Ottoman labour battalions in World War I

Internet essay

Erik Jan Zürcher

 

In the literature on the Armenian massacres of 1915, the fact that Ottoman Armenian males were drafted into unarmed labour battalions (amele taburları) is often depicted as an element in the destruction of the Armenian community in the empire. It is considered one of the instruments employed by the Unionists to achieve the desired ”ethnic cleansing” (to use a term that is even more anachronistic than that of ”genocide”). Drafting the Armenian male adults into the army in this manner after all had the twin effects of leaving them in a vulnerable position within the army and at the same time depriving the villages they left behind of their most active defenders.


If we look carefully at what for instance Taner Akçam says in his Insan haklari ve Ermeni sorunu (which in many ways can be considered the state of the art in this field, because he combines the result of Dadrian’s work with original research in the German archives), we see that he discerns three stages in the use made of labour battalions: First, Armenian males between the ages of 20 and 45 were drafted into the regular army, while younger (15-20) and older (45-60) age groups were put to work in labour battalions. Then, in the aftermath of the disastrous outcome of Enver Pasha’s winter offensive at Sarikamis, the Armenian soldiers in the regular army were disarmed out of fear that they would collaborate with the Russians. The order for this measure was sent out on 25 February 1915. Finally, the unarmed recruits were among the first groups to be massacred. These massacres seem to have started even before the decision was taken to deport the Armenians to the Syrian desert.

In order to understand the role of the labour battalions in the Ottoman army, and of the Armenians who served in them, we should put them into a triple historical context: that of the Ottoman conscription system, that of the changing relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in the empire and that of the circumstances in which the Ottoman army fought during World War I.

The history of conscription in the Ottoman Empire goes back to the Gülhane edict of 1839. An army organized and equipped after the example of Europe was already in existence by that time. Sultan Selim III had started his ill-starred experiment with the “New Order” (Nizam-i Cedid) army in 1792 and his successor, Mahmud II had reconstituted it as the “Well-trained Victorious Muhammedan Soldiers”(Muallem Asakir-i Mansure-i Muhammadiye) in 1826. These first Western-style armies had not been recruited through conscription, however. The state’s manpower requirements were made known yearly to the provincial governors, who were free to raise the troops in any way they saw fit. Conscription was first discussed in the army council in 1838. In the reform edict of Gülhane, the introduction of conscription is announced as a measure designed to spread the burden of service more evenly and avoid damage to the state or the population. In 1843 the first regulations on conscription were published. They foresaw a two-tier system with males from the age of twenty liable to serve first in the regular army (Nizamiye) for five years and then in the reserve (Redif - a copy of the Prussian Landwehr for seven. Five years later, in 1848, detailed regulations on the draft were published.

Throughout the nineteenth century there were changes to the system, with service in the regular army gradually being shortened until by 1908 it was three years.

When the Young Turks came to power, making the army more modern and effective was among their top priorities. After all: the constitutional revolution was largely the work of young and highly educated officers, who had been brought up with the ideas on the “Nation in Arms” of the German general and military theorist Colmar, Freiherr von der Goltz, who had himself served as military advisor to the Ottomans. In 1909 they reduced the period of service in a number of areas with an especially unhealthy climate (Iraq, Yemen) to two years and in May 1914, it was finally brought down to two years for the whole infantry. At the same time, the Young Turks tried to broaden the recruitment base of the army by reducing the number of exemptions.

This brings us to the important issue of who did and who did not serve in the Sultan’s army. From the start, in the eighteen forties, a number of groups had been exempted from military service: all women of course, but also all inhabitants of Istanbul, most civil servants, religious functionaries, pilgrims to Mecca, students in the theological colleges. Non-Muslims are not mentioned in any of the regulations on recruitment and military service drawn up by the Ottoman government during the nineteenth century. Apparently, the fact that only Muslims were expected to serve was self-evident at the time. This is true of the 1871 regulations as much as it is of the 1844 conscription law: “all Muslims are required to serve” (bilcümle ahali-yi müslime).

The famous reform edict, which the Ottoman government published in 1856 after intensive consultations with the French and British ambassadors, and which accompanied its entry into the “Concert of Europe”, had as its central theme the equality between all the Sultan’s subjects, irrespective of religion. Nevertheless, it did not lead to equal shares for all communities in the burden of national defence. The edict promised the abolition of the discriminatory poll-tax (cizye or haraç) paid by Ottoman Christians and Jews, and the tax was indeed abolished, but in practice it was replaced by an exemption tax, which was first called iane-i askeri (military assistance), and later bedel-i askeri (military payment-in-lieu). This should not be confused with the bedel-i nakdi (payment in cash), the sum of money which could be paid by Muslims in lieu of military service. The latter was far higher and really only affordable for members of the elite. The net result was that, still, non-Muslims did not serve and the 1871 regulations clearly took this situation for granted.

Nevertheless, this situation created fundamental problems for the defence of the empire. The empire’s population was relatively small. The 1844 census, conducted (albeit very imperfectly) specifically for the introduction of conscription indicates a population of between 23 and 35 million (the latter number including all of the outlying provinces). At the end of the century, with population growth and loss of European provinces more or less cancelling each other out, the number can also be put at between 25 and 30 million. Compared with the major European powers this was a relatively low number, but the exemptions meant that, when compared with European states depending on conscripted armies, the Ottoman Empire also recruited a much smaller percentage of its male population. Russia was, of course, the empire’s most dangerous enemy all through the nineteenth century. It presented a mirror image of the Ottoman situation. In Russia, too, religious minorities, of which Muslims were by far the most important group, were not conscripted before 1916. Russia, too, recruited only a small percentage of its eligible males. But unlike the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire had a (Slav and Christian) majority population, which was so large that the peacetime establishment of its army was five times the size of that of the Ottomans. In other words: Russia could afford to be inefficient in its recruiting, while the Ottoman Empire could not.

No wonder, then, that ending the exemptions was high on the list of the Young Turks when they came to power in 1908. As early as July1909, the military conscription law was changed and the number of exemptions drastically reduced. Students at religious colleges were now required to serve (rumours about this change helped trigger the counterrevolution of April, 1909 in Istanbul) and, more importantly, the same was now true for the Christians and Jews of the empire. From now on, they could only stay out of the army by paying the much higher Bedel-i Nakdi, which Muslims had to pay to buy their exemption. The sum involved was very large, however, and this meant that only the well-to-do could avail themselves of this opportunity. In October 1909 the recruitment of conscripts irrespective of religion was ordered for the first time.
The reactions of the christian communities to the new law were mixed, but there was no real enthusiasm anywhere. 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. 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.

The labour battalions

Just like the other armies of the day, the Ottoman army had labour battalions (amele taburlari) included in both its peacetime and its mobilized strength. These battalions were attached to the inspectorates of troop movements (menzil müfettislikleri) of the seven armies into which the Ottoman army was organized. The number of labour battalions varied throughout the war, but between 70 and 120 units seem to have been active at any given time. The labour battalions performed a range of different services, but the most important were road repairs and transport. Transport and communications were the Achilles’ heel of the Ottoman army. The empire only had 5700 kilometres of railway at its disposal – a density (when compared to the surface area of the country) which was thirty times lower than that of France. The railways were single track and the vital railway connection with the fronts in Palestine and Mesopotamia was interrupted where it crossed the Taurus and Amanos mountain ranges, making it necessary to load and unload all trains four times. The railheads, Çerekli (East of Ankara), Ulukisla (North of the Taurus) and Rasülayn (West of Mosul) were all three to four weeks marching away from the front. Every single shell or sack of fodder had to be carried for enormous distances over roads which had been in a bad state of repair when war broke out and which now quickly deteriorated under the heavy traffic. There was a lack of pack animals, primarily camels, because the Arab tribes which provided them, were reluctant to sell to the army. Hence, a large portion of the supplies had to be carried on the backs of the soldiers in the labour battalions.

Apart from these primary functions within the field army, labour battalions also fulfilled a number of functions for the Office of the Quartermaster General (Levazim Dairesi) of the armed forces. These were partly industrial, with a number of munitions, arms, shoes and clothing factories in and around Istanbul being run as military establishments (as they had been even in peacetime). They were partly artisanal (repair shops, bakeries) and partly agricultural, with labour battalions being formed to replace peasants being sent to the front, especially in the vital grain-growing areas of Central Anatolia. These lastnamed units, which seem to have been formed almost exclusively from non-Muslims, played an important role in increasing the productivity of the arable farms. This was especially important, because the supplies of Russian and Romanian wheat, which had been the main sources for the provisioning of Istanbul, had dried up in the first years of the war.

By and large the labour battalions were composed of Christian recruits. This should not come as a surprise. Ethnically homogeneous units were the rule rather than the exception in the Ottoman army and there was a distinct hierarchy among the different ethnicities, with Arab units being considered second rate and Kurdish ones utterly unreliable. Armenians and Greeks, whose loyalty was doubtful in the eyes of the Ottoman leaders were obvious candidates for recruitment into the labour battalions which were held in low esteem. In the first insatnce, the units were formed from the age groups (over 45 years old), from which, in the case of Muslims, the Mustahfiz (territorial reserve) were recruited. The decision of 25 February 1915, in the wake of the failure of the Ottoman army’s eastern offensive and the defeat of Sarikamis, to disarm all Armenians in the army obviously meant that many of those Armenians who had been recruited into the regular army units were now transferred to the labour battalions as well.

Eyewitnesses describe atrocious conditions in the Armenian labour battalions: the soldiers were underfed, exhausted, suffering from disease. Their officers beat them mercilessly. One should bear in mind, however, that conditions on the whole in the Ottoman army were almost indescribably bad. Soldiers, even the units at the front which received the best care, were often undernourished. Troops deployed at high altitude in the mountains of Eastern Anatolia often had only summer clothes. Ottoman soldiers in Palestine often took great risk just to rob British dead of their boots and even clothing. Diseases (primarily cholera and typhus) took many more lives than did the fighting. In all these respects, support units like the labour battalions and also fortress garrisons were even worse off than the front soldiers.

Unlike in Europe, there was no great wave of patriotic enthusiasm, which brought men flocking to the colours. Quite the reverse: very stern measures had to be taken to get recruits to join up. It was not unusual for units – even as large as divisions – to loose up to half their strength on their way to the front. The problem was especially great with Arab units. We have a number of reports describing how Arab recruits were being taken to their frontline units under escort – and in chains. The descriptions of how these soldiers were being treated much resembles the descriptions of what went on in the Armenian units. In other words: the mistreatment of Armenian recruits in the labour battalions in the Winter of 1914-15 is but an extreme case of what was going on throughout the army.

What started happening in April 1915 is, of course, of an entirely different nature. Once the massacres started, the unarmed recruits in the labour battalions were sitting ducks. The massacres were aimed primarily at the Armenian male population and here there were tens of thousands of Armenian men, who were already assembled and under guard of armed soldiers. They did not stand a chance. Of course, for the army being deprived of workers and carriers wrought havoc on its logistics. No wonder that a prominent general like Vehip Pasha, the commander of the Caucasus front, instigated court martial proceedings against those responsible for killing 2000 Armenian labourers. But once the fury was unleashed, rational arguments, even if they were based on the interests of the army, fell on deaf ears (as was the case with the Baghdad Railway, which was also severely handicapped by the deportation of its skilled Armenian workers, but was powerless to stop it).

In the military histories of World War I the labour battalions are almost completely overlooked. One looks in vain for a mention of their fate in the memoirs of the Turkish and German commanders (Ali Ihsan, Halil, Mustafa Kemal, Kazim Karabekir, Liman von Sanders, Kannengiesser, Kress and others). The same is true for the most recent purely military history of the period, Ed Erickson’s otherwise excellent Ordered to die, which can now be read alongside Maurice Larcher’s older La guerre turque dans la guerre mondiale.

 

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17. 9. 2001