Yes, you read the title correctly. This is the story of one of the most mindless incidents in the history of warfare, which would have been humorous if not for the heavy causalities from friendly fire. If one Googles the first part of the title, the top search results would be the second part. The word ‘battle’ itself is a misnomer here. A battle is between two opposing forces whereas in this incident various elements of Austrian army fired at each other for the better part of the night and then made a complete retreat from the battle field. Two and a half centuries later, judging by the recurring memes, people still find humour in the ineptness of, what was at the time, one of the leading military powers of Europe.
The battled occurred on the night of 21-22 September 1788 but was recorded in Austrian Military Magazine of 1831, suggesting the delay in recording due to acute embarrassment. It is preserved in Chapter II, Volume 6 of the History of the Eighteenth Century and of the Nineteenth Till the Overthrow of the French Empire. Its narrative can also be read, among other sites, in Daily Sabah, and viewed at Top 3 Dumbest Wars in History, Dumbest Battle in History: Battle of Karansebes and Dumbest Battle in History Explained. The last video casts doubt on the high losses mentioned in popular narratives.
The Hapsburgs formed one of the greatest European empires. It was established in the mid-13th century as the Duchy of Austria and, from 1438 to 1806, a member of the dynasty was the Holy Roman Emperor. It later evolved into the Austria-Hungary empire. This later dual-monarchy was responsible for initiating WWI when its heir apparent was murdered in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. At the end of the war, the empire stood dissolved. It, therefore, had a long uninterrupted run of nearly seven centuries.
During the reign of Charles V (1529-55), the empire stretched to its widest extent, from Spain in the west, the Low Countries in northwest, Germany in the north, Austria in the middle, Hungary in the east and Italy in the south, to the western coast of South America. The era, as is noted in the years of his reign, nearly coincides with that of establishment of the Mughal Indian Empire by Babur in 1526, the reign of Suri dynasty between 1540-55 and coronation of Emperor Akbar in 1556.
Among the greater achievements of the Hapsburgs is successfully withstanding the first Siege of Vienna in 1529 by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and the second Siege of Vienna in 1683 during the reign of Sultan Mehmet IV. After the abortive second siege, the Ottoman Caliphate suffered a long decline, suffering defeats and losing territory till its dissolution at the end of WW1. The first Great War beginning in 1914 thus ended the lives of the two antagonists who had fought each other for over four centuries.
The battle described here occurred during the Austro-Turkish War of 1788-91, one of the many series of wars between the two empires during their long struggle for control of southern part of eastern Europe.
Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II is highly regarded as an enlightened ruler, though credited with a poor foreign policy, for his long reign of 25 years. He also had his shares of misfortune. Though he was one of sixteen children of his parents, and his brother and successor, Leopoldo II, sired eighteen children (compare that with fourteen pregnancies of the permanent resident of Taj Mahal), Joseph II’s both marriages were cheerless and neither of his two daughters survived childhood. Before he died in 1790, the emperor had the added misfortune of witnessing the initiation of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. The French Queen at the time was his sister, the hated Marie Antoinette, who had become one of the most detested royal figures and who would be guillotined in 1793. This was also the time when the very sanguine Russia-Ottoman wars were in progress. The Russians had been able to roll back the Ottoman Caliphate from the littoral lands of eastern and northern Black Sea. Some of the names of cities and areas now in the news due to the Russia-Ukraine war, like Kerch, the Crimean peninsula, and the coast between the mouth of the southern Bug and the ancient port of Odessa, were being won by the Russians from the Ottomans. These battles had been accompanied by great bloodshed. It was under these circumstances that the battle of Karansebes occurred.
In early 1788, the Ottoman army occupied, at a great sacrifice in manpower, Vetterani’s Hole, a crucial narrow neck in the course of the Danube River, about 150 kilometers downstream of Belgrade. The river here forms the boundary between Romania in the north and Serbia to the South. Habsburg court took a serious notice of this loss as it threatened the rear of its army in Hungry. With the pass in their hand, the Ottomans under the command of Grand Vizier Koca Yousaf Pasha, crossed the river into Romania and were moving towards Hungry.
To reverse the loss, Emperor Joseph II gathered a large army of a hundred thousand men consisting of Austrian, German, Czech, Serb, French, Croat, Italian, Polish and Slovak troops, who all spoke their own languages. The inability of various section of troops to communicate with each other caused pandemonium among them, especially when they were drunk with the local brews.
The Emperor had camped between Salota and Slatina with 40,000 troops and sent a party of Hussars (light cavalry) to scout for a better camping ground and also to seek the location of the Ottoman army that had been reported heading that way. The Hussars moved towards the village of Karansebes at the confluence of Rivers Termez and Sebes (see map below). They crossed River Termez and stopped for the night. A contingent was detailed for the night patrol, who came upon a band of gypsies. A search of these nomads revealed that they were carrying a load of barrels of Schnapp, a strong fruit drink with 30/40 % alcoholic content. The war-weary soldiers were desirous of relaxing before the expected battle next day. They relieved the gypsies of the brew and began drinking.
In the meantime, a contingent of Austrian infantry crossed the river and found their cavalry mates having a fine time. They, too, wanted a barrel or two but their cavalry comrades-in-arms, who would have shed their blood defending them, refused to share the toxic booty. The two squads began a quarrel that soon turned into fistfight. In the heat of the moment and dead of the night, a shot rang out.
Immediately, the Hussars and the infantry opened fire at each other. Knowing that the Hussars were fully sloshed, someone in the infantry shouted, “Turci, Turci” (Turks, Turks). The Hussars fled the scene, leaving the barrels to the infantry. As the infantry contingent comprised soldiers from various nationalities, many of them could not understand the ruse deployed by their compatriots and bolted after the Hussars. Everyone started firing in whatever direction they thought they saw shadows.
Seeing that the situation was getting out of control, some of the officers, who became cognizant of the confusion, shouted in German “Halten, Halten.” Soldiers who couldn’t understand German thought that they heard the Ottoman battle cries of, “Allah, Allah.” This added fear and confusion to an already bad situation.
Drunk and terrified, Hussars rode into the Imperial camp, followed by the infantry, bringing in their wake gunshots and screams which many of them thought were from the dreaded Ottomans. The Imperial troops were dead asleep after long marches and the hard labour of setting up the huge camp. Sudden commotion raised them from their slumber. Half roused, they heard gun shots and cries of “Turci, Turci.” Everyone picked up their swords to slash at the incoming silhouettes and their guns to fire in whichever direction they perceived the enemy. A corps commander even ordered artillery fire towards the direction of gunfire. Bodies started falling.
The 47-year-old Emperor, who would die a natural death two years later, had gone to sleep late, after his daylong meetings with senior commanders, consultations with close advisors and inspections of various units. He heard the commotion and questioned his guards, who had no clue. He walked out to enquire and his guards followed him. In the meantime, some senior commanders came to inform the Emperor about the confusing information received but found the royal tent empty. They became frantic and sent their people looking for the royal personage. As the whispering about the missing emperor spread, a rumour took birth that he had been taken prisoner by the Turks. This caused further alarm and fear. By now, there was mass confusion that no one could stem. The camp folded up and the troops bolted west. The Emperor, too, found a horse and rode away, all alone.
With daybreak, some sense prevailed in the retreating army. There was no sign of Ottomans in any direction. Gradually, it became apparent that it had all been a case of, what is now called ‘friendly fire.’ However, the damage had been done. By some extreme estimates, 10,000 Austrian soldiers lay dead or wounded. More sober estimates report about 2,000 causalities, a few pieces of artillery damaged and, probably, a war chest, containing the army’s payroll, lost.
Two days later, the Ottoman army marched into the ‘battlefield’ and found the area littered with the remnants of the carnage. They had no idea what had transpired and were as bewildered as the Austrians had been.
This ranks as the easiest victory in the long history of Ottoman warfare