The Ottoman Empire

Page 5 – Ottoman Empire at war

Unlike the other great powers, the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War with an army and economy already badly strained by three wars in the preceding three years. The defeat in the First Balkan War had been particularly costly for the Ottoman Army, which suffered 250,000 casualties and lost large amounts of weapons and equipment. When the army was ordered to mobilise in 1914, many reservists reported to their unit depots only to find that there were not even enough uniforms and boots to go round.

Ottoman Army in Europe: Balkan Front

After Bulgaria entered the war in October 1915 the Ottoman Army sent the 3000-strong Rumeli Field Detachment to support Bulgarian troops in western Thrace. In January 1916 the detachment moved to eastern Macedonia, where it was attached to the Bulgarian First Army. Later that year the Ottoman 20th Corps (approximately 24,000 men) joined the Bulgarian Second Army opposite the French and British forces at Salonika. The 20th Corps withdrew in April 1917, but the Rumeli Field Detachment remained until the Bulgarians submitted to a separate armistice with the Allies on 30 September 1918.

The disruption caused by the Balkan Wars and a primitive railway network meant that the Ottoman Empire was the slowest of all the great powers to mobilise in 1914. It took three months for the army to complete mobilisation and gather in the last of its one million reservists. This delay was an important factor in the Turkish decision not to enter the war immediately – the army simply wasn’t ready. And even when it reached full strength in manpower terms, it still lacked key weapons and equipment – especially modern artillery.

Initially the Ottoman war effort focused on fighting the Russians in the Caucasus and protecting its remaining European territory and the coast of western Anatolia from Allied attack. Sinai/Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) were seen as low priorities; the Turks didn’t think the British would mount large-scale offensives in either region. They were wrong on both counts.

Within days of the declarations of war British forces had landed in the Shatt al Arab waterway at the head of the Persian Gulf. They destroyed the Turkish coastal fort guarding the area, opening the way to Basra. This and other early successes encouraged the British to mount a full-scale invasion of Mesopotamia with a force of mostly Indian troops. Opposing them was the under-strength Ottoman Sixth Army, which would spend the next four years fighting to hold on to the region. 

In the Sinai/Palestine region the equally under-strength Ottoman Fourth Army was given permission to attack the Suez Canal. Defeated in this attempt in early 1915, it then restricted itself to defending the Sinai Peninsula. In 1916 the British went on the offensive, driving the Turks out of the Sinai by year’s end. With Palestine now threatened, reinforcements were rushed to the new front line around Gaza and two new field armies, the Seventh and Eighth, were later formed to defend it. These armies fought the British for control of Palestine and the Trans-Jordan until September 1918, when both were destroyed in the Battle of Megiddo.

Ottoman Army in Europe: Eastern Front

The disastrous Austro-Hungarian defeat at the hands of Russian forces in the Brusilov Offensive of June 1916 prompted an urgent German request for Ottoman troops to help stabilise the situation in Galicia (western Ukraine). The Ottoman 15th Corps (about 24,000 men) arrived in the region at the beginning of August. It remained on the Eastern Front for just over a year before being withdrawn in response to the British offensives in Palestine and Mesopotamia in late 1917.

After Romania joined the war on the Allied side in August 1916 the Ottoman 6th Corps (approximately 36,000 men) took part in the conquest of the country by the Central Powers. The Ottoman troops subsequently remained on the Eastern Front, guarding positions in Dobrudja, until they were withdrawn to Turkey in April 1918 to take part in the Caucasus offensive. 

The Allied invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915 saw the Ottoman Army stretched to breaking point to contain the invading British, French and Anzac forces. The best remaining units of the Ottoman Army – those kept back to guard against any threat from the Balkans – were all committed to the desperate battles that raged across the peninsula from April to September. When these units were exhausted, Ottoman troops were taken from other battlefronts, even the Caucasus, where the Ottoman Third Army was engaged in a gargantuan struggle against the Russians. 

The fighting on the Caucasus Front was a prolonged and bloody ordeal. Although the Turks enjoyed some victories, massive Russian offensives in mid-1916 cost the Turks 100,000 casualties and drove them out of a large part of eastern Anatolia. Luckily for the Turks, the outbreak of the Russian Revolution the following year led their enemy to abandon these gains.

Russia’s withdrawal from the war in late 1917 encouraged the Ottoman leadership to revive their pan-Turkic ambitions, and in February 1918 much of the Ottoman Army’s remaining strength was squandered on an invasion of the Caucasus and northern Persia. The initial aim was to crush attempts by the Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis to establish their own independent states out of the ashes of the Russian Empire. After largely succeeding in this aim, the Ottoman troops were ordered by Enver Pasha in July to drive on to the Caspian Sea and beyond. 

But as 1918 drew to a close the British expeditionary forces in Mesopotamia and Palestine made decisive breakthroughs, destroying the Ottoman armies on both fronts. The British now threatened to invade eastern and central Anatolia and the Ottoman forces in the Caucasus were too far away to stop them. Bulgaria’s capitulation in late September also meant that the Allied armies on the Salonika Front were poised to overrun all of European Turkey and capture Constantinople. Acknowledging the hopelessness of this situation, the Ottoman leadership agreed to an armistice with the Allies, which took effect on 30 October 1918.

How to cite this page

'Ottoman Empire at war', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 2-Sep-2014