he Habsburg Empire has had a history of being involved in the Ottoman influence in the Balkans. Wars between the two titans of Europe stretch back to the early 1500s, starting in 1526 at the Battle of Mohács. These wars would continue until the late 1700s, when the Treaty of Sistova was signed, signifying the end of the last war between the two nations.
Many historically significant events happened during the nearly 300 years of conflict between the two states, most notably the Siege of Vienna and the subsequent charge of the Hussars against the Ottoman forces. Today we will talk about a less known event of these wars, possibly the biggest blunder committed by the Hapsburgs during this conflict. The Battle of Karánsebes. We will also use the Hapsburgs and the Austrians interchangeably as, at this time in history, for our purposes, they could be considered one entity.
Austria’s involvement in the war against the Ottomans in 1788 came about as a result of the Habsburgs aligning themselves with the Russian Empire. Facing Ottoman aggression, the Russians were forced into what was deemed to be a defensive war. Compelled by their alliance with the Russians, the Habsburgs joined the fight in 1788, a year after the war was initially declared.
After being promised concessions from the Ottomans by the Russians if the war was won, the Austrian emperor threw all of his armies at the Caliphate. Although the conflict would prove to be a success for the Habsburgs, gaining the port city of Orșova in return for their help, during their advance into Ottoman land, the lack of army professionalism in their ranks would start to show through.
In late September 1788, the 100,000-strong Austrian army advanced through the territory of modern-day Romania, then under the control of the Austrians and Ottomans. By the 21st of September, the army reached Karánsebes with the intention of garrisoning the tactically significant city. Here the events of the Battle of Karánsebes would unfold.
A bit too much to drink
Once the army reached Karánsebes on the 21, they set up camp, planning to rest for the night and continue their march the next day, leaving some troops behind to protect the city. While the infantry started to set up their camp, the army’s hussars crossed the Timiș River to scout for possible Ottoman troops.
No Ottomans could be seen; instead, what the hussars met on the other side of the river was a group of Romani people. The traveling merchants offered to sell the hussars schnapps, an offer which they couldn’t refuse. Much drinking ensued.
Once the camp was done, some of the infantrymen also crossed the river in search of something to do.
There they found the now very drunk hussars partying and drinking. An argument ensued over who should get the alcohol, and in the chaos, one of the parties fired their musket.
Once the shot rang out, the two sides clashed, fighting hand to hand over who should get the alcohol. At one point, one of the soldiers started to scream “Turci,” meaning “Turks.” The message spread amongst the group, and many started to flee back to the camp, spreading the message to those who didn’t cross the river.
This trickle of false information triggered a mass retreat. Some of the Austrian officers tried to stop the soldiers by screaming “Halt.” As the Austrian had hired a range of ethnicities within their army, some didn’t understand the message, instead mistaking it for the Arabic word “Allah,” further accelerating the retreat.
During the chaotic withdrawal, Austrian soldiers shot at other Austrian soldiers believing that they were surrounded by the Turkish army. The panic was so bad that the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II, was pushed into a creek by those fleeing, nearly killing him. According to claims made by the historian, Paul Bernard, 10,000 Austrians died or were injured as a result of this incident.
Two days after the incident, the Ottoman army advanced into Karánsebes to discover hundreds of wounded Austrians scattering the fields nearby the town. With no opposition, the ‘Turks’ captured the city, killing the rest of the wounded Austrians who weren’t able to escape.
Claims on the real number of deaths that this event created are still disputed to this day. Some sources claim that only between 100 to 1,000 soldiers were actually lost during the pandemonium. Other sources, such as the author of Joseph II’s biography, gives us a different view of the events. As mentioned above, Bernard estimates that around 10,000 Austrians died as a result of the disorderly retreat.
With no detailed records found to this day, it is hard to really determine how many died during the events of the Battle of Karánsebes. Although some of the Austrian deaths during this war can definitely be attributed to this event, many more would succumb to malaria and dysentery, leading to the avoidable deaths of many innocent Austrians, Croats, Serbs, and Italians throughout the war.