Life's Little Mysteries

What Was the Most Pointless Battle in History?

The snazzy uniforms of the Austrian army were not enough to help soldiers recognize that they were battling their fellow Austrians, that one time in 1788. (Image credit: Imagno/Getty)

Throughout humanity's long and often-bloody history, there have been battles in which one side gained ground and promptly lost it again. And victories have often been marred by the sobering reality of heavy casualties on both the winning and the losing sides.

Many military clashes seem like a waste in retrospect, but are there any battles that stand out for their sheer futility?

There are, sadly, many contenders. Some were poorly planned and executed, such as the botched Dieppe Raid of Aug. 19, 1942, in which undersupported Allied forces lost more than 3,000 soldiers while attempting to take a French port under German control during World War II.

Other battles flared over astoundingly trivial slights, such as the so-called "Pastry War" of 1838. This altercation between France, Mexico and the U.S. erupted when a Frenchman demanded restitution for his lost property in Mexico — a pastry shop that Mexican forces had destroyed and looted the previous year, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.     

However, a strong candidate for the most pointless battle of all time was a European skirmish that purportedly took place from Sept. 21 to Sept. 22 in 1788. In this altercation, there was no winner and no loser, as the victor and the defeated were one and the same — the Austrian army. [10 Epic Battles that Changed History]

It's a confusing scenario that was equally perplexing to the Austrians, who, at the time, were engaged in the Austro-Turkish War, waged from 1787 to 1791 against the Ottoman Turks, author Eric Durschmeid, a former war correspondent for the BBC, wrote in his book "The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History" (Arcade Publishing, 2016). 

Austrian soldiers launched a deadly response to what was perceived as a Turkish attack, and the battle was joined near the town of Karánsebes (also spelled Caransebeș) in what is now Romania (then Transylvania). But when the smoke cleared, the Austrian army discovered that they had been battling themselves all along, though accounts vary about the scale of the carnage, according to Durschmeid.

A drunken start

The "attack" unfurled on the night of Sept. 21 while the Austrians, under the leadership of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, were on a night march to engage with the Turkish army, historian Charles Kirke, a lecturer in military anthropology at Cranfield University in the U.K., wrote in the book "Fratricide in Battle: (Un)Friendly Fire" (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).

When the army stopped close to Karánsebes to rest, tired and thirsty cavalry officers bought liquor for themselves and started drinking. Soon after, a fight broke out between cavalry and infantrymen; shots were fired, and drunken, joking cries that the army was under attack by the Turks sparked panic that quickly spread among the ranks, Kirke reported.

"While it was obviously a prank in the eyes of the soldiers close by, the columns of soldiers behind heard shouts and firing in the darkness ahead, and assumed the worst," he wrote.

Skirmishes erupted as thousands of soldiers panicked and threw themselves into the fray, firing in the dark at anything that moved. When the sun rose over the bloody scene — perhaps as many as 10,000 Austrian soldiers were killed or wounded — it became clear that there were no Turkish soldiers in sight. But when the Turkish army did turn up two days later, they easily outmaneuvered the demoralized the Austrians, and captured the undefended Karánsebes, according to Kirke.

Spotty records

However, historical records about the incident are spotty, calling into question whether the battle occurred as popular lore suggests and hinting that the embarrassing story of the Austrian army's blunder may have become exaggerated over time, historian Matthew Mayer explained in his doctoral thesis about the 1788 campaign, written while Mayer was a graduate student at McGill University in Canada.

According to Mayer, Joseph II sent a letter to his brother Leopold on Sept. 26 of that year, describing the sudden outbreak of rifle fire on the night of Sept. 21 and the alarm and confusion that followed.

"The column in which I found myself was completely dispersed," Joseph wrote. "Cannons, wagons and all the tents were turned over, it was horrible; [my] soldiers shooting at each other! Eventually calm was restored, and we were lucky that the Turks were not on our trail otherwise the whole army would have been destroyed."

Joseph further expanded on the debacle in a dispatch that he sent to the chancellor of Austria, Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, according to Durschmied.

"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 city in western Romania], a good ten leagues from there," he wrote.

But there is no mention of heavy casualties — in Joseph's letters or in other historical records — and Joseph's letter to his brother includes only a brief description of damage to army stores, which included the loss of "all the pots and tents" and "three pieces of artillery."

It's possible that the more sensationalized version of the battle that appears in Kirke's book drew from the biography "Joseph II" (Twayne Publishers, 1968), in which historian Paul Bernard mentions the loss of 10,000 men but omits attribution for the number, Mayer pointed out.

"Since Bernard fails to give his source, Joseph's description must be seen as the more accurate of the two," Mayer concluded.

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.  Her book "Rise of the Zombie Bugs: The Surprising Science of Parasitic Mind Control" will be published in spring 2025 by Johns Hopkins University Press.