The Battle of Karansebes: September 17th + 18th, 1788 CE.
————The Austro-Turkish War: 1787-1791
———————————–Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790)
Karánsebes / Caransebeş – [car-on-zeb-ish] (located in modern-day Romania)
The Battle of Karánsebes is… special.
By “special”, I don’t just mean that as Karansebes deserves a gold star sticker on its report card, what I mean is this is an example of something completely unique in the recorded history of armed-conflict. It is quite possibly the single-best examples of Murphy’s Law: Anything that CAN go wrong WILL! (see: TITANIC) This single skirmish puts all other military blunders to shame in its sheer crap-load quantity of top-notch quality dumbness.
And I’m guessing you probably have never heard of it.
This so-called “Battle” was so hilariously bad it made me laugh out loud while reading the most straightforward dust-covered text book in the middle of the library, trying not to pee my pants, but I digress. In the most sobering sense, any way you look at it, the incident at Karansebes was a truly EPIC FAIL!
For a little background, the Austro-Turkish War itself was a completely pointless and inconclusive struggle between the Austrian and Ottoman Empires. It just so happened to take place at the exact same time as the Russo-Turkish War, in which the Ottoman-Turks attempted a futile invasion of Russian territory… a stupid feat later re-attempted by both Napoleon and Hitler with increasingly disastrous results.
Our tale begins with a total wimp named Joseph Benedikt Anton Michael Adam, the Second: The Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria, Grand Prince of Transylvania, Princely Count of Hapsburg, King of Germany, along with Jerusalem, Hungary, Bohemia, etc… the list goes on eventually totaling approximately 60 countries in which he held some title or form of power, real or imagined. We’ll just call him Joseph II for our purposes.
Joseph was the brother of Marie Antoinette, so I guess Epic Failure was hardwired into their genes, or something. He was one of three “Enlightened Monarchs” in his time, a patron of the arts and Germanic culture. But what he really craved was to go down in history as the greatest military leader in the history of war… well turns out that he did in fact get his own unique footnote in history… albeit not necessarily something one would want on their resume.
Joseph had a ton of ambition, but had about as much courage as the Cowardly Lion of Oz to back it up… specifically: none. Regardless, in his later years he up and decided at random to ‘liberate’ the Balkans from those ‘evil Turkish bastards’. This of course was easier said then done. “I shall rid the world of this barbarous race!” said Joseph the Second, and thus began the most ill-fated campaign of all time…
The King of Prussia, Frederick Wilhelm, offered his services to diplomatically settle the matter between the Sublime Porte (the central government of the Ottoman Empire) and the House of Hapsburg (Joseph’s team), basically saying ‘Whoa guys, let’s chill out here, not sure what crawled up this guy’s bung hole, but let’s not kill each other over it.’ In response Joseph might as well have taken a dump on Prussia’s flag, boxed it up, and mailed it to them, express. Emperor Joseph II e-mailed Frederick back: ‘The House of Hohenzollern came to power by the same fickle means as the evil Turk.’
“Oh that’s it!” Wilhelm probably muttered to himself prior to immediately signing a military treaty with Sweden to join up with the Turks and take on Austria’s one and only ally: Empress Catherine of Russia, just to piss him off. In response Joseph II now had a reason to invade the Turkish-held Balkans, even if it wasn’t a logical reason.
Joseph (the Second)’s plan was to expand the Austrian Empire into Serbia. This conquest was to be accomplished by capturing a strategic waterway by taking on several fortified enemy strongholds along the way, including: Vidin, Schabaz, Belgrade, and Nis. To do this he needed to round up a force of six army corps at a grand total of 245,062 troops, boasting 36,725 horses and 898 artillery. This legion was cobbled together from several different countries, which made communication a bit complicated. It also took approximately 800 tons of flour and 200 beef cattle to feed his entire army, on a DAILY basis.
To make matters so much worse, the Austrian Emperor had a particularly unique talent for constantly going out of his way in picking the absolute worst men for the jobs at hand. Turns out that the officers he put in charge of this absurdly large sea of beef-munching, flour chomping, musket-carrying men would go down in the annals of military history for their remarkable incompetence and sheer stupidity. In fact, Marshal Laudon, considered to be the only border-line-competent leader in the Austrian army at the time was left behind, because Joseph considered the battle-hardened, experienced officer too old; instead he picked the infamously dumb Marshall Laczy, a man who had less critical thinking skills than a mentally-challenged-chimpanzee and was apparently only capable of shouting ‘Sir, Yes sir!’ repeatedly, which inevitably earned him a rank or two.
Joseph II (patron of the arts) decided to personally lead his army deep into Turkish territory, baffling even his own soldiers. This would be a decision Joseph II would later regret… on top of his other embarrassing decision to start a pointless war in the first place… among other brilliant tactical decisions to come.
Joseph II marched his forces into Turkish territory, on the incredibly long road from Vienna to Walachia (Transylvania / Romania), but somehow forgot to mention to the Turks that Austria had in fact declared war on the Ottoman Empire until a good six months later… the first battle took place in December 1787 at Belgrade, but the war wasn’t officially recognized till February 1788 when Joseph’s State Chancellor, the Furst of Kaunitz received a letter from his ‘war-mongering’ emperor: “I am sad to say that the Sublime Porte has entered into a war with my ally, the Czarina. According to the treaties between Russia and us I am obliged to go the to help of the Empress. I order you to instruct the Sublime Porte that a state of war exists between Austria and Turkey.”
This is what I’m assuming happened:
“What’s the plan?’ Marshall Laczy asks his monarch.
“If you would, set up a defensive perimeter and wait for reinforcements, I’d appreciate it,” the Emperor commands, politely.
“Sir, Yes Sir!”
A tentative soldier raises his hand with legitimate concern, “Um, we’ve been marching for months without any indication from the rather friendly towns people that we’re actually at war. Do they know we’re invading them yet?”
“Aw crap! I knew I was forgetting something… here would you mail this for me?”
“Sir, Yes Sir!” Laczy saluted.
Moments before the scheduled attack on a barely defended Turkish garrison, Emperor Joseph II ordered a full retreat for no discernible reason. Instead of utilizing this ground-trembling army in a productive matter, he instead decided to employ an aggressive DEFENSE while awaiting reinforcements from the Russians before the fighting even started. I guess he might have forgotten the fact that he was the one doing the invading, but you know.
And so, the Holy Roman Emperor began his campaign with a whimper rather than a bang…
It only gets worse… Sooooo much worse!
The aging Emperor’s indecision quadrupled exponentially as his health deteriorated on the long journey to Walachia, and as fate would have it, they never made it that far. The completely indecisive Emperor eventually settled on pitching a camp along the Danube River… in the middle of a humid, mosquito-infested swamp.
It was here (in the middle of the swamp that is) where things really began to deteriorate, but the worst was yet to come. During their unexpected ‘vacation’ in the bogs of the Danube, entire regiments began to fall ill with a terrible fever as they sat on their asses, playing cards, all the while waiting on Russian reinforcements that would never materialize. Over the next few weeks fights broke out between the various varieties of ethnic backgrounds: Hungarians, Lombardians, Solvenes, and Croations. However, none of them could stand their imbecilic Austrian officers. With plenty of warning, an epidemic swept through the ranks, decimating the army’s camp with bouts of malaria, dysentery, and a particularly unpleasant combination of both. One-Hundred-Seventy-Two-THOUSAND soldiers fell pray to the poisonous climate and became afflicted, leading to the inevitable demise of 33,000 troops!
And if that wasn’t enough… the encampment waited for precisely that moment to run out of its flour rations for bread. They sent for an additional shipment of supplies. When the food finally arrived, it was crawling with maggots. Just when things couldn’t get much worse, they did: the war chest had gone bankrupt, meaning there was nothing with which to pay the salaries of the remaining soldiers.
If all this wasn’t bad enough already soldiers began to disappear completely without explanation. In retrospect they probably either said ‘screw this’ and wandered off, drowned in a river, or both, but at the time the overly superstitious, malnourished, and disheartened company began to speculate on what had happened to their company.
Was the swamp cursed? Were they being picked off one by one by a Predator with heat-vision? The most persistent rumor however was paranoia involving Turkish foul play. Word had spread that the Ottomans were offering a bounty of 10 Gold Ducats for every Austrian head presented.
Let’s recap: The incompetent Austrian emperor had purposely started a war by insulting a potential ally, and marched a massive army into enemy territory (without declaring war) for months, only to lose a considerable number of his multi-cultural army to starvation and dysentery in the middle of a swamp, waiting for imaginary reinforcements that would never come to their rescue, and to top it all off they were broke. So the entire military had gone off on a wild goose chase only to find out, en route, that they were working towards volunteer hours.
Emperor Joseph II was reduced to begging for Field Marshall Laudon’s forgiveness… and in desperation requested his service, for “the Love of Your Emperor.” Laudon could care less about Joseph the 2nd, but was concerned over the well being of His army. At long last the army was on the move, but it went on to suffer numerous setbacks, none worse than what went down at a small little unknown village known as Karansebes.
After one of the Austrian’s divisions was decimated by a force of 13,000 pissed-off Turks, a messenger arrived with a notification from the Turkish Grand Vizier, Jussuf Pasha, that basically said his 100,000 troops were pumped up and ready to wipe the floor with some Austrian ass. Somehow Emperor Joseph took this as a good omen, he is quoted as joyfully exclaiming, “Here we have to win! History has planned it this way. It was here that Prince Eugene achieved a brilliant victory over the Turks, and this is the best place to beat them again.” The Austrian vanguard marched towards the Timis Bridge at Karansebes.
It was a dark, ominous night on that fateful September day. Emperor Joseph II was fast asleep in his tent as his army prepared for war. The Austrian cavalry (hussars) road ahead across the river to scout ahead for the incoming Turkish army. What they found instead: Gypsies and Schnapps.
The soldiers were greeted by a group of traveling Walachian gypsies selling barrels of alcohol. The Austrians looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and started digging for pocket change. Meanwhile back at their encampment their officers were wondering what was taking so goddamn long. Fearing that their men had been captured, or worse, they sent some more guys over to investigate.
When the second platoon arrived on the scene, ready to avenge their fallen comrades and fight to the death against unfathomable odds, they instead found their compatriots partying it up with the gypsies: playing beer pong, doing keg stands and getting all around shit-faced on entire barrels of schnapps; so naturally they too dropped their weapons and joined in on the party…
Eventually even more infantry reinforcements from the brigade started showing up, finding the drunken Hussars. Seeing that they were missing out they demanded their own share of the increasingly limited supply of booze. This kind of sort of escalated when the barrels began to run dry…
Here’s where things start to get interesting:
The gypsies were fresh out of inebriating nectar, and the Hussars were down to their last barrel of Schnapps. Arguments broke out among the men. These few brave alcoholics defended their ground as the others arrived in force, begging for their fare share of said intoxicating beverage. The drunken scouts had a brilliant idea and hurriedly put together a defensive fortification to safe guard their coveted schnapps. It’s worth noting that guns and alcohol are an ill-advised combination, much like mixing 400-proof Vodka, Tequila shots, and a game of Twister: you’ll regret the outcome.
War-hardened soldiers were reduced to frat boys fighting over a keg… except with live ammunition. A shot rang out over the encampment – shit had hit the fan. Suffice it to say: shenanigans ensued. It didn’t take long for the small party to disintegrate into a alcohol-induced fire-fight, which normally would’ve (should’ve) ended there with a court martial or two the next, unpleasantly bright, morning. However, destiny intervened… You see, Loki had been hard at work setting up this masterpiece, and all the variables had miraculously lined up for just this moment.
A guy across the river heard the shots fired, and assumed the worst, this is what he imagined:
While the infantry pulled out their sabers and drove the thirsty mob back, one of them thought it’d be pretty clever to trick them into thinking the enemy was nigh. Some dude pointed behind them and shouted, “Turci! Turci!” which roughly translates to “Look behind you, it’s those Turkish bastards come to steal all the booze!” This backfired.
The thought of facing down a horde of angry Turks scared the crap out of the inebriated Hussars who totally fell for the prank, and abandoned their precious barrel. The vanguard jumped on their horses and began to flee back across the bridge. The foot soldiers began to panic in response, and joined in on the mass retreat, running back towards the safety of their camp from an imaginary army, like a stampeded of crazed (and drunk) gazelle.
If you were to assume things couldn’t get any stupider, you’d be completely and totally incorrect in your assessment: never underestimate the power of dumb people in large quantities….
A German Colonel attempted to block the way and reinstate sanity by ordering them to stop and get a grip. The exact words he yelled: “Halt Stephen bleiben! HALT!” It might be worth reiterating that these soldiers were recruited from a handful of different countries, and most of them didn’t speak German. In all the confusion “Halt! Halt!” somehow got mistaken as “Allah! Allah!” which to the terrified soldiers could only mean one thing: They were surrounded.
As this mis-translation spread, the entire Austrian army on the distant shore began to wake up to the horrifying screams and gunshots approaching in the dark, which could only mean one thing: The Turks were attacking!
To add credence to their suspicions: their entire herds of cattle and cart horses became so frightened by the chaos that they broke down the fences and thundered off through the camp, lending the sound-effect of incoming cavalry. One of the high-ranking corps commanders mistook this for incoming mustache-wearing, scimitar-wielding Turkish troops.
So naturally he readied the cannons, aimed at the rushing shadows, and open-fired… into his own ranks.
The soldiers began to fire back as all sorts of hell broke loose…
“The Turk! THE TURK! Save yourself! ALL IS LOST!!!”
The “Holy” Roman Emperor, Joseph II, awoke from his drug-induced-sleep in his carriage. He yawned, stretched, and stumbled out into the night, which had suddenly lit up like the Fourth of July during a lightning storm. “Wha-huh?!” was probably his mumbled response to the sight of his own men slaughtering each other for no apparent reason. His royal aide rushed to his side and helped him onto his horse in order to flee the frenzied mob rushing towards him.
His body guards attempted to keep the crazed (and drunk) soldiers at bay, but were trampled by the angry mob out for blood. The Emperor was then thrown from his horse directly into the river. Completely soaked from both the river and a soiled set of trousers, he managed to swim to shore only to witness the sight of his army destroying itself in a blaze of glory as the sun dawned over the horizon.
48 hours later… after two whole days, the Grand Vizier finally arrived on the scene to find the baffling sight of smoldering ruins a midst 10,000 dead and wounded soldiers of the Austrian army… after having a good chuckle the Turks easily captured the town of Karansebes from the hungover Austrians and called it a day.
Ultimately this skirmish would go down in history as the single-biggest-self-inflicted-defeat in the entirety of military history. Emperor Joseph II died in 1790, after asking that his epitaph read: “Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all he undertook.” Ludwig Van Beethoven was hired to write a composition for his funeral procession, but unfortunately it was not able to be performed due to technical difficulties.
The (so-called) “Battle” of Karansebes was an EPIC FAIL of the highest order!
Austria went to war …with itself, and the Ottomans won.
———Be sure to Check out: “The Mongol Invasion(s) of Japan”
Hope you enjoyed this edition of “Epik Fails of History!”, if you liked it let me know in the comments below! Also, be sure to ‘Like’ us on Facebook! and SHARE IT with your friends! If you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions say so below…
“History of Nations” by: Sir Edward Creasy
“The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History” by Erik Durschmied
“The Brassey’s Book of Military Blunders” by Geoffrey Reagan