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Commemorating the Great War: A Glimpse on the East Front

06/08/2014 12:59 | Updated 06 October 2014

A candle-lit vigil at Westminster Abbey, a "light out" event and the planting of 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London (the number of British and Colonial deaths during the conflict) were part of impressive ceremonies commemorating 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. Thrilling events were also organized on the high ridge in the Vosges Mountains and in the Military Cemetery near Mons, Belgium. The dimension of the WW I tragedy was so touching described in John McCrae's poem: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow / between the crosses, row by row". The Great War was a global one which included Europe, the USA, countries from Asia, Pacific, Middle East and Africa. About 17 million soldiers and civilians were killed between 1914 and 1918. On the East front in Europe, 800,000 Romanian soldiers fought on the Entente side and more than 335,000 of them made the ultimate sacrifice - 6% of all Military deaths in WW I. Modern Romania was built on their shoulders.

Initially neutral, in the spring of 1916 Romania was insistently requested by France and Great Britain to enter the war in order to relieve the huge German pressure on the West front. Queen Maria of Romania, who was British by birth and a grand daughter of Queen Victoria, strongly advocated entering the war on the Entente side. According to the terms of the Treaty signed with the Allies, Romania had to mobilize its full forces and to declare war on Austro-Hungary. In their turn, France and Britain promised their troops would launch an offensive in Greece and the Russian army was supposed to assist Romania in defending against a combined German-Bulgarian army coming from the South of the Danube River.

Despite a strategically vulnerable position, an ill-equipped army (particularly when compared to its German counterparts) and questionable promises of military support from the Allied Powers, Romania intervened in WW I and in August 1916 entered into Transylvania, where its soldiers were received as liberators because the province was ethnically and historically Romanian.
As Romanian troops advanced rapidly in Transylvania and British forces pressured Germany on the Somme River, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany told to his aides that "The war is lost" and field marshal Von Hindenburg wrote: "It is certain that so relatively small a state as Romania had never before been given a role so important, and, indeed, so decisive for the history of the world at so favourable a moment. Never before had two great Powers like Germany and Austria found themselves so much at the mercy of the military resources of a country which had scarcely one twentieth of the population of the two great states. Judging by the military situation, it was to be expected that Romania had only to advance where she wished to decide the world war in favour of those Powers which had been hurling themselves at us in vain for years".

Unfortunately, there was no Allied offensive in Greece and the Russians arrived late. The German High Command decided that all other campaigns in the West and in the East would be put on hold while Germany threw her main weight against Romania. Meanwhile, Bulgarian and Turkish armies joined the German forces and Romania was simultaneously attacked from three sides.

The Government was forced to withdraw from Bucharest to Iasi, in Moldova. To protect the retreat, a fierce resistance was organised on the peaks of the Carpathian Mountains, between my native town Campulung Muscel and Brasov. In order to make the resistance impenetrable, the Romanian High Command brought there the 70th Infantry Regiment from Campulung, formed by inhabitants of the region, who had their families living in villages just behind the front. They successfully stopped the advance of much better equipped and trained German Alpine Corps (one of the German commanding officers was the future marshal Erwin Rommel) towards the Capital city of Romania and the centre of the country. When the front on the Jiu River on the West broke, the 70th Regiment was ordered to retreat, undefeated. In the impressive Mausoleum on the Mateias Mountain, in 21 crypts are placed the relics of over 2300 soldiers, reminding us of the great battle which took place there in the autumn of 1916.
In the summer of 1917, the Romanian forces regrouped in Moldova were to attack in support of the Russian offensive (Kerensky). The Romanian Second Army, under the command of general (future marshal) Averescu, succeeded in breaking the Austro-Hungarian front in the Battle of Mărăști in late July. Their success, however, could not be exploited due to the disastrous results of the Kerensky Offensive. German general Von Mackensen promptly launched a counterattack at Mărășești, announcing his superiors "Gentlemen, I will see you in two weeks in Iasi!", while the Austro-Hungarian army attacked the Oituz Valley, leading to fierce fighting. Both offensives were repelled with heavy losses by Romanians, who in some occasions fought only with the bayonets. Their motto was "Here does not pass!" The Battle of Marasesti is considered "The Romanian Verdun", as almost 22,000 Romanian soldiers lost their lives there. As a result of these operations, nearly 1,000,000 Central Powers troops were tied down there, prompting The Times to describe the Romanian front as "The only point of light in the East".
In the First Word War, Romania resisted even when it was isolated and surrounded by enemies. 100 years later, my country is a member of the EU and NATO. Romania is now a security provider in the region and a contributor to the collective security umbrella of the North Atlantic Alliance. Europe continues to be complex and diverse, but today is united in its diversity. Therefore, when commemorating 100 years since the outbreak of of the Great War, we pay our tribute of respect to all those who, all over of a bleeding continent, gave their lives for their countries. And we say: "Never again a war in Europe".