To me, Remembrance Day has always emphasized World War I. That was the struggle where the Canadian casualties were so heavy, and where our little colony earned the right to be taken seriously as a country. And moreso this year, as 100 years after some of the great battles, we have seen footage of the battlegrounds and the Canadian monuments in Europe.
But there was also an Eastern Front. Especially worthy of note in our household as my grandfather, Nicolae Homorodean (c1897-1957), fought in the Romanian army in these battles when he was about 20 years old.
My mother’s family never had a great sense of history, so there were few stories passed down. One story I recall, however, that my grandfather was wounded in a mustard gas attack, and that it permanently damaged his lungs. My mother once mentioned that he would go for a walk in the back yard, gasping for air, coughing and spitting, like a heavy smoker with severe lung problems. Except that he had never smoked.
So, 100 years later, it was time to do a bit of basic research to try to put this story in context.
(There is one picture of my grandfather together with me [as a baby-in-arms] and it is posted elsewhere. The picture above is of an unidentified Romanian soldier, working with his rudimentary rifle, before the battle of Marasesti, in August of 1917.)
The comforting news perhaps for us Canadians is that Romania was fighting on the side of the Allies. Both my grandparents came from Transylvania, the province that was still at that time under the control of the Austro-Hungarian empire, even though the majority population was Romanian-speaking. Romania came into the war in 1916, to open an Eastern Front, with a pretty explicit understanding from the Allied countries that at the end of the war, Romania would be rewarded with control of Transylvania. It’s a bargain that was kept, still celebrated every December 1 in Romania as its national Unification day.
While the army was run by the Romanian government based in Bucharest, there was no shortage of ethnic-Romanian volunteers from the Transylvanian province that was administered out of Vienna/Budapest. Volunteers like my grandfather, whose hometown was Orastie.
There isn’t much material readily accessible on-line about the Eastern Front. For that reason, I bought a text, delivered only yesterday, entitled “Prelude to Blitzkrieg: The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania”, by American academic Michael B. Barrett. It’s a type of military history that I generally don’t warm to, which pulls apart the x’s and o’s of battlefield tactics. But it goes into detail about several battles in Transylvania, one of them close to my grandmother’s home town of Medias. One could picture a 20-year old soldier meeting the 16-year old daughter of a prosperous land agent?
As the title of the book suggests, the Eastern Front was quite different than the stalemated Western Front. After the initial Romanian attack, the German army moved in with quick moves, using cavalry and horse-drawn artillery.
And it’s clear that poison gas was also used in the Eastern Front. There is some evidence it was used at the battle of Marasesti, for instance. Apparently the types of gas used varied during the war, and there was quite a bit of uncertainty as to how best to defend against gas (with some types of gas-masks found out to be useless). The Romanian army was poorly equipped in general.
If it had happened more recently, we would have concluded that my grandfather was slowly killed – over almost forty years — by that mustard gas attack.
Marasesti was a victory for the Romanians and their (Tsarist) Russian allies, marking the eastern limit of the German advance. But generally the Romanians were soundly outgunned by the German armies, and once the Russians pulled out of the war subsequent to the Bolshevik takeover, were completely surrounded as the only country in the region opposed to the “Central Powers”.
While I plan to keep on digging, I do understand a bit more today. I understand how my mother’s family was quite proud on November 11 to stand side-by-side their Upper Canadian neighbours in Strathroy Ontario. Lest we forget their sacrifice.