Real History, Ottoman Military Reforms

IanHunter N. Thorpe

 Ottoman Military Reforms

            The Ottoman Empire was considered the sick man of Europe, a state in constant decline. The Empire that had once ruled much of the old Roman world was now sitting on a considerably smaller amount of territory and a drastically reduced income. The Ottomans upon entering the First World War were not seen as a legitimate threat by the allied forces. The British planned an invasion of Ottoman home soil on the Gallipoli Peninsula in an effort to take control of the strait that connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Ocean. The Ottomans demonstrated a defensive organization that the allies never thought the Ottoman Empire capable of possessing. The Ottoman military defied the Allies because of its continuous reforms that it had continually undertaken since the 16th century.

The Ottoman victory at the battle of Gallipoli was the culmination of westernizing military reforms and the combination of a domestic arms production industry that allowed the Ottomans to resist the attack. The Ottomans throughout the majority of its existence had never been a net importer of weapons. The Empire did face times where it had fallen behind technologically but through the process of imitating western designs was able to keep pace with Western Europe. The Ottomans were capable of keeping technological pace with the Russian Empire, its largest regional rival. Ottoman military reforms were never a singular action but more the outcome of a series of waves that will hit at different times in their history.

The Ottoman Empire was said to be in a state of continual decline ever since the rule of Suley-man the Magnificent. The decline of the empire was said to have followed the major navel defeat in 1571 at Lepanto. Another event that increased the decline of the Ottoman Empire was the failed second siege of Vienna in 1683. Much of the failure in the Siege of Vienna and the navel battle at Lepanto were placed on the Ottoman’s shrinking power base as a weapon producer. The Ottomans never stopped producing weapons throughout its history. The Ottoman arms industry did come into direct conflict with the rising powers of Western Europe. The Ottomans maintained considerable production levels for the much of the 17th and 18th century. The diffusion of arms technology is what allowed for the spread of advanced arms into the Ottoman Empire. The diffusion of arms technology to the Ottoman Empire came from the Italians who around the 17th century had become net importers of weapons. The Ottoman State on the other hand never became a net importer, it instead gained the ability to produce the weapons that the Italians imported.[1]

The Ottoman Empire never became entirely dependent on Western Europe arms industry. The States of Iran and Egypt became completely dependent on the continual flow of western weaponry to support their armies. No singular entity really defines Islamic society or the western world. When comparing the Ottoman Empire against Europe many historians have made large generalizations about how the Empire was in a state of decline. The generalized use of the term west often meaning England and France, not Europe as a whole entity. As a result the comparison of the Ottomans to Europe as a whole it would appear that the Ottoman state was in decline. The English and French were rising powers that were gaining considerable strength. The Ottomans in comparison to other empires were not the weakest, they had still managed to increase its military power despite its territorial decline.

The Ottomans when compared to themselves have had a continual improvement of both their naval and land based forces. The notion of decline is not entirely accurate when just the military forces are examined.[2] The Ottoman navy did keep pace with their maritime rival the Venetians for a considerable amount of time. The Venetian fleets had been among the best in the world up until the British and French started to develop ships capable of North Atlantic travel. This made their ships considerably more capable for the tasks of transporting goods as well as military operations. Throughout the 1760s the Ottomans stuck to the Gallie ship designs that they had copied from the Venetians because the Venetians were the only other maritime rivals that the Ottomans came into contact with on a regular basis. The Ottoman fleets had been operating with the purpose of matching all Venetian activities not with the objective of competing in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Italians by 1500 had become net importers of weapons and lacked the means of creating their own supplies. The Ottomans used the Italians as a key supplier to their early expansion period. The Ottomans were more cleaver than the Europeans thought. Despite importing weapons they were able to copy and produce their own weapons without much of a domestic supply problem. The Ottomans in comparison to England, France, and Holland could not match the level in which they could produce weapons but when comparing the Ottoman Empire to its regional rivals of Hungry, Russia, and Poland it was dead even.[3] When comparing the Ottoman Empire to the other Islamic Empire of the Safavids the Ottomans possessed a considerable advantage. [4] They were able to maintain themselves as a self reliant power where as the other Islamic states could not maintain continual expansion without western support and arms.

The Ottomans had a history of reform among their armed forces. The Ottoman Empire owed a great deal of its success to its continued use of Janissaries. The Ottomans had during the late 15th century a gun powder revolution which was done incredibly well and for a period of time possessed a technological advantage over all of its opponents. After 200 years of dominance the Ottoman Empire encountered growing pains as a result of its unchanging military and stagnating economy. Still in a 1514 the Ottomans demonstrated their regional dominance over their neighbors the Safavids at the Battle of Chaldrin, when ottoman forces and crushed the Safavids. The Ottoman victory had a considerable amount to do with the Ottomans having more advanced technology. The Ottomans in 1514 had a relatively advanced artillery corp. which out matched anything the Iranians could muster.

The Iranian Safavids lacked in their methods for creation of cannons in the 16th century and became net importers of western firearms. The practice worked well for the Safavids and even allowed for the border with the Ottoman Empire to stabilize. The Safavids became engaged with the Uzbeks who the Iranians defeated with the use of their cannons. Later however the Iranians would be overrun by Afghan forces that did not use western weapons. The Iranians lacked a central command capable of issuing orders on the battle field.[5]

The Ottomans along with updating their weapons did improve their military command structure through reforms. The Ottoman army had considerable problems at the dawn of the 19th century. The requirement system that allowed them to create their armies of Janissaries had back fired. The Janissaries had slowly started to use their positions for personal gain and soon became a powerful political force in the Ottoman state. Under Mahmud II the Ottomans managed to destroy the Janissaries. The actions took considerable effort and the unknown result from the Janissaries would be a Russian invasion. The Russian Empire had taken advantage of the Ottoman Weakness and decided to Strike.[6]  The Russo-Turkish War of 1828 and 1829 demonstrated that the Ottoman army lacked the discipline it had once had. The Prussian General Helmut Von Moltke had advised the Sultan Mahmud II in military affairs. The General noted that the Ottoman army as a whole was not a failure but the failure was in the Ottoman officer corp. which lacked discipline.[7]

The officer corp. of the Ottoman Empire still had strong ties to the old patronage system from decades prior. As a result of the patronage system the Ottoman officers were often more fearful of each other than they were the enemy. The personal ambition of the officer corp. resulted in often strange battle field deployments which drastically depleted their fighting strength. As a result of internal bickering between the officers, the Ottoman army was defeated, crushed by the Russian force. The Russians had a unified command structure which allowed them to easily out maneuver their Ottoman counter parts.

It was not until 1843 that the Ottomans had created a relatively modern army but it still had problems. The reforms were not happening as fast as the Sultans would have liked but they were still under way. The Ottomans copied the European reserve system so that they could have a regular army that could be increased during times of war. The Ottomans created a service system similar to that of the Prussians with an active army service term of five years and then four years in the reserve. The design was considerably superior to the older Ottoman system of irregular soldiers. The Ottoman cavalry were organized on an entirely different level than the regular army. The cavalry were semi independent units that were simply expected to appear at the outbreak of hostilities.[8]

The Ottoman cavalry corp. was somewhat of a joke in the 1840’s because they were simply expected to show up, when a war started they were neglected perhaps the most of any other Ottoman unit. The neglect was so considerable that cavalry units would often refuse to fight. The equipment they were issued was subpar in almost every way. The swords issued were often too short to be effective and their lances poorly designed and too heavy for counter motions against other riders.[9]

The inability of the Ottoman cavalry to attack was demonstrated catastrophically in 1855. A force of about 200 Ottoman cavalry formed up to attack a Russian column. The simple act of the Russian dragoons counter charging in the direction of the Ottomans caused considerable panic and caused the Ottoman formation to fall apart and retreat. The Ottoman cavalry were mocked through the entirety of the Crimean War because of their cowardice in battle.[10] The failure of the Ottoman cavalry in the Crimean War of 1855 led to serious reforms which greatly improved the fighting spirit of the Ottoman horsemen. The Ottomans improved the conditions in which the cavalry were required to maintain their gear as well as updated the command structure. The Ottomans cavalry before 1877 were required to maintain their equipment on their own until 1877 when sweeping modernization reforms hit the cavalry corps of the empire. The addition of new equipment was a quick improvement to the overall morale of the entire cavalry force. The next update was the Ottoman command found it prudent to issue a Winchester repeating rifle and a six shot pistol to each of the cavalrymen. The practice of using lances in counter actions against enemy cavalry was almost entirely abandoned by the Ottoman cavalry in favor of being able to hold more ammunition for their Winchester rifles and pistols.[11] Sabers were still widely issued among the cavalry but were quickly becoming useless in the face of the newer semi automatic Winchesters.

The command structure of the cavalry was improved but the officers were not looked up to with high regard by their men. The problem with cavalry corp. was that it was not highly respected by the Ottoman army as a whole so the duty was given to officers that were thought to be ineffective leaders of regular soldiers. As a result of the poor leadership assigned to the cavalry Ottoman military operations as a whole suffered. The cavalry did improve greatly between 1855 and 1877. The Russo-Turk War of 1877 was a key demonstration ground for the improvement of the Ottoman cavalry corp. The single greatest improvement was that of issuing the advanced Winchesters to the soldiers which gave them an incredible rate of fire in comparison to their Russian counter parts. Western advisers noted that the Ottoman cavalry did well in a number of battles despite their poor leadership. The Western advisors noted that the cavalry could become the most effective branch of the Ottoman military if it was given the respect and leadership it deserved.[12]

The only area where Ottoman military was in constant reform and rarely needed it to be directed was the artillery. The artillery was commanded by the best officers and was given the best equipment because the Ottomans felt that it was the most the important of their military branches. The artillery corp. was also the first to adopt any new western weapons. The artillery corp. was always the best drilled, always in constant practice. Western observers of the Ottomans noted that the artillery of the Ottomans could fire at a high rate and it was rare for them to miss more than once. [13]

What was the most important part of the artillery service was that it was constantly being supplied with newly built weapons. Even the most advanced western weapons of the 1870s were being quickly built in the assembly areas at Istanbul. The artillery corp. was even supplied with domestically manufactured Gatling guns copied from the French and American designs. The artillery service manned ships and forts all over the Ottoman Empire and brought these advanced weapons with them.[14] The Ottoman resolve to built large well fortified positions gave them a stereotype for being aggressive defenders but lacked the spirit for any kind of field action against an enemy. The Ottomans in 1855 proved that stereotype true, but in the 1877 shattered that preconception in the Russo-Turk War which showed they had the willingness and the courage to undertake frontal assaults against the enemy.[15]

A functional problem that the Ottoman Empire had to address was its command structure. The chain of command in the empire had become incredibly bloated and was a serious drawback to Ottoman operations. In one instance with command bloat was that an army of 15,000 Ottoman soldiers had a command staff of 21 generals. The generals were often more concerned with maintaining their salaries than the burden of command.[16] It was not until a large number of generals were arrested for stealing large amounts of money from the Ottoman government that the problem of ineffective generals was addressed.

The Ottoman Empire at the dawn of the 20th century had a mix military. The army was a combination of advanced modern forces and a variety of reserve irregular troops that were difficult to control but were used to filling the ranks whenever conflict arose. In 1913 the Ottomans had considerable diplomatic relations with the German Empire that had stated it was a friend to the Muslim world. When the First World War broke out in July of 1914 the Ottomans were not quick to join the conflict. The Ottomans waited until October of 1914 to officially enter the conflict on the side of the Central powers, German and the Austro-Hungarians. The Ottomans had attempted to make an alliance with the British but were turned away so as a result they felt the only European power that could help them was the Germans.

The Ottomans thought that there was no way a German army could lose in Europe so they felt confident that there was no way they could lose as well. In reality there was no reason for the Ottomans to have gone to war, it was a policy of both the Central powers and the Allies to keep the Ottomans neutral.[17] German missions to the Ottoman Empire had allowed for a vastly improved military situation. The Ottomans had benefited greatly from German advisors.

In April 1915 the Allies made the decision to invade Greece with the overall objective of capturing Istanbul. The Allies choose to land on Gallipoli be it was one of the few places the Ottomans had not heavily sea mined. The operation went smoothly at first for the Allies until the Ottomans assembled their army to counter the invasion. The Ottomans have a numerically smaller force of 315,000 men. The French and British had a combined force of over 500,000 men and could not break the Ottomans. [18]

The Ottomans demonstrated that the Europeans thought the Ottomans would be easy to defeat but they proved them wrong. The event of Gallipoli later became of the single greatest defense stories of the whole empire. The Ottomans had managed to use their forces to great effect against the Allies. Mustafa Kemal had commanded the Ottoman forces at Gallipoli and for that he was a national hero.[19]

Europe had considered the Ottomans an empire in decline for much of the 19th century. The Ottomans had undertaken a constant series of reforms that allowed the empire to last as long as it did. The Battle of Gallipoli became the proving moment for the Ottoman reforms and demonstrated they were not a simple push over.

 Work Cited

Bush, Eric. Gallipoli. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1975.

Grant, Jonathn. Rethinking The Ottoman “decline”: Military Technology Diffusion in the Ottoman Empire, Fifteen to Eighteenth Centuries. Journal of World History, Vol. 10, No 1 (1999)

Haythornthwaite, Philip. Gallipoli 1915: Frontal Assault on Turkey. London: Osprey Publishing limited, 2004.

Moorehead, Alan. Gallipoli. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1956.

Prior, Robin. Gallipoli: The End of the Myth. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Reid, James J. Crisis of the Ottoman Empire: Prelude to collapse 1839-1878. Stuttgart: Deutsche books, 2000.

Rudenno, Victor. Gallipoli: Attack  From the Sea. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.


[1] Jonathan Grant. Rethinking The Ottoman “Decline”: Military Technology Diffusion in The Ottoman Empire, Fifteen to Eighteen Centuries. (Journal of World History, Vol. 10, No 1, 1999), 181.

[2] Jonathan Grant. Rethinking The Ottoman “Decline”: Military Technology Diffusion in The Ottoman Empire, Fifteen to Eighteen Centuries. (Journal of World History, Vol. 10, No 1, 1999), 181.

[3]  Ibid, 182.

[4]  Ibid, 181.

[5] Jonathan Grant. Rethinking The Ottoman “Decline”: Military Technology Diffusion in The Ottoman Empire, Fifteen to Eighteen Centuries. (Journal of World History, Vol. 10, No 1, 1999), 182

[6] James J Reid. Crisis of the Ottoman Empire: Prelude to collapse 1839-1878. (Stuttgart: Deutsche books, 2000), 77.

[7] Ibid, 77.

[8] James J Reid. Crisis of the Ottoman Empire: Prelude to collapse 1839-1878. (Stuttgart: Deutsche books, 2000), 78.

[9] Ibid, 79.

[10] Ibid, 81.

[11] James J Reid. Crisis of the Ottoman Empire: Prelude to collapse 1839-1878. (Stuttgart: Deutsche books, 2000), 81.

[12] Ibid, 82.

[13] James J Reid. Crisis of the Ottoman Empire: Prelude to collapse 1839-1878. (Stuttgart: Deutsche books, 2000), 83.

[14] Ibid, 83.

[15] Ibid, 83.

[16] Ibid, 95.

[17] Alan Moorehead. Gallipoli. (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1956). 11.

[18] Rudenno, Victor. Gallipoli: Attack  From the Sea. (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). 205

[19] Alan Moorehead. Gallipoli. (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1956).41.


Categories: Real History