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Conscription in the Ottoman Empire

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Title: Conscription in the Ottoman Empire  
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Subject: Military of the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman Empire, Ottoman military reforms, Martyrs' Day (Lebanon and Syria), Ottoman wars in Africa
Collection: Conscription by Country, Military of the Ottoman Empire
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Conscription in the Ottoman Empire


  • 1839 forward 1
  • 1908 forward 2
    • World War I 2.1
    • Bedel-i nakdī 2.2

1839 forward

In 1839 a system of conscription was introduced in the Ottoman military through the Gulhane proclamation. In times of need every town, quarter, and village should present a fully equipped conscript at the recruiting office. The new force of irregular infantrymen was called Azabs and it was used in a number of different ways. They supported the supplies to the front-line, they dug roads and built bridges. On rare occasions they were used as cannon fodder to slow down enemy advance. A branch of the Azabs were the bashi-bazouk (başıbozuk). These were specialized in close combat and were sometimes mounted. They became notorious for being brutal and undisciplined and were recruited from homeless, vagrants and criminals.

1908 forward

With the Young Turk Revolution a new military conscription law was prepared by the Ministry of War in October 1908. According to the draft, all subjects between ages of twenty and forty five were to fulfill a mandatory military service.

In July 1909 military service law passed that made it compulsory for all Ottoman subjects. The law was opposed by Muslims as the Muslim students in religious colleges who had failed their exams, Muslims of the capital city lost their exempt status. Opposition also came from non-Muslim Ottoman citizens. The spokesmen of the Greek, Syrian, Armenian and Bulgarian communities agreed for the military service on the paper. The practice was totally different. In practice each member wanted to serve in separate. They wanted to keep their own military structure, rather than uniting under single flag. They demanded to have ethnically designed uniforms so that they would be separated from each other. These units, if achieved to be established, commanded by Christian officers. The Bulgarian non-Muslims did not want to serve non-European provinces. Armenians separated by their partisan attachments. These practices were simply the opposite of Ottomanism. The government who thought that keeping the Ottoman Empire as a single entity could not accept an army who could decline to go war because of their ethnic assignments. They claimed an army on a national, or religious base only serve the rise of nationalism under the Ottoman Empire.

In October 1909, the recruitment of conscripts irrespective of religion was ordered for the first time. Beginning with the 1910, Balkan Wars, and extending to World War I, at grassroots level, many young Ottoman Christian men, especially Greeks, who could afford it and who had the overseas connections, opted to leave the country or hide as a draft dodger.

World War I

On 12 May 1914, The Ottoman Empire established a new recruitment law. This new law lowered the conscription age from 20 to 18 and abolished the “redif” or reserve system. Active duty lengths were set at 2 years for the infantry, 3 years for other branches of the Army and 5 years for the Navy. These measures remained largely theoretical during World War I. The Ottoman Empire in 1914 could only draft 70,000 or about 35 per cent of the population. In Bulgaria the ratio at the same time was 75 per cent. Fully mobilized, as in early 1915, only 4 per cent of the population was under arms and on active duty, compared with, for instance, 10 per cent in France.

Bedel-i nakdī

The system of exemptions through the bedel-i nakdī and the bedel-i askerī meant that the burden never fell equally on all Ottoman subjects. The riches evaded the military burdens. The socio-economic distribution of the Ottoman Empire was not even, the non-Muslim members of the Ottoman Society had the highest income level. Even at the end, the Ottoman army remained an army of Anatolian Muslim peasants.

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