Amongst the photographs in Leo Lessmann's war diary are some remarkable photos, showing Romanian prisoners of war (POWs) brought to serve as work gangs in Lessman's regiment's sector in Alsace during the winter of 1916-17. After serving in Somme front for most of the period of the Somme offensive, Lessman's Field artillery regiment was sent to the Alsace sector, which was a relatively quiet sector, south of the city of Mulhouse and close to the Swiss border.
What were Romanian POWs doing in Alsace in 1916?
Romania's entrance to the war is regarded as one of the worst strategic mistakes of the war. Romania had aspirations to take over territories that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (especially Transylvania, then part of Hungary).The king of Romania, Ferdinand I, was a member of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen family, part of the house of Hohenzollern and thus a relative of German Kaiser Wilhelm II (His wife, princess Mary of Edinburg was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria and a cousin of Wilhelm II, King George V of the United Kingdom and Nikolai II, Czar of Russia) Ferdinand leaned towards Germany but was persuaded to support the Entente (Britain, France and Russia) since it supported Romania's territorial claims.
|Ferdinand I of Romania/Wikipedia|
|Queen Marie of Romania/Wikipedia|
The Romanians hesitated in their decision to enter the war, and declared war on Austria-Hungary and Germany on August 27th 1916. The Romanians believed that Austria-Hungary is on the brink of collapse after being defeated in a massive Russian offensive, the Brusilov offensive. The offensive, named after its planner and commander General Alexi Brusilov, caused huge losses (more than half a million men killed, wounded or taken prisoner) and brought the Russians back to the Carpathian mountains, and into a position to strike into Hungary. The offensive came while the Germans were fighting in Verdun and in coordination with the Somme offensive and a successful Italian offensive on the river Isonzo. These attacks seriously shook both Germany and Austria-Hungary and wore down their resources (human and material) in an alarming rate. In this state of affairs, the Romanians believed that time was right to fulfill their territorial aspirations. It was a severe mistake. The offensives did not come to overpowering Germany. ran out of steam and the Germans made a series of successful counter-attacks that checked the Russian advance. The Germans began to take over direct command of the Austrian forces and improved their performance. The Somme offensive did not achieve its goal and the Italians were repulsed.
The Romanians invaded Transylvania in the end of August 1916. The Germans, now under the command of the ousted chief of staff Erich von Falkenhein (see our earlier post) who had been sacked because of the bloody failure in Verdun, counter attacked, and throw the Romanians back. They then invaded Romania from all sides in a combined central powers force – German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish troops – and took most of Romania, including Bucharest, by January 1917. Romania did not capitulate, and held on by retreating to Bukovina (Moldova today). The treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Bolsheviks and the central powers forced the Romanians to sign the Treaty of Bucharest in May 1918, and demobilized their army. On November 10th 1918 the Romanians re-entered the war and declared war on Germany - a day before the armistice.
Tens of thousands of Romanian soldiers were taken prisoner by the Germans, and were used as slave laborers by them, due the acute shortage of manpower caused by the war. The photographed POW's were probably used for building fortifications (digging trenches, building concrete blockhouses etc.). Many Russian POWs were employed in building the "Hindenburg line" – Germany's new line of defense in France, built in the winter of 1916-17. These works exposed the POW's to artillery fire and attacks, and it's estimated that almost 30% of Romanian POW's died in captivity, due to disease and the harsh conditions in the camps.
According to his diary, Lessmann was responsible for the Romanian POW's for some time, and even found several Jews amongst them, and photographed one of them.
|Romanian prisoners of war (POW's) work gang, Tagsdorf November 1917|
|Romanian prisoners of war - Two musicians, Tagsdorf November 1917|
|A Jewish-Romanian prisoner of war - translator, Tagsdorf November 1917|