Referred to as “The Mother of All Battles”, the battle of Verdun was the worst carnage of WWI. Historians are still debating the number of casualties, but it is estimated at hundreds of thousands.
The importance of Verdun was tremendous for French morale and the fate of the war. The will of the German army to grind into the ground French forces was thwarted by the latter's will to resist.
The same happened in the Romanian theater of war, in the battles that turned the tide of the war in 1917. The clash 100 years ago was decisive, after Romania decided to join the fray after staying neutral.
Romania was an ally of the Central Powers with which it had signed a treaty in 1883, but proclaimed neutrality in 1914, when the war started. Romania did not honor its alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary because the rights of Romanians in Austria-Hungary were not observed. In spite of this, Romania's economic relations with the Central Powers continued in the two years of neutrality, with Romanian oil and food supplying their armies.
The initiative to attract Romania to the side of the Allies had been left to Russia, but Russia believed that Romania's wish to improve the fate of Romanians outside the borders were exaggerated.
The battle of Verdun was a crucial moment, when Romania had to make a historic decision. France was teetering on the brink, and the battle of Verdun was a close call. The French strategy was to open a new front in the east, in order to steer away from Verdun German troops. It was Romania that had to agree to commit to that, in diplomatic terms.
Historian Sergiu Iosipescu, from the Institute of Political Defense Studies and Military History, told us about the role played by the French ambassador to Bucharest: “On July 5, 1916, the Count of Saint Aulaire, the day before going to Bucharest, handed the French president a message sent by Bratianu to Lahovary, the minister in Paris. Bratianu promised that Romania would join the war in 5 to 6 weeks if the munitions they had asked for would be received within that time line. What seems completely remarkable is the prediction made by General Lyautey, Count Saint Aulaire's protector, for his departure to Romania: “I reflected upon your situation, Count. I sincerely believe I should congratulate you. I received the map of Central and Eastern Europe, I noticed that Romania will grow more if the Central Powers are defeated, than if Russia is defeated. Romanian public opinion, strong enough to persuade a Hohenzollern to remain neutral, will persuade him to go from neutrality to intervention. Romania will follow Italy's example, the balance will tip towards intervention sooner or later.”
In order to persuade Romania to join the war, the Allies made a generous offer. They offered the Austro-Hungarian territories inhabited by Romanians and made promises on additional guarantees. In spite of this, France had to overcome some difficulties in its ambition of bringing Romania in, on the side of the Allies.
Romania's army could not cope with the war. At the same time, the public opinion group that sided with the Central Powers was powerful and influential. The difficulty in overcoming the pro-German faction could be seen in the press, in the coverage of the battle of Verdun and the war in general.
Historian Alexandru Madgearu from the Institute of Political Defense Studies and Military History told us that the Romanian press wrote about the war, depending on whether they sided with the Allies or the Central Powers: “The general orientation of newspapers influenced the way in which the news was presented. Adevarul and Universul were clearly pro-French, while Minerva had been acquired by a German consortium, in 1914. In spite of this, even Minerva attempted an objective approach. As time went by, their objectivity diminished, as can be seen in the July 24 and 26 1916 issues. On the 24, Minerva said that the Anglo-French offensive did not make it easier on the troops in Verdun. However, that same evening, Adevarul quoted General Joffre as saying that the Allied victory was a sure thing. On July 26th, the fifth day of the joint British-French offensive, Minerva said that the Allied assault had failed, with heavy losses. That same day, Universul published much more detailed information, while Adevarul exposed the misinformation in German official press releases.”
Romania's choice was a very difficult one within that context. However, what prevailed was the wish to make all Romanians citizens of the country, which was the vision of Ion Bratianu, the greatest politician of early 20th century Romania.