Did the Austrian Army Really Accidentally End Up Fighting Itself in a Major Battle?

Karla asks: Is it true that once the Austrian army accidentally ended up fighting itself in a battle?

battleIf you ever feel like you’ve “made a huge mistake,” just remember: it’s probably not bigger than the Battle of Karansebes, during which the Austrian army broke into two and ended up mistakenly fighting itself. At least, that’s what supposedly happened. There actually isn’t much direct evidence to suggest that the Battle of Karansebes is anything more than a legend.

Here’s how the story goes: in 1788, Austria was at war with Turkey, fighting for control of the Danube River. About 100,000 Austrian troops had set up camp near Karansebes, a village that is now located in present-day Romania. Some scouts were sent ahead to see if they could find any Turks. Rather than find evidence of the opposing army, they found gypsies who had a lot of alcohol to sell, and they bought it.

The scouts brought the alcohol back to camp and started drinking, since the best thing to do the night before a big battle is get very, very drunk. As their little party became louder and more obnoxious, it attracted the attention of several foot soldiers who wanted to join in. The scouts were not open to sharing their find, and being drunk, they didn’t express this with a lot of tact.

An argument broke out, which soon escalated. The alcohol was confiscated, more people joined in, punches were thrown, and a shot rang out. Amidst the mayhem, someone shouted that the Turks had arrived.

Caught unawares and unprepared, most soldiers fled the scene immediately. Others got into formation and charged at the supposed enemy. Shots were fired, cavalry was assembled, and the defecting soldiers were killing every man they saw without thinking.

Needless to say, the Turkish army had not arrived. They wandered into Karansebes two days later and found 10,000 dead or wounded Austrian soldiers. A little confused by this turn of events, they were nonetheless delighted to take Karansebes without any effort at all.

Believers in the battle claim that the army could very easily have gotten confused. At the time, the Austrian army was made up of people who spoke German, Hungarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian, among other languages. This resulted in a lot of confusion and miscommunication as many troops and officers weren’t able to understand each other. One story claims that as the soldiers were running away, a colonel shouted “Halt!” in German, but some of the troops who didn’t speak German thought he was saying “Allah!” which only solidified the idea that the Turks had arrived.

Okay, so the battle wasn’t impossible, but given that there is no known record of it until 1831, some 40 years after the event, it doesn’t seem likely. That source is the Austrian Military Magazine. Other sources include the well-titled The History of the 18th Century through the 19th till the overthrow of the French empire, with particular reference to mental cultivation and progress by F.C. Schlosser, which was published in 1843. The best source about the battle comes from the German Geschichte Josephs des Zweiten by A. J. Gross-Hoffinger, and while it’s often cited by people when referring to the battle, it was also written nearly 60 years after the fact. That means there was plenty of time for the facts to become skewed.

While the Battle of Karansebes makes for a good story, there just isn’t enough documented evidence for it to be entirely believable.

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Bonus Facts:

  • While the Battle of Karansebes may or may not have been real, the war that the Austrians were fighting at the time certainly happened. At the time, the Austrians sided with Russia against the Ottoman Empire. Despite the supposed failure of the Austrians at Karansebes, their side did win the war and ultimately gained control of the Danube.
  • Of course, friendly fire really does happen, though usually not on the scale of the supposed Battle of Karansebes. There were some serious cases of friendly fire during the American Civil War, for instance. Confederate General Stonewall Jackson is known to have been killed by his own men. In addition, Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet was wounded by friendly fire, while Brigadier General Micah Jenkins was killed during the same battle. The Battle of Antietam resulted in over 1000 friendly fire deaths after Union troops got confused and started firing on each other.
  • The two World Wars had a huge number of friendly fire incidents. During WWI, C.S. Lewis was wounded by shrapnel from a British shell. In 1917, the British submarine G9 attacked its fellow British submarine Pasley with torpedoes after mistaking it for a German U-Boat. Pasley survived the attack, only to ram G9, resulting in G9 being cut in half and sinking, leaving only one survivor. At the start of World War II, one British submarine sank another after mistaking it for a German U-Boat, resulting in 52 friendly fire deaths. In 1942, an RAF raid resulted in the deaths of many New Zealanders in Egypt. In 1943, a German blockade runner was torpedoed by a German U-Boat, resulting in 364 deaths. James Doohan, the guy who played “Scotty” on Star Trek, was mistaken for an enemy soldier and shot six times on D-Day by his fellow countrymen. This is just a small sample of the huge number of friendly fire incidents that took place throughout the wars.
  • A more recent military blunder is that of Commander Eden Pastora of Nicaragua. Pastora claims that he was using Google Maps to find his way when he mistakenly wandered into Costa Rica in 2010, and he and his troops set up camp. Still thinking they were in Nicaragua, the patrol ended up leveling a forest, dredging a river, and taking down a Costa Rican flag, thinking someone had put it up “by mistake.” Google Maps does give Nicaragua an extra mile and a half of territory than it should, so perhaps Pastora should have been using military maps, not Google’s.
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  • Joe Wade

    You said it in the article: “the Austrian army was made up of people who spoke German, Hungarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian, among other languages. “. Correction: they were Czechs since Czechoslovakia only started to exist in 1920 after the Trianon Treaty at the end of WWI. Most of Slovakia in 1788 belonged to the Hungarian Crown and the Czechs were under the Austrian Hapsburgs’ rule.

    • DoubleD

      Almost correct, not in 1920 but 1918 🙂

  • Kachnous

    There’s no Czechoslovakian language ffs. There’s Czech AND Slovakian. 2 different languages. It MAY sound the same for people who are not Slavic, but it is different.

  • photios

    ‘…the well-titled The History of the 18th Century through the 19th till the overthrow of the French empire’.
    Which French empire would that be then?