja and the Danube sectors.
Romanian attack in Dobruja was centered on the Turkish 25th Division, which was supported by the newly arrived 15th Division. After an entire day of fighting, Turks managed to keep the Romanians at a distance of two kilometers from their lines, and attempted to repulse them further back with a counter-offensive on the same night. However this was not possible because the snowfall had broken the contact between Turkish units.
Fighting in Dobruja went on for one week and three regiments of the 25th Division, 56th, 59th and 75th, fought next to each other at a frontline of ten kilometers. Romanians were driven back at a cost of 812 dead, 2893 wounded and 952 lost. Still, Turkish units were high in morale, not only because they had broken the Romanian attacks, but also because the 15th Division was now fully available for combat and General Hilmi Pasha had arrived at the front to take over the command. Meanwhile, in the Danube sector, Romanian troops had managed to cross the river between Totrakan and Russe, but the consequent offensive was a failure, forcing them to return to their original lines.
Romanians were disappointed and it was time for Mackensen to make the decisive move. He divided the combat theatre in two groups and arranged his forces accordingly. The Eastern Group was to be commanded by another Bulgarian general, Kantarchiev, whereas the Western Group, to which the Turkish VI Corps was attached, was under the command of General Toshev. Mackensen’s plan was to detect the enemy and prevent it from retreating with the Western Group and to attack at its left with the Eastern Group.
The offensive started in the morning of October 19, 1916 as planned. The Turkish regiments managed to drive back the Romanian advance guards on the first day and in three days Turks managed to break through the Romanian defense, advance 20 kilometers and achieve their objectives.
Romanians were now aware that they could not hold at Gobadin. Some of their units crossed the river to find safety west of the Danube, while those that remained on the east side began to move north, chased by the Turkish VI Corps.
The movement to north was halted with a phone call from General Toshev to Hilmi Pasha on the morning of October 24. Turkish forces were instructed to move to west instead and attack the town of Chernovoda, located at the banks of the Danube. The next day, the Turks reached the Danube and encircled the Romanian forces that had not crossed the Danube yet. When the offensive ended on October 27, Turkish forces had deeply penetrated into Romania and Bulgarians had occupied the narrowest part of Dobruja between the Black Sea and the Danube. The whole Dobruja operation had cost the Turkish VI Corps 1864 dead, 7720 wounded and 2020 lost.
Mackensen’s next move was to have the Western Group, consisting of the Turkish VI Corps, German 217th Division and Bulgarian 1st Division, to cross the Danube, merge with the units moving north through Wallachia and hit the final blow to the Romanians. However, the plan could not be executed because it was found out that the Romanian forces in Dobruja were being reinforced and Russians were coming to their help.
The VI Corps remained in a defensive position and dug in their trenches. On November 17, Russian forces managed to move past the Bulgarians and started to attack the Turkish lines. This attack failed and so did the renewed ones on December 1 and 3. Turks managed to hold their lines and on December 8 it was their turn to attack. In around ten days, they managed to drive back the Russians by 50 kilometers and reached the hills overlooking the Danube delta. A cavalry unit captured the town of Isecca on the banks of the Danube.
Mackensen wanted to complete the encirclement of Romanians. He now asked the Turks to move south, to the direction of Harsovo, another town at the banks of the Danube. Turks left the territory they have gained to the Bulgarians and began marching south. On the first day of the new year, 1917, after marching more than 200 kilometers in 15 days in harsh winter conditions, the 15th Division and the headquarters of the VI Corps began to cross the river. The 25th Division arrived on 11 January and began crossing the Danube one week later.
More Turkish Troops to Romania
Mackensen knew that he needed more Turkish forces in this front and he asked for them. Enver Pasha and the Ottoman High Command were sympathetic to this request and they decided to send an additional division to Romania. 26th Division was chosen for this duty. It was composed of three regiments, 73rd, 76th and 78th, under the command of Lt.Col. Hamdi Bey. With this division, the total number of Turkish troops sent to Romania reached 39 thousand.
26th Division departed from Edirne on November 9, 1916, arrived in Sistova and crossed the Danube river on November 25, joining Mackensen’s Danube Army that also included the German 217th Division and a German cavalry division, marching to northeast towards Bucharest. At the same time General Falkenhayn’s German Ninth Army was marching to south and east in Walachia and the Austro-Hungarian First Army was trying to break the Romanian resistance at Carpathian Mountains.
26th Division’s first engagement with the Romanians took place on November 27, 1916, near the town of Marzanesti. The outcome of this battle was favorable for the Turks and they continued to march. Meanwhile through reconnaissance reports, Mackensen realized that the Romanians were preparing a larger assault on the Danube Army. He appointed the 26th Division and the German cavalry to protect the flanks of the army.
The Romanian offensive was launched on December 1, 1916. The Turkish 73rd Regiment engaged the enemy on the Tarnovo-Draganesti road, while the German cavalry was trying to defend in Lestanau region. Seeing the superiority of Romanians, Lieutenant Colonel Hamdi Bey brought also the 76th Regiment forward. After a day long fighting, Romanian troops left Tarnovo and began to retreat. This battle was crucial on the way to Bucharest, but it cost the Turks 87 dead, 524 wounded and 357 lost.
The next day, the village of Balaria was captured, where the 78th Regiment played a key role in this outcome. Now, the road to Bucharest was open. Falkenhayn and Mackensen’s armies came together on December 4 and four days letter they marched in Bucharest. 78th Regiment took part in the victory parade on the streets of the Romanian capital.
Having lost Bucharest, Romanian forces were retreating north, towards the river of Sereth and the Danube Army was chasing them. 26th Division was now in reserve and coming from behind. On December 16, the division was inspected by Enver Pasha in the town Balasiul.
Romanians held well on the Gurgueti-Romanul-Tisileşti line and managed to stop the attacks of the Danube Army. Meanwhile, the headquarters of the VI Corps and the 15th Division, which had crossed the river on January 1, 1917, joined the Danube Army.
On the night of January 4/5, General Averescu began to pull the Romanian forces to the north of Sereth River, and the next day Hilmi Pasha gave an order to his corps, which was now at full strength with three divisions. 15th and 26th Divisions were to attack to the north of Ibrail, a town at the banks of the Sereth. Turks captured the hills overlooking the river, but the resistance was strong. Soon the combat sunk into stalemate. Both the Turkish forces and the rest of the Danube Army began to strengthen their entrenchments to the south of the Sereth River. There were now only few Romanian and Russian units left, but apparently they did pose a problem for Mackensen.
On March 26, 1917, 26th Division was ordered to return to Istanbul. Their entrainment began on April 1 from Bucharest and by the end of the month the whole division was back home. For the rest of the year, the Romanian theatre of war was silent. In August and September there have been minor incidents, but they did not change anything. The Romanian campaign was over.
The 25th Division was ordered to return on September 30 and it completed its entrainment in three months, on January 4, 1918. The Ottoman High Command first intended to replace it with the 46th Division, but this plan was later abandoned.
The headquarters of the VI Corps and the 15th Division remained at the shores of the Danube until April 1918. The next month, they embarked on ships from the port of Constanta and sailed through the Black Sea to Batumi. They were to be deployed against the Russians in the Caucasus.
Turkish troops contributed a great deal to the Central Powers’ war efforts in Romania. In combat against the Romanians and Russians, they proved to be brave and reliable. For Field Marshall Mackensen, what mattered most was that the Turkish soldiers could endure long and difficult walks in winter conditions.
Two Turkish divisions stayed in Romania for one and a half years, whereas a third division remained there for two years. However, the total duration of fighting is only around five months. Three elite divisions spent in Romania a long time without combat and in times when they fought they suffered severe casualties. In March 1917, when the Turks were moving towards the Sereth River, their total number was around 21 thousand, with total casualties of 18 thousand. These divisions could be of better use in other theaters where Turkish forces needed more men, such as in Mesopotamia and Palestine.