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The Made-Up Battle of Karánsebes October 28, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Wishing to distract himself from various home traumas Beachcombing thought that he would write today on one of his favourite ‘cobbler’ (tosh, nonsense) reports of all time: the Battle of Karansebes (Karánsebes for the minority who like accents on their conflicts).

Here’s the game-plan. Beachcombing will start with the facts, move on to the legend and then shake his head sadly about the transience of all things human and muse on what lying, distorting dogs we are.

The facts. From 1787-1791 Austria under the unimpressive Joseph II (then Holy Roman Emperor) fought the Ottomans for control of the Danube along with Austria’s ally Russia (under the impressive Catherine). Russia won big, Austria won small (a couple of towns in what is today Croatia), and the Ottomans slunk back to Turkey. In fact, this nasty little episode – held responsible for closing down several opera companies in Vienna… – is an object lesson that war is not so much the father of all things as a royal waste of time.

So much for the facts. Now onto the much more enjoyable legend of Karánsebes. In 1788 the Austrian army marched to meet the Ottoman foe and, 17 September, they camped at Karánsebes. There some of the Austrian cavalry found Gypsies selling brandy, bought big, got drunk and, to distract their superiors’ attention or to stop the infantry from getting at the drink, began to shout out that the Turks were coming.

The confusion was total and deadly.

By the break of day about ten thousand Austrian soldiers lay dead on the field of battle and the Ottomans were not even in sight. It seems that confusion had been added to by the multi-lingual nature of Joseph’s army. Screams of ‘Halt!’, ‘Halt!’ had been misinterpreted as ‘Allah! Allah!’ by the non-German speaking Slavs…

Beachcombing loves this story and – with full apologies to the ten thousand corpses – wishes it were true. It would be a John-Lennon style parable and also another nail in the coffin of the reputation of what was to become Austria-Hungary’s pathetic army.

But there is absolutely no evidence that Beachcombing has been able to find. His suspicions were aroused when he read that the Austrian cavalry paid for brandy from Romanian gypsies… Gypsies with brandy!? Paid?! Hussars paying gypsies!?! The most likely small change any local Romany would have got would have been in sabre cents.

We have here a modern myth. An unpopular war creates, back home, the tale of a military catastrophe that was then embellished with the generations. Certainly, the tale touches on several Austrian themes: polyglot incompetence, class-based incompetence (infantry vs cavalry), generalised military incompetence (the Viennese never took their army that seriously) and, most importantly, hard drink from out of central Europe with a dash of gypsy-laced racism.

Beachcombing would say, in fact, that it ticks all the boxes: shades of The Good Soldier Švejk.

Ten thousand dead (and wounded) may or may not be a reliable number for the retreat that ended their campaign (de Marmont, Voyage1/108) – the army passed through Karánsebes on their way in and then retreated back through the area on their way out. And there seems to have been a good deal of Austrian-style confusion, but Beachcombing can find nothing else resembling the account of the ‘battle’ given above. Still, the ‘battle’ has made its way into print in several places. Following the legend’s growth through the centuries would make for a fascinating piece: a doctorate anyone?

Beachcombing was also struck by the parallels with the Celtic attack on Delphi in 279 BC where the Celtic army (while drunk) allegedly fell on itself during the night, confused by the different dialects in the army. But don’t take the parallel too seriously. For all we know that attack was made up as well and Beachcombing suspects that the Viennese were too busy listening to opera in the late eighteenth century to trouble with Pausanias. Those loveable Imperial dolts…

Of course, friendly fire is a serious issue in military history: Stonewall Jackson spitting out his last lemon, British and Prussian artillery at the battle of Waterloo, Americans killed by Americans during Operation Husky, while, in the Gulf War, a quarter of all US soldiers who died were killed by their own side.

But Beachcombing would be amazed if any friendly fire incident ever came close to a thousand, never mind ten thousand. Though, as always, he would love and half expects to be corrected. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com