By Lt. Col. Edward J. Erickson
Learning the Machine Gun
The reasons the Ottoman Empire entered the Great War at all are complex, and a case can be made that their German partners unwillingly manipulated the Turks into the war. The empire had no clearly defined war aims, nor did peacetime Turkish war plans in 1914 call for any offensive operations against neighboring countries. Indeed, absent the presence of the German naval squadron of Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, the Turks might have remained neutral. There were many reasons for Turkey's lack of enthusiasm for war, but most Important was the condition of its army. For the Turks, 1914 was not a year of cheering crowds sending off troop trains of patriotic soldiers to the front. Instead, 1914 was year of respite and recovery from the disastrous Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. For the Turkish General Staff and for the Turkish Army, 1914 was supposed to be year devoted to the rebuilding of an army shattered by war.
What was the condition of the Turkish army in the summer of 1914'? Why was it unready for immediate combat operations and what were its priorities? This article will address these questions by outlining the massive reorganization and restationing effort in which the Turks were engaged in 1914.
In terms of human resources, the Turkish General Staff believed that the empire had a mobilization potential of about 2,000,000 men. However, this ambitious figure was, in fact, never achieved during the course of the war. In the summer of 1914, the classes of 1893 and 1894 (each age cohort was about 90,000 men) had been called to the colors and the Turkish Army enjoyed a peacetime operating strength of about 200,000 men and 8,000 officers. Unlike other European powers, Turkey did not employ first-line formations in peacetime at war establishment, preferring instead to field a higher number of reduced establishment formations. This policy was systematically carried out by reducing all units below division level - every Turkish infantry regiment was short a battalion and every battalion was short a company. The average strength of a Turkish infantry division, in the summer of 1914, was 4,000 men out of a war establishment of 10,000 personnel. In order to bring the field army to war establishment the Turkish Army required a total of 477,868 men and 12,469 officers to completely fill out its divisions. This use of a reduced establishment or cadre structure (a lean and under strength organizational framework designed to be heavily augmented) was intentional and reflected a deliberate decision taken by the army after the Balkan Wars. There were no reserve artillery or reserve technical formations. In any case, the Turkish general staff believed that approximately 1,000,000 men and 210,000 animals were easily available for recall and that, immediately upon full mobilization, the field army would have an effective strength of 460,000 men, 14,500 officers, and 160,000 animals."' To this must be added the heavily armed and trained Jandarma of 42,000 men (25,000 gendarmes, 12,000 frontier guards, and 6,000 mule-mobile troops). Altogether, Turkey planned to field about 500,000 men in mobile operational units, the remainder serving in fortress commands, coastal defenses, garrisons, and in lines of communications duties.
A Skoda Artillery Battery Passing Through Constantinople
The machine gun situation was worse. Each Turkish infantry regiment was authorized 4 machine guns. Some regiments were short and the army needed 200 to equip the regimental force to standard. At battalion and company level, there simply were no machine guns and the army estimated that it needed 200,000 more to fill all requirements. At 1,500,000, rifles were a less critical shortage but the army still needed 200,000.
Ammunition stockage was low and the Turks were unable to meet anticipated wartime demands. There were 150 cartridges available per rifleman, a further 190 available in corps depots, and for the entire army there were 200,000,000 cartridges in reserve. For the Turkish artillery, there were about 588 shells available per gun.
Typical Turkish Conscripts
Upon the advice of the German advisor General Von der Goltz, mobilization planning was based on peacetime conscription, which provided a flow of trained individuals into the reserve forces. Active service in the peacetime Turkish army was for a period of three years for the infantry and four years for the artillery and technical services. Likewise, animals served for a period of four years and, in turn, were returned to civilian use carrying a lifelong obligation for national service. Non-Muslims were excluded from military service and were forced to pay a special military tax instead. By 1914, the period of active obligatory service was reduced to two years for infantry and cavalry, and to three years for the artillery. Although under this scheme, the active army was maintained a lower strength, the staff thought that a 50% biannual turnover was superior to a 33% turnover every three years. This was partly due to the huge losses in trained leaders suffered during the Balkan wars and reflected an inability of the forces to adequately train replacements. It was also partly due to the necessity to normalize the empire's economy.
All men were liable for military service and were drafted according to their chronological age as a class or cohort. Liability for service began at age twenty and ended 25 years later. The Turkish military was divided into an active force (Nizamiye), a reserve force (Redif), and a territorial force (Mustahfiz). The two youngest classes provided the manpower for the active army, the next 16 classes provided the trained manpower for the reserve, and the oldest seven classes comprised the territorial forces. Most reservists and territorials were organized into units of battalion size or smaller and had local depots designated as mobilization stations. Unlike all other major European powers, Turkey did not have a large-unit reserve system, which could field intact reserve corps composed of reserve divisions. Consequently, there was no major increase in the raw number of formations available to the Turkish army upon mobilization. There were several exceptions, those being the XII Corps (Independent), the 38th Infantry Division (Independent), and 1st, 2nd 3rd and 4th Reserve Cavalry Divisions.
Prior to the beginning of the Balkan War of 1912, the Turkish Army enjoyed a fair degree of stability based on a garrison system extending throughout the empire A German military assistance group under General von der Goltz had restructured the Turkish army and standardized the organization of Turkish corps at a strength of 3 infantry divisions. In a prescient decision, von der Goltz also standardized the organization of the Turkish infantry division at a strength of 3 infantry regiments - all European armies during the First World War would later adopt this triangular structure. In the Balkans, the 12 infantry division strong Turkish second army provided security for Turkey's remaining possessions in the Vardar Valley and Albania. The equally powerful Turkish first army (12 infantry divisions) provided security for Adrianople and Constantinople. The smaller third and fourth armies provided protection for Caucasia and Mesopotamia, and independent corps garrisoned Syria, Palestine, and Arabia. This powerful regular establishment was backed up by a reserve system, which fielded infantry divisions in all major cities of the empire.
However, in less than a year, both the first and second armies had been destroyed. The Turkish Army had lost 12 infantry divisions out of a beginning total of 43 infantry divisions and the corps-sized fortress garrison of Adrianople was also lost. Additionally, eight regular infantry divisions and 15 newly raised infantry divisions of reservists and territorials had been redeployed to Thrace to serve in the newly formed Qatalca and Gallipoli Armies. Several infantry divisions and a corps headquarters had been dissolved to provide replacements. Only 6 of the infantry divisions of the pre-Balkan War regular Turkish Army were spared the trauma of combat. In another context, 90% of Turkish infantry divisions mobilized participated in the Balkan Wars. Casualties from the wars exceeded 250,000 men. This was a military disaster of unprecedented magnitude for the empire, which all but destroyed the regular Turkish Army as an effective fighting force.
At the conclusion of the Balkan Wars, the condition of the Turkish Army demanded attention. Complete armies had been shattered, corps had been deliberately dissolved, and there were huge disparities in the fighting strengths of infantry divisions. There was a large number of ad hoc divisional formations (named after their city of origin) composed of older reservists and territorials Training was at a standstill, as was weapons procurement. Finally, and not the least worrisome, almost the entire Turkish army was deployed in the Turkish Thrace. These strategic and operational imperatives forced Turkey to immediately engage itself in a massive military reorganization effort in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars.
Typical Turkish Officers
The emergent picture of the condition of the Turkish Army on the eve of the Great War portrays a condition of great weakness. Serious deficiencies in material and readiness were in abundance. "Snapshot" comparisons of the army's dispositions in 1912, in July 1913, and in August 1914 reveal an incredible pattern of unit movements as the disaster of the Balkan Wars overtook the empire. Finally, the magnitude of the losses of both trained manpower and the destruction of almost half of the empire's combat infantry divisions defies understanding. Under these conditions, that Turkey entered the war at all seems incredible. That the Turkish Army fought magnificently for four years and was still on its feet in the fall of 1918 is more incredible still and is a story yet to be told.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of RELEVANCE, the Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society. Lt. Col. Edward J. Erickson, USA (Ret.) served first as an infantry noncommissioned officer and then was commissioned in 1975 in the field artillery in which he served during Desert Storm. Before retirement he served as Foreign Area Officer in Italy, Turkey, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is a graduate of the State University of New York, and has masters degrees from Colgate and St. Lawrence Universities. He teaches world history in his home town of Norwich, New York. Tony Langley of Antwerp, Belgium provided the images.
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