Ottoman Conscription

Discussions on the final era of the Ottoman Empire, from the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 until the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
User avatar
Peter H
Posts: 28628
Joined: 30 Dec 2002 13:18
Location: Australia

Ottoman Conscription

Post by Peter H » 10 Apr 2007 12:01

A good article: ... MINGZU.htm

Like most countries which introduced conscription, the Ottoman Empire, too, had a set of regulations about exemptions. Broadly speaking, one can say that there existed two types of exemption: individual and collective. Groups which were exempted were: women; non-Muslims (formally until 1856, in practice until 1909); inhabitants of the holy places, Mecca and Medina; religious functionaries and students in religious schools; and a whole range of professional groups. Exemption from the draft was a prime attraction of membership of each of these groups. It is even reported that young men went on pilgrimage to Mecca when recruitment threatened. The regulations of 1871, 1886, 1909 and 1916 all contain provisions about exemptions. The 1916 regulations are particularly specific, with long lists of exempted professions. Some of these (top civil servants, judges, muftis (Islamic jurisconsults) are exempted under all circumstances, while others (for instance lower ranking civil servants, policemen, railway clerks) are exempt except in case of mobilization.

Nomads, even if not legally exempt, by and large were so in practice. Istanbul with its outlying districts (and a population of over a million) also did not deliver a single soldier to the army. The Ottoman army, therefore, was an army of sedentary Muslim men, and as over eighty per cent of the population was rural even at the dawn of the twentieth century, primarily one of sedentary Muslim peasants....

...Exemption could be bought for 5.000 kuru or fifty gold Lira (a very considerable sum at the time). Those seeking exemption were not allowed to sell land, house or tools in order to pay.

This payment, called bedel-i nakdî (cash payment-in-lieu) in the sources, should not be confused with the - much lower - sums paid by non-Muslims until 1909. Those who had bought their exemption, like those who drew a lucky lot, were declared reservists, until a change in the law in 1914, which stipulated that they should serve for six months with the active army and only then be classified as reservists. The same law of May 1914 also made the bedel applicable in peacetime only(1), but it seems doubtful that the Ottoman government, always hungry for money, actually suspended the practice during World War I...

...The Young Turks, who came to power in July 1908 and for whom unity and equality between the different ethnic "elements" of the empire was a top priority, started work on the change of the recruitment law soon after they had suppressed the counter-revolution of April 1909 in Istanbul. In July 1909 military service was made compulsory for all Ottoman subjects. At the same time a number of Muslim groups - for instance, students in religious colleges who had failed their exams, but also the inhabitants of Istanbul - lost their exempt status. In October 1909, the recruitment of conscripts irrespectve of religion was ordered for the first time.

The reactions of the christian communities to the new law were mixed. There was no enthusiasm. The spokesmen of the Greek, Syrian, Armenian and Bulgarian communities - in other words: the members of the elite - agreed in principle, but with the all-important proviso that the members of their community serve in separate, ethnically uniform, units officered by christians. The Bulgarians also insisted on serving in the European provinces only.30 This was totally unacceptable to the Young Turks, who saw it as just another way to boost the centrifugal forces of nationalism in the empire - the opposite of what they were aiming for. At grass-roots level, many young christian men, especially Greeks, who could afford it and who had the overseas connections, opted to leave the country or at least to get a foreign passport.

Those who could not leave, change their nationality, or pay the much higher bedel-i nakdî (along with well-to-do Muslims), were indeed recruited when World war I broke out, but the Ottoman government continued to mistrust its christian subjects to such an extent that almost without exception they were left unarmed. Instead they served in labour battallions, doing repair work on the roads and railways and, especially, carrying supplies to the front.

User avatar
emir pasha
Posts: 77
Joined: 14 Jul 2005 20:33
Location: istanbul, Turkey

Post by emir pasha » 10 Apr 2007 18:35

I'd strongly suggest the book "Arming the State: Conscription in Middle East" edited by Erich Jan Zürcher; from where this article has been drawn. One of the best constructivist institutional historiographies I've ever read; except those coming from the annales school.

Return to “The end of the Ottoman Empire 1908-1923”