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Home arrow History arrow The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East


Organized Ottoman conscription began in theory in 1834. The Tanzimat edicts promised orderly conscription, applied equally on all Ottoman subjects, without regard for religion a clear indication that previous practice had been neither orderly, nor equitable, and based on arbitrary capture and servitude of Muslim youth. In 1843 a new recruitment law established a lottery based on census registration, and reverted to the customary exclusion of non-Muslims from military service. The new system established a five-year term of service, followed by seven years of


reserve service.

The new system resembled closely those established by the other European powers, and answered both the needs of the modernizing state, and the demands of the population for equitable regularity in conscripting sons, husbands, and fathers. Conscription was not popular anywhere, and while occasional patriotic fervor infected some men and boys, wives, mothers, and fathers almost inevitably opposed the demands of the state for young men. State education and indoctrination fostered patriotism and nationalism and increased the romantic and manly appeal of military service in the Ottoman realms, as elsewhere.

But such romanticism was almost always short-lived and various forms of compulsion became necessary. Uncounted thousands of deserters and draft resisters were executed, sometimes after trials, by all combatant powers during World War I. Even though the Italian invasion of Libya, and the Balkan wars in 1911 and 1912, brought forth enthusiastic Ottoman volunteers, the supply dried up when young men got wind of the conditions of service.10 Similar stories of initial enthusiasm and ensuing dread existed in all other states at war.

Most national armies maintained various types of exemptions, which often involved paying the state directly, paying and sending a substitute, or being a member of a social class, vocation, or minority exempted from service. In Ottoman practice, substitutions were called bedel i-§ahsi, and eventually it was possible to pay the government for a conscription exemption, though the fee was very high. Opposition to the inclusion of non-Muslims in the military was widespread among Ottoman Muslims, including the army command, and non-Muslims were exempted, or excluded, depending on perspective, until the Second Constitutional Revolution period, after 1909. Other, less cosmopolitan states, conscripted sectarian minorities, and so while the Prussian officer corps was similarly unenthusiastic about the inclusion of German Jews in the military lottery, Jewish men eagerly signed up for inclusion in the rituals and obligations of full civic participation.11

Ottoman Christians, like other Ottoman subjects, avoided army service whenever possible. Christians were generally exempted from conscription, though they paid an exemption. Muslims who wished to buy an exemption from conscription, usually for a son, paid far more than Christians and Jews. Christian and Jewish Ottomans did, however, serve in the army and were occasionally commissioned as officers, most often as army physicians. After the 1908 Constitutional Revolution most exemptions were abolished, and non-Muslims were conscripted and eventually served alongside their Muslim fellow soldiers, though not often at the front lines. The Ottoman conscription law in 1909 was one impetus for emigration to North and South America for Ottoman Christians. The U.S. and Canadian governments called the immigrants Turks, and they mostly called themselves Greeks or Syrians, and later Lebanese.

Ottoman military reformers faced more difficult challenges than those confronted by their French, German, or Austrian contemporaries. The vast geographical expanses, relatively low population density, and human diversity of the empire made mobilization nearly impossible and imposed great financial burdens on the state. In the 1840s the state realms were divided into command regions, each of which comprised an army corps, theoretically complete with administration, conscription, training, and education. Istanbul and a handful of provincial capitals like Damascus opened military high schools (askeri idadi schools), where staff officers taught the cadets. The government also organized provincial military commands, alongside the existing provincial government, and began to regularize conscription. But the theoretical comprehensiveness of the system existed mostly on paper until the late 1870s, when the catastrophic defeat in the Russo-Turkish war made military capability crucial to the survival of the state.

By the final decade of the nineteenth century, Ottoman conscription was beginning to conform to its theoretical function: to quickly and smoothly supply large numbers of recruits from one end of the country to the other. Modern communications of telegraph, train, and steamship were important to this effort, but there were other factors too. An increasing percentage of officers were now educated and literate, and staff officers could speak German with allied officers, Turkish among themselves whatever their regional origin, and Turkish, Greek, Arabic, or Kurdish to conscript troops.

In the period before the Great War, regional army corps administered conscription by district. Regional staff officers consulted population records and compiled lists from registered young men. All eligible men, including those presenting exemptions, were ordered to appear in the central square of the district (qada') capital, generally defined as a town of at least 500 houses. Conscription officers were required to set up a table, and place two large canvas bags upon it; one with names, one with slips of paper, corresponding to the number of recruits required, reading “asker oldum,” or “I have become a soldier.” Names were drawn along with their opposite slips of paper, until all the needed slots had been filled. Some men returned home, while others reported immediately for service. The registration lists were altered accordingly.12

Orderly conscription and improved mobilization infrastructure did not mean improved conditions of service. And in all of the final Ottoman wars, including World War I, it seemed that feeding, resupplying, and caring for injured soldiers was an afterthought. The hardships and misery of WWI conscription continues to occupy a place of trauma and horror in popular memory throughout the Middle East. Conditions for officers were nearly as bad, and Goltz himself succumbed to typhus in Iraq. Three million men eventually served in the Ottoman army during the Great War, and it is certain that many thousands among those had also fought in Libya, the Balkan Wars, and perhaps in the many insurgencies after the 1918 armistice. Given the pre-industrial conditions of the Ottoman realms, the lack of food and medical care, the vast distances over thousands of kilometers they covered, often on foot, the repeated defeats they brought to better-equipped and -trained British and allied forces is worthy of historical note.13

In most of their engagements, Ottoman forces defeated larger and better-equipped and -fed British forces. And yet, in each of the Ottoman wars of the early twentieth century, the number of soldiers who perished from disease, poor medical care, malnutrition, and starvation exceeded the numbers killed in battle.14 The resilience and effectiveness of the Ottoman army astonished and embittered its enemies, but as historian and former Turkish military academy archivist Mesut Uyar has noted, by 1914 the Ottoman army had been the focal point of more than a century of reform, self-criticism, and educational refinement. It should be obvious that such a massive state mobilization project would have lasting consequences on the post-Ottoman Middle East.

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