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The Ottoman Army

Absolute and despotic governments generally rest upon military foundations. A study of the military history of the Ottoman Empire during the 19th Century and early 20th Century will show that the Turks were always beaten in war - with the single exception of the war with Greece in 1907 - but that isolated bodies of troops, when well commanded and placed behind entrenchments, often put up the most heroic resistance. This seems to point to the fact that the senior officers had never been capable of handling large bodies of men; that grand strategy in war was almost unknown in Turkey, and that the soldier himself lacks that dash and initiative in offensive movements which are so characteristic of the French and also of the Japanese.

The old type of Turkish soldier who existed up to the end of the Hamidian regime possessed many excellent qualities which rendered him individually a stubborn and formidable opponent for the best of troops. He was hardy and could exist on rations which would spell starvation for the troops of any other race. He was willing and obedient, and would follow his officer anywhere. He was accustomed to look after himself in the field and to regard the commissariat train as a doubtful ally which might, but which probably would not, be available at critical moments on a campaign. Therefore he learnt, not to be dependent on it, but to shift for himself, to collect provisions when they were available, and to husband them carefully against a rainy day. He cared little about the outward trappings of war. In appearance he was slovenly to a degree which would have made the Potsdam Guards blush with shame and horror ; but on a campaign each man collected those articles of clothing and more especially of foot-gear which he found the most useful and the most comfortable.

There were three chief stages in the military reorganisation of the Ottoman Empire. All these reforms, and particularly the last, had been carried out under the ever-increasing influence of the Germans. During the 19th century the Turkish army had undergone three fundamental reorganisations.

  1. The first of these dates from 1842, and took place, consequently, three years after the departure of Moltke from Constantinople. It was the work of Khusrev Pasha, and shows evident signs of Prussian inspiration. Under this scheme the Ottoman territory was divided into six military districts, an arrangement which at first provided Turkey with 250,000 men, and was destined to last for more than sixty years.

  2. The second military organisation dated from 1869 ; it was the work of the Minister Huseyn Avni Pasha. Under its provisions the number of men was raised to 400,000; five years later in 1874, such further additions were made to the total of reservists or redifs that during the war with Russia it was possible to mobilise 700,000 men.

  3. Finally, in the year 1911, Mahmud Shevket Pasha completed the third and by far the most important process of reconstruction.
Under Abdul Hamid the Turkish army was mainly a defensive force. The Ottoman territory was divided into six military districts, three in Europe, three in Asia. Each of the six corresponding armies or ordou (the word ' army' is in this connexion more exact than ' army corps') had its own special organisation and a varying number of divisions. For example, the army of Damascus consisted of two active divisions only, while the army of Salonika consisted of five. Before the Revolution, the greater part of the Ottoman troops, that is, some 200,000 men, were employed in Europe in opposing the Macedonian insurgents. The rest of the army remained in barracks, and were sometimes even left without ammunition, for Abdul Hamid mistrusted his troops. As for army manoeuvres, they were never even contemplated.

Even as late as the war with Greece in 1907, it was very seldom one saw a battalion with a common uniform. The troops resembled a collection of unemployed on a hunger march rather than a regular army. Some of the men wore boots, some sandals, some merely had rags tied round their feet, and some preferred to go barefooted. Of tactics and battalion manoeuvres the Turks knew little and cared still less. In their place they possessed a natural instinct for war which caused them to stick together in moments of emergency and invariably to choose a strong defensive position without having to have the ground carefully selected for them by their officers.

The old regular battalions possessed another great advantage, namely, that the men served together for very long periods at a time, knew and trusted one another, and resembled a large, united, and happy family. Great numbers of the men served long beyond the period rendered compulsory by the conscription. This was due to the fact that no register of births existed throughout the Ottoman Empire under the Hamidian regime and therefore many were able to escape the conscription altogether, while others were able to purchase exemptions, with the result that the authorities, in order to fill the ranks, often kept unfortunate paupers with the colours after their time was up, or would force them to serve afresh after they had been released from their first term.

The officers of the old Turkish Army were on a par with their men. They were superannuated, ignorant, almost untrained, totally devoid of any knowledge of the science of war and slovenly in their outward appearance. They served in the junior grades of subaltern and captain all their lives, but few ever obtaining promotion, in fact, the majority never expected promotion and were quite content to fill their humble riles. A very large proportion also were promoted from the ranks, and had nothing to qualify them save their knowledge of the men. They served for years in the Yemen, in Macedonia and in the wilds of the Caucasus, forgotten by the War Office, often going for long periods without their pay, but nevertheless faithful to Islam.

These old officers were the backbone of the old Turkish Army. They knew their men and were respected and loved by them. On a campaign the men had the most implicit confidence in them, and would follow them anywhere.

Such was the old army which generally managed in the midst of reverses to cover itself with glory and to maintain the reputation of the Turkish soldier for stubborn courage. The whole army marched to war at the command of the Padisha, not in defence of the territorial possessions of the Ottoman Empire, but in the cause of Islam against the infidel.

The man who carryied through a thorough reform of this state of things was, as is well known, Mahmud Shevket Pasha, the War Minister; and it is not without interest to glance at the chief points in his career. Mahmud Shevket Pasha was of Arab descent and was born at Baghdad. In 1880 he was a pupil at the military school of Constantinople. He left at the head of his class and obtained an appointment on the General Staff. On the arrival of Von der Goltz at Constantinople Mahmud Shevket became his immediate associate, and worked for three years in conjunction with him. In 1884 Mahmud was sent to Germany to superintend the manufacture of Mauser rifles and other warlike 6tores which were being supplied to Turkey by German firms. He remained in Germany ten years; and it was during this period that he formed those close friendships with various members of the military world which naturally left him a convinced disciple of German military methods. On his return to Turkey in 1894 Mahmud filled various military posts. In April 1905 he was sent to Uskub as Vali of the Vilayet of Kossovo, where he remained till August 1908.

The Young Turk revolution took place in July 1908; and, through the influence of the Committee of Union and Progress, Mahmud Shevket was sent to take command of the 3rd Army Corps at Salonika. It was in this capacity that, after the counter-revolution of April 1909, he marched on Constantinople. When the responsibility of this all-important step had to be faced, it was Colonel Ali Biza-a first-rate officer and Mahmud's right-hand man-who overcame the final hesitation of his chief. Their daring step was crowned with brilliant success ; and from that moment Mahmud was a changed man. His former indecision gave place to firmness and resolution ; and he found himself invested by the course of events with so great authority that he was obliged to assume, in spite of himself, the carriage and tone of a dictator; he was convinced that he had a mission to fulfil, and would submit to no hindrance.

Such, in the essentials of his character, is the man who directed the reorganisation of the Ottoman army. What was the nature of this reorganisation ? On the advice of German officers, and of Von der Goltz in particular, Mahmud came to the conclusion that the old system must be radically changed. The principle underlying the new organisation consisted in the uniformity of the army corps, which are all composed of identical elements. The division forms the fundamental unit. The divisions are distributed among fourteen army corps, of which seven are in Europe and seven in Asia.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:03:48 ZULU