The Turkish Soldier at the Crimea II


James Reid’s interpretation of the conduct of the Ottoman troops in this battle is one-sided and biased, due to his reliance on Russell and Kinglake only. He wrote that

All optimism about the Ottoman reformed army evaporated with the disgraceful performance of the Ottoman battalions at the battle of Balaklava. Here, Ottoman infantry battalions stationed on hill redoubts in the advance of the entire allied army broke and ran, even before shots were fired by either side. The sight of massive Russian cavalry formations bearing down upon them in their isolated forward positions provoked such fear and panic, that to a man, the Ottoman troops bolted and fled.

Had Reid read other sources as well, such as Adolphus Slade, he could have formed a more balanced view. First, he would see that these were esnan and redif troops. Second, he would understand that these troops did not “bolt” immediately, but resisted a much stronger enemy for almost two hours. Reid’s treatment of this episode gives the impression that he has not tried to understand what really took place. Instead, he only attempted to find support for what he already “knows” about what happened. On the other hand, this is not to say that the Ottoman soldiers would not “bolt” in any situation. They might have fled, as they did in several cases, like soldiers in any other army. However, one need not distort historical facts to prove that the Ottoman army was not reformed. There are other ways of showing the extent (or limits) of the effects of reform in the Ottoman army. The point here is to try to understand first what actually happened and then why it happened that way.

After the capture of the redoubts by the Russians, a cavalry battle ensued, with the famous “charge of the light brigade” by the British upon Russian fortified positions, which is still a major point of discussion in the British historiography. We will not go into the details of this battle. The British lost from the light cavalry brigade from 118 to 134 killed and more than 200 wounded. The Russian loss was 550, of which 238 were killed.’” The Takvim-i Vekayi described the folly of the British charge of the light brigade as a “demonstration of bravery at the extreme level’:

The battle’s results were insignificant from a military point of view, but the Ottoman troops from then on were subjected to all kinds of misery and humiliation. Blunt witnessed and described in detail their deprivations and ill-treatment by the allied troops, who “unjustly accused the Turks of cowardice and in consequence treated them contemptuously”. Blunt also argues that Russell later withdrew his imputation of cowardice against them on learning from Lord Lucan and others about their “brave stand”. As Robert Edgerton states, the Ottoman soldiers were “cursed at, spat upon, kicked, and slapped, their only duties to carry supplies, maintain roads, and stay out of sigh!’ According to Tarle. the allied officers would not even sit at the table for dinner with the Ottoman officers. Depending on the allies for their food, the Ottoman troops were also left to starvation. They then started stealing food, for which they were flogged.

Soon the Ottoman soldiers started dying from cold, hunger, filth and disease. According to the Russian military historian Nikolai Dubrovin, old and torn tents did not protect the Ottoman soldiers from the cold and sometimes up to 300 men died in one day. They were deprived of all necessities: poorly fed, clothed, and sheltered, without bed and linen, morally depressed, disdained and insulted. They had no money either. Furthermore, they had no press, no Ottoman correspondents to write about their plight. Everyday they buried their comrades and the dogs dug up the dead bodies and devoured them. There was a “hospital”, a building or a hovel where Russian prisoners had previously been kept. After they all died of cholera, the building was given over to the Ottomans, but the dirt had never been cleaned away. Up to 400 men were strewn on the damp mud floors of its rooms, the doors and windows closed to keep out the cold air.’” The Ottoman surgeon in charge of the “hospital”, who had been trained in London, told the British war correspondent N. A. Woods: “The deadly fetid air which issued from this charnel-house made me involuntarily shrink back from the door with loathing”. He further commented: “None of those poor fellows will come out alive. I have not saved a single man who entered that fatal building”. When Woods asked whether he had enough medicine, the surgeon said he had plenty, but medicine was useless against hunger.

Mushaver Pasha took a steamer to transport the Ottoman sick to Istanbul and 75 out of the 158 invalids died on the way. He then wrote to the naval council in Istanbul for two hospital ships to be sent to Balaklava and Kamiş. A frigate was then converted into a hospital with all the personnel and equipment and sent to Kamiş in February. But the British fleet could not find a place for it: “the hospital frigate remained ten days in the offing of Kamiesh, waiting the pleasure of the British authorities, and was then sent back to Constantinople by order of the naval commander-in-chief, on the plea of want of room for her either at Kamiesh or Balaclava. Large vessels were then lying in those harbours for the accommodation of a few officers:’ Mushaver Pasha was also an eye-witness to the deprivations of the Ottoman army in the Crimea:

One day the pasha in command at Kadykeuy spoke to the author about the slender rations issued to his troops: each man he said, received a daily allowance only of biscuit and rice, without butter to cook the latter into pilaf, and fresh meat about once a week. Had he represented the case in the right quarter, I asked. He had not: he declined doing so; and the tenor of his remarks showed an indisposition, in common with other pashas serving the Allies, to say or do aught likely, in his opinion, to make him seem troublesome. The loss of a thousand men was not to be named in the same breath with the loss of the English general’s smile.

Once again, we see that the Ottoman officers took little interest in the condition of their troops. The problem was that the Muslim soldiers did not accept pork and rum and for this they were issued only an additional half pound of biscuit. As Slade observes, the Ottoman soldiers in the Crimea were theoretically equal with the British soldiers, but not in practice. Interestingly, as Slade observes, the Muslims were not cunning enough to accept the pork and rum and then sell or give it to their European comrades, who might then have treated them with more respect.

Tea, coffee, sugar, etc. – appropriate articles – always abounding in store, were never regularly issued to the Turks; who were more dependent, with their pay in arrears, than others with silver in their pockets, on the commissariat for comforts. The hucksters in the Crimea, unlike the bakkals of Constantinople, gave no credit. Whence arose this indifference about the Turks is difficult to say; unless one might trace it to the habitual bearing of Anglo-Saxons towards an “inferior race”.

James Henry Skene, the British consul at the Dardanelles also wrote that the Ottoman troops in the Crimea were so badly paid, and so irregularly, that they begged the British and French soldiers for scraps of food. Skene further described their misery:

When English sailors went from their ships to the Naval Brigade at the front, they would capture three Turkish soldiers apiece, ride on the shoulders of one, and drive the others before them with a long whip, to relieve the first when he should get tired. The poor Turks would then get a few biscuits as payment of their eight miles’ stage, and return to Balaclava perfectly satisfied.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *