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A Sobering Lesson: The Battle of Karansebes 1788

by Gary Lyon

The Austrian army of the late eighteenth century was a shambles. A polyglot mixture of nationalities led by officers who often did not speak the same tongue as their troops; the Hungarians fought with the Croatians, the Lombards hated the Slovenes and none of the troops liked or respected their Austrian officers. The senior army commanders were chosen by social connection rather than ability and the supreme commander, the Emperor Joseph II, was a legend in only his own imagination. In the 1788 campaign against their old enemy, the Turks, inspired leadership led to the army camping in a swamp where disease killed 33,000 in a short time.

To stop a Turkish army marching on the fortress of Vidin, the Austrian army left Belgrade to take up a blocking position on the river Timisul. On the night of 17th September 1788 a vanguard of Imperial Hussars crossed the Timis bridge at Karansebes. Once across the river they found no Turks, but a wagon camp of Wallachian gypsies who entertained them with schnapps and women.

The next troops to cross the river were infantry but the Hussars had bought all the booze already and had no intention of sharing. In fact they fortified the wagons and chased away the infantry. In the darkness a fight broke out and shots were fired. To scare away the Hussars some of the infantry pretended to be Turkish but this only panicked other infantry of differing nationality. An Austrian officer kept shouting "Halt, Halt" but some soldiers thought he was calling "Allah, Allah" and intensified their shooting. Fenced off in the camp were the carthorses which panicked in the noise and stampeded. A corps commander thought this was a cavalry charge and opened up with artillery.

In the darkness with shouts all around, many in a strange language, and with shots crashing out troops began to panic. As regiments fled troops behind them thought that the escapees were Turks charging them and opened fire. The Emperor was caught up in the rout and was thrown from his horse into a river. Artillery gunners cut their traces and fled on the draught horses. Any officers that tried to stop the rout were trampled underfoot. Houses were plundered, women raped, villages torched. Equipment was scattered everywhere.

Two days later the Turks turned up at Karansebes to find that the Austrians had left - all bar the 10,000 dead and wounded ones.

 

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