The Ottoman Empire at War

From the lecture series: The Ottoman Empire

By Kenneth W. Harl, PhD, Tulane University

In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire was ill-prepared to enter a modern war, one that would be waged primarily against the British Empire and the Russian Empire simultaneously. Discover the circumstances the Ottoman Empire was up against and, extraordinarily, they fared so well.

Photo of Ottoman soldiers circa 1917
(Image: By Unknown photographer – Imperial War Museum Photo collection HU69889/Public domain)

In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire was ill-prepared to enter a total modern war. It was a war waged primarily against the British and the Russian Empire at the same time—a situation not seen since the Napoleonic Wars, that didn’t end well. The Ottoman state, however, carried out a remarkable general mobilization, with an army reform that was conducted rapidly before the outbreak of the conflict held up. The administration, the movement of levies to the staging areas, and, as far as we can tell, the Muslim Turkish population marched off to war enthusiastically and patriotically.

Successful Mobilization

Illustration of the Imperial Ottoman army in circa 1900 from the French encyclopedia "Nouveau Larousse Illustre", 1902 edition.
Between 1914-1918, the Ottoman Imperial Army comprised all the subjects of the Ottoman state. (Image: By Unknown/Public domain)

The vast majority of the population was illiterate, meaning there were no letters and diaries, like European diaries, to judge the overall morale. The political classes certainly welcomed war as a way to restore Ottoman power. Some of this must have been communicated down to the masses to account for the successful mobilization.

Throughout the war, the total mobilization was something like 2.8 million soldiers who put on Ottoman uniforms between 1914 and 1918. It comprised all the subjects of the Ottoman state.

This is a transcript from the video series The Ottoman Empire. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

What is also impressive about the Ottomans is that this army sustained well over 900,000 casualties. Thirty-two percent of the men mobilized died in battle; it was an enormous undertaking for a population that was only about 18 to 20 million by best estimates.

Fierce Loyalty

Furthermore, the Ottoman army never seemed to suffer major desertions like what was seen in the Austro-Hungarian army, both in 1914 and 1916, and later again in the Russian army. There, morale collapsed with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and many soldiers simply set up soviets, shot their officers, and refused to obey orders from Petrograd.

Nothing like that happened in the Ottoman state. Even with the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in June 1916, associated with the rather romantic figure of E.T. Lawrence, there was not massive desertion even of the Arab soldiers out of the Ottoman army over to the so-called Arab League Army or the Arab nationalist army to oppose Ottoman oppression. This is a remarkable fact, in that the Ottoman state put this army on the battlefield and it stood up loyally on the whole.

Learn more about why the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War


At the time, the Ottoman state went into the war with an army that was organized into corps. There were 12 corps representing some 37 divisions, and probably an overall strength of about a little over 200,000 men. This included both active and reservists who had been called up. The army could be doubled in size given all the irregular forces they had, notably Kurds in the east, although the Kurds were usually more interested in attacking Armenians or one another rather than fighting the Russians. Arab Bedouin groups were also recruited to act as auxiliaries in expeditionary forces that were launched across Gaza at British Egypt, or would patrol the frontiers. The total men under arms in 1914 was somewhere on the order of 450,000.

The problem was bringing these men to bear. Think for a moment of what kind of opponent the Ottoman state plans to take on with this military force: The British Empire at the time had a professional army. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that landed in France to support the French was only about 60,000 soldiers. However, they were superb professionals of the highest order. British riflemen could fire with such rapidity and accuracy that the Germans assumed that they weren’t riflemen at all, but special machine gun battalions that were firing on their infantry.

They also had behind them the Army of the Raj—the British administration in India, well over 200,000 men. The Army of the Raj, which comprised British and Indian soldiers both, became the prime military force for British operations carried out against the Ottoman state. That would be in the area now called Iraq; in the lower Persian Gulf is where the British had their prime interests. They wanted to see Basra and protect the oil fields, and in the defense of Egypt and the Suez.

Learn more about casualties of war and ethnic cleansing

Photograph taken when Sir Frederick Stanley Maude lead the Indian Army into Baghdad. 1917
The Army of the Raj was the prime military force for British operations carried out against the Ottoman state. (Image: By Not identified – Mrs. Stuart Menzies (1920). Sir Stanley Maude and Other Memories. London: Herbert Jenkins. p. 48/Public domain)

Additional Resources

The British Empire also had the Commonwealth forces to draw on, and these were significant forces. It included South Africans, Australians, and New Zealanders, the so-called Anzac Corps that would provide so many of the soldiers in the landing at Gallipoli in 1915 and is still celebrated as a great achievement by both of those Dominion countries, New Zealand and Australia. The total population of Britain was somewhere around 45 million, but the British Empire was 10 times that size, over 450 million. The Ottomans were taking on an awesome power in the British Empire, just in terms of population and army, and once the British imposed conscription at the end of 1916, the numbers mounted even more.

Learn more about how the Ottoman Empire was not prepared for total war

Furthermore, the Russians were awesome. The Russian population is difficult to estimate. The low numbers run at about 165 million, the high numbers at about 180 million. It is estimated that the tsar could put 6 million men on the battlefield. Most of those forces were concentrated in Poland against the Germans, but it released an enormous number of forces in November, based at Tiflis, today Tbilisi in Georgia, in the Caucasus to oppose the Ottomans.

Image of Russian Caucasus Army standing with Canon
Russian Caucasus Army (Image: By Stanitsa – M.M.Klevzov, L.K.Klevzova, “Genealogía de los pobladores de stanitsa Kotliarovskaya, últimos 200 años”/Public domain)

Think for a minute of the Ottoman prime ally Germany and what Germany could do. Germany had a population of 68 million. At the opening of the war, they mobilized 4.5 million men, only about half of the men eligible for military service. It comprised of 13 reserve corps, 26 active corps, and 10 cavalry divisions, trained to the highest level of proficiency.


The Ottoman Empire was outclassed by all of the belligerents from anywhere from eight to 10 times. The statistics can just be cited to mount up. The Ottoman state didn’t have the financial resources, the industrial base, or the population to be involved in a war of this scale.

It’s extraordinary they did as well as they did, and given these facts, which were known to the Allies, they probably thought the Ottoman state would be a pushover. Certainly, it didn’t seem to perform so well in the first and second Balkan Wars, but war is more than just a matter of numbers and statistics. Sometimes, one can beat the odds. Alexander the Great comes to mind, and Enver Pasha probably had him in mind when he undertook this war. He was convinced that he was the strategic genius who could lead the Ottoman state to victory.

Common Questions About the Ottoman Empire

Q: How many countries were absorbed by the Ottoman Empire?

The Ottoman Empire contained vast swaths of Eastern Europe including Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, Macedonia, Romania, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, as well as much of North Africa and Arabia.

Q: Who is responsible for the Ottoman Empire’s beginnings?

Osman I was the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

Q: What was the official religion of the Ottoman Empire?

Islam was the primary religion of the Ottoman Empire; however, many areas were allowed to practice other religions inside the Ottoman Empire.

Q: How was the Ottoman Empire destroyed?

After many military defeats in the Italo-Turkish and Balkan wars of the late 1800’s, the Ottoman Empire was driven out of Africa and Europe, and finally dissolved on November 1, 1922, by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.

This article was updated on September 21, 2020

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