Conscription in the Ottoman Empire

Part of a series on the
Military of the
Ottoman Empire

Conscription in the Ottoman Empire examined by close reference to what period ("Classic Army (1451–1606)," "Reform Period (1826–1858)" or "Modern Army (1861-1922)") or a complex set of rules which included a poll-tax (in the very early times named cizye on non-Muslims, later it was Bedl-i askeri, an exemption tax, which applied to everyone), which was theoretically a substitute for military service. The introduction of western style conscription was closely linked to the introduction of a European-style army, Modern Army (1861-1922), but it did not coincide with it.

Classic Period

No universal military conscription existed during this period. Recruitment to the Ottoman imperial army was achieved through forced enlistment of Christian children every 5 years.

Reform Period

In 1839, a system of conscription was introduced through the Gulhane proclamation. In times of need every town, quarter, and village should present a fully equipped conscript at the recruiting office. In 1848, detailed regulations on the draft were published. It stated that Muslim millet was required to serve.

Draft for Non-muslims was introduced in 1856 but the exemption tax in lieu of it was not forbidding, unlike a similar payment available for Muslims. As the poll tax (jizya / cizye) for Non-Muslims had been abolished, the authorities were not encouraging military service for them, preferring the revenue. Nevertheless, some Non-Muslims did enter the military though in support functions. The head of the guard of Abdülhamid II was Greek, with the rank of brigadier.[1]

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.

Modern Army

Service in the regular army (that is Nefer, equals to private) gradually being shortened with the modern army. In 1908, it was three years.

1908 Reforms

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.

1909 Reforms

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” (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 relevant 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.


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