It was generally Muslims who would take part in military service in the Ottoman Empire. The issue of military service of non-Muslims came to the agenda with the edict of Tanzimat. Just like there were non-Muslim Ottoman citizens who welcomed this situation with content, there were some groups reacting to this as well. Especially Armenian community welcomed the military services of non-Muslim Ottoman citizens with content. Dashnaksutyun Society had even arranged meeting for Armenians to be taken to military service. Finally, with a law published in Takvim-i Vekayi on 11 August 1909, the obligation of military service for all Ottoman citizens regardless of their religions or races was brought (Beyoğlu, 2013, p. 260).
The military service of Christians and Jews brought along certain problems. However, the practice was maintained. 25% of the Ottoman army was constituted of non-Muslim soldiers in the Balkan war. However, the rate of participation was less than what it was supposed to be. Along with the lack of education and reluctance of these soldiers during the war, negative attitudes and behaviors of these soldiers such as spying, escape, disobedience, and lack of discipline were detected. Despite all of these, the Ottoman Empire continued to take non-Muslim citizens into the military service in order to abide by the principle of equality among citizens, which was the slogan of the constitutional monarchy, and due to the labor force needed in the army.
The declaration of mobilization by the Ottoman Empire on 2 August 1914 during the First World War covered all Ottoman citizens, Muslim or non-Muslim. It is thought that there were 90 Labor Battalions, each with 1000-1500 people, in the Ottoman army in the spring of 1914 and a total of 100,000 people were employed in these battalions. With the Temporary Law of Military Obligation accepted on 14 May 1914, the military service was regulated. According to this law, everybody was obliged to military service except for the royal family. The length of military service in infantry and transport was 2 years, in other land classes, gendarme, and band it was 3 years, and it was 5 years for navy. The law allowed paid military service for each Ottoman citizen in certain conditions. Those taken to military service with the same law were divided into two as armed and unarmed military service obligation. The attitude of non-Muslim soldiers inside the army would require them to perform their military services as unarmed service obligated in Labor Battalions. In each of the Labor Battalions called ‘service battalions’ in the Balkan wars, a battalion from old or retired officers not capable of service and four company commanders and two lieutenants would be taken into service. The battalions would go to regions where needed and would do the work given to them. Labor Battalions were divided into two groups: 1. Army and range battalions. 2. Military railways and Ports General Directorate General Munition and General Headquarters third Railroad Branch Labor Battalions. These battalions worked in the construction and repair of roads, channels, fortresses, and railways (Beyoğlu, 2013, p. 261-2).
Like other armies of the era, there were Labor Battalions –both during peace and war times- in the Ottoman army as well. These battalions were subject to the “rage inspectorships” of first four and then seven armies.
There are lots of publications especially in Western literature that the Labor Battalions consisted of mainly Armenians and Assyrians, and Greeks along with them. It has also been claimed that Armenians were 75% of these battalions (Zürcher, 2005, p.210). The significance of Ottoman archive sources appears once again in this issue. The original research made on these documents gave us new information. It is primarily understood that the claim that only non-Muslim citizens were made to work in Labor Battalions is incorrect. It is seen that the age average of Muslims in the Labor Battalions was above 40 and these people served behind the battlefront in Labor Battalions when young Muslims were on the battlefront. These battalions performed services such as roads, railways, harvest, construction, mines, cutting trees and similar works needed by the army.
For example, there were a total of 15,052 people of Greeks, Jews, Armenians and Muslims in the Labor Battalions on the European Continent under the First Army. 12.4% of this amount is Muslims. It is seen that the proportion of Armenian soldiers is 22.3%, the Greeks are 58.1% and Jews are 4.5%. Similarly, in Labor Battalions under the First Army on Asian Continent there were 11,134 soldiers. 26.3% of these were Muslims, 35.3% were Armenians, 28.5% were Greeks, and 8.8% were Jews.
This situation was not only limited to the First Army. Of 5100 laborers under the Aleppo Range Inspectorship, 1872 were Muslims, 1494 were Greeks, 664 were Armenians, and 175 were Jews. There were ten Labor Battalions under the Third Army Corps, seven of which were in Sivas and three of which were in Samsun. Of 70,00 laborers in these battalions, 3637 were Greeks, 2535 were Armenians, and 828 were Muslims.
Of 9649 laborers under the Fourth Army Corps, 2672 were Muslims and 5842 were Armenians. Of 6172 laborers under the Ninth Army Corps, 4869 were Armenians and 1199 were Greeks. The number of Labour Battalions differed within years and according to the regions (Mutlu, 2007, p. 50-52).
It is understood from the Ottoman Empire documents that daily wages were given to the qualified or unqualified laborers and masters in the Labour Battalions. For example, the following wages were given to the people in the same battalion:
Headmaster Manok – 30 Kuruş,
Carpenter Minyas – 25 Kuruş,
Mason Agop 25 – Kuruş,
Mason Manok Çakıryan- 25 Kuruş and Muslim masons;
Son of Sait, Orhan – 20 Kuruş,
Son of Mason Hüseyin, Hasan – 23 Kuruş,
Son of Mason Ömer, Veysi – 27 Kuruş,
Son of Greaser Muammer, Ömer – 20 Kuruş.
The food problem, epidemics and deaths in the Ottoman army were also experienced in the Labor Battalions. There were occasional rebels, escapes, and spying in the Labor Battalions. The most important of rebel cases was the one in the Urfa Labor Battalions. As a requirement of the Armistice of Mudros signed on 30 October 1918, the discharges in the army were also valid for everybody Muslim and non-Muslim in the Labor Battalions (Mutlu, 2007, p. 163-167).
On the other hand, there has not been any evidence found about the claims that especially Armenians were made to work under very harsh conditions and were even massacred in the Labor Battalions. It is stated that the claims put forward in this issue are not consistent and rational. The soldiers in the Labour Battalions who were carrying out a great part of military logistics for the Ottoman Empire were very valuable. The state wanted to increase the amount of soldiers as the Labor Battalions didn’t meet the need. In this case, it doesn’t sound logical that the State abused those in the Labor Battalions. The losses during the depressions don’t take us to the conclusion that there was ethnic discrimination. Not giving arms to the soldiers working in the Labor battalions is a general practice. As they were not warrior units, they were not given arms, but there were gendarme troops in case of any possible attack on them or any uprising movement. Labor Battalions are not an organization only peculiar to the Ottoman army. It is known that many states, especially Britain, has founded and used such units (Beyoğlu, 2013, p. 288).
BEYOĞLU, Süleyman, “Amele Taburlarında Ermeni Askerler”, Tarihimizden Portreler Osmanlı Kimliği (Prof.Dr.Cevdet Küçük Armağanı), Ed.Z.Kurşun-H.Çoruh, İstanbul 2013, p.259-288.
MUTLU, Cengiz, Birinci Dünya Savaşında Amele Taburları, İstanbul 2007.
ÖZDEMİR, Zekeriya, Birinci Dünya Savaşı’nda Amele Taburları, Gazi University Institute of Social Sciences. Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Ankara 1994.
ZÜRCHER, Erik-Jan, Savaş, Devrim ve Uluslaşma: Türkiye Tarihinde Geçiş Dönemi,1908-1928; (prep.)Ece Turnator,Mehmet Beşikçi;(trans.)Ergun Aydınoğlu, İstanbul 2005.