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The Ottoman Empire

Page 11 – The Ottoman Army

A multinational force

In terms of manpower the Ottoman Army was dominated by Turkish soldiers. This was partly a reflection of demographics (more than half the empire’s population was Turkish) and partly a legacy of the traditional Turkish domination of the empire as a whole. While the conscripts who made up the rank and file of the army were taken from all ethnic groups, the officer class was almost entirely Turkish. There were some Arab and even a few non-Muslim officers in the army in 1914, but all the senior military commands were held by Turks. Turks were thought to make better and more reliable soldiers than other ethnic groups, and the core of the Ottoman Army was the all-Turkish infantry units recruited from the heartlands of Anatolia (modern-day Türkiye).

Arab Muslims were the next largest ethnic group in the army. Arabs were sometimes relegated to second-rate units and internal security tasks. Although Arab infantry units performed well at Gallipoli and against the Russians in the Caucasus, they became less dependable as the conflict went on. After the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in late 1916 increasing numbers of Arab soldiers deserted. Kurds were also recruited in large numbers, usually as tribal auxiliaries serving in their local regions rather than regular soldiers. The Kurdish auxiliaries provided the regular Ottoman field armies with scouting and raiding parties and performed internal security duties immediately behind the front lines. Similar auxiliary units were recruited from Arab desert tribes in Palestine and Mesopotamia.

Kurdish and Arab auxiliaries quickly developed a reputation for banditry, rape and murder. The victims of these crimes were usually other ethnic and religious minorities within the empire, but Allied prisoners of war also suffered badly at their hands. When confronted with serious military opposition, the auxiliaries usually deserted at the first opportunity. Ottoman commanders learnt from bitter experience that they could not be relied upon in a crisis.

Non-Muslim subjects were barred from serving in the Ottoman Army until the conscription laws were changed in 1909. The prospect of non-Muslim soldiers – and especially officers – joining the army sparked strong resistance from Muslim hardliners within both the army and Ottoman society at large. Shortly after the war began the outbreak of anti-Ottoman unrest in the Christian Armenian communities of eastern Anatolia allowed the hardliners to cast doubt over the loyalty of all the empire’s non-Muslim subjects. The 1909 laws were effectively revoked. Non-Muslims continued to be conscripted into the army, but they could not become officers and were restricted to service behind the lines in unarmed labour battalions.

How to cite this page

The Ottoman Army, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated