An Austrian Army Was Panicked Into Destroying Itself Without an Enemy in Sight
The Austro-Turkish War of 1787 – 1791, between the Austrian Habsburg and Turkish Ottoman empire, saw history’s most catastrophic, and farcical, friendly fire incident. It occurred in the Battle of Karansebes, in 1788. During that engagement, an Austrian army killed and wounded over 10,000 of its own men, routed itself, and scattered in panicked flight without an enemy present.
The Austrian Habsburgs ruled a diverse and multiethnic empire. Its army, reflecting that diversity, was made of units drawn from various ethnic groups, most of whom could not understand each others’ languages. During the night of September 21-22, 1788, Austrian hussars crossed a river to scout. They found no Turks but found some Gypsies who sold them schnapps. Soon, the hussars were rip-roaring drunk.
While the hussars were having a good time getting smashed, back in their camp, the Austrian commander became concerned when the scouts were late coming back. So he sent some infantry across the river to check. The infantry found the hussars and demanded a share of the schnapps. The hussars refused, a brawl ensued, and it escalated into an exchange of gunfire. During that fight, an infantryman had the clever idea of pranking the hussars by shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). That caused the inebriated hussars to pick up the cry, and flee in panic while screaming “Turci! Turci!“. They were joined by many infantrymen, unaware that the alarm had been a prank shouted by one of their comrades.
While that fracas was going on, the Austrian camp stirred uneasily at the sounds of distant gunfire and screams across the river. When the mob of panicked hussars and infantry neared the camp, shouting “Turci! Turci!“, they were challenged by sentries, who shouted at them to “Halt! Halt!“. That was misheard by some non-German speaking soldiers as people shouting “Allah! Allah!” In the ensuing tumult, an artillery officer reasoned that the camp was under attack, and ordered his cannons to open fire.
As soldiers woke up to the sounds of combat, startled and confused, some began firing wildly, and within minutes, the panic and wild firing spread and engulfed the camp. Soon, entire regiments were firing volleys at each other, before the entire army dissolved and scattered in panicked flight. The Turks arrived two days later and captured the Austrian camp, where they found 10,000 dead and wounded Habsburgs.