By Emily Upton
If 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.