The Ottoman Army and the First World War

Mesut Uyar

Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge 2021

Hardback    466 + xviii pp., illus., maps  

  RRP $236.72


Reviewer: Michael Tyquin, January 2021


The Ottoman Army and the First World War is a thorough analysis of the Ottoman Army on all fronts during the Great War. It describes its operational military history and military effectiveness during that war and it is hard to disagree with Uyar in his assessment that Western historiography has for too long ignored the so-called peripheral campaigns of the war.

He reminds us that in 1914 it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the Ottomans would join the Central Powers. Once committed the author contends that the First World War demonstrated for the new Turkey the failure of the multi-national Ottoman imperial regime. He exposes the Ottoman unpreparedness, having taken no steps prior to the war to secure stocks of food, fuel or munitions. Cemal Pasha, the Ottoman wartime leader, does not come away from this study in a favourable light. Another of the book's themes is the constant interference of Germany's High Command and Ottoman acquiescence to both its strategic vision and its demands.

Western scholars with a very few notable exceptions, have long struggled with access to Turkey's war archives, let alone translate and read both old and modern Turkish. If only for this reason Uyar's book is tremendously important for those interested in the Ottoman contribution to the First World War. Each chapter is rich in footnotes with some archival material, no doubt seeing the light of day for the first time. I was surprised to learn, given the decades-long lament of Western scholars about the paucity of archival sources, that Ottoman military authorities actively encouraged their men to record their combat experiences. There is an extensive and up-to-date bibliography thereby providing a handy synthesis of non-English language sources, although the author has not included Klaus Wolf's 2020 in-depth study of the German-Ottoman Alliance.

Uyar highlights the problems found in the wake of army reorganisation when in 1911 'triangular divisions were established but insufficient attention was given to the doctrine and combat services support which were ignored. He details the vastly over-stretched military resources of the Ottoman Empire in the lead-up to and subsequent prosecution of the First and Second Balkan Wars. By 1914 Ottoman leaders cautiously weighed the options and formulated their war aims based not on positive gains but rather on elementary threats.

The author examines the genesis of German military advisors and support. Initially the German alliance appeared to provide security against the territorial aspirations of both greater and lesser powers. But the optimism of the German High Command in using pan-Islamism as a force multiplier soon foundered on the reality of regional and tribal politics. Like most of the armies of the Triple Entente and Central Powers personal animosities and discord were never far from senior command personalities and power play. These relationships are explored at some length through the book. In the body of text it was refreshing to see that Austro-Hungarian units and armaments deployed to Turkey receive more than a passing footnote.

While the Ottoman Army of 1914 was far more representative of the empire's population than that of any other period it lacked well-trained NCOs. This hindered the effectiveness of mobilisation and the sudden appearance of tens of thousands of new recruits. In this the empire was not alone. The British Dominions shared a similar experience. The Ottoman Army was initially hampered by the total absence of aviation assets and any organisation to manage Lines of Communications issues. In addition much heavy equipment and weapons had been lost in the Balkan Wars (1912/13). Unfortunately the Ottoman High Command made no systematic effort to resolve or at least reduce the impact of these problems. Lack of a good road and rail network did not help matters. In 1914 too the Ottoman Army was burdened by the inheritance of a dying empire: rampant corruption, inefficiency and inadequate Lines of Communications and hopelessly inadequate medical and veterinary care.

There was an abysmal lack of understanding in Berlin of not only the cultural and political mores of its Ottoman ally but the challenges facing a collapsing empire from 1917. We learn also that as early as April 1914 senior German advisors worked actively to deny Ottoman officers positions of influence and uniformed of developments on the Western Front. The author also highlights fundamental tactical flaws in General von Sanders' initial defence plan for the Dardanelles in March-April 1915 where his interference further exacerbated tensions between Ottoman staff and their German advisors.

The Ottoman Army never recovered from its manpower losses during the Dardanelles Campaign, especially from the death of experienced junior officers. The war was a constant search for manpower (both for fighting and a labour force) and resources. The Empire would face the same privations and black markets in food that its allies experienced from 1916. The author provides an interesting statistic, namely that at least three soldiers were allocated to gather and transport food to keep one combatant alive and ready at the front line. The vexing problem of fodder supplies was never resolved. More generally the efficient allocation of scarce resources was not a strong feature of the Ottoman General Staff and the civilian population across the empire was largely neglected.

Early battles against the Russians in the East demonstrated the shortcomings of the sweeping reforms of the post-Balkan War period. Intelligence gathering and processing remained problematic, while logistics were nothing short of catastrophic. Overarching Ottoman strategy appeared to gamble on success in the Caucasus, no matter what the cost to recapture lost territorial possessions and create buffer states. To do this it sacrificed Palestine and Mesopotamia, where a shortage of food and forage sealed the fate of Ottoman forces there. 

Enver Pasha's long-term political goal of having a seat around the bargaining table at the end of the war coloured his strategic outlook. Consequently opportunities, particularly in the Caucasus, were squandered. There are insights into ethnic rivalries between Armenian/ Kurdish groups in the Caucasus in the wake of the Russian revolution in 1917. It was in this theatre that Ottoman commanders skilfully deployed Kurdish tribes to eliminate recent Russian gains in the region. Little-known Ottoman contributions to Macedonia, Galician and Romania are also included in this study.

The crisis in command and infighting with its German ally continued into the last year of the war, exacerbated by the tactless and inflexible General von Falkenhayn. The situation cooled with his replacement by the more sympathetic Liman von Sanders in February 1918, but by then the Ottoman Army was little more than a name.  Even so its operations in Mesopotamia, Jordan, Palestine, Jordan and Syria kept sorely needed British, Indian and allied divisions from the Western Front.

It is the discussion of these campaigns that highlights the need for more maps as many intricate operations are discussed across various theatres.  Those which have been produced often have place names which are difficult to read and lack a distance scale. I note that the author occasionally uses some sources uncritically, particularly Birdwood's Khaki and Gown which is cited widely while simple typographical errors (hard to excuse in such an expensive book) cause distractions for the reader.

The author's thesis is that throughout the war the empire was highly responsive to its ally's demands and needs despite its own frequent and grave crises. He concludes that for the Ottomans World War One was an imperial war from the beginning to the very end and against a backdrop to the Central Powers Alliance. The Ottoman Army, forced during the war to fight on eight fronts, proved remarkably resilient to the end, but it was let down by political and military leadership in Constantinople. The overly ambitious and meddling wartime leader Enver Pasha did not help and leaders lacked coherence and consistency in implementing the empire's military strategy.

This book is a long overdue addition to the modern historiography of the First World War.


Dr. Michael Tyquin is a consulting historian based in Tasmania.

RUSI - VIC Library thanks the publisher for making available this review copy.

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