If you’re a pacifist, you probably feel that all battles and wars are stupid, but you have to admit that some are more idiotic than others. I felt that way about the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s; more than a million men were killed during an eight-year period, over the issue of whether the Iran-Iraq border ran in the middle of the Shatt al-Arab, or on that river’s eastern shore (a difference of a hundred yards). Other absurd conflicts include the War of Jenkins’ Ear, started when Spain captured a British ship, cut off the captain’s ear, and threatened to do the same to King George; the Pemmican War, in which two fur trading companies in Canada fought over the Native American equivalent of beef jerky; and the Pig War, an incident where an American farmer shot a pig belonging to a British farmer, and the US and UK almost went to war over the issue. Well, on Thursday I read about a battle that must top the rest. It happened during the second war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire (1787-92), during which some Austrian soldiers got drunk and massacred each other, making everything a lot easier for their opponents (the Turks).
There is some question over whether the battle of Karánsebes really happened as described, because the oldest account we have of the battle was written in 1837, forty-nine years afterwards. Still, like many ancient myths, it’s too good a story to ignore, so I feel it deserves at least a footnote, in Chapter 13 of my Middle Eastern history series. Here is how it will read:
If there was anything in the war that the Turks could be happy about, it was Austria’s performance. Especially with the battle of Karánsebes, the worst “friendly fire” incident of all time. Romania was the only place where both the Russians and Austrians could engage the Turks, and in September 1788 the Austrian army set up camp around the Romanian town of Karánsebes. Some scouts rode ahead on horseback to see if there were Turks in the neighborhood; they didn’t find any, but they found some Gypsies with a load of schnapps, bought the schnapps from them, and eagerly started drinking it. Soon after that, some infantrymen marched to the same spot. When they saw the scouts having a good old drinking party, they demanded some of the booze. The drunken scouts refused, and then they set up makeshift fortifications around the schnapps barrels, as if this was a silly wargame. The scouts and infantry started arguing, until one soldier fired a shot, starting a battle between the two units.
If you thought that was stupid, it gets worse. Some of the infantry began shouting “Turks! Turks!”, as if the Turks, and not the scouts, were shooting at them. Thinking the Turks were behind them, the scouts broke and ran, and so did the infantry, seeing the fleeing scouts as proof that the Turks were really approaching. Some Austrian officers among the infantry tried to restore order by shouting “Halt! Halt!” However, the Austrian army was made up not only of German-speaking Austrians but also Hungarians, Italians, and an assortment of Slavs. Those soldiers who did not speak German thought the officers were shouting “Allah! Allah!”, which only made them run harder.
When the first scouts reached the main camp, a corps commander got the idea that the men coming at him must be part of a Turkish cavalry charge, and ordered artillery fire on them. Now the rest of the army woke up, and when they saw they were in the middle of a battle, they fled in every direction. The troops fired at anything they thought might be the Turks; usually it was other Austrian soldiers. Soon the whole army was retreating from an army that wasn’t there; probably the funniest incident was when the Austrian leader, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, got pushed off his horse into a stream.
Two days later the real Ottoman army arrived at Karánsebes, and it found 10,000 dead and wounded Austrian soldiers. The Turks probably thought it was great that they didn’t have to kill anybody–the Austrians had done it for them!–and then they seized the town. And that wasn’t all; in 1789 the Austrians stopped a Turkish advance in Serbia and captured Belgrade, only to give Belgrade back when the war ended two years later.