The Ottoman Empire at War

From the lecture series: The Ottoman Empire

By Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D., Tulane University

In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire was ill-prepared to enter a modern war. This was a war that would be waged primarily against the British Empire and the Russian Empire simultaneously. But war is more than just a matter of numbers and statistics. Sometimes, one can beat the odds. Discover the circumstances the Ottoman Empire was up against and why it’s extraordinary that they fared so well.

Flag of the Ottoman Empire
Flag of the Ottoman Empire

In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire was really ill-prepared to enter a total modern war. This was a war that would be waged primarily against the British Empire and the Russian Empire at the same time. The last time that was done was back during the Napoleonic Wars, and it didn’t end up too well. The Ottoman state, however, did carry out a remarkable general mobilization. The reform of the army that was conducted really quite rapidly before the outbreak of the conflict held up. The administration, the movement of levies to the staging areas, and, as far as we can tell at least, the Muslim Turkish population marched off to war quite enthusiastically and patriotically.

Successful Mobilization

The Ottoman Empire Imperial Army
The Ottoman Imperial Army

The vast majority of the population is illiterate, so we don’t have letters and diaries as we do in European diaries to judge the overall morale, but certainly the political classes welcomed war as a way to restore Ottoman power. Some of this must have been communicated down to the masses to account for the successful mobilization.

Throughout the war, the total mobilization was something like 2.8 million soldiers, who put on Ottoman uniforms between 1914 and 1918. It comprised all the subjects of the Ottoman state.

This is a transcript from the video series The Ottoman Empire. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

What is also impressive about the Ottomans is that this army sustained something like well over 900,000 casualties. Thirty-two percent of the men mobilized died in battle. It was an enormous undertaking for a population that was only about 18 to 20 million by our best estimate

Fierce Loyalty

Furthermore, the Ottoman army never seemed to suffer major desertions as you had in the Austro-Hungarian army, both in 1914 and 1916, and later again in the Russian army, where morale collapsed with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and where many soldiers simply set up soviets, shot their officers, and refused to obey orders from Petrograd.

Nothing like that happened in the Ottoman state. Even with the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in June 1916, associated with the rather romantic figure of E.T. Lawrence, there was not a massive desertion even of the Arab soldiers out of the Ottoman army over to the so-called Arab League Army or the Arab nationalist army to oppose Ottoman oppression. That is a remarkable fact, in that the Ottoman state could actually put this army on the battlefield and it stood up loyally on the whole.

Learn more about why the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War

Outnumbered

For the moment, the Ottoman state went into the war with an army that was organized into corps. There were 12 corps representing some 37 divisions, and probably an overall strength of about a little over 200,000 men. This included both active and reservists who had been called up. The army could be doubled in size given all the irregular forces they had, notably Kurds in the east, although the Kurds were usually more interested in attacking Armenians or each other rather than fighting the Russians. You had Arab Bedouin groups that were also recruited that would act as auxiliaries in expeditionary forces that were launched across Gaza at British Egypt, or would patrol the frontiers. The total men under arms in 1914 was somewhere on the order of 450,000.

The problem was bringing these men to bear. Think for a moment of what kind of opponent the Ottoman state plans to take on with this military force. The British Empire at the time had a professional army. The BEF that landed in France to support the France was only about 60,000 soldiers. However, they were superb professionals of the highest order. British riflemen could fire with such rapidity and accuracy that the Germans assumed that they weren’t riflemen at all but special machine gun battalions that were firing on their infantry.

They also had behind them the Army of the Raj, that is the British administration in India, well over 200,000 men, and that Army of the Raj, which comprised British and Indian soldiers both, became the prime military force for British operations carried out against the Ottoman state. That would be in the area that we now call Iraq. In the lower Persian Gulf is where the British had their prime interests. They wanted to see Basra and protect the oil fields, and in the defense of Egypt and the Suez.

Learn more about casualties of war and ethnic cleansing

Sir Frederick Stanley Maude leads the Indian Army into Baghdad.
Sir Frederick Stanley Maude leads the Indian Army into Baghdad.

Additional Resources

The British Empire also had the Commonwealth forces to draw on, and these were significant forces. It included South Africans and Australians and New Zealanders, the so-called Anzac Corps that would provide so many of the soldiers in the landing at Gallipoli in 1915 and is still celebrated as a great achievement by both of those Dominion countries, New Zealand and Australia. The total population of Britain was somewhere around 45 million, but the British Empire was 10 times that size, over 450 million. They’re taking on a really awesome power in the British Empire, just in terms of population and army, and once the British imposed conscription at the end of 1916, the numbers would just mount even more.

Learn more about how the Ottoman Empire was not prepared for total war

Furthermore, the Russians were awesome. The Russian population is difficult to estimate. The low numbers run at about 165 million, the high numbers at about 180 million. It is estimated that the tsar could put six million men on the battlefield. Most of those forces would be concentrated in Poland against the Germans, but it released an enormous number of forces in November, based at Tiflis, today Tblisi in Georgia, in the Caucasus to oppose the Ottomans.

Image of Russian Caucasus Army standing with Canon
Russian Caucasus Army

Just think for a minute of the Ottoman prime ally Germany, what Germany could do. Germany had a population of 68 million. At the opening of the war, they mobilized 4.5 million men, only about half of the men eligible for military service. It comprised of 13 reserve corps, 26 active corps, and 10 cavalry divisions. They were trained to the highest level of proficiency.

Outclassed

The Ottoman Empire was outclassed by all of the belligerents from anywhere from eight to 10 times. The statistics can just be cited to mount up. The Ottoman state didn’t have the financial resources, it didn’t have the industrial base, and it didn’t have the population to be involved in a war of this scale.

It’s extraordinary they did as well as they did, and given these facts, which were known to the Allies, they probably thought the Ottoman state would be a pushover. Certainly, it didn’t seem to perform so well in the first and second Balkan Wars, but war is more than just a matter of numbers and statistics. Sometimes, one can beat the odds. Always my favorite case is Alexander the Great, and Enver Pasha probably had him in mind when he undertook this war. He was convinced that he was the strategic genius who could lead the Ottoman state to victory.

Common Questions About the Ottoman Empire

Q: How many countries were absorbed by the Ottoman Empire?

The Ottoman Empire contained vast swaths of Eastern Europe including Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, Macedonia, Romania, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine as well as much of North Africa and Arabia.

Q: Who is responsible for the Ottoman Empire’s beginnings?

Osman I was the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

Q: What was the official religion of the Ottoman Empire?

Islam was the primary religion of the Ottoman Empire; however, many areas were allowed to practice other religions inside the Ottoman Empire.

Q: How was the Ottoman Empire destroyed?

After many military defeats in the Italo-Turkish and Balkan wars of the late 1800’s, the Ottoman Empire was driven out of Africa and Europe and finally dissolved on November 1, 1922 by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.

This article was updated on 9/13/2019

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