The Ottoman Empire

Page 12 – The Turkish soldier's experience

Mehmetçik – The Turkish Soldier’s Experience

Mehmetçik – ‘Little Mehmet’ – was an affectionate Turkish nickname for Ottoman (Turkish) soldiers. The term played on the fact that Mehmet – itself a respectful contraction of ‘Muhammad’ used by many Muslims – was one of the most popular male names in the Ottoman Empire. It was used by the soldiers themselves and in many respects was similar to the British ‘Tommy’, French ‘Poilu’, American ‘Doughboy’ and New Zealand/Australian ‘Digger’.

Ottoman military conscription

In 1914 all male subjects of the Ottoman Empire aged between 20 and 45 were liable for military service. Every March the young men who turned 20 that year were drafted into the army as a group cohort or class. They served two years as full-time soldiers (Nizamiye) in either the infantry or cavalry, or three years in the artillery. After completing this obligation they were transferred to the reserve (Ihtiyat), in which they remained until the age of 38. Reservists returned to civilian life but could be recalled to full-time service in the event of war. On turning 38 they transferred to the territorial force (Mustahfiz) for a further eight years of service. Territorials could also be called up if the empire went to war, but they were expected to serve only as local garrison or fortress troops.

The Mehmetçiks came mostly from rural peasant backgrounds and had little or no formal education and little knowledge of the world beyond the nearest market town. Even the majority of those recruited from the cities were illiterate. Many of the Mehmetçiks who were sent to Gallipoli thought at first that they were fighting the Greeks once again. They had almost certainly never heard of New Zealand or Australia.

If their upbringing left the Mehmetçiks somewhat ignorant of the wider world, it also gave them a stoic outlook on life and the ability to endure great hardships. This was just as well, because life in the Ottoman Army was harsh, even by the military standards of the day. Ottoman Army officers expected blind obedience from their men – an officer had no need to explain or justify his orders to those below him – and strict discipline was imposed to ensure that they got it. Ottoman commanders, trained on the Prussian model, could also be extremely ruthless with the lives of their men in battle. Out of the front lines, though, most officers did their best to look after the men under their command and help ensure that the Mehmetçiks’ basic needs – food, shelter and clothing – were met.

This wasn’t an easy task. With more than a million men under arms, the Ottoman Army's supply chain began to buckle under the urgent and competing demands made upon it. The empire’s primitive rail and road network struggled to move troops where they needed to go and keep them supplied when they got there. The Mehmetçiks on the front lines suffered constant shortages of ammunition, replacement weapons and equipment – even food.

It was also very hard for soldiers to keep in touch with their loved ones back home. Even those who could read and write found that their letters, and those sent to them, often went astray. It could be months, even years, before news from home reached them. Turkish soldiers at Gallipoli and in the Caucasus received occasional visits from village spokespeople who committed messages from fellow villagers to memory, delivered them to the front line and returned home with the soldiers’ replies. But there were no such visits for those serving on distant fronts such as Sinai/Palestine and Mesopotamia. Leave to visit home was unknown. Once a soldier reached the front, the only legitimate way to see home again was through evacuation due to wounds or illness.

But being wounded or falling sick in places like Palestine or the Caucasus was often a death sentence. The medical services of the Ottoman Army had been badly neglected in the years before the First World War. Shortages of doctors, nurses and modern medical supplies condemned thousands of Mehmetçiks to a premature and unnecessary death. The modern hospitals that did exist were in big cities that were many days, if not weeks, from the front lines; many wounded or sick soldiers died in transit. The lack of medical staff was also reflected in poor hygiene and sanitation standards across the army. These poor practices contributed to the death toll, with thousands dying from preventable diseases such as enteric dysentery and cholera. During the war more Ottoman soldiers died of disease than were killed in combat or died of wounds.