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The Army of the Young Turks

Among the radical changes which the Young Turks hoped to bring about was the complete reform of the Army. To aid them in their task, instructors were hired from the German Army, and the work proceeded apace. For the first time annual manoeuvres were instituted, and the report on those which were held around Adrianople in 1910 showed the army in a very favourable light. However, it is one thing to manoeuvre four divisions of picked troops in time of peace, and quite another to handle four army corps in time of war. One of the generals in command in 1910 was the unfortunate Abdullah Pasha, and he largely owed his promotion to the command of the army of Thrace to the fact that he was considered to have done so well in the manoeuvres of 1910.

The advent of the Young Turks to power brought about changes in the character of the army, which have had the most disastrous results during the present campaign. An army can only be reformed from the top, not from the bottom, but the Young Turks tried to change the rank and file without first reforming the War Office and creating a General Staff; for without efficient organisation and leadership, all drastic reforms in the men and material must necessarily be wasted in time of war.

The Young Turks wished to create an army on the model of the German, without stopping to consider if the material they were handling could be moulded into a new form without destroying all the durable qualities which had so often saved the Empire from complete disaster and disruption in the past. They set themselves the task, with the aid of German instructors, of substituting a national spirit, based on the territorial boundaries of the Empire, for the old cry of Islam, which had so often aroused the patriotism of the Turkish soldier in the past, and of substituting science, tactics, and the stern discipline of Prussia for the old natural instinct for war and self-reliance which had characterised the troops of the old regime. They thought that by changing the outward trappings of the soldier; by clothing him in the most modern of khaki uniforms ; by placing putties round his legs and boots on his feet, and a khaki-coloured kalpack on his head in place of the traditional fez, and generally making him outwardly up-to-date in appearance, they could construct an army on the model of the German, equal to it in efficiency and ability for the grand manoeuvres of war.

It was the outward appearance of the soldiers as they left Constantinople for the front, which led so many critics to believe that the Turkish army was highly organised and more than capable of holding its own against the Allies. Truly the appearance of some of the battalions, as they paraded on the great square in front of the War Office before marching to the railway station, was magnificent, and seemed to ensure success. The Turk is naturally big and deep-chested, and when clothed in khaki with his great-coat strapped to his back, with the peculiar headgear consisting of a kind of combined shawl and hood, which could be passed over the kalpack to protect him from the cold, and which added several inches to his height, and with his brand-new Mauser rifle at his shoulder, he looked a warrior of which any nation might be proud.

But a closer examination, more especially when the troops were on the march, showed defects which were not at first apparent. The uniforms, which on parade seemed to fit so closely and to be so comfortable, soon began to lose their smart appearance and to sag ominously; the men began to stoop under the weight of ill-fitting knapsacks held to their backs by unaccustomed straps, and to fret at the greatcoats slung round their bodies. Ill-arranged putties began to get loose and to flap round the legs of the marchers, who looked down at them in dismay, and after a few hundred yards many were already limping from sore feet, and hating the sight of their new boots. Many of the reservists carried their Mauser rifles in that gingerly manner in which a man will hold a young child, if suddenly called upon to do so, being totally unaccustomed to this new army, and having been schooled in the simplicity of the old Martini. Tthese Anatolian peasants were being sent to the front ill-trained and ill-disciplined, with ill-fitting and unaccustomed kits, and armed with a rifle which but a small proportion knew how to handle.

There was a remarkable shortage of officers. Whole battalions would be equipped and drilled, and marched off with hardly one officer per company. In their dealings with the old type of regimental officer the Young Turks made the most fatal mistake of all. Because they saw European armies with young regimental officers who enjoyed steady promotion, they said, " We must get rid of all these old subalterns and captains who were promoted from the ranks, and who are old enough to be colonels and generals, and replace them by young officers." Therefore, with a stroke of the pen they placed all the regimental officers over a certain age in retirement before they had a sufficiency of young officers to take their place. Thus for the last three years the Turkish Army has been woefully short of officers, and when the war broke out it was no fewer than two thousand below its proper establishment.

This fatal step destroyed the efficiency of the battalions to a lamentable extent. The old idea of the battalion being a happy family, where men and officers knew one another and had served together for many years, disappeared, and the confidence of the men was shaken by the introduction of a younger generation with new ideas of discipline, which did its utmost to impress on the men that the significance of their faith was as nothing, compared with the necessity of maintaining the territories of the Empire intact.

Neither was the new generation of officers prepared to lead the lives of their predecessors, who always remained with their battalions and shared the hardships and discomforts of their men. The one idea of the new type of officer was to obtain a billet on the Staff which would give him an easy berth, and they spent every spare moment they could obtain in applying for leave and hastening to Constantinople, where they delighted to parade their fine new uniforms among the foreigners in the cafe's and hotels of Pera, for even Stamboul no longer possessed attraction for their Europeanised minds.

Large numbers of officers were also sent to be educated in Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, and this move-sound in theory-has also had a highly detrimental effect on the character of the Turkish officers and discipline of the Army. The primitive fighting virtues of an Oriental race almost invariably disappear in the ratio in which the individuals are brought in contact with, and imbibe the ideas of, more civilised communities. We saw this among the Europeantrained Japanese officers in the Russo-Japanese War, and we see it still more clearly marked in the case of the Turk. A few years amongst the gaieties of the capitals of Europe invariably gives the Turkish officer a distaste for the hard life and poor fare of his own country. His faith in his religion disappears, and his patriotism weakens because he asks himself, " What am I fighting for ? Merely a worn-out religion and a crumbling empire which offers me none of the attractions provided by the higher civilisations."

But worse than this. Having received a scientific military training and having been brought into contact with European armies and European methods, he returns to his own country full of his own importance and possessed with a profound contempt for his less fortunate comrades who have not received the same education as himself. He believes himself to be their superior because of his theoretical knowledge, and entirely forgets that all theoretical knowledge is quite wasted without practical experience of regimental life and the handling of troops in the field. His natural desire is to avoid serving with his regiment at any price. He feels that only a billet on the Staff is good enough for him, for this will not only enable him to show his scientific knowledge of war, but also to remain in the capital and to live under conditions which approximate more closely to those he has been accustomed to in the European capitals. If he is obliged to join his regiment he looks upon his superior officers, trained in the old school, with contempt, considering himself vastly their superior. He is continually levying veiled criticisms at his superiors, and undermining the discipline of the regiment by the open disapproval he displays for the orders he receives. His outwardly smart appearance is in glaring contrast with the slovenly uniforms of his comrades, and he feels himself entirely out of harmony with those whom he now regards, from his enlightened standpoint, as little better than barbarians.

In consequence of the fatal step of having got rid of nearly all the old officers without having others to take their place, whole battalions left for the front with hardly any officers at all, whilst the cafds and hotels and streets of Pera and Stamboul were crowded with young officers in beautiful uniforms, who had nothing in particular to do, who were too proud to serve with their regiments and who had nominal, or were awaiting billets on the staff. Many of them never went near the front, and many who eventually did find their way up there, only stayed for a few days and seized the first available opportunity to return to the more congenial haunts of Pera, where, over coffee, liqueurs and cigars, they would describe the lamentable state of the army to an admiring circle of friends, and explain the causes which led to its defeat, without realising that they themselves were largely responsible for the debacle.

In the early stages of the war many officers, as soon as the retreat on Chataldja had begun, left the front without leave and hastened to Constantinople, without reporting themselves to anyone. Thus the generals had no idea what had become of them and could take no steps to recall them to the front. This finally became such a scandal that Nazim Pasha took drastic steps to check the evil. No officers were allowed to leave without permission, and they were obliged to report themselves to the War Office on their arrival in the capital.

This brief summary will show the lamentable state of the Turkish Army when the war with Greece in 1907 broke out. The Army Corps were split up and scattered over the Empire; the battalions were short of officers; the men had lost confidence in themselves and in their officers, and, above all, they were called upon to march to the defence of territories, in which they had but little interest, for the first time, not because Islam was threatened, but because the integrity of the Empire had to be preserved.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:03:46 ZULU