Towering Explosion in Romania Oilfields; But the Kaiser is Happy.
A Feeler for Peace, but the War Spreads Further
Special to The Great War Project
(10-16 December) The global picture in the Great War a century ago does not look good for the Allies.
“The Central Powers [Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire] were now the conquerors of five capitals,” observes historian Martin Gilbert, “Brussels, Warsaw, Belgrade, Bucharest” and Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro in the Balkans.
“The Allies had none,” observes Gilbert.
In these days a century ago the war for Romania (on the Allied side) is growing in intensity. The Allies are losing their grip. They are especially fearful about an Allied loss there because of oil. Romania is a big oil producer.
Holding Romania means the Allies control a huge source of oil.
So the Allies resort to sabotage. In the first week in December a century ago, a spectacular explosion rocks the Romanian oilfields at Ploesti, leaving more than 800,000 tons of oil flooding and burning the oil facilities.
Still, despite the sabotage, writes historian Norman Stone, “the Romanian army is at risk of being cut off,” and defeated. So they abandon the Romanian capital Bucharest “under quarrelsome Russian protection through the smoke of endless burning oil wells to a new defensive front in the mountains of Moldavia.”
German troops quickly enter the capital.
The German Kaiser, Wilhelm, according to historian Gilbert, celebrates the seizure of Bucharest with a glass of champagne.
At the same moment in the war, the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith is replaced by David Lloyd George. Winston Churchill welcomes the change, calling Lloyd George the one British leader who has “any aptitude for war or knowledge of it.”
Nevertheless, Churchill is fearful about the future. The obstacles facing Britain at this moment in the war are enormous. Churchill writes: “Only disasters lie ahead for many months.”
Then an unforeseen move from an unexpected quarter. In a speech to the German parliament, the German chancellor offers to open negotiations with the Allies in a neutral country.
The Allies are slow to respond to the offer. Intense fighting at Verdun continues. The French forces there have sudden success, attributed in some degree to the arrival of a new commanding general, Robert Nivelle.
“Would the war end now?” asks history Gilbert, “Now that the combatants were in correspondence about possible talks?”
Before the Allies answer that question, the American President Woodrow Wilson, always eager to play the part of peacemaker, sends a note to the Allies, asking each “to formulate its own peace conditions.”
The British do not view this move favorably. “Did the President realize,” writes one senior diplomat “that to support peace at that moment was to support (German) militarism with all the horrors it had entailed?”
But among the words of Wilson’s note is the assertion that the United States is “too proud to fight.”
The British do not take this kindly. “That caused particular offence,” reports Gilbert, “among those who had been fighting for more than two years.”
The new British Prime Minister Lloyd George writes the official response to Wilson’s proposal. “We shall put our trust rather in an unbroken army than in broken faith.”
Writes Gilbert, Lloyd George “had been made Prime Minister by those in both main political parties who believed he would by far be the best person to prosecute the war with vigor. He would not let them down.”
Next day, the German top general responds “by urging upon his superiors the immediate start of unrestricted submarine warfare.”
This is probably the only development that could bring the United States into the war.