August 27, 2011

'The Rumanian Soldier as I Know Him'


from 'The War Illustrated', 28th July, 1917
by Basil Clarke

Special Correspondent in Rumania and Elsewhere
 
Pen Portraits of Our Fighting Friends
from a French serial history magazine - the King of Rumania - Rumanian soldiers

For a contrast in soldiering "form" there could be no better illustration than the doings of the different armies in Rumania.

While the middle army went to pieces before the onslaughts of the Huns, the northern army put up such a fight as to paralyse a German army in their attempt to force the mountain passes and make them seek out another way for themselves. The resistance put up by the Rumanian northern army may rank, in fact, in military excellence with anything that has been done by any of the allied ' armies during the war. It was splendid work.

In the excellent fighting form displayed by the men of that northern army of Rumania is to be found, in my opinion, the "true fighting form" of the Rumanian soldier. The collapse of the middle army may seem, at the moment, to cast some doubt on this estimate ; but I feel sure that when the full facts of the Rumanian campaign are revealed, the responsibility for the middle army defeat will not lie at the door of the Rumanian soldier.

Of Roman Fighting Stock

He comes of a curious fighting stock, and is really a relic of the old Roman soldier at his best. For while the soldiers of later Rome were sapping their manhood by easy living and little fighting, the Romans in this remote colony in Rumania were having a hard time in defending their lives against all the many savage peoples who surrounded them. It is probable, therefore, that the Roman soldier, at his best, existed to a later day in Rumania than in any other place. Certain it is that the Roman character of Rumania and its people has never been extinguished, and they have thriven for centuries, a Latin people still, though, surrounded by people of different stock and often overrun by these peoples. It is only your extra hardy race that can remain intact in such circumstances. Hardy fighters and hardy breeders — the Rumanians are both.

The Rumanian soldiers I knew best, during my stay of several months in that country last year, were officers; but while I was living with one of them I was lent a Rumanian soldier as "batman," or servant. 

Nicolai, the Typical

He was so typical of the Rumanian peasant soldier at his best that I will describe him. I woke on the first morning of my visit to find him standing by my bed. He seemed to have been waiting for me to wake. He bowed his head - very solemnly, and then when I nodded encouragingly he gave a good, honest grin, revealing a row of perfect teeth, just slightly yellow. His deep brown eyes twinkled, and he bowed again and held out his palms in token .that he was waiting to do anything I wanted. He was over middle height and strongly built. He wore a grey-blue uniform of a rough serge cloth. On his head was a queer tall hat, the shape of a dunce's cap, made of white fleecy skin — probably the skin of a young sheep. This hat he always wore in the house, but when he went out of doors he substituted for it a peaked uniform cap of blue-grey cloth, the crown of which was tilted fore and aft into little mounds — something after the fashion of the caps the Belgian soldiers wear. He had no boots in the sense that we know them. Instead, his feet and his legs from the calf downwards, were swathed in long wrappings of white woollen cloth. These home-made "puttees" he would wear for all normal occasions, but on the march he would add a pair of home-made leather foot coverings like moccasins. I believe that many Rumanian regiments have been fitted with western boots, but the home-made moccasin of cowhide is still more popular. 

The men will march miles in this footwear without foot trouble of any kind.
Once when Nicolai — for that was the servant's name — unfastened his tunic I noticed that his shirt was of white cotton cloth covered with red and black needle-work flowers. The .peasants are very fond of this kind of needlework, and in civil life nearly all their garments are profusely embroidered. They make their own cloth at home and their women embroider it.

Nicolai and I did our talking in a mixture of English, French, German, and Latin; for which last- named tongue I had to dig deep into the remoter recesses of memory and hark back to school days. Thus, if I wanted water I would begin "water." If that had no effect I would try "eau." If that left him still shrugging his shoulders we went on to "wasser." Still a shrug, and I would try "aqua," and at that his face would light up and off he would dash for water.

Rumanian infantry and mountain troops

Frugal Fare

So often it was quicker to try Latin first, but not always. Many of the Rumanian words are borrowed from the Slav languages, and bear no resemblance to the Roman tongue. But for the fact that Nicolai, like most Rumanians, had picked up a few words of French and German, we should often have been at a loss.

The Rumanian captain with whom I was staying had seen all the Armies of Europe, and had been with both the German and the French Armies for training. He was in a fair position, therefore, to make comparisons, and he assured me that for hardiness and willingness there was no soldier of the big Continental armies who was better than the Rumanian. He went so far as to say that if it came to marching on "short commons," he would "back" the Rumanian soldier against any other. "I have known them go two days and a night with nothing but water," he said, "and never a man fall out." I myself have seen them arriving at a destination after a march of twenty miles with full packs through hilly and difficult country, and yet be smiling and cheery.. The regiment I have in mind was my host's own regiment, and the men were singing together in excellent harmony. It was some patriotic fighting song they were singing.

Later, my friend explained to me that he himself taught his men to sing. He had a "song parade" every now and again and taught his men tunes and the harmonies to them — allocating certain men for each part — tenor and bass. These songs they sang when on the march, and the result, said the captain, was that his men marched not only in better order but with less fatigue. He had a song parade once for my especial benefit, and his men sang a number of songs as well as a Welsh regiment would have sung them. They seemed to like it too.

The Rumanian soldiers' food and quarters would probably bring about a mutiny in a British . regiment. Plain bread is the main article of food. There are meat dishes occasionally ; but such luxuries as jam, butter, bacon, tea, and the like are unknown. "Marmalega," a pudding made of boiled maize, is a dish on which a Rumanian soldier may have to march for miles. In war-time a soldier may carry his rations with him — a loaf of bread.

There is a great contrast between the Rumanian soldier and his officer. For while the soldier is a plain fellow, his officers, as often as not, are very decorative people. There are probably no more dashing uniforms in Europe than those of the Red and the Black Hussars of Rumania.

Officers of Greek Origin

The picturesque young "blades" who "officer" these regiments certainly gave one the impression, as one saw them parading past the famous Cafe Capsa in Bukarest, that their function in life was to be ornamental rather than warlike ; but I am assured that even the "prettiest" and most powdered of them have fought with amazing courage. Remembering the case of our own Piccadilly "bloods" who, giving up the study of socks and ties, went to the war and acquitted themselves like men, I can believe that this is true. Still, the Rumanian officer, as a rule, is not quite of the same hardy stock as the Rumanian peasant, for he is drawn more from the landed classes, and these classes have much more Greek blood in their veins than the peasant classes. Enterprising Greeks in the old days obtained from the all-conquering Turks the right to work estates in Rumania for their own gain. Thus, the peasants got Greek masters, and to this day the Greek blood lingers in the ruling classes.

Men and their Master

You do not realise how recently the Rumanian peasantry have emerged from serfdom until you see their bearing before their rulers and overlords. They show a wonderful humility. Strong men and brave as they are they will stand with head bowed and bare before a child of the upper classes. There is something of the same humility about the Rumanian soldier before his officers. I remember the shock that poor Nicolai gave me when, on parting, I gave him a few shillings by way of. a tip. He fell on one knee, seized my hand, and before I knew what he was about, he kissed it. That it seems, is customary. When giving my parting gift to the housemaid of the establishment, a shy creature dressed in beautiful native costume, but with neither shoes nor stockings, and with her hair braided in plaits down her back, I placed my little offering on the table and, pointing to it, beckoned her to take it. She bowed her thanks, and repeated in Rumanian the formula for such an occasion, which is, "Oh, master, I kiss your hand !"
And, incidentally, I believe that that little bare-legged serving-maid is now wife to soldier Nicolai. I trust he has fared well in the ware.

several arms of service in the Rumanian army

http://www.greatwardifferent.com/Great_War/Rumania/Rumania_01.htm

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