At the end of WWI, Romania benefited from substantial support from influential French circles and civilian and military figures.
At the end of WWI, Romania benefited from substantial support from influential French circles and civilian and military figures. The names of general Henri Berthelot, the geographer Emmanuel de Martonne and count Saint-Aulaire are well-known today. There were also others who supported the Romanian cause, such as general Maurice Sarrail. Born in 1856 in Carcassone, Sarrail graduated from the Military Academy in Saint-Cyr in 1877. During the war, he fought at Verdun, Marna and in the Ardennes. He was put in command of an expeditionary force deployed to Macedonia to protect France's allies. In December 1917, he was sacked because of his association with a group of socialist politicians who caused a crisis. He retreated to his home in the countryside, where he lived until the end of the war.
In 1916, after an anxious two-year wait, Romania entered the war on the side of the Entente formed by France, Britain and Russia. Romania had been promised territories in Austro-Hungary inhabited by ethnic Romanians and, from a military point of view, the launch of an offensive in the area of the Greek city of Salonika where the French divisions were operating under the command of general Sarrail. The failure of the Entente to coordinate its actions in the Balkans led to a desperate situation in Romania in the summer of 1917: an occupied capital, the authorities taking refuge in Moldavia, a typhoid fever epidemic, refugees and overcrowding, and the lack of food.
At this point, the Romanian cultural elite seized the opportunity to raise the morale of the troops and the population by brandishing the liturgical banner that had belonged to the victorious ruler Stephen the Great of Moldavia, embroidery that was in the possession of Zographou Monastery on Mount Athos. The issue of this flag became a priority of Romanian domestic and foreign policy in 1917. The French commanders were quick to embrace the idea and helped the Romanians take possession of this symbolic flag. The historian Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the director of the Museum of History of Romania, believes general Maurice Sarrail was a providential figure for the Romanian cause at that moment:
"General Maurice Sarrail's opinion weighed a lot. He is best known to us from a Romanian army joke from 1916 that went something like this: 'Oh, Sarrail, Sarrail, Sarrail, we fight but you just stay!' However, historical documents which no one was interested in reading for 100 years show that Sarrail offered the Romanian people a priceless gift. Today, even with the war over, we wouldn't have had any chance of recovering that banner from Zographou. The context was in fact helpful. Zographou was a Bulgarian monastery, the Allies were at war against Bulgaria and the monks at Zographou were collateral victims, so to say. History has its own rules and laws, and what matters at the end of the day is the result, and not the little details that people are not even aware of."
The French army was not a gang of outlaws and barbarians plundering and hurting innocent civilians. However, Stephen the Great's flag had to be taken to the Romanian allies. Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu tells us the solution found by the French:
"I have been spending a long time researching this topic, of how the banner was recovered, and I am convinced, and I say it publicly, that the French paid for it. I am certain that in the French military archives we could find a receipt for it, and I believe they paid a handsome amount. The monks at Zographou never asked for the banner back, because they knew they had sold it. Sarrail gave us a gift paid for by the French taxpayers. Today, 100 years after the events, the flag is here and this is what matters the most."
The Romanian consul in Athens, Gheorghe Ionescu, proposed that the people having made great service to Romania during the war, including General Sarrail, should be decorated. Here is Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu:
"We have handwritten documents in which Ionescu asks the Prime Minister to decorate Lieutenant Dich, the head of the Russian garrison, and Captain Gilbert Gidel. And on top of the page there is a resolution saying that a royal decree had already been drafted, making Gidel Commander of the Star of Romania, which was a very important distinction. Ionescu also insists that a medal should be granted to General Sarrail, and emphasises the important role that the General had had and the important role that he could also have in the future in protecting the Romanians in Macedonia. This was a war zone and we all know the atrocities that the civilians in the Balkans had experienced. Moreover, the French allies were asked to send the banner to France on a military vessel. They agreed, and the flag was entrusted to Major S. Dion, who put it in a sheet metal box sealed with the Romanian Consulate seal. The banner was taken from Thessaloniki to Athens, transferred to another ship, reached Marseille, and from there it went to Paris, in Sorbonne."
General Maurice Sarrail died in 1929 in Paris. He was a friend of Romania, and when the country needed him, he was the right man in the right place.