Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Decline of the Turkish Army After Gallipoli

The high point of the Ottoman war effort was of course the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. After the repulse of the Franco-British attempt to force the straits by naval force alone had ended in a totally unexpected Ottoman victory, the Ottoman Army just managed to block the allied attempt at a breakthrough overland on the Gallipoli peninsula. There can hardly be any doubt that this was a great strategic victory that gave the empire a new lease on life (or prolonged its misery, whichever way you choose to look at it). The victory over first the British fleet and then the Allied expedition force was a tremendous morale booster for the Ottomans, but in the long ran it broke the back of the army.

A Sharp Anti-Aircraft Team Poses for a
Photo at Gallipoli, March 1917
The Dardanelles campaign cost the Ottomans nearly 90,000 dead and 165,000 wounded and sick (by their own official figures, which are certainly an underestimate), almost all of them from the best equipped and most experienced divisions in the army. In spite of the carnage at the Dardanelles, the Ottoman Army reached its peak numeric strength at the beginning of 1916, the year the British general Sir Charles Townshend had to surrender to the Ottomans at Kut-al-Imara, but in terms of quality, the damage caused by Gallipoli could not be repaired. After 1916, quality went down and numbers started to dwindle. When the unfortunate Third Army in Eastern Anatolia had to face attacks by much superior Russian forces in terrain where neither its supply trams nor its medical service could follow in the winter of 1916, it was thrown back and lost both Trabzon and Erzurum. Following the defeat a large part of the Third Army simply melted away. According to one source, the Third Army alone had 50,000 deserters at this time.
The Second Army lost about two-thirds of its strength (over 60,000 men) on the southern section of the same front (the Mus-Bitlis area) in the winter of 1916–17. As a result, the total number of combatants went down to 400,000 in March 1917 and 200,000 in March 1918 When the Armistice was signed in October 1918, less than 100,000 troops remained in the field. This dwindling of the numeric strength of the army was due mainly to two causes: disease and desertion. 

Malaria, typhus, typhoid, syphilis, cholera and dysentery were rampant. Especially in winter the ubiquitous lice carried in clothing and upholstery caused typhus to spread all along the routes to the front, killing soldiers, Armenian deportees, and Muslim refugees alike. Among the Ottoman troops casualties were very high. Without treatment, the disease killed about 50 percent of those affected. Even among the Germans, who were very well cared for by their own medical service, mortality was 10 percent.

Turkish Wounded or Sick in Mesopotamia, November 1917

In terms of loss of available manpower, however, desertion was an even bigger problem for the army than was disease. Over the years it became a problem of unmanageable proportions. By December 1917, over 300,000 men had deserted. By the end of the war, the number stood at nearly half a million.

From: Between Death and Desertion: The Experience of the Ottoman Soldier in World War I,  Erik Jan Z├╝rcher.


  1. Fine article! Exactly who deserted? I read that the Empire before the war was comprised of 40% Turks, 40% Arabs, and the remainder of Greeks, Armenians, etc.

  2. Along with the Arab Revolt, the failure of the summer 1916 Sinai Campaign to take the Suez Canal meant the situation in Palestine was deteriorating as well.

  3. "the damage caused by Galosh could not be repaired" - is "Galosh" a spellcheck version of Gallipoli?

    1. No Bryan, typo and poor editing on my part. Thanks for pointing this out. Mike

    2. My apologies for the lit prof reflex. It's a fine and useful post. How's the book?

  4. How good were Ottoman forces at the Battle of Sarikamish (Dec 1914-Jan 1915)? They certainly took a beating, and basically retreated from that point for the next two+ years.