Karansebes, 20 September 1788 – Myth?

The Story Goes…

Another loud crack followed the crashing and screaming nearby. Caught in that brief instant between sleep and consciousness, the soldier’s mind struggled to filter through the confusion. It was all noise, darkness and shock. And that strange metallic smell of blood. There were no stars to give him light. He hugged the wet ground, his fingers scraped the earth. Where are my boots? Why is everybody shooting? He could hear the sound of battle clearly. The noise and the dying. ‘Not me, oh God, not me …’ His mouth opened in a silent scream. Paralysed by fear, he couldn’t move. He said his prayer over and over again. ‘Not me …’ Cold sweat ran down his face, his chest heaved, he gulped for air. Panic held him in its iron grip. That ugly tangled knot banging on his brain, ‘Now I’m going to die’. There was no hope for dawn, it would be lonely to be dead … Was it all a bad dream? No, this was no dream, the flashes lighting up the night, the roll of cannon’s thunder, the screams of the wounded and the moans of the dying: ‘Save yourselves. Turci! Turci! All is lost, the Turk is upon us.’

Joseph II, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, had a weakness, and not a small one. He wished to be remembered through history as a military genius, as big as, if not bigger than his shining model, the great Frederick of Prussia. The main problem with the benign Austrian Emperor was that he simply didn’t have what it took. Neither with his diplomatic skill nor with a marshal’s baton. At an already advanced age he suddenly decided to deliver the Balkans from the Turks. The King of Prussia, Frederick Wilhelm, offered his gracious office to help settle the dispute between the Sublime Porte and the House of Hapsburg in a diplomatic manner. Instead of accepting the gracious offer, Emperor Joseph managed to insult the Prussian king by writing him a note: ‘The House of Hohenzollern came to power by the same fickle means as the evil Turk.’ This affront was enough to make the King of Prussia sign a military treaty with the King of Sweden. Together they marched against the only ally the Austrians had, the Empress Catherine of Russia. In the meantime, Joseph had begun to knock on the gates of the Balkans. But he’d forgotten to inform the Turkish envoy that Austria was actually at war, and had been for the six months since his army had entered Turkish territory. To correct this oversight, he sent a brief note to his State Chancellor, the Fürst of Kaunitz: ‘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 to the help of the Empress. I order you to instruct the Sublime Porte that a state of war exists between Austria and Turkey.’

In March 1788, Joseph set forth on his long and tiresome journey from Vienna to Walachia, the disputed border of confrontation between Islam and Christianity. He undertook it to obtain fame and enter history. He did indeed enter history, but not in the way he intended.

The initial objective of the Austrians was to liberate the Save, a strategic waterway, by subduing the Turkish strongholds of Schabaz, Belgrade and Vidin. And finally, following the conquest of the key fortress of Nis, to incorporate all of Serbia into the Austrian Empire. In order to achieve this the Emperor had gathered the military might necessary for the task. Six army corps, totalling 245,062 men with 36,725 horses. Under his direct command stood a main force of 125,000 soldiers and 22,000 horses. His artillery boasted 898 field guns with 176,700 cannon balls and 1,000 tons of black powder. To feed this army on the march took a daily ration of 800 tons of flour and 200 beef cattle.

This force was led by men remarkable in the annals of Austrian military history for their stupidity and incompetence. Coburg, Fabius, Wartersleben, Mitrovsky, Devins. The only competent leader, the ageing Marshal Laudon, who served so well his Empress Maria Theresia, was left behind. The Emperor had considered him too old for such an exhaustive exercise. It seems, the only talent the Austrian Emperor possessed was to pick always the wrong man for the job. This time he picked venerable Marshal Lacy, old and worn out.

‘The Austrians beheld with great apprehension the presence of their Emperor in a military campaign. He was well known for his humanitarian views, and nobody could see what his presence would add to win the war. But, because of his attraction towards the glory which comes with victory, Joseph could not be otherwise convinced. Therefore, many predicted already at the beginning of the campaign a bad ending, and future events were to prove them right.’

Joseph’s original plan of campaign, if ever he had one, was to employ his overwhelming forces not, as may be expected, in a major aggressive action, but to settle for a kind of defensive impasse. Thus, the Emperor of all Austrians began his campaign with a whimper, not with a bang.

The attack on the Turkish fort of Belgrade was scheduled for 16 May. The guns were in place, the infantry stood ready. On the evening of the 15th, the Emperor suddenly changed his mind, and, rather than attack the weakly defended garrison, he ordered a retreat. He based his decision on the fact that the Russians had not come to his support. Joseph’s courage was certainly nothing like that of the model he so desperately tried to imitate, Frederick the Great, a leader of men whose grasp of war and harsh decisions he never understood. To make matters worse, the Emperor’s health deteriorated, and with it his indecision mounted. His hesitation sacrificed a sizeable portion of his army to epidemic swamp fever when he ordered his generals to pitch camp in the mosquito infested bogs along the Danube. Soon the situation in the Austrian camp became desperate. Yet the Emperor refused to break camp. The deadly disease decimated the regiments, and the common graves began to overflow. In no time at all, 172,000 soldiers were afflicted by bouts of malaria and dysentery, and 33,000 of his best troops died. Joseph could have taken Belgrade or defeated a great army of Turks alone with the number of troops he had so carelessly sacrificed to the lethal fever. Those who weren’t affected by the fever suffered from military inactivity. While the poisonous climate continued to take its toll of their comrades, the men sat around and played cards. Fights broke out among this patchwork of ethnic auxiliaries: the Hungarians fought with the Croatians, the Lombardians hated the Slovenes, and none of them liked their Austrian officers. Still the Emperor held back, awaiting the arrival of the promised Russian reinforcements, which never materialised. Soon the camp ran out of bread: its flour rations had been used up and new supplies had to be shipped down the Danube from distant Austria. When these arrived they were found to be crawling with maggots. To add to this problem the war chest for the soldiers’ salary was empty.

In the meantime, the Turks had managed to reinforce the fortress of Belgrade with 9,000 fresh troops, and the Turkish governor of the city offered a bounty of 10 gold ducats for every Austrian’s head cut off and presented. This became known to the Austrian troops; whenever a soldier disappeared (probably drowned in the river or simply wandered off to go back to his family), rumours of Turkish atrocities spread throughout the camp. Troops lost faith in their officers and officers grumbled about their Emperor. Finally, Joseph was forced to beg the old Laudon to take over as head of the forces. ‘I do not order you, my dear Field Marshal Laudon, to take command of my troop, but I ask you humbly to do it for the best of state and the love for your Emperor.’

Laudon accepted, not for love of his Emperor but to save his beloved Austrian army. On 18 July he reached Imperial headquarters and on the 19th he conquered the fortress of Dubicza. At last, the army was on the move. Unfortunately, his generals were not as efficient as ‘der Alte’, and suffered a number of setbacks. There were a few notable feats of heroism. In the castle of Rama, the young Lieutenant Lopreski and 23 men held out against 4,000 Turks, until, true to the legend of Leonidas and his forty Spartans, all were dead. On the Boza Pass, a division of 4,000 Austrians bloodied the noses of 10,000 Turks. But such exploits were the exception and made no real difference to the overall conduct of the war.

As the Emperor had no better idea, he issued a plea to the church to offer prayers throughout the monarchy: ‘Oh Lord, the Almighty, you who smites the enemies of your Goodness, grant us your mighty protection. Spare your fighters from the dangers brought upon them by the Infidels.’

It seems that the prayers by the Infidels had more impact: ‘Allah, You who holds the sun, the stars and the whole universe in Your hand, You who has sent us Your Prophet to teach Your children the true faith, why do You let it happen that the enemy destroys our land? Rise, Almighty, and give Your people the power to proclaim Your Gloria in the temple of Mecca.’

Laudon worked miracles and conquered a number of minor places, but his arm wasn’t long enough. A division under General Papilla faced up to 13,000 Turks and was decimated, and on 18 August, Major von Stein had to relinquish the strategic position at Dubowa. After his withdrawal, the Austrians had to give up the Danube Valley all the way to Belgrade. Next came the message that a Turkish force of 70,000 under the Grand Vizier Jussuf Pasha marched on Vidin, while another army of 30,000 led by the Seraskier of Rumelia, was on its way to Nis. For the Austrians it became high time to deliver battle. Which meant that their main force of some 100,000 had to take up a position along the River Timisul around a small town by the name of Karansebes.

‘Here we have to win,’ the Emperor joyfully exclaimed; ‘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.’

Yes, there would be a Second Battle of Karansebes. But what was to take place there is probably unique in the history of warfare. An incident which, more than anything else, demonstrates the moral decline from which the Austrian army suffered, ‘whose worst portion was made up of people from barbaric tribes, and whose better part mistrusted their leaders’.

It was a moonless night, this 19 September 1788, when a vanguard of Imperial Hussars crossed the Timis Bridge at Karansebes. Having reached the opposite shore of the river, they did not find hostile Turks. Instead, they discovered a wagon camp of wandering Walachians who joyfully welcomed the riders and offered them schnapps and girls. After a brief bargaining session, a price was agreed upon and the hussars swung off their horses to indulge in a bout of revelry. Some hours passed when the first companies of foot soldiers crossed the same bridge, their throats equally dry. However, by now the hussars had bought up all the schnapps. To defend against these undesirable newcomers, the hussars quickly established a fortified position around their barrel of schnapps and chased away the foot soldiery. That greatly upset the thirsty men.

A shot rang out, followed by a scream, and a body tumbled forward. The hussars pulled out their sabres and attacked the infantry, driving the soldiers back. It was the noise of the shot that had frightened the men on foot, but once they had recovered from their initial shock, they too began to shoot. Soon a regular little battle was going on. More shots were fired and people began to die. Next, the soldiers tried for a frontal rout but the hussars wouldn’t yield. To chase the riders from their fortified position, the foot soldiers attempted a ruse. They yelled, ‘Turci! Turci!’ The mere idea of facing a Turkish host so frightened the inebriated hussars that they galloped in flight across the bridge. But the foot soldiers also drifted back, frightened by their own shouting. Their colonel tried to stop the rush by barring their way: ‘Halt Stehen bleiben! Halt!’ It was of no use, these men were Hungarians, Lombardians or Slovaks with hardly a word of German between them. There was no such order in their limited vocabulary. They had been taught the word ‘Vorwärts!’ but never ‘Halt!’ Perhaps they simply misunderstood, perhaps they just wanted to move to the rear instead of going into battle.

‘Halt! Halt!’ the Austrian officer kept yelling. Some young soldiers mistook this command for: ‘Allah! Allah!’ and now the shooting began in earnest.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the river the whole of the Austrian army had gone to sleep only to be suddenly awakened by firing on the distant shore. The vanguard had encountered the Turks! They couldn’t imagine what else could have started the shooting and screaming, since everything took place in total, frightening darkness. The noise of battle, the moans of the wounded and the death cries helped to intensify their terror. What they heard but couldn’t see confirmed a feeling deep inside them – the big fear of dying.

Fenced off in the midst of the camp was a herd of carthorses. These animals became so frightened by the increasing bedlam that they knocked down the fence and thundered off, making a sound like advancing cavalry. A corps commander misinterpreted it for an attack and ordered his cannons to open fire. The night was lit up by blue flashes and thunder claps, and more soldiers began to fall. A roar went up: ‘The Turk! The Turk! Save yourself! All is lost!’

Quickly the panic took hold of the entire army, and it became pointless to try telling that polyglot force what had happened at the other end of the bridge. The first regiment drifted to the rear, quickly followed by another and another. Soon a mass of soldiers fled back in a human tidal wave. Owing to their varied ethnic backgrounds, most regiments couldn’t converse with each other, which made them imagine that the shadows rushing at them were the enemy. Terrified by the thought that they were about to be overrun by scimitar-wielding hordes of Turks, they fired into their own decamping ranks.

The Emperor, still weak from his illness, had taken a nap in his carriage. Drugged by sleep and medicine, he stumbled from his coach staring at the bedlam. He could hear the cries of the frenzied mob coming towards him. An aide helped him onto his horse. No sooner up, he was swept aside by the fleeing mob. One of his aides stood firmly in front of him, striking out at the fear-crazed soldiers; he felled a few with his sabre before he was trampled to the ground and his breath crushed from his body. The Emperor was thrown from his horse, ending up in the river. Wet, and beset by the fear that he would soon fall into the hands of the Turks, he crawled into a house in Karansebes from where his personal guards finally delivered him. (An almost similar fate happened to his brother, the Archduke Franz, who was eventually rescued by a carré of his regiment.)

The drivers of the munitions wagons used their horses to make good their escape, swiftly followed by the gunners, who cut the harnesses between horse and cannon before they dashed bareback to the rear, abandoning their field pieces. This mad cavalcade hacked down anyone who dared to put himself into their path. Many officers were killed that way, and the panic took on incredible proportions. Everyone ran, cursed, prayed, fired or died. Houses were plundered, women raped, and villages went up in flames. The path of panic was strewn with discarded muskets, saddles, tents, dead horses, and all the jetsam of a defeated army. It was only much later that the generals managed to put a halt to the mad flight. The Austrian army was in shambles, the shock which followed the devastation was stunning.

Two days later, the Grand Vizier and his army finally showed up before Karansebes. They didn’t find an Austrian army. They did, however, find some 10,000 dead and wounded Austrians whose heads were speedily lopped off by the Turks.


Following the debacle at Karansebes, the Emperor sent a note to his brother: ‘I know not how to continue. I have lost my sleep and spend the night with dark thoughts.’

In a dispatch to his chancellor Kaunitz, the Emperor wrote: ‘This disaster which our army suffered due to the cowardice of some units is incalculable for the moment. The panic was everywhere, among the army, among the people of Karansebes, and all the way back to Temesvar, a good ten leagues from there. I cannot describe in words the terrible rape and killing that went on.’

Only the bravery of Count Kinsky and his cavalry regiment stopped the rider hordes of the Turkish Pasha from annihilating the Austrian army after Karansebes. Later that fall, the old Laudon re-established order in the army and led Austria to a series of victories. Then came winter. The Emperor was near death. This ended the campaign of 1788.

In the spring of 1789, the young Selim III ascended to the throne of the Sultanate and led his army into war. But this time the Turks bit into a stone in the person of Marshal Laudon, who made short shrift of their attempt and pushed them out of the Banat. The Danube became once again an Austrian river. While this combat was still raging, Emperor Joseph II died with these final words: ‘All I wish for is a durable peace over all of Europe.’

History: Joseph II and the Myth of Karansebes, 1788


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